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Star Wars

 

Cinder to Ash


A Renegade Wing Rebirth

By Angel, Bulldog, Frosty, Jalb_k, and Lock

With contributions from Gremlin, Krayt, Spook, and Stryker

Directed by Lock

Prologue

[ Endor System ]

Debris encircled the forest moon of Endor like a ring.

The larger pieces of the second Death Star had been dragged away, hoping to send them to the gas giant that the moon circled, but some pieces of the massive Imperial construction were simply too big to drag off without a considerable amount of manpower--something that the fledgling New Republic just did not have at the moment. Any ships large enough to do so were currently engaged in more pressing matters, having left the Endor System days ago..

Of the fleet that had confronted the second Death Star, only the frigate Redemption remained with an escort of corvettes and other smaller ships. The medical frigate had received considerable damage in the Battle, enough to keep it in system while it was repaired, but even if it had not been pummeled it would have remained, tending to the wounded. A small camp had been created near an ewok village, repurposing Ewok huts and whatever Imperial installations had been left behind, such as landing pads.

Ships come and go--there has never been so much traffic on this little moon. Today, a ship would be leaving, transporting heroes of the Rebellion to a new battlefield. Though the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead and the Battle of Endor, albeit the losses, was a resounding victory for the fledgeling New Republic...

The War goes on.

<>

[ Seven Days after the Battle of Endor ]

<>

[ Landing Pad C; Forest Moon of Endor ]

John “Knight” Vorwald watched the U-wing begin its landing on the platform with a bittersweet feeling. He’d made friends here on Endor in the time that it had taken him to receive his cybernetic eye, courtesy of the Battle of Endor. Others had had it much, much worse, and had taken priority over Knight but he hadn’t minded--the company had been well worth it.

Sitting with him on the hand rail that surrounded the platform that sat somewhat elevated among the trees of Endor’s Moon, was Gemilan, his new, fun-loving Zeltron friend better known as “Gremlin.”

“I wish I was going with you guys,” she said, sounding disappointed but doing her best to hide it.

Knight grinned, “Come on. You’ll be with us in no time.” He pulled her near, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, doing his best to comfort her with a friendly squeeze. “You heard what Lock said, right? He’s being sent ahead to start the paperwork, that’s all.”

“Yeah, I know,” Gremlin sighed and leaned into Knight for a moment. “It’s just going to be so boring here without you two. What am I even supposed to do?”

“You can… tickle an Ewok?” Knight offered. Gremlin raised a brow as she met his eyes. Suddenly the two of them burst out laughing. Gremlin’s amusement was hardly even forced; it was such a dumb thing for him to say!

“Thanks, Knight, what an amazing idea, I’m gonna do that right now!” Even through the laughter she was able to pull off some sarcasm. Gremlin escaped Knight, bouncing away gracefully onto the floor of the Landing Pad. By this point the U-Wing had already landed and its engines were calming. She tried to compose herself but was unable to completely erase the mischievous grin lining her lips, “I totally can’t think of anything else in the whole galaxy I’d rather be doing!”

“Haven’t you heard of the medical benefits of tickling Ewoks?” Knight asked, trying to keep a straight face. “Their healing properties are known through all the core worlds and even the outer rim--maybe you’re just too young?” A smirk grew as he saw her put both hands on her hips in response to his teasing, “In fact, I read an Intel report that Ewoks are the real reason they built the Second Death Star, so Vader would have an unlimited supply of Ewoks to tickle!”

“Well, look at you! The Ewok tickling expert!”

“Hey!” a female voice interrupted the two.

The aft door of the U-Wing had opened, extending a small ramp. From it emerged a yellow-skinned woman, her face adorned with the markings of her people. Lieutenant Namieh “Tattoo” Calyse walked confidently down the ramp until she was right in front of the two, her arms crossed, “Now, how many times do I have to tell you two to leave those Ewoks alone. Why don’t we ask the Imps that built this base just how ticklish the Ewoks are?”

Knight grinned, “They’d probably say they were rather tasty!”

“I imagine the Ewoks would say the same about those same Imps,” Tattoo replied with a smirk, causing Gremlin to let out a cackle--she couldn’t help it. The Mirialian SAR pilot continued, “Do you have your stuff, Knight?” she asked. “We’re on a timetable. Hey. Wait a minute. Where is Lock?”

The A-Wing pilot knelt to pick up his bag and shrugged in response. Most of his things were gone--along with the Liberty, and everyone that had been onboard at the time. Knight did his best not to think about it, avoiding the empty-pit-in-his-stomach feeling that came along with the memory. Kriff, even his A-Wing had been taken apart and used for spare parts after the damage it had received during the Battle above.

“Dunno,” he answered. “Maybe he is still hung over.”

“Is he now?” An evil smile grew on Gremlin’s lips. “It would be a shame if someone were to wake him up!”

Tattoo snorted and rolled her eyes, “Right, go get him. Come on, Knight, let’s get you sorted.”

“Yeah, just give me a minute,” he turned to Gremlin. The Zeltron’s empathic abilities allowed her to predict what was next--they both met for a quick hug. “See you soon, yeah? And, seriously, don’t tickle the Ewoks.”

“Ooh,” Gremlin laughed, doing her best to hide her true emotions. “Reverse psychology? Evil! Take care, Knight. And … take care of Lock, too, please.”

“Pretty sure he can take care of himself,” Knight replied.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you!” Pulling away from the hug, she winked at the man, keeping a smile on her lips. “See you soon… I hope!”

With that, Gremlin was away. Knight watched for a moment more before he finally turned to Tattoo. He sighed, “Right, let’s go.”

<>

[ Lock’s Hut ]

The temporary quarters that the New Republic had set up on the Forest Moon of Endor were barely more than repurposed huts on loan from the Ewoks, which meant that everything was a little too small for the average human. Roy “Lock” Callahan had gotten used to it over the last week, but even so he was more than happy to be moving on--his neck and back would, at the very least, consider it a blessing.

Crouched in front of a mirror, the white haired pilot tried on multiple hats. A cap, a straw hat, a fedora… none seemed to be completely to his liking. Even though he’d actually been complimented on it, the Corellian had a hard time adjusting the image that he had of himself in his mind’s eye. Attempts to cover it were in vain, and he wasn’t too interested in having to dye it, since once he dyed it, he’d have to keep doing so as soon as the color started to fade.. And honestly, he had better things to do.

With a groan he stood up (as much as he could in the hut) and walked over to his bed and grabbed his bag, which was lighter than it had ever been. He’d kept most of his belongings stored in his X-Wing, which had been turned into scrap, along with his astromech. Sorry, buddy, he thought to himself, recalling the fate of R2-F8.

A knock at the door distracted him from his less than pleasant thoughts.

“Hello, old man,” Gremlin said with a lopsided grin as soon as the older pilot opened the door. She was determined to keep up the facade of carefree enthusiasm. Insulting Lock was really just a perk of the job.

Lock snorted, “I’m not that old.”

“Hair says different,” she laughed as she let herself in. She was much shorter than Lock, therefore she was much more comfortable standing up in the hut. “So you’ve packed everything already? Wish I was going, too.” For a second, her mask slipped and she looked downcast.

“You will. The orders just need to be confirmed,” Lock answered. How did he know? A few days ago he’d gotten his orders from High Command. He was to serve as a liaison between Renegade Wing and Red Squadron, or the former Red Squadron, and aid with the transfer of Red assets, including starfighters, personnel, and pilots, to Renegade. He’d been working with Rev, who was still on the Home One, along with most of Red’s assets, to get this all sorted out. Bureaucracy was the only thing keeping Gremlin on Endor at this point. “Come on, I need to get to the landing pad in fifteen minutes.”

“As long as you don’t try to swing on vines to get there…” she teased, switching back to her usual persona. Appearances had to be maintained, after all.

“Can we not bring that up? I was drunk and blacked out--I don’t even remember what happened!” Lock protested, which only made Gremlin laugh even more.

“You don’t remember because you swung straight into a tree!”

“You’re making that up,” Lock defended himself. Truth was, he hoped she was because he really could not remember anything about that night--that said, when he was drunk he did usually pull stupid stunts like that (it was miracle he didn’t hurt himself).

Gremlin grinned, victory on her lips, “I am? What about the holo-vid that Knight recorded?”

“What holo-vid!?”

The two of them kept it up all the way from Lock’s hut to the landing pad. Originally, it had been built by the Empire so they could have a few TIE Fighters that could defend the bunker. It had proved useless to the Empire, but the New Republic found it to be advantageous, and not too far away from their base on the outskirts of the Ewok village.

“You’re late,” a female voice said as the two pilots approached the U-Wing ready and waiting to deliver him to his new assignment. Arms crossed, a Mirialan pilot looked at Lock expectantly.

“Blame her,” Lock jerked a thumb at Gremlin.

“That’s a lie, Tattoo! He’s late because he was trying on hats to cover up his bald spot!” the Zeltron fired back.

Lock paused mid-step and looked back at her, horrified. “I have a bald spot?”

Gremlin gave the older pilot the most wicked smile she could muster, turned around and skipped away, leaving Lock to watch in horror as she disappeared back into the village. He turned to Tattoo, who just smirked and put up one finger, stopping him before he could ask her any question.

“Nope, don’t get me involved,” she said, turning around--if she kept looking at his face she was going to end up laughing. “That’s between you and that little demon!”

“What! Come on, just tell me the truth--”

“The truth is that we’re late!” She started boarding the U-Wing, escaping from Lock’s pleas, who chased after her. “Knight got here twenty minutes ago! Come on, let’s go!”

The hatch closed and not long after the U-Wing was lifting off from Endor, firing its engines at full capacity to leave the moon’s gravity. Once in space, it fired off it’s hyperspace drive… destination Mukani.

<>

Chapter I

[ Nabrisk System ]

A quarter of a ring hung in orbit around the planet Nabrisk III.

The world below the ring was nothing but a ferrous nightmare, with deserts made of iron-sand and winds that blew like raging banshees locked into an eternal war with one another. Combined with the iron-sand, a single storm would shred a biological being down to the bone within moments. Robotics and vehicles didn’t fare any better… but it was still iron sand, and there was still a use to it, therefore the Emperor had invested in the planet, conscripting slaves to build an orbital station around Nabrisk III, a quarter ring, that would cast a shadow eternally over the red planet, a show of the will of the Emperor exerted over even Nabrisk III, a little planet in Wild Space, too small and too far away for anyone to give a damn about.

Until today.

First, a frigate burst into the system unannounced. Protective turrets swiveled towards the long warship--until their computer connected to the turrets, sending off a positive IFF, indicating that they too were loyal servants of the Empire. The two corvettes that followed, though, burst into realspace right behind the Frigate, firing upon the already wounded battleship. Accompanying the corvettes were five Y-Wing fighters.

The two corvettes pull up along either side of the frigate, firing upon it, attempting to whittle down it’s shields, while the Y-Wings viciously fired from above. For a moment it appeared that the frigate was doomed. The turrets fired away but were too slow to follow the snubfighters, but not strong enough to scare away the corvettes, at least not yet. The four TIE Fighters that launched from the quarter-ring shipyard were more than likely not to make a difference.

An Imperial-class Star Destroyer would!

It’s size meant that by the time the sensor wailed, the massive triangular white behemoth was already looming over the frigate and it’s attackers. Immediately, green plasma began to rain from above, mercilessly pounding into the corvette’s deflector shields until they were overwhelmed and both vessels were torn to shreds. They had little to no opportunity to fight back--they’d barely even had time to register that their doom was upon them. The Y-Wing pilots, though, did have time and attempted to slip away.

Twelve TIE Interceptors from Gamma Squadron ripped the Y-Wings apart, feeding on the fleeing bombers, killing them before they had the opportunity to leave Nabrisk’s gravity well, keeping what had just happened a secret.

Or so they thought...

<>

[ Onboard Nabrisk III Repair Yard; Nabrisk System ]

“You there! What’s your business in this sector, tail-head?” The Storm Trooper’s voice was distorted by his helmet but the disdain came through loud and clear. Prejudice was alive and well in this part of the galaxy. And living, it seemed, in the Nabrisk System.

Behind the maintenance hover-cart, the Twi’lek commandeering it paused, reaching for a digi-pad as the Storm Trooper approached. “Maintenance received a repair report, sir. Suspected leak causing loss of pressure in one of the hydro pipes. They asked me to come down and take a look, see if we can patch it until we obtain a replacement section.” She kept her eyes downcast as the Trooper poked over her cart, jostling aside the tools and scrap metal. Vyla Rha - or “Spook” to her friends, had lost count of the amount of times her attendance had warranted an impromptu inspection of her equipment. Just to prove a point.

“I didn’t think your lot knew mechanics. I thought you were more into your swamp rituals. Or prancing around a Hutt’s palace draped in chains!” Clearly this was entirely amusing to the Trooper, his robotic chortle echoing around them and Vyla wanted nothing more than to put her compound laser cutter right between his eyes. She hated this place. And more than once, had questioned why the NRI had sent her to this rock. It was like they wanted her to be an easy target. Feeling hot and angry, it was easy to ignore the fact that she had been set up in place at a routine Imperial “recruitment” because of her background in mechanics as the digi-pad was abruptly taken from her hands and scrutinised. Probably looking for a spelling error just to tell her to get the kriff out of there and back to cleaning floors. Or a lewd suggestion that she should provide the Troopers with some on-board “entertainment” in the canteen.

Before she could muster a response that would probably see a reprimand chip sent to her superior, the digi-pad was thrust back at her, causing the Twi-lek to fumble for it to stop it falling to the ground. “All appears to be in order. Don’t take too long about it. You’re not authorised to wander this sector and I’ll be checking on you to make sure you’re not sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.” The lack of anything to pick at, to challenge on the maintenance orders had rubbed the Trooper up the wrong way. “I’ll still be sending my recommendation that you’ve been incorrectly assigned. Tail-heads carrying out maintenance. And a female one at that. Next they’ll be saying Taun-Tauns know how to cook!” And with another distorted chuckle at his own hilarity, the Trooper sauntered up the corridor, distracted by the sight of a comrade and now wanting to share his witticisms with a more appreciative audience.

Frozen in place, Vyla didn’t realise she was holding her breath until she sensed that the Trooper was several paces beyond her and the exhalation came out as a rush. Thank the Goddess the oaf hadn’t thought to do more than a cursory prodding of her equipment. A bit more curiosity and he’d have discovered the second layer, the one tucked discreetly beneath the typical tools and routine repair supplies. It had taken her months to garner it all, collecting pieces from scrap, a little careful re-writing of inventory numbers. Every day she had expected to find her quarters turned over and the stash discovered. And then her head would roll. Every day had been filled with torturous anticipation that it would be her last and it was a constant reminder that she was on this crate alone. No back-up, no platoons of NR agents waiting to blast the doors down. It had been… how long since her last missive? Vyla realised that she couldn’t actually remember the last time anything had come through. As the silence went on, she realised that she was on a finite timeline before she was forgotten for good. Abandoned as collateral damage. It wasn’t ruthless or even cruel. Just a fact of war.

Navigating the cart forward, the Twi’lek hurried down the corridor towards the sector that pulsed a gentle red glow on the schematics on the digi-pad. She didn’t need a map. She was the reason for the pressure alert in the first place. Despite the authoritarian posing of the Trooper about access, it was easy to get into the lower corridors with a maintenance pass. It gave you access to just about anywhere. So it had taken very little to head into the corridor with her pass on her way to another sector of the yard, easy to divert her route into the small side corridor where the hydro-pipes fed through into the main conduit and with the help of a small selection of tools, do just enough damage that in a few days, the pressure would begin to drop and a maintenance report would be generated. So far, it had all gone exactly as anticipated as the hover-cart turned into the side access. She didn’t have long. Maybe a few minutes at most. And when it was over… it would be months, if ever, if she got a chance like this again. The device that was carefully pulled out looked like nothing more than scrap parts at first. But put together, it was the last glimmer of hope.

As it whirled and buzzed into life, Vyla tapped hastily on the screen, typing in the control sequence she hadn’t dared write down. But it was etched into her brain like a fine-bore laser weld. As she hit the final button, waiting for the load sequence that felt as though it took an eon to complete, she watched the progress bar, eyes jumping over her shoulder and waiting for calamity to come crashing down. But it didn’t come, at least not today, and as the confirmation screen flashed up, the Twi’lek lifted the heavy spanner over her head. She paused for just a second before she brought it crashing down. It wasn’t worth her life to be found with it. Wasn’t worth the faint hope that she could use it again.

Authorisation code Alpha Five Oh, Echo Bravo Niner…. Three Delta…. New… Intelligence…. Vyla Rh…. Vessel is orbiting Nebrisk III… Shielded… pair Yard…. Covertly stationed… Requesting full… vacuation… Repeat evacuation… Imperial Task Force… Star Destro… Frigate wi… pecial cargo... End Transmission...

The signal was complete. Broken but… it had been transmitted. But whether it had gotten through, whether anyone had heard it. All she could do was wait and for a little longer, she would hope.

<>

Chapter II

[ Mukani System ]

Mercy Two popped into the Mukani System from hyperspace and immediately started making its way towards M-Base.

Mukani was one of three planets in the Goldilocks zone of a medium aged star at the center of a system deep in Wild Space. It had been discovered by a team of the Empire’s Survey Corps who defected after the destruction of Alderaan, before they could send in the reports with their most recent findings. Throughout the rebellion, many of the planets found by this Survey Corps team had been used for secret bases, such as Hoth.

Mukani had always been held in reserve, populated by a small garrison, in case High Command ever needed a place they could hide. After the Battle of Endor, High Command seemed to think that they would never need to hide again, and thus would never need Mukani--and therefore that is how this red and blue gem of a world, mostly desert canyons and beaches, became the location of Starfighter Command’s secret training base known as “M-Base.”

Originally nothing more than a small hanger attached to a compound that was meant to house less than a couple dozen people at most, the New Republic personnel that arrived in droves were forced to start building nearly from scratch, turning the Villa on the Beach into a thriving base, and already receiving recruits even as they were still paving and creating an airfield.. The original villa still survived and had been modified into quarters for the base’s officers, which included most of the pilots, the survivors of Corona, Yellow, Blue and many other Squadrons that had survived the Battle but had nowhere to go back home to. Many ships had been destroyed, including the Liberty, home of some of the most fearsome starfighter pilots in the Galaxy.

A large tent had been erected near the old villa, serving as a Lounge for these men and women and everything in between, though at the moment it was heavily under used, as most of the pilots were being occupied with work--under orders by the base commander, General Thram Shen’ryu, a decorated Bothan pilot who detested everything about Mukani, resenting the post, but above all hating those pilots who called themselves… the Renegades.

<>

[ Jalb’s Officer; M-Base Special SFC Training Facility; Mukani System ]

Jalb’s makeshift office, well, to call it an office was a stretch… The hut Jalb had been assigned as quarters and to run Renegade Wing from was sparse and contained the bare minimum required to make it a functional space; there was a low camp cot along one wall under which was the storage bin from his X-wing that contained his other set of khaki fatigues, his flight suit and various personal care items. In the corner was the ubiquitous hydrogen power generator that energized his hut but also provided water for washing and shaving as a byproduct. That was his living space, the workspace consisted of a small, utilitarian desk with a charge pad for his devices and a holo emitter upon it and rounded out with a small, uncomfortable office chair that had one dodgy castor that meant anytime he wanted to move it was a struggle that invariably saw him grip the desk and drag or push to get where he wanted to be. For now he was happy with the roller position but had spun the seat so his back was facing his desk, and the door.

He was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees reading the data pad he held, swiping with his right hand every few moments as he scanned through the myriad reports, requisition requests and logistical holdings for the Wing. As far as they’d come from ‘the rebellion’ days they still had issues… many issues, that needed addressing, the least of which was the mismatch of functional space frames. If pushed they could probably send up a flight of four of any craft types with the same hull and shield variant but that was it, in fact, looking at the reports from Wakachangi, Renegade’s new ACE and Deck Chief, they’d be hard pressed to get a squadron in space with complimentary weapon loadouts. As much as the idea was anathema to his classical training the only way to address it in the short term was to have mixed craft flights, and it frustrated him no end. He slumped back in the chair and put his right hand to his head, forefinger and thumb massaging back along the eyebrow line on his forehead.

As he was contemplating the insufficiencies of his command he heard footsteps across his threshold and before he could acknowledge his visitor there was a firm, attention getting, clearing of throat that Jalb instantly recognized; one of the main roadblocks to his Squadrons getting what they need. His head dropped slightly before he took a deep breath and turned to face the Bothan in the room.

General Thram Shen’ryu, as Commandant of M-Base was also Jalb’s superior and it wore Jalb down mentally; he was a military man, rank and the chain of command was how the military worked but the personal dislike he had for the Bothan, which was returned in buckets, pushed his professional demeanor to the limit with every interaction he had with Shen’ryu. The Bothan was not quite as professional.

“Reynolds!” the General snapped as Jalb rotated his chair towards him. He remained seated but braced to the proper form of attention, back straight, arms straight and fists on knees.

“Sir, to what do I owe the pleasure?” adding ‘this time’ internally. Shen’ryu cocked his head and glared down at Reynolds, he knew there was something insubordinate there, all pilots were insubordinate moof milkers with far too high a regard of themselves, and this one was the worst of them. His proper military demeanor and crisp Sir, never Boss, or General Shen’ryu, just Sir; it spoke volumes.

“I’ve got three flights of cadets nearing graduation, I want them on the line, combat operations sooner rather than later.”

“I’m sorry Sir, you want what?” Jalb responded with some disbelief.

“Did I speak Bocce, Colonel? I said I want these cadets in the cockpit getting combat experience.”

“That’s what I thought you said Sir, I just didn’t believe it the first time. No.”

“I beg your pardon?” Shen’ryu replied somewhat startled at the flat response. He was used to the CO of Renegade Wing pushing back on his orders but always fell into line. This was the first time he’d flat out refused.

“I say again Sir, No. I more than anyone understand the need for trained pilots, but I will not take them straight from an accelerated flight course into combat.”

“And I say you will” the Bothan snarled back taking a step towards the desk to look down aggressively at the seated Colonel. At 160cm Shen’ryu was tall for a bothan and standing over Reynolds he sought to dominate and cow him into submission, in the past it, seemingly, worked. It was more that Jalb knew when, and how to pick his fights. Logistics and equipment, while important, could be worked around. Manpower and the death of pilots under his command could not.

Jalb slowly eased himself to his feet to bring his quarter metre height advantage into the dynamic, folded his arms and stared down at the seething bothan.

“And I, Sir, still say no.”

Shen’ryu glared up at the insolent human pilot, a malicious smile on his face.

“I’ve been waiting for this, open insubordination, this will not end well for you Reynolds. You have more than enough veterans to babysit these cadets and show them the ropes. You also have the roster vacancies in Yellow, or Corsair or whatever you’re calling your Squadrons today...”

“I’ll reiterate, Sir, No. I’m sorry that receiving a response that doesn’t suit you is viewed as insubordination but, in my experience a good commander takes advice from their subject matter experts… Sir,” and on that he truly did skirt on insubordinate behavior. The fur on the General’s face rippled in wrendui showing how clearly agitated he was getting.

“How dare you! I’m a pilot, I’ve flown combat…”

“Stop!” the force and volume of Jalb’s retort had the desired effect. “Stop right there you jumped up furry little political ingrate! Going Mach 6 through the atmosphere into a controlled crash landing to offload troops is not piloting and while you may have chewed some dirt and killed a few troopers I can bet you I’ve chewed and killed more!” as he spoke Jalb advanced around the desk to properly punctuate his argument with a knife hand pointing straight at the General’s face.

“I’ve also worked out that you have not got the first frelling clue about piloting a snub in combat. Lids in ground combat survive,” he said using the Macquarian vernacular for fresh infantrymen, “because they are literally surrounded by senior soldiers and veterans who can pull them from danger or into cover and tell them where to shoot and where to cover. A rookie pilot does not have that luxury and any veteran worth his salt can see a rook on the opposition before they’re even in sensor range, they will engage them and herd them away while their wingman keeps their cover busy and they will kill them.”

Jalb leant down so he was eye to eye with the seething Bothan. “I will not allow you to put cadets who have barely got the required hours for flight certification into combat!” he stood back up, rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck.

Shen’ryu clearly wanted to return fire, but was clearly put off his game by the aggressive dressing-down he was receiving.

Jalb continued. “Now, Sir, that was education. You want insubordination” he reached up and unclipped the rank badge from his collar and dropped it on the desk. “Let’s step outside.”

Shen’ryu’s fur was in constant motion and a low growl escaped as he shaped up to the much taller human. They were interrupted by a timid knock on the open door frame. Both turned to see one of the Camp Commandant’s junior aides looking on with a frightened face.

“What?!?” Shen’ryu erupted.

“I’m s-sorry, Sirs,” the young rodian stammered “there’s priority communique from HQ, I mean Allia… ah, New Republic Command… Sir,” he said looking at the General. “Encrypted, Eyes only, for you, sir,” he finished meekly.

“I’m on my way, carry on,” the Officer Cadet beat a hasty retreat and Shen’ryu turned back to Jalb “and you,” he spat “this isn’t over.” He menaced.

“I’m sure it isn’t… Sir. I look forward to the resolution” Jalb responded and turned his back on him. Shen’ryu stared at Reynolds’ back for a moment, snorted in disgust and left the hut. Renegade Wing’s CO heard him leave and let out an explosive breath, a release of anger and adrenaline, and leant down to put his hands on the desk and take in a calming breath or two. ‘Well, that escalated’ he thought to himself.

“Frack this! I need a drink.”

<>

[ Jalb’s Office; M-Base ]

The trip through hyperspace from Endor to Mukani wasn’t very long at all. At first Lock had tried to pass the time playing on his datapad, but after various attempts by the rest of the group to draw him into the conversation, the white haired pilot had opted to pretend he was asleep in the furthest corner of the U-Wing (which wasn’t very far at all, considering). He “woke up” when he felt the vessel enter the upper atmosphere of the planet and took his seat, buckling in for the landing. Across from him, Knight watched him with a smirk on his face that Lock wasn’t able to immediately to decode.

Touching down gracefully, Tattoo cut the engines to the craft and let it spool down before releasing the pressurized door. Warm air with a salty taste invaded the interior of the U-Wing, a waft of its own unique smell and taste like every other planet had. At least in his experience, Lock had never encountered any two atmospheres that were the same. A few moments later both he and Knight were on their feet, half-empty bags slung over their shoulders.

Tattoo emerged from the cockpit, “Digger will stay with the ship. I guess the three of us should go find our new Commander.”

“Roger that,” Lock answered.

“You guys are going to love the Wing,” Knight said. For a moment, Lock had forgotten that Knight wasn’t transferring in like the rest of them. Renegade was his home, where he belonged. “I’ve already told you about Jalb and Syntax--””

“The droid, right?” the white haired pilot cut in.

Knight nodded and continued, following Tattoo as she led them down the ramp and off the U-wing, “Yeah! He’s strange, but a great commanding officer. One of the best pilots I’ve ever known. Proud to be a Corsair alongside him.”

It didn’t take long for the three of them to get directions and make their way towards the hut that they had been told served as Colonel Reynolds’ office. Along the way Knight regaled them with tales from the Liberty; adventures he’d shared with the droid pilot, or his friends Bulldog and Wolf. Tattoo couldn’t help but smile and laugh as she heard the stories; the white haired pilot walking behind them seemed amused, Lock could tell there was a real bond there, just like his and his Reds… no, not his Reds. His friends.

They stopped to stare at the flap of tent that was the entrance. “Do we… knock?” Tattoo asked.

“Slap the door,” Lock suggested.

“Slap the door?” Knight raised a brow. “How do you slap a--”

“Lieutenant Vorwald! Is that you I hear outside my hut?” called a voice from inside. Suddenly Knight’s whole body stiffened. “You better not be about to slap my door!”

From the tent emerged a tall man, taller than even Lock, with broad shoulders and a defiant yet amused grin on his lips, “What’s all this then, Lieutenant?” Jalb asked, immediately identifying one of his pilots. It appeared to Lock that the older man was using this as a chance to screw a little bit with Knight--not far off from the type of things that Lock himself would do in the past. His accent, though--Lock couldn’t pin it. “D’yoo think it’s proper to go about slapping the doors of commanding officers?”

“No, sir!” Knight answered immediately. By this point, both Lock and Tattoo had taken a cue from Knight’s book and matched his pose.

Jalb stared at Knight for a few seconds before his expression broke into a grin and he laughed, “Ha! Nice one, mate!” He patted Knight on the back as the Corsair relaxed and grinned back, obviously sharing the same joke. “Stand easy you two, Knight’s just putting on a show, I’m not really that much of an ogre and we do like to take the piss around here... Lieutenants Callahan and Calyse, aye?”

“Yes, sir,” the two answered.

The colonel motioned to them, “C’mon, inside. Let’s review your paperwork and then we’ll see about getting ya’s where ya belong.”

The meeting with Jalb didn’t last very long. Inside they met Major Matt “Krayt '' Houseman, the Wing’s XO, who took over Tattoo’s paperwork and then left with her to examine the U-Wing she’d brought along with her. Knight was dismissed after a little bit of chit-chat, leaving Lock and Jalb alone.

“So, you were Red Squadron’s former OC?” Jalb_k asked, reading through the electronic file that Lock had given him. Listed were a roster of pilots, all the Reds that had been with him up until the Battle of Endor (those still alive, anyway), along with all crafts and maintenance personnel officially assigned to the unit. Most had been repurposed for Endor, including the pilots. “How’dya feel about losing your command, Lieutenant?”

Lock was expecting the question, so it was best to get it over with sooner, rather than later. He shrugged, “The Alliance giveth, the Republic taketh.”

“And that means?”

“It means, sir, that I understand that changes need to happen,” Lock answered. “It means that whether we call ourselves the Alliance or the Republic, my duty remains the same. It was an honor to lead Red, and I love every one of those pilots, but it will be an honor to fly with this Wing as well. In fact, I should thank you.”

Jalb raised a brow, “Thank me? For what?”

“First, for saving my ass at Endor. Gnoizic and I were in a tight spot, you and your boys in Corona saved us,” Lock explained. “And secondly, for freeing me of the endless piles of paperwork that came with being Red Leader.” Lock smirked, pointing at the neatly stacked pile on his new OC’s desk. Most pilots would probably have been trying to make a better impression, but Lock was more concerned with being honest as he could be. “So, thanks.”

Jalb snorted, clearly amused. It wasn’t the first time he had met a hot head or a pilot with a hutt-sized ego before--in fact, Rogue (or Corona -- Jalb mentally rolled his eyes) was full of huge egos and extreme personalities. Eccentricity was as inevitable as paperwork, when one led a group of pilots on the frontlines of a Galactic War.

“You’re welcome, mate” Jalb answered. “I’m going to give you a slot in our A-Wing unit. I’ll send yer over to Syntax in a little bit. First let’s discuss these pilots…”

<>

[ Syntax’s Office; M-Base ]

Another hour passed and Lock found himself in another hut.

The lights were low, and at first it was hard to see, at least until the pilot’s eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The walls were sparse and there was no cot behind the desk that was the clear focal point of the whole room--then again, why would the dark droid sitting across from him need one? As far as Lock knew, droids didn’t need sleep.

He wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about being under the command of a droid, in all honesty.

“So…” Lock began.

“Lieutenant Callahan. You have been assigned to Yellow Squadron,” Syntax said, interrupting… as if he’d been waiting for Lock to say something before speaking. His mechanical voice had an electronic yet gravelly sound to it, his vocal processors more than used to emitting on this frequency. “For now, we shall forego assigning you a number. I expect that we will be receiving more recruits in the consequent days and weeks. Do you have any questions?”

“Uh, yeah,” Lock answered.

“Any questions that are not about me being a droid?”

“Uhm,” Lock had to be honest. “Not really.”

“As I expected. I am a droid,” Syntax said, confirming what was already known. “I am also your commanding officer. You will follow my orders as you would an organic’s orders.”

“Copy that,” Lock paused. “SIr.”

There was a moment of silence between the two. Finally Syntax stood up, and Lock followed. The black droid’s arm raised towards his head in salute--Lock did the same, stiffening up as he’d been trained to do. Syntax held the salute for several seconds before slowly allowing his arm to descend.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant.”

<>

Chapter III

[ Cadet’s Quarters; M-Base ]

After participating in the Battle of Endor, being sent back to Cadet Barracks was the last thing Kyle “Junior” Reynolds envisioned for himself. Where were the celebrations? The booze? The ladies? He was a damned hero for surviving that sithspawned clusterkriff of a battle!

Though perhaps a little harder than he intended, he kicked the door to his yurt, slamming it open, much to the surprise of the inhabitants within. Junior walked in, bag slung over his shoulder and already dressed in an orange flight suit, something that Cadets only earned after graduation. The expression on the young man’s face wasn’t pleasant in the least.

“Let's get this straight, boys and girls,” he said. “I’m not one of you. I shouldn’t be here. I’ll be gone within a day.”

The four beings, two male and two female, just stared at him for a brief second before going back to exactly what they were doing. Honestly, Junior had been expecting a little more of a reaction but this was just fine--really, just fine. With an annoyed snort he quickly located an empty cot and made his way over to it, unceremoniously dumping his bag onto the floor next to it and throwing himself on the bed face first.

“Oy,” Junior heard. He lifted his head to see an abednedo standing over him, hands on his hips. “Nice introduction back there. Could really, ah, feel the love, ya know? Yep. So, name’s Aram Pritus, but these ones, they all call me Armpit. No reason why, though.”

“You know damn well why, Armpit!” called a girl from the top bunk on the far end of the yurt. Bouncing down, she landed like a cat, low to the floor, but in full control, and marched her way over, crossing her arms. “New guy, you better stay clear of this one after PT on a hot day.” She had a Coruscanti accent, thick--lower levels thick. Junior raised a brow but was yet to respond. Continuing, the young woman said, “Fyri Delku. Everyone here calls me Kid, though.”

This definitely caught Juniors attention. Now he sat up on the bed, “One of the best pilots I know has the callsign Kid. I’m Kyle Reynolds. Back on the Lib everyone calls me…” Wait, the Liberty wasn’t around anymore. A sinking feeling invaded the young man. After a moment he realized that they were waiting for him. “... Junior. They call me Junior but who kriffing cares, I’ll be out of here soon enough.”

“Sure, Junior,” the girl answered, rolling her eyes. She pointed at another cadet who was watching something on his datapad, ears covered by headphones. “See him? Said the same thing. Probably the best pilot on this base--”

“I highly doubt that,” Junior interjected, allowing himself to plop back onto his bed, disinterested or perhaps distracted by the empty feeling. Nevertheless, Fyri was undeterred.

“--We call him Nexu because he’s so deadly. So if he can’t get out of here what makes you think you can?” she challenged.

“Aye, what makes you think he can, ay?” asked Armpit, nodding his head.

Junior rolled his eyes, “None of your business.”

“Oy, come on now, no need to be stingy, ay, we can all be friends,” the abednedo said in his quick, sing-songy voice. He opened his arms, motioning to everyone present. Apart from Nexu in his corner, Armpit, Fyri, and Junior, the only Cadet who’s name he hadn’t learned was the four-armed ape-like Ardennian deconstructing and cleaning her blaster pistol. Armpit noticed Junior’s gaze, “That’s Jewel. Most evil one here, yeah. Keep your eye out for that one, ey?”

“Oh shut up, Armpit,” Jewel said, setting her weapon down and walking over to the other two. “He just says that cause I keep kicking his butt in sims.”

“Oy! What’s that? Not true! We’ve only flown three sims together!”

“I shot you down thirteen times in one of them,” Jewel grinned, revealing some rather sharp teeth. Armpit threw his arms up in the air in defeat--to which the girl’s responded by acting as if the most noxious gas in the galaxy and started coughing and gagging only to end up in a fit of giggles. Jewel’s grin tuned victorious, “Don’t worry, he’s already over it. Welcome to our little corner… Junior, right?”

“Aye, though don’t get used to it,” he replied, folding his hands behind his head.

Jewel glanced over to Kid before looking at Junior, “Aww, that’s too bad. So cute, too?”

“What!” “What!?” Junior laughed, Kid looked surprised.

“What?” Jewel pouted. “I mean, you’re not really to *my* taste, your teeth are all weird and tiny, but to one of your own species….” She looked coyly from one human to another. “Who knows?”

The two humans looked at each other dumbfounded--had she really said that? Jewel giggled, “You should see your faces!”

“I’m going to kick your butt, Jewel!” Fyri punched her fellow Cadet in the arm.

“I’m with her,” Junior agreed, only to realize he’d made a grave mistake.

“OoOoOoooh, with her, you say?” teased the four-armed alien.

Fyri turned and punched one of those arms, “You can be such a… such a…! You’re lucky I’m not trying to get kicked out of here! I’m going to bed!”

“Oh, Kid! Come on! I was just playing~...” Jewel chased after her friend. Junior just shook his head, a small smile creeping on his face.

For a moment Junior thought that was that--until one last voice proved him wrong.

“You were at Endor, right?”

Junior looked over at where the pilot that Fyri had called Nexu was laying. He’d pulled one of the headphones out of his ear and was looking at Junior. Looking back at him, the A-Wing pilot snorted and shrugged.

“So what if I was?” It wasn’t as if some Cadet could ever understand what that had been like.

For a moment there was a silent pause, even Jewel and Fyri’s screwing around took a backseat as the two young men sized each other up. Finally, Nexu nodded.

“Respect,” he said before putting his headphones back on and turning his attention to whatever he’d been watching before.

It left Junior feeling strange. Nexu clearly meant it but the ball that had formed in his stomach earlier only seemed to grow. He felt flashes of guilt, anger, regret… he felt like he wanted to throw up and scream and yell and punch Nexu in the face, even though he’d really done nothing to deserve it, other than offer Junior his respect. He turned away from Nexu and stared up at the ceiling.

“Yeah, thanks.”

<>

[ Renegade’s Lounge; M-Base ]

Bulldog hated Mukani. He hated the cocky new General. He hated the lack of a proper bar. He hated… everything! He sat in the makeshift lounge seething at the lack of any sort of entertainment whatsoever. Most of all, he hated the lack of recreational drugs or non-smuggled alcohol, which he recently started craving again since the meat grinder that was Endor.

But tantamount to everything, he hated not being “home”. The Liberty’s destruction left a huge hole in his chest. He wasn’t necessarily missing his collection of trinkets from his time before and with the Alliance, nor his collection of Spotts Tradechip Company Smashball trade chips- though that collection was vast and valuable. He just missed… being home. The feeling of his familiar bunk already set to his bulky form, or the ready room seat that was worn into a pleasant groove by his many lengthy briefing sittings in the same chair. He missed knowing the general schedule and flow of things, and knowing what parts of the ship would be relatively free from other bodies when he needed time to himself.

So he continued to sit in the bare lounge, seething at his current lot in life. And again, regretted not having a proper bar or the lighter recreational drugs to take the edge off of the bottomless pit of loss he was feeling recently. Sometimes, darker thoughts percolated, where he wished he hadn’t survived the battle to end all battles. He missed Icestorm, and couldn’t shake the guilt that his wingman had taken a missile meant for him, and that missile had crippled his wingman physically while it scarred him mentally.

A group of fresh recruits were playing some sort of card game in the corner of the room. One of them slapped the table in a fit of rage.

Bulldog twitched nervously, his blood pressure spiking. He immediately tensed up and looked around, trying to identify an invisible threat that he needed to kill. The laughter of the other pilots slowly brought him back to the moment, and he wrenched his eyes shut as he calmed himself down. He waited with increasing impatience for the new blood to leave so he could pull out one of his prized bottles of booze and start drinking.

“Pilots,” the Bothan General Tabram Shen’ryu barked loudly from the doorway. “How are we doing?”

Bulldog again tensed up, almost falling out of his chair at the new voice. His adrenaline spiked again as he looked toward the door as his fight or flight reflex kicked in. He again forced himself to calm down once he realized it was his new CO talking.

The newer recruits occupying the lounge all shot to their feet and threw up a salute. “Sir!” they all said in unison.

Bulldog snorted, but noticed he was also the only pilot not standing at attention and slowly rose to his feet.

The General noticed him immediately and frowned, his Bothan fur rippling with agitation. However, he said nothing. “Let’s be sure to get plenty of sack time tonight. Got a big couple of days of training coming up. Maybe some action!”

“Yes Sir!” The new recruits shouted in unison, and almost all of them started to leave the room.

Shen’ryu smiled and nodded, apparently sufficiently placated by the deference of the greener pilots.

“Have a good night, ladies and gentlebeings,” Shen’ryu smiled as he left the room, with a lengthy line of pilots following him out into the hallways of the base.

Bulldog threw the retreating general a mocking salute. “Skrogging nerf herder,” he grumbled under his breath.

“These greenies are all piss and vinegar,” Wolf snickered from the other end of the room.

“They don’t know what they’re champing at the bit for,” Bulldog said sullenly. “Not one bit.”

“Yeah man,” Jasted agreed from a different table. “I know I didn’t.”

“You know what I want to do?” Bulldog asked the room in a wistful tone.

“What’s that, BD?” Wolf asked.

Bulldog lounged back. “I just want to sit in my bunk and do… absolutely nothing. Nothing at all,” he said as he put his hands behind his head and just let his body relax.

“Man, that sounds like bliss,” Wolf replied.

“Yeah,” Jasted said with a smile.

“I’d say we earned it, right boys?” Bulldog asked.

“I’d say we’ve all earned it,” a new voice said from the doorway. The three pilots looked up and saw Knight grinning, holding up a bottle of rum and shaking it provocatively with an arched eyebrow.

“That’s funny,” Jasted said with a laugh, revealing a brand new bottle of cognac from near his chair’s legs.

Wolf pulled a bottle of brandy from his hip pocket. “I’d say we’re in for a little party, eh boys?”

Bulldog barked out a laugh. “I’ve been saving this for a rainy day. Or at least until all the other noobs left, but...” he trailed off as he pulled out a pristine bottle of Whyrens Reserve 12 Year whiskey from his deep cargo pocket on the legs of his fatigues, eliciting cheers from his companions.

“You always have the good stuff, Dawg,” Knight said with a chuckle.

“Rich boys and their toys,” Wolf mumbled with a wry grin.

“Yeah, you learn to play as hard as you work when you’ve got the credits,” Bulldog bragged. He set his gaze on his recently recovered flight mate. “And I’d say our cyborg wingmate deserves a drink more than most!”

Knight glowered slightly at the reminder of his recent injury at Endor and his new bionic eye and the metallic bone implants to secure his broken bones. He smiled after a moment, and walked into the room and pulled up a chair next to Bulldog. Wolf and Jasted joined in and the men set their now contraband alcohol on the table.

“Well boys, it ain’t the MECantina on the Liberty, but it’ll do nicely,” Wolf said, eyeing the bounty in front of him.

“How do we want to do this?” Knight asked.

“How about a drinking game?” Wolf suggested.

“How about Who, What, Where?” Bulldog ventured.

“Man, that’s a dark game,” Jasted said with a grin.

“Who wants to go first?” Knight asked, pulling the cap off his bottle of rum.

Wolf raised his hand curtly and took a swig of his brandy. “Who? My family. What? In a massive furball after becoming a double ace in that fight alone on top of my other kill totals. Where? Coruscant, while we take the seat of power from the rest of the Imps.”

The gathered pilots rapped their knuckles on the table and took a drink of their respective bottles.

Bulldog sloshed the bottle of Whyrens Reserve and took a healthy swig, wincing as it burned all the way down. “Who? I… Actually, I need more time.”

“I don’t,” Jasted said, grabbing the bottle of good alcohol from Bulldog and taking his own very healthy drag. He hissed at the burn as well. “Who? My dad. What? Ramming my ship up another Death Star’s exhaust port. Where? Back home, saving my planet.”

The pilots again wrapped their knuckles against the table and took drinks, then passed the bottles around.

Knight belched. “Who? My wife and kids. What? Old age. Where? My bed at our beach house.”

“That’s cheating,” Wolf razzed. “Old age doesn’t count.”

Knight smirked. “Fine. What? Pulling a Crynyd on another Super Star Destroyer. Where? The last major battle the Imperials can muster.”

The pilots wrapped their knuckles again on the table and cheered. They all took a healthy swig of their alcohol and passed the bottles.

Jasted looked at Bulldog. “Ok, BD, your turn.”

Bulldog frowned as his mood suddenly darkened. “What? Taking a missile up the tailpipe. Where? Endor while running from a Raider Corvette.”

The pilots were all silent. Nobody wanted to speak up to remind him that he skipped the ‘who’ part of the game, nor did they want to address the fact that Bulldog had mentioned a time in the past, which was unheard of during renditions of this game.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to broach the subject, as a few interlopers discovered the gathering.

“What do we have here?” Tattoo asked with a smile. Behind her were another human with a shock of blizzard-white hair and a Dug as they filed into the makeshift lounge.

“This looks like quite the party,” The human replied, eyeing the first bottles of alcohol he’d seen on this dry base.

“Pull up a chair,” Wolf said in a jocular tone. “We were just doing a round of Who, What, Where.

“What a morbid game,” Tattoo said with a frown that quickly turned into a smirk. “Sounds absolutely delightful,” she said as she sat in an offered chair Her companions also sat down and took the offered bottles. The three new beings took a healthy drag on the alcohol, savoring the various bites each delightful concoction had offered.

“Name’s Digger,” The Dug said after a drink. “Glad to make your acquaintances.”

Tattoo stopped mid-swig and nodded. “How rude of me. Digger is my crewmate, and this guy here goes by Lock,” she said, motioning to her human companion. “Flew with Gold Squadron at Endor.”

“These are the guys I mentioned,” Knight interjected. The three veteran Renegade Wing pilots perked up at that news and eyed the human with more scrutiny.

“Gold Squadron, eh?” Jasted asked. “I’ve been wondering what other pilots made their way into that behemoth while my squadron was taking down the engines of that Impstar.”

Bulldog abruptly stood up, and the room spun a bit. He steadied himself with the back of his chair and hiccuped. “I have to take a leak,” he said as he clumsily plodded out of the room. “I want more of that bottle when I come back!” he shouted over his shoulder as he bounced off the wall when his balance failed him briefly.

After a short while filled with many brief stops with a steadying hand against a wall, he made it to what he thought was the fresher and quickly undid his trousers and emptied his bladder. “Hrm… strange fresher, with the vent on the floor to take the waste out…”

An eternity later, his bladder was empty and his trousers clumsily re-secured. He wound his way back the direction he came and found his companions cheering raucously at the table. However, the seating arrangements had changed, and the man named Lock was sitting in his original seat.

“Bulldog!” Wolf, Knight, and Jasted chorused at his return, holding up bottles in a mock salute.

Bulldog stumbled forward and stopped behind Lock. “You’re in my seat, buddy,” he slurred.

Lock didn’t turn to face him. “I’m not your buddy, friend.”

Tattoo, hoping to avoid a confrontation, resumed the previous drinking game. “Where? Nar Shadaa. What? Hmmm, cheated the wrong moof milker at Pazaak. Who? The Rats,” she said, her smile downright macabre. Her answers drew howls of laughter and joyful knuckle raps against the table.

Bulldog didn’t smile. “You’re in my seat, friend.”

Again, Lock didn’t turn to face him. “I’m not your friend, guy.”

Sensing the rising tension, the others attempted once again to break the mood by doing another round of the game. Digger cleared his throat and spoke. “Who? Sebulba, so that blowhard would know he’s not the most famous Dug in the universe. What and Where? The last remaining Zillo Beast on Malastare.” Unfortunately, the tension could not be broken by the new answer.

“I’m not your guy, buddy,” Bulldog hissed.

“I’m not your buddy- you know what, this whole bit is boring,” Lock replied icily, still not facing Bulldog as he took a lengthy swig of Whyrens Reserve.

Bulldog’s rage grew. He looked at his bottle of Whyren’s Reserve and saw that over 3/4 of it was consumed since he had left, leaving only a few fingers left in the bottle after Lock’s latest draught. The low level of his prized booze made his ears pop loudly and his hearing was overcome by the sound of water rushing over a precipice. His eyes widened and his pulse quickened as his fist clenched. “That’s my booze, Wamp-ass,” he growled.

Sensing a coming brawl, Knight quickly swiped the bottle of Whyrens and handed it to Bulldog. “Here, Dawg, it’s only right you get to keep the rest of what you graciously shared with us lowly plebs,” he said with a nervous grin.

Bulldog unclenched his fist and took the offered bottle. He upended it down his throat and chugged the remainder, wincing as it overwhelmed his gag reflex as his gullet was filled with fire trailing all the way down his esophagus. After it was empty, he held out the bottle and dropped it like a microphone. The rushing water sound subsided as he focused on keeping his top shelf alcohol down.

“Daaaaaaaaaamn,” Wolf said, impressed.

“That’s a baaaaaaad man,” Jasted chimed in, shaking his head with a laugh.

Lock finally turned to face Bulldog from his seat. “Now, why would you go and hog the rest of the good stuff? That’s just plain selfish if you ask me.”

Something shattered in Bulldog’s brain, and he immediately grabbed the seated pilot in a clumsy headlock from behind and attempted to pull him back to the ground to manhandle him with his superior bulk.

Lock, however, was not as drunk as Bulldog. He seemed prepared for the maneuver, countering with an arm up against his head to keep his airway open while also using his other arm to grip Bulldog’s meaty forearm and pitched his weight forward, pulling the inebriated brute end-over-end in an awkward arm drag. Bulldog’s feet flailed in the air as he was carried by the maneuver until he slammed his back flush against the ground and the wind rushed out of him with an unceremonious “Oof!”.

Before the fight could get more serious, the other revelers broke the two apart. “Easy boys,” Tattoo said sternly as Bulldog was held back by Wolf and Knight, while Jasted and Digger held Lock at bay. The two men struggled briefly against their new restraints, but calmed quickly.

“Let’s say we call it a night, then?” Knight suggested.

“Aye,” Lock agreed, straightening up his uniform. “That’s enough for one night.”

Tattoo nodded, relieved. “This was a wonderful night, gentlemen. Let’s do this again sometime,” she said as she and Digger ushered Lock out of the lounge. Digger tossed the remaining pilots a mock salute as he exited.

“Well, that was certainly eventful,” Wolf muttered.

“And loud,” Jasted added. “Be a wonder if half the base didn’t hear us.”

Bulldog’s knees buckled, forcing Wolf and Knight to shoulder a majority of his weight with great effort.

“Ok,” Knight grunted. “Let’s get this guy back to his bunk.”

Wolf grunted in agreement. “Jas, go off ahead to make sure the coast is clear.”

The Corona pilot bounded off to the doorway with his head on a swivel. He waved the stumbling trio forward as he skulked out into the hall.

“Fresher!” Bulldog moaned loudly, a thick drool starting to escape his lips.

“I think he’s going to pop,” Knight said ominously.

“He’s not having a reversal of fortune on my uniform!” Wolf stage whispered.

“Guyysssss,” Bulldog hissed, “fresher is… riggggh…. Heerrrrrr.” Bulldog said as he pointed a flimsy hand at a doorway.

“This is the door to the general’s quarters!” Wolf hissed.

“It reeks of piss already,” Knight whispered. “You think this is where he used the restroom earlier?”

Bulldog convulsed and a steady torrent of vomit showered the lower half of General Shen’ryu’s door, and it quickly began to seep inside at the bottom of the old style manual door that wasn’t flush with the floor like modern doors were. The two supporting pilots quickly shifted their feet to avoid the growing puddle.

“By the Whills, how much booze did this guy have?!” Jasted hissed from down the hallway. “Hurry it up!”

Wolf gave a helpless look at the youth and a shrug as he continued to struggle with the shuddering pilot.

“What?!” A gravelly voice boomed from the other side of the door.

“Krinking great!” Knight hissed.

“What do we do?” Wolf asked in a panicked voice.

“What is happening out there?!” The voice boomed louder, closer to the door.

“Bail!” Jasted said in a panic as he bolted down the hall and rounded a corner.

“Bail?” Wolf asked Knight hopefully, clearly wanting to cut bait and avoid the wrath of the general.

“Bail,” Knight replied, and both pilots dropped the still vomiting pilot gently to the deck as they bounded away and followed the path Jasted had taken around a corner.

The door opened, and the most angry, tired-looking Bothan stared daggers down upon the utterly wasted pilot, still spewing half-digested whiskey all over his threshold.

<>

Chapter IV

[ One Week Ago ]

<>

[ FRG Black Hawk ; Classified System ]

A lone rebel frigate was stationed at the edge of a nebula, partially hidden by the infinite hues of blue of the stellar cloud. Only the most essential systems were active, reducing the chances of it’s detection by the Empire as it waited.

Captain Pierce Dey stood on the bridge, looking out the transparisteel at the wisps of nebula that were visible from this angle, doing his best to remain patient. It could be argued that he could be doing better things--like paperwork--but he’d already done. He’d arranged schedules and re-arranged them. He’d finished the novel that had been sitting on his refresher for the past two months. He’d done everything he could think of to stave of the boredom that these missions usually invoked. The waiting… the waiting…. And then even more waiting. It was a special kind of hell.

So he paced. And he stood. And he waited. The thought of retirement began to creep into his mind again….

“Sir!”

Dey’s attention was immediately ripped away from his thoughts and he focused on the twi’lek communications officer. “Ensign Sui’lian, report.”

Sui’lian listened intently to the message. “Sir! It’s Rogue Zero. Requesting Dark Protocol!”

“Confirm that, Ensign,” Dey ordered. “Everyone, battlestations. Ensign, get me comms to the Ready Room. Got it? Right. Dark Protocol, launch fighters in five minutes. I say again, Dark Protocol. You have five minutes!”

<>

[ Aeryhsia City ]

Aeryhsia City was built on a moon orbiting a gas giant. Originally little more than a space port, some pirate overlord had converted it into a bustling city when he decided to take over it. It now had a rather strong economy, relying primarily on tourism due to the natural hot springs that sprung up all over the moon. Underneath the city a sprawling labyrinth of caves had been carved into the volcanic rock by the same pirates centuries ago, to store and transport their goods in secret. Pirates had long ago stopped using the catacombs and now it was used mostly by the city’s limited government.

First Minister Tiroan ran through these tunnels now. In one hand he held a blaster and in the other a high power lamp to illuminate his way. He was so concerned with what was behind him that his foot caught onto his long robe and he tripped, falling flat on his face. HIs blaster slid along the hard, unnaturally even floor. Even in his late seventies, Tiroan was so panicked that he managed to scuttle along the floor and recover his blaster.

Breathing heavily he leaned against the cave wall, trying to catch his breath and pointed his light in direction of where he’d come. Wait! What if he noticed the light and followed it? He turned it off and sat in the pitch black darkness and only heard delicate drops of moisture accompany his uneven panting. Kriffing Corellia’s Nine Hells, he was too blasted old for this! Aeryhsia was supposed to be his retirement, his escape… no one from his past was supposed to know that he was here. How did that damned mando find out?

Light erupted from a hilt not more than three meters in front of Tiroan, revealing the armoured figure in the blue afterglow. His attire was clearly mandalorian in origin. Without emotion, the expressionless visor focused upon the Minister who began to sob.

“P-p-please… I-I-I…”

“Save your excuses, Tiroan,” the masked figure replied.

“Stop it right there or I’ll shoot you!” Shaking, Tiroan pointed the blaster at the mandalorian. “I’ll murder you where you stand, Stryker, I don’t give a damn!”

“Good, you remember my name,” Colonel Vince “Stryker” Rambo replied. He took a step closer to his target, “That saves me plenty of time. I don’t have to explain what you did. Why you deserve this.”

“I have c-c-credits. I’m F-f-first Minister of Aeryhsia City! That comes with p-p-perks, I can pay you… a-a-a-a-anything you want!” Tiroan said, his words stumbling over each other. Tears were streaming down his face; he was afraid because he knew what he’d done. He knew that Stryker would never forgive him for it.

“I don’t want your credits, Tiroan,” Stryker answered. He took another step towards the Minister.

“Stop right kriffing there! Stop or I’ll--!”

That was as far as he got. Stryker made his move, sweeping his lightsaber across the blaster and slicing it in half, along with half of the man’s hand. Tiroan stared at the stump in utter disbelief. He was about to say something else but Styker cut him off, swinging his saber a second time, this time horizontally through the man’s head, removing it from his ears on upwards, leaving behind only his open mouth. Tiroan’s body was motionless for only a moment before finally, toppling over.

Almost as soon as the First Minister’s body hit the ground the light fixtures on the ceiling all turned on at once, accompanied by a loud clacking sound. Machinery began to grumble to life and the wall behind Tiroan suddenly split, opening up to reveal the mechanical heart of Aeryhsia City… which, as it turned out to be, was one kriffin huge factory. He could see TIE cockpits on a conveyor belt being welded to the black panels they liked to call wings. More importantly, he could hear dozens of boots running in his direction from the interior of the factory.

“There he is! Shoot him!” called a stormtrooper commander as soon as he was in view of Stryker. “He’s murdered the First Minister, time to show him some Imperial Justice”

It was time he got out of here. Raising his left arm, he deactivated his lightsaber and pressed a few buttons, activating the communications array on his ship parked not too far away from his location. As soon as a link was confirmed he spoke.

“This is Rogue Zero to Black Hawk. Activate Dark-Protocol. I say again, activate Dark protocol,” he said. He closed the link and started running.

Behind him, red bolts fired and missed.

<>

[ Dragon’s A-Wing ]

Five matte-black A-Wings emerged from hyperspace above Aeryhsia City.

It’s leader, Brevet-Captain Kell “Dragon” Arcfire spoke into his comm, “Dark Squad, this is Dark One. Sound off by numbers.”

“Dark Two, standing by.”

“Dark Three, in formation.”

“Dark Four, cannons are lit.”

“Dark Five, let’s get this over with.”

“Let’s move in Dark Squad, I am picking up our objective’s signal. City Quadrant alpha,” Dragon said into his comm and he veered his fighter in the direction of the signal he was picking up from the Rebel Operative that he was here to give reinforcements to. Over the past few months, since he’d joined the Rebellion and been assigned to Dark Squad, Dragon had done dozens of missions like these, though the view wasn’t usually as nice. Below them the city sprawled, it’s lights glittering like gemstones in the darkness.

“Uh, sir?” Dark Two interrupted. “I’m picking up a strange message… it’s being broadcast on all frequencies. It's… it’s from Mon Mothma!”

Dragon hit a few switches on his dashboard and suddenly he was hearing the message, too. He was surprised at it’s contents and couldn’t completely believe it--A Battle at Endor? Destruction of a Second Death Star? The Emperor and Vader dead? The Empire defeated? “What the fra--”

An explosion and a bright light two hundred meters to his left caught him off guard. Who? What? Then the colors revealed their true nature--fireworks. The people of Aeryhsia City were celebrating. More rockets made their way into the skies. The sky around them was filled with brilliant flashes of color.

“Looks like we got the best seats in the house!”

Dragon smirked, “Enjoy it while it lasts, Five.”

“Something hit me!” Three suddenly exclaimed. “Those rockets… the shields... they’re killing my shields.”

“Steady, Dark Squad,” Dragon said, looking at his own shields. He’d been lucky and not been too close to any of the explosions. “Remember why we’re here!”

“TIEs on our--argh!”

An explosion shook them from behind and a hail of green thunder began to fly past the remaining four A-WIngs. Dragon cursed--Dark Four was dead! Bastards! “Break by pairs! Keep them occupied until the Objective contacts us! Two, on me! We’re going left!”

“Copy, Dark One,” Two replied, her voice clearly nervous.

“These kriffing fireworks!” Three cursed again. “I can’t see anything!”

“Three watch out! Behind you!”

“I can’t seee---ARRGHHHH!”

Another one down, and now Five was alone. “Evasive manuever’s Five, we’re on our way!”

“One, I lost you, I can’t see you!”

“Hurry up, I have two on--blast!” His comm erupted into static as his A-Wing exploded forty meters off of Dragon’s left. Engaged for half a minute and they’ve already killed most of my Squadron!

He pulled on his stick and targeted the first TIE on Two’s tail and fired, expertly cutting through the ocular-shaped cockpit with his canons and started to fire on the next one, forcing him to break off his pursuit. Two accelerated out of there as fast as she could. Green bolts splashed against his shield and he yanked hard on his stick, sending his craft into a barrel roll, attempting to shake his pursuers.

“I’ve got three on me!” he told Two. No response. “Two? Two!”

“... I’m sorry, Kell… really… I am…”

“What do you mean?”

Dark Two didn’t respond. Instead all Dragon got was a message from his onboard computer. ‘Dark Two has entered Hyperspace.’

“Grrr! Traitor... Bastard!”

Now all the TIEs were on him. He ducked and weaved as best as he could, avoiding their fire, using the fireworks as cover whenever he saw the chance. It was impossible to line a shot--every time he thought he had someone in his sights two TIEs had him in theirs. After a few minutes, Dragon’s arm was in so much pain that he thought that it was going to fall off but he resisted nonetheless, leading them down towards the City and using it’s enormous towers as cover--all the while doing his best to think about whether or not there were any civilians in there. It was best to pretend they were empty.

“Dark One, put all power to engines and come to coordinates zero nine alpha.”

“Who are you?”

“This is Rogue Zero, authorization gamma-nine-seven--”

“Yeah yeah yeah, no time! Heading your way… I have company!”

“Looks like you have half the Imperial Fleet chasing you,” the Operative said over the comms.

Dragon didn’t have time for a witty come back, he was fighting for his damn life. Or flying. It didn’t matter he didn’t have time to debate the semantics! He guided his A-Wing through the City, approaching the coordinates he’d been given just in time to see one of the strangest looking crafts he’d ever seen rising from the city. “What the…”

“Firing solution acquired. Dark One, you may want to boost your butt out of my way. Missiles are…. Go!”

Twenty quick-lock missiles erupted from the strange ship’s missile tubes and rockets shot forth. Dragon took the Operative’s advice and swung his stick to the side and boosted out of the other ship’s way just in time. The TIEs chasing him were not expecting the attack, which not only overwhelmed them but decimated him. Dragon breathed a sigh of relief.

“Where do I get me one of those?” he asked.

There with a soft chuckle over the comm, “Sorry, Dark One, this baby is one of a kind. How about we get out of here before the next wave launches?”

“Yes… Let’s.”

<>

[ Present Day… Seven Days after Endor ]

<>

[ Mon Calamari System ]

Of all the places that the New Republic could choose as a location for the capital of their new provisional government, Mon Calamari was certainly near the top of that list.

The peaceful, blue world was home to some of the best shipbuilders in the galaxy and had built the vessels that would serve as the backbone of the Rebellion and now the New Republic for decades to come. Though Mon Calamari would never become the New Republic’s capital, many military organizations would call it their home, including the New Republic Fleet and the recently reorganized New Republic Starfighter Command.

Enormous cruisers sat in their docks, floating over the water planet, in various stages of repair or construction. A lone A-Wing weaved through the shipyards, heading planetside.

On one of the few landmasses, a large structure protruded into the sky. Known colloquially as Ackbar Tower, it was the home of New Republic military forces on the planet. Near the top, an important meeting is about to take place that will decide the fates of our daring Renegades...

<>

[ Starfighter Command Headquarters; Mon Calamari System ]

Stryker killed the Y-Gun’s engines after setting down on the landing platform but waited until all systems were powered down before grabbing his helmet and exiting the modified ship’s cockpit, still adjusting it as he walked down it’s ramp.

He paused, turning his head to examine the matte black A-Wing parked right next to him and recognized it. In part it surprised him; he’d never expected to see it here. On the other hand, things weren’t anything like one expected them to be nowadays. Making a mental note, Styker moved on, making his way down the bridge that led from the landing pad into the tower.

He entered the turbolift and a disembodied droid’s voice asked him where he was going. “Starfighter Command HQ.”

It took about twenty seconds for the turbolift to arrive at its destination.

The door parted and Stryker was greeted by a familiar sight. The man looked exhausted but as soon as Lt. Colonel Bill “Jedi” Morrison recognized his old friend and a smile lit up his features. Beneath his helmet, Stryker couldn’t help but smile too, welcoming Jedi’s embrace when he leaned into him.

“Stryker! Am I glad to see you!”

“Are you now? I thought that after all of you pulled off at Endor, the Alliance didn’t need old Rogues like us anymore,” Stryker joked as the two men began to walk down the hallway.

“Maybe the Alliance doesn’t anymore, but the New Republic sure as hell does,” Jedi answered with a smirk. “With all these new kids running to join, they’re gonna need someone to tell them how to not get our expensive X-Wings blown up.”

“Because it’s the X-Wing that’s irreplaceable, right? Long live freedom and bureaucracy.”

Jedi caught the tone even through the helmet’s voice modulator, “Less blown up X-Wings mean less blown up pilots.”

“I know,” Stryker answered and was quiet for a few moments. “Things have changed, maybe a little too much.”

“If you feel that way, Colonel, perhaps you may consider retiring your commission,” said a new voice from behind him. Both Jedi and Stryker stopped in unison and turned to look at the man. He was wearing a full dress uniform with admiral’s pips.

“Excuse me?” Stryker asked.

“I said, Colonel, that if you do not like the changes since the formation of the New Republic you are welcome to leave it,” the man repeated, taking a step towards them. Stryker turned to face him. “We have enough mavericks and scoundrels to deal with, we don’t need another, much less one that doesn’t respect the rules and regulations of our New Republic.”

“And who are you supposed to be?”

Jedi intervened, “This is Admiral Tolden. He’s… going to be heading up a taskforce.”

Admiral Tolden smiled coolly from his position. Stryker returned his stare through the visor.

“We should get going,” Jedi intervened. “We shouldn’t keep General Firth waiting. Sir.”

“Very well. As you were,” Tolden said, turning as if suddenly uninterested.

Stryker watched him go, noting that he was going to have to watch out for him. Eventually he turned as well, following Jedi down the hall towards General Firth’s Office.

<>

[ General Firth’s Office; Starfighter Command HQ ]

Dragon stood at attention staring straight ahead as General Firth dressed him down.

“This is unacceptable, Arcfire, you know that! You were supposed to back up Rogue Zero, not need rescuing from him!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t you ‘yessir’ me, Arcfire! Three deaths! One deserter! You were their leader and you failed completely! What am I supposed to do with you now, Arcfire? Do not answer that question!” Firth grabbed a datapad from his desk and pushed it into the pilot’s hands. “First of all, your Brevet-Captain status is revoked, Lieutenant, and I am demoting you provisionally to Flight Officer until further notice. Next, you’ll be reassigned. You’re due on Endor tomorrow so get moving. Dismissed!”

Dragon moved his eyes for the first time, darting to the General. Firth could see the fire in his eyes, the rage, the unfairness. The General smiled. That’s exactly what he wanted to see. Dragon was a good pilot, and he’d shown aptitude to be more than that, which was why he’d been given his role as Dark One. A failure like the one he’d suffered was bound to hurt, and it had to have consequences. Dragon would recover from this, his fire would get him through, and Firth had set quite a few logs on that fire, as much as it may have felt like salt in the wound.

The pilot saluted the General curtly and held his place until Firth returned the salute. Dragon about-faced and was out of his office in seconds. Before Firth could sit down again, his commlink buzzed.

“Sir, Colonel Rambo has arrived.”

The General let out a heavy sigh, “Very well, let him in. Clear my schedule for the rest of the day. I expect I’ll be busy for a while.”

“Yes, sir.”

Firth reached down to one of the cabinets in his desk and entered a code. He pulled a rather thick packet and dropped it heavily onto his table. Stamped on the folder that made a vain attempt at keeping it all together were the words:

“Top Secret: Renegade Wing”

<>

Chapter V

[ Ready Room; ISD Conviction; Unknown System ]

Though the Empire prided itself on its order and impeccability, there was a certain amount of leeway allowed when it came to the TIE pilot's ready room.

One such pilot, in full gear, helmet and all, plopped himself onto the couch and laid back, propping his booted feet onto the arm rest. He pulled a device out from his pocket, a personal comm-pad and pressed a few buttons. A symbol appeared on screen, it read "Establishing Connection..."

A face appeared on the screen. Underneath his helmet, the pilot couldn't help but smile at the sight. He loved her smooth nutmeg colored skin and her striking ice blue eyes. He even loved the confused expression that took over her features--no surprise, she was looking straight at the helmet of a TIE pilot. Behind her, he could see the bridge bustling with activity.

"Lieutenant Junior Grade Oshi Frell," He said, deepening his voice as deep as he could. Just for added effect he began to breathe in and out heavily. "This is Lord Vader, back from the beyond, and I have selected you to be my new comm officer aboard my new flagship, the.. the... Somethingsomething."

Oshi rolled her eyes, doing her best to hide her smile, "That's not funny, Zing!"

Laughing, the pilot pulled off his helmet. His blonde hair was a mess, but he was handsome and clean shaven with a smile that he knew Oshi couldn't resist. So what if he knew he was good looking? Who else could truly appreciate perfection but perfection itself? At least that's what Flight Officer Zangu "Zinger'' Niei had believed for the past twenty years.

"What?" he asked, still laughing a little. "Too soon?"

"It's not that, it's..." she began to say but suddenly something caught her attention. "Zing, I'm sorry, but I have to go. See you later?" <>

[ Captain Barand's Office; ISD Conviction; Unknown System ]

Oshi stopped at the door and swallowed, trying to steel herself for coming face to face with the Tol Barand.

It wasn't fear that she felt... it was... distrust. Oshi had been there, on the bridge, at the Battle of Endor. She'd watched him take control, killing Captain Candelle. She barely knew Barand before the Battle--he’d been that mysterious ISB agent that everyone had told her to steer clear of when she first boarded the Conviction.

Everyone knew that some of the senior staff weren’t pleased about it--and it didn't surprise her. The others were all veterans of the Imperial Navy, career officers. The worst kind of officer in her opinion; they were here for personal glory and prestige at any cost. Fools, her grandfather, the late Admiral Frell, had called them. They should know that prestige and glory came from serving the Empire, not trying to benefit from it. She didn’t believe they had it and she didn’t believe Tol Barand had it.

"Enter," the Captain said and the doors parted, allowing her to step through. As a proper officer, Oshi marched herself to his desk and stood at attention. He watched her approach from his chair, arms folded over his stomach in a relaxed gesture as he leaned back, never taking his eyes off of her. "At ease, Lieutenant. What can I do for you?"

At that moment she realized she'd been holding her breath so she was forced to breathe before she could even speak, "I-I have received an alpha-level emergency distress signal, sir."

Barand noted her belated ‘sir’. "Distress signal? I thought the holonet was still inactive in this sector."

"Yes, sir, but we're close enough to have picked it up over subspace," she explained as she handed a datapad over to her Captain. She noted that he had said nothing about the fact that the distress signal was alpha-level. Alpha-level meant that not only were they obligated to respond but also that the details of the distress signal were restricted to the Captain's eyes only.

"Good job, Lieutenant Frell," Barand said to her, standing up and walking around his enormous desk to come to her side. He put a hand on her shoulder and she unconsciously tensed up, "You make your family proud in these trying times."

"Th-thank you, sir," was all she could really say.

He looked at her for a moment more and nodded. "Come, Lieutenant," he started moving towards the exit, expecting her to follow immediately. "Leave a probe behind. The Demise and the Bane are due to arrive and they need to know where we're heading."

Doing her best, Oshi tried to keep up with the much taller male. By the time they reached her station she felt like she'd just run a 30-meter dash. "Yes, sir, immediately, sir."

"Good, and put the Conviction on battle alert. Pilots to their fighters," his voice grew louder and people began running along the bridge, anticipating his orders like a well oiled crew. Maybe Barand was it's new Captain, but the Conviction's crew was still the Conviction's crew, and they knew how to handle her very well. "Battle stations! Helm, prepare to receive coordinates! Move it, people! We're still the Empire, no matter what happened at Endor! This war is not over! And we have Rebels to put in their place!"

<>

[Bridge of the Conviction; Nabrisk System ]

It had been a brief Battle, but it had been an exhilarating three minutes.

They had ended the lives of dozens of Rebels and robbed them not only of a squadron of Y-Wings and two corvettes, but their prize, the frigate Confession. Oshi couldn't help but grin alongside her crewmates, proud of their efficient work.

"That was truly a magnificent display," Captain Barand told his bridge crew. "Commander, double the beer rations. I think the crew deserves it."

"Yes sir," Commander Feing, the Conviction's recently promoted XO, said amidst the cheers of the crew. Oshi knew she wouldn't partake herself, but she had to admit that the Captain did know how to keep the crew on his side. Now they would be less prone to be open minded towards the dissenting senior officers.

"Lieutenant Frell," Barand said. Oshi jumped slightly, surprised to see him looking straight at her.

"Sir."

He smiled. "Contact the Confession."

It took only a moment but by then Barand was standing right next to her. She did her best to remain stoic as the communication link between the Star Destroyer and the frigate was activated. A rather stern man with an angular face, large nose, and even larger mustache appeared on screen. At first he seemed to be distracted on screen by an Ensign trying to put out a fire behind him.

"Ah! Captain Candelle! Your timing, I must say, is impeccable!" he said, finally noticing the screen in front of him. The bushy mustache man squinted at the screen, but continued speaking nonetheless, "We may have not survived that assault without you assistance. Now! Sir, I would recommend that you move the Conviction to a distance of four kilometers. We are dealing with a significant amount of internal damage, you see."

"Commander Vykos, is it?" Barand asked coolly. "Unfortunately, Captain Candelle is no longer in command of the Conviction. You are speaking to Captain Tol Barand."

Vykos looked puzzled and squinted harder at the screen, getting close enough for Oshi to notice that his nose hairs seemed to have grown into his moustache. She reminded herself to remain stoic. Cool. Detached. Like the Captain.

"Hrumph. My, ah, my mistake, sir," the Commander finally replied. "Many things have... changed in the last week."

"Yes, they have, haven't they, Commander," Barand answered. "The Empire is in the process of weeding out our weaknesses. I am sure that you'll see many more changes over the coming months. I am pleased that we were able to provide aid, Commander. Thankfully, Admiral Versio was able to aid us after the catastrophe at Endor and bring us back to our full strength. The rest of my Task Force will be arriving shortly."

All Vykos could do as the Captain spoke was nod along. Oshi noted that he had quickly put Vykos in his place, warning him that his position was compromised and that Barand had the support of Admiral Versio behind him, one of the most important members left in the Imperial Navy, for now at least.

"Ah... good to, ah, hear, Captain..." the Commander's voice trailed off for a moment. She couldn't blame him, there wasn't much he could answer. He was visibly out of his comfort zone, and Oshi would wager her entire salary on that is exactly what Barand wanted.

After a moment of silence Vykos started to speak, "I would hate to impose--"

"Yes, Commander?"

"Well, you see," Vykos seemed flustered by the interruption. "Sir, we could really use a hand with the repairs. We've been in a couple of battles over the last two days and have some significant damage we've been unable to repair. This last fight knocked out our engines. There is a repair facility in this system, that's where we were heading when we were ambushed, but without engines we're dead in the water."

"Of course, I'll prepare a tractor beam," Barand suggestion.

"I'm afraid my hull integrity won't hold. I'd like to make it to the repair yard in one piece," Vykos answered, regaining some of his confidence.

Barand simply smiled at the man and patiently said, "Very well. I'll send over a repair team. In fact, I'll lead it myself. Have your Damage Control Officer send over what you need and we should be able to launch within ten minutes."

"Thank you, Captain," Vykos answered.

"Dismissed, Commander," Barand said, finalizing the conversation. "Terminate communication, Lieutenant. Pass the message along to engineering when their DCO contacts you. Inform the hangar I'll need a reaper and that I am on my way down there."

"Yes sir," Oshi answered and got on it immediately.

<>

[ Hangar; ISD Conviction; Nabrisk System ]

Zinger was thoroughly surprised when he landed his TIE Interceptor on the deck of the Conviction and found Captain Barand waiting for him. Had he heard what he’d said to his squadmates earlier? Had one of those pompous bastards betrayed him…?

“Sir,” Zinger snapped to attention, the surprise on his face hidden by his helmet.

Barand examined the pilot silently for a moment, “Flight Officer Niei, Gamma Four, correct?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered, just knowing he was so utterly screwed.

“I was quite impressed by your flying today,” the captain continued. “Three kills, the highest in the Squadron. I would like for you to fly me over to the Confession, Flight Officer.”

“Of course, sir,” Niei answered. Before he could stop himself he added, “It may get a little uncomfortable in my Interceptor.” He couldn’t help himself. Such a fool! Zinger bit his lip, keeping himself from adding anything stupider. Barand was going to have him shot!

Whatever reaction the TIE pilot was expecting he did not encounter. Instead, Barand smiled, “I suppose so, Flight Officer. Sitting on your lap the whole way would be uncomfortable, at the very least.” Stopping Zinger before he could respond, Barand continued, “I actually had something else in mind. A Reaper sounds much more comfortable doesn’t it?”

Underneath his helmet, Zinger smirked, “Aye, sir. It has some leg room, at least.”

“Good, meet me over by that reaper and start systems check. I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes. ” Barand ordered, and Zinger complied.

It was all he really could do. As a pilot, Zinger had very little to go on when it came to who Tol Barand was. He’d seen the man around the ship and they had pointed him out as dangerous, but as someone who relished the inherent insanity that you needed to fly a TIE, danger had never deterred him. After all, he’d already survived the most frightening thing in his life--the Battle of Endor. Tol Barand had nothing on that. For now, the pilot was willing to give Barand an opportunity, no matter what misgivings Oshi and others had.

The TIE Reaper was prepared by the time that Captain Barand returned. A damage control team had boarded as well and were waiting for take off. As soon as he boarded they stood, including Zinger. “At ease,” the Captain said. He immediately made his way to the cockpit and eased himself into the co-pilot’s chair. “Take us out, Flight Officer.”

“Yes, sir,” Zinger replied.

As they exited the Conviction’s hangar bay, two new Imperial ships arrived in the system. The victory-class Star Destroyer was ancient and no longer had that beautiful white sheen that most Star Destroyers had; instead it was a muddled gray, dirty and unwashed from decades of service. The escort cruiser that accompanied it was much more modern and in much better conditions. , sir,” he informed the Captain seated next to him. “The Aldera’s Demise and Versa Bane just arrived

“I can see that, Flight Officer,” Barand replied, glancing over to the pilot. “Do you never tire of wearing it?”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“The helmet. This ship has a breathable atmosphere, you could take it off if you wanted to,” Barand explained, observing the man with attention. Zinger felt suddenly uncomfortable, as if he answered the wrong thing there would be dire consequences. “Well?”

“Do, ah, you want me to take it off?” he asked, tentatively. “Sir?”

“That is not an answer to my question,” Barand pointed out with sharpness in his voice.

Zinger turned his head to look at Barand. He’d been an intelligence agent before. What was he trying to find with this line of questioning? It didn’t matter, Zinger had to find a way to put an end to it before he found himself in some corner. “I… No, sir, I don’t, I am proud to be one amongst my brothers and sisters in the TIE Fighter Corps. Plus, if the stormies can wear them, we can do it better, and with more style.”

Maybe he’d gone too far, but he’d thought so too before and lucked out. Once again, Barand smiled. It wasn’t the same. This time it felt almost… predatory. Then he said, “Take it off.”

This time Zinger didn’t question Barand. He didn’t try to be funny. He just did as he was told and took off his helmet and looked at Barand. His heart was beating as fast as it could and he could feel sweat dripping down his temples--one of the things they didn’t tell you, the inside of those helmets got like a greenhouse sometimes. There was complete silence between the two for a moment and Barand took his time looking at the pilot.

“You look much younger than I thought you would,” the Captain finally said.

At this point, Zinger was extremely uncomfortable. “Uhm, sir… we’re ah… we’re approaching the Confession…”

The older man rolled his eyes. “Helmet back on. Commence landing.”

“Yes, sir.”

<>

[ Hangar; ISD Conviction; Nabrisk System ]

Commander Vykos was awaiting them when they landed in the Hangar Bay.

“Captain Barand, a pleasure to meet you in person, sir,” Vykos said to them as they disembarked. “This is Lieutenant Dorrack. He will get the Damage Control Teams where they need to go.”

The ten or so technicians that had come with them stopped and looked to Barand. He gave a nod and they made their way over to the young officer, who took that as his cue and led them off, leaving Zinger, alone, with Captain Barand and Commander Vykos. Just his luck. He did his best to stay out of the way while serving as his commanding officer’s escort to the frigate.

“I really must thank you again, Captain,” Vykos continued, making a motion that they should follow him. “Your arrival was impeccably timed. You not only saved this ship but prevented a devastating blow to a critical mission.”

“You are welcome, Commander,” Barand answered. “Which mission is this?”

“The mission is Operation Cinder! I am sure that you are familiar with it, sir, given your relationship with the good Admiral Versio,” Vykos answered coyly, watching for Barand’s reaction. Zinger has to assume that the Captain was a masterful sabacc player--he gave nothing away. Vykos had no choice but to continue, “It is one of the pillars of maintaining Imperial Control on the galaxy. With it, we will show the upstart Rebellion who is in control of this galaxy. When the people see that they are powerless to stop it; then they will call back the Empire; welcome us again with open arms. This is a fight for the very survival of the Empire – and it must succeed!”

As the monologue came to an end, the three men approached a part of the hangar that was blocked off from the rest. Vykos waved a card and the doors opened, revealing their hidden treasures. Dozens of crafts looking half way like a cross between a probe droid and a TIE Interceptor were stacked methodically one over the other. Zinger had never seen anything like it. Apparently, neither had Barand.

“Commander?” Barand turned to look at the shorter man. “What are these?”

“These are the key to Operation Cinder. The Confession is one of many ships that are outfitted for this purpose. These Satellites can be used to impose the Emperor’s will upon the waiting galaxy and will lead to the certain defeat of the Rebel Alliance.”

As Vykos spoke, Barand walked over to one of the craft. He had Zinger open a panel for it and examined the circuitry, “Certainly, a masterpiece of engineering. One, I must assume, that you would not be showing us if you were not about to ask something of me, I can imagine.”

“You are very astute, Captain,” Vykos answered, respectfully bowing his head. “I have been out of contact with my immediate superiors for over twenty-four hours, and with Holonet down in this sector..”

“I see,” Barand had Zinger put the plating he’d removed back on and returned to Vykos, slowly approaching him. “Please, allow me to help. You clearly need to report to your superiors, but the repairs on the Confession will take several days. I would be willing to… lend you one of my ships. The Demise should be a sufficient escort.”

“Sir, you are too gracious, I cannot…”

“I insist.”

“Thank you, sir, then I accept most graciously,” Vykos said, pleased with the outcome. “How about finding Lieutenant Dorrack and seeing how he is doing?”

Zinger followed Barand and Vykos for another hour aboard the Confession. Finally, he and Barand dropped the Commander off at the Demise before finally returning home to the Conviction, this time without any sort of awkward incident. When they landed Captain Barand cordially excused himself and left Zinger to his own devices.

It didn’t take the pilot long to find himself in crew quarters, showered and with a new set of clothes. He made his way towards Oshi’s door and entered, knowing she would already be in bed. It didn’t matter, it’d been a long day and he needed some Oshi in his life. He found her curled up right where he expected to find her and laid down next to her, hugging her to his chest with a heavy, tired sigh.

“I want a donut,” she said sleepily.

“Mm, sorry, out of donuts,” he answered, feeling exhaustion begin to overwhelm him. “But don’t worry… soon… I’ll take you to Risilia… they have the best donuts…”

“I can’t wait.”

<>

Chapter VI

[ Lock’s Quarters; M-Base; Mukani System; Eight Days After the Battle ]

Lock’s eyes snapped open a moment before he heard the knock at the door.

The metallic door to his room rang each time the gauntleted fist slammed on it, with every intention of waking up Lock if he dared sleep through it. Irritated, he called out, “Wait a kriffing nanosecond! Sithspawn be damned!” as he fumbled in the dark for his flight suit. He was still zipping it up when he opened the door and found himself face to face with a Chagrian Major.

The blue-skinned being gave Lock a look of pure disdain that the pilot would’ve challenged if the Chagrian didn’t have those sharp horns. “What do you want? What’s wrong?” Lock asked, perhaps a little more casual than the Major anticipated. “Are we under attack?”

“No, Lieutenant, we are not under attack,” the Chagrian snapped back, the tendrils that rested on his shoulder quivering, barely containing the being’s rage. “You would do best to salute and speak to your superiors with respect, Lieutenant. This is your one and only warning! You are to report to the Briefing Room at once.”

The Chagrin turned to his side and stalked off to wake up the next unlucky pilot.

“Wonder what Ewok crawled up his ass?” the pilot muttered to himself. Lock managed to toss the retreating officer a half-assed salute before straightening up and pulling the rest of his flight gear on before heading towards the briefing room.

<>

[ Command Center; M-Base ]

So, as it turned out, the “briefing room” also doubled as the Command Center on M-Base, as Lock was very “pleased” to discover.

Last to arrive, he was given dirty looks from both the Chagrian Major and the Bothan General. Shen’ryu didn’t even bother to pretend he didn’t see Lock--he stared the pilot down the entire way from the entrance to the chair Lock decided to take. It was only after a moment that Lock realized why he was still staring at him and stood up quickly, saluting the General. “Lieutenant Callahan reporting, General.”

“Very kind of you to finally grace us with your presence,” Shen’ryu replied, his tone dry, barely holding back his irritation, which seemed to be mostly reserved for one of the other pilots present. The Bothan fired loathing looks at Bulldog, who was slouched in one of the chairs holding his head, doing his best to keep Mukani from spinning. For now Shen’ryu was content to watch him suffer and made no mention of it. At the very least the other biological pilots in the room--Knight and Wolf--seemed to be in better shape. Syntax, of course, was an enigma, though that seemed to be his thing.

Shen’ryu turned his attention back towards the droid, “As I was saying,” for an instant the Bothan struggled, “Lieutenant Colonel, I have selected Yellow Squadron for an important reconnaissance mission for which you shall all depart within the hour.”

“Sir, this is highly irregular,” Syntax protested. “I must confirm with--”

“Does Jalb even know about this mission?” Bulldog blurted out, regaining consciousness.

Like a viper, Shen’ryu’s head snapped in Bulldog’s direction so fast that the Chagrian Major flinched. Bulldog seemed to be sitting straighter, now that he realized that the Bothan’s eyes were on him. Lock was sitting a few feet back and watched with curiosity. He leaned forward and tapped on Knight’s chair from behind.

“What’s with the chemistry?” Lock asked the A-Wing pilot, referring to the death stare that the General was giving Bulldog.

“Flight Officer Clark, is it?” asked the General, loud enough to cut off Wolf’s response. Slowly he started to make his way towards Bulldog, the disdain in his eyes clearer than the sun rising outside. “No need to respond, Flight Officer, I do not wish to hear your voice. I do not wish to listen to your excuses. I do not want to see you again, Flight Officer, is that clear?”

The room was dead quiet. Shen’ryu was fixated solely on Bulldog, a sneer growing on his lips. Finally the other pilot responded, “Uh… no, sir?”

It wasn’t what the Bothan wanted to hear and he made it clear by baring his fanged mouth at the pilot. “Get up,” he said.

Bulldog stood up. He was a good deal taller than the Bothan and that seemed to just bother Shen’ryu even more. He stepped up to Bulldog, bringing his face as close to the larger man as possible, snorting. “You are lucky I don’t court-martial you, Flight Officer. You are relieved of duty. Get out of my kriffing Command Center.” He pointed at the door Lock had just come through. The Bothan stepped away from Bulldog, turning towards Syntax as he clasped his hands behind his back, still speaking, “I will not permit drunks and slouches in my recon unit.”

He paused as he stopped in front of Syntax, who continued to watch silently. Lock wondered what was going through his head. He’d only met the droid a few hours ago, and he’d never met a droid like him before. Could he really be as good as he was hearing? It seemed like soon he’d have the chance to find out.

Bulldog was standing with a confused look on his face and for once Lock could understand what was probably going through his head. He’d just got here and he was already wondering, ‘who the frak did this sithspawned General think he was?’ As far as Lock knew, General Shen’ryu commanded M-Base, not the Wing. Lock assumed that Bulldog was loyal to Jalb and Syntax, which was why the idea of being dismissed by a foreign entity seemed alien to his hungover mind. He looked over to Syntax who finally gave a sign, nodding slightly to Bulldog.

As the pilot started to move Shen’ryu stopped him. “One moment.” The Bothan turned his head to look at him, “You are Yellow Six, correct? No longer. Lieutenant Callahan will now occupy your slot in this Squadron.” Lock tried to disappear into his chair, immediately uncomfortable. Apparently, the look on Bulldog’s face was exactly what the Bothan wanted to see. “You are dismissed, Flight Officer.”

“This is some BS,” Lock heard Wolf whisper to Knight next to him, clearly not pleased at the treatment of his friend.

Bulldog looked their way and did his best to give them a confident smile, glancing briefly at Lock, on his way out. General Shen’ryu continued speaking.

“Do you see, Lieutenant Colonel,” he said to Syntax. “That is how you deal with an unruly pilot. Flight Officer Clark has the manners of a Gamorrean and is lucky I do not court-martial him. If there is another occurrence of this nature, Lieutenant Colonel, I’ll be holding both you and your Wing Commander responsible. This is a dry base for this exact reason--because of irresponsible fools like that one.” He took a step towards the droid, as if he was capable of intimidating Syntax in the slightest. “Does that compute? Or should I call my droid maintenance chief to repair your subroutines?”

For a long time Syntax was silent, “Understood, General. I will initiate new protocols.”

It had been intense, so much so that Lock had noticed Knight’s hand resting on his blaster, ready to shoot down the General if Syntax so much as gave the order. Lock smirked. That was a good sign. Loyalty. Maybe I’m in the right place after all, he thought to himself.

Shen’ryu took no notice of how close his life had been to ending and smiled pleasantly--or at least tried to. No one in that command center trusted a whisker on that Bothan’s head.

“Very well,” he said. “Let’s begin the briefing, shall we?”

<>

[ Flight Field; M-Base ]

As soon as the briefing was over the four pilots were told to head straight over to the Flight Field, where the maintenance chief already had their four A-Wings prepped and ready.

Knight and Wolf walked ahead of Lock, talking excitedly to themselves, catching up on the last few days. Every once in a while one of them would toss a look back at Lock, mostly Wolf, since Lock and Knight had already met before, back on Endor. It wasn’t long before they stopped until Lock caught up to them. Syntax was about twenty feet behind Lock, immersed in a datapad with details on the upcoming mission.

“I’m Myke Krenn, but everyone calls me Wolf,” the younger pilot said, stretching his hand out to Lock. “Yellow Ten.”

“Roy Callahan, Lock,” He clasped Wolf’s hand and the three of them started walking again. “Yellow Six, I suppose.”

Knight snorted, “General’s as pleasant as a sweaty dewback’s butt.”

“I can’t stand him,” Wolf agreed.

“I’ve seen his kind before,” Lock said. “Think that they’re in some kind of fairy tale war that revolves around them. Their needs, their wants.”

“He won’t last,” Wolf replied, mostly confident. Lock and Knight looked at each other.

After a moment Knight shrugged and said, “I hope he won’t. You never know with these types though, you know?”

“That’s what makes them such a huge problem,” Lock added. “Until we know what fairy tale he is living in, we can’t really predict what his moves are.”

“He probably wants power,” Wolf suggested. “I mean… what else is there? Love?”

“The love of kriffing us over, perhaps, Flight Officer,” Syntax interrupted from behind them. Lock was surprised--he could hustle for a droid, and was deadly quiet too. Perhaps the gunmetal grey protocol droid had a few enhancements that Lock still didn't know about. His comment was the most unexpected part--it was enough to make Wolf jump slightly and Knight let out a laugh, even Lock had to grin. The droid seemed unfazed in any case and remained as deadpan as ever, continuing, “Forget about such trivial lines of question; concentrate upon the task at hand; and return alive.”

“I’m inspired all over, boss,” Knight said with a laugh. Before Syntax could get a chance to answer Knight gave him a quick salute and started running towards the Flight Field, which was already visible from this distance. He turned to shout back, “Race you, Wolf!”

“You’re on!” Wolf sprinted after Knight, catching up, and probably eventually over taking him.

Lock and Syntax watched them go. “You will not run with them?” the droid asked.

The Corellian shook his head, “Nah. That’s a younger man’s pleasure. I only run if it’s a life or death situation, and even then I might do a brisk walk.”

“Amusing, I always thought organics protected their organs,” Syntax observed. Lock was almost completely sure that the droid was playing with him somehow. “I thought all biological beings were programmed to try and survive at all costs.”

“And I thought I’d never be calling a droid sir,” Lock answered. “But here we are, sir.”

“I suppose we are wired differently than our base models, Lieutenant,” Syntax answered. “Me, with my superior piloting skills, and you, with your strange choice in hair color. Also, dodge right or die by Wookiee.”

Syntax stepped to the left. It was only years of perfecting honed reflexes that saved Lock, who dodged to the right just in time to avoid a barrel that was thrown in their direction. An enraged roar followed, emanating from a large, dark-haired Wookiee.

The being was an imposing beast and standing at over seven feet tall he towered over every other sentient on the Flight Field. He wore the cultural sash of his people over a technician’s vest, whose pockets were laden with tools ranging from wrenches and hydrospanners, to hammers and more. The only reason Lock recognized him as the Maintenance Chief was due to the tag on his chest. On the Wookiee’s shoulder was a small cat-like droid, translating everything he said in a language everyone could understand. Apparently, Lock and Syntax had missed the beginning of the speech--judging by the looks on Knight and Wolf’s faces, they’d caught the entire thing.

“--and if you so dare even scratch the paint, Chief Wakachangi will--”

“Greetings, Chief,” Syntax interrupted. Both the Wookiee and the droid on his shoulder turned their head towards Syntax at once. Syntax began speaking in perfect Shyriiwook. They exchanged grunts and wururu’s for a few minutes before seemingly coming to an agreement.

The Wookiee’s aggressive posture relaxed, though he did cast a quick glare at Wolf and Knight before he finally turned around and stomped off.

“What was that about?” Lock had to ask.

Syntax turned to the pilot, “I promised him a kidney from any pilot that damages his ships.”

“Hahahaha, that’s hilarious, Lead,” Wolf didn’t seem completely convinced, at all.

“Yes,” Syntax agreed, deadpan. “Hilarious.”

There was silence.

“Begin pre-flight checks,” Syntax said after a moment.

“Sir!” “Yessir!” “Yes, sir.”

Chapter VII

[ Training Simulators; M-Base ]

Tony walked the open space of M-Base slowly, his feet dragging slightly on the floor. He felt exhausted, even though he had gone to bed early the previous night. Endor was just a few days ago but to Captain Marco the passage of time felt strange and foreign.

A couple of base staff gave him a sharp salute as he passed but he barely even registered their faces. What was the point? Sooner or later they’d be gone from here too, all of these people long forgotten. He frowned slightly as he tried to remember the everyday faces of crew aboard the Liberty; faces of people he saw daily but never even got the chance to learn the names of. He was jerked out of his daydream when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Kid!” Nick ‘Jasted’ Finelli’s face was looking at him, puzzled. “Did you not hear me calling you?”

“No, sorry. Was elsewhere.”

Jasted arched an eyebrow at his friend, “You’re not here very often at the minute. You doing okay?”

Tony waved away the man’s concerns, “Fine. Just tired.”

Jasted forced a smile but it didn’t seem to register with Tony. “We’re due in the sims with the rookies. Why don’t you go get them fired up whilst I collect the newbies?”

“Sure man. Sure.” Walking away from Jasted Tony’s gaze dropped back to the floor again. The atmosphere ain’t right here. It’s humid, but it’s the wrong kind of humid. Everything is too open. He missed the Mon Cal ship that had become home, he kept trying to not think about it but everything reminded him that he wasn’t there anymore. That the Liberty, and everyone aboard, were space dust.

The sim room was also spacious, twelve cockpits with controls arranged around a central holoprojector. Each seat had its own canopy which when lowered became an active screen. They look like kids’ toys.

One of the cockpits was currently closed and Tony felt a flash of annoyance. He started towards it, ready to turf out the over-eager cadet but felt his eyes drawn to the holoprojector. It displayed the battle playing out in the simulator, as well as some basic statistics of the ongoing simulation. Without thinking Tony keyed a few buttons on the projector to get some more information and found himself engaged in the battle. They’re not half bad.

The simulated X-Wing went screaming upwards, curling around the debris of a burnt out capital ship. Shaking his head Tony smiled slightly, four TIE Interceptors were looping round the other side and would soon tear the lonely craft apart. Suddenly the X-Wing’s engines cut out as it drifted closer to the hull and came to a stop, pivoting so that its laser cannons were pointed directly away from the cruiser. Four TIEs appeared suddenly and after a few seconds of red splashes only three remained but before they could react the X-Wing’s engines kicked into overdrive and the snubfighter boosted away from the wreckage.

Tony couldn’t help but grin as he watched the computer-simulated Interceptors give chase. Ultimately the single fighter couldn’t hold its own against the superior numbers but it was a spirited fight and had kept Tony’s attention longer than anything had in the past few weeks. He looked at the pilot’s score card and frowned again. Walking over to the opening canopy of the occupied simulator, he crouched down so he was face level with the pilot.

“Kid?”

“Yeah?” She smiled back at him, a wide grin that suggested trouble. Taking off her helmet Fyri moved some of her sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes, “Not bad eh?”

“I’m Kid.” Tony crossed his arms. “You need a new callsign.”

She shook her head again, her smile somehow growing broader. “Not a chance. You look old, man. Kid don’t suit you.”

“Old?” The comment stung, “I’m not even twenty five!”

“Don’t believe you.” Fyri swung herself out of the simulator, stretching out her arms and giving a satisfied sigh as her sore muscles came un-taut. “You look like you’ve been wrestling gundarks for decades.”

He shook his head, refusing to take any more bait. “You’re not bad, you know? Reckless move you pulled off there, but it takes a bit of doing. Where’d you learn to fly?”

Fyri shrugged slightly, “Here. Didn’t get these kind of opportunities back home. I’m sure it was different for you.”

“What does that mean?”

She shrugged again, this time with a smile fading. “Let’s not dance around it. You and I both recognise where we’re from. I’m sure up top you had plenty of time in private sims, maybe even got to fly a real trainer. Things were different down on the lower levels.”

Tony shook his head at her, his ears reddening slightly. Was his topside Coruscanti accent that obvious? Her lower-level one certainly was to him. “I won’t deny I got an easier start but things happened, I know what it was like down there too.”

“That’s right?” Her smile was suddenly back again, she slapped him on the arm. “You’re genuine gutter trash like me eh?”

He glared at her but before he could bite back Jasted walked into the room, the rest of the cadets in tow. “There you are, Kid!”

“Me?” Fyri and Tony exchanged a glance; both had spoken at the same time. Jasted slapped his head, “This is going to get annoying. Cadet Kid line up with the others; Captain Kid, let’s show them a thing or two.”

<>

[ Jalb’s Quarter’s; M-Base ]

It took Jalb a moment to grasp the situation… he was prone on the floor next to his cot, in a firing position, without a weapon, in his underwear. The staccato rap echoed through his yurt again and he realised there was someone bashing on his door. With adrenaline still peaking he sprang to his feet and in two strides was at his door which he violently wrenched open.

“What!?!” he roared as the door opened to reveal Flight Officer Andy “Bulldog” Clark mid rap. The stout pilot gaped slightly as his gaze took in the mostly uncovered form of his Commanding Officer.

“Bulldog! For kriff’s sake man, what’s all the racket about!?!” Jalb paused as the smell of the pilot in front of him assaulted his nostrils and he reeled back slightly.“Geebus Dog, what have you been rolling in?” Bulldog’s jaw worked silently as he fought the urge to tell Jalb why he was there but at the same time felt he needed to address the follow up question.

“Ahh, well Sir…” Jalb cut him off.

“The point, Bulldog, why are you here?” Andy got a grip, focused and uttered a name with disdain..

“Shen’ryu, Sir…” Jalb arched an eyebrow. Bulldog took note, took a breath and adopted a slightly more military demeanour “Sir, The General has tasked Corsair… I mean Yellow Squadron light and sent them on a short notice recon mission.”

“And by light I take it you were not required?”

“No Sir, I was expelled from the briefing by Shen… by the General and my billet was assigned to Lieutenant Callahan.” By this stage Jalb was stepping into his flightsuit but turned to look at Bulldog as he started zipping up.

“Ok, thanks Andy, you’ve done the right thing, now go find LTCOL Durgan, wake him if you have to, and ask him to meet me at Yellow’s hanger… tell him the CO is pissed.” Bulldog braced, snapped a salute and turned at a run for Krayt’s quarters. Jalb finished pulling on boots and left his yurt at as brisk a pace as he would allow, nothing made troops and pilots more anxious than senior officers at a sprint.

<>

Krayt arrived at the hangar and straight away saw Rogue Leader listening intently to the Yellow Squadron Droid OC. As he walked up he heard Jalb exclaim “Dank Frelling Farrik!! You are kriffing kidding me?!?”

“Negative Colonel,” Syntax replied. “This conversation has been saved to long term storage. He offered to provide maintenance to repair my subroutines… as if he knows what a subroutine is,” the droid offered sotto voice, but modulated his vocoder to continue. “As stated, the General benched Yellow Six, inferred a lack of command on our part and that he would hold you responsible for further breaches. At this point I calculated acquiescence to be the optimal course of action to de-escalate the General’s negative attitude toward my pilots.”

Jalb continued to stare in disbelief, a slight shake to his head as he tried to understand how Shen’ryu thought he could take control of the Wing. He caught Krayt walking up out of his peripheral and he turned to him. “Durgs! Did you catch that?”

“I caught the end of it boss, but I don’t understand what Syntax has accepted?” He questioned as he turned his head towards the droid with a querying expression.

Syntax turned his head to display his optics to the Wing XO. “General Shen’ryu has tasked Yellow Squadron and,'' he continued, refocusing on the Wing Leader, “my timing is telling me I am moving into suboptimal launch parameters for mission accomplishment… Sir?”

Jalb glanced back at Krayt who raised an eyebrow with a slight shrug. “Your mission is ‘go’. I trust you have already evaluated the briefing thoroughly and you would have voiced any misgivings by now. Launch and show this shiny arse how a professional outfit conducts operations.”

Syntax nodded, turned towards his pilots, raised his right hand in the air, index finger up and circled it three times in the universal startup sign. His people reacted instantly, running to their fighters and getting ready to launch.

Jalb watched for a moment appreciating the reaction to the command and sense of urgency displayed by the interceptor jockeys before he turned with a snarl. “That furry little bastard!” He ground out and strode off towards the Base HQ.

Krayt’s head swivelled between the activity in the hangar and the departing form of his CO, and friend. He jogged a dozen paces to get in step on his left and took a look at Jalb’s profile; jaw set, teeth grinding, judging by the muscles, and a look to the eyes that Alrick was well familiar with… “Boss…” He said cautiously. No response. “Colonel... “ Still walking. “Chris!”

Jalb strode a couple of paces more and stopped. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I know what you’re going to say”

“And?”

“You’re right… but we’ve got to stop this rubbish, that frellwit,” he spat, knife handing in the direction of HQ, “has not got the first idea about running a combat operation on the ground, let alone a front line space superiority wing. He’s a political ingrate who managed a couple of controlled crashes to get troops dirtside! He’s weaseled his way into a soft Training Command position with the lives of our future in his hands and he’s heading down the path of destroying that future and along the way wants to dismantle Renegade Wing. I won’t have it…”

Krayt reached out and put a hand on Jalb’s shoulder, he could see the flames stoking the more he went on. Thing was, he agreed 100% but he had to cool Chris down first. He was quick to righteous anger but he was also quick to let cool and simmer when a logical argument was put to him.

“There is no doubt he doesn’t deserve the position he is in, nor does he have a right to task any of our Squadrons…” Jalb opened his mouth ready with a sharp epithet but Krayt cut him off “By the way, what was Syntax’s task?”

Jalb shut his mouth with a snap. He looked back up the hill towards the centre of the camp and back at Krayt, closed his eyes and shook his head. At the same time he completely unclenched his fists and visibly relaxed… Krayt knew he’d pulled him back… again. Chris looked back up at his XO with a lopsided grimace.

“You ruin all my indignant rage… but you’re still right. Command has apparently received a message from an operative in the Nebrisk system and Yellow has been tasked with recon but...” he looked back up at the HQ and pointed again “the orders came from there. We need to know why. Coming?”

<>

Shen’ryu watched the interaction between the two pilots on the road and, whilst too far to hear or even make out facial expressions, the gestures were clear. He called out through his open office door to the anteroom.

“Major Gospar, is Commander Dobson here yet?”

“Not yet Sir, but the orderly returned some 10 minutes ago and said the Commander was on his way”

“Send him in as soon as he gets here then!”

“Sir.”

The General had not taken his eyes off the two Renegade pilots the whole time and was acutely aware of their proximity. His last interaction with the Wing CO had not gone as it should have, and would admit to no-one that the arrival of his aide relieved him immensely. Whilst his bluster and bravado BS had worked to get him where he was he was also quite sure he would prefer not to resort to physical violence with Reynolds. Such a thing, senior officers brawling, was contemptible anyway and he was fairly certain that Reynolds would not follow through on his threat. As arrogant and cocksure of himself, like all those Renegade peacocks, as he was he also had a passingly commendable military discipline. Shen’ryu’s thoughts were interrupted by a sharp double rap at the entrance to his office. He turned to find Commander Andrew Dobson at his door, correctly at attention in a faded but well kept grey/blue flight suit. Dobber executed a respectful salute. ‘Why aren’t all pilots like this one?’ Shen’ryu thought to himself. ‘Yes he’s arrogant but at least he respects his superiors’.

“Sir, Commander Blue Squadron as requested” Major Gospar leant around Dobber to announce.

“Thank you Gospar, that is patently obvious to me,” he said with disdain. “Please be useful and have Caf prepared, I’m expecting more guests. Commander Dobson, please, come in, take a seat,” he said as he motioned towards the couch across his office. As Dobber responded with a gracious nod and moved in that direction, the pad on The General's desk pinged. As expected, it was a query from the MPs at the HQ entrance. He acknowledged and authorised admittance. Moments later he heard the anteroom door open and boot steps approached during which he queued a message on his pad deciding on a different tact this morning. Renegade Wing’s CO and XO appeared in his doorway and he sent the prepared message.

“Ah, Reynolds, Durgan, I’ve been expecting you. The message you’ve just received will make everything clear.” Jalb was slightly taken aback by the apparently genial welcome but was also well aware of the continued slight in the dropping of their ranks.

“Thank you… Sir'' Jalb said with the usual disdainful drawl he used when dealing with Shen’ryu as he fished his ‘pad out of his thigh pocket. He and Krayt perused the message they had been presented with.

MKTB
DE CRS SOV 114
U 080312Z 4ABY
FM CG NR SFC
TO CG SFC TC
  RW HQ
WD GRNC
BT
SECRET
NRI OPERATIVE CONTACT. MSG FOLLOWS.
AUTHORISATIONCODE ALPHA FIVE ZERO… ECHO BRAVO NINER… THREE DELTA… NEW… INTELLIGENCE… VYLA RH… VESSEL IS ORBITING NEBRISK 3… SHIELDED… PAIR YARD… COVERTLY STATIONED… REQUESTING FULL… VACUATION… REPEAT EVACUATION… IMPERIAL TASK FORCE… STAR DESTRO… FRIGATE WI… PECIAL CARGO…
END TRANSMISSION.
EXTRACTION PARAMOUNT.

Jalb mused over the message for a moment before looking up and before he could open his mouth, General Shen’ryu started speaking at him.

“Yes Reynolds,” again the absence of rank or respect. “In four hours I’ve planned the reconnaissance.” He glanced at his chrono then back at the Launch Pad to see the A-Wings of Yellow Squadron taking off, “which is now in progress and I have invited Commander Dobson to help plan the extraction. I’m sure your, and your XO’s help would be... useful,” he said sarcastically. “But I think you would do better to go and instill some discipline in your pilots. We’re done here,” he said dismissively as he turned his back on the two Rogues.

Jalb tensed and went to take a step but felt the lightest of touches on his left shoulder. He glanced and saw Krayt’s hand and behind it, his face and an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

“General, where’s the rest of the message?” Krayt asked.

Jalb looked at Krayt in confusion for a moment then glanced back at his datapad… ‘Oh you sweet, beautiful bastard Durgs’ he thought as he looked back over his shoulder and smiled.

“I beg your pardon Durgan?” Shen’ryu said as he turned back towards the pair.

“As my XO said, Sir, where’s the rest of the message? I believe you’ve inadvertently sent only the first page of that message as there’s no end-of-message indicator. I’m also unsure as to why that wasn’t sent directly to my breakthrough when it came in- I see Renegade Wing in the address codes.”

“Yes, well I have told my staff that all classified signal traffic is to come through me before further dispatch, I didn’t see a need to wake you for something I can handle with Commander Dobson’s assistance.”

By this stage Dobber had regained his feet and gave Jalb a ‘hey I didn’t ask for this shrug’ to which he got an understanding nod.

“Well, Sir, I can only presume the next page is where General Firth provides authority for your OpCon and if that is the case I need to see it. Or shall I put in a call to Starfighter Command now?” he finished as he started to tap his datapad.

“That won’t be necessary!” Shen’ryu hastily said and with a look of venom stepped over to his desk, picked up his ‘pad, flicked across it’s screen a couple of times and stabbed down hard. Jalb and Krayt’s ‘pads pinged. They both looked at the devices again and while Krayt read Jalb tapped twice and looked at Dobber, who’s datapad then pinged. Jalb nodded and went back to his screen.

RW TO CONDUCT RECON ASAP. FORMULATE EXTRACTION AS PRIORITY.
CG SFC TC TO PROVIDE ALL SUPPORT. ADMIN COMMAND REMAINS EXTANT.
NNNN

Shen’ryu glared at Reynolds steeling himself for what was to come but the Renegade was calmer than he expected… which was worrying.

Jalb on the other hand was seething but focused it as a cold steel resolve to see this Bothan removed from Command. “Thank you... Sir. I would have thought an officer of your rank and standing would be aware of the difference between Administrative Command and Operational Control. You, Sir, do not have OpCon, you do not task my pilots without MY authority.” He was prepared to go further, but he caught an almost imperceptible whisper from his executive officer.

“Easy Boss,” Krayt whispered.

Jalb took a settling breath. “You have Administrative Command, and somehow input into personnel, but when it comes to Operational tasking of Renegade Wing- we take our orders from General Firth. You supply us with rations, quarters and logistical support. Do you understand your position… Sir?”

Shen’ryu growled.

“I will take that as an affirmative. Commander Dobson, if you'd care to join the XO and I, we have an extraction to plan.” He looked back at the Bothan. “If you will excuse us, Sir, we are several hours behind in planning due to this message being… misdirected. You can rest assured that Command will know why.” With that parting shot, he stalked from the office.

As soon as the three pilots departed, Shen’ryu went to work. He hastily drafted a signal to Starfighter command alerting them to the situation: an overcautious duty officer… ‘who was on night shift’ he checked the duty roster ‘even better, I’ll be well rid of that human’, had withheld forwarding the signal to RWHQ. In the absence of COL Reynolds’ Operational decision making capacity, he had briefed Yellow Squadron and sent them on Recon of the Nebrisk System before personally back-briefing the RWHQ Staff, passing on the signal traffic and his undertaking to support all mission planning and execution logistical requirements. ‘Now, if and when Reynolds submits his report it will appear I have done the best in a poor situation started by an inept Junior Grade. He will look to be assigning blame while I have handled both the tasking and disciplinary issues… perfect’.

...to be continued.... *************************************************************************************