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Defend the Vigilant Arc 1.1

Weasel One



[ ISD Consolidator; Hyperspace ]

Captain Jerryk Pash regarded the datapad with disgust before tossing it on his bunk. He was too appalled to sleep and too resigned to simply go back to the bridge and micromanage the crew. They were professional, competent, and could damn well do without him for an hour. He felt like he’d been on that bridge every hour for the last month.

What a shit show, he thought for the millionth time. Thirty-five pilots dead. Not EV’d. Dead. Thirty-five of the most loyal, trusting, and trusted pilots he’d ever had serve aboard the Consolidator, erased because of that madman’s overconfidence. What’s more? Ten more captured and another ten MIA. Clenching his hands into fists, he struck out against the wall, doing more damage to his hand than the wall. The pain felt good, deserved.

And now, this.

I followed orders. I toed the bloody line. I should have joined the coup. I should have done something.

His eyes caught a reflection on his desk, blue light streaming in from the viewport above his desk. The swirling tunnel of hyperspace cast the whole room in shifting iridescence. Below it, sitting on his desk was the holo that reminded him of the cost of following those orders.

Once, the sight of his daughter drained the rage from him, now it opened a yawning pit of loss that clawed at him every waking hour. Taking the three steps to his desk, he snatched up the holo. Taken years prior, Relya had only been a teenager. Her smile was bright and hopeful. She hadn’t known the divorce was coming then. Neither of them had. That had been the end of smiles.

And Endor erased any chance of bringing them back.

A buzz came at his door and he set the holo down. Smoothing the front of his uniform, he told whoever it was to enter. He didn’t bother to ID them. Anyone with access to this corridor was vital enough to warrant a knock.

“Finally took a break, Jerr?” his XO said, holding up a bottle of Chandrilan Blue. He waggled it like tempting a ravenous nexu with a slab of meat.

“The hell did you get that?” Pash asked him, eyes widening. “And why were you holding out on me about it?”

The older, portly man shrugged. Commander Everett Kolivar was one of those very fine XOs that never got his own command and never wanted one. With short-cropped gray hair and a clean shaven face that only accentuated his double chin, he looked like someone’s friendly grandfather. That was a terrible assumption for those who disappointed him, or Pash. Kolivar was swift to punish but fair in his adjudications. Pash loved the man like a brother.

An older, dependable brother. Not like his own siblings.

“To be honest, I was saving it for the victory doodly-doo that Piett had promised. I was gonna break it out to celebrate my retirement.” Kolinar paused, wincing as he realized the reference. “Sorry, Jerr.”

Pash waved it off and brought down two glasses from the cabinet. “You’re retiring, Kolly?”

“I was retiring. The Emperor said the war would be over with that whole Endor bullshit.”

Kolivar unwrapped the bottle and used his imperial academy ring to pop the cork. No matter how often Pash saw him do that, it never ceased to amaze him. When the drinks were filled, he picked it up, admiring the swirling blue liquid, made even more ephemeral by the shifting light of hyperspace.

They clinked glasses and each took a sip. The liquor was smooth, fruity, and left a pleasant warmth all the way down. It left a hint of berry on the tongue, which he secretly loved the most. He’d gotten softer in his middle-years.

“She deserved better than that maniac’s plan,” Kolivar said, gazing down at the holo of Relya. Pash sat on the edge of his desk, drinking slowly, unsure what to say. He turned from the table, unable to meet the eyes of his daughter anymore. “Did you know she joined the fleet for me? She wanted to make papa proud.”

His XO scoffed. “Why? You were so proud of her just being your daughter I thought I would be sick. You really are a sorry sight for an Imperial Officer when she’s around.”

“I was never home. You know that.”

Kolivar nodded, his expression falling away from jovial to morose. “Yeah. I know it. Look, I know it ain’t easy, but there may be hope yet.”

Pash looked into the nearly empty glass, seeing the blue of his daughter’s eyes staring back at him. He remembered her giggles as a toddler when he hoisted her high. The feel of her arms around his neck all those times she hugged him. That ridiculous smile she had just for him whenever he walked through the door. He missed those days more than anything.

“What’s that, Kolly?”

Kolivar’s voice became quiet, serious, heavy with meaning. “We don’t know for sure there weren’t pods jettisoned. There were a lot of prisoners taken at Endor, and the Rebels don’t execute prisoners.”

Don’t they? He’d hunted that monster Gerrera as XO. He’d seen what the rebels were capable of. Just imagining his little girl being tortured was enough to make him wish for a Death Star of his own. Better she died quickly, and he’d seen the Executor go down. She’d been so proud to get that assignment. The best ship in the fleet.

A thick hand on his shoulder brought him back from that pit. He looked over at Kolly, this rock of a man who had kept him focused when he saw his daughter die. Who helped him keep everything together in the chaos afterward until he had time to fall apart in private.

“I’ve made my decision, Kolly.”

There was silence for a time, pregnant with anticipation and heavy with meaning. This decision was monumentous. It was everything.

Kolivar knew exactly how long to wait. “And?”

“We’re not going through with it. Send a message to every captain of the Eleventh who’s still alive. See who will stand with us. Tell them we have something they need.”

The last thing the Empire needed was another insane leader and men who would blindly follow. His eyes were open. And his daughter was missing, likely dead. He had a powerful Star Destroyer and good men to crew it. He also had something they didn’t, something better than destruction. Together, they could still do what he swore to do.

“I’ll see it done, Jerr. I’m behind you. We’re all behind you.”

Once, his daughter asked him if he was really protecting the galaxy. The galaxy was on fire. The Empire in chaos. It was time he started making her proud.

****************

[ MC80B Vigilant; Simmons’ Shock Deck Lounge ]
POV: Wolf

Three cups of caf was usually his limit, but today was an extra special day, so he happily poured himself a fourth. The hot liquid steamed satisfyingly into the cup, giving off the fresh aroma of roasted beans and a hint of nutty flavoring. Wolf closed his eyes and breathed it in like it was the essence of life itself.

Until Knight spoiled it with a slap on the back and he nearly spilled it all over the place.

“Another cup? Man, that’s gonna run through ya buddy,” Knight said with a grin. “We still got two hours left on our Alert.”

“I’ll be fine,” Wolf said and sipped the hot, delicious drink that if the Gods of Hyperspace really existed, they would have made it. He closed his eyes again and savored it. Perfect. It was just hot enough to bite without burning his tongue.

The Simmons’ Shock Deck was fairly empty this hour of the ship’s night cycle, but on a giant warship that operated every moment of every day, there were still those milling about. Some drank after getting off shift, some drank to go on shift. In the corner were two tug pilots and Junior, who looked half-asleep and was losing a bunch of credits in whatever card game he was playing. Over by the viewport, two enlisted personnel were doing their very best to hide that they were on a date. They would have more success at a table with a tablecloth.

Wolf sat at a table by another viewport, which offered an excellent view of nothing but empty blackness. Knight flopped into the seat opposite him, looking out the viewport as well. They sat in silence for a full minute while Wolf sipped his drink with reverence.

“Feels a mighty bit different now don’t it?” Knight said, gesturing. Wolf glanced to the side but once again saw literally nothing.

“What does?”

“That.”

“Space?”

Knight gave him a face that suggested he’d missed the point. “The fleet.”

“Oh,” Wolf said, nodding despite having no clue what he was talking about.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about do you?”

“No.”

Knight sighed and shifted in his seat, as if he was uncomfortable with the whole prospect of cluing him in. “Emperor dead. We’re the ‘New Republic’ now and not the Rebel Alliance.”

“Right,” Wolf said. “We won at Endor, seems like the right move.”

“I don’t know. It just feels different somehow, I guess. Ya know?”

Wolf didn’t, but nodded anyway. Things felt the same, name change or no name change. He sipped his caf, enjoying the feeling of the almost-scalding liquid race down his throat and warm his core. Life was good.

Or, it was, until his commlink buzzed. Another buzz from Knight’s indicated something had come up on the Alert Sixty.

“Time to go to work,” Knight said with a grin and slapped him on the shoulder. Together they stood, with Wolf holding up a finger as he gulped down the remaining half of his caf. Knight merely shook his head as the two pilots made their way out of the lounge.

The Ready Room was empty save for Jedi, who was trying and somewhat failing to get the holoprojector to function. Cursing new tech for its bugs, the older man, once a Rogue pilot himself and now a command staffer instead, looked up as the two pilots entered.

“Sit anywhere. If I can get this Sith-blasted piece of junk working, I’ll be right with you. You’d think a holoprojector on a brand new military cruiser would work.” Wolf sat in the front row, with Knight to his right. Looking at one another, all they could offer were shrugs.

“There we go,” Jedi said, tapping something on a remote and the holoprojector spun to life. It showed empty space. “Blasted bolts…” Two more presses and a freighter appeared, which made Jedi sigh with relief.

“This is the transport Reluctance. It’s a terrible name, but it has some very special cargo. What that cargo is,” Jedi paused, frowning. Heaving a sigh, he continued. “Is need-to-know unfortunately. Your mission is simple, meet the freighter at the rendezvous point and lead it back to the fleet. Simple job but it has a heavy escort. You’re just there to transmit the coordinates to the Vigilant.”

Knight gave an amused grin. “Now this is the kind of laid back mission I can get behind.”

“Why the Vigilant? Why not the Alliance Headquarters or whatever?” Wolf said.

“The ‘why’ isn’t on your need-to-know list,” Jedi said, his voice even and professional. “Just get them back here safely. You should have coordinates and flight plans loaded onto your A-wings’ navcomps. Everything is backed up on your inflight datapads as usual. You should be struts-up in thirty. Oh, and for this mission, your flight’s callsign will be ‘Nomad,’ not Corsair. This is a matter of security.”

As they suited up in the equipment room, Wolf wondered what might be on this transport that required such security. He entertained the idea of fresh Caf from Chandrila, but decided they’d never send him on such a mission. Not having any other decent ideas, he turned to his wingman.

“Hey, Knight,” he said. “What do you think is on the transport?”

“Heck if I know.” Knight said, tossing Wolf’s helmet to him with a wistful look on his face. “Maybe it’s real food. Actual home grown mash and corn.”

Wolf’s stomach growled at the very thought. “Don’t tease me.”

“Maybe it’s fresh apples and strawberries?” Knight winked and made for the door, hoisting his ejection harness into place. Clipping his helmet to his vest, Wolf finished threading on his chest box and oxygen pack, then hurried after.

On their way out to the busy flight deck, Knight threw out a hand and stopped him mid-stride. Two R5 units rolled by, chased by a deck officer, but that wasn’t what it seemed Knight was looking at.

“Son of a Moff,” he said, then pointed. There were two dozen beings and a dozen droids in that direction, nothing that stuck out as particularly stare-worthy to Wolf.

“What are we looking at? Princess Leia? I hear she’s--”

Knight cut him off with a snort. “No. Did you hear about our new A-wing Tech?”

Wolf shook his head, craning to try and spy someone working on an A-wing. Then he did. A young woman with short, dark hair was sitting on the nose of a Corsair A-wing, soldering a panel back into place.

“You really need to read your mail sometime. Don’t you know who that is?”

“Nope,” Wolf admitted. The two pilots began to make their way to where their own craft were stored. Unfortunately it did not take them past the tech, so Wolf just had to look incredibly obvious as he stared her way. Luckily, the young woman never looked up.

“That’s Jeni Courtner,” Knight said. Wolf sought his rusty mind for the name but came up blank. Shrugging again made Knight sigh.

“Gold Three?”

Another blank look.

“She flew into the karking Death Star with Commander Antilles and General Calrissian. I swear, I have to do the reading for both of us.”

Wolf stumbled and looked back at the woman, a girl really, methodically replacing a hull plate. Somehow this image did not fit with the stories he’d heard of those pilots who flew that run. They were Commanders and Generals and full of medals.

“You’re a liar,” Wolf said and shook his head, turning his attention back on finding his A-wing. “She wouldn’t be slumming it here as a tech if she did that.”

“Not lying. Heard she spent a whole week in bacta to put her back together,” Knight said and frowned. “I dunno, buddy, but... what I do know is you may wanna consider hitting the refresher. You’re gonna regret all that caf.”

“I’m good,” Wolf said as his wingman jogged off to his own craft. Climbing up the short ladder and scampering into the cockpit, Wolf began his pre-flight checks, but found them harder than usual. Glancing outside of his cockpit, he caught the young woman looking in their direction. The expression on her face made him hesitate, then look away, like he’d seen something private.

Then he began his pre-flight checks and lost himself in the simple joys of being a pilot.

****************

[ MC80B Vigilant; Hangar Bay ]
POV: Angel

Two A-wings were ferried from their berths and directed across the flight deck onto the launch corridor. With a brief exchange back and forth with Vigilant’s Traffic Control, they accelerated out of the hangar and into space. It was such a simple thing, something that happened every single day, sometimes every hour.

But for Jeni “Angel” Courtner, it felt like watching an impossibility. Her hands were chapped and greasy, nails chipped and the cuticles frayed. The palms and tips of her fingers felt rough ready for the maintenance tasks ahead, but they still remembered holding the flight controls of those A-wings. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel how stiff the rudder was beneath her feet, how little play the stick had, the small detent in the throttle when you pushed it over into attack speed. Flying out of the hangar required the smallest of inputs, the gentlest of touches, or you’d ding the deck or ceiling.

Yet even now as she opened her eyes and turned back to the task at hand, something else shadowed her thoughts like a monster in the dark. It was there at the back of her mind, the trailing edge of every thought, the corner of her eye, the tip of her tongue. Its nails scraped at her when she slept and dug in when she dared lower herself back into that cockpit.

But if she only reached. If she just got past it. If she could just close the canopy and flip the switches. If she could just fly again.

Don’t be afraid. Darling, be brave. That voice had been her mother’s. She’d heard it during that terrifying escape from the Death Star, but … she’d never met her mother. Not once. She didn’t even know what she looked like, but still, she knew.

I flew into a Death Star. I can do this, she thought.

Turning, Angel placed one hand on the canopy rail. It was cold and metallic, rough where the sealant had slightly corroded the durasteel. She made a mental note to recoat it as she swung her leg over the edge and placed her foot on the crash couch. The gel cushion accepted her weight in a familiar, and frightening way. That gel had saved her life when her inertial compensators broke, when that girder had exploded through her cockpit. When she …

When she …

Her body began to shake, and the more she moved to put herself down into that seat, the worse it got. Somewhere in the hangar, a crate fell from a loader. The bang made her jump and cry out, its report sounding like a girder bursting through a hull. Her leg throbbed, her chest burned and she found herself short of breath. Beneath her hand, the A-wing felt hot, like it was engulfed in flames.

She couldn’t see. The deck was rising and the ceiling was lowering, a metal mouth swallowing her. A tunnel collapsing. A station exploding.

“Lieutenant?” a voice cracked through the memory like a lightning strike. Darkness exploded into light. Instead of a tunnel, there was a hangar deck. Instead of a fireball, there was a young man in coveralls holding a datapad.

“What do you want?” she asked, harsher than she meant. The young man swallowed and took a step back. He held out the datapad.

“Um, inventory reports for Corsair and Rogue, ma’am.”

Slowly, she slid down to the ground, careful of her shaking limbs. Keeping one hand on the nose of the A-wing, she reached out and took the datapad. The hair at the back of her neck felt damp and she could feel the sweat at her temples running into her ears.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

“I’m fine!,” she shouted, without meaning to. The young man, a boy really, stepped away from her. The look on his face shamed her. She looked away, unable to stand it.

“I’m sorry, I’m fine. It’s been a long day is all.”

“Of course, ma’am. The boys and I were… well we just wanted to say, it’s an honor to meet you. We all heard what you did.”

Angel felt her face grow hot and she turned to set the datapad down on the nose of the starfighter. Doing so let her quickly wipe the tears that brimmed her eyes. What I did, she thought. What had she done? She’d given up. Death had reached out its hand and she reached back, but something had saved her. Why? Her last thoughts hadn’t been about the Rebellion, or her friends in Red Squadron. They’d been … relief.

Finally, she turned to the young man who looked at her like she meant something. She smiled, because that’s what they’d taught her to do on Chandrila. When they’d unveiled her A-wing as part of the memorial, she’d smiled to keep from being sick. Now, she smiled because that’s what this boy wanted.

“Anyone would have done that. You’d have done it, probably better than me,” she said, a practiced line and then a nod for him to head back to his duties. Appeased and elated, the youngster grinned and ran on back to where a knot of four other deck crewmen waited. One of them, a girl, stared at her. She stared like the little girls on Chandrila did, like she was some kind of Force-given inspiration.

“This was a mistake,” she said to herself, turning away. Kneeling down, she pulled herself beneath the A-wing to get at the hyperdrive motivator coils. They needed checking.

And she needed a place to run to.

****************

[ ISD Consolidator; X-1A-Scapia-A System ]

They drifted around a dead star, and Jerryk Pash wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.

“Time?” he said to the communications officer, seated in the pit below.

“Plus fourteen minutes, sir,” said the young woman. She was twenty years old, an Ensign. His former comms officer had been a man in his forties, a career Lieutenant. He’d died in a hallway from a treatable heart condition. Treatable as long as he had the supplies, which he currently did not.

Come on Becca, he said to himself. I know you. You’re not going to follow Versio.

“Should we prepare the jump to Clom, Captain?” Kolly said from his left.

“We’ll wait five more minutes, but get the hyperdrive spun up,” he said.

Kolly nodded and went to the pit. Pash turned again, looking out the bridge viewport and into the blackness of space with its cold, red star. He hoped that any minute, that space would be filled with Captain Rebecca Teimos’s task force. It had been part of the Eleventh fleet’s rear guard and had escaped Endor intact.

She would breath life into a future without madmen. A future where the Empire does what it’s supposed to do.

Five minutes ticked by without a single ship arriving. Hopelessness clawed its way up from the depths where his daughter’s memory lay. It sang a lullaby of pointlessness and despair, with lyrics that said it would be easier to give up, to let it all go away. Failure is an end and sometimes, endings are deserved.

He had failed his little girl. When she took her first steps, he’d been running down pirates in the Mid-Rim. When she said her first words, he’d been on a ceremonial escort to Byss because it might look good on his dossier. When she called him on the holonet, he always had something else to do and kept them short. Why? What did it matter if one report was turned in thirty minutes early, instead of an hour? Why not have let her talk about her day for a little while longer? He’d have those memories now.

Instead, he had empty space and a dead star.

“Captain!”

Pash turned quickly enough that his boots squeaked on the deck. Kolly was hunched over his tactical officer’s console, looking up at him with wonder. His chubby face split with a grin and Pash felt his heart soar.

Flashes of light outside the window told him more than Kolly could. He stepped to the viewports, watching as a Vicstar, an Interdictor, a dozen cruisers, and countless smaller ships. Task Force Delta, Becca, had answered his call.

He closed his eyes and smiled for the first time in a long, long while.

“We’re being hailed,” the young comms officer said, her voice joyous. It was infectious. All around, he could see his people rising, uplifted, filled with hope again.

“Put it through,” he said, turning to the holoprojector as it flickered to life. There she stood, resplendent in her uniform. Becca’s face was just as he remembered it from the last time they’d shared a drink together before Endor, stern but understanding. Her olive skin was darker on the holo, and her short hair fizzed at the edges from the distortion. Her voice, however, was unchanged.

And it destroyed hope.

“Captain Jerryk Pash. By order of Admiral Versio, you are under arrest. Lower your shields and surrender.”

No, not you too, he thought, his eyes fixed on the holo-version of hers. He’d known her most of his adult life. They’d gone through the Academy together, fought together, bled together. She stared back, her image flickering slightly. He thought he caught a glimpse of something like pleading in them.

“I can’t do that, Becca, you know that.”

Sadness flashed across her face, a similar one across his own.

“Jerryk, please. Turn yourself in. No one will be harmed, the Admiral has assured me.”

“Becca, join me. There’s a world that needs our help. The Empire’s help. We can do what we set out to do, ensure order instead of chaos. Life instead of death. Please.”

For an instant, he saw that young, idealistic young woman from the Academy. The Empire had been young then too, full of dreams and possibilities. Ripe for them to take by storm. Then it faded away and Becca was older, faded and tarnished, just like he was.

“For the good of the Empire, Jerryk. Please, stand down.”

That was forced. Reading from a script.

“What does he have on you, Becca? Why are you following this insanity?”

Her expression wavered, breaking like she’d been struck. Looking away, she stepped backward from the holo before composing herself. Her eyes narrowed, mouth twisting.

“The Empire is falling apart. We need to consolidate. We need to stick together. What you’re doing is insurrection--”

“What I’m doing is saving lives, not destroying worlds!” he shouted, unable to contain either his disbelief or his rage. “If we do nothing, the Rim will collapse! Warlords will run these people to death! Open your eyes, Becca! We can’t do this, Cinder is pure insanity!”

She did and he saw the pain in them, something else too.

Fear.

“Jerryk,” she said, almost a whisper. “You idealistic fool. Don’t you understand? I can’t. If any of us step out of line. If any of us rebel…”

She closed her eyes and Pash felt his guts turn to ice. Suddenly, he did understand.

“Jerryk, you’re from Coruscant. And… I’m sorry but your daughter is dead. Your wife is gone.” She emphasised every word with a jab to her chest and he felt every one of them. It stole the breath from him. The look on her face took on pure terror.

“My son is two years old. He’s with my husband right now on Onderon. They can’t leave. No one can leave. If I don’t bring you in, if I let you go, he’ll burn the whole planet down! All of those people will die! My little boy will die!”

The bridge was deathly quiet and Pash quietly wondered how many of them might be from Onderon, or have family there. He dare not look around. Dare not think about it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kolly narrow his eyes then subtly nod towards the forward viewports. Becca’s fleet was closing.

“Becca if you attack me, it will be a bloodbath, for both of us.”

Her eyes were wide open, wild, like a trapped animal. “Surrender, Jerry. For Force’s sake. Please.”

For a moment, he let himself stand where she stood. If Versio had Relya trapped on a world, ready to tear it asunder, would he do exactly the same thing? Would he condemn millions to die? Simply let the galaxy burn?

He shut his eyes, knowing the answer was yes. Then he slowly turned his head and opened them.

“Engines ahead full, prep for the jump to hyperspace.”

“Jerryk, don’t do this! Don’t make me fight you!”

He turned again, staring into the face of a woman he’d known almost better than his own wife. Before his eyes, he saw in her everything they’d fought for crumble to dust. This truly was the end of everything.

“Captain!” his navigator shouted. “Interdictor has activated its gravity well!”

Please,” Becca whispered. “For once, think of someone besides yourself.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and the holo winked out. Once more he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Set condition one throughout the ship. Battlestations!”

****************

[ A-wing Patrol Flight Nomad; Ashvale System ]
POV: Wolf

Wolf desperately wished he’d gone to the refresher before they left.

“They’re late,” Knight observed, unhelpfully. Wolf groaned and checked the chronometer, confirming that they were, indeed, half an hour late. The pressure on his bladder was becoming distressing and he flipped open the tiny panel beneath his seat, feeling for one of those mid-flight bags.

Which, of course, were not there.

I’m going to pee myself, he observed. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t the worst thing he’d done in an A-wing cockpit. Lysa from Frontiir bubbled to the top of his mind. That had been one hell of a night.

“Check left, Wolf,” Knight said, jolting him from that pleasant thought. He cleared his throat and adjusted his course to keep his A-wing on the slow, meandering circle over the rendezvous point. One that didn’t carry him into a collision course with his wingman.

“Was just checking comm boards,” he lied.

“I bet.”

Wolf glanced left and saw Knight smiling to himself. He thought of making a rude gesture in his direction, but a jolt of pain from his bladder reminded him of more urgent issues.

“Let’s go combat spread,” Wolf said. “So our sensors don’t miss anything.”

“Sure. Lots out here to miss.”

Knight was kidding again. There was literally nothing in this system. Ashvale had a tiny, dying star, and a tiny, dead planet without an atmosphere. They’d already scanned the planet and found that it was as dead as it looked. The only oddity was a deep canyon that ran throughout. Knight guessed mining. Wolf guessed giant worms.

The two A-wings spread out and Wolf resumed his search for something to relieve himself in. He found a discarded glove and had two thoughts. Who would have left this here, and is it water tight?

He was saved from having to make this hard decision by another beep of his proximity sensors, this time alerting him to the arrival of a new ship out of hyperspace. Tossing the glove behind his seat, Wolf keyed the comm.

“Picking up a contact, looks like our friend finally got here.”

Tossing the glove behind his seat, Wolf forced himself to focus as he switched over to the Alliance (New Republic, he reminded himself) general hailing frequency. His sensors were still identifying the ship that jumped in when the comm suddenly exploded with a frantic female voice.

“Is anybody out there? This is the Reluctance hailing any friendly ships! We’re under attack! Please, does anyone hear us?”

As if on queue, a brand new contact appeared on sensors.

Wolf shoved his throttle to full and dumped his energy to engines, glancing left to see Knight was right with him. Without a word passing between the two Corsairs, they aimed their A-wings directly at the incoming sensor dots as Wolf keyed the comm.

Reluctance this is New Republic flight group Nomad, we’re on our way.” He checked the distance. “Ten seconds.”

“Reading four TIEs and a Gozanti,” Knight said. “That Gozanti is more of a problem. How do you want to do this?”

Wolf watched the distance between them and the transport tick down. The Imperial ships were almost within firing range. Checking his sensors he saw the TIEs were coming right at them.

“TIEs are going to try and dog us. I’m thinking Attack Pattern Gamma.”

“I love Gamma. Go right, I’ll go left.”

The two A-wings shunted all their power to engines and split apart swinging wide to make the TIEs choose a target. Almost unexpectedly, they split into two elements, going for both. That’s new, Wolf thought and shifted his shields full forward.

“Squints!” Knight shouted just as the first laser fire lanced out towards them. Giving a little back stick and kicking in rudder, Wolf threw the A-wing into a spiral, adjusting its radius constantly to throw off their aim. The desire to punch off a couple of his rockets was almost as strong as the urge to piss himself, but he held back both. He needed the rockets.

Hits splashed across his shields, dropping them in half before the TIEs blew past him on the left. They’d slowed in the merge, already turning. Equalling his shields, Wolf knew he didn’t have much time. Rotating the throttle past its detent, the A-wing dumped its reserve power into the engines and boosted him forward. The inertial compensators kept his insides intact but he was still shoved deep into the gel of his seat. The pain in his guts wasn’t helpful.

Rotating to put the port side of the Gozanti on his fighter’s nose, he watched the distance tick down as laser fire passed him from behind. 1200. 1100. Just a little more. His rear shield took another hit, and then another.

1000.

He bunted the A-wing’s nose so it was aimed behind the Gozanti and then yanked the throttle to idle. Pulling back on the stick, the A-wing drifted along its course but his guns and rockets were now aimed squarely at the imperial ship’s broadside. Squeezing the firing stud and mashing down the weapon release, Wolf let fly both his charged lasers and the tiny interceptor’s load of high explosive rockets.

The Gozanti’s shield failed just as the last of his rockets connected with the ship’s engines, sending out a torrent of fiery plasma. Shoving the throttle forward again, he exploded past the crippled ship, with Knight coming head to head with him in the same moment. Without speaking the rotated, passing belly-to-belly, firing their remaining rockets and laser power.

“Two Squints are toast!” Knight shouted as Wolf rolled to avoid the flaming bits of one TIE Interceptor, his wingman screaming past, crippled but alive.

“One down, one on a very long ride home,” he said, craning his neck to check that the squint was, indeed, barreling out of control into the black. He winced, wondering if he shouldn’t just put the poor bastard out of his misery.

Several laser blasts woke Wolf out of his celebration. Yanking the A-wing back around into a tight loop, he watched the Gozanti’s defensive turrets attempt to track him. Going evasive, he dumped some power back into his shields.

“Two, little rope-a-dope?”

“On it.”

Wolf swung his starfighter around again, this time making his loop long and lazy. It would make him an easier target. Whoever was at the guns of this thing wasn’t the Empire’s best but even they began to walk the fire in on him. At the last moment, Wolf yanked hard on the stick, the Gs mounting quickly enough that his compensators were slow to relieve him.

An explosion erupted from the Imperial ship’s cockpit as Knight spiraled over top. A secondary explosion went off just forward of the engine before the entire ship cracked open like a fiery egg. As debris and flaming bits of Imperial technology expanded outward, Wolf considered how they just didn’t make them like they used to.

That’s when he felt the warm wetness on his leg. Alarmed, he looked down, expecting to find a piece of debris blown through his cockpit and blood spurting everywhere. When he didn’t, he realized something else. Something perhaps worse.

He wouldn’t be needing that refresher after all.

Jabbing the comm, he contacted the Reluctance, trying not to sound pissed. So to speak.

“Transport Reluctance, you’re clear. Transmitting hyperspace jump coordinates to you momentarily.”

“Thanks, Nomad. Good flying back there.”

Wolf glanced left as Knight rejoined him, holding up two fingers, then a third before turning his hand into a fist. Yeah yeah, good job. Two kills and a cruiser, too. Wolf gave a thumbs up and decided not to argue about assists.

“Command is going to have a field day finding out how they tracked this transport,” Knight said as the three ships began coordinating the jump to hyperspace. “And a single Gozanti tells me they weren’t expecting us.”

Wolf swapped the comm to a private frequency with just Knight. “I’m more curious where their protection went. Four TIEs shouldn’t be an issue for a full escort.”

“I bet that conversation is gonna get real interesting.”

It was a terribly long flight back. Sitting in his own urine was not Wolf’s favorite activity and after a while, he could swear he could smell it. This was not his finest moment.

After the longest jump in their path dumped them back into real space, he was happy to see the Vigilant at last. He wasn’t however, particularly ready to pop his canopy when he caught sight of the A-wing crew chief.

No, no, no. You don’t need to help me out. Get Dawkins to do it. You want Dawkins to see to me, he thought fervently, going so far as to do a little Jedi mind-trick wave he’d read in books. When the woman moved on, giving him only a mildly puzzled look, Wolf stared at his hand. Maybe ….

A knock on his canopy revealed a crewman ready to help him out of his cockpit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Dawkins but Kira, a rather pretty young Mirialan instead. Resigned to possibly getting a new callsign, Wolf unsealed the canopy and pushed the hood back on its rails.

“Had some trouble lieutenant?” Kira said, wrinkling her nose.

“Nope, I’m good, thanks,” Wolf said quickly, grabbing the canopy spar and hoisting himself up and out. Without looking at her, he hopped off his ship’s nose and hurried towards the ready room.

Knight caught him before he could, slapping his hand across his chest and nodding his chin.

“Check it out,” he said, indicating the freighter they’d just escorted. It had barely settled on its struts before it was approached by several men in serious looking uniforms with serious looking expressions.

“Intel?” Wolf asked. “They look like spooks.”

“Beats me, let’s hang around and see what they drag off it. Whatcha think?”

“We have a debriefing with Jedi in…” Wolf checked his chronometer. “Ten minutes and I’d like to change.”

Knight frowned at him. “Change? You going on a date in the briefing room?”

Feeling a red hot embarrassment creeping up his neck, Wolf cleared his throat and looked back towards the freighter. Whatever was happening, it was happening fast. This time, it was his turn to nod towards the ship.

Two black-suited figures were pulled out through an airlock. Wolf recognized them as imperial flight suits. Knight whistled.

“Well. That’s interestin’, ain’t it?”

****************

[ MC80B Vigilant; Briefing Room ]
POV: Jedi

Lt Colonel Bill “Jedi” Morrison reviewed holos from the freighter and found it troubling. The transport being attacked was problematic for sure, but not troubling. What was troubling was the ship’s escorts, or rather how they had simply disappeared.

As he ran the film again, Jedi studied the freighter’s captain, a wide-eyed young devaronian female named Kaida Uvar. Her face paled as she watched the holo of the battle play out, making her dark spray of freckles stand out even more. Jedi always found the Devaronians fascinating. He’d only met males before, with their bald scalps and wicked horns. Kaida had no horns, and thick black hair that tumbled to her shoulders.

Clearly, she was terrified and he sensed no falsehood in her explanation. If someone had called off her escorts early, it hadn’t been her.

Pausing the film, he pointed the project controller at her. “Explain it to me again, if you don’t mind. When did the escorts leave you?”

“Leave us? They didn’t leave us, I told you. They simply didn’t arrive at Jump Point Four,” Kaida said, swallowing.

Jedi consulted his datapad, once more glancing at what Intelligence had given them. “Any idea why? Did they try and rendezvous with you? Did you have back up jump coordinates?”

“Of course, and we were preparing to jump there, but the Imps found us first. It’s like they knew we were going to be there.”

Jedi swapped to the film from the freighter, just after Jump Point Four. Having this young captain here wasn’t necessarily required, but he liked sensing her responses to things. It correlated the film, her testimony, and his own gut instincts about the situation.

“Colonel, my family is a private trader, we’re not military,” she said, without prompting. “I have no weapons. Before this job, we hauled trade goods. Boring things.”

“No one’s accusing you of anything, Captain,” Jedi said and glanced from her to the holoprojector. “Someone set you up to be intercepted. You’re very lucky you were able to escape to meet our patrol.”

“I got nervous,” she said, her cheeks reddening. “I didn’t wait the ten minutes. When the Imperials showed up, I was already preparing to jump to Point Five.”

“Lucky,” Jedi said, though he didn’t believe much in luck. The Force had brought her through, for good or ill. Her cargo was special, he was even more convinced of that. “Your instincts are good. Maybe you’ll consider taking jobs from the New Republic more regularly?”

She swallowed, the idea clearly making her nervous. Curious, he had his datapad scroll to her personnel file, of which there wasn’t much. Twenty-one years old, the youngest daughter of Kereva and Lavik. They owned two freighters, the Reluctance in the Face of Overwhelming Majority and a smaller, light freighter named the Judgement in the Face of Adversity.

“You’re free to go, Captain, but we’ll have our techs look over your ship, make sure it’s unharmed and ready for your departure. It’s only fair after what you’ve been through. You don’t mind staying twenty-four hours do you?”

Kaida seemed to deflate a little, but hid her displeasure well. “No. But I’m not sure my father scheduled it in our delivery calendar.”

“We’ll make it worth his while, trust me,” Jedi told her and smiled. “We’ll find you a place to wash up and grab something to eat. It’s the least we can do.”

And it’ll give us a chance to sweep for bugs, Jedi thought.

“Thank you, Colonel. I’ll need to grab some things off my ship first.”

Jedi nodded and then activated his commlink. “Wolf, Knight, get in here.”

The two Corsair pilots entered from a side door, where they’d clearly been waiting. He gestured towards Kaida. “Escort her to her ship, make sure she has everything she needs. We’ll be hosting her for a day while we make any repairs to her ship.”

The two pilots gave him a crisp salute and waited as Kaida rose from her seat and exited out the same door they’d arrived in. As the two were about to follow, Jedi called out to them.

“Good job today, you handled that situation well.”

“Thank you, sir,” they said in unison.

“You’re dismissed. Oh, and Lieutenant Krenn?”

“Yes sir?” the young man said, glancing back.

“Best get changed before you make a bad impression, all right?”

Jedi grinned to himself as Wolf looked down at the dark stain on his flight suit around his groin. Knight did an admirable job keeping a straight face. He deserved a medal.

“I will, sir.”

And then they were gone and Jedi was left with his thoughts and hours of holos to review. They suggested two things: that Imperials were very lucky and happened to find the freighter and the escorts got lost on their own or someone tipped them off and fed their escorts bad jump data.

Somedays Jedi desperately wished he believed in luck.

****************

[ ISD Consolidator; X-1A-Scapia-B System ]

They reverted to real space to the sound of klaxons.

“Damage assessment!” Pash yelled out as sparks flew and lighting flickered. Alert strobes rotated at the bridge’s sealed double doors, alerting him that a hull breach was just outside. So, that was fun.

There was no response from his pit and for a moment, Pash figured they hadn’t heard him. Gripping the forward viewport’s sill to pull himself to his feet, he glanced backwards and froze. In the pit, where his engineering officer sat, a piece of the ceiling had fallen down. Blood was clearly visible on the floor.

His boots made soft clacks on the metal as he hurried over and slid to the edge of the pit and hopped down. Two other officers were straining, trying to lift the heavy debris off the floor. Closer now, he saw the young man was lying beneath it, his head bleeding terribly and his left arm clearly broken. Grabbing the piece of twisted metal, he put his strength in with the others.

Together they lifted, the metal creaking and groaning, sparks flickering where it had torn through the young man’s computer station. It gave a few millimeters but then refused to budge. More crew joined them and one of the stormtroopers from the bridge had tossed aside his weapon, crouching to shove his shoulder into the space between the debris and the young officer, lifting with his back and legs.

Slowly it gave, millimeter by millimeter. The stormtrooper’s armor cracked and he saw the man’s leg shaking with strain. His own arms felt like they were on fire as he put all his strength into the task. His back began to scream, telling him he was stupid and too old for this shit.

With one last effort, they moved the fallen metal another fraction of a millimeter and Pash yelled for anyone to get the kid out of there. His XO was suddenly there, dragging the kid out as gently and quickly as possible.

That’s when Pash saw where the blood had really come from. The kid’s right leg was completely severed below the knee. Time constricted and Pash saw a cut-off ring of leather from his boot was pressed so tightly around his leg that it had forced its way into his skin. The torn limb was grotesque enough that someone vomited.

Pash nearly yelled for someone to get the kid to the infirmary, then recalled the rotating strobes. There was a hull breach just outside the bridge.

Damn you, Becca. You karking coward.

The stormtrooper who had wedged himself beneath the debris groaned as he slid free and the rest of the group dropped it again. Some collapsed right there, but Pash climbed over it, adrenaline and anger fueling him. The trooper meanwhile pulled off his helmet and revealed that it wasn’t a him but a her. She slid to her knees beside the young officer and pulled a stim from her belt pouch and jammed it into his leg.

“Trooper, can you stop the bleeding?” Pash asked, kneeling next to her. She was young, maybe twenty, with sweat-soaked blonde hair in a tight bun where her helmet would seal. He could see she was terrified, but nodded anyway.

As Pash stood, he heard her whisper to the young man not to give up. Flashes of an earlier life assaulted his memory. A happier time when he’d been young and in love and together they’d rebuild the galaxy.

What a bloody joke.

Sliding over to the communications station, he tapped the officer there on the shoulder and pointed at the screen. “Can you get me an update on breach on the bridge deck? Call engineering if you can.”

“Y-yes, sir,” another young man said. He had a ship of young men. Of kids who should be drinking irresponsibly and making terrible judgements in sexual partners.

“Update me when you hear something,” he said and climbed out of the pit. His XO, Kolly, followed suit, his hands and uniform jacket bloody from wrists to elbows.

“What the hell are we going to do now, Jer?” he growled, low and quiet. “You know Becca will figure out where we went. She’s not stupid.”

“No, but she is cautious. She has no idea how big of a reserve fleet I have.”

“What reserve fleet?” Kolly said. “We don’t have one.”

“She doesn’t know that. She came to the meeting knowing it was a peaceful rendezvous and attacked because we were alone. That’s how she works.”

Pash strode over to the other pit and crouched down to talk to the sensor and weapons officers. After confirming they were still alone in this empty-ass system, he told navigation to prep a jump for Clom as quickly as possible.

“I’m afraid we can’t, sir,” the navigation officer said. This officer at least had the decency to be maybe twenty-five.

“Define ‘can’t.’”

“Hyperdrive’s cooked sir. It was damaged and the Jump must have done it in. We can only continue at sublight. We might get a few more parsecs out of her but that’s it.”

“Can it be fixed?”

“Maybe, but it’ll take time. Weeks maybe.”

Too long, Pash thought and clenched his hands into fists. They didn’t have weeks. His people on Clom didn’t have weeks. Hell, the people of that system didn’t have it. They had trusted him, believed in him. For once the Imperial Navy was doing it’s damned job.

And now the Imperial Navy had once again forced its failures on innocents.

“Do what you can, son,” he said and hurried back to the communications station. The hull breach was already being repaired, but it would take another hour. An hour the poor boy bleeding to death on the floor didn’t much have. The trooper was holding his hand, talking to him, but Pash could see the ash color creeping into the boy’s face. Shock.

“Kid needs a miracle, Jer. Heard we’ve got a hundred casualties on decks ten through twelve,” Kolly said, shaking his head, then looked up and nudged Pash’s arm. Leading him to the side, his XO kept his voice low. “You know, Jer. I bet we could make it to Ithor. There’s a hospital there, even as banged up as we are. You know we can’t treat all these people ourselves, not with medbay being out.”

Pash stared at him. “Ithor? Jer, that factory is sitting there, our people’s collective ass hanging in the wind without us.”

Kolly only shrugged and looked back at the young man dying on the floor. The trooper at his side appeared to be praying, to what Pash couldn’t imagine. He imagined Relya on the floor, dying, help not far. He imagined saying no to that.

He turned and walked back towards navigation.

****************

[ MC80B Vigilant; Briefing Room - 1 day later ]
POV: Jedi

“Gentlemen, Clom,” Jedi said, waving to the holoprojector as it displayed a binary star system. The primary star was huge and the second was a dwarf star, orbiting diagonally from the system’s plane. The holo zoomed in on this dwarf star, showing a number of planets floating around it. It highlighted one on the edge, then separated it.

“Clom IX is a gas giant. It has almost no worth to us except for a rocky, volcanic moon here.” Jedi highlighted one of the seven moons in orbit around the planet. The image evaporated, leaving only the surface of the moon.

“This moon has no name, so for the sake of this mission, we’re designating it Clom Alpha.”

With a press of a button, several other images popped up, showing the anomaly from different angles.

“A TIE Fighter manufacturing facility has been buried into the surface. It has no name and is not on any official records. Intelligence suggests it was created in secret, perhaps even against the Emperor’s wishes. The Emperor is dead and everyone’s clamoring for resources. Something like this would be extremely useful in the hands of a warlord and could reinvigorate the Empire’s forces in the area.”

Jedi leaned against the holoprojector, glancing at the pilots he’d gathered here. They were mostly young, but very experienced. Lock and Thanatos from Rogue Squadron, Mighty and Animal from Buccaneer, Knight and Wolf from Corsair, and Tattoo, the SAR pilot from Mercy. Her presence definitely changed the tone in the room, notching it a bit chillier than before. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be helped. New Republic protocols were changing and this one he couldn’t ignore. SAR needed to be on alert during missions so far away from the ship.

“Our mission is to destroy the facility and remove it from play. The strike will be conducted on three fronts.”

The image zoomed out, showing several mountainous regions to the south of the base. Several boxes highlighted along the valley walls.

“X-wings from Rogue Squadron will destroy laser batteries protecting the approach to the base. You will enter from these coordinates,” Jedi said, showing the entry vector. “This will provide you with the least amount of turrets needed to create a hole in their defenses. However, I fully expect surprises so you should too. Your primary objective in this phase is to clear a path. Once that’s done, engage any fighter cover that comes out to meet you.”

The X-wing icon for Rogue then moved forward into the asteroid field and highlighted. Then an A-wing icon appeared along the same vector. “A-wings from Corsair Squadron will then attack defensive positions near the factory itself. Intelligence tells us there are both ion and conventional missile launcher systems in place. We’ll be equipping your A-wings with special sensor-reflective hull paint as well as jammers to make your work easier.”

Four launch sites appeared on the asteroid’s surface, each armed by traditional and ion missiles. Jedi watched as Knight and Wolf glanced at each other and then slowly back at him. Knight raised his hand.

“Lieutenant?”

“Two A-wings against all that? You gotta be sithin’ me.”

“Afraid not. The A-wings have the best defense against these weapons; speed and maneuverability. Your attacks on the Tarlandia showed just how effective jamming and swift, precise strikes can be.”

The two Corsairs appeared pacified, or at least quiet, so he went on. B-wings now followed the A-wings into the factory. “Once the launchers are neutralized, B-wings from Buccaneer will then attack the station itself. Unfortunately, only proton bombs will crack the shell of this beast, so you’ll need to get close. This is why we need to take out the defenses.” He looked pointedly at the interceptor pilots. “If even one of those launchers remains active, our bombers are sitting ducks. They must be taken out.”

“Yes, sir,” Wolf said. Knight, who appeared slightly more relaxed, said nothing.

Jedi shifted his gaze to Animal and Mighty. “Intelligence tells us that the base is run by droid workers, so sentient casualties will be low. You will be jumped in aboard the Frigate Black Hawk, and it will remain just out of range to avoid passive sensor detection, but will remain in the area for support and recovery. Anything unclear? You’ll be sent a packet with surveillance images of the facility. Study them until they are as familiar to you as the back of your hand.”

Glancing from the fighter pilots to Tattoo, he gestured in her direction. “Lieutenant Calyse will be on station for any rescue ops or resupply. She will also act as a rendezvous point for the strike package. Lieutenant, we are equipping your U-wing with sensor masking pods to help keep our approach as stealthy as possible.”

“Understood, sir,” Tattoo said. “I’ll keep ‘em quiet.”

Jedi then regarded the group as a whole, shifting his gaze from face to face. He let himself open up to their emotions and felt their apprehension, excitement, and confidence. It was a cocktail he was used to by now, the siren song of fighter pilots at the top of their game despite the horrors of Endor.

He was proud of each one of them already. With a sigh, he nodded.

“Now, due to the importance of the first strike, overall command falls to Thanatos while underway. Major? We want to limit the knowledge of the Vigilant’s operations at this time, so your flight will be designated as Lightning. Wolf, your two-ship will be designated Weasel. Mighty, we’re giving your flight the callsign Thunder, and Tattoo, your U-wing will carry the callsign Magic. The overall strike package is designated Wildcard. Avoid personal callsigns over the comm in case they’re being intercepted.”

The pilots all busied themselves writing that down.

“Good,” Jedi said. “Now, questions?”

****************

[ Lightning One - Clom IX Orbit; Clom System ]
POV: Thanatos

All was quiet, which meant things were about to go bad.

Clom IX loomed, the red gas giant dominating the view ahead of him. The moon, designated ‘Alpha’ was directly ahead of him. Thick black clouds obscured his vision of the surface below even as the strike package slid quietly into the thick atmosphere.

Their hyperspace calculations had been extremely good, dropping them out mere klicks from their target. Thanatos made a mental note to buy whoever programmed them some drinks. If it was a droid, then they’d get the best oil he could afford.

Checking left, he saw Lock, designated Lightning Two, holding a loose formation. His flying hadn’t been as precise lately, like his mind had been elsewhere. Still, he had every confidence in the man. His sensors told him Weasel One and Two weren’t there at all, which both unnerved him and comforted him at the same time. Picking up his visual scanning, he saw the glint off their A-wings. That hull seemed to be doing a decent job.

Thanatos did a cursory check of his systems. Weapons were armed and hot, shields full, sensors online. Everything looked nominal and ready.

He clicked the comm. “All wings report in.”

“Lightning Two, standing by.”

“Weasel One, standing by.”

“Weasel Two, standing by.”

“Thunder One, standing by.”

“Thunder Two, standing by.”

“Magic, standing by.”

“Lock S-Foils in attack positions, here we go.”

Reaching up, Thanatos locked his S-foils in the attack position. To his left, Lock did the same. Somewhere behind him, the B-wings and U-wing were converting to attack mode. It was now or never.

Clom Alpha’s cloud layer was high and thick, immediately obscuring Thanatos’s vision as the rough air buffeted his X-wing. He lost sight of Lock the minute he entered it and flew entirely on instruments. He just hoped whatever was bothering Lock didn’t distract him now.

At roughly ten thousand feet, the clouds completely obscured his vision. The air was even worse, turbulence throwing his X-wing around like a toy. The inertial compensators were helping, but he wished he’d tightened his restraints a little. His sensors began to blare warning signals, his R2 translating that mountains were quickly approaching. His navigation system told him their entry point was just ahead, a narrow valley that extended all the way to the factory.

It was a perfect way to sneak up on the factory, if he could find it.

Suddenly, Thanatos felt the undeniable urge to dive just as an X-wing’s belly loomed directly above him, filling his viewport. His proximity sensors went wild and Lock’s must have done the same, for his fellow Rogue immediately broke left. Thanatos broke right, but immediately cut back just as a mountain peak rose out of the murk like some predator in the mist.

“Lightning Flight to all ships, watch the mountains! Stay--” he trailed off, quickly checking his bearings. “Stay two-seven-five to insertion point! Chop your speed, this isn’t a race.”

Not for Weasel, Thunder, and Magic, anyway. He and Lock needed to take out any defenses on the approach before TIEs rose to meet them. Then it was the A-wings’ turn to destroy those launcher systems. Thanatos wasn’t sure which job he found less appealing.

“Two, you still with me?”

“Can’t see a thing in this garbage! I nearly hit something.”

“Approaching the insertion point, get ready.” Checking his wingman’s position, he was relieved. Lock was right on his wing again. Whatever was going on, he was a Rogue.

Lock merely clicked his comm and said, “Two.”

The waypoint scrolled to zero and suddenly they punched through the clouds and in a raging inferno. Rising on either side were mountains as black as night, with a river of lava flowing between them. Black smoke belched from every direction, filling the sky with a rain of ash and soot.

“Lovely weather, One. You take me to such nice places.”

With a smirk, he told his R2 unit to keep an eye out for any weapon emplacements or warning sensors. He’d concentrate on flying. The valley went on for nearly fifty klicks, so there was plenty of time for surprises.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Ten klicks in, Thanatos’s R2 screamed that they were being targeted. A box highlighted a spot ahead about three klicks on top of the right hand ridge.

Here’s what they pay me for, he thought as he clicked his comm. “Two, battery, right hand side, attacking.”

A double click from Lock let him know his wingman was dropping into a defensive position to cover him. Thanatos throttled up and pulled back on the stick, bunting his X-wing just over the ridge. Rolling inverted, he prepared to pull back in the valley in the event of a missile shot.

None came and his own concussion missile system flashed red. Thumbing the weapon release, he waited just long enough for the missile to streak up and away before he pulled back into the valley. Just in time as it turned out.

“Second battery! Left side, pop-up, attacking!” Lock called, repeating the maneuver Thanatos had just done, only on the left. Both batteries exploded within a second of one another.

“Nice shot, Two!”

“Look alive, One, two more, right side!”

Thanatos was already moving, having been looking directly at the location. He hadn’t known it was there, but instinct told him it was. “Take south battery, Two!”

They moved as one, rising up from the valley like soot-covered birds of prey, spitting fire from cannons and missile ports. Batteries opened up only to be silenced moments later. Klick after klick they flew, dodging, firing, killing.

Ten klicks from the target, Thanatos’s R2 screamed again. He felt the thrill rise. It was time for the big show.

“Two, TIEs incoming, bearing one-seven-zero! Time to kick this off!”

****************

[ Weasel One - Clom Alpha ]
POV: Wolf

The soup they were flying through was terrible, but at least Rogue--or Lightning as they were known for this mission--was making this part easy. With Knight hanging back half a klick to give them each enough space to maneuver, they rocketed down the valley. Somewhere above, Thanatos and Lock were engaging a four-ship of TIE Fighters.

Normally those odds would have been laughable, two Rogues against two TIEs would have been over by now, but something was different. The four TIEs were not just doggedly attacking, maneuvering for shots. They were diving into the clouds, surprising the two X-wings and then disappearing again. No damage had been taken on either side, but the dogfight was going on longer than Wolf liked.

And it was going on somewhere over their heads.

“Weasel One, Lightning One. They’re baiting and delaying, watch for ambush.”

Wolf risked a glance upwards, spotting flashes of laser fire like lightning in the clouds. The irony was not lost on him as he and Knight shot through underneath and undetected. At least he hoped they were undetected.

“Copy, Lightning One,” Wolf said, double checking his countermeasures, jamming, and rocket pods. His warning system was quiet, but he knew that wouldn’t last. They were both bait and hook.

The valley narrowed considerably in the last two klicks and he had a decision to make. They could pop up early and bring the systems online then, or risk the closer approach and surprise them. They may get a launcher or two before they were even online that way, but he’d have to both visually spot and destroy them right away. They also risked crashing, which would end their mission real fast. They could go slower however, but that would expose them to sensors longer, unless ….

Clicking his comm to Knight, he told him his plan. It was not a smart play, but there were very little tactics for this sort of nonsense. Those B-wings would be exposed if they came in without killing those launchers and if those TIEs really were just playing with them, then who knew what else they had.

“You gotta be sithin’ me,” Knight repeated with a chuckle. “All right. Ready when you are.”

Wolf watched the distance fall away. Three klicks. Two and a half. Two.

He pulled hard on the stick and rocketed into the cloud cover. Below him, Knight entered the narrowest part of the valley, chopping his speed nearly in half. For the next minute, Wolf would be terribly exposed, but that was the job.

“Come get me, you kriffin’ gundarks,” he said, rolling over and pulling back towards the target area. Almost immediately his warning receiver chimed that a missile system was tracking him. Then two systems.

Beep-Beep-Beep-Beep-beepbeepbeep.

His sensors picked out one of the tracking systems and he fed its location to his wingman. A double click on the comm system was all he needed to know.

We’re gonna do this, he thought with a grin.

Then the first missile launched.

“Lightning One, Missile in the air!” Thanatos shouted the moment Wolf spotted a burst of light below.

Popping his jammer, Wolf rolled upright and pulled hard away, forcing the missile to arc up and then down at him again. Quickly rolling opposite, he flung the A-wing into its tightest turn, testing the limits of his compensators. The maneuver made the missile turn as well, using up its precious fuel and energy. He only had so many chaff bundles and if he could--

Beepbeepbeepbeeeeeeeeeeeep.

“Missile missile missile!” This time it was Knight’s voice, quickly followed by, “Rolling in!”

Wolf craned his neck, looking behind him just as the first missile impacted against the ground. The second was burning hard directly towards the cockpit of his A-wing. Every instinct told him to run, to gain altitude, to burn the opposite direction, but his training stamped it down. He pulled harder, jamming his throttle forward to burn boost, then rocking back to neutral. In atmosphere, drifting wasn’t nearly effective, but as his A-wing fish-tailed through the thick clouds, creating vortexes of mist behind him, he jammed the throttle forward again. The acceleration punched him into the seat and the missile, now head on with him was a burning star directly ahead.

Wolf fired and the missile exploded.

“Two, missile defeated.”

Sweat trickled down his forehead and neck as he turned right and pulled back up into the air.

Beep-beep-beep--Silence.

“Scratch one launcher! Second one’s picked me up!”

Rolling back towards the target, Wolf caught sight of a blue flash and the tell-tale sign of a rocket motor tunneling through the condensation.

He stabbed the comm button. “Two! Missile missile missile!”

“Two, defensive!”

Keeping the ignition spot in sight, Wolf rolled his A-wing towards the location just as his sensors picked it up and bracketed it. At eight hundred meters, he stabbed the weapon release, sending a stream of rockets while firing his laser cannons. A blossom of molten orange and red erupted, the site belching thick, black smoke. Rolling away and climbing again, Wolf checked his sensors but didn’t see Knight.

“Two, status?”

“One, missile defeated.”

Beepbeepbeeeeeeeeeeep.

“One is defensive!”

Glancing down, he didn’t see the launch but his sensors were screaming that it was coming anyway. Cursing, he rolled and pulled for the safety of the ground again, relying on those same sensors to tell him if he was about to collide with something in this soup.

Beeeeeeeeeeep.

Beepbeepbeeeeeeeeep.

“One is defensive, times three!” Two more! He had three missiles tracking him, how was that sporting?

Wolf rolled towards the mountains. If he couldn’t see any of the damned things, he needed some allies. Something told him he’d never make it and popped a chaff bundle. Almost immediately a concussive blast rocked his fighter as two missiles exploded not a hundred meters from his stern.

That was close! But where’s the last one?

“One, Launcher down! Two left!”

He wanted to congratulate Knight but the missile on his ass wasn’t terribly interested in letting him. Looking right and left, scanning up and down, he searched in vain for the tell-tale sign of a missile’s burning engine. Nothing.

Which didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

He didn’t want to flick off another chaff bundle if--

Beepbeepbeep.

Wolf jammed the stick left and pulled back towards the target. If he couldn’t see the missile, he’d find the launcher. If they were dead, maybe the missiles couldn’t guide.

“Weasel, Thunder Flight is inbound, sixty seconds.”

Well that’s awful close, he thought. The B-wings were almost here. Glancing at his chronometer, he saw they were indeed cutting this close. Having Knight skim through the valley had been useful, but costly time wise. He could call them off, but where would they go? Retreating would reveal Magic’s position as well.

Beepbeepbeep--

Wolf flicked on his jammer and the beeping cut off. The jammer overheated quickly in atmo, so he had to be quick. His sensors found the source of the targeting and highlighted it. The clouds thinned out just enough for him to spot low domes flash by beneath him. He didn’t see any faces in the windows. Most of the lights were off.

Just droids.

Cutting through two tall traffic towers, he pulled his A-wing’s guns onto target. Depressing the weapon release while squeezing the trigger, rockets and lasers bombarded the launcher. In moments, it was nothing more than a billowing cloud of flame.

“Three down!”

“Two is defensive!”

Wolf glanced from his sensors to where his wingman should be. He couldn’t see Knight through the cloud cover, but he saw the glow of the missile. Reflections in the mist told him that Knight had popped chaff.

Meanwhile the last launcher lit up on his display. Bracketing it, he depressed the weapon release but found his rockets were dry. Cursing, he fired his lasers, sending up bursts of permacrete and durasteel, but no explosion. A moment later he was past it, climbing back into the cloud-filled air.

Beepbeepbeep.

“Two, I damaged the launcher but it’s still operational!”

“Two copies, missile defeated, en route.”

Wolf looped back around, searching for Knight but all he could find was clouds and mountains. Below, he saw the B-wings begin to climb free of the valley. Jabbing the comm button, he was about to call them off when he heard Knight’s voice.

“One, last launcher is down!”

Wolf let himself exhale. Sweat ran down his face and neck, cold and clammy now that the adrenaline was coming off its shaking high. He couldn’t let off his guard yet, as TIEs were still in the neighborhood.

“Lightning, Weasel One. Status on TIEs?”

“Weasel One, Lightning One. Two are down, two bugged out north. We’re not giving chase, just circling up here.”

“Copy, Lightning One. Thunder is on approach.”

Wolf pulled back down towards the ground, intent on keeping the B-wings in sight. All he could see was the glow of their mighty quad-engines, burning red in the pale mist, with wet vortexes swirling away in their wake.

“Thunder One, bombs away.”

And suddenly, the ground, once covered with the low, dense clouds, suddenly became a visible fireball. The intensity of it burned away the mist and Wolf saw the base for the first time with true clarity. Three squat domes all in a line from the valley made up the majority of the space, with smaller, windowless, rectangular structures scattered throughout.

The domes shattered as both B-wings dropped their ordinance. Enormous gouts of flame and smoke belched from the holes ripped in the structure. Shards of metal exploded upward in every direction, landing back on the ground around the base with puffs of gray ash.

And as he watched, a door opened and a flash shot outward towards the B-wings. It took a moment to understand what he was seeing. His heart skipped a beat.

“Thunder, missile missile missile!”

Both B-wings broke hard, blowing chaff in their way. The missile lost its track and tumbled out of control into the mountainside, but a second fired off right after it. This one stayed locked onto the B-wing that had broken towards Wolf. Without thinking, he jammed the throttle forward, racing head-on with the bomber.

“Thunder Two, break hard left on my mark … mark!”

The B-wing broke hard left and Wolf jammed the throttle past full power and into boost. His engines ignited, creating an enormous signature as he passed the missile. For a moment, he thought he’d gambled and lost, that the missile wouldn’t track.

Far away, Knight’s voice called out to him. “One, launcher down!”

Then the missile turned away, towards him.

And exploded.

Fire and metal blew through his shield and shredded his right engine. Alarms went off and he immediately shut the engine down, pulling the yellow and black tab to blow sand into the engine and put out the fire, if there was one. The A-wing began to yaw hard to the right, and no matter how much rudder he put in, it wasn’t straightening out.

“Weasel One is hit, right engine out!” he called, letting his A-wing roll into a right hand turn, hoping he could control it. The base loomed, it’s glass domes blackened and skeletal. The clouds were gone and he saw a large patch of soot-covered ground that looked soft as sin.

He cut his remaining engine and tried the repulsors. No response. His cockpit lights began to fade, flashing as the power died. His A-wing was gone and so was he if he didn’t do something.

“One is going down! Ditching north of the domes!”

He pulled the ejection lever and nothing happened.

Well, he thought rather numbly. This isn’t how I saw today going.

With the remaining control he had, he wrestled the starfighter towards that open patch, letting its natural yaw to skid him through the air and slow him down. This landing was going to be hard, but he could put it down. He could survive this.

The ground rushed up to meet him and he pulled back on the stick, trying to raise the nose a little. The thrust vectors in the rear of the craft caught and dug into the ground, slamming the A-wing bodily down.

Wolf saw a fountain of ash just before the deceleration slammed him into darkness.

****************

[ Lightning Two - Clom Alpha ]
POV: Lock

Lock pulled in close to Thanatos, keeping his upper left S-Foil in line with his wingman’s engines. Flying this close was difficult, but it kept him from losing sight in this soup. It still felt strange, being just a wingman again. He’d been Red Leader but now he was a Rogue, the best of the best. Even if he was a great pilot, he was a great pilot among great pilots. It was a hard lesson.

But he was determined to show his worth.

“Those two TIEs are still off sensors, One. I think you’re right, they frakked off.”

“I don’t like it. Those four knew their stuff, but it was a delay tactic. I--looks like Thunder is inbound.”

Lock glanced left over his canopy rail. Through the thick, low cloud cover he couldn’t see the B-wings overfly the target, but he saw the aftermath. Explosions lit up the ground below, ripping away the mist, and like a curtain drawing back, he saw the destruction below.

He also saw a missile tear its way towards Animal.

Wolf’s voice cut in across the strike package’s comm channel. “Thunder, missile missile missile!”

The B-wing broke but Lock never saw the result. His X-wing entered more thick clouds and his vision was obscured once again. There was a flash of an explosion somewhere below and his gut clenched.

Thanatos beat him to the comm. “Thunder Two, come in!”

“I’m all right! Wo--Weasel One drew the missile off me.”

Lock felt the ice in his stomach melt away, the fear of seeing a wingmate bite it dissolving into relief. The mission was just about complete. Another few minutes and they were out of here.

“Thunder Two to Weasel One, thanks for the assist!”

There was an awkward moment of silence that made Lock’s insides freeze right back up again.

“One?” Knight called. “One, this is Two, status?”

Still nothing. Lock slid beneath Thanatos’s fighter and reformed on his left side to get a better view below. The cover was still thick, but more and more patches were burning away every second the fires raged below.

Then he saw it.

“Lightning Two to all Wildcards, there’s an A-wing down northwest of the domes. Repeat, northwest of the domes!”

“I see it,” Knight said, flying his A-wing fast and low over the smoking remains of the base. Lock tried to watch the tiny snubfighter but the clouds obscured his vision again. The scene disappeared as quickly as it had revealed itself.

There was a tense moment of silence. Lock clenched his jaw in frustration. This was the part of flying that he hated. There was nothing he could do to change the situation, no matter how good he was. Just like at Endor. He’d gone back to help Gnoizic, and Angel ... she’d ….

No use going down that road again.

“No sign of him,” Knight said, sounding confused. “Cockpit’s empty.”

“Magic, this is Wildcard Leader,” Thanatos said, bringing Tattoo into the equation. “We have a downed A-wing but it looks like the pilot may have bailed out.”

“Copy that, Leader. Scanning for beacons. Is it safe to enter the area?”

Lock glanced down at his sensor board and his eyes went wide before narrowing with determination.

“Lightning Two to all fighters, TIEs incoming!”

****************

[ Weasel One - Clom Alpha Factory ]
POV: Wolf

Everything hurt. His whole body felt like one giant bruise. He was also terribly warm, like he was swaddled in furs in a hothouse, on fire. Barely able to breathe, he tore at his vest, trying to get some relief from the heat.

Yet the world was nothing but darkness.

He began to panic. Was this death? The last thing he remembered was trying to ditch in the field above the base. Did he bungle it and kill himself?

Soft, gentle hands on his shoulders told him that he wasn’t dead, not yet.

“Easy, take it easy,” a woman’s voice said. “You’re injured.”

“I can’t see,” he said. “I can’t--”

He trailed off as a piece of thick cloth was pulled from his eyes. Blinking the stars from his eyes, he first saw an older woman with soot covering her face. She wore a stained and blackened jumpsuit, her dark hair pulled beneath a kerchief.

“Where am I?” he said, confused, bewildered. “How did I get here?”

“You blew the place up,” she said, her tone not as gentle now. Her expression was hard and grim, anger flashing in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“What?” he said, looking passed her to the rest of the room. Dozens of men and women of all ages were huddled in the faint light of a flickering lantern. All of them looked dirty, burned or both. Several lay on the floor, bandages hastily applied. He didn’t understand what he was seeing. He’d crashed outside the factory, which was run by droids.

Right?

A man stepped into view. He wore the black flight suit of an Imperial TIE Pilot, but he wore no helmet and his hands were bare and bloody. He stopped next to Wolf and nodded to the woman, who pursed her lips and stood.

“You should toss him into fire,” she spat before walking away. The Imperial pilot sighed and raked a hand through slick, dirty black hair. His pale skin had a reddish tone, like he’d stared at the sun for too long.

“What’s your name, pilot?” he said, pulling a rickety wooden chair from the wall and sitting on it.

At first, Wolf clamped his lips shut. He’d never been captured before, but he remembered his training. Give nothing but name, rank and serial. He honestly couldn’t remember his serial number and wasn’t even sure they’d given him one.

“You don’t have to tell me,” the pilot said. “And no, I’m not going to sit here and reveal that I know everything about you. I don’t. I just want to know who hurt all these people?”

“These people?” Wolf said, his voice feeling hoarse and terribly dry. He winced as he tried to sit up. The Imp didn’t try and stop him, but instead offered a bulb of water. When Wolf stared at it dubiously, the other man shrugged and took a sip himself.

“If you think we have the resources to drug you, you’re as ill-informed as I thought.”

He offered the bulb again and this time Wolf took it, drinking greedily. The water was like a balm on his throat, which felt burned and raw. When the bulb was half empty, he gave it back and took another look around.

With the exception of two other people in TIE uniforms, the gathered men and women all had simple coveralls on. They looked like workers.

Wolf felt sick.

“They told us the place was run by droids.”

“Did they?” the Imperial said. “Who said that?”

“That’s what we were briefed on. A TIE Factory run by droids.”

The other man’s laugh was low and somber, ending with a wet cough. He spat on the ground, the spittle dark with blood or soot.

“Whoever told you that was wrong. TIE Factory? Ridiculous. Once, maybe, but no more These people process tibanna gas for fuel. Didn’t you see the explosion your bombs set off? Cracked the surface. Destroyed almost the entire living quarters.”

He waved a hand towards the people huddled nearby. “These are the only ones who could walk out, or we could drag out.”

Wolf stared at them, dumbfounded, numb, breaking inside. He’d spent two years fighting a war, and he knew, on a certain level, that he’d killed TIE pilots. He saw the Pride of Tarlandia go down. Star Destroyers held hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The Death Star? Hundreds of thousands.

But he hadn’t looked at them, hadn’t seen it.

“It’s tough, to look at war in the face, isn’t it?”

When Wolf looked at him, the Imperial was leaning back in his chair, watching the scene with somber exhaustion. “They told you it was run by droids. We were told you’d never find this place. That our Captain would return with a fleet. That these people would be protected.”

The Imperial shook his head and offered the water to him again. Wolf accepted, drinking deeply once more. He wasn’t sure what to say, but already he was seeing their injuries. Burns mostly, but laceration, concussions, internal bleeding. His fingers itched to work. His father’s voice rose in his mind.

”You were meant to heal, not to kill.”

“What do you want from me?” Wolf asked, handing the bulb back. The Imperial pilot shrugged, waving for Wolf to keep it.

“We’re contacting your people right now. Hoping for a peaceful surrender. We’ve had enough of this war. Today alone we lost two kids that barely graduated from the Academy before Endor. Good fliers. Took orders well. Didn’t hotdog it. Careful. They might have survived this whole thing.”

The man sighed and stood up, looking down at him. “We know which way the winds are blowing. Our Destroyer was due back yesterday but … I suppose whatever hope he’d had was also for nothing. We’d rather take our chances with the New Republic than Versio.”

“Versio?”

“Some madman who thinks the Emperor is still floating around somewhere, as if that asshole’s leadership got us anywhere.”

“These people … I’m a medic. I can help.”

The Imperial blinked, frowning. “You look like a pilot to me.”

“My father’s a doctor. I grew up working with him on Sluis Van. I know emergency medicine pretty well. Do you have any supplies?”

The man looked skeptical. “Some. Not enough to go around, but some.”

Wolf struggled to stand, but found his legs too unsteady until the Imperial caught his arm and helped him up. Together, they walked towards the wounded civilians and the woman who Wolf had seen when he first woke.

“Tezia,” the Imperial pilot said. “He says he’s a medic.”

The woman, Tezia, frowned at him. “Not very good at it.”

“I want to help,” Wolf said, knowing his voice was pleading. He felt responsible for this and needed to make it right, or as right as he could. “Please.”

She looked from Wolf to the Imperial pilot and then back to him. Shaking her head, she nodded her head towards a door. “Come this way, then.”

The door opened on utter carnage.

****************

[ Magic - Clom Alpha ]
POV: Tattoo

Tattoo didn’t trust this at all, even with Lock on board.

She flew the U-Wing through the dissipating cloud cover, eyes focused on the burning wreckage of the factory ahead. The message they’d received from those TIE pilots seemed sincere and they hadn’t fired on the two Rogues when they entered the battlespace. They hadn’t fired on anyone even as Lock set his X-wing aside and joined Tattoo. Still after everything she’d been through, it was hard to trust anything the Imperials said or did.

Lock kept busy in the co-pilot’s chair even as Digger readied the medical gear in the back. She couldn’t help but be reminded of the last time he’d been with her on such a mission. Searching for downed pilots was her job and each one felt personal to her, but with Lock here it just felt too much like on Endor. They’d searched and searched.

Tattoo still felt his loss like a blaster bolt to the heart. Would she ever get over it? Would she ever truly move on?

Mighty’s voice broke the silence.

“Magic, Thunder One. The LZ is clear. Turn comm channel two-five-nine for ground contact. Lightning and Thunder are patrolling your airspace. Weasel Two will join you on the ground.”

“Understood, thanks,” she replied and then turned to Lock. “Let’s get in touch with that ground station and see what they have to say.”

“Already on it, El-Tee,” Lock said.

Glancing out of the viewport, she saw Knight had already landed and was outside of his A-wing. She also remembered him from Endor. The one-eyed pilot who had so willingly risked his life to help find Leoran. Well, she’d help him find his wingman. This felt right, like repaying old debts.

The comm crackled to life and Tattoo activated it. “Ground Station this is Magic, an SAR craft en route.”

It took a moment to respond, but when it did she was surprised to hear a woman’s voice.

“SAR craft you can land right outside with the A-wing there. You’ll find a door unlocked. We’ll meet you inside.”

She glanced sideways to Lock, her lips pressed into a line. He shrugged.

“Copy. Bringing it in.”

She set the U-wing down gently, its repulsor lifts throwing up soot, ash, and dust in every direction. Leaving the engine humming, she rotated out of her seat and grabbed her blaster. Digger looked up from the medical table, his expression perplexed.

“You’re going with? Could be an ambush.”

“Could be injured,” she said, taking her medical bag off its rack and slinging it over her shoulders.

“You know I’m a trained medic too. You could stay here.”

“Not a chance, Dig,” she said with a slap on his shoulder on her way past. “Keep the ship running. We may need a quick dust off.”

Hurrying down the ramp, she heard Lock coming down behind her. He still wore his X-wing’s flight suit and that leather jacket. He’d left his helmet in his fighter, so his stark white hair blew in the rough wind, collecting motes of ash.

“Ready?” he said, pulling his sidearm.

She nodded and they ducked beneath the U-wing’s folded S-foil to join Knight by his A-wing. It shouldn’t have surprised her, but he now sported a cybernetic eye implant. He must have caught her stare because he grinned, winking with his one good eye.

“I can shoot straighter now,” he said and his grin died away. “Shall we?”

They found the door easily. The closest structure was a squat, rectangular hunk of durasteel that looked more like a space container than a building. The door was octagonal and thick, likely shielded from fire. It had no obvious controls on the outside, so Lock knocked, and everyone readied their weapons.

The door irised open. Standing there was a middle-aged woman in a dirty, stained coverall. She studied them all curiously, then shook her head.

“You ‘Magic’ or whatever?”

“Yes,” Tattoo said. “I’m Lieutenant Calyse. We’re here for our downed pilot.”

“Come in,” she said in a voice that was more exhausted than anything else. She shuffled on tired feet, eyes drooping. As they walked down a low-ceilinged entryway, she coughed violently several times and spat on the floor.

Tattoo glanced at the spittle as they went and she frowned. Her nose tickled and sinuses began to ache, like the pressure had suddenly increased. There was a smell in the air too, and a half-hundred ideas flickered through her mind until something clicked. Suddenly the wavering gate and drooping eyes didn’t seem so much exhaustion as something worse.

“I thought this place was run by droids,” Knight said as they turned a corner and Tattoo saw yet another human in coveralls. They too coughed violently.

“Yeah, that pilot of yours said much the same thing,” the woman said over her shoulder to Knight.

“Is he hurt?” Tattoo said, knowing they were going to have to get him out of here very soon. She was beginning to suspect something was very wrong here as only a few things caused that pain, and also ruptured blood vessels in your lungs enough to hack them up.

“Bumps and bruises, gonna have a hell of a headache but I gave him a shot for it,” the woman said, stopping at another sealed door.

“Where is he? Where are you keeping him?” Knight asked, brandishing his weapon.

The woman just sighed. “Look kid, we ain’t doing anything to him. You’ll see for yourself.”

She opened the door and soon, they did.

****************

[ Weasel One - Clom Alpha Factory ]
POV: Wolf

“Am I going to die?” the young man said, gripping Wolf’s wrist as he pulled the injector from his arm. He was eighteen at most and looked like any other scared human kid. The burns on his cheek and neck were blistered, red, and angry. His lungs were in worse shape, Wolf knew. How he wasn’t screaming in agony, Wolf attributed to shock.

“No, I’m just going to put a little mark here so I know when to come back okay?” Wolf lied and took the blue marker from his sleeve and put a single slash on his forehead. Already, the young man’s breathing eased as the pain ebbed.

He hated that too many were blue marks already. They required bacta to live, bacta he didn’t have. He had to save their meager supplies for things he could actually treat. So, like so many times after a mining collapse, he triaged.

One after another, red cross for treatable, blue slash for untreatable. Behind him was the TIE pilot, whom he’d discovered was named Lieutenant Cyrin Bescher. His only job was to give a stim to the red crosses. That would hold them until further treatment, if their injuries weren’t needing to be tended to on the spot.

There were dozens of wounded. And between Bescher and himself, they’d found another ten in the burning inferno of the facility. The destruction inside was so complete, he was still amazed they’d found anyone alive.

But that was all. Now he had to save lives. The room in which he worked was small, cramped, suffocatingly warm and smelled of blood, urine, and vomit. It was filled with the sounds of suffering. Here, a man with his guts punctured. A quick exam saw he was already septic. Blue slash and morpha. There, an older man with a burned arm and severed leg. The leg was wrapped, tourniqueted and cauterized. Red cross. Here a girl no older than he was, with black hair and lifeless eyes that looked like someone he used to know. His heart skipped a beat, but it wasn’t her.

On and on. Methodically, carefully. No one was left out. He had to know. Had to help if it was possible.

He was halfway through when help came.

The door slid aside and they came through, weapons readied. The tired and injured workers barely registered their arrival. Bescher merely sighed and raised his hands, medpack in hand. Wolf, his hands stained red and blue, felt like he could collapse right there. His face hurt, his legs felt like he’d leapt from a ten-story building, and he was pretty sure he’d bruised a few ribs.

“Well,” Knight said, looking around and lowering his weapon. “Krif.”

The Mirialan girl, Tattoo, moved without a word. She looked from one wounded to another, her eyes falling on their foreheads and then to Wolf. He knew, in that instant, that she knew.

Wolf marked the young man before him with a red cross before moving to the next. Tattoo knelt at his side and they looked at him together. No one else moved. Knight and Lock looked unsure what to do or even where to stand.

“Third-degree burns, possible internal bleeding …” Tattoo whispered and leaned close to the woman’s mouth, as if listening to her.

“Smoke inhalation,” Wolf said without looking. “Most of them have some sort of lung-burn. We need to get them out of here, fast. Back to the Vigilant where they--”

“Can get Bacta,” Tattoo agreed and turned to Lock and Knight. “Get Dig to bring the U-wing closer to the door. We need stretchers, oxygen, and expedients. Tell him to get the SkinCool!”

Lock and Knight only took one moment to look at one another, and then Knight pointed at Bescher. The man still had his hands up.

“What about uh, the TIE guys?”

“We surrender,” he said simply. “Now, if we could perhaps do as the medical lady says?”

They gave Tattoo one more look of uncertainty before disappearing through the door again. Tattoo looked from them to Wolf and smiled, just a little.

“Medic?”

“Used to be, a lifetime ago,” he said and glanced down at the people now depending on them. He could still hear his father’s words. ”Every life is precious. Even the ones you dislike. We don’t get to pick and choose. We help. We do no harm.”

Seeing those bombs destroy the facility felt like a betrayal now. Tattoo’s hand on his shoulder brought him back.

“Once a healer, always a healer,” she said and then pulled her pack off her shoulder. “Come on, we have work to do.”

It took hours, but true to their word, the remaining TIE pilots, ten in all, assisted in the evacuation process. They shuffled as many wounded onto the U-wing as possible, in addition to a battered TIE Reaper that Lock co-piloted. It took five trips to the Black Hawk to get all the wounded out.

Four died before reaching it, and Wolf mourned each and every one. On his last trip out, riding in the U-wing with Tattoo, he gazed down at the destruction he’d help cause. It was war and it had been a military target. It had been his job, yet his father’s voice was louder than ever in his mind.

He put his face in his hands and quietly wept.

****************

Epilogue [ Clom Alpha Factory - Some Time Later ]

Captain Jerryk Pash stood in the ruins.

The factory’s destruction had been complete. Tibanna gas explosions had taken care of whatever the rebel bombs had missed. The dead were unrecognizable. They had depended on him, counted on him, needed him.

And he’d abandoned them.

Even his TIE pilots were gone. Scanners revealed TIE wreckage in the mountain side, but not enough to account for the numbers he’d left here. He suspected they were scattered in space, or blown to bits so tiny even a Star Destroyer couldn’t find them. Or, worse, they’d been captured.

The fumes of the burning tibanna stung his nose, even through the breath mask. Ahead of him, Kolly kicked at a few loose pieces of refuse. His XO’s normally clean-shaven face had collected several days of stubble. He looked like Pash felt, worn and tired. Worn out from combat and tired of war.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anything, Jer,” Kolly said with a shake of his head. “Whoever attacked this place hit it hard. They must have had good intelligence to take all the personnel too. Not enough bodies for them all to have died.”

Kolly’s face took on a somber expression, turning to face him with his hands held, palm out at his sides.

“Sorry, but it’s the truth.”

“It was Becca,” Pash said. He had no proof. No clue at all to suggest she’d given up his prize, but she was the only one who knew. He’d offered it to entice her to the meeting, and she’d sold him out.

Pash wished he could summon even an ounce of anger for her. Instead, he was angry at himself for trusting her. He was angry at the Empire for falling apart and losing its honor at its most critical hour. He was especially angry at Versio, for following the dead Emperor’s insane plan. For what? Revenge? One man dies and in return you tear down everything everyone had worked so hard to build?

It was all madness. The question was, where does he go from here? Surrender to the New Republic? What would that do, besides put good men and women into prison camps? He had a good ship, a strong ship, even if it was a little patchwork now.

And he had the Cinder machines, but what to do with them?

His comm chimed and he clicked it open. “Pash.”

“Captain, incoming call from the Conviction.”

The Conviction? He looked up at Kolly, who shrugged. Did he know the captain of that ship? There were so many that unless it was in the same flotilla, he’d couldn’t keep track of them.

He ought to hang it up. Screw them. Screw the whole lot of them. He put out a call to band together and no one showed except for Becca, and she’d stabbed him in the back. She’d sold him out, killed his people! For what?

For her child.

For her family, because she was scared.

Pash sighed, feeling everything crumbling inward. “Put it through.”

The line turned to static for a moment and then a voice, warm with self-assurance, spoke. “Captain Pash, this is Commodore Barand of the Conviction. I was hoping to speak with you about an offer.”

Commodore? He was pretty sure he knew most of the commodores in the fleet at least. Immediately, he felt disgust rise in his throat. Was this some new warlord drunk on self-importance?

“I’m afraid I’m unlikely to be interested in any offers, Commodore.”

“And I think you will. I understand you refused Operation Cinder?”

“I did.”

“Yet you obtained the machines, did you not? I’d like to make you an offer for them.”

Pash clenched his jaw, wanting to throw the commlink against the wall and watch it burst into a million pieces. So it was a warlord after all, hoping to obtain new weapons of mass destruction and death.

“They’re not for sale, Commodore. I refused the order because I didn’t want to see worlds destroyed by a madman. I’m not about to give them to another one.”

This time the man’s voice had lost a little of its warmth, replaced not with irritation, but almost glee.

“Oh, I don’t want to use them against worlds, Captain. How would you like see the Empire return to its glory without the likes of Versio and his boot-licking scum?”

Pash’s gaze unfocused, blurring the destruction around him. For a moment he saw the day he was given his Captain’s bars. The day he married his wife. The day Relya was born and he promised to always protect her. Rage at the injustice of it all boiled inside.

He clicked the commlink open again.

“Talk.” ************************************************************************************* Part 1.1<   Part 1.2 <    Part 1.3<    Finale ***********************************************************************************