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Star Wars

Cinder to Ash


A Renegade Wing Rebirth

Chapter VIII

[ Angel’s Room; FRG Redemption; Endor System ]

She dreamed of friends and fire.

In one moment, she tips back a shot with Gremlin, the sweet liquor on her tongue. The soft burn down her throat became an inferno, pouring around her, trapping her in darkness. The walls closed in, the light going out. Out of air. Out of room. Out of time.

Another moment she’s sliding down the cargo boxes in the aft hangar deck with Vape, Lock, and Rogue. They’d covered the slanted boxes with coupling grease and made it into a makeshift slide. The ride down was short, fast and ended by sliding through a dismantled A-wing engine housing. She screamed in delight as she went through the opening, but it turned into a darkening cave, narrowing, squeezing around her. Once more the fire chased her. The housing had no end in sight. The scream turned into one of terror just before a metal girder punched through her leg and chest.

The fire turned into blood, spilling around her, covering her, drowning her. It roared in her ears, words that sounded like the names of her friends. The names turned into a roar that grew louder and louder until it was a deafening cacophony. Clasping her hands over her ears, she screamed, overcome by fear and isolation.

She was suddenly suffocating, her mouth full of blood and water. Thrashing, she became entangled in her ejection harness, a shattered canopy closed around her like a coffin. Seeing movement beyond, she desperately clawed at the transparisteel. Bubbles forming as she panicked. The forms took shape but what she saw, she didn’t understand. A Two-Onebee turned its optical sensors towards her. It reached out a mechanical arm and what she saw faded away, replaced by more dreams.

“One day, someone will see you for how lovely you are,” Risha says as they stand in a hangar on some rock in the Outer Rim. With one hand on the ladder to her X-wing’s cockpit, the Zabrak girl puts the other on her shoulder. “When I get back, we’ll talk. See you soon.”

She watches that x-wing pull out into space with eleven others. As they exit, the darkness of space becomes a dark corridor, and she is once again strapped into an A-wing, hurtling through half-constructed ducts. A fire reaches out, grasping at her engines, her cockpit, her body. See you soon.

Pain, world-shattering, undefinable pain erupted through every nerve. She felt like she was on fire and thrashed and screamed, begging for it to end. Hands held her down and voices shouted. Her eyes opened but all she could see was that creeping fire, coming to take her.

“Sedate her for the Force’s sake!” a high pitched voice sang out.

More dreams. This time of a woman with dark red hair and a face much like her own, only older. Her clothing is simple, browns and tans. She reaches out a hand and touches her face, eyes searching.

“Don’t be afraid. Darling, be brave,” she says, her tone a familiar song. Then she fades, pulsing to the beeping of some kind of electronics.

“Mama,” Angel moaned, reaching out for an image that even then faded from conscious memory. It was replaced by a solid white ceiling and soft lighting. Her arm had tubes snaking from it, bacta being intravenously given. Something felt tight around her face and she slowly felt for it, finding a plastic mask over her nose and mouth.

A large face loomed into view and her heart rate spiked. Four hands slowly raised into the air, making gentle, calming motions. When the creature spoke, he did so in a calm, easy manner, smiling all the while.

“Easy. I am Doctor Phven. You are aboard the Redemption and have suffered a number of traumatic injuries. Please, it is best if you relax.”

Shifting her gaze left to right, she took in the sterile white walls, medical machinery, and presence of the Two-Onebee in the corner. When she saw the bacta tank, her heart rate skyrocketed again, an alarm sounding nearby. Doctor Phven quickly checked something and with two hands made calming motions while the other two quickly gave her a shot of something.

Her heart rate slowed as grogginess once more took over. The Besalisk then looked back at her. A small smile spread across his face.

“Rest. We’ll take good care of you. Rest now.”

She rested and slept and dreamed. Often of fire and entrapment, sometimes of her friends, but never again of her mother. Angel didn’t even know if that was her mother, as she’d never seen a single holo of her or her father. No memories existed of them, except what her dreams gave her, and they were ephemeral at best, dissipating as her eyes opened.

Some time later, she came awake on her own and the mask and IV were gone. She was in a different room now, a private room without a bacta tank and Two-Onebee operator. The bed was comfortable and reclined, with a beautiful viewport that let her see the blue-green moon of Endor below.

We did it, she thought, taking in the sight of the rebel fleet and absence of the Death Star. I made it out. How? The last thing I remember is ….

A pain in her right leg made her grip the sheets, twisting them in her fingers. A beep went off in the room and suddenly her leg felt cold and numb again. Pulling the sheet back, she saw there was a large, pale scar on the top of her thigh. Tender to the touch, it had a twin on the back of her thigh as well.

Guiding her hands up her body, she found large bandages still covering a section of her torso below her left breast then on the back of the left shoulder. With shaking fingers, she slowly attempted to lift her left arm and found it was intact. Raising above her shoulder was too painful, so she counted movement as a win.

The door to her room swished open and she looked up to see a diminutive chadra-fan enter, carrying a datapad. Dressed in a nurse’s uniform, the little rodent-like sentient tilted its head before consulting the datapad. It made a little chirp sound that Angel assumed was its form of mild surprise.

“You are up,” it squeaked. “That wasn’t scheduled for another forty-eight hours.”

“I’m a morning person,” Angel said, attempting humor only earning her an ache in the guts and a tsk-tsking from the nurse.

“It is the middle of the night, technically. You are lucky to be alive, Lieutenant Courtner. You required four surgeries to save.”

Real or imaginary pain shot through her leg, stomach and shoulder and she laid back and closed her eyes until it passed. The nurse made another tsk sound and approached the bed. She checked a monitor and tapped her tiny fingers across the datapad.

“Four surgeries?” she hissed, biting back the last waves of pain. “What happened?”

The Chadra-fan looked up at her, beady eyes staring with unsettling blankness. Angel found the dark of the nurse’s eyes reminded her too much of the Death Star’s tunnels, and looked away quickly.

“Please, I’d like to know.”

“Your right leg received a traumatic compound fracture when a durasteel girder penetrated it. The bone was … we replaced most of your femur with a grown simulant. It is partially durasteel as well. The same girder went through your abdomen, destroying a section of your large intestine, pancreas and left lung. We have grown simulants of them all as well. Your heart was spared by a distance of less than one millimeter.”

Angel couldn’t possibly take all that in, so she simply nodded, numbly. “Wow.”

“You also lost a great deal of your left scapula. Your shoulder blade. Most of it was disintegrated.”

Angel placed the palms of her hands over her eyes, resisting the urge to vomit. “I think I’m good on details. Thank you.”

There was a very pregnant pause, and Angel sighed, turning to look at the nurse again. Thankfully, the Chadra-fan had turned away, examining a monitor.

“What else?” she said, mentally preparing herself.

“Nothing medically. But your chances of flying again are troubled at best. Also, you had two very irresponsible visitors while you were comatose.”

The concept of flying an A-wing again sent her heart-rate racing. The nurse quickly adjusted something and both the pain and her heart rate went down. “Mm. You still have a small IV in your spine, for bacta. The new organs must not reject until they are fully integrated.”

Gross.

“Who came to see me?” she said, suddenly curious. Whoever came was alive. The sheer fear of looking up casualty lists was beyond her.

“Pilots. Two very rude pilots. One human and a Zeltron. They all look alike to me.”

Angel felt her cheeks flush. Gremlin was alive. The knowledge that her friend still lived made the pain fade away. Who was the other? Red had been many human pilots.

“The human, what did they look like?”

“Humanish. Smelly. Called me the rudest rodent they’d ever met.” The nurse sniffed and made a last note on her datapad. “Oh, right. The one who had the bad bacta. We need to track that supply down soon. Callahan, I think.”

Lock. Another friend alive. It was like she could breathe again. What about the others? Rogue, Rev, Gnoizic, Shadow, or Ranger? She’d have to check the casualty list, but she’d do that later.

“Get some rest, Lieutenant,” the Chadra-fan said, almost tenderly. “You had someone watching out for you, please don’t do anything stupid to spoil their efforts.”

<>

[ FRG Redemption ]

Returning to the medical frigate felt like taking a step back into another life.

Flight Officer Gemilan “Gremlin” wrinkled her nose as the smell hit her: the sharp, antiseptic tang of air dosed with chemicals and recycled through filters. It even overwhelmed the ozone hit of starfighter engines which normally permeated hangar bays and came in complete contrast to the fresh air of the forest moon with its scents of leaf mould and open fires, roasting meat and fresh-cut wood.

“You’re not on Endor any more, Gemi,” she muttered to herself as she walked down the shuttle’s ramp, wincing at the blast of noise and sparks from nearby mechanics working on a badly damaged X-wing. The Zeltron pilot shouldered her simple leather satchel, obtained from one of her new Ewok friends, and walked towards the open hangar bay door, looking for the directional signs on the walls that would orient her towards Sick Bay Four.

A short time later she was back in the Redemption’s corridors, passed fit to fly by a harassed medtech dealing with a long line of Rebel pilots who had, like her, undergone bacta treatment following time spent EV. Thanks to the pressure of time, the psych evaluation was cursory. She remembered the words of wisdom from Digger, the former marine who was now a Search And Rescue specialist - “Remember, Red, if you wanna fly, you gotta lie!” - and as he had advised, Gremlin lied fluently.

“Drinking too much? No more than usual. Suicidal thoughts? No, not at all!” She carefully did not think of the seductive peace of looking down the barrel of a blaster - or sitting at the edge of a platform in the Ewok village - but her hand clenched on the supple leather of her satchel as she spoke.

The medtech had eyed her; she’d looked back, keeping her expression bland.

“Well, if you experience any .… after-effects … from the battle, let the doctors on your ship know. You won’t be alone, you know,” he had added, with a sigh. “We’ll be dealing with this for years.”

“I will - as soon as I find out which ship I’m on.” Gremlin had hopped down from the examination bed, swinging the satchel over her shoulder. “Um - I do have a question, though …”

“Yes?”

She grew very still. “I need to know …. my friend. She came through surgery, I know that much. But -”

He held up a hand; she stopped instantly, her heart thudding. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone who’s not next of kin, but ... “ he tapped his datapad, “if you just happened to be near the part of the ship where she’s recovering, you might be lucky enough to walk past her room. What’s her name?”

“Lieutenant Jeni Courtner.” Gremlin swallowed, struggling to keep her voice level. “But everyone calls her Angel.”

<>

The turbolift eased to a stop. Its doors slid open but Gremlin hesitated, just long enough for them to start to close again. She thrust out her arm; one door made gentle contact and both retreated, giving her time to step into the antiseptic whiteness of the high dependency deck. Her vivid skin and hair, combined with the bright orange of her oversized X-wing flight suit, made her impossible to miss. A diminutive nurse, perched on a high stool behind the reception desk, looked up from her datapad and frowned.

“You!”

It was the Chadra-Fan who had chased Gremlin and Lock away when they had tried to visit Angel. That was just days ago, but it seemed like a lifetime. The little creature tilted her head. “Why are you here?” She hopped off the stool and scuttled round the desk to gaze up at Gremlin with brilliant black eyes. “That - human - is he here too?” She peered around the Zeltron’s legs as if Lock could be hiding there.

“No, he’s not. He’s been posted elsewhere.” That admission hurt; it seemed as if everyone from Red had been transferred away, leaving her as the sole exception.

“Good.” The Chadra-Fan sniffed, all four nostrils twitching with remembered indignation. “He was very rude!”

“Yes, he was,” Gremlin agreed, “but he was worried about Angel. Lieutenant Courtner. She’s … we’re … we’re all friends. Squadmates. Red Squadron - or we were, until Endor ...” She stopped, words clogging her throat; taking a deep breath, she tried again. “I was wondering if I … could … see her? Please?”

“I am not supposed to let people visit.” The Chadra-Fan looked up at the tall, red-skinned woman, noting the tell-tale signs: dark-circled eyes, agitation, inability to express herself clearly. And this was a pilot who had fought at the Battle of Endor, as the mission against the second Death Star was already known; the medical frigate was full of them - those that had survived, at least.

The little nurse tilted her head to one side, accentuating her rodent-like look. “Perhaps you should find somewhere to rest, pilot. You look … tired.”

“No, no. I - I’m fine.” The lie hung in the air between them as they looked at each other, neither willing to give in.

Gremlin broke first. “I - look …” She went down on one knee, awkwardly, so she was at eye level with the Chadra-Fan, whose ears twitched at her sudden movement. “Look. I just need to see Angel. I need to see she’s all right, so I can tell my squadmates - my former squadmates,” she corrected herself, biting back the bitterness that they had moved on while she was kept in a holding pattern. “They’ll want to know she’s going to be back in an A-wing soon. Once she’s fully recovered, of course.”

The nurse drew herself up to her full height, which was still diminutive. “I can tell you that she is through the worst and should recover to a functional level.”

“To a ‘functional level’!” Gremlin stared at the little creature. “What does that even mean? No, wait,” she added before the Chadra-Fan could explain, “I don’t want to know. I want to see her, please. To see my friend. Because the last time I saw her, she was just hanging there in bacta and the doctor said she might not survive, but she did and I want to talk to her, that’s all, before I get sent somewhere halfway across the galaxy at the whim of someone in Starfighter Command,” she added, sounding more angry than she had intended.

“You are rude too!” the Chadra-Fan declared, her large ears vibrating with annoyance.

“Well, you’re the one who told Lock to kiss your hairy ass! That’s pretty rude!”

“It’s not, if I really do have a hairy ass!”

Gremlin shook her head. “So that’s it? You’re not going to let me in to see Angel because we were rude to you?”

“No.” The Chadra-Fan put one petite, clawed hand on Gremlin’s knee. “I’m going to let you see her because she needs to see you. After that, I’m going to chase you off this deck and I don’t want to see you or any of your friends again until Lieutenant Courtner no longer needs medical help. Understood?”

Taken by surprise, Gremlin rose unsteadily, pushing the satchel behind her back as she straightened. “Understood. Yes. And … thank you.”

The Chadra-Fan sniffed as she trotted away, beckoning the Zeltron to follow. “You can kiss my hairy ass, too.”

<>

She didn’t want to go back in the tank. Despite the pain in her leg, her chest, her back, and everywhere in between, Angel didn’t want to go back in the tank. It felt like drowning, every time. Yes, she could breathe and yes, the pain subsided but it was so small, the glass so close that she couldn’t even extend her arms. It was a cage and she couldn’t get out. Like a cockpit closing around her while fire and metal pressed in.

The last time she’d been in, she’d hyperventilated until they put her out.

“Please, please no,” she croaked, her voice dry as a desert. The Two-Onebee droid turned its head towards her, its illuminated eyes staring unblinking at her. For a long moment, it said nothing, perhaps waiting for her to elaborate. Angel lifted an arm which felt weaker than it had a day ago and pointed to the tank.

“Not again.”

The droid turned from her to the bacta tank, then back again. Its servo-motors whirred and clicked. Mechanical. It made her close her eyes against a bout of nausea. Her stomach roiled in sudden fear and revulsion and then she was leaning over the side of her bed, retching up nothing but bile and acid.

“Lieutenant Courtner, your vitals are showing a rapid heart rate. I suggest you calm yourself.”

“K...kark off,” she groaned, one hand gripping the rail of her medical bed while the other attempted a rude gesture. The act was prohibited by a snaking trail of wires and tubes coming from her arm. They vaguely hurt when she moved her arm, so she stopped.

“Your next round of bacta is coming up, I suggest--”

“Not again!” Her voice was louder, hoarse, but louder. Slamming her hand on the rail, she winced as red-hot pain lanced up from her hip to her shoulder. It stole the breath from her and she lay back, whimpering. The droid touched something on his console and Angel felt suddenly cold. Her skin goosed and her teeth chattered but the pain subsided.

“Lieutenant, it is imperative that you go back for another treatment. Your replacement organs and fractures are very fragile. Your chances of survival will increase by twelve percent.”

Twelve percent. Survival. Bacta. Tank. Glass tube. Glass canopy. Tiny cockpit. Her hands clenched and she shut her eyes, feeling the world close around her, squeezing in like a giant’s hand, crushing, squeezing.

A terminal wailed and the droid hit something else on her console. “Lieutenant, relax. You are having a panic attack.”

She couldn’t breathe. Eyes widening, she opened her mouth but air just wouldn’t pass her lips. Her chest felt heavy even as her lungs burned. Reaching out a hand, she grasped for something, anything real.

Please, she pleaded, silently as the door to her room slid open.

As they walked, the Chadra-Fan nurse briefed Gremlin thoroughly on how to behave when she met Angel: what to touch (nothing); what to say (soothing and comforting words); what not to do (a very long list indeed). As they approached the opaque door to her friend’s room, Gremlin was surprised that she felt even more nervous than she had at the start of the Battle of Endor. There, she’d been flying a ship she disliked, facing an enemy with superior firepower, accompanying raw cadets on their first mission while wishing she was back in her X-wing with her former comrades from Red Squadron, but despite these disadvantages she had at least known roughly what to expect. Here, she felt completely unprepared.

The room door opened onto a scene from hell.

Warning systems were blaring, their sounds calibrated to alert and alarm. A med-droid was trying to remonstrate with the patient, its strident voice adding to the aural overload, while on the bed Angel, frighteningly pale, was stretching out a hand.

Towards her.

“No! Wait …” but the nurse was too slow. Gremlin had lunged past, grabbing for Angel’s outstretched hand in a grip that would not easily be dislodged.

“Angel ….” She locked eyes with her friend, who seemed to be struggling to breathe. “Do something!” Her plea was directed at the med-droid, but she didn’t take her gaze off Angel. If her friend was going to die, Gremlin was determined that - unlike the cadets of Blade Squadron - she wouldn’t be alone.

The room narrowed, darkening at the corners. Angel felt the walls closing in, heat at the edges, grasping at her with fiery fingers. The tubes that fed her life-saving bacta and fluids tangled, held, restricted. She wanted them gone, needed them gone. She couldn’t breathe, needed air, needed to get out.

The darkness tightened, a pinprick of light remaining. She was back in that tunnel, running, running. There was nothing but pain and fire. Her mother’s voice was there, but how did she know that? Was it her own voice?

It swallowed her, all light snuffed from the universe. She fell, choking, terrified and confused. Flashes of her life passed in front of her. The dogfight before the Death Star run, and how it made her feel utterly alive. The build up on Sullust, where she walked the ash ghettos of her former life. Fighting side by side with Gremlin and Lock and Shadow and Rogue in Red Squadron, forging friendships she’d die to keep. The cold of Hoth and the comforting smile of pilots she worked for. The pain of parting with Risha. The feel of a kiss in a crowded bar. Risha’s smile as they took their first job on Nar Shaddaa. Escaping the ash ghettos with her.

Then she was five years old and asking who her mom and dad were. “Dead. Gone. Forget them.”

Yet, a voice, as comforting as a warm embrace. Don’t be afraid. Darling, be brave.

“Mama!”

Warm hands touched her cheeks and pulled her out of the dark. Light burst to life, blinding her with its radiance. A face, a woman’s face stared at her, then pulled her close. Her mother? No. Red skin. Smelled of spice, cinnamon and sugar.

“Grem,” she gasped as medical machinery beeped a dozen warnings. “You’re here.”

Almost overwhelmed by the flashing lights and insistent noise, Gremlin fought the terror that she was losing her friend. She tried to sound light-hearted, forcing her voice to cooperate, but her expression belied her words. “‘Course I’m here - you couldn’t keep me away!” That was, quite literally, true: the Chadra-Fan nurse was tugging on the baggy leg of her flightsuit but Gremlin ignored her, intent on holding Angel’s hand, terrified that she might inadvertently hurt her or pull out one of the tubes keeping her alive or crush her fingers with too tight a grip. Had Angel always been so … fragile?

“C’mon, Ange. I need you to stay with me,” she pleaded, raising her free hand to brush back the short, spiky hair which stuck to her friend’s sweat-streaked forehead. “I can’t let you go. There’s been too much ….” Her voice dried up. Too much to remember. Too much time to run through every fateful decision, every manoeuvre, again and again and again, the B-wing cockpit spinning around her, lights and alarms forming a vortex until she’d flail awake, their death cries resounding in her ears. Too much temptation to step off a high platform in the Endor forest and plunge, peaceful at last, to the ground below.

Too much to lose.

“I’m not losing you! Not you as well!” She was unaware of her tears until several splashed onto their clasped hands. Gremlin sniffed, blinking hard, and bent her head to press her lips to Angel’s fingers - about the only part of her not covered in bacta patches or medical machinery. A strong antiseptic smell stung her nostrils, but the scent anchored her to the moment.

She tilted her head to look up at her friend, her expression a mixture of anger and appeal. “I don’t care how long it takes, Jeni Courtner, but you need to get better. Or else!”

The kiss to her hands appeared to make Angel more aware, more present. She blinked her eyes, more gray than blue in the harsh light of the room. Her hands were cold and she smelled like stale sweat and bacta.

Her gaze locked with Grem’s and her hands pulled away, only to wrap tightly around her friend’s neck. With what energy she could muster, Angel pulled her friend to her, fingers digging into her back. Perhaps it was the warmth of the Zeltron’s skin, or the scent of her, the familiarity, but the wounded pilot’s heart rate began to normalize. Her shaking stopped. A light or two flickered, off and on, off and on. Something echoed in Gremlin’s mind, like a far off memory so real, yet so quickly gone that she wasn’t sure it had been there at all. Whatever it had been, it had been filled with a sense of relief.

“Not going anywhere,” Angel whispered to her, fingers now tangling in the other woman’s hair. “Someone needs to keep you out of trouble.”

Relinquishing her hold, Angel slipped back down onto her bed, exhausted but at peace. Her hand slid from Gremlin’s hair to her cheek and then down to her hand, where it feebly squeezed it; the Zeltron, still smiling from Angel’s hug, gently returned the pressure. The tiny nurse was checking readouts nearby, shifting her gaze from the machines to Gremlin. Without a word, she backed away, giving a small, if tentative, signal that things were okay. When Gremlin turned her gaze back to Angel, she was fast asleep again.

<>

Chapter IX

[ Eight Days after the Battle of Endor ]

<>

[ Lock’s A-Wing; Mukani System ]

For most of his early career in the Rebel Alliance, Lock had been lucky enough to fly one of the coveted X-Wings. In a way, he'd earned it, as before that he'd had the "pleasure" of flying Z-95s and whatever else the Rebels could muster. As a result, he had managed to avoid the cockpit of the death traps known as A-Wings until after the formation of Red Squadron, and his first experience hadn't been exactly the best either.

Lock still remembered his first time in an A-Wing, even though it had been years at this point. The engines had malfunctioned, causing a chain reaction that in turn started an error after another until he was blacking out due to ungodly amounts of g-force as the small fighter continued to accelerate past it's parameters. Later engineers had told him that if it hadn't been because of a lucky shot from an ion cannon by one of his squadmates, Lock would've most likely kept on barrelling through space forever until he crashed into something.

That didn't stop him from getting into an A-Wing again, though, and here he was in one now.

The ship was so light and delicate to the X-Wings that he was used to, but it didn't take long for Lock to get back into the groove of things. As soon as he fired up the A-Wing's engines the corellian couldn't help but grin, his entire body pulsing with anticipation. How long had it been since he'd flown? Since Endor if he recalled.

Showing it's true potential, the A-Wing lifted off gracefully from the air then tore out of Mukani's atmosphere like a wookiee out of a barbershop. It took only a few moments and the four A-Wings of Yellow Squadron were in space.

"Yellow Squadron, this is Yellow Leader," the comm static seemed to make Syntax's voice sound even more mechanical, if that was even possible. "Confirm all systems are a go. Fall into formation."

"Yellow Seven, all clear," Knight was the first to respond. Wolf followed quickly, "Yellow Ten, on your wing."

Lock pulled the interceptor into position, perhaps a little too hard, making him over compensate, making his craft wobble as he placed himself into position. It was his inexperience with the craft that had caused it, his X-Wing was nowhere near as nimble. In fact, he started to feel some of his old TIE pilot instincts begin to kick in. Soft light movements, flow, slip through space like a leaf floating on a stream of water...

"Don't pass out on us, Six," Wolf joked. "These A-Wings pull a lot more Gs than you're used to."

"Laugh it up, Ten, I know you like seeing me wag my thrusters at you," Lock retorted. "Yellow Six in position, Lead."

"Is your mating ritual complete, Six, Ten?" Syntax didn't wait for a response. "Mukani Control, this is Yellow Leader. Yellow Squadron is at hyper buoy Gamma and ready to jump."

"Copy that, Yellow Leader. General Shen'ryu wishes to say...really?.... yes, sir. Sir. Yes, sir." A pause. "Yellow Leader. General Shen'ryu says... hurry your butts up. Except he didn't say butts... Mukani Control out."

There was an audible sigh from Syntax. Lock wondered if droids really felt frustration. "Right, you heard them," Syntax said after a few seconds. "Prepare for a hyperjump on my mark..."

The jump wasn't very long at all, but the interceptor's tiny cockpit made Lock long for his old X-Wing's padded ejection seat and at least twenty extra cubic centimeters of leg room. He looked up at the whirling vortex that was hyperspace, perfectly visible through the clear cockpit of the A-wing. "One hell of a view, though," he said to himself.

Hoping to avoid detection, the A-wing flight exited just outside of the Nabrisk system. Disposable fuel tanks had been attached to the fuselage of their interceptors in an effort to help in this endeavour, providing the nimble fighters with enough fuel to make their approach, detach, do their job, and get out without running out of gas. The last thing they wanted was to be stranded in this system crawling with Imps. The fuel tanks weren't the only modifications that had been made to the A-wings.

Now came the hard part.

"Six on me. Seven, Ten, move into position," Syntax ordered. "Remember; dump fuel tanks at four kilometers. We've been outfitted with stealth tech but it is still experimental. Don't go closer than one and a half kilometers from your target. Activate Jammers when making inspection. You'll be completely invisible from scanners for six seconds. Make sure you're at a safe distance before time expires."

"Copy that, Lead," Wolf answered. Two A-Wings broke off from Syntax and Lock, speeding off towards the area they were under orders to recon.

It took over an hour to reach Nabrisk III, but at least Lock got a very dull tour of the system. Not only was the trip visually unstimulating, except when they flew near the ice world of Nabrisk VI, they were following strict comm silence and, even if they weren't, what was he supposed to talk about with his droid superior anyways? Other than piloting, Lock could think of anything else he might have in common with Syntax. What did he do for fun anyways? Tighten his bolts? The image that particular thought conjured up provoked an amused snort from the Corellian pilot.

It was impossible to deny that Nabrisk III was the most interesting thing in this star system. The sandy surface morphed the shape of the planet, while the metal said sand was composed of gave it a glow that absorbed the light and trapped the heat that Nabrisk Prime graced it with. Two moons circled the planet, which was slightly on the larger side, though Lock’s eyes were drawn to the ruined protoplanet that had been trapped in Nabrisk III’s gravitational field, creating a cloud of rocky debris that encircled the planet. Give the system a few more million years and Lock was positive that it would have some of the most beautiful rings in the known galaxy. Hanging above the planet was the Nabrisk Repairyard, secret Imperial facility, and an

Imperial-class Star Destroyer--those didn’t impress him as much as the rest, since he’d seen plenty of bases and ImpStars before.

“Six, prepare to drop fuel tanks on my mark,” Syntax’s voice interrupted the human’s thoughts. “Three, two, one… mark.”

Lock reached over to a small lever on his cockpit and pulled on it. He felt the fuel tank under his A-Wing unbuckle and drop away… and suddenly he felt so much lighter. Pulling on his stick he moved into a position to the right of Syntax’s fighter. “I’m in position, One. Three thousand meters until we reach that protoplanet dust-cloud-ring-thing.”

“Copy that, Six,” the droid replied. There was a pause, “Sensors indicate that we should be able to make it through.”

“I guess that means we’re going through,” Lock replied.

“I applaud your intuition, Six. Affirmative, we are going through.”

No more needed to be said. Syntax’s A-Wing came to full speed and Lock followed his new leader’s example, modifying his ELS settings to full engines and half shields. If he needed guns, that meant that their mission had already failed. Though he could feel his body shaking, he could help but feel some sort of glee mixed in with the dread of going into the asteroid field. Though Syntax’s sensors were technically correct, Lock could already see what the problem was going to be: huge chunks in close proximity and in constant movement. An X-Wing wouldn’t be able to make it through, but an A-Wing might.

“Might is good enough for me,” he murmured to himself as they approached.

Slipping in between two large chunks, each the size of a corvette, Syntax and Lock penetrated the asteroid field and instantly regretted it. Rocks bouldered past them, smashing into each other and cracking, creating more rocks that the two A-Wings with the eggshell reflex hulls now had to avoid. Lock tried to keep track of Syntax and the rocks but it was futile--he lost sight of Syntax within half a minute and found himself having to concentrate completely on flying his interceptor, unless he wanted to end up a smear on the side of an asteroid.

Lock pushed the A-Wing to the limits, slamming his flight stick and managing his throttle back and forth, following the paths that opened and closed like some sort of enticing doorway into another world full of stress and rocks and near death experiences. This was the kind of stuff he lived for really and soon enough he was lost in a trance. Suddenly he found himself in a room with no ways through before him, forcing the pilot to pull up as hard as he could. Before him the ceiling slowly began to close--”Kriff it,” he murmured to himself and jammed his thumb into the boost ignition. The A-Wing launched itself forward, barely making it through, noticeably scraping the bottom of his interceptor. It wasn’t time to celebrate because now he had to find a new path. Cutting his engines, he positioned his throttle at half and drifted for a few moments as he examined the different paths. Before he could crash into another wandering rock, he pressed the boost again, launching him forward again, this time through one of his selected pathways. A few minutes later, Lock was through.

“Took long enough, Six,” Syntax said to him not a moment later.

“Sorry, Lead, took the scenic route because apparently I have a kriffing deathwish,” Lock answered, still a little rattled from the flight through the asteroid field. He decided that it was better to concentrate on the mission than on life as a bug. “Looks like the objective is dead ahead, Lead.”

“Copy that, Six. ISD is twenty clicks away from the station,” Yellow Leader replied. “Optimal location for us, they will be too far to detect us.”

Continuing their approach, both kept their eyes on their long range sensors--if anything got within a kilometer and a half of them they would be caught. It took them only a few minutes to approach their objective, the Repair Yard, while giving the ISD a wide berth as they did so.

“Approaching objective,” Lock reported. “Jammer prepped, on your mark, Lead.”

“Dive,” Syntax ordered. Both A-Wings dipped downwards in a dive towards the Repair Yard. Lock kept his eyes on the distance. 1700 meters…. 1600 meters… Syntax’s voice cut in, “Mark!” Just as they crossed the 1500 meter mark the sensor jammers overlapped and kept them hidden from the security system. They continued their path for three seconds before Syntax called out again, “Mark!” Two A-Wings veered up. “Boost!” Lock hit the boost on his throttle and felt his body get knocked back into his ejection chair as the fighter increased dramatically in speed, getting them far enough from detection with seconds to spare. “Nice job, Six. Now we just need to do that four more times…”

It was over thirty minutes before the four A-wings reunited again in the shadow of one of Nabrisk V’s moons.

“Did your A-Wing not pull enough Gs, Ten?” Lock asked, joking with Wolf as he and Knight arrived. He pitched his A-Wing from side to side, playfully wagging the craft.

“Very funny, Six,” Wolf answered. “I hope your recon wasn’t as tearfully boring as ours.”

“I’ll take a quick and easy mission like this any day over another Endor,” Knight answered. Everyone was deadly silent for a few seconds.

“Did you accomplish your task?” Syntax asked, breaking the silence.

“Affirmative, Lead. Ten and I found six possible entry points, two of which are guarded by mines and turrets. Those are probably the lanes that get most traffic in and out of the system.”

“I believe your analysis is sound, Seven. Six and I completed our mission as well. The Nebulon-B Frigate Confession is carrying cloaked cargo, meaning that the General’s suspicions are confirmed. We also deployed the beacon, letting our asset know to be ready.”

“Looks like we’re done here, then,” Lock said. He was more than ready to get out of this cramped cockpit. How was he supposed to get used to this? Maybe he’d ask the A-Wing tech, whoever that ended up being, to help him out with that. Maybe they could help him get rid of that smell in there. It was like a thousand souls crying out in agony. “Someone took the nickname ‘eggshell’ literally--it smells like rotten eggs in here. I can barely breathe!”

Wolf and Knight chuckled. “That A-Wing has some history,” Wolf told him.

“Yellow Flight, let’s get going,” Syntax ordered and pulled out the crater on the moon he’d hidden his A-Wing in. Lock, Wolf, and Knight all followed after him, falling into the same formation they’d been in when launching from M-Base.

Not even two minutes had passed when Knight’s voice came over the comms, “Uhh, Lead. Detecting five Interceptors on radar coming in on a course from Nabrisk VII. They’re two klicks out--luckily they have their backs, because we should be well within visual distance!”

“Confirmed! Yellow Flight! Turn to attack! Prepare your Jammers!”

Four A-Wings turned immediately towards the oncoming Interceptors. They didn’t need Syntax to tell them when to activate the jammer, they all did so instinctively when they neared the 1500 meter threshold. Within a second they were within firing range. A stream of red bolts erupted from the canons of Syntax, Knight and Wolf’s A-Wings, burning through their targets and blowing them up in an instant. Lock squeezed his trigger… and nothing. Oh, womp rat balls! My ELS!

Flicking the hat on his stick, he rebalanced his power system to lasers but he didn’t fire, knowing that he needed at least some charge if he was going to shoot down a TIE. Instead he took advantage of the built up boost, slamming it into action and bursting past his mark. Lock immediately cut his engine, ending the boost and drifting for a few seconds as he turned his craft and pointed his aiming reticle directly behind the TIE Interceptor. Once again he squeezed the trigger and this time his guns flashed to life, burning into the squint in front of him, ending his life in the process. By this time, someone had already gotten the fifth interceptor.

“Wooo!” Wolf called out. “Look at him go. Six has some fancy moves!”

“Damn right!” Lock’s heart was pounding.

“Yeah, yeah, let’s just hope they didn’t manage to send a message,” Knight interrupted with a dose of realism. “We are pretty far out--they were pretty far out!”

“Analysis of Imperial protocol suggests they are a long range patrol,” Syntax informed his pilots. “Due to communications black outs and the sabotage of hyperspace communication relays, it’s doubtful that they got a message out--if you take our jamming technology into account, the odds are even higher in our favor. More than likely the fate of this patrol will not be known until someone can come verify it in person.”

“Comforting, I guess,” Lock answered.

“In any case, let’s not waste any more time here. Yellow Flight, roll out,” Syntax ordered.

<>

Chapter X

[ Nabrisk System ]

Six hours after the four A-Wings from Yellow Squadron successfully left the Nabrisk System, two small spheres activated.

Slowly, they came to life. They had been left behind by Yellow One and Six when they had finished their scans of the repair yard. Underneath the spheres a small compartment opened and long antennae emerged; tracking and relay sensors. One would slowly drift down towards the station, attaching itself to the hull of the repair yard while the second would attempt to find a position clear of the ring caused by the protoplanet ruins orbiting Nabrisk III.

And there they would wait until given the go-ahead signal. Only then would they attempt to transmit a code on a secret bandwidth for the asset implanted within the Repair Yards.

It would mean that Vyla would have little time to prepare, but at least she would get a warning. Hopefully, the code would still remain a secret.

<>

[ Gremlin’s A-Wing; M-Base; Mukani System ]

Two A-wings pierced the atmosphere above Mukani, trailing superheated plasma as they thundered down towards the location of their new posting. As they emerged into clean air and took up formation again, Gremlin flicked her comm system to contact her temporary wingmate, an older pilot known as Dragon. Somewhat dour, definitely intense, he had been introduced to her when they both picked up the factory-fresh A-wings from the hangar deck of the cruiser to which they had been assigned for the trip to their new base. He was a flight officer, just like her, which seemed strange given the difference in their ages, but she had no intention of bringing it up in conversation. No point stirring old memories she really didn’t want to revisit. It was a relief simply to be away from Endor’s forest moon at last.

“Doesn’t look much, this planet, does it?” the Zeltron observed, eyeing the ground far below with a professional glance. She was still wearing X-wing orange in her own private rebellion at having to give up her favourite fighter again. Also, she wanted to look familiar for her friends in the former Red Squadron who were also apparently based on Mukani; she hoped she’d be able to find them. She had news about Angel to pass on.

“I’ve seen worse.” Dragon twitched his A-wing’s yoke. “Dank farrik - new or not, this thing’s drifting already. I’ll need a mechanic to look at it when we’re down.”

“Good luck getting it sorted.” Gremlin carried out a quick visual check of her console, just in case, but all readings were normal. “These eggshells are a right schutta to maintain, so I’m told.”

“Fast, though.” Dragon’s smile was all but audible through the commlink. “And I like the speed!”

“Ah, speed’s not everything! Now, X-wings have the best of all worlds ….” Gremlin would happily have continued persuading Dragon of the craft’s superiority, but a new voice interrupted.

“This is Flight Control, Mukani Base. Observe comms protocol, A-wing flight. Set down at landing pad Grek Three and report to your new OC.”

“Someone’s got a stick up their ass!” Gremlin grumbled to herself after checking that her commlink was switched off.

Dragon responded with a professional, “Copy that, Control. Landing pad Grek Three. A-wing flight out.” But the hand signal he sent to Gremlin was far more eloquent than his words and her appreciation for the older pilot ratcheted up another notch.

It wasn’t their only encounter with Mukani Control: three further times they were diverted onto different headings to maintain a safe distance from the craft taking off or landing at the base. Gremlin was surprised by both the crowded airspace and the busy nature of the base itself. She gladly exchanged the new-fighter smell of the A-wing (it reminded her, uncomfortably, of the B-wing she had flown in Blade Squadron) for the ozone tang of sea air as she shimmied down the ladder that the flight crew had pulled into place. With a quick word of thanks to the technicians, she extracted her Ewok satchel from the small cargo compartment, slung the bag over one shoulder and walked to where Dragon was pulling his own kit out of his craft.

“So, shall we go and find our new OC?”

They had both been assigned to Yellow Squadron whose OC, according to a friendly mechanic, bore the callsign ‘Syntax’. “His office is over there,” the woman added, nodding in the direction of a large building which was surrounded by prefabricated huts. “Not sure where, exactly, but someone else should be able to tell you once you get closer.”

“Thanks. At least we won’t have trouble finding someone to ask!” Gremlin glanced around at the bustling base, feeling uneasy at being out in the open. After so long spent aboard a starship, it was strange to see a wide expanse of sky above her instead of a strong durasteel roof.

Dragon had a long stride and Gremlin had to walk quickly to keep up with him. As they approached the base, the composition of the personnel changed: now a large number of cadets in their distinctive uniforms were scattered among the groups of pilots, technicians and Rebel staff. Gremlin tried not to look at them - they reminded her too much of the youngsters of Blade Squadron - but Dragon hailed one and asked the way to Syntax’s office.

“Syntax? He’s in the Command Center, sir - second door on the right, along that corridor,” the girl responded, her hair a riot of curls framing a mischievous face. “Just go straight in - we don’t bother much with formality here. We’ve just had a briefing, so it’ll be empty; Syntax’s office is on the other side of the briefing room.”

Gremlin frowned slightly - if the base was informal, clearly nobody had told Flight Control - but at the same time she was in a hurry to report to her new OC so she could try to find her friends from Red Squadron. Along with the one-eyed sharpshooter, Knight, they should all be stationed on Mukani by now. “Thank you,” she said politely, then inclined her head towards Dragon. “Shall we?”

The door was unremarkable, but ‘Command Center’ was clearly stencilled across it in both Aurebesh and Basic. “Hopefully he’ll be here,” Gremlin declared, setting her hand on the keypad and stepping forward as the door slid open, “because this base is kriffing huge and I don’t want to have to run all over it ….”

She stopped abruptly. Far from being empty, the Command Center was already occupied. There was a gaggle of pilots, by their uniforms - she could spot a Major, a Colonel, a Twi’lek Captain, a Commander too. A fleet captain; another Major - this time a Chagrian; a droid … and a General. A Bothan General, who was glaring at them with an intensity that did not bode well.

Behind her, Dragon snapped to attention and belatedly, Gremlin did the same, silently cursing both the cadet who had thought it was amusing to tease two new arrivals and the stupid Zeltron pilot who had believed her.

“Names?” the Bothan snarled.

“Flight Officer Kell Arcfire, reporting for duty with Yellow Squadron, sir.” Dragon held himself at rigid attention, remembering his last encounter with a General but suppressing the emotions that the memory evoked.

“Flight Officer Gemilan reporting, sir. Also assigned to Yellow Squadron.” She stared straight ahead as the General stalked towards her.

“Didn’t you think to knock, Flight Officer?”

“We were told to come straight in. I apologise for the intrusion, sir. It won’t happen again.”

”I hope your new squadron leader will ensure that it doesn’t.” He gestured towards the group of senior officers, holding her gaze for two long seconds, then turned with a dismissive sweep of his head. “Flight Officers Gemilan and Arcfire, please wait outside.”

They saluted, about-turned and left the room, waiting until the door was definitely shut before giving vent to their feelings in a burst of whispered swear-words and descriptions of what they’d do to the cadet if they ever saw her again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” Gremlin was torn between contrition and fury. Her skin, already red, flushed even deeper as she remembered the girl’s words and how easily she’d accepted them. “Kriff, I’m an idiot. In front of our new OC, too!” From the General’s words, it was obvious that their squadron leader had been one of the pilots in the room.

Dragon shook his bald head. “Done is done. Don’t dwell on it. Though you owe me a couple of shots of Corellian whisky once we get to the bar!”

Gremlin held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Only a couple? I’d buy you a bottle if I could afford it!” She slumped against the wall, shaking her head. “What a way to start.”

“If we’re lucky, our OC will understand.” Dragon glanced back at the door. “So … I wonder which of those pilots was Syntax?”

<>

[ Command Center; M-Base ]

"Flight Officers Gemilan and Arcfire, please wait outside."

General Shen'ryu waited until the two pilots had left the Command Center, keeping his hands clasped behind his back, before he spoke again. His fiery amber eyes passed over the people present at the meeting. Mostly humans--he forced himself to keep from sneering. It was like the Empire had never been defeated.

"As I was saying," Shen'ryu continued. "This mission is of the utmost importance, and must be carried out as swiftly as possible. To that end," he lifted a datapad above his head, “I have contacted General Firth, who has granted me sole command of this mission. If you have an issue you can log a formal request after the mission.”

He knew that his biggest problem was going to be Reynolds. The Colonel that led the late Liberty's starfighter Wing was generally compliant, until recently. Shen'ryu didn't care much for the opinionated Macquarian pilot and after the set-to they’d had the other day, he was lucky he didn’t have him in the brig. Unfortunately without him he had no chance of keeping these pilots in their lanes. He needed someone who could obey orders, not question every decision he made for the greater good. Did the fool not understand that it was all part of a bigger strategy? The human stared at him, watched him, and it made the Bothan feel uncomfortable. At his side was Corona's Executive Officer, Major Alrick "Krayt" Durgan... he watched him with the same distrustful eyes as the Colonel.

"Thanks to Yellow Squadron and in large part to my own foresight, we have discovered a secret Imperial Repairyard," he continued, pressing a button on the pad in his hand to activate the holoscreen in the center of the room.

It revealed Nabrisk III; planet in the center, two moons in orbit, and a ring surrounding it created by the remains of the protoplanet. Another button press and a single Star Destroyer and the Repairyard were highlighted on the map.

"The Imperial-class Star Destroyer Conviction was last seen at the Battle of Endor," explained the General. "We are unsure of exactly who is in command, but what we do know for sure is that it is currently at Nabrisk III defending the Nebulon-B Frigate Confession which is carrying secret cargo. Our objective is to distract the Conviction long enough to slip in and hijack the Confession and capture the secret cargo onboard."

The leader of Yellow Squadron, a droid of all things, watched and listened impassively. If the 9-LOM unit were human and capable of emotion, Shen'ryu may have been concerned about having hurt its feelings--luckily for the Bothan, he only considered Syntax a tool to be used. Blue Squadron's leadership was another matter--he rather liked the unit's XO, the beautiful blue skinned twi'lek Captain Dia "Summer" Tann. He found her to be a breath of fresh air on this overly human base. The General couldn't say the same for Blue Leader, Major Andrew "Dobber" Dobson though. Shen'ryu wasn't particularly fond of the way Summer looked at the man. Could there be something there? He would look into it later.

"As you can see, there are two large openings in the protoplanetary dust cloud... here and here." Shen'ryu pointed at to openings, one on the bottom, one to the far left. They were open enough for three Imperial-class Star Destroyers to pass through side by side. "Both of these routes are well protected. On their fly-bys, both Yellow Seven and Ten detected a network of mines and turrets. It's the Empire's way of making sure we don't hyper into range of Nabrisk III without delay. Luckily, these aren't the only entry points." Click. The next phase of the hologram appeared, pointing out three small paths--top, right, and a last one in between the two larger ones. "This one in between the two main routes is where we want to attack first. The ISD will be stationed in a location where it can monitor and react to traffic coming in."

Again the hologram presentation shifted, a small squadron of X-Wings, 8 at most, and a frigate poised before the entry in question. "Corona Squadron and the Regis will deploy though Route Alpha and engage ISD. The goal is to get it's attention and have it chase us--and hopefully it will follow to the other side of this dust field. If you notice here, at this entry point," the one on the right, "Blue and Yellow Squadrons and Mercy Two will advance from here. Yellow Squadron, your mission is to provide support--one of your flights should escort Mercy Two with our marines onboard to the Confession so we may capture the frigate. The rest will have the duty of interdicting starfighters and covering Blue Squadron as they attack the ISD from behind. When the attack on the ISD by Blue begins, Corona Squadron and the Regis will perform a series of microjumps to position ourselves here, at Blue and Yellow's entry point, so we can keep a route clear for the captured Confession."

The only one in this room that Shen'ryu expected to do their job well was Major Gospar, his chagrian aide, who would be leading the detachment of marines as they attacked and attempted to capture the Frigate Confession. Glancing over at the commander of the Regis, Captain Daly, Shen'ryu added, "I will be personally leading this mission from the bridge of the Regis."

Allowing the hologram to play out, the Y-Wings destroyed the ISD Conviction and the A-Wings destroyed the TIEs. The Regis and Corona performed their hyperjumps and patiently waited for the U-Wing to dock with the Confession and merrily fall under their control and leave the system.

It looked easy.

Awkward silence followed. Captain Daly didn't seem too pleased but was trying to hide it by examining his nails. Colonel Reynolds and Major Durgan gave each other a look, which the General took personally but made no show of it, at least for now.

"Each of you will receive this briefing, go over it in detail." He spoke slowly, looking to each and every one of the senior officers under his command. "I expect the Wing to be briefed within the hour. That is all," he concluded. "We take off in twelve hours."

And so he left the room, followed by Major Gospar.

The rest were left to look among themselves in wonder and bemused despair.

<>

Chapter XI

[ Onboard Nabrisk III Repair Yard; Nabrisk System ]

Vyla Rha looked down at the datapad in hand, her ration bar held in the other as she chewed thoughtfully. There was precious little room to move, in one of the many ventilation shafts aboard the station. The incredible heat from the hot iron sands on the planet surface below radiated out and even up here in orbit it became a problem. The station was more air conditioning than corridors but she knew this one wouldn't remain shut off for long. One of her co-workers on the repair crew found themselves forgotten about as a shaft was powered back up; the smell had taken weeks to fade.

But for now at least she had peace. Which she needed. The Republic was coming to Nabrisk, it was time for her to leave.

She wasn’t an experienced tactician but the plan didn’t seem particularly strong to her eyes. Run in, expect the ISD to chase them like an idiot, then bring the rest in behind as a pincer. But then she wasn’t command staff was she? She was just a highly determined, vastly experienced intelligence agent.

The beeping started as a slow keening sound but eventually it grew louder and louder as it travelled up the air shaft. The fans were about to come back on. Cursing as she moved Vyla wriggled her way to the ventilation exit. It was starting to heat up. Time to go.

<>

[ Command Center; M-Base ]

The Commander of Renegade Wing sighed inwardly. So much for doing the right thing, he thought as attention went from puzzled looks at each other to focusing on him.

Captain Daly had turned to watch the departure of the General and turned back towards the room’s center with a ‘humph’.

“My sentiments exactly, Gideon,” Reynolds said. The Regis’ Captain looked at him with a mixture of bemusement and anger.

“How did he,” said with a thumb indicating back over his shoulder, “get to hold the reins on this?” Jalb was about to answer but was cut off. “Oh, I know the literal how, I saw the signal from Fleet, perhaps the question should have been why?”

Jalb pursed his lips. “And to that, all I can say is what he lacks in leadership and general command competency he makes up for in political acumen. He is a duplicitous reptile in a fur coat, that rodent…”

Krayt stepped in. “Captain, what Colonel Reynolds is saying is that you would do well not to trust the Base Commandant. To answer the why, Myself and Major Dobson witnessed an exchange in which the General kept classified information, meant for Colonel Reynolds and the Wing HQ, to himself. Jalb wrote the appropriate official report, deleted it and rewrote it after he’d cooled off, and now the General is in charge.”

“Is this true?” Gideon Daly asked, looking between Reynolds and Dobson, the latter of the two answered.

“Absolutely, and before you ask, Krayt and Myself, with the support of the other Squadron OCs, once informed, agreed to file our own reports of the incident but the Colonel has decided that the mission comes first.” Daly once again looked at his Starfighter Command equivalent.

“Yes Gideon, I said that, and after seeing the clusterfrack this idiot has planned, we’ve got work to do. Let’s save our operative first and deal with the fallout later.” Jalb stood a bit taller and his tone changed to what his pilots called ‘the command voice’. “To that end, Captain Daly, you know where the capital ship engagement is going to fall over and you will have the General on board. Would you mind heading back up to the Regis, back brief your CIC, and work the contingencies?” Daly straightened and gave a curt nod.

“Of course Colonel, I’ll holo you in…” he paused to look at his chrono, “around 4 hours from now, on the hour?”

“Perfect, that will give us a couple of hours to synchronize and get some kip before final battle prep… Thanks Gids.” They each threw a casual salute and the Regis’ Captain stepped towards the door. Jalb turned to face the other officers present and checked his own timepiece. “Ok, let's take 25 minutes to grab a bite or hit the fresher then reconvene here. Syntax, as you have to do neither of those things, please see to your new pilots, eh?” he finished with a wink.

The droid stood very still for a moment then slowly cycled his right ocular sensor dim then light again. “As you say, Colonel,” and stepped towards the door.

Krayt stared open mouthed and moved towards Jalb. “Did Syntax… Did he just wink?”

“I think he did,” Jalb responded with a bemused look and a glance towards the door the droid OC was leaving through.

“What does that even mean?”

“I think,” Blue’s XO interjected, “it means Syntax has a better sense of humour than you give him credit for.” She smiled and glanced at her Squadron Commander. “Gentlemen, I will see you in half an hour,” and stepped towards the door herself.

“Hold the door please, Summer!” Dobber excused himself and brushed past his XO as she held the door for him and then they were both gone.

“Ok Durgs, I’m going to go and check on Kid and, the kids,” he smirked at his own joke while Krayt rolled his eyes. “Can you catch up with Syntax and ask him to bring along the new guy, Callahan?”

“Sure thing Boss” Krayt responded as they both turned and walked to the door.

<>

[ Training Simulators; M-Base; Mukani System ]

Jalb arrived at the Simulation hall a few minutes later. Unlike the Sim room on the Liberty, he paused for a moment, the rush of feelings, the anger, the sorrow, it threatened to engulf him again… but again, he shut it down, a deep breath, slow release. Keep it together in public mate, these people need you. A quick internal recap of where he was, and back on track… the new simulated cockpit pods were designed to be able to emulate all in service snub frames, and some not in service. Slightly bulkier to allow for the reconfiguration of cockpit internals they were about 2m long, 2m wide and around 1.5m high and were in banks of 10, with 2 rows of 5 nose to nose, so the same area could fit twice as many sims. Where the old circular layout had 6 pods because of the hinged top and side entry, these had the couch slide out the back so you stepped in and slid into the cockpit. The training hall had 4 banks, 40 seats so a full 3 squadrons with a 4 seat HQ Flight to enable full Wing tactics. When it was made available to line pilots… The General pretty well had the place booked from sunup to sundown for Cadet training and while, like now, at any one time there may be only half a dozen trainees the General wouldn’t allow Renegade Wing proper to use the sims during training booked time. Just another of Jalb’s grievances on an ever lengthening list.

As he walked in he spotted Captain Tony ’Kid’ Marco at the control centre with 6 active screens in front of him and headed over that way to watch whomever were going through the drills now. As he approached, Kid caught him in his peripheral and turned to see who it was and with an upward tilt of his chin to acknowledge his CO, he turned back to the screens. Jalb strode up and stood slightly behind and to the left of Kid, folded his arms and quietly watched as the simulated furball wrapped up. Looking at the control screen he saw it had been configured for X-Wing, 3 wing pairs against a half squadron each of AI in eyeballs and squints, to use the pilot’s vernacular for Tie Fighter and Tie Interceptor, but other than number assignments he had no idea who was piloting. He started to think he may have come into a training scenario for one of his Squadron’s as he was watching some quite advanced tactics and ELS management... then he watched a pair bracket a TIE, getting it to evade vertically and while one continued the pursuit the other boosted under and past then pulled a vertical drift. As their guns came to bear, their wing partner cut throttle and went low right allowing a clear shot and a rapid quad fire burst ended that engagement. Jalb nodded in appreciation.

“Who are these guys? Blue, or Bucc…?”

Kid responded with a glance over his shoulder and a grin. “Nope, trainees.”

Jalb’s jaw dropped. “Wha… What have you guys been teaching them? They’re way more advanced than I expected!”

“It’s just this Squad, and it’s not the Instructors… In many ways these guys have surpassed the level at which the training staff can instruct, except for the Rogues on TDY,” he said, using the abbreviation for Temporary Duty and referring to himself and Jasted. “Here, watch Trainee 2”.

Jalb diverted his attention to the monitor with Trainee 2’s feed just as they boosted past a pair of squints then initiated a sideways dead drift to engage both laterally and defeat the AI pair with quad bursts and rockets.

“Recognise that move?” Kid asked knowingly.

“That wasn’t a trainee,” Jalb asserted as he took his eyes off the monitor and back to Kid.

“Well, not technically, but administratively… It’s Junior”

“Ahh, well that explains that…”

“Yep, and he’s turned into quite the leader- for this Squad anyway. They respect and listen to him, firstly because they know he was at Endor and, I think, secondly because he doesn’t remind them about it. Generally I hear him passing on info as ‘my Dad once told me’ or ‘I learnt this from my Dad…”

Jalb took on a slightly quizzical expression. “Do they know who his Dad is?”

Kid shrugged. “I really don’t know.” Just then the pods started opening as the simulation had completed while they were talking. The occupants of the five closest pods exited and made their way over to the control center and stopped abruptly as they recognized the CO of Renegade Wing, and venerable Rogue Leader.

“Good morning cadets!” Jalb said with good humour. “They were some well run drills, you all work well together,” he finished as Kid joined him at his side.

“They do, Sir,” Kid agreed. “This is Jewel, Armpit, Kid-2, Nexu, and Highball.” They all braced properly to attention and murmured ‘Sir’ as they were introduced.

Jalb turned to Kid. “Kid-2?”

Tony shrugged but diverted the query by acknowledging the last trainee who had to come from the far side of the pods. “And I believe you know Junior,” he said with a smirk.

“Oh, hey, Dad,'' Junior said with a smile then realised what he’d done as Jalb’s eyebrow went up, with a smile, but the rest of his squad’s jaws hit the floor. “Sorry, Sir!” he said coming to attention and snapping a crisp salute.

Jalb waved it off casually and looked to the rest of the cadets. “I think you have some explaining to do judging by the looks on their faces, Junior,” he said with a laugh.

“You bet he does, Sir!” Jewel said with mock severity.

“That explains his callsign, though,” Armpit added.

“And on that note, Captain Marco, if you don’t mind, I’d like to steal Junior for a moment… Can you spare him from the debrief?”

“No problem Boss” Kid said with a head tilt to Junior indicating he should leave with his father then turned to the remainder of the squad. “The rest of you, over here, take a seat, let’s go through this.” Kid’s voice faded out as Kyle and Jalb made their way out of the hall. They walked along in an easy silence for a while, Kyle occasionally glancing at his father from the corner of his eye, until they reached the shoreline. They both stopped at the edge of the beach, where tarmac finished and grass started to transition into sand. Chris clasped his hands behind his back and looked out over the water of the bay around which M-Base had been built.

“It's really quite beautiful here,” he mused, “when you take away the detritus of war behind us and forget how, and why, you came to be here you could almost call it peaceful.”

Junior snorted. “Yeah, right… what’s up, Dad? It’s not like you to come find me during work hours… or at all really, since we’ve been here…” he glanced over at his father, no malice or anger on his face, just a sad resignation.

The comment cut Jalb to the core. “And that’s why I have, mate,” he replied with a tenderness he’d not been in touch with for a very long time. “I wanted to apologise… I’m so sorry…”

Junior was a little taken aback by the emotion from his father. “What for? It’s ok Dad… I understood what I was getting into when I first left Macquarie… Ok, I did think I’d be joining Corsair under your command, I don’t think either of us saw you ending up Wing Leader back then but it was still my decision.”

Jalb turned to face his son. “It’s not just that Kyle, it’s everything… taking you from your Mother, and the extended family you grew up with and bringing you here, after risking your life for us all, with us all, at Endor and having this…” Jalb took a breath, “this Base Commander assigned you to the Cadet training units… It’s not fair on you, any of it… and I’m sorry.” He finished raw emotion cracking his voice.

“You’ve nothing to apologise for, old man,” Junior replied, trying to lighten the tone a little but also realizing this was a conversation his father had been skirting around since he left Macquarie. “You didn’t know I existed… I didn’t know that for the longest time but my mother finally told me when I was about twelve. I was angry at first, mostly at her, but Grandad helped me understand and I probably put you on a bit of a pedestal” Jalb opened his mouth to reply but Kyle held up his hand. “No, you deserved it… you may not have been perfect, in a lot of ways, but when you did come back, what you did for, and with, me, was perfect... for me.” He looked at his father with love. “I know you tried to make a happy family, I know Mum tried too, but you’re both very different people from the kids I assume you were when I was conceived.” This comment elicited a smile from Chris, and Kyle continued, “and trust me, I grew up with her… I know how hard it can be to get on with her!” at which Chris openly laughed. “So yeah, I understand where you’re coming from Dad, this ‘talk’... yeah, Shen’ryu’s a frellwit, but it’s not your fault, it’s just one more thing that has been taken out of your hands. I get that, I still talk to everyone in Yellow, and Kid and Jasted keep me up to date. We all know you, and the Wing, are getting fracked over. Everyone knows the top cover you’re providing and they all appreciate the ferrick out of it, and I appreciate you. Regardless of what you may think I’m here because I want to be… and Dad… I love you.”

Chris’ response caught in his throat and his eyes misted, emotions like this always went to the extremes and he did the only thing he could, grabbed his son in a bear hug and held tight as he got control of himself. “I love you too, mate,” he finally said as he pulled out of the hug and held his son at arms length. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that right now... “ he paused a moment and wiped at his face “Everything is just getting… just so much… emotions… damnit,” he trailed off with a self deprecating laugh.

“You and me both, fat boy,” Junior finished with his oft used quip.

Jalb laughed. “And I’ll tell you again, muscle is heavier than fat… but seriously, thanks for understanding… You’re really the only one I can let my guard down with… It’s hard… I didn’t ask to be here.”

Kyle tilted his head quizzically. “I don’t think any of us asked to be here,” he replied holding his arms out palms up to indicate their surroundings.”

“Figuratively, not literally… What I’d give to have Stryker back. He’d know how to deal with this poodoo.”

“Oh, this old chestnut,” Junior said. “You’re one of the best pilots in the New Republic, everyone knows it, except you! You hold yourself to such a high standard, both in the cockpit and as a leader, and you hit and maintain those standards so well… the example you set.” Kyle shook his head “Do you know how hard it is to be your son? That’s why I hadn’t let the other cadets know you were actually my Dad- self preservation,” he finished with a chuckle.

Chris smiled self deprecatingly. “Ok brown nose...” Kyle laughed loudly as Chris glanced at his Chrono. “I’ve got a planning conference to attend.” He looked back at his son, “There’s a mission coming up that you and your squad are likely to be called into… what you’re doing with them, keep it up, but now’s the time to strip the sugar coating. Warn them that when they get called up and it’s for real… Well, you remember that first time… that everytime… just help prepare them, ok?” Kyle nodded solemnly. Chris grabbed him in another brisk hug. “Take care, I’ll see you soon.”

“You too Dad.”

<>

[ M-Base ]

Lock had woken up less than an hour ago and was in the final stages of waking up. First came staring at the ceiling in a state of exhausted regret, then a stim can, then breakfast, then some more regret about being awake, and finally a shower.

Because Mukani was basically tent-city apart from a few buildings, it hadn't reached a point where everyone got their own shower. There were two communal showers--one for males and one for the females. That didn't mean, of course, that more than one person had already been caught "getting lost and ending up in the same stall with someone else." However that happened--if soap wasn't pouring off of his white haired head and over his eyes, he would've rolled them at the thought.

Again his commlink began sounding off from the locker he'd stashed it in. He cursed, wondering who needed to talk to him so urgently that they couldn't wait ten minutes for him to finish showering? He washed the soap off his face and was about to go out and answer it when it stopped beeping. Ah, good, he could continue his--and there it went off again! He flung the shower door open and stomped over to the lockers and pulled out his commlink.

"What!" Lock answered.

There was a pause. Then Syntax's voice made an appearance, "Lieutenant Callahan."

"Oh!" Kriff his luck! "Sir. Uh... Good morning?"

"It is not, Lieutenant. Report to the Command Center immediately."

Before Lock could answer, Syntax cut the communication, leaving the naked Corellian staring at his commlink. Had he screwed up? He didn't know the droid well enough yet. If he wanted Lock to meet him at the Command Center, that meant it must be really important... He returned to reality when he felt a sharp and surprising pain on his left butt cheek.

The slap echoed throughout the makeshift building as Lock's body completely tensed up from the surprise. He looked over just as a massive seven and a half foot tall devaronian built like a freighter and his horns made him look even taller holding a twisted up towel. Giving Lock a sharp toothed grin, he said in a deep mocking voice "Not your day is it, L.T.?"

"It was going just great until you showed up," Lock growled at the man, moving away from him.

The devaronian answered with a menacing, low laugh, "Said by every stormtrooper that ever met me."

The being had already pulled his fatigues up and was half dressed. He took his jacket and put it on, proudly exhibiting his muscular abdomen and chest. The rest of his clothes and belongings he shoved into a duffel bag that he slung over her shoulder. Before he left he turned back to look at Lock with an amused grin, "I love freaking out humans."

Lock stared after him, wondering who the hell he was. A marine, no doubt, from his attire. Deciding it was best to put it out of his mind, Lock quickly finished washing the shampoo out of his hair before quickly getting dressed and dashing to the Command Center.

<>

[ Command Center; M-Base ]

"Lieutenant Callahan reporting, sir," mid-salute Lock noticed Syntax wasn’t alone. "Sirs."

"At ease, Lieutenant," answered Jalb.

Lock let his arm drop to his side and took it all in. Apart from Syntax and Jalb, there was also Krayt as well as a man and a twi'lek woman he wanted to get to know better. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Is this how you usually talk to your senior officers?" Syntax asked, clearly annoyed a little by Lock's attitude. Lock was about to tell him about the shower and the Devaronian but he stopped before he could start. He'd been in Syntax's position plenty of times. They would all sound like excuses. The truth was, Lock hadn't had a direct superior in quite a while... at least not like this. He wasn't Red Leader anymore. The thought caught him off guard.

"N-no, sir. I apologize, sir. I have no excuses," Lock answered. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Krayt and Jalb glance at each other.

"There better not be a next time, Lieutenant," Syntax continued, accepting Lock's apology.

"Yes, sir."

"Good," Jalb began. "Now that pleasantries are out of the way, let's get down to business." He motioned towards the holoprojector in the center of the room. "In about twelve hours or so we'll be launching this operation. The brainchild of General, bloody, Shen'ryu, our Camp Commandant and, who knew, capital ship warfighting master tactician and Ace pilot!." Krayt snorted while the two strangers (Dobber and Summer, leaders of Blue Squadron, Lock would learn soon enough) stifled a laugh. Even Jalb couldn't help but smirk, "Do beg my pardon, sarcasm is not my forte and nor should I belittle our commander” a sigh and a roll of the eyes “We'll walk you through it in a moment, but I promise you, it's bound to be an ugly one."

"We're actually going to do some... planning on the side," Krayt added.

"Great," Lock asked, somewhat confused. "What do you need me for, then?"

"As you know Yellow Squadron currently has no XO," Syntax answered. "We're not giving you the position, but due to the nature and danger this mission represents due to the high number of rookie pilots, we felt it best to appoint a second in command. Given the fact that you're the highest ranking officer after myself in the squadron, and your previous experience commanding Red, you are the best option."

"Thank you, sir," Lock knew better than to say no. Plus, what they were saying made a lot of sense. Except one thing. "Wait, what do you mean by ‘high number of rookie pilots’?"

"General Shen'ryu can't wait for our Cadets to finish the training program," Jalb answered with a sneer. "He's approved them all for active duty. We'll be flying in with thirty-two. Only seventeen of whom have seen combat before."

"That's insane," Lock suddenly saw the problem. "That's fifteen cadets!"

"You see our problem," said the twi'lek female. "Colonel Reynolds already has them running a simulation. Sadly that puts more pressure on the rest of us, since we don't get to use a simulator for practice, not that that hasn't stopped any of us here before."

"Right, well... walk me through... I don't know what help…”

“Another set of eyes from now will be good enough,” Krayt answered and they got to work.

<>

[ Training Simulators; M-Base ]

The cadets stood in a line, the holoprojector to their back, as Kid and Jasted discussed their results quietly over a datapad. The two men were locked into a serious conversation and even the ever cheeky Fyri was starting to become worried. Animated movements showed that Kid was agitated, he kept shaking his head, whilst Jasted was doing his best to keep his cool. Eventually they put the datapad away and Jasted stepped forward. “So. You’ve all done pretty well. How do you feel it went?”

“Easy no?” Armpit swung his huge arms open wide, causing the rest of the cadets to cough and gag, so he quickly crossed them again. “We aced it.”

Nexu shook his head quickly, “We barely scraped through. You and Jewel got pasted.”

“Oy yeah. But the odds were well unfair, yeah? Tough challenge.”

Jasted hesitated at this and all the cadets noticed. A cold feeling ran through Kid and he stepped forward, his tone detached. “That tough challenge was a sim of your first real mission. They’re putting you on the front lines.”

A silence descended over the group as reality set in. Tony’s face hardened further, this wasn’t on him anymore. This is insane. They’re all going to die. Why do we even bother?

Jasted got the datapad out and started giving out assignments, squadrons they were attached to and their wing numbers. The atmosphere was thick, smothering over Kid. For a few hours he’d started to open up again and just as quickly he’d see his new charges ripped apart. He turned to leave, unable to deal with the mess broiling inside him but he felt a hand on his arm. Fyri was looking at him, a slight grin. “You need a new callsign.”

“What?”

She nodded, her cheery tone masking the slight tremor he saw in her hands. “Can’t go into the same battle with the same callsign. It’ll get confusing.”

He felt a little tension ease and arched an eyebrow. “What do you propose?”

“A competition.” She leapt onto the cockpit lip of one of the simulators, “New kid vs old kid. First kill keeps the callsign.”

Jewel snorted at her bravado, “One kill?”

“Fine, first to five!”

Nexu sneered at her, “You think you’re going to make five kills in your first engagement?”

“No.” They all turned to look at Tony who held up his hand. “We’re not going to do it like that. You’ve already got your mind in the wrong place. Top scores don’t make good pilots, they make greedy arrogant jocks who put themselves in stupid positions and get blasted. You need to focus on getting the job done properly.”

“Spoilsport,” she said, jumping back down and sticking her tongue out at him. “Fine. We’ll have to figure something else out.”

She rolled up her sleeves and put her arms on her hips, bringing Tony’s attention to the tattoo figures on her arms. “I recognise those…”

“Oh, my tats?”

Armpit snorted, “Oy, she won’t shut up about them. You gonna get a talk now yeah?”

Fyri flicked her fingers up at him, a real Coruscant salute. “They’re cool and he wants to know!”

“Thanabos...thanasoss…” Tony was clicking his fingers as he concentrated, trying to remember the names. “I used to see those here and there, graffiti and stuff. Twins right?”

“Oh boy….” Jewel shook her head but Fyri cut her off, beaming widely. “Yeah! Thanatos and Hypnos the twins!”

She pointed at each arm, showing the detail of the two figures. “Hypnos is awesome, see the hair? I was kind of thinking about using her as my callsign actually before the others named me. Oh, you should use Thanatos!”

“Sure,” Tony said cooly. “I’ll think about it. They were old gods right? Ancient, before even the times of the Jedi.”

“Yeah, that’s right. No force where I come from, you know? Old gods, bloody gods, violent gods. Gods of war, death. Now that made sense to me down there. You get me?” Her eyes were twinkling with the joy of being recognised.

Tony nodded back at her, “Yeah, I get you Fyri. I get you.”

<>

[ Bridge; ISD Conviction; Nabrisk System ]

They should’ve been back by now.

Oshi stared at her board, willing it to pick up an incoming transmission from Gamma Squadron, the unit that Zinger belonged to. He and his unit had gone on a long patrol, far out of communications range with the holonet down. She understood that these kind of missions took longer than expected, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was longer overdue. No one seemed worried yet, and she didn’t trust anyone on this ship enough to bring it up.

Maybe if she expanded the frequency and bandwidth of the long range array… it was a crazy idea. Still, she felt like she couldn’t just do nothing. Glancing to either side, she noted that no one was looking at her and decided to go for it, noting that she could just say she was doing a routine check on the array if anyone questioned her. She began working through the systems on her board, redistributing power from one system to another and amplifying the modulator.

Nothing.

For an instant she believed it was all for nothing, then she picked something up. Something faint… not from out there, but… nearby? She flicked through a few more settings and zeroed in on the signal. It was coming from the crew quarters on the station. Her eyes opened and she hit her comm, “Sir, I am detecting a beacon of unknown origin.”

“On my way,” Barand arrived in moments. “Explain.”

“Sir, I-I was doing a, um, r-routine--”

Lieutenant Junior Grade Frell,” Barand said, adding some sternness to his voice.

“Sir.” She knew that it was best to just explain what she was doing. “I was concerned with the delay in Gamma flight’s arrival and decided to modify the frequencies and see if I could amplify the range. When I did so I picked up a beacon of unknown origin emanating from the station.”

“Unknown origin?” Questioned the Captain.

“Yes, sir. Unknown origin… not one of ours,” she clarified. From the look on Barand’s face it was clear that it had been unnecessary.

“Good work, Lieutenant, keep scanning for Gamma Squadron. Send Theta Squadron to search for them. Commander Feing. Get to that station and find that beacon!”

<>

[ Renegade’s Lounge; M-Base ]

Lock was quite pleased to see his former squadmates as they filed into the command center when the Briefing was finally ready to commence. This was dampened, however, when he saw how nearly half of the pilots present were dressed in cadet flightsuits. Nonetheless, the briefing went on without a hitch. After a few questions the wing was released to do what it wanted to in the last couple of hours before lights out.

"Blue Seven, Yellow Two, prepared for the mission tomorrow?" he asked as he approached Gremlin and his former XO, First Lieutenant Mitch "Rev" Ri'chaard.

"Tomorrow?" scoffed the older pilot. "More like in half a day. Is this how this Wing usually operates?"

Lock thought back to his previous mission with Yellow and how they'd been pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and told they were launching right away. "Yeah, pretty much."

Gremlin slipped between them and wrapped her arms around both of their necks then sort of hung herself, using her body weight to bring them all together with a huge grin and giggle, "Is that how friends greet each other? You haven't seen each other since Endor! Oh! Who's the older old man now? White hair or starting to go white hair? HA!"

"Gremlin!" Both pushed off of her, trying to unwrangle their heads from her arms. She just laughed, and hung harder onto Rev after Lock managed to escape the headlock. He dusted off his flight suit, letting Rev struggle alone, "You're like fleas on an Ewok!"

"Hard to get rid of?" she asked, ridiculously pleased to be back with her former squadmates again. It definitely helped compensate for their non-welcome to M-base.

"More like annoying!" Lock made a face at her which broke into a grin. "Come on, there's a Lounge over here. No alcohol, but maybe there is something good."

"No alcohol? I have some in my--Woh! Wooah! AHH!” Rev apparently got the upper hand finally and lifted her above his head triumphantly. Gremlin squirmed and laughed and begged to be let down.

"He's right you know," Rev said when he decided to set her down. "You are annoying!"

"Well, I have to be! Got to keep both of you old men active," she retorted, this time jumping away to keep distance between them, teasing them with her grin. "So what about this Lounge?"

"Ah it's just down that way," Lock pointed towards one of the larger tents.

"You two go on ahead," Rev said. "I just spent the last six hours in the cockpit of a B-Wing."

"Oh you mean nice and cozy and comfortable with plenty of room to stretch your legs?" Lock asked, a hint of jealousy in his voice. Neither noticed Gremlin's shudder at the mere mention of a B-Wing.

"You're insane, as usual," Rev rolled his eyes and waved as he started to turn. "See you in a few hours."

"Before you go..." Lock trailed off, waiting to see if he'd stop. When he did so, Lock asked, "Any news on the boys?"

Rev cracked a smile. "Shadow is taking a short leave, said he had some things to take care of. Rogue and Gnoizic will rendezvous with us in a few days. They seemed to be doing well. Rogue, at least, is eager to rejoin us. It's hard to tell with Gnoizic."

"I have good news, too!" Gremlin interjected. "Before I got my orders to come here, Angel woke up. She's going to be fine. Apparently the top brass want to make her out into a hero!"

"She is," Lock smiled fondly.

"It's incredible though, we all made it!" Her grin was pure Gremlin: uncomplicated and delighted, a change from her slightly more forced humour post-Endor.

Lock nodded, "This time."

<>

Chapter XII

[ Renegade’s Lounge; M-Base ]

"Two juices, on me," Lock told the bartender, a Mon Calamari who looked older than this whole planet.

"Make it a double," Gremlin added, adding false roughness to her voice, as if a double juice was badass in any sense. Still it amused her and, more importantly, it amused the old Mon Cala, who offered a gruff laugh at her antics and went off to get their drinks.

Meanwhile the Corellian scanned the room. He saw a few of the pilots who'd previously sat with him at the briefing and a few personnel he didn't recognize and finally... him. That gigantic Devaronian, who happened to glance up just as Lock was looking at him. The red alien grinned. Lock rolled his eyes.

"Did I miss something?" Gremlin asked, holding out his juice to him. Hers had a twirly straw and an umbrella.

"Nothing," Lock shook his head and frowned. "Where's my umbrella?"

Gremlin shrugged, "Dunno, they ran out I guess. Hey, let's sit down. I ordered us some chips. Did you know they served food here?"

"I had no idea," Lock moved with her, sitting down with his back to the wall when she found a table to settle down on. "That's really messed up that I don't get an umbrella, too."

"Bring it up with the O.C. if it matters that much," Gremlin rolled her eyes at his childish behaviour and went back to drinking through her twirly straw. The more loops the juice made before reaching her mouth the funner.

"I don't think that a 9-LOM unit would understand," Lock leaned back into his chair and took a drink.

"You mean Syntax is actually a droid?"

"Yeah, what did you think he was?"

"I don't know... a guy in a suit? Like Gnoizic."

Lock shook his head and snorted, "Syntax is a droid."

"Really? Wow," Gremlin's mind seemed to take her far away for a moment as she continued to sip through her straw, probably considering the possibility. "That is so cool."

"It's great that you feel that way," Lock answered. "He's your wingmate."

"What!"

"You're Yellow Two, he's Yellow Leader," Lock stared at her. "Were you even paying attention at the briefing?"

"I was! I mean, for parts of it. I was excited to see you and Rev."

"I was paying attention," said a new voice. Lock lifted his head to see one of the new arrivals. He had an accent that Lock couldn't fully identify. "Name's Dragon, new Yellow Five. You're Lock, Yellow Six. Looks like we'll be flying together."

"Looks like we will," Lock answered. "Maybe you should buy a round of juice boxes to celebrate."

"I'm Gremlin, Yellow Two, or did you already forget about me, Dragon?"

"Who could ever forget about you?" Dragon snorted and sat down between them. He spoke in a low voice, "I reckon that round of juice boxes is on you two. While you were busy chit-chatting, I scoped out the place. That big ugly horned bastard over there has had you in his sights this entire time. I think he means business.”

"Huh? Who?" Gremlin was immediately confused.

"I know," Lock answered, taking a sip from his glass of juice. "If you want him go ahead and take him, he's not my type."

"What? No!" Dragon laughed but whatever he was going to say was cut short. "Oh, there he comes. And his Nautolan buddy."

The Devaronian was as huge as Lock remembered him. Although he was so large he walked with surprising agility, keeping up easily with the nautiing with him. It took only a glance to realise that the Nautolan was female, but she still stood taller than Lock. She wore her sergeant's stripes proudly.

"Hey, L.T.," the large being said as he approached. "Mind if we join ya?"

Lock glanced over at Dragon and Gremlin, then back at the two newcomers. "Should I?"

"We're New Republic, too, why can't we sit with you, huh?" asked the Nautolan, taking a step closer to Lock. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dragon's hand go for his blaster.

"Hey, wait up!" Lock raised his voice a little. He pointed at the Devaronian, "Tiny over here crossed the line earlier."

"Huh?" The Devaronian looked confused. "Oh you meant in the showers earlier? I was just joking!"

"Sneaking up on someone and smacking their ass with a wet towel isn't a joke," Lock muttered.

"He snuck up on you?" Gremlin asked, looking at the seven and a half foot tall behemoth.

"He smacked your ass?" Dragon looked like he was about to explode with laughter.

"Hey! With a towel! That's not the point of this!"

"So, what part is?" asked the Zeltron with a huge grin.

"He shouldn't be sneaking around like that," Lock growled.

"But the ass grab, that was okay?" asked Gremlin with a hint of a frown.

"I do have soft hands," the Devaronian offered. Dragon howled with laughter. Lock stared daggers at them.

Towel! There was no hand-ass action!”

"Everyone shut up!" the Nautolan interrupted them. Without looking back she lifted her right fist and knocked the Devaronian on the chest. "Shock! You better apologize right now, Marine, or you'll be scrubbin't every fresher on this planet."

"Ow, but Sarge, it was just a joke..."

"You know what? I bet there are freshers on the Regis, too, that need a good scrubbin'!"

Shock huffed and rolled his eyes. "Sorry, L.T. For sneaking up on you."

"Yeah, whatever, sit down," Lock allowed, but wasn't very happy about how the conversation had gone.

Knowing it was time to take the subject in another direction, Gremlin spoke up. "So your name is Shock?" she asked. "I'm Gremlin, this is Dragon, and that grumpy old man over there is Lock."

"Aye, my name’s Shokkarril but everyone calls me Shock. This is Sergeant Beko, best shot in the Rim," the large man said as he sat down.

"Over two hundred headshots," she said proudly, cockiness in her voice. "Shock, get these flyboys some drinks."

It took a bit but Lock finally ended up warming up to the two marines and the small group stayed and chatted over a game of sabacc for an hour or two more before finally heading out. They all had a big mission tomorrow...

<>

[ Onboard Nabrisk III Repair Yard; Nabrisk System ]

Pulling the smoke mask over her head, the straps wrapping round the base of her lekku, Spook ran down the corridor of the station corridor. “Make way! Fire in sector seventeen!” A few stormtroopers stepped aside, a combination of the word fire and the heavy extinguisher which she was swinging carelessly as she ran making them move with urgency.

She rounded another corner, her face mask fogging up with sweat, as she skidded to a halt. Slamming the extinguisher into a vent cover it gave way on the third blow. She stepped inside and ripped off the firemask, pushing the now bent vent cover back into place.

Idiot, idiot, idiot!

She wasn’t sure who was to blame for the transmissions being intercepted but right now it didn’t matter. Security aboard the station was hunting for her and she didn’t have much time. Clambering through the vent she unscrewed the fire extinguisher, removing the blaster and few blasting caps she had stashed inside it.

I got to get off this station.

She came to a stop as she reached a higher conditioning duct, hearing fans spinning overhead. From here it was just a few bulkheads to the cold vacuum of space. But where next? She needed to think properly for a second, digging the datapad out of her back pocket she examined it closely. The Confession was currently docked. The very same frigate she knew that the New Republic would very shortly be capturing.

One small explosion later and she was to the maintenance airlock. Struggling into the vacuum suit next to the door she paused a moment to bring her breathing back under control. Just one leap. It’s easy.

She’d gone zero g plenty of times. But it never made it easier. But she had made the choices that led her to this point. She had made the decision to put herself in this kind of danger. She would make the leap of faith. It was the price of being free; she’d never allow it to be taken from her again.

Spook stepped out of the airlock and left Nabrisk station behind, hopefully to never see it again. It was a short trip to the Confession where it was currently docked with the station. She was practically invisible, miniscule to the scale of station and ship. No sensor would pick up a single techie drifting alone in space like this. Neither the warship nor heat proofed station had many viewports to stare out of either. Out here she was truly alone.

She could see the open hangar of the frigate, the warm blue light welcoming her in. She’d wait her chance, slip through the energy shield, and hide out. She just had to hope the republic boarding party would follow standard procedure and attempt to hijack the freighter by entering the hangar bay first.

Now. Just got to wait.

<>

[ Bridge; ISD Conviction ]

“Sir, incoming transmission from Commander Feing,” Oshi informed the pacing captain.

The man turned towards her and was at her side almost immediately. It sort of freaked her out how he could do that. Whether he noticed or not did matter or he didn’t care. “On screen.”

The screen activated, revealing the blonde commander. “Sir, we have located the beacon. It is connected to a smaller relay. I already have a pilot picking it up.”

“Good work, Commander. Return to the Conviction immediately.” The screen went blank and Barand turned to Oshi. “Any news from Theta Squadron?”

“No, sir, I--one moment,” Oshi paused as she noticed an incoming communication from the other side of the system. “Sir, it’s them, they--”

“Turn it up,” He asked. Oshi complied and flipped a switch, broadcasting the audio on the panel’s external speaker.

“ISD Conviction, this is Theta One. We’ve found Gamma Squadron, or what’s left of them” Oshi’s heart sank as the TIE pilot continued his monotone report. “We’re in sector Delta-Nine-Four, about four million klicks from Nabrisk Five. Repeat, Gamma Squadron destruction confirmed. We have wreckage of five TIE Interceptors. Theta One out.”

There was a moment of silence on the bridge as everyone took in the news.

“Lieutenant.”

She couldn’t believe that he was gone. Part of her knew, had known, to expect the worst but expecting it… wasn’t the same as knowing. Zing was gone. She couldn’t believe it. They’d never gotten those donuts. She felt like someone had reached inside of her and grabbed her heart and lungs and just crushed them and--

A hand rested on her shoulder. She looked up. Barand. “Lieutenant.”

“S-sir?”

“You… had a friend in Gamma Squadron, did you not?” he asked.

Oshi nodded.

“I did, too, I believe. I am deeply sorry for your loss.”

“Th-thank you, sir. I-I’m s-sorry ab-bout yours as w-well.”

“I know this is hard but I need you right now. I need you to help me bring those responsible to justice,” he explained to her. HIs voice was soft, and for a moment she almost believed him. She wanted to, but in that instant her heart didn’t want to believe in anything. So she said nothing. “I promise you I am going to make these bastards pay for what they’ve done.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now. When are the Demise and the Bane due back?”

“Within the hour, I believe, sir,” she answered, staring at the console in front of her. It was simple information. She could do that. Pass information. Later, she would grieve. Later. Now it was time to be an Imperial Officer. Imperial Officers did their duty, no matter what.

“Good, Lieutenant,” Barand answered. “Good. We seem to have a mouse problem. It’s time to set some traps… Have the Commanders of the Demise and Bane come and meet me in my office as soon as they return from their missions.”

“Yes, sir. Long Live the Empire!”

Barand smiled approvingly. “Yes, Lieutenant. Long Live the Empire.”

<>

[ Bulldog’s Quarters; M-Base; Mukani System ]

Bulldog thrashed on his bunk and groaned. He’d been rolling around constantly for the last three hours trying to find sleep, but it still eluded him. Over the last few hours, he’d tried every trick in the book to fall asleep. He’d counted nerfs, but he’d reached well over 200 before he lost count. He clenched his fists and feet, but that just led to an extremely brutal set of cramps under the arches of his feet and woke him up even more than he was already. He’d even tried the ‘attempt to stay awake’ strategy many self-help gurus proposed, but it had backfired spectacularly.

So here he was, three hours away from his alarm going off, and he was still staring at the same bare walls and ceiling. He was listening to the rhythmic breathing of his bunkmate, and becoming insanely jealous at Wolf’s very deep slumber. He couldn’t even utilize any alcohol or illicit substances, because he had come to Mukani with none of the latter and the karking Bothan’s staff had come and confiscated the rest of his stash of the former.

He rolled over to his stomach and put his face into his pillow and growled loudly, matching his rage with a fit of kicking and slamming his fists on his mattress. Unfortunately, the adrenaline-fueled outburst did not exhaust his energy reserves.

“Wha?” Wolf awoke with a start, sitting bolt-upright in the span of a split second. After a moment of gathering his bearings, he looked at his datapad to check the time and let loose a groan of his own. He looked over at his bunkmate, still throwing a fit on his bed. “By the Sith, Dog! Go walk around and skrog up somebody else’s beauty rest!” he snapped with finality, punctuating his request by slamming his own head back down onto his pillow and rolling onto his side.

“FINE! Kark it all to Jedha,” Bulldog whined as he slammed all four of his appendages down on the bed at the same time in one final blow. The bed rebounded with the force he’d slammed into it, throwing him into the air slightly. It was enough for the insomniatic pilot to swing his body around to where his butt landed on the bed in a sitting position, with his legs over the side and his feet firmly on the ground.

He hastily pulled his tunic over his shoulders and threw his feet into his cold boots, staring daggers at his yet again sleeping bunkmate. “I hate this place,” he said to nobody in particular as he stood up and walked briskly out of the room and into the brisk night air and started walking around the base aimlessly. More than once he tripped over his untied bootlaces, eliciting more curses aimed into the universe.

A sentry on duty whirled around and leveled his blaster at the oblivious pilot, swearing quietly to himself as he identified Bulldog and mentally calmed himself back down from his initial terror. “Might want to avoid sneaking up on me like that next time, pilot.”

Bulldog ignored the warning with a dismissive wave and continued wandering around. Even the scenery was drab. Not one lick of anything remarkable to admire in the immediate vicinity. “This place sucks,” he said out loud again.

“You can say that again,” a disembodied voice agreed from the shadows nearby.

Bulldog’s heart leapt from his chest as he whirled around to identify the source of the voice, almost jumping out of his untied boots in the process. He squinted his eyes heavily to identify the other individual intruding upon his pity party. “It’s not polite to sneak up on people, you know.”

The white-haired pilot from the other night in the lounge stepped forward into the light. “Not too hard to sneak up on a bantha like you,” he replied snarkily.

Bulldog bristled at the tone of Lock’s voice. “You know, I ought to plaster you to the pavement right now for taking my A-Wing,” he growled.

Lock put his hands up in a conciliatory fashion. “Hey now, I didn’t take your A-Wing. The General put me in it. I don’t even want it. It smells like ass. Your ass.”

Bulldog felt some more impotent rage building, but he also knew that it was misdirected in this case. The general had indeed been the one to make that spiteful decision. Still, though, his pride dictated that he not admit the mistake to somebody he didn’t respect. “I’m going to get it back someday. Don’t get too comfortable.”

Lock ignored the challenge. Instead, he changed the subject. “What are you doing out here at this hour?”

“What are YOU doing out here?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Lock replied with a quiet chuckle.

Bulldog finally calmed down slightly. “Me neither.”

Lock nodded, finally seeing some common ground. “This place sucks ion exhaust in my opinion,” he declared as he looked out at the barren expanse outside of the base’s perimeter.

Bulldog turned to look out as well and nodded in agreement.

“And I don’t know how I feel about this outfit yet,” Lock continued, hoping to continue to build the bridge of common dislikes with the contentious pilot. He was referring to the General, of course, but realized too late that he didn’t clarify his comment.

Instead of continuing to build a tenuous truce, it had the opposite effect. Bulldog tensed up and whirled around, again almost leaving his untied boots on the ground in the process. He stumbled slightly as he gathered himself and awkwardly maneuvered his loose footwear in the right direction. “You’re with the best unit in the entire starfighter corps! Show proper respect when you are talking about ‘this outfit’ or I’ll squash your choobies into oblivion.”

This time Lock bristled at Bulldog’s tone, and both pilots stepped toe-to-toe with each other and stared each other down. “I don’t appreciate how you’re talking to me right now, Flight Officer.”

Bulldog tensed, and was prepared to throw his entire career as a pilot away at that instant just to put a hole through Lock’s face. However, before his muscles could put thought to action, he remembered the scene in the lounge where he ended up flying through the air. He knew his boots being untied would be a distraction, and if he wanted to have a chance to best this guy in a brawl, he’d need to be at his best. “I’m going to pound you into dust someday, Lieutenant.”

Lock didn’t back down. He cracked his neck to loosen up. “What’s wrong with tonight? You did say you were having trouble sleeping, right? I could put you to sleep right now,” he said with a smirk. “I’d be doing you a favor, laser brains. You’ll thank me in the morning.”

Bulldog’s jaw set, and again he visualized his fist traveling though Lock’s smug face and exiting out the back of his skull in a shower of bone fragments and brain splatter, but again he knew his positive visualization was not likely to materialize at this moment in time if he did decide to strike. Instead, he haltingly backed away while his heart pumped a mile a minute. His muscles were still coiled, on the precipice of unleashing the full force they were capable of putting out.

Lock leaned in closer, almost a millimeter away from Bulldog’s nose. Heated breath from both men warmed the other’s face. The entire base seemed to be waiting for the conclusion of this moment in time.

Bulldog blinked. His focus on the desired action broken, he decided to back away. Still though, he was prepared to throw the heaviest right hook he’d ever thrown in his lifetime if Lock said anything smart. However, as he backed away, his rage began to subside and his pulse slowed. He rolled his shoulders and neck to ease the tension that had built up. “Someday, Wamp-ass,” he said menacingly as he turned awkwardly and began walking away.

“Your A-Wing cockpit really does stink, by the way,” Lock said over his shoulder as he walked in the opposite direction.

“I’m going to smash your face in someday,” Bulldog said mockingly as he made a face. He trundled off toward his bunk, finally feeling some semblance of fatigue beginning to set in.

<>

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