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Rogue Choices Release 2 (Parts 3-5)
By: Dobber

Chapter 7

Later that evening, Andrew and Dia sat on the small couch in his quarters. Given the smell of the latrine and cleaning products that still lingered on them, they hadn’t stayed long in the Lounge.

“You stink," she said as she reclined back against the right arm of the couch, placing her legs over his lap and onto the other side.

He shot her a glance. “You just had to open your big mouth, didn’t you?" he said as she kicked her boots off and they thunked against the floor.

“We both knew the risks, love."

“This is true," he said, glancing at her. “But it was a terrible idea."

“On the plus side," she said, “I did get to eat at least one chocolate."

He gave a small laugh, which she returned. “Was it at least a good one?" he asked.

“It was Jogan-berry flavoured," she said smiling, closing her eyes and leaning her head back. “My favourite."

He did the same, and they sat there for several minutes not saying anything.

“You know," she eventually said, “this whole program is different than I expected."

“Well, what did you expect?" he asked, opening an eye.

“A series of exercises testing our mettle, not cleaning up after others," she said, sitting up slowly. “Or completing laps around the ship," she said as she straddled him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Or having your chocolates stolen and eaten by a superior officer?" he finished as their eyes met.

“Exactly," she said as she pressed her warm mouth against his, and he moved his arms to support her waist and lower back.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when their lips parted, but it didn’t matter. “Have you ever given any thought to what things will be like after the war?" he asked.

“What do you mean?" she asked as she ran a hand through his hair.

“Well," he began, selecting his words carefully, “you know, civilian life. What will happen if we settle down and have kids after the war?"

She leaned back and stared at him for a moment, a puzzled look on her face.

His heart leapt in alarm, and he could feel his heart racing and stomach beginning to flutter from nervousness. Had he said the wrong thing?

“Oh no," she said finally, pressing a finger firmly into his chest. “You’re going to be the ones changing diapers and cleaning up puke. No way will I do that."

Oh thank kriff, he thought as his heart rate eased.

“You’re also going to treat me like a queen. Every. Day," she finished as she grabbed onto both of his hands.

Dammit, he cursed internally to himself.

“And you can start," she said by leaning back and gently sliding to the floor. She raised her sock-covered feet up high enough so that they were near his abdomen. “By giving me a foot rub."

Andrew gave a sigh, knowing when he’d lost a conversation. “Yes, dear," he said with a sigh and began to peel the first sock off.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. They both froze and looked at one another. Dia spun and rolled herself so that she could stand up quickly, pulling her sock up and sliding back into her boots. Andrew stood up and straightened his clothes, then made for the door. He glanced at Dia before he opened it. She had taken up a sitting position on one of the ends.

The door hissed open to reveal Jalb.

“Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds!" he said, slightly alarmed. “W-what can I do for you?"

“Hello, Major," said Jalb. “Doing some rounds and just thought I’d drop by for a minute."

“Oh … really?" continued Andrew nervously, scratching the back of his head.

“Really," said Jalb, who was slightly amused already. “I wanted to let you know that I was impressed with your performance earlier. Not the flying, of course -- though that is improving."

“Sir?"

“With rallying the others to fly together. It was simple, but effective. I’d encourage you to do more of that in the future."

“Uh, thank you, sir!"

A few seconds passed, adding more tension to the encounter.

“I take it Captain Tann is with you?" he asked.

“She is."

Jalb leaned in the doorway and stuck his head inside, forcing Andrew a step or two back.

All Dia could do was smile and hold up two fingers in a peace-sign.

“Very well," said Jalb, leaning back out the door. “I’d suggest you wrap up and get some shut-eye. We’ll have another early day tomorrow."

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," said Andrew, glancing at Dia then at him.

“Remember," said Jalb, pointing a single finger at Andrew’s nose. Andrew followed it up to meet his eyes again, which had turned stern.

“Of course, sir," he said.

“Have a good night," he said with a smile as he left, and the door closed.

Andrew turned to lean against it, giving a sigh of relief and closing his eyes. Dia moved off the couch and walked towards him.

“That was close," she said.

“Yeah," he said tiredly, opening his eyes and looking at her. “It was." He moved away from the door to let her by.

Before she pressed the button to open the door, she took his head in one hand and kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll make a great dad someday. I just know it."

Pressing the button to open the door, she began to move through it into the hallway.

“Wait," he said, turning towards the door. She stopped and turned to look at him. “There’s been something else I’ve been meaning to ask you."

Before he could continue, he heard Jalb’s voice booming down the corridor.

“WHAT IN THE KRIFFING HELL DO YOU TWO THINK YOU’RE DOING?!"

Andrew stuck his head out while Dia turned her head to gaze down the hallway. He saw that several other pilots had done the same, while a half-dozen more had stuck their heads out of their cabin doorways.

“GET YOUR CLOTHES ON AND GET TO MY OFFICE RIGHT NOW!!"

Moments later, Grixx and Lyn exited a room down the hall. Grixx was tucking in his shirt, while Lyn was zipping up her flight suit with one hand while carrying her boots with the other.

Nobody moved or said a word as Jalb marched the two Rogue recruits down the corridor before turning left and disappearing from sight.

The pilots in the corridor exchanged puzzled looks, some snickering at the scene, then went about their business.

Andrew looked at Dia, eyebrows raised.

“He’s more machine now than man," she said quietly. She glanced up at him, her eyes beaming with delight and mischief. “Human and alien emotions are beyond his capability to--."

“That’s enough," he said, a gentle smile on his face.

“What were you going to ask me?" she said.

The moment spoiled, he brushed it off.

“You know what?" he said, waving a hand. “It can wait for another time."

Chapter 8

“And the Lieutenant Colonel just walked in?" Nezrine asked incredulously as she sat next to Lyn later that evening in the entertainment room, sabacc cards in hand. The chronometer in the room read 22:30 hours. “No notice? Just waltzed right in?" Other patrons milled about the room, talking and laughing, enjoying their games and time together. Ri was throwing darts at the dart board by herself, doing quite well in the process.

“More or less," said Lyn, picking up another card. “I should have known better."

“Yeah," said Nezrine, laying down her hand. “You should have. Pure Sabacc."

Lyn looked at Nezrine’s hand before laying down hers. “You win," she said, tossing her cards on the table.

“So," asked Nezrine as she collected the cards and began to shuffle them once more, “were you really going to … you know…?"

Lyn gave a smirk. “Yes."

Nezrine gave a polite scoff before dealing out the cards again. “That prickly shuura? Why?"

Lyn leaned in, picking up the last of her cards. “Let’s just say it’s one way of getting the lummox to blow off some steam and open up. Plus," she said, moving her cards around and picking up another, “it takes care of my needs at the same time."

The door to the room whisked open. Nezrine watched as Shiz entered the room, a flower held behind his back, and made his way over to Ri.

“Would you look at that," she said, nodding towards Ri. Snapping her cards face down on the table, Lyn twisted in her seat.

“Well, well," she said, glancing back at Nezrine, “what do we have here?"

Nezrine leaned in closer to the table. “Care to have a little fun?" she asked as Shiz stepped close to Ri.

“Whatcha have in mind?" Lyn asked as she turned back to watch the two converse.

“They’re cute together. Let’s say we try to hook them up?"

“A capital idea," said Lyn, twisting to glance at Nezrine again. “I’ll take our dear timid mouse."

“And I’ll take our overly enthusiastic Mirialan," said Nezrine. She was about to say something else when she saw Shiz remove the flower from behind his back. Instead of surprise, a look of concern washed across her face.

“Is that a Kinkorran Lily?" she asked Shiz.

“It is," he said, “I thought it would be a nice--"

“Get away!" said Ri, raising a hand to her nose and taking a few steps back, but it was too late. She began giving several short but high-pitched sneezes. “Why would you do that?" she asked.

Shiz, flower in hand, looked baffled.

“I’m -- achoo -- very allergic -- achoo-- to those lilies -- achoo!"

Shiz opened his mouth to say something, but Ri kept talking.

“I need -- achoo-- someone to get -- achoo-- get me to -- achoo-- the med bay! Now!"

Nezrine sighed and dropped her cards to the table.

“We’ll continue this later," Lyn said to Nezrine as she got up and made her way over towards Ri. Taking her by the hand, Ri’s eyes watering and cheeks beginning to turn puffy, she led her out of the room. Shiz watched them go, perplexed at what had just happened.

Nezrine got up out of her seat and walked over to talk to Shiz.

“I don’t understand," he said, hands held at his sides, the flower drooping towards the floor. “I just wanted to apologize. Now I’ve made things worse."

“You sort of had the right idea," Nerzine said, stepping next to him and wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “Come talk with me at the table. I think it’s time we discuss some matters related to girls."

***

The next morning, the ten pilots were jogging down the hall of one of the decks of the Vigilant. Grixx and Lyn were noticeably silent. It was Nirobi who was leading the team in a chant.

“I don’t know what you’ve been told."
“I don’t know what you’ve been told."
“Commander Reynolds’s looking old.
“Commander Reynolds’s looking old."
“His training programs are becoming square."
“His training programs are becoming square."
“Major Dobson’s Dia’s snugglebear."
“Major Dobson’s Dia’s snugglebear."

The group, including Andrew and Dia, burst into laughter at this new and unexpected line. They continued chanting similar lines throughout their run, being careful to not take things too far, and finished their morning jog at the Mess Hall.

After taking some time to fuel up for the day and shower, they made their way to the simulator room. This time, it was Jasted who was running the simulator programs. They began with warm-ups against wave after wave of TIE Fighters and other TIE variants, followed by mixed exercises against TIEs and light or heavy cruisers. Sometimes the pilots would make mistakes, thus affecting their scores. Regardless, any outside observer could see that there was more cohesion within the groups and team overall. And after a quick physical exercise session and a brief lunch, they returned for more simulation exercises that afternoon.

“You will have one core mission this afternoon," came Jasted’s voice over the comm as the simulation pods closed and the briefing came to life.

On his screen, Andrew watched the briefing begin to play.

“You will launch from the Vigilant as two teams of five. The teams have been carefully selected beforehand based on your skills and abilities to date. You will head to the first hyper buoy that you see here. Once you reach your destination, there will be three phases to your mission. Phase one will be to rendezvous with the shuttle Kohya. It is carrying important personnel who must be protected at all costs." The profile of a shuttle, surrounded by a number of civilian craft at a trading route, appeared on the screen. “You’ll need to be mindful of the civilian craft should any Imperial forces show up. Escort the shuttle to the hyperplane for the next leg of your journey.

“Phase two will be to escort the shuttle through a debris field near the Mutali Nebula. It’s the site of an old Clone Wars era battle from over two decades ago. Lots of debris from both sides remains there, so be prepared for anything.

“Phase three will be to rendezvous with the CRS Aurobai. See the shuttle to safety, then prepare to return to the Vigilant."

“Seems easy enough," said Ri innocently over the comm.

“Major Dobson will lead the first team and be paired with Reds Two through Five. Captain Tann will lead the second team, taking Reds Seven through Ten."

As Jasted continued to break down the flight elements, Andrew checked the slots of the flight teams. Ri, Grixx, Shiz, and Lyn were slated to be with him. Dia’s group contained the rest.

“Good luck, recruits. You may begin."

The simulation sprang to life. The computerized X-wings were in the hangar of the Vigilant.

“Alright, team," Andrew said into his helmet. “Begin takeoff procedures. Follow me out and form up to the hyper buoy."

A string of affirmatives came over the radio as the X-wings came to life, and began their slow exit to the cold, digitized exterior of space. Once outside, the X-wings formed up into a v-shaped formation with Andrew leading the way.

“Prepare to jump on my mark," he said as the nav buoy came into view. “Three. Two. One. Mark."

The stars began their familiar transformation into the blue swirl of hyperspace and stayed that way for thirty seconds or so as they arrived at their first destination. There were scores of freighters, shuttles, and light cruisers in the area around the trading post, which was a large station embedded within the frame of a small planetoid -- or possibly an oversized asteroid.

“Okay, team," said Andrew, checking his computer screen. “The Kohya is dead ahead. Reds Two and Three with me. Grixx, take point with Shiz. Lyn, Ri, standard defensive formation. Watch out for civilian ships, and check your scopes regularly."

“Copy, Major," said Lyn.

Grixx just grunted into the comm.

So much for a friendly start, thought Andrew.

As the five X-wings took up formation, a communication came from the shuttle.

“This is the Kohya -- glad to see you, Red Squadron. We’re heading to the rendezvous. Keep us covered until we get to the Aurobai."

“Copy, Kohya. Just stick with us and we’ll get you there."

It was another minute before they were able to make the jump to hyperspace. And a minute more before they exited to their second destination.

So far so good, thought Andrew as the X-wings stuck close to the shuttle. Up ahead he could see the broken wreckage of several Venator-class cruisers, as well as Sepratist cruisers. Smaller pieces of debris from the ships, as well as fighters and freighters, floated aimlessly from the long-ago battle.

“Red Three," said Andrew into his comm. “Increase throttle and scout the debris ahead. Watch your six, and report anything suspicious immediately."

“With pleasure, sugar," came Lyn’s voice over the comm as her X-wing sped head. Andrew increased his throttle slightly and fell in where she had been seconds earlier.

As Lyn’s X-wing grew smaller and smaller with each passing minute, a signal began to be picked up by their communicators and sensors.

“Hard to make out the signal," said Shiz. “Any chance we can clean it up?"

“Already got it, Five," replied Andrew over his comm. “Adjusting frequency to two-six-four point one."

As the pilots did so, they all heard the same broken message.

“This is the fr----- Yuriko. We---need imm--- assist---ce. Imp---- forces are att---ing us. Is anyone--- there? This --- the freighter Yuriko. Imperial forces are ---- us. Please----elp."

“I can’t make it any clearer," Andrew said.

“Any chance we can track the signal?" asked Shiz.

“It’s not part of the mission," Grixx cut in immediately. “We should leave it be."

“That’s not your call to make," said Shiz flatly.

“Alright," said Andrew, “that’s enough. Rogue Three, anything to report?" “Pl----se! … Th-- is the----uriko! W-- re un-- … attack!"

“Nothing yet, Red One," came Lyn’s voice over the radio. “Just debris and old clankers as far as the eye can see. Heading back now."

“... Yuriko," the transmission continued, “we ha------ ounded, and … ---ields failing…."

Andrew quickly weighed the options before him. On the one hand, there were possible innocent civilians in trouble. There were no parameters indicating that they shouldn’t or couldn’t help them. On the other hand, they did have a critical mission to carry out. Still, five X-wings seemed more than enough for a simple escort mission. He made what he thought was the best decision under the circumstances.

“Red Five, track that signal. Take Red Three and hyper in to help them. If you get overwhelmed, double-back to the rendezvous point immediately."

“Copy that, One," came Lyn and Shiz’s reply. Within several seconds Shiz’s astromech had found the coordinates of the signal. As Lyn returned, they adjusted course and made the jump to hyperspace. Grixx’s protest came immediately afterwards.

“You shouldn’t have let them go."

“Not the time for a debate, Four. Stay in formation with the Kohya."

With that, the remaining Rogues took up position around the shuttle as they continued to slowly make their way towards the debris field.

“Path looks clear like Three said," came Ri’s soft voice. “Scopes aren’t registering anything."

“Pick up your visual scanning," replied Andrew as the shuttle maneuvered around some debris. “Red One to Kohya -- path looks clear. Recommend you increase throttle and stay close."

“Affirmative, Red One. Increasing speed to three-quarters."

The shuttle began to move faster, and the three X-wings matched their speed with it. As they made their way through the debris, hunks of durasteel plating and girders spun slowly and moved in various directions. It wasn’t until they were half-way through that Grixx broke away from the right flank of the shuttle.

“Red Four, get back to your position!" Andrew called.

“Hold on," growled Grixx. “I think I see something."

Ri glanced out of her cockpit towards Andrew, who had done the same to her.

“We’re almost in the clear, Four," Ri said. “Why don’t you--"

“Shut up," he said tersely. Then slowly to himself, “Where are you hiding?"

Andrew checked his rear cockpit viewport over his right shoulder. His tail was clear.

As Grixx maneuvered slowly near a twisted piece of rebar and deckplatingl, lights activated and several green lasers shot out towards him. He was only able to twist his craft to avoid getting hit at the last second, though collided with the floating piece of debris in the process.

‘Ugh!" Andrew heard him cry before roaring the word “Gunboats!" into his headset.

Sure enough, two Assault Gunboats rocketed forward from their hiding positions and began to attack the party. The X-wings were momentarily caught off guard, and scrambled to reposition themselves.

“Two, stay with the shuttle," said Andrew. “Four needs help."

“Copy!" said Ri.

By this time, Grixx had increased his throttle and began to maneuver away from the Gunboats, but as he did so two more appeared from the opposite side of the debris field.

“Two new contacts, four total!" he spat into the comm.

“I see them!" replied Andrew. “Keep them off-balance and away from the shuttle."

Outnumbered two-to-four, the two X-wings did what they could to chase after the Imperial fighters. Scarlet bolts lanced out as the Gunboats used a mix of green lasers and blue ion cannon fire to attack their targets.

Suddenly, Ri gave a shout over the comm. Twisting his head over his shoulder, Andrew saw her X-wing disappear in a cloud of fire as two more Gunboats emerged from their hiding places.

“More Gunboats!" he called. “Two is down!"

This left the shuttle wide-open for the Gunboats to swoop in. Blue ion bolts splashed against the shielding of the shuttle.

“We’re taking fire!" called the pilot of the Kohya. “Cover us!"

“On it, Kohya," said Andrew as he twisted his X-wing around and raced back to the shuttle. He fired at the lead Gunboat. As he did so, lasers from Grixx’s X-wing joined his own and connected with the second.

“Watch your six!" Grixx called as the two Gunboats scattered.

Sure enough, the first four Gunboats had formed up and were making their way towards them. Missile warning systems began to go off in his cockpit.

“Missiles!" Andrew called as he maneuvered his X-wing to prevent a lock. His craft buffeted against a piece of debris in the process. “Gah!"

“Guess I’ll have to do everything myself," growled Grixx as he continued to pursue the third set of Gunboats.

Andrew came about to face the four Gunboats.

Their laser fire ripped his craft to shreds.

Dammit! He cursed to himself as the simulation ended. He was left to watch the computerized map of the battle. Grixx managed to hold his own for another minute or two before being shot down.

“Not the best start to a mission," said Jasted over the radio. “Try again."

The briefing screen came back to life, and the mission started once more.

“Okay, what happened?" Andrew asked as the five starfighters launched again.

“That distress was an ambush, sugar," Lyn said. “Interdictor activated its gravity wells as soon as we exited hyperspace. We didn’t stand a chance."

“Told you you shouldn’t have sent them," Grixx muttered coldly.

“We can argue that point later," Andrew said. “Our team was ambushed by six Gunboats hiding in the debris field."

“Which means we should stick together," said Shiz.

“Agreed," said Andrew as they entered hyperspace.

This mission proceeded as it did last time. They ignored the distress call this time, and pressed forward as a group. When they reached the debris field, the Gunboats emerged from entirely different positions, and were increasingly more difficult to handle. The Kohya was disabled and destroyed within a minute of engaging the gunboats.

“We need to act faster and keep those Gunboats off-balance," said Grixx.

“What do you suggest?" asked Shiz.

“Our starfighters don’t trigger them," said Lyn, “otherwise I’d be blasted once I recon the area. It’s the point at which the shuttle makes its way through the debris field," she finished.

“And the debris field doesn’t allow for significant combat maneuvers," Andrew finished.

“We should torp them," Ri said as their craft exited hyperspace and formed up with the Kohya.

“That’s … not actually a bad idea," said Shiz.

“It’s not, sugar," drawled Lyn, “but those Gunboats will easily shoot down our torps if we attack them head on."

“Which is why we won’t," said Grixx as they entered hyperspace. “Best tactic for this mission is to play offensively and defensively."

“How so?" Andrew asked as they exited hyperspace. The debris field lay directly ahead.

“Three of us should run ahead of the shuttle, while the other two remain behind. We know that the fifth and six Gunboats won’t activate until the first four are engaged. The lead flight can engage the first two sets of Gunboats to keep them busy. As soon as the third set is activated, we need to switch places."

“And torp them in the process," Andrew said. “I get it."

“Good," Grixx said as they entered the debris field. “It’s about time you did something right."

“Kriffing shut it, Grixx," Andrew said. “Two and Five with me. Three and Four guard the shuttle."

“Copy," came replies from the other three.

As the trio penetrated deeper into the debris field, the shuttle about a klick behind them, the first sets of Gunboats activated. They kept them off balance, firing only a handful of shots while maneuvering the best that they could.

“Third set’s activating!" called Grixx as he and Lyn maneuvered their X-wings to engage them.

“Doubling back," called Shiz as he and Ri broke off and ran for the shuttle. Andrew wasn’t far behind them. “Three, Four, get ready to break."

“You got it!" said Lyn.

As Shiz and Ri engaged the fifth and sixth Gunboats, Lyn and Grixx positioned themselves to take care of the other Gunboats. Sweeping wide as best they could, they pincered two of the Gunboats with torpedoes, which caused the other two to break off. Ri and Shiz had also made short work of theirs.

“Five against two!" called Lyn. “I like those odds!"

The numbers in their favour, it didn’t take long for the X-wings to dispatch them.

“Form up," said Andrew as they positioned themselves with the shuttle again. Its shields hadn’t even gotten a scratch this time.

It wasn’t long before they cleared the debris field and hit the next hyperspace point.

“One more to go," said Shiz. “Then we’re home free."

“Keep your eyes open," Andrew said as they entered hyperspace by the nav buoy.

But when they arrived, nothing but the Aurobai was waiting for them. It took several more minutes for the shuttle to dock, but when it did they were given the signal to return home.

“That was easy enough," said Shiz as the simulation ended. The pods began to hiss open one by one.

“Only because you had multiple attempts," said Jasted from the console. “Your next missions will be much more challenging.

Chapter 9

Andrew watched as Dia scarfed down her donut during lunch. “Easy," he said, “that’s your third one."

“Can’t help it," she said, her mouth half full of food, “they’re delicious."

“But you hate donuts," he said.

“Wrong," she said between bites. “I used to hate them. Now, I suddenly love them."

“Eat any more and you might as well be eating for two," Grin said as he peppered his dish with spices from the satchel he had brought to the Mess Hall. Dia began half-choking on the food in her mouth in reaction to his statement. Andrew began clapping her on the back.

“You okay?" he asked.

“I’m fine," she wheezed, her face slightly red. “Just need some air. And water," she finished, reaching for her cup.

“Well, I’d say that went reasonably well this morning," said Nirobi as she picked away at her meal. “How was Captain Grumpy Pants?"

Chuckles ran around the table.

“Not that bad," Andrew said. “Still a bit temperamental, but we worked well together. He had a great idea, we ran with it, and we won."

“I’d hate to see what would happen if he had a bright idea for once," said Miran, which elicited more laughter from the group.

***

“Okay," said Nezrine as she and Shiz entered the Lounge. “Lyn has convinced Ri to meet with you."

“That’s good," he said, noticing Ri and Lyn talking by one of the windows. Outside of training, Ri had been avoiding him like the plague.

“Remember what we talked about?" Nezrine continued as they stopped.

“No more presents," Shiz said. “Be direct and polite."

“Good!" Nezrine said with a smile. “Now," she said, placing her arms on his shoulders and giving him a gentle nudge forward, “get going."

Shiz turned and gave her a puzzled look as he moved forward.

Lyn, seeing Shiz approaching, excused herself and walked past him towards Nezrine.

“Was it easy to convince her?" Nezrine asked as Lyn stood in front of her, back towards Shiz and Ri.

“Not at first," Lyn said. “But she came around after some nudging."

“Then let’s see how this goes," said Nezrine, motioning with her head towards a table. “Come on."

As the two sat down, they cautiously observed the conversation between the two young pilots.

“Ri," said Shiz as he approached her. She stood with her arms folded across her chest.

“Shiz," she said after a moment.

“I, uh, I’d like to apologize for the other day," he said. “I, ah, wasn’t aware you were allergic to that type of lily."

“Most people don’t," she said after a moment. “I mean, how could you have known?"

“Yeah," he said a little nervously, scratching his head. “Allergies aren’t always the first topics of conversation."

“Why did you get it anyway?" she asked, turning to the viewport to observe the ships in formation outside.

“Where I come from," Shiz said, “I was raised to apologize in certain ways to people. It varies with different species and races, but my family believes that a gift is sometimes the best way to apologize to someone. And seeing as how flowers are one of the few commodities on the ship that can act as a gift, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

“I see," she said. She was silent for several seconds before she spoke again. “Well … it was a nice gesture."

“Yeah," Shiz said, “I thought it would be. But I guess I was wrong."

“So far, so good," said Nezrine.

“Hush now," said Lyn.

“I’d … also like to apologize for the first day. It was insensitive of me to ask about what happened with your squad. Sometimes I get overly excited about things and, well, my mouth runs faster than my brain sometimes. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again."

Ri turned to look at him, slowly dropping her arms. “Thank you, Shiz," she said. “I appreciate your honesty and apology."

Shiz gave a sigh of relief.

A voice came over the comm system before either one could say another word.

“All Rogue Squadron recruits report to the simulator room immediately," it said. “All Rogue Squadron recruits report to the simulator room immediately."

“Well," he said, waving his arms out, “ guess that’s us. Should we get going?"

“Sure," she said, turning with him to leave. They had made it several steps before she looked at him again. “I’ve been meaning to ask you," she said as they passed by Lyn and Nezrine.

“Oh?" he asked.

“Where did you learn to drift so well?"

“Well, that’s actually a funny story…," he began as they neared the exit.

Lyn and Nezrine turned to smile at one another in delight. “Progress!" Lyn said with enthusiasm.

“Indeed," replied Nezrine as they got up to follow them. “Now let’s see how much more we can nudge them along."

***

“Your next mission," said Jalb as he began briefing the ten pilots in front of him, “will be several degrees more challenging than anything you’ve completed to date. As you can see here," he said, pointing to the holographic display, “you and your squadmates will be tasked with escorting a Corvette carrying an important diplomat to its hyperspace point."

The screen shifted to reveal the full distance to the nav buoy.

“Imperial forces are rumored to be in the area," he continued as icons of Imperial ships with question marks next to their names appeared, “so you’ll have to be on your guard."

“You call that difficult?" piped up Nirobi. “It’s a standard escort mission. In and out in no time."

Before Jalb could respond, Grixx piped up. “If there are Imperial ships in the area," he said, “then it isn’t standard. If anything, it’s an ambush waiting to happen."

“And how would you know?" asked Miran.

Grixx shot him a stone-faced look. “Let’s just say I know," he said.

“What you should also know," Jalb interjected, “is that many Rogue candidates fail this mission in one way or another despite the loadouts presented. Very few succeed on their first, or even their second, attempt. Now, get to your pods. You’ll be in rotating teams of four. Good luck."

***

Andrew’s team was composed of himself, Ri, Miran, and Nirobi. They attempted the mission three times, each ending in defeat no matter what tactic they tried. They tried a fourth time with some initial success, though were overwhelmed during the final minutes.

“I don’t get it," Miran said as the pods hissed open and they began climbing out. “We’re doing everything by the book."

“And when one of us gets shot down," said Ri, “everyone else gets overwhelmed."

“Same if we stick close to the Corvette," said Nirobi. “Even with its laser battery support, we don’t last long."

“Take five, everyone," Jalb called. “Then we’ll resume."

As Andrew began stretching his arms and back, Dia walked up to him. “There’s something you need to know," she said. “Grixx has flown that mission three times, and has won every time."

“He what?" Andrew said, a bit bewildered. “How?"

Dia shrugged her shoulders. Andrew glanced over and saw Grixx conversing with Lyn.

“Were you on any of his teams those times?" he asked.

“I haven’t," she said. “But he’s got a perfect record on this mission according to the scores. Or, so Jalb says."

“Huh," Andrew said.

“I’m flying with his group next," she said.

“Have the others mentioned anything that works for them?"

“No," she said. “Whatever he’s doing, it would seem it works every time."

“One minute!" Jalb called.

“Better get going," Andrew said as he climbed back into his pod. “Good luck."

She flashed him a quick smile and a nod, then made her way back over to her area.

When the pod closed and Andrew selected the mission briefing once more, he considered all the options available to them. Regardless of the craft -- X-wing, A-wing, or Y-wing -- they were all given concussion missiles as warheads. Then something occurred to him.

“I have an idea," he said to the others.

“Whatcha thinkin’?" asked Miran.

“Ri and Miran should take X-wings," Andrew said. “Nirobi and I should take Y-wings -- without warheads."

“Without missiles?" Nirobi asked incredulously. “Those fighters will rip us to shreds."

“Not if we disable them," Andrew said, “and prevent follow-up waves from spawning."

“That," said Ri after a moment, “isn’t a bad idea."

Andrew selected his craft and removed the warheads on the loadout menu. The others selected theirs.

As they launched the mission, the corvette slid into view as they exited the station.

“Two, Four, stay with the corvette," Andrew said. “I’ll take the first group of Gunboats. Three, take the second. Then we’ll double-back and proceed from there."

“Copy," they replied.

Sure enough, within a minute the first set of Gunboats entered the system. Putting most of his energy to engines, Andrew sped towards them. When he was two klicks out, he readjusted his ELS systems, set his shields to double-front, and began charging his lasers. One Gunboat broke off, while the other one continued towards the corvette. Toggling his laser and ion systems rapidly, he sent several bursts of red-and-blue-lasers towards the attacking Gunboat, stripping its shields quickly. In return, his forward shields absorbed several green laser blasts from the Gunboat. Switching to ions only now, he fired four shots and disabled the Gunboat, then began to swing his craft away from it to pursue the second Gunboat.

It had just begun to launch proton torpedoes when he caught up with it.

“Two, Four, shoot down those torpedoes!" he called as his scopes lit up with red-and-yellow dots.

“On it," Miran said.

Sliding in behind the Gunboat, Andrew fired several shots that once more stripped the fighter of its shields. As it began to break away and jink, he once more switched to ions and had it disabled within seconds.

“How are you doing, Three?" he asked as he sent laser energy to his shields, then sped back towards the corvette.

“Just finishing now," she said. “On my way back."

“Good," Andrew said. He quickly checked the Corvette’s vitals. It hadn’t gotten a scratch. “Two, Four, get ready for those Gozantis. This next part will be interesting."

***

Their pods hissed open several minutes later. And gave a heavy breath and leaned back in his seat with a laugh.

“We did it!" said Nirobi.

“About time," said Grixx as he sauntered over towards them, helmet in hand. “If you all really wanted to make Rogue, you’d have won the first time."

Before anyone could respond, Jalb called over to them. “Like I said earlier, Major Grixx, not everyone wins this mission on their first try."

“When it was the real thing," Grixx said, giving the Lieutenant Colonel and Andrew a begrudging look before he walked away, “My first real squadron and I did…."

“And Major," Reynolds continued. Andrew turned to look at him. “I’m a bit surprised, given your time in Blue and Buccaneer, that you didn’t think of that sooner. Well done in that regard."

“Thank you, sir," Andrew replied.

“However," Reynolds continued coolly, “a real Rogue would have won it with their original craft and loadout."

Chapter 10

The rest of the afternoon was spent performing similar types of missions or exercises. There were still setbacks, but the group began to learn and improve after every mission.

“So," said Thanatos as he met with Jalb in his office just before 17:00 hours. “What do you think so far?"

“They’re a good group," Jalb said, thumbing through the datapad in hand. “When they work together," he said, glancing up at Thanatos.

“I agree," he said. “But we’re going to have to increase the pressure if we want the best performing ones."

“I know," Jalb said. “And simulations will only take them so far."

“Have you given any more thought to what Major Murg said a few days ago?"

Jalb paused for a moment.

“I have," he said finally.

“And?"

“I’m not convinced that sending the recruits on a mission with us is worth it. It’s risky," Jalb said.

“It can be," Thanatos agreed, “but you know what Murg said. It’s a by-the-book mission. We go in, destroy the freighters, and bug out." He met Jalb’s eyes directly. “It would give them some hands-on experience with all the Rogues. Especially with their potential acceptance after that."

“Maybe," Jalb said reservedly, leaning back in his chair to weigh the idea. He didn’t like the idea of sending candidates in training on a potentially dangerous mission. Then again, greater numbers would provide the advantage, even if Barand sent some TIEs to reinforce the convoy. The reward of destroying those freighters would certainly be far better than their outcome if they stayed in Barand’s hands.

“Alright," he said after several moments, rubbing a hand over his mouth, “but I want them flying real craft by tomorrow. Mix up the flight schedule so that no less than three of them are either on patrol or on assignment with other Rogue pilots. And strongly emphasize teamwork."

“Will do," Thanatos said with a nod, then stood up to leave. “I’ll even teach them how to drift and paint targets properly."

“I’ll let Stryker know," Jalb said, keying in his comm. “We’ll make Rogues out of them yet."

***

“Looks like I win again!" said Grin as he hit a bullseye on the dart board in the Lounge.

“That’s three in a row," said Shiz, “impressive!"

“It’s all in the wrist," he said proudly.

Andrew and Dia sat at the bar, nursing non-alcoholic beverages while Iggy served beverages to other patrons. “I have to admit," she said, nodding to Grixx who was alone at one of the corner tables enjoying his beverage, “for all his gruffness, he knows his stuff."

Andrew glanced over at the combat-hardened pilot. Even during relaxation time he looked on edge and unapproachable. “I’m sure he does," he said, “but it would help if he was more cooperative."

“It would," Dia said, taking a sip through her straw. “But it would also be helpful if the group was more accepting of him."

Andrew turned to look at her, eyebrow raised.

“Face it," she said, “the others have been making cracks about him more and more."

“Can’t argue there," he said as he took another drink. “Alright, maybe a little kindness will go a long way."

Nezrine and Lyn sat at their table, observing the dart and sabacc games in progress. While Grin decided to head to the bar to order some drinks, Ri had walked over and begun a conversation with Shiz at the dart board.

“Hello," said Lyn, “what do we have here?"

Nezrine raised her head and glanced over towards the pair of pilots.

“Did she just?--"

“Yes."

“On her own?"

Lyn nodded with a small smile and glint in her eye.

“This will be interesting," she said as Ri began to throw the darts one by one. “I wouldn’t have thought she’d be this chummy so soon."

“Well," drawled Lyn slowly, “I may have let slip an innocent comment or two about how cute he looks when he’s nervous."

“Really?" Nezrine asked.

“Uh huh. Now the question is, my dear Nezrine: what are you going to do to get him interested?"

Nezrine shot Lyn a look and gave a small laugh.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll come up with something."

They both watched as Shiz moved behind Ri and placed his hands on her hips, adjusting her standing position.

“Unless," Lyn said amusedly, “he beats you to it first."

They both shared low laughs of amusement.

“What about Captain Grumpy Pants?" Nezrine asked as she tipped her cup to him. “Had a chance to connect with him again?"

“No," Lyn said with a sigh. “The Lieutenant Colonel was very adamant about keeping things professional. Which is a shame," she continued, meeting Nezrine’s eyes, “because I have an itch that needs scratching, if you catch my drift."

Nezrine was about to respond when she saw Thanatos walk into the Lounge carrying a stack of plasticards.

“Gather around, recruits!" called Thanatos. “Have I got news for you."

***

“Night shifts?" Dia said incredulously as she and Andrew walked down the hall towards their quarters. “They put me on night shifts?!"

“And me on day shifts," Andrew said, looking at his schedule. “With simulator time mixed in with workouts."

“After tonight, we’ll have no time together," she growled.

“I know, it sucks," he said, shifting himself to let a pair of crew members and other pilots pass. “But we can’t really -- hey, Gremlin -- really argue about it," he finished as the Zeltron exchanged a quick hello and walked by, helmet in hand.

As they reached his quarters, he pressed on the console button. The door swished open. “Besides," he said, “this will be over in a few days, and things will be back to normal."

“Is normal what you really wanted?" she asked as he stepped inside. He turned to face her, puzzled.

“What do you mean?"

“You were the one who wanted in Rogue," she said, hands on the doorframe. “And I was against it, remember?"

“I remember," he said, thinking back to the night on the cruise ship.

“I’m only doing this for you," she said pointedly.

That last sentence hit home. Hard.

“Come inside," he said, reaching for her hands. Taking his, she stepped inside and the door swished shut behind her. “What’s going on?"

“You know this whole thing doesn’t sit well with me," she said.

“Yet you’ve been nothing but supportive since that night on the cruise ship, not to mention since you’ve arrived," he replied.

“I know," she said, meeting his eyes. “But you know what their missions are like, more or less. Your performance in the simulation room hasn’t been the best either."

“Simulations are one thing," he said, “live missions are completely different. We’ve flown scores of missions together and every time--"

“--and every time we’ve done okay," she finished, giving his hands a squeeze. “But now, everything is different. Doing okay in Rogue isn’t good enough when you have to do your best every time."

“So what do you propose?" he asked after a minute.

“Either you get your act together and up your game," she said coolly, “or we both withdraw."

He let go of her hands, letting them drop. “So we’re at ultimatums now?" he asked.

“If it needs to be," she said, crossing her arms.

“You know that if we withdraw, we’ll be sent back to our respective squadrons," he said. She continued to stare at him.

“And?"

“And that means," he said, “less us time."

“It does."

“And you’d be okay with that?" he asked.

“I could be," she said tersely, “if it meant we both stayed alive."

He let out a sigh and ran his hand through his hair. “Look," he said, moving to sit down on his bunk. “I don’t want to argue. Do you want to be happy?" he asked.

“I do," she said after a moment.

“And you want some sort of normalcy and routine, right?"

“I do," she said once more.

“I’m not changing my mind about joining Rogue," he said. She let out a sigh and looked down, then up at him again.

He reached to open the drawer of his night stand, then fished inside until his hand pulled out the small box containing the ring. Clutching it in both hands, he knelt down on one knee. Dia raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“But I’m not about to change my mind about you either. All I want is for you -- for us -- to be happy. So I’ll ask you what I was going to ask the other night. Dia Tann," he said, opening the box to reveal the ring, “will you marry me?"

Her eyes went wide. She raised a hand to her mouth.

And from the vent in the ceiling above, BD-B2 gave a whistle of surprise.

Momentarily distracted by the droid, he didn’t see Dia kneel down in front of him. He turned back to look at her as she took his hands in hers.

“I … don’t think this is the question you should be asking right now," she said.

“What?"

“I’m sorry," she said, closing the box and gently removing it from his palm.

“So … that’s a no, then?" he asked, confused.

“It’s not a no," she said slowly, “but it’s not a yes either." She pocketed the ring deliberately and took his hands in hers. “I need to think about this," she said, meeting his eyes.

He felt her hands slide out of his as he knelt there, partly in shock, and she stood to move to the door.

“I’ll see you in a bit." The door whisked open as she keyed it. “If the schedule allows it," she said, glancing over her shoulder. Then she disappeared.

Andrew slumped back against his bunk, not believing what had just happened.

BD gently kicked open the grate to the vent, hopped down onto the nearest piece of furniture and made his way over to where Andrew was sitting.

“I messed up big time, didn’t I?" he said to BD after a moment.

The droid nodded several times slowly up and down in response.

Chapter 11

Lyn walked into the Lounge shortly after midnight. With the bar not serving drinks at this hour, it was sparsely populated. It wasn’t hard to miss Grixx, feet propped up on a second chair, looking out the viewport window.

“Surprised to see you here at this hour, sugar," she said. He turned to look at her. “Don’tcha have duty in the morning?"

“Not ‘til the afternoon. Could ask you the same question," he said after a moment, turning back to look at the ships. Two A-wings drifted by the viewport on patrol. “I like the quiet."

“Mind if I join you?" she asked.

He turned to look at her once more before replying that she could, then removed his boots from the second chair. She walked around the table and sat down to face him.

“So," she said, placing an elbow on the table and propping her head up with her palm, “what’s on your mind, stranger?"

He eyed her coolly before responding. “Just thinking," he said, finally.

“About?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Things," he replied.

“Well," she said with a small laugh, “don’t you have the gift for gab."

He remained silent, turning his attention back to the ships outside, the glow of the ships’ engines glinting off the glass.

“You know," she said, placing both her hands on the table, one on top of the other, “if you prefer to be alone, I get it. But remember, we’re all on the same team, after all."

Grixx continued to look out the viewport window, still as a statue.

“I hope you don’t give the cold shoulder to all your Dynamo boys and girls back home," she said after a few moments. “Unless, of course, you’re used to posing as a statue during squadron art night."

That must have struck a chord with him as he gave a small laugh. “Only when they need to capture my good side," he said, glancing at her.

“There we go!" said Lyn in delight. “Now, was that so hard?"

“No," he said casually.

“So," she said again, “what’s on your mind, stranger?"

“Just," he said, after a moment, “thinking about things."

“What kind of things?" she asked, sliding a hand towards him.

“The past," he said, looking at her before turning back to the ships, “and the future."

“Ah," she said after a moment, retracting her hand. “Those kinds of things. The ones that matter most?"

He gave a slight nod.

“You know," she said, “what you did earlier today in the simulator -- you led by example. You took your groups and won that mission time after time without any casualties."

“It’s easy if people listen to you," he said after a moment, “and do what they’re told."

“That’s true, sugar," said Lyn. “But there’s also something to be said for not being cold and demeaning while you’re flying."

Grixx grunted.

“You should give them a chance," she continued. “You may not see it, but we’ve got a good group here. You could be a leader, not a boss. And give the Major a chance. Work with him, not against him."

“I’ll … think about it," he said.

“Choice is yours," she said, standing up to leave. “I’ll see you in the morning."

She had just begun to leave when he called her name.

“Lyn," he said suddenly. She turned to look at him.

“If...," he began, turning his head to look at her. “If I tell you what made me who I am, will you keep it to yourself?"

“Sugar," she said with a wide smile, sitting back down gracefully and resting her chin on her palm again. “For you, I am all ears."

***

“Alright, team," Thanatos said over the comm. “Welcome to our first exercise of the morning. We’ll begin with some drifting practice before we begin painting targets. Hopefully within the hour you’ll all have made masterpieces out of scrap heaps."

Laughs rippled across the comms as Andrew adjusted the ELS settings in his X-wing starfighter.

“Match my flight vector," continued Thanatos. “We’ll begin with pattern Alpha-Nine."

“Copy, Lead," said Grin.

The five X-wings headed in a loose v-formation away from the ships in the Vigilant’s area. Several old containers of varying shapes and designs waited for them at this location.

“Hold at point two-one," Thanatos said. As the X-wings slowed to a halt, Thanatos flew ahead. “Remember," he continued, “make sure your throttle is at least at half strength. Boost to give yourself some speed, then cut your boost and angle your craft to slide into the direction that you want to go. Rookie One, you’re up. Do a lap around the containers."

Nezrine engaged her throttle and sent herself moving forward. She performed hers like a natural.

“Very good," Thanatos said. “Two, you’re next, then Three and Four."

Andrew moved forward and performed his boost drifts, followed by Grin and Ri.

“Alright," said Thanatos after they did a few laps around the containers. “Now we’re going to try painting targets with our laser cannons. Have your astromechs power down the lasers to their lowest possible setting. Observe me first, then try on your own. Your first objective is to hit at least 50% of the containers."

Io gave a hoot from her droid socket as Andrew instructed her to decrease the laser setting power, then began making his maneuvers with the others. It took them several tries each, but they eventually managed to paint their targets.

They tried again and again from different angles, meeting the objectives that Thanatos gave them as the hit percentages increased.

“Needs some more improvement," he said fifteen minutes later, “but not a bad start. That will come with time. Now," he continued as the four X-wings waited for his instructions, “let’s see if you can hit me."

***

Jalb watched from the bridge tactical display as the X-wings darted and danced about. Each time one was hit with lasers from Thanatos’s X-wing, it blipped orange-red momentarily before turning green again.

“Doesn’t seem like a fair fight," said the tactical officer beside Reynolds.

“For whom?" Jalb asked.

“Rogue Six," said the officer. “He’s outnumbered four-to-one."

“More of an unfair fight for the other four if they’re up against Thanatos," Jalb replied. “Though Major Dobson is surprisingly holding his own. For now."

Suddenly, Thanatos’s X-wing icon blipped orange-red as Dobson’s X-wing drifted past it.

Oh ho! he thought to himself. A good shot!

“How are they doing?" asked Captain Terak Quelle as he stepped up beside Jalb.

“Still ironing out some wrinkles, sir," he replied, “but they’re making progress."

“That’s good to hear. It will be advantageous to have more Rogues in the ranks," said Quelle.

“That it will," replied Jalb.

“Captain," called the officer at the comms station. “We’re receiving a distress call on an open channel."

“Location?" Quelle asked as the image changed. It showed the current position of the task force, plus the surrounding stellar objects.

“Sector A-87," said the officer. “It’s just a few micro jumps away."

“Put the message through," said Quelle.

“--please!" came the voice over the comm. “This is the freighter Calypso’s Run. We are under attack by pirates. Our hyperdrive is down, and shields are failing. If anyone is out there, we need--". The transmission was cut off by static.

“Shall I scramble the tactical response team, sir?" asked the tactical officer.

“That will take time," Jalb interjected. “If I may, sir, Thanatos’s flight could easily reach them."

Quelle met Reynolds’s eyes. “Are you sure?"

“I am," replied Jalb confidently. “Every pilot is more than capable of facing off against pirates."

“Very well," said Quelle. “Contact Major Marco immediately and transmit their coordinates. And scramble a support U-wing in case the freighter needs medical or mechanical assistance."

***

“Disengage," said Thanatos as he came about. “We’ve got new orders. Follow me, now."

Ri fell into formation beside Andrew, giving him a quick glance. He shrugged his shoulders in return.

“I’ll explain on the way," Thanatos said. “Prepare to receive hyperjump coordinates."

“Coordinates received, Lead," said Grin as the X-wing s-foils closed.

“Jump on my mark," said Thanatos as they approached the digital nav buoy. “Mark."

The X-wings shot forward into hyperspace, and emerged two micro jumps later into empty space.

“Look!" said Ri as explosions lit up like fireworks in the distance.

“Engines at full throttle, and lock S-foils," called Thanatos. The X-wings raced forward at top speed, their wings widening into the namesake x-shape. “Shields double-front, and have your astromechs set lasers to normal damage."

“Copy, boss," said Nezrine.

Checking his scopes, he saw several Y-wings and R-41 Starchasers in the distance along with a larger freighter that must have been the pirate ship.

“Dobber," said Thanatos, “take Rookies Three and Four. Hit those fighters and draw them away from the Calypso’s Run."

“Who?" Ri asked.

“My callsign," Andrew said as he targeted the closest fighter.

“Rookie One," said Thanatos, “with me. Let’s give that freighter a run for its money."

Three R-41 Starchasers broke off and made their way towards the oncoming X-wings.

“Bracket, high-low, now," said Andrew as he swung his X-wing up and angled to attack them from above. His wing pair went low.

Andrew fired the first shots. There was no turning back.

***

“He did what?" said Suli deChenzzi as her holovid flickered.

Dia stared at the blue images of her aunt and uncle, face held by her cheeks. “He proposed," she said again in her native Rylothian accent. She rarely used her accent with people not in her immediate family, and definitely not around Andrew.

Suli exchanged glances with her husband.

“And?" they both asked eagerly.

Dia shifted her body and looked at them with a sigh. “I said I needed to think about it," she said.

“You what?!" Suli asked. “Why would you say that? You’re over the moon for him!"

“I know," she said. “But it was so … sudden and unexpected."

“Some proposals can be," said her uncle.

“And we had a fight," Dia continued.

Suli’s head nodded up and down, and she opened her mouth in understanding. “Ahh, I see. Was it really a fight? Or a disagreement?"

“Does it matter?" Dia asked.

“Yes," said Suli. “It does."

“So," said her uncle. “What was it about?"

“A few things," Dia said. “Sort of."

“Such as?..." asked Suli.

Dia let out another sigh. “I told him how I feel about joining Rogue Squadron. And wanting something more normal," she said. “And … I may have in my anger given an ultimatum."

“Ohh," said her uncle with a nod. “I see."

“Dia, dear," continued Suli, “can I give you some advice?"

“Please," she said.

“Your uncle and I," Suli said, “learned very early on in our marriage, before you were born, that having ultimatums is not a healthy part of any relationship or marriage. We used to have arguments and fights regularly."

“You fought?" Dia asked, raising an eyebrow.

“We did," cut in her uncle. “We had some major ones, too. There was more than one occasion where she sent me to sleep in the guest quarters," he said with a chuckle.

“We were young," Suli continued, “and eager entrepreneurs, but too headstrong for our own good. Our schedules collided, and our expenses were very high. Sometimes we fought every day. It was a recipe for disaster."

“What did you do?" Dia asked, sitting up.

“Well," continued Suli, “we were still madly in love with one another. So, we decided to make compromises."

“If your aunt or I had important meetings, or our schedules would pull us away from one another, we made a commitment to find time when we could be together. We scheduled private dates and dinners when we could, as well as private time for each other to let us do our own thing. And we cut back on unnecessary expenses."

“It took some adjusting," Suli said, “but we made it work. And," she said, taking her husband’s hand, “we learned to stop fighting and love one another even more."

“It was also helpful when she let me sleep in the bedroom again," her uncle said with a wink. “And fun, too."

Suli elbowed her husband and shot him a playful glance. Dia gave a small smile at both her aunt and uncle.

“The point, my dear Dia," Suli continued, “is that you two need to work it out. If you can’t agree on something, find something that you can agree upon and work from there. Do you think you could at least try that?" she asked.

“I could," Dia said after a moment. “When I’m ready."

“And not a moment sooner," her aunt finished.

“Thank you, Auntie. Thank you, Uncle," Dia said.

“Anytime, my dear," said her uncle. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an important call to take."

He left, leaving the two women alone.

“So," said Suli excitedly. “Can I see the ring?"

Dia fished it out of her pocket. Opening the box, she held it up to the holovid display.

“It’s gorgeous!" she said, eyes widening. “What does it look like?"

“A gold band with a ruby red-like stone," Dia said. “Might be custom made by the looks of it."

“Oh, honey," Suli said, “you know he’s a keeper if he did that."

“I know," Dia said.

“I know the perfect dress tailor," Suli continued. “She can make custom dresses that you’d look fabulous in! And I know the perfect caterer--"

“Auntie!" Dia said, slightly seriously.

“Sorry, dear," she said with a laugh. “It’s just so exciting!"

Dia rolled her eyes.

“If he walked through that door right this second and proposed again, what would you say?" Suli asked.

“I’m … still not sure," Dia said. “I want to, but … there’s just so much to think about."

“Then let’s work through it together," Suli said. “Your feelings do you credit, but you need to go into this with a clear mind."

“I know," Dia said, cupping her face in both hands again. “But there’s something else you should know."

***

“Oh man!" said Grin as he shoved a heap of food onto his fork. “You should have seen those pirates run once the Major announced what squadron arrived to help."

“And after we engaged their starfighters," Ri interjected, a smile on her face.

Nezrine raised her empty fork to imitate someone giving a speech. “‘This’," she began, “‘is Major Marco of Rogue Squadron. If you do not cease your attack, prepare to face the wrath of our laser cannons.’"

Laughter circled around the table.

“Oh, how I wish I’d been there," said Shiz. “Did the Major really say that?"

“I may have embellished some of it," said Nezrine, taking a bite of her food. “But I’d say it’s mostly accurate."

“I’m not sure the Major would agree," Andrew said.

“Of course I wouldn’t," said Thanatos as he stopped by with his food tray.

The table grew silent at his sudden arrival.

“But only because you don’t capture my heroic poise and vocals well enough," he said.

Laughter rippled across the table.

“That was some good work this morning," he said as the pilots picked away at their meals. “A few fundamentals need work, but you’ll get those ironed out soon enough. I’m looking forward to our time in the simulators later."

“Speaking of which," Shiz said as Thanatos left, checking the chronometer, “I need to get down to the hangar to get ready for my flight soon. I’ll catch you all later," he said, picking up his tray and heading for the refuse section.

“I, ah," began Nezrine, picking up her tray, “just remembered I need to take care of a few things. I’ll see you in a bit," she said as she followed Shiz.

“Shiz!" she called as she left the Mess Hall doorway. “Don’t mean to stop you from missing your launch," she said as she caught up to him. “But I heard that there is an Open-Mic event in one of the entertainment rooms later this evening."

“Oh?" he asked.

“Yeah!" she continued. “Lyn and I are attending. You should come."

“I dunno," he said after a moment as they continued to walk. “My schedule is tight as it is with simulations later. Plus a workout session in the fitness room."

“You mean to tell me," she said, stepping in front of him and stopping him, “that you can’t take at least half an hour to enjoy yourself?"

Shiz moved past her.

“My schedule is pretty tight," he said, continuing past her once more.

“Not even," she said, catching up with him again, “fifteen minutes."

“Well," he said after a few seconds, “I guess I could spare a few minutes. But not very long. I hear this ‘Bulldog’ guy who is training us has a grumpy side."

“Perfect!" she exclaimed. “I’ll see you in eighteen-hundred hours!"

With that, Shiz made his way down towards the locker room area. Nezrine briskly began walking towards Lyn’s quarters.

When she entered, Lyn was alone and lying on her bunk, reading through a data pad.

“I just finished talking with Shiz," she said as the door closed behind her. “How did you make out?"

Lyn lowered her datapad and looked at Nezrine.

“Sugar," she said, sitting up and cracking a smile, “do you even have to ask?"

Both women gave laughs of delight.

Chapter 12

“Watch yourself, Dobber!" called Ri through her headset. “Fighters at eleven high!"

“Red Four, pull in," said Andrew.

“On it!" Ri called back.

“TIEs heading for the Medical Frigate!" Nezrine called.

“I’m on ‘em!" called Grin.

Thanatos watched the fighters through the vid displays as they arced and exchanged blows with the different TIE classes.

“Nice shot, Four!" Andrew said. “Now let’s get on those other TIEs."

“Very smart of you to fire up the Korolev mission," Jalb said as he walked up to Thanatos. “How are they doing?"

“Surprisingly well," Thanatos said. “Even on the hardest setting, their group dynamics are near perfect. The Redemptionis in good shape, and they’re calling their targets."

“Impressive," Jalb said. Then, looking at Thanatos, “Care to load me in with a TIE Fighter?"

“Would love to," grinned Thanatos. “But they’re almost on the last wave of fighters."

“Then we’ll just have to make it the hardest wave to beat," said Jalb as he made his way towards an empty pod.

***

As the final wave of TIE Bombers and Fighters launched from the Warspite, Jalb made sure to stay in formation with his wingmen. As to be expected, a lone X-wing began making its way towards them.

Jalb knew the mission by heart, and also knew that the X-wing would try to go for the TIE Bombers first by using what proton torpedoes it had left, dumbfiring them into the sluggish bombers.

He stayed in formation with his artificial intelligence TIE wingmate until the last second, breaking hard right to pursue the X-wing’s warheads.

He shot them down with precision, then turned to chase the X-wing.

***

“Woah!" cried Grin as he saw the torpedoes get intercepted. “That’s new!"

“Sithspit," said Andrew over the radio. “Looks like we’ve got a live player on the Imperial side."

“I could use a little help here," said Grin as he began to take evasive action.

“Red Four," Andrew called back to Ri. “Stay with the Korolev and Redemption. Shoot down any warheads on the way in."

“Copy," she said, falling back to cover the two Rebel cruisers.

“Red Two, with me."

“On your tail, One," Nezrine said.

Grin had begun to chart a path back towards the cruisers, furiously trying to evade the fire coming his way. It didn’t help that he had the second TIE Fighter now in pursuit.

“Almost there, Three," Andrew said. “Hold on!"

“I think I can make it. I just need to--GYAHH!"

Dobber and Nezrine watched as Grin’s X-wing disintegrated into a ball of flame.

“Three’s down," Nezrine said.

“Shields double-front," Andrew said. “Let’s bracket, left-right."

“On it," Nezrine called as she angled for a cut to the left.

“Fire!" Andrew called as his targeting computer lit up green.

Scarlet dual-linked lasers poured forth towards the oncoming TIEs. The AI one went down quickly enough, but the human-piloted rolled up well before the shots connected with him. Pulling an S-maneuver, he fell right behind Nezrine as she cut across the TIEs trajectory.

“Break left!" Andrew called. He watched Nezrine roll and break as hard as she could. The TIE Fighter stayed close on her tail.

“I-I can’t see him!" she called frantically, balancing her shields.

“I’m on him," Andrew called. He sent several shots towards the TIE, but they all missed. “Aagh, can’t get a lock!"

He watched Nezrine break right this time, narrowly avoiding the blasts of green laser fire.

Adjusting his throttle, Andrew slowed down so that he could maneuver better. This allowed him an easier angle of attack. Lining up once more, he sent several bursts of lasers towards the TIE. Once again, they missed.

“Hurry up," she said as her X-wing absorbed damage. “I can’t--!"

Her X-wing shattered into pieces, the s-foils blasting away in four different directions.

“No!" Andrew yelled.

The TIE Fighter turned to face him, and began firing shots at him. He, in turn, fired shots at the TIE.

When they passed, his shields had been stripped, and his hull had taken some damage. The TIE had taken some damage in the process, its hull down to sixty-four percent.

Knowing he wouldn’t win the next pass, he dumped his remaining laser energy into his shields, then set his ELS system to maximum engines. Redirecting his rear shields, he madly cut left and dashed towards the Rebel cruisers. The burst of speed had given him some distance from the TIE, but he was still within distant weapons range.

Oh sithspit! he thought to himself. It’s Reynolds! It kriffing has to be! He’s enjoying every second of this!

He saw the TIE Bombers dead ahead, their warhead launchers firing streams of proton torpedoes at the Korolev. Ri was doing her best to shoot them down, but some had gotten through.

“Message from our mission critical craft," came a voice as the last of the first wave of torpedoes hit the Corvette, “they’ve taken torpedo hits!"

“Ri!" he called frantically as he looked over his shoulder and jerked his craft right. “Head straight for those bombers, then cover me!"

“But the cruisers will be vulnerable," she began.

“And we’ll be dead if you don’t!" he yelled back, checking over his shoulder and jerking his flight stick left. “I’ll handle the bombers," he said. “Just get ready to break towards the TIE chasing me."

“Copy," she said, increasing her throttle and heading towards the bomber.

A laser blast hit Andrew’s shields, and he saw his rear shield indicator sink from yellow to red.

Ri raced towards the bombers, lasers firing as they began launching fresh waves of torpedoes. One broke off as it took damage.

Andrew switched over to his proton torpedo warheads as he continued to weave his craft left and right to avoid the fire from behind him.

This is going to be close! he thought as he dumbfired his first warhead into the closest bomber. As it exploded into a brilliant flash, his shields melted away. He was completely vulnerable now.

Rolling his craft, he made way for Ri who had cut away and raced past him. Firing his second warhead into the second bomber, he rolled once more. It, too, exploded.

“Come on," he said to himself, frantically targeting the third bomber. “Where are you?"

“Message from mission critical craft," came the automated voice again. “Their shields are out."

***

Jalb fired again towards Red One, knocking his shields out.

I have you now! Jalb thought, eager for the kill and the satisfaction it would bring him.

He readied to squeeze the laser buttons once more when he saw the second X-wing suddenly break from its trajectory and head past Red One.

“Nyah!" he cried as scarlet lasers lanced out towards him.

His craft was hit as he tried to break right. Warning systems went off in his cockpit.

He made to maneuver his craft to avoid the X-wing.

The flight yoke wouldn’t respond.

Flight controls damaged, read the computer display. ETA to repair: thirty-seconds.

And the Redemptionbegan to look closer.

“Son of a b-!"

***

“Come on," said Andrew, trying to line up with the last bomber. “Come on…"

Another stream of torpedoes began to launch forth from the TIE Bomber. It had fired three off before he was able to dumbfire his torpedo successfully into it.

He set his lasers to maximum recharge and switched over to them. “Hurry up!" he muttered. “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!"

As soon as he saw he had a minimal charge, he fired shots at the three torpedoes. They exploded seconds before they hit the Korolev.

He slumped back in his seat, letting out a sigh of relief.

“You’ve attacked a friendly craft!" came the automated voice over the headset.

“Huh?" he said to himself.

Red laser blasts began to stream from the corvette towards him.

“Gah!" he cried, breaking away to avoid getting killed.

“Andrew, you alright?" Ri asked.

“Yeah," he said, continuing to maneuver away from the Korolev and setting his other recharge rates to maximum. “You?"

“I am," she said. “But that TIE won’t be."

Andrew targeted the TIE and saw what she meant. Red laser blasts were streaking out from the Redemption. Within seconds the TIE exploded. “You could have finished him off," he said.

“Yeah," Ri said. Then, with a hint of satisfaction in her voice, “but this is cooler."

“Message from mission critical craft," came the voice over the headset. “Their docking operation is complete."

“Congratulations!" said another voice. “We’ve beaten the Empire!"

“Yeah," Andrew laughed. “I guess so."

***

As the simulation ended and the pod hissed open, Andrew saw Jalb climbing out of his pod and heading over towards Ri.

“For the record," Jalb said, pointing a finger at her, “that Frigate shot me down, not you."

“But I could have!" she called back to him.

“And as for you," he said, turning to point at Andrew, who was now standing outside of his pod.

Me? He gestured with a curious look, pointing at himself.

“Yes, you!"

Jalb was very close to him now. “I had you. If that were a real exercise, you’d be dead. By my hand."

Andrew nodded slowly, feeling very small in front of this perturbed senior officer.

“But," he continued, pointing his finger at Andrew’s nose once again. “That was a damned fine use of your wingman."

“Uh, yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Andrew said.

“A shame your others didn’t survive. Something to think about," Jalb finished before he stalked off and out the door."

Nezrine, Grin, and Ri had walked over to him at this point. Thanatos continued to fiddle with the instruments on the computer consoles.

“Not bad," Nezrine said. “But I think next time we could do better."

“If there is a next time," Grin said.

“Now if you’ll excuse Ri and I," she said, “we have a concert to attend."

Chapter 13

As Andrew made his way down the corridor later that evening, tired from his final workout of the day, he saw Dia and Nirobi turn the corner and head towards the pilot locker rooms. He could stop in to see her, but realizing that this could cause further strife, he decided not to. He trudged to his room, greeting other pilots he knew as they made their way past him. Keying the entry pad, the door whisked open and he stepped inside.

BD-B2 was waiting for him on his bunk.

“Hey," Andrew said wearily in response as the droid beeped hello. “Did Dia send you?" he asked.

“Bweow," BD replied sullenly, shaking his head left to right.

“Oh," Andrew said disappointedly. “Come to have a few jabs then?"

Once more, BD gave a negative reply, then twittered the reason why he was there.

“Really?" he asked, slightly curious. “You want to help me and Dia make up?"

BD nodded ‘yes’.

“I dunno," Andrew said after a few seconds, sitting next to the droid. “Is she still angry?"

BD gave a nervous hum-haw.

“You’re not sure?" he asked.

BD shrugged.

Andrew sighed. “I don’t even know where to begin," he said.

BD activated his holoprojector and displayed the picture of him and Dia the night of the cruiser, before they left for dinner and dancing.

“It was a good night," Andrew said, staring at the picture. She still looked gorgeous in that dress of hers.

BD gave another titter, shutting the image off.

“Yeah, well, finding the right words to apologize won’t be easy," he said. “You know how she is." He picked up BD and sat down cross-legged on the bed. “And buying her flowers might not help either."

BD gave a long hum.

“Well, okay. They might help a little," Andrew said. BD nodded in approval. “Look," he said, holding the droid up. BD stared back at him. “I’m too tired to think of anything right now. Can we do this tomorrow?"

BD chirped an affirmative.

“Okay," Andrew said, “meet me back here after lunch. I have some spare time I can meet you for, but not too long."

BD whistled in enthusiasm.

Setting him down, the droid hopped off the bed and made for the ceiling grate through a series of parkour moves, then he was gone.

***

“Well," said Nezrine as she and Lyn walked towards the pilot quarters. “That seemed to go well."

“All fifteen minutes of it," said Lyn. “And the Max Rebo cover band wasn’t that bad."

“Yeah," said Nezrine, “but not as good as the real version live."

Lyn chuckled. “Definitely not."

“Anyway," yawned Nezrine, “I’m going to hit the showers. I’ll see you tomorrow."

“G’night," Lyn said as the two parted ways.

By the time she got back to her quarters, Grixx was waiting outside of her door. “Howdy, stranger," she said as she neared him.

“Lyn," he said with a nod as he leaned, arms crossed, against the wall.

“Care to come in?" she asked as she keyed the pad to the door.

“You sure that’s wise?" he asked, looking around.

“All we were told," she said, stepping inside, “was to not act inappropriately and such by the Lieutenant Colonel."

Grixx moved to face her from outside the doorway. “I don’t think the security footage would agree," he said. “Especially if I stay too long."

“Honey," Lyn said with a tired laugh, looking at him incredulously. “Do you really think the Lieutenant Colonel, who at this very minute is just launching for his exercise with the night crew, is going to go so far as to monitor the security cameras just for little old us?"

“Fair point," he said after a moment, then stepped inside. The door whisked close.

“Thought you’d see it my way," she said with a wink. “So," she said, stepping back to remove her boots. “What do I owe this pleasure?"

“I wanted to talk to you about last night. Erm, earlier this morning, I guess. That talk put a few things into perspective."

“Aw, shucks, sugar, t’wasn’t nothing," she said as she waved a dismissive hand, then removed her second boot.

“It may seem like nothing," he said, “but it felt … good, to get some of that off my chest."

“Well, I’m glad I could be of some help," Lyn said, as she peeled her socks off. Standing up, she took a few steps towards him and put her hands on her hips.

“And," he continued, “I’m going to try to be … nicer, moving forward. When I can," he finished.

“All you can do is try," she said.

“Yeah," he said with a weak smile and a nod. Then, “I should, ah, probably get going."

“Grixx," she said as he turned to go, placing a hand on his arm. He stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Kal," she said, using his first name. “I know what loss can do to people," she said. “If there’s ever anything I can do…."

She trailed off as he turned around and gently but firmly took hold of her hand.

“I know," he said quietly.

They gazed into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. It was Lyn who made the first move.

“You know," she said, stepping closer and pressing her body against his. She reached up and began to whisper in his ear. “I have this…"

He surprised her by picking her up off the ground. Turning her around, he pressed her body against the door.

“Wait!" she cried in surprise. He stopped.

She fumbled her right hand for the door controls, and checked to make sure she was pressing the right button. She heard the door lock behind her. “That’s better," she said, meeting his face again. As their mouths pressed together passionately, she wrapped her legs around his waist. “Finally," she said with a moan as he entered her a few minutes later.

She couldn’t wait to have this itch scratched.

Chapter 14

Shiz gave a yawn as he sat on a crate next to his X-wing. The technicians were making some last-minute adjustments, and he was waiting for the last of the group members to arrive. Most of Thanatos’ normal flight group were already there.

“Rise and shine, pilot," Thanatos said, clapping him on the shoulder as he walked by. “Gotta look alive today."

“Sure, boss," Shiz said, yawning again as he stood up.

“Didn’t realize you’d be here," said Ri softly from behind him.

“Ri," he said, turning around and seeing her approach. “Hey."

“You didn’t get in trouble with Bulldog, did you?"

“Nah," said Shiz with a grin. “Bulldog had something come up at the last minute. Something about a medical or therapy session or something. Thanatos offered to take his flight out with ours," he said, trying to stifle another yawn with a hand over his mouth. “Though I wish it’d been … an hour or so later."

“Good morning, everyone!" Thanatos called as Lyn was the last to arrive, bags underneath her eyes. “Gather ‘round one and all."

The seven pilots formed a semi-circle in front of Thanatos.

“A few last-minute changes, but the more, the merrier," he continued. “We’ll begin with some more flight maneuver practice. After that, we’ll do some tactical recon. The final test today will challenge your teamwork and tactical skills. You’ll be on the hunt for a hidden target."

“Any way you could tell us what that target will be, su--sir?" Lyn asked, catching herself.

“Of course," said Thanatos as he flashed a grin. “You’ll be hunting me."

***

The eight X-wings formed up directly in front of the Vigilant once they had launched, Thanatos’s black-and-grey X-wing in the lead. Two U-wings trailed just behind them.

Vigilant, this is Rogue Six," buzzed his voice over the static-filled comm. “All fighters and U-wings accounted for. See you in a few rotations."

“Roger, Rogue Six," came the reply. “Safe travels."

The ships slowed to a crawl, then shot forward in a flash as they entered hyperspace.

They emerged a minute later in a mostly empty area of space. A brightly-coloured nebula lay to their left, while ahead of them sat an asteroid field. To their high right was a small yellow-tinged planet.

“Alright team," Thanatos said as he increased his speed. “Stay on my six. We’ll head to the asteroid field. Follow my lead."

As the asteroid field began to loom larger a few minutes later, Andrew could make out hunks of rock of all shapes and sizes. Some moved lethargically, while others made contact or broke apart.

“You’re not actually taking us into the asteroid field, are you?" Grin asked.

“You wanted to be in Rogue Squadron, didn’t you?" Thanatos replied.

Andrew glanced left to Ri, then right to Lyn, both of whom exchanged glances with him. “Don’t worry," he said. “It’ll be a piece of cake. I’ve done it before in a B-wing."

Thanatos gave a hearty laugh. “Dobber, you have no idea what you’re in for."

“That’s reassuring," Nezrine said blithely.

“Sabre Five and Eight," called Thanatos, “break off and head to the rendezvous point. We’ll meet you there in a while."

“Copy, Rogue Six," came the pilot’s reply.

“Red Flight," Thanatos called to the X-wings, “fall into single-file formation. Follow me in, and don’t get tagged."

Andrew was the first to form up behind Thanatos, with Ri and Lyn falling in behind him. Then Grin, Nezrine, Shiz, and Miran.

“Match my maneuvers," Thanatos said as he suddenly rolled up and away. Andrew matched his maneuver mere seconds later. “But be mindful of your surroundings."

Thanatos then began to cut around every other asteroid, twisting and turning his craft.

“This isn’t so bad," came Ri’s garbled voice over the comm.

“Two," Thanatos replied enthusiastically, “we’re just getting warmed up. Increase speed and keep up!"

His X-wing raced forward, and as he began to circle around a larger asteroid, he suddenly drifted left and boosted away, shooting between two asteroids that were almost pressed together.

“Did you see?--" Miran began.

“I see it," Andrew said, beginning to match Thanatos’s maneuver. “Keep up!"

They continued that for another five minutes. Twisting, rolling, jinking. Rolling, twisting, drifting. Drifting, boosting, rolling.

“This is even making me dizzy!" said Shiz. “And I was a racer!"

“Concentrate, Red Seven," called Thanatos.

The further they went into the asteroid field, the more hazardous it became.

“Son of a moof milker!" cursed Lyn as her X-wing scraped the side of a small asteroid.

“Watch that paint job, Red Three," Thanatos called. “Wouldn’t want more work when you get back, would you?"

It was by this point that the group could no longer stay together in single-file formation. They each had to make their own way around the asteroids individually or in pairs.

“Stay together," Andrew called, quickly checking his six. “We can do it."

“If we go any deeper," Miran said, his ship rocking, “we’re going to get pulverized!"

“Almost there, Seven," Thanatos said calmly. “Let’s get closer to one of the big ones."

“Closer?!" Nezrine asked incredulously.

“Better there than here, sugar!" Lyn said as she caught up to Andrew.

“Agreed," Andrew said as he saw Thanatos dive towards what must have been an asteroid the size of a small planetoid. He increased his speed to keep up, and the others did the same.

“See that canyon?" Thanatos called crisply. Sure enough, Andrew could see it peeking out from behind the chunks of asteroids nearby. “Try to keep up!"

Righting his X-wing, he shot ahead at what must have been full throttle. The seven X-wings increased their speed to match his moments after.

As Thanatos neared the lip of the canyon edge, he rolled his X-wing around a rogue asteroid and slid down into its trench.

“Watch your intervals on the way in!" Andrew called as he rolled his craft and slid into the trench. “And keep your eyes open!"

The canyon was littered with jagged rock formations and outcroppings. Quickly checking his scopes, he saw the last of his squadmates slide in behind him.

Up ahead, Thanatos made the first turn in the canyon. Andrew shifted his positioning left and angled his craft to make a right curve turn.

“He’s pulling ahead!" called Lyn. Checking his targeting computer, Andrew could see that she was right.

“He must be boosting when he has a straight section," said Shiz. “No way he can do it in a turn."

“Says you," taunted Thanatos.

“Then we’ll have to do the same," Andrew replied as he arced through the next turn. There was just enough of a straight section that he could boost. Throwing full power to his engines he inched ahead. The distance on his targeting computer from Thanatos decreased a few numbers. He had to cut back on his throttle to pull up and avoid a jagged outcropping jutting from the canyon wall.

Thanatos made another series of sharp turns as he weaved through an s-shape in the canyon walls.

It was a tough maneuver to match, but each one of them made it, and boosted once they were in the clear. The distance on the targeting computer shrank incrementally once more.

Thanatos continued to race ahead before disappearing around the next corner. “Care to thread the needle?" he asked heartily.

What does he….? Andrew thought to himself as he made the turn. He started hollering into his headset when he saw what Thanatos meant.

“NARROW PASSAGE! NARROW PASSAGE!"

Io gave several quick cries of alarm as Andrew rotated his X-wing sharply right so that he could make it. He made it through the passage by the skin of his teeth.

Ri, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky, giving a cry of alarm as her X-wing scraped the edge.

“Ri, are you okay?!" Lyn called as she made it through.

“Yeah!" she said shakily. “Just a little banged up."

“I’ll say this," said Shiz as he made his way through the tight passage. “He sure knows how to pick ‘em."

“He’s a madman!" called Miran.

And all Thanatos could do was laugh. “Almost done," he hooted as he crested above or wove around several jagged pillars ahead of them.

Andrew copied his maneuvers as best he could, but quickly noticed the bridge-like structure directly after them. “Low bridge! Low bridge!" he called and pointed his nose downwards.

Depending on their positioning, the rest of the squad either followed him or pulled up and over the bridge. As the canyon straightened out, he could make out the opening up ahead. Hitting his boost to catch up, he gave a private sigh of relief that this part of the ordeal was over.

“If you weren’t awake earlier," Thanatos called as the X-wings caught up with him, “you better be by now. The real challenge begins now."

No sooner had they cleared the canyon into a large crater opening than Andrew saw pointed structures floating in haphazard formations. Blue laser beams began to streak towards them.

“Ion mines!" he called, shifting his shields forward. “Break!"

As the X-wings broke into every different direction, trying to rise above the minefield. Thanatos, however, kept going straight.

“They’re not programmed to target my IFF," he said amusedly as blue lasers continued to lance out, “but they’ll target yours. Let’s see if you can all beat Stryker’s record. Lock s-foils -- you have twenty seconds."

Flicking their switches, the seven starfighters locked their wings into attack position as they turned to meet the mines below them. A stream of red laser fire headed towards the mines. As soon as each one exploded, a warning went off in each pilot’s cockpit as a projectile was launched from its casing inside the mine.

The pilots gave yells of surprise as they hit their countermeasure buttons.

“I forgot to mention," Thanatos said as time ran down, “these babies are loaded with mag pulses. Don’t get tagged."

“This is fun," said Nezrine sarcastically as her X-wing got hit by a mag pulse from the second mine she cleared.

“Keep going!" Andrew said as Io gave a high-pitched oscillating warning. He was about to press his countermeasure button when it went off automatically. She must have fired it on his behalf.

The X-wings danced and darted about, individually or in pairs, taking down row after row of mines. Anyone else who got hit lessened their offensive capability.

“Dammit!" called Miran, “I’m hit."

“Me too!" said Ri as her craft buffeted from the impact.

“Three," called Thanatos, “two, one … time!"

There were still several mines left on the field.

“Too bad," he said as his s-foils locked into attack position. “It looked close for a few seconds."

With a few deft moves of his control stick, he maneuvered himself to fire a single shot at each of the remaining mines. Every one exploded on impact, the mag pulses racing straight off into space.

Andrew’s jaw dropped in awe of Thanatos’s skill.

“Damn," Miran said. “He’s good."

“Gotta be if you’re in Rogue," Thanatos replied. “You get there … eventually." His X-wing peeled away from them again, and he angled himself to dive into one of the black holes on the surface of the crater.

“Is he going to?..." Nezrine said incredulously.

“You coming, or what?" Thanatos asked quizzically as he dove into the crater.

“He just did," Lyn said with a sigh.

“Then we’d better not keep him waiting," said Andrew as he flicked the exterior lights of his X-wing on. Pulling up on his stick, he rolled his craft and led the race down into the darkness before them.

Chapter 15

Dia sat on the stool in her quarters, an arm and fist propping up her face. She used her right hand to casually toss an orange meiloorun fruit up the air a few times before taking a bite out of it. Craving the delicious fruit earlier, she smuggled several out from the Mess Hall.

BD-B2 watched from the small table in the corner, his head moving up and down as he tracked the meiloorun fruit. She gave a sigh of frustration, pondering the open-box ring in front of her. Light glinted off the ruby-red stone and the gold band. It was beautiful.

“I dunno, Bee-Dee," she said, catching the fruit again and looking at him.

The little droid stopped following the fruit and tilted his head to look at her quizzically. Jumping down from the table he took a few quick steps towards her then jumped up on her desk.

“What do you think?" she asked, sitting back and tossing the fruit into her other hand.

BD looked at her, then at the ring, then back to her. Using his projector, he began playing a series of pictures that he’d taken of them over the years.

“Hey!" she said, furrowing her brow, “I thought I told you to delete those once you downloaded them to my digital album!"

The droid tittered a mischievous laugh.

“You’re really not one for privacy, are you?" she began to say as he cycled through more holo pictures. He began to hum a type of romantic tune. Some were from their time on the Liberty; others were from shore leave. Swimming, the barbeque, the night in the living room, not to mention the award ceremony after the Imperials and pirates attacked the cruise ship. One in particular was of them in bed at the apartment, clearly having fun.

“You little spy!" she said, making to swat at him, her cheeks beginning to turn red from embarrassment. “How did you even?!--"

BD deftly dodged the swipe. The next picture that flashed was of them sharing their first kiss on Mon Cala. She stopped to stare at it. It had been days after they first met.

“I remember that," she said. It had seemed so long ago. But somehow, he’d impressed her enough within a few days of meeting one another that she took a liking to him. She had made the decision to transfer to Blue Squadron shortly after that.

BD continued to hum his little romantic tune as he shut off his projector. Staring at her, then at the ring box, he extended his right foot and gently pushed it towards her.

“You think so?" she asked.

He nodded his head.

“It’s just so sudden," she said, “and not the way I imagined."

The music stopped, and BD shook his head out of frustration. He nudged the box slightly closer once more.

She was about to scold him when her console beeped. Answering it, the image of her aunt appeared.

“Dia, darling," Suli began, “how are you?"

“Hi Auntie," she said. “I’ve been better."

“Have you given what I said any more thought?" she asked earnestly.

“I spent most of the night tossing and turning over it," Dia said, placing the meiloorun fruit on the desk.

“Which you needn’t have," cut in her aunt. “Being a worrywart won’t solve this. Have you spoken to him yet?"

“Not yet," Dia said. She could tell her aunt was about to cut in and bombard her with more questions. Dia raised a hand to cut her off. “But only because he’s on flight assignment, and our schedules haven’t worked out."

Suli gave a small huff, but smiled regardless. “Which I can appreciate," she said curtly, “though I wish you’d be your stubborn self for a moment and take charge of this."

“Don’t we all?" Dia replied.

“If it is really giving you this much trouble," Suli continued, “I can have both of you off the Vigilant before you know it. I have a few people in high places who owe me some favours you know."

“I appreciate the offer, Auntie, but--"

“You could stay at the apartment for as long as you’d like--"

“Auntie--"

“You could even be reassigned to one of the local security squadrons here--"

“Auntie--!"

“And we have a perfect hospital for when--"

“Auntie!" Dia scowled defensively.

Suli blinked in surprise. “Sorry, dear," she said after a moment. “I’m just trying to look out for you."

“I know," Dia said sullenly, “and it’s not that I’m not thankful. It’s just … a lot."

“It’s a huge decision," Suli said gently. “And if you’re not ready, that is okay. But you need to talk to him sooner or later. Even if you need to send Bee-Dee as your messenger."

Dia glanced at BD-B2, who looked away and began humming as if to occupy himself with something else. “I don’t think I’m that desperate," she said with a small laugh.

“Where is the Major anyway?" Suli inquired.

“Out with most of the recruits," Dia said, sinking her closed fist back onto her cheek. “I bet he’s having fun without me."

***

“Oh, this is not fun!" Andrew called as he maneuvered through a series of stalactites and stalagmites that were thankfully spread out enough to allow their X-wings through. The glow of Thanatos’s engines, as well as his lights, glimmered against the interior of the asteroid.

Suddenly, Thanatos closed his S-foils and slid in between a narrow passage.

“Close S-foils now!" Andrew called. As he closed his, he aimed for the middle of the narrow walls and managed to slip through.

“That was too close!" said Lyn.

Up ahead, Andrew saw several lasers shoot from Thanatos’s re-extended S-foils and explode against the ceiling.

“What’s he doing?" Ri asked.

It didn’t take long for Andrew to see the flurry of wings headed towards them. “Mynocks!!" he called as they swarmed past his craft, the odd one thudding and bouncing off his nose cone. He could just make out several more shots exploding ahead of Thanatos. “He’s disturbing Mynock nests!"

“Oh, the Lieutenant Colonel is definitely going to hear about this," Lyn growled as Thanatos cackled gleefully into his comm.

***

They emerged on the other side of the asteroid several minutes later. Io was in the process of trying to hold off a Mynock that had latched itself onto the topside of Andrew’s X-wing.

She tittered and cried in alarm as the creature clawed its way closer.

“Easy, Io!" Andrew called. “Take it easy."

“Pick up a stowaway, One?" Thanatos asked curiously.

“No thanks to you," Andrew said, checking over his shoulder. He couldn’t quite see the Mynock, but could see the flash of blue electricity bolts as Io sent them towards the creature.

“Want me to shoot it off?" Nezrine asked.

“No, no, no," Andrew said, not wanting to risk damage to his craft. “Nothing we can’t handle." Rolling his craft sharply several times, he built up enough momentum to shake off the Mynock. Io chirped her gratitude as it flung off the hull.

“The U-wings will supply you with a few ion missiles momentarily," Thanatos called as his S-foils closed. “When you’re ready, see if you can find me in the nebula."

“We could skip the reload," Shiz suggested. “Keep on his tail."

“No," said Andrew, “if he wants us to have the ion missiles, he’s got a good reason. Close S-foils and set throttle to zero."

It took a few minutes for all the craft to be loaded, which easily gave Thanatos plenty of time to hide in the nebula once they got to its edge.

“Okay, what’s the plan?" asked Nezrine.

“According to my sensors, the nebula consists of ionized gases," Miran said. “Nothing lethal, but they’ll make using our scopes and targeting computers difficult."

“That they will," came Thanatos’s voice over the comm. “Which means you’ll also have to dumbfire your ion missiles to catch me. If you find me."

“I say we pair off," Miran continued. “Spread out, but not far enough away that we can’t find one another."

“Might as well give it a shot, sugar," Lyn said. “I’ll take Miran and Grin with me."

“I’ll stick with the Major," cut in Nezrine. “That leaves Ri and Shiz as the last group."

“Sounds like a plan," said Grin as they began to pair off.

Orange and yellow wisps began to curl around their crafts as they entered the ionized clouds.

“We’ll keep going straight," said Andrew. “Lyn, take your group and head to the left. Shiz, you and Ri head right. With any luck, we’ll flush Thanatos out."

Chapter 16

“How can you eat that at a time like this?" Nirobi asked as she picked away at her meal.

“It’s mid-afternoon," Dia said, her mouth half full of food.

“Two pieces of cake aren’t a breakfast food," Nirobi said flatly.

Dia swallowed her cake and pointed her fork at Nirobi. “It can be if I want them to be," she said matter-of-factly.

“If you say so," she shrugged, taking a drink from her cup.

“Mind if I join you?" said Grixx as he stepped up to them. Both pilots looked at him and froze.

“Uh … sure," said Dia, giving Nirobi a quick glance.

Sliding his tray on the table, Grixx pulled out the seat and plopped down in it, then began picking away at his meal.

An awkward silence hung in the air until Grixx broke it.

“Pass the salt," he grunted. Dia slowly slid the salt shaker over to him.

“Thanks," he grumbled, peppering his food with it.

“So," Nirobi asked slowly, “how long have you been with Dynamo Squadron?"

“Does it matter?" he asked, stopping to look at them.

“Well, kinda," Nirobi said cautiously. “I mean, if you don’t mind our asking."

Grixx went back to spooning food into his mouth. “Almost two years," he said, after a few bites. “Joined as a First Lieutenant, quickly rose to become the OC. Been doing that for almost a year-and-a-half."

“That’s … a pretty quick climb to become squadron leader," Dia said. “How did you--?"

Grixx shot her a glance, his cup half-way to his mouth. “It’s not important," he said sharply.

“Okay," Dia said, putting a hand up. “Okay. We won’t--."

“Sorry," he apologized before she could finish. “It’s, ah … it’s not something I’d like to discuss right now."

Nirobi nodded politely but cautiously.

“Classified, of course," he sputtered.

“Makes sense," Nirobi said.

“So," Dia asked, a few moments later, “what exactly does Dynamo Squadron do?"

“Mostly assault missions," Grixx said between bites. “Used to be hit and run, or strategic assaults on occasion. May have had the odd escort mission every now and then. Basically, doing whatever the Ambition and her accompanying ships needed us to do."

“What class of ship is the Ambition?" Nirobi asked.

“Em-Cee-75," said Grixx. “A few Corvettes and smaller ships for support. Plus the Renewal -- she’s our Medical Frigate. Whole group is similar in composition to Anvil Squadron at Mon Cala, though more mobile."

“How do you know about Anvil Squadron?" Dia asked.

“Got a cousin who is the Ex-Oh of the Y-wing part of their wing. Was shot up pretty badly when Titan Squadron attacked, but managed to eject to safety," Grixx said.

“Wait," Dia asked, “your cousin is Jallo Arkinn?"

“Yeah," Grixx said, “how do you--?"

“Anvil was my first squadron before I joined Blue," Dia said.

“Well how ‘bout that," Grixx said with a chuckle. “You must be the Twi’lek pilot that Jallo told me about. The one who--"

“Had such a fiery temper that it was a surprise she wasn’t sent back to basic training," Dia finished in unison with Grixx.

“He made me so mad sometimes," Dia laughed, “but only because he could be so obnoxiously strict."

“That he is," said Grixx, “but I guess it runs in the family."

***

Swirls of orange and yellow surrounded Shiz and Ri as they cautiously made their way through the nebula. Wisps and tendrils of gas curled and snaked their way in front of them. They’d been searching for the better part of half an hour and had yet to find Thanatos.

“Think we should head back?" Ri asked as they slid around the corner of a gas cloud.

“Not yet," Shiz said. “We’ll scout this area a little longer, then double back and meet up with the others."

Checking her scopes again, they were filled with static. It was hard to get a clear signal on anything this far in.

“With gas clouds this thick, he could be hiding in any one of them," she said.

They began to angle their flight path left as they came across a particularly thick gas pocket.

“It’s possible," said Shiz, “though like atmospheric clouds, it’s dangerous. You don’t really know what’s in them, or on the other side."

“True," she said.

They continued their search pattern in silence for a few more minutes.

“Red Two, Red Five," came Andrew’s voice over the radio. “Report."

“Nothing yet," Ri responded.

“Alright. Head back to mark seven-six-two, and switch back to channel one. We’ll regroup and search another vector."

“Copy," she said.

“Hold up, Ri," Shiz said as she began to turn her X-wing around. “I think I see something."

“What?" she asked.

“Just trust me," he said.

“O-okay," she replied, falling back in formation with Shiz. Following him, they began to descend further into the nebula. “Do you see something?"

“I do," he said. “Just stay with me. And close your S-foils."

As the two X-wings closed their S-foils, Shiz leveled out his X-wing. Ri followed his suit for another half minute.

Then she saw something moving.

No. Not something. Some things.

“Care to take a closer look?" he asked, cutting slightly to the right.

Just ahead of them were a group of creatures she had never seen before.

“What are those?" she asked in wonder.

“Those," Shiz said as he angled to slide in beside the school of creatures, “are Mantril Rays. They’re a distant relative of Neebrays."

Ri watched as the school of creatures rose and fell, their pectoral fins waving gracefully as they moved through space and the nebula. The yellow-and-orange gas slid across their light purple bodies. She could just make out their white-undersides with what looked like dark spots on them.

“They’re relatively harmless," said Shiz. “Just don’t make any sudden movements."

“And huge! I’ve never seen anything like those before," she said. “They’re beautiful!"

“That they are," said Shiz, “for an endangered species."

“Endangered?"

“Some species consider them a delicacy," he said as he slid in beside the school of Mantril Rays. She did the same. “They’ve been hunted to the point where their population numbers are having a hard time recovering. I’m surprised we stumbled across this one, to be honest."

Ri looked out at one of the rays. Its saucer-sized yellow-and-black eye stared back at her. Suddenly it, along with several other rays, opened their mouths and began to dive towards the gas cloud below them.

“What are they doing?" she asked.

“Just tilt your wing a bit and watch," he said.

As she did, the rays entered the gas cloud and disappeared, only to re-emerge several seconds later. As they climbed, they expelled a rainbow of gas from their underside gills that drifted behind them before dissipating.

“What are they doing?" she asked.

“Feeding," replied Shiz as another group dove. “Mantril Rays love ionized gas. I’ve read that their bodies process ionized gas rather quickly. I’m not sure how they do it, but what they expel takes on a rainbow colour."

“No kidding," she said.

“Red Two, Red Five," came Andrew’s voice over the radio again. He must have been switching the comm channels to find them. “Why aren’t you back yet?"

“Sorry, One," said Shiz. “We thought we saw something. Turns out to be nothing special. Heading back now."

It was when the third group from the school dove and rose, this one containing the largest Mantril Ray, that she spotted Thanatos’s X-wing. It rolled off the Mantril Ray’s back as it was lifted out of the gas cloud.

“There he is!" Ri called as Thanatos’s engines came to life.

“I see him!" Shiz said. “Red One, we’ve found him! Repeat, we’ve found him!"

“Fantastic," said Andrew as they both switched over to the main channel. “What’s your position?"

“Vector nine-seven-eight," Shiz said.

“We’ll be right there. Don’t lose him!"

As Thanatos swerved away, the Mantril Rays began to scatter, alarmed at the sudden movement by the X-wing.

“Watch out!" Shiz called as a pair of rays banked towards them.

Both Ri and Shiz pulled up quickly, narrowly avoiding the creatures.

“He’s getting away," Shiz said as he peeled off towards Thanatos.

“Not for long. Sparks," she called to her astromech, “lock on to his signature." Her R2 unit tittered an affirmative.

“You found me," called Thanatos as he sped ahead. “Accidentally, I might add. But you still haven’t caught me."

“You’re not getting away from us that easily," Shiz said as Thanatos rolled and dove downwards further into the nebula.

Lining herself up directly behind Thanatos, Ri dumbfired an ion missile at him. It missed, as he slid to the left at the last second.

“You’ll have to do better than that!" called Thanatos as he put his craft into a drift. Suddenly, his X-wing was facing theirs.

“Woah!" cried Shiz as Thanatos boosted between the pair, climbing back up from the way they had come seconds earlier.

Performing a similar maneuver, the two X-wings gave chase after him. That’s when Ri saw the other five X-wings burst through a cloud ahead of them. They had him pincered.

“There’s no escape, Thanatos," Grin called. “We’ve got you."

“There’s always a way," Thanatos said as he dumbfired two ion missiles towards the oncoming X-wings. “If you’re quick enough to see it."

Cutting right sharply, Thanatos broke away from his pursuers. The other X-wings tried to break away, but the lead one was caught off guard by the two ion missiles. The craft began to drift aimlessly forward as blue ion energy surged across it. Ri and Shiz had to separate so as to not be hit by the X-wing.

“Dammit!" cursed Andrew over the come seconds later after he managed to restart his craft.

“You okay, Dobber?" Nezrine asked.

“Yeah," he said, righting his craft and joining the others. “But Io must have taken that second missile directly. She’s not responding."

Ri watched as Lyn and Miran boosted forward to close the gap between the group and Thanatos.

“Stay on him," Andrew called. “Red Two, Red Five, head to point one-nine. Red Four, Red Seven, head to point nine-three."

“Copy," came a string of replies.

“Trying to box me in, eh?" Thanatos said amusedly. “Nice trick, Dobbs, but it won’t work."

“Says you," replied Andrew. “We’re just getting started."

Chapter 17

Half an hour later, the eight X-wings landed on the deck of the Vigilant. The two U-wings came in last.

“Well?" asked Jalb as Thanatos climbed down the ladder to his X-wing.

“Spent most of our fuel on the exercise," Thanatos said, twisting to face his squadron leader. “Not to mention the trip home. I expect you’ll do the same."

“And?" asked Jalb, shifting his helmet underneath his arm.

“They did alright."

“Just alright? That doesn’t tell me anything."

“Well," said Thanatos with a grin, “it’s better than okay."

Jalb was about to say something when a cheer went up from the other side of the X-wing.

“Three cheers for Ri! Hip hip!"
“Hurrah!"
“Hip hip!"
“Hurrah!"

The group of recruits walked by as one, holding Ri above their shoulders and heads.

“You guys!" she called, half laughing. “Stop! Stop! Put me down! This -- this is embarrassing!"

“I’ll have a full report ready when you get back," Thanatos said with a wink.

She got you?" Jalb asked incredulously.

“Whodathunk?" Thanatos said with a shrug as he began to walk away backwards and head towards the group.

Jalb shook his head, then bent underneath his s-foils to head towards the ladder waiting for him. As reached the top rung, he saw Andrew at his own X-wing with the technicians. His astromech appeared lifeless. “Something wrong with your artoo unit, Major?" Jalb called.

“It was Thanatos’s doing," Andrew said. “Direct hit with an ion missile."

“Must have been a good shot."

“He dumbfired it," Andrew said after a few seconds.

Jalb stopped to look at him. The first words out of his mouth were, “Well, that’s just stupid on your part. Fly smarter."

Andrew waved him off, and began climbing down his ladder to speak with the techs.

Plunking himself down in his cockpit, Jalb began his pre-flight check-up.

***

“Will she be alright?" Andrew asked as the techs began looking her over.

“Missile probably fried some of her systems," said one of the techs. “It’ll be a few hours, but we’ll get her back up and running like new."

“Great," he said as he stared at the lifeless husk that was being loaded onto a trolly cart. It was a good thing he wouldn’t be flying again until tomorrow.

As he walked out from between his X-wing and the one parked next to him, he was nearly run over by Dia as she jogged by.

“Watch it!" she said as she twisted around him. Then she realized who it was and stopped. “Andrew," she said awkwardly, “hi."

“Hi," he said, unsure of what to say. “Off for training?" he asked.

“Yeah," she said with a nod after a second.

The silent awkwardness felt like murder.

“Listen," he said, gesturing with his hands. “I’m sorry about the other night. I--"

“Andrew," she said abruptly. “Can we talk about this later?"

“Okay," he said with a nod. “When?"

“Soon," she replied. “Just, not right now."

“I know," he said, “but--"

“I’m sorry," she said, beginning to walk backwards, “I really am, but I have to get aboard."

“Okay," he said, slightly hurt at not being able to connect with her.

She turned away from him, then walked around the corner where her X-wing was.

When he finally got back to his room a few minutes later, BD-B2 was waiting for him. He peeled out of his flight suit and threw it on the chair near the desk. “Bee-Dee," he groaned as he fell back onto his bunk, hands wiping over his face, “what am I doing wrong?"

The droid tittered his response.

“You’re probably right," he said with a sigh. He removed his hands from his face, and stared at BD as he hopped up onto the bed. The droid looked at him quizzically until he decided to sit up. “Okay," Andrew said, “might as well get this message started. Any hints you can give me?"

BD hooted a ‘no’.

“Some help you are," Andrew said.

***

Later that evening, Jalb sat in his office reviewing the report Thanatos had given him. He’d kept it short and professional, sticking to key facts about how each pilot performed. That didn’t stop them from laughing at what they put their pilots through. “You should have seen them," Jalb laughed, wiping a tear away from his eye. “I’ve never seen pilots yell in surprise and alarm as much as when we hit the Mynock nests. You should have heard Dia shriek."

Thanatos began laughing as well. “I bet that was a sight to see. We’ll have to send Syntax an extra can of hot oil as thanks for scouting the area and finding those nests for us."

“Indeed we will," laughed Jalb between breaths. “Oh lord I haven’t had that much fun in ages."

“I think the best part," said Thanatos, his laughter petering out, “was when they chased me all the way to the planet. I cut my engines mid-atmosphere and began dropping like a rock into the clouds. Took them a full two minutes to find me again."

“So," Jalb said, his laughter stopping, “how’d she finally get you?"

“Well," Thanatos said, “Andrew and Shiz forced me towards a narrow passageway in a canyon. Thought I could make it through and lose them again. She blasted me with an ion missile from above just as I exited on the other side."

“She must have boosted ahead," Jalb said thoughtfully. “Smart of her. And a bit reckless of you."

“Maybe," Thanatos said, “but I got the craft up and running in less than two seconds as I tumbled to the canyon floor. Paint job didn’t even get a scratch."

“Yes, well, try to be more careful next time."

“Gotta have some fun."

“True … but not at the expense of others. Or your own life."

“Fair enough."

“Now then," said Jalb, looking at the performance scores in front of him. “We need to make some big decisions."

“Honestly," Thanatos said, “if we could toughen them up a little more, I wish we could accept them all. Even Grixx seems to be slowly turning around."

“I know," Jalb said as he thumbed through the stats, “but we only have six open billets. Best thing to do is separate the wheat from the chaff."

“What do you propose?" Thanatos asked.

“I was thinking of having them compete in some fleet battles tomorrow in the sims. Against the real Rogues."

“Tell me more," Thanatos said.

“Six versus ten. Standard fleet battle loadout options. Let everyone choose their strengths. Every kill we score factors negatively against their individual progress."

“And those with the most deaths are the least likely to join," finished Thanatos.

“Exactly."

“I can dig that," Thanatos said. “Then what?"

“Major Murg’s mission is the day after that. We’ve received no new intel that anything has changed. Do it by the book, in and out. Come back, tally up the scores, then make our decisions. Offer those who meet the criteria a spot, and those who don’t a spot in one of the other squadrons -- if they’re interested."

“Sounds like a plan."

“And we may," continued Jalb, “even see the possibility of a wedding proposal."

“That’s a big may," Thanatos said. “Dobber’s talented, but he’s not performing nearly as well as I’d like."

“Nor I," said Jalb, “but he still deserves a chance like everyone else."

***

Nezrine and Lyn sat at the table, sipping on their non-alcoholic drinks while they watched Shiz and Ri talking at one of the tables near the viewport in the Lounge.

“God how I wish I could have a stiff drink," Lyn said.

“Won’t be much longer," Nezrine said. “I’m sure that you’ll more than enjoy yourself at the celebrations if you’re accepted. Or when you get back to your squad if you don’t."

“I’m sure I will," Lyn said. Then, leaning in a bit closer and speaking a bit lower, “But I did find something else stiff to keep me occupied in the meantime."

Nezrine began to blush at the hinted message. “You didn’t!" she said, trying to stifle a laugh.

Lyn nodded.

“How did you--?"

“Let’s just say," Lyn said lowly with a grin, “that sometimes having someone to open up to can reap tremendous rewards."

“You’re a sly one," Nezrine said. “How was he?"

“Nezrine," Lyn said, meeting her in the eye and flashing a hot smile, “I wish I could have him scratch my itch every night for the next month!"

The two began laughing as quietly as they could at this.

Just then, they heard Ri giggling from across the room.

“What’s this?!" Nezrine said, looking over in wonderment.

“No better time to see if our plan has hatched for our budding sweet-robins," Lyn said.

***

“And so the detective says to his partner," Shiz continued, “‘I don’t understand why we came here. Why would the criminal have gone to Alderaan?’ His partner looks at him and replies, ‘Sometimes you need to visit Alderaan places."

Ri gave a snort through her giggle. “Stop!" she laughed. “That joke is awful."

“I hear they’re better than Lieutenant Rosk’s paper puns. Those are just tearable," Shiz continued.

Ri continued to giggle at this one. “Okay," she said, holding up a hand, “that was the last one. Stop."

“Alright," Shiz said, taking a sip of his drink, “but if you ever want someone to cheer you up, I have tons more where that came from."

“I’ll take your word for it," Ri said between breaths.

“So," Shiz said, placing his cup on the table, “what’ll you do if you don’t get a spot in Rogue Squadron?"

“I think I’ll just head back to my own squadron if I don’t make it. Bring my experience and lessons back to them."

“Nice."

“How about you?" she asked, placing a free hand on the table.

“Well," said Shiz, “I could do a couple of things. Going back to my squadron would be a logical move, same as you. But, I kinda like it here. There’s some openings in Corsair Squadron. The fact that their squadron leader is a droid is particularly interesting."

“It could be," said Ri. “I’ve never flown with a droid that isn’t my astromech before."

“You know," said Shiz hesitantly, “you could always stay around. Join one of the other squadrons. It’d be nice to have you around."

Ri gave him a surprised look. “Really?" she asked. “Why?"

“It’s been nice getting to know you," he said. “You're smart. Talented behind the flight stick. And it's nice to see you laugh."

Ri began to blush, “Why, thank you," she said, “that’s awfully sweet of you to say."

“And the way you finally got Thanatos was priceless!" Shiz said with a grin. “I wish I could have seen his face."

“Yeah," she said with a laugh, “that would have been pretty nice to see."

They both stared at each other.

Lyn and Nezrine leaned closer, eager to see what would happen next.

“It was awfully nice of you to show me those Mantril Rays today," she said, glancing down then up at him. “I think it was my favourite part."

“Just a lucky happenstance, I guess," Shiz said. “Right time, right place. But totally worth it."

“Hey!" said Ri, pointing to the viewport. “Is that one now?"

“What? Where?!" asked Shiz, turning to look. “I don’t see any--"

As Shiz turned back to look at her, he felt her hand move on top of his, and her warm lips press against his. The kiss lasted maybe a few seconds.

Lyn and Nezrine were privately but excitedly cheering from their table across the room.

And Shiz looked back at Ri in shock as she pulled away.

“I’m sorry!" she said after a moment, taking in his look. “I shouldn’t have--."

“No," he said, shaking his head, “no, it’s okay! I’m just, it’s … I … you...."

Flustered, Ri made to get up. “I should go," she said.

“Wait," Shiz said, taking her hand before she could fully get out of her seat. Ri stopped to look at him. “To be honest, that was my first kiss. Ever," he said as she sat back down. “That … that was actually … really nice," he said, blushing. His speech pattern began to speed up before she could say anything else. “And I think you’re really nice," he said nervously. “And I’m sorry I got off on the wrong foot with you when you first arrived. I was just so eager to be aboard and introduce myself, and you were the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen and oh my gosh my mouth is racing faster than my mind on the racing circuit isn’t it?"

She had to press two fingers to his lips to get him to stop talking. “Come on," she said, taking his hand and leading him away from the table.

“Uh, where are we going?" he asked as he felt himself being pulled away from the table.

“Someplace private," Ri said, glancing back at him.

***

Nezrine sat at her stool, jaw agape. “She’s not--" she began.

“She is!" Lyn said, a Cheshire grin on her face.

And as the two continued to walk towards the exit, Ri shot Lyn a satisfied look.

Lyn winked back at her. “Looks like you owe me some credits, sugar," she said, looking at Nezrine with satisfaction.

Nezrine fished into her flight suit pocket and pulled out several minor credit chits. “You win," she said, slapping them on the table.

“It’s what I do best," replied Lyn as she claimed her prize.

***

Pressing the keypad to her door, Dia entered her darkened room. She didn’t bother turning the lights on, knowing exactly where her bunk was.

She was exhausted after the live and simulation exercises of the day, and had no desire to hit the gym. Her stomach growled with hunger, even though she’d had a hefty meal at dinner time.

For now, all she wanted to do was sleep. Removing her boots and slipping out of her flight suit, she let them carelessly fall to the floor. She plopped herself on her bunk, wrapping herself in her blanket, and let herself be carried off to sleep as her eyelids closed.

She didn’t know what time it was when she woke up to BD-B2 jabbing her with a metallic foot.

“Bee-Dee!" she said wearily. “Do you know what time it is?"

The droid tittered his response.

“Then you know I want to sleep. Buzz off."

She rolled over and wrapped herself in the blanket further.

The droid hooted several times in succession.

“What do you mean I need to turn the lights on?"

Again, he hooted.

“Can’t it wait until morning?"

This time, he jabbed her rather hard.

“Ow! Alright!" she said, unwrapping herself from her blanket and making towards the door. BD scurried off the bed and onto the desk in her room, his blue eyes staring back at her. “But I don’t see what the problem i--." She stopped talking as soon as the lights came on.

Next to BD-B2 on the desk was a bouquet of the reddest Kinkorran lilies she had ever seen. In the bouquet lay a small card that read ‘Dia’. Next to it was a box of chocolates with a small red bow, and next to that a small holo puck. The ring box was open, and the ring shone in the light.

“What’s this?!" she asked in shock.

BD tittered at her.

“A present? Because he’s sorry?" she asked. “Wait," she said, scowling and putting her arms on her hips, “did you let him in here?"

BD gave a two-note chirp and began to look away.

“Oh, don’t you ‘maybe’ me!" she said.

BD turned his head to look back at her, then gently nudged the holo puck closer with his foot.

“Alright you little womp rat," she said as she moved towards the desk, “let’s see what he has to say." Sitting down on the stool, she activated the holo puck. His half-foot high image appeared from it.

“Dia," he began. He was wearing his uniform, and looked rather handsome in it -- much more so than his flight suit. “By now I’m sure you’ve noticed the gifts from me. BD was kind enough to let me into your room -- only to drop them off, of course. I thought it’d be a nice surprise when you got back."

“Surprise is one way of putting it," she said.

“I owe you an apology," he continued. “While my proposal was genuine, I was foolish to do so the way I did."

“Got that right," she huffed.

“And while after some reflection I realize that I’ve been a selfish nerfherder, I also realize that you deserve better. Not listening to you is something I’ve been doing lately more than I’d like. So, what I’d like to say first is that I’m sorry. Not for the sake of saying I’m sorry, but out of love. I want you to understand that I love you."

She felt something grab onto her heart.

“I’ve always loved you. Despite the obstacles we’ve faced -- including a certain Lieutenant Colonel -- you are the best thing that has happened to me. You’re the first thing I think about when I wake up, and the last thing when I go to bed. I couldn’t imagine life without you."

The strings in her heart began to tighten.

“You’re my partner. Always. And by putting my needs before yours, I’ve broken that trust. I’d like the opportunity to make things right. Joining Rogue Squadron is the opportunity of a lifetime. But an opportunity without your best friend at your side isn’t really an opportunity at all. If I had to choose between joining Rogue and a lifetime of happiness with you, I’d choose you hands down. And if you ask me to walk away, I will. No questions. No regrets."

The strings pulled harder.

“The choice will always be yours. I know that scheduling hasn’t allowed us to be together lately. But I know you’ll give me your answer when you’re ready." He knelt down and produced the ring box from his pocket. Opening it up, he held it towards her.

Her heart strings broke.

“Dia Tann," he said as tears started forming in her eyes, “you are the warmth of my sunrise and the beauty of my sunset. I will love you every minute of every day, and beyond. Life will never be complete without you, and I would love to have you by my side to pursue every joy and obstacle this galaxy has to offer. Will you marry me?"

His holographic image hovered momentarily, then disappeared as the puck shut off. BD-B2 waited anticipating her reaction.

The first thing she did was pull her flight suit on and slip into her boots. Then she rummaged for something in her duffel bag and slipped it into her pocket when she found it. “Stay here," she said to BD as she left the room.

Marching down the hall, she came to Andrew’s cabin. She pressed the button on the control panel once. Then a second time. Then a third. She was about to press it a fourth time when the door whisked open.

“Dia?" said a confused Andrew as he answered the door. His hair was a mess.

“Hi," she said.

“Do … do you have any idea what time it is?" he asked, scratching his head.

“I do," she said, stepping forward. He took a few steps back. The door closed behind her, and she pressed the console button to lock it.

“I take it you got the gifts," he said, sitting down on his bunk, wiping his bleary eyes. The chronometer read 00:04.

“I did," she said.

“Do you need more time?" he asked? “I can wait for an answer. But I have to get up in a few--"

“You need to stop talking," she said, kicking her boots off.

The look he gave her was of utter confusion and partial sleep deprivation. “... So, you have an answer now?" he asked.

She unzipped her flight suit, and reaching into her pocket grabbed the packaged condom. Her flight suit fell to the floor and she stepped out of it towards him, wearing nothing other than her undergarments and t-shirt.

“I’ll give you my answer and explain everything tomorrow," she said, turning to reach back and turn the lights off. The only light in the room was that of the chronometer. “Well, much later today, really," she said as she reached the bed. Gently pushing him back, she slid her legs up and straddled him. “For now," she said, pressing the condom into his hands, “let me show you how I really feel right now."

Before he knew it, her warm mouth pressed passionately against his, and she didn’t stop.

To be concluded...