By Bulldog, Guardian, Shadow, Silence, and Zippy
Immediately following the events of Ghosts of Hoth...
It had been an interesting few weeks for Renegade Wing since they'd arrived at Toseng and set up shop. They'd fought the same Imperial taskforce on two separate occasions, cleared out numerous Imperial covert outposts with surgical air support, and completely leveled Imperial hardpoints on the planet with overwhelming ordinance.
The first Renegade pilots landed on the hard deck 5 days ago. With communications being difficult between the ground and space, the entire Renegade Wing command staff remained in orbit on the Vigilant while plans were finalized with central command— save for one pilot.
Due to a lack of luck, trick of the force, or just plain circumstantial victimhood, Bulldog had been asked to remain on the deck as the balance of the wing was settled while the commanders and executive officers of all the squadrons remained in space to finalize plans before rejoining the wing.
Within two days of being left in charge, he'd assaulted a subordinate and caused an all-out brawl in a local watering hole. The civil war of sorts resulted in a schism between allies and a lot of dread within the pilots that had survived their first tour with the ostensible leader of the ground forces.
The feeling of dread was amplified within Bulldog's roiling gut as he not only feared what the oft-demoted-and-transferred Major Thram Shen'ryu could think to cook up for his and the rest of the Renegades' punishment, but also whatever Jalb could accomplish to rectify the situation on his end. Whilst Shen'ryu seemed outwardly amenable to keeping the incident under wraps in exchange for the rock solid support and compliance of Renegade Wing, Jalb clearly had a court martial on his mind.
Bulldog didn't blame Jalb one bit, though he wasn't quite sure which outcome he preferred while he mentally relived the past week over and over in his solitary brig cell. Every time, multiple times a day, at the end of the recounting he wished for the same thing: for something to happen already. He was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop, whichever one it was that would eventually seal his fate.
He was never much for waiting, especially when dry.
One week later...
Toseng Sim Room
"Would you just slow down, Corsair Ten!" Silence never thought she'd utter those words, but there she was, stuck in a U-wing while her squadron scattered in all directions like an upturned bucket of rubber balls.
"Sorry, Twelve." Wolf's A-wing throttled back. "Just doesn't feel right stopping in the middle of space like an easy target."
"Well, you don't have to stop moving. Just don't go running away from me like your tail's on fire!" Grumbling under her breath, Silence locked on and launched a shield boost at him. "There. Go. Be free!"
She was used to going zoom-zoom all over the place like them. Chasing them in a slower ship was all manner of annoying.
A new batch of TIE Fighters spawned in the simulator the moment the Corsairs mopped up the battlefield. The A-wings all turned towards the TIEs, charging in at full speed.
Silence reached for her squadron mask, but the indicator of how many friendlies were within range rapidly diminished to zero. "I swear I'm going to murder all of you."
"What was that, Twelve?"
"Nothing, Lead." Shunting all power to engines, Silence did corkscrews as she waited for her boost to charge up. Everything she did seemed to be in slow motion. The U-wing was much bigger and slower than her A-wing, and she didn't like that at all.
She cussed Syntax and Foo out under her breath. This was all their fault. Foo, flying support with Buccaneer, had proven to be a force to be reckoned with. Syntax had noticed. And now everyone in Corsair was taking turns in the sim flying a U-wing to support the squadron of A-wings and their speed freak pilots.
"I got a tail. Some help, please?"
"A little busy myself over here."
"Get this guy! He's low!"
"On my way."
Comm chatter flooded in as the two groups of starfighters met in battle.
Silence cycled compulsively through friendly targets, watching helplessly as her squad mates' shields and hulls dwindled while she was still too far away. Meters ticked down on her instruments. Finally! She was in range! But no locks. Where was everyone?
TIEs and A-wings dove in and out among the asteroids, making line of sight impossible.
Then green fire splashed across her vision, biting at her shields. A TIE had noticed her.
She slammed the boost button, streaking past the TIE in an effort to escape his line of fire.
Frak! Asteroid! Frantically she yanked the U-wing into a drift and hammered the boost again, just it time to skim past the—
Her ship shuddered, grazing the asteroid and sending her spinning away like a pinball. Her A-wing would have made the turn no problem, but she was still getting used to this lard-butted space-whale. Green fire rained upon her once again. "Get this guy off me!"
Hastily pinging her assailant, she pushed all power to shields, and everything slowed to a crawl. Not the slow-motion of hyper awareness during an intense moment of urgency... no. Just the agony of flying at an unbearably slow speed.
She shunted her shields to rear, but they got eaten up like breakfast. Yanking the stick left and right did her no good at this speed. Desperately, she pushed the power back to her engines and dove around the nearest asteroid. The U-wing scraped again, putting her hull into the red. "Guys..."
And there they were, four orange A-wings bearing down on her from all directions, and her HUD lit up, one, two, three, four! She jabbed the auxiliary, activating the squadron mask and launching a shield boost at the nearest A-wing.
The TIEs chasing them peeled off to regroup, unable to properly target them. Behind her, the TIE hammering her shields got melted to slag by red-orange bolts.
"Thanks—" But before she could get out a proper thank you, the other three TIEs noticed the only ship they could target was her. They swarmed back around.
Giving an unprofessional shriek of alarm, she mashed her boost button until it engaged, launching her into the thick of the asteroids. She swerved and drifted, trying her best to evade at least some of the shots. Multiple missile locks chimed. She gritted her teeth and spat chaff in her wake, but it only took a few seconds for even more locks to appear.
Her boost ran out, leaving her to limp between asteroids with no shields and a critical hull. Countermeasures were reloading. Boost was recharging, and her shields weren't.
She braced herself for the inevitable.
But it didn't come.
Blinking, she saw all red dots had been wiped from her HUD and cheers erupted over the comms.
The score screen appeared, and to no surprise, she saw she'd gotten zero kills, suffered massive damage, and in general, had done a horrible job.
Well. At least the mission was over.
She threw open the simulator hatch and tossed her helmet on the seat as she clambered out of the chamber. What a freaking nightmare. The U-wing was a deathtrap, and whatever plans Syntax had for an integrated squadron, she was never giving up her A-wing. Some other poor schmuck could get stuck in the fat, slow, awful—
"Great job!" Wolf had climbed out of his simulator and clapped her on the shoulder. "You really saved our butts out there."
Dragon emerged and gave her an appreciative nod. "Perfect timing on that mask. I was about to get shredded."
Silence blinked at them. Just what simulation had they been in? Surely not the same one she'd just suffered through.
"Well done, Silence."
She turned at the sound of Syntax's metallic voice. "Sir? Not to be rude, but are you joking? I didn't get a single kill. I spent the entire mission trying to play catch-up, and then getting torn to pieces."
"That's not how I saw it when you swooped in to save the day," Dragon interjected.
"The moment that mask came on and they all focused you, the tables turned. I barely had any hull left, but when they all turned away—" Wolf grinned and made finger guns "—pew pew pew, easy."
Huh. Silence shook her head in bewilderment. "But my scores—"
"The simulator software is still lacking the ability to score support properly." Syntax gestured at the other pilots. "The only score you should be concerned with is that none of them died."
None of them died. Silence froze in place. That was it, wasn't it? That was what made the U-wing different than the A-wing. Before, if she wanted to save anyone, she had to personally shoot an enemy ship off their tail, and precision shots had never been her strong suit. Most of her skills lay in flying evasive and jumping on damaged enemies. Most of the time, it seemed like the other Corsairs were coming to her aid, not the other way around.
She could protect her squad mates? She could resupply, repair, recharge, and hide them at the life-and-death moments of battle?
"By my calculations," Syntax continued, "your U-wing scores are the highest of anyone in Corsair. Congratulations."
"Thank you, sir?" Silence stole furtive glances at the other pilots. I saved them? It felt weird. Like she'd been chasing to the impossible, only to have it thrown in her lap. Ever since her ill-fated command of White Squadron, she drilled the mantra "you can't save everyone" into her head. She'd come to accept it, no longer even questioning this fact of life.
But what if she could?
"Excuse me, sirs. Need to use the refresher." She hastily ducked out the door before they could see her eyes swimming.
CRS Vigilant Chamber outside the Captain's Ready Room
The Major sat silently, adjusting occasionally on the uncomfortable bench, fingers picking idly at the flight cap he'd managed to scrounge up in the ship exchange. The cap was new, brim still straight and flat and liable to press uncomfortably against his scalp if he put it on. But it was nice having something in his hands.
Aboard the Anti-Venom, he'd spent the first few weeks out of the bacta tank in the kitchen, helping in any way asked. It had been mostly because they didn't have another place for him, and the work helped him acclimate to his new artificial left arm and rebuild strength in his right. There had been something soothing about peeling various tubers, or dicing vegetables, or carrying loads of dirty dishes back to the kitchen to be cleaned when the mess cleared out due to an alert. He could lose himself in the repetition of the simple tasks, rebuilding his strength and distracting himself from what he'd lost.
The door to the Captain's Ready Room slid open, and a Mon Calamari orderly stepped through. "They are ready for you."
He nodded, took a deep breath of the heavily-saturated air, and stood, putting the uncomfortable flight cap back onto his newly-shorn head. He hadn't really tried to keep up appearances on the Anti-Venom, but the scalp wound had necessitated a haircut so the cut could be closed. He'd taken everything right down to the scalp, the shortest his hair had been since...
He settled the cap, nodded to the orderly, and ran his hands down the front of his utility jumpsuit. It was new, too, a neutral grey color with only a single CRS Vigilant patch on the shoulder. The boots were new, still shiny from the packaging they had been sealed in, still pinching his feet in uncomfortable ways. Well, only his right foot. His left foot, thankfully, could have its surface sensors deactivated.
He stepped through the door and into the ready room, took the seven strides to the middle of the chamber, and snapped to attention. No salute - he wasn't technically in uniform - but old habits die hard.
Immediately in front of him on the other side of the curved table sat Captain Terak Quelle, a grey-skinned Mon Calamari in a perfectly-pressed Alliance Naval uniform. The seat to the Captain's right held Commander Eane Oamb, a similarly-clad Sullustan.
He'd only just met both of those men before this whole thing started.
The two seats to the left though— those men he knew.
The furthest to the left was the brown-furred Cathar that had served with him on the Liberty, C'our Dentran. The Cathar's uniform was darker than the navy uniforms the others wore, and suited his role as Chief Intelligence Officer.
And just to the captain's left was the most important face in the room. Vince "Stryker" Rambo wasn't wearing his flight suit, or his Mando armor, but was clad for the occasion in his dress uniform, a tangle of colors displaying his achievements on his left breast. He was also trying to smother a smile.
Captain Quelle cleared his throat. "Let's wrap this up, shall we? Major Burns."
He winced. Reflexively, without thinking. He hadn't been called that in a while, and it still didn't sound right. It sounded like it belonged to someone else, a lifetime ago. "Yessir."
If Quelle noticed his response, he didn't react. "It is the finding of this inquiry that for your failure to report back to Alliance Command after the incident with Defender Wing, you are to be demoted and a disciplinary report will be filed with your permanent record."
"But... on the advice from the rest of the command staff, and the promise of a mutiny from the medical group," the Captain's gaze passed somewhere over his shoulder, to the small crowd that had gathered in the back of the ready room, "you are hereby assigned to Renegade Flight, attached to General Rambo's command until such time as he finds a more appropriate place for you. And, that being said— welcome back to Renegade Wing, Captain Burns."
He felt his jaw tighten, and snapped his hand to the brim of his flight cap in a sharp salute. "Yessir. Thank you, sir."
"I expect a fully written report about what happened with Defender to the command staff as soon as possible, Captain. This inquiry is dismissed." Quelle picked up a fist-sized gavel and rapped it sharply on the table. "I'll need to regroup and see command back here in thirty minutes for our regular briefing. Take a break, everyone."
There was a whoop from behind him and then someone grabbed him, crushing his arms to his body and lifting him up. A series of additional jubilant cries sounded through the room, and the small group of Renegade Wing pilots who had been in attendance mobbed him.
There were hugs and claps on the back and even more exchanged congratulations. Stryker let the mobbing continue for a bit, then raised his voice. "Guys, don't break him, we just got him back."
"Illogical, Stryker," replied Syntax, staying on the edge of the group of pilots. "Almost 35% of his current form is now artificial. Breaking more of him would simply mean replacing more of him, and that way he could be even better as a pilot and a being."
Stryker shot Syntax a glare, but Guardian held up his artificial hand. "Honestly, the only thing that really got replaced was this finger." He pointed to the smallest digit at the end of the cybernetic appendage. "It's just been growing from there... I think I figured out how Syntax got started."
9-LOM's head turned towards Guardian, his artificial voice charged with the barest hint of annoyance. "Impossible. I was constructed..."
Another voice, deeper, wet, and gravelly interjected. "It's good to have you back, Adam."
"Doc!" Guardian managed to pull away from Animal's crushing embrace to take the Mon Calamari's hand. "Glad to be back."
"Stop by medical when you can, eh? I haven't said anything to Cutter."
Guardian froze in his tracks. "Cutter's here?"
Doc Banarj, the Vigilant's Chief Medical Officer, nodded. "He is. And we need to talk about that ocular implant..."
"Gentlemen," Dentran's voice purred, "if I may interrupt."
The impromptu celebration dampened as the intelligence head approached. Stryker looked to the Cathar. "What's up, Commander?"
Dentran smiled slightly, which Guardian wasn't sure was much different than a snarl. "We have been made aware of an opportunity to assist in the war effort, and Ma...Captain Burns' skills and experience are a... unique match for this particular endeavor."
Stryker shook his head. "Commander, we just brought him back to the wing. I'm not sure I want to reassign him..."
"Oh, it won't be just him, General." Dentran ran the back of his hand alongside his mouth and out his whiskers. "I'll need a few more of your pilots as well..."
Toseng Airbase Bar- The Landing Skid
1st Lieutenant Conall "Shadow" McKenna returned to the booth table he currently shared with Captain Adam "Guardian" Burns and moved to refill his new companion's glass.
Guardian placed his hand over the top of the glass with a shake of his head and a small chuckle. "No, thank you. I only drink tea at the moment. Working back up to the stronger stuff, I appreciate the gesture though."
Shadow shrugged as he sat himself down, making sure his back was to a wall and that he could see as many ways in and out as possible. While the bar— colloquially known as The Skidmark by the pilots that visited— was as secure as could be expected on a New Republic base, old habits died hard. And he was still trying to figure out his new companion who'd essentially been introduced to him by the NRI lead on the Vigilant and told to await further orders. "Suit yourself, more for me."
At this Guardian raised an eyebrow and lent forward with a concerned expression. "You sure that's a good idea? We may have to leave at a moment's notice, I wouldn't drink too heavily."
"Two beers is hardly heavy," Shadow snorted in amusement, "besides my Uncle and I used to homebrew stronger stuff than this back home. Wasn't much else to do when it's just the two of you living in a forest." He sighed before leaning back in his seat and taking a long swig of his drink, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear his head. Something tingled in his mind, an instinct he'd learned to listen to. "I get the feeling you want to talk about something."
"Not one for beating around the bush?" Guardian asked with a good-natured chuckle. "And you're not wrong. I've just been away from things for so long that I feel like I don't know anybody anymore. You used to run ground ops before joining Red right?"
"How did you..." Shadow nearly choked on his drink. "Because that is not a subject I like to dwell on," he said as he hurriedly took another drink. "I suppose it would be similar to me asking you about your various medical procedures. What brought this on?"
"Honestly I'm not sure," Guardian sighed in an exaggerated fashion before continuing, "just trying to learn my surroundings again, I suppose. Wondering if I made the right choice coming back I guess. You know, changes..."
Shadow pursed his lips as if he were choosing his words carefully. "A change is usually a good thing, can't say it hasn't been on my mind. For different reasons mind you, ever since Hoth I suppose I've tied myself and who I am to Red Squadron. Even now that Red is gone I've still gravitated to where most of them have ended up." He rubbed his eyes before staring into his bottle silently.
Guardian leaned forward and waved his hand in front of Shadow's face causing him to look up suddenly.
"Sorry Captain, was a whole lifetime away... I think I need to head out. Thanks for the talk. It's given me a lot to think about."
Like who I am without Red Squadron.
Guardian's datapad chirped, interrupting Shadow's escape. A moment later, Shadow's datapad also elicited a sound. He reached for his, but a hand from Guardian stopped him. "Actually, it looks like we've been ordered to the hangar for an inspection. I'll settle the tab."
Toseng Airfield- RWSS Pop-up Hangar
Flight Officer Ikurrece "Zippy" Ojima stood on the flight line, hands on hips, short purple hair unmoved by a light Toseng breeze, pale blue face looking up at his recently assigned U-wing.
His gaze darted back and forth across the newly modified exterior of the ship. He nodded with approval to the Deck Chief standing next to him on the tarmac.
"Looks good Chief, thanks for getting a crew on this so quickly."
"You had all the right signatures on the paperwork, Sir; I checked," replied the other man cooly; arms crossed, not looking towards Ikurrece.
"I commend you on your thoroughness, Chief," replied Ikurrece, either not noticing or not caring about any implied mistrust.
"If that will be all, Sir?" the Chief asked brusquely.
"Please carry on, and give my compliments to your people," Ikurrece replied, returning the Chief's sloppy salute with a precise, sharp salute resulting from more than two decades of practice across three different Navies.
Unclipping a datapad from his right thigh, Ikurrece began slowly walking around the U-wing; his golden-yellow eyes glancing back and forth between the pad and the modified gunship, marking off items on a pre-flight checklist. Pulling out a small flashlight, Ikurrece first shined the light into each of the four engines looking for any loose objects or obstructions. This was the most important part of the external check in his experience. Over the years he had found several forgotten hand tools and extra fasteners loose inside of supposedly flight ready engines forgotten by technicians who had already moved on to the next task. He wondered to himself if the New Republic Navy was as liberal with the lash for safety violations as the Imperial Navy had been. He certainly hoped so, as a well disciplined maintenance crew was a conscientious maintenance crew; particularly after a good flogging.
Dismissing hypothetical group disciplinary actions from his mind as presently irrelevant, he continued his external inspection moving around the craft and through the list at a steady pace. Last, Ikurrece turned his attention to the two S-foil articulation assemblies. Incom garbage he thought to himself while shining the light up into the first assembly looking for potential problems. "Sienar couldn't shit out something this bad if they tried; articulated..." Shaking his head in disdain while checking off the first assembly on the datapad, Ikkurace continued on to inspect the second assembly also finding nothing wrong with it that wasn't by design.
Finished with his inspection of the exterior, Ikurrece checked off the last item on the datapad then turned to enter the open starboard side main door of the U-wing when a voice called out from behind him.
"Flight Officer Ojima?"
Looking over his shoulder, Ikurrece saw two men in flight suits approaching; one was Lt. Conall McKenna, whom he was acquainted with under the callsign Shadow, and the other was a Captain he didn't recognize. "Yes sir," replied Ikurrece as he quickly turned, snapped to attention, and saluted the two approaching men.
"As you were, Flight Officer," said the Captain while returning the salute. "I'm Captain Burns, and I've been told you know Lieutenant McKenna. You'll be showing us how you fly this U-wing today." The Captain's left eye, an artificial piece that looked like it had been grafted from an astromech, adjusted slightly, emitting a dim red glow.
"Very well Sir, I've been preflighting this craft for an upcoming shakedown flight. I've just finished my exterior inspection. Please join me inside for the rest of the pre-flight check, lesson one as it were," replied Ikurrece motioning toward the interior of the craft.
"One moment, Ojima," interjected the young Lieutenant while gesturing at the exterior of the U-wing. "What is the purpose of these modifications?" he asked as his eyes flitted about the exterior hull, pointing to the most obvious of the modifications: the heavy armor.
Ikurrece nodded patiently. "The additional ventral armour is intended to protect the U-wing during amphibious and water landings from submerged wreckage, coral shoals, rocks, tree stumps, and other hazards often encountered during maritime Search and Rescue operations." Pointing toward the front of the U-wing, he continued. "All of the transparisteel cockpit panels are double thickness for the same reason. Nothing ruins a rescue quite like ripping the bottom out of your ship on the way in... or out." Ikurrece grimaced slightly as a particularly wet and miserable memory flashed before his mind's eye. Extending both arms out to encompass the entirety of the U-wing, he finished his explanation of the external modifications to Lieutenant McKenna. "While not visible, a protective coating has been applied to the entire exterior and much of the interior to try and retard corrosion caused by the salt that can be found in some planetary bodies of water."
Both new arrivals nodded thoughtfully as they examined the areas Ikurrece had just highlighted. The Captain moved to look more closely at the hull in an attempt to gauge the reinforced ventral hull thickness, while the Lieutenant moved in closer to the hull and ran a finger along the armor, pulling it back and giving it a sniff and rub between his thumb before wiping it away on his uniform with a thoughtful nod.
Ikurrece again gestured toward the interior of the U-wing. "Shall we proceed, gentlemen"? At a nod from Captain Burns, Ikurrece turned and continued up the ramp into the interior followed close behind by the other two officers.
Once the three men were all in the craft, Ikurrece gestured to a pile of equipment taking up the center of the compartment, "Please excuse the mess, this all just arrived and my crew hasn't had time to stow it yet." He then turned to Lieutenant Mckenna and continued enumerating the modifications made to the U-wing. "A retractable rescue hoist has been added to the port door as a backup for the tractor beam and storage lockers for medical supplies and rescue equipment have been added to the port and starboard forward bulkheads. And last, extra lock downs have been added to the compartment walls to allow for additional stretchers to be slung hammock style if we run out of floor space."
The two human officers remained silent during these explanations, Captain Burns looking forward toward the cockpit while Lieutenant Mckenna looked wherever Ikurrece pointed. "Very good, Ojima," said Burns. "Command wants us foils-up by 1430 for the flight check, so how can we help?" He looked to McKenna and then back to Ikurrece, rolling up the sleeves to his painfully-new flight suit.
Ikurrece pulled two diagnostic cylinders out of his flight suit and headed forward toward the communications and navigation consoles; there was a lot left to do before 1430. "Follow me, gentlemen."
Bulldog had been slowly meandering his way through his hundredth trip down memory lane of the week, reaching the point where he stood huffing over a defenseless and bloodied Talon and preparing to strike. The only reason the superfluous blow never followed was the fact that Silence's face bore the force of his elbow as he cocked back the blow, distracting him long enough for Lock to recover and take him down for good that night. Just as he was about to relive that sickening feeling of his elbow connecting with her orbital, a sound from the building shook him from his waking nightmare.
Footsteps rapidly approached his cell, almost but not quite at a trot. The locking mechanism didn't make a sound as the primitive door was wrenched open. The sliver of light from the hallway turned into a flood as the door opened wider, blinding the imprisoned pilot.
A familiar chuckle echoed off of the walls of the cell, putting the pilot on edge instantly while his eyes slowly adjusted to the extra light. "Well, how about that... He didn't attempt to escape even though the door had been unlocked this entire time!"
Bulldog rubbed his eyes in an effort to clear his vision and also assuage the new headache that had suddenly formed due to the arrival of the cocky Bothan Major. He didn't give any indication that he'd heard the quip about the unlocked cell. He'd noticed after the first day that his cell wasn't locked, but assumed it was another trick from the wily Bothan in hopes the pilot would try to escape and dig an even larger hole for Jalb and the rest of the Renegades. The reaction of Shen'ryu upon entry validated that belief.
"What, not going to stand and salute your superior, Captain?"
Bulldog squinted, his eyes still working to adjust to the heightened levels of light in the room, but he did not rise and comply. He continued to sit on his butt against the far wall, looking up expectantly.
Shen'ryu frowned, but shook it off quickly. "Still disrespectful. No matter— get to your feet. Now."
Shen'ryu growled as he took a step back out of the cell into the hallway. "Get up or I'll have these fine guards drag you across the building to our destination. The building hasn't had much usage, therefore it hasn't been cleaned recently. It'll be a dusty trip for you if you make this difficult."
Two sets of feet thudded into the cell rapidly, attached to two of the largest guards Bulldog had ever seen in his life. He wasn't easy to intimidate, but he also knew that being difficult right now would not actually make things difficult for these two behemoths, and the glint in their eyes made it clear that they may actually be hoping he'd be noncompliant so they could jostle him about while they dragged him.
Bulldog threw up his hands to forestall their approach, but the guards each grasped a wrist and snapped him to his feet effortlessly. The strength and force of their pulls had almost yanked his arms clean out of their sockets. He barely managed to catch his feet under him as the guards continued to pull him forward toward the hallway. After a few stumbling steps, he managed to find a shaky pace to keep upright.
Shen'ryu stalked ahead of the trio, tapping rapidly on his datapad as he absentmindedly navigated the hallways of the deserted brig. They'd made so many twists and turns that Bulldog was thoroughly lost. He hadn't realized the brig building was this large to begin with, considering the base had been fabricated once they'd landed and set up shop. Perhaps the New Republic forces had continued construction while he'd been stuck in the cell with naught but regretful memories. Apparently all that incessant banging hadn't just been a soundtrack meant to deprive him of any sort of restful sleep after all.
After navigating the labyrinthine halls for what seemed like an eternity, Shen'ryu stepped to the side and Bulldog was cast roughly through a doorway. Before he'd recovered his senses, the Major stepped into the room and closed the door quickly. He turned, pointed at an empty chair, and lowered his finger. "Sit."
Bulldog shot him an angry glance, but before he could think of anything suitably defiant to retort verbally, a gentle cough startled him from the other end of the table. His head snapped in that direction, and his jaw dropped. He sat down without uttering a single snide remark, catching himself shortly after and closed his dumbfounded mouth.
Seated at the other end of the table was the Gotal Colonel he'd met briefly upon landing, Vis Kurlun. He had an air of impatience mixed with an equal measure of disinterest. Seeing that he held the attention of the two other occupants of the room, he cleared his throat. "Captain Clark. I seem to remember meeting you and your pilots when you first landed on my planet. Do you remember what I said?"
Bulldog racked his brain to remember what had seemed to him like obvious, by-the-book drivel that almost every commander said in their introductory remarks, but nothing came to focus. His only clear memory of that first meeting was the seething rage he was feeling toward Major Shen'ryu. He shook his head from side to side and replied verbally in kind. "No Sir, regretfully I do not."
Kurlun sighed, but betrayed no emotion other than boredom in his mannerisms. "I said, Captain, that I run a no-nonsense base. I have heard that you have caused some large measure of nonsense. The Major here," he said, nodding his head toward Shen'ryu before continuing, "assures me that it was an aberration compared to your previous working relationship."
Bulldog masked his shock as best he could, but couldn't stop himself from stealing a furtive glance in the direction of the Bothan, who did not meet his gaze. Still, there was a hint of a predatory smirk at the corner of his lips.
Kurlun caught the reaction, and for the first time his ease of command shook a little. He stumbled over his next words, clearly wondering if he'd been lied to by his right-hand Bothan— and wondering if it was the first time. "Judging from your reaction, perhaps the Major has glossed over some important detail in your past that he deems unimportant to the task at hand," he said as he recovered his composure. "Regardless of this little detail, I have no reason not to trust his judgment, and he assures me that you are up to the task we've been given by Command. Before you get the details, however, I need to hear your acceptance of the mission, Captain."
"Sir?" Bulldog coughed out, caught off guard by what the Colonel had just said. "I have a choice in the matter?"
Kurlun nodded, beginning to lose his patience. "Look, Captain, this mission is at the highest echelon of compartmentalization. Even your superiors in Renegade Wing will know nothing about this, and should you undertake this mission, you will be forbidden from speaking about it due to the extremely sensitive nature of the mission. So yes, you have a choice in the matter. Back out right now and you will be returned to your cell until the sentence Major Shen'ryu has meted out is completed, and then return to whatever duty he deems fit. I will then wait here for you to be returned to your cell while we find a less suitable backup option, wasting more of my time."
The Colonel paused as he fixed his steely glare directly into Bulldog's eyes. It made him uneasy as the Gotal's gaze seemed to drill deeply into the core of his being.
"Or— you accept the mission. If you back out at any time after this point, you will be shipped off planet on a supply shuttle immediately and your next port of call will be a prison skiff for the duration of the war. Make your choice, Captain," Colonel Kurlun said as he rose and walked toward the door. He stopped as he laid his hand on the handle and glared back in Bulldog's direction expectantly.
Bulldog's mind raced. The choice, such as it was, seemed like an easy one to make. Decline the mystery mission now and return to his cell. He would likely draw the ire of Shen'ryu even more, and possibly put more pressure on Jalb to comply with his wishes, but they would all likely survive that. The last time Bulldog had been volunteered for a mission by Thram Shen'ryu, it had almost been a suicide mission that nearly resulted in his and Lock's deaths.
The memory of the massive light-sensitive spiders sent shivers up and down his spine, made his fingers twitch, and the skin on his limbs crawl. His mouth opened to immediately tell the two officers that he was out and that they needed to find somebody else, but the words caught in his throat.
Knowing exactly the kind of mission Shen'ryu was likely to assign to him, he knew that balking now would likely put one of his friends in the line of fire instead of himself. And, going off of their track record, the Bothan would likely pick one of his closest friends just to twist the knife even further if the mission went awry.
"Well, Captain? Quickly, please."
Bulldog snarled inwardly and rose to his feet smartly, facing the two furred beings. "I'm your man, Sir."
Toseng Briefing Room
The briefing room was practically empty when Silence arrived. It surprised her to see Bulldog standing at the front of the room, waiting as the last few—the only few—attendees arrived. Last two times she'd seen him, one had been his elbow ramming into her face, which still smarted, and the last time had been in the brig where she dressed him down for his rash temper. It didn't make sense for him to be here.
She mentally noted each of the people in the room: herself, Zippy, Shadow, Bex Udigg, and a captain she didn't recognize. The fact that she didn't recognize him told her exactly who he was. A personnel file for a recent transfer had just crossed her desk, so to speak, last night.
He had to be Captain Burns, previously Major Burns. Reading his file, she'd giggled for longer than was in good taste about how many jokes could be told about someone called Major Burns, but here in person, she kept her mouth shut and reminded herself to use his call sign, Guardian.
Four pilots and Bex. Bex did not fit. Bex was not a pilot. Bex was a commando, and not just any commando. The hulking Besalisk was the captain of a special forces unit. What did it mean?
Two more beings entered the room, one rushing and the other walking at a measured pace. The former was known to Silence as Hellcat, a Rogue Squadron pilot that seemed to be on his way to mustering out as he hadn't been on any of the duty rosters she'd seen recently. The latter had all the makings of a professional commando, but was not a part of the regular complement on the Vigilant and was thus unknown to her.
Bulldog cleared his throat. "Everyone's here. To start things off, I'm not at liberty to divulge all the specifics of this mission, but here's what I can tell you. Zippy, Silence, and myself will be piloting three U-wings—"
Silence felt her heart rate kick up a notch. She'd only flown the U-wing in a simulator. Now they wanted to put in a real one for the first time during a live mission?
"—with Hellcat, Bex, and Guardian as co-pilots, respectively."
Bex wasn't a pilot. Hellcat and Shadow were pilots. Silence felt a pit forming in her stomach. Bulldog wasn't giving the full details of the mission, which only led her to wonder why. As a former NRI data analyst and interrogator, she instinctively tried to read between the lines.
"We will each be carrying a team of eleven commandos. We will be landing on a target at three separate points and deploying our commandos, where they will carry out their portion of the mission." Bulldog leaned on the podium, as if using it to hold himself up. "The Talus Group taskforce consisting of a Corvette and two squadrons of fighters will be our air support. Our three ships are Mayhem Flight. Questions?"
"Yes, sir." Silence frowned. "I have a lot of questions. Nothing but questions, really. What's our target?"
"The target will be assigned upon our arrival at the location."
Zippy followed up on that line of thought. "Is the target a ship or a stationary target?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
Silence saw Bex's gaze shift away. He knew. Of course he knew. His team had to be prepared to breach the target, and they would have to be told what gear to bring. Likewise, the other commando appeared to be comfortable with the mission. Even Shadow, a pilot without a pilot or co-pilot position, seemed to be at ease— or at least hiding his discomfort well.
"Why me? I've only flown in the simulators. Not to scare Bex here, but it makes no sense to throw me at a super-classified mission when I don't even have live-fire experience under my belt in a U-wing." Silence caught Bex's eye apologetically. "And not to be a jerk, but you're not even giving me a pilot as a copilot? What happens if I—"
She remembered how she'd frozen up as the commander of White Squadron. She'd come a long way since then. Nonetheless, her point still stood. "What if something happens to me?"
Bex's two left hands landed heavily on her shoulder. "I've more experience with U-wings than you give me credit for. Won't be my first time in the copilot's seat."
She nodded reluctantly.
"We don't have an abundance of U-wing pilots, if you haven't noticed." Bulldog gestured to Zippy. "Apart from Zippy, who else would you pick? You and I had the best simulator scores, so we're it."
"I guess that makes sense." Silence suddenly made a face. "Wait. What? How'd you get sim time in the—"
She cut herself short. Bulldog's time in the brig was starting to sound pretty cushy. Or, perhaps more likely, he hadn't gotten any sim time at all. Why would he say he had good scores then? Unless... it was to allay any misgivings about his inclusion in the mission. That must be it. She chewed her lip, deciding whether or not to ask her final question. Oh well. She'd already stumbled into the topic of his incarceration. She rubbed the bruise on her face. "Speaking of which, why were you put in charge of this?"
Bulldog's eyes followed her hand, missing nothing. "That decision is above my paygrade. Take it up with the brass."
Silence reviewed everything he'd said in the briefing so far. He sounded... tired? Not exactly. But something was missing. Energy? No. Confidence.
The question was, did he lack confidence in the mission, or in his own fitness to lead?
When they filed out of the briefing room, Silence hadn't shaken the uneasy feeling. She followed Bex down the hall. "Bex, you know something the rest of us don't. What's going on here?"
"You know I can't divulge classified information," he rumbled. "Need to know, and all that."
"And what I need to know is that this mission makes sense to someone, somewhere, who has more information than myself. Because honestly, I feel like we're walking out on thin ice, and that's not the right mindset to head into a mission with."
The Besalisk stopped and turned to her deliberately. "You're right. I've been in other briefings. Here's what you need to know. This might be new to you, but it's stuff my team and I have done countless times. We know what we're doing. You know how to fly. Leave the rest to us."
"Right." She took a breath. "Thank you, sir."
"Come with me." He gave her a persuasive nudge at the next intersection in the hall, steering her towards the exit of this particular building. Outside, he led the way to the commandos' barracks. "Let me introduce you to the team. Perhaps it'll ease your mind."
Before they could even reach the doorway, a girl burst out through the door, giggling like mad and clutching a candy bar in one hand. She dug in her heels and skidded to a stop the second she saw Bex, somehow popping off a crisp salute with the candy bar.
A huge man charged out behind her. Unable to stop in time, he plowed into the girl from behind, the impact sending her flying face-first into the dirt. He also snapped a hasty salute the moment he saw Bex, but now he had the candy bar, having somehow swiped it from the girl during the collision.
Silence stepped forward to help the girl up and found it was not a girl at all, but a grown Balosar woman. She giggled again sheepishly as she dusted herself off. "Sorry. Oh, hey! I remember seeing you around. You hang out with that grouchy, white-haired human sometimes, right? You're a pilot, yeah?"
"Lock? Yeah, that's right." Silence shook the woman's hand.
"Lieutenant Vikeron, this is Specialist Bey Bem'sura." Bex sighed as if this kind of childish behavior was something he saw more often than he cared to think about. "And this is Specialist Jak Eagerman."
"Sorry, sir." Jak towered over Silence, although he wasn't as tall as Bex. He looked as if he weighed more than three times his Balosar companion.
"Sorry, sir," Bey echoed cheerily. "We were just engaging in some dexterity training."
"Right." Bex grunted, unconvinced. "I was hoping to reassure the lieutenant here of our competence and professionalism, seeing as how she'll be flying us in on the next mission."
"Sorry, sir," Jak repeated. He folded his hands behind his back, as if hiding the candy bar would help the situation. "It was my fault, sir. I was—"
Bey kicked the man's ankle to shut him up. "It was my fault, sir. Working out in the gym and sparring isn't the most realistic way to train. Jak's a great strong lunk who can floor anyone, but he needs to work at being quicker on his feet."
"Neither of you are helping my case." Bex frowned. "Let me find the others—"
"That's not necessary, Captain. Let's go."
As she and Bex walked away, Silence stole a glance behind her. She saw Jak plant a hand on Bey's head, ruffling her hair and antennaepalps roughly. The little Balosar woman stuck her tongue out at him, brandishing the candy bar triumphantly.
While not formally introduced until now, Silence had read all the personnel files of Bex's crew some time ago. Jak and Bey had served together for years before arriving here.
Bex saw her glance. "Sorry, Lieutenant Vikeron. I promise you're in good hands, despite appearances. Those two are new, but they come with distinguished records."
"Despite appearances?" Silence smiled faintly. "I know what I saw, Captain. I'll have that kind of camaraderie on my team any day."