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Rite of Passage

[Hallway, CRS Vigilant]

Finishing the last of his handheld breakfast food, Commander Andrew Dobson made his way down the pristine hallway of the Vigilant towards the turbolift that would take him to the briefing room. He passed by a throng of young officers, mechanics, and other pilots who were returning from or heading towards their daily duties. Others were engaged in conversations about various matters that involved them on the ship.

Nearing the turbolift, he pressed the button to open the cylindrical doors and stepped inside. It was empty, though smelled of a pleasant odor that he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Either someone used too much perfume for a hot date, he thought, or the cleaning bots are using a new detergent. Smells nice though. If it is perfume, I should get some for Dia.

As the turbolift doors began to shut, he heard a woman call out.

"Commander! Hold the doors!"

Sticking his hand out to trigger the sensor, the doors reversed their direction and opened up again to let the new passenger into the lift. She was a young Zeltron with long purple hair, violet eyes, and deep crimson skin.

"Thank you," she said as she stepped in beside him.

"No problem," he replied, "where are you headed?"

"Briefing room."

He keyed in the destination and the lift began its ascent upwards. Turning back to her he eyed her for a second.

"It's Lieutenant Gemilan, isn't it?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," she said as she reached her hand out. Returning the gesture, he felt a firm squeeze as their hands clasped together, then released. "A pleasure to meet you." The turbolift continued to climb towards its destination with a gentle hum of electricity and hydraulics.

After a brief moment of silence, the lieutenant spoke up again.

"Turbolift smells nice."

"It does," he replied. After a few more seconds of silence he asked, "Do you think it is cleaner or perfume?"

"Oh, definitely perfume," she replied. "It's an organic variety made on my homeworld."

"Ah," he said with a slight pause. "Good to know." Out of the corner of his eye he could see her turn her head towards him and arch an eyebrow.

"You don't need some ... do you?"

He raised a first to his mouth and gave a quick cough before replying. "Uh, no. Not for me. Maybe for a friend."

A small smirk spread across her face. "Ooh. How close of a friend?"

"Well... I suppose you could say that," came his cautious reply.

"Or," she interrupted gleefully, "a special lady friend?"

He eyed her for a moment before replying, her eyes beaming with excitement. Where is she taking this? he wondered. "Does the nature of the friendship really matter, lieutenant?"

He could feel the turbolift began to reduce speed as it approached their destination, his stomach lurching slightly from the sudden change in movement.

"Well, if you ever need some," she said as she looked forward again, "I can give you the company details sometime. I'm sure your lady friend would enjoy it." She paused to gently rub her nose with her right hand, then turned her head to look at him again, the smirk changing to a devilish grin. "Even if she happens to be your former - "

The turbolift came to a halt and he hit the 'STOP' button which prevented the doors from immediately opening.

Oh, sithspawn, he thought, she knows!

"Lieutenant," he said turning to face her, his face turning a slight shade of embarrassed red, "What do you know and where are you taking this?"

Her grin changed into a full blown smug smile.

"Relax, Commander," she said, quickly waving her left hand in the air and giving a slight giggle. "Just having a little fun. And I know next to nothing other than rumours that I have heard. The door, if you please?" she finished, making a motion towards them.

"Some discretion regarding personal matters would be appreciated," he said, locking eyes with her. Pressing another button, the doors whisked open. They both stepped out into an otherwise vacant corridor. "So," he said after a few seconds in hopes of changing the subject, "how have you been enjoying your time on the Vigilant?"

"It took a little adjusting, especially after Endor," she said as they made their way to the briefing room. "But everything is coming along nicely. We also have one hell of an A-wing mechanic. Helps keep our fighters up to our high expectations. Can't have them falling apart on us while we cover your squadron."

Nearing the doors that led to the briefing room, he continued on. "That's good to hear. With the rosters as they are, we need everyone to be in top shape."

"All teasing aside, Commander," she said as she stopped him just short of the doors, "I want you to know that I do take my role and relationships seriously. I meant no offense back in the lift."

He paused for a moment and carefully considered what he wanted to say. He was a superior officer, after all, and recent events had made him begin to rethink how he handled some situations. He knew all too well the fine line between mixing business with pleasure.

"Lieutenant," he said, trying not to be too curt and abrasive, "I am sure that you can appreciate that sometimes actions speak louder than words. While I agree that it is important to have a sense of humor, there's a time and place for it. For the time being, let's keep things professional. Sound good?"

Without missing a beat she replied, "Yes, sir. I understand."

"Good. Now, let's see what awaits us today. After you."

[Briefing Room, CRS Vigilant]

The doors hissed open as the lieutenant and Commander Dobson entered. He saw Lieutenant Colonel Chris Reynolds, Rogue Leader, stationed at the primary computer console inputting commands. A handful of other pilots from Rogue, Corsair, and Buccaneer Squadrons sat together in a group waiting for the briefing to start.

"Good morning, Lieutenant Gemilan. Commander Dobson," Reynolds said as he finished pressing buttons on the console. "So good of you to join us."

"Morning, Lieutenant Colonel," said Dobson as they both gave a quick salute. He took a seat next to Steve "Rev" Michadick, Buccaneer Seven. "What's on the docket today?"

"So glad you asked," he said. Pressing a button on the console, the lights in the room dimmed and a holographic star chart appeared. The various ships of the Vigilant task force appeared in green. "Command has a special mission for all of you that will require your expertise. As some of you are new to your roles on the Vigilant, consider it your rite of passage mission. Let's begin.

As you know, our victory at Endor has given us the edge and some forward momentum. While the Imperial Fleet remains a threat, we have the opportunity to liberate more star systems that are sympathetic to the Alliance or are under Imperial rule. In particular, we've identified one system that could be a valuable addition to our Alliance. Your mission will be as follows." Pressing a few more buttons, a handful of starfighters - two A-wings, X-wings, and B-wings - appeared on the screen alongside one of the Vigilant's corvettes. "Command is looking to make a move into the Nibiri System. It is currently occupied by a small remnant faction of the Empire, and there are supposedly several populated areas that are sympathetic to the Alliance. To gain more current intel, Command is sending a small team to capture a data core which will hopefully give us more up-to-date information as to the size and location of Imperial forces in the system."

Dobson watched as the starfighters and transport began to slide across the screen, heading toward a hyperspace buoy before disappearing. The screen changed so that a Nebulon B-2 Frigate and a lone X-wing were the only ships on the screen. Just then, the six fighters and troop transport slid across the screen and stopped next to the Frigate.

"Your team will rendezvous with the Nebulon B-2 Frigate Destiny and her remaining complement of X-wings from Spear Squadron at the edge of the Nibiri System. They're part of a separate task force that we are coordinating exercises and missions with. The Destiny is approximately thirty-minutes via hyperspace from our current location, and there is no indication that they have been detected by Imperial forces. Once you arrive at the Destiny's location, you'll make contact with Captain Supriya. She will give you the coordinates for your next jump. Your target," continued Reynolds as the two A-wings and two B-wings slid off the screen again and onto a new one, "will be the IGV-55 surveillance vessel Chokra."

Dobson couldn't help but notice the asteroid field that was near the fighters as well as the surveillance vessel. "Pardon me for interrupting, sir," he said, "but given our exit destination, will those asteroids be an issue?"

"A great question, Commander. Your team will be required to fly through the asteroid field to reach your destination. This will allow you to mask your approach and get the drop on the surveillance craft. Commander Dobson will lead the overall force. Buccaneers Three and Seven will be flying B-wings and will be tasked with disabling the target. Corsairs Two and Three will provide superiority support if you encounter any Imperial fighters. Rogues Five and Nine," he said pressing another button, "will be responsible for protecting the commando transport. General support will be secondary to their objective." The two X-wings and commando shuttle slid onto the screen. "They'll arrive after you have confirmed your target has been disabled. The whole process should only take a few minutes. When you are done, head back to the Destiny. She'll be responsible for returning you to the Vigilant's task force. Are there any questions?"

Lieutenant Gemilan raised her hand. "Can we expect any Imperial reinforcements, sir?"

Reynolds pressed a button and the holograms faded away while the lights came back on in the room. "Given Imperial protocol, it is possible that there could be Imperial reinforcements in the area. As to what these could be specifically, that is unknown. Traditionally, the Empire has utilized a small force of gunboats or a small cruiser to respond to distress calls. In this case, it is difficult to say what forces are available or nearby for certain, or if the asteroid field has even been mined. Regardless, your mission is to retrieve the data core at all costs. We need that information if we hope to proceed. Any other questions?"

The pilots shook their heads from side to side.

"Very well. Your ships are being prepared in the Hangar Bay One, and launch time is in twenty minutes. Good luck, and may the Force be with you."

[Hangar Bay One, CRS Vigilant-- 20 minutes later]

The B-wing's cockpit hissed shut as Dobson finished his pre-flight checkup. Looking at the B-wing mechanic standing on the ladder next to the craft, he gave him a thumbs up. The mechanic returned the gesture and climbed down, moving the ladder away from his craft. With a quick glance to his left and right he saw the other pilots in his flight group finishing their pre-flight check, giving signals to their crews that everything was okay. A voice crackled over his radio.

"Buccaneer Three, this is Control."

"Go ahead, Control."

"You have clearance for takeoff. Happy hunting."

"Thank you, Control. Beginning takeoff." As he increased his throttle slightly, he felt his craft come to life. Pulling back on the yoke, his B-wing began to slowly lift off the deck. Retracting his landing gear, he followed the signals the launch personnel were waving at him as he moved out towards the center of the hangar. Pushing forward, his B-wing began moving towards the blue mag field exit of the hangar, and as he got closer to the exit, he began increasing his throttle. As his craft entered the vastness of space outside the Vigilant, small support craft and corvettes filled the immediate space around him.

Once he was clear, he maneuvered his craft to the right and increased his speed to full, moving into position between the Vigilant and the support craft. Checking his scope, he saw six other green dots form up behind him. "This is Buccaneer Three," he called over the comm. "All wings report in." One by one his fellow pilots answered the call.

"This is Buccaneer Seven, ready to roll!"

"Corsair Two, all systems green."

"Corsair Three, standing by."

"Rogue Five, standing by."

"Rogue Nine, standing by."

"This is transport Theta One, awaiting orders."

"Okay team, let's make this a blue milk run. We have a long ride ahead, so be sure to modulate your energy systems accordingly. Maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary. Entering hyperspace coordinates now." He pressed a few buttons and the hyperspace coordinates to the Destiny were locked in. "Begin the jump to hyperspace on my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark."

Pulling the hyperdrive lever back, his craft temporarily slowed as the computer made the final calculations from his current location. Then, the stars in front of him began to turn into long streaks of blue before his craft raced forward. The blue streaks transformed into a swirling blue tunnel, the tell-tale sign that he had reached the necessary speed to enter hyperspace. The rest of his comrades weren't far behind.

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

Captain Neetali Supriya stared intently at the holo display on the bridge. Three X-wing icons from Spear Squadron moved across the image of the surrounding area in a defensive formation. At the edge of the display ran a belt of asteroids.

An Imperial patrol this far out is unlikely- but not impossible, she thought as she continued to track the holo display in front of her. Those asteroids could easily provide cover for a few small fighters, or even an Imperial probe droid. And, she realized, with only six remaining X-wings attached to the ship after her recent combat engagements, they'd be hard pressed to fend off a significant attack if a cruiser with a full fighter complement jumped into the system.

"Captain," called a young lieutenant operating the communications console. She refocused her attention to the bustling activity of the bridge.

"What is it, lieutenant?"

"Message from the Vigilant, ma'am. Their strike team is on its way. Estimated time of arrival is just under thirty minutes."

"Very good. Inform me when they arrive."

The lieutenant gave a quick nod before returning to monitor his station. Just then her First Officer, a green-skinned male Rodian, joined her at the bridge console.

"Any word on our target?" she asked.

"Our operative made contact a bit late," he replied, "but has assured us that the target is right on schedule. At its current trajectory, we have a rough idea of where the strike team should exit the asteroid field."

Captain Supriya furrowed her brow. "Why was the contact late?"

"The cargo station he was at had a Star Destroyer jump in at the last minute. He needed time to get away without his transmission being detected. There was also a delay in the cargo offloading process. Apparently, some unscheduled freighters jumped in to offload some emergency cargo. Unloading schedule was affected, as were the other waiting ships."

Putting both hands on the edge of the round table console, she leaned forward and gave a sigh. "Thankfully everything worked out, though it would seem the Empire is on the move in this system if the Star Destroyer and the freighters jumped in unannounced."

"Unless," interjected her First Officer, "that Star Destroyer is the main capital ship in the area. We don't have any other intel on other Imperial factions or task forces operating in this area."

The Chief does have a point, she thought to herself. "Regardless, be sure to log the report. Prepare the flight path for the strike force from the Vigilant."

"Aye, Captain," he replied and left to complete his work.

"Lieutenant Monnex," she called to the communications officer.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Notify Flight One that they're to begin takeoff procedures within five minutes. I want fresh pilots on patrol. Then notify Flight Two that they can land on the Destiny once Flight One has launched. They are to immediately report to their quarters for some rest. Also, inform Commander Felix that the Vigilant group will be arriving soon."

"Aye, Captain."

The board is set, the pieces are moving, she thought to herself. It was her hope that everything would run smoothly. Though she had been wrong before.

[Hyperspace, Vigilant Assault Group -- 30 minutes later]

Dobson checked the chronometer on his dashboard console. A little more than ten seconds remained. It had been a long hyperspace journey, but they were finally here. He broke radio silence through his helmet comm.

"Okay boys and girls, get ready to exit hyperspace on my mark." He put his hand on the hyperdrive lever, ready to push it forward. "Three. Two. One. Mark." As he pushed the lever away from him, the swirling blue tunnel melted into a shower of blue-streaked starlines, and then back to regular space. He saw the Destiny and three X-wings appear on his scope. Looking at the ship directly ahead of him, the Nebulon B-2 Frigate looked like it had seen its share of battles. Carbon scoring ran along the inverted V-shaped wings on the front of the ship. Switching his comm system over, he made contact with the Destiny.

"Destiny, this is Commander Dobson of Buccaneer Squadron reporting in."

A female voice with an accent that could only be described as milk and honey came over his headset.

"Welcome, Commander. This is Captain Supriya of the Destiny. We've been looking forward to your arrival. Our team has the coordinates and flight path ready. Transmitting now."

Dobson watched as his computer received the flight path and coordinates, saving them to the navigation drive. When they were ready, his console gave a quick beep.

"Thank you, Captain. We'll get into position. See you soon."

"Copy, Commander. Happy hunting."

"Okay, Buccaneer Seven, Corsair Two and Three, with me. Rogues Five and Nine, take up position with Theta One near the Destiny."

A string of affirmatives rolled through his headset. Shifting the position of his B-wing, he and the other three fighters made their way to the jump coordinates. Another holographic navigation buoy appeared on his screen.

"A much shorter jump this time, team. Let's get to work. Jumping to hyperspace in three. Two. One. Mark."

Once again, the stars streaked and transformed into the swirling blue hyperspace tunnel as they raced towards their next location.

From the bridge of her ship, Captain Supriya watched as the four fighters raced off her screen. Flight One of Spear Squadron continued their patrol formation while the two fighters from Rogue Squadron stuck close with their transport near the Destiny.

Now we wait, she thought as she folded her arms across her chest.

[Space, unknown location]

Commodore Tol Barand sniffed as he watched the patrols of TIE Fighters move lazily across the starfield in front of him. Things had been quiet for him lately, and his attempt to court other Imperial ships and factions into his task force was meeting with mixed success. Not that he hadn't been successful at persuading some and increasing his reputation as a Commodore. He did pride himself on that. There were others that simply refused to join him - which he was required to take care of, of course - or did not prove to be a threat yet who were being unusually stubborn.

As a pair of TIE Interceptors crossed the bow of his Star Destroyer, he heard the footsteps of someone walking up behind him. Taking the space to his left, he saw a young lieutenant standing at attention with a data pad.

"Yes, lieutenant?" he asked.

"Message from the Monarch, sir. Captain Gaspra has once more declined your offer."

Again? he thought. Damn her! He had made a few attempts over the last few weeks to persuade her to join him. She was definitely being one of the more stubborn captains in the Imperial remnant. Then again, captaining a Mark-II Imperial Star Destroyer, plus commanding a small force in a modestly profitable system that could keep it resupplied for who knew how long was both taxing and its own reward in and of itself.

"Thank you, lieutenant," he said coolly. "A most unfortunate message, it would seem. Any word from the scouting party?"

"Yes, sir," said the lieutenant, giving Barand the data pad. "We've identified some of their assets, as the dossier details here."

"Excellent, lieutenant. That will be all."

As the lieutenant turned around to head back to his post, Barand began glancing at the information in the dossier. It contained information about new ships in the Nidiri System that had been identified as ferrying goods to Captain Gaspra, or elsewhere. Not to mention the location of a few small outposts and other ships under her tutelage. Of note to him was a small Tibanna gas operation on the only gas giant in this system. That would be a most valuable asset he thought as he continued to thumb his way through the information.

There was, of course, one notable point that he had been able to discern over the last week from the information he had been collecting. Her supply lines were erratic, causing scheduling delays and other issues. Moreover, she was using a lot of civilian and merchant transports to ferry her supplies and equipment, which could incur additional costs above and beyond what the Empire would have been able to do. She is making it work for now, he thought as he continued to carefully consider the information in front of him. But over time this will wreak havoc for not only her, but possibly the local economy of the system as well. Had she decided to join him and be loyal, this was something he could easily remedy.

Resolving to not let a good opportunity go to waste, he turned to head to the comm station at the back of the bridge.

One more try certainly wouldn't hurt, he thought as he moved up the bridge walkway. Especially with so much to gain.

[Asteroid field, edge of the Nidiri System]

Two minutes after they began their second jump, the four fighters slid out of hyperspace all at the same time. Dobson gave his scopes a quick scan to see if there were any other contacts nearby. It was just their four green dots and a field of asteroids ahead.

"Okay team, let's do this by the books," he said, moving his craft into position. "Watch yourselves on the way in. If any small asteroids get in your way, blast them with short, controlled bursts. Stay away from the big ones. Buccaneer Seven, lock S-foils in attack position."

"Copy that, Commander," came Rev's reply. Both B-wings shifted position as their S-foils opened and their cockpits rotated into a vertical cross shape.

"Buccaneer Three, this is Corsair Two," came Gremlin's voice over the comm.

"Go ahead, Two."

"Permission for Corsair Three and I to take the lead. We can scout ahead if there are any issues. Can clear you a path, too."

"Great idea, Corsair Two. Go ahead."

The two A-wings accelerated past the B-wings.

"Ever flown through an asteroid field, Buccaneer Seven?" he asked Rev.

"Not with a B-wing," he replied. "I'm hoping it will be less deadly. Somehow."

Dobson gave a quick laugh. "Just stick close and you'll be fine."

As they entered the asteroid field, he could see the A-wings shifting their flight pattern every few seconds to avoid any asteroid coming near them. On occasion they sent a few short scarlet bursts from their laser cannons out, disintegrating any small asteroids that got in their way or posed a danger. Dobson and Ri'Chard did the same with their B-wings, though because of their size they had to be a bit more careful.

As they progressed through the field, he noticed two large, grey asteroids moving towards one another. The gap between them was narrowing.

"Close S-foils and increase throttle, Rev. We'll have to go between them."

As the two B-wings sprinted forward, the gap became dangerously narrower. They had just been able to clear the space between the two asteroids before they collided.

"That was too close!" called Ri'chard over his comm system. Opening their S-foils again, they continued, blasting a few small asteroids that had filled the path the Corsairs had cleared seconds earlier. It took a few more minutes to move their way through the asteroid field, but they eventually came to a section that was easier to navigate.

"Looks like the worst is behind us," chimed in Corsair Three. "Now it's just smooth sailing to the-"

"CONTACT!" yelled Gremlin over the comm. "I'm being targeted! Taking evasive action!"

Dobson watched as her A-wing peeled away and started maneuvering around a few medium-sized asteroids. Corsair Three did something similar. Checking his scopes, he saw three red blips appear. Cycling through his targeting computer he found three small towers jutting out of different nearby asteroids.

Where did they come from?! he thought, alarmed. Just then his warning systems lit up, and his console began emitting a series of short beeps. He was being targeted by... something. A shrill beep filled his cockpit. Hitting his targeting button, he locked on to what he thought was a missile heading towards him - only when he looked at his computer screen, it wasn't a missile.

"Homing mines!" he exclaimed into his comm system. "Shoot them down, now, then destroy those launchers!"

"Copy, boss!" replied Rev.

Dobson sent out a slough of laser blasts at the mine that was heading straight towards him. He was able to shoot it down just seconds before it made contact. Flying through the explosive blast while Rev made an attack run on the first tower with his lasers, he couldn't help but notice Corsair Two flying towards him from his front-right. She pulled a tight corkscrew maneuver between two asteroids before jinking away. The homing mine that was following her collided with one of the asteroids, melting it into a fine mist of powder and flame as it exploded.

Corsair Three wasn't as lucky.

"I can't shake it! I need help!" Talon called frantically as he tried desperately to evade the homing mine that was locked onto him.

"Hang on, Three, I'll be right there," called Gremlin as she moved to intercept the mine following him.

Dobson's cockpit gave off another warning. A second homing mine had been launched and locked on to him.

Oh sithspit! he cursed as he targeted the new mine. It was rapidly closing in on him, but before he could let loose a volley of lasers, an asteroid suddenly crossed in front of him, blocking his chance at a clear shot. He was able to twist his craft in such a way that the mine narrowly missed him as he changed his vector. He pressed his countermeasure button and a flare shot out from the rear of his craft, only to slam into a new asteroid that filled the space he was in just seconds before. The homing mine began changing its course to close in on him.

"Slag! I need some help!" he called over his comm.

"Be right there, boss!" called Rev. A few seconds later the homing mine disappeared from his scope as it was shot down.

"You're clear, Corsair Three," called Gremlin over the comm. "Take out that second mine tower. I'll cover you."

"Thanks, Two. Beginning my attack run."

Turning his craft towards the third homing mine tower, Dobson watched as scarlet lasers lanced out from Corsair Two's A-wing and connected with the tower, causing it to explode in a ball of gas, fire, and debris. Locking on to the final tower, Dobson pressed forward. His cockpit alarm beeped a third time as another mine was launched at him, but he had enough distance and the right angle where he easily shot down the mine as it launched. He made short work of the third tower as well.

"Everyone alright?" he asked.

"That was too close," said Gremlin over the comm.

"Agreed. Let's form up. We'll be arriving at our target soon."

[Officers Dining Quarters, aboard the ISD-II Monarch]

Low, soothing music filled the private dining quarters aboard the Monarch. Captain Brinna Gaspra sat at the head of the empty table. While she normally didn't mind eating with her other officers, she always enjoyed the peace and quiet of taking her meals alone. It was a small luxury given her many duties in all but running the Nidiri System, and it allowed her a chance to unwind without interruption. Finishing the last of her steak, she took a sip of red wine from her wine glass. The combination of flavours exploded in her mouth, and she savoured them for a few seconds before swallowing.

This is pure bliss she thought as she relaxed back into her seat and closed her eyes. She'd have to spend an extra session or two in the officer's athletic room to work off the extra pounds she'd gain from the meal, but it would be worth it.

A few minutes later her personal communicator beeped. Giving a sigh of disgust, she instinctively reached for it at her belt and thumbed it up to her mouth. There would only be one person who would dare to contact her at this hour.

"First Officer Amirez," she said slowly into the communicator. "You do realize what time it is, don't you?"

"I apologize for the interruption, Captain, but we've had a development that I thought you should know about."

"Chief... are we under attack?"

First Officer Amirez paused for a moment before answering. "No, Captain, but-"

"Is one of our depots being raided by pirates or rebels?"

"No, Captain, but you should-"

"Then what is so pressing that you cannot take care of the matter yourself, Chief?"

"As I've been trying to explain, ma'am, one of our defence zones has been breached. One of our probe droids has transmitted images to us."

"Images of what?"

"They're a bit corrupted from some interference, but they appear to be starfighters, ma'am. Alliance starfighters."

Gaspra's eyes opened and she sat up slowly. Alliance fighters? THIS far out? This was worth the interruption. "Chief," she said as she stood up, "you have my most sincere apology. This is very welcome news."

"I thought you'd see it that way, ma'am. Also, we've just received another communication from Commodore Barand. He says he wants to speak with you. Again."

Gaspra wrinkled her nose in a sour expression. That man just won't give up. "Barand can wait for now. I'll be to the bridge shortly, Chief."

Turning her communicator off and placing it back in her belt, she stood up, adjusted her tunic, grabbed her officer's hat and gloves from the table, and made her way to the bridge.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

"Show me," she said as she met Amirez at one of the consoles near the back corridor of the Star Destroyer's bridge. Pressing a few buttons, the image filled the console screen. It was a bit garbled, but some of the fighters were unmistakable. They were A-wing class. "Are these the only ones?" she asked.

"Possibly, ma'am, but it's hard to be sure. This was taken at one of our homing mine points in Sector 35. We've analyzed their vector and come up with a few scenarios. If they continue their present course, they'll have already engaged our concussion missile locations at the edge of the asteroid field. We expect another of our probe droids to relay a fresh image any moment."

As if on cue, a new set of images were being transmitted to the computer console. These ones were much clearer and now showed four fighters engaging the concussion missile placements at the edge of the asteroid field.

Bringing a gloved hand up to her chin, Gaspra mused over the information. "One or two fighters of A-wing or X-wing class are not uncommon for an Alliance patrol. But two A-wings and two B-wings suggests something more important. While it would not be impossible for starfighters to travel this far out, there are no known outposts or ships nearby, nor are there any major installations this far out for them to assault, save our supply depot in Sector 20. But even that is much too far away if they made a long journey. No, they are here for something else, and would not be here without some sort of support ship. Do we have any other ships in their vicinity?"

The Chief walked over to the circular officers console in the middle of the room.

"Some Gozanti-class cruisers in the adjacent sectors. But just one in that area, ma'am. An IGV-55 surveillance vessel." Pressing a few buttons, the egg-shaped image of the vessel appeared on the screen. Its trajectory path leading right towards the location of the Alliance fighters.

"What could four Alliance fighters want with a system patrol craft?" she thought aloud as she moved to the circular console.

"Perhaps they mean to destroy it. Pave the way for a larger strike force."

"That seems unlikely given that they are coming through the asteroid field to mask their approach. Chief, what is the protocol for a surveillance craft's recording information?"

"Once a surveillance craft has completed its mission, it stores it in a data tape. That tape is then transferred directly to sector command for review. In our case, that would be us. In the meantime, the surveillance craft's computer logs are wiped clean of all sensitive data before they resume their next patrol."

"And how far along is this particular craft in its patrol route?"

The Chief pressed a few more buttons to bring up more details about the ship. Its name and scheduled route appeared on the screen.

"This is the surveillance craft Chokra. It is scheduled to finish its route... tomorrow."

The captain's eyes narrowed as she contemplated the scenario before her. Then it dawned on her. If that ship has been visiting numerous facilities and ships throughout the sector, all of which were under her command and protection, it would keep a log of everything that it scanned or came across. And if the fighters weren't here to destroy it, it could only mean one thing: they meant to capture it and use the information to plan for a larger move to reclaim the system from Imperial protection. Which meant with certainty that there were other Alliance craft in the area or on their way.

"Lieutenant!" she barked as she turned to the communicators station. "Get me the Chokra immediately. I need to speak to its captain. First Officer Amirez," she said, turning quickly to face him, "bring up a map of every ship we have in our task force that is nearby. We have some planning to do. And a Commodore to speak with."

[Asteroid field, Sector 35]

As they cleared the last of the concussion missile emplacements, something didn't sit well with the entire situation. Clearing the homing mines and missile emplacements had taken time off their flight path, which meant that the surveillance craft should already have been in the sector with them. Yet it wasn't. In fact, it was several minutes late from its scheduled route.

"Something doesn't seem right," said Dobson into his comm. "Where's the surveillance craft?"

"Maybe they had a course correction? Trouble with their hyperdrive?" suggested Talon.

"Hard to say, Corsair Three," replied Dobson. "Alright, team, stay in formation. Keep an eye out for the Chokra." It took about five more minutes before the Chokra appeared from hyperspace.

"There it is!" said Gremlin. The four fighters turned towards the surveillance craft, which was about one-and-a-half clicks from their location.

As they closed in on their target, Dobson opened a channel to the ship. "Surveillance craft Chokra, we are fighters from the Rebel Alliance. Lower your shields and power down your engines and weapons systems. If you do not, we will be forced to-".

Before he could finish his sentence, green laser bolts lanced out towards the fighters from the cannon emplacements on the ship.

"I don't think they like us, boss!" called Rev.

"Agreed. Corsair Two and Three, run interference. Seven and I will begin our attack run."

"Copy, Commander."

The two A-wings shot ahead, firing a few quick blasts before criss-crossing their vectors and peeling away in different directions. The green laser fire followed them, giving the two B-wings a few extra seconds for their attack run. Both B-wings dumbfired a single warhead at the surveillance craft before opening up with a mix of laser and ion cannon fire. By the time the ship returned to fire at the B-wings, they began to peel away and avoid the laser fire.

"Okay, Seven, let's swing around for another pass. Ion cannons only next time. Corsair Two, get in touch with the Destiny. Let them know our progress." Affirmatives came across his comm.

As the B-wings swung around, the laser fire began to hit their targets. Thankfully, the B-wings had extra shielding to absorb some of the blast. Opening up with a hail of ion cannon fire, the surveillance craft was disabled before the B-wings had their shields drop significantly.

"Commander, we have a problem," came Gremlin's voice.

"Go ahead, Corsair Two."

"That asteroid field is interfering with long-range communication. I can't raise the Destiny."

"There must be too much interference. Two, I want you to get about three kilometers above the asteroid field, then try again. If that doesn't work, keep increasing your height until you do."

"Copy that, Commander."

As her A-wing cut to a ninety degree angle and raced upwards, Dobson began rebalancing his energy systems so that his lasers and shields would recharge. It was better to be safe than sorry. Though he still couldn't shake the feeling that things weren't adding up.

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

"Captain," called the communicators officer, "incoming message from the strike team."

"Very good, lieutenant," she said, turning to face him. "What's their status?"

The lieutenant paused for a moment before his face became concerned.

"It's hard to make out, but she... reports that they ran into trouble in the asteroid field... and the surveillance craft ran late. She also reports... that it has been successfully disabled."

Captain Supriya wasted no time altering the plans and turned to her First Officer. "I want a new hyperspace route calculated for the Rogue Squadron team. If our initial team ran into trouble in the asteroid field, there could be other surprises we don't know about. As soon as the new flight plan is calculated, transmit it to Rogue Squadron and the transport." He nodded and began preparing a new flight plan with the tactical officer standing next to him. "Lieutenant," she said, turning to look at him again, "inform Corsair Two that we have received her confirmation, and that the retrieval team will be arriving from a new vector in a few minutes."

"Yes, ma'am."

Just then the officer stationing the engineering console called for her.

"Ma'am, report from engineering. The Chief Engineer is reporting power issues with engines two and five. He's requesting a reboot cycle to try and work out the issue."

Dammit, she thought, why now? "How long will that take?"

"Chief thinks ten, maybe fifteen minutes."

That's cutting it close, she thought, but having full engine capacity is safer than being sorry. "Tell the Chief to go ahead but work as quickly as he can. I don't want to be here any longer than we need to be."

[Asteroid field, Sector 35]

Gremlin completed yet another circuit in her A-wing. She had managed to get a mostly clear signal to the Destiny and was just receiving their response now. Suddenly, a new voice came over the intercom.

"Corsair Two, this is the Des--. Ro-Squad-n will be joining you short--. Will be--ing in from a new -ector. I say aga- -ew vector."

"Copy, Destiny. Corsair Two out."

Rolling her A-wing one-hundred and eighty degrees, she dove down towards the rest of her team.

"Commander, message from the Destiny. Rogue Squadron and the transport will be joining us shortly with a new approach vector."

"Good to know, Two. Form up and maintain formation with-"

Her heart sank as she saw three Gozanti-class cruisers hyper in below her from different angles and distances. All three began launching their complement of TIE Fighters. Oh sithspit, she thought.

"New contacts!" called Dobson over the comm. "Three Gozanti cruisers, twelve TIE Fighters!"

"What's the plan, boss?!" Talon asked frantically.

"We have no choice," she heard Dobson say. "We fight. We need that data core. Angle your deflector shields, balance your energy systems, and stick close. Hopefully Rogue Squadron arrives on time!"

Pushing full power to her engines, Gremlin rocketed down towards her comrades, fingers ready on the trigger to open fire.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Captain Gaspra stood at the circular console on the bridge of the Monarch, arms folded across her chest. In front of her was a holographic map of this region of Imperial space. Numerous dots appeared that showed active platforms, cargo depots, smaller cruisers, the odd flight of patrol craft with hyperspace capability. And, most importantly, the Tibanna gas mine and refinery that she coveted so greatly.

"So, Captain," came Barand's voice from the small holographic projector to her left. He stood about half a foot high on the board. "Do we have a mutual deal?"

It wasn't unreasonable for her to request aid when she was a part of the former Imperial navy, but if her suspicions were correct she would need a more powerful force to deal with any Alliance incursions on her assets. An alliance with Barand would benefit her if this were the case, and it would help with her convoy supply issues, not to mention the local economy. The question was, was this the card she should play that would reap the most benefit beyond what she'd already tried to build?

"And I have your assurance, Commodore, that in exchange for my services, you'll provide support commercially and militarily - without repercussions against current crew and personnel -- and ensure I still remain in command of the system?"

A small smile spread across Barand's holographic face.

"Why Captain, I have a certain image I'd like to maintain. It makes no sense for two loyal officers of the Imperial navy to be at odds with one another when we should be united against a common foe. I can clear up your supply line issues and help protect your system if you agree to join my forces - and are successful in this endeavour, of course. As you will see, this venture will be lucrative for both of us in the long run. If you decline, do keep in mind that the number of Star Destroyers disabled or destroyed by the Alliance as of late has been increasing."

Pausing for a moment, she considered the offer one more time. If she was right - and she often was - this could be the beginning of something she was not fully prepared for. The number of systems flocking to the Alliance's side lately was alarming, and she could not fend off Alliance incursions all by herself.

"Alright, Barand," she said firmly. "We have a deal."

"An excellent choice, Captain. Since you indicated that you've already begun a tactical operation against this small starfighter force, I'll send you a list of nearby assets shortly and direct them to your system immediately. They will be responsible for responding to you directly. And please, captain," he said a bit more sternly. "Consider this your rite of passage with me. Do make sure you use them responsibly. Every asset counts." With that, his holographic image disappeared.

Letting out a quick breath, Gaspra adjusted the map to focus on the surveillance craft sector. Just then she heard the young communications lieutenant at his console behind her swivel in his chair.

"We've received a report from the three cruisers, ma'am. They've engaged the starfighters and have launched all of their TIE flights."

"Very good, lieutenant," she said without turning around. Weighing her options, she chose the most logical one she could given the circumstances. "Launch Sigma Squadron. Have them hyperspace to the following coordinates and wait for further instructions. And notify me as soon as Barand's task force list comes through so I can make contact with them."

[Asteroid Field, Sector 35]

Outnumbered three-to-one, the four starfighters danced frantically to avoid the incoming bursts of green laser fire from the first group of TIE Fighters that had engaged them. The other two flights were less than a minute away, and things were about to get more difficult.

"Damn," said Rev as he pulled his B-wing into a corkscrew, lasers blasting away at the TIE Fighter he was pursuing. "This guy's good! I can't get a lock."

"You've picked one up, Seven," said Dobson as he jinked to his right. "Break left!" He watched as Rev's B-wing broke left and away, but the pursuing fighter stayed hot on his tail. Just then, Dobson's B-wing rocked from the impact of laser fire. Checking his scope, he saw one of the TIE Fighters had now slid onto his six. Pulling back hard on his yoke, he sent his B-wing up and began rotating its body to prevent the pursuing TIE from having a consistent area to fire upon.

"Aargh, I can't shake him!" he heard Rev say with frustration.

"Hold on, Buccaneer Seven, I'm on him!" called Gremlin.

Talon was the next to speak frantically over the comm. "Corsair Two, you've picked one up! Break off!"

"Negative, I've almost got him! I've almost-".

Green laser blasts lanced out towards Gremlin's A-wing. Most of the shots missed, but one of them hit her right engine nacelle. She gave out a quick cry of surprise and broke away sharply from her prey.

"I'm hit, but I'm ok!"

Checking his scopes, he saw that a second TIE Fighter had slid in behind him, joining his original pursuer. He continued to weave his way through the skirmish, twisting and banking whenever he could. It was sheer luck that he saw Rev's B-wing slide across his view with enough space that he could track the pursuing TIE Fighter. Maneuvering his craft to slide to his left, he fired several shots towards the TIE Fighter as it arced in pursuit. The first few blasts missed, but the rest found their target. The TIE Fighter disintegrated into a cloud of dust and fire.

"One down!" he cried. His B-wing shook again as more laser fire pounded into his shields. "Anyone care to help?" he asked as he dumped some of his laser energy into his shields.

As he twisted the yoke to his right, he saw that he was flying straight towards the eight other TIE Fighters that had been racing towards them. They were in two flights of perfect diamond formation. Giving a quick gasp of surprise, he was about to angle his deflector shields to double front when a shower of scarlet laser blasts rained down from above the TIEs. Two of them exploded, causing the other six to break off. Two X-wings dove through the carnage at full throttle.

"Did you boys and girls think you could have fun without us?" yelled Jasted over the comm.

"Great timing, Rogue Five!" called Dobson as he dove downwards into a corkscrew. Checking his scope, he saw one of the red dots tailing him disappear. The second broke away.

"You're all clear, Buccaneer Three," said Talon as his A-wing raced by.

"Thanks, Talon," said Dobson. He noticed Rogues Five and Nine turning their X-wings in a synchronous manner as they began their climb back up towards the bulk of the battle. The Rogues would be invaluable here, but they were still outnumbered two-to-one.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Looking at the near real-time movements of the current battle, Captain Gaspra began to take note of the ships that were being identified. She was unfamiliar with the squadrons titled Buccaneer and Corsair, but the set of X-wings was well known in Imperial circles. Rogue Squadron, she thought. This is definitely a priority mission for them if they're involved.

"Lieutenant," she called. "Have one of the cruisers calculate the entry point of Rogue Squadron and the transport. Extrapolate their entry point back to possible points of origin. Then transmit those coordinates back to us." She looked up at her first officer, who had joined her once more at the table. "Knowing the Rebels, they'll either be using the asteroid field as cover, or be within a few minutes of hyperspace travel to make their presence unknown. Have a message sent to Commodore Barand, updating him that Rogue Squadron is involved. We'll have to act more swiftly than I thought."

"Aye, ma'am."

It was almost a minute to the second when a reply from Barand came through.

Squadrons attached to CRS Vigilant task force.

Destroy with extreme prejudice.

Update regularly.


"He really is serious about this, isn't he ma'am?" said her First Officer.

"So it would seem, Chief. Tactical," she barked from where she stood. "Recall all TIE Fighters immediately. Helm, set a course for Sector Fifty-Two. Jump to hyperspace as soon as they are on board."

"Yes, ma'am!" came the replies from the crew pits

"Ma'am," said the lieutenant sitting at the main comm station. "We've just received a list of assets from Commodore Barand."

She turned to face him from where he was standing.

"Very well. Let's see what we have to work with."

[Asteroid Field, Sector 53]

Gremlin watched as blue ion blasts lanced out from Dobber's B-wing. The TIE Fighter that he was chasing surged with blue electricity as the laser blasts hit their mark. Despite it being disabled, it had enough momentum to continue its trajectory until it bounced off a medium-sized asteroid and slammed into a second, erupting into a ball of fire.

"Nice shot, Buccaneer Three!" she called over her comm.

"Thanks, Gremlin," said Dobber as his B-wing flew past her port side, "but watch your six!"

She twisted left then right in her seat to try and find the TIE Fighter behind her. She saw it diving in from five o'clock high. A pair of green laser blasts began heading in her direction. Without missing a beat, she twisted her A-wing into a barrel roll to her left and began dancing her craft from left to right to avoid the TIE Fighter locking on to her. As she pulled her yoke towards her, she twisted it up and to the right to initiate a high yo-yo maneuver, hoping to be able to angle herself behind the TIE Fighter as it completed its turn.

As she reached the apex of her turn, she saw one of the Rogue Squadron X-wings slicing down and away as it obliterated the TIE Fighter it was chasing. But as she completed her turn the TIE Fighter was nowhere to be found. Blast, where is he?! she thought frantically to herself.

Just then a pair of green laser blasts shot past her port side, then two more pairs slammed into her shields. She pulled up hard and began spinning her craft to avoid any more shots while quickly redirecting some laser cannon power back into her shields. The only thought that crossed her mind was how clever the TIE pilot chasing her was. Not only had he anticipated her yo-yo maneuver, he had circled around in the opposite direction that she had wanted him to, thus keeping his position behind her. Another set of green lasers rammed into her shields, her console reading 54% shield power.

"Talon, where are you?" she called over the comm. She was met with static. "Talon? Talon, come in!" Still nothing. She flipped her A-wing over onto its belly and dove downwards. "This is Corsair Two," she called over the comm, "I need help!"

"Two, this is Rogue Five. Where are you?"

"I'm at... point oh-five-seven," she replied, frantically trying to check her six and watch her computer screen.

"Turn to point six-three-five. I'll meet you there."

She glanced at her console map. That location and his position was a little over a click away. Had she really moved that far away from the group? Suddenly, two more sets of green lasers blasted her shields. Sithspit! she cursed as her computer console showed 14% shield strength. She realized then that she only had one choice.

"Negative, I won't make it in time!" she replied. She glanced to her left and saw her only opportunity. "I'm going to try something." Shifting her shield strength to double-rear, giving her a slight advantage for shielding, she leveled her craft off and broke left - straight towards the asteroid field.

"Two, at your speed, it's too risky in there! Break off and head to me!"

Ignoring Rogue Five's instructions, she raced into the asteroid field. She could hear and see small pieces of dust and rubble bouncing off the body of her craft. If she wasn't careful, a bigger piece of rock could do some serious damage to her craft. Green lasers blasted past her starboard side as she began maneuvering around some of the asteroids. Hoping to put more objects between her and the TIE Fighter to absorb some of the laser blasts, she angled her craft to the left and raced deeper into the asteroid field. The comm chatter over her helmet from the others grew choppier and choppier the further she went into the field.

As the TIE Fighter continued its pursuit, she continued moving desperately around one asteroid to the next. It was then that she saw what her only salvation - or possibly her end - might be. Two exceptionally large asteroids were slowly moving towards one another on a collision course. Aiming for the middle point at which they would collide, she dove directly towards the shrinking opening. Green lasers continued to pour past her as she twisted her craft into a corkscrew maneuver before entering the lips of the colliding asteroids. Checking her scope, she saw the TIE Fighter slide out from behind her and away to the right. Glancing above her, she saw the asteroid growing dangerously closer to her cockpit. Aiming her craft for the exit, she shot forwards. As the two asteroids collided behind her, she placed one hand on her throttle, the other on her yoke, and simultaneously turned her craft into a drift while reducing her speed. She pulled hard to angle her craft to the right at a forty-five degree high angle. There was no time to change the position of her shields.

Please be there, she thought as she thumbed her trigger. Sweat trickled down her right temple. Please be there, please be there.

And there it was!

The TIE Fighter had, as she had correctly hoped, circled up and around the two asteroids to try and get the drop on her. As her targeting computer flickered green indicating a lock, she fired off three sets of lasers at the TIE Fighter. Before it had a chance to evade, it disintegrated into a ball of fire and debris.

Letting out a sigh of relief, she set her lasers and shields to full charge, and increased her throttle to head back to the others.

When she finally cleared the asteroid field, Rogues Five and Nine were performing a scissoring maneuver on the final TIE Fighter as it tried to get away from its pursuers. Clearly, that had been a mistake as it was within seconds reduced to dust.

"Corsair Two, this is Buccaneer Three," came Dobson's voice over the comm. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm doing fine now Buccaneer Three," she replied.

"Good. It seems Corsair Three has lost communications ability. He's pulled back to the transport and is trying to repair it now."

So that's why he couldn't hear me, she thought as she formed up with the Buccaneer B-wings.

"Okay," she said, "so what's the plan now?"

"Buccaneer Seven and I are going to initiate an attack run on the nearest cruiser as it has moved closer to us. The Rogues will run interference. I want you to stick close to the target in case there are other surprises and keep an eye on the other two cruisers in case they move closer."

"I copy, Buccaneer Three."

As the B-wings broke away, she moved into position near the disabled surveillance ship. The commando transport had begun to move closer, though the other two Imperial cruisers had yet to do so.

As the B-wings and X-wings engaged the first cruiser, their lasers and torpedoes slamming into its shields and hull, she couldn't help but feel that something wasn't adding up here either. Those three cruisers had responded quickly. It was entirely reasonable that had the three of them moved in on their target together, it would have been more than enough to drive off a handful of Alliance starfighters. Then again, Imperial protocol and fighting tactics were odd at the best of times for those not being directed by a seasoned commander or captain.

As the commando transport docked with the surveillance ship, she observed the X-wings drawing fire from the first cruiser as the B-wings launched their torpedoes at critical systems and the bridge. It was not long before the B-wings began a final attack run on the first cruiser, ion cannon bolts splashing across the ship's hull. Within several seconds the ship was fully disabled. Checking her console again, she still saw that the other two cruisers were holding position.

"Those other cruisers... anyone else seeing what I'm seeing?" she asked into her comm.

"I do, Corsair Two," responded Rogue Nine. "A bit odd, to be sure. Those cruisers should be on top of us by now."

Just then a new voice came over the comm systems.

"Vigilant Flight, this is Captain Lasky. We've secured the data core. Heading back to the transport with the core and prisoners now."

"I copy, Captain Lasky," she heard Dobber say. "When you're aboard, let us know. Rogue Squadron will lead you to the exit vector. Jasted, transmit the new coordinates to us for the jump back."

It didn't take long for the transport to signal that the crew was aboard and that it had finished its docking procedure. The remaining fighters formed up with the transport and began heading above the asteroid field towards where Talon was waiting. By the time they got there, she had received the flight coordinates from Jasted and had locked them into her computer to make the jump to hyperspace.

"Okay flight, let's head home," said Dobber as the S-foils on the B-wings and X-wings closed. "Heading to hyperspace in three. Two. One. Go."

As she pulled back the lever for hyperspace, the stars once more began their transformation. As they made their way back to the Destiny, she still could not shake the feeling that those cruisers should have done something. But for now, that was behind them.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch, Sector 52]

Captain Gaspra stood at the command table console on the bridge of her Star Destroyer. The holographic map in front of her showed the location of the assets in Sector 53, as well as the locations and travel vectors of the other ones lent to her by Barand. It was very fortuitous indeed to have what she did in such a short timeframe, and she had been able to make contact with each of the ships' captains. She heard footsteps approaching from behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the young communications officer facing her to her right. She turned her head slightly to look at him. "Report," she said firmly.

"We've just received a communication from Captain Delay'la, ma'am," he said, holding out a data pad. "The Alliance fighters and transport have just left the system. All TIE Fighters were destroyed, and one cruiser was disabled. Their hyperspace trajectory was recorded, and the data sent to us."

"Excellent, lieutenant," she said, taking the data pad. "Send a message to Captains Delay'la and Vathros. Have their cruisers rendezvous with the Ariadne. And send a repair team from our nearest supply depot to repair the disabled cruiser."

"Ma'am," said the lieutenant with a nod, and he returned to his station.

Handing the data pad to her Amirez, she turned to meet his gaze.

"We only have a few minutes to do this. Have the computer analyze possible exit points within a minimum of one to four minutes of hyperspace jump time. Notify me the moment the coordinates are identified." With a nod, she watched him head over to the navigation console and begin working with the crew there.

She turned to look once more at the pieces available to her. The board was set. There was no reason that she could not make the next move, even if it was a bit presumptuous to cast a wide net.

"Lieutenant," she called to the communications area, "get me the leader of Sigma Squadron."

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

Captain Supriya sat in her command chair, watching the space outside the main viewport window. Her command staff moved about the bridge, tending to their assignments and monitoring the systems of their frigate. She watched as the trio of X-wings from Spear Squadron slid across the vastness of space in patrol formation for what must have been the twelfth time. A few more flybys and she might risk falling asleep at her post from boredom. Luckily for them, no Imperial patrols had crept up to surprise them, and long-range sensors had yet to pick up any ships - though the asteroid field did interfere with their sensors.

"Ma'am," called the communications lieutenant from his console. "We have new IFF contacts. It's the strike team. They're reporting a successful mission and requesting landing clearance. Theta One also reports securing several Imperial prisoners."

"Very good, lieutenant," she said, swiveling her mechanized chair around. "Send a security team to the hangar to escort the prisoners to the brig. Then have the data core brought to our engineering team. I also want to see Commander Dobson on the bridge for a debriefing."

"Yes, ma'am."

She twisted her chair back towards the officers manning the helm consoles. "Helm, begin entering the coordinates for rendezvous with the Vigilant. You have clearance for entrance to hyperspace as soon as all the fighters are aboard and secured."

The officers acknowledged her command and continued with their preparations.

Getting out of her chair, she walked around and over to the command console, once more taking stock of the surrounding area and ships.

[Elevator, FRG Destiny ten minutes later]

Dobson waited patiently as the elevator slowed to a stop. The doors hissed open, revealing the bustling activity of the bridge. Adjusting his helmet underneath his left arm, he stepped forward and made his way to the main console. Behind it he could see other bridge personnel, and behind them the swirling blue tunnel of hyperspace. They must have already made the jump back to the Vigilant, he thought.

"Commander," said a modestly attractive, thirty-something woman in a Captain's uniform with light milk-chocolate skin and dark hair falling past her shoulders, "welcome aboard. I'm Captain Supriya."

"Thank you, Captain," said Dobson with a quick salute, "A pleasure to come aboard."

"Will you join me by the main viewport?" she asked, motioning behind her. Moving around the bridge equipment and personnel, he walked a few steps behind her until they were both there. Then, in a slightly lower voice she asked, "What do you have to report?"

"A few close calls, Captain," he replied with an equally low voice. "Our route through the asteroid field went well until we came across two sets of asteroids that had homing mines and missile launcher emplacements. We managed to disable the surveillance ship, but three Gozanti-class cruisers and their complement of TIE Fighters responded shortly afterwards. A few close calls with the TIE Fighters, but thanks to our pilots' skills, we didn't suffer any casualties. The oddest thing was that the cruisers didn't really make a move on us or our target when they easily could have. Thankfully, we managed to get back here with the data core in one piece."

"And good fortune that you did. Those emplacements were not part of any intel that our team was briefed about, nor were those cruisers. It does seem bizarre for the cruisers you encountered to arrive so quickly, then just hold position. Imperial protocol would stipulate that the data core be recovered at all costs. Regardless," she said, nodding towards a few individuals at one of the stations near the rear of the bridge, "our team started deciphering the data core your team helped retrieve a few minutes ago. We're hoping your hard work will pay off as Command plans our next move."

"I hope so, Captain. I must also thank you for housing our craft while we make the trip back to-."

Before he had a chance to finish his sentence, the frigate lurched out of hyperspace. Some of the officers near them exchanged surprised looks.

There was no way the ship should have come out of hyperspace this early, he thought as he looked at the expressions on the faces amongst the nearby crew.

"Helm," asked Supriya as she turned to them, "why did we exit hyperspace?"

"Unknown, ma'am," said one of the officers at the helm station. "But engines are not responding."

"Lieutenant," she called to one of the officers behind her, "get me the Chief Engineer. I want to know why the engines are offline."

"Yes ma'am!"

Before she could give another order, a voice from the back of the bridge called for her.

"Captain," said a green-skinned Rodian in a First Officer's uniform. "We have a problem."

"I can see that, Chief," she replied.

"No, I mean, we have another problem. We're transmitting a signal."

Supriya paused, blinking for a moment before responding very slowly. "What kind of signal?"

"It's a broadband signal, ma'am. Being sent in all directions."

"Can you shut it down?"

"We're trying, ma'am, but we're locked out of most of the system."

Before she could respond, someone else spoke up. "Ma'am, Engineering reports that the engines were fully operational after initial repairs. There is no reason they should have gone offline."

Dobson watched as the expression on the Captain's face grew more worried.

"Chief, shut down main power to the long-range communications array. Rip out the wires if you have to! And issue a ship-wide yellow alert!"

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Captain Gaspra stood leaning against the main console of her bridge, her hands supporting her in place. She watched as a red dot appeared on the holographic field in front of it. It began making a small pinging sound as small red waves began emanating from it.

"Got you," she exclaimed, an eager smile spreading across her face. "Lieutenant! Relay these coordinates to the battle group. Have them execute the plan immediately."

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

The klaxons faintly wailed across the bridge of the Nebulon-B2 frigate. Having moved a bit closer to one of the several nearby computer consoles, Dobson felt a bit helpless as he watched the chaos developing on the bridge. Captain Supriya was doing her best to manage the situation, but it was clear her frustration was mounting. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the computer screen flicker for a few seconds before it resumed its display.

"What do you mean you still can't stop the transmission?!" she asked exasperatedly to her First Officer.

"We can't, ma'am. We're locked out, and it's being rerouted through secondary systems now."

He watched as Captain Supriya gave a curse and tried entering what must have been her command codes into a console without success. She slammed a palm down onto the console in frustration.

"Shut down and reboot all main systems for outgoing communications and engines. I want us back into hyperspace as fast as possible!"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the computer console screen flicker again. Then again several seconds later. While he had some technical knowledge, he knew that a computer console screen wouldn't normally be doing that -- especially on the bridge of a cruiser. His concentration was broken by another senior member of the command crew.

"Captain, there's something wrong with the shields," said a middle-aged Duros manning one of the consoles.

Supriya glanced over at him with a concerned look. "What do you mean?"

"Shield systems are not responding, ma'am," said a middle-aged Duros manning one of the consoles. "We're losing them."

Before she could reply, Dobson noticed three ships appear on the holographic map being projected from the main command console. They were located at the opposing end of the board from where the Destiny was reading. The ships were a Strike Cruiser being escorted by two Gozanti-class cruisers.

"Captain," he said, raising a finger and pointing at the holographic ships.

She turned from where she was standing and raced over to the circular console. As she braced herself against the lip of the console, she watched in horror as more ships began pouring out of hyperspace at various points around them in small groups.

"Oh my gods," she said as she realized what was happening.

"New IFF contacts!" called a tactical operations officer near them. "Six, nine... no, twelve Gunboat-class fighters, twelve plus clicks and closing!"

"Launch all Spear Squadron fighters! And begin charging all main and defensive batteries!" she yelled with a slightly panicked voice.

A young female officer with short red hair looked over her shoulder at the captain. "Weapons systems are not responding, ma'am."

Dobson looked at the names of the ships on the holographic map. The main ships were at least thirty kilometers away. The Strike Cruiser was titled the Ariadne, while the Gozanti-class cruisers were... no, they couldn't be.

Yet they were!

They were the same two cruisers his team had faced off against during the previous skirmish and hadn't been disabled.

"Captain," said Dobson urgently as he moved forward, looking her directly in the eyes, "those Gozanti-class cruisers are the same that we encountered at the target destination."

"You're sure, Commander?" she asked, looking at him.

"Positive, Captain. Either it is pure coincidence, or this has been a set up the whole time. Think about it," he said, listing off the connections on a gloved hand using his fingers. "Your main systems go down one by one - engines, long-range communications, shields, weapons. Then there just happens to be three cruisers and a whole squadron of gunboats jumping into the system, with possibly more on their way. If they didn't know our position until that signal started broadcasting, how did they compromise all the systems and find us?"

As the icons for six X-wings shot out of the Destiny, he watched the answer dawn on Supriya's face. She turned with an exasperated look to stare at the data core that was wired into the computer console, then back at him.

"The data core, it... it must have contained a virus."

"It's the only way," he said with a concerned look. "A new, very powerful virus that your systems would not be able to detect. And we're dead in the water because of it."

Just then her First Officer stepped up next to them. "With our long-range communications compromised, we have no way to reach the Vigilant's task force. What are your orders, ma'am?"

"Gunboats seven clicks and closing!" notified one of the tactical ops officers.

"Captain? Your orders?"

She turned to look out one of the smaller port windows, the X-wings opening their S-foils to attack positions and pairing off.

"Captain," Dobson said to her urgently, "give the word and our fighters will join yours in a defensive screen."

She looked at him, and realizing the task that lay before her to protect her crew, took command of the situation. "Chief, prepare and launch the Vigilant flight group. Have them join our starfighter screen for defense only. And Commander," she said turning back to look at him, "see if your ships can raise the Vigilant."

"Yes, Captain," he replied with a quick salute before moving towards the turbo lift. The last words he heard as the doors shut were that the gunboats with three clicks and closing.


As he raced down the hallway towards the main hangar, he saw Gremlin running towards the main hangar doors from the opposite end of the corridor.

"Commander, what's going on?" she asked as they met up. Turning in unison to enter the hangar together, he filled her in.

"Virus compromised the major systems. We're dead in the water with Imperials closing fast. We're on ship defence while I try to contact the Vigilant."

"Hot damn," she replied with a smirk. "I try to take five minutes for a bathroom break and all hell breaks loose."

He grinned and gave her a quizzical look as they made their way through the deck crews frantically preparing the remaining fighters. "Then I'd hate to see what happens when you go on a vacation!"

Gremlin laughed in response as she broke away and raced to her A-wing.

As he approached his B-wing, the work crew began filling him in on his craft diagnostics.

"We've only had a few minutes, sir, but nothing seems out of order. Your ship is loaded with fresh torpedoes and fuel. Fresh countermeasures, too."

"Excellent," he said, grabbing onto and stepping up the ladder rungs towards his cockpit. "Let me know as soon as I can launch!"

Once inside his cockpit, he did a quick systems check and activated the system to lower his canopy as the X-wings from Rogue Squadron were exiting the hangar entrance. As it hissed shut, he connected with his communication system to the others. His systems green, he gave the techs a thumbs up, and one of them began giving him the signals for takeoff. As his B-wing rose off the deck, so did the crafts of the remaining three pilots.

"Everyone good?" he asked.

"We're fine, boss," said Talon, whose communication system must have been patched up thanks to the techs.

"So what's the plan?" asked Rev as they neared the exit.

"Attack speed as soon as we exit. Stay with your wingman and keep those gunboats away from the Destiny. I'm going to try and raise the Vigilant."

"Copy that!"

The four fighters exited the hangar, swinging to the left. The A-wings raced forward while the B-wings locked their s-foils in attack position. Glancing at his scopes, he saw twelve red dots near the cluster of green dots that signalled the Alliance fighters. As they cleared the Destiny's immediate area, green and red lasers shot out from several different craft as they raced after one another. He couldn't help but notice debris from one X-wing that had been destroyed already.

"Damn, these guys are good!" he heard Gremlin call over the comm. "I can't get a lock!"

Dobson noticed a pair of gunboats making a break for the Destiny.

"Buccaneer Seven, take the lead on those gunboats. I'll be right behind you."

"Copy, boss!" replied Rev as he moved ahead and began firing at the gunboats.

Moving in unison with his wingman, he simultaneously opened up a new frequency and began trying to raise his command ship.

"Vigilant, this is Buccanner Three. Come in. Vigilant, this is Buccaneer Three, come in." As he twisted his craft to follow the gunboats, there was nothing but static over his comm. "Vigilant, do you read? Vigilant, come in." Again, nothing but static filled his headset.

Just then, the gunboats broke off and headed in separate directions. He stayed with Rev as they chased the closest one. Both fired at the gunboat, but few shots hit their mark as the ship spun and twisted to avoid their fire. He tried one more time to reach the Vigilant before he gave up.

"That cruiser must be jamming our long-range signal somehow," he said, switching back to the main frequency. Multiple voices and warnings filled the airwaves. "I can't get a signal through to our ship."

"So what's the plan?" asked Jasted as Dobson watched his X-wing evade a pair of gunboats that had tried to slide onto his tail.

"We only have one option," said Dobson as he broke to the right, avoiding a new gunboat that had decided to run interference with himself and Rev. "Corsair Two, Corsair Three, you need to make an emergency hyperspace jump to another location with comm relays and raise the Vigilant. Tell them our situation, and that we need immediate assistance."

Just then, someone gave a shout over the intercom. Quickly glancing to his right he saw another X-wing from Spear Squadron explode into a ball of gas and debris.

"Oh no, we've lost Spear Leader!" came the voice of another pilot.

"But what about you?!" interjected Gremlin.

"We'll be fine! You and Talon form up and get at least ten hyperspace minutes away from here. See if you can connect with a deep space relay system and get a message out. We'll cover you."

"But, sir-"

"Just do it!" he yelled back, "or there won't be a later for any of us!"

Two X-wings raced by in front of him with a pair of gunboats following them closely.

Having Talon and Gremlin leave would lower their odds against the gunboats, but it would still increase their chances of survival. Suddenly, someone announced that two gunboats were making a break for the Destiny.

"Come on, Seven, let's get them," he said, breaking off his pursuit of the current gunboat. As the B-wings swung around to engage the new targets, he glanced at both A-wings breaking away from their targets and moving away from the battle. As both he and Rev chased the gunboats away, he heard Gremlin's voice over the comm.

"Hyperspace coordinates set. We'll be back as soon as we can. Corsair Two out."

And with that, the A-wings winked away to their uncertain destination.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Captain Gaspra stared at the holographic figures on the tactical table in front of her. Although not exactly real-time, it still provided ample information as to the developing battle. The Frigate Destiny stood in the middle of the table, while the Ariadne, its two escorting Gozanti cruisers, and two TIE Fighter icons representing a full squadron of TIEs, were positioned at the far end of the table opposite her. Four icons representing the gunboat squadron she had ordered in surrounded the Destiny. Just then, one of them winked out, leaving three.

A few losses, to be sure she thought, though not unexpected.

"Ma'am," said the communications lieutenant as he stepped next to her.

"Yes, lieutenant?" she asked without looking at him.

"We've received a message from the Hydra. They'll be at their destination in two minutes."

"Very good. Send a message to Sigma Leader. Have them break off into pairs and fall back from the Destiny until the Hydra arrives. Then have them resume a final attack before withdrawing."

"There's also one more thing, ma'am," said the lieutenant eagerly. "The Ariadne has been monitoring the battle. While two X-wings have been destroyed, two A-wing class starfighters made the jump to hyperspace."

Gaspra looked up at her first officer, who returned a look with a furrowed brow. She turned and nodded at the lieutenant, who whirled around and walked briskly back to his post to relay the message.

"Probably trying to send a signal for help. That could cause issues, Captain. May I suggest we accelerate our timetable?" he asked.

Gaspra let out a thoughtful sigh. "Their escape could pose a problem. But it could be an opportunity to draw in other ships to destroy. How long before we arrive from our current destination?"

"Navigation estimates would be approximately fifteen minutes. The Charybdis would be able to join us within fifteen minutes if we left now, and the Minotaur would arrive in ten minutes on their current courses."

Given the current situation, it is the best move she thought to herself. "Helm," she called, glancing across the bridge to the navigation team, "begin the preparations for hyperspace." Turning back to her first officer she gave a wry smile. "Have squadrons Alpha, Beta, and Delta armed and ready for launch as soon as we arrive. Have squadrons Eta and Theta at stand-by."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and moved to another console to contact the officers in the hangar.

As the Monarch lurched into hyperspace, different scenarios began running through her mind. If those A-wings were able to get help in time, this would prove to be far more complex - and possibly far more rewarding - than she anticipated.

[Hyperspace, unknown location -- ten minutes later]

Sitting in her cockpit, the blue swirl of hyperspace surrounding her starfighter, Gremlin had only two thoughts on her mind: the first was whether or not they'd be able to get a message to the Vigilant and be back in time, while the second was requesting new seat padding that wouldn't make her legs so sore from sitting down for so long. Checking her fuel gauge, she saw that she had plenty of fuel left to make the jump back to rejoin the others or continue to Vigilant, though probably not enough for both. Just then an alarm sounded in her cockpit.

"Okay, Three," she said to Talon, "exit from hyperspace in three. Two. One. Now." Pulling back on the lever, the swirling blue tunnel melted into a streak of blue-white stars, then back to real space. The two A-wings were alone amongst a vast sea of stars in every direction. "I'm going to try and make contact. Keep your eyes open and cover me just in case."

"Copy that, Two."

Fiddling with the controls, she adjusted her communication system to send a signal to the Vigilant on an Alliance frequency. Once she connected with a relay satellite, she began her call.

"Vigilant, this is Corsair Two. Please respond." She waited several seconds, anticipating a reply - though none came. She tried again. "Vigilant, this is Corsair Two. Do you copy? This is Corsair Two, do you copy?"

Again, several seconds passed with no response.

Come on, she thought to herself, please connect with the communications network, or this will all be for nothing. Suddenly, she heard a voice over the radio.

"Corsair Two, this is the CRS Vigilant. Go ahead."

Yes! she cheered to herself. "Vigilant, our return mission was a bust. The Destiny was disabled by a virus of some sort. The Imperials managed to block our outgoing communications somehow. Corsair Three and I jumped away to try and reach you, but the others are behind protecting the Frigate. We need immediate support."

"Hold on, Corsair Two. Let me confirm. Did you say a virus?"

"Yes! I know it's a lot to take in, but we don't have time. Can you send assistance?"

There was a long pause over the intercom where no one was speaking. Then...

"Corsair Two, this is the Captain. I understand that your team has run into trouble. Can you provide us with the coordinates to the location of the Destiny?"

"Yes, sir. Sending now." After pressing a few buttons, she sent the coordinates to the Vigilant. It took another thirty seconds or so before the captain responded.

"Corsair Two, we've received the coordinates. What can you tell us about the Imperial forces present?"

"When we left the force was a Strike Cruiser, two Gozanti-class cruisers, and a full squadron of gunboats. It's possible that there could be more forces on the way as we speak."

The comm fell silent once again for several seconds before the captain gave his reply. "Don't worry, Corsair Two. We'll be there as soon as we can."

"Roger, Captain. See you soon."

And with that the two A-wings reversed their course and sped off into hyperspace back to their friends.

[CRS Vigilant Lounge]

Lieutenant Colonel Chris "Jalb Kay" Reynolds plunked himself down in a seat near the bar. Numerous patrons filled the room, talking and laughing about any number of things. Serving droids made their way around the tables, taking or refilling cups and mugs for their owners of a variety of drinks. He had just finished his patrol flight after what felt like a rather long and annoying day full of briefings, reports, not to mention a mountain of paperwork. One of the serving droids walked up to him.

"What can I get you, sir?" it asked.

"A Sundowner, extra chilled," he replied to the droid. As the droid moved to fill up a chilled mug, Reynolds couldn't help but think about how much he would enjoy this. Such circumstances did call for some enjoyment, after all.

As the droid passed him a frothy mug, he gripped it with his right hand and gave a smile. It looked delicious. He was just about to put the rim of the mug to his lips when a voice came over the intercom system.

"Attention! Attention! All personnel to their stations. Prepare for an emergency jump to hyperspace. All pilots report to the hangar. Repeat, all pilots report to the hangar. You'll be briefed there."

With a disheartened sigh, he closed his eyes and placed the mug down on the counter.

It never fails, he thought to himself as he opened his eyes and looked at the droid. "Keep that chilled for me, will you?" he said as he got up out of his seat. Turning towards the door, he began briskly walking to get ready for whatever emergency they were headed towards.

[FRG Destiny location]

"Scratch another one!" called one of the X-wing pilots over the intercom. That was the fourth gunboat that they'd finally been able to shoot down, meaning that the odds were finally even. It had cost the Destiny, though, as a pair of gunboats had finally made a successful run against her with their ion cannons, lowering the ship's remaining systems to 35%. As Dobson and Rev cut their B-wings across the bow of the frigate, he couldn't help but notice two pairs of gunboats form up in the distance and begin heading away from their pursuers.

"Are they bugging out?" asked Rev.

"Seems so," said Jasted over the comm. "No reason why they should be, though. Should we pursue?"

Dobson thought for a moment about the odds. No new ships had jumped into the system, and they'd been tussling with the gunboats for a good fifteen minutes. It would probably be best to pursue them.

"Agreed. Spear Three, Five, Six, and Nine, pair off and choose a pair of gunboats. Rogues Five and Nine, take the two near you. Seven, you're with me." With that, they split off into their teams and began chasing the gunboats down. The only problem was that the gunboats were just far enough out of range that their weapons didn't have the same accuracy as when they were close up. Dobson squeezed the trigger to fire off several shots at one gunboat, but the shields either absorbed them or they missed the craft completely. They were almost two clicks out from the Frigate when his computer chirped. A new contact had entered the system. Checking his scope, he saw that an Imperial Frigate - the Hydra had entered the system at five clicks out from the Destiny'sposition, and only three from his current location. Six new IFF markers appeared suddenly from the location of the Hydra, his computer registering them as a set of TIE Fighters.

"New contacts!" he called into his comm system. "One frigate, two Bombers, and four TIEs near our location!" As the new TIE Fighters raced towards their target, the frigate jumped to hyperspace. It was not impossible for the B-wings to survive a frontal assault from TIE Fighters but outnumbered three-to-one wasn't the best of ideas.

Suddenly, his cockpit gave a warning off. He was being targeted by one of the TIE Bombers.

"They've got a missile lock on me," he called into his comm. "Break and head back to the Destiny!" A second warning echoed in his cockpit, indicating as he made his sharp turn back to the ship that a missile had been launched at him. Pressing a button, the missile appeared on his targeting computer screen. He watched it angle into place and race towards him. Thumbing another button, he let loose a countermeasure flare. The flare shot out from the rear of his B-wing and connected with the missile after a few seconds.

Using his visual scanning, he could just make out the other fighters heading back towards the Destiny. It was at this point that he realized there were two problems: the first was that the gunboats were swinging around to re-engage them, while the second was seeing the Hydra jump back into the system - again, roughly five clicks on the opposite side of the Destiny and was launching another flight of Bombers and Fighters. He had read about this type of tactic before.

During the evacuation of Yavin IV, an Imperial frigate called the Red Wind had tried to destroy a small convoy of corvettes. Its strategy was to jump in and out of the system several times, depositing small groups of TIEs at various distances so that it would be challenging for the defending Rebels to take them all on at once and defend the convoy. If this were the case here, they would be turned to space debris within a few minutes.

"They're trying to box us in," he heard a Spear Squadron pilot call over the comm. "What do we do?"

"Only thing we can do," said Dobson, firing off another flare as his warning system lit up, "cover each other on the way back, and keep them away from the ship as best we can. Rogue Five, Rogue Nine, turn to point one-seven and get ready to cover us. Buccaneer Seven, move with me to point two-eight and get ready to fire." This would give both groups enough of an angle to avoid each other while attempting to curve around and try to take out their pursuers. Moving into position, he watched the Hydra jump to hyperspace once more.

Twisting his yoke, he moved with Rev in unison to slide up and around the X-wings as they flew by underneath them at a curved angle. Both pairs of fighters opened fire on their targets. The B-wings lasers chewed away at the shields of the approaching gunboats, causing them to break away separately. The X-wings on the other hand managed to score two TIE Fighters and a Bomber before the others broke off.

"Hoo-ah!" called Jasted over the comm. "Scratch three!"

"Two gunboats making a run for the Destiny, point four-seven!" called Lock.

"I see them," called Dobson as he glanced to his left. It was the pair of gunboats they were originally chasing minutes earlier. "Come on, Seven!" As they twisted their B-wings to meet the gunboats, ion cannon fire lanced forward and began splashing against the hull of the Destiny. Squeezing the trigger, red laser fire raced towards the gunboats, once more chewing away at their shields. This pair also broke off and away in their own directions. Before he could change course to pursue them, his B-wing rocked as it was hit by green laser fire. His shields weakening under the pressure, he twisted his yoke down and to the left, sending his B-wing into a downward spiral. "I've got one - no, two," he yelled into his helmet, "TIE Fighters on me! Can anyone lend a hand?"

The voices running through his helmet were a cacophony of instructions to evade or calls for help. It was difficult to make out some of the responses. He managed to barely hear Buccaneer Seven reply.

"Sorry boss," said Rev, "I've got two boats on my tail myself!"

Suddenly, his missile warning system lit up again. A TIE Bomber was targeting him, but he couldn't tell from where. "Missile lock!" he called into his helmet. Continuing to twist and turn, now changing course to climb back up towards the Destiny so that someone - anyone - could possibly cover him, the tone gave off its familiar pattern of beeps.

He dumped his remaining laser energy into his shields, the TIE Fighter fire negating this gain, his shields dropping to 24%. Firing off a flare he began twisting to the right. He saw the remaining X-wings of Spear Squadron locked in their desperate struggle in front of him with their own targets and pursuers. As he saw one of them explode into a ball of fiery gas, reducing their numbers by one more, he noticed a TIE Bomber cutting through the middle of that part of the engagement, heading straight for him. The missile lock turned to a solid hum.

This is the end he thought briefly, tensing in his seat.

And then the tone fell silent as a separate missile shot from somewhere to his right and turned the Bomber into a large, fiery ball of red and green gas.

"Splash one!" he heard Gremlin call over the comm. Her A-wing, closely followed by Talon's, rolled over and curved, streaking down towards him. Before he could take another breath, the two TIE Fighters pursuing him were reduced to nothing more than dust.

"Gremlin! Am I glad to see you two," he called into the comm. "Were you able to contact the Vigilant?"

"We were," she called back. "They're on their way."

His computer gave a sound as it signalled that a new contact had entered the system. It was the Hydra again, this time seven kilometers out, ready to deploy a fresh batch of fighters.

"Buccaneer Three, Rogue Nine," called Lock into his helmet. "Looks like those gunboats are bugging out for real this time."

Checking his scope and computer, he could see several red dots moving away from their position.

"Hold position," he called. "Let them go and cover each other. Stay near the Destiny." Leveling his B-wing off and turning to the left, he watched as the Hydra jumped back into hyperspace.

I hope they get here soon, he thought as he swung past the bridge of their cruiser, or there won't be enough of us left to bother collecting.

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

Captain Supriya lurched forward against the command console as a blast shook the bridge. The holographic figures fizzled momentarily before resuming their positions on the table. Sparks flew out of some of the ceiling and computer consoles around them.

"Report!" she barked.

"Systems down to twenty-five percent functionality. Hull down to ninety-four percent integrity," called a junior lieutenant from her station. "Deck seven reports a breach. Seven dead, eleven wounded."

"Evacuate all personnel from there and seal the bulkhead doors in that section," she bellowed. The junior lieutenant turned in her seat and began relaying the instructions to whomever was on the other end of her line.

As the klaxons continued to wail, Supriya watched the holographic figure of the Hydra exit hyperspace and launch the last flight of fighters from six kilometres out. The previous group of TIE Fighters had just caught up with the remaining defending fighters, who were themselves still engaged with the first and second flights that had been launched only a few minutes earlier. They were holding their own, but just barely.

As she saw the Hydra take up position to their left flank, another ship appeared on their right. There was no mistaking the design.

"New contact!" called a tac ops officer. "One Victory-class Star Destroyer, mark oh-three-six-"

"Captain," said her First Officer lowly as he moved in next to her. "If that ship is fully armed with two squadrons of TIEs, we are officially outnumbered three-to-one. I suggest we begin evacuating the ship. The remaining fighters may be able to cover us while we make a break for hyperspace."

She turned to look at him. "No," she said flatly. The expression on her First Officer's face changed to one of bewilderment. "If we launch now, the TIEs will pick off as many escape pods as they can before we make it out. The shuttles and transports might stand a better chance, but it would also take time to retrieve the escape pods with the other craft. I will not sacrifice my crew when we have help coming."

"But Captain," her First Officer protested as four TIE Fighter icons emerged from the Star Destroyer's hangar, "if that Star Destroyer launches all-".

"Chief," she growled a bit more loudly, locking eyes with him, "the answer is no."

"Ma'am," he replied tersely, his voice equally increasing, "consider everything up until this point. The virus, the Strike Cruiser and its escorts, the gunboats - everything. The Imperials are toying with us, and there could be more ships on the way. We need to abandon ship. Now."

"I will not abandon my ship!" she yelled, slamming a fist against the console. The bridge staff froze where they stood or sat. Some exchanged nervous glances with each other, while others paused to look upon the two senior officers responsible for their lives. Outside the viewport, the Alliance and Imperial fighters continued their desperate struggle. The bridge rocked again from a laser blast as a pair of TIE Fighters flew by one of the windows. Realizing that most eyes were on her, she continued. "I will also not abandon my crew. Help is coming," she said, standing up straight and surveying those around her. "We only need to wait a little longer."

"Then for all our sakes, Captain," he replied, the entire crew staring at them, "I hope to hell you're right."

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Captain Gaspra stood at the front of the bridge, watching the blue swirl of hyperspace through the main viewport. While she would never publicly admit it, the swirl of blue light had a soothing effect on her.

So calm, she thought. So peaceful. It was, for her, the perfect way to relieve any last-minute tension and clear her mind before battle. Behind her, she heard footsteps making their way up the bridge walkway. Turning around, she met a middle-aged bridge officer.

"What news, lieutenant?" she asked. The lieutenant stiffened as he came to a halt.

"Sigma Squadron has fallen back from the battle. Four destroyed, four more with damages. The Hydra reports that almost half of its TIE Fighters have been destroyed as well. The Minotaur, her escorts, and her fighters are holding position."

"Very good. Send a message to Sigma Squadron. The damaged gunboats can head for our supply depot for repairs. The remaining four can maintain their position and await further instructions. How long until we complete our hyperspace jump?"

"About a minute, ma'am."

"As soon as we exit, have tactical signal to the remaining fighters from the Hydra to fall back in a defensive formation around their ship. Then advise our TIE Squadrons to launch and organize themselves in a Delta-Gamma formation."

"Yes ma'am!" said the lieutenant. Pivoting around, he marched off to relay the orders.

Making her way back to her command console, she prepared for the next part of her plan.

"Lieutenant," she called to the comms officer. "Send a message to Commodore Barand that we are about to engage the Alliance force."

[Space, near FRG Destiny]

Gremlin squeezed her trigger, sending scarlet bolts towards the TIE Fighter she was pursuing. It evaded all of them with a few quick maneuvers.

Damn! she thought. This squadron sure knows their stuff! Suddenly, she noticed the TIE Fighter break away and begin to head back towards the Hydra.

"They're turning tail," she heard Lock say over the comm. "Should we pursue them?"

"Negative," said Dobber immediately afterwards. "If they are falling back, it could be a trap like before. All ships form up at point two-three-nine. Maintain defensive pattern Omicron."

As the nine remaining fighters got into formation, what happened next was entirely unexpected.

"By the Force," she heard a Spear Squadron member call over the comm.

There was no mistaking the two massive, dagger-shaped crafts emerging from hyperspace.

"Uh, Gremlin," someone called to her. "How long did you say it would take for the fleet to arrive?"

It was the one thing she did not know. That, and whether they would survive the next five minutes.

[Bridge, FRG Destiny]

Captain Supriya watched as the two dagger-shaped Star Destroyers emerged from hyperspace on her display screen behind them. Both were positioned at equal but angular distances from behind them. They were effectively boxed in. Her heart sank.

"Two Imperial Class Star Destroyers have exited hyperspace," called the tactical officer. "One is a Mark-Two Destroyer. They're also launching fighters."

So this is it, then, she thought to herself. Bowing her head, she gave out a quiet sigh. The bridge fell silent, save for the communications officer.

"Message coming in, ma'am. The Monarch is hailing us."

She stood there, unmoving.

"Your orders, Captain?"

There was only one thing she could do next.

"Put it through, Lieutenant," she said, looking up.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Gaspra surveyed the holographic battle board on the console. The Destiny and its remaining fighters were positioned in the middle of the board. Around each side of them, at varying distances, were Imperial ships. Her hastily planned trap had, it would seem, paid off. Icons representing TIE Fighters and Bombers were nestled in the middle of the board as well.

Like rats in a trap, she thought with a smirk on her face.

"Ma'am," said an officer stepping close to her. "TIE Squadrons are in position. The comm channel is ready for you."

"Thank you, lieutenant," she replied. Pressing a button on the console in front of her and folding her hands behind her back, she began to broadcast her message to all the ships in the area. "Attention Alliance ships," she began. "This is Captain Brinna Gaspra of the Imperial Star Destroyer Monarch. To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing as the captain of the Frigate Destiny?"

It was only a few seconds before a small holographic image of the Destiny's captain appeared on the console in front of her, replacing the ships previously there.

"Captain Gaspra, this is Captain Neetali Supriya of the Allaince Frigate Destiny," she said with a dulcet but firm voice. "State your business."

Straight and to the point, this one.

"As you can see, Captain Gaspra, your ships are surrounded. Your attempt to steal information from my forces has failed, as has your mission. You are caught in my trap. You are hereby ordered to power down your ships and give yourself up peacefully. If you surrender now, you may be shown leniency for your compliance."

Captain Supriya didn't miss a beat with her reply.

"You're right, Captain. Our mission has failed. It would seem, however, that between your virus and the assault by your gunboats, that we are having issues with some of our systems. Several of our bulkheads require opening manually. That could take some time for my crew to make their way to the hangar bay."

It was easy for Gaspra to see through her stalling tactic.

"Captain," she began coolly, "I can appreciate your concern for your crew, but you are not in a position to negotiate here. Order your fighters and crew to stand down. Should you choose to not do so, I will order my turbolaser crews to open fire on your ship."

"Now Captain Gaspra," continued Supriya, "certainly you can-"

"Weapons crews!" she called, glancing towards the pit area of the Star Destroyer's bridge. "Have turbolaser batteries One through Four target the Destiny. Commence Firing Solution Alpha."

As soon as she finished giving the command, two green turbolaser shots lanced from the massive cannons of the Star Destroyer. They found their mark after a few seconds, exploding against the hull of the frigate. A small smirk spread across her face as she turned back to face the hologram of Supriya. She could see the fear in her eyes. "Commence-" she began.

"Wait!" she heard Supriya cry out. "Hold your fire! We'll surrender."

The smirk turned into a small smile. "It's far too late for that, Captain. You had your chance, and a very reasonable one at that. Should you survive this, I hope you prove to be a more formidable opponent than you've proven yourself today."

She watched as Captain Supriya's eyes widened in horror as to what was now happening. Pressing a button, her image disappeared from the holographic display.

All too easy, she thought.

"Chief," she called, "launch assault transport groups Epsilon and Omega and have them hold position. Have the TIE squadrons and other ships remain on alert. We could have more Alliance ships coming to the rescue."

[Bridge, Frigate Destiny]

Captain Supriya's mouth dropped open as her ship rocked under the continued concussive blasts of the Star Destroyer's main batteries. Their hull could take a pounding, but it wouldn't be long if the Star Destroyer switched to using its full array of batteries. Coming back to her senses, she did the only thing that she could under the circumstances. Pressing a button to issue a ship-wide announcement, she began.

"This is Captain Supriya. All hands, abandon ship. Repeat, all hands abandon ship."

Klaxons continued to wail as the crew from other sections of the ship began to abandon their stations and head to the hangar bay or nearest escape pod.

"Chief, give the order to launch the shuttles and transports as soon as they're ready."

She turned to look at the data core that they had brought back from their original mission. Walking over and unplugging it from the console, she turned it over in her hands. So much trouble for such a little thing. Turning back to face her entire bridge crew, she felt a small lump in her throat.

The bridge crew began making their way to the turbolifts, easily filling them. Captain Supriya took one last look at the bridge before entering the turbolift herself. She could just make out the shapes of starfighters darting after one another as stars and explosions filled the rest of the view.

As the doors closed in front of her, the ship rocking under another barrage of fire, she could only pray for a safe passage.

[Space, near the Frigate Destiny]

Making their way around the Destiny for the seventh time chasing and evading fighters since the Star Destroyers had arrived, the pilots couldn't believe what they had heard. Gremlin was the first to comment.

"Of all the Imperials I've had the pleasure of meeting," she said over the comm, "that Captain Gaspra has got to be the prissiest Moof-milker this side of the galaxy."

"Save it for later, Two," said Dobson over the comm. "The Vigilant should be here any minute."

"We hope," replied Talon.

Just then she saw escape pods begin to eject themselves from the hull of the frigate as the Star Destroyer continued to pound away at the hull.

"Looks like they're abandoning ship," Dobson said. "We need to give those escape pods, and any other craft, some cover. All fighters, form up on me. We must shield them from attack."

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Gaspra watched the transports of Sigma and Omega groups as their icons appeared beneath the Monarch's avatar on the board. A few TIE Fighters and Interceptors joined formation around them. She couldn't help but notice her First Officer clear his throat from across the table.

"If I might suggest, Captain," he said, "perhaps it would be prudent to have the assault transports from the Charybdis launch to increase the offensive capabilities. And have our transports make their way over towards the right flank. It would balance out the position of our forces and firepower.

Possibly, she thought. It would balance out their firepower. Then again, there was something to be said for strength in numbers, especially with an assault on star cruisers.

"Have the Charybdis launch their assault transports, Chief," she said as she shifted her weight where she was leaning against the console. "But have them maintain their position. We need to ensure-".

Suddenly, an officer called out from the other end of the bridge.

"Captain! We have new Alliance contacts!"

She refocused her attention to the board and noticed three, no... five Alliance ships exiting hyperspace but three or four kilometres from the Destiny. The main ship was the Vigilant, while a Nebulon-B frigate and three corvettes were in a supporting position around it. Icons for X-wings and A-wings began filling up the empty space between the main cruiser and the frigates.

Karabast! she cursed to herself. There would be no time to reposition the assault transport assets.

"Launch Squadrons Eta and Theta. Have TIE Squadrons Alpha, Beta, and Delta engage the fighters. Send Squadrons Eta and Theta to join the fighters from the Hydra and begin bombing and strafing runs against the other ships from their right flank. Have a TIE Squadron from the Minotaur assume general superiority and shoot down any Rebel shuttles and escape pods that exit from that frigate, while the second begins strafing runs on the smaller Rebel ships. I want those Rebels either destroyed or captured!"

"And the transports, ma'am?" asked her First Officer.

"Send them forward to target the Vigilant with their fighter cover. Put the Charybdis on general alert and have them begin launching their TIE Squadrons."

"Yes ma'am!"

"And recall Sigma Squadron! Have them take position up next to the Minotaur."

I can still win this, she thought. No. I must win this.

[Space, CRS Vigilant]

Lieutenant Colonol Reynolds took stock of the information appearing on his scopes and computer screens as Rogue Squadron spearheaded the push towards the severely damaged frigate Destiny with elements of Corsair and Buccaneer Squadrons close behind them. The rest of them, plus Spectre Squadron, remained back with the rest of the task force. If too many fighters pushed forward at once, it would make it difficult to maneuver and fire at TIE Fighters and assault transports, not to mention leave the group more vulnerable.

"Lock S-foils in attack position and look alive, boys and girls," he called into his communicator. "Rogues, let's get after those TIEs and assault transports dead ahead. Corsair flights maintain a defensive perimeter around the Destiny. Buccaneer, start hammering those capital ships and clear us a path out of here. Let's make sure the Destiny gets evacuated safely. Accelerate to attack speed now!"

"Copy, Rogue Leader," came a string of responses.

He could also see the remaining fighters from the original mission trying to shield the fleeing escape pods and transports as best they could. Rogues Five and Nine broke away and quickly formed up behind him.

"About time you folks showed up!" he heard Gremlin call over the comm.

"Good to see you, Corsair Two," replied Reynolds. "I think you'll all owe us a few rounds of drinks after this."

As they made their way past the Nebulon B-2 Frigate, the shapes of TIE Fighters and Interceptors grew more distinct. Maneuvering his X-wing so that he wouldn't be flying in a straight line, he squeezed the trigger. A volley of scarlet lasers shot towards the closest TIE Fighter, and it disintegrated into a ball of fire. With green laser fire heading towards them, the Rogues began the dance they had constantly trained for and cut away to meet their own targets. Their part of the battle had begun.


Buccaneer Leader, Michael "Mighty" Tolle, adjusted his power and shield settings as his group of B-wings passed the first wave of TIE Fighters that had made it through and descended on their attack zone.

"Okay, team, let's see if we can draw their attention away from the Destiny. Buccs Two through Six with me. We're going after that Victory-class Star Destroyer."

"Without cover?" asked Chris "Animal" Steven, Buccaneer Six. "The Destroyer's shields are at 200%."

"A single run should do," continued Mighty as the B-wings began turning towards the Star Destroyer, "then we'll make a break for the Vigilant."

"Copy that, boss," came a few replies over the comm.

Dobber checked his scope to see if any TIE Fighters had decided to follow them. For now, it seemed that they were in the clear. No TIEs had swung around to pursue them. Odd, he thought to himself.

"Pair off," said Mighty. "Two, with me. Switch to proton torpedoes."

Maneuvering slightly to give themselves some space for a bombing vector, each pilot paired off with another.

Switching to his targeting computer, it gave off a few quick beeps before sending out a consistent tone to indicate a lock.

"Lock is solid," he said as they closed the gap between the main battle and the Victory-class Star Destroyer. "Torpedoes away." A line of several torpedoes from each B-wing began to make their way towards the Star Destroyer's hull.

Everything changed when four gunboats shot out of hyperspace ahead of them at two o'clock. The gunboats shot forward and began firing after a few seconds at the streams of torpedoes headed for the Minotaur. The Star Destroyer managed to shoot down most of the rest with laser fire or missiles. Checking his targeting computer, the gunboats were registered as being from Sigma Squadron.

"Sithspit," cursed Dobber, "not this bunch again!"

"Minimal damage to the Minotaur," called Mighty. "Buccs Four through Six, get on those gunboats. Two and Three, form up with me. We'll have to make a second run and dumb fire our warheads. Set shields to double-front. As soon as your torpedoes are empty, break off and switch roles."

And with that, they split into two groups and began their runs.


Gremlin and Talon cut through a pair of TIE Fighters as they performed a rolling scissor maneuver. Debris rattled against her A-wing's hull as the passed through the balls of fiery debris.

"Wax two!" she called. As she and Talon swung around, the Destiny came back into view. Pairs of TIEs, X-wings, and A-wings danced around the general vicinity of the disabled frigate. As they did so, she noticed more transports exiting the hangar and making their way towards the Vigilant. More escape pods began to dislodge themselves from the frigate's hull.

"We've got more survivors launching from the Destiny," called Syntax, Corsair Leader. "Corsairs Two through Four, protect them as they make their way to the Vigilant."

"Copy that, boss," Gremlin replied. As the A-wings changed course and streaked their way towards the line of ships and the jumble of escape pods, she couldn't help but notice a full squadron of TIE Fighters approaching on a vector in front of her. "Incoming TIEs," she called as they neared the convoy of small ships. "They're heading for the survivors!"

"Let's get on them!" called Corsair Four.

Racing towards the TIE Fighters, Gremlin and Talon let loose several shots. One TIE Fighter exploded while another broke away after taking a shot to one of its wings. Most of the rest continued. As she swung her craft around to change course and pursue the other TIEs, she watched in horror as green laser fire erupted in waves and began hitting the transports. The escape pods stood a worse chance given their small size and lack of shielding. They began exploding one by one.

"Bloody cowards!" she yelled into her comm. "They're targeting the escape pods!"

"Get on those fighters!" she heard Syntax insist with his robotic voice.

As the TIE Fighters broke off into pairs to begin a new attack run, she followed them desperately, shooting at any that got in her way.

[Bridge, CRS Vigilant]

The bridge of the Vigilant shook as proton torpedoes and TIE Fighter laser fire slammed into the shields. While some of the assault transports had been destroyed or forced back, two or three had broken through their defence lines. The Rogues were trying to take care of them, but it was difficult balancing that with the swarm of TIE Fighters around the general area.

"Report!" called Captain Quelle from his chair.

"Shields down to seventy-four percent and holding, sir!" called an officer to his right.

"Corvettes Swift Wind and Proudmoore report heavy damage to their shields and hull," called another. "Buccaneer Squadrons attack on the Minotaur has been ineffective and the ship is holding position."

"Have the Swift Wind and Proudmoore move closer to the Vigilant for more cover. And get the X-wings from Spectre Squadron to support them!"

"Captain," called a junior officer from behind him. "Message from Captain Supriya's shuttle. They're under attack and report that some of the escape pods are being destroyed."

"Karabast!" cursed the captain. "Are any other fighters available?"

"Negative, sir. Remaining fighters from Corsair and Buccaneer Squadrons are engaging the TIEs attacking the task force and survivors. All Spear Squadron X-wings have been destroyed."

Before he could give another order, he noticed a TIE Fighter consumed by flames spinning out of control towards the bridge viewport. At the last second, one of the Vigilant's point-defense lasers managed to track it and fire several shots. It exploded, a wave of fire and debris splashing almost liquid-like against the forward viewport shields.

"Instruct Captain Pootala to move Rez'nor forward to provide a screen for those transports and escape pods!" he bellowed to the comms officer. "We need to protect as many of the crew as possible. And get Buccaneer Squadron back here to punch us a hole out of here, or this will be all for naught."

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Captain Gaspra watched as the Imperial ships on her tactical board moved closer towards the small Alliance force. The Hydra had begun its movement towards the Vigilant, while the Ariadne and two Gozanti-class cruisers, plus their TIE escorts, were closing in from behind. Only the Minotaur remained in position, its shields lowered substantially due to the B-wing assault. Luckily, the ship was still intact, and the B-wings had retreated, though not before disabling the four gunboats from Sigma Squadron. She was not happy at that news.

"Lieutenant," she called towards the comms officer. "Send a message to the Charybdis. Have Captain Grixx move closer to cover the Hydra and have long-range turbo lasers target the Vigilant."

"Aye, ma'am!"

Victory was still possible, but she did not see the need to risk the destruction of any more Imperial starfighters or assault transports. Capital ship turbolasers would easily make quick work of the Alliance cruisers.

"Helm," she called to the crew pit. "Increase engine power to half speed to close the gap between us and the Alliance cruisers. Gunnery crews," she continued, "finish off the Destiny and clear us a path. Secondary cannons should focus on any fighters that get within range. It's time to finish this."

As the turbolaser batteries opened fire, their green laser blasts slammed against the hull of the now listing frigate. It wasn't long before explosions began ripping the ship apart until it was nothing more than slag and debris floating in space. She could also see the X-wing and A-wing starfighters begin to move back and away from the approaching Star Destroyer, all while trying to evade the TIE Fighters and Interceptors that were still engaging them. A smile spread across her face as she contemplated how well the battle was going.


And as her shuttle began to enter the hangar bay of the Vigilant, Captain Supriya's heart sank as she watched from behind the piloting chairs her command ship going down in flames.


"Watch your six, Rogue Leader," called one of his wingmen, "TIE at five high!"

"I see him," replied Reynolds, "Rogue two, pull in."

"I'm on him, Rogue Leader!"

Cutting away and to the right to keep the TIE busy, Reynolds jinked his craft around so that the TIE would not be able to get a solid lock. Within a few seconds the green laser fire stopped shooting past his craft. Checking his scope, he saw a red dot wink out of existence.

"Thanks, Rogue Two," he called. Pulling back on his flight stick and shifting his fighter's position, his X-wing began to curve up and left so that it put him on a vector to pass by the Rez'nor. Most of the shuttles and escape pods that hadn't been destroyed had landed in the Vigilant's hangar, but he could still see a few remaining and making their way inside.

"Rogue Leader, this is the Vigilant," came a voice over the comm.

"We're beginning to ready for withdrwal. Cover the task force while we load the last of the survivors and begin to change our position. When we leave, we'll be going to emergency jump location two."

"Roger, Vigilant," he replied. "Alright, Rogues, we're beginning to pack up and leave. Pull back to the task force and cover them. I don't want any TIEs or transports getting within a click of the cruisers." A string of responses came over the channel.

As he flew past the Rez'nor, it had already begun to change its course to swing around to the other side of the Vigilant. He couldn't help but glance to his left, noticing the Nebulon-B frigate and other two Star Destroyers making their way towards them. He could also see individual shots of turbolaser fire begin to make their way towards their position. While their shields could probably hold for a little while, they wouldn't last long under an assault from three Imperial capital ships.

This is going to be a close one, he thought as he refocused his attention and began chasing a TIE Fighter that had slid into his view.

[Bridge, CRS Vigilant]

"Report, Lieutenant," barked the captain.

"The last transport has landed, but those capital ships are closing fast. It's going to be close, sir."

"Then let's get out of here as soon as we can. Helm! Turn us about and begin the calculations for the jump to hyperspace." Pressing a button, his chair swiveled around and moved to another part of the bridge. The ship rocked as turbolaser fire connected with the shields. "Tactical, return fire on the Hydra! And Ensign," he said, looking at a young human male, "reroute secondary power to the shields!"

"Aye, sir!"

Checking his display one last time, he took stock of the situation. The Destiny was destroyed. Their three supporting corvettes were heavily damaged. And both the shields of his cruiser and the Rez'nor were dropping quickly. TIE Fighters were still swarming around them while their fighters desperately tried to hold them off. Then there was the matter of the Strike Cruiser and Gozanti-class cruisers blocking their escape. Not to mention the assault transports still launching torpedoes.

"Tactical," he called, "have Buccaneer Squadron take care of that Strike Cruiser and supporting ships, with a flight from Corsair covering them. I want a path cleared for us so we can make the jump to hyperspace."


"Alright boys and girls," called Mighty over the radio. "You heard the captain. Form up and let's punch a hole out of here!"

Two nearby B-wings formed up behind Dobber as he brought his B-wing about and began heading towards the Strike Cruiser. Knowing that it would take a few clicks to close the gap, and that half of their squadron still had a full payload of torpedoes, he was slightly optimistic. His group could still make strafing runs and draw fire while the others hammered away at the ships. Still, it would be dangerous. They also had the TIEs to contend with.

"Buccaneer Leader," he called into his comm.

"Go ahead, Three."

"Recommend we use ion cannons to disable the TIEs on the way by."

"Music to my ears, Three. You heard the man, Buccs," Mighty said. "Set shields to double-front and shoot to disable. Then continue on."

A few affirmatives chimed over the radio.

As they drew nearer, four A-wings from Corsair streaked past them and began targeting the closest TIEs. While some of them broke off or engaged the A-wings, the rest pushed forward towards the B-wings. As he switched over to ion cannons and adjusted his shielding, a hail of green laser fire began making its way towards them. Targeting a TIE Fighter, he squeezed the trigger and sent a few blue ion shots towards it. As his shields absorbed the initial fire, he saw the TIEs systems drop to 0%. The craft continued its journey forward thanks to its original momentum, though the pilot would be unable to do anything. The other Buccaneers did the same and moved on with him. It wasn't long before the cruisers in front of them sent turbolaser fire in their direction.

Switching back to regular laser fire, he sent several waves of shots at the nearest Gozanti cruiser before breaking away. As the opposing gunners tried to track him and those near him, more laser fire and torpedoes from the B-wings made their way to each of their intended targets and splashed against their shields and hulls.

"Swing around for another pass," he called, dancing his B-wing from left to right to avoid being hit, "attack pattern Beta."

The B-wings continued their journey for another click before swinging around and approaching the ships from the rear. This exposed them to less fire than a frontal assault, but it didn't mean that the odd shot or two wouldn't hit their shields. Coming around again, each let loose another volley of laser fire at the Gozanti cruisers, while those with torpedoes fired their remaining payloads at the Ariadne's engines and rear hull. It wasn't long before the Gozanti cruisers were reduced to fiery balls of space debris. Checking his targeting computer, the Strike Cruiser's shields had dropped to 24%.

"We've got this, Buccs," called Mighty over the comm as they arced away from the cruiser. "One more pass should do it. Drop the shields with lasers, then switch to ions to disable it."

The B-wings did just that. Coming around for a third pass, each group poured laser fire towards the Strike Cruiser. As its shields began to buckle, several switched over to ion cannons. A hail of blue laser fire poured towards the cruiser, and within seconds it was disabled. Those further behind continued to pound away at it with their regular laser cannons.

"One more pass," Mighty said as his group passed the drifting cruiser, "then let's get the hell out of here!"

Swinging around one final time, the twelve B-wings pelted the white hull of the elongated cruiser with their laser fire. Within seconds it began to tear itself apart through a series of explosions. Several escape pods began to launch from its frame, though one or two were consumed by the fire before they could get enough of a distance away. With that, the B-wings made their way back to the rest of the task force.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

Gaspra watched as the icons for the two Gozanti cruisers and the Strike Cruiser disappeared from the tactical display.

Karabast! she cursed. This lessened her chances at a full victory. Significantly, as the snub fighters had just punched a hole through her net. It would have been easier had an Interdictor-class cruiser been part of the strike team. "Helm!" she spat out towards the pit crews. "Increase speed to full! Intensify forward firepower. Shoot at the corvettes if you have to. I want those ships destroyed NOW!"

[Bridge, CRS Vigilant]

"How long until we can make the jump to hyperspace?!" asked the captain eagerly as he looked at one of the helmsmen.

"Just another klick, sir! But it's going to be close!"

The captain was nearly jolted from his seat as a thunderous blast shook the bridge once more, a torpedo exploding nearby. Several crew members either fell or were knocked out of their seats. They scrambled to resume their stations.

"Shields have failed," called a tactical officer, "hull at ninety-four percent and dropping! Damage to decks seven, ten, and thirteen!"

Checking his tactical screen, he saw the Rez'nor was in slightly worse shape with its hull in the 70-pecentile range. TIE Fighters still swarmed around them. Two of the green icons that identified the corvettes accompanying them suddenly turned from green to red, indicating that they had been destroyed.

"Escape pods launching from the corvettes, sir!" called an ensign. "Your orders?"

"Hull at eighty-four percent!" called a tactical officer.

The captain clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it down on his console in frustration.

"Have tractor beams two, four and six lock on to the closest ones! We'll save who we can!" He hated the thought of leaving comrades behind, only to become Imperial prisoners of war, but there was no other choice. They had to leave. "Tactical! Have all aft cannons cover the fighters as they make their way forward. I don't want a single TIE starfighter breaking through! Lieutenant," he barked towards the comms area as more sparks flew from nearby consoles. "Send the jump coordinates to the starfighters. We jump on my mark!"

"Aye, sir!"

"Hull at seventy-four percent! Rez'nor at sixty-five percent!"

This was going to be close indeed.


"All craft," called the voice over the comm, "prepare to make the jump to hyperspace on my mark.

Gremlin and Talon raced their A-wings forward towards the computerized image of a nav buoy. They had managed to claim a few TIE Fighters, but several remained disabled and adrift in space. As much as she wanted to swing around and take care of them, her blood still boiling from seeing their own escape pods shot down, their passengers murdered, she knew it would be dishonorable to do so.

Pulling close to the B-wings, whose S-foils were closing as they prepared to make the jump to hyperspace, she glanced behind her to make sure no TIEs were near them. She could just make out from her angle a hail of fire flying from the batteries of the Vigilant, taking out any TIE Fighter that dared to come near it. Those that were smart quickly broke away and stopped their pursuit of the capital ships and starfighters.

"On my mark," she heard the captain call over the radio. Turning back around she did a last quick check to make sure that the coordinates in place were correct. "Jump!" came the order. Pulling back her hyperspace lever, the stars streaked into a hail of lines. And then they were gone.

[Bridge, ISD-II Monarch]

As she watched the ships disappear from the viewport, Gaspra bit her lip and slammed her clenched fist against the forward control panel. She could feel the blood rising in her veins, and her hot temper rising even faster. She spun around, looking at the tactical officers manning the gunnery stations.

"Would someone care to explain to me why those ships were not destroyed as I ordered?" she asked through clenched teeth. The crewmen at the gunnery stations slowly exchanged nervous glances. No one spoke. The only noise she heard was the footsteps of her first officer as he marched down the strip of deck plating separating the two pit crews.

"Captain," he said calmly as he stepped in front of her, shielding the pit crews from further wrath. "Message from Commodore Barand. He wants an update on our situation."

Not quite relaxing, Captain Gaspra made a conscious effort to recompose herself. Adjusting her uniform slightly, she took a short breath and made eye contact with her first officer.

"Very well," she said slowly. "Have the TIE Squadrons and transports return to the hangar. Send out retrieval crews to fetch the disabled fighters. And bring me those escape pods," she said moving past him. "We have prisoners I want interrogated.

"Yes ma'am," he said, turning around to watch her as she made her way towards the back of the bridge. "Lieutenant," she barked as she neared the comms station. "Connect Commodore Barand with the console in my ready room. I'll take it-"

"You'll do no such thing, Captain," came a familiar voice from the holographic display field nearby. As she rounded the corner, she hadn't expected the Commodore to physically be present in the form of a hologram. Yet, there he was. A life-sized, blue holographic version of him.

Coming to stand in front of the hologram, she could feel his steely gaze as his holographic eyes bore a hole in her chest.

She suddenly felt very small.

"Were you successful in your endeavour, Captain?"

She paused for a slight moment before replying. "To an extent, sir... yes."

"'To an extent', Captain?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, sir," she replied, swallowing. "We managed to destroy a number of fighters and ships before the others retreated into hyperspace. We're currently in the process of retrieving some survivors from Alliance escape pods. I'd like to emphasize that our primary target, the Destiny, was destroyed in the battle, and--"

"And our losses, Captain?" he cut in sternly.

"I-I don't know the complete tally yet, sir. The Ariadne and some supporting ships were lost. But I'm sure they're all within an acceptable range."

"Are you now?" he asked sharply. "What about the virus you employed? Were you able to recover or confirm the destruction of the data core that the Alliance stole?"

She paused and considered her answer before replying. "No, sir. But I'm certain that it was destroyed with the Destiny. Regardless, the virus was designed to corrupt the information within it."

She watched as Barand's eyebrows narrowed. "Yes, Captain. Corrupt. But not erase. If the Alliance managed to take the data core with them, it is still entirely possible for them to retrieve data about your - our - forces in the sector, even if it is only in fragments."

He was right, of course.

"Do you understand," he said slowly, "what this means for the system?"

"I... I believe I do, Commodore," she said.

"Good. You can explain it to me in person, Captain, and debrief me as to the battle as well. I'm going to send you a set of coordinates in your sector that I want your ship to rendezvous at with the task force I lent you. From there, you will transfer all prisoners over to my ship for questioning. Finally, you will take a shuttle to my Star Destroyer at your earliest opportunity with a full debriefing."

She swallowed as he said you and full debriefing more firmly than the other words in the sentence.

"You can follow those simple orders, can't you, Captain?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, Commodore," she said, feeling even smaller.

"Good," he said before his hologram disappeared. "I look forward to this educational opportunity.

His figure gone, Gaspra gave a quick set of instructions to the comms lieutenant near her. Turning to her right, she made her way back to her quarters. No amount of exercise or wine would make her feel better this evening.


The surviving cruisers and fighters emerged from hyperspace. There was nothing near them, save the great black void of space and the millions of visible white dots representing stars all around them. While their emergency jump had only been two minutes in length, it had given them enough distance, and hopefully time, to escape from the Imperials. Giving a small sigh of relief, the captain turned to one of the ensigns near him.

"Ensign, have the tractor beams pull the escape pods into the hangar. I want a medical crew to see the passengers immediately. Recall all starfighters except Rogue Squadron. I want them to maintain a defensive perimeter for now."

"Aye, sir!"

"Lieutenant," he called next. "Get the senior requisition and personnel officers to the ready room immediately. We need to find spaces for the survivors."


"Chief," he said, turning to his first officer. "You have the bridge. Have Captain Supriya join us there once she has been seen to. Once all the fighters are aboard, set course to rendezvous with the rest of the task force. I'll be in the ready room."

"Very well, sir."

Getting up out of his chair and making his way across the bridge, the captain could only thank his lucky stars that they'd made it out alive.

[Debriefing Room, three hours later]

The senior staff sat in a circle around their table. The stolen data core lay on its side in the middle of the table with different coloured wires and cables protruding from its shell. Commander Dobson, Captain Supriya, and the original fighter task force from the mission sat at the opposite end of the room.

"And that, Captain," Dobson finished from where he was sitting, "is everything that we encountered on this mission." Captain Supriya had also been sure to fill in events from her perspective, too. Together, they had painted a clear picture of the events from the mission. Everyone turned once more to look at the data core. Only the captain moved. Getting up out of his seat, he walked over to a small viewport window, placing a hand against his chin.

"One thing still bothers me," he said, slowly turning around, stroking his chin. "What did you say the names of the two Star Destroyers were?"

Captain Supriya cleared her throat. "The Monarch and the Charybdis, sir." "Hmm. I've heard those names before. What was the name of the captain of the Monarch?

"Captain Gaspra, sir," Supriya replied. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say she knew exactly what to do with the forces she had."

"So it would seem, Captain Supriya. Thank you all for your accounts. Be sure to file your reports within the hour. Dismissed."

As the pilots and Captain Supriya left the briefing room, the captain took a few steps forward and placed his hands on the back of his chair.

"This information can only mean one thing," he said, looking at the senior staff around the table. "Gaspra was working with someone else. Her Star Destroyer was the only major capital ship identified as being part of any known Imperial forces in this system. The other Star Destroyers and ships would most certainly be part of another task force. Captain Gaspra's Star Destroyer has not officially been reported to be part of any other force, but it's entirely possible someone has earned her loyalty, or she is working with another group to some end. That virus, though," he said, looking at the data core, "is of a more unique speciality."

The officers sitting around the table looked at one another. "Could you elaborate, sir?" asked one of them.

"Consider the evidence if you will," began the captain, slowly walking around the table. "We sent a small strike team as part of a joint operation to gather intel to plan a strike to liberate a system from Imperial forces. Our team encounters not one but two missile emplacement locations. Let's assume that these locations had some sort of detection or observation component to it. Cameras, or probe droids, perhaps. In delaying our fighters, an Imperial ship in the sector is alerted to our presence. Realizing that a small force has ventured into the sector, for yet unknown reasons, the captain - or whomever is in charge - decides to act quickly.

So, this person takes stock of where our forces are, and possible targets in the area. This person - let's assume it is this Captain Gaspra - decides to act upon this information. She either sends a virus that has already been made, or possibly gives the command to use one already contained on the surveillance craft, to corrupt the data core we have been sent to capture. From there," he continued, circling the table, "she scrambles nearby forces at her disposal. Nothing major, but small and fast enough to respond quickly - thus delaying our capture of the surveillance craft.

Now, knowing that we are delayed by several minutes, she coordinates other forces near her or at her disposal. She doesn't know where the possible command ship is, or if there even is one. But, given that there are no Alliance outposts nearby, she assumes that there is one because it is too far for a small group of fighters to fly on their own. So, she essentially draws a wide net," he continued, opening his arms wide.

"And," cut in one of the senior officers, "uses the data core to somehow sabotage the computer systems of the Destiny to disable it and give away their location."

"Then," said another, "have the need for reinforcements to rescue them once the initial Imperial force makes their move."

"Exactly," continued the captain. "It seems unlikely that all the Imperial forces could arrive at the same time if approaching from varying distances and locations. However, they continue to arrive one by one. By the time we get there," the captain finished, clapping his hands together.

"We're caught in the same trap the Destiny is, more or less," concluded another.

"I'm sure you all," the captain said as he finished his circle of the table, once more putting his hands on the back of his chair, "understand the gravity of the situation. We're lucky that an Interdictor cruiser was not present. While we aren't dealing with a major Imperial force directly - that we know of - we're dealing with someone who is very tactical. Someone who, if they had more time to prepare, could easily have destroyed us."

The senior officers shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

"So, what's our next step, captain?" one asked.

"We need to address repairs and offload the crew of the Destiny. That will take time. I want this encounter logged, and a full tactical analysis done. Have it broken down and remodeled for the piloting simulation pods. There could be other encounters like this. In the meantime, we have one bright side to this whole debacle," he said, looking at the corrupted data core again on the table.

"And that is, sir?"

"The opportunity to become better tactical artists," he finished with a smile.

[Hallway, CRS Vigilant]

As the pilots and Captain Supriya made their way down the corridor to the turbolifts, Gremlin fell behind the group and matched her pace with Commander Dobson. The first group filled the nearest turbolift, while the second was left for each of them. Entering it, Dobson pressed the button to take them to the deck with the piloting quarters.

"I have to thank you, Lieutenant," he said as the doors closed. "Your actions earlier today saved a lot of people. Myself included. I'll be sure to put in a good word for you in my report."

Gremlin smiled at this good news. "Thank you, sir. I'm glad I could be of help today. And I do appreciate the good word you'll give me."

A few seconds of silence passed before Dobson spoke again.

"One other thing, lieutenant," he began.

"Yes, sir?" she asked.

He hesitated for a second before continuing.

"The perfume you mentioned..."

"Yes?" she asked, turning to him and raising an eyebrow.

"Do you think you could... you know...."

"Consider it done, sir. I'll get you some as soon as I can."

The turbolift slowed to a halt and the doors whisked open.

"Oh, and sir," she said as he stepped towards the hallway. She watched as he turned around to look at her before fully exiting. Her smile changed to a wicked grin. "I'm sure once you do get it, you'll have no problem earning some extra snuggle time with a certain someone."

Giving her an exasperated look, Dobson bit his lip and left the turbolift without saying another word, leaving Gremlin to giggle to herself.

[Tactical Room, ISD Conviction]

Commodore Tol Barand stood near a tactical display at the front of the room. He had made her wait for some time before entering the room. Captain Gaspra sat in a chair facing forward near the front of the circular table. To her right was a statue that complemented the room without dominating it. A small cylinder was also placed at the base of the statue. The statue was made of smooth white and grey marble with streaks of thin black lines inking their way along the bodies here and there. The statue portrayed two muscular alien creatures she did not recognize embraced in combat. One was clearly dominant, while the other appeared to be losing the battle. Or was it a form of submission? She hadn't given it much thought given the current situation. The images displayed in front of her recreated the positions of all the ships in the final confrontation several hours earlier.

"I must commend you, Captain," he said, staring at the pattern of ships surrounding the Destiny. "Given how hastily this task force was put together, you did what few other fully trained Imperial officers or captains could. That quick thinking with the virus you uploaded to the surveillance craft's data core was quite ingenious. A speciality of yours, I take it?"

Gaspra carefully considered her response before speaking. "Thank you, sir. It is."

Turning to look at her, he continued. "Using it to disable the Nebulon B-2 was quite remarkable. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it in all my years serving the Empire. And boxing them in was tactically sound. In theory, it could have worked against the Vigilant and its accompanying ships as well had you had some more time to allocate your assets. Tell me, Captain. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?"

She paused for a moment, once more choosing her words carefully. "There... could be any number of changes made, sir. A repositioning of ships, or deploying the TIE Squadrons and assault transports differently, or..."

"What specifically, Captain, is one thing you could do differently if faced with this situation again," he cut in.

"Well sir," she said with a slight pause, "if the Charybdis had moved sooner and swung around to the other end of the battlespace," she began, "it could have had a better firing solution against the enemy cruisers. Or if it had exited hyperspace further ahead from its location then swung around to face the incoming Alliance cruisers."

"That is one possibility, and not one without merit. Move a major warship to cover the entry and exit point on either side while reinforcing the smaller cruisers. It also allows for more room for the Charybdis' starfighters and transports to operate, while putting more pressure on the enemy force from multiple directions."

Pressing a button, the images of the Vigilant task force appeared on the board.

"But with this increased presence on the board, where could another possible exit point be for the Rebel task force?"

Staring for a moment at the board, she knew what Barand was getting at. She could see it herself.

"The Minotaur, sir. Depending on our starship positions, the enemy could either make an escape between it and the Ariadne. Or, if sufficient fighter support is provided by the Vigilant's squadrons, it could disable or destroy the ship to make an alternate escape route - assuming they have a set of coordinates to jump to, that is."

She felt Barand staring at her, his cold eyes making her want to look away. But she didn't. Then, for some unknown reason, a smile spread across his face. "Very good, Captain! I'm glad you've been able to come to the same conclusion as I. Now, let's not waste any more time here. Let me show you what you should have done.

Ideally, you should have had the Ariadne and its supporting ships jump in and move closer to the Destiny. This push, plus the assistance from Sigma Squadron, would easily overwhelm the defending fighters and the already disabled frigate. They would, in time, be destroyed without the need to call in reinforcements. Should you wish, this would allow you the possibility when your ship arrives to capture the crew of the frigate. In each case, Imperial losses are minimal and acceptable. There is no need for the Vigilant and her task force to arrive, and we avoid direct confrontation with them. For now."

Gaspra swallowed as he continued.

"Alternatively, rather than have Sigma Squadron jump away after their second re-engagement, having them take up position near the Hydra - or even land in the hangar for quick reloading - while the TIE Squadrons engage would have given them added protection while keeping their members intact. In fact, if they had even reloaded with proton torpedoes, this would allow them to put added pressure on the Rez'nor and Vigilant."

Gaspra remained still in her seat, though very much wanted to slide out of her seat to leave.

"Finally, do you understand the full firepower capability of an Imperial Star Destroyer plus a Mark-Two Star Destroyer?" he asked.

"I do, sir," she said after a moment.

"Then you would also understand that such ships, when used correctly, can easily take down a series of smaller crafts. I doubt that your two main cruisers would have had much trouble against a Nebulon-B Frigate and a Mon Calamari cruiser. Now, Captain," he said, switching the display off. "Let's review the final tally of the battle.

Your actions led to the destruction of a Nebulon-B2 Frigate, several Alliance starfighters, two corvettes, and substantial damage to the remaining Rebel cruisers - not to mention the destruction or capture of a number of fleeing craft and prisoners. In total, you lost my Strike Cruiser, two of your Gozanti-class cruisers, at least five-and-a-half full TIE squadrons with another half squadron disabled, several gunboats destroyed, damaged, or disabled, a number of assault transports, one disabled Gozanti cruiser, a disabled surveillance craft, not to mention its crew captured. And," he spat in anger, "a missing data core that may or may not have been destroyed! Do you have any idea what this could cost us and how long it will take to replace those resources?"

The only thing Gaspra could do was stare in silence. She dared not say anything else, lest she be berated further. After several moments, she saw Barand pull at his slightly ruffled uniform, making it appear smooth again. He cleared his throat and pulled out a small kerchief to wipe his nose before replacing it.

"You'll have to forgive me, Captain," he said, his tone more amiable this time. "I sometimes forget that not everyone thinks the way I do. I see the potential in you. Perhaps one day you could, with more training and experience, become even more tactically-minded than you are now. Like myself. I hope this experience has been a good first lesson for you, and one that you will not repeat again."

Gaspra nodded slowly, affirming her understanding.

"Good. Your assets will also, in time, be invaluable to my growing task force."

She didn't argue this point. To her, it was better to join his force than the alternative.

"Now it is time for your second lesson. Major," he said, pulling out a small communication cylinder, "you may enter."

Several seconds later the door to the room hissed open. Two Death Troopers, their armor jet black, entered the room half-holding, half-dragging a young man in an Alliance trooper uniform, minus his elongated white helmet. He was a disheveled mess and looked as if he had been simultaneously interrogated and beaten. The Death Troopers dropped him to the floor in between Barand and where she was sitting. She heard the young man give a grunt as he hit the floor. Barand took a step or two towards the young man.

"Tell me, son," he said, kneeling to speak to the young man. "What is your name?"

The trooper stared blankly on his side at Barand before pushing himself up and turning his head to look at Gaspra, then back at Barand. He didn't say a word.

"You do have a name, don't you?" Barand asked. Before the trooper could reply, Barand continued. "Oh, dear me, where are my manners? How rude of me to speak down to a guest on my ship. Let me help you up."

Gaspra watched as he gently took the trooper by the arm and lifted him up.

"There, now, that's better. Now, your name, son?"

The trooper took a few steps so as to turn and face Barand, Gaspra, and the two Death Troopers, his back to the adjacent wall.

"M-m-Merrick," he stammered.

"Merrick! What a nice name. Tell me, Merrick, where are you from?"

The trooper paused again before answering.

"Bastillon. I'm from... Bastillon."

"Ah, Bastillon!" said Barand cheerfully. "That's in the Merokus System, isn't it?"

"It is," he replied cautiously.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Merrick, but isn't Bastillon known for its delectable sweets?" Barand asked quizzically.

Merrick nodded. "It is, sir."

"How fortunate! It just so happens, Merrick, that I absolutely love Bastillon Taffy. It's sweet. Chewy. Flavourful. Surprisingly low in sugar and calories. Quite a treat and gift to give on a holiday, I imagine. Would you agree, Merrick?"

"I would, sir," said a blinking Merrick after a moment.

"Wonderful!" exclaimed Barand, looking at Gaspra. Turning back to Merrick, the next words out of Barand's mouth surprised her. "Would you like a piece?"

Even with Merrick's beaten face, it was possible for Gaspra to make out that he was puzzled with the entire situation.

"Oh, don't worry, son. There's nothing wrong with the taffy. Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable with the Death Troopers not present? Major, wait outside the door please."

The two Death Troopers exited the room. As the doors closed, Gaspra could see them taking up guard posts just outside.

"Merrick," he said, gesturing to her, "this is Captain Gaspra. She is also my guest today. If I might oblige you, captain, would you open the cylinder on the table to your right?"

Looking and reaching over to her right, Gaspra took the small, fat cylinder in her right hand. Unscrewing the top with her left, she revealed a cylinder full to the brim of small pieces of taffy wrapped in translucent white wax paper wrappers. Looking at Barand, he nodded.

She stood up from her seat and reached an arm out to offer them each a piece of taffy. Barand took one first and began unwrapping it, and after a few moments Merrick hesitantly reached and took one from the top. Gaspra retracted her arm so as to hold the cylinder close to her body.

"Mmm," said Barand as he chewed the taffy. "That is delicious."

Gaspra watched as Barand swallowed his first piece.

"Would you like another, Merrick?" he asked.

Gaspra held out the cylinder again, and Merrick gingerly took another piece and unwrapped it in his fingers, then popped it quickly into his mouth and began to chew.

"Tell me, Merrick. Would you like to see your family again?"

Merrick stopped chewing and looked at Barand. It was clear to Gaspra that the question had caught him off guard, just as it did her.

"How about your mother? You do have a mother, don't you?" Barand asked.

Merrick nodded slowly.

"And who wouldn't?" Barand said. "Tell me, Merrick. Are you good at following orders?"

Merrick paused for a moment to swallow the taffy he had in his mouth. "I am, sir."

"And I suppose a loyal trooper such as yourself would be used to following orders. Like a good soldier. And a good boy. You know," Barand continued, "I'm trying to teach Captain Gaspra here the value of following directions and orders. She is, after all, a recent addition to my fleet. Perhaps you could help her learn a lesson or two."

She watched as Merrick slowly looked at her, then back at Barand.

"So," Barand said, "the way I see it, you have a few options here. The first, Merrick, is to remain with your comrades as guests of my fleet for an indeterminate amount of time. You won't have many freedoms and will most likely be used to carry out routine, menial, and demanding tasks while serving our fleet as prisoners. It is also entirely possible that my security personnel will continue to extract what information they can from you.

The second is to follow my next order. In doing so, you will earn your freedom. Merrick, my dear boy," he said, walking several feet over to and opening up a small panel on the wall behind him, "I want you to try and kill me."

Gaspra's mouth opened slightly in alarm. She watched as Barand took out a handheld blaster and turned back to face them.

"Captain Gaspra," he said, looking at her, "I have very specific orders for you."

Gaspra blinked silently.

"If," Barand continued, "Merrick here can kill me, you are hereby ordered to let him go free. It is your personal responsibility to ensure that he gets off the ship safely in a small shuttle with necessary supplies to make it back to his homeworld and his family. Unharmed and free of reprisal, of course." Barand paused for a moment, meeting Gaspra's gaze. "Do you swear to follow those orders, Captain?" Barand finished, raising an eyebrow.

Gaspra shifted her gaze to Barand, then to Merrick, then back to Barand.

"I do. Sir," she said, finally.

"Excellent, Captain. I'm sure Merrick is equally happy as well. Here you go, son," he said, tossing the blaster towards him. It clattered and skidded across the floor, landing just short of Merrick's boots.

Gaspra watched as Merrick stared down at the blaster. Time seemed to slow. Gaspra held her breath, feeling the tension in the room. She watched as Merrick looked at the blaster. Then back to Barand. Then to her. Then back to Barand.

She watched as he made his move.

Merrick bolted for the blaster. Grasping it quickly in his hand, he rose equally as quickly and pointed it at Barand with proper form.

The shot she heard startled her enough that she spilled the entire canister of taffy. The pieces scattered across the floor while the cylindrical container rolled away.

She watched as Merrick fell backwards without a sound, a burning hole in his chest. He hit the ground with a deafening thud. Turning to look at Barand, he held a small, smoking blaster in his right hand. She wasn't sure where he had concealed it, but she wasn't sure she wanted to know either.

A small smile spreading across his face, Barand walked slowly to where she was standing. Shifting the blaster to his left hand, he bent down and picked up the nearest piece of taffy, placing it in one of his uniform pockets. He then turned to face her.

Placing a gloved hand gently under her chin, he bent over to bring his face close to hers so that he looked her directly in the eyes. She could feel her body begin to tremble slightly.

"Art, Captain," he said quietly, gently turning her face to look at the statue in the middle of the table, "is a beautiful thing. The art of war is more beautiful - if you strive to understand and master it." He turned her face back to meet his cold gaze. "You have such potential. And your assets will be most useful. I trust you will remember this lesson very well. Don't fail me again."

Removing his hand from her chin, he stood up, turned and left the room, popping the newly unwrapped piece of taffy he removed from his pocket into his mouth as he left.

Gaspra was left alone to gaze over the scattered pieces of taffy on the floor, and the lifeless body of Merrick not two feet away from her.

It was an image she would never forget.

The End