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By Bulldog, Frosty, Jalb_k, Lock
With Contributions by Foo, Damak, Gremlin, Knight, Syntax and Wildcard
Lead Editor: Shadow

Directed by Frosty

Episode III

Chapter Seven

[ TLM Hideout; Villa near Capital ]

Another cheer went up amongst the group sitting around the living room of the Villa, but Keyleb didn't join in, even as a cold bottle of beer was pressed into his hands.

The holonet display placed on the table center was turned up loud and the various members of the True Loyalist Militia were whooping at the display of Barand's Star Destroyer force. Even the announcement of a ceasefire didn't stop their celebration; they had done it. No more elections. Toseng belonged to the Empire, for now.

"This is what a few good brave men can achieve!" Zom roared and his compatriots lifted their drinks and cheered. Keyleb however stood still, his stomach churning. It just didn't feel right. He thought about the Pantoran ambassador, currently held upstairs in the master bedroom. She hadn't said anything, she couldn't with the gag in, but the look in her eyes when her eyes met his. The way she studied him.

His hand hurt. He looked at it, the remaining fingers strong enough to grip the beer bottle but for a moment he could feel the burning pain of the missing fingers that should be there but weren't. This didn't feel right...


[CRS Vigilant Hangar ]

The hangar was a hive of activity as the Renegade Wing fighters sans Skull Squadron landed their fighters. Skull was required to remain in flight as a defensive deterrent, having not been engaged during the skirmish. Multiple fighters had varying levels of damage, but none more so than Bearcat's stricken X-wing. Blackened gouges cut through the top of his craft where the TIE had stitched him during his moment of inattention, destroying his shield generator and damaging his power generator cabling, culminating in a headless astromech corpse still in the socket.

Bulldog sighed sadly as he noticed the empty berth in the midst of their fighters, signifying the loss of Peacock during the unsuccessful assault on the Rising Star. Apparently she'd been too slow to react to the cruiser shifting orientation and clipped her bottom S-Foil on the bridge after her run, and then slammed into the hull shortly after.

The Buccaneers weren't the only squadron with a casualty, but the other pilot had been lucky enough to be retrieved after having their fighter shot out from under them. Shadow, Spectre Nine, was picked up by Zippy in one of the Mercy SAR U-wings in the thick of the fight around their target cruiser, likewise ambushed by a surprise launching of TIEs in their direction.

He took stock of his own fighter and astromech, noting a few new blaster burns and grazes from moments during the skirmish where his shields had been drained and he'd taken a hit before they'd had time to recharge. Weight, thankfully, was untouched in the astromech socket. He let out a mournful tone once he laid his optical receptor on the smoking remains of Bearcat's astromech.

Bulldog wasn't sure if astromechs formed friendships the same way organics did, but he still liked to think they had a mutual admiration or at the very least a working relationship. He reached over and patted his black and red astromech on the dome and sent him a tight smile. Weight, for his part, shook his dome from side to side and tootled pleasantly at the gesture. "Looks like we survived another one, little buddy," he said.

Before he could continue basking in the relief of another sortie survived, a loud clattering of tools on the deck nearby drew his attention in that direction, followed by a guttural growl.

"You lousy, lying Mando!"

Bulldog whirled his head around in time to see Bearcat launch himself at Loth-Cat, taking the youth off their feet and landing on top of them with ease. The nearby techs were stunned into inaction, frozen where they were with whatever tools or hoses they had in hand.

"You prrromised! You prrromised me you'd keep herrr safe!"

"Break it up!" Somebody shouted from nearby. Boots slamming on the deck followed as multiple Buccaneers rushed forward, slowly shouldering their way through the crowd of gawking technicians.

Loth-Cat recoiled from the assault, defending themselves as best they could whilst being pinned down by the angry Cathar towering above them. The fear was fully evident on the youth's face as they looked up into the rage-filled eyes of Bearcat with one hand raised, claws splayed out and ready to strike.

Bulldog looked around frantically, but saw the techs had been too distracted to bring a ladder to his Y-wing so he could debark the craft in a safe manner to break up the tussle. Seeing no other option, he did the only thing his frantic and frazzled brain could come up with, launching himself off of the top of his Y-wing.

He'd judged the distance correctly, slamming into Bearcat's back. The collision sent the raging Cathar flying forward off of Loth-Cat while Bulldog tumbled off to the side. His shoulder hit the deck hard, and he felt a sharp twinge of pain at the impact location. He rolled to his back, gripping his shoulder with his uninjured arm as his other arm hung limply on the deck.

The other Buccaneers broke through the ring of onlookers at that moment and subdued Bearcat; Foo and Slugger holding his arms for all they were worth whilst Ant and Wolvinator each took a leg.

"Cool it, hairball!" Slugger grunted, eliciting another feral roar from Bearcat.

Rev and Blue helped Loth-Cat to their feet and checked them over. Loth-Cat shrugged them off gently, mumbling that they were ok while rubbing their chest absentmindedly. Gnoizic hauled Bulldog to his feet, who stood there rubbing his shoulder angrily.

Animal interposed himself between the two groups, looking back and forth between them. "What is the meaning of this?!"

Bearcat struggled against the four pilots restraining him, but he still managed to level a menacing, clawed finger toward Loth-Cat while Foo strained to hold the limb in check. "HE said he vould keep herrr safe! HE let Peacock die!"

"I did the best I could!" Loth-Cat replied, tears fully visible on the corners of their eyes.

"Do prrromises mean NOTHING to you Mando SCUM?!"

"There was nothing I could do!" Loth-Cat cried, the tears now streaming down their flushed cheeks.

"It's true!" Blue interjected, looking at Bearcat with pleading eyes. "Peacock got unlucky, that's all. There was nothing Ninx did to cause it or could have done to stop it from happening, Z!"

"ENOUGH!" Bulldog growled. He leveled a menacing glare in Bearcat's direction. "Sometimes things are out of our control out there, Flight Officer Zynnadi."

Animal nodded in agreement. "Sometimes bad things happen out there no matter what somebody does." He stepped closer to Loth-Cat and placed a reassuring hand on their shoulder. "I'm sure Ninx did everything THEY could to keep Four alive. Sometimes people just don't make it," he finished with a sad sigh.

Bearcat once again raged against his restraints. His anger and rage was lessening though as his energy reserves, already depleted from the recent sortie, were flagging. He huffed and drew in deep, rapid breaths as he continued to stare death in Loth-Cat's direction.

Blue stepped closer, putting herself between Bearcat and Loth-Cat, breaking the line of sight of the Cathar's hatred. She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, staring deeply into the yellow eyes of rage with the calm gold of her own. "Easy, big guy. They didn't do anything wrong, and you being there wouldn't have made a lick of difference. The Moon Goddess picked Un Fabee's number and called her home.

Bearcat shuddered as his breath caught in his chest. His eyes instantly cleared, and he let out a sound somewhere betwee'n a sob and wail. The pilots restraining him let go, and the Cathar fell to his knees on the deck.

The crowd dispersed one by one, seeing that the show had finally ended. The Buccaneers likewise began filing out in small groups until only Blue, Bearcat, and Bulldog remained in the gap on the deck created by Peacock's missing B-wing.

Bulldog stepped in close and gripped Bearcat roughly on the shoulder with his good arm and lifted him to his feet. He then released the shoulder and gripped the humanoid cat roughly by the cheeks to make him look directly into his angry scowl. "Look, you're new, so you get one pass on this. You don't call Ninx a 'he'. Ever. You refer to them as 'they' or 'them'. If you do it again, I'll plaster your ass to the deck myself. You get me?"

Bearcat nodded weakly in response with a confused expression on his face.

Bulldog let go and relaxed, his own heartbeat starting to slow down. "Good. And look, war is hell. People die. If there was anything anybody could have done to keep Peacock alive, they would have done it. We're a squad here. We're family. We don't let each other die, even if we hate their guts. I know what the Mandalorians did to your race years ago," he said, and then shifted his gaze toward Blue with a flick of his head. "And I also did some research after our first discussion and found out what the Pantorans did while your race was in bondage. You seem to have gotten over that pretty well, so you'll have to get over it with Ninx and the rest of the Mandos too. Ok?"

Bearcat nodded again, but not nearly as convincingly enough to settle the matter for Bulldog. The human scowled and stepped closer until only a few centimeters separated the two beings. "We are on the raggedy edge out here and need every swinging dick in the cockpit. Get over it or get off our ship. Whatever you do, figure it out. Quickly."

Without waiting for a reply or acknowledgement, Bulldog spun on his heel and headed out of the hangar bay, rubbing his shoulder while his arm tingled and hung limply at his side.


[ ISD Consolidator; Omaraga System ]

Jerryk Pash generally was able to keep his face neutral in most situations, his training and career having well prepared him for bad news, but Oshi could tell that what she was telling him rankled.

"So he jumped into the Toseng system without informing his own fleet?" He said, speaking slowly and clearly. Oshi simply nodded in reply to his question.

"Now he wishes for the entire fleet to amass at Toseng?"

"Yes sir," she said quietly. Jerryk stood from behind his desk and rubbed his forehead and nodded at Oshi, "Thank you Lieutenant, that will be all."

Oshi saluted and turned on her heel, walking out of the room and into the refresher. She immediately placed the earpiece hidden in her collar into her ear and waited patiently for the bug she had placed in Pash's office to activate.

"-you seen this Kolly?" The audio wasn't crystal clear but she could hear enough. Jerryk's second in command, Commander Everett Kolivar, had joined him in his private office.

"Yes, Jer."

"Ridiculous situation! He hasn't made any kind of plan, just rushed in and put civilians in harm's way by placing his ship over the city. Does he think the rebellion won't attack if those people are at risk? We both saw what happened at Clom Alpha."

"Drink, Jer?"

"Hmmm," Oshi concentrated and she could hear the clinking of glasses, pouring of liquid. After a pause Pash spoke again, "I don't know Kolly. Maybe this alliance was a mistake. The idiot agreed to negotiations. We don't negotiate with terrorists..."

"The ultimatum Brebor gave was powerful."

"Pah!" Pash sounded tetchy, "Even if those extremists were willing to destroy their own homes with the mines, we could neutralise them with a few spec ops teams. Barand is an opportunistic, egotistical maniac. He's an intelligence agent through and through."

"We can't hold our systems on our own, Jer. If we aren't going to ally with Sloane-"

"I know, I know." There was quiet for a while as both men sat and enjoyed their drinks in peace. Oshi took the earpiece out and set the rest of the audio to record, she was due back at her post. She knew she should report what she had just heard to Barand, that was why he had sent her here. She would report it.

She would. In a few days. After she had the chance to think over what they'd said.


[ Bar in Capital City; Toseng ]

"Seems like every time I see you two you're sitting around eating and drinking," said Joff Braxley, a pale man with thin hair.

Guts and Sigilien looked up from their food, mouths full of nerfburger, and gave the sniper a hard stare. Guts managed to chew enough to quickly swallow, answering, "Not our fault we always meet here."

"Oh, well, I would join you but I'm not sure if there is anything for me on the menu," Joff said with a hint of a smirk. "Because I'm vegan, you know."

"We know," Sigilien and Guts answered together.

That elicited a chuckle from Joff, "I think I'll go order myself a drink."

As soon as he was gone Guts and Sigilien turned to each other and rolled their eyes, groaning.

"I dink I'll gi irdir mysilf idrink," Sigilien mocked.

"Bikis imi vigin," Guts followed up.

"We know, ugh!" Shaking her head she took another gigantic bite out of her nerfburger. "Whuf duff huff hiff heeff iff huffyweeeffs?"

Guts stared at her as he plucked a piece of her nerfburger off of his face, one of many that had escaped her maw throughout the heefing and huffing. He looked down at his own nerfburger, wondering just how much of that had landed on his food. Before he had a chance to conduct a proper investigation, he heard the doors to the restaurant open and from the back someone yelled, "Tsurio, you're here!"

"That's right, babe, your Captain's come home," the Zeltron said with a cocky grin on his lips. He opened his arms, and a young Zabrak woman ran into them and embraced him. The two hugged for a long time. As Tsurio broke the embrace he said, "I've missed you, my darling."

"You haven't had time to miss me," she challenged. Her name was Astin Anandes, the only member of the crew that was a native of Toseng. "You've only been gone for half a day!"

"Nevertheless, I've. Missed. You!" Each pause was a kiss, and the last a prolonged-leaning-her-back-in-his-arms-kind-of-kiss, clearly meant to sweep her off her feet.

Siglien turned back towards Guts and made a motion, pointing a finger towards her open mouth and outstretched tongue. "Gag," she whispered, and Guts fought to hold back a smile.

Tsurio looked around the room. "Good, you're all here. Let me get something to drink and let's get started."

Though he wrapped an arm around Astin's waist, Guts noted the look Tsurio gave Sigilien as he walked past, who was completely oblivious and taking another massive bite out of her burger.

Guts frowned, watching her, thinking about what he'd just seen. He knew Tsurio better than he'd ever wanted to, and knew that the man was as slimy as they came. That look could have only mean that two things were about to happen: first, that he was nearly done with Astin, and then, secondly, that he was looking for a replacement bed warmer to use in his bastardly schemes. The mere thought of it sickened Guts, but he didn't quite understand why. What was Sigilien to him, anyways? They barely knew each other, really. Even what details they'd shared couldn't be trusted; according to Sigilien, she had spent the past two years trapped on a rock hunting down lizard men. How was he supposed to kriffin' believe that? Why did he kriffin' believe that?

"Hmmff? What?" she asked, inhaling another bite. "Do I have something on my face?" She reached for a napkin.

Guts snapped out of it. "Oh, sorry, I zoned out for a moment."

Sigilien smirked, sensing the advantage. "Owwh, didju get lawst in ma' eeeysies?"


"Alright, everyone circle around!" Tsurio announced somewhere from behind him. Guts let out a soft, annoyed sigh and stood up. Both he and Sigilien and he were last to arrive, taking a couple of chairs to the zeltron's left, as far as they could get from Joff.

"Good job so far," Tsurio said after a swig of his drink, a brightly colored, probably inhumanly sweet concoction. "The Boss sends her congratulations, especially to Guts and the new girl for making those contacts within the Militia--all it took was one kidnapped Ambassador to get the fire going."

There was some weak applause, mostly from Astin.

"Her Majesty," Tsurio continued, and the sarcasm in his voice told Guts that as much as he despised the Zeltron at times, they had one thing in common: they both hated Zeno. "Her Majesty has also extended her congratulations to Joff and Astin for their diligent work in rallying the rioteers. She promises bonuses to all."

More weak applause, but the news of bonuses made it stronger than the last round.

"Next up, we have a delivery for the Militia at their villa, and set up for the next phase... We'll kick off on both in four hours. Until then, enjoy the food! As for me, I have something else to enjoy..." Tsurio growled and nipped at Astin's neck and she giggled. A chorus of slaps rang out as multiple palms encountered a face.

With that news, the group broke up, each heading to their own corner of the locale. Guts and Sigilien retired to their table and Drogg and Svitzek to theirs. Joff joined the gran and the dug, thankfully.

"Well, that was pointless," Guts muttered as he sat down.

"What's up with Tsurio and Astin?" Sigilien asked as soon as they were sitting.

Guts sighed, unsure if he really wanted to get into this subject. "She's our inside woman," Guts said, repeating the same thing he'd told Sigilien before. "She and Tsurio... have a thing."

"A thing?" Sigilien asked, pressing the issue.

"You saw them, didn't you?"

"I did, but something felt off," she answered, unhappy that she was encountering so much resistance. "What? I know you know something! Your leg always shakes under the table when you lie to me."

Guts immediately stopped his leg. "Maybe I'll just only lie to you when standing then."

She gave him an expectant look and bit into her burger.

"Fine," he finally relented, with a sigh. He leaned over, speaking in hushed tones. "He is working her. Manipulating her."

By the bar, Tsurio still spoke with Astin. She sat on his lap and leaned in close, pressing her body to his. They looked like they were a happily-in-love couple. It wasn't long before they, incapable of keeping their hands off of each other, rushed away to find some privacy. "You see, Zeltrons can produce pheromones and have some empathic abilities--don't ask, I don't know the details. I'm not some kriffin' xenologist--but anyways."

Guts picked up his nerfburger and pointed it at Sigilien. "He wants her to do something for him. I don't know what that is, either. But knowing that son of a schutta, it can't be anything good." He went for a bite of his burger, intending to be finished, but he stopped himself and added, completely out of his control, "You should probably stay away from him."

"Pfft, you think I can't handle myself?" she asked. "Better not leave me alone with the sexy ship captain or I won't be able to resist throwing myself at him!"

"It was just friendly advice," Guts stared at her. He regretted saying it, though more because of what it revealed about himself than whatever slight she had perceived it as, as terrible as that sounded. I am a terrible person, after all, Guts reminded himself.

Sigilien rolled her eyes. "Please. I can handle myself. Have a little faith." For an instant the usually joyful woman frowned. "Astin... is there anything we can do for her?"

Guts shrugged. "No idea. Maybe? Something can always be done... whether what's done is successful or not, is another story."


Chapter Eight

[ Knight's A-Wing; Toseng System ]

In the years John "Knight" Vorwald had been a part of the Rebellion, he'd gone on countless patrols. During most of the Rebellion, patrols skirted the distant edges of hidden bases or fleets. Toseng was very different. Toseng was shaping up to be a proper battlefield, and it made Knight a little nervous. This was a standoff.

Even the patrol didn't feel like a patrol. From where he sat, he could physically see the New Republic and Imperial fleets to either side of him. This felt more like posturing. They'd already come far too close to an Imperial patrol once already. Thankfully both patrols had decided to give each other space rather than potentially break the uneasy peace.

A thin streak cut across Knight's vision and abruptly halted into a small shape in the distance between the two fleets.

"New arrival, 2 o'clock." Knight called out and started getting the new ship targeted. Smiling as the target information began to overlay on his sight. He'd finally gotten his cybernetic eye to reliably interface with his A-wing's systems. "Corvette, twenty three klicks out."

"Not getting anything yet for friend or foe." BattleDog said. "We should be able to get something from them... I don't even see a name."

"Let's see if they have an explanation." Knight throttled up and started to close the gap between them and the Corvette. "Unidentified CR-90, please identify yourself."

Static responded.

"CR-90, please respond." Knight tried again. Nothing but dead air responded. Sighing to himself, he repeated: "Unidentified CR-90, please respond and identify yourself."

"Well, only one option left, Seven."

"Right, I'll call it in. Vigilant, Corsair Seven. We have a new arrival near our patrol path with no comms and no IFF. Going to take a closer look to visually confirm friend or foe."

A new voice entered Knight's ears, "Acknowledged, Corsair Seven. Proceed with caution."

"Okay, Eight, Time to buzz them before Imps come snooping. Follow me and keep your eyes peeled as we pass."

"Copy that."

The two A-wings rocketed ahead, adjusting their course to aim directly at the bridge of the corvette. The little fighters quickly were closing the distance.

In an instant, the bridge of the corvette flashed past. Knight focused on not smearing himself along the engines of the corvette. In his mind's eye, Knight could recall a couple of very surprised faces, and one very amused one holding up a sheet of flimsi with two large symbols drawn on it, both in red. Knight recognized both immediately.

"Those were not Imperial uniforms on that bridge." Knight announced.

"That doesn't mean much, Seven," BattleDog pointed out. "Do we need to buzz them again?"

"That'd be fun, but I don't think we'll need to."


"Nope. Captain had a sign. I saw the medical symbol and the rebel firebird." Knight cut his throttle and started to circle the corvette with BattleDog following in close formation. "Vigilant, Corsair Seven. We have a corvette that appears to be having comms and transponder issues."

"Received, Seven. Hold position with the corvette and await further instructions."

"Copy that."

For several moments there was silence. Knight kept glancing toward the Imperial fleet. Worry kept Knight's eyes darting around the Imperial capital ships, expecting to see a wave of TIE's coming for the stray ship.

"Corsair Patrol, Vigilant. We are scrambling a pair of fighters and U-wing from Spectre. Hold until they arrive to relieve you."

"Understood Vigilant. We'll play shepherd."

"U-wing eh? I don't think command believes you Knight." BattleDog's laugh crackled in Knight's ears.

Knight smiled sheepishly to himself, "I wouldn't be surprised if there's techs and marines on there. Just in case."

"Just in case." Battledog echoed.

The wait felt interminable to Knight. Circling slowly around the corvette made him pine for finishing the rest of the patrol.

At every lazy circuit around the corvette, Knight kept scanning the Imperial line. Each time Knight was expecting to see specks of TIEs. Each time, nothing. Sooner or later, Knight thought to himself.

"Does it seem odd that the Imperials haven't come calling?" Knight muttered to Battledog.

"If this is a trap, then they're not making it very believable. I would have expected some TIEs to try to mock attack the corvette." BattleDog laughed, "I think you might be right. This is one of ours, and the Imps didn't react fast enough to snag it."

"It certainly looks that way."

Another loop and nothing changed. Everything except a trio of small ships coming into view from the New Republic fleet. Spectre was on their way.

A couple more loops and the Spectre detachment had arrived.

"Corsair patrol, this is Spectre Seven. You are relieved. We'll take it from here."

Knight recognized the voice of the Spectre pilot. "Thanks, Talon. Enjoy the rest of the babysitting. Corsair Seven and Eight, returning to patrol."

"Finally," BattleDog sighed.

"Think we'll find out who that corvette belongs to in debrief?" Knight asked.

"If not, I'm sure there'll be someone in the SSD that's heard something."

"Well, Eight, I know where you'll be able to find me after this." Knight chuckled and adjusted his course to their next waypoint.


[ Briefing Room; MC75 Sovereignty ]

Little over an hour ago Stryker and Jedi had flown their X-Wings from the Vigilant to the MC75 Sovereignty.

Now the Mandalorian stood around a holotable with a dozen other representatives from the cobbled together 3rd Fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Vodani. Rear Admiral Tolden and Captain Quelle were present as well; Quelle seemed pleased to see them, but Stryker noted that Tolden's mood seemed to have soured the moment the pilot entered the room. There was no love lost between them, and after months of having to co-exist on the Vigilant, Stryker barely noticed the man's behavior.

Along with her personal staff, Vodani had invited her Intel Officer, Major Moggaz Murg, who Stryker knew as Barraken, a dependable quarren if there ever was one. An older gran, Rear Admiral Wryg Dolaffnir, and another Mon Calamari, Captain Rascho Rasasholo, represented the MC80A Endeavor and its taskforce. Captains Dond and Rond Trebador, a pair of Mirialan twins, commanded two MC40As known as the Battle of Yavin and Battle of Endor, who fell under the command the iktotchi Rear Admiral Alviet Djeesom. A few other Wing Leaders and XOs filled out the room, crowding close to the table.

The table they were all standing around emitted a holomap of the Toseng system. One Star Destroyer was placed directly on the planet, indicating the Conviction which was now settled over the City like a criminal hiding behind a hostage. For the most part, thanks to the Vigilant and Renegade Wing's quick response, the New Republic had arrayed their fleet close to the planet, taking up a much more defensive position between the Conviction and reinforcements.

Though the Imperial Fleet consisted of four more Star Destroyers and their support ships, the New Republic also had numbers on their side. From what Stryker could tell, the feeling in the room was a lot more relaxed than, for example, when they were facing much more daunting odds during the Airam campaign.

Vodani spoke throughout the presentation, going through every Taskforce, both New Republic and Imperial, and offering insight on how and where she wanted them to act throughout the seemingly inevitable battle.

"Colonel Rambo," she said finally. All heads turned towards him, and the pilot suddenly felt uncomfortable. He straightened himself up and gave a stoic nod. She continued, "Should the need arise, I would like Renegade to lead the Battle in Toseng Airspace."

Stryker wasn't surprised. He and Jedi had guessed that they'd been called in because some special orders like these would be given. "Copy that," he said.

"It's a precarious situation, but Renegade has some of the finest pilots in the Fleet," she said with a smile. "In the entire New Republic, some say."

"Some would say otherwise," Stryker answered, looking at Tolden through his visor. The Admiral scowled, thinking no one would see him. "But we value your opinion, Admiral. Rogue Squadron and the Renegades strive to be the best at everything we put our minds to."

"Perfect, in that case I will leave the fine details of the Operation to you. I would like a plan by the time I return from the Peace Talks."

"I'll have them ready."

"And one other thing, Colonel."

"Yes, Admiral?"

"I would like to request one of your U-wings to escort me, Rear Admiral Tolden, and Major Murg down to the surface," Vodani said coolly.

Tolden seemed rather taken aback, as if this was the first he was hearing of it. That pleased Stryker.

"I'll have a U-wing here for you an hour before your scheduled departure," Stryker nodded his head respectfully.

"Good, now--"

The doors to the briefing room slid open. Everyone who was meant to be in that room was there, so a new arrival caught the attention of everyone. They turned to see a woman, hands proudly on her hips, a smirk on her lips, as she surveyed the room. She wore a crisp New Republic Naval Officer uniform, though Stryker noticed the lack of rank tabs. Her hair was raven black, and would've been darker than space if it wasn't for the creamy white streak that had begun to make its presence known. Two striking, amber colored eyes surveyed the room and Stryker couldn't help but feel like she was a nexu arriving amidst a herd of nerfs.

"Don't mind me," she said, a hint of amusement in her tone.

From the collective groans and eyerolls that followed by the group of leaders, Stryker figured that they did, indeed, mind, and very much. He had absolutely no idea who she was, what she was doing there, or whatever even gave her the idea that she could just stroll into a top secret meeting but--

"That's Captain Milo," Jedi interrupted Stryker's thoughts with a whisper. "Captain of the Corvette that just arrived, the Anti-Venom."

"I knew that," Stryker whispered back defensively.

Jedi gave him a smirk. "Sure you did."

"Ah, Captain Milo, you've finally arrived," Vodani said, doing her best to sound pleased to see the other woman, though the strain in her voice said otherwise. "Mon Mothma informed me that you would be arriving shortly."

"Good, then I'll make this simple," Captain Milo answered, exuding confidence. "I'm going to land on that planet."

There was a chorus of facepalms and Vodani just stared at her, mouth agape. Next to him, Stryker heard Jedi let out a bark of laughter. Milo's amber eyes darted to the Renegades and flashed a smile, before her attention returned to the Vice Admiral coolly.

"You can't," Vodani replied, steeling herself. "It is too dangerous. You are welcome to land, though, as soon as the situation resolves."

"She's not going to listen to you," warned Rear Admiral Djeesom, who glared at the woman with crossed arms.

"I'm pleased to see you, too, Alviet," she replied with an obvious wink, which caused Djeesom to scowl. "But what he said is true. I'm not here to ask for permission, I am here to inform you that I will be landing on Toseng. You can either help, or not."

Djeesom scoffed, and turned away from the table, muttering, "She's doing it again."

"I'm in charge here, Captain," Vodani said, unhappy at the challenge.

"There are people down there that need the kind of help your guns can't provide. What do you think is happening down there? Have the riots ended? Have you ever seen how stormtroopers end riots? What happens to those people?" Captain Milo spoke and everyone listened silently.

"You'll be shot down before you even make it to the ground," Stryker told her, interjecting in the conversation.

"Maybe. But my vessel is unarmed and full of relief supplies," Milo reasoned. She turned to look at the Mandalorian. "This isn't my first rodeo. If things get hot, me and my crew can take care of ourselves."

"I appreciate your confidence, Captain Milo, but I'm not going to let you on that planet until I'm sure that you and your unarmed," Vodani gave her a look that could only be described as 'what the frack' and continued, "vessel with all its supplies isn't blown up on the way down."

"Perhaps what Captain Milo needs is an escort," Tolden chimed in.

Kriff me, Stryker thought to himself.

"I am sure that escorting the Anti-Venom would be no problem for the most famous squadron in the New Republic," Tolden continued, looking directly at Stryker and Jedi. He wants to get them killed, Stryker thought to himself. "Or do you think Rogue Squadron has lost its edge, Colonel?"

In unison more than a dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at Stryker, awaiting his response.

"Rogue Squadron can handle it," Stryker answered, mustering all his confidence, and thanked the fact that the helmet was hiding his face. "Rogue Squadron can handle anything."

"I would feel a bit more comfortable..." Vodani admitted.

"It's settled then," Milo cut her off before Vodani could change her mind. "Rogue Squadron will escort the Anti-Venom." She turned to Stryker and nodded. "I'll meet you on the Vigilant to discuss our plan a little further. Thank you, Admiral."

Without waiting for a response, she strode out of the room. They watched her leave and the rest let out a sigh of relief.

Not Stryker.

He felt his gut clench.

Tolden was smiling at him.


[ Ice's Cell; TLM Hideout ]

There was a strange rattling noise coming from somewhere. Keyleb glanced around, trying to figure it out, before realising it was him. The tray he was carrying, with a plate of food and cutlery, was shaking. He was shaking. He took a steadying few breaths before opening the door and walking into the room.

Ambassador Vel Aath was still bound to the chair she had been put in earlier, the gag still in her mouth. She was looking at Keyleb curiously, her eyes looking over him slowly. It was confusing to him that she showed no fear; he would be frightened in her situation. It was even more confusing to him that somehow he felt like he was the prey in this situation.

He placed the tray of food on a table and loosened the gag in Ice's mouth. She said nothing, the silence enormous. Eventually he cracked, "I can move the chair to the table for you, but the others said I can't undo your legs."

"Why? Are they afraid of what I could do if I were free?"

"What? No! There's dozens of them." Keyleb felt confused. Didn't she understand the situation she was in?

"Okay. Then you have my permission to move the chair."

Keyleb felt another wave of confusion. She was the prisoner, she didn't need to give permission for anything. But nevertheless he picked her up in the chair and placed it at the table. He carefully undid the bindings on her hands and in turn she picked up the knife and fork and began to eat a little. She almost looked comfortable.

"So, why did you bring me food?"

"You've got to eat."

She shook her head, a small smile on her lips. "No meathead. Why did you bring the food, not one of the others?"

Keyleb felt his cheeks burn in embarrassment. "Oh, I, uh, volunteered."

A few more moments of silence passed as the ambassador ate her food, before she spoke again. "What's your name?"


"Local, right? If I had to guess I'd say eastern Toseng City."

Keyleb rocked back on his feet slightly, "That's a good ear you have."

"I'm good at what I do," Ice said matter of factly. She looked him over again, her eyes falling on his injured hand. "Keyleb, you look like you've seen enough violence in your life. Why are you doing this?"

Keyleb frowned at her, "I don't have to tell you anything."

Ice shrugged, or as well as she could, tied to the chair. "No one can make you do anything, Keyleb. I'm just asking."

They were silent for a few minutes more, before Keyleb cracked. "I just want everyone to be safe. No more violence out there."

"We want the same things, Keyleb," Ice said, placing her cutlery down carefully. "It's not too late to sort all this out. If you-"

"Who said you can untie her hands?"

Keyleb jumped out of his skin, the deep growling voice behind him catching him off guard. He whirled around to see Commander Feing, the deep red of his eyes boring into him. "Why would you think it a good idea to untie her hands?"

"She needed to eat," he said, in a quiet voice.

Feing pushed him out of the way, his cybernetic arms possessing immense strength. "Then you should have fed her yourself, you idiot. Leave the prisoner now, trooper, she is not your friend. Me and her are going to have a talk, without you."

Keyleb nodded, backing out of the room slowly, but not before making eye contact with Ice. She gave him a little nod, as if to say everything will be alright, and he fled the room.


[ Briefing Room; ISD Consolidator ]

The briefing room on board the Consolidator was a traditional circular table, with a holo projector in the middle. Three other captains had joined Pash aboard his ship, representing the other three Star Destroyers which currently stood in formation alongside his own facing down the rebel fleet acting as a wall between them and Toseng.....and the Conviction.

There had been some small talk amongst them all as they waited for Commodore Barand to join them. Pash wasn't a political animal by nature, but you couldn't spend as much time as he had within the Imperial Navy and not learn a few things, so he had put those lessons to the test and learned what he could.

Captain Vera Ottilla was the most experienced of the three. She had joined the Navy during the Clone Wars and was, from what Pash remembered hearing, a good officer. Her ship, Wisdom, had an experienced crew that had found themselves in the difficult position of trying to protect their local sector cut off from the rest of the Imperial Navy by the Rebellion's advances. Her alliance with Barand had been one of opportunity, but she had not criticised him publicly. She sat now patiently, the grey traces of once blonde hair peeking out from underneath her officers cap.

Captain Raz Scirillo of the Victorious was harder to figure out. He'd led a quiet career, fighting pirates in the outer rim. He said very little when Pash attempted conversation, but Kolly had been able to drag up some dirt via an old friend who was captain of one of the Raiders belonging to Victorious; apparently Captain Scirillo had changed allegiance multiple times. He was a good commander, but loyalty meant little. Pash considered him untrustworthy.

The final Captain, of the Glory, was the youngest of the three. Captain Trent was new to the role, the replacement for the late Captain Berron. Berron had been an old friend of Pash's from the academy and he'd heard unsavoury rumours of his ultimate fate. What was true at least was that Captain Trent was an adamant loyalist supporter of Barand, which in Pash's eyes either made him stupid or an opportunist.

The holo communicator finally came to life in the middle of the table, and Commodore Barand appeared. He was sitting in a command chair, or what looked somewhat like a command chair but more ostentatious. Towering over the assembled group, he leaned forward; his hands placed together with his fingers steepled, and smiled coldly. "Ah, Captains, how good of you to join me."

There was a flicker of the holo display and suddenly Commodore Barand's visage shrunk, now toddler sized, whilst the communicator began to break up. The Captains sat at least pretending to look interested whilst Barand continued to speak, but he quickly became irritable as it was clear it wasn't working properly. After a few minutes more, Barand cut the conversation short, leaving the assembled officers to try and mask their smiles.

Captain Scirillo spoke first, "That was-"

"Pointless," Captain Ottilla interjected. There was an uncomfortable silence within the briefing room. Pash had been in similar situations before and he recognised it now; Barand had taken a page right out of the Emperor's textbook. Fear ruled the room.

Pash cleared his throat carefully, speaking slowly. "I have become aware of the shortages some of you are experiencing."

Shortages was one word for it. Kolly had been busy, and Pash had learned a lot about Barand's fleet. The man was smart and ambitious but his intelligence roots betrayed him; unaware of how to plan and prepare for long term war operations, he had overstretched his fleet. The majority of his ships were low on many supplies: Fuel for TIEs, blaster packs for troopers. His fighting force was far smaller than the presence of the Star Destroyers suggested. It was even rumored that the man had traded off some of his larger ships for smaller carriers, but it was a short-sighted attempt to keep things going in the short-term while mortgaging the long-term abilities of his force.

The young Captain Trent spoke first, his face incandescent in rage. "Spreading rumours like that is treasonous!"

No one spoke for a moment, and Pash cursed Barand's name once more. That same culture of fear that the Emperor used Barand now extended as his own. His own officers wouldn't or couldn't make it clear to him what a dangerous position they were in...

Captain Ottilla drummed the table, a frown on her face. "I would take some assistance Captain. Particularly in fuel for my Starfighter complement."

Scirillo followed Ottilla's lead, "I could also use some assistance."

Pash nodded, some confidence coming back. "Let's discuss our operations, Captains. We need to prepare."

Silently, from her post at the communication station on the bridge of the Consolidator, Oshi listened using the bug she had planted. Barand would need to hear about this. She hesitated. Later. She would tell him later.


Chapter Nine

[ Medbay; CRV Anti-Venom ]

Through the viewport of the Medical Bay aboard the Anti-Venom, Doctor Aruithil Cho could see the Vigilant just hanging in space over the planet of Toseng, distracting her with thoughts of the one who was onboard. She did her best to push Lock to the fringes of her mind and concentrate on the task at hand.

Carefully, she lifted the metal plate from her patient's face, revealing the missing eyelids and scarred tissue that surrounded a big, red glowing eye, more commonly found on a droid than a man. In her right hand, a delicate medical instrument was poised centimeters away from the eye, which didn't even flinch as the instrument approached. Gently, she pressed a button on the tool, extending a small, pointed metallic apparatus from the interior. She wore a medical variant of micro goggles that allowed her to see with microscopic acuity.

"Look up," she requested. Her patient did as his doctor asked, looking up and revealing the metallic components under his eye. After the Battle of Endor, the New Republic had found itself with a shortage of medical supplies, including prosthetics, and this poor man had received less-than-stellar eye--but that was months ago. "You realize you could upgrade this eye any time, right?"

"I could," the man, who had come to be known as Red-Eye onboard the Anti-Venom, answered. Captain Milo had picked him up on Endor and since then he'd become the Anti-Venom's pilot. "But then someone that really needed it wouldn't get it."

The metal point made contact with the tiny microscopic port and she saw a brief flash. She pulled the item back and examined her handiwork. "That should've reset the focus."

She pulled back and took a step back, looking at the older man. "Did it work?"

Red-Eye blinked a couple of times and looked around the room, focusing on different things. They'd gone through this exercise every time they had to do maintenance on the prosthetic. Luckily for him, he was onboard one of the few places that would do it for free and without asking questions. After a few moments he settled on her and smiled.

"Perfect," he said. "Thank you, Doctor Cho."

"Please, I've told you a million times, call me Aru, we've been working together for months," she answered, pulling off the goggles as she turned to put them back in the correct place, lest she be victim to Nurse Firth's fury. Hell knows no fury like that of a grouchy chadra-fan that can't find a tool when she needs it. Aru pulled the band holding back her frizzy dark hair, keeping it out of her eyes during the examination, and she shook her head, letting it bounce back to life. "Seriously, though, you should consider an upgrade. My father always said that before you can truly help others, you must take care of yourself first. Plus, that way I wouldn't be sticking tools into your eyes every couple of weeks."

"I don't mind," Red-Eye replied, watching her. "Gives me a reason to visit."

"There you are, I've been looking for you," interrupted the voice of Kardia Milo. Aru turned to see her in the doorway. Next to her was the enormous besalisk, Doctor Phven, that had transferred with Aru from the Redemption to the Anti-Venom after Endor.

Red-Eye immediately put his helmet on. The truth was it was rare to see him without it on; Aru, as his doctor, was one of the few he felt comfortable with. As for the helmet, Red-Eye had decorated it himself; a crudely drawn blue cross on a gold shield. As far as Aru knew, he had not confided the meaning of either to anyone. Even though the visor was dark, his red eye still shone at times underneath it. Some found it unsettling at first though, perhaps, no one as much as Red-Eye himself.

"You're back early," Aru commented.

"Aye, apparently I didn't need to put them through the wringer," Kardia smirked. "We even lucked out. Rogue Squadron will be escorting us to the ground."

"Rogue Squadron?" Aru felt a pit in her stomach. Somehow, the thought of being so close to Rogue Squadron and him worried her more than facing whatever Imperial forces wanted to resist them. Nothing had changed since their split. She didn't have a single reason to go back. And yet... "Uh, the Rogue Squadron?"

"Is there another?" Kardia asked. "In any case, that's what Stryker said." Red-Eye's head shot up, though neither woman noticed. Kardia continued speaking, "I'm about to head over to the Vigilant to meet with Rogue Leader and see what sort of a flight plan we can muster. So you know what time it is."

"Prep Time," Red-Eye answered.

"That's right," Kardia said, entering the Medical bay and sitting on one of the cots, making a circle between the four of them. "Red-Eye, what's the status of our atmospheric thrusters? They were damaged during the blockade run on Rashigo, if I recall."

"From what the engineers told me, they're at 100% again," Red-Eye answered. "They finished the overhaul on the shield modulator, too."

"Excellent. I want you to get the Anti-Venom prepared to enter the atmosphere in the next few hours. Aru--"

"Yeah, yeah, brief the field units," Every time it was the same, so she knew what Kardia was going to ask of her. "Check and double check that they know what they're doing."

"Triple check!" Kardia held up a hand with three fingers. As annoying as that was, Aru couldn't fault her. They could never be more prepared. Turning to the large besalisk, Kardia sighed. "What are we going to do?"

"Toseng isn't very welcoming to my people," Doctor Phven reflected. "There is no reason for me to disembark, I will remain on the Anti-Venom for the duration of our time in this world, but that does not mean I cannot help from here. Allow me to manage our inventory, and serve as quartermaster."

"You practiced that," Aru teased the older being.

Phven chuckled softly, "Maybe a little bit."

Finally, Kardia nodded, "Very well, you'll be our quartermaster. I could use someone helping me count stimpacks."

The Captain of the Anti-Venom was no doctor, and she did not attempt to be one. She was in charge, but when it was time to heal, she was perfectly capable of stepping back and doing the work one usually thought was beneath a Captain. It's why Aru liked her.

They exchanged a few more words but in time the group split, each to their own duties.

Aru did her best to not look out of viewports for the next few hours.


[ Hangar; Black Hawk ]

Flight Officer Bakk "Wildcard" J'ruce yawned. He was doing his very best to keep attention away from himself. Jade Squadron had been assigned to a classified mission in a nearby system, however only an hour before deployment they had been reassigned. Wildcard was still new, but even he could feel that something was off. Switching missions with an hour to go wasn't common practice, at least it shouldn't have been.

"Alrighty, everybody! We'll be entering the system in about five minutes. Until then, run preflights!" A voice called from the doorway.

Wildcard buried his face in his hands, "Oh, shite," he muttered.

His squadron leader, Commander Rafesr "Dusty" Dustvain came into view, a rage inducing smile covering his face.

"What did ya say, champ?" Dusty asked him obliviously.

"I said that's nice, sir." He replied. Having to address Dusty as 'sir' was painful for him. Only a week ago he had been assigned to the squad, expecting a well disciplined military type to lead him and mentor him. Instead, Wildcard had been thrown into the arms of Dusty, the New Republic's finest moron.

He hated even considering the thought, but being stuck in the spice mines of Kessel for ten years was a cakewalk in comparison to being subordinate to Dusty.

That idea still felt strange to him. A fortnight ago he was a slave, now he was a fighter pilot. A fighter pilot with a warm bed! Even before Kessel, that was a luxury Wildcard could never afford. It was a wasted pleasure in any case, he didn't sleep much. Despite being rescued by these people, he still didn't trust the New Republic - not completely, anyway. His past had made his trust a privilege that few earned.

As Wildcard walked into the hangar and checked to make sure his engines were in perfect working order, he glanced to the next ship over and observed Dusty giving his ship a quick once over look and entering conversation with the Verpine tech. His obnoxiously loud voice echoed around, drawing eye rolls and whispered insults all around.

"And then," he yelled, "I shoved his face in the pie! Great prank..."

Wildcard was breathless from all the sighing he'd been doing since Dusty started speaking. The squadron leader laughed and spotted Wildcard tightening all of the panels on his ship.

"Oh, I love this guy!" He put his arm around Wildcard and slapped his shoulders.

Wildcard was overcome with the urge to punch him for touching him, but resisted the temptation. He slipped away from Dusty, telling him, "I've got preflight checks to do."

Dusty smirked and tapped the tech on the arm. "Hey Bakk, it kinda smells like updog in here..." he said, suppressing a giggle.

Wildcard was barely paying attention, "Huh? It's probably nothing."

"Someone call the fun police, huh Dusty?" The Verpine tech laughed.

Dusty leaned on Wildcard's X-Wing, "This reminds me of Hoth. Everyone rushing around, so uncertain. Y'know, I almost died there."

Wildcard turned, almost impressed. "Really?" He asked.

"Yeah," Dusty told him, "I was in the refresher. Some of the food had gone off and I got so ill. Luckily I was able to peel myself off the seat and get out when the Empire attacked!"

Wildcard stared for a moment. For a second he might've respected Dusty, it seemed as if he was about to launch into a tale of heroics. He rolled his eyes with such force that it hurt.

Hyperspace turned to starlines turned to still space outside the ship. Wildcard heard gasps and shocked whispers around him. He turned to see what the fuss was about and froze. The Task Force was facing down three Star Destroyers and their escorting cruisers. Both sides sat eerily still, not a creature stirred between them. He felt his stomach drop at the sight of the Imperial ships. This would be his first altercation with the Empire since Kessel.

"Everyone get to your ships, I think we're in deep poo doo this time." Dusty told his pilots.


[ Silver Ticket; TLM Hideout ]

Landing thrusters ignited as the YV-260 known as the Silver Ticket landed on the paved landing zone near the villa.

Located a few kilometers outside the city, the villa had been built by the original Spidrucket patriarch, who had arrived with the rest of the original wave of human Toseng colonists. Over time it had become somewhat of a summer home for the politically active family, until Zom Spidrucket, son of the current Imperial Governor, had decided to use it as the base of operations for the True Loyalist Militia. If Guts was a cop, this would've been the first place he looked. Considering no one had bothered, it really told one the state of things on Toseng in the past twenty-four hours.

As they landed, Guts caught sight of Feing, the tall, blonde cyborg that most of his meetings had been with walking up onto the landing pad, and so was surprised to see Feing hop on a speeder and take off just as Guts was descending down the landing pad. Instead, he was approached by Kuro and the Spidrucket kid. The asshole and the arrogant prick. Just my luck.

"G'day," Guts mumbled to them and they approached.

"You're late," Kuro growled. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago."

"You're lucky we're even here at all; the City became a No-Fly Zone not even 5 minutes after we left," Sigilien said, descending the ramp and stopping next to Guts, arms crossed definitely. Kuro looked her up and down and snorted. "Got a problem?"

"Yeah, I don't like paying for late goods and I can't stand loud mouth little girls who should've kept a skirt on and stayed at home," Kuro said, stepping up to her. Even Zom seemed taken aback by the man's words. He was a speciest and a racist, not a misogynist, after all.

Guts stepped towards the man but Sigilien remained firmly between them, and she was having none of it. "Son of a schutta, if you don't pay for these guns then I'm going to make every bone in your body wish I'd stayed home!"

Kuro went red with rage, but before he could explode Guts managed to get past Sigilien and spoke directly to Zom. "Oy, kid, ya want these kriffin' guns or not?"

"Yeah," Zom replied, imitating Guts and pushing past Kuro. "Is it the complete shipment?"

"Completely complete," Guts assured.

"Even the heavy repeaters?"

"Even the heavy repeaters."

"And the Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon, too?"

"The Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon, too."

"Can I see?"

"Yeah, sure. Svitzek! Drogg! Let's show these boys the Z-6, yeah?" Guts called back up the ramp.

He heard a faint acknowledgement, and then grunting as Drogg, the large gran, stomped down the ramp, carrying a gigantic case. Sigilien ran over to help him and between the two they set it down on the ground at Guts' feet. They opened it to reveal the massive weapon. A relic of the Clone Wars, they were prone to overheating and jamming, but they looked pretty damned cool, Guts had to admit.

"Wow, it only took you guys like, what? A couple of hours? Did you have them in storage somewhere?" Zom asked. And it was a very good question, which revealed that the kid perhaps wasn't as stupid as Guts had always assumed. Still, it was a good question, but not the right question.

Guts shrugged, "Or maybe we have a golden rancor that shits out heavy blasters. Speaking of golden, did you bring yours?"

"Show them, Kuro," Zom instructed. Kuro glared at the boy when he heard him trying to give him an order. Zom caught on and with a dark look of his own he mumbled, "Please."

Kuro opened the case he was carrying, revealing several hundred neatly stacked credit chits. "Twenty thousand credits," he said with a smug look, as if he knew Guts was going to ask. Guts sort of wished he'd let Sigilien kick his ass. Maybe he'd get his wish later.

Giving Kuro his biggest, fakest smile, Guts took the case, "Thanks, now I don't have to count them."

Without even looking he handed them to Svitzek, who had quietly descended the ramp during the exchange. The Dug immediately began to count them. Kuro gave him a disgusted look. On the other hand, Zom seemed amused.

"Shouldn't she be counting while the beasts of burden unload the heavy cargo?" he asked, pointing at Drogg and Sigilien who were unloading another crate and Svitzek, still counting the chips. Everyone stopped what they were doing and were immediately quiet. For an instant, Guts thought he was going to have to say something, but luckily for him, Tsurio intervened.

"Because everyone on my crew has a job to do," the Zeltron said. He was on the ramp, leaning against one of the extension pylons, watching the group.

"Your crew?" Zom said, incredulously. He looked from the Zeltron to Guts and back again, letting out a sharp bark of laughter. "Right, if you say so. But I'm not doing business with you, I'm doing business with him."

"Oy, kid, maybe--"

"Next time," Kuro cut Guts off, looking directly at Guts. "Leave your pets home and come alone. We don't do business with aliens. Come on, Zom, let's leave them to their work."

The two of them left immediately, which was probably the best thing that could have happened at that point, beyond them getting what they deserved (a blaster bolt to the head and a drop over a handrail like that bastard Frell). Guts felt everyone's eyes on his back. They were all terrible people, except maybe Sigilien (she was just insane), but as the only human male, he'd been the only one to not receive any abuse from Kuro and Zom; he'd even been treated with respect from a certain point of view. Guilt washed over him. It wasn't his fault but neither was it theirs. The situation was complicated to say the least.

Slowly he turned back towards them and was relieved to see that none were looking at him. Svitzek had returned to counting the credits. Tsurio had headed back up into the cargo hold. Sigilien and Drogg were still lugging crates down from the ship. Guts just stood there for a moment, silencing the pointless apology.

He took a deep breath and tried to put the feeling past him.

"Sig, Drogg. Need a hand?"


[ Stryker's Office; CRS Vigilant ]

The command officers of Renegade Wing were gathered in the small office of Colonel Vince "Stryker" Rambo, wing CO. Although his office was more generous than most, it was still too small a space for the amount of people in the room but no one was complaining; every briefing room aboard the Vigilant was booked out, with the tense situation needing constant updates and communications. Stryker sat at his desk, trying his best to explain everything he had been told.

"So the peace talks are actually going ahead?" Jalb_k, Rogue Leader, sounded a little sceptical. "Barand is going to meet with the Governor and Brebor? I don't like this at all, it sounds like a trap."

Stryker nodded, his own discomfort clear. "Minister Brebor's threat to Barand seems to have worked. So High Command has taken the decision that we will also participate. Rear Admiral Tolden and Vice Admiral Vodani will be going to the talks."

"I don't like this at all," Thanatos muttered. Jedi, wing XO, held up a hand to stave off any further complaints. "None of us do, but we have to do it. Vodani has personally requested a Renegade Wing pilot take them down in the U-wing. I was going to suggest Lieutenant Ojima; he's a consummate professional and possibly the best damn U-wing pilot I've ever seen."

There was a general nodding and murmuring in agreement. Everyone trusted Zippy to get them out of a bad situation when they went EVA. Stryker cleared his throat, bringing the attention back to him. "I have been informed by Vice Admiral Vodani that it will be Renegade Wing's responsibility to engage the Conviction in battle. This will be the fiercest fighting amongst the fleet and the most likely to put civilians on the ground at risk, considering the Conviction's positioning. With that in mind I would like us to send a pilot groundside with Zippy, to give us intel on the situation."

Krayt stepped forward immediately, "I'm ready to go now."

Stryker shook his head, smiling a little. "I always admire your eagerness, Alrick, but your squadron needs you in command."

There was a moment of quiet before Gremlin spoke up, "Shadow, Lieutenant McKenna I mean, Sir, would be a good fit. He's currently without a fighter after he went down in the last battle but he also has special forces and intel experience."

Stryker nodded, satisfied. "Very good Captain, bring the Lieutenant to us so we can brief him. Everyone else, do your best to keep the squadrons on high alert. I know we all need rest but we can't let our guard down with the Imps right outside our viewport."

The assembled command staff saluted, which Stryker and Jedi returned in kind as they watched them filter out of Stryker's office. Stryker let out a sigh, running his hands through his hair. "I don't like this, Bill. I knew things would change after Endor, but having the enemy just sat there in our sights opposite us. I don't like it."

"Trust in the force my friend," Jedi said, placing a hand on Stryker's shoulder. "It is with us, always."


Thanatos fell into step beside Jalb as they walked the corridor towards the Ready Room and glanced sideways at his OC.

"I've got a bad feeling about this, Boss..."

"I hear ya Tony, politics man." he slowed his pace to give Thanatos the cue, then stopped in the hallway and faced his XO. "Ok, let's get the Squadron on the SIM Deck, have the sim techs load up the mission profile as briefed but have 'contested escort' added as an element. We'll run some options and work the numbers-"

Jalb was interrupted by the personal alert trill of his comm. He raised an eyebrow at Thanatos as he tapped the device to respond. "Reynolds"

"Ahh, Colonel Reynolds," a husky voice purred.

"Lieutenant Colonel, but yes, to whom am I speaking?"

"My apologies Lieutenant Colonel, this is Captain Milo of the Anti-Venom. I've been informed that you will actually be leading my escort. We should talk."

Thanatos grimaced at Jalb with amused concern. "I'll get the guys in the sim," he said sotto voice and tossed a casual salute over his shoulder as he strode away.

Jalb acknowledged with a lift of his eyebrows and upward tilt of his chin as he responded to Captain Milo. "Whilst I don't disagree, I think it best we don't discuss this over my personal commlink... which, by the way, I'd like to know... how did you get this code?"

"Stryker gave it to me before we left the Sovereignty, wasn't too keen on giving a civilian secure link access." Jalb took a mental note to ask Stryker why... "but I wasn't going to wait for him to pass my code to you and wait on your leisure so I had Admiral Vodani request he give me a way to contact you."...he scrubbed that note.

"I see..." a civilian Captain who has the ear of an Admiral and the means to get her way, plus an accent that had a familiar Macquarian twang, but an exotic lilt that he couldn't quite place... He was intrigued. "In that case, I presume you're docked with the Vigilant?"


"Good, my office, 15 minutes. Reynolds out."

Captain Kardia Milo took pause and stared at her wrist with a wry grin. 'Is that right, Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds?' she thought to herself.


[ Jalb's Office; CRS Vigilant ]

Jalb sat in his office, awaiting his meeting with the brash captain Kardia Milo. He'd told her 15 minutes, but had been able to reach his office in two, and then spent the next three minutes making sure it was in good order after the last few days' actions. With eight minutes to spare, he'd coded a crude but accurate holographic briefing of the proposed mission at hand.

Having found himself a few minutes to go until the Captain was due to arrive, he finally gave himself a quick once-over in the attached en-suite fresher and mirror, and decided to run a comb through his hair to tame it as best he could without looking like he was trying to make it look good for anybody. Shrugging after a moment, he set the comb down and held his hand in front of his mouth and breathed heavily, and then inhaled through his nose to inspect his breath. He was immediately blown away by his caf-breath, and tore off the cap of the mouthwash in his medicine cabinet and took a healthy amount into his mouth and swished it around vigorously. As the antiseptic burning mounted in his mouth, he continued past the point he would normally have endured just to make sure all traces of the caf was completely scoured from his breath before spitting it all into the bowl of his sink.

A quick sniff of his armpits revealed nothing offensive or out of the ordinary, so he nodded in acceptance and left the refresher. He looked back at his chrono and saw that the time for the meeting was at hand, and he mentally patted himself on the back for the efficient use of his time. He brought a chair around to the other side of his desk and then stood behind his desk at a relaxed parade rest and awaited his guest.

15 more minutes ticked by, with each passing second ratcheting up Jalb's annoyance. Having been used to military discipline and timing, if you were on time at the exact meeting time, you were late. He began shuffling his feet, and then he began checking his messages. He cursed himself mentally for having delegated his other tasks earlier and had left nothing for himself to do while he waited for his tardy guest. He sat heavily in his chair, grabbed his datapad and tuned mission holograph he'd coded, tightening up the graphics and timing of the slides.

He was about to send a message to check and see if Captain Kardia was lost, but as he reached for his datapad a chime at his door startled him. He cleared his throat, but he fully intended to make her wait a minute out of spite. Counter to his plans, however, the door opened on its own and Kardia Milo swept into his office as if nothing was amiss.

Jalb was prepared to give a good military style dressing down but was left speechless. The woman that came through his doorway was not only stunningly attractive, but the confidence and awareness of her effect on him had him standing before he realised he had.

"Lieutenant Colonel," she breathed as she made her way into the office uninvited.

"Uh... uhm, Captain Milo, please, come in, take a seat." He gestured to the seat in front of his desk. She inclined her head demurely and sat gracefully, crossing her legs right over left with her hands atop each other on her knee.

Jalb had completely forgotten her tardiness and almost the reason for her visit. "May I get you something to drink?" he asked politely.

Kardia looked him up and down, an amused look with a predatory edge. "On any other occasion I would gladly accept, both the drink and... your company, but for now I think we should attend to the task at hand," she finished with an arched eyebrow.

Jalb stared blankly for a moment then looked back to his desk, chiding himself for his behaviour he quickly cleared his throat. "Ahem, yes, yes indeed." He moved a step back and took his own seat, activating the holo. He checked his notes and his demeanor quickly reestablished that 'command confidence' as he fell into mission briefing cadence.

"Situation is no change and remains highly volatile. Mission, to escort the medical supplies and personnel aboard the Anti-Venom to the surface of Toseng. I say again..."

Kardia held up her hand and waved Jalb away. "I got it flyboy, carry on. No need to give me the doctrinally-correct deal."

Jalb took a breath ready to retort but closed his mouth and regathered his composure. "Execution," he tapped the holo and markers representing the Vigilant, Anti-Venom, and Rogue Squadron moved through the space between them as Jalb listed off the main checkpoints, distances and Landing Zones, both Primary and Secondary." Jalb glanced at the woman seated in front of him. "Good so far?" She gave him a slow eye blink and nodded once with a slight tilt to her head. Jalb was nearly sidetracked again by her beauty, but took a quick breath and forged on. "This will be a four phase operation..."

As Jalb went through the phases and broke down the mission, Kardia stood and moved to inspect parts of the sequence from different angles, paying close attention to Phases 2 and 3, escort and landing. She was impressed with the detail he had planned to, in a relatively short time, but his fighter jock background without 'classical Academy training' did show.

"... at which point Rogue will maintain a flight on a 2 hour patrol rotation until relieved or retasked." Jalb paused as he checked his mental notes ready to move to the next stage of orders.

"Thank you Lieutenant Colonel, spare me the Administration, Command and Signals..." Jalb raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I'm fully aware of the SMEAC concept," she said, using the acronym for the Orders Sequence, "but I'll leave that part of the briefing for your pilots. Let's go straight to questions, shall we?"

Jalb sat back in his chair and eyed Kardia over steepled fingers. "By all means Captain, please," he acquiesced.

"Firstly, could you bring up Phase 2?" Jalb lent forward and tapped his datapad and the holo changed to reflect. She indicated the Rogues in escort formation. "Could we push the escort out to 2000 meters rather than 1500?"

"We could, may I ask why?"

"Of course. Prudence really, I'd just prefer you have the ability to intercept any incoming well before they're in torpedo range. Happy to keep that dynamic with the long side kept closer to the likely enemy approach."

Jalb nodded thoughtfully. "That's a fair request..." he picked up his 'pad and started inputting the changes.

Kardia walked around to Jalb's side of the desk. "Ok, can we move to Phase 3 please?" Jalb brought the landing sequence up on the holo and once he had done so Kardia pointed to the center of the Imperial mass. "If that moves 5000 in any of these vectors..." she traced lines through the holo with her hand, "the fleet will be hard pressed to hold and we would be cut off."

Jalb sat back again and studied the holo. "I see what you mean... It would make the Primary LZ untenable and we would be unlikely to make the secondary should they push numbers at us." Jalb reevaluated his opinion of Captain Kardia Milo upwards, again. He started making changes on his 'pad, and while doing so Kardia moved to standing next to him with her hand on the back of his seat but her fingertips resting lightly on his shoulder. Jalb was acutely aware of her proximity but kept on task until he had his thoughts displayed on the holo.

Kardia smiled and nodded. "I think that will do nicely, I like the way you think... rank gets so tedious, got a first name?" Jalb looked up over his shoulder. "If you don't mind..."

"Chris... please, call me Chris," he said, standing to face her. He stood awkwardly for a moment, then put out his hand.

She smiled and reached out, gripping the offered hand firmly and holding it while looking Jalb in the eyes. "Kardia, a pleasure," she said with a wink.

Jalb smiled back. "No, Kahdia, the pleasure is mine."

Kardia lifted her face upwards and scoffed. "You Macquarians... Every. Single. One!" Jalb was taken slightly aback. "There is an R, not Kah-deeah, Kar'dia!" she enunciated her name with a slight roll to the R and barked a laugh. "You're all just descended from the same mob of galahs!"

Jalb found this highly amusing and laughed more honestly than he had in a long while. "Well, I knew you'd spent some time around Macquarians. You've picked up a lazy vowel or two, but that just sealed the deal... What's your story, Kar'dia Milo?" he asked with genuine interest.

Kardia stepped back, folded her arms and cocked her hips slightly, weight on her back right leg with her left forward and her toes pointed at the Rogue Commander. "The short version? I've been around... The long version? That will have to wait." Jalb raised an amused eyebrow. "I'd be more than happy to swap history with you, but time and place... I like to feel... appreciated, before I share," she finished with a coy smile.

Jalb decided that his desire to know more about the enigmatic Captain Milo outweighed his usual shy aversion or clumsy approach to 'intimate' prospects and was feeling bold. "It's settled then. After this thing is done, I should like to find a nice meal planetside and have you share with me..." Kardia smirked and raised an eyebrow "...uh, the meal, and your story?"

"Possibly one of the most endearing requests for a date I've ever heard. Yes, Chris, I should like to share some tucker with you, but for now I think we need our game faces. We have some work to do."

To be continued...