Ghosts of Hoth: Part 1
By Bulldog, with contributions from Silence, Frosty, and Foo
[Toseng Occupation: Day 4]
Briefing Room- CRS Vigilant
"What's the name of this rock again?" Captain Andy "Bulldog" Clark asked from his chair in the briefing room. It still didn't quite have the same worn familiarity that his old chair on the Liberty had, but it was getting there. To speed up the process that took about a year on his old ship, he began grinding his backside deep into the chair to break it in faster. To others in the room, it looked like he was constantly trying to scratch an itch without his hands and drew confused looks from those outside of his rapidly dwindling group of friends.
"Toseng," Major Chris "Animal" Stephen replied tersely, shooting a glare in his direction as if to say 'you're the XO, you should know this already'. "We're on deck to make a coordinated strike on an isolated Imperial hardpoint on the planet. We crack it open, and the ground troops clean it up."
"We're still here?" Bulldog groaned as he rubbed his temples in frustration while wrenching his eyes shut. The nights had been long and filled with drinking himself to oblivion to avoid grieving over the recent losses Renegade Wing had sustained during the battle of Toseng; one in a long series of nights drinking himself quietly into oblivion to avoid mourning for lost recruits and old wing fixtures alike. Gone in the last week were the stalwart presences of Rev, Mighty, and Mustang, unceremoniously buried in the skies of the cursed planet they currently orbited. Along with those veterans, Fox, Trip, Slugger, and Peacock joined them in death, and many other friends were shot out of their ships and suffering various scars, both mental and physical.
The death that really ate at him was Mighty's. While it had been months since the two had flown a sortie together, it was Mighty that was one of the first Renegade veterans that had taken a relatively green Bulldog under his wing to show him the ropes. Sim exercises together had been a regular occurrence, and through Mighty, Bulldog was able to gain access to the relatively exclusive club that was Rogue Squadron. It was these early interactions that really planted the seed within Bulldog to put in the effort to be a better pilot, and Mighty's tutelage and support that ultimately helped him earn his own billet in Rogue Squadron for a short time.
Now that presence was gone, and nobody seemed keen to talk about it or any of the others that were lost just in this last week. Bulldog couldn't even bring himself to talk about it with Dr. Zeq'aal, but he was sure she already had a good idea what was eating at him during his last session. His drinking had ramped up to compensate, and it seemed even those around him understood that it was one of those situations where it might be best to just let him work it out through the bottle while the balance of Toseng was still up in the air.
While Bulldog had mentally drifted through another internal bout of malaise and self-doubt, Animal had been conducting the briefing with professional ease and composure. He likely felt the deaths of Rev and especially Mighty as much, if not more than Bulldog, but being the consummate leader meant that his doubts and worries never showed to the lower ranks if he could help it.
"What are our rules of engagement, sir?" Flight Officer Anton "Ant" Whitemont asked from his seat next to Bulldog.
Animal nodded as he read the instructions he'd received from command verbatim. "Do not fire on any target not designated in the target area unless fired upon by that target. Limit collateral damage as best as possible. Do not strike any tertiary targets not in the target zone until given clearance by command."
"So, clear as mud," Flight Officer Cho "Blue" Shuun said in a deflated tone.
"Exactly," Animal replied as he rubbed his temples. "Look, we just go bust open this bunker complex, make sure none of our ordinance misses and hits any possible surrounding civvie areas or industrial equipment, and then we're on the ground at the dirtside airfield the peacekeeper forces on the ground have already set up."
"So we're going native for a while?" 1st Lt. Kyle "Gnoizic" Mandal asked as he leaned forward in his chair, finally appearing interested now that he knew there was going to be a change in scenery in his future.
"Looks to be the case," Animal responded. "We're going to be responsible for providing air support to New Republic ground forces for some time. Constant sabotage on the ground has made planet-to-space comms too unreliable for us to support the ground troops from space as quickly as they may need now that we're almost in the mop-up phase. Ground comms are generally unaffected, but the signal boosters required to get signals through the Rhydonium interference in the atmosphere keep going down."
"What about our gear? And my droid?" Flight Officer Dion "Loth-Cat" Ninx blurted out hurriedly. Their astromech had taken some damage in the crash landing it had survived last week and wasn't quite repaired. It was clear the idea of leaving that eccentric C4 unit behind was going to be a non-starter for the young pilot.
"Don't worry about all of that," Animal replied as he put his hands up in a 'calm down' gesture. "The mechanics will be shuttling groundside along with our gear and any miscellaneous belongings while we're in the air. Just make sure your bunks are packed up so nothing gets left behind."
"If your droid doesn't go with you, he can ride shotgun in my U-wing," Foo added. Having flown with the droid during the mission that resulted in a crash landing, it seemed the newer Buccaneer had taken a shine to Loth-Cat's astromech.
The replies put Loth-Cat at ease, but they were still quite nervous.
"What about the rest of the wing, Sir?" Flight Officer Shirou "Crane" Origami asked, clearly happy to be back with the squadron after being loaned out to Spectre for the Battle of Toseng. However, it only marginally improved his dour expression. "Are we the only ones making a strike on the planet?"
"The rest of the wing is executing a three-pronged plan to trap and eliminate the last bits of the Imperial fleet on the other side of the planet that limped away during the last battle. As best as we can tell, they've remained in a position opposite the planet from our fleet, adjusting their vectoring as our ships have attempted to move. The rest of the group will take them out with whatever fighters we can scrape together while we do what we do best on the ground."
"Sounds like a job we're supposed to do," Flight Officer Glenn "Wolvinator" Ahdee'khee said. He was one of the lucky pilots, along with Foo and Ant, that had managed to survive being shot down. In Foo's case, the Y-wing was salvaged and up and running again- a testament to the veteran's luck and skill. Ant's Y-wing and Wolvinator's X-wing, however, were complete losses. The two were only in the sky by the luck of Buccaneer having two reserve snub fighters available.
"Ve go vherrre ve'rrre told," Flight Officer Zynnadi "Bearcat" replied with an air of boredom. Next to him, Blue nodded in agreement. The two were the last remaining of the new crop that had joined the squadron before they'd come to this planet. After the Battle of Toseng, everybody was considered a veteran, and the rest of the Buccaneers viewed them as such.
Bulldog had heard enough. He rose to his feet. "Look, guys, this is a milk run. We're still short-handed, but there's nothing on that planet that can handle a strike from the best 10 bombers in the New Republic. That bunker complex will be nothing but atomized rubble after we finish lobbing ordinance at it. And the last few Imp ships will be shards of durasteel even without our expertise in that arena."
Animal and the other veteran pilots nodded. He clapped his hands once to draw attention back to himself. "Well said, XO. Mission jumps off tomorrow morning at 0700 ship time. We've dipped into our reserve ships, as have the rest of the squadrons to keep pilots flying. If you take damage now, you'll be grounded until repairs or replacement fighters arrive. Flight Officers Whitemont, Adee'khee, Zynnadi, and Origami are in X-wings for this as our strike and fighter cover. Lieutenant Davis is back in a U-wing as our support and targeting coordinator. The rest of us are in B-wings, aside from the XO and Ninx, who still insist on flying their ancient wishbones. I want you all on the flight line an hour prior. Take it easy on the booze tonight. That means you, XO. Dismissed."
Ant cocked a thumb in Bulldog's direction. "He just needs that astromech of his to do all the targeting for him," he said as they all rose, eliciting laughter from the rest of the pilots in attendance.
"Y'all are just jealous that my droid gets an I.C.T. that can cover my own six," Bulldog retorted as he watched the pilots file out, noting Gnoizic and his astromech pairing off and chatting with each other easily as they left. Ant likewise seemed at ease with things as the other veterans seemed to be, but he was clearly in a hurry to go cozy up to his Skull Squadron sweetheart before they might be separated for a long period of time. Loth-Cat and Crane appeared reserved, but nervous as they filed out. Wolvinator smiled as he exited the room, clearly relieved to know he was still able to fly with a reserve fighter. At least, Bulldog thought that was what Wolvie smiling meant, as he still didn't quite have a read on their newest veteran transfer just yet. Foo just nodded once to himself and headed out of the room, completely at ease. Bearcat and Blue were deep in some sort of private conversation, barely speaking above a whisper. The two newest pilots of the squadron seemed to be a circle of two ever since they'd joined, and the loss of two of their flight cadet class recently didn't seem to faze them all that much. Seeing that they were the last two in the room with the OC and XO, they both stood up and hurriedly exited the room.
Animal ambled over after they had all left and leaned in close. "So, you hear the latest scuttlebutt?"
Bulldog arched an eyebrow. "Eh?"
"Turns out Talon used to be an Imp."
Bulldog shrugged as he yawned and stretched. "Big deal. We have lots of ex-Imperials in the wing and the rest of the military," he scoffed. "You used to be one if I remember correctly."
Animal chuckled as he nodded. "That we do. Still though, curious that he didn't let anybody know about it when he joined, no?"
Bulldog shook his head. He hadn't interacted much with the youthful Spectre pilot, so he didn't really have much track record to draw from. "Maybe he's just private about his past. Lots of that around here, too."
Animal nodded as he raised his hand to rub his chin. "True. Still seems strange to me."
"You've been here longer than I have, boss," Bulldog responded dismissively, not interested in feeding into his leader's interest in the rumor. He tossed Animal a lazy salute and began to exit the room. "See you tomorrow morning."
Animal continued to rub his chin, and then his eyes widened as he remembered something. "Oh yeah! I need you to go have a private chat with Crane. I finally got around to looking over some statistics from the last battle, and his astromech mentioned that he flies with his inertial compensator dialed down extremely low."
Bulldog halted, remembering the pain he felt when he had to fly at Endor with his inertial compensator knocked completely out. He looked back. "How low?" It wasn't unheard of for pilots to dial it back a bit so they could feel their ship's movements. Bulldog personally dialed it down all the way to half in some instances, though with faster ships than his lumbering Y-wing he would only drop it a small fraction of that.
"Low enough that it pinged a warning flag by the astromech, and his vitals were dangerously close on multiple occasions to bottoming out due to the G's."
Bulldog nodded and shuddered, attempting to shake off the unpleasant memory of Endor. "You got it, boss." He continued heading out into the hallway, anxious to put the uncomfortable feelings his body involuntarily brought to the surface. He only knew one thing that would numb those sensations sufficiently, and quickened his pace to make a beeline for his short term salvation..
"Easy on the bourbon, Captain!" Animal called out, his voice softening with each fast step Bulldog was taking. "I wasn't joking about that!"
Simmons' Schock Deck - CRS Vigilant
Bulldog went where he always went during downtime or when he wanted to forget something, where everybody knew his name. As he strolled into the bar, it was just as crowded as it normally got on the eve of a mission. He had to shoulder his way through the crowd to get to his usual spot. Pillan "Skitch" Haarit was already seated at the corner booth with her mechanical crew, and they all slid over a bit to allow him some room.
"Busy in here," Skitch mused as she took a sip of her beer.
"Yeah," Bulldog said as he motioned for Iggy to pour him a double. To his pleasant surprise, Iggy had already poured the drink the moment it'd seen him enter the bar. A server droid carried it over quickly and deposited it in front of him on the table. "Well, that's service," he said in shock.
The rest of the table laughed nervously. Bulldog instantly felt the odd energy and arched an eyebrow as he examined Skitch and the rest of the motley bunch he'd befriended. "What did I say?"
"Nothing" they all said in unison, too quickly. Skitch stood up first, leaving half of a beer on the table. "Look, uh, we've got to go get some work done." The rest of the drinking crew quickly followed suit, leaving a bunch of half-full mugs on the booth table.
Bulldog watched them go while his mouth hung open in shock. He gave himself a quick hygiene sniff to double check his armpits to see if he'd offended them with his body odor. Noting nothing out of the ordinary with his bodily smells, he again looked around the room. Indeed there seemed to be more animated and conspiratorial conversations going on. He thought he caught a few people stealing glances in his direction, but he just shrugged after a bit and focused on his drink. The Death Star-shaped ice ball clacked against his teeth as he took a healthy draught from the double Iggy had preemptively poured him.
The usual conversational din of the room fell silent in an instant. Bulldog looked around his upturned glass to see what had caused everybody to become quiet all at once. In the doorway stood 2nd Lt. Edwyn "Talon" KalDan, who clearly recognized the room had quieted the moment he entered. He took a halting step forward, stopped, and shook his head. He turned to leave, but a hand from Captain Gemilan "Gremlin" stopped him as she entered the door and ushered the nervous youth deeper into the bar. She also seemed to notice the strange mood of the room, but shook it off as the two made their way deeper into the now silent bar. Her eyes locked onto Bulldog, and a predatory smile crossed her face. She ushered the younger Spectre in Bulldog's direction, and it was clear that Talon was getting more uncomfortable with each step.
"Heya Bulldog," Gremlin said cheerfully as she slid into the booth.
"Hey, lush," Bulldog replied with a grin. He might not like many beings, but he had a soft spot for the wild Zeltron ever since she drank him under the table months ago. That feat alone made her alright in his book, and her easygoing nature and gregarious attitude was a nice contrast to his usual reticence and involuntary churlishness.
"Is it just me," Gremlin started as she scanned the room, "or is the energy in the SSD really strange tonight?"
Bulldog nodded in agreement. "I picked up on that too," he said as he looked up at Talon, who hadn't sat down yet. "You planning on joining us, kid?"
Talon moved with a start, as if he'd been bracing for something but also focused on something miles away. He sat down hurriedly across from Bulldog and looked into his lap.
"What's up, kid?"
Talon looked around sheepishly. "I, uh... I think they're all talking about me."
"Why, because you're an ex-Imp?" Bulldog asked with a snort. "Half the wing had an Imperial past! It's all water under the bridge at this point, bud."
Talon tensed up again, but he didn't relax after the low conversations of the other patrons resumed.
"That's what I've been tellin' him all day," Gremlin agreed, nudging Talon in the ribs. She sniffed the air and made a face as if she'd just smelled something foul. "Did one of you break wind?"
Bulldog barked out a laugh and threw up his hands. "Don't look at me, sister. I think you're smelling the Klatoonian that was sitting here before you two arrived."
"Woo... ok," Gremlin replied, shaking her head. "Very musky."
Conversations grew in volume across the room, but people were definitely glancing in the direction of Bulldog and Talon furtively.
Captain Roy "Lock" Callahan entered the SSD and nodded to a few groups of people he knew, but Gremlin's excited waving grabbed his attention. He waved back and smiled as he headed their way. "Quite the odd gathering we have here," he said as he neared the table.
Gremlin grabbed one of the half-empty glasses left behind by the mechanics and took a healthy drink. "Yeah, well when a girl sees a table full of half-full glasses without owners, that's where she goes."
"Mind if I join this confederacy of dunces?" Lock asked with a smirk.
"Who let this ghost in here?" Bulldog asked rhetorically, referring to the obvious shock of white hair upon Lock's head.
Gremlin reached over the table and slapped Lock playfully. "Get your Corellian ass into this chair and drink this fallen soldier!" She said as she nudged a glass toward the new arrival.
Lock sat down next to Bulldog, but the bulkier pilot didn't budge. He looked at him expectantly. Bulldog tried to keep a straight face, but it broke into a grin quickly as he slid over to make room. Lock nodded in thanks. "So, what's the news?"
"Talon thinks everybody is talking about him because he's an ex-Imperial," Bulldog said as he gulped down the last of his bourbon and waved at Iggy for another.
"That's ridiculous," Lock replied as he took a nervous sip of the drink he'd been assigned by Gremlin. After he worked a drop of the mystery fluid around his mouth with his tongue, he shrugged and took a drink. "Half of the wing used to be Imperial."
"That's what we said," Bulldog and Gremlin said simultaneously, giggling as they looked at each other. "Jinx!" they shouted simultaneously. "Jinx again!"
They laughed uproariously, but Lock joined in with the next "Jinx again!" only to say it again while the other two pilots were still laughing. They both shot him a hurt look as they realized that he now held the power over their ability to talk. "Finally, we can drink in peace and quiet," he said mockingly to Talon. He looked over his shoulder. "Hey Igs! Get me two Z Spiced Wines, a pour from BD's stash, and a tall glass of your hoppiest lum."
Everybody relaxed while they waited for Lock to relinquish their voices. The round of drinks arrived courtesy of a server droid. Lock put the two wines in front of Gremlin and Talon. He looked at Bulldog with a malicious twinkle in his eye as he slid the lum in front of Bulldog while he took a sip of the top shelf bourbon. He hissed as it burned its way down to his stomach.
Gremlin laughed silently while Bulldog looked like he was about to cry. Talon nodded in thanks for his wine and took a sip.
"Ok, you two can talk."
"You skrogging mudscuffer," Bulldog grumbled as he took a sip of the bitter lum he'd never order in his lifetime. He retched, but forced it down in a long chug to finish it up quickly. He breathed heavily after as he fought to keep the dry, biting brew down. "I hate you, Ghost," he said while belching.
"You love me."
[Toseng Occupation: Day 5]
Atmosphere - Toseng
"Get in low to the deck to avoid radar," Animal instructed over the comm. "Don't pop up unless immediately threatened. Attack Pattern Delta for the approach- order by numbers."
"Roger," came the replies from the rest of the fighters almost simultaneously.
Bulldog rolled his neck and shoulders as he followed the rest of Buccaneer Squadron as they dove hard for the ground. Their approach brought them down to the surface extremely far from the target. While it would be easier for them to strike straight down from above, this approach offered the element of surprise as they wouldn't be picked up by conventional radar. It wouldn't save them from a spotter on the ground seeing them and calling it in, but the hope was that New Republic ground forces were keeping the last few remaining pockets of Imperial activity too busy to report on a flight of fighters.
Even if he wasn't Buccaneer 12, he'd have brought up the rear on a mission like this as the executive officer as well as the fact that they still had a few very green pilots with them. He just didn't trust one of them to properly watch the aft approaches in the event of ambushing forces. "All ships are above the hard deck," he reported. He looked over his shoulder and chinned his mic off. "Weight, keep your scopes focused on our six. Anything jumps out at us with guns, warn me and then pop the I.C.T."
Animal's B-wing in the lead set the pace, and due to his experience in the older Y-wings, he was very well versed in the top speed of the slowest craft in the New Republic Starfighter Corps. It didn't stop him from trying to lighten the mood, however. "Try to keep up back there in that snail, Twelve."
"Just kicking my feet up on the dash while this thing goes in cruise control, Lead," Bulldog replied with a smile. "Don't be jealous."
Laughter filled the airwaves. The banter between the two veterans had had the desired effect in easing the pilots before the coming strike. The amber fields of grain and dirt began to give way to more sparse, conifer-like vegetation. Snow began to fall as they made their way farther up in latitude away from the temperate zone they'd made planetfall in.
Suddenly, all of the vegetation disappeared, and they were now flying over an icy tundra. So far as Bulldog knew, their flight plan didn't take them over the polar region. This meant there was a band of very cold climate at this latitude for some reason that didn't seem to make sense to him, but he also was the farthest thing from a climatologist so he just shrugged it off as shiver suddenly overtook him. Frost began to form on his cockpit windows.
"This is cold!" Ant declared.
"Turn up your heater ya whiner," Wolvinator responded with a laugh.
"This isn't THAT cold," Bearcat scoffed.
"Not at all," Blue agreed cheerily.
"Watch that frost buildup, boys," Animal warned. "Make sure you've got the defroster going."
"Anybody got an ice scraper?" Loth-Cat asked, laughing at their own joke briefly before stopping when nobody else had joined in.
"I've got a whole squadron's worth in the hold of my U-wing if you'd like to get out and grab one?" Foo chuckled.
Bulldog dialed up the heat in his cockpit to full blast to scare off the sudden chill brought on by the outside. Instantly the frost on his viewports began to melt in water droplets and streak off. The way that first shiver hit him reminded him of the first time he'd landed on...
"This has to be the worst planet I've ever had the misfortune of visiting. Thanks for that, ya skrogging numbskull."
Bulldog shook his head and swiped away the beads of sweat that had suddenly formed on his brow and lips. His heartbeat quickened at the memory, as did a pit of dread. He began hyperventilating. The faces of his and his father's crews flashed through his mind over and over again.
Weight tootled an interrogative.
"BD, you ok?" Animal asked on a private frequency. "Your astromech just told me you have some very troubling vitals."
Bulldog shook his head again, this time bringing himself back to the present. His heartbeat began to slow, as did his breathing. "Yeah," he huffed out weakly. "I'm good." A column of New Republic ground forces bundled up in winter gear waved at the flight of fighters as they sped past.
"Did you see something I should be worried about? Possible ambush?"
"Ok," Animal replied dubiously, the shrug evident in his voice. The comm popped, indicating Animal had switched to the squad frequency. "Ok Buccs, we're almost to the target. X-wings go first, boost-launch your first torpedoes directly into the bunkers. Then peel off high and look for AA emplacements and launch another torp into them. The bombers will follow up with a proton bomb run. Ten, pop up high the moment the X-wings boost forward and fire off a targeting beacon. We're relying on you to coordinate our runs with that beacon and your eyes in the sky. Watch yourselves and call out for help if you need it. Execute!"
Wolvinator, Crane, Bearcat, and Ant all boosted forward at the command and gained distance on the rest of the squadron as they rapidly approached the bunker complex. The 4 X-wings lined up abreast in a battle spread and launched simultaneously at four different targets, and then boosted skyward to gain height to draw anti-aircraft fire to make spotting and destroying those emplacements easier.
Foo likewise boosted as he pulled back on the controls to gain height. As the five ships gained altitude, green lances of return fire attempted to track the fighters. Foo danced his U-wing around gracefully through the air as he retracted the lengthy S-Foil wings to reduce his target profile. "Heavy turbolaser battery on the northwest corner of the complex!"
"I'm drawing fire from three turrets!"
"Something's getting a lock on me!"
"I see it, I see it! Pull through your current turn and double back!"
"Remember your training," Animal soothed. "We're almost there!"
Bulldog willed his ship to move faster. Hearing the least tenured pilots drawing all of the fire felt wrong. The panic creeping into their voices pulled at something deep within him. "Hang on tight, boys! Execute your last run and then break off!"
"The fire is too heavy!" Crane grunted.
"It's not that bad," Ant replied with mild strain in his voice as he pulled through a maneuver. Suddenly his tone changed. "Missile missile missile! Break for the deck, Four!"
"Shield augmentation bot incoming, Four!" Foo shouted.
"I can't shake it!"
Bulldog and the rest of the Buccaneer hit squad pulled into view of the firefight as they crested the final rise. He saw three X-wings boost launch another torpedo at gun emplacements on the ground, breaking off skyward again. Foo's U-wing barrel-rolled to the side to avoid a blast aimed at his ship. Crane's X-wing continued to dive hard for the ground to break the tracking of the missile that was burning hard for his ship. Also chasing him was the shield augmentation bot that Foo had sent his way, but the missile would arrive first as things currently stood. The ship continued to streak toward the ground, far past the point Bulldog would have pulled up. "No, no no! Pull up Four!"
Crane attempted to pull up, but the belated attempt was too late. His X-wing's keel scraped the ground, but a turbolaser battery was directly in front of his ship as he recovered from that jarring kiss with the ground. The ship smacked into the gunnery tower's base at full speed, erupting in a massive conflagration. The tower's gun went silent as the entire structure collapsed on top of the wreckage. The missile that had been tracking his craft slammed into the wreckage next to add insult to injury.
Bulldog felt bile rising rapidly. He had forgotten to check in with the newer pilot and remind him to change his inertial compensator settings as Animal had asked him to. Instead, he'd once again drank too much at the SSD and stumbled back to his quarters to get a few fitful hours of sleep before the mission. Father's voice echoed in his head again. "This is all your fault."
"He's gone. Stay evasive. Commencing bombing runs now!" Animal shouted. The three B-wings and two Y-wings spread out and emptied their proton bomb magazines as they flew over different parts of the base. Rolling thunder followed the four ships as their payloads obliterated the rest of the compound. Large chunks of duracrete erupted outward from each bomb. Walls either collapsed as they stood or fell forward. The remaining turbolaser batteries fell silent as the power station went nova. The five starfighters peeled off in different directions as they ended their runs to avoid making all of them a juicy target by any remaining resistance within the base.
"I'm not seeing any power signatures in the base on my scopes," Foo reported. "Everything looks dead..."
"They're Imps, they deserved it," Ant grunted.
"There's nothing left," Loth-Cat trailed off in awe of the devastation the bombers had caused.
Bulldog's astromech, R2-W8, hooted urgently.
"Where in the Sith did they come from?!" Wolvinator cursed.
"Lead, I've got 24 TIE Strikers on my scopes, coming up from underground hangars in the surrounding area," Gnoizic reported. "We're surrounded."
"They haven't deployed any of those the entire ground campaign. Why now?" Blue cursed.
"Doesn't matter," Animal replied grimly. "Form up on me. We'll try to punch our way through half of them before they can converge."
"Any specific plan?" Ant asked hopefully.
"Don't lead them to the ground forces in the area. They'll tear them to shreds," Animal responded.
"They're targeting me!" Foo shouted.
"Break hard for the deck at point twenty-two grid forty. We'll smash them as they pass!"
Bulldog checked his nav to make sure the calculation for the proposed intercept made sense. He was unsure of the timing after examining it for a few more seconds, but his brain was anything but focused on the math required to calculate the varying trajectories, and he needed to keep Weight focused on targeting for his Ion Cannon Turret when the Strikers entered the targeting envelope of the topside 360 degree turret.
Foo sped through the coordinates as he jinked and rolled his ungainly U-wing in the atmosphere. He fired off a targeting beacon to help the targeting of the rest of Buccaneer Squadron. The beacon shot out a signal that enveloped the surrounding area. Half of the TIE Striker's were caught in the signal's boundaries and lit up like a bright star in black space to all of the Buccaneer's sensors. "Targeting beacon lit them up!"
"Hit them!" Animal shouted as he triggered a constant stream of laser and ion cannons from his wingtip cannons. The first TIE Striker erupted in flames and pinwheeled toward the surface, impacting moments later. The second took a glancing laser blow, but 3 ion bolts landed near the cockpit, disabling the fighter completely. It went into a flat spin and slammed into the ground in a fiery wreck.
Gnoizic likewise took out another three fighters combined in a similar fashion, catching them from the flank by surprise. Laserfire hissed on his shields, draining them quickly before they turned into the attack to reduce the amount of fire they could take. His B-wing started a lumbering, weaving battle for position.
Blue jousted with a Striker and scored a kill, but was immediately set upon by two enemies from her flank. "I'm taking heavy fire!"
"Got them!" Bearcat shouted as his X-wing scythed through the area, surgically winging both of Blue's attackers in one controlled attack run. Blue peeled off to hunt for another target while Bearcat angled in after the TIEs harassing Gnoizic.
Ant and Wolvinator each sent a quad burst into a Striker, chalking up two kills of their own. They immediately broke skyward in a corkscrew to avoid the retaliatory fire from the Imperial wingmen.
Bulldog strafed two of the TIEs tracking the X-wings going high, burning through both of them with his chin-mounted lasers quickly. "Got your trailers, Eleven and Six!" Laserfire splashed across his bow, forcing him to break toward the TIE stitching his ship so he took less fire. "Let the I.C.T. loose, Weight!" The servos of the turret powered up with a whine that reverberated through his cockpit as it started to track nearby foes. His cockpit vibrated rhythmically as the Ion cannon on top of his cockpit started spitting out dual ion bolts. His attacker was the first victim, taking a dual blast straight to the tube-shaped windscreen. It immediately started flipping end over end as the wings caught a crosswind, continuing to flip over even more violently as it reached the ground and shredded itself apart.
More fire splashed across his shields, this time underneath him. He fought his stick to roll his Y-wing through the rough atmospheric conditions to put his new attackers in the targeting arc of his automated turret. Immediately it started spitting out bolts, but only managed a glancing blow. It still discouraged the pilot from attacking as his firing controls were fried temporarily. More lasers filled the air around him. He craned his neck around to see where his new attackers were coming from as he pulled up hard on his stick to gain altitude. "This is Twelve, I'm completely defensive!"
"We're all occupied!" Animal replied angrily as laserfire hissed against his failing shields.
"Break right Three!"
"He's all over me!"
"I can't see him, Six! Where is he?"
"I'm coming around, hold tight!"
"I can't take much more of this!" Loth-Cat shrieked in fear. "Shields gone and I'm taking serious hull damage!"
"Got your trailer, Three!" Animal shouted, then grunted loudly over the comm as his ship corkscrewed away from his own pursuit.
Bulldog's shields dipped perilously low. He was trying to find Gnoizic so he could get his attacker off of him but the air around them was filled with Strikers flitting about taking runs at his squadron. "We're not going to last much longer!"
"This is Seven. I got your bandit, Twelve. Hold tight."
Bulldog didn't recognize the voice, but it was impossible anyhow as Buccaneer Seven was Rev, and he had perished days ago. His mind shut down as he couldn't comprehend the message he'd just received, but he knew it wasn't one of his pilots. Had he hallucinated it? "Identify yourself, pilot!"
"Really? In the middle of a furb- oh whatever. It's Talon!"
Bulldog's eyes widened with surprise, though the small part of his rational brain rejoiced at the fact that he hadn't hallucinated a call out from a ghostly Rev. "Talon? What are you doing here?"
Talon didn't reply. Instead, eleven sets of quad lasers ripped through the air from above, obliterating TIE Strikers where they were, showering the icy fields below in fiery shrapnel. A mixture of Rogue and Spectre X-wings tore through the air and acquired more targets, cleaning up the TIEs still haranguing the Buccaneers.
"Look at that!" Loth-Cat shouted in awe.
"Woooooo!" Wolvinator cheered, a fist pump clearly evident in his voice.
The last few Strikers fell to the ground and erupted in fireballs.
"Thanks for the assist!" Animal said, relieved.
"The targeting beacon was very helpful," Lt. Col. Chris "Jalb_k" Reynolds replied with a chuckle. "Well done, Buccaneer Ten."
"You're welcome, Rogue Leader," Foo replied proudly.
"Three, your wishbone is smoking an awful lot," Gnozic said ominously.
"I think we're ok to make it back to base," Loth-Cat replied with clear uncertainty, speaking for themself and their personal ship that had taken quite a beating in the past week.
"Buccaneers, go ahead and RTB. Ten, stay with us and point out those hangar entrances the Strikers came from. We'll shut those down for good," Jalb ordered.
"Roger, Rogue Leader. Thanks for the assist," Bulldog said thankfully, relief still washing over him.
"Good work, Buccs. Let's go land at the new airfield for the debriefing with the ground forces CO," Animal said sadly, the death of Crane and near obliteration of his squadron clearly weighing heavily on his mind. But there was also a strong hint of relief, as the timely intervention of their allies had made it so there was only one casualty.
New Republic Airfield - Toseng
The airfield looked almost pitifully small to Bulldog as the Buccaneers flew overhead. While it was clearly a slapdash job undertaken to the best of the abilities of the ground forces, it was clearly executed by a mind unfamiliar with the needs of a fighter wing. Whoever the commander of the peacekeeper forces on the ground was, he certainly didn't have any idea what the Renegades would need or prefer to effectively support operations on the planet. The only thing that appeared to be done properly was the construction of a few large hangar buildings, but even those appeared to be temporary bubble-structures as opposed to more fortified and permanent structures.
Bulldog sighed as he realized just how much work would need to be done to get things set up in a way that made any sort of sense for an airbase. The only thing he thought made sense about the area was that it was near the crash site of the CRV Anti-Venom. It appeared that the autonomous medical ship was looking to be an almost total loss with regard to repairs, so the medical staff under the maverick Captain Kardia Milo decided to just set up shop where they landed.
There was a small-but-growing tent city nearby that appeared to be filled with displaced civilians. Bulldog winced as he flew over the area with the rest of the Buccaneers, noting that the gusts of wind brought on by their fighters were strong enough to uproot some of the flimsier tents.
"This looks like it'll be a big problem if that tent city keeps growing," Animal said over a private line.
"Was just thinking the same thing, Lead."
"I wonder why they put the airbase here?"
"It's pretty clear they just decided to set up shop near the downed CRV," Bulldog replied, frowning at the surrounding area. The base was basically built into a cut-out of a craggy mountain system, with what was clearly the area for the fighters being right in the middle of that depression in the terrain. It led to a natural limitation on the direction fighters could take off and land easily, which would exacerbate flight schedules and traffic. Then another, darker thought struck him. "Those cliffs on the other sides are just begging for Imperial snipers to pick our people off."
"Bingo," Animal replied. "Let's hope whoever is in charge is smart enough to post sentries up there so we don't have to find out how good a shot the Imps are here."
"Let's hope," Bulldog responded ominously, before arching an eyebrow as he realized there was a question he hadn't thought to ask yet. "Who's in charge, anyway?"
"No idea," Animal replied. "Let's get down on the deck and find out."
After a short flyby of the surrounding area, Bulldog frowned as he was sure that there were indeed no sentries posted anywhere on the surrounding highground. The lion's share of troop presence was focused up front to construct a fence perimeter to keep the rapidly growing refugee population segregated from the base.
Bulldog settled his Y-wing down easily on the landing struts and popped his canopy. The landing field that had been set up was in a cooler region of the planet, so the gust of wind that overtook him once he opened up his cockpit chilled him in his sweat drenched flight suit to the bones. Father's voice rang out again. "Couldn't have made their crinking base on a tropical world?". "Couldn't have picked a warmer place?" he echoed to himself, blanching at the thought that he'd temporarily become his bastard of a father.
"Heard that," Wolvinator replied as he climbed down the ladder the ground crew had affixed to his X-wing. "This sucks."
"It's not so bad," Bearcat demurred, shaking the sweat from his furred head. Nearby, Blue was already sporting her flight suit zipped down with the top half wrapped around her waist.
"Why aren't we staying onboard the Vig again?" Ant asked, equally disgusted with the weather conditions.
"Because you all are now assets of the Toseng Peacekeeper Force!"
Bulldog's heart seized at the sound of the voice, and he stopped halfway down his own ladder as he heard it. His grip tightened on the ladder, and his muscles tensed. He knew it, and the fear and anger touched a piece of him deep down inside that rarely saw the light of day due to his best efforts and lots of therapy sessions with Dr. Zeq'aal.
"Buccaneer Squadron, at your service, Major," Animal said icily, having also remembered the boondoggle the owner of the voice had put them through months ago. His emphasis on the person's rank was as direct a jibe as he could get away with considering the last time they'd met this person as a wing, he was a reckless and incompetent General.
"Not much for discipline, are you? Not even lined up in formation to meet your new Commanding Officer," the voice continued gruffly.
"They just got done bombing that hardpoint your forces couldn't crack, Major, and lost a friend. Give them a minute," Animal replied in a low growl.
"Aye, I saw the mission from a vid feed from our forward scouting team. Brave pilot. A perfect symbol of Bothan bravery. A pity he wasn't trained better— he should have survived a maneuver like that."
"He was a good kid," Animal responded with barely controlled anger. "Ok, Buccs, toe the line for our new CO."
Bulldog fought against his rebelling hands to force himself to let go of the ladder so he could turn around and confirm with his eyes the nightmare his ears were telling him was true. With a barely perceptible growl, he shoved himself away from the ladder and forced his legs to take step after step until he was even with the rest of the tired Buccaneer pilots. Despite his will managing to make his legs work, his eyes refused to look up higher than at the feet of the individual standing before them.
"Finally. I am Major Thram Shen'ryu of the New Republic Infantry. This," he said as he motioned toward the white-furred, gruff-looking Gotal coming to a stop next to him," is Colonel Vis Kurlun. He is the head of the Toseng Peacekeeper Taskforce, and charged with stamping out all Imperial resistance, both official and unofficial, and securing this planet for the good of the civilians and the New Republic. To that end, you and the rest of... Renegade Wing are now under his command jurisdiction."
Colonel Kurlun cleared his throat politely and took a half step forward. "Thank you for the introduction, Major. I run a no-nonsense base. We're still in the middle of a fight, and that is where my energy and attention are required for the foreseeable future. As such, you will be primarily dealing with Major Shen'ryu on the day to day needs of your personnel." He looked at the Bothan officer and nodded. "Whatever he says, goes. I've got to get back to my command post." Kurlun saluted the pilots crisply, then spun on his heel and walked quickly back to his command post.
Shen'ryu smiled and watched the Colonel leave. Once he was out of earshot, he looked back at the pilots. "As his second in command and quartermaster, I control the logistics of the base and all forces housed within. You are all assets I require for my efforts, and have officially been put under my command umbrella per the agreement with Admiral Tolden. He was a good officer who respected how things had to be done... As the Colonel said— what I say, goes. I..."
The feet moved closer to Bulldog and stopped when the owner was right in front of him. "Captain Clark, I expect you to look at a superior officer while they are addressing you!"
Bulldog's face turned into a sneer, but he raised his eyes until he was looking at the top of the shorter Bothan's furred head. The subtle reminder of the Major's height would drive him crazy, and his sneer turned into a smirk.
"Something amusing to you, Captain? Or is that a smile of gratitude for my training bringing you up from a lowly 2nd Lieutenant all the way up to a Captain in the span of a few months?" Shen'ryu moved in closer and spoke in a growling whisper. "Though, I must say that becoming Executive Officer of Buccaneer Squadron is a step down from Rogue Squadron in my estimation."
Bulldog's back stiffened at the hot breath and spiteful words being pushed into his ears at point blank range, but by sheer force of will he managed to not recoil or react violently. He continued to stare straight ahead at nothing. He felt his blood begin to simmer, but it didn't get any stronger than that.
Shen'ryu looked into his eyes and flashed a predatory smile. He stepped back and resumed addressing the rest of the Buccaneer pilots. "I don't recognize any of you aside from the Major and... Captain, but the three of us have had a working relationship in the past and I expect this run to be smoother than the last. This will be your home for the duration of the pacification operation. Your temporary bunks are in that building over there, and your tech crew will be touching down momentarily to deliver your belongings. Are there any other questions?"
"When will the rest of the wing be touching down, Major?" Animal asked, clearly relishing in the idea of Jalb and Shen'ryu meeting again, but this time with the scales of rank tipped squarely in Jalb's corner this time.
Shen'ryu nodded, oblivious to the future showdown that Animal and Bulldog had been anticipating. "Ah, the rest of the wing will be coming in shortly. They were able to push out the last vestiges of Imperial spacecraft while you were bombing the last stronghold on the planet. I must get back to the command post to help coordinate more scouting missions. Don't get too comfortable, as I will more than likely have a use for you sooner rather than later." Shen'ryu took a few steps away only to turn around, holding up two fingers. "Two more things. One- communications on this planet are terrible due to the rich Rhydonium deposits all over the planet and ongoing Imperial efforts hampering our comm relays. The only way to communicate over long distances is through my office until we can get the planet fully under our control. Any and all messages must go through my office to be beamed offworld until we can repair the signal boosters sabotaged by the Imperial holdouts. Second, there will be no carrying of personal weapons while on base unless you are going on a mission. I don't want any shenanigans from your people. If you press your luck, you WILL find yourselves in the brig so fast your heads will spin. Understood? Good. Dismissed," he said as he resumed walking away and began chatting intimately with his aide de camp that had to jog to keep up.
"I can't tell if the chill is from seeing that blowhard again or the temperature here," Animal whispered to Bulldog with a smirk.
"Yeah," Bulldog replied absentmindedly as another chill raced up his spine.
Temporary Buccaneer Barracks - Toseng
Bulldog lay on his bunk with his hands behind his head as he tried to relax on the extremely thin cot-like mattress. No matter which way he moved, every part of him felt like he was sleeping directly on the wire supports. He'd even tried doubling up the mattress with one of the unused bunks, but it still made no difference.
"Looks like it's simple living for us for the next few months," Animal said as he sat on the edge of the adjacent bunk.
"Yeah," Bulldog sighed. "I was just getting used to that private bunk on the Vig, too."
"I suppose you could always get yourself tossed into the brig if you want a private room," Animal chuckled.
"Ant snores," Wolvinator interjected with a malicious laugh.
"So do you," Ant shot back.
"I know. It's going to be hell for all of you," Wolvinator forced out through an even more evil laugh.
Animal looked at the display and smiled. "Well, they're not short on morale, which is pretty good all things considered."
"Yeah," Bulldog replied absentmindedly. The chill in the barracks was barely better than it was outside. He snorted as he should have expected such substandard accommodations once he met their host. "This is all your fault."
As the banter between Ant and Wolvinator spread to the rest of the Buccs in one form or another, Animal moved in closer to Bulldog. "Did you happen to have a chat with Crane about his compensator settings last night?"
Bulldog's stomach folded in on itself. Guilt due to his negligence caused him to immediately break out into a cold sweat. He'd been hoping that Animal would have forgotten and not brought it up considering Crane's death, but clearly the universe had other plans for him. He opened his mouth to start an apology, but then closed it as he thought better about how to begin his answer. "This is all your fault."
The whine of several snub fighters coming in for a landing saved him from another bout of waking nightmares as well as the deserved dressing down he would have received. He shot to his feet and started off toward the door.
"That's got to be the fastest I've ever seen you move!" Animal shouted in shock, having just stood up himself as Bulldog hurled himself through the flimsy door.
Bulldog waved the joke away as he headed outside. Three X-wings in Cavern Angel paint were settling in on their repulsorlifts in a perfect formation next to the assorted Buccaneer craft. He started walking toward them and heard Animal jogging to catch up with him. "Rogues," he said.
"There's only three of them. Do you think they lost somebody during the attack? Ah, there are five Spectres coming in too, and Foo's U-wing."
Bulldog snorted. "No way they got anybody up there. The remainder of the Imp forces in space would have folded faster than one of these cots if we only sent a training squadron at them."
"Yeah," Animal agreed. "Guess we'll see what Rogue Leader has to say. He's over this way," he said as he took the lead and began to trot.
Bulldog kept pace, tossing a wave to 1st Lt. Nick "Jasted" Finelli as they passed him. Up ahead, Jalb was just descending the ladder from his cockpit. He and Animal skidded to a stop and tossed up a crisp salute.
Jalb returned the salute crisply and smiled. "Just the two pilots I needed to see. Wait one," he held up a finger while he addressed a nearby tech. "Top off my fuel and make sure Buccaneer Leader's B-wing is fueled up and ready to go as soon as possible." The tech nodded and went about their work. "Righto, so you and I have to go back topside immediately, Animal."
Animal nodded, but lingered as he looked at the Rogue pilots that had started to debark their ships. "Problem? Where's Thanatos? I thought he'd be cleared to fly by now."
"Major Marco's fine- he's still recovering on the Vig. No worries, this is just a logistics and planning meeting with the Captains of the taskforce until Vodani is fully healed. Can't bloody do it via the net because 'You-know-who' will be a right bastard about the comms. All of the OC's and XO's are going to get everything sorted out before everybody is committed to the ground base."
"I'll go tell them to prep my ship," Bulldog said as he took a few steps toward his Y-wing.
"Hold up, Bulldog," Jalb shouted, motioning for him to come back. "I'm afraid you drew the short straw, mate. You're staying dirtside to get all of our pilots and personnel sorted as they make landfall. Animal will be able to fill you in when we all return. Until then, you're in charge."
Bulldog's chest fell and a look of distress flashed across his face. "Don't do this to me, Boss. I don't want to be in charge of everybody."
Jalb smirked wryly at the visceral response from the Buccaneer executive officer. "That's the way it's going to be, Captain."
A spark of anger struck Bulldog after Jalb had addressed him by his rank. However, it reminded him about the established order of command within the personnel of the Wing. "Dobber's a Major!"
Jalb winced at the reminder of the recently disciplined Rogue. "Actually, he's a Captain now. And before you protest, technically you're senior because he was just given the rank, and because you're an XO."
"Of all the times for Dobber to go off the handle!" Bulldog whined. His mind was racing as he tried to find another alternative to avoid having to take this level of responsibility. He began mentally running through the personnel of the Wing as fast as he could picture their faces in his mind's eye. He felt intense pangs of sadness as the visages of Rev and Mighty cycled through, as both of them would out-rank him and be next in line to command. His eyes widened as he suddenly thought he had a trump card to play. "Captain Callahan should be senior to me!"
Jalb let a little concession of a nod go before smirking. "Unfortunately, both Captains Callahan and Dobson are not on the planet, and won't be on the planet until the personnel without snub fighters get shuttled down. And since we don't know exactly when that will be, we thought it would be prudent for you to just be given outright command for the interim."
"Makes sense," Animal agreed with a thoughtful nod, patting Bulldog on the shoulder sympathetically. "You'll be fine."
Jalb motioned for Animal to go prepare to leave and stepped closer to Bulldog with a conspiratorial smile. He put an arm around Bulldog's shoulder. "Bulldog, Bulldog, Bulldog," he started wistfully. "There comes a time in the life of an officer when he has to make soldiers do things that he knows in his heart of hearts that he doesn't want to do, even if he is capable of it. As such, there have been rumblings about a possible set of promotions to bring you back in line with the rest of the squadron XOs. Nothing official yet, but I'm sure it'll happen so long as things continue to go as they have been."
Bulldog was stunned beyond words. He was being put in charge, and he was also getting another promotion. Two things he'd specifically fought against time and time again with varying degrees of success.
Jalb understood the silence and cut to the core of it quickly. "Look, I know I just told you two things you don't want to hear. Get used to it."
Bulldog recovered himself enough to nod.
"Keep things quiet down here, and deal with Shen'ryu as best as possible to mitigate any damage that blowhard can do until we get back. I don't suggest trying to go over his head to the Colonel, but if the situation is dire enough..."
"Roger," Bulldog replied uneasily.
"Lean on Knight for support with Shen'ryu if you need it. I seem to remember that Bothan arsehole was fond of him back on M Base. Or... at least I don't think he hated the man?"
"Maybe you should put him in charge, yeah?"
"Not getting out of it that easy," Jalb replied with a sharp laugh. "You keep things together down here, and promise to act surprised when that new rank bar shows up after clearing the red tape, mate."
With that, he started climbing back up his ladder, tossing another salute as he sat back down in his cockpit. His engines started to whine as he powered them back up.
Bulldog cupped his hands to his mouth. "What do I do if things get crazy?!"
The balance of Rogue Squadron had assembled and looked at him expectantly. The five Spectres that had also assisted in the strike lined up as well. Bulldog swallowed hard and took one last mournful look at Jalb's receding X-wing as it streaked off with Animal's B-wing in tow. He sighed and looked at the pilots. "Right, let's get you all settled in that building right over there. Spectres, you'll be the next building over."
As he left the Spectre bunk, he patted Talon on the shoulder. "Hey man, nice save out there."
The youth stiffened, but still nodded and smiled tightly. "Don't mention it."
Bulldog repeated the settling process two more times, as Corsair Squadron and the Support staff all came down in sequence. He then met with the mechanics of each squadron and took their requisition reports, and then made sure all staff were on the same page regarding which temporary hangar bubbles belonged to which squadron. He responded to a series of asinine staffing-level questions from one of Shen'ryu's aides, repeating himself in triplicate for each aide that had seemingly been expecting a different answer to the same set of questions. By the time it was over, he had missed dinner. He shuffled back to the Buccaneer barracks and fell face first into his cot. He was snoring within moments.