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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 V

Chapter Thirteen

[ Jalb's X-wing; Ten Minutes Earlier ]

The glowing orb of Toseng filled the view screens of the Rogue pilots as they escorted the Anti-Venom towards the planet. Jalb sat transfixed, as he did every planetfall, by the thin blue line of atmosphere. The same on nearly every inhabited world he'd visited, he was amazed that all life on those balls of rock relied on that seemingly insignificant blue line. The calmness of the planet at this distance belying the turmoil on the surface, once again, just like nearly every other planet he'd visited. He checked scopes, speed and spacing again, confirming all in the AVFG, Anti-Venom Flight Group as Captain Milo had started referring to their sortie from the moment they formed up off the Vigilant. Thinking about the Captain of the ship he was escorting brought a smile to his face. It had been a long, long time since he'd been physically and intellectually attracted to someone, and he felt like a teenager again.

His reverie was abruptly brought to an end by a warble from Skip, his astromech, followed by voice comms from the bridge of the Vigilant.

"Rogue, this is Wizard, Contact! Bogies at 30 klicks, pushing sensor data..." Jalb quickly checked the data and goosed his throttle slightly, checking over his shoulder to confirm the rook "Starfire" was matching... "Fast movers, no squawk, confirm."

"Tally Wizard, out to you. Anti-Venom, decrease speed 20 percent, maintain heading, Rogue, maintain speed and heading..." 3 sets of double clicks came back from the two other elements, one consisting of Dobber and Jasted, Lock and Mustang. Thanatos had been given 'freewheel' orders, allowing him to provide cover or support depending on his tactical assessment of any developing situation... and the situation developing had the hairs on the back of Jalb's neck standing up. His own sensors only picked up three contacts at around 25000m, but closing quickly. The refined feed from the Vigilant showed an augmented squadron, three flights of five, likely squints given the speed of closure, in the newly favoured Imperial box diamond. Other than sensor contacts they were ghosts, actively blocking IFF... "Set E/L/S to party mode, weapons hold, stand by."

Jalb flicked over to an open traffic channel. "Unidentified craft leaving Toseng orbit, you are approaching a humanitarian mission cleared by Imperial and New Republic delegates and under our protection. State your intent." Jalb slowly counted to 10 in his head and keyed his mic again. "Unidentified craft, I say again, state your intent."

He checked his sensors, noted closure was down to 15km and keyed his Squadron channel. "Weapons Tight, standby," and then flicked back to the open channel. "Unidentified craft, this is Rogue Leader, Squawk flash now or you will be considered hostile and we will engage should you enter the perimeter of 5 klicks." He quickly assigned targets and keyed the internal channel again. "Candygram out. If they break 10k, paint your targets." Once again, a chorus of clicks as his pilots loaded the targeting solutions provided in the 'candygram'. The rate of closure maintained and the Rogues own sensors were now well able to interrogate the bogies, which had been assigned designators Echo 1 through 15, and were clearly Sienar Fleet Systems TIE Interceptors... and they just passed the 10k threshold.

"Rogue, this is Lead, light 'em up!" 7 sets of targeting sensors went active.

"Final warning, failure to identify will result in your destruction, you have 10 seconds to comply." That 10 seconds would bring them inside the 5k bubble of space around the Anti-Venom and, under agreed upon ROE, gave the Rogues permission to engage if they, or persons or craft under their protection, were threatened.

An unidentified Interceptor Squadron posed a significant threat.

Jalb continued the count down non verbally until he was about to order weapons free when three things happened: Skip trilled, a string of IFF data scrolled across his screens, and a snide voice came over the open channel.

"My apologies Rogue Leader," a sneer was evident in the way it was said. "This is Commander Coranel B'oth of the Commodore's Vanguard." Jalb checked the new sensor data and saw the craft were a mix of Delta, Epsilon, and Gamma Squadrons... "We were sent to assist in the escort of the Anti-Venom and were not monitoring external channels. We were completely unaware of your unwarranted aggrievement until you actively targeted us." Jalb rolled his eyes. "As the lawful and supreme power in this Galaxy we have no need for IFF. You should count yourself fortunate I was able to reign in some of my more... exuberant pilots, as your undoubted destruction would not have bode well for this peace" Once again the sneer was obvious.

"My thanks for preserving the accords of this peace, Commander. While I'm unfamiliar with yourself, or The Vanguard, I'm quite familiar with the Squadrons your ships are from... or should I say the craft left from those Squadrons after their last meeting with Renegade Wing..."

"You rebel scum! How dare you make light of the pilots you've murdered-"

The dulcet tones of Captain Milo cut into the broadcast. "Now now, Gentlemen, let's please be civil and refocus on the task at hand. Commander B'oth, the Anti-Venom would be honoured to have The Vanguard's additional escort and the safety provided to get these medical and emergency supplies to the people on the ground. Please have your Squadron form up at our vanguard, 5 klicks forward and show us the way if you please."

"Of course Captain Milo, and Commodore Barrand sends his regards."

Kardia's eyes widened slightly at the tone in that last transmission and keyed a private channel to Jalb. "I don't know what that was all about, but I've got a bad feeling about this."

"Let's not worry about it and just follow the plan, look after what we can and trust that our 'actions on' will cover the rest." He toggled the group channel to let his pilots know the score. "We were expecting something from them, they bluffed, we called, they folded... back on station as briefed, weapons hold, maintain targeting solutions, Lead out."

The seven X-Wings of Rogue formed back up around the Anti-Venom, Thanatos was high and forward 500 meters, Lock and Mustang on the right midplane 1500m out, Dobber and Jasted were same on the left but 2500m out, closer to the looming Imperial fleet while Jalb and Starfire were low 6 o'clock at 500m bringing up the rear. This was the formation they maintained as they slowed into a level descent through the atmosphere, and saw the awesome, but foreboding, sight of the ISD hovering over Toseng City.


[ Capital Building ]

Barraken looked over the meeting hall of the colonial palace with a watchful eye.

It was a strange building, spacious and ostentatious, showing the delusions of grandeur of its occupants but it didn't really impress. Barraken was well traveled, he'd seen the civic centers of Naboo, Chandrila, Mon Cala, and numerous others. Toseng's main palace had once been the head office of a mining company and had grown with the planet; tell-tale signs of expansions and mismatched architecture were part of its charm. But it didn't inspire grandeur.

The same, he thought with a smile, could be said of its Governor. Spidrucket was a nervous man, prone to sweating and loud laughter, who was clearly out of his depth. Not so long ago he had been talking to the New Republic, trying to figure a way to walk away rich and free. Now he was flanked by two of the most bloodthirsty Imperials Barraken had ever known, and he held no doubt that once this was all done, Barand would have Spidrucket's head on the chopping block.

The Republic delegation was moving carefully in the talks, sat at a large table some space across from the Imperials. Vodani was careful but confident, never taking the bait Barand offered but still projecting the power of the Republic fleet. Tolden was far more frustrating for Barraken, often talking over Vodani or going in spurious directions that caused talks to get derailed.

Despite all of this, somehow walking through it all with immense calm, was Rori Brebor. Barraken was a good intel agent, which meant he had learnt a lot about Brebor, and the man was impressive. Barraken knew that privately Brebor was fuming, a quiet storm of anger brewing inside, but he carried himself with dignity. Barand had tried provoking him over and over but to no avail, showing an iron will. Barraken was convinced that with Brebor at the helm Toseng would find some peace.

His attention from the discussions was drawn away by a slight argument at the main door. Security officers, from both the Republic and Empire, were blocking the entrance and refusing to allow a Zabraki woman in. Barraken started to move towards the entrance, but from the other side of the hall Shyon beat him to it, Rori's assistant moving in swiftly. Barraken slowed his pace, confident in the knowledge that Shyon had it under control. She was trustworthy and had a cool head.

He was momentarily distracted by Rear Admiral Tolden, who was motioning him over. Barraken was immediately bombarded with questions, pointless diatribes about fleet compositions and enemy troop movement. Rori Brebor looked fatigued by the distraction and Vodani tapped her foot impatiently, but Barraken answered Tolden's questions to the best of his ability and was thankful when Tolden motioned him to leave.

Looking back to the entrance, Barraken felt confused. The Zabrak girl was gone, and Shyon was now standing to one side. Something about it didn't feel right so he approached Shyon, offering a slight bow as he got closer. "I am sorry to bother you Ms Anandes, but who was that woman you were talking to?"

Shyon had big bags under her eyes, gripping a cup of caf in her left hand with a datapad in her right. She frowned at Barraken, her face a puzzle of confusion. "Who?"

Barraken was an extremely patient person. It was one of the reasons he was so good at his job. "The young woman who was trying to come inside?"

A lightbulb went off in Shyon's head, her face showing understanding, "Oh, you mean Astin. My sister."

Barraken nodded calmly. "Yes, why was she here?"

Shyon shrugged. "Argument with her boyfriend. Wanted to see me and Rori, always said she liked Rori. I told her to grab a caf and wait."

Barraken turned around, scanning the room. He had checked and double checked every single person in this room; he took his job very seriously. But he didn't know Astin at all. She stood by the caf dispenser, but hadn't taken a cup. Barraken started to move towards her but she moved first, approaching the Republic table. Guards stopped her, but Rori turned at the commotion and stood from his seat, approaching Astin and wrapping her in a hug. She was clinging to him tightly, whispering something in his ear. Barraken could see something now underneath her winter overcoat. This wasn't right, something felt wrong-

The blast was all consuming, throwing him immediately off his feet.

Fire expanded outward. Barraken watched as the first of many pillars in the main hall collapsed, the roof sagging without its supports. The heat was incredible, but he felt nothing more as a piece of masonry detached itself from the wall and landed on his head, knocking him unconscious.

He could not hear the screams.


[ Wildcard's X-wing ]

"I spy... with my little eye..." Dusty's voice crackled through the comms.

Wildcard groaned. He sat in his X-wing fighter, one hand on the stick and another on the throttle.

Space seemed so dark compared to the shining behemoth that was Toseng.

"Something beginning with... S."

As they had been for a while now, the two fleets were at a standstill, floating the thin tissue over violence.

He had been uneasy at the idea of facing down an Impstar Deuce and doing nothing about it. It had only been a few weeks ago that he was in Imperial prison, so he was understandably reluctant to trust them.

He smiled to himself, it seemed so long ago. So long and yet still he had barely slept since he arrived on the Black Hawk. Perhaps other pilots didn't sleep with a knife resting within reach. Still, he thought, better safe than sorry.

Wildcard sighed and closed his eyes for a second, letting the low thrum of his fighter coarse through his body. Oh yeah, Dusty's game. He opened his eyes and pressed his comm on, "Leader, this is Two. Is it an annoying sh-"

His monitor beeped, indicating traffic on another frequency.

"Star Destroyer!" Another pilot piped up through the squadron frequency.

"Yes, Three! How did you get it?" Dusty asked cheerfully.

"No! Look!"

The hulking ship opposite the New Republic forces was leading its fleet into battle position.

"What the frak?" Wildcard murmured. There was supposed to be a temporary ceasefire. What happened? He switched over to another frequency and was overwhelmed by the flood of chatter coming through, contrasting sharply with the blissful silence only a moment ago.

"The Imperials have broken the ceasefire! A bomb went off at the peace summit! Prepare for a counterattack! All units return to base!" A strained voice shouted through the comm, the sound of screaming and blaster fire spilling into the transmission.

Wildcard scowled. Dirty, lying, good for nothing Imperial scum!

"Jade Squadron, form up on me and retreat to the Hawk." Dusty said, sounding substantially more worried now.

Wildcard looped his X-wing so that he was now down and to the left of Dusty's ship, which was leading him back to the frigate. He pushed his thrusters to max and switched his ELS to engines, ensuring that he could get back as soon as possible.

The targeting computer on his console showed several small blips swarming from the Imperial side. Those several blips became several hundred.

"Leader, I have multiple bogies inbound. Possibly TIEs."

"Copy, Two. Do not engage, we're heavily outnumbered."

Finally, he says something sensible. Wildcard's starfighter streaked towards the rest of the New Republic fleet.

I don't have a good feeling about this...


[ Jalb's X-wing ]

"All callsigns are atmospheric, we are nominal for final approach." Rogue Squadron and the Anti-Venom were at an altitude of around 80km and descending quite slowly at around 5km per minute

"Copy Rogue, you are clear of Vigilant control. You have the ball"

"Roger, I have the ball... The frack was that!"

"Say again, Rogue!"

"We're seeing munitions effects in the city. Something big just went off." Just then Skip wailed and weapons lock warning started 'blamping' in Jalb's cockpit and the voice of Commander B'oth came through the open channel.

"I knew you Rebels weren't to be trusted. You've made a surprise attack on our diplomats, but you won't ambush The Vanguard!"

Jalb was already assessing the situation and keyed AVFG comms. "Weapons free, weapons free! Anti-Venom, double front and punch through, get dirtside... and if that hulk has any surprises, now's the time."

"Copy Rogue, this is Anti-Venom Actual, change heading for LZ Bravo, deploying ventral Ion Cannons... Keep them off us Jalb, these pea shooters are only going to piss them off." Kardia finished with a slightly worried tone.

"We've got you Anti-Venom. Two, stay with me..." Starfire had goosed her throttle, expecting to accelerate and close to contact. "We need to cover the Anti-Venom, they've got the numbers and they will break through, we're the last line of defense, copy?"

Starfire's X-wing slowed and fell back in formation. "Copy Lead, understood."


[Dobber's X-wing]

Dobber was deep in thought, thinking of the last time he'd seen that ship, and the battle that had taken Dia from him. He was glaring at the ISD hovering above the city, dreaming of exacting revenge when he noticed the blast from the city beneath. Still unfocused, he heard the call of 'Weapon's Free' but took too long to get his mind back on the job. The TIE Interceptors had swung around with the bulk of the force coming at the Anti-Venom, but a 5 pack had split left and boosted straight towards the flight of Jasted and Dobber, and were closing quickly at an oblique angle. Jasted was slightly ahead and to the left of Dobber and could see they needed to turn into the attack. Dobber was still processing the change in status and bringing targeting solutions up, and didn't react to Jasted's call.

"Three, Break right!"

Dobber glanced up from targeting to see Jasted already maneuvering, but before he could change heading the X-wing's collision avoidance system made a rapid adjustment, rolling right. Unfortunately, Jasted's X-wing had inertia from the turn he'd started and Dobber's roll clipped Jasted's right lower foil, flipping him up, pushing him left and opening the belly of the craft to the oncoming TIEs.

"Frack, frack, frack..." Dobber wrestled control of his craft back and dove under the incoming pack "...Five, I'm clear, form up on me!"

"Not gonna happen, punching out!" Jasted's out of control X-wing had taken the full brunt of three Interceptor's rapid-firing cannons and he ejected as his ship started to break apart around him. Dobber punched the plasteel canopy beside him and chided himself for his lack of concentration, another pilot on his conscience...


[ Jalb's X-wing ]

"Dammit Three, get your fracking game face on! Break contact and move to RV Delta. Two, get on Three's wing, punch it!" Starfire didn't need to be told twice and was boosting towards Dobber before Jalb had finished.

"Six, 40% throttle, I'll be on your wing in 10 seconds..." double click on comms and Thanatos' velocity slowed.

"Nine, Eleven, you have Bandits Echo One One through One Five."

"Copy Boss, we're on them!" Lock responded as he and Mustang closed with the enemy.

Jalb checked his readout on Jasted, saw that he was in controlled freefall and seemed to be tracking towards the secondary LZ, but that was all the time he could spare for his EV pilot as he formed up on Thanatos's port wing. "Low left." was all Jalb said.

Thanatos' reply was just as brief. "High right, copy."

Those five words sealed the fate of the Imperials in Echo two through five. Whilst the Imperial box diamond was a recent development, Thanatos and Jalb had spent long hours in the sims perfecting a tactic for first contact. The flight lead is always center, and while they're untargeted they retain a degree of control, which makes the rest of the flight vulnerable. The exchange between Rogues One and Six confirmed Jalb would take the low and leftmost fighters while Thanatos would engage high and right.

As they broke 2500m they double pumped shields to front, targeted the craft left and right respectively but aimed at their high low targets. The targeted ties started jinking but the untargeted craft maintained heading thinking they were clear and started firing at the extreme of range. Jalb and Thanatos started separating vertically whilst evading and at 500m pointed their snubs directly at the high low targets and dumfired concussion missiles followed by two quad bursts of coherent light.

The remains of the two TIEs pinged off their shields as they burst through the debris into a drift and onto the tails of the targeted TIEs after a brief boost. The controls in atmospheric flight weren't quite as responsive and inertial dampeners were never great this close to a planet's gravity. Jalb found himself high-G breathing and wishing his O2 mask was clipped to his helmet instead of in the side pocket of his flight seat. Still, 30 seconds later only one squint was left from that 5 stack and they had gone 100% defensive, boosting away from the engagement area. Jalb maintained a watchful eye, but checked the rest of the furball. Only 7 Interceptors remained with the other Rogues accounting for one apiece as well.

"Six, get with Two and Three, finish them before they get anywhere near the Anti-Venom..." he scanned for the solo TIE and found them well out of the bubble. As he looked for another target he saw Mustang having issues with another target while Lock was uncovered and evasive, another two now on his tail. "Nine, come around to 6 point 4 and boost... now!"

Lock's response was instant. He made the course adjustment and he boosted towards Jalb. He saw a little energy coruscate across his shields as the TIEs engaged at the extreme of their range, having been caught unprepared for the boost maneuver. He saw the bottom of Jalb's hull as Rogue Leader flew over to engage the chasing TIEs. In the 5 seconds it took for him to swing around, one of the chasing squints was falling debris and the other was fully evasive with Jalb hard on its six.

"Nine, get back on Mustang's wing." Jalb had just got tone on the TIE he was engaging, throttled down slightly and loosed a concussion missile. As he fired he pointed his nose to the right of the squint and fired a single quad burst as the TIE jinked into his lasers. Hull plates slagged above the engines, which duly detonated when the actively seeking missile hit the weakened area.

Jalb checked his scopes again. Lock and Mustang were about to put down the final Echo from this pack while Thanatos, Dobber, and Starfire were chasing down the last two on that side. He quickly also realised that the attackers had engaged and done their best to pull the ensuing furballs away from the Anti-Venom. He saw the blue flash of ion fire in the distance before his radio came alive.

"A little help here, Rogue!" The one that got away, the leftover from the first pack Jalb and Thanatos put down, had boosted back into the clear air above and behind the Anti-Venom and was making a strafing run across the top.

Jalb chided himself for allowing his people to get drawn away and keyed his mic. "Copy Anti-Venom, 10 seconds..."

"You will be too late, Rogue!" The voice of Commander B'oth came across the open channel. "This cruiser is obviously carrying weapons and supplies for your Rebel friends on the ground... they won't get them!'' As he talked, he had brought his Interceptor around and was now coming in fast on the slow moving cruiser and fired into the engines from above.

Rather than pull off, he boosted directly into the topside stern of the ship! There was a brief fireball and parts of the Interceptor and Anti-Venom swelled away from the impact. Smoke poured from the small crater left behind and the Anti-Venom started to spiral and lose altitude rapidly.

"Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is Anti-Venom, we have lost main propulsion and generators are offline... we're going down!"


Chapter Fourteen

[ TLM Hideout ]

Propelled by her hand, the small spherical gray ball rose in the air. Unmarked and unregistered, only a few things identified the object. At each pole was a button that had to be pressed simultaneously in order to activate it. At that point the ball would split along its hemisphere, revealing the three-dot-counter. It beeped once as she released it, marking off the first dot, and again, marking off the next. For the third mark, there was no beep.

Anyone who was standing outside the long, boxy ship would witness the intensely bright beams of light that shone through every viewport on the ship as the black market grade flashbang grenade went off.

"Boom!" she called out.

Sigilien had ducked her head between her knees and covered her head with her arms as best as she could. The others were not nearly as fortunate as her--Tsurio had been looking directly at it, and by the screams, both Svitzek and Drogg had fallen victim to it as well. Even she, protecting her vision like she was, was unable to escape the brightness completely and when she opened her eyes again she felt her eyes strain to focus.

To her left she heard crashing, and turned to see the form of red-skinned Tsurio bumbling around, trying to regain his composure. In one hand he had a blaster and in the other a vibroknife. Swinging wildly, the momentum drove the blinded man to trip and hit and bump into furniture and corners, tripping him. Panicked, he shrieked and began to fire at the ceiling.

"I'll kill you! I'll rip your kriffing eyes out, bitch!"

A familiar burning sensation began in her eyes as the nanites that coursed through her bloodstream were redirected. Had Tsurio been capable of sight, he wouldn't have missed seeing how her eyes changed in color, her iris obtaining a neon violet light. Adrenaline and strength began to course through her body, tensing the muscles of her body, unlocking her true strength, product of extensive body modifications in her youth.

With her strength came the voices.

"You have to kill him." "No, I love him." "Orders are purpose; life is to have a purpose." "Sister, what have they done to you?" "Can you trust him?"

Sigilien gritted her teeth and pushed past the mental noise and focused on the task at hand. She leapt towards Tsurio and kicked the blaster out of his hand. The Zeltron immediately countered, slashing at her legs with his vibroknife but his attack was clumsy and she was more than prepared, simply hopping back with a laugh, letting his swing go wide.

"Aw, what's wrong, Tsu-Tsu?" she mocked.

"Please, let me go."

"They planned this all along."

Tsurio lunged at her. Again, she was too fast and he flew face first directly into the cargo-bay wall that had previously been behind her. Seeing her opportunity, she gleefully bit down on her lower lip as she launched her heel into the back of Tsurio's head, making the impact into the wall so much worse. Tsurio stumbled away and tumbled to the floor, dazed and bleeding from a broken nose. Sigilien knelt, picking up the discarded knife from the floor.

"Oh-oh, looks like I got your toy," she continued with a giggle.

"Please... no--urk!" Tsurio scrambled backwards, kicking at Sigilien, but as soon as the vibrating knife pierced into his stomach he knew it was over. "You... you... I knew..."

"Kill an innocent today to save one hundred innocents tomorrow."

"How many dead does it take to change a life?"

"Orders are orders."

"You didn't know shit, Tsu-Tsu~," she whispered to him, grinning widely as she leaned into the knife, driving it deeper into him. She pulled it out and stabbed him again and again, her laugh transforming into a prolonged, hoarse, anguished scream.

On the other side of the cargo bay, Svitzek and Drogg were dealing with their own problems. Drogg was completely blinded; his three eyes were shut in pain as he fumbled through a nearby container looking for something. Svitzek sniffed at the air with his long snout, smelling blood moments before hearing the screaming.

"Kark me! What the druk was that!" the Dug said nervously, recoiling from that direction.

"Druk if I know! I don't get paid kiffin' near enough for this poodoo!" the Gran replied, hiding behind a container and pulling a rifle from it. "Can you see anything?"


Something hit Drogg and rolled onto his lap. It took Drogg a moment, but after fumbling around with one hand he finally realized what it was. "Kark me! Kriffin' Tsurio's karking druk head, sithspit in my karking mouth! Druk! Druk! DRUK!"

"Oh, boys..." Sigilien interrupted, her voice taking on a mesmerizing modulation.

"Sithspit! I'm gonna kriffin' kill you!" Svitzek shouted and charged towards where he'd heard the sound. He swung and missed, but caught her scent, and so was able to deduce where she was now. Turning his small body, he reached out with one of his powerful arms and grasped her fleeing leg. "I got you!"

Sigilien shrieked, and giggled, as if she'd just been trapped by a lover in some game. "Oooh!"

"Games aren't for fun. Games are life and death."

"Only children play games."


Suddenly Svitzek's powerful arms were clasped around her throat.

She tried her best to stab him, but the Dug got lucky and managed to catch her hands with his ugly little legs. It didn't take her long to realize that his grip was much stronger than she had assumed and now she was trapped and quickly beginning to suffocate. Attempting to jerk away, she flailed her body to no avail and soon enough she was flagging.

Sigilien stopped and looked the Dug in the eye. He was still blind, she realized, but even so the bastard was grinning, overly pleased with himself to be killing her.

Had he been able to see, he would've noticed the pulsing violet light starting to glow underneath her pale, white skin, revealing her veins as deep rivers. The pain of suffocating was overtaken by the pain coming from each and every muscle in her body as once again they all flexed and tensed in unison, adopting an unnatural toughness--hard enough for Svitzek to notice that no matter how hard he strained he was unable to squeeze her neck.

Two forms stood over the two- Sigilien could see them as clearly as a blurry memory, but she knew their faces, they were hers as well--her sisters, her predecessors, other clones whose memories were passed on through nanites. Their eyes were electric violet rings staring down in disappointment.

"Sigilien the Broken," said one, contempt in her buzzy, electronic voice.

The other turned to her partner, "It's not her fault. She never asked for two."



Beneath Svitzek, the crazed woman began to cackle. With ease, she pulled her hand from his grasp. Before he was able to react, he felt the vibroknife in her hand plunge into his chest and tear downwards, cutting through his heart, his abdomen, and his gut. His insides spilled out onto her.

"Ugh! Ew! So warm!" Shuddering, Sigilien pushed the twitching Dug off of her and onto the floor, where he landed in a bloody, wet, slumping pile. She immediately got up and started wiping the excess of fluid off of her, hopping impatiently as she tried to dislodge the guts from her clothing.

"To the left, young one," said the Kind One, crossing her arms as she stood next to Sigilien. She was a little taller.

Sigilien jerked her head to the left--just in time for her to see Drogg come barrelling out from the container he was hiding behind, two rifles in hand. Thanks to the heads up, by the time Drogg started firing, Sigilien had already gotten to cover.

"KARK YOOOOUUUUU!!!!" howled the blinded gran, squeezing the trigger of both rifles and firing madly in all directions in the cargo hold.

"Don't help her," said the Rude One, sitting on the other side of Sigilien behind the crate, pretending there wasn't a maniac firing behind them.

Kind One leaned over, speaking to Rude One from across Sigilien, "She activated Gamma Protocol," she explained, "She is entitled to AI support. It is not her fault that you're a malfunctioning harpy."

"What did you just call me!?"

"Ladies! Please! I have a situation here!" Sigilien pleaded.

"Shut your trap, and just throw the damn knife at its eyes! I have to deal with missus errant code over here!" shouted the Rude One as she stood to confront her opposite.

Sigilien stood, too, hopping over the crate with an expert flip and flinging her vibroknife at the Gran. She hit her mark, striking Drogg's left eye stalk and hacking it off. Both stalk and knife went flying and Drogg's reaction was immediate. With a wail he dropped to his knees, clutching his face. Sigilien dashed right up to him and kicked him in between the legs, worsening his day by magnitudes of ten.

"Hah! Nice," She said to herself, picking up both rifles. Immediately she fired two blasts at his legs, shooting his left ankle and right knee to keep him from getting away. "Any suggestions ladies?"

"We can't allow him to warn the rest," advised the Kind One.

On the other hand, "Why you even asking? Just blast him!"

"What? No super strategy? What good are you two AIs?"

"Who... who are you talking to?" asked Drogg, holding a hand up weakly to defend himself.

"No one asked you! I'm not crazy! Shut up!"

Sigilien pulled both triggers. Because of her enhancements, she was able to keep both rifles trained on Drogg, just shooting and shooting and shooting until his body from his chest up looked like it had been devoured by plasma bolts.

"Whew! I think I feel better!"

Both figures stepped up next to her, each on one side, silently examining her handwork.

"You know, I think I really like this planet. It's kinda fun, yeah?"

"Yeah, sure," the Rude One agreed.

"Has good food. Nice weather. Yeah."


[ Jalb's X-wing ]

The remaining Rogues were tight above the spiraling Anti-Venom, high and behind it's vector in an inverted V; Lock, Mustang, Dobber, and Starfire at the tips and Jalb and Thanatos holding the base, when it straightened up and leveled out, slowing it's descent somewhat.

"Rogue, Anti-Venom, we've got gens back up, trying to spool main drives but we have positive attitude control. Descending a little too quickly for our liking, and shields are non existent, but we should get dirtside in one piece."

"Copy Anti-Venom, we'll maintain overwatch..." Jalb had found the voice familiar, not just the familiar of a passing recognition. He was sure he knew who it was, but before he could ask the comms came alive.

"Rogue, Wizard, multiple inbound! Dupe Squadron with mixed fighter cover... fighters will be on you in 2 minutes!"

"My scopes are clear, Wizard, say again?"

"They've run in on the edge of the atmosphere. Systems took time to ID, but they'll be dropping in on you. Get altitude."

"Copy Wizard, out to you, Rogue. You heard the man, get some height and keep them away from our package!"

"It's 4 to 1 Lead!" Mustang barked over the channel.

"I'm well aware, Eleven. We've been through worse," Jalb responded.

"Not with a karking rook..." Mustang spat back.

"Stow that crap, Eleven..." Thanatos jumped in. "Stay with your wingman and cover your arcs, Two Flight can take care of themselves."

"Calm people, we've got this. Every one of you has proven your ability, and you've earned the right to wear the patch. We've got time to break up the fighter escort before the bombers are anywhere near the Anti-Venom..."

Brave words Reynolds he thought to himself, knowing that there were unanswered questions hanging over the pilots with him... Not just the rookie Starfire but both the new transfers, Lock and Dobber. Both from senior command positions, both had met the requirements for invitation to Rogue and had been in some difficult situations, but this was a whole new level, even compared to Endor.

"... You've all seen the XO's tactics for these box flights, and we've demonstrated their effect already, but I want the centre punched out of each first pass. Take the lead and one other then get on those bombers. Once we're amongst them I want Two Flight," referring to Dobber and Starfire, "on bird watch, nothing launched gets through. Three Flight, stay on the bombers, don't worry about kills, just get them evasive. Six and I will maintain fighter suppression... get some horizontal separation and, in the words of my predecessor, Go Rogue!"

Two and Three Flights started tracking left and right respectively, opening some space between them and the centre pairing of Jalb and Thanatos. The half dozen Republic pilots prepared to take on 4 times their number. The forward 12 fighters coming in had two box diamonds and a pair at centre, This is new, Jalb thought, Command and Control, but out front?. He ran his eyes over his scopes again and arched an eyebrow just as Thanatos' voice came over the comm.

"Lead, Six, the forward cover is slowing."

"And there's another pack of squints moving in behind, Boss!" came from Mustang. He didn't need to say it but the odds had just jumped to nearly 5 to 1.

"Lead copies, no change to orders. Be aware that the fighters are bringing the bombers closer to cover them from what Six and I did earlier." Jalb tapped his console a couple of times. "Six, I think this is the C&C for the flight group they have out, we burn them first."

There was a moment's pause as Thanatos checked the targeting package. "Copy Lead, agreed, let's gooooo!"

As is the way in combat, no plan lasts past first contact. The leading TIEs had slowed enough to bring the bombers and their rotary cannons into range, albeit extreme, before the Rogues could initiate contact. The result was that only one TIE Interceptor was destroyed under Thanatos' guns. Jalb's target and one other appeared to be combat ineffective, leaving the battle space trailing smoke and fluids, with a couple of others damaged but functional as the remaining Rogues were fully evasive before they could make their shots count.

The bombers had also joined the furball, so the hopes of getting behind them and keeping them off the Anti-Venom were ill founded as it appeared they were going to help thin the opposition further before they made their attack runs.

For Jalb, this was a nightmare. He couldn't break free to make any sort of assessment of the battle because he was continually engaged or engaging. He could hear his people talking to each other, and responded to Thanatos when he told him which way to go as he covered his butt, but he was purely reactionary.


[Lock's X-wing]

Lock was in a daze. TIEs were pinwheeling around him as he tried to break free, but there was nowhere to run without leaving himself open. He called on his wingman. "Mustang, I need you!" he punched out through forced breathing. He instinctively fired a quad burst as a TIE fighter tracked through his sights, and spared it no more attention as the shot sheared a wing support pylon and opened a brief hole for him to boost through.

"Nine, on me, we're getting out of here, we've got to get support!"

Lock could hear the panic in Mustang's voice, but his erratic flying was making it difficult for the TIEs around him to get a solid hit although lasers were frequently shaving the outer edges of his shields and bringing them down. Lock was able to put two more TIEs down, an Interceptor and a bomber, that were flying too straight focused on Mustang, but that just allowed Mustang an opening.

"Let's go Nine!"

Lock goosed his throttle to join his wingman, the old adage Never leave your wingman loud in his head, only to have his ears assaulted and tear his conscience in two.

"Three Flight, get back in here!" Jalb's normally calm voice was as strained as he'd ever heard it, and it filled Lock with dread... he knew there was no way out of this if he stayed, but knew there was no way he could live with himself if he didn't.

"Eleven, get back on me, we've got to get back in there!"

"Negative Nine... You're just like the last Nine. It's not a fracking crusade, and now he's in charge!"

"Come on Mustang, they won't last without us, you know that..." nor will the Anti-Venom, and Aruithil he added wordlessly.

"No, I can't, I've got to get away... whaaa.. Where'd they..."

The decision was made easier for Lock by the trailing 5 pack of squints that Mustang ran straight into. He took a deep shuddering breath and turned back towards his Squadron.


[Jalb's X-wing]

Jalb had taken a moment to attach his O2 mask while they moved into this engagement and was thankful he had. Without the oxygen augmentation he was sure he would be dead by now, the higher G of atmospheric flight was wearying. Inertial compensators kept it tolerable and it rarely got heavier than 4G but it was physically draining. The minor vision tunneling without O2 would have left him unable to focus on scopes and without his peripheral vision would have been vaped more than once. That and the ever watchful eye of his XO.

Thanatos was carrying the fight. While Jalb did his best to maintain command and control, it was Thanatos who had his back. Jalb knew that without the experienced Rogue Six covering him, any positive outcome from this fight was high odds against... Well, it was high odds already, but Jalb felt sure that they could turn the tide, or at least keep the Anti-Venom safe until it was on the ground. In the minutes since Mustang's death, the remaining Rogues had thinned the fighter escort enough that a pair could break off and had time to bring the heavy hulled bombers down. The Imperials realised that the Republic pilots were winning this war of attrition and knew that the Anti-Venom would be on the ground before they would be able to clear the Rogues out. They needed to gain the initiative so a tri-flight of bombers disengaged and headed towards the Corvette.

"Two Flight, get on those breakaways!" Jalb knew it was a risk sending a third of their number after 3 enemy when they still had another 15 to deal with, but the mission was to protect the Anti-Venom, the vital supplies it carried, and it's crew... definitely it's crew... it's Captain in particular.


[Dobber's X-wing]

"Copy Lead." Dobber switched to his wingmates channel. "Take right, I'll take left. If your primary evades, switch to centre."

"This is Two, orders acknowledged... let's burn these karkers!"

The pair turned and boosted briefly to bring them into range of the dupe trio, and adjusted ELS to charge weapons and start firing at their selected targets. The TIE Bomber in Dobber's sights started jinking but maintained an attack vector while Starfire's target pulled away, turning sharply and evading. Starfire immediately switched target to the remaining bomber and started blasting it.

Both the bombers were taking heavy damage, armoured hull plating slagging and cratering under the fire, but they both had good tone and started firing torpedoes at extreme range. The bomber under Dobber's gun's suddenly went into an uncontrolled dive, trailing smoke and flames but it had 10 warheads in the air that needed to be dealt with. Dobber started lining up on the torpedoes, firing continuously in dual fire when the bomber targeted by Starfire started to pull up and evaporated with a flash that was almost blinding.

"Wooo, did you see that go, Three!"

"Couldn't miss it, but you've got a dozen or more torpedoes in front of you, and there's another Dupe out here... make it quick." The chastened young pilot double clicked her comms and started chasing down the warheads currently homing in on the Anti-Venom.

It took Dobber all of 15 seconds and a couple of micro-boosts to deal with the ordnance in front of him, and then he slowed and pulled in on Starfire's wing. She had dealt with all but two of the torpedoes and was moving into position to finish them, but they were running out of time. The first bomber was moving in behind Starfire and would soon be able to bring its rotary cannon into play.

"We've got company Two, take the shot or clear, I can finish them from here."

"I've got this, Three."

"Take the shot, Two!"

"Almost there..."

Dobber quickly checked his scopes and made a quick calculation. He was never going to be able to break and engage before the bomber started firing, nor would he be able to get past Starfire to finish the torpedoes. "I'm not going to be able to hold them off from back here"

"A couple more seconds"

Time's up! Dobber thought as he checked over his shoulder and saw the coruscating energy around the barrel of the bomber's big cannon as it wound up. Suddenly, an almost continuous beam of light burst from the maw of the weapon and Dobber did the only thing he could do. Complete the mission, protect the Corvette, protect your wingmate.

As Starfire's rear shields started to flare, Dobber pulled his X-wing directly into the savage fire. His astromech wailed as he felt the heavy cannon ripping into his ship, but he held it there as a shield as long as he could. His shields were gone and he knew bolts of coherent light were reaching deep into the hull behind him, but he waited until the last possible moment before ejecting. He saw two small fireworks puff into existence as he initiated the ejector and had a moment of pride before his consciousness was ripped away by the power of the explosion beneath him.

Nearby, his astromech floated with its own parachute, jabbering a string of binary expletives a mile long in his direction.


[ Jalb's X-wing ]

"I've lost three!"

Frack! Jalb thought as he snap rolled and boosted clear of the wreckage of the TIE that had wandered through his sights while evading the two lining him up from behind. In the brief respite, he checked his scopes and ran as much of a visual check as he could. There were still 7 bombers and 8 Interceptors that appeared combat capable. The TIE that he had just fragged appeared to be the last of the eyeballs, unsurprising as their agility in atmosphere was much curtailed. The big flat wings restricted their lateral movement and made them the softer targets. The big, slow moving dupes were an easy takedown too but they just didn't have the time to finish them before they had the Interceptors on them. It was a constant dance of engage, evade, manage power, engage and right now the dance card was full. Starfire put down the final bomber of that wave and started heading back to the main fight, which was moving inexorably closer to the descending Corvette. Jalb's shields sparked and he swore at himself as his ship shuddered from weapon impacts. He dove and rolled to try and get eyes on his attacker to see Lock and Thanatos flying through the smoke left over from the destruction of the two squints targeting him.

"Thanks for the decoy, Lead." It was Thanatos' way of telling Jalb he spent too long in a straight line and to get back in it. Three more bombers took that moment to break away and make a run at the Anti-Venom.

"Six, get with Two, splash those dupes and maintain Bird Watch. Nine, you're with me... Wait! Birds in the air! Two, get on those Torps. Six and Nine, one bomber each, punch it!"

The three X-wings of Thanatos, Lock and Jalb broke and boosted hard for the bombers which had just started launching their payloads. The Rogues knew they'd only get one pass before the remaining fighters were on them, so they maximized their opportunity by not actively targeting. Jalb had 2 concussion missiles left and had heard no bingo calls on auxiliaries, so he was sure Lock and Thanatos had a little something in the tubes too. They got to within knife-fighting distance and dumbfired missiles, followed by overcharged quadlinked fire with exactly the results they needed. Two of the bombers dropped from the sky spewing flames and smoke while the third briefly outshone the sun before it disappeared. Thanatos maintained course and joined Starfire taking down torpedoes while Jalb and Lock quickly turned and engaged as the first of the pursuing Interceptors arrived.

They were now well inside the bubble, and Lock and Jalb were heavily engaged. The last 6 Interceptors gave them no chance to get on the remaining bombers. With Starfire and Thanatos having been drawn in closer to the Anti-Venom chasing down the last volley of torpedoes, the last three bombers were free to engage. They set up for their attack and were in range, unloading their compliments quickly. Starfire and Thanatos had 30 plus torpedoes coming in at them whilst also having to contend with the bombers firing their rotaries. With the Rogue pair keeping the torpedoes between them and the bombers, the Imperials managed to take out a good number of their own ordnance. Quickly, they wised up and moved onto Starfire's ‘lane'. They separated high and low and bracketed the young pilot to the extent that she could not effectively target the incoming warheads.

"Six, this is Two. I have to clear!"

"Copy Two, go, I'll cover." Thanatos responded. He'd assessed the situation and knew there was only one way to get the remaining torpedoes, the small cluster in front of him and the last few from Starfire's lane, which he targeted. He set up with a quick boost at the pack on his side and initiated drift, swinging right and bringing guns to bear on the targeted warheads. As his guns finished, the incoming into which he'd drifted started impacting his ship. Fortunately, as Thanatos surmised, they were not yet armed, but the kinetic energy of the big weapons was more than his systems could cope with. His shields failed as the last torpedo hit and caused catastrophic hull damage, which in turn loosed an engine which swung out and detonated. Major Marco was ejected, but he was unconscious and in uncontrolled freefall.

"Tony, Noooo!" Jalb screamed as he watched Rogue Six's X-wing break apart as it fell...


He was suddenly back in the air above Scarif and the chaos of the in atmosphere fight against the Imperial ‘Kites', the TIE Strikers that ripped through Blue Squadron and gained air superiority so quickly. He remembered seeing General Merrick go down, hearing the warning he should have responded to but, as always, stayed in the line of fire to protect a U-wing. Jalb had a great respect for Anton Merrick, his leadership example, the care he had for every pilot and the assets under his command was a polar opposite to the teaching of his mentor, Davits Draven, whose pragmatic approach to operational success often had little regard for the ‘human' variable.

Jalb had always striven to be a product of both, treading the fine medium between the two, but in that moment, watching the wreckage of Thanatos' T-65, he relived the loss of both Merrick and Draven, and seriously considered following the wreckage down. He wasn't the sort of leader either had been, and wasn't fit to lead a Cadet training organization, let alone the premier Wing of the New Republic. His rock, his friend, the last Rogue that had been there to welcome him when he ‘Patched Up' as Rogue Nine, was gone now too, likely dead, and all of them under his watch...

"JALB! High Right... Now!" The background chatter that he'd been oblivious to broke through with that command. He instinctively pulled up and kicked left rudder into a climbing right turn bringing the TIE fighters trailing into the guns of Starfire and Lock.

"Thanks Nine."

"You good, Boss?"

"As good as I can be..." Jalb surveyed the situation as he maintained evasion and, while the numbers had been whittled down, the odds were still heavily stacked against them. At this stage it was the experienced, smart pilots that were left and it did not bode well for the remaining Rogues, or the Corvette under their care. Skip warbled and highlighted another incoming flight group of TIEs, fighters and bombers, at least a half dozen of each 10 klicks out. Focus on the here and now...

Jalb thought about what might be the prudent order of battle. We need to end these bombers, their rotaries will cut the Anti-Venom to pieces! "Nine, I want you and Two to extend and escape. Pull as many of those Squints with you as possible. I'm on the Dupes."

"Negative Lead, we see the incoming, we'll cover you."

Jalb was about to retort when he heard the distinctive Brrrrt of rapid-fire cannons, and a dirty white and orange dart blurred past him.


[ Frosty's A-wing ]

The sky of Toseng was surprisingly peaceful considering all that was erupting in outer space. Rays of sunlight passed through the largest clouds, casting golden light upon the city-facing side of Mount Ojom. Two shepherds stood amongst the mountain grasses, passing the binoculars back and forth. They had seen the smoke rising from the explosion in the city, watched as TIEs had poured forth from the ISD above it like a mother arachnid hatching its children. They both feared what was to come but had quietly taken faith knowing their village was some distance from the city; there was no reason for the war to come there. So instead they watched, as if the whole event was some kind of absurd theatre piece, quietly waiting for the Republic forces to arrive.

"There!" The elder of the two pointed northwards, to the skyline. A cruiser of some kind was bearing down towards the planet, angry flashes of laser fire flanking it, a cluster of fighters swarming over it. The younger shepherd, his bright red hair blowing in the wind, shook his head. "Three X-wings, lots of TIEs. They're in trouble."

The older Zabraakian shepherd grimaced. They'd bet five credits on the Republic winning this battle. But a show was a show, so they sat down to watch more comfortably. He reached into his pocket for a snack but dropped it in suprise as eleven shapes blasted past, grazing the mountainside, small clouds developing around each one. A second later an almighty boom sounded, scattering the nerf herd and causing the shepherds' jaws to drop in surprise as the wake of the A-wings picked up their cloaks and blew them away.

From his vantage in the cockpit, Frosty looked upon the mountain with confusion. Keying his comm he spoke through the rattling of the A-wing's white-hot engines. "Er....what were those on that mountain?"

"Nerfs, Nine," Syntax replied smoothly. "Heads up, contact in five. Target by wingpairs, bombers primary. Two....one..."

In well practiced unison each A-wing unleashed the rapid-fire cannons that they had stored up. Frosty watched in satisfaction as the TIE Bomber target he shared with Wolf collapsed in on its missile pod and subsequently erupted outwards as the missile racks inside ignited. A second later and they had shot past the Anti-Venom and the remaining Rogues.

The comm crackled and Jalb's voice came across, full of relief. "You speed freaks sure took your time. How we looking?"

"Five...no six targets scratched," Bone reported happily.

"Bombers?" Syntax asked.

"All dupes on attack runs destroyed," BattleDog confirmed over the comm. A few seconds of laser fire from the Corsairs had just saved the Anti-Venom from a killing blow, but there was little chance to celebrate.

"One flight, Three flight, engage with fighters. Two flight, destroy those bombers."

"Those bastards will pay for attacking civilians!" Dragon growled as he, BattleDog, Knight, and Freak broke off to begin a pursuit of the next group of bombers on an attack run.

Frosty leaned into his seat as he swung his ship to the left in a hard turn, following Wolf around as they set up on their next attack run. He tensed a little knowing that things were about to get a lot more difficult. An alarm sounded in the cockpit, his portside engine again announcing an alert, but he silenced it. There wasn't time for maintenance right now, he had to stick with Wolf.

Wolf assigned him a target and he fell in behind his senior officer, his finger grazing the trigger. The squint dived and twisted and together Wolf and Frosty twisted after it, Wolf's lasers went wide causing the TIE to break hard right. Right into Frosty's reticule. He feathered the trigger, allowing the cannons brief moments to recharge as he sent rapidfire lasers towards the TIE. A few hits glanced the wing of the ship, and although it did not yield, the squint dove down sharply, smoking heavily.

Cutting the throttle, Frosty climbed upwards, waiting for Wolf to pick the next target. The alarm klaxon sounded again and he looked at his engine status screen. Without hesitation he pulled the fire alarm for his portside engine, feeling a sudden surge as power cut from the left hand side. "Ten, it's Nine. I have an engine fire."

Wolf sounded stressed as his A-wing started to become more distant, its natural speed drawing him away as Frosty struggled with his wounded ship. "Get clear Frosty, you can't do any good like that."

Frosty double clicked his comm and cut his throttle, turning the ship away from the battle. He immediately began the ‘fire, engine out' drill that he had practiced a million times in the sim, offering a silent prayer of thanks to BattleDog for his training regimes. He was midway through cutting the fuel flow to the broken engine when he heard the cry over the comm.

"Look out Ten!"

Frosty looked up to see Wolf's ship, diving down with a TIE in hot pursuit. He knew that in reality he was in no position to help, his analytical brain told him he wouldn't make it over there. He knew that he had been in this position several times before and he had to do what he was good at; look after himself. It's why they called him Frosty in combat, he never let emotions get in the way.

Time had changed him.

Unconsciously he put his hand back on the throttle, slamming it to max as he raced towards his wingmate. His ship was slow and he had to use the pedals to keep it straight, looking at his speed he diverted power from his shields into the one remaining good engine. He surged forward but still it was too slow, the TIE's lasers were converging and Frosty knew well that Wolf's fragile A-wing could only take a few hits. He diverted power from the laser cannons into the engine, willing his little ship to go faster.

He watched the range indicator tick lower, lower, fighting to control his ship as he tried to match his XOs turns. His analytical brain begged him to listen and he did, finally seeing a bigger picture. Cutting his throttle he called over the comm, "Ten, break port in three...two....one.."

Wolf turned his A-wing on a knife's edge, his experience and talent evident. The pursuing Interceptor bucked and twisted as it tried to follow, flying directly into the space Frosty had predicted. Lasers fully discharged, he instead let loose with his rockets, ion and assault explosives exploding on and around the TIE. He saw the blue lightning arcing over the ship and watched as it began to plummet towards the ground, gravity taking its toll on the powerless fighter.

"Thanks Frosty, but I meant what I said. Get clear."

Frosty didn't have time to acknowledge before a new alarm klaxon sounded. Engine fire, starboard engine. He was out of luck.

His hands flew to his ejection seat handles, the same instinct taking over that had kept him alive so many times in the past. He had gone extra-vehicular possibly more times than any other pilot he knew and sometimes he got ribbed for it at the bar, but he had a list of names longer than his arm of pilots who died because they tried hanging on for too long. His fists tightened around the ejection handles, his earset full of the noise of wailing alarms and Wolf telling him to eject. But he hesitated as he looked out of the cockpit.

The A-wing was falling now, in an arc that got steeper towards the ground. Towards the city of Toseng to be precise, his engines failing to keep him aloft and the rapidly spreading fire starting to eat into his repulsorlifts. He could see the tall tower block he was probably going to hit. He recognised it; cheap residential housing. He had grown up in a similar tower on Coruscant. He thought of the kids probably living inside, thinking of his daughter.

He took one hand off the ejection handle to grab the clover leaf patch on his shoulder, the other grabbing his flightstick. It had become heavy, the mechanical-assistance servos damaged by the fire that was starting to lick the portside of his cockpit, but he heaved with all the strength in his body, causing his ship to turn slowly away from the collision course.

"Nine, eject!"

He felt his body compress and knew now that the inertial compensators had been damaged by the fire. Remembering the breathing techniques BattleDog had taught him, he clenched his muscles, making short deep breaths to keep himself conscious. There was heat now, all around him, with only the forward viewport clear of flames. He saw the buildings move down from below the tip of his craft's nose, and knew that he had cleared the city.

Letting go of the stick, he reached for the ejection handles and pulled.

Nothing happened. The fire must have reached those wires too.

"Frosty!!!! EJECT!!!"

Frosty smiled as the sight of Mount Ojom rushed towards him. I'm sorry kid. I tried. Darkness took him as the blood drained from his brain, the last moments of consciousness slipping away.

He could think of worse ways to go.


[ Bulldog's Y-wing ]

Bulldog listened intently as the Buccaneers flew in a straight line towards their target in hopes of masking their numbers from the Imperial Star Destroyer's gunners and fighter cover until it was too late. As Buccaneer Twelve, he put himself at the back of the line to make sure everybody was in front of him and able to pass along words of encouragement or course corrections as needed. Farther off, the Rogues were having a hell of a time with their foes, and Corsair just reached that area to even the odds.

The chaotic staccato of battle took over his comm array as nobody in Buccaneer Squadron said a word, opting to fly silently as if their speech could bring the attention of the Imperials down upon them before they were in position. As such, the Rogue and Corsair target call-outs and frantic calls for help filled their ears as the bomber pilots sped on toward their target.

"Let's go, Buccs!" Animal's voice urged over the comm, superseding the communications from farther off in the battle due to the hierarchy. "They need our firepower to punch a hole in those ships!"

Bulldog noticed one of the B-wings waggling involuntary in the formation ahead of him. "Three, are you good?"

"I'm fine, Captain," Loth-Cat's voice replied, but the tone was anything but confident as they struggled with the controls of the unfamiliar ship. Due to the nature of craft shuffling, Foo had given up his U-wing to Spectre Squadron and had no prior experience in the cockpit of a B-wing, so Loth-Cat unfortunately had to be bumped from his usual Y-wing so Foo wouldn't be left on the Vigilant without a fighter to fly.

"Lots of people flying ships we're not used to today, kid," Foo chimed in bitterly from Loth-Cat's Y-wing, slightly ahead of Bulldog near the end of the line. He was clearly missing the roomier cockpit of his U-wing that was now in Spectre Squadron's hands, and doubly worried about it coming back in one piece. The overly ‘talkative' droid of Loth-Cat's was also probably driving him mad from the astromech socket as well.

"How do you fly something this slow?" Ant complained from his loaner Y-wing, having had to give up his X-wing for more firepower this mission required.

"Flying is flying," Rev replied gruffly, rotating his strike foils around the axial cockpit of his own B-wing.

Had any other pilot done this, Bulldog would have assumed they were showing off, but Rev tended to do that maneuver quite a bit while flying as some sort of habit just to remind himself where his wingtips were oriented. He grimaced at the lack of confidence and enthusiasm the pilots under his care were displaying. Sure, all pilots had craft preferences, but maybe it was just his Rogue training that made him comfortable in most craft. That being said, the B-wing still gave him the willies. He shook off the shiver of the last time he tried to fly one of the heavy bombers and cleared his mind. "Keep a light hand on the controls and a sharp eye."

"I've got a squadron of eyeballs vectoring in on us from the east," Gnoizic called out.

"I see them," Animal replied. "We'll be in the range of those big guns once we hit the city limits. Stay frosty."

Animal's choice of words unintentionally struck a sour note. Bulldog's heart fell slightly as he remembered the drama surrounding Frosty's crippled fighter, and the lack of an ejection confirmation all but sealed his friend's fate. He hoped the Corsair made it down safely, but he knew what it was like to not have a working inertial compensator. If Frosty blacked out before he could eject, his ship didn't have an astromech that could eject for him.

"What are we doing about those fighters bearing down on us?" Slugger asked, his Y-wing vectoring slightly out of formation in the direction of the incoming threat.

"Get back in line, Nine!" Bulldog snapped. "We'll deal with them together when they get closer if need be."

"Twelve's right," Animal agreed. "We continue on target, and we'll come about at the last minute as a group and hit them head on. Seven, keep that formation on your scopes and let me know when they get to within four klicks."

"Seven copies," Rev replied.

"We'll hit them in two minutes unless- OH S..."

Animal's B-wing suddenly jinked hard for seemingly no reason to the rest of the squadron. Gnoizic tried to follow the sudden maneuver, but the atmospheric flight characteristics of the B-wing were even worse than they were in space. He ended up pinwheeling off to the side as he tried to reacquire his wingman.

Throughout the line of Buccaneers, disarray reigned supreme as everybody tried to keep in formation with the fighter ahead of them. Bulldog slowed slightly to keep everybody in front of him, but their wild flight paths made that extremely difficult. Off to the east, the TIE Fighters were continuing to close in, and they'd need to form up quickly to turn into them as a group if they all wanted to survive, rather than going at them piecemeal and being destroyed in detail. "Get back into formation!"

"Something is painting a lock on me," Animal replied nervously as he continued to fly evasively. "Deuce, can you identify?"

"Negative. Got something locking onto me as well."

"I see them!" Loth-Cat called out excitedly. "Some missile turrets hidden in the city!"

A lance of green energy broke through the middle of their loose formation, missing the New Republic ships completely and obliterating an outlying building. A shower of rubble shot into the air as the building exploded outward.

"Impstar has spotted us!" Foo reported, going evasive to avoid the follow up blast headed straight for him.

Bulldog's heart sank. More lances of turbolaser energy raced toward them from the nearby Star Destroyer they had intended to assault, each missing its mark but doing insane amounts of collateral damage to the outer limits of the city proper. Each missed blast made him wince at the thought of countless lives that may have been snuffed out because they happened to be sheltering in the buildings the Buccaneers had flown over.

"Missile launch!" Ant shouted. "Three, it's coming for you!"

"I see it!" Loth-Cat replied nervously, but evasive actions weren't being taken by the nervous pilot.

"Dive!" Bearcat urged Loth-Cat as he threw his X-wing into a wide loop in an attempt to acquire the missile in his gun sights. He fired a stream of red lasers as he attempted to shoot the warhead trailing Loth-Cat's bumbling B-wing. Each miss broke small chunks of building away from their structure or shattered windows. Finally, a laser found its mark, and the conflagration shattered all of the windows along the street as the missile exploded. "Tail's clearrr, Thrrree."

"Those TIEs just crossed the 4k mark, Lead," Rev cut in as his B-wing rolled and dove to break a lock on his own ship.

"Take it down to the streets!" Animal ordered. "Break the line of sight on those SAMs and we'll figure it out from there."

Bulldog saw Animal's B-wing break into a steep dive. The others, in turn, followed along their own vectors to get below the roof levels of the buildings to hopefully avoid the dangerous missile turret threat. He pushed his stick forward and joined them, but was acutely aware that they were trading one danger for another. "Being stuck in the canyons isn't going to go well for us when those fighters pounce, Lead."

"We don't have a choice, Twelve!"

"Five and I will take on the TIEs," Wolvinator said as his X-wing pulled off its dive and started to gain altitude again. Nearby, Bearcat's X-wing likewise pulled up.

"Negative! Get low, those SAMs will chew you up!"

The two Buccaneer X-wings reluctantly returned to their dives as they raced ahead of the slower bombers.

Bulldog found himself right behind Slugger's Y-wing as they reached the streets first, having no missile locks to dodge between the two of them. They leveled off expertly and began navigating the duracrete labyrinth of a city that clearly had grown without much of a uniform plan common on many Imperial worlds. Each time his rookie broke to avoid crashing into a building at a T intersection, Bulldog followed with ease as he continually scanned the skies above them for the fighters, waiting for them to pounce. "Weight, get yourself ready with that ICT," he said aloud to his astromech, giving his permission for the droid to take control of the topside ion turret when a threat appeared.

"We need to regroup," Animal ordered. "Make your way to my position."

Bulldog's console lit up, and a faint arrow appeared on his HUD, compliments of Weight's programming. "Ok, Nine, it looks like we need to take a left at the next intersection to link up with the group."

"Copy," Slugger replied, taking his Y-wing wide to the right of the street they were on in anticipation of the upcoming left turn. His right-most engine nacelle started clipping durasteel streetlights in half, doing negligible damage to his ship in the process while sending bits of the metal pinwheeling off into the air.

Bulldog snorted at the rookie's confidence, but was buoyed by the fact that the loss of Peacock in the previous engagement hadn't shaken the confidence in his own skills. He mimicked the maneuver and drew his own Y-wing to the right of the street to take the left turn after Slugger, taking one more moment to scan the sky for the fighters. Seeing no threat, he looked forward again just as Slugger's nacelles rotated to take the next turn at speed. He again mimicked the maneuver, but suddenly Slugger's Y-wing was no longer there.

In its place was a fireball of outwardly expanding shrapnel pelting everything in the area, including Bulldog's shields. More windows shattered and the flaming wreckage of what was left of the New Republic Y-wing buried itself into a glass-walled shop, sending another shower of glass shards into the street.

"What the?"

Weight squealed in shock.

As Bulldog fought the controls to drift through the turn, he came face to face with an Imperial AT-AT, its head canted downward and chin cannons aimed directly at him.


Chapter Fifteen

[ Capital Building ]

Barraken found himself standing amongst a pile of masonry, chunks of brickwork and plaster around his feet. He did not remember standing up, he did not even recognise where he was standing, but as he placed a hand against his forehead it came back slick with blood. He did not feel injured, much to his surprise, as he started to cross the ground. There was immense dust in the air and he could hear people coughing and moaning, his own windpipe hoarse from a layer of dust coating it.

Without actively thinking about it, he worked his way towards where the New Republic table was. Or, where it had been at least.

He found Rear Admiral Tolden first, partially covered by the table. His body was limp, lacking any sign of life and laying face down on the floor. He knelt down and was surprised the floor was warm, red blood pooling around his hands and knees. Tolden however was not bleeding heavily, his only wound was the defining one where a piece of large brickwork had embedded in the back of his skull and out again the front of his head.

Barraken turned Tolden's body over and was surprised to find Vodani was underneath. Her chest rose slowly, clearly still somehow alive. Her trouser leg was soaked, a deep wound in her leg leaking out of her. Barraken moved swiftly, tying a belt around her leg tightly and elevating it. Confident he had done as best as he could, he turned to find his next casualty.

He could hear sobbing now close by, looking down in concern at Vodani he was somewhat relieved to see it wasn't her. Instead he realized it was Shyon Anandes, who had walked over in a daze. She was holding some ragged cloth. Barraken stood and took it from her, and realized what she was holding. Rori's shirt, or part of it, the glittering pattern of his hometown's insignia still proudly displayed. Of Rori himself there was little left, or perhaps Barraken thought darkly, it was instead cast all around. Shyon clutched the tattered shirt remains to her chest, sinking to her knees. Barraken placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her as best as he could but returned back to his work on Vodani, she he could still save.

Laserfire erupted over his head and he ducked down as best as he could. Imperial and Republic troopers had finally let go with their blasters, their anger at the situation spilling out. He could hear shouts of orders and realised he recognised the voice issuing them, over the other side of the room Feing was standing tall. He had Barand leaning on him, alive but stunned, as he used a mobile shield unit in his other arm to protect his leader. Barraken's eyes narrowed as he stared at Feing, the man was prepared for this. No wonder they were alive.

Well, Feing and Barand were. Spidrucket was less lucky, the upper half of him separated from his legs, his guts spilling out onto the floor. Barraken shook his head in dismay. None of this made sense in reality, why would the Imperials want this?

The laserfire lessened in intensity as the Imperials retreated with Barand, and Barraken returned to his work on Vodani. There was a significant chunk of durasteel rebar buried in her leg, keeping the wound open, but he knew he could not remove it. Placing both hands taught around her leg he shouted at Shyon to get her attention. "Ms Anandes. Ms Anandes!"

Shyon looked at him, shaking like a leaf. He took one hand off Vodani's leg and motioned at her to place hers there, she did so weakly, her voice quiet. "I don't think I can."

"Yes you can, Shyon," he said calmly. "You can. Squeeze harder please, with as much force as you can. Admiral Vodani has lost a lot of blood, so we need to get her to a medical centre as quickly as possible. I am going to go find us a way to get to a doctor."

"Please don't leave me," she whispered. He placed his hand on hers, squeezing hard to remind her to keep the pressure on.

"I will be back," he said solemnly, "I promise."


[ Damak's U-wing ]

Damak could feel his fingers sweating. He activated the cargo cam and saw SpecForce operators checking their equipment. Seeing all the SpecForce operators brought back memories he did not want to remember. Their camaraderie, friendly banter between operators as they quickly boarded his U-wing threatened to bring him back to his past. A past he had tried and failed to run away from.

"Hey, Damak, you okay?"

"I'm fine, why?"

"Your face was a bit tight just now."

Damak turned towards Talon and saw a concerned looking face staring back at him. "I'm fine, just a slight discomfort. The suit seemed a bit rough."

Talon just stared at his co-pilot and shrugged. He looked back out of the U-wing cockpit. "If you say so." He adjusted the range finder and located their LZ inside the perimeter of the city. "Lead, Spectre Seven, range finder shows 200 klicks to LZ."

"Roger that. All teams reduce altitude to 200 meters and hug the valley floor."

Four blue accented X-wings, two U-wings, and six armored transports descended from their cruising altitude towards the valley to hide their signatures from air defense radars. The twelve craft maneuvered around the low valley floor, scaring the wildlife away from the valley. They maintained constant speed as they closed on their target.

150 klicks... 100 klicks... 75 klicks...

"X-wings scout ahead and maintain a distance of 2.5 klicks. U-wings prepare to engage masking system."

"One Flight, copy."

"Two Flight, copy."

Damak watched the two flights of X-wings went full power and pulled away from the slower transports. They were nearing the primary LZ. SpecForce troopers were getting their gear ready. Damak watched the familiar movements and nonverbal communications between the operators. He vowed to get them safely where they needed to go. There will be no repeat of the fiasco that happened to him. Not on his watch.

"Talon, anything on the passive scanners?"

"Nothing, Damak."

The four X-wings continued their scouting as they neared the LZ.

40 kilcks... 30 klicks... 20 klicks... 10 klicks...

They could see the LZ.



An explosion lit up the sky in front of the straggling U-wings and transports.


"I'm good! Just lost my forward shield."

Damak turned to his co-pilot. "Where the hell did that AA come from? Activate all active scanners and find those launchers!"

"Still scanning!" Talon responded as he worked the U-wing scanner systems.

Damak looked down at his radar and saw an X-wing, Gremlin's, maneuvering her X-wing to shield Angel from any other attack while she tried to rebuild her shields.

Talon worked the UT-60D sensors hard, trying to locate the anti-air. Suddenly, more beeping could be heard from inside the cockpit. More anti-air defenses had been activated.

"Sithspawn! Where are these anti-air coming from?"

All the X-wings started juking and activating countermeasures again. More missile salvos were launched from unknown locations.

"This is ridiculous! Where are all the missiles coming from? The valley walls?" Trip practically shouted into the comms.

"Lead, Seven. I found heat trails on top of the buildings in the city. They converted the roofs to hide anti air defenses!"

"There's no way the U-wings and transports can get through these defenses! All groups reroute to alternative LZs."

Damak heard Krayt's order over the comms. He canted his head toward his copilot. "Talon..."

"Already on it! Confirming all transports also received the new route."

"Roger, that. Let's get out of here!" Damak pulled his U-wing hard to the right and passed a transport. He saw the other transports sluggishly turning as well. Explosions from missiles were all over the place as they hit the terrain surrounding the group as the defenses tried to take them out. He followed the nav data out of the valley.

A nearby explosion rocked the U-wing, threatening to make the ship tumble out of control. Damak roughly wrenched the controls to stabilize the U-wing as shockwave after shockwave pummeled the U-wing.

As the group cleared the valley entrance, they split into two groups. Krayt took Rogue and Trip as well as three transports towards another route. Gremlin and Angel continued to escort Damak and the other three transports.

Damak followed the two X-wings closely as they moved to another, hopefully safer, LZ.


[ Knight's A-wing ]

Teeth bared, John "Knight" Vorwald squeezed off a couple snapshots at a TIE fighter. The shots burned away at the port side solar panels. Not enough to score a kill, but enough to make the pilot break off Freak's tail. After Frosty went down, he'd been flitting from TIE to TIE. A dangerous little A-wing attempting to keep the enemy fighters off balance.

"You're clear, Freak! Eyeball broke hard right. I'm on its tail now." Knight rolled up onto his wing and pulled back on this stick to put his quarry back into his sights.

"Thanks Seven. I'll swing wide and try to pick it off from the side."

Knight grinned, "Copy that. I'll be shepherd." He pulled back hard on the stick and waited to just over-shoot the fighter. He pulled off a few more shots that were clearly going to miss, but it caused the TIE to swerve back the other direction. Knight repeated the roll, climb, and overshot again. The TIE swerved again. Knight just had to waggle his A-wing back and forth to hem the TIE in.

A flurry of red lances flashed in from the left just ahead of the TIE. The TIE, more focused on evading Knight, flew through Freak's assault. The left hexagonal wing wilted, the port engine cut out. The broken TIE began to spiral. In Toseng's atmosphere, the spiral widened until gravity made the spiral intersect with the planet, slamming hard into the ground below.

"Nice shooting, Freak! Didn't see it coming." Knight cheered.

A crackling filled the wing frequency, explosions followed and nearly drowned out the voice coming through along with it. "Buccaneer Lead requesting assistance. Pinned down by additional ground-based launchers. We have walkers in the streets. Target has launched additional fighters. We can't get close."

It was hard to focus on the call for help in the middle of the fray. Plans adjusting on the fly was certainly nothing new to Knight. The snapshot of the battle in his mind told him there really wasn't any additional help in range of the bomber squadron. Experience also told him that Corsair was best suited to 'multi-task'.

"Rogue Leader, Corsair Lead. I believe we can dispatch a flight from Corsair to improve Buccaneer's chance of a successful assault."

"I agree, Corsair Lead. Doesn't really help our odds, but right now, Bucc's odds are longer than ours."

"Two Flight, you will break away and assist Buccaneer with their mission." Syntax ordered.

Dragon called out over the flight channel, "We're the closest and fastest things here. I'm already withdrawing from this fight. Join up on my wing. We've got ground to cover!"

Knight scanned the sky for his flight. The easiest thing to see was the Anti-Venom. A press of button and Knight switched to target allies. Flicking through Rogues and Corsairs, he finally landed on Dragon's A-wing.

"Forming up on you Five!" Knight called out while he turned his fighter to follow Dragon. Knight opened up the throttle, then diverted energy from weapons to propulsion. The acceleration briefly pushed Knight into his seat until the inertial dampers compensated. As the A-wings of second flight put some distance from the Anti-Venom, Knight checked his scopes. The TIEs assaulting the corvette didn't seem interested in Republic interceptors leaving the fight.

With no pursuers, it was safe to redirect power from shields. There was another boost of speed, and Knight risked a quick scan of the area. He had closed with Dragon and could see Freak sidle into Dragon's side. So as not to overshoot Dragon, Knight pulled back on the throttle and wondered where his wingmate, BattleDog was.

There was another roar of thrusters and Knight saw BattleDog wave to him as he joined formation.

"Alright Two Flight, let's move!" Dragon shouted as his A-wing lept ahead of his wingmates. "Let's kill these bastards!"


[ Damak's U-wing ]

The alternative route was flagged as safe but difficult, but that was also true for the primary route. If the intelligence for that particular route was not accurate, and Damak was afraid the alternate route would be the same as well. "Talon, can you read to me the intelligence report for our alternate route?"

Talon switched on the datapad next to him and located the intelligence report for their alternative route. "Okay, we'll be heading into a desert canyon for 20 klicks before entering a 5 klick cave section that will lead us near the edge of the city. There should be some cover for us to drop off the ground troops."

"Any details about air defenses?"

"Due to the rough and unstable terrain in the canyon, there are only MANPADS, lightweight SAMs and some automated low energy lasers. There is nothing in the caves according to the report."

"They're too small for our targeting computers to lock on. Feed the coordinates for the suspected air defenses into the nav computer and heads-up display," Damak said to his copilot as he keyed the comm for the two X-wings. "Five, I suggest you upload the coordinates for air defenses into your astromechs. It might not be accurate but should help."

"Thanks, Eleven," Gremlin responded. "Six, upload the info. We are going to run the gauntlet."

"Done, Five. Ready whenever you are."

"We'll distract the air defenses. Seven, mark any of the air defenses not in the info. Eleven, rush through while they're reloading or recharging. So, stay close enough to take advantage of that."

"Ok, Five," Talon responded. He turned to Damak. "You heard the lady."

Gremlin and Angel boosted their X-wings away from the U-wing and transports. Damak followed behind them just out of the range of the suspected air defenses. The three armored transport tried to follow close as well.

Talon prepped the masking system, ready to activate if required.

The ships flew past thin peaks that jutted out of the canyon floor. The X-wings rolled and swerved between the peaks. The canyon wall just blurred past them. The slower U-wing and transports slowly and carefully cleared the obstacles.

Damak and Talon kept their ears on the comms.

"Five, we're nearing the first set of air defenses."

"Overcharge and balance your shields! Here we go!"

The X-wings started jinking as soon as the warning beeps filled the cockpit.

"I'm not going to be hit again!"

Trails of rockets flew towards the X-wings from all over the canyon. He saw the X-wings activating their countermeasures, distracting the rockets.

Damak wished his astromech was here. Cee-Four was preprogrammed with numerous data on explosive devices. It could help him run calculations and identify the possible origin of the heavy ordinance flying at them. He still had not found the errant astromech. I'm going to reprogram that blasted droid when I find it!

The U-wing and transports descended close to the canyon floor as they tried to reduce their radar signatures and hoped the enemies were concentrating on the X-wings. Talon worked on the sensors trying to lock in on the origin of the launchers. "I tagged a few possible locations."

"Got it. Send it to the X-wings and transports."

Damak wrestled with the U-wing's controls as he tried to maneuver a craft not designed to fly under the influence of gravity especially with the s-foils folded. He needed to use the repulsors to control the height above ground as he maneuvered around the obstacles on the canyon floor.

During a side-slip maneuver aided by his repulsors, he looked out the side panel of the cockpit and saw the transports trying to follow his route. They were trying hard to maneuver the blocky transports without josling their passengers. He straightened out and glanced up. His eyes were momentarily transfixed as he watched the X-wings flying through the anti air as he tried to follow them through as the air defenses reloaded. The canyon floor littered with natural obstacles tested the pilots flying through.

"Eleven, we have five teams of MANPADS on the canyon walls! Get ready to go evasive!"

"Roger that, Five"

"Captain, get your guys to strap down tight. It's going to get rough!" Damak ordered as he configured the ELS to full power to the engines and pushed his throttle to full. The U-wing started sliding through the canyon at full power trying to distract the MANPADS from the slower transports behind it.

The team of MANPADS fired off a round of rockets and threw off the spent launcher before grabbing another off the rack next to them. It made getting rounds off easier but the low yield explosive required multiple rounds to take down a shielded craft.

A rocket hit one of the transports causing its shields to flicker as it dispersed the explosive and kinetic energy. Luckily, the shields managed to take it.

"One of the transports was hit, but they're okay," Talon reported.

"Copy, Seven. We're nearing the cave section. Once we're in there, it should be fine except for the confined space. We'll need to do some tricky flying."

"Gotcha, Five."

Damak frowned as they neared the entrance of the cave. He was just reinstated, relatively speaking, and still felt a bit rusty. He watched the two X-wings enter the cave and followed them in. It was immediately vastly more difficult for him to see. "Talon, lights."

Beams of light activated on the nose of the U-wing and the two of them saw huge caverns with intercrossing pillars.

"This is going to be rough. Keep your eye on the forward scanning sensor and feed the readouts into the HUD."

"Roger that!"

Damak felt his hand sweating inside his flight glove. He focused on the sensor readout on the HUD. I really wished that damn droid was here! It really knows how to anticipate my needs without having to say it verbally...

The X-wings' higher maneuverability and smaller profile made it slightly easier for them to weave around the obstacles. Damak had to slow down his U-wing and select a route that was easier for the transports to follow. It was a good thing that U-wings were slow. Flying near the ground in a darkened, confined space required the fine control of both the repulsors and engines. The U-wing weaved around, over, and under the natural obstacles.

"Exit is 2.5 klicks."

Damak just grunted when he heard the information from Talon. His eyes never left the HUD as he navigated the difficult terrain. The sensor data overlaid with the surveyor data helped the computer predict a course, but it still required some crazy flying.

"This is Sig Three, we just hit a stalactite and lost some hull integrity."

"Copy, just follow close and watch yourselves."

One of the transports was leaking smoke as it tried to follow the convoy through the cave.

"Exit, 2 klicks. WATCH OUT!"

A rock fell from the cave roof and Damak was too focused on the things in front to notice. Talon's shout got him to react and narrowly missed the falling rock. "Thanks, Talon," he huffed out breathlessly.

"You keep your eyes to the front and I'll check for everything else. Exit, 1.5 klicks."

"I see it." With a target in sight, Damak's job became exponentially easier. The X-wings were the first to exit the cave.

"Eleven, we'll buzz the radar and distract them."

The X-wings increased their altitudes and decided to target the air defenses on the rooftop to make their escape easier.

Damak pushed his U-wing out and into the city, keeping the craft close to the ground.

"Transports, repulsors only. Use engines to maneuver around the buildings. We need to reach the Capital Building."

The U-wing and transports gingerly flew over the wreckage strewn streets, hiding behind the buildings from the air defenses on the rooftop. The X-wings did a great job in distracting the sensors, making it easier for them to glide to their destination.

They reached a location a few blocks from the ruined Capital Building and the commando captain shouted up from the main hold. "Lieutenant, just let us off here. This place is good."

Damak heard the captain and slowed the U-wing. The transports behind him also slowed down and opened their hatches.

The commandos unstrapped themselves and started to jump out of the U-wing and transports. He watched the commandos jump out of the hatches. He lost count how many times he did the same thing with his squad. His heart tightened as he saw the familiar way they moved. Never again.

"Good luck, Captain."

The captain nodded and jumped out to follow the rest of his team.

Damak hit the door toggle on his console to close it after the last of the troops had deployed. "Come on, let's get out of here! Talon, punch in the regroup checkpoint!"

"On it!'

A diamond mark activated on the HUD showing the direction he needed to go to regroup with Krayt's U-wing. He moved the U-wing low and fast towards the checkpoint.

"Lead, Eleven. ETA one minute!"

As soon as he cleared the building zone, Damak punched his throttle to get out of the area quickly. Absent-mindedly, he re-deployed his S-foils to help his atmospheric flight characteristics. "Talon, see Lead anywhere?"

"There, on our right."

"I see them."

Damak saw Krayt's flight group. He flew the U-wing towards them and saw one of the X-wings seemed to be pretty badly banged up. Their group quickly closed the gap.

Damak heard Gremlin reporting to Krayt as they arrived.

"Lead, Five. We delivered the package."

"Roger. Let's get out of here."

The ten mismatched ships moved towards the next waypoint. Damak was worried when he looked at Trip's X-wing. He hoped the X-wing would hold up until they left the area. "Talon, keep the sensors active. We don't want any more surprises."

Alarms blared in the cockpit.

"Evade! They have more missile launchers!"

Missiles streaked from multiple rooftops. Many hit the slow-moving transports, chewing up part of their shields. Damak rolled his U-wing and launched countermeasures to evade the missiles.

One of the missiles streaked past his U-wing and it hit Trip's X-wing. Damak saw one of the S-foils get torn from the X-wing. The stricken fighter started spiraling as it went down. He saw Trip working feverishly in his cockpit, trying to stabilize his ship.

"DAMN!" It was all Damak could say as he watched the tragedy unfold before his eyes. He saw the X-wing finally straighten out just before crashing into a building. He saw squads of stormtroopers as well as an AT-AT start moving toward the building. In the background, he heard someone call out, "I repeat! Spectre Four is down!"

Damak immediately turned his U-wing towards Trip's location. There wasn't an explosion, so he still had hope. I have to get him out of there. Won't lose another one. Not again. I won't feel that pain again!

Talon seemed to agree with his assessment. "Looks like there wasn't a detonation. Four could have survived."

Damak nodded in agreement and keyed the comm. "Lead, I'm going down for an emergency pick-up!"

"Negative! I'll do the pick-up!"

Krayt deftly maneuvered his U-wing towards Trip's location. He was going to attempt a pick up before the imperials arrived, but the AT-AT started firing. He expertly jinked as he neared the building where Trip's X-wing crashed into. Damak could see flashes as the AT-AT's chin-mounted heavy blasters buckled Krayt's shields.

The side-mounted medium lasers ate through Krayt's shields before a follow-up chin turret blast clipped the fighter's S-foil at the connection joint, causing an explosion and ripping off the wing completely. The ship spun wildly as it crashed into a nearby single story building.

Damak heard Gremlin shouting into the comms.


To be continued...