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Star Wars

Cinder to Ash


A Renegade Wing Rebirth

Chapter XX

[ Ten Days after the Battle of Endor ]

***

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

The smell of bacta was hard to get rid of. No matter how much time Jeni “Angel” Courtner spent in the refresher, she wasn’t able to scrub it away. Her skin was raw and angry from just how hard she’d worked to erase every trace of it, but it was more stubborn than a rookie hotshot one kill away from Ace status.

She’d finally been moved to a recovery ward, her status upgraded from “Critical” to “probably not going to die and we need the room.” The Redemption’s Besalisk doctor had reiterated, again, how fortunate she was to be alive. “Someone must be watching out for you,” he’d said as they trundled her into a gravchair. “Those injuries should have killed you, kid. Damnedest thing I’d ever seen.”

Lucky, she thought, staring at a holo of Red Squadron, just a few months ago. A number of those faces were gone now, vaped, transferred, or missing. Her fingers traced through the image, disappearing amidst the cloud of light particles. In that image she was perched up on the wing of an X-wing. Lock had one arm around her shoulders and the other around Rogue’s. Gremlin was holding a bottle of zeltron wine up to Shadow, who was half-hanging off the engine assembly. They were celebrating his second Ace kill. Really it was just an excuse to drink, carouse, and run around being gleeful.

Those moments were hard to come by, so they manufactured them as much as possible.

She missed her friends terribly. Thinking of them had been the only thing that made waking up bearable. In truth, the last two weeks had felt like a maelstrom with a few windows of open sky when Gremlin visited her. She could still feel the warmth of her friend’s hands on hers, the fear in her voice. There were times when Angel almost wished she could just close her eyes and let go.

But she’d given her word that she would stay, so she was determined to do just that, if only for her. She’d been given a second chance, a new lease on life. Having spent so much time seeking a purpose, she decided it would be looking out for the people in this holo, just as they’d done for her.

The door to her room buzzed and then slid open. Standing in the doorway was a tall, young, mousy-looking human woman with spectacles who wore her dirty blonde hair in a chin-length bob. She wore no uniform, but immaculate business attire that screamed ‘government.’ Immediately suspicious, Angel flicked the holo off.

“Lieutenant Courtner?” the woman said, her expression and posture suggesting she’d asked this many times before and was expecting to be wrong.

“That’s me,” Angel said. “Are you lost?”

Angel’s response completely brightened the woman’s expression. She stood up straighter, making her considerable height even more noticeable.

“Not anymore!” She said, stepping energetically inside before pausing, glancing left and right, blushing.

“Oh, um. May I come in?”

“Sure?” Angel said. “What can I do for you?”

The woman took a look around the room, her expression like one might make a used speeder dealership. She glanced over her shoulder and then leaned back out of the door, looking both ways. Angel sought the Call the button, for clearly this woman was off her rocker.

“I think this will do,” she said and then blinked, turning to look at Angel. “Oh, oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t even introduce myself.” She hurried over to her bedside and extended a hand. “Callia Volstrom, but everyone calls me Callie… which isn’t actually shorter than my real name, so I don’t know why they do that.”

Angel tentatively took her hand and shook it. The tubes from her bacta lines made it difficult but the pain was distant, barely a memory anymore. She began to wonder if they’d dunked her again while she slept.

“Hi, Callie. So, what can I do for you?”

“Oh no, I did it again! I just … I’m so sorry.” Her pale features turned as red as cannon bolt, and Angel found it made her less threatening, almost adorable. “Let me start over. I’m Callia Volstrom with the Alli--I mean New Republic--Marketing Committee. I’m very glad to meet you.”

“Marketing Committee?” Angel said, blinking.

Callie grinned, obviously proud of the very idea. “Oh yes. We had everything ready to go the moment you all leapt to Endor to fight the good fight and all. Very exciting.”

“I’m sorry,” Angel said, her foggy brain unable to keep up with the woman’s fast speech. “Had what ready?”

“Marketing,” she said simply. “Someone has to tell the Galaxy what you’ve done. What heroes you are. That’s us.”

There was a warmth to her words that took the edge off the absurdity. Whatever this was, Callie believed in it, and she was hoping Angel did too.

“Why are you here? I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

Callie’s expression softened. She looked almost awed. “Because, you’re a hero, Lieutenant.”

“What?”

“A hero who flew against impossible odds and entered the Empire’s deadliest weapon, throwing away fear of death to save the galaxy,” said a new voice from the doorway. Angel looked up to see a Bothan in finely tailored clothes enter, followed by a man in a General’s uniform. The Bothan was the one who spoke, his hands held out to the sides as if speaking from a stage. The General on the other hand, simply stepped to the side. Angel tried to sit up and salute, but she found herself tangled in the various tubes and sensors webbing her.

The General waved her back down. “No need to get up, please. I’m General Orpen, this is Minister Fey’lya.”

“What is all this?” squeaked a very high voice. The little Chadra-Fan nurse scurried in, her nose pointing back and forth from all three visitors. “No visitors! Out, everyone must leave!”

The Bothan turned his long face towards her in a distinctly predatory way that made Angel dislike him immediately. There was a low rumble in his voice but before he could speak, Callie stepped between them.

“I’m so sorry nurse, I submitted a 45-Delta Form but time is of the essence. Minister Fey’lya and General Orpen have many places to be. We’ll only be a few minutes.”

Two minutes!” the nurse said, pointing her furry finger to each one, as if to emphasize the point, then stomped out.

“Hmph,” the Bothan, Fey’lya, said before turning back to Angel. “Lieutenant, we’ll be brief. We’ve come with two things, but for the first, I’ll allow the General to talk to you.”

Orpen nodded to Fey’lya before coming to stand at her bedside. He withdrew a slender, rectangular box from within his coat, then held it out for her. With the General’s urging, she opened it with shaking fingers.

Inside was a medal and battle ribbon. The ribbon was green with a gold border, three stripes on either side, and in the very center, a thick black stripe.

“The Battle Nova of Endor. Perhaps not the most glorious looking thing, especially not considering what it represents, but you should wear it with pride. The black stripe is for those who flew into the Death Star itself. You are now among the very few who will ever wear such a device. Congratulations, Lieutenant.”

The General offered a hand and she took it, feeling numb. A medal. She’d been given a medal for surviving. She didn’t deserve this, any of it. All she’d done was live and none of that was her own doing.

“We want you to come to Chandrila,” Fey’lya went on. Orpen remained at her side, seemingly content to let her take in what she’d been given. The General glanced from the Bothan and back to her, his expression seeming to suggest she pay attention.

“Chandrila, why?” she said, shutting the box and setting it aside, not wanting to see it any more.

“It’s to be the capital of the New Republic, Lieutenant. And we are creating a memorial for those who fought here at Endor, and for all the heroes of the Rebellion that got us here. We, no, the New Republic, would be honored to have you there. If not just for yourself, but for those who didn’t make it back. You can speak for them, represent them. And, most importantly…”

Fey’lya stepped closer, affecting a rather hopeful expression. His fur flattened, ears perking up. His smile was almost human in appearance. “Most importantly, Lieutenant, is how you will inspire those like yourself to stand up for what’s right. For every little girl out there who didn’t think she could make a difference, they will see you and know they can.”

Angel felt the numbness turn to exhaustion and then into something else, something like duty. Memories flooded back of Risha, shining like a beacon of light with her talk of joining the Rebellion, of doing something worthwhile. She’d fallen in love with her for that, and then with the Rebellion, but she could never be like her. Could she?

There was only one way to find out.

***

Angel stared at the medal with a mixture of revulsion and curiosity. The black stripe was well known, especially in Red Squadron, and now one was hers. It felt unreal, almost ridiculous enough that she stifled a laugh, which made the doctor who was reviewing her records look at her confusion.

Embarrassed, she shoved the award away and vowed to never look at it again.

“Jeni …” Major Aruithil Cho stepped closer to her bed, examining a datapad. It still felt strange to have her be the surgeon that put her back together. Knowing the woman who saw your guts was just … different. She felt like she should have bought her a drink first.

“Or Angel, is that what you prefer?” Cho looked up at that, smiling at her. “How’d you get that name?”

Angel shrugged. “Angel, please. I’m from Sullust and the only thing really flies there are ash angels.”

“Oh,” Cho said, her smile fading with surprise. “I thought … well, nevermind. I’m frankly very surprised by your recovery rate. Most people who’ve been through what you have, even with bacta, would still be rolling in the drugs right now.”

Cho folded her arms across the datapad, hiding the screen against her chest. She looked Angel over in that way doctors do when they’re evaluating your reality. It made her feel a little uncomfortable, like she was under review.

“Guess I’m lucky,” she said, breaking the silence that had dragged on more than a few seconds.

“Maybe, but I’ve put a lot of pilots back together over the years, and when I opened you up?” Cho shook her head. “Frankly, Angel, I don’t know how you survived the evac back here. The Force is looking out for you and so are your friends. Did you know how often Lock asked about you? He nearly picked a fight with the Two-One-Bee because he said your outlook was questionable.”

That made Angel look up. “He was here?”

Cho nodded. “Among others. Your Zeltron friend of course, but yes, Roy was here. I thought maybe he gave you your callsign.”

Angel blinked, frowning. “Why? He’s never been to Sullust, except for that … well there was the whole weekend before Endor. But I had the name way before then.”

Shaking her head, the doctor smirked. “Just a guess. You have a lot of friends. Your road ahead won’t be easy, though with how fast you’ve recovered, that road will be shorter than some. But when it gets rough, remember you have those friends. Okay?”

“I will,” Angel said and meant it. “Thanks. Thanks for saving my life, Aru.”

“I--” Cho began but then stopped, her lips pressed into a smile. “You’re welcome. I don’t know if we’ll see each other again, but I hope not, at least not professionally. You’ll soon walk out of here, board a ship and go off to the rest of your life. I hope it’s a long one, and if you see Roy? Let him know I did my best.”

They shook hands and Cho turned to leave. As she opened the door, she paused. Angel smiled to herself. You have a lot of friends, Jeni.

Yes she did.

“Come in, Shadow!” she called to the man beyond the door.

Cho stepped outside the room, and then was replaced by Conall “Shadow” McKenna. He paused just inside the door, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing there, then rubbed the back of his head and cleared his throat.

“Still got it, huh?” Shadow said after a moment, grinning and stepping up to her bedside. He offered a fist and Angel pressed hers to it. Not the typical bump, but a press, a connection. Ever since that first mission, they’d had a natural link- an instinct of knowing just where the other was no matter how frantic the fighting became.

“Course I still got it. Who else is going to just stand out there, deciding if they’re going to come in or not.”

“You didn’t know I was out there,” Shadow said, rolling his eyes. “Doc tell you? Been waiting ten minutes!”

Angel smiled, shaking her head. “I’ll always know where you are, Shads. Besides, I was wondering if you finally came up with a decent comeback to that awful pickup line of yours.”

Shadow groaned, throwing up his hands. “That was over a year ago! When are you going to let that go?”

“How long till the galaxy blows up?”

“You’re cruel, and should be in prison.”

“Probably, but the real crime was that line. Remember? ‘Hey, do you--’”

“Okay, okay, we don’t need to rehash it. Here I am, coming to see my old wingmate after the biggest battle of our lives and she’s gotta bring up that.”

“They replaced a lot of parts, I had to let you know it was still me.”

“Well it obviously is, because you’re still a jerk,” he said, but his smile was as big as a Sullustan ash fire. Warm and bright, dimmed only by lack of light.

“Glad to see you,” Angel said, her voice breaking at the end. Tears stung her eyes and her voice took on a shake she couldn’t overcome. “It was weird without you.”

Shadow’s face, usually so full of simple comfort, faded to a shattered relief. He wrapped her in a hug and her fingers clutched at his back. He’d watched her back so many times in the last year, saved her life over and over and she’d done the same in return.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he whispered. “So karfin’ glad, Jen.”

Angel nodded and they let go, wiping tears away. It took a moment to speak and when they did, Shadow did so first. “I’m taking leave. I need to sort some things out, a lot of things really. Need to get my head back on straight.”

Swallowing the surge of emotion, Angel nodded. “I wish I could go with you. I know you’ll need a wing wherever you’re going.”

“Wish you could too, but not this time. There will be others, I promise.”

“Better be.”

Their eyes met and held. Something unspoken passed between them, a feeling, that connection asserting itself again. Wherever he was, she’d know and vice versa. He set his jaw and nodded.

“You ever need anything, I’ll come runnin’.”

“Me too,” she said and took a deep breath. A sudden feeling welled up inside that told where she was going, she’d desperately need a wing too, but no one who could protect her from what was coming. She’d have to pass through it herself.

Or not at all.

***

Chapter XXI

[ Mon Cala City Drydock; Mon Cala ]

Despite Mon Cala being a highly populated and trafficked planet, it was quiet here- on the edge of the city. Just a few yards away the crashing waves of Mon Cala’s vast oceans lapped against the sea wall, a rhythmic pounding sound. Most of the local population lived in the beautiful buildings that sat under the ocean, but over the years they had expanded above water to make space for their land dwelling friends who came to visit. In perfect silence, the large crowd stood as the sea wind whipped over their heads.

Pilots. Marines. Support personnel. Although some natural groups had formed, many in attendance had intermingled with one another. No one had escaped without experiencing some kind of loss. But still they all stood, silent. Nothing but the sound of waves crashing against the sea wall.

The mastermind of this silent void was not present--he’d been the first to evacuate M-Base, taking a shuttle back to Mon Cala as soon as the doomed operation had ended, with the Wing Leader in custody. As highest ranking member in the Wing, it had been up to Syntax to take on Jalb’s duties while he was absent, and that meant the evacuation of M-Base and this.

Syntax moved toward the front of the assembled crowd, the sound of his servos barely perceptible above the sea’s gentle lull. Upon reaching the caskets he turned, facing the mourners. In his base programming as a protocol droid he’d been programmed to read people; he had databases full of sapient species expressions of grief but everytime he was faced with it it surprised him in just how many different ways people expressed it.

“This should not have happened.”

Several eyes fixed upon him, some blazing with anger and others with disbelief. Syntax continued, knowing he spoke only the truth and sometimes that’s what people needed. “These losses we sustained were unnecessary. We were let down. I know many of you wish it otherwise, that there was meaning in this. I am sorry to tell you that there wasn’t.”

He placed a hand on the nearest casket, the body of Fyri lay still inside. “At moments like this I find it important to remind us all why we are here. Why we chose to fight. Why they chose to.”

“All of you believe in something. All of you stand here because you are prepared to die for that thing. You all believe in a future. So did they. A future without the Empire, a future for themselves, for you, for their families, for their friends. A future without oppression, without living in fear of violence, a future to be free.”

The waves crashed against the sea wall, never stopping. Never tiring. Like a heartbeat it continued.

“Yes, you have every right to be angry. You were failed. But we will not fail them. We will not give up so easily. We will make it right; we will make it so this day means something.” Syntax turned back to the group, every single eye upon him. “In my memory banks I remember every face I have ever seen. Every fellow Republic soldier. I use those images to remind myself who I fight for. Who’s future I fight for, to make it real. Remember them. Make it real.”

***

[ Old Swoop Bike Bar on Mon Cala ]

“Leave it to Animal to find the dirtiest swoop bike bar on Mon Cala,” Mighty joked as he and Krayt entered the locale.

The entire place smelled of the ocean, like much of Mon Cala, but here it somehow felt… old. The sea had seeped into the creaky floorboards and walls, which were decorated with a menagerie of old seafaring instruments, coral, shells, and the rotting form of what had at one point been a very colorful seaweed. There was a bar with an old mon calamari bartender with the whitest whiskers any of the Renegades had ever seen. The rest of the locale had booths against the walls and tables filled out what was left. It was dark, too, illuminated only by neon light tubes running along the wall.

Pilots of what remained of Renegade Wing and it’s support staff had already started filling out the benches and bar stools. Mighty and Krayt sat down at the first available table. It wasn’t long before the bartender approached them.

“What’ll ya be havin', now?” asked the ancient calamari, his voice gruff and gravely.

Mighty began to answer but the Mon Calamari cut him off, “We’re out!”

The two Majors looked at each other. Krayt spoke up, “How about--”

“We’re outta that, too!”

With a sigh, he asked, “What do you have?”

“Grog!”

Shaking his head, Krayt couldn’t help but smirk when he said, “Grog it is then!”

Both watched as the old mon cal shuffled off.

“That’s a strange one,” Mighty chuckled when he was out of range. Krayt grunted an agreement, honestly he was too tired to make any sort of interesting remark. His friend took note, “Have you slept at all, Krayt?”

“Not a wink. Half of our gear is still at Mukani--some of it is even en route to Mukani because they don’t know we’ve moved base to Mon Calamari--and it’s a logistical nightmare. With Jalb who knows where, and Syntax without an XO, I’ve had to take on a lot of extra duties--and that’s not counting the fact that I’ve been running the Support Staff since Endor as well,” Krayt wasn’t really complaining, he just felt the need to at least let someone know what he was going through and Mighty had been a friend for a long time. They’d flown as Rogues together after all. “The only reason I’m here now is because Wakachangi told me he’d drag me here himself and break my legs if I tried to leave.”

“That sounds.... Insubordinate?” Mighty grinned.

Krayt raised a brow, “It’s how wookiee’s show love, from what Syntax tells me.”

Mighty laughed just as the bartender arrived with two large mugs. He set them in front of them, “Enjoy ya grog, boys!”

“One more grog for me!” a new voice said as he entered through the bar’s doors. Krayt and Mighty recognized him at once.

“Jedi!”

“The one and only,” the older man grinned. Jedi was immediately at their table, inviting himself to sit down--he knew he’d find no objections. “Krayt, Mighty, how’ve you two been?”

“Busy,” Mighty answered. Krayt added, “Busier.”

“Yeah, I heard about what happened,” Jedi frowned. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there--”

“No,” Krayt cut him off. “Be glad you weren’t.”

Mighty nodded solemnly, “Yeah. It’s not the kind of weight you want on your soul.”

There was silence for a few moments. The old bartender broke it, “Got ya grog!”

He set it down on the table and stomped away. Jedi snorted, and he picked up his grog to examine it. “Who the hell found this place?”

“Animal!”

“I should’ve known!”

***

[ Nearby Park ]

-Tarak Zelluli is one of the most celebrated artist's of Mon Cala. The way they blend fluid motion and solid coral represent both their own heritage but also the history of the Mon Cala people. This piece, "Riptide", was made in the months of grief Tarak suffered following the loss of their cousin at the Battle of Scarif.

Wolf looked up from the plaque, examining the fountain at the centre of the small park not far from the bar where most of Renegade Wing had settled down for a drink. He wasn't feeling ready to be drinking right now and the little park had offered some form of peace. Water trickled down the smooth coral curves and for a second he could see fragments of the Liberty drifting apart above Endor again.

"I didn't take you as the artistic type."

Wolf leapt out of his skin, turning to look at the bench behind him that he'd completely ignored as he walked in. He felt a little ashamed, his own grief having been disturbed. He had thought he was alone and safe to think through it.

Jewel glanced at him from her bench, the Ardennian rookie pilot giving him a strange stare. "My mum's an artistic type. Went to college and studied fine art. She told me I should too, learn to appreciate things like that. Maybe she was right."

Wolf sat down carefully next to Jewel, the comfortable bench supporting both of them with ease. Behind them flowers of many varieties grew, from coastal regions the galaxy over, that could withstand the constant salt blasted air. Wolf felt silly. "You think you should become an art critic?"

"Maybe," Jewel said, failing to show even the slightest smile. "Or an engineer. Or a historian. Or a cargo hauler. Anything really."

The sound of the water fountains current was smooth and reassuring. Wolf nodded slowly as Jewel talked, his mind reset. He'd seen it before and was sure he'd see it again, she needed to talk through it.

"You've been a pilot a while right?"

"Do I look that old?" Wolf nodded quickly, "No, I get it. Yeah, a few years."

"Hmmmm." Jewel was looking at the fountain, her eyes puffy and red. "I'm not sure I can do it again. It was so easy in the sim. But now…. Kid's gone. Armpit's gone. Just like that. I don't think I want to do that again."

“You don't have to," Wolf said sincerely. "Nobody can make that choice for you. There's nothing wrong with realising that this isn't the life for you."

Jewel grunted in acknowledgement, scratching her chin slightly. "Posters make it seem so easy. Be a hero. Flying feels good too, but combat. I don't know."

"You know. The first time I was in a bad one, where I lost some friends and really didn't think I was coming back either, I had my doubts too." Wolf started at the fountain, feeling a sudden strain at allowing himself to be as honest as he was. "I thought, I can't do this anymore."

"So?" Jewel had finally turned to look at him again. "You just got brave and went back out there?"

Wolf laughed at her incredulous tone. "No! I didn't get brave. Honestly the alarm went out and I didn't think about it because I couldn't. There was no time, we were up and flying again. It's these moments, where time seems to stretch out and there's space to breathe that it's hard. When you actually get time to think."

"That's why the rest drink, isn't it? Don't want to have to think anymore."

"Yeah. Maybe, I don't know really. I can't speak for them." Wolf leaned back on the bench. "You just have to hold on, breathe a little. Before you know it, the alarm goes out, everyone's running for their ships. Then you'll know. Then you'll know if you can still do it."

Behind the two of them a Mon Calamari approached the flowerbed, his skin mottled and fully grey. He went from flower to flower, cutting off the heads off some, to allow others to grow. He hummed a simple tune as he worked, a traditional song of romance. Petal after petal fell to the soil, ready to feed the next plant growing in their place.

"Art's stupid," Jewel declared angrily.

"Yeah," Wolf agreed as he stared at the smooth coral, feeling homesick for the Liberty and its reassuring curved walls. "Most stuff in life is."

***

[ Old Swoop Bike Bar on Mon Cala ]

Bulldog sat stock-still in the corner of the lounge that was bustling with conversation and other activities. He was silently observing the interactions of the others while he wrestled with his current feelings. Survivors of the recent battle came in many different flavors and tended to segregate based on their feelings.

One group was elated at their survival and spoke animatedly about maneuvers they had utilized to evade death or one-in-a-million shots they had made to score kills. Hand gestures miming their exploits in the recent battle were punctuated by cheers and congratulations by their peers.

Another group was reserved but still speaking with others, thanking their friends for keeping them alive or saving them at a key point in the battle. A tear or two would be shed, with lots of comforting pats on the shoulder or back in response.

Yet another reserved group existed, but they were more solemn in their conversations, preferring to offer stories and share remembrances of the fallen pilots. More than a few tears would be shed between these pilots, met with emotional hugs wracked with silent sobs.

Then there existed the group of pilots to which Bulldog belonged. These pilots were angry and silent. They were angry at the injustice of the entire situation perpetuated by their ex-leader General Shen’ryu, and they were silent because the source of their rage had been conveniently recalled to Central Command before any of them could settle the score they held.

The only thing these disparate groups all shared in was their love of the recently discovered contraband alcohol, found in a hidden compartment when the base was being deconstructed. All of the groups were drinking, albeit at different rates.

Bulldog sat, fuming at the happenings of the last week or so. His unjustified transfer from Yellow Squadron and his beloved A-Wing, subsequent transfer to Blue Squadron and assignment to his currently scorched Y-Wing, and the rantings of their previous CO; all of these things coalesced into a roiling storm of rage that he couldn’t comprehend or hope to control. He was going to burst, and soon, if he didn’t find some sort of outlet. Not seeing any acceptable outlet for his rage present, he opted to chase a direct hyperspace route to oblivion by intoxication. He rose and ambled over to the large bucket of hooch in the center of the room, cup in hand.

An objectively attractive alien he’d seen in passing saw his approach and broke from her group to meet him at the deep well of alcohol, her cup in hand as well. “You’re Bulldog, right?”

Bulldog nodded up and down and grunted.

“Gremlin,” the alien responded. “I think we met on the battlefield near that Victory Star Destroyer that dropped in behind us. Blasted a few TIEs off your tail while you took out some turrets.”

Bulldog nodded again and grunted. “Thanks,” he forced out, not really in the mood for conversation, but aware of the etiquette amongst pilots. You thanked somebody for saving your life, but he just didn’t have it in him to be any more effusive than he was during this exchange.

Gremlin seemed a little taken aback by his seemingly churlish demeanor, but was apparently empathetic enough to not take offense with a pilot that was clearly not in a good headspace. She smiled politely and held out her cup. “Fancy buying a girl a drink?”

Bulldog frowned, motioning toward the large tub of alcohol. “It’s all free.”

“Aye, it is,” Gremlin replied, pulling her cup back. A devilish grin fell upon her face. “Drinking contest, then?”

Bulldog’s frown vanished at the proposition. This was clearly an acceptable course of action to him, and he nodded eagerly and smiled. He held out his cup above the open tub of homebrew and Gremlin did the same.

Before either of them could begin the contest, Bulldog felt a hand on his arm. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Lock was the owner of the hand that had interrupted his mission of mental obliteration. He yanked his arm away violently and turned around to face the interloper, and his face darkened to a menacing glower. “What?”

Lock leaned in slowly, not wanting to appear threatening with any sudden movements. Once he was close enough, he whispered a warning. “She’s a Zeltron, dude. Two livers.”

“So?”

“You realize what the liver’s job is, right?”

“Yeah, and?” Bulldog bit out, becoming more annoyed at the continued delaying of his desired course of action.

“Are you that bullheaded that you refuse to see why this would end badly?”

“My callsign is Bulldog for a reason.”

“Really? Thought it was because you're ugly as one,” Lock bit out.

Bulldog raised a fist menacingly and prepared to launch himself at Lock, but Lock backed away and put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture.

“Fine, man. Have at it,” Lock said as he shook his head in disbelief.

Bulldog nodded and sneered at the retreating pilot. He turned around and smiled at the still pleasantly smiling Gremlin. “Last one standing wins?”

A predatory smile flashed across Gremlin’s face. “Wouldn’t have it any other way. Want to go one at a time or at the same time?”

“Let’s battle chug,” Bulldog replied, taking a deep breath to center himself. “If somebody goes down first, the other has to pass that mark in order to win the match.”

“Excellent,” Gremlin replied. She looked around. “Anybody care to count us down?”

Knight and Animal ambled over and each put an encouraging hand on Bulldog’s shoulders. Lock and Dragon stood behind Gremlin in a similar position, offering encouragement.

Jasted walked over and stood in the middle of both groups on his own side of the barrel with his hands raised. “Ok then. Drinkers ready?”

Both Gremlin and Bulldog nodded eagerly.

Jasted brought his hands down sharply. “BEGIN!”

Bulldog and Gremlin simultaneously plunged their cups into the pool of strong alcohol and filled them quickly. They both pulled the full cups out of the bucket and brought them to their lips. Bulldog’s chug speed was faster, downing the alcohol in his cup in three large gulps. He hissed and winced at the flaming sensation of the alcohol free-falling down his esophagus and coating his stomach. He fought through the newfound misery he’d inflicted upon himself and plunged his cup back into the waiting bucket of booze.

“One!” Knight and Animal cheered triumphantly, and it was echoed by other supporters.

Gremlin similarly winced after finishing her cup in five gulps. Her two livers were no help in dealing with the spicy burn of the high-proof homebrewed alcohol, but she soldiered through it and plunged her cup deep into the barrel while Bulldog pulled his out and brought it to his lips.

“One!” Lock and Dragon cheered, likewise echoed by her supporters as well as the other revelers that began to pick up on the main attraction going on at the center of the room.

Bulldog downed the next cup in two gulps, abandoning any semblance of caution as he attempted to grow his lead on his competitor. He plunged his cup back into the bucket to get another refill.

“Two!” Knight and Animal shouted, echoed by the room.

Gremlin also picked up her pace, having been cautious on the first cup but now knew what to expect. She finished this cup in four gulps, and hissed again when finished. She plunged her cup back down for another refill.

The contest continued, with everybody in the room watching and sharing in the excitement. Word had apparently spread, and other personnel started filing into the room and joined in the revelry. Those pilots that had been drinking and finished their drinks opted to wait until the contest finished before refilling their cups, not wanting to interrupt the stunning display of drinking skill going on.

Bulldog put on a four cup lead by the time he reached into the barrel for his tenth cup, having thrown all caution to the wind. His pace had made sure the alcohol didn’t have time to affect him early on, but it came at a devastating cost. As he reached down into the barrel and felt his cup begin to fill, he wobbled slightly. The alcohol had started to overwhelm his liver’s ability to break it down, and his equilibrium temporarily hiccuped. He steadied himself with a deep breath, then pulled the cup out and put it to his lips determinedly. It took him four gulps to knock back, which was the slowest cup he’d guzzled so far.

Gremlin, on the other hand, was looking steady. While slower in her drinking, she was now in rhythm. Each cup was taking three swallows to finish. With machine-like regularity, she plunged her cup into the dwindling pool of alcohol, filled it in a second, and brought it to her lips to swig it down in 3 equal draughts. Wash, rinse, repeat. She began gaining ground again.

Bulldog’s vision began to swim. He saw Gremlin’s steady pace, and for the first time in his life he felt a pang of worry during a drinking contest. His balance was further deteriorating. He would feel himself sway to one direction, overcorrect in the opposite direction, and finally recover so he could drink again. He put his eleventh cup to his lips and quaffed it down quickly, hoping to again drink faster so he could down more cups before the alcohol overwhelmed him completely. He plunged his cup back in and retrieved it, and chugged it down quicker than the last cup.

Gremlin smiled. She saw Bulldog’s erratic pacing, and knew she was going to win. Still, she was quite impressed that this human had downed as much as he had up to this point without completely falling over, but knew it was coming sooner rather than later. She continued her steady pace, unworried about the five cup lead her opponent currently held. Her dual-livers were working overdrive to keep her upright, but they were up to the task currently. She knew, though, if the other pilot got down enough booze before he collapsed, she might have difficulty getting to that point herself without feeling woozy. Though, if the pilot reached that point, he would likely die of alcohol poisoning in some sort of pyrrhic victory. Still though, she pressed on.

Cup thirteen proved to be an unlucky refill for Bulldog. As he brought it to his lips, he swayed heavily to one side. He clumsily caught himself while still keeping the cup tilted to his lips, but his pace had changed from quick bolts to small sips. He began to hiccup violently, which interrupted his flow. Still, he impressively managed to avoid spilling a drop while he choked down the last trickle of alcohol from the cup. His vision was completely blurred, and the voices and cheers he heard sounded like they were millions of miles away despite the fact that they were coming from all around him. He hung upright, motionless for what felt like an eternity to him. The room began to spin.

Bulldog hiccuped again, and laughed. “Feragirllllll, yer a pre-goooood drinkrrrrrr,” he slurred, and then crashed to the floor beside the barrel as his body appeared to shut down as if struck by a stun bolt.

The room cheered. Gremlin methodically got her fourteenth cup down while the room cheerfully chanted “chug” repeatedly, and raised her empty glass to the sky, stumbling slightly. The room cheered even louder, and Dragon lifted her other arm and gestured toward her. “She’s the champ!” he shouted with a laugh. She stumbled with Dragon’s sudden lifting of her arm, but recovered her balance deftly. While slightly dizzy, the feeling was quickly receding.

Bulldog heard and saw none of this. He was out before his head had even hit the deck.

“So…” Lock ventured after the cheering began to die down. “We should probably carry him out of here before he pukes everything back up, right?”

***

[ Kid’s Quarters; Mon Cala ]

“Hey, Kid.”

Jasted stood in the doorway, watching Tony carefully. He hadn’t said a word at the funeral. Hadn’t even flinched. His friend had stayed silent for days. Sitting down slowly he let out a sigh, “It was a rough one buddy. But we did what we could. It was beyond our ability.”

Tony didn’t turn to look at him, his stare fixed at the wall. “Come on Kid. Come join the rest in the lounge. They miss you.”

“Not Kid.”

“What?”

“Thanatos.” Tony turned to look at Jasted, making his friend shiver. For the first time since Endor Tony looked alive again. But it was a different kind of alive, a vibrant righteous anger. Tony smiled at him. “I’m not Kid anymore. She won it. Those Imps….they’re going to learn my new name. They’re going to learn to fear it.”

***

[ New Republic Intelligence Debriefing Room C; Classified Location ]

Cold metal table. Plain chairs. Featureless room. Vyla might have been back in friendly territory but this room sure didn’t feel friendly although she wasn’t too worried; the door was wide open and she had a cup of coffee in her hands. She felt in control here.

“Lieutenant Rha?” Vyla looked up from the coffee to see a pale dark haired woman entering the room, datapad in hand. “Major Rosk Vikeron. Sorry you’ve bounced around a little, we’ve had our hands full.”

Vyla shrugged slightly, “It’s okay, it gave me some time to go over things.”

“Well,” Rosk said as she sat, “hopefully that means we can get this debriefing done more easily. Before we begin though, I have thanks to pass on from the search and rescue team aboard Vigilant. It sounds like you really were a big help.”

“Yes.” Vyla said simply, preferring not to think about Fyri’s trapped figure.

“On the subject of Vigilant and Renegade Wing you’re being reassigned. They want you as their security officer and honestly, going by your reports detailing and previous work, I think you’d be a great fit.”

Spook's shoulders slumped a little, as some tension left her body. “I won’t pretend I’m not relieved. That last assignment started to wear me down a little.”

“It’s never easy, that kind of work.” Rosk tapped the datapad, smiling a little. “Let’s go through it all then, to make it easier for whoever’s turn it is next time.”

***

Chapter XXII

[ Executive Suites - NRN HQ Accommodation - Mon Cala]

As far as Military accommodation went it was not too bad, a functional one bedroom apartment really. The bedroom had a king size bed that had a mattress that was not too hard, but not too soft, and one whole mattress, not like the budget fleapits that throw two single beds together to form one larger. The bed was mussed, slept in, not a mess, someone had made an attempt to tidy by pulling the covers up, but obviously used. At the foot of the bed was a stowage bin, the ubiquitous trunk that military types live out of for weeks on end and on top of that, a neatly folded flight suit. The room was decorated in tasteful, muted tones of blue and grey with a large, real canvas, print of the Mon Cala coastline over the bedhead. Off to the side there was an ensuite fresher with a large bathtub as well as a stand alone, open shower and a vanity with ample storage for the occupants personal hygiene products. The floor of the shower was wet, as was the sink on the vanity under a still foggy mirror, although it appeared someone had swiped their hand across it to make the mirror somewhat reflective recently.

The other, main room of the suite was a hybrid, with a large,comfortable couch along one wall and a work desk with a utility chair on the opposite. Atop the desk sat the accoutrements of a pilot: a helmet bag, with helmet, a set of gloves, and a magcon box kit. The one wall enclosing the lounge space had a floor to ceiling picture window that had a high, sweeping view of the coastline depicted in print on the wall of the bedroom, and in front of that window stood a human male. He still had spots of water on his back and damp, tousled hair but his strong jaw was freshly shaved.

He stood there, looking out over the water, arms folded which accentuated the delta formed by his shoulders and waist, which terminated at the edge of the towel wrapped around his middle. The figure raised his right hand and massaged the bridge of his nose, pushed thumb and forefinger along his browline then swept his hand back over his head, marginally taming his hair then looked back over his shoulder at the couch… which he then threw himself on, with little regard for decorum, crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head in repose. Jalb_k smirked to himself… How the frack did I end up here he mused.

***

[ Bridge of FRG Regis ]

18 Hours Ago

“Belay that order!” Captain Daly shouted. “The General is obviously not in his right mind. Guards help the General to Sick Bay.” Shen'ryu started to argue, but the Captain of the Regis was having none of it. “You’ve suffered a terrible fall General, you must have tripped stepping back. Colonel Reynolds, my Ready Room, now please!” His tone brooked no argument. “Everyone else, carry on… I trust you all understand what just happened?” The chorus of ‘Aye Sir!’ was a crescendo. “XO, you have the Conn.”

Gideon stood just inside the threshold as his Ready Room door ‘swooshed’ shut. Jalb looked contrite whilst alternatively massaging and shaking out his right hand.

“Sorry mate, I just couldn’t cop any more of that” he said simply.

Captain Daly smiled. “Sorry? Ha! Don’t be…” He looked at the pilot rubbing his hand and pointed to a nondescript cabinet near his desk, ”You’ll find an ice pack in there.” Jalb smiled his thanks, which Daly returned. “I don’t think there’s a soul on that bridge that will ever forget what you just did! Most of them probably wished they could do it themselves and, if I know my crew, which I do, not one of them will speak out of turn… The General tripped. Yes, you advanced aggressively after he called you a coward, he retreated and tripped backwards, hitting his head heavily.”

Jalb shook his head. “I can’t let you do that Gids, you’re putting yourself and your crew at risk of disciplinary action. I’ll take it on the chin.”

Daly nooded. “Yes, you will.” Jalb raised an eyebrow. “I’ll have your bird refueled. Go to Mon Cala, like now. Get in front of Firth and tell him everything, right up until you actually let fly, then it’s my story… copy?” Jalb nodded. “There may be no justice for those we lost today but I sure as hell won’t see you go down too.”

***

[ Starfighter Command Headquarters; Mon Cala ]

12 Hours Ago

The matte black X-Wing with subdued gold markings rolled slowly in on repulsors. Scratches and minor impact points here and there on the fuselage and wings where the starfighter had taken damage from lasers or debris showed glimpses of pink. After the explicit direction from tower a reception was not unexpected but Jalb_k was surprised to see the CO of Starfighter Command himself waiting. General Raymus Firth was cut from the same mold as Antoc Merric, but unlike Merric, his affinity was the A-Wing. At 175cm he was of average height but had a nuggety build that age had done little to soften, much like the hard lines of his face. Sandy, greying hair was matched by the moustache he wore in the fashion of senior pilots from pre-Yavin, an affectation Jalb had never felt the need to emulate. Firth wore the standard HQ Echelon uniform, earth tones of brown trousers and shirt with a tan jacket that had brown shoulders and his 5 pipped rank badge on the right breast.

Jalb told his astromech to handle post flight and shut down as the ground crew attached a cockpit ladder. He grabbed his helmet bag and bounced out of the cockpit, down the ladder and strode over to front General Firth. He halted with military precision and saluted smartly with a ‘Sir!’.

Firth returned the salute with an inscrutable expression. “Colonel Reynolds… to what do we owe the pleasure?”

Jalb removed his helmet and put it in his helmet bag as he spoke. “Well Boss, considering you’re here waiting for me with a Marine escort and several aides, I presume you’re well aware but so there’s no doubt; I’m here to relinquish my command in order to make myself available for the investigations that should be pending and to accept any and all punishment based on the findings of those investigations… Sir.” He finished with a rueful smile.

The General nodded gravely then turned to one of his aides. “Captain Crute, make sure the Colonel’s personal gear is unloaded and moved to the level 5 Executive suites.” He extended his right hand towards the helmet bag Jalb was holding in his left “Do you mind?”

“Not at all Sir.” he said as he handed his brain bucket over. Firth took it and handed it to the Captain.

“Make sure this gets there too… Now, walk with me Colonel.” Jalb fell into step on the left of his CO as he turned and walked from the landing deck. They walked in easy silence for a moment before the General spoke. “How long have we known each other Chris?”

Jalb chuckled. “Well, according to you after that Cantina Crawl on Zeltros after Tureen VII, too long…” Firth snorted “but in reality… a decade, maybe a bit more?”

“I’d say a bit more… You were one of Draven’s best, he wasn’t happy losing you to Starfighters”

“Still isn’t,” Jalb responded with a warm smirk.

The General stopped and looked at the pilot beside him. “You don’t know…” more a statement than a question. “We lost Davits at Endor, he was on the Executor.” It was like a punch in the stomach for Jalb. Davits Draven had been his mentor, and surrogate father-figure since he was a teen and, after a brief hiatus during the Clone Wars, became Jalb‘s boss when he joined the organised Rebellion. He was lost for words for a moment but gathered himself. He nodded slowly, just another to add to the list, Deal with the here and now, grieve later.

“We lost a lot of good people at Endor… at least their deaths had meaning.” he looked up into the eyes of his old ally.

“Indeed... “ Firth turned and started walking again. “I owe you an apology.” Jalb stepped off beside him and glanced sideways quizzically. “I put you in this position.”

“That’s a stretch Ray, I got myself into this.” They stopped at a lift door and it swooshed open within moments. They stepped aside as two pilots exited and quickly saluted, surprised to see the ‘big boss’ on the flight line. Firth returned their salute and waved them on then ushered Reynolds into the lift. The doors swooshed shut as the General said “Level 5” and he turned again to Jalb.

“Two days ago I got a signal from the Mukani Base Commandant, explaining an unfortunate incident that he resolved. A little while later your report of the situation came through… I would have expected a bit more fire and brimstone but the tone was quite calm and didn’t really imply the gravity of the situation… I should have read between the lines.”

Jalb nodded. “Hindsight Boss, you weren’t to know.”

“But I should have. I only knew Shen'ryu through reputation, mostly through political circles and recommendation, and what I’d heard didn’t ring any alarm bells. When Fleet asked for OpCon on the ground I saw no reason not to allow it… That’s on me.” Jalb went to speak but Raymus held his hand up to forestall any interruption. “I’ve had several signals cross my desk in the hours preceding your arrival. First and foremost was an unhinged rant from General Shen'ryu that accused you personally of everything short of the last Sith Expansion.” Jalb snorted. “The next was a follow-up that was not only more coherent and detailed it was also addressed to his Bothan political patron on the Council.”

“I’m not surprised, it’s why I’m here… but shouldn’t we be concerned about operational secrecy?”

“Fortunately, in that regard, actual mission location and conduct was not detailed, just your behaviour… Having said that, I’ve also had detailed reports on both the planning and conduct of the operation from Captain Daly and his XO on the Regis, as well as lengthy reports from Major Durgan and a large data package from Syntax which included transcripts of all chatter on all channels…” The lift pinged and the door opened. “Let’s continue this in your suite.” He finished and led Jalb out of the lift.

They turned right down the short hall and then left into another short corridor that had a door on either side, one of them quite conspicuous with an armed Marine standing at his ease beside it. The marine quickly came to attention and saluted the pair, the General, once again as the ranking individual, returned it and asked the soldier to open the door.

“It's unlocked Sir, you can head right in… and the Colonel’s gear has been stowed, Sir!” Firth nodded.

“Good work son, carry on,” Firth said as he led Jalb into the room and closed the door. They both took a moment to look out on the vista presented by the large picture window.

Jalb smiled. “Well, as far as detainment goes…” he looked around with appreciation. “I’ve had worse.”

Raymus guffawed. “Indeed! Anyway, as I was saying, we have all the material, and the personnel will be here soon to conduct an investigation into Shen'ryu's allegations. With the PARs,” he said, using the acronym for Post Action Reports, “from The Regis’ command staff and your Wing staff I can safely say that under the tactical circumstances you behaved correctly. Damn man, four weeks ago you’d be getting a medal for extricating your people out of that! The issue is now political though. Shen'ryu's patron on the council is calling for a Court-Martial.”

Jalb nodded slowly. “Definitely not unexpected,” he replied as he shrugged.

Firth looked at him inquisitively. “Did you do it?” The General asked point-blank.

Jalb held his gaze for a moment, his sombre expression belied by the twinkle in his eye. “Do what Sir?” he deadpanned.

Firth barked a laugh. “Ha! Very good…” he took on a slightly sterner visage. “Look Chris, I won’t sugar coat this, the political influence here could end your career. Fortunately there are many people both in this HQ and still on the council that know who you are and what you’ve done.” He looked at his chrono. “This...” he started, spreading his arms and indicating their surroundings, “...incarceration is to placate the more vocal people baying for your blood. Fleet has already ordered the Regis to Mon Cala, and I’ve requested the remainder of your Wing. I’ve already spoken with Admiral Ackbar and he’s quite happy not to have to sit through a Court-martial… having his support is a good omen.” The General held out his hand which Reynolds clasped firmly. “Get some rest, and if you want or need anything just ping Captain Crute.”

***

[ Executive Suites - NRN HQ Accommodation - Mon Cala]

Whilst he was now dressed and fed, having just finished the best meal he’d had since he’d been on the Liberty, Jalb’s mood had darkened somewhat as the morning started, his reflection and introspection had brought up memories he’d preferred to keep buried, while adding fresh loss to the pile. He’d been involved in conflict, one way or another, for over two and a half decades. The loss of his family, the loss of friends, fellow combatants, soldiers and pilots, constant loss, constant grief…

The grief… It had been like the stormy northern seas of Macquarie. A tempest to start with, a raging storm, and he’d been stuck, lost in it with no respite, constant waves coming at him, threatening to overwhelm him, inundate him. He’d find a brief respite, cling to a buoy, get a shaky breath, then another memory would surface, a picture, or a phrase and the waves would pound him again, coming from all sides, over and over… Each new loss though, the waves were a little smaller, a little less overwhelming… although he felt a little of him was dying every time, and that he would eventually stop caring, it was becoming harder to shelve it, to put on the brave face.

His compassion for people, not just human but all species, ran deep. He truly cared- cared about what the Rebellion was about and what the end of the Empire meant for all, but now? After the debacle at Nabrisk, he didn’t know that he wanted to continue. The weight of responsibility felt as though it had doubled in the months leading up to Endor, and tripled since. It was wearing him down emotionally, well evidenced by his last breakdown.

But at the same time, how could he give up? He’d spent more than half his life trying to make a difference and now, when he was in the perfect position to do something, that lifetime of trying had overwhelmed him and he’d done something that could likely take that opportunity and leave him with nothing.

The comms pad built into the desk by the wall chirped and he walked over and quickly scrolled through the short message. He tapped the holo control and a 2D image was broadcast on the wall above the desk. He took a seat on the couch taking in the scene, the faces, the murmur of the waves coming across the feed… tears fell without restraint but as he watched sadness gave way to pride and then was galvanized with resolve as he listened to his ‘friend’s’ closing words:

“In my memory banks I remember every face I have ever seen. Every fellow Republic soldier. I use those images to remind myself who I fight for. Who’s future I fight for, to make it real. Remember them. Make it real.”

Jalb stood and turned to look out the window, across the same coast where his Renegades were now gathered. He felt the cathartic lightness, that worn out calm a good cry can sometimes impart and felt, for perhaps the first time since Endor, that he could go on, that he would go on, regardless of the findings of the investigation, in or out of uniform, he would still make a difference.

***

The morning had dragged on for the incarcerated Rogue; Net access on his personal pad had been restricted to receive only, and limited to the NRN Entertainment Holos. He couldn’t do any meaningful work or research, couldn’t send or receive messages on ‘his’ account, which reminded him to thank whomever had forwarded the Nabrisk Op memorial stream to the room.

He’d found a reasonably up to date ‘documentary’ channel and was watching ’Rebellion to Alliance - a 4D History’. The holo’s blurb had said it was 'a 12-episode Chandrillan Holonet docuseries recounting the major events of ‘The War against the Empire’ narrated by Pob Rowell. The series is in full 4D, combining both original and dramatized footage. Jalb had been… amused, by some of the content, particularly as he had been a part of several of the documented actions and while there was a basis of truth to everything- it was never as easy as they made it sound. The old adage of ‘the victors write the history’ still rang true.

Settling in to watch the next episode, he heard muffled voices outside his door, which were slowly rising, and disturbingly familiar. He rose from where he was on the couch and stepped around to the door that was central to the main room on the couch side wall, and opened it to a scene that was a good deal more tense than he expected. The marine on duty had his left hand up in the universal ‘you shall not pass’ gesture, backed up by his master hand resting on the grip of his side arm. He was sternly talking to the person on the receiving end of his upraised palm.

“And I don’t give a frack if you’re Commander Skywalker’s brother himself! You’re not going in Cadet!” he finished. Kyle “Junior” Reynolds threw his hands up in exasperation but visibly relaxed when he saw his father in the open doorway. The marine noticed and looked over his shoulder. He instantly de-escalated, removing his hand from his weapon and turned to the Colonel.

“Problem Corporal?” Jalb asked good humouredly.

“No problem Sir, this Cadet is trying to tell me he’s cleared to visit because he’s your son and, I hope I’m not speaking out of turn Sir, there’s no way you’re old enough to have children his age.”

Jalb caught Junior’s eyes and smirked, Junior rolled his eyes in a whatever. “Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said with a wink, “but… This ‘Cadet’ is actually Flight Officer Reynolds, he’s a Yellow Squadron pilot.” The marines eyes widened slightly. ”He’s an Endor veteran.“ The marine’s demeanour changed in a heartbeat. “And yes, he is my son.”

The marine looked between the two and recognition dawned. He turned to Junior, came properly to attention and snapped a crisp salute. “My apologies Sir, your flight suit…”

Junior returned the salute and shrugged self deprecatingly. “Nah mate, my fault, I’ve pretty well slept in this thing the last 36 hours and should have changed into a proper uniform… I did kinda push your buttons, sorry,” he finished sheepishly.

Jalb clapped his hands together and rubbed them palm to palm. “Well then, now that we have that sorted… Corporal, I’m quite sure your orders are to guard the door and the room’s occupant…” he looked at the marine expectantly.

“Ahh, really just the door, Sir… Actions on were pretty light,” he replied with a slight lift to his shoulders.

“Ok, so let’s take it as implied that I’m to stay in but you don’t have to keep people out?”

The marine picked up on Jalb’s levity. Yes, Sir… I think that fits with my Commander's intent,” he said with a smile. He then stepped back and showed the way to the open door for Junior. “Sir.”

“Thanks mate, appreciate it,” Junior said modestly and stepped through the doorway his father had just vacated. Jalb closed the door behind him with a casual salute to the marine guard as he did so and turned to his son. “You have got no idea how hard it was finding you!” Junior exclaimed.

“Sorry bud. They’ve basically cut me off here… I mean it’s not a terrible place to be but I’ve had no contact from outside for about 18 hours… apart from getting to watch the service this morning.” Junior nodded sadly and took a deep breath, but said nothing. Jalb pressed on. “How are you doing, you OK?”

Junior looked around and walked over and dumped himself on the couch so Jalb moved opposite and stood with his backside leaning against the desk. “No Dad, no I’m not…” he took another deep breath and rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes, holding them there as he spoke. “But I’m doing better than Boots, and Fyri… and karking Armpit!” he lowered his hands and looked at his father with red rimmed eyes. “Why! What was the fracking point? At least at Endor we knew going into the meat grinder meant something!”

Jalb looked at Junior with understanding and nodded. “I know exactly what you’re feeling, what you’re going through. Nothing I can say will take the pain, the frustration, the feeling of futility away. I was sitting, right where you are, this morning with the very same thoughts going through my head, then your OC spoke, and it gave me a much needed reminder.” He stood and walked to the window. “The point is Kyle, if we don’t keep going then it really has all been for nothing.” He turned and looked again at his son. “I know it sounds trite, but it’s absolutely true, we keep going to honour them.”

Junior stood and walked over to stand beside his father at the window. “Do you get used to it?” he said, turning his head to look at Jalb .

“For me? No, but you learn to cope with it… mostly. Sometimes the emotions can still overwhelm and you’ll start to lose yourself but,” he reached out and put his arm around his son’s shoulders, “You find a touch point, something to give you clarity, focus, a reason to be.”

Junior nodded and leant into his father for a bit. “So is that why you’re here?” he asked.

“What… how did you get there from that?” Jalb responded while disengaging his arm and turning to face Junior.

“Because you lost yourself? And decked Shen'ryu !?”

Jalb was a little taken aback. “Say what now? What’ve you heard?”

“Well...” Junior started with glee, “word is that you one punched that furry frellwit into the next system!” He finished and looked at his Father with both pride and expectation. Jalb gave a little snort and looked down at his right hand, then realised what he was doing and put his hands in his pockets. Junior did not miss the meaning and smiled broadly.

Jalb pursed his lips. “I can neither confirm nor deny… look, things got heated, words were said. I’m not particularly proud of where the situation went but I’m hoping it will soon be resolved and I’ll be able to get back to work.”

Junior nodded but continued smiling. “Fair enough,” he said as he glanced at his chrono. “Sorry Dad, it took me so long to find you, I’ve got to go and get myself sorted… Can I bring anything back, do anything for you?”

Jalb started to shake his head then stopped. “Actually, yes… Tell Kid I didn’t let him get away with it.” He smiled but dropped it when he saw the expression on Junior’s face. “What?”

“Dad… Kid… Kid’s dead.” The ground fell out from under Jalb and he stumbled, catching himself and steadying with a hand on the desk, his other went to his forehead.

“What… what the frack! How did that… when… ??” Junior reached out to steady his father, shocked that he didn’t know. “He was fine! He was upset, but fine when he left with Jasted! Tell me that blasted fuzzball didn’t have him executed! I’ll break out of here this instant and vape him myself!”

Understanding dawned on Junior. “Oh bugger! Crap, sorry Dad, him Kid! Rogue Kid is fine, I just got used to having Fyri Kid around and automatically went there…”

Colour slowly began to come back to Jalb’s face as he got a grip. He shook his head and grabbed Junior’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “No mate, it’s alright, nothing to apologise for… I’m ok, all good”

Junior looked at him with concern for a moment longer. “Ok then, fatboy.” The jibe elicited a smile from Jalb. “I’ll be back in an hour or two, mkay?” Just then there was a tap at the door and before either could react it opened.

Jalb barked a laugh as he rocked back and leant against the desk again. “Ha! Of course! Now you fracking turn up!” He sarcastically quipped.

Junior looked to his father and back at the helmeted figure that stood in the doorway. “Who the heck is this?!?” Junior asked with some heat.

“Cool your boosters Junior, your old man and I go way back, old friends...” the resonance of the helmet gave the voice a low pitched ‘gravelly’ timbre.

“Obviously not ‘friend’ enough to let me know when and where you were going…”

“And that was my call.” General Raymus Firth said as he walked in behind Stryker. Junior immediately snapped to attention at the sight of the CO of Starfighter Command. “At ease Flight Officer Reynolds, we’re in your Father’s lounge room so we won’t stand on formality,” he said with a wink. He looked back at Stryker and then to the young Reynolds again. “Junior, this is Colonel Vince ‘Stryker’ Rambo, your father’s predecessor.”

Junior’s mouth hung open slightly as he looked back at his father then back to the helmeted Stryker. He stepped forward with his right hand extended. “Glad to meet you, Sir… I guess.”

Stryker looked from Junior’s face to his hand, then reached up and removed his helmet, dropped it on the couch to his side then gripped Junior’s hand and gave it a firm shake. “You’ve come a long way since that little stink in Macquarie orbit.” With the helmet off Stryker’s visage, to Junior, was one that he equated with a favourite uncle, one that always had a punchline for a joke brewing but could bring the hammer down just as quickly. He had off ginger hair, shot through with grey, and a matching goatee. His face was mostly unlined, except around his eyes where crinkles, along with the grey, gave tell to his maturity. At the moment his eyes were smiling, but Junior could see there was a darkness floating behind.

Junior nodded. “Sir, and as belated as it may be, thanks for bringing Rogue to assist… I was going to thank you when I got to the Liberty” he paused as his breath caught a little, and a shadow passed across Stryker’s face. “But you were gone when I arrived.” Junior then looked to his father. “Reckon you’ve got some important things to discuss so…” He turned back to the General “Sir?”

“Absolutely Son, but a quick takeaway for you, Colonel Rambo was never here, you met with your father and I, no one else… copy?” Firth asked pointedly. Junior nodded. “Excellent! As I understand it most of your Wing mates have settled into a bar in the old recreation sector, but all your gear off the transports has been moved and you’ve been given accommodation in this facility on level 2… You might want to clean up and change before you go out to see the rest, yes?”. Junior was somewhat confused by the familiar, almost fatherly way the orders were given, couched as advice but decided that compared to the last 2 days this was the least of the things he was going to worry about.

He braced up once more and saluted. “Thank you Sir.” He then turned to his father. “I’ll see you in a bit, Dad.” Then to Stryker. “And good to meet you, finally, Sir.” He nodded to the General again and took his leave. Jalb, still leaning against the desk, had crossed his arms, and his legs in front of him. He studied Stryker as he and Raymus watched his son exit. The door closed behind him.

“That’s a good lad you have there… handles himself well by all reports,” Vince said, turning back to the room.

Jalb was still in a state of… Shock? The hits just keep on coming and I don’t know how to roll with this one. He shook his head. “I’m at a loss for words… 8 months Vince… 8 Fracking months! The Wing has been through hell and back! We didn’t have a leader for possibly the biggest engagement in the Wing’s history!”

Stryker laughed. “Under the circumstances...” he glanced to General Firth. ”We think the Wing had the leader it needed.”

Jalb was irritated and perplexed. “What does that even mean?” Jalb put his hand to his brow and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Never mind… how about dealing with now… why are you here?” He looked to Raymus Firth. “Boss?”

“Vince is back to take over the Wing,” Firth responded solemnly.

Jalb was crestfallen, the worst outcome, Shen'ryu had won. “Ok then… so, do I get to retire quietly or is it to be a more formal incarceration?” he asked.

“Neither,” Stryker jumped in. “Rogue still needs an OC and you’re it.”

Jalb took a moment to process, and couldn’t. “I’m sorry Vince… maybe the last few weeks have finally caught up with me but I’m not putting this together.” Firth took his cue. “Colonel Reynolds,” Jalb took note of the tone change and stood from his slouch against the desk. Firth chuckled. “Not any more…” he paused as he reached into his pocket then handed Jalb a rank badge with three blue pips. “Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds, you are officially relieved of command of Renegade Wing in order to focus on command of Rogue Squadron.” Realization slowly dawned on Jalb and his smile brightened as he looked from Firth to Stryker. Raymus Firth openly laughed and turned his head to Stryker. “Never thought I’d see someone so happy to be demoted.”

Jalb’s smile widened and he stepped forward to shake Firth’s hand. “Thank you Sir, I can’t begin to understand how you swung this…”

“In that regard, let me give you a little closure.” Firth said. “As I said from the start, tactically you did the right thing. The reports from your senior officer’s all confirmed you were against the plan but my giving General Shen'ryu OpCon put you between a rock and a hard place. You did what you had to, as bad as the deal was.” Firth looked around for a moment then gestured to the utility chair and couch. “How about we take a seat, no need to stand around like startled Ensigns,” he said with a smile. Firth and Stryker both took seats on the couch while Jalb pulled out the desk chair and straddled it with his arms resting on the back.

“The thing was the accusation of insubordination and striking a superior officer.” Firth leaned back into the couch and relaxed. “We got statements from, or interviewed all the bridge duty crew of The Regis. Every single one of them refute General Shen'ryu's recollection of events on return to the Mukani system. There is no doubt you were insubordinate and offered violence but without clear evidence to the contrary there was no way you could be found guilty of striking and without that evidence HQ briefed the Council that Court-martial would do more harm to the ‘New’ Republic’s’ reputation than effective internal discipline.”

Stryker nodded and spoke up. “It was Admiral Ackbar that proposed this outcome. He decided that a Wing Commander should be exactly that, not a Squadron Commander as well. He put your post op actions down to stress and fatigue from having been thrust into command with little to no notice.”

Firth stepped in again. “It was decided that this was the best course of action. The political supporters of Shen'ryu see that you have been punished and have got what they wanted. Their insistence on investigating you though has put a spotlight on Shen'ryu. HQ have removed him from Command pending a full investigation of his management of Mukani Base and the assets at his disposal.” Firth laughed with genuine mirth at that thought. “This is what comes of political games- The Military should stay focussed on their job and if they can’t do that job they get out… or get ousted,” he finished with a wink.

Jalb was beaming. “This is all… ah… unexpected, don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy with the result!” He looked coy for a moment. “But I do have a question, or two…” he paused looking at Firth who nodded. “Ok, firstly… medically… was there not any medical evidence of, uhm… Shen’ryu’s… injury?”

Stryker laughed out loud but it was Firth who answered. “Something about Bothan physiology and their fur… apparently they don’t bruise the way other sentients do.” His face darkened for a moment. “Also, I don’t think sick bay put in too much investigative effort considering they still had a dead pilot in the Treatment Room…” he trailed off.

Jalb lowered his head to the back of his arms as he thought about those ‘kids’ lost. Another time… He looked up at Firth. “You said both Renegade and Rogue?”

“I did. There will be a formal announcement in the coming days but Renegade is being brought back to full operational status with Rogue, Buccaneer and Corsair... “ He briefly glanced at Stryker. “With a new ship to fly off.” Jalb opened his mouth but Firth held his hand up. “No names yet, you’ll just have to wait like the rest of the Squadron OCs,” he said with a smile. “Just know that for the beginning of this reformation, you are going to be presented as the leader of the wing for interviews of pilot personnel. Vince here has one more job to pull before he can rejoin Renegade, and we can think of no better person than you and… an old friend from the past, to conduct the interviews.”

“Ok then, final question… if I may?” Firth, still smiling, inclined his head and Jalb looked at Stryker. “Where. Were. You?”

Stryker stretched and rolled his shoulders where he sat. “Well, I was doing what I’d been…” he looked at Firth, “ordered,” and back at Jalb, “to do, and, as the General said, that was his call… OpSec.” Stryker looked a little too smug.

Firth spoke again. “Exactly, what Stryker was doing was under my purview and, Lieutenant Colonel, you are not cleared for that brief,” he said with a huge grin.

“Oh, this is Nerfkark!”

***

Epilogue

[ Eleven Days after the Battle of Endor ]

[ Beach on Mon Cala ]

After dragging the drunken Bulldog back to their temporary apartments, the rest of the Renegades returned to the bar to keep drinking grog, hoping that would dull the memories of recent events. Knight decided that he’d had enough to drink, and noting that the dark blue colors that dominated the night sky were transforming into a mesh of pinks and oranges, the veteran Corsair opted to go do something he hadn’t done in what felt forever… go watch the sun rise.

Drunk, he braved the twisting labyrinth that was Mon Calamari city planning, Knight was rewarded with a gorgeous sight. Mon Cala’s bright, young sun was a blazing ball of orange slowly rising above an endless horizon, it’s defiant rays stretching out across the skies and ocean, lightening the deep blues of the water into a violet that reflected pink into the sky, it’s shades intensifying against the few, fluffy clouds that floated contently in the upper atmosphere. After a moment, he realized he wasn’t the only one on the beach. About fifty meters away was a couple, a human male and a female twi’lek. They too were admiring the view.

“I didn’t take you for a peeping tom, Knight,” said someone to his left.

Turning, Knight caught sight of Lock. Though the weather was rather nice, even a little warm, the white-haired pilot still wore his flight jacket with Red Squadron insignia on it. He’d dug out a hole in the sand and was sitting in it, his feet crossed on the top of the mound, while he nursed a beer between his hands. The Corellian’s only protection against the sun were the large, black aviator sunglasses he was wearing.

Knight snorted and rolled his eyes, “look who’s talking.”

Pulling a beer from his dug out, Lock offered it to Knight as a peace offering. He decided to accept it and plopped himself on the sand next to his squadmate.

“It’s an amazing view, don’t you think,” Knight mused once he’d popped the top of the bottle and taken a drink.

His companion nodded and took a sip. “Yep. Once in a lifetime kinda view.”

“Yeah,” he agreed with a sigh. “But if you think about it, every sunrise is a once in a lifetime kind of view.”

“Peeping tom and a philosopher,” Lock teased.

Knight laughed, “Shut up.”

“Right, right, but you’re right… but I didn’t mean it in that way,” Lock clarified. There was a momentary pause where neither of them said anything, then the Corellian shook his head and proceeded to drain his beer.

Knight had been waiting for him to elaborate. He frowned when Lock didn’t oblige. He leaned over and smacked the pilot’s knee. “Hey.”

“What?”

“What did you mean?”

“About what?”

“Stop playing stupid,” Knight knew when someone was kriffing around. “Say what you meant.”

Lock looked at Knight for a few moments. It felt impossible to tell what was going through the former Red’s head; the sunglasses kept Knight from seeing the other man’s eyes and getting a read on him that way. Finally, Lock relented with a sigh, “Sun rises happen all the time. Every damn day on thousands of planets, some planets even have multiple sun rises. Each one is unique, but they’re still just variations of the same thing.”

“Right,” Knight raised a brow, waiting for Lock to get to the point.

“This one isn’t just a sun rising over a planet,” Lock continued after opening a new beer and taking a drink. “This one right here… it feels bigger. The beginning of an era. A promise of a new start.”

“Wow.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah,” Knight answered, a grin growing on his lips. “I never realized you could be this corny. Who’s the philosopher now? Just wait till I tell Gremlin!”

“You won’t be telling her kriff all once I put you in line for a bacta bath!” Lock tried to swipe at his assailant but Knight was too quick, dodging with ease just to watch Lock roll back into his dug out, kicking and cursing as he spilled his beer all over himself in a failed attempt to recover his dignity.

Knight laughed, “Yeah, yeah, calm down, old man.”

“Kriff off,” Lock answered as he finally stood. He turned and was taken aback, “Whoa.”

“Huh? Oh. Whoa,” Knight caught sight of the same thing that had captured Lock’s attention. The couple down by the beach, impervious to the fact that Lock and Knight were clearly watching were starting to feel… romantic about the sunrise. “Time to go!”

“First smart idea you’ve had,” Lock murmured as the two made their way off the beach.

They collapsed onto a bench in the shade of a park not too far from the beach. The sun had begun to really beat down on them, or perhaps in their drunken state they were far too aware of it--or was the sunlight only revealing just how drunk they truly were?

“Knight! Lock!” called out a voice. It was Dragon. “What are you two lunatics doing out here? Come in, we’ve been waiting on you two!”

He pretty much dragged the two off of the bench and got them moving. They were back at the old salty bar, greeted by their wingmates with a happy roaring welcome. Another roar rose as the doors parted again, this time it was Gremlin, one arm draped around each of Dobber and Summer’s necks. Dobber was nearly as red as Gremlin and Summer seemed rather amused by it all.

“Just in time!” said Bulldog from the back, his booming voice drowning out the others. “One more round of grog for everyone!”

“Bulldog! I just dragged you to your room!” Knight exclaimed, ensuing laughter from the rest. “Well, I’m not doing it again!”

“Don’t worry! It’s a speshalllll occ-hick-asion!” Bulldog slurred. “He’s baaaaaaack!”

“Who’s back? It’s six in the morning!” countered Dobber, having now freed himself from Gremlin’s arm.

The crowd seemed to part to reveal Jalb sitting at the bar with a huge grin on his face. He had an arm draped around Junior’s shoulders and both had a mug of grog in their hands. Knight stared for a few seconds, then matched his grin, “Did you escape through a window, Colonel?”

They all laughed, probably more for the elation of being together than because the joke had been funny. Well, it’d been a little funny, or so Knight liked to think.

“Does that mean we’re aiding a fugitive?” asked Nexu, one of the surviving Cadets.

Wolf laughed, “Oooh, we’re in trouble now!”

“Afterparty in the brig!” Gremlin called out, and was answered by a roaring cheer.

The cheer was cut off by the sound of the doors opening once more. The last Renegade arrived. Still looking somewhat disheveled, it was Thanatos. There was a moment of silence, as everyone knew that he’d taken the loss of one of the Cadets rather hard. After fighting for so long, there was a cold numbness when Knight tried to think back to the last time he’d felt a loss in that way. Part of him knew the answer, but wasn’t willing to confront it in the way Kid, now Thanatos, had. At least not yet.

Jalb picked up on the situation straight away and didn’t let the moment last more than a second. “Glad you could make it, Captain. Now we’re all here. Right, Syntax?”

“Affirmative, the entire Wing is assembled.”

“Good. Alright! Ladies, Gents… a few words….” Jalb pulled himself to his feet. He briefly contemplated climbing up onto the bar but realised the ceiling was a good deal lower than required so he turned and hoisted himself up to sit on it then looked out over the group of expectant faces. He did his best to focus on who was there, and not who wasn’t but seeing this small representation of the Liberty’s compliment was almost too much. He ducked his head and took a shuddering breath then looked up with resolve. “... Firstly,” he sought out Knight’s face. “It’s Lieutenant Colonel…” there were a few murmurs “... and we’re getting a new CO.”

The murmurs turned to groans and shouts of nervous disapproval mixed with cautious celebration while Krayt pushed his way through the throng to see if being closer he could make any more sense out of what he was hearing. Looking at his old friend he could see the resignation in his face, but also, relief. He crossed his arms and stood looking at Jalb as he raised his hands and ‘shooshed’ everyone.

“Ok, it’s alright… It's alright!” The crowd slowly quietened and Jalb continued. “Suffice to say we have a new CO coming. Yes, I say we, as I will be remaining as the Wing Commander and the new CO will be my boss too, but that isn’t what’s important right now. What’s important is US! Everyone in this room, every, single, person!” He punctuated his speech catching the eyes of different people, pilots, support, rookies and veterans alike.

“All of us are needed if the New Republic is going to build and repair the damage from the Empire. We’ve all lost so much recently and we’re all only now really starting to process but I hope what I’m about to say will give you as much of a lift as it did me.” he glanced at his chrono. “As of about 6 hours ago… There’s a new bird in the fleet, her name has not yet been disclosed, but her compliment has. There will be a wing flying off her, one that’s been without a name for too long, and that wing, in time, will have Five Squadrons.” a different murmur started, a joyous burble and Jalb glanced at Krayt and gave him a wink.

“But to start… Rogue, Buccaneer and Corsair Squadrons will be wearing the colours of the reactivated Renegade Wing!” Cheers abounded and Jalb had to bring out the Drill Sergeant voice. “Ladies and Gentlebeings, charge your mugs… The Renegades!”

They all lifted their mugs of grog and the response was tumultuous!

“To the Renegades!”

The End
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