Word Count: 5000
2nd Lt. Zynnadi "Bearcat" scanned his sensors and then the emptiness of space with his keen but bored eyes. As he scanned from left to right, he noticed the B-Wing at the back of the line was wobbling. "Blind Eight, arrre you having difficulties?"
The B-Wing at the back of the patrol shuddered as the pilot wrestled with the controls. "Yeah, yeah I'm alright Blind Five," 1st Lt. Kevin "Raptor" Clayborn replied, breathing easier now that he seemed to have regained his comfort with the odd fighter craft.
"See, this is why they leave the heavies to us bomber jocks, Raptor," 1st Lt. Kyle "Gnoizic" Mandal replied with a chuckle as he remembered not long ago when he was wrestling with the unfamiliar controls of the cross-shaped fighter.
"First time?" 2nd Lt. Andika "Damak" Malim asked, finally perking up at some semblance of an interesting conversation for the first time during their lengthy patrol.
Raptor snorted. "Actually, Blind Three, I've flown a few in my day. Of course, that feels like ages ago now."
"And now we're all old men in a young man's game," 1st Lt. Nick "Jasted" Finelli trailed off with a soft chuckle.
The reveries were quickly interrupted. "Why are we in this sector again?" 2nd Lt. Bakk "Wildcard" J'ruce asked for what seemed like the umpteenth time since their patrol of the remote sectors of Toseng's system had started.
"Because I said so, good enough for you, Blind Four?" Captain Kell "Dragon" Arcfire snapped back, finally having enough of the newest Renegade's whining.
"Because, laserbrain," Jasted cut in, "just because there aren't any known hyperlanes in this sector doesn't mean the Imps can't find a way in through this sector."
"It's good prrractice to check all apprrroaches," Bearcat replied, hoping to add importance to an otherwise boring patrol with the express interest of shutting Wildcard up for the rest of the uneventful flight.
"Told you not all the Buccs were stupid," Captain John "Knight" Vorwald chortled. A chorus of laughter erupted over the comms.
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Gnoizic half-heartedly protested, laughing along with the others. "Speaking of practice, Five, you'd better not lose this astromech like you lost your last one. Captain Clark's got a mean streak as long as the entire galaxy. You lose his little buddy while he's in the brig and you might as well lose yourself too."
Heat of embarrassment washed over Bearcat as he remembered the accident where he'd clipped the top lip of a cave and sheared the dome of his astromech clean off. He didn't look over his shoulder, but he could feel the wary distrust of the red and black astromech Bulldog had named "Weight" boring into the back of his head.
The laughter was cut short as Damak's alarmed voice knifed through the jovial ribbing. "Multiple hostile contacts!"
"I see them!" Knight called out. "Looks like three Gozantis and... twelve TIE Bombers!"
"Where did they come from?!" Wildcard shouted.
"Who cares, let's get them!" Jasted replied eagerly.
"Two, Three, Four, on me. Let's get those bombers! Five through Eight, get those cruisers!" Dragon shouted as his A-wing goosed forward under a sudden burst of speed. Knight's A-wing and the X-wings of Damak and Wildcard similarly surged forward.
"Let's go, boys," Jasted said over the comm, his voice clearly disappointed that he was not in the group chasing the lumbering TIE bombers. "We're after the bigger fish!"
Bearcat kicked over on his port S-foil and tucked himself in behind Jasted's X-wing. Behind him the two B-wings piloted by Gnoizic and Raptor fell in line. "Rrright behind you Blind Seven!"
Jasted's calm battle voice kicked in. "I'm going after the farthest. Five, you get number two, and you two heavies in the back are taking on the closest one. Let's get them all in one pass so none get out and report back!"
The four fighters held in the single-file line on their approach until they reached the nearest Gozanti cruiser's firing range. The moment its cannons opened up, the New Republic fighters split apart in an effort to confuse the gunners. Jasted dove under the line of fire and drew the follow up salvo from the bottom gunners while Bearcat broke high and attracted fire from the topside turrets. Unfortunately for the cruiser, they lost track of the two B-wings that sideslipped the first salvo and began pummeling the cruiser with a volley of ion and laser cannons.
Bearcat saw his target in the distance, backlit by the sun of Toseng's system. He steeled himself for his approach and noticed that Jasted spiraled through his flightpath as he expertly drew the fire from the second cruiser away from Bearcat so he could line up his attack unhindered. Jasted carried on past the ship as he made a beeline for his target.
Bearcat was about to start triggering his quad cannons when something launched from the front of the Gozanti in the same direction as the TIE Bombers and his friends had gone. Instantly, his comm system filled with static. Jamming! He gritted his teeth as he tightened his finger on the trigger.
A loud squealing erupted throughout his cockpit. The sound overwhelmed his senses as he involuntarily yanked hard on the stick and attempted to cover his ear with his free hand over his helmet. Before he wrenched his eyes shut, he saw the Gozanti swap nose for tail boost forward in an attempt to get away from the engagement.
The squealing subsided after a moment to a level where Bearcat's keen sense of hearing could tolerate it. The static over the airwaves likewise subsided, and he began to hear snippets of his comrades again.
"Target One, down!"
"Splash target Three!"
"Five, you get the second one?"
"He didn't get it. It's getting away!"
Bearcat finally regained his senses enough to see his intended target far off in the distance, heading toward no perceptible destination. His scanners told him that Jasted, Raptor, and Gnoizic were too far away to reach it, but he could still catch it if he acted quickly. Slamming his foot down on his rudder, he nosed his craft over and slammed his throttle to the max. His hunter's instinct took over, and his vision tunneled around his target. "I'll get him," he replied darkly.
"We got the fighters," Dragon's voice cut in.
Bearcat bored in on his target, willing his X-wing to move faster than possible so he could catch his target. His rage built as he mentally beat himself up over losing track of it during the comm disturbance. The rangefinder quickly ticked down as he waited for his digital crosshair to change colors. "Come on, come on..."
The Gozanti surged forward and disappeared into hyperspace.
Bearcat let out a guttural howl of rage as he smashed his hand against the transparisteel cockpit.
"Can any of you raise the Vigilant?" Jasted asked.
"No," Raptor replied. "That second cruiser launched some sort of jamming device in the direction of the fleet. I suspect it was meant to mask the approach of the bombers and their warhead spread."
Dragon whistled. "Twelve bombers with full payloads... could have taken down one or two frigates if they caught us with our pants down. Good thing we were out here, right, Four?"
Wildcard blew a raspberry into the comm at the sideways joke Dragon had made about his complaints of boredom earlier. Laughter from the others joined in.
"I'm picking up some sort of comm signal," Damak interrupted.
"Unknown. I don't even recognize the dialect," Damak replied.
"Patch us all in," Gnoizic said. "I'm a bit of a linguist."
"A cunning linguist," Jasted chortled.
"What's that now?" Wildcard asked innocently.
After a moment of laughter from the pilots that understood the joke, a strange and garbled transmission filled their cockpits. It looped and began again. After three full playthroughs, Gnoizic's voice took over the channel again. "It's a nav heading and distance, as well as something about 'simu-tunnel integrity'."
"From here?" Knight replied, confused. "There's no hyperlane from here or we'd have posted something more permanent in the area as a defense."
Gnoizic's shrug was evident in his reply. "I don't know what to tell you, Two. That's what the message says."
"The kark is a simu-tunnel?" Wildcard asked. The group was silent as all thought about that bit of information but came up blank.
Knight broke the silence. "Wait a minute... we used the artificial hyperlane the Empire created from Sullust to Endor for our attack... I think this is the same tech."
"Hey, yeah. The Sanctuary Pipeline or some such," Jasted agreed.
"You mean there is a way to create artificial hyperlanes?!" Raptor replied incredulously. "What other modern marvels were invented during my hiatus?"
"Guess we need to run back and report this in person then, since the scrambler is between us and the fleet," Damak suggested.
"Yes. Let's RTB and make our report."
"No," Bearcat growled, checking the coordinate heading from the message and punching it into his navicomputer. Weight chirruped in confusion and sent a text interrogative to the display. Bearcat ignored the question as he reached above his head and flipped the toggle and closed his S-Foils.
"No!" Dragon shouted. "You're jumping blind!"
Bearcat slammed his hand down on the hyperspace toggle. The stars elongated in his vision, and then he was gone.
Two hours later.
Bearcat's X-wing reverted to realspace inside a hollow surrounded on all sides by a whirling maelstrom of space dust and other larger particles. Bursts of static electricity lit off within the maelstrom, creating a dazzling lightshow of randomness that almost caused him to crash as he stared at the beauty of destruction going on all around him.
Weight bleated a loud warning, drawing his attention forward. Directly in front of the nose of the ship was a decrepit-looking space station with random lights in different rooms lit along its cross-shaped structure.
Bearcat snarled and let loose a string of Cathar curses as he slammed his stick down and spiraled into an evasive maneuver to avoid the structure and any targeting software onboard. After a moment of not receiving any fire, he did a slow loop around the station to check it out. Impacts from asteroids pocked the outer hull, but there didn't appear to be any breaches that he could see. He slowed his ship to a dangerous crawl as he pulled alongside the command center at the top of the cross-shaped station, looking through the panoramic viewports to find any sign of activity. The only activity he saw were the blinking status lights of some of the systems.
"Scan the arrrea for that ship."
Weight silently obeyed the command, giving a negative low tone in reply as the scan finished.
"Vhere in the nine hells did it go?" Bearcat asked aloud as he conducted a visual scan. There didn't appear to be any debris big enough to hide his target, and the chaotic maelstrom didn't appear to be a welcoming environment for ambushing forces to hide.
Suddenly the comm came alive with a string of expletives and other sharp noises of alarm. Appearing in the same area Bearcat had was the rest of Blind Flight. They went evasive the moment they spotted the apparently derelict station, but then again they likely didn't know it was seemingly abandoned yet.
"Stand down!" Bearcat shouted, hoping to stop his comrades from forming up and strafing the station. "It's empty!"
The rest of the fighters seemed to slow their maneuvers, still wary of a surprise attack, but clearly coming down from their alarmed state.
"What is it doing here?" Dragon asked. "This... place is not a natural occurrence."
"The signal I detected at Toseng is coming from that station," Damak replied. "I think this is some sort of waystation."
"Nobody home?" Gnoizic asked.
"RX says he detects no lifesigns," Jasted replied. "Think we should drop in and check it out?"
"I think we should go in and take a look," Wildcard agreed eagerly.
"I don't know..." Knight trailed off.
"What else we got going on right now?" Jasted urged, sliding his ship closer to the docking bay.
"Ve should go in," Bearcat agreed, subtly maneuvering his own ship into an approach vector.
All were silent as they waited for Dragon to make a decision. Being the ranking officer and leader of the patrol, it was ultimately up to him what they did, even if Bearcat had broken that protocol already when he made his blind jump after his quarry.
After what felt like an eternity, Dragon spoke. "Fine. Two and Seven, stay out here and keep an eye out. The rest of you, let's go in and take a look."
Jasted snapped out a curse, angry that he'd been the first one to suggest going in yet he was ordered to remain outside.
One by one the craft flew into the relatively cramped hangar bay, noting that the magcon was still thankfully active to keep the oxygen in the bay. Dragon popped his canopy first and levered himself out of his A-wing quickly, landing in a combat crouch as he immediately rushed toward the only door to take a look into the hallway beyond.
As the others debarked their ships, they also moved forward to join Dragon and see what they were walking into.
Dragon put his finger to his mouth to keep them all quiet, and then pointed at Damak and Gnoizic, then gestured toward the fighters. Both pilots nodded and moved away, taking up concealed positions within the hangar bay to watch over the fighters.
With their rearguard in position, Dragon and Bearcat both led the raiding party deeper into the facility.
The trek through the base was slow and methodical as Dragon's hunting and close-quarters instincts kicked in, making sure to look for traps or other surprises. He held his claw knife in his left hand and one of his DL-44 blasters in his right hand as he frequently paused to examine some paneling on the walls and floors.
Bearcat's heightened senses of smell and hearing also made the pace slow, as the Cathar frequently paused as his ears picked up sounds seemingly imperceptible to the others. More than once his retractable claws deployed involuntarily as an unfamiliar smell wafted through his nasal cavity. After a moment, he nodded to Dragon for them to keep moving. The smell seemed off, but not necessarily belonging to organics or droids. The entire station just smelled... stale.
Eventually, they reached the command center Bearcat had investigated from the outside. It was empty, just like the rest of the facility they'd checked. In the center of the room were two computer consoles. The rest of the bridge was filled with dusty databanks, sensor stations, and other electronic gear that Bearcat didn't recognize.
"Let's have a look and see what they left for us to sift through, shall we?" Dragon said as he stepped toward one of the consoles. After a quick tapping of keys, he cursed angrily. "Encrypted," he spat.
Wildcard chuckled and opened his mouth, but Raptor interrupted as he stepped forward. "Let me give it a crack, Captain."
Wildcard's mouth hung agape in mild shock, having a difficult time processing what had just happened. He stood there stock still, unsure what to do. Bearcat jostled the youth, shaking him from his paralysis. Regaining his senses, he opened his mouth. "Guys, I can do this."
"I've done plenty of data analysis in a previous life," Raptor countered, looking at Dragon with a confident gaze. "Plenty of times I've had to backdoor my way in to get that data."
Dragon nodded and vacated the chair. Raptor slid into the chair with ease and began tapping some commands slowly as he explored the top layer of the system. He pulled out a dataspike and set it on the console, but did not insert it yet as he continued to examine the system. His expression quickly turned from one of confidence to a dark-natured scowl.
Wildcard took another step forward. "I'm telling you, I can do this."
Raptor ignored the youth as he clicked around a few more menus. After a few more moments of cautious prodding, he cursed and slammed his palm on the side of the terminal as he spun the chair around. "Bad news. There is definitely more to this system, but all of the important stuff not related to keeping this station running is hidden behind a nasty firewall that I'm not familiar with."
"Ok, so brute force it," Dragon replied as he pointed at the dataspike, sounding more confident than he looked. "That's something you computer guys do, right?"
Raptor shook his head. "Yes, but doing that here would trip a self-destruct protocol that would go off immediately."
Dragon pursed his lips. "Define immediately."
Raptor merely shook his head in response.
"Accomplished slicer here, willing to do it," Wildcard said impatiently.
Dragon spun quickly and looked him dead in the eyes. "You sure you can do it?"
Wildcard suddenly appeared to have some doubt, but shook it off and steeled his resolve. "Yes. Let me at it."
Dragon looked at Raptor and nodded curtly. The Green veteran vacated the chair and stepped to the side as the Spectre youth took his place and started examining the system. Raptor looked over his shoulder intently, stifling the urge to back-seat hack multiple times as the younger pilot sliced his way through the system.
After a few more moments with no sound except the tapping of Wildcard's fingers, the youth pumped a fist in the air. "Bingo!"
"By the Force," Raptor said in awe as he shook his head in disbelief.
"You're in?" Dragon stepped closer and examined the screen over Wildcard's shoulder. "Let's see what they left here for us to steal."
"Let's see... Something about a rendezvous point at... Jakku?" Wildcard arched an eyebrow. "The hell is Jakku?"
"Who cares where it is. What else, man!" Dragon replied impatiently.
"I'm seeing files referencing 'cinder'."
Bearcat shook his head. "Old news, that."
"These entries are relatively fresh..."
"Mark it for download anyway," Dragon replied. "We'll let C-Staff sort it all out."
"Bingo," Wildcard said with another fist pump. "I found the information about this artificial hyperlane. I don't have the coordinates for the other end, but I see here that there are another eighteen S-thread boosters beyond the ones we traveled already to get here. This thing goes a long way."
"Can ve shut it down?" Bearcat asked.
Wildcard looked over his shoulder. "Should we? What if we can use this to strike back at them?"
Dragon mulled it over for a moment while Wildcard continued to examine the files. On the one hand, having access to this intel would certainly give them a strong ambush opportunity if they chose to use it. On the other hand, having to watch this hidden back door into their system would stretch their defenses too thin elsewhere and possibly lead to a defeat in detail. Still, the ability to strike...
Wildcard brought an end to Dragon's hemming and hawing with his next words. "Uh, guys? There is mention of another rather large taskforce heading this way from the other end, already en route."
"ETA?" Raptor asked, his face draining of color slightly.
Wildcard tapped away again. "I'm not sure, but I'd say about four more hours maybe? Give or take one according to this schedule."
"That decides it, then," Dragon said as he set his jaw. "Let's blow this place and deny the resource to the enemy. Download the entire database and let's exfil."
All nodded in agreement.
"How vill ve do that?" Bearcat asked.
"Uh oh," Wildcard said.
"The moment I initiated a download a hidden subroutine was tripped. The moment this console goes idle for more than a minute, the station will explode."
"We can't make it out of here in less than a minute!" Dragon snarled. All were silent as slowly realized that one of them would have to be left behind for the rest to escape.
Bearcat stepped forward without hesitation. "I'll stay and keep this thing active until you all arrre clearrr. I'm the fastest herrre. I might have a chance to make it out.
Dragon shook his head, and everybody objected all at once. Wildcard said he was attempting a work around. Dragon was pacing as he thought about alternatives. Raptor, however, was pensive. His eyes widened as if he'd suddenly been struck by an idea, and he pulled out his portable coding rig and began typing furiously on his datapad.
"There has to be another way!" Dragon snarled.
"I can hold this thing off for a while longer I think," Wildcard interjected, but the confidence in his voice was clearly wavering.
"Guys, I think I've got it," Raptor interrupted quietly but firmly. "I coded a routine that will create a random click every twenty seconds in the system. As far as the system is concerned, somebody is still tapping away at the console so it won't go nova."
"You can do that?"
Raptor smirked. "I may not be the better slicer, but I know how to code an anti-idle script. I've done it before in my previous life. This will work. I need one more minute to install it, then we can go."
Dragon breathed a hefty sigh of relief. "Quick thinking,man!" He walked toward the door and rested his sweat-slicked forehead against the cold metal of the door frame. Gathering his thoughts, he turned back. "Ok, set it to go off in ten minutes. That should be enough time for us to get out of here safely."
"Ten minutes, copy."
"Download almost complete," Wildcard reported, tapping his foot impatiently while he awaited the rest of the data to download onto his datapad.
Bearcat's eyes widened as the thought of their exfiltration alarmed him. "Vait."
"What is it?" Dragon asked, suddenly alert for an unseen threat.
"Vhat happens to us if this station explodes vhile ve arrre still in the arrrtificial hyperrrlane?"
"Oh, stang," Wildcard said as his voice quavered a bit with fear.
"Vardak's blood!" Dragon roared. "We're back to somebody staying behind, but this time there's no chance they'd make it out since our trip here was just under two hours!"
Bearcat gnashed his teeth in frustration, realizing that there would be no chance for him to escape when he stayed behind. And he intended to be the one that did, regardless of what Dragon would decide in the next few moments.
Raptor cleared his throat. "I think I can get this code to run for two hours and ten minutes, Captain."
"How sure are you?"
Raptor shook his head and winced. "Fairly certain it will work for that long? Better than no chance, anyway."
Dragon mulled it over. "Do it," he said as he pulled out his communicator and keyed it on. "Six, come in."
Gnoizic's voice came back clear. "Six here, One."
"We're going to knock this piece off the board. I need you to set up an improvised explosive near the fuel tanks I saw when we landed. Set it for two hours and one minute, to be activated the moment we reach the hangar."
"Six copies," Gnoizic replied almost giddily. "And here I thought you four were going to have all the fun."
"Do now, celebrate later," Dragon replied curtly.
Bearcat's ears twitched as he picked up a faint noise in the distance. While he wanted to chalk it up to Gnoizic and Damak dropping something in the docking bay to carry out their new orders, this sound made his hackles rise. He canted his head to the side and strained his ears to focus for more noises. After a moment, there was another sound, definitely closer than the last.
"Download is done!" Wildcard said exuberantly as he disconnected his datapad.
"Anti-idling script is ready to execute, Captain," Raptor added.
"Ok, execute. Let's beat feet!"
All four men charged out of the command center and made a beeline for the hangar. Bearcat took point, subconsciously attempting to decipher the noises he determined were definitely approaching them. As he prepared to round a blind corner, he swung his arm back to shove Dragon backwards. He used the momentum of that swing to launch forward into a twirling dive at about waist level.
Dragon's curses were drowned out by the cacophony of a heavy repeating blaster sending a hail of bolts where Dragon's chest would have been had he not been stopped in his tracks by the powerful swipe of Bearcat's arm. Raptor and Wildcard skidded to a halt behind Dragon and drew their blasters.
The bolts slammed into the bulkheads just above Bearcat's twisting body. The moment his shoulder made contact with the dusty deck, he flexed his muscles and arched his back, turning the dive into an acrobatic kip-up to his feet. The bolts continued to track his path of travel, but before they could find purchase with his flesh he found himself on the other side of the intersection and in a defilade from their attacker.
"This guy's gotta run out of energy soon, right?" Wildcard squeaked out, his mouth agape at the seemingly unending stream of lethal energy coming from the hallway they needed to traverse to get home.
"Security droid!" Dragon shouted, attempting to hazard a glance around the corner only to be forced back as the unending wave of blaster bolts began tracking back in his direction. "We're pinned down!"
Damak heard what sounded like blaster fire coming from deeper within the complex, drawing his sidearm instinctively and covering the doorway while Gnoizic continued to work on his improvised explosive. The haphazard contraption consisting of two proton torpedoes they'd hurriedly removed from Gnoizic's B-wing's magazine was a mess of wires and exposed access panels, and the Mandalorian pilot was currently elbow-deep in the guts of one of the torpedoes as he continued to sever wires and make new connections the manufacturers never intended.
"Did you hear that?"
"Yeah," Gnoizic replied. "I'm almost done here, but if we need this to go off at the right time, I need to finish this first."
"They might be in trouble though," Damak replied uneasily.
"Yeah," Gnoizic sighed, taking a pause in his work to glance up. "Go check on them while I finish up here. I'll be right behind you."
Damak nodded. He'd wanted to go investigate, but he just needed the verbal push from his comrade to set him loose. Calling upon all of his close-quarters experience, he moved quickly but quietly through the hallways. The sound of a heavy repeating blaster was a beacon in an otherwise silent station, so there weren't any wrong turns in his travels.
He rounded a corner a bit carelessly, and it was almost his undoing. He skidded to a halt less than a meter from the source of the disturbance. Directly in front of him was a hefty KX series security droid hip-firing a rotary cannon down the other end of the hallway with reckless abandon. Damak could see the barrels of the cannon glowing red hot from all the energy they were flinging at his comrades.
He scampered back to an open doorway and took careful aim with his Czerka SH-9 slugthrower. Taking a deep breath, he slowly depressed the trigger. The whisper-quiet report of his weapon was barely audible above the reckless assault of the droid, but his shot rang true. Unfortunately, the projectile of his gun was not strong enough to do more than dent the back of the droid's metallic head.
The reaction was almost instantaneous as the droid whirled around without releasing the trigger, walking a lethal path of laser bolts along the wall until they almost reached Damak's position.
Damak yelped involuntarily as he fired off the rest of his magazine quickly, but each round had the same effect as the first. He ducked into the room to take shelter just as the first bolts reached the opposite side of the doorjamb.
Thankfully, Damak's distraction was all the others needed to regain the upper hand. Four sets of blaster bolts rained down upon the back of the droid, obliterating the important systems housed within the head and back of the security droid. It collapsed in a smoking heap in the middle of the hallway.
"Good save, Wingman!" Wildcard shouted as the four hopped over the wreckage, pausing briefly to grab Damak's arm to haul him to his feet.
Damak merely nodded at the recognition, and fell in line behind the rest of them as they sprinted for the hangar.
Gnoizic revealed himself from a concealed position, his blaster raised and ready. Once he recognized the friendlies, he adjusted his aim so he wasn't pointing his weapon at any of his friends. "We good?"
Dragon nodded. "Yep. Had a security droid show up and slow us down a bit. We have to leave. Now. You get your task done?"
Gnoizic nodded and pointed toward the two hot-wired warheads next to the fuel tanks.
"Outstanding. Let's get out of here!"
The pilots levered themselves into their cockpits and rocketed out of the hangar within seconds of each other. At the end of the line, Damak noticed something on his communication-scanning software and took a closer look. "Captain, I'm reading an Imp task force headed this way from hyperspace."
"Yeah, we know."
"What happens if they're in the tunnel when it collapses?" Gnoizic asked.
"We'll find out I suppose." Knight replied as the fighters formed up on their exit vector.
"Von't they explode or be crrrushed by the tunnel collapsing vith them inside? Like a mining tunnel?" Bearcat asked, shuddering about the mining stories his enslaved forebears repeated often back home.
"Force willing," Jasted replied coldly.
"Let's RTB and let them know what might be coming," Dragon said. "Let's go home."