By Bulldog, Frosty, Jalb_k, Lock
With Contributions by Foo, Damak, Gremlin, Knight, Syntax and Wildcard
Lead Editor: Shadow
Directed by Frosty
[ "Landing" Site; CRV Anti-Venom ]
Sidda took in as much footage as she could, recording from both her glasses and her arm. The U-wing she was in dived and danced expertly, in the hands of Zippy and Shadow now at the controls. FLATTOP and Barraken were on the door guns, whilst Krayt was sitting with his eyes closed, a look of concentration on his face. Sidda swung her camera to record as the U-wing cleared the city boundary and was suddenly in the lowlands of the city's edges, coming to a sudden stop. The door opened, and she disembarked to a miraculous sight.
The Anti-Venom, the most independent medical ship in the New Republic, had crash landed. Yet somehow it was intact, even expanding as the crew onboard were putting up medical tents and forming triage centres. Already crowds of people were forming, some walking wounded civilians, others including badly injured soldiers being carried. Sidda took it all in slowly, panning her arm camera over the entire assembly.
Her beautiful shot was ruined by a small Chadra-Fan nurse who came running up to the group, shaking her head in exasperation. "More wounded? Come along, let's take a look."
Krayt took the hoverchair offered by another nurse and was soon absorbed into the crowd. Sidda marveled at it all, the sheer amount of people who were here, right next to an active warzone, ready and willing to offer help. She turned to take in the U-wing that had brought her here and was shocked to see Shadow, Zippy, FLATTOP and Barraken were already back on board about to lift off. She lowered her arm and shouted angrily, "Hey!"
She ran towards the U-wing and stuck her head in through the side door, "Where are you going?!"
Zippy didn't turn around from his position in the cockpit, prepping the ship. "There's more wounded still out there."
"Well, I'm coming with you then."
Shadow looked at her, a smile upon his lips. "No, you need to stay here. Someone needs to be able to tell Intel about everything we learned about. You got most of it on camera. Tell the story, let people know what happened."
Sidda chewed on her lip in frustration before relenting, stepping off the ship, "I like gin."
"What?" Zippy was fully confused.
"Gin. You two can buy me a gin at whatever bar we can find after all this. Deal?"
Zippy shook his head ruefully but Shadow nodded, smiling. "So it's true what they say about journalists and picking up the tab."
Sidda shrugged, a grin on her own face as she recorded on her glasses the U-wing taking off and heading back towards the city. Back towards the firefight. She turned back to the medical camp, feeling a little grim. She hoped they'd survive, it'd been a while since she got to see the same people again after a battle.
Besides, she still had a few questions to ask them about who this Zeno person was.
He was close to the limit of his endurance. Physically and mentaly fatigued by the constant G's of this atmospheric furball, the only thing keeping him in the fight was fatalistic determination. He knew he was going down, it wasn't a matter of if, but when.
"Two, this is Lead, tally two bandits at two point four, your six is clear," Jalb told Starfire, indicating two targets at her two o'clock and four hundred feet above the horizontal, "I have three on me, breaking left."
The three squints behind him were attempting to box him in and he was having none of it. He pulled into a steep climb, then a half loop and stamped on the right rudder to yaw his X-wing and perform a side slip. At the top of the loop he was inverted and pointing outside of the loop's vertical plane. At that point he applied hard left rudder while at the same time rolling in the opposite direction. After the twist, he pulled his nose back up and found two of the trailing Interceptors in his sights.
He was able to dispatch one and critically damaged the second with a short burst of laserfire before having to go evasive to avoid the third TIE, which had matched his 'twist-inside' maneuver. Jalb scissored left and right, gradually decreasing speed before he straightened and prepared to execute his next maneuver. Let's see him stick with me through a Cobra Turn. He abruptly raised his nose to a vertical attitude, causing an extremely high angle of attack to intentionally stall his X-wing. This turned the maneuver into a full-body air brake before dropping back horizontally behind the TIE that had up until just now been harassing his six. In other words, he pulled on the brakes and it flew right by. Two quad bursts later and he had some clear air.
Taking a moment to regain his breath, he glanced over his shoulder to address his astromech. "Skip, she's feeling a little sluggish, check the hydraulics..."
Suddenly his ears popped as his shields sizzled and crackled, and his astromech's affirmative response turned into wail that trailed into an electronic groan. In the moment he'd spared to check his systems an ion wielding TIE had found itself with a shot after wildly evading Starfire.
"NO! No no no no no..." Jalb smashed his throttle to the stops and back trying to get fuel to the partially ionized engines while continually flicking the ignition switch.
"... Come On!" he was slammed back in his seat as all four engines sparked and hit full thrust in an instant, assisted by accumulated unburnt fuel. The sudden acceleration caught Jalb by surprise. G-LOC, G-induced loss of consciousness, was a very real threat. His vision started tunneling...
"Lead... Lead... Rogue Leader!"
Jalb came to in a hurry, his limbs still flailing wildly after the brief G-LOC. "I'm Good!" he burst out before making a quick visual, "I'm good..."
"Holy Kriff Boss! I thought you were paste... your engines practically detonated!"
"Copy Two, I'm OK..." Jalb clenched and unclenched his jaw. I'm ok, I'm ok, keep saying it, you're ok, but what about Junior! What about Thanatos! What about Lock and Dobber, Jasted and kriffing Mustang! You've lost your son and your whole frelling squadron! But you're ok. You've even got your droid slagged! Jalb squeezed his eyes shut to quench the burning sensation and slammed his helmeted head back against his seat.
"Say again Lead?"
"Disregard... Systems and controls are suboptimal, sensors are bent, I'm visual only."
"Roger, I'm your wing."
Jalb sighed and looked around. He could see only specks and small blossoming explosions all around but he knew in 30 seconds or less they'd be up to their necks in it, again. He keyed a private channel to his last Rogue. "Starfire, I'm not going to sugarcoat this, we're up shavit's creek. It will take a miracle for me to fly out of this, and when I go down you are to bug. Copy?"
"No buts! 3 Rogues have sacrificed themselves to keep the mission, and you, alive and I would do the same in a heartbeat, so make it mean something!"
"Sir, I... yes, I copy," Starfire replied after some hesitation.
"Good... Katlyn, it's been... an experience. You're a damn good pilot, one of the best I've flown with, don't let today change who you are but, for now, let's make these Imp bastards earn it."
[ Wildcard's X-wing ]
Wildcard's fighter shuddered as he entered the lower atmosphere and engaged repulsorlifts. Jade Squadron were swarming the Star Destroyer racing towards the capital, trying to provide cover to the remaining Rogues and Spectres. His ears were swimming with the various yells and commands of battle, none pertinent to his goal.
"Dusty, Wildcard here, we're 250 clicks away from the capital! That city will be rubble in ten minutes if we don't do something!" Wildcard yelled at his wingman.
"Do what?!" Dusty yelled back.
"Good point." Wildcard replied dryly.
Things were looking grim, neither Spectre nor Rogue had the firepower left to take down the ISD and the TIEs were tearing them all to pieces. Stopping the Glory would require a miracle.
Another voice entered Wildcard's ear, "Lead, Three. We got Bats entering the fray from that Impstar Deuce."
Wildcard directed his attention to the underbelly of the Star Destroyer, which was deploying several TIE Reapers. He set his eyes on one which was making a beeline for the outskirts of the city.
"Moving to engage, One," he said.
"On your 7. I mean 6." Dusty told him.
"Six here, what's the problem?" a young sounding voice chimed in.
Wildcard drastically lowered his comm range to tune out his squadmates, and pushed his throttle forward to put himself on the tail of the Reaper.
Too many collaterals on board. Can't kill them all without a warning first.
He flicked a switch with his thumb and let loose a flurry of lasers on the Reaper's aft.
"TIE Reaper..." he glanced at his targeting computer, "Nemesis Four. I have you in my sights, with a missile lock. Surrender and you'll get fair treatment. You got three seconds." He said to the crew of the transport, well aware that he was putting his own life at far too much risk.
"X-wing Jade Two, go kriff yourself."
With one pull of the trigger, they all died.
Dank farrick! I just killed them all. So many people-
The thought was interrupted as his rear shields were battered by a hail of lasers. From behind him, he heard the distinct screech of a TIE.
"I'm not in the mood to play you KRIFFING BASTARD!" he screamed into his empty cockpit.
He seethed with pure rage as he twisted and turned, trying to get an advantage over a fighter far more maneuverable than his. He had to keep redirecting shields to account for small hits that were slowly adding up. The Interceptor at last came into view and he linked his lasers together.
In a mere second, four blasts ripped through the port solar panel on the Imperial ship.
"Nemesis Eight, go kriff yourself." He said as he secured one last shot, sending the pilot to the furthest reaches of oblivion.
Wildcard took a deep breath, trying to steady himself and suspend his anger. The fact he had survived this long defied all odds, so it seemed only fitting that he was going to die any second now.
The Star Destroyer drew ever closer to the city.
Skip was still offline, unresponsive, like most of the systems in his X-wing. Sensor screens were still dark, a victim of the ionization that had taken down his R7, and boost was non-existent. Whilst he was still able to manage E/L/S power, he was having to constantly check as his thumb control had started assigning power randomly to shields or engines when he was trying to charge lasers. This was both a blessing and a curse as he'd survived hits that he wouldn't have at the same time as not finishing targets in front of him because of it.
Fortunately Starfire was well aware of his current situation and was mopping up the damaged grapes but exhaustion was building. Both had been working each engagement with little to no comms, but sometimes talk is needed. He pulled left past a damaged dupe he had been head to head with then cut back right intending to get around behind it. Unfortunately had cut too much throttle and was in a slow arcing turn only metres behind it when Starfire, seeing only the TIE Bomber in her sights, engaged.
The double hulled TIE violently evaporated. Starfire's lasers hit the nearly full magazine of missiles and the resultant explosion devastated it. It also sent parts of the craft outwards in a supersonically expanding ball of debris.
Shrapnel from the near hit scarred the transparisteel of his cockpit, and at the same time he felt a sharp pinch in his right calf along with an insistent whistling. He grimaced once he realized he could no longer push down on his right rudder pedal. He could feel fluid pooling in his right boot, pretty sure it was his blood. While adrenaline was coursing through his body the pain was minimal, but his leg was pinned and he couldn't yaw. Even pushing his left pedal forced his right up and caused pain to radiate up his leg. Roll and pitch was all he could manage now.
"Two, my hull is compromised and my controls are bent... Do you see any other Renegades?"
"Yes. That we can get to without harassment... No."
"Path of least resistance then, we need to punch through these blocking forces and regroup."
"Copy Lead, standby..." Starfire queried her astromech and blanched at the result. "Ah, Lead... we need to head towards the ISD. The heaviest concentration of Wing elements with the least fighters between us, but we need to move now!"
"Roger, go! I'm on your six but don't wait for me."
The two Rogue X-wings turned and punched it towards the ISD with Starfire slowly pulling away from Jalb's beat-up fighter. He could feel vibrations through every flight surface and closed his foils to reduce drag and increase lift. The payoff was a little more speed but less yaw control, he could barely move his pedals anyway. Starfire had reached the minimal fighter screen and taken 2 TIEs down and boosted clear... so the remainder turned toward Jalb.
He slowed slightly and relocked his foils for combat, feeling his fighter protest and squeal as they opened. He was thinking dark thoughts, resigned to the fact that this was going to be his last action. Unless he made it through he was going down with his fighter, pinned by whatever was hanging out of his leg.
"Uh, Lead, this is Two... What is that?"
"Kinda busy Two, what is what?" Jalb replied, preparing to engage.
"Ten point oh, mark two!"
Jalb looked skyward at his 10 o'clock and his spirits lifted.
"Looks like the Cavalry has arrived, Two!"
"Maybe not soon enough Lead! Check Six! I'm on my way!"
Jalb quickly head checked and let out an expletive as he started a rolling yo yo. A troop of five interceptors had caught up and had him dead to rights. He'd adjusted shields fully rear with all the power. Unfortunately with two sets of RF cannons on his tail at any one time they were chewing through in a hurry... but he wasn't worried. A calm came over him that was both terrifying and comforting.
So this is what it feels like to really face death? Huh‽
"Lead, dive! Two, take left!" The voice that barked that order brooked no argument and Jalb instinctively reacted, pushing the nose of his craft down into a vertical dive, taking the trailing TIEs with him, straight through the guns of Stryker's Y-Ugly and Rogue Two.
"Lead, this is Two... Does that constitute a miracle?"
[ Damak and Talon's StarFortress ]
The StarFortress lumbered at full speed towards the Star Destroyer's location. Damak saw an X and B-wing of the Renegade Flight cruise past the bomber as they took vanguard position in front of the StarFortress. Just behind those two ships, an oddly cobbled-together ship with parts of an old Y-wing and an Alpha-class Xg-1 Star Wing swooped in and took up the point position in their vic formation. From the decor of all three fighters, it seemed that Colonel Stryker and Lt. Colonels Bill "Jedi" Morrison and Michael "Mighty" Tolle had assigned themselves to be their escort. He just did not know if it would be an honor or a disgrace being escorted by them.
"StarFortress, we'll open up a safe passage for you. Keep up as close as you can."
"We'll try, but fast is relative when talking about this space bantha," Talon answered as he wrestled with the controls. "Just don't make any sudden turns, sir."
The StarFortress' lack of speed was throwing off his timing and habits. This heavy bomber required a different kind of pilot; One who was patient. Talon did not seem to be the patient type. He was interested when starting it up, but now his face was scrunched up, showing how he did not love piloting the bomber.
Damak was looking at the range finder and their passive sensors to estimate the distance to the target. He tried hard not to activate the active scanner and lock on to the ISD to find out the range as he did not want to give the ISD any obvious reason to focus on the bomber. The Imperials might not have any data on the bomber, but he did not want to risk it.
"Finally!" Talon exclaimed. "I can see the target."
"Got it, Talon. Snorp! Switch with me and take over."
Snorp walked over to Damak at the Flight Engineer Station. Damak unbuckled his harness and got out of the seat.
"Just watch the scanners and warn us if anything gets too close. I'm going to prep the bombardier station," Damak said as he slid past the maintenance droid and settled into the bombardier station. He buckled in and promptly activated the bombardier's targeting system and began running a system check. He raised his head and saw Wakachangi and Darlene, an NRI operative that had suspiciously appeared just as they were taking off, looking at him. He was sure that she had been planted onboard by Spook and Dentran to keep an eye on them, but so far she had been following directions and hadn't made any problems.
"Umm... could you guys man the rear and lower ball turrets? Interceptors are probably going to be attacking us when we get in range and we need all the defensive fire power we can get."
"Got it, I'll take the lower turret and Wakachangi can man the rear turret," Darlene replied with a nod. "He probably can't fit into the ball turret anyhow."
Damak watched as Darlene climbed down the bomb bay toward the lower ball turret. Wakachangi turned and walked towards the blast door leading to the rear turret. Then, he was washed with light from laser fire.
He turned and saw Stryker's curious ship firing off lasers towards a location in front of them.
"What's happening, Talon?"
"I don't know, the Colonel just started shooting at something and I saw explosions. I think he just saved someone."
He knew Renegade Flight was good, but this beats good. They were still able to save someone while escorting a slow lumbering bomber. When will he ever become as good, he wondered.
"I see Rogue Lead and another X-wing are regrouping with us."
"Good, we need more escorts."
"Rogue Lead's X-wing looked pretty beat up. I don't think he is able to do escort duty."
The StarFortress with its five escorts started their final approach towards the target. As they got closer to the ISD, three X-wings closed in on the bomber's flight group.
"Spectre's X-wings are regrouping as well! I count three X-wings."
"Great! That should be enough fighters to fly interference for us! Keep on target, Talon."
Damak completed his system check and primed all the bombs. He hoped no one breached the bomb bay and set off the primed bombs.
"The X-wings are beginning their attack run. Holy shavit! Rogue Lead is charging towards the ISD with Starfire! But that X-wing is too damaged!"
Damak saw the beat up X-wings speed off towards the ISD. As they neared the target, red lasers shot out from the X-wings and accurately hit the vital subcomponents. Every hit bled off the shield energy around the ISD.
He saw the X-wings break away from the grey dagger and jinked as they tried not to get hit by the turbolasers attempting to swat them out of the sky. Then, he saw Spectres boosting away towards the Star Destroyer and began their strafing run. They were flitting around the ISD as each laser continued to impact the still-strong shields.
Then it was Renegade Flight's turn. It was a beauty to watch the experienced pilots fly their preferred ships as they threw their craft into wild weaving maneuvers as they unloaded their lasers into the target. Damak saw the flickers getting lighter. Signs that the shields were weakening.
"Talon, transfer all the ELS to engines and push it! Wakachangi, Darlene, you'll only have whatever energy left in the turret's power bank for your lasers. Use sparingly."
The bomber lurched forward as more power were placed into the sublight engine.
Talon's worried voice rose above the rumbling of the overcharged engines. "Damak! A flight of interceptors is coming from behind!"
"FIRE AT WILL! THEY MUST NOT DAMAGE US! ACTIVATE ACTIVE SENSORS, NOW!"
Damak heard the turrets move as they tried to track the targets. Then he felt lasers hitting the bomber's shields.
Wakachangi and Darlene maneuvered the turrets and opened fire at the Interceptors attacking them. Darlene took out one of the attacking interceptors as Wakachangi tried as hard as he could to kill another. Unfortunately, he kept missing.
Damak override the remote turret and took over the control. He began firing the turrets under his control and took out another interceptor. Then he felt the bomber shook as munitions hit it.
"Get those last fighters!" Talon called out, his voice rising in pitch with his worry.
Damak saw the remaining fighters dancing around the outgoing fire from all of the turrets. He redoubled his concentration, and was rewarded with a spear of light from one of his remote turrets slamming into the ball cockpit of one of their attackers. The ship lurched to the side as it began spiraling toward the ground out of control. His elation was short-lived, however. Suddenly, the turrets began chuffing as they ran out of power. His eyes widened as he saw the last few fighters realize they weren't receiving any more defensive fire. "Oh, gods..."
Just as suddenly as the danger peaked, it was met with the heroic arrival of the Renegade Flight B-wing belonging to Mighty. The cruciform bomber was smoking heavily from its engines, apparently receiving nearly crippling fire during its attack run on the Star Destroyer. The only reason it would be back this way was that he'd been ordered to leave the area due to the damage he'd received, but that order appeared to be a blessing for the besieged StarFortress.
Mighty's ship unleashed a mixture of ion and laser cannon blasts into the remaining Interceptors, catching them all unawares. Four immediately erupted into miniature infernos, and two sizzled with blue arcs of ionized energy as they began to wobble in the air before tumbling end over end out of control.
"That got em!" Damak cheered. Darlene and Wakachangi similarly elicited sounds of elation.
Damak's smile quickly turned into a frown as he realized that Mighty's ship wasn't pulling out of its attack dive. The lone operational thruster of the Quadex Kyromaster engine sputtered, coughing out its final burst of energy before going dark like its three damaged brethren. Immediately after, the stricken B-wing nosed down. Horrifically, it collided with an Interceptor that had been disabled moments before. The two ships folded in on each other in a high-speed embrace before erupting into flames, the entire mangled wreckage pinwheeling to the ground below.
"We're still good! Shields are still barely holding!" Talon shouted, unaware of the tragedy that had unfolded behind them.
Damak shook off the malaise at the loss of Mighty, focusing his sadness into his task to ensure Mighty's sacrifice wasn't in vain. "Keep going straight, the others are baiting the turbolasers, so we better haul ass and deliver these porgs!"
"BOMBS! I MEAN BOMBS!"
The StarFortress slowly flew over the ISD, keeping itself a healthy distance from it. He could see the battle from his external monitors. Explosion, green and red lasers criss-crossing as the fighters maneuvered.
Then, he saw the tip of the ISD in his monitor. "Keep her steady, Talon! I'm charging the magnetic plates!" Damak rapidly punched the corresponding buttons on his console. The interior of the bomb magazine thrummed to life, droning with desire to be unleashed. He checked his sensors and the scope again. "Time over target, fifteen seconds! Opening bomb bay doors! All escorts move clear of the target!" Damak shouted into his comm.
The fifteen seconds felt like fifteen days. The ship shuddered mightily as the Star Destroyer finally took notice of the StarFortress and began targeting them. Damak winced as he thought the ship would tear itself apart under the opening salvo, but recovered his wits as saw the target area appear on his monitor. He slammed his fist on the release trigger. He heard a buzzing hum as the sequenced magnetic plate discharged.
The magnetic plates launched the proton bombs out of bomb bay towards the center of the target. From the monitor, he saw the bombs clearing their clip. He would never forget the beautiful way the bombs slide down the rack. He did not know why, but he felt like he heard the bombs crying out like angry porgs. He wondered how the view would be from the lower ball turret.
He watched as the last bomb cleared the bomb bay doors.
"ALL PORGS ARE AWAY! TALON, GET US OUT OF HERE! I DON'T WANT TO BE HERE WHEN THE BOMBS EXPLODE!"
Talon boosted the bomber out of the area. The ship shuddered under the strain being put on the superstructure by the six sublight ion thrusters. Another salvo of turbolaser fire filled the sky around them, but only one cannon managed a glancing blow. The shot drained the shields to a perilously low level, however.
The porg-painted payload dropped straight down and with no air resistance, maintaining a constant speed towards their target. Suddenly, the bombs increased their speed as the magnetic homing system activated and locked onto the ISD's hull below them.
The bombs hit the hull and... nothing. Then, suddenly a fiery, red explosion erupted from the top and bottom of the ISD. It was a beautiful sight as the ship began to lose control and glide towards the ground.
Damak sat down, laid against the hull, and heard cheering coming from the bomber's comms.
"Hey, Damak?" Talon turned.
"What's with the porgs?"
[ TLM Hideout ]
"Don't. Move. A muscle."
The Silver Ticket's turbolasers had really done a number on the villa, essentially demolishing it in its rain of red plasma bolts. Keyleb and Guts had managed to cover the body of the Ambassador, but were pinned down by debris. Every time Guts attempted to shift he could feel the rubble above him mimic him; stones began to loosen and crumble. Next to him he could hear Keyleb's heavy, panicked breathing. Luckily, the Ambassador was passed out an unable to experience the terror of being buried alive.
"Kid. Hey, kid," Guts reached out to Keyleb, who was not listening to him. "Keyleb!"
Finally the younger man stopped and looked towards Guts. A faint amount of light filtered through the rubble, enough for him to make out the tears streaming down Keyleb's face.
"Don't move," Guts advised, keeping his voice low and calm as he could, fighting back his own desire to panic and the pain that was urging him to. "If we make any sudden movements we might dislodge one of the bigger stones and it'll crush all three of us."
"What are we supposed to do, then!?" Keyleb snapped back, the panic still in his voice, even if his body was complying with Guts.
"Wait," Guts told him. "Wait for Sigilien to help us. It's better than getting crushed to death for being impatient."
"My friend, the one that helped us out."
"Your friend did this? Great job! Saved us from blasterfire by crushing us to death!"
"Shut up," Guts fired back. "Have some faith."
Above them something shifted.
"See? Didn't have to wait long at all."
"What if it's not Sigilien?" Keyleb asked.
"I said shut up!" Guts repeated, though now that Keyleb had brought that up Guts could feel his body tensing. What if it wasn't? He couldn't even defend himself. He would just die right here, pinned by rock, mercilessly shot--
"Vader..." he heard above him. A playful, trilling female voice. Again she called out, "Vader..."
"Darth!" he called out in response.
"Aha! There you are, Gutsy! Ooooone moment!"
It took about ten minutes for Sigilien to get enough rubble off of them that Guts and Keyleb felt capable of helping without being accidentally crushed to death. It took a few more minutes after that for them to finally be free. Keyleb, being mostly uninjured, offered to carry up the Ambassador, leaving Sigilien to help Guts climb up through the gap they'd created.
The pain was ever present but somehow he'd gotten used to it--Guts figured it was the adrenaline coursing through his body. He was forced to lean on Sigilien's shoulder and she propped him up as he limped his way to the Silver Ticket.
As the small group left the villa and neared the ship they looked up just in time to see a Star Destroyer falling from the sky.
With a tired sigh, all Guts could say was: "Well, I'll be damned."
Bulldog marveled at the devastation the newly arrived StarFortress wrought upon the other Star Destroyer the Buccaneers hadn't yet engaged. He noted that while he thought the lumbering ship was a disaster waiting to happen for the crew, he was sure glad it had arrived when it did to even the odds. He surveyed the wreckage of the newly downed Destroyer, being sure to jink randomly to avoid becoming a juicy target for the gunners of the remaining capital ship. A near miss forced him to slam his ship into a sharp drift.
"I'm hit!" Ant's voice shouted frantically over the comms.
Bulldog grunted through his drift and spotted his friend visually, seeing the Y-wing spinning in a sharp nose dive as one of his engine nacelles had been blasted apart. "Eject, Eleven!"
"What.. do... you... think.." Ant replied before he began huffing loudly as the increased g-forces began depriving his brain of oxygen due to the added weight to his chest. The line went dead, but there was no ejection report from the ship.
Thinking quickly, Bulldog broke into a steep dive and centered Buccaneer Eleven's stricken craft on his crosshairs. "Weight, tell that blasted astromech to trigger the ejection sequence!"
Weight hooted frantically as his dome rotated back and forth.
Bulldog watched helplessly as Ant's ship reached terminal velocity in its uncontrolled plunge. It had stopped spinning as bits and pieces had broken off due to atmospheric friction, culminating in the other engine nacelle being torn from its mounting and exploding after it tumbled away from the craft as the fuel caught fire. "Come on... come on... Did you tell it to eject the pilot?!"
Weight bleated an indignant affirmative tone.
At the last moment, the ejection jets fired, popping the cockpit and then launching the entire pilot's couch into the sky just before the remains of the ship slammed into the pavement.
Relief flooded through Bulldog at the sight of his friend's pilot couch lazily floating down on the strength of the small repulsorlifts, but it was short-lived as a missile lock alert sounded in his cockpit. Snarling, he targeted the nearby SAM turret as the barrels of the turret stared him down. "I'm taking out this missile turret."
"I've got the other turret in my sights!" Blue reported.
Bulldog barely heard the report of his subordinate as he fixated on his target and the range that quickly fell. His finger hovered over the trigger of his rotary cannon, ready to unleash a hail of hell upon the emplacement that had the unfortunate temerity to target him as he watched his friend go down.
Weight's tone solidified into a keening wail. Moments later, the droid yowled to signify a dual launch heading in his direction.
Bulldog slavered as he kept his patience. The dual plumes of the missile propulsion cones shone brightly in the distance, but he still held his fire.
Weight howled another warning, more insistent than the last.
The two missile cones grew larger in his sightline. Finally, the rangefinder on his target reached 1.5 kilometers and his reticle turned green. He mashed down the trigger and heard the heavy gatling cannon spool up slowly for a second, and then it roared as it began spitting scarlet bolts at his target. The ones that missed the warheads passed by and obliterated the SAM turret, and the few that impacted the two warheads touched off their premature explosions a safe distance away.
His ship buffeted as he passed through the pressure cloud and the dying dual explosions. Letting out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, he sighed. "SAM destroyed."
"Got mine too! All emplacements dark!" Blue reported.
"These fighters are everywhere!" Loth-Cat complained in a strained voice.
"This is Two. I'm completely defensive!"
"Sorrry I'm late," Bearcat's voice broke in. "Got a little hung up back therrre."
"Glad to have you back!" Loth-Cat responded happily.
"I brrrought some frrriends," Bearcat purred. "Hope you don't mind..."
Bearcat's X-wing led a flight of Corsair A-wings into the fray in a tight battle spread. They all triggered their lasers at the same time, obliterating numerous TIEs in their path as they scythed through the battlefield. The remaining TIE fighters scattered in disarray and retreated toward the ISD to reform.
"Regroup on my position!" Animal ordered. "Let's finish this!"
Bulldog followed Weight's waypoint on his HUD and pulled into formation with the remaining Buccaneers. He and Blue were the last remaining Y-wings from the original five that had started the mission. Ant was recently shot down, Foo had taken a hit slightly earlier, and Slugger had been the squadron's first casualty of the battle.
The B-wing flight was faring slightly better, having only lost Rev. Likewise, Wolvinator had been shot down but Bearcat was still alive and had fortuitously returned in the nick of time to stave off more casualties for the moment. Out of 11 fighters they'd started with, they only had 6 still in the air. Bulldog only hoped the casualty rate was lower in the other squadrons, or this day would be the darkest day in the wing since Endor and the weeks after.
The three cross-shaped fighters fluttered in the air as they lined up for their attack. "Here's the play," Animal's voice commanded over the comm. "B-wings strafe and bomb up top, Y-wings strafe the bottom and release their bombs over the power system. Five, stick with them and draw fire."
A series of double clicks answered Animal's orders, and the various strike groups broke apart to home in on their assignment.
"Ok, Eight, here's what we're going to do," Bulldog said, pausing a moment as he rolled his ship out of the way of a dual turbolaser blast. After he recovered his bearings, he continued. "Line up your attack run so you aren't heading straight at a gun emplacement. Get below the shields. Drop your bombs the moment you reach the hull, and hit the power dome with your guns the moment you get in range. Don't let up until it's gone, no matter what."
"Copy, Captain," Blue replied nervously. Off in the distance, she deftly side-slipped a laser blast and continued to bore in.
"Five, cut across the axis and try to draw their fire. Destroy the two tractor beam projectors on your way across so we don't get stuck. They'll look like two blue orbs at the front corners of the hangar bay."
"Rrrogerrr, Tvelve." Bearcat's X-wing boosted off, drawing fire as he went.
Bulldog rolled his ship to present his bomb assembly to the approaching ISD's hull. He felt the straps of his harness digging into his shoulders as his body loosely obeyed the gravity of Toseng. Most pilots dialed up their inertial compensators to full blast to avoid situations like this in atmospheric flight, but he needed to feel the maneuvers in his body to keep his mind sharp, so his was only at fifty-percent strength. The number of G's a Y-wing could pull was child's play compared to his old Corsair A-wing.
"Locked into my vector," Blue's voice called out.
"Drop your payload and hit the targeting system!" Animal called out, his voice meant for the topside strike.
"Stay on target," Bulldog grunted, hoping to stop Blue from breaking off in confusion due to Animal's order that wasn't meant for them. Thankfully, the Pantoran rookie hadn't pulled off, and she began dropping her bombs the moment her ship passed the tip of the Conviction. Underneath the shields, her magnetically accelerated bombs dug huge furrows in the hull as they wrended deck plates apart in geysers of shrapnel and fire. Her lasers started spitting out dual blasts into the armor plating around the exposed power system, but they lacked the punch necessary to do the job properly.
"Bombs away!" Blue reported excitedly.
A-wings flitted about the Star Destroyer, drawing the attention of the gunners away from the bombers that intended to do them real harm. One Corsair ship took a glancing blow, but the ship was just sent pinwheeling off until the pilot could recover from the force of the blast and resume drawing fire. Unfortunately for that pilot, luck or the Force was not on their side. No sooner had they settled on their new approach vector, another gunnery emplacement skewered the shieldless A-wing with a powerful dual blast, causing the engines to disintegrate in a plume of flames. The uncontrolled craft fell out of sight behind some nearby buildings.
"Eleven is down!" Dragon called out on the general frequency.
"Did he eject?" Silence's voice asked.
"Negative," Wolf reported grimly. "He's gone."
"Don't you worry, I got this," Bulldog mumbled to himself as he triggered his own bomb release once he crossed over the hull. His 5 Arakyd PW-16 Proton Bombs likewise gouged large holes in the hull plating of his target, and he mashed down the trigger on his heavy rotary cannon the moment the crosshairs settled on the main target.
In the short time it took his rotary cannon to spool up, Bearcat's X-wing scythed through the midline of the Star Destroyer, expertly picking apart the two tractor beam generators just before Blue ran into the area where they'd have trapped her ship for easy pickings. The moment Bearcat's ship cleared his line of sight, the cannon roared under his feet. His overcharged bolts joined Blue's dual blasts.
Bulldog leaned forward. He didn't intend it, but he was roaring as he bored into the target. The hailfire of scarlet light bore into the armor protecting the main weakness of the Conviction, and he intended to see it destroyed no matter the cost. He couldn't see the target through the red haze he'd sent in that direction, but he continued to hold down the trigger as his laser banks fell perilously low in energy. "Do it Bulldog. DO IT!" He growled.
"Look at it go!" Blue shouted in awe.
As Bulldog's lasers clicked, indicating he had run through all of his energy, his red-tinted vision finally cleared enough to see the result of his assault. The armor of the power system erupted outward, showering the ground below in massive amounts of fiery shrapnel. Geysers of exposed energy fluxes appeared all over the ship, spouting sparking blue tendrils into the air.
"Power is down," Bulldog sighed as he broke off his run to charge his lasers.
"Let's finish this fight," Animal ordered.
Knight corkscrewed out of a turn to slide onto the tail of a TIE fighter that had snuck through the fighter screen around the remaining Buccaneer B-wings. Corsair had been doing well to hop from fighter to fighter as TIEs tried to keep them from the bombers. It did mean scaring them off rather than going for the kill most of the time, but it kept the TIEs from occupying all of the covering Renegades.
Knight squeezed off a short burst of fire that traced a diagonal line along the TIE's silhouette. It was enough to spook the TIE, and it rose up and away from the B-wings. Knight decided to keep on it for a moment more. Mostly to try to scare the pilot a little more. The TIE wove this way and that as they climbed. Knight kept taking pot shots.
Then the TIE rolled and cut its engines to turn sharply into a dive. Knight could see that at least one of his shots had landed. A large scorch mark on a solar panel.
A flurry of green bolts shot past Knight and filled the space his A-wing had been heading. The TIE Knight had been tailing had finally gotten some help. Knight pulled hard on the stick to climb and get some altitude. A series of bolts splashed on his rear shields, which made Knight frown. Knight took his right hand off the stick and rebalanced the shields with a twitch of a switch.
With a stamp of his foot, Knight threw his climb into a corkscrew.
"I've got a tail!" Knight heard Gnoizic shout.
"Wherrre arre you at Two?" Bearcat asked. "I don't see you in forrrmation."
"Broke off. This TIE is on me tight."
"Anyone with eyes on Bucc Two?" Wolf asked.
"Tied up, Ten." A strained Dragon responded.
"Same here." BattleDog added.
Oh, forget this tail. I can keep him guessing a while longer, Knight thought. "I'm on it. Keep bouncing Gnoizic." Chopping his speed, Knight finished his climb and brought the nose of the A-wing to point straight down. Gravity helped him speed back up. There were two things he needed to do: pump more energy to the fighter's engines and to the weapons. Then he flicked through friendly targets until Knight found Buccaneer Two.
Knight rolled and pulled up slightly to put Gnoizic's bomber nearly in front of him. Not far behind was Gnoiz's pursuer. The TIE kept a fair distance to keep the B-wing from being able to weave away. It made smaller movements and made it easy for Knight to line up his shot.
Knight opened up and put a hail of blaster fire in the TIE's flightpath. It flew through it and disappeared in a ball of fire.
"You're clear, Gnoizic!" Knight shouted.
"Thanks Knight! Buccaneer Two back on my attack run. Charging composite beam."
Knight pulled up again to gain altitude and try to scan for the TIE that had been on his tail. There was no sign of the TIE, which made Knight concerned. As he checked his rear scanner, his rear shields flared and made that weird 'splang' sound it made as it absorbed his tail's fire.
Knight cursed as the rear shields failed. With barely a thought, Knight shunted the thin forward shields to the rear. It might give him a little protection, but not much. Knight cut his throttle and dove back into the city again. Speed, and the A-wings maneuverability in and amongst the tall buildings of the capital city would be a better protection.
The TIE pilot seemed determined. As Knight corkscrewed and weaved between skyscrapers, he kept getting glances of green laser fire pass where he'd just been.
"Anyone able to help clear my tail?" Knight called out.
BattleDog responded first, "Still occupied Knight. Can you shake them a little longer?" Knight had a feeling that everyone still had their hands full. Didn't hurt to ask.
"I'll think of something." Knight sighed and started another series of wild turns and close calls with the smooth glassy architecture of Toseng's capital city. None of which seemed to shake the TIE.
Something caught Knight's attention from the corner of his eye. A crater blasted in the side of a large office tower. There was a glint of light peeking through. Whatever had blasted it had apparently punched a hole all the way through. With a quick zoom of his cybernetic eye, Knight decided it was big enough for an A-wing.
He hoped that the TIE that had so doggedly chased him would continue to be persistent and follow him. At the very least it'd give him a chance to re-adjust the situation should the TIE go around rather than follow through. Knight rolled the A-wing on its side and pulled up to line up with the narrow hole in the skyscraper.
As he blasted toward the gap in the building Knight realized it seemed a little smaller than it seemed. The A-wing was small, but this looked like it'd be a tight squeeze. Knight took a breath and committed. Years of successfully staying alive in insane situations gave him a sixth sense on when to take a risk. Years of piloting also told him he was good enough to thread his way through.
Everything went dark as the building enveloped his fighter. The destruction of the offices blurred past. He hoped the TIE would be just as reckless and follow.
For a heartbeat there was nothing but the roar of the A-wing's engines against the ruined interior of the building. The tunnel of the ruined office space suddenly lit up as the TIE fighter exploded behind him. Now all Knight had to do was focus on getting out of the tight space he'd flown into. All at high speeds. Simple.
The A-wing shuddered as the partially collapsed ceiling ripped the tail fins away. Knight felt the friction slow the fighter down. There was a struggle with the stick to maneuver through the tight space.
There was a crash and a jolt that whiplashed Knight, then a surge of speed. Alarms screamed that his engines were out. Something wasn't right. Kight risked trying to peer behind him and caught a glimpse of a spherical shape.
"Are you kidding me?!" Knight shouted. The explosion wasn't the whole TIE fighter disintegrating, but just the pylons and solar panels ripping off. The cockpit section kept rocketing forward at full tilt on its twin ion engines.
White knuckled, Knight jammed the flight stick in different directions in a helpless attempt to avoid debris. There was just the slightest response from the maneuvering thrusters. Just enough to bounce out the other side of the destroyed offices in the high-rise.
As quickly as he could, John reached and yanked on the ejection lever. The two ruined fighters had already begun to roll as they exited the tower. Everything blurred as Knight was launched sideways away from the doomed craft. Knight heard a boom and looked down to see a small crater in another building with the fiery remains of his fighter and the TIE.
As the ejection seat reached its apex there was a new sound. A terrible screech of high energy. John looked in the direction of the sound and could see something new. The Star Destroyer was pierced by a bright line of light.
It seemed to originate from Gnoizic's B-wing. He had gotten close enough to the Star Destroyer to use the devastating energy weapon. As his chute opened, he could see explosions rise up along the path the beam had taken.
The Star Destroyer seemed to sag slightly in the air for a moment after the beam had raked across its hull. What followed was the sound of complaining metal as the Star Destroyer started to rise. The capital ship kept its ascent and Knight realized they'd finally driven it away.
Knight watched in awe as the Star Destroyer became a speck in the sky. He didn't notice his chute had caught on a tall light pole over a boulevard. John didn't care for the time being. There was a lot to reflect on. On what seemed like a win for the New Republic. On what the fight cost in lives.
"Hey guy! You need help?"
The voice shook John out of his thoughts. He looked around and finally realized the ejection seat had never touched the ground. In the street below, was a nervous looking Zabrak.
Knight looked down the wide street. A few blocks away was a ruined AT-AT walker. As quiet as the city had suddenly become, there was still the very real possibility of running into retreating Imperial troops.
"Yeah. You don't happen to have a ladder on you, do you?"
[ Bridge of ISD Consolidator ]
Oshi felt her hands go clammy. Over the roaring shouts from the now panicked Consolidator she had heard the worst possible news. She struggled to speak, her throat tightening up. "Captain."
Pash was too busy shouting to hear her. "Helm, bring us starboard! We cannot allow them to trap us!"
"Captain," she repeated, her voice hoarse. Pash continued to stare at his tactical display, his foot tapping rapidly. The battle was moving fast now, his orders were near constant and it felt as if they were locked into a deadly game of chicken. Sooner or later one force would get brave and drive right into the other, forcing them all to fight at point blank range.
Pash looked up suddenly, his eyes drawn to Oshi who was standing now, shaking. She felt her voice quiet again but the bridge had gone silent and they were hanging on every word. "Captain, we lost the Glory. Commodore Barand is reporting that the Conviction is badly damaged, he is in retreat and orders you to bring us down and cover his escape."
Pash seemed to consider this a moment, before turning to his sensor officer with a calm look upon his face. "What is Wisdom's status?"
The junior officer stammered slightly, unsure of how his Captain was ignoring a direct order from the Commodore. "Shields are back online sir but her hull is down to thirty four percent. Another Mon Calamari cruiser is making an attack run."
"Helm, bring us closer to the Wisdom, we'll be her cover. Lieutenant Frell, signal the fleet, a full retreat. We'll rendezvous at exit point bravo."
Oshi hesitated, her headset full of voices. "Barand sir, he's on the communicator-"
Pash nodded, confident. "Patch him through to the bridge, but I want this transmitted to all our ships. Understand?"
Oshi nodded, switching a few dials. She gave a thumbs up to Pash, indicating it was ready. "This is Consolidator."
"Pash?!" Barand sounded stressed and Oshi knew instantly the situation was bad. He never broke his facade. "Bring the fleet down immediately, I have sustained heavy damage-"
The bridge went silent.
Barand's voice wavered. "What did you just say Captain?"
"Commander Kollivar, arrest Captain Pash immediately. This is a direct order-"
"No," Pash said again, his voice as certain as an iron bar. "As an intelligence agent, you have no seniority here."
Barand seemed shocked for a moment. Oshi knew that Barand saw Pash as a threat. She knew it had been her job to gather evidence for him, to blackmail or sideline Pash. To make his forces Barand's own. But she hadn't done it, she didn't know why she hadn't but watching Pash's face and the face of his crew right now she suspected she had her answer. Barand finally spoke, "I am a Commodore of the Imperial-"
"You are a opportunistic, greedy, power hungry, incompetent fool." Pash was still, his hands clasped behind his back. "Ranks are not taken. They are earned. Any Imperial Naval officer could tell you that, you have no right to that rank."
"I...I have led this fleet-"
"To near destruction," Pash continued, starting to walk towards the bridge viewport. "Your lack of preparation, your failure to listen to your officers and your lust for power have seen you throw away lives. Good soldiers, good officers, men and women who trained for years to defend their homes and bring peace to the galaxy and you cast them aside as if they were nothing but the dirt on your shoes."
Pash took a deep breath in, "Loyal officers of the Imperial Navy. All of you joined up because you believed in something. Peace for our galaxy, safety for our people. Where there was chaos we brought order, where there was violence we brought justice. But for too long we saw ourselves lose our compatriots to the whims of selfish mad men. It has gone on too long. Captains, join me; together we can build a new empire, one that exists to better all of mankind, rather than serve to feed the power hungry. A force to bring peace to our people, to protect them from the rebellion and its corrupt bureaucrats."
Pash looked down upon Toseng with scorn, his hands balled into fists. "Barand, you are an echo of the mistakes that the Emperor made. He was right to dismantle the corruption of the senate, but his lust for power cost us all dearly. I will not allow you to throw away the lives of civilians and soldiers alike in the same manner."
Pash motioned at Kollivar who nodded, beginning to give orders to the bridge. The Consolidator moved into position, covering the Wisdom from the oncoming assault from the turbo lasers of the Vigilant. "It is time to retreat, Captains, we have lost this battle. I will cover you."
Pash nodded at Oshi, who cut the line. He waited a moment longer before she spoke slowly, as if in a dream. "Captain Ottilla says the Wisdom and her fleet will follow you. Captain Scirillo also acknowledges, he will cover Wisdom's other flank."
Pash clasped his hands behind his back, his lips tight. "Contact all the remaining raiders and frigates under control of the Conviction. Tell them we will do everything we can to buy them time to join us. And send a message down to all Imperial forces groundside. Tell them we will return for them, tell them to not to die in vain. Tell them to retreat or surrender. Tell them to prioritise their lives."
Oshi relayed the messages, a feeling of relief washing over her. She had a gut feeling about Pash from the day she met him, the same feeling she'd had when she first met Zinger. After he'd died all she had wanted was revenge and Barand had promised it, but Pash offered her something else. He offered her hope.
One by one the Imperial ships turned in retreat, harassed by Republic forces only briefly as the Republic commanders made the wiser decision of protecting their own ships and reducing their losses. Pash watched as the Conviction made it into orbit from the opposite side of Toseng, badly damaged but still going, jumping into hyperspace. Barand had survived but it had cost him dearly, his TIE force decimated, his own ship heavily damaged and the loss of the majority of his fleet. None of these things pleased Pash, who could only look down upon Toseng with grief, at those soldiers they had lost and the civilians they were abandoning. With a final nod to his navigator the Consolidator jumped into hyperspace, to join the remaining Imperial forces where they could plan their counter attack. The battle for Toseng was not yet over; it had only just begun.
[ Frosty's Crash Site ]
Frosty awoke slowly, his body screaming at him. His left arm felt heavy and dull and his face and jaw ached with an almighty hum. He was having some difficulty breathing but reminded himself that bacta was often like this, he just had to focus on the rebreather in his mouth. Relaxing his body he focused on taking deep long breaths.
He coughed and spluttered as his mouth was filled with dust and dirt and as he wheezed he felt the cold winds whipping over his body. He was not in bacta. He was not safe.
Opening his eyes, Frosty tried to take in as much as he could. His body was still harnessed to his seat, laying on its side. His left arm hurt because he was laying on it with his entire weight and his face hurt because it was laying nearly fully down into the rocky earth he was on. With a groan he lifted his head and winced, the world spinning. Not everything was alright up there. Using his good arm he tugged and pulled at his restraints until the seat belt popped free, allowing him to roll out of his seat and across the jagged stone grass so that he was laying flat on his back.
He felt dizzy, and a little sick, but after a few minutes decided it wasn't going to get any better if he laid there, so slowly pulled himself up and observed his surroundings. His seat still lay on the ground, the parachute that had cushioned his fall half wrapped around it. There was no other sign of his A-wing, no debris or scorch marks, it was just... gone. Somehow, despite the trigger mechanism having failed, he had been ejected. His head was throbbing so he knew it hadn't been a clean exit, but not a hard enough hit to break his neck. He made a silent promise that when he got home he'd find out which engineer had been responsible for whatever failsafe that had activated and saved him. He'd see they never paid for another drink in their life.
He looked around his surroundings, taking in the mountaintop ahead. It was going to be a long climb back down, but there was the sign of well-trodden paths. He wasn't lost to the elements and although the wind up here was strong, his flightsuit was keeping him well protected enough. The real question was where to go. To the east he could see the capital city of Toseng, the war raging above it as his friends fought for their lives. To the west was what looked like a small village. Judging his injuries not too egregious he decided that was the best place to go, much safer. After all he wasn't much use in the ground battle, decked in high visibility orange and a slight concussion.
The first blaster bolt nearly nicked him in the head, close enough that he could feel the heat. The second flew well above him. He wrinkled his brow in confusion, looking over the area carefully. A few hundred yards downhill was a figure dressed in black, distinctive TIE pilot helmet on his head. He was dropped to one knee, a small blaster pistol in his hand. He fired again, his shot again going wide, causing Frosty to stare at him in confusion. Frosty pulled his own blaster from the holster in his leg, half walking half stumbling towards the TIE pilot. The sight of the concussed pilot apparently approaching him with no fear caused the TIE pilot to panic, firing more shots rapidly in disarray. They all went wide of their mark and in return Frosty raised his blaster and pulled the trigger a few times. The third and final shot hit the TIE pilot in the stomach, throwing them back as a small fire broke out on their clothing.
Frosty shuffled his way slowly down the slope, picking up the blaster the TIE pilot had dropped. He pulled at the power pack until it dislodged and threw the empty blaster away carelessly, holstering his own. Finally he took in the sight of where his assailant had come from, a TIE Interceptor half landed half embedded into the loose gravel of the mountainside. Sparks of blue lightning arced over it occasionally and Frosty winced; it was his last kill before he went down. Walking carefully he approached the pilot, now laying on the ground and groaning, his helmet off.
Frosty froze in his tracks. The man in black wasn't a man, but a child. His eyes were alight with both fear and anger, his bright red hair matted to his freckled face, his youthful complexion a vibroblade to Frosty's gut. How old was he? Seventeen? Eighteen? Too young to be a pilot surely, too young to be here.
"Make it quick," the kid spat, his voice wavering. "Have enough honour to make it quick."
Frosty blinked in confusion, taking his own helmet off feeling his curly hair underneath moist with sweat and a little blood. "What?"
The kid winced again, his hands covering up his stomach. "I won't tell you anything, Rebel! Best kill me now and save yourself time."
Frosty shook his head, "Why would I kill you?"
The kid looked confused, pointing one hand at Frosty. "You shot me!"
"You shot me first!"
Neither said anything for a moment, the sound of distant battle washing over them. Frosty moved first, crouching down beside his adversary to get a closer look at his wound. The pilot protested, trying to push him but Frosty pushed the kid's weak arms away from the wound, his own voice strained. "Just relax kid, I need to see what I can do to help."
It was a bad wound. His shot had burned straight through the lightweight clothing, having hit him square in the stomach. Frosty wasn't a trained medic but he had seen enough in his time to know this was bad. Death was certain without medical intervention and it was going to be a painful one. Pulling a bandage from one of the pouches from his flightsuit pants, he did his best to wrap the wound as the Imperial whimpered. Standing Frosty looked back down to the village in the west. They wouldn't have what he needed. They needed to head towards the city.
Frosty started stumbling towards the crashed TIE Interceptor, the fog in his mind slowly clearing. He scrambled up the wing, grimacing at the pain in his left arm, on to the top of the craft and then down into the cockpit. Slowly he started to disassemble what he could, carefully picking his components. Frosty was no mechanic but he'd been in the scrappage industry, and between his time on the streets and as a rebel he knew how to make do with what he had on hand. He emerged from the stricken TIE with some cabling, a sheet of durasteel, some power cells, and a bank of repulsorlifts.
Doing his best with what he'd salvaged he fashioned a jury rigged stretcher, the power cells feeding the repulsorlifts. He'd only needed a few considering they were built to lift a ship of significantly more weight then the injured pilot. Grunting with the effort, he hauled the Kid on to the stretcher, ignoring his feeble protests. Grabbing the non-electrified cable, he gave it a tug and was pleased to discover the stretcher floated along with little resistance. He knew his slapdash job wouldn't last long but at least now they stood a chance of getting to wherever help was.
They set off down the hill, the wind whipping at their bodies as Frosty trudged the path. It was a long walk and as his adrenaline wore off and the concussion began to lift he felt his body complain. Minutes began to drag into hours and the city felt like it was getting further away rather than closer.
He didn't stop walking, but glanced over his shoulder. "What?"
"Why are you doing this?"
The reasoning was surprisingly clear in his mind. "You're just a kid. Shouldn't die here."
Even though his wound was powerful the kid still had enough pride to protest, "I am ready to die in service to the Empire."
Something broke inside Frosty and he stopped, turning around with fury. "Do not throw away your life so easily!"
The kid didn't say anything again for a while after that, just groaning occasionally with the pain. Frosty for his part kept to the path, trying to up his pace. His ankle was flaring now, suggesting he had perhaps twisted it when he originally landed, but he knew he had to keep going to get the kid to a hospital. He just needed to lose himself in his mind, forget the pain, just like he'd done so many times before as a child, he was good at-
"My XO was right."
Frosty snapped back to reality and all his pain came flooding back. He stumbled slightly but kept his footing, his nostrils flaring with the pain. "What?"
"In the academy they told us a lot about the Rebellion." The younger pilot coughed and winced. Frosty tried not to think about the source of his pain. "But my XO spoke of you differently. He'd come to respect you, as pilots. Spoke of you as worthy adversaries. I think that's why I became a pilot, it's romantic isn't it? A battle in the skies, a battle of wits and-"
Another coughing fit interrupted his musing. Frosty kept going, trying to shush the boy. "Speak less, just focus on your breathing."
The kid spoke again, his voice fainter now. "Do you feel the same way?"
Someone, somewhere, some time long ago had told him never to lie to a dying man. "No. I'm sorry kid but I have no respect for the Empire, for its pilots for...any of it. There is no glory in any of this."
They continued down the path a while longer. The red haired pilot grunting and moaning with the wind. Somehow he still found the strength to speak. "That's because you rebels see war differently. You have always used tactics of cowardice, striking and running. You don't fight fair."
Frosty couldn't help himself, despite their situation, a small laugh escaping his throat. "There's no good way to fight, kid. Just fighting."
"That's not true," the pilot was practically whispering now. "You can die a hero."
"No," Frosty's voice was steel now. "There's no good death. Every death is a tragedy, you understand?"
"We die to protect our families. Our homes."
Frosty shook his head. "From what?"
"From your forces."
"The New Republic has never targeted civilians. We have never engaged in total war. You are fighting a ghost of an idea. We don't want to take your homes or your families."
"I've...I've heard stories."
"Stories of what?" Frosty's temper rose with the pain in his body, "How many worlds has the New Republic destroyed with superweapons? How many of our own people have we turned guns on, for failing to perform adequately? You fight for an Empire that would just as soon kill you as it would me."
"Alderaan was....Alderaan had to be destroyed. It was the centre of the Rebellion, a rebellion that wouldn't peacefully surrender and which was plunging us into a galactic civil war. Yes innocents died, but it could have ended the war there and then. It was a difficult choice but the Emperor had to make it."
"If the only way you can end a war is by killing children and the unarmed then why are you fighting in the first place?"
"I fight for peace!" The kid was trying to sit up, using what little energy he had to shout. "I fight for order!"
"Order for who?!" Frosty snarled, the rage having taken him fully. "Peace for who?! Who gets to live happily, and who gets to be ordered?! Tell me kid, when people work themselves into an early grave because that's the only way they can keep a roof over their heads, is that peace to you? When people are arrested and sent to jails in the name of order, because they dared to ask for justice, is that peace? When you came here because Toseng's own citizens have demanded a change in the way things are done, when you force them to go home with weapons and violence, is that peace? Is that order?"
"They were violent," the TIE pilot croaked.
"Because they had no other choice! Your Empire would not listen when they asked nicely, it did not listen when they begged. You know all they want? It's not to loot, to throw bricks. It's to know they are safe, that they will be listened to, that they have some power over their lives. They just want to live, kid, and the Empire wouldn't let them. 'Cause they were too poor or too alien for their lives to be considered worth something. For their problems to be acknowledged. For anyone to do anything to help."
The pilot fell quiet for a while, thinking. Eventually he spoke again, his voice weaker. "With the right man in charge we could fix it. They can get stuff done."
Frosty shook his head bitterly. "It doesn't matter how good a person your new Emperor is, an Empire is a dictatorship. It can only ultimately serve to give power to one person. Doesn't matter how much they care, doesn't matter how much they listen. If they can't be held accountable, if people can't choose for themselves, if everyone has to follow what they say...people will get hurt. They can never be free. You understand now? Doesn't matter how honourable you fight, doesn't matter how good and kind your soldiers are, doesn't matter if your Emperor is full of love. There is no good dictator."
The pilot put his hands on his stomach, wincing. "So, what? You think your Republic can solve it all? Bureaucrats and politicians? The senate was corrupt before, it will just happen again. Democracy is weak and ineffective, without a strong man to tell them what to do..."
Frosty knelt down beside the pilot, placing a hand on the kid's arm. "Listen, I don't know. I really, truly, don't. Maybe the Republic is going to be a mess, going to repeat all the same mistakes. But in a democracy people can come together, learn to understand their differences and hold their leaders accountable. It can work for the many, not the few. I've seen it happen, from small communities to an entire planet in Zeltros. I don't know if we're going to get it right, but I've got to believe. Before we can make it real you have to believe things can be different, understand? I've got hope. That's why I'm fighting, even though it scares the shavit out of me. I believe in a better future. For all of us, even you. It's worth trying."
Eventually the red haired pilot nodded, his eyes watering. He whispered something and Frosty leant in, to hear more clearly. "My mom's gonna be so mad at my dad."
"What do you mean kid?"
The pilot started to sob, his body shaking. "I joined up, 'cause I wanted to make him proud. My mom didn't want me to, she begged me not to, but I wanted to show him I was a good son. A brave man. She's gonna be so mad, she's gonna blame him, she's gonna never forgive him."
Frosty felt shame flush him. Who was he, admonishing this kid? Just cause he'd momentarily lost his own conviction. "You're gonna see them, alright? You can ask her to forgive you and him."
"I don't want to die," the kid said in a small voice.
"I know," Frosty stood and began pulling on the stretcher again. "We're not far, okay? Just hang on."
Soon they were at the base of the mountain, just a few smaller hills between them and the city. Frosty thought he had seen the Anti-Venom go down earlier, just beyond and he hoped it'd been a smooth landing. They'd have doctors. Coming to the hill he knelt down next to the kid again, now breathing more slowly. "I'm just gonna go see if this is the right way, okay? I'll be right back."
He scaled the hill top slowly, breathing heavily and cradling one arm. The ground out here was mostly loose stone and rock, sharp little pebbles that cut his hands as he half walked, half crawled up the hillside. He stumbled his way to the top and finally got a chance to look over the ridge.
There, in the distance, was Toseng City. Huge plumes of smoke rose from buildings, fires raging across the neighborhoods whilst a Star Destroyer hovered above the city skyline. In the skies above him he saw New Republic fighters mixing with TIEs, dashes of green and red light trading places as the occasional blast came up from the ground aimed at one target or another. But the thing that really got his attention was the corvette which lay in a deep groove it had plowed on the open flat land, the familiar colour scheme of the Anti-Venom on the mostly intact ship structure. Jack nearly whooped with delight at the sight, before turning his head back to downhill. "Great news kid! I found the medics, you're going to be just-"
His voice was drowned out by the sound of screaming engines overhead. The sky became dark as an Imperial Star Destroyer passed over, a dagger of fire and flame. Sickly black smoke poured from multiple wounds in the hull and Frosty watched as swathes of armor plating peeled off under intense heat and structural strain, falling to the ground. There was another matching roar and Frosty looked back to the city. The other capital Imp ship was starting to rise, slowly at first but eventually it gathered momentum. For a second it seemed as if the wounded ISD was going to plow straight into the healthy one but they just missed one another, the surviving ship descending again to keep its control on the city below. The noise abated as the crashing star destroyer's engines finally went out, leaving it falling forwards towards the ground. Frosty felt his heart in his throat as it passed over the city, mercifully just going beyond the city borders far into the wilderness beyond.
It landed on the other side, a huge explosion of dura-steel and dust as it came to a stop, a mushroom cloud of debris moving up into the sky. From his vantage on the hilltop Frosty watched as throughout the city buildings rocked from the shockwave, transpari-steel shattering from the force. Suddenly it was upon him too, throwing him backwards, rolling back down the hill, as the sound finally arrived, a cavernous deep bellow of pain emanating from the cruiser.
He finally stopped rolling at the bottom, reaching over next to him he felt metal and flesh. The young pilot dressed in black next to him was still laying on the fashioned stretcher Frosty had made hours ago, but they were very still. Frosty elbowed them with his one uninjured arm, "Hey, kid. I think battles over......kid?"
He was gone. Part of Frosty wanted to scream, part of him wanted to cry, part of him wanted to just lay down and fall asleep. He thought of dragging himself and the body back over the hill, screaming to get the doctors to come running and help. But whilst bacta was a miraculous substance, it couldn't help you once you crossed the final boundary. There was another roar overhead as the Conviction, Barand's injured flagship, fled from the city and into the stars above. He felt little joy at the sight. Instead he reached over to the young pilot's face, covering the kid's eyes with his eyelids, whispering the same chant he had heard a million times over in the rebellion.
"May the force be with you kid."
In a corner of the Rancorpits, the only surviving dive bar in the entire east of Toseng City, the holo display showing the outer rim league grav ball championship winked out and winked back on to much shouting and chagrin. The patrons quietened down as the now familiar tune of the Queen of the Core Network came online, the crowd watching in rapt attention. Once the opening graphics had died down they were presented with a familiar sight. Toseng City.
"It has been a few days since the end of the battle of Toseng. Although fires have been extinguished and there are no longer any stormtroopers in the streets of this city, the after effects linger." The camera feed cut from a wide shot of the city to walking down one of the main streets, as the presenter appeared. Her yellow skin dulled by the still present clouds of dust, she conversed with some locals, one a young woman shook her head as she spoke to the camera. "The buildings, well that we can rebuild. But we all lost so many...I just...I'm not sure how we go on. Without Mr Brebor, it all feels...hopeless."
The camera panned upward now, towards the sky. Multiple New Republic cruisers were visible, in low orbit of the planet. "The New Republic fleet has gained full control of Toseng's space. Although there remains small holdouts of Imperial forces on the groundside of Toseng, New Republic commanders assure me that the planet will be fully under Republic control by the end of the week. It has come at a cost."
Now the viewers were inside a New Republic medical facility, watching a woman floating in a bacta tank. A caption underneath the image read, ‘Admiral Vodani, commander of NR Forces, expected to make full recovery.' Slowly the image faded and was instead replaced with the view of a hangar. At first the focus was on the central coffin, the rank of Rear Admiral placed upon it. But as the camera operator walked, past that first coffin, more came into view. What was just a few became many, until seemingly unable to bear it the camera turned and looked upon the faces of the gathered mourners in the hangar. Pilots, with the Renegade Wing patch upon their suits, Marines and support personnel all looked upon the coffins. Some wept openly, some sullen and silent. Zooming in on one pilot, the crest of Rogue Squadron on his arm, his shock white hair falling flat on his head, the camera lingered on his face. His eyes were staring, unfocused, as if he wasn't really there. Eventually the camera cut away.
Now footage was shown of the battle. Stormtroopers in the streets, AT-ATs marching down the main roads, smoke rising as starfighters danced overhead. The sight of the almighty Imperial Star Destroyer rising slowly from the city, belching smoke and fire as it fled. Eventually the lens focused on the ruins of what was once the colonial palace. Finally the narrator spoke again, "New Republic Intelligence officials are still investigating who was behind the bombing of the peace talks on Toseng. There are numerous possible organisations behind the attack, from local Imperial hardline groups to other rival Moffs or even an ambitious second in command of Tol Barand's forces. For the meantime the question remains unanswered, and in its place a new one has arisen. Was this inevitable? Could Toseng have been liberated without any bloodshed?"
Down the main street of Toseng City people were lined up, shoulder to shoulder. The crowd parted, to the sounds of wailing and shouting, as a long flatbed speeder passed between them. On the back of it was a coffin, covered in flowers and candles. The narrator's voice was sad now, sunken with an own personal grief. "The loss of Minister Rori Brebor is still felt keenly by his people. In his honor New Republic diplomats have already started organizing Toseng's first full election. They have promised by the end of the month Toseng will have its first elected government. Although some feel it is impossible to fill the gap he left behind, others are finding hope."
A young Zabrak man stood before the camera, his skin was a pale grey and the horns on his head had grown lopsided and stunted. When he spoke he did so slowly, as if the words were struggling to come out. "Rori was a great person. He made us all believe that we could change things. People say it's hopeless now that he's gone, but if he was here he'd be so mad to hear that. He didn't do it all alone, we were right alongside him. We still have each other. We'll continue what he started."
Finally the viewer could see a refugee camp, hundreds of tents gathered around a New Republic medical vessel. Just to one side of it a temporary military base was being installed, dozens of New Republic starfighters coming in to land. Amongst the throng of now homeless locals pilots walked, some looking distraught, others relieved. At least one immediately rolled up his sleeves and went to work alongside some of the doctors and nurses, his helmet and gloves abandoned to one side. Another red Zeltron pilot ran, shouting as she embraced a Pantoran woman in formerly fine clothes, the two women clinging to one another tightly as they both began to cry. The Pantoran woman pulled away slightly and gestured towards her companions, a man with sandy blonde hair and missing three fingers on his right hand, a woman with bright violet eyes and finally a bald man with blonde goatee and scar reaching from his eyebrow to the back of his head. The Zeltron woman's face took on a look of confusion at the sight of the bald man, but the camera looked away before anything more was said.
Finally the camera found one pilot, his curly hair matted, a dried blood streak on his forehead. He was sat on the floor next to a body that was covered by a white sheet, away from all the other pilots and refugees. The camera approached him slowly, the narrator speaking more calmly now. "The cost of this war is too innumerable to count. But the reasons that we fight have not changed. Perhaps it didn't have to end like this for Toseng, perhaps the Republic should have intervened sooner or perhaps shown more caution. But regardless, the armed forces of the New Republic have not given up. I asked many here how they felt about what had happened, what the future might bring to Toseng, and they all had the same answer."
The curly haired man looked up at the camera, finally noticing the reporter as she talked to him. He shrugged, looking away from the camera again. "You know, every day it gets harder. I look at everyone we lost, all the damage to these people's homes and it just...hurts. But then, when I feel like I'm overwhelmed, I just take a breath and remember. I remember why we're here, what we believe in. I just remember that tomorrow, it could be better. That I got hope for the future. Powerful thing is hope, powerful thing."
Finally the camera turned back on the reporter finally, her features one of a sad but ever present smile. "This was a special report for Queen of the Core Network, I'm Yam ‘Sidda' Siddalla. May the force be with you."
The holoprojectors winked out and the bar fell silent again. Eventually the bartender spoke, "Alright folks, I'm starting happy hour early. Come get your orders in." The patrons erupted in a cheer and moved towards the bar, laughing and slapping one another on the shoulders.
Zippy took a sip of the gin he was offered, his mustache bristling at the drink. Sidda sat opposite, watching him impatiently. "So what did you think?"
"It's not bad," Zippy offered gently. "But I prefer Tihaar."
"She was talking about her report," Shadow offered from the other side of the small bunk room, sipping on his own portion of the gin. "I'm curious why you didn't mention Zeno?"
"NRI asked me not to," Sidda replied with a shrug. "I concurred with them though. If she's half as smart and ruthless as you made her out to be, Shadow, I don't want her to know we know."
Shadow nodded, rubbing his hand over his head. "Best let the spooks deal with it."
"Oh absolutely not," Sidda said, pouring herself another drink. "Someone like that needs to be revealed to the public. No more secrets, no more back door deals. Out in the open so we can have justice."
Zippy finally stopped coughing on his gin, staring at Sidda in amazement. "You're going to track her down all by yourself are you?"
"Oh yes." Sidda nodded furiously, "I've already made some very useful inquiries. But I won't be alone. I'll have you and Renegade Wing beside me."
Shadow offered her his glass and she refilled it as he shook his head, "Requisitioned our unit did you?"
"Not quite," she smiled. "I have requested to be embedded within your unit as a reporter and my request has been granted. For too long people like Zeno have been allowed to do as they like under the pretense of war. The New Republic has to be better than that, gentleman, and I aim to make sure it is. The truth always comes out. Trust me."
She poured the last of the bottle into a glass and passed it to Zippy, her eyes bright and wild. "Toseng will have its justice. I will see it through."