By Bulldog, Frosty, Jalb_k, Lock
With Contributions by Foo, Damak, Gremlin, Knight, Syntax and Wildcard
Lead Editor: Shadow
Directed by Frosty
[ SSD; CRS Vigilant; Classified System ]
Bearcat stood off to the periphery of the gathering currently going on in the SSD. The place was packed, which made him extremely uncomfortable. He'd been working on his nerves with large gatherings of various non-Cathar species, but it would take more than a few days to get comfortable considering the wide open spaces and sparse population he'd grown up with. He pulled out his datapad and pulled up the personnel roster for the entire wing so he could put names to the various faces around the room.
His executive officer was off to the edge of the party, arguing with the bartending droid that owned the establishment. Clearly the lack of alcohol being served was really ruining the human's night. The droid likewise seemed less than happy that his profit margins were taking a massive dive on a dry event like this.
Nearby, Battledog was animatedly miming his latest maneuvers to a bored looking Fox and Frosty. Crane was just near them, looking as dour as ever. Tattoo and Spook were huddled in close, speaking in hushed whispers about something important to the two of them.
Lock pumped his fist in the air victoriously from his seat at the sabacc table. Foo, Ant, and Freak were in varying stages of disbelief and anger at having lost the big hand to the Rogue Squadron Captain.
Another sound of amazement drew his attention to another part of the room, where Shadow was twirling a vibroblade in his hands in a dizzying display of coordination and skill. Talon, Flattop, and Angel were applauding vigorously as Shadow tossed the dagger high into the air and did a full spin before catching it with his eyes closed and slamming it into its sheath. Rogue ambled over with Wolvinator and Knight in tow as he patted Shadow on the shoulder and then asked for room as he drew his own dagger and started doing his own dazzling sequence.
Slugger and Peacock were off to the side in an intimate conversation of their own, likewise segregated from their new wing as Bearcat was on the opposite side of the room.
He looked over to find Blue had moved next to him while he'd been attempting to fight his nerves. "I... crowds..."
Blue nodded in understanding. "Not from a very crowded planet?"
Bearcat winced as the reason for the relatively sparse population of his homeworld flashed through his mind. He again wondered if she actually knew her species' role in the Cathar slave trade, and he examined her intently as if he could discern the truth through her expectant eyes. He took a deep breath and decided to trust the only person that had shown him any sort of compassion since leaving home. "Ve verrre... enslaved."
A look of horror flooded across Blue's face. Her hand reflexively went to cover her open mouth. "That's terrible, Z."
He nodded his head toward the Mandalorians sprinkled throughout the room in sequence. Stryker was in a hushed discussion with Jedi, Mighty, Syntax, Krayt, and Jalb near the bar. Gnoizic was speaking with Rev, Trip, Bone, and Junior in an animated fashion. Nearby, Loth-Cat was eavesdropping on Gnoizic while also more or less engaged in a conversation with Jasted and Thanatos. Zippy was laughing at a joke Silence had just said, chuckling along with Dobber and Gremlin. After he'd inclined his head toward each of the Mandalorians in attendance he continued, "They made varrr vith my species and sent many of my ancestorrrs into slaverrry."
Blue's hand fell away from her mouth, the look of shocked horror remained. "And here we have two of them in our squadron."
He nodded again, but the look of pain across his features was not only directed at the Mandalorians. The sense of distrust he felt toward her species needed to be addressed, but he didn't want to risk alienating the only overtly friendly face he'd encountered since he and his littermate had entered different branches of the New Republic Military and been separated. The thoughts of his sister made his heart ache even more, being uncertain of her location or even if she was still alive. Last he'd heard from her, she was a communications officer onboard the Deliverance under General Syndulla. From what he'd gathered from his personal research, General Syndulla was a capable fighter and leader, having been involved with the Rebellion from very early on. Her history was a double edged sword, showing her a capable leader able to survive, but also quite willing to be daring and risk lives to accomplish the mission.
Still, not knowing where his sister was or her status only made his isolation grow worse. If he was going to survive his enlistment, he would need close friends to bond with to fill the void. He looked deeply into Blue's sad eyes and decided to level with her. "A lot of ourrr people verrre sold to yourrr people, who then brrrokered otherrr deals to scatterrr us farrr and vide acrrross the galaxy."
Blue's mouth closed into a tight-lipped frown. She looked away hurriedly as she attempted to gather her thoughts and get her emotions in check. After an eternity, she looked back to him with a tear rolling down her cheek. "I had wondered if that subject was known to you. I should have known it would be- such an emotional scar as that."
"Verrre you involved?"
Blue pursed her lips, again deep in thought for how to respond. "Not directly, no," she said, finally.
"Vhat does that mean, exactly?" Bearcat replied, his hackles rising. He involuntarily bared his fangs as he winced from the explosion of heartache within his chest.
Blue realized what her reply sounded like having run it back through her mind and seeing Bearcat's visceral response. She shook her head and placed her hands on his shoulders. He recoiled from her touch, but he remained in place as he looked into her eyes intently. "I meant that me and my immediate family are not slavers, nor have we owned any."
Bearcat visibly relaxed as his shoulders slumped and his hackles lowered. He still held his guard up, though, at the way she'd framed her response. "You said 'dirrrectly'?"
Blue nodded sadly. "Uncle was very influential in the slave markets. It's how he made his fortune. How many of our people made their fortunes." She took a sip of her jet juice sans alcohol. "He's a sonofaschutta."
A rumbling chuckle escaped Bearcat's mouth involuntarily. Relief flooded through him as he felt that he could again trust his Pantoran friend. His only friend.
"Ladies, Gentlebeings... and Bulldog," Wolf called out as he stood on a chair to draw attention to himself, waving his arms down to ask for silence. "A moment of your time, if you will!"
"Where the hell else are we gonna go?" Jasted called out, getting a few laughs from the assembled pilots.
Wolf pushed on, ignoring the interruption. "I just wanted to congratulate Dragon here on his new promotion to Captain!"
A raucous applause broke out as being surged forward to pat the newly minted captain on the head, shoulders, and back. Dragon took the tousling with the patience of a saint.
Wolf continued. "You're insane, Captain Arcfire, but you're our kind of insane!" More cheers. "Now, I'm sure you'll be happy to know the drinks are on him. And seeing as how we're having a dry party due to the current standby, you should be able to drink three times as much on his dime!"
"Guess we're drinking for free tonight," Blue said cheerily. She looked deeply into Bearcat's eyes. "Buy a girl a drink?"
[ Capital City; Toseng ]
The holoprojector flickered as the image phased in and out. Keyleb watched, attentively, as Feing pointed at various access points around the building depicted by the projector. "The target will be surrounded by guards, although most are there to protect Governor Spidrucket. Approach them with caution, they aren't as helpless as they appear."
There was a hiss and the door to the room slid open, revealing Kuro. Keyleb didn't like Kuro. Feing and Kuro were both clearly Imperial military, probably spec ops he figured, but Kuro in particular put him on edge. He'd met a few troopers like him in his life, men who felt just moments away from violence. Kuro and Feing exchanged a look, Kuro shook his head and Feing looked annoyed but nothing further was said.
The briefing resumed, and now Keyleb found it harder to focus. He believed in the mission, in restoring peace and control to Toseng. Too many had been hurt in the violence already. The mission objective felt a little off admittedly, Keyleb didn't feel like kidnapping was a valid tactic. But he had always been a good soldier who did the job asked of him. He was sure if Katur was here she would have been proud, their methods might have been different but they wanted the same thing after all. Peace. Security. Happiness.
The holoprojector fizzled out again and Keyleb refocused on it. He had a job to do.
[ ISD Consolidator; Omaraga System ]
Oshi looked around the hangar of the Consolidator slowly, taking in every detail. You could learn a lot about a star destroyer's operations based on the hangar crew, and what she saw impressed her. It wasn't just calm and organised, but the atmosphere was almost...jovial. Deck crew worked diligently, but she couldn't help but notice one or two of them laughing at something said by another. There was little mess, beyond the repair area at the far end of the hangar and even there, parts and tools were placed carefully and fastidiously.
A deck officer had greeted her off the shuttle and was now leading her wordlessly out of the hangar and into the turbolift. She felt a degree of suspicion from the man but there was none of the trademark snark or bite she had all too often come to expect aboard the Conviction. He remained silent for the turbolift ride, only breaking his silence to motion to the door at the end of the corridor as the turbolift came to a stop, "Captain wishes to see you."
She found it odd to see Captain Pash's own quarters were unguarded, no paranoid stormtroopers that she'd come to expect from Barand's own hallways. She pressed once at the buzzer and the doors before her slid open, silently. "Come in."
Oshi lifted her arm in salute, trying to imbue it with as much respect as she could. "Lieutenant Oshi Frell, Sir, reporting for duty."
Captain Jerryk Pash stared at her from his desk, a datapad in one hand. He motioned to sit, "Welcome aboard Lieutenant. It's very good of you to have volunteered to assist us with our communication officer dilemma."
"Just doing my duty to the fleet, sir."
Pash continued to stare at her and she felt an involuntary twitch start to develop in her face. "Yes, duty. I must admit, Lieutenant, it was embarrassing to have to request Agent Barand's assistance in replacing my lost communication officer. It was very...unusual behaviour of her's to go disappear whilst on leave."
Oshi refused to take the bait. "Commodore, Sir."
"Hmmm?" Pash looked disinterested in her correction.
She felt her own voice go a little quieter in face of his scorn. "Barand is a Commodore."
"Yes, so he says. An interesting approach to rank." Captain Pash leaned back in his chair and watched Oshi carefully. When he next spoke he did so slowly, "We both understand what it means for Barand to have sent you here. Comms officer is a very important position, Lieutenant, it's critical to the effective operation of this ship in itself and within the flotilla. I cannot and will not tolerate anyone endangering my crew. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir," Oshi said, "crystal."
[ Seiku's ship; Private Landing Pad; Toseng ]
Sidda ran full pelt up the boarding ramp, bringing it up rapidly as she jabbed at the controls. Her chest heaved, her lekku falling forwards to the floor, lungs inflating and deflating rapidly. She could still feel his arm around her neck, the suddenness of the air escaping her windpipe as she struggled. She fell to the floor, her breathing becoming more rapid. It was so immediate, she was just walking and then suddenly she was dying. She thought of Jez, laying there, lifeless. It wasn't her first time seeing a body, but this felt different.
Absent-mindedly she felt her finger trace the edge of the boarding ramp control panel. Right, down, left, up. Right, down, left, up she let it travel around the edge of the rectangular box. Sidda allowed herself to focus on the motion, a familiar pattern. Slowly, as though she was attempting to take her first ever steps, she pulled herself to a standing position.
Jez hadn't intended to sacrifice his life. But he had. She had to escape, before she was found.
She moved to the pilot seat, still shaking and began the start up procedure. It'd be a few moments and then she'd be gone, skywards and spacewards.
Halfway through the checklist she stumbled. Jez normally flew. Was it portside heat coil first or starboard? Did she need to have auxiliary power running before full boot? There was something she had forgotten, something else...
She thought of Jez's body. But this time she thought of others next to his. Zabrak mostly, some humans, but with one laid opposite Jez. Rori Brebor.
That wasn't just some street mugging. She was targeted, he was a professional. Which meant she was on to something, something big. Something real. Brebor was at risk, she was sure of it. She had tried to warn him but got no further than some assistant, who was very kind but didn't really take it all in. Sure, Brebor had received death threats for years but Sidda knew this was important. This was different.
She shut the ship down and went to the boarding ramp. She had to do this. If not her, then who else?
[ Hangar; CRS Vigilant; Classified System ]
Two transports entered the Vigilant's hangar bay. Both landed at designated areas within the hangar. Squads of fleet troopers surrounded the transports securing them from prying eyes. Once the area had been secured, a security chief and ordinance supply officer entered one of the transports with portable scanners. After fifteen minutes, the two men exited the first transport and entered the second transport.
Maintenance crews with heavy lifters started to converge on the two transports. They waited for the two men to finish their inspection. Another fifteen minutes passed before the two men appeared.
"Everything is checked out. Get the munitions to the secured storage area."
"Four man team of fleet troopers will escort each maintenance crew."
The crews entered the transports and began using the heavy lifter to move the munitions onto floating carriers. Some of the munitions looked standard, but when they reached the middle of the transport, the crews started to carry out Proton Bombs. The spherical, shiny munition was one of the most devastating bombs that could be carried by a fighter bomber. The number of bombs seemed to be more than their usual supply. They continued transferring the cargo until they completely emptied the transport.
The ordinance supply officer and the security chief tallied the munitions in the secure storage before locking it down. They both signed off on the datapad and sent the documents to the central computer. Two fleet troopers took guard positions in front of the secure storage.
Meanwhile, Damak was sleeping off a headache he'd gotten after hitting his head while trying a dangerous maneuver in a ground battle simulator. He was dreaming about Cee-Four throwing porg eggs all around his quarters. He was chasing Cee-Four around the ship. Cee-Four was giggling as he ran.
Damak suddenly woke up from his sleep. He was groggy and kept blinking his eyes, trying to get used to the dim light. He heard a digital giggling sound.
"I must still be dreaming... I can still hear Cee-Four's giggle."
He turned towards the sound and saw a blinking light. The light from an astromech optical sensor. The astromech was in front of his data terminal and a data probe was connected to the terminal's port. His astromech was making the digital giggling sound.
"Cee-Four, what are you doing?"
The astromech's optical sensor quickly turned towards him. There was silence before it slowly retracted the probe and secured it back in its place.
Suddenly, it rushed to the door and opened it before rushing out.
"What is wrong with that droid?"
Damak sauntered to the data terminal and accessed the usage log. When he saw what Cee-Four was accessing, his eyes grew wide and he dashed out of his quarters, half dressed.
"CEE-FOUR! KEEP YOUR CLAWS OFF OF THOSE NEWLY DELIVERED PROTON BOMBS!"
As he ran after his R2 unit, Cee-Four activated its evasion programming trying to lose the trailing Damak. He rushed through opened doors and into people, tripping over them as he tried to catch up to the renegade astromech.
"HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING!"
"MY FOOT! YOU RAN OVER MY FOOT!"
Damak had to slow down and apologise to the people Cee-Four bumped into as it tried to lose him. As he talked, he tried not to lose sight of the errant R2 unit. After seeing that it took too much time, he decided to ignore them and keep chasing after Cee-Four. They ran through the ship as Cee-Four tried to lose him while trying to get to the proton bombs.
Cee-Four crashed through the Mess Hall filled with hungry off-duty pilots and crew. The cries of pain were non stop as Cee-Four weaved around the people. He saw the door to the kitchen area and rushed through.
When Damak entered the mess hall, it was a mess. Food and trays were all over the floor, tables, and people. Pilots and crew were helping each other up.
"Guess, this is the reason this place is called 'the mess'."
Damak looked around the mess but could not find Cee-Four. He heard cries of anger and surprise from the kitchen. He ran into the kitchen and saw people as well as cookware on the floor. They were all looking at him.
"Sorry, guys. I'm trying to catch a rogue R2 unit. Which way did it go?"
They all turned and looked at the opposite doorway.
"Thanks... and I really like the food from this kitchen."
He went through the door and back in pursuit, but he already lost Cee-Four.
"Sigh... I'd better go and check the storage area."
He walked towards the storage area while looking around to see if he could spot Cee-Four.
He saw a crew chief exiting the storage area being guarded by two fleet troopers.
"Hey, chief. You don't happen to see my R2 unit near here?"
"Your R2 unit?"
"Yeah, black with blue trim."
"Do you mind if I go in and check?"
"Sorry, Lieutenant. This area is authorised personnel only."
The chief moved away from the storage area and left Damak standing in front of a locked blast door.
"Where did that blasted droid go?"
Suddenly a message popped up on his comm.
"Lieutenant Malim, you're scheduled for flight duty in 30 minutes. Please report to the hangar bay immediately."
"This is not good. No one else knows about his tendencies."
Damak walked slowly towards the hangar bay while keeping his eyes out for his errant droid. He entered the hangar bay and motioned to a tech near a U-wing.
"Have you seen my R2 unit?"
"No, lieutenant. But you don't need it for this patrol. You'll be flying a U-wing."
"Please start the pre-flight. You're behind schedule."
The tech pulled him towards the U-wing.
As he was pulled through the hangar bay towards his prepped U-wing, he saw a single MG-100 StarFortress SF-17 entering the hangar. It looked brand new and shiny. Like it had just come out of the factory.
"What is this bomber doing here? Are the proton bombs for it?"
Damak walked into the U-wing and started his pre-flight. After confirming that all systems were normal, he contacted launch control and flew the U-wing out of the hangar to join with his flight which were already waiting for him.
"You're late, Lieutenant."
"Sorry, boss. Something came up."
"Get into position and let's start our patrol."
Back in the secured storage area, an optical sensor lit up and a claw extended from the cylindrical body. It caressed the proton bombs while maniacal sounding beeps were heard...
[ Capital City; Toseng ]
Rori sat in the speeder, with his eyes closed. Shyon, sat beside him, ran her hands through her head massaging the spots where her Zabraki horns sprouted from her skull. They ached, a dull ache that worked its way all the way down her neck. Too many late nights, too much stress.
"I'm frightened, Shyon."
Shyon looked at Rori, fear blossoming in her own eyes. "Rori?"
He still sat in his seat, with his eyes closed. He looked so small, so....old. "It has taken so long, so very very long, to get to this point. It feels like a lifetime, to see this come to reality. Finally for Toseng, peace. Freedom. For all of us."
"What if..." He opened his eyes and looked at her, she could see tears starting to form. "What if it doesn't work? I don't have anything left in me, Shyon."
She reached out a hand, placing it gently on his, rubbing it gently. His hands felt tense but cold. "Rori...you have helped start something. You always tell me it is bigger than me, or you, or anyone. That it is all of us that continue it. It is okay to be ready to stop, Rori. There's millions now you have inspired who will continue. You can allow yourself to be disappointed, to be fatigued. It's not just you."
Rori smiled and eventually started to laugh. A small laugh became a bigger one until he laughed until he sobbed. "Oh you smart woman. Look at me, allowing myself to convince myself I am the centre of all things. What would I do without you to keep me grounded hmmm? Come, let us go vote."
They exited the speeder and stood alongside the queue for the polling booth. It was long and winding, going beyond the street as far as they could see. Security officers and Imperial infantry patrolled it, but their weapons were stowed. Opposite large groups of people eyed the troopers carefully. No one dared try anything today because no one was assured victory.
A cheer went up amongst the line when they saw who had stepped out of the speeder. Chants began immediately, causing a few of the more nervous troopers and officers to take a slightly wider line away from the queuing citizens. Rori smiled broadly and waved as he moved to the front of the queue, to the polling booth. But before he could step inside he felt a hand on his arm. He smiled, if a little unnerved, at the Twi'lek woman gripping his arm. "Ms Sidda correct? I'm afraid I can't-"
"It's a trap!" The words came pouring from her mouth, her eyes frenzied. "Someone is trying to kill you!"
He nodded carefully. "They always are Ms Siddalla."
She shook her head fearfully, "You don't understand, I know they're trying to stop the election right now!"
His own bodyguards had gathered round her now, but a police officer pushed through them all, flashing his badge to anyone who would care to look. "Dosh Montara, Toseng PD. Come on Siddalla, come with me-"
Rori placed himself between the detective and the distressed Twi'lek woman. "Please, Detective. Yam, I know there's a lot of threats. A lot of people want to stop this. But they can't, you see? It's too late for that now. We have made our voices heard and the Republic is waiting in the wings to ensure the Empire doesn't do anything rash. Just ask Ambassador Vel'Ath, she can assure you my safety is assured."
Rori turned to motion the ambassador forward but she wasn't standing behind him. She wasn't next to Shyon. She wasn't anywhere. "Where," he asked carefully, "Is Ambassador Vel'Ath?"
[ Rancorpits Bar; Toseng]
In a corner of the Rancorpits, the best dive bar in the entire east of Toseng City according to no one, the holo display showing the outer rim league grav ball championship winked out and winked back on to much shouting and chagrin. Now, instead of showing the best the edge of the galaxy could offer, a small Pantoran woman was on screen, her hands bound and mouth gagged as she sat in a chair, cold fury burning in her eyes.
A hush settled over the bar as a man stepped forward.
"Patriots of Toseng. My name is Zom Spidrucket. I come before you, as a servant to our people, as the leader of the True Loyalist Militia. For the past weeks we have witnessed violence and chaos and disorder never before seen in our planet's history. Businesses have been destroyed, and officers injured serving in the line of duty."
Zom detached a blaster from his hip and began to check it over carefully. "For decades the Empire has protected us, brought us prosperity and safety in equal measure. Our sons and daughters have gone to serve for the cause. But we have allowed a sickness to creep into our society. Those who take from our society have rioted. They asked for a say in things, so the governor established the advisory council of ministers. But that wasn't enough. They demanded our own hard working businesses start just giving away their credits to them. Unacceptable! Now they ask to destroy the strong leadership of our governor, to choose any idiot who promises them the galaxy on a string to lead them instead."
Zom walked around the ambassador slowly, his hand feeling the weapon. "It seems to me that there seems to be some confusion in the galaxy at large. The Emperor is dead, so suddenly everything he helped build must be thrown away. Back to the days of the Clone Wars, the chaos of Separatists. But my father raised me right. There comes a time when you have to stand up for what is right."
Quick as a flash the gun barrel was swung and pushed against the Pantoran ambassador's head. She didn't flinch. "Father, I appeal directly to you. Do not allow our people to become enslaved by the tyranny of these bureaucrats and work-shy wasters who call themselves the Republic. Stop this corrupted election immediately, or this...politician will be executed, in the name of the people of Toseng."
The holo projector fizzed and went blank. There was silence at first, the bar quieter than it had ever been. Eventually the bar owner spoke up, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"Settle your tabs people. It's time to go home and hunker down."
[ Ready Room; CRS Vigilant; Classified System ]
In her small cabin aboard the Vigilant, Gremlin worked hard to breathe. She felt like the air itself was being sucked out of the room, only there was no hull breach, no alarms. Her gaze was fixed on the screen.
The images on her holo projector showed the crowd had started to unravel. Protestors pushed and shoved at security forces that had already started to crowd around polling booths. But she could only think of one thing.
Her best friend in Red Squadron. Her former wingmate. The only one she'd trusted to know the truth about that schutta Zeno. They'd stayed in touch since Ice had left to become a diplomat again; whenever they met up, their friendship had been just as strong as before. Now Ice was sitting there, helpless, as that skugg Spidrucket held a blaster to her head. And there was nothing she could do. Even if she could launch her X-wing immediately, Ice was far out of reach on Toseng.
Gremlin felt her fists tense and un-tense as she tried to hold off the anger that was coursing through her body, but it refused to disappear. I have to do something! Ice rescued us when the Imps had a firing squad in front of us - I can't let her die without trying to help!
With a curse, she stood, her chair screeching across the metal floor. So it'd take her time to get to Toseng? So what! But there was someone else she needed to find - someone who needed to know about Ice, if he didn't already. Gremlin grabbed her commpad and started talking into it as she rushed out of the door.
"Lock? Have you seen that kriffin' holo from Toseng? We need to get there!"
As the door slid closed behind her, the holo projector fizzled again and the announcer spoke of a message coming directly from the governor's office.
Governor Vak Spidrucket sat carefully at his official desk, a look of panic upon his face. When he spoke his voice was wavering. "My fellow citizens of Toseng. Like many of you, I do not believe that violence is an answer to our current predicament. I cannot allow harm to come to Ambassador Vel'Ath. It is for this reason I am temporarily halting the election. Now is not the time for us to be bogging ourselves down in meaningless debate and rhetoric."
In the background a faint chanting could be heard, growing louder. It sounded guttural, rageful, untethered. Vak licked his lips nervously and continued to speak to the camera. "I promise you, personally, I will find a way to fix this. Until that moment I have made the decision to request martial support to bring peace back to our streets and arrest the radicals who have been behind this violence. Commodore Tol Barand of the Empire will be arriving shortly with his fleet. A curfew is now in effect. Return home immediately. We will have peace and order back on our streets."
The camera feed cut, but not before the first brick came through the window and landed on Vak's desk, his face frozen in fear broadcast across the galaxy.
[ Streets of Capital City; Toseng ]
Guts watched with mild disgust as Sigilien, once again, poured blue milk into her mug of kaf and stirred it in. They were in the same cafe they'd visited the other day; it was cozy and tonight it was completely empty; an eye in the center of the raging storm of the protests raged on outside. Since the Rebel Ambassador had been kidnapped, things had only escalated, getting worse and worse. Best of all, the cafe's sandwiches were quite affordable compared to most.
It was almost perfect. Almost.
"You know where that comes from, right?" he asked.
Sigilien looked at him as if he was stupid. "Titties?"
"Exactly, monster titties," Guts replied.
She snorted. "Oookay," she answered, rolling her eyes. "You don't like titties then. I'll let Tsurio know..."
Guts's eyes widened. "N-no, wait, I never said I---you... you're twisting my words!" The woman's grin only grew as his face grew redder. "I love titties!"
The barista stopped what she was doing to glance back at Guts. He lifted a hand, trying to hide his face.
Sigilien laughed and stuck her tongue out at him, "You played yourself, boy!"
Out of nowhere, something hit the window of the kaf shop, shattering the glass and interrupting their deeply philosophical conversation. Even as smoke billowed past her and the shop was inundated with protestors for what felt like no good reason, Sigilien calmly sipped at her Kaf with a stupid grin. Guts was immediately out of his chair, blaster in hand, pointed at the forehead of a Zabrak male who was quickly coming to terms with the mistake he'd made. The barista had already ducked under the bar.
He held up both hands, "Don't shoot!"
"You know how hard it is to find a kaf shop that has a good holonet connection that also serves affordable sandwiches!?"
Four other blasters suddenly came to bear, pointing at Guts. They whirled to life, indicating they were fully charged and set to kill.
"Look, let's talk this out..." Guts began.
A rumbling began. At first it was soft, but as seconds passed, the remaining windows began to shake, followed by all the mugs, cups, and plates in the locale. Someone outside yelled something out and the protestors abandoned the kaf shop to go stare at the sky. Guts lowered his own blaster, and the Zabrak he'd been pointing at scurried off as well. He glanced down at Sigilien for an instant before following the rest outside.
As he looked up he saw exactly what they were looking at. An Imperial Star Destroyer was descending over the city, its potent thrusters slowing its descent and shaking the structures below it, setting its imposing figure right over the center of the city.
Around him, citizens looked on in terror. Sigilien appeared next to him, holding her mug of kaf in both hands. She took a long drink as she looked at him.
"Right on time," she said with a huge smile.
[ Sim Room; CRS Vigilant; Classified Location ]
Bulldog sat in his sim pod and watched the scene unfolding. He and Animal were flying imperial craft while Rev led the squadron on a strike mission against an Imperial Star Destroyer. It was a similar setup to one they'd flown weeks prior while welcoming Wolvinator to the wing, so the other pilots took to it with a lax familiarity.
The new escort pilot, Bearcat, was doing well keeping up with the maneuvers that were new to him. He'd been shepherding Foo's U-wing into and out of strike runs, vaping digital TIEs as they made runs at the support craft with an ease that belied the pilot's stick skills. The other rookies were less polished in their maneuvering, though Slugger seemed to be the quickest to adjust to their attack pattern shifts out of the new trio.
The familiarity of the mission seemed to put the other pilots at ease, and it made them careless. The Vandersloop runs by Wolvinator and Crane were sloppy and required Ant to break away from his escort position to clean up both shield domes with a slower attack run of his own. His slower speed forced him to eat a few point defense laser blasts, ruining his shields before he'd destroyed the generators and boosted off evasively to recharge shields.
The bomber pilots lumbered in slowly and in a ragged line at varying speeds,
"This is not crisp at all," Animal's voice grumbled over the private line.
"No, sure isn't," Bulldog replied, equally dismayed. "Be a shame if they got surprised right about now..."
"I agree," Animal responded with a smile evident through his voice. "Now?"
"Now," Bulldog agreed, slamming the throttle of his TIE Bomber forward. He toggled his ELS to engines so his boost bank charged up while he and Animal, in an Interceptor, moved in from their hidden location. "I'm going to buzz the U-wing and pull the last remaining escort out of position. Finish the job and then strafe those bombers."
"Better than I could come up with. Execute," Animal responded.
Bulldog spooled up his rotary cannon as he closed on the unsuspecting U-wing at the rear of the Buccaneer formation. He avoided using his warheads as he didn't want the missile lock alert to go off in Foo's ship, allowing him a clean run with his heavy cannon before he'd be spotted. Seconds later, his cannon completed warming up and hurled a hail of verdant laser bolts into the top of the coasting U-wing. To Foo's credit as a pilot, the veteran reacted faster than expected and went evasive before any of the bolts could bust through the damaged shields, forcing the rest of Bulldog's attack run to overshoot. In order to re-engage he'd have to stop shooting so he could regain full turn functionality.
He released the trigger and made a half-hearted attempt to reacquire the U-wing, but he was only doing so to make sure Bearcat's X-wing would find him easily to engage. Seeing the X-wing coming around, Bulldog kicked out of his targeting turn and presented his engines to Bearcat as the pilot continued to wheel around to engage. "Let's dance, Rook."
Red laser bolts filled the space around his evasive TIE Bomber. Bulldog grimaced as more bolts than he was comfortable with found purchase on his heavily armored fighter. He triggered the boost, and then went into a series of microdrifts with the intention of making his opponent grow impatient and force him into an overshoot when he attempted to force another strafing run.
After his boost was drained, red lasers again filled the space around him and started peppering his ship. His hull was taking damage, but nothing critical had been damaged yet. "This skrogging kid's good," he grunted as he thumbed the button to activate his boost extension kit, giving him more energy to keep up evasive actions.
"Keep him busy, Twelve. I've knocked Eight, Nine, and Ten out of commission. Working on Seven as we speak. Six and Eleven finally noticed me and are attempting to engage."
"Roger, Lead," Bulldog replied as he killed his throttle and attempted a dead-drift to swap end for end. He pulled the trigger to spool up his lasers before he even finished the drift, hoping to increase the number of bolts he could let loose on the X-wing before they passed each other.
Bearcat saw the maneuver and immediately twitched out of the way and deftly avoided a head to head confrontation, opting to evade high and boost away into a drift to resume hostilities.
"Damn, this kid doesn't fly like a rookie at all!"
"Need help?" Animal asked through a stressed voice. "I'm evasive with two X-wings on my ass, but I can probably try to pull your tail for a bit so you can get mine."
Bulldog ruminated on the suggestion briefly. While it was tempting to have himself and Animal smoke all of their squadron in this engagement, he felt like it would be a severe blow to the confidence of the rookies if the entire squad got wiped in their first real sim exercise. "Nah, I think we've done enough damage to get our point across."
"I agree," Animal replied. "Though I don't want to make things easy for them after letting us carve them up this badly."
"I don't know about you, Lead, but I'm not making this easy for this kid and he's riding me like he's a fathier jockey."
"Guess that's a positive, even though he was pulled out of position pretty easily while he tried to chase your kill," Animal said. "Gotta work on his target fixation I'd say."
Bulldog's ship shuddered repeatedly as Bearcat's lasers gained purchase in his engines. Alarm klaxons wailed, until his screen winked off moments later as the X-wing finished the kill.
Rev rallied the rest of the bombers, with Loth-Cat and Gnoizic in tow they carried the day and finished off the Imperial Star Destroyer. On paper, the exercise was a success, but the losses were unacceptable by Renegade Wing standards.
Bulldog levered himself out of the pod and moved to stand next to Animal. He watched as all of the others got out of their pods with varying levels of speed and energy. The veterans Rev and Gnoizic were slow to exit, having no real hurry behind their movements. The rookies Blue, Slugger, and Peacock were out instantly and looking around to see where they should go next. Loth-Cat and Foo likewise were out quickly, but they were chatting with each other about some joke they'd heard during the exercise. Ant and Wolvinator were miming maneuvers they'd pulled during the exercise and arguing over who dropped the ball.
Bearcat, however, was out of his sim pod and already moving quickly on an approach with the two leaders. Bulldog noticed him and mumbled a curse under his breath, drawing a questioning look from Animal.
"Majorrr, Captain," Bearcat said as he stopped in front of them at loose attention.
"Excellent flying in there, Flight Officer," Animal complimented. "The Captain here said so more than once while you were on his tail. I look forward to reviewing it in detail later today."
Bearcat was taken aback by the knowledge that he'd been flying against his executive officer and had ultimately killed him in the simulator. Once he'd internalized the fact that he'd bested his leader, it apparently emboldened his next words. "I vould like to discuss my trrransferrr to Rrrogue Squadrrron."
"You're dreaming, Flight Officer," Bulldog replied disinterestedly.
"Transfer? This is the first I've heard of your wishes," Animal said, leveling a more critical eye in his XO's direction. "You knew about this?"
Bulldog canted his head and shrugged dismissively. "He's not ready."
"I got you, Captain," Bearcat replied icily with a haughty smile as he crossed his arms.
"I let you get me," Bulldog scoffed. "Every second you were chasing me gave the Major plenty of time to smoke the ships you were supposed to escort. You get fixated on your target too easily and lose all other situational awareness."
Bearcat's confidence faltered and he winced as he'd finally realized his part of the heightened casualty count. "A lesson I vill take to hearrrt and vill not rrrepeat."
"It was the only complaint on your otherwise exemplary flight school marks," Bulldog added.
Animal nodded in agreement, having heard the full story from both sides now. "Don't take it too hard, Flight Officer. We all have things we could be doing better. If you'd like, we can work in some extra sim practice on distraction avoidance."
Bearcat nodded haltingly, clearly not happy with the ease with which his latest transfer discussion was deflected. Still, he held his composure. "That vould be desirrrable, Majorrr."
"Let's head over to the console so I can show you the better exercises you can run by yourself or with anybody else," Animal said, gesturing for Bearcat to walk deeper into the room with him.
The sound of rapid footfalls in the hallway drew Bulldog's attention away from the Buccaneer pilots. He took a step backward and leaned to look out into the hallway to see what was going on. Charging in his direction was Thanatos. As the Rogue XO neared, he attempted to see what was going on. Thanatos wasn't prone to frantic action, so this was a foreboding sight. "What's up?"
"Get your butt to Jalb's office on the double!"
Without thinking, Bulldog followed the sprinting pilot and did his best to keep up. "What is it?"
Bulldog quickly fell behind as he wasn't nearly in good enough shape to keep up with the more physically fit Rogue executive officer.
[ Jalb's Office; CRS Vigilant; Classified Location ]
The image projected onto the wall of his office held Jalb transfixed and suffused him with both a sense of foreboding and excitement. He had the volume down but the 'ticker tape' commentary running along the bottom was telling him everything he needed to know as he watched the unrest escalate. What had started as relatively peaceful demonstrations had quickly turned violent as hundreds of people responded to the crisis affecting Toseng's government and flooded into the streets in protest.
The scene on the wall suddenly changed and the ticker announced 'Breaking News' which had Jalb lean forward intently. The holo showed an ISD slowly breaking through the high cloud cover to take position above the city, and as it emerged the camera swung down to show the citizenry reacting. People started pointing and others started running, various demeanours showed through on the faces shown, mainly fear or anger, but tellingly not one of them was happy.
Jalb leant back in his chair and swung back to his desk. Reaching for his comm he was interrupted by his door swooshing open and Thanatos bursting in. Down the hall, he could hear heavier footfalls attempting to catch up.
"Boss! The imps are..." he trailed off as he saw what Jalb was watching. "Ok, good, you know, have we got word yet?" Jalb gave a short shake of his head and opened his mouth to say he was just about to call HQ when the commlink in his hand chirped. At that moment, a very winded Bulldog skidded to a halt behind Thanatos and looked on expectantly while slightly doubled over, catching his breath.
"Reynolds" he said quickly with a knowing nod to his XO.
"Stryker... Jalb, High Command has just put the Task Force on 15 minutes notice to move. I want the Wing ready in 10 and OCs in Room Alpha in 5, copy?"
"Rogue acknowledges, Wilco."
"Roger, we're going to Toseng. Stryker out."
[ Toseng System ]
Bulldog sat in his cockpit and rapidly finished his preflight checklist. All the readouts were spitting back diagnostics that were above maximum efficiency. If he had any other ground crew working on his ship, he'd stop and ask for confirmation from the crew as well as order Weight to do a full diagnostic check of his own. That process would take time, and time was not something he had in adequate quantities at the moment. He knew the Ugnaught crew chief was good at her job, and knew that he and the other Y-wings were in good hands.
Still though, he didn't survive this long by accepting things as they appeared to be. "Weight, double check these readings until we revert to realspace."
Weight tootled indignantly in binary, but otherwise did what he was asked. Readings appeared on the main console screen as the droid checked and rechecked everything.
"Ground Control, Buccaneer Twelve."
"Go for GC, Twelve."
"Please convey my gratitude to that ancient Ugnaught. The old girl's never felt better."
The voice chuckled on the other end of the conversation. Breaking the coming tension with a bit of levity was a common defense mechanism of his, and it generally served as his own way to center himself before an engagement.
Animal's voice filled his cockpit. "XO."
"We don't know what we're going to be deploying into when we get to Toseng. Whatever it is, I need your help keeping these newbies together," Animal said, ending in a sad sigh.
Bulldog pursed his lips and thought a moment before responding. "You know how these things go, Major."
A frown was evident in the tone of Animal's reply. "I know."
"I'll do my best, Boss."
"Never had any doubt."
"All Renegade Wing fighters," Terak Quelle's voice broke in, overriding the private comm channel between Bulldog and Animal. "We will be arriving in Toseng in a little over one standard minute. While I have tons of motivational jargon and tactical knowledge to get you in the right headspace for whatever we're about to jump into, I figure it's best if I just shut up and let your squadron leaders and executive officers get you ready to go. May the Force be with you all. Quelle out."
"Rousing speech," Bulldog snorted.
"Does he always do that before a battle?" Slugger asked over the squadron comm channel.
"No," Rev replied grimly.
Bulldog winced, knowing the psychological blow Rev's revelation would deal to the rookie pilots. Somebody as seasoned as Rev would know the superstitions that many beings held onto, pilots even more so than other professions. Unfortunately, he was running completely blank on things to say that would possibly mollify the roiling nerves Rev had just kicked up within each of them.
"I think it would be a good time to add that we've never been deployed blind like this before, so there's never been a need for a pre-fight speech," Animal interjected quickly, apparently on the same page Bulldog was.
"We're deploying blind?" Peacock squeaked, even more nervous.
Bulldog cursed internally as the situation seemed to really be running away from the two Buccaneer leaders. Before either of them could come up with another word or two to reassure everybody, Ensign Rex "Wizard" Troy's voice cut across all comm traffic. He'd been given the moniker when he was able to coordinate all of the squadrons himself, freeing up more bridge positions for other personnel to keep the ship fighting at peak efficiency.
"Flight Control to Renegade Wing, reversion to realspace in 15 seconds. All Squadrons deploy in the following order: Rogue, Corsair, Spectre, Skull, and Buccaneer. Your assigned holding sectors have been sent to your computers. Go to your assigned coordinates and await further instructions."
The alarm klaxons in the hangar cut in, giving all pilots and ground crew a 10 second warning. Various techs hustled off the flight deck, toting tools and fuel lines as they ran. As the last deckhand made it past the safety line, the whirling blue tunnel of hyperspace outside of the magcon shifted back to black dotted with distant stars.
"Deploy! GO GO GO GO!" Wizard's voice boomed.
The 7 Rogue X-wings lifted off on their repulsors and then rocketed out of the hangar, pulling up in unison once they cleared the ship. Corsair's 11 active A-wings similarly rocketed out of the hangar, pitching forward into a steep dive rather than pulling up to follow the Rogues. Spectre's 10 X-wings exited and broke left. The only other full squad at the moment aside from Buccaneer, Skull's 12 X-wings rocketed out and broke right.
"Our turn, Buccs, let's go!" Animal shouted. "We go straight out and rally toward the aft of the ship!"
Bulldog flipped on his repulsors of his rejuvenated Y-wing and waited at the end of the line for all of the other Buccaneer ships to exit. While all of the other squadrons were a uniform one-craft group, the Buccaneers had learned to work with mixed craft elements to maximize their survivability as well as their versatility. It was a lesson learned in blood from years of losing pilots due to their reliance on other craft to protect and escort them into engagements. 5 B-wings, 4 X-wings, 2 Y-wings, and a U-wing currently made up their squadron. Seeing the other 11 fighters rocket out of the cruiser, Bulldog goosed his throttle forward to bring up the rear.
Once he cleared the magcon field, he hazarded a glance at their surroundings. The Vigilant Taskforce had arrived nearly in full force without incident. Two frigates, the Regis and Rehz'nor, were holding station on the flanks of the Mon Calamari Cruiser. The 6 Corellian Corvettes were flanking the frigates, three per frigate. The Dornean Gunship Baraha'tok and MC30c frigate Waverunner were slightly in front of the fleet, ready to break any immediate starfighter threat if it were to materialize. Only the Black Hawk, away on another mission with Jade Squadron, was missing in the formation.
Closer to Toseng, the situation was a mixed bag. One Imperial Star Destroyer was already planted firmly in the atmosphere above what appeared to be the capital city of the planet. Two Acclamator-Class cruisers were in orbit nearby in a defensive posture. While not a match for the New Republic taskforce on paper, the Acclamators could be the fighter carrying variety that could hurl 3 wings each of fighters in their direction. And while Imperial fighters were substandard compared to their New Republic counterparts, their sheer numbers would be enough to tip the scales of this battle back toward the middle, even if that star destroyer chose not to engage.
"This is it?" Slugger snorted derisively.
"Can it, Greenie," Bulldog grumbled, abandoning the pretense of building confidence in order to instill the proper wariness in the new pilot that he would need to keep himself alive. "Nothing is always as it appears. Eyes up. Be ready for anything."
"We need to go in and blast that Star Destroyer," Peacock said anxiously, but with a determined edge of steel to her tone.
"Doubt we'll be allowed to engage them unless they move away from that city," Animal replied.
"Yeah, the headline of 'New Republic rains Star Destroyer down on top of city- millions perish' wouldn't look so great," Foo explained.
Bulldog held station with the rest of the Buccaneers while they waited for orders. Even without Weight's assistance on his heads up display he could identify the rookies by sight by the way their fighters wobbled and twitched due to the anxious, tight grips they had on their sticks or yokes.
Being at the aft of the Vigilant and the back of the Buccaneer line, he had a prime view of the entire deployment from both sides as it unfolded in real time. The Corsair A-wings leapt into action and charged toward the Imperial cruisers. Rogue's X-wings followed in as close behind as they could, straining their engines and boosting periodically to keep up with the lighter, faster attack craft. The Imperials in turn started launching fighters. Weight couldn't keep up with the numbers that were being deployed, as they were staying close to the larger craft and orbiting, flitting in and out of the sensor shadows of the two larger craft.
Skull Squadron's X-wings spread out into three flights of four, two taking up a different Frigate as a marker and being responsible for covering that flank of the fleet, and the third flight centering on the Vigilant for close home defense. Spectre Squadron and Buccaneer Squadron remained on station, waiting impatiently for orders to be loosed upon the enemy as their Rogue and Corsair counterparts had been.
Animal's voice burst over the squad channel. "Ok Buccs, here's the play. We're going after that left cruiser. First wave will be me, Deuce, Four, Seven, and Eight, escorted by Five and Six. Second wave will be led by Twelve, and include Three and Ten with Nine and Eleven escorting. We'll hammer down the shields with wave one, and wave two will take out weapons systems and Ten will disable what's left with an Ion torp. X-wings, keep your waves protected. Both waves will execute a left hook on my mark. Ten, mask us as often as it recharges. Mark!"
Bulldog followed his squadron leader as Animal led them on a wide left hook through space to avoid the furball happening in the middle of the two battle groups. It appeared that Spectre Squadron was tasked with eliminating the other cruiser, as they were going off to the right of the battle, but a little less wide than the Buccaneers.
He looked again at his sensors and examined the readings on their target cruiser. Their target had the distinctive markings of slapdash repairs over their cargo hold as well as deep scoring along other parts of the top hemisphere. He had a flashback that filled him with dread, but he hoped he was wrong. "Say, Major, what was the name of that Acclamator we hit with a beam attack at Skoth? The one that had a cargo hold full of TIEs?"
"The Rising Star, why?" Animal asked, his voice pitching up with uncertainty.
"What's the name of this one?" Gnoizic asked, but his voice relayed that he already knew the answer.
"Stang!" Animal cursed. "Control, Buccaneer Leader."
"Go for Control," Wizard's voice replied, deadpan. Clearly he was monitoring the more active parts of the fight and giving most of his attention in that arena.
"That left cruiser has way more TIEs than we are seeing right now. Let the Rogues and Corsairs know and get them some support or pull them back!"
"Three Flight, watch our backs. Target Alpha has more fighter support than previously estimated."
Wolf clicked the comm in return to Syntax's message and his fighter twisted upwards, back towards the cruiser. Frosty followed, feeling the little A-wing flex against it's powerful engines as together Three Flight moved back towards one of the two cruisers they were facing in orbit. He watched carefully as the comm came alive again, "Wolf, I think I have something."
"Let's hear it Fox."
Frosty absent mindedly rebalanced his energy levels, charging his blasters up again. Fox sounded confident on the comm, "I'm getting much higher energy readings than usual from that main hangar. That thing is full of TIEs."
"Understood. How we feeling, people, ready for a little tease and chase?"
Silence and Fox replied in the affirmative but Frosty didn't even think about it; he goosed the engines and went careening towards the hangar bay of the cruiser. "Bait primed."
"Alright Frosty, take it easy, just a little flash alright?"
"Affirm," he said, twitching his hand on the stick. The little craft kicked left and right. He watched, waiting, as the cruiser's turbolasers started to track him. The larger ones were too slow but some of the smaller ones moved quickly, getting a lead on his ship. He threw himself into a spiral, up and around, carving a stuttering unpredictable arc through space. Laser blasts flew around but only a few hit, once the cascade started to pick up he slammed the throttle forward boosting himself. He was under and past the hangar bay in a shot, his eye glancing upwards at the contents of the ship.
"Four squints launching."
Wolf came back immediately, "Come back, we're ready."
Frosty thought about it a second. "Negative. Gonna do another flyby."
There was a curse on the comm but he ignored it, cutting his engines and flipping the A-wing in a neat 180 degrees he immediately headed to pass underneath the hangar again. The laser cannons were quicker on the uptake this time although the newly launched TIE Interceptors hadn't had enough time to get themselves sorted yet. He dropped a mine as he whizzed between them, a dirty trick, but the explosion behind him told him it was an effective one. Less effective, admittedly, was his flying. A blast on his port side and a stuttering of that engine told him he was cutting it too fine.
"Break three o'clock high, Nine!"
Instinctively he threw the A-wing right and up. Behind him TIE Interceptors got closer and closer until a sudden rapid explosion of red light enveloped their left side, melted through solar arrays and sent the craft spinning off. Frosty cut his throttle and rejoined the rest of Three Flight as they continued their flight away from the cruiser. His comm buzzed and he saw Wolf was now above him, inverted, two fingers tapping his temple. He understood the sign, he wasn't thinking properly. "Still with us Frosty?"
Wolf nodded and flipped his A-wing back over. "Let's go folks, rest of Corsair needs our help."
[ Rori Brebor's Office; Capital City ]
Sidda, Dosh, Rori, and Shyon stood in the small doorway, their faces shadowed by the Star Destroyer looming over the city. Shuttle after shuttle flew up and down from the vast hangar bays, dropping stormtroopers who marched off in squads, filling the streets. Protestors met them, throwing stones ripped from the ground beneath them but the stormtroopers had blaster rifles and were merciless.
"This is bad," Dosh said, listening in to his police comm. "The stormtroopers are moving quick. Shooting everything."
"It's beginning again," Rori murmured to himself, his eyes locked on the sky.
Shyon pulled him back further into the doorway, looking around in exasperation. She looked at Sidda, her eyes pleading. "Where's the New Republic?"
"Oh, they're here," Sidda said, absentmindedly watching the telltale flashes in the distant skyline. "They'll make their way down here soon. We need to find cover."
Dosh looked at her confused, "Now you want to find cover?"
"Trust me," Sidda started fiddling with the lock mechanism on the door they were stood up against, "It'll be a thousand times worse when the New Republic starts trading blows with that star destroyer right above our head."
"Not going to let it happen again," Rori said, somewhat louder this time. Shyon looked at him, confused, but he ignored her, grabbing Sidda by the shoulder. "You have long range broadcast equipment, right?"
"Sure, yes, but it's halfway across town."
"It doesn't matter," Rori's eyes bored into hers. He looked like a man possessed. "We have to get to it. I can't let it all repeat again, you understand?"
"No," Sidda whispered, her hands shaking. From somewhere she could hear someone screaming as Imperial stormtroopers advanced on those waving banners. "But...okay. Detective Montara, can you acquire a security force speeder for us?"
Dosh nodded and immediately started keying his comm. Rori nodded slowly, giving Sidda a little space. "We have to try," he kept repeating to himself, as Shyon held his arm. "Always at the start of the cycle, you must try."
The battle was not anything that Bearcat had ever experienced before in his life. While he'd been in plenty of fights and skirmishes, they were all on the ground and generally close quarters affairs; looking right into the eyes of your enemy while you tore out their entrails. Space battles by comparison were cold, unfeeling affairs.
Being unable to rely upon the tactile senses that had never let him down before made him squirm in his pilot couch. His sensors had to work for his eyes and ears while the skirmish raged on far off from the Buccaneer lines. The pilot called Foo in the U-Wing had done a good job utilizing the squadron masking ability to keep the Buccaneers more or less off the Imperial scopes throughout their circuitous approach, but now there was no avoiding the coming engagement.
"We're about to be visible once again, Lead," Foo reported. "We'll be close enough that they'll see us before I can get another mask up."
Just then the latest mask wore off, making the squadron visible once again as Foo had predicted. Bearcat's astromech warbled an alert, putting the text on his main screen as it audibly warned him. Sensor ping detected.
"Ve've been detected by theirrr sensorrrs," he relayed to Animal and the rest of the Buccaneers.
"Had to happen sooner or later," Gnoizic replied.
"More launches detected!" Rev shouted, alarm pitching his tone higher than normal.
"Are you sure? I don't see anything," Wolvinator asked nervously.
"How many, Seven?" Bulldog asked, the sounds of his own astromech tootling in the background. "My astromech doesn't have a reading on any new fighters."
"I see them!" Ant cut in. "Looks like... Twelve TIEs."
"That's not so bad," Slugger replied.
"Wait," Foo cut in. "I see more launching!"
A curse from Bulldog filled the comm waves. "You had to open your mouth, didn't you Nine?"
"This complicates things," Loth-Cat said to nobody in particular.
"What do we do?" Peacock asked.
"Call for the others to come help?" Blue asked hopefully.
"They're already fully engaged," Rev replied dourly.
"X-wings, go and engage the new fighters. Keep them away from the bombers!" Animal ordered. "Twelve, go with them."
"Acknowledged, Buccaneer Leader," Bulldog replied gruffly. "Ok Five, Six, Nine, and Eleven, on my six. We're going to plow right through them, then you will break off by pairs and engage! Relax, boys, we've trained for this."
Bearcat's heart seized slightly. "Sirrr," he started, pausing as he attempted to gather his thoughts. "Ve need to make surrre the bomberrrs are escorrrted safely. I need to keep Fourrr and Eight safe!"
"They'll be fine if we keep these fighters busy, Five," Bulldog replied. "Now get yourself into position! Sooner we engage, the farther off they'll be from the rest of our squadron!"
"We'll be fine, Five," Loth-Cat added. "I won't let anything happen to them!"
"Mandalorrrian prrromises," Bearcat growled with displeasure, but Loth-Cat's promise was enough to push him toward doing his duty as ordered. He swung his X-wing around and caught up to Ant, Wolvinator, and Slugger's X-wings and Bulldog's lumbering Y-wing as they charged toward the approaching Imperial fighters.
"Get those shields charged to maximum, then start building up your boost. We're going to need to be fast and elusive to survive long enough for our guys to bag that cruiser," Bulldog ordered from his Y-wing in the front.
Bearcat did as he was told, thankful for the reminder as it had slipped his mind to charge any of his ELS systems fully their entire flight thus far. It humbled him to know that he still had so many things he did not understand about space combat. An uncomfortable shiver raced up his spine as he once again realized how different this type of combat was from what he was comfortable with.
"There are four fighters splitting off from the main group, attempting to hit our bombers," Bulldog reported. "Eleven, take Nine and stop those fighters. Rest of us, plow right through guns blazing!"
"Roger, Twelve," Ant replied, banking his X-wing on a new attack vector with Slugger in tow.
Bearcat growled in anticipation. Slightly ahead, Bulldog's Y-wing started belching out powerful Ion blasts from the topside turret and started hurling laser blasts with his rotary cannon. The ion bolts struck TIEs, immobilizing them on the heading they had been taking before being disabled. He nudged his crosshairs over the nearest disabled TIE and triggered a fully charged plasburst shot into the drifting ship, enveloping the cockpit in fire and causing it to send shrapnel in all directions. Wolvinator likewise stitched two other disabled TIEs with his burst cannons, taking them out of the fray completely. Bulldog's rotary cannon caught another unfortunate TIE by surprise, making four kills in the head to head pass and two more ships disabled by his thumping ion cannon.
Both groups passed each other and started wheeling around for another firing solution. The TIE fighters were numerous enough that none of the New Republic pilots had to work hard to find a target, but it meant that they were taking more fire than they were giving out.
"Break and keep together!" Bulldog's voice grunted over the comm.
"I'm your wing, Five!" Wolvinator shouted, indicating he was in Bearcat's port-aft quarter following him through his maneuvers.
Bearcat gave himself away to his instincts after his initial clenching and twitching, feeling the sweet relaxation as his senses melded with his ship as they had in the simulators during flight training. While it was certainly different as his ship bucked with laser blast impacts and his astromech wailed more than he'd expected, the basics were the same. He fell into the routines that had gotten him through flight school, relying on his instincts and trusting his light hand on the stick, a turn here, roll there, drift around, fire, repeat.
"Damn, Five, I can't keep up with you!" Wolvinator huffed.
"I've got two on my six, could use some help!" Bulldog's voice called out.
"Get Tvelve, Six," Bearcat rumbled, barrel-rolling out of the path on incoming fire while immolating another TIE with a fully charged burst of his own cannons.
"On it," Wolvinator replied, rolling off to support their embattled executive officer.
The skirmish raged on forever it seemed. Targets or calls for help over the squadron comm channel punctuated each maneuver. Bearcat found himself trailing one fighter that kept his attention. Each time he loosed a fully charged plasburst bolt, the TIE kept jinking out of the way just in the nick of time. He stayed tucked in on the fighter's aft, laser focused on his prey as he angled in for another shot.
"FIVE! BREAK OFF!"
"Vhat?!" Bearcat snapped, too slow to comply with the order. His ship shuddered mightily as he ate a steady burst of laserfire from somewhere outside of his narrowed cone of vision. After the shuddering ceased, multiple alarms sounded in his cockpit. Sparks fizzled and smoke slowly flowed out of some busted readouts. "I'm hit!"
The comm erupted with multiple voices at once.
"Break off!" Animal shouted.
"I'm going down! Oh Go-" Peacock screamed, her voice cut off suddenly in a squeal of rending metal and static.
"More fighters are coming out of that thing!" Gnoizic warned.
"Extend! Boost off and regroup!" Rev ordered.
"Fighters on my tail!" Blue cried.
"Turret out! Should keep them busy," Foo grunted, his stressed voice belying the hard G's he was experiencing as he attempted to reverse course after launching his distractionary turret to cover their escape.
"They need ourrr help!" Bearcat growled as he attempted to turn his stricken X-wing. It reluctantly heeled over into the direction he'd intended, but it was clear that he didn't have the capability to provide any sort of aid. Still though, he was determined to keep his one remaining friend safe. Peacock was probably dead, and Blue was in trouble. He let one of his fellow rookies down, and he damn sure wasn't about to let his closest friend down as well.
"Pull off, Five!" Bulldog ordered.
For a moment, nobody spoke on the Buccaneer comm channel, so the general frequency took over in Bearcat's cockpit.
"Shadow is EV!" A trilling non-human voice from another squadron warbled.
"We need SAR for Spectre Nine! Sending his position now!"
"Mercy One copies, Spectre Five! SAR inbound. Is the ar-"
Bulldog's voice cut back in overriding the general frequency. "You go that way, we'll lose pilots trying to keep you from dying. You just heard the main channel, SAR's already got their hands full!" Bulldog persisted.
"Listen to the Captain, hairball!" Slugger chirped, and then cursed as he narrowly avoided dying himself.
Bearcat slammed a gloved hand on his sparking center console. "Blue is in trrrouble!"
"We're clear back here," Animal cut in. "We're pulling back, fighters are leaving us alone for some reason."
Relief exploded throughout Bearcat's chest at the news the rest of the bombers were being left alone. His grip slacked on his stick and throttle as soon as he knew he didn't have to fight his sluggish controls as well as the enemy to keep his friend safe. He jammed his foot down on the rudder and willed his craft to come about to rendezvous with his squad.
While his nose slowly juddered around to put the Vigilant into his forward arc, his comm crackled and squealed.
"What the hell is this now?" Foo's voice cut through the static.
"New jamming tech?" Bulldog suggested.
"Just got our orders," Animal cut in. "Head back to the Vig-"
The squadron comms were finally overridden by the source of the static. The pilots with functioning consoles showed a live feed from somewhere on the planet.
Sidda fiddled with the broadcast equipment aboard her ship, her whole body shaking. Jez knew this part better than her but she'd watched him enough times. Maybe he'd have it all figured out by now, but she had to just do her best. It's what he'd told her, on their first live broadcast together. Just give it your best shot.
The status light went green and she gave a thumbs up to the collected crew. Detective Montara, very uncomfortable looking holding the camera, tried to hold it still as Shyon held the microphone up to Rori's face.
"Soldiers of the New Republic, Empire, and people of Toseng. I, as a representative of Toseng, call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. We do not want your war here, we do not want your violence."
Rori leaned forward, his face having gone dark. "All violence, including that done to our protestors, will stop. A diplomatic discussion will be held. If neither Republic nor Imperial forces can agree to this then we shall act."
Rori rubbed his hands together, his body language nervous but still his face was set. "The miners of Toseng knew this day may come. As I speak, my former workers are prepping the Rhydonium refineries. If this violence continues they will detonate them, destroying all your precious fuel. It may destroy their homes, their communities, themselves... but what difference does it make doing it today or in a week when your forces do it themselves during the fighting?"
The dark expression on his face passed, a calmer more serene look upon his face now. "Withdraw your forces to their ships. Maintain a barrier between yourselves and send your representatives to meet at the colonial palace, what little of it remains. I speak with the weight of the people of Toseng, as one of its first candidates for the position of President."
The broadcast shut down, and Rori collapsed back into a seat in the ship, head in hands. They waited anxiously for news, and eventually it came through- at first a trickle and then a deluge. Stormtroopers withdrew to the Star Destroyer, TIEs and X-wings separated from one another. Both Commodore Barand and Rear Admiral Tolden acknowledged the call of truce. For now, there was peace, however fragile it may be.