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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 VI

Chapter Sixteen

[ Bridge of the ISD Consolidator ]

The bridge of the ISD Consolidator was shaking heavily under the sustained firepower of three Mon Calamari cruisers, but her shields had not yet given out. Pash watched the tactical display in front of him carefully, leaving the operation of his own ship to Kolivar, who had everything in hand. Tracing his fingers over the display carefully he called out to Oshi at her comms equipment. "Lieutenant, send our two raiders to fend off the corvette coming from the port side. They are to make a hit and run, and return immediately to our fleet. Understood?"

"Relaying message sir."

Pash watched for his starfighter groups, making sure they were staying within the defensive formation of the star destroyers. He had ordered the limited TIEs they had to stay close, protecting the larger capital ships from the dangerous rebel starfighters. The rebel cruisers lacked the punch to take the ISDs on head to head and by holding together they were struggling to make any headway on the Imperial forces.


Pash looked away from his display to where Oshi had stood suddenly, motioning at him. He picked up a headset and placed the headphone against his ear as Oshi started to tune the signal, relaying it from just their ship to the entire fleet.

"This is Commodore Barand," the voice sneered. "The Rebel extremists have resorted to violence and chaos when we approached in the name of peace. We cannot allow them to get away with this! Captain Trent, bring the Glory down to fight alongside the Conviction on the planet surface, we will use our cannons to win the ground battle. Captain Pash lead a strike on the Vigilant, I want that ship destroyed!"

Captain Trent responded with an enthusiastic, "Aye Commodore!" But Pash was not so easily swayed and he brought the microphone on his headset down, speaking into it slowly but calmly. "Commodore Barand, if we break rank now the Rebel starfighters will tear our fleet apart. Glory won't make it past the Rebel cruisers to join you."

He could hear Barand's sneer, "Captain, you are in control of a star destroyer. A few rebel ships should not pose such a threat to you, especially with your TIE squadrons."

"Commodore!" Pash shouted now, slamming his fist into the console. "We are outmatched in starfighter numbers, due to your poor planning! If Glory leaves now our entire left flank will be-"

"You have your orders Captains," Barand said quickly, cutting Pash off before he could say anymore. "Captain Pash, after this battle is over we shall have a discussion about your insolence."

The line went dead. Madmen. Power hungry madmen.

"Captain Pash?"

Pash looked sideways, where Oshi was sitting. She looked frightened. "Yes Lieutenant?"

"Captain Scrillio and Captain Ottilla are asking what they should do. Captain Trent has already taken Glory out of formation."

Pash stood slowly, looking out of the bridge viewport as Trent's star destroyer broke rank and started on a blockade run, coming under intense concentrated firepower as it tried to drive between the rebel cruisers to the planet below. "Tell them we'll maneuver together, circling above the rebel ships. We can try and draw their firepower, give the Glory some time. Do we have eyes on Renegade Wing?"

"All of their units have gone down to the planet surface sir, with the exception of the Vigilant's defensive squadron."

Pash grunted with pleasure, Let Barand deal with them. We'll see how long his TIEs can stand up against one of the best rebel units in this war. "Very well, together with the other Star Destroyers we can do a strafing run on the Vigilant. It is not over yet."

But when I get my hands on Barand, he will be.


[ TLM Hideout ]

Guts stood in the doorway.

Sprawled out before him was Zom Spidrucket, leader of the True Loyalist Militia here on Toseng. Guts had killed him. Murdered him. In the middle of his own blasted base. Just past Zom were the Ambassador (the person that Guts was supposed to be killing) and the kid who he'd seen at the weapon exchange a few days ago.

"Thank you!" the kid said and threw himself at Guts' feet. "I thought we were going to die!"

"Get off me!" Guts kicked the boy off. "What in Palpatine's arsehole did I just walk in ta?"

A nearby explosion caught the attention of all three. That was... close... very close... The Silver Ticket... Sigilien I hope you are alright...

From beyond the corridor, Guts heard a voice, "Over here! I heard a blaster shot just before the explosion!"

"Sithspit!" Guts hissed as he entered the room and closed the door behind him. After a couple of taps, he realized the door panel would be useless to him. Annoyed, he tapped it a few more times for good measure, until it locked him out, sealing the room. In case he hadn't made his point clear, he cursed again, louder: "Sithspit!"

"Didyoujustlockusinhere!??" The kid went from grateful to flabbergasted, "You idiot! We're so dead!"

"Who are you calling an idiot, you snot-nosed kid!? We aren't dead, but you definitely can be!" Guts spat back at him.

"Calm down!" Ambassador Vel Aath stepped between them. "Calm down, please. Perhaps this is a blessing. The door is locked, that means they have to unlock it. It also means they have to come in here to get us. That door, my saviors, can be a bottleneck, and in that case their numbers don't matter much."

There was a thunk! at the door. All three stepped back. On the other side they could hear the muffled voiced of the True Loyalist Militia shouting about getting the door open.

"What do we do?" the kid asked.

The Ambassador turned to them, her golden eyes focusing upon the pair, a menacing smile on her lips, "We fight!"

And just like that Guts was onboard. "Kriff it. Come on, kid, we have t'irty seconds at most, make some cover!"

"Help me flip the bed, Keyleb!"

"Here they come!"

"Behind the dresser! Get down!"

"Hand me a blaster!"

The door slid open and the firefight commenced.


[ Gremlin's X-wing ]

There was little time to think, only to react. After shouting news of Krayt's crash, both to keep the Vigilant informed of the situation and to alert other Spectres nearby, Gremlin dived towards the street, hopefully out of reach of the AT-AT's guns for the next few seconds at least. Leo screeched, but the manoeuvre didn't stop him sending details of the missile launch sites to her screens. "Pass them on to the Spectres, Leo! Tag the nearest one as ours." Her X-wing rocked as the AT-AT fired again, the shots passing dangerously close. Gremlin put both hands on the stick to hold her line - her X-wing was bucking like a wild bantha - and switched her ELS to engines. The additional power punched in, sending the X-wing roaring upwards. G-forces dragged at her, bringing back unwelcome memories of the fight against AT-ATs on Tanith, and she forced harsh little breaths through her lungs, fighting to keep her concentration sharp.

The dull grey side of the multi-storey building was between her X-wing and the AT-AT, giving her a couple of seconds of protection until she soared above the rooftop, engines bellowing. Gremlin caught a momentary glimpse of the missile launcher which had downed Trip, knowing that others could be targeting her even as she wrenched her snubfighter into an inverted loop and let fly with her own missiles. Explosions bloomed as she jammed her thumb on the trigger for the lasers, keeping the blasts unlinked so they stitched across the roof to maximise the available firepower. Missile warnings sounded as at least one other launcher targeted her and Leo hooted his own alert. Gremlin launched countermeasures and dived, jinking, but she'd been able to catch a glimpse of the devastation caused by the explosions and laser blasts and felt confident to report, "Splash one launcher!"

Behind her, an enemy missile detonated as it flew into the countermeasures. The blast, concentrated by the buildings, rocked her fighter but she fought successfully to keep it steady. The topography of the city was new to her but she was rapidly building a picture of where the next threats were likely to emerge. The AT-AT was still advancing down the street towards the two downed Spectre craft. It'd reach Trip first, his X-Wing laying in the street, whilst Krayt and FLATTOP's U-Wing had come to rest in a park a few streets further on. Somehow, she'd have to launch a rescue attempt for Krayt, FLATTOP and Trip. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion but in reality events were compressed, voices overtopping each other on comms. The Spectres were targeting the missile launchers, creating havoc despite their reduced numbers. Rogue whooped as he took out an installation atop a tall, slender building with a spire that dipped sideways, falling out of sight as his missiles ripped into the crew trying to take a bead on his X-wing. The image of the descending spire made her frown. "Leo, show me the position of that AT-AT one street down!"

An explosion buffeted her X-wing and she caught it on the edge of a stall. Atmospheric flying was challenging enough without enemies trying to take you down! Leo's shrill whistle informed her that the blast had come from a missile detonated by her wingman and sure enough, Angel's familiar voice came across the comm. "I've got you, Five!"

"Thanks, Six - I owe you one!" Gremlin's screen showed Angel's X-wing descending towards her alongside a projected image of the AT-AT, now on the opposite side of the multi-storey building to the two Spectres. The mechanical monster was getting closer to Krayt and Trip's craft. Gremlin opened her comm. "You got spare missiles?"

"For you? Always."

"Okay. Sensors show that building is empty. Here's what we're gonna do ...."

Leo sent his calculations to Angel's astromech Tone as the two X-wings took a deliberate risk, coming to a hover in a location which made them a sitting target for the seconds it took them to get into position. On Gremlin's mark, they fired missiles into the third floor from the top of the building, sending glass and plascrete spinning away as explosions chewed into the structure. Slowly, the penthouse floors started to tilt, like the spire after Rogue's attack. Keeping careful watch on the skies around them, Angel and Gremlin cut power, descended several stories and fired again. With a thundering roar audible even over her X-wing's engines, the top few floors detached and slid downwards, towards the AT-AT walking ponderously along the road below.

Gremlin whooped as she urged her X-wing into a climb, heading up and over the decapitated building. Off her wing, Angel launched a missile towards another rooftop location which was also being targeted by Rogue. His missiles landed first, hers impacting seconds later, and "Splash one launcher!" sounded on the Spectre channel as he claimed the kill.

"Splash one AT-AT!" Angel responded with glee as they crested the mass of twisted metal and plascrete to see a pile of rubble filling the street below. Its mandible guns and one large, round metal foot protruded from beneath the wreckage, the only visible remains of the terrifying war machine that had brought down Krayt's U-wing. With the immediate threat neutralised, Gremlin was able to consider their next steps as a squadron. Angel covered her as they flew over the downed Spectres, astromechs scanning for life signs.

"Five, Six. Human life signs in that U-wing. Nothing showing for the X-wing," Angel reported. Her tone was professional, but Gremlin could tell she was keeping her emotions in check.

"Copy, Six. We ..."

"We can land and get Krayt and FLATTOP, at least!" It was Talon, breaking comm discipline with his determination to save the squadron's OC, but Gremlin bit back quickly, reinforcing that she was now in charge.

"Negative! There are other AT-ATs nearby. Spectres, report - any sign of more missile launchers?"

Rogue, Spectre Three, started the roll-call as Gremlin swiftly considered their options. She had only two aims in mind: to rescue their comrades (Trip could still be alive - we only made a quick flyby; Tone and Leo might have missed his vital signs...) and at the same time, keep the remaining Spectres alive. That last - "Keep them alive!" - had been the most important standing order Krayt had given on her appointment as XO. She'd tried hard to fulfil it during the week of hell, but unsuccessfully; she'd carry those deaths on her conscience till the end of her days.

I'm not going to let it happen again!

Adrenaline and fear were a potent spur. After Spectre 12 made their report, Gremlin issued her orders. "Seven, you're on rescue duty. Three, cover Seven. Everyone else, break by flights, attack the incoming objectives." Leo pinged coordinates for the remaining missile launchers to the Spectres in Two and Three Flights as she spoke. "Reassemble after the attacks and we'll protect Seven ..."

"Five! Incoming fighters! A flight of TIEs approaching from the east, two klicks out - and another four Interceptors from the north-west, three klicks." Angel, wingman extraordinaire, had been scanning the skies to protect Gremlin and her squadmates; now she relayed the information with cool professionalism.

The Zeltron felt her stomach sink for reasons that had nothing to do with the drag of atmosphere on her X-wing's S-foils. "Seven, abort! You'll be caught on the ground if you land. Let's sort these kriffers out so we can come back and get 'em home. Stick with Three for the fight. C'mon, Spectres, it's game time!"

For all that she tried to rally the remaining members of the squadron, Gremlin felt strangely empty of emotions. Once before, when she was acting XO, she had thought that Krayt was dead - his X-wing had disappeared from her screen during a furball, usually a sure sign of disaster. But the wily pilot had been using his knowledge of the Force to hide his location and had reappeared just in time to take control during the final phase of the battle. This time, though, there was not going to be a miraculous return; his U-wing was too badly damaged to be anything but scrap. Hopefully he'd still be alive by the time they'd dealt with the TIEs .....

Leo whistled a low, mournful sound. Gremlin glanced at her screens and cursed.

The commlink crackled into life. Angel's beloved voice filled her headset. "Five - have you seen ..."

"Yeah. I've seen it." One block down from the park with the crashed U-Wing a squad of stormtroopers were disembarking from a troop transport, heading straight for Krayt and FLATTOP. With the oncoming TIEs still closing from two different directions, there was no way that even a couple of Spectres could return to protect their fallen comrades. All the remaining fighters would be needed to take on the TIEs and the other squadrons were engaged in their own battles. She needed to get troops from the Vigilant and come back for Krayt.

Krayt, I'm so sorry - I need to keep them safe and there's no-one left to protect you and FLATTOP ...

Replaying endlessly in her mind, explosions destroyed a cargo ship, sending hundreds of people into oblivion. Gremlin clenched her teeth against a cry of despair.

[Angel's X-wing]

Spectre Six, Lieutenant Jeni "Angel" Courtner, was all too aware of Gremlin's emotions - she could tell from her voice that she was struggling, even though the Zeltron had said just four or five words since the TIEs appeared. She wished there was something more she could do, but Gremlin was Spectre Lead now and all the decisions rested on her narrow shoulders. Something else was nibbling at her senses, though - a familiar presence, growing stronger now she was aware of it .....

Angel toggled her comms. "Five, this is Six - I have an idea, but you need to trust me ....."


[ Capital City; Near Sidda's Apartment ]

The streets of Toseng were on fire. Sidda had expected things to go bad when they'd first seen signs of the explosion but the absolute speed with which the engagement had gone full bore had taken her by surprise. There were initially few New Republic ground forces but ship by ship they'd seen New Republic marines disembark and what had initially been a bloodbath was turning into a pitched battle.

From her corner in the alleyway she panned her camera over the main street. Here it was just wide enough to take in the view, as a Y-Wing came shooting round at impossible speed, close to the ground. It exploded, the fireball expanding outwards, causing her to be thrown back into the wall behind her. After a brief second to readjust her glasses she looked up, and felt her body shrink in terror. Towering above her was a monstrosity, a hulking mountain of dura-steel and laser cannons, its feet coming slowly towards her in a crash. She'd seen AT-ATs up close before but nothing prepared you for it. The two cannons below the thin viewport glowed an angry hot red and she felt dust kick up around her.

There was the roar of another Y-Wing but she didn't get to see it as two pairs of hands grabbed her, dragging her into the cover of a side alleyway. Zippy was glaring at her, his own face covered in sweat, whilst Shadow had a slugthrower out scanning down the alleyway.

"I told you we have to stay on the side streets," Zippy said, a look of exhaustion on his face.

Sidda was defiant, even as her heart pounded inside her chest. "I needed to get it recorded. The Empire can't get away with this."

"They won't," Zippy reassured her. "Our friends will make sure of it."

Following Shadow's lead they moved down the side streets carefully, regularly ducking into doorways and behind walls to keep themselves hidden as stormtroopers flooded the streets. More than once Sidda saw and recorded as protestors flung rocks and used civilian model blasters to fire at stormtrooper squads, who in turn returned fire with their heavier weaponry. Everytime Shadow raised his weapon, eager to even out the fight but Zippy remained level headed, reminding Shadow that they were outnumbered and reliant on stealth.

Alleyway by alleyway, sprinting across open streets, they made slow progress towards the capital building. Zippy and Shadow's ship was there and Sidda needed to know if Rori Brebor was okay. They had reached the outer edges of the government complexes when she heard the noise. She looked above, the sky darkened by the Star Destroyer of Commodore Barand overhead, but it was the U-Wing that got her attention. Smoke belching from its engines, it came twisting overhead, disappearing behind the rooftops of some nearby buildings. She expected to hear an explosion, but none came, although she could hear the sound of impact. The pilot had managed to do a controlled emergency landing somehow, against the odds.

Shaking her head clear of the image she pushed forward and walked straight into the back of Shadow, who was perfectly still. She walked around him carefully, expecting to see an Imp with his blaster raised at them but instead the alleyway was quiet as Shadow looked distant. Zippy grabbed him by the shoulder, "Come on Shadow, we need to move."

"It's Krayt," Shadow whispered quietly. "Angel's up there."

There was an almighty scream of metal and glass and Sidda whipped her camera around and recorded the collapse of a skyscraper onto an AT-AT a few blocks away, the hulking beast of war crushed underneath the layers of dura-crete. Two X-Wings soared overhead, their engines singing triumphantly. She turned back to Shadow and Zippy and was surprised to see Shadow was distracted from the sight. Instead he pulled a comm out of his pocket, thumbing through frequencies until he found the one he wanted. "Angel?"

"Sha-do-!" The comm was bursting with static as laserfire from the Star Destroyer overhead rocked the ground nearby. "Kray...n...dang..sho...own."

"Repeat," Shadow said, as he started scaling one of the nearby buildings, climbing to the rooftop as Sidda and Zippy watched in amazement.

"Shadow, it's Gremlin! Angel says you're nearby. Lead just went down, commandos are on route but can you go see if you can assist? Get him and Two out of that U-Wing and into some cover. But don't do anything stupid!"

"Copy, we've got it."

He clambered back down the gutter pipe to Zippy and Sidda. He gave them a grim look, "I have to assist my squadron."

Zippy nodded, "I'm coming too."

They turned to look at Sidda, but she was already gone, walking in the direction of the crash site.


[ Capital Building ]

Shyon's hands were shaking from the strength of which she was squeezing. No matter how hard she squeezed she could still feel blood flowing around her hands. It felt like it had been hours since the Quarren man had left and there was no sign of anyone around to help.

Her hands felt tighter now and it took some time for her to understand that there were someone else's hands over hers. In fact several people's, as expert hands began to apply pressure and placed bandages over the wounded leg. Shyon let go and let herself be pulled away, nodding slowly as a Republic commando tried to talk to her.

Barraken watched with some sense of relief. He hadn't needed to go far before he had found the elite forces of the Vigilant touching down in order to try and rescue Vodani and Tolden. Vodani was placed onto a stretcher carefully, bacta patches placed on the leg wound and a blood bag attached to her arm. Tolden however simply had a blanket placed over him; he had died upon the explosion.

The officer in charge of the squad took Barraken to one side, his voice quiet. "Do you have any form of extraction sir?"

Barraken shook his head, "Are you not able to evac?"

"No sir," he said grimly, "Spectre and Sabre have taken several losses. They can't get a ship down to us soon enough. Vice Admiral Vodani needs bacta sir, immediately. She has lost a lot of blood."

Barraken glanced out of the half collapsed room, looking towards where he knew the landing pad lay. The landing pad where Zippy had brought Barraken and the Admirals down planetside just the day before. Where Zippy's U-wing still sat. Taking a deep breath he motioned at the Lieutenant to follow him and the commando unit followed, carrying Vodani on the stretcher.

They opened up the U-wing bay doors and loaded Vodani inside, a few medics working on her. Shyon also climbed inside but the commandos did not, instead saluting Barraken and returning to the fight. Barraken climbed forward into the pilot seat and took a deep breath. It had been a long time since he flew....a long time. He wasn't even sure he could anymore since his injury and now to take off in the middle of a huge battle?

He looked back over his shoulder to where Vodani lay on the stretcher. His colleague, his senior officer who had treated him with such respect. She was possibly the best commander he had ever had. He had to get her to safety, to help.

Gripping the control yoke he started the power up procedure, calming himself. He had work to do.


Chapter Seventeen

[ Wildcard's X-wing ]

Wildcard could barely see what was happening outside of his cockpit through the great wall of laser fire that entombed him. He pulled his stick hard, switching his ELS to engines in order to get an advantage over his opponent. He linked his cannon fire as he turned, centering the TIE Fighter in his sights. He squeezed the trigger and felt a strong vibration as two of his cannons fired at once, converging on the eyeball in a flurry of fire and smoke.

Wildcard wasn't even remotely tired. Long periods without sleep married with stress and danger were second nature to him by now. However the feeling of hurtling through space never seemed to get less strange. For this reason he had set his inertial compensator to full, allowing him to twist and turn freely without feeling the Gs constantly.

"Shook my tail, lead." Wildcard said to his wingman, almost out of breath from the intensity of his encounter. Just as he was going to get into formation with Dusty, his attention was captured by an Imperial Star Destroyer moving from its current position - and fast. The great grey dagger eclipsed the planet, leaving a whole triangle of the population cut off from sunlight.

"One, I got eyes on an Impstar Deuce changing position, looks to me like they're changing tactics." he said into the comm as the ship continued to lumber over Toseng menacingly.

The speaker grille crackled a reply: "Probably nothing, Two. No need to repo-"

"Jade Leader, come in!" a third voice chimed in, "This is Vigilant Control, do you have eyes on the Glory?"

I knew it, Wildcard thought. What an idiot!

Befuddlement could be heard in Dusty's voice, "The Glory? What are you talki-"

"Follow that Star Destroyer, Commander!" the disembodied voice yelled into his ear.

There was an abrupt cutting of the frequency as Dusty switched to the Squadron channel.

"Jades, form up on me. I've noticed that Star Destroyer is up to something..."

Wildcard pushed his throttle from one third to full and pulled right so that he was directly behind Dusty, who was in turn behind the Star Destroyer. He could barely contain his anger at Dusty taking credit for something everyone but him noticed.

You lying schutta...


[ Knight's A-wing ]

The shape of a Star Destroyer is hard to ignore. Usually the sight of one makes sensible individuals run. Knight on the other hand, had made the habit of running towards them. Oddly enough, he rarely, if ever, had to do so solo. Granted in this case, this run was to assist a beleaguered Buccaneer squadron.

They raced directly at the fray. From the distance one could just make out the TIE's in their formations. From Knight's view, he could see the TIEs circling. Only pursuing when a bomber rose up to evade a missile.

The whole thing seemed a bit odd. The fighters should have been swarming the bombers.

A speck of a Y-wing wove through the city's taller buildings. Blaster fire began to rise from the street level. He spotted why the TIEs acted like vultures. With telemetry being wired to his eye, he could see the Imps had batteries and walkers in the intersections.

It was a no-win situation for Bucc. They couldn't go too high or the SAM's on the roof would make them easy pickings for the TIEs. They also couldn't stay low because they could get torn apart by overlapping fire from the streets. Not to mention lack of room to maneuver.

"Echelon right. By numbers." Dragon said. Knight glaced around and dropped speed by putting more energy to his weapons. A press of the yaw pedal shifted Knight's A-wing right. Freak came in above and settled in behind and to the right of Dragon. Knight adjusted his position.

"Six in formation." Freak said.

"Corsair Seven in position." Knight added.

"Corsair Eight. In position." BattleDog finished.

"Follow me in, let's tear those bastards apart!" Dragon ordered. Together they raced ahead in an arc that put the flight on a perpendicular intercept course with a flight of TIEs. The TIEs seemed to be laser focused on pouncing on the Buccaneer fighters. Knight watched the distance grow short, the targeting overlay on his bionic eye showed they were nearly in range. Enough flying had given him instincts enough to have been able to figure that without the fancy eye.

"Open fire!" Dragon's voice shouted over the flight comm. Knight squeezed the trigger. In an instant, the four A-wings were throwing a stream of blaster fire in the way of the TIEs. The TIEs had only a heartbeat to respond. At least one tried to pull up out of the line of fire. Knight saw the TIE's lower solar panels shred. The change in weight turned the escape upwards into a series of spins until the fighter tore itself apart. The rest of the flight of TIES were turned into a load of shrapnel.

"Stay in formation." Dragon ordered, "Shifting fifty degrees starboard on my mark." There was a long pause, Knight risked a glance to his right. "Mark!"

Mostly as one, the four A-wings curved through the air over the city. A little higher was another flight of TIEs in a diamond formation. These TIEs had realized that there was a threat and had started to wheel to meet their flight. Unfortunately for them, the Corsair flight was in a closer position to strike. Again, the four A-wings swept in.

"Fire!" Dragon called again. Again, Knight opened up. This time he kept a closer eye on the remaining power of his blasters. The first scythe had done a lot to drain the capacitors. With a grimace, he redistributed power from shields to weapons.

The lead fighter of the flight of TIEs took a number of shots through the cockpit and exploded.

The TIE at the rear of the diamond formation flew through their leader's explosion and was severely damaged when it emerged from the explosion's cloud. It wobbled, flew through the Corsair field of fire and exploded like the leader.

The two TIEs to either side tried to break away from the explosion. While they avoided their leader, they had presented a bit of an angle on their solar panels. The wide stream of blaster fire tore the panels apart. One had the panel completely shear off, causing it to spiral down into the streets.

That just left the other one with a damaged solar panel. The pilot struggled to keep the TIE under control, but the damage was too great and it made a slow curve downward. It tried to avoid a building but scraped along the side. The ion engines gave out and the TIE lost all momentum. It crashed into a heap on the streets.

The last flight of TIEs from the squadron started to break and flee. "Two flight, break by pairs and pick your targets. Run them down." Dragon growled. The TIEs would be easy to run down in A-wings.

Knight gave a laugh and cheered on the open channel when a flight of Y-wings rose up and sliced apart the last quartet of TIEs. The Imperial fighters exploded before Knight could even break formation. "Buccaneer! Your help has arrived!"

"Help? Looks like we're cleaning up your work." Knight recognized the voice of an old squadmate, Bulldog.

"That's only because we set them up for you." Knight retorted.

Animal broke in, "Stow it. No one is saved yet. We still have launchers in the buildings and rooftops are keeping us from making a decent run on the Star Destroyer."

"This isn't great," Freak said.

"Dragon, we could run a wild weasel. Do what Wolf and I did on Clom."

There was a long pause before Dragon responded, "And that was, Seven?"

"Corsair goes in ahead of a Bucc run. One gets a missles's attention while the other pops the launch site. Then we hopefully swap. While we're occupying the SAM sites, Bucc tries to hustle past to make a run." Knight explained.

"Not a bad idea Knight." BattleDog agreed.

"There's a lot of SAM sites, Knight. You'll only be distracting some of them. At Clom, we only had a few sites and a handful of TIEs. There weren't Walkers in the streets and a Star Destroyer above us." Animal poked a hole in Knight's plan.

"Don't I see some Bucc X-wings out here? They can cover you on the run while we work on picking off launchers." Dragon noted.

There was an audible grumble from Animal. "We don't really have a better option do we? Okay Buccaneer lets get in formation for our attack run. Corsair is going to be distracting the launchers. Alright Corsair, who's going first?"

"Oh, that will be Knight and BattleDog. It was Knight's idea after-all." Dragon laughed.

"You'd think by now, I'd learn to keep my mouth shut." Knight sighed.

Tipping a wing, Knight made a lazy turn back to the city. "Stay near, Eight. Going to need you to not be a target *and* be able to spot the launcher."

"Close, but not too close. Wonderfully vague." BattleDog said.

"Exactly!" Knight affirmed as he opened the throttle and waited for a warning to blare. He didn't wait long. "Missile! Missile! Missile!"

"Spotted it." BattleDog called out as soon as Knight finished his callout.

"Buccaneer: commence attack run." Knight heard Animal order. Silently he wished the bombers luck. Avoiding a missile was a cakewalk compared to flying into the maw of a Star Destroyer.

Rolling and turning pressed Knight hard into his restraints. Despite the discomfort, Knight smiled as he heard the lock warning slow. The missile couldn't track the wild movement. A chirp from his ship alerted him that the missile had lost its lock.

"I'm clear. BattleDog, what's the situation?"

BattleDog chuckled, "Just trying to make myself look like an easy target."

Knight looked for his wingmate by going in a wide arc and climbing. Once he had a decent view of the city, he spotted a little flash weave near some of the taller buildings. Using his cybernetics he zoomed in and could see BattleDog's A-wing. Quickly, Knight needed to zoom back out. The dual vision made flying difficult, and slightly nauseating.

Knight saw something launch from the roof of one of the buildings. A pair of stark white dots moved about, adjusting a long tube. A very impromptu SAM site.

"Missile! Missile! Missile!" BattleDog called out.

"Spotted the launch!" Knight shoved the throttle forward and began to line up his strafing run. The rooftop grew close and Knight squeezed the trigger. The Stormtroopers tried to quickly adjust to aim at Knight, but Knight's blaster fire made them scatter to whatever shelter they could find on the roof. For a few heart-pounding moments, Knight got distance from the rooftop. Waiting for the troopers to have pulled off a snap shot with a rocket launcher that'd crawl up his A-wing's exhaust. Despite his dread, there was no reprisal attack. Knight brought the rooftop back to view and grimaced at the carnage when saw he'd hit his targets.

"Launcher is down, BattleDog." Knight said solemnly.

"Good. I just shook my missile. Your turn." BattleDog replied.

Knight took a moment to get his bearings and caught sight of as he Dragon pulled a wild vertical 'S'. A thin trail of a missile tracked loosely behind him, but it flew wide, unable to keep up with Dragon's sharp maneuvering. A small fireball erupted from a rooftop and Knight saw Freak flash overtop the now destroyed SAM site.

"On it." Knight grinned as he chopped his throttle and started another lazy arc over the city. "Playing bait again."


[ Bulldog's Y-wing ]

"We've got the opening we need!" Animal shouted as he noted the new A-wings from Corsair Squadron keeping the SAM sites occupied. "Five, Six, draw fire from these walkers so we can get them knocked out!"

Bulldog kicked over his port nacelle to gain a little altitude, hazarding a glance above the skyline for the first time since they'd reached the city. He noted a few SAM sites loosing missiles at the A-wings and pinged their locations. Wolvinator and Bearcat's X-wings crested the skyline and also began an acrobatic series of maneuvers to draw fire alongside the daring Corsair pilots. Taking a moment to look at the chaotic sensor picture on his Combat Multiview Display, he saw Blue and Foo nearest to each emplacement. "Eight, Ten, take out the marked target nearest to you!"

"Copy, Twelve," Blue replied in a strained voice.

"On it," Foo huffed.

Bulldog watched as both Y-wings broke off from their current trajectories and popped above the skyline near each target, strafing them with wild abandon. Moments later, they were smoking wrecks. "SAM sites Four and Six are down, Lead!"

"One copies," Animal replied, and then paused momentarily. "Two, Three, and Seven, that ISD is in range now. Let it rip!"

Bulldog rolled around a skyscraper and then dove beneath the skyline as Weight chirruped a missile lock warning, breaking the lock from the SAM site as he dove. "Eight, Ten, and..." he paused as he attempted to remember who else was in a Y-wing, but the chaos of battle had erased that part of his memory. "Oh hell, if you're in a wishbone, we need to get the rest of those missile emplacements!"

"You forgot about your own wingman?" Ant joked.

"Launching!" Rev's voice called out, echoed similarly by Gnoizic and Animal.

"Watch it, Ten! Missile inbound!"

"Diving!" Foo growled, but the sounds of metal wrending carried over the comms as he bit out the last syllable.

"Ten's hit!" Loth-Cat reported. "He's going down!"

"Focus on your run, Three!"

"But he's going down in front of one of the walkers! My droid!"

"Launch your warheads!"

"Roger," Loth-Cat sighed worriedly. "Engaging!"

Bulldog checked his sensors, and made a quick calculation. He was on the opposite end of the city near Ant, and Blue was in a different area after having just busted up her SAM target. Ant, however, had almost a direct path to the AT-AT that was bearing down on Foo's ejection location. "Eleven! Slag that walker now!"

"Roger," Ant replied. "Got it lined up... priming bombs..."

Foo's voice crackled through the comms, explosions carrying over and almost overwhelming his voice. "Somebody get this thing! His fire is getting closer!"

"I'm moving this crate as fast as it will go!" Ant responded, frustration clearly evident in his tone.

"Get out of there, Ten!" Blue urged.

"I'm getting this crinking droid out of his socket!" Foo responded. "Blasted droid is wedged in there tight!" The sounds of an angry astromech carried over with each broadcasted syllable.

"Hang on," Freak's voice called out.

Bulldog popped up again to take a shorter path to another SAM site. As he did so, he saw Freak's A-wing fly head-on with the Imperial Walker, spitting out dual blasts that washed over the head and front legs of the walker. It had the desired effect, as the AT-AT raised its head away from the downed Buccaneer and sent a powerful blast above the harassing A-wing.

Freak drift-turned around a bend before the walker could get off another shot, but the distraction was enough. Ant's Y-wing nosed up slightly from the rear of the walker as three proton bombs launched from their magazine, floating forward in a lazy arc. The first hit the back-left foot pad, damaging the smaller articulating parts and fusing the joints in place. The second landed at the back part of the crew compartment, completely blasting the armor inward and exposing the rest of the interior to the wind outside as the fuel slug tank caught fire, sending a fireball through the rest of the troop section and out the exposed hole in the back..

The last, however, was the killshot. It narrowly avoided the front lip of the troop section, and impacted the back of the command section located in the head of the walker. As soon as the bomb exploded, the head was propelled forward in the violent eruption, rolling roughly across the street until coming to a stop with its cannons facing the sky. The body of the walker stood stock still, smoke emanating from both the new neck hole as well as the hole aft. Eventually, a strong wind cut through one of the city's man-made wind tunnels of a boulevard and toppled the walker over, coming to a rest at an awkward angle as its body dug a furrow of broken rock, metal, and glass into a building.

"Whooo!" Ant celebrated.

"Nice save," Foo's voice crackled from the ground with his weaker comms.

"How's my droid?" Loth-Cat cut in frantically.

"This clanker is fine, and the ship is probably salvageable too. Got her down gently enough."

"Hang tight, Ten. We'll get you marked for SAR." Relief washed over Bulldog, but it was short lived as Weight hooted another missile lock warning. Cursing his luck, he dove his ship again and leveled out at street level. "Here's another SAM site," he said as he pinged the location for somebody else to hit.


[ Damak's U-wing ]

"Ok, Spectres, that's the TIEs dealt with. Continue Mission."

Damak heard Gremlin's voice over the comms on his U-wing. He followed the X-wings as they tried to escort them back to the Vigilant. His thoughts went back to the people left on the planet. Hopefully, Shadow could get them to safety. All he needed to do now, was to get back to the Vigilant and grab some more commandos. His XO was right, more boots on ground, meant it would be easier to save his squad mates.

The flight followed their exit route out of the atmosphere.

"Anything on the scanners, Talon?"

"Nothing, the atmosphere is disrupting the scanners. We should get a better reading after clearing the atmosphere."

"We need better scanners on the U-wings."

The X-wing broke through the atmosphere first and Damak heard Angel shout. "ISD on our exit vector! Repeat ISD on our exit vector! All craft, scatter!"

Damak exited the atmosphere and broke left to clear his U-wing from being a target. He heard lasers pinging off his shields. "Talon, tag whatever is shooting at us!"

"I see dozens of squints on a direct approach towards us."

"Five, orders?"

"Get yourself and the transports back to the Vigilant. We'll cover you as much as we can! We have to get the commandos to the planet!"

"Acknowledged!" Damak replied hurriedly. He keyed the comms for the transports. "All ATRs follow me, we need to get out of this area!"

A frantic transport pilot cut across the comms. "My shields are low! We're being blasted by multiple interceptors!"

"Talon, tag his attackers and transmit to the X-wings!"

"Already done!"

Damak saw Angel's X-wing swerved and started shooting at the interceptors hounding the transport, but it was too late. The transport suffered catastrophic loss of shields and the interceptors chewed up the hull and it exploded.


Damak urged the remaining ATRs forward as he manoeuvred the U-wing to be at the back of the convoy, hoping to use his better shields to cover the slow moving transports. He hoped that it was enough. He better make it out of the area so that the X-wings could disengage and get to a better location.


[ Bridge; CRV Anti-Venom ]

The control board of the Corellian Corvette Anti-Venom was a galaxy of flashing lights. Kardia rested a hand lightly on the back of Red Eye's chair as she watched her pilot work, organic and artificial hands moving in a random sequence across the switches, dials, and knobs that directed the path of her ship. "Status report, Red Eye. Is the worst behind us?"

Red Eye didn't answer, his attention not leaving the control board.

Kardia frowned, considered tapping his shoulder, when her stomach lurched as the Anti-Venom dipped. The deck plates beneath her shuddered and a keening unnatural groan filled the cockpit. Her hand went from a light settle to a grab as she steadied herself, but before she could say anything she heard the door to the cockpit slide open.

"What was that?" Aruithil Cho's voice echoed Kardia's emotional state - carrying a tone of simultaneous hope, confusion, and worry.

Kardia shot the younger woman a look, shaking her head. "I don't know...is there a fighter that Rogue Squadron missed?"

Aruithil eased herself down into the seat at the engineer's station. Kan-Dias Kroy, the Cerean chief engineer of the Anti-Venom, was conducting a damage assessment somewhere in the aft of the ship. Aruithil's trained eye swept the station, settling on the sensor board. "No, doesn't seem to be. X-wings and A-wings only, at least in the immediate vicinity."

"Hawkeye, I need you to take over."

Both women looked to Red Eye. He was out of his chair, but not away from the controls, still manipulating inputs. The orange visor he wore beneath the beaten flight helmet reflected the flashes from the board, making his expression unreadable.

"Who's Hawk-" Kardia started, before Aruithil cut her off.

"How did you know my callsign?"

"Read your file. I need you to take over for sixty seconds. Now."

Kardia stared at her pilot. His voice was flat, monotone, but didn't leave any room for discussion. "Excuse me, but I'm the captain here. I give the orders."

That finally got him to turn towards her. "Captain, I need Doctor Cho to take over the controls for sixty seconds so I can move to the navigator's station and examine the topographical feed."

Kardia blinked, then nodded. She had never heard him like this - some weird combination of brusque and verbose. It was definitely the most he'd ever spoken since he'd taken over the helm at Endor. "Doctor Cho, if you would." She took a step back to allow the slim, dark tan woman slide past her and into the pilot's chair as Red Eye stepped to the navigator's station. He punched up a glowing green holographic map of the planet, and over his shoulder Kardia saw red, orange, and yellow lines curving over the horizon.

Aruithil brought Kardia's attention back to her with a gasp. "What...what do I do?" The control board hadn't relented; if anything, it had gotten worse.

Red Eye didn't look up from the map. "Keep us as level as possible. We need to maintain altitude."

"Copy, I can do...wait." Aruithil's voice wavered. "We're gaining speed. And losing altitude."

"I know. Do your best."

Kardia's brow furrowed. "We're losing altitude? But we're not close to the landing zone."


"And why are we speeding up?"

"Apparently, the atmospheric thruster repair was not as complete as we had hoped. We are speeding up because we are losing the ability to fight gravity."

Kardia felt her jaw set. "How bad is it?"

There was a pause before Red Eye answered. "I would advise we evacuate the ship."

"Absolutely not. We're not going to scatter our doctors and supplies across the planet. These people need us, and the supplies, and we are not going to fail them."

That got Red Eye to turn, mouth a tight line in the scraggly beard. "If we don't abandon ship, then we might be scattering the doctors and supplies across the planet in significantly smaller pieces."

The captain met the pilot's eyes, or where she thought they should be. That eerie glow was diffused through the orange visor, concealing any emotion in his organic eye. Kardia wanted to order him back to his station, to land her ship so they could get to the business they had come here to do. But she knew he wouldn't be arguing if he thought there was a better plan.

"I'll offer the escape pods to anyone who wants them. But I am not leaving my ship."

"Fair enough. Please alert the crew. Anyone who isn't leaving needs to get to the central conference chamber and secure themselves in a jump seat. This is going to get rough."

Kardia nodded, then moved to the back of the bridge and touched a control. The hand-held comlink popped loose from its housing, and she lifted the device to her lips as she turned to look back out the front viewport. "Your attention please. This is Captain Milo. Our pilot has informed me that we are in a barely-controlled rapid descent towards the planet. He is certain we will not make our scheduled arrival, and is concerned for everyone's safety. To this end, he has advised that we abandon ship."

Kardia took a breath, watching as Red Eye took the pilot's station back over from Aruithil. The doctor moved over to the navigator's station, worry furrowing her forehead. Kardia keyed the com back on. "I do not intend to leave the Anti-Venom, but I will not fault anyone who feels like they need to. We'll get someone out to pick you up as soon as possible. Please proceed as quickly and as safely as possible to the escape pod access passages, and as soon as you have enough for a full pod, eject.

"For the rest of us, we need to rally in the central conference chamber. This ride is about to get very bumpy, and everyone needs to find a jump seat and secure in. When we're on the ground, we will figure out the next steps.

"I'm proud of all of you. The Force is with us."

Kardia clicked the com off. "I'm going to head to the escape pods, to help anyone who is trying to leave, then I'll go to the conference chamber. Do you need anything else?"

"No ma'am," Red Eye said. Kardia noticed he had strapped himself back into the pilot's chair and was tightening the crash harness. "I'll give you all the notice and time that I can, but the escape pods need to be out in the next five minutes, if they are going."

Kardia nodded in return. "Get us on the ground safely, Red Eye."

"I'll do my best, ma'am."

"Doctor Cho? Are you staying here, or coming with me?"

Aru looked up from the navigator's station, eyes wide. "Uh...I'll stay here. I can give Red Eye a hand."

"Thank you, Aru."

"Kardia." Red Eye turned, as far as he could in the crash harness. He'd never called her by her first name. "Thank you."

She felt the confusion settle onto her face. "...for what?"

"For letting me be your pilot. For everything." He'd said more in the past three minutes than she had heard out of his mouth in the months she'd known him. He nodded, then turned back to the control board.

She looked to Aru, whose eyes were as wide as her own. The doctor shrugged, then nodded, and Kardia turned to move to the escape pods.

The door hissed shut behind Kardia, and Aru looked immediately to Red Eye. "Can you do this?"

He nodded once, still unreadable with the helmet and beard. "I can."

"Well, there's a droid on the comm that wants you to know that we're losing altitude and gaining speed. It sounds...concerned?"

Red Eye froze. "A...droid?"

"Yeah, it sounds like...well, it's in one of those fighters."

"...open the com up to the bridge. No more filtering."

Aru nodded, then flipped a switch.

"...again, Anti-Venom, this is Corsair Lead." The voice that echoed through the cockpit was tinny, with just enough programmed emotion to be uncanny. "Your vessel is pulling away from your escort and you seem to be beginning your landing approach early. Please advise."

Red Eye barked a laugh, and Aru would have sworn that he smiled. "Corsair Lead, this is Anti-Venom." Aru had expected Red Eye's voice to be strained, or concerned, but it was...light? Giddy?

Doctor Cho was suddenly very worried.

The pilot continued. "We are experiencing multiple system failures, and barely have flight control. We are not going to make the designated landing area. I am going to have our navigator - " he pointed at Aru - "transmit our attempted flight plan. I would appreciate it, Syntax, if you could designate a Corsair flight to run over this for us, to make sure there aren't any buildings or hikers on the other side of that mountain ridge ahead."

There was a pause on the channel, and then the tinny voice returned. "Affirmative, Anti-Venom. Dispatching a Corsair flight now."

"Anti-Venom, this is Rogue Leader." A new voice rang through the cockpit, also tinny but less artificial, and with an accent similar to Kardia. "You've got visible fires in the engine block, and smoke trailing from at least two hull breaches."

"Copy, Jalb. Would advise you all back off a bit, in case this goes badly very quickly. We may also have escape pods launching presently."

Another pause, and then the reply. "Copy, Anti-Venom. Who..."

Red Eye looked to Aru. "Internal channel." She nodded, flipping another switch. The question squawked off as the channel jumped. "Engineering, pilot. Need an update, Kroy."

A series of clicks sounded, and finally the head engineer's voice cut through the speaker. "Think we got the fires under control, but we aren't spaceworthy. Power fluctuations throughout most systems. How close are we to landing?"

"Closer than we should be. I need your crew to head to the cargo bay and secure everything. Magnets, grapnels, twine, use whatever."

"...cargo? What for?"

"We need drag to slow down. Only way we'll get it is by opening all of our doors. Anything not secured in the cargo bay we are going to lose."

"Copy, pilot. Heading there now."

"Get that done and then get to a pod or to conference and secure. Four minutes."

"Copy, four minutes." The channel chirped off.

Aru kept watching Red Eye. "Four minutes?"

The pilot nodded. Lights were slowly winking out on the control board.

"What happens in four minutes?"

"We're past the point where we can safely release the escape pods before we hit the ridge of that mountain range ahead."

"And then what?"

"Doctor Cho, you have three minutes to get to an escape pod or get secure in the conference room."


Captain Kardia Milo fought to suppress a smile as she looked around the central conference room. Her entire crew had chosen to stay with her, with the Anti-Venom. She tugged the restraint belt tighter across Nurse Essian Fith's chest, eliciting an annoyed squeak from the Chadra-Fan. Fith lightly smacked at Kardia's hands, shooing her away, and the captain moved down to the next crew member.

The internal com crackled back on. "Crew, secure in sixty seconds. Stand by." Red Eye's voice was annoying in its even cadence, as if he were announcing the mess' daily special. Kardia finished checking the security of the next nurse's crash harness, then turned. "Is that everyone?"

Doctor Ghelex Phven, the immense Besalisk, had wedged himself between two seats, jury-rigging a restraint that would hold him. "Everyone but Doctor Cho, Red Eye, and the engineering team. All accounted for." He slipped the datapad he'd been using to keep track of the crew into the conference table drawer in front of him. "It's time for you to buckle in."

The Anti-Venom's superstructure whined again, groaning against the invisible hand of physics. The ship's audible protests had gotten louder and more frequent as the crew had assembled in the conference room. "I think you may be right, Doctor Phven." Kardia gave the room another once-over, then moved to her usual seat at the head of the table and dropped into the seat.

She was securing the last of the harness with the aft conference room doors opened, admitting the Anti-Venom's small engineering team. Kan-Das Kroy's extended Cerean forehead was glistening with sweat, and he was speaking rapidly into a headset comlink as he found an unoccupied chair. "Say again, we've locked down the cargo area and have arrived at the conference room, but I don't-"

He was cut off by another groaning whine of stressed metal, even louder than the last, and a series of muffled thumps that sounded suddenly in the room, from every direction. The fore door slid open, and a pale Doctor Cho darted in. She was pointed at the last unoccupied seat, right next to Kardia, and hastily began wrapping the harness around her.

"Aru," Kardia asked, looking at the younger woman. "...is everything alright?"

Aru kept fastening the harness, but looked up to the captain. "He said...there's a chance the cockpit could be crushed in what he's..."

There was a chorus of squeals as the thicker blast doors cycled shut over every entrance to the conference room. The lights flickered out, replaced by the dim glow of red emergency lights.

Red Eye's voice came over the internal speaker system. "Hold on."

Metal squealed again, and the Anti-Venom found itself in the grip of an angry deity. Kardia felt her stomach drop again, and then she lost sensation of which way the ship was going and which way her body was trying to go, the harness the only thing keeping her in place. She heard voices, wordless exclamations of panic and terror, and then someone started screaming.

It took her a moment to realize that it might have been her.

Then again, with the shaking and the jostling she wasn't sure she had the breath to scream.

Somewhere in the dark and the screaming of organic and metal she lost herself.


Chapter Eighteen

[ Syntax's A-wing ]

Gremlin's voice came through on the comms, "Sorry to give you more bad news, but we have a second ISD incoming."

"Copy, Grem," Jalb replied. "Corsair Lead, what's the play?"

"That Star Destroyer is going to deploy more reinforcements. You take the Rogues and interdict them as best you can, I'll take One Flight and draw away some of these TIEs," said Syntax.

"Roger roger," Rogue Leader replied. "You heard the droid, let's go hunting."

Syntax looked over and saw the X-wings of Rogue Squadron break away and angle towards Buccaneer Squadron's fighters, forming up into a tight dagger as they accelerated.

"One Flight, form up on me." Syntax called into the squadron comm channel. "We're going to play bait for a bit."

"Copy, Leader," Bone and Junior said practically in unison, and the trio of pilots angled towards the Rogues as they streaked away. The TIE squadron similarly came about in pursuit of the X-wings.

"It looks like the TIEs don't know we're here yet; let's give them something to think about," Syntax said as the pilots of One Flight shunted more power to their engines, their A-wings rapidly gaining on the TIEs. "Clear your scopes and don't give away your position until we're right on top of them," he said as he wiped his targeting computer. "Let's hit the cluster at the back of the pack."

"Copy that, I'll take the one on the left," said Junior.

"I've got the one on the right," Bone replied.

The three A-wings closed the distance with the TIE squadron as they chased after Rogue's X-wings. With their targeting systems switched off, the TIEs wouldn't know the threat the A-wings posed until it was far too late. Syntax watched the TIEs at the back of the group get closer and closer.

"On my mark," he said. Years of experience, and a droid's unerring analytics, had given him an eye for ranging enemy targets even without the assistance of his craft's targeting computer.

The A-wings continued to gain on the TIE squadron. Syntax watched the TIEs get gradually bigger, and then he said, "Open fire."

The three A-wings let loose with a volley of red laser fire, peppering the fighters at the back of the cluster. Three of them exploded immediately, and another had its port wing blown off at the strut, sending the craft pinwheeling away.

"Think that got their attention?" Junior asked sardonically.

The remaining TIEs fanned out and started to come about.

"Oh I think so..." Bone replied.

"Pick your targets and fire at will," Syntax ordered as he flipped the toggle switch on his flight stick, switching over to concussion missiles. He juked left to avoid a short barrage of incoming fire and then dumbfired a concussion missile into the offending TIE, the ordnance blasting clean through the cockpit before detonating behind it, engulfing the fighter.

On his right, Bone corkscrewed his A-wing and then deftly threaded between the wings of a TIE fighter, practically close enough to reach out and touch its hull had his cockpit been open. He hit one of his auxiliaries as he blew past, deploying a magnetic mine in his wake. Normally intended for use in zero gravity, the mine started to drop before locking onto the TIE fighter with a chirp, zipping back up and impacting the underside of the TIE's hull, comically blowing its wings off and sending the smoking remains of the cockpit streaking towards the ground.

"Chalk up another one!" Bone cheered as he looped his A-wing around for another pass.

"On your tail, Lead," Junior said as he bracketed a fighter coming in on Syntax's six. "Break right."

Without hesitating, Syntax cut his throttle to one-third, put his craft on a knife's edge, and pulled up hard; Junior fired off a burst of laser blasts, the energy beams tearing into the fighter's engines and igniting them, the craft catching fire before exploding brilliantly.

Syntax locked onto another TIE as he banked around and rattled off a staggered pair of concussion missiles; the fighter juked out of the path of the first missile, only to be caught by the second one.

"Nice shot, Lead." Junior said.

"Thanks, I get that a lot." Syntax replied dryly. He looked over at his scopes, then shouted, "Four, evade!"

Junior pulled up hard on the stick, but not quite quick enough - green laser fire splashed across his port side, punching through his A-wing's fragile shields and shearing his port-side cannon clear off.

"I'm hit!" he called out as he felt his craft fighting against his flight stick. His port side engine flared out, and a fire started in the compartment behind the cockpit. "I've got a fire! I'm punching out!"

Junior pulled the ejection lever; his cockpit blew off, then the ejection system launched him clear of the burning craft. As his parachute deployed he looked over at his A-wing, just in time to see the fire ignite the snubfighter's concussion missile rack and blow the craft apart.

"I'm clear!"

A TIE fighter slowed and came about.

"Uh, guys?" Junior said, his eyebrows going up. "A little help?"

Bone and Syntax both saw where the TIE was headed as they banked around.

"We're on him," said Syntax.

The TIE accelerated towards the drifting pilot, who fumbled clumsily for his sidearm as he continued to float.

"I don't think I can take this guy!"

A green laser blast tore through the air near Junior's floating form, close enough for him to feel the heat.

And then the TIE exploded, criss-crossed by laser beams from on high fired by the pair of A-wings. Debris whizzed past Junior's parachute, thankfully not hitting it or the helpless pilot it kept aloft.

"Wasn't that a war crime? I think that was a war crime," Bone chimed in.

"I wouldn't put anything past the Empire, especially not these days," Syntax replied. He switched over to the wider Renegade comm channel. "Vigilant Control, I've got a pilot down and in need of immediate pickup."

"Copy that, Corsair Lead. We'll send out Tattoo to pick him up," replied Rex Troy, the Vigilant's flight controller.

"Thanks, Wizard," said Syntax. "Hold tight, Junior. Two, form up on me, we've still got work to do."


[ Capital City ]

Sidda, Shadow and Zippy had picked up the pace now, moving as fast as they could whilst remaining in cover. Zippy had expected to have to remind Sidda about taking cover and maintaining a good field of view but she needed little caretaking. Yet again she impressed him; he knew she'd been embedded with Rebellion units but he hadn't fully understood what that meant until now. She wasn't a soldier, but she knew how to follow one.

The streets started to open up and Zippy saw smoke rising in the air, they were getting closer to where the U-Wing had gone down. As they rounded the corner he saw the crash site; Krayt and FLATTOP had worked a miracle to find the only open ground in the city in the form of a park. The U-Wing was mostly intact, its engines belching out thick choking black smoke, but the chassis was in one piece if somewhat dented.

But the U-Wing wasn't the only thing there. A squad of stormtroopers had approached the ship, eight in total. Six were taking cover behind low walls, split into two fireteams, whilst two others approached the U-Wing cautiously. Zippy raised his blaster, cursing quietly. At this range it'd be hard to make the shots connect.

He needn't have worried. Somewhere, behind the cloud of smoke and dented doorframe of the U-Wing a laser blaster exploded in gunfire. Someone inside that U-Wing was still very much alive and kicking, using the attached repeating blaster on the door to tear the two troopers approaching into chunks. The fireteams taking cover behind the walls immediately started to pound the U-Wing with their own blasters, as thick smoke rolled through the park illuminated by the exchange of red bolts.

Shadow came close to Zippy and pointed at some nearby rooftops. Zippy understood innately, taking the short building on his left as Shadow moved right. Climbing to the rooftop he dropped to his stomach and crawled forward. Although not trained by the Rebellion for ground operations Zippy had spent his entire life preparing for moments like these. His mother and father had taught him everything they knew, everything they could, of the Mandalorian faith and combat techniques. Gripping his blaster pistol in hand he took aim, letting his breathing settle to focus his aim. Although Zippy and Shadow were outnumbered the stormtroopers were focusing on the intense suppressing fire coming from the U-Wing, their backs to the two pilots on the roofs.

Shadow fired first.


[ TLM Hideout ]

"Come out! You're outnumbered!"

Blaster bolts had riddled most of the room with holes, filling it with tufts of smoke that made their eyes water and smelled like burned wood. The little cover the three of them had created had been mostly useless. Nearly at the beginning of the firefight the Ambassador had taken a bolt to the leg. She'd managed to drag herself behind the wall and into the closet, where all three of them had eventually been forced to retreat to; it was the only place that, because of the angle, the shooters outside the door couldn't reach.

Keyleb was the only one unwounded (if you didn't count the beatdown Spidrucket had given him earlier). Impatience had won over pragmatism, causing Guts to get reckless. In the end all he'd earned was to get shot on the hip. The pain was agonizing, but it fueled the will to survive.

"I dunno 'bout that, mate, ya have no idea how many are here with me," Guts called back, examining the clip of his blaster. He was sitting on the floor, leaning on the wall nearly against the corner, where he could shoot anyone who dared pass the threshold. "And I know for sure I shot two of ya fierfeks already!"

"Why don't you shoot your cowardly ass right now and save us the trouble, banthabreath!"

"I would! But someone's got ta keep ya mama warm at night!"

"You motherkarker!"

Guts laugh was cut short by the pain at his hip and the volley of blasterfire that rained in from the entranceway.

He turned towards his allies, "Any ideas?"

"It's not like we can call a cab to come pick us up!" Keyleb said to him, clearly at as much of a loss of what to do as Guts himself.

Then Guts remembered... "Actually, maybe!"

He grabbed at his pant pocket, accidentally brushing against his wound, invoking a curse from the bald man. Painful as it was, it proved worth enduring when he pulled out the short range communicator from his pocket. For a moment he held it in his palm. Would Tsurio help? And if he did, at what cost? Guts looked towards the Ambassador. She had torn off part of her dress and was in the process of tying off the wound in her leg, though by the looks of it she had lost a lot of blood in the process. What of Sigilien? She remained a hostage, as far as Guts knew, and would pay with her life if he failed his mission. Did this even count as a failed mission? There really was no other choice, Guts thought, from his standing. Who else was he going to call? The New Republic? The Empire? Frosty? a voice whispered in the back of his mind. No. This was their only shot.

"Switch with me, kid," Guts said with a grunt, forcing his body to switch position with Keyleb. The young man got into Guts's previous position and took advantage of a break in enemy fire to return fire himself.

"Got a plan?" the Ambassador asked, struggling to remain conscious.

"More like a ploy, Ambassador."

"Racyne." "Racyne?"

"My name," she whispered, her eyes slowly beginning to close. "Racyne Vel Aath. But you can call me Ice."

"Try to stay awake," Guts said to her. "It's the blood loss."

"No," she was struggling to stay awake. "You remind me of him. You look just like him."

"Hold on to that thought," Activating the comm, he spoke into it with a hushed whisper, "Silver Ticket, this is Guts. Come in Silver Ticket."

He waited for what felt like an eternity. Just as he was about to repeat himself there was a crackle.

"He-llo! This is THE Silver Ticket, Captain Sigilien speaking!"

"Captain Sigilien? What do you mean? Where is Tsurio?" Truth was that he had never hoped to be so lucky as to have Sigilien pick up--last he'd seen her, the missing zeltron had placed a barrel up to her head. How was it that she was now at the helm answering comms? He'd been ready to con and scam and blackmail Tsurio with every last bit of dirt he had on the man.

"Ah... he's around. A bit... undisposed. But! We dealt with him so that doesn't matter cause I'm the Captain now! Unless you want to be because if you do I totally don't mind--"

"Sigilien! Stop!"

"Drop it like it's hot! Oh, okay, okay. Sorry! I'm listening!"

"Sig, I'm pinned down," he began to explain to her. "Get Svitzek and Drogg, see if you can flank them!"

"Uh... About that. Droggy and Svitzy are... also... undisposed-ish?"

"What does that even mean?!"

"Don't worry, Gutsy! Ya girl's gotcha! Doo-doo-doo-letsssseeee... oh! Here! Ooohuhuhu! This baby's got guns!"

Guts felt a shiver go down his spine as he heard the weapons console activate in the background of her voice. "Sig, wait, you don't mean--"

"Like, big guns. Hmmm, you might want to duck, Huhuhuhuhu" she advised, unable to stop from giggling like a macabre maniac.

"Keyleb!" Ignoring the pain, Guts reached forth and grabbed Keyleb's arm and yanked him back from his position and into the closet, then placed himself and the boy over Racyne's body in an effort to protect her between the two of us. "Heavy artill--"

He wasn't able to finish what he was saying.

Turbolaser Bolts began to cut through the villa, tearing through the mud and brick walls and people alike. Screams of pain and horror of their inescapable fate and unrealized dreams echoed throughout the halls, deafened by the crumbling architecture and rhythmic beat of the turbolaser.

Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp...


[CRV Anti-Venom Conference Room]

The light came bright and hot and straight into her brain. She tried to blink it away, but something was keeping her eye open and that is just rude, isn't it? She thought she told her hand to move, but it wouldn't either, and there was a ringing in her ears that wouldn't go away and why did she smell smoke?

The ringing wavered, then faded, and someone was saying her name.

"Captain Milo? Kardia? Can you hear me? Are you..."

She turned her head away, feeling the hand slip away from her eye. She coughed, her throat thick with phlegm and smoke. The light stayed, but on the periphery of her vision instead of dominating everything.

The voice was saying something, fighting the returning ringing for her attention, and something was set over her nose and mouth. A cold blast of air rushed into her, filling her lungs and causing her to cough again, but the oxygen mask was replaced and she breathed deeply.

The oxygen cleared both her lungs and her brain, and Kardia fully came to. Doctor Cho kept the stylus-sized glow rod nearby, but the intensity of the beam away from the captain's eye. "How are you feeling?"

In the glow rod's reflected light, Kardia saw a dark smear along Aru's face, but couldn't quite make out what it was - grime, or blood? She nodded, finding her voice again. "I'm sore...all over, but I can feel everything. Doesn't...feel like anything...is broken. Or worse than...bruised."

Aru nodded. "Seems to be going around. Kroy caught his elbow on the table, and one of Drya's restraints failed, but they are the worst. We've got her secured on a stretcher for now." Doctor Cho exhaled a long breath. "Sounds like we got through it."

"Are we...down?"

"Yeah. Haven't moved for a little while now. Not...exactly sure what happens next."

"Do we have power?" Kardia fumbled at the restraints, trying to undo the clasps in the darkness.

"Emergency lighting only. We opened the medical kits in the wall panels, which is where these..." she lifted the stylus light, "...and the stretcher came from. None of the doors have been responsive yet. Phven's been trying, but no luck so-"

There was an excited shout from the darkness, and Aru's light flicked towards it. The beam widened to encompass the aft blast door that Doctor Phven was scrambling away from. A red glow had started in the center of the door, slowly expanding in a circle, white at the center. After a few seconds, the glow suffused, and then something flat pushed through the door. There was a grinding sound, and the flat shape moved further into the conference room, expanding into a triangle.

The blast door's seam cracked.

Another flat object pushed in alongside the first wedge. It joined the first about half a meter past the door, and then came a mechanical whine. The wedges forced the door apart, angling to keep the pressure on, until the thick blast-proof slabs reset into their rests. Lights from the front of the rescue droid brightened the room, and then it settled to the side, clearing the doorway to provide passage but staying near in case something re-tripped the blast doors. The gonk droid plugged into the rescue bot shuffled along behind it, and a slim figure appeared in the passageway.

The figure's left eye glowed a dim red.

"Attention everyone. The pilot has turned off the no-smoking sign and you are now free to move about the cabin. Welcome to Toseng. Please head this way to the cargo bay, so we can off-load and move away from a possible reactor detonation. Engineering, would you please make sure that doesn't happen?"

The engineering team were already moving through the door, past the pilot, rushing deeper into the ship. The rest of the crew started to follow, a pair of medical personnel picking up the stretcher with the wounded nurse. Kardia allowed the others to take the lead out. Aruithil stayed with her as she moved to Red Eye.

He was looking after the others disappearing down the hallway when they stepped to him. He'd lost his helmet. He was bleeding from around the cybernetic eye, and from a cut somewhere on his scalp; the artificial flesh on his left hand had been peeled back to reveal the circuitry. The blood stained his scraggly beard dark.

"Only one casualty, captain?"

Kardia nodded. "One of the nurses' restraints came loose. She should be alright."

He nodded in return, looking to Aru. "Are you alright, Doctor?"

It was Aru's turn to nod. "Shaken. Probably a minor concussion, like most of us. But in one piece, thanks to you."

He kept nodding. Kardia noticed that it was more than that, now. His shoulders were shaking, his organic eye had squeezed shut and the lights bouncing around from the rescue droid reflected new moisture on his face.

"Red Eye...are you..." She stepped to him, putting a hand back on his shoulder. He slumped forward, burying his face into her shoulder and sobbing.


[ Hangar; CRS Vigilant ]

Damak had mixed feelings as he went through the magcon field. The transparisteel flexing as it went through the field had always given him the heebie jeebies. He also felt good returning to the Vigilant, but leaving guys behind would not help with his PTSD. He kept leaving people behind. First, Trip, Krayt and FLATTOP, on the planet and now the rest of the Spectres that drew the interceptors away.

He smoothly followed the hangar crew's direction to park his U-wing at a designated spot. Once safely on the ground, Talon began the U-wing's shutdown procedure. He could hear the engine shutting down with a familiar ticking as it cools down. He always had heightened senses after every mission. His PTSD was overworking his senses-if he was a droid he'd be in overload.

Damak walked out of the U-wing and saw the techs crawling all over the fighter, looking for and solving the problems they encountered.

Looking around, he saw the StarFortress, all ready and prepared for launch. With racks of beautifully painted proton bombs around it, the techs must be in the middle of loading the munitions into the bomb bays.

He was still worried about Cee-Four and the bombs. He just had to check them. He had something that could do that stashed in his quarters.

"I need to go get something from my quarters. Could you finish up by yourself?"

Talon nodded and continued with the procedure. Even though they were scheduled to fly out again after refueling and rearming, the U-wing still needed to be shutdown before anything could be done. It was much easier with the smaller fighters but bigger fighters had a lot more things that could go wrong.

He took a look at the bombs again. They were painted with stylised rendition of the porgs. Whoever the artist was, he was very good. The decoration was good enough to be sold, but most probably a painting machine redrew the design since they were all exactly the same.

Personally, he did not like to use machines to draw and paint. The classes he taught always placed emphasis on using your own hands to draw. The effort will show in the final product.

Only thing was, he disagreed with the artist's decision to use metallic bronze paint to color the orange patch on the porg's fur. A flat normal orange color would be better. Oh, well, everyone has their own style.

He left the hangar and quickly ran towards his quarters. That blasted Droid is still missing. He'd better not mess with the bombs. The techs should have checked everything, right? The last time the mischievous astromech had gained unfettered access to explosive ordinance, it'd tuned up their payloads past the point of safety recommendations and there'd been an accident in the storage depot. Thankfully no beings, organic or synthetic, were harmed in the massive conflagration, but it had been a very close thing for many of the personnel working nearby and the damage to the depot was astronomical.

He shook his head and opened the door to his quarters.


He was welcomed by the happy beeping of his missing R2 unit.


Cee-Four twisted his dome and pointed its optical sensor towards Damak.

"Where did you go?"


"Wait, I don't care about where you go, did you do anything to the bombs?"


"You know what bomb I'm talking about. You'd better not do anything to them or I will put a restraining bolt on you!"


Cee-Four rolled back defensively when it heard about the restraining bolt. It had an adverse memory about a restraining bolt. Damak knew it also suffers from PTSD, so much as a Droid can suffer from PTSD. A restraining bolt will trigger its PTSD.

Damak got onto his belly and reached his hand under the bed to grab his sensor kit from his days with the Spec Force. He grabbed the pouch and felt something sticky on his hand.

He pulled the pouch out and touched his fingers together. It felt wet and sticky. He felt that something was wrong.

"What the hell? Lights, On!"

As the room illuminated, he saw some kind of bronze metallic liquid on his fingers. He smelled the liquid and scrunched his brows. "Solvent based paint? Since when did I have paint under here?"

Suddenly his eyes widened. He remembered the painted porgs on the proton bombs. The porg artwork has metallic bronze paint. He glared at the R2 unit.

Cee-Four slowly rotated its dome. He saw the dangerous glint in Damak's eyes and floored it out of the room.

"Oh, no you don't. You're not escaping from me this time!"

Damak took off after the Droid but banged into the door, when Cee-Four shut it close from the outside.


He banged the door frantically, trying to get it opened by a passer by that could hear the commotion. Realizing he was trapped, another vivid memory flashed through his mind. His team was in the middle of an important snatch and grab op. Cee-Four hacked into the base systems and had mapped out their path to the target on their datapads. Only once they reached the target the droid had marked, it turned out to be a large explosives stockpile rather than the individual they were supposed to secure. Before any of the team could react, the demolition-focused droid rushed forward and set the entire stockpile to blow. The escape had been a harrowing one with the entire security force coming out of the woodwork after fireworks like that...

He could only hope his droid wasn't going to do something similarly impulsive, as it would likely destroy a large portion of the ship. He resumed slamming his fist on the door in earnest. After a few minutes of his continuous banging, the door opened to reveal Talon looking confused.

"Why are you locked in your room? We will sortie in five minutes, let's go to the hangar."

Damak knew it would be difficult to find Cee-Four now that it decided to disappear. The porgs keep nagging at him. Shaking himself into action, he grabbed Talon and rushed to the hangar. As the two pilots rushed into the cavernous space, Damak saw the StarFortress looking imposing in the middle of the hangar. He saw the last tech leaving the vicinity of the bomber.

Talon must have followed his gaze, voicing the same question Damak was about to ask. "Hey, is that thing going on the mission?"

The tech was startled at the sudden address, but recovered quickly and shrugged. "We were told to prep it, but no pilots or schedule had been assigned."

Talon nodded thoughtfully. "Interesting, thanks."

Damak waited until the tech walked away from the area and gripped his co-pilot on the shoulder suddenly. "Talon, grab the bomber helmets and put them on, we need to take the Starfortress out of the hangar!"

"Uh, what?"

"Don't you want to try flying the big guy? It must feel different."

"Why don't you fly it, then?"

"Someone has to keep an eye on the bombs."

Talon grinned. "I always wanted to know what dropping over a thousand proton bombs at once feels like."

"Quick, just grab the helmets and let's go!"

Talon nonchalantly walked over the pair of helmets and picked them up. He threw one to Damak and put one over his head. Damak caught the helmet and wore it.

Both of them walked innocently to the StarFortress, innocently for Damak and not so innocently for Talon. They walked into the munition bay and looked at all the shiny bombs with cute artsy looking porg on them.

"Oh, cute. Do you have any idea who painted these? Maybe I should commission him to paint something on my X-wing."

"Yeah, I do know," Damak thought to himself. "But you probably don't want him near an explosive device..."

Damak watched Talon climb into the cockpit.

"Oh, nice. Controls are properly labeled and they left the manual here too."

"Great, get it started, then!"

Damak heard papers being flipped quickly.

"Let's see, starting up your StarFortress, Step One... flick this switch... Step Two... press this button.. Step Three... Turn this knob clockwise, ninety degrees... Step Four..."

Damak zoned out Talon's mumbling as he began checking the proton bombs.

He took out a multiscanner from his belt pouch and began to gingerly scan the first bomb. He would not put it past Cee-Four to booby trap the bombs. He compared the scan results with the schematics for New Republic proton bombs to locate discrepancies. The first scan showed no discrepancies but there was a slight increase in performance, a twenty percent increase in yield. He moved to the next one.

"This is strange, I'm not finding anything other than some increase in yields. Did it really not do anything? Why did it run?"

Damak was perplexed before. He was really confused, now.

Then, something else stirred in his mind. The yield of the bombs had been increased. It could easily do major damage to the ISD. A single point two increase in yield would not do much, but a thousand point two increase would be...

He needed to get this bomber to the ISD. Talon would really feel what it is like to drop a thousand proton bombs on target. At first, he just wanted to get the bombs away from the Vigilant. Now, he could do something else with it. Something even better.


[ Bearcat's X-wing ]

Bearcat slammed his stick forward to avoid a missile attempting to track his ship. Once he reached the street below, he drift-turned around a sharp intersection and chuffed out a sigh of relief as he heard the missile impact on the building he'd used as a shield.

Looking skyward, his relief was immediately turned to dread as he saw a missile slam into the side of Wolvinator's X-wing, sending the two S-Foils on that side pinwheeling off in the opposite direction of the damaged ship.

"I'm hit," Wolvinator reported calmly as his X-wing fought to remain straight with its atmospheric profile shot to hell. "Six is going down."

Bearcat was perplexed at the calm nature of Wolvinator's voice, as if he'd dealt with this before. "Eject!" He shouted as he pulled up again to draw fire for the other ships. As he did so, he saw another missile erupt out of a nearby SAM site, tracking his wingman's stricken ship. "Punch out!"

Wolvinator continued to fight with his ship, either oblivious to the threat or not being able to hear the warning over the other cockpit alarms blaring in his ears.

Bearcat triggered a boost and was thrown back into his pilot's couch. The distance between him and the new missile spooled down rapidly as his finger hovered over the trigger of his guns. Once he reached 1.5 km away, he mashed down the trigger and let loose a torrent of blasts. The first few went high, and then the next bursts filled the area around the warhead on all sides before finally managing a direct hit on the missile itself, causing it to explode prematurely. Beyond the conflagration, Wolvinator finally managed to punch out of the stricken ship, his pilot couch rocketing into the sky as the X-wing tumbled into a flat-spin.

"Six is EV!" Bearcat reported as he watched his wingman slowly drift down to the ground. The wind buffeted his ship as he continued to keep his eyes open for any threats that may pop out to snipe at the helpless pilot.

His astromech let loose a shrill howl, followed by a missile warning.

Bearcat gnashed his teeth as he pulled his stick to the right and mashed his foot down on the same rudder to barrel-roll and dive. Unfortunately in his earlier distraction, he was much higher in the air watching Wolvinator's predicament than he'd intended to be, and he likely wouldn't get under cover in time.

"Pull up, Five!"

Bearcat complied instantly with the order despite the voice not matching Animal or Bulldog. He yanked back on his stick and then looked around, wondering what he was supposed to do now that he'd given himself no chance to avoid the missile. "Vhat now?"

"Keep going!"

The voice finally clicked in his mind, but his brain refused to believe it without confirmation. "Thrrree?!"

"Trust me!"

Bearcat felt an icy fist grip his heart as the realization of his life being placed in the hands of a Mandalorian fully landed. He gripped the stick and throttle lever tightly as his hair stood up on its hackles. His fingertip talons deployed involuntarily, digging into his synth-leather gloves. Against all instinct telling him to ignore Loth-Cat's suggestion, he maintained the course. On his sensors, the missile was approaching quickly while a green dot was also approaching from the side.

A muffled explosion buffeted his ship, along with an exuberant yell.

"Thanks," Bearcat said curtly.

"Five," Animal's voice cut in, interrupting Loth-Cat's reply. "Priority escort target under enemy fire 5 km to the east. Go go go!"

Bearcat complied immediately with the order, rolling into his ordered heading and began charging up his boost. As he gained altitude, he saw a pair of TIE fighters harassing a low-flying target on the ground, taking turns strafing whatever he was being ordered to protect. A predatory grin crept across his lips as he realized they were too focused on their target and hadn't noticed him on approach yet. Just as he'd done when he'd completed his "Blood Hunt" on Cathar, he would ambush these unsuspecting targets and finish the fight before either could react.

He thumbed his boost trigger on the throttle and was shoved back as he hurtled toward the oblivious TIEs. His boost ran out just as he arrived in a prime firing position, and he centered his target in his crosshairs with supreme patience. The TIEs were still oblivious to his presence, and both lined up neatly for him, as if by the will of the Elders. He triggered off two quick bursts, skewering the front fighter first and the back fighter immediately after before it could even react to his wingman's demise.

He looked down and noticed that the target that had held the attention of the TIEs was a New Republic U-wing. "New Rrrepublic U-ving, this is Buccaneerrr Five," he said. "You arrre clearrr."

"Thanks, Buccaneer Five!" A gravelly voice replied in gratitude. "If you could make sure I make it to my destination, I'd be much obliged."

"Lead the vay," Bearcat replied as he charged up his shields and lasers, keeping his eyes locked onto his scopes for any new threats.


Chapter Nineteen

[ Wildcard's X-wing ]

Wildcard switched to the open comm frequency and was overwhelmed by the sound of multiple fighter squadron's coordinations. Through the hubbub, he picked out a woman's voice, sounding rather strained.

"The three of us need to hold off that Star Destroyer! On my six, both of you!" she yelled.

"Copy that, Five!" a female voice replied.

Three fighters against a Star Destroyer? Wildcard thought to himself. She must be crazy!

As his fighter sped towards the ISD, he noticed a swarm of TIEs flooding from its depths as if it were bottomless. Like hornets, the starfighters shot around looking for a fight.

Jade Squadron had finally closed the distance and began attacking anything that moved. Wildcard's eyes darted here and there, seeing squints and eyeballs and dupes and plates everywhere.

He at last concentrated on a TIE Bomber that was trying to get on his tail. He switched his ELS to engines and pulled back to one third throttle in order to turn quicker.

He slammed the stick hard to port to avoid a space bomb that had been dropped by the Bomber in an attempt to kill him at point blank range. He pulled back hard and the Starfighter came into his field of view. He pulled the trigger and watched as the dupe melted in a beautiful plume of fire.

He had no time to celebrate. An Interceptor was hot on the tail of a fighter from another squadron. He pushed his throttle and accelerated towards the squint at full speed. Five klicks to range. Three. Two. The numbers on his targeting computer decreased significantly with every passing millisecond. He fired two scarlet lances through the ship and detached it's starboard wing, causing it to careen violently through space.

"Thanks, pilot!"

Hey! Wildcard recognised the pilot's voice, it was Spectre Five.

"Careful out there," he spoke into the comm, "you're no good to us dead."

After several minutes, Jade and one quarter of Spectre Squadron had mercilessly torn through as many fighters as possible. In spite of this, ships still rained from the ISD. Wildcard wiped sweat from his forehead. His hands gripped the stick with a vice grip. It hadn't occurred to him until now that he was scared. Truly scared. For the first time in a long time. Everything had changed for him so quickly, and here it might end.

I need a miracle. Right now.


[ Capital City ]

Shadow fired first.

His shots sailed true, lancing one then two troopers on the right with pinpoint accuracy. Zippy opened fire too, hitting the troopers on the left. He caught one in the soft point between armor joints, watching him fall to the ground instantly. The second fell down under a combination of several blaster shots from Zippy's weapon but the third and final trooper was quick on the uptake. Laying down he fired up at Zippy, some shots impacting just below him on the roof edge, some flying just overheard. Zippy continued to squeeze his own trigger and was rewarded with a lucky shot, catching the trooper in the eyepiece. Not pausing to celebrate his success he swept his gaze rightwards to assist Shadow with the remaining stormtrooper on the right. He needn't have worried, Shadow had taken care of him.

Zippy remained on his rooftop, keeping an eye on the open park, as Shadow climbed down and sprinted towards the downed U-Wing. The repeater blaster on the U-Wing opened up again, the shots starting to track towards Shadow. Zippy felt his heart leap into his throat as Shadow came to a stop, hands raised. The blaster stopped just as the shots started to come close to the stationary pilot and Shadow walked forward slowly. Zippy looked away, trying to keep an eye on other streets in case a new squad of Stormtroopers got the drop on them. Shouting got his attention and his eyes were drawn back to the U-Wing where Shadow was now motioning him over.

Together he and Sidda jogged across to the ship, revealing some very relieved faces. FLATTOP gave Zippy a brief nod, his hands still holding tight on to the door blaster of the U-Wing in case anyone else turned up. Sat behind him, in one of the seats in the middle of the U-Wing, Krayt was nursing a broken leg. Shadow was trying to examine it carefully, as his squadron leader protested against being fussed over. Zippy ignored the man, he'd known too many soldiers who'd let bad wounds go untreated because of a focus on not being the weak link in a battle. Instead he went through the U-Wing's compartments until he found his prize, an emergency medkit. With Shadow's assistance they fitted a bacta cast to Krayt's leg, helping relieve him of some pain and any immediate danger.

Zippy pursed his lips, thinking, as out of the corner of his eye he saw Sidda use her cybernetic arm to film the scene before them. He looked at the assembled group and shook his head, "Won't make it all the way to the capital building like this. We need extraction."

Krayt pointed at the comm station on the U-Wing, nodding thoughtfully. "I was attempting to call for backup when the troops arrived. I'm not sure if anyone's available, Talon and Damak were already making a run back to the Vigilant."

Shadow reached over for a comm headset, fiddling with the tuning equipment. "This is Spectre Nine, calling Five. Come in Spectre Five."

"Shadow!" There was the sound of laserfire over the comm, but the relief in Gremlin's voice was clear. "Have you got Lead?"

"Everyone safe and sound, but we need evac. Probably more troops on the way."

"Unable! Just me, three and six still flying! No transports left!" Gremlin sounded strained, "Get into a building and hide!"

There was a collective silence in the air. Spectre had taken a hammering but it was clear Krayt would be a slow mover in his current state, even with the others to assist. Shadow cleared his throat, "Nine copies. Stay safe, may the Force be with you."

No answer came. Zippy looked over the ship but FLATTOP was already shaking his head at him, "No good... Entire fuel system is bust. She's not flying anywhere."

"There's a cafe just on the other side of the park," Sidda ventured, "Probably a basement for storage. We could make it there."

Before the others could chime in with suggestions the comm light up again. "Barraken calling Spectre Nine."

Zippy and Shadow exchanged a confused look, Zippy venturing a shrug. The intelligence analyst? Shadow opened the comm again, "Uh, we're in a tight spot right now Barraken. We can't really help with intelligence inquiries."

"I understand," the patient Quarren answered. "However I borrowed Lieutenant Ojima's ship and I believe it may be of use to you."

There was a sudden noise overhead as a U-wing came over their stricken ship, descending slowly as its side doors opened. In the pilot seat Barraken was waving, his tentacles parting to show a big toothy grin. Zippy let out a chuckle, shaking his head in amazement. "Well, blast me. The old squid told me he doesn't fly anymore."

"Special day," Shadow grunted, helping lift Krayt up. "Now help me get my boss on to that ship."


[ Hangar Bay; CRS Vigilant ]

"How is it going? Are we moving anytime soon?"

"Easy, Damak. The startup sequence is more convoluted than the B-wing. They should redesign the startup sequence."

Damak kept on checking the bombs while waiting for Talon to startup the bomber.

A stern feminine voice interrupted their work. "Keep your hands away from the bombs and put that device down!"

A robotic "snorp" came from behind him, along with a throaty rumble that could only belong to one being on the hangar deck.

Damak raised his hands and slowly turned around. He saw a wookie, holding a huge wrench, a droid with a sparking multitool, and a Twi'lek, competently aiming a carbine at him.

"Look, Spook, I can explain. Just lower the weapons," Talon replied carefully in a measured cadence.

"Explain first, then we lower the weapons."


"Wakachangi, here, is wondering why you're at a craft not assigned to leave. And from the hums I'm hearing, is also in the middle of starting up," the Spook said coldly. The maintenance droid known to all U-wing pilots as "Snorp" seemed to agree with her sentiment, shuddering slightly and eliciting another of his namesake sounds.

"We need the bomber, Ma'am. You see, there's a second Impstar moving into the atmosphere. If something is not done, the Renegades are done for!"

Spook raised an eyebrow. "So, you take it on yourselves to ‘borrow' this bomber and do something about it? I think these pilots need to spend some time in the brig rethinking their actions."

"These proton bombs should be enough to damage the ISD and chase it away!"

"Wrong, the proton bombs are not enough. Their total yield is only enough to take down a section of the shields," Spook replied matter-of-factly.

Damak held up one finger. "What if the yield is increased by point two?"

Snorp gently nudged Spook with one of his "arms" and angled his text readout in her direction. She looked down with one eye while keeping the other locked on the two pilots. After a moment, her brow creased as she took her other eye off of them and read the readout more clearly. Her eyes widened as she looked back up, gripping her weapon more tightly as her voice took on a hardened edge. "Did you tamper with the bombs?"

Wackachangi warbled angrily and seemed to raise his wrench higher, baring his teeth.

Damak's eyes widened and threw both hands up in mock surrender. "NO! Of course not, I have nothing to do with it. I just ran a scan to check the bombs and found that their yields were already increased."

Wackachangi growled a short, terse sentence in Shyriiwook.

Spook nodded and translated the meaning. "Hmm... are you sure about your sensor reading? We have no information that the specs are different."

"Here, take a look at this," Damak said as he cautiously pulled out his datapad and the scanner device. He motioned for Snorp to approach with his free hand. The droid took two lumbering steps forward and then waited patiently for Damak to set up the interface. The human slowly extended his hand and inserted the scanner into a port on Snorp's chassis. Then, he backed away, keeping a close eye on Spook's gun.

"Interesting device," Spook said with a wry grin. She read the text readout on Snorp after the droid had crunched the new numbers. "We'll need to talk about this device later, but it seems that you're right. There is an increase of at least point two in their yield."

"So, can we continue what we are doing?" Damak asked, hopefully.

"No, you need proper authorisation to take this bomber out."

"But that will take too much time and the ISD is getting nearer!"

"My answer is still no. Wackachangi, secure these pilots and take them to the brig. I'll inform the Colonel."

A familiar voice came from behind them. "That won't be necessary."

Stryker walked past the three support crew and stood across from Damak. At his side was Lt. Commander C'our Dentran, the Myr Rho chief intelligence officer who often pulled double duty as the head of ship security. Stryker smiled, and looked directly into Damak's eyes. "I like how you take the initiative to solve the problem, but you should at least talk to someone higher up in the chain."

Damak was equally buoyed by the praise and cowed by the admonishment. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

Stryker turned to Wackachangi. "Is the StarFortress ready to fly?"

The Wookiee nodded and grunted a reply.

Spook translated. "He said 'we completed all system checks and arming. She's ready to fly any time', Colonel."

"Good," Stryker replied. He leaned in close to Spook. "I can understand Shyriiwook just fine, Lieutenant." He smiled, and then continued to address Damak. "Lieutenant, I want you to regroup with the rest of Renegade Flight outside the Vigilant and finish what you have started."

Talon sheepishly called out from the cockpit. "Uh... can we take her out now, sir? The engines are warmed up and ready to go."

Spook attempted to object, but Dentran spoke first. "I think this falls under the Colonel's jurisdiction, Rha. Let's get out of their way and let the flyboys do their thing, hmm?"

Spook clearly wasn't happy with the outcome, but she knew she was outgunned by two branches of authority on the ship. She had no doubt that Captain Quelle would also agree with the outcome, thus limiting her options to the now lost Admiral Tolden as her only avenue to follow regulations. Slumping her shoulders, she nodded and secured her weapon.

Stryker and the other crew walked out of the bomber and watched the hatch shut.

The StarFortress slowly lifted up as it engaged all its repulsors. Then, Talon gently pushed the throttle and the craft slowly moved towards the magcon field. "Heh... this bomber's taxi speed is lumberingly slow..."

Damak barely heard what Talon said when he was slammed into the rack of bombs, as Talon pushed the throttle to full power and launching it past the magcon field into space. His ears popped as he tried to make it to the bombadier's seat.


[ Jalb's X-wing ]

Jalb was distracted, conflicted, agitated the entire trip toward the target. After Syntax and his flight had screened the Rogues, the call he'd been dreading since his son joined the Wing at Endor had finally come across the airwaves.

On top of the Rogue losses and the downing of the Anti-Venom his son, his only child, was shot down. Only the complete discipline drilled into him by the likes of Davits Draven, Antoc Merrick, and Stryker kept him from pulling back hard on the stick and returning to the area to confirm the status of his son. With supreme effort he managed to compartmentalize his inner anguish and push it deep, down with every other emotion he'd not let himself react to, so he could continue to function. He owed it to his Rogues, and the remaining Renegades in the air that he remain clear and in control.

Jalb grimaced as he, Lock, and Starfire finally closed to visual range with the newly arrived Imperial Star Destroyer. All around the ship, outnumbered New Republic fighters were flitting about wildly as they attempted to kill without flying straight enough to be killed themselves. They were evening the odds, but the Imperial fighters would likely win by attrition as the allied pilots wore down over time.

The three Rogues had made the trip unmolested as Syntax and his flight of A-wings had managed to peel off any pursuit that had attempted to follow them out of their original area of operation. As such, they all had a relatively easy time maxing out their shields and lasers. Unfortunately, lasers were all they could bring to bear on this Star Destroyer. None of the other fighters had any ordinance either, meaning he'd have to order his pilots to do a risky manoeuvre to get the shields down.

Jalb rolled his shoulders and shook head to work out some of the anxiety-induced kinks that had formed. Centering himself, he keyed on the squadron comm. "We're going to have to Vandersloop it, Rogues," he said.

"Copy, Lead," Lock replied professionally.

"We're going to what?" Starfire asked with uncertainty.

Jalb's eyes widened at the realization that the manoeuvre he was planning to execute probably wasn't in the standard training curriculum at the academy. He shook it off quickly, however, reasoning that her stunt-flying skills would be more than adequate to pull it off. He keyed his comm to the general frequency. "Jade Leader, Rogue Lead. I need you to set up two no fly zones at the following coordinates," he said. Skippy sent the coordinates he was about to send, drawing a grim smile as Jalb realized just how well his astromech understood his line of thinking over the years.

"Jade, uh, copies."

The voice that replied was less confident than Jalb liked. "Can you do it?"

"For you guys? Anything."

Jalb still wasn't convinced, but it was the best he had at hand. He trusted the Spectres to do the job better, but they were so beat up and undermanned that they wouldn't be able to set up to cover that sector as well as cover the fighters responsible to keep that sector covered. He didn't like the feeling welling up within his gut, but he couldn't let it stop him from going forward. He swapped comm channels again. "Ok, I'll take the port genny. Nine, take Two with you and hit starboard."

"Acknowledged, Lead," Lock responded. "Two, tuck in right behind me and follow me in."

"Roger, Nine."

The three Rogues spread out, with Lock and Starfire diving to the right while he dove to the left. A few TIEs made a run at Jalb, but a quick jink made them overshoot. Before they'd be able to reacquire him, he'd be boosting through the notch in the superstructure as he flew under the shields to strafe the shield generator on his side of the ship.

The only other part of the run that worried him was coming up quickly. If Jade Squadron didn't do their jobs, the fighters would be able to get him just before he hit the notch and went under the shields. As if on cue, Skippy warbled a warning about a flight of fighters positioning themselves in a troublesome location.

"Jade, this is Rogue Lead, I need a clear run. Take out those fighters!" He nosed up and triggered his boost, throwing his body back into his pilot couch as his ship accelerated sharply.

A jumble of comm traffic overwhelmed the channel for a moment. It was all incomprehensible aside from the last few lines that both worried and then comforted Jalb in quick succession.

"I missed the last fighter!"

"I got him, One," another pilot replied calmly.

"Great shot Wildcard!"

Jalb was almost through the gap. He glanced at his sensors to see if anything else was coming at him that would require more assistance. He glanced to the right and saw Lock and Starfire mimicking his manoeuvre on their side of the ship. Multiple lances of verdant fire tracked the two Rogue X-wings. Following the line of fire to the source, Jalb saw four more TIEs that were completely unmolested by any Jade X-wings.

"Taking heavy fire, Nine!" Starfire shouted.

"Where are you, Jade?" Lock growled.

"We covered the port side approach as ordered!" Jade leader whined in reply.

"You were supposed to cover both!" Jalb replied angrily. The utter incompetence of the leader of that squadron made him burn with rage. He decided that if he survived this fight he'd take a personal interest in seeing that man suffer.

"Nine, what are you doing?!"

Jalb heard Lock roar angrily in reply. Helplessly, he watched as Lock pulled directly into the line of fire to shield Starfire from harm. His ship was torn asunder by the combined might of the four TIEs. The first two meters of the nose of his ship were immolated while his S-foils were blown off as the topside engine assemblies were completely destroyed. The remainder of the ship pinwheeled off with the wind, falling toward the planet. Jalb's chest tightened and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them to confirm. Wreckage from Lock's X-wing was still falling away from the smoke of its destruction.

The bulk of the Star Destroyer cut off his view as his ship entered the notch in the hull and he had to quickly compose himself... again.. He looked forward and saw the gentle shimmer of the shields ahead of his ship. A split-second later, he was underneath that shimmer and had a clear line of fire. He slowed his throttle as much as he dared and squeezed the trigger, sending overpowered bursts of laser fire into the shield generator.

As he cleared the notch, he looked off to his right and spotted Starfire mirroring his attack run on her own target. The TIEs that had blasted Lock were nowhere to be seen now, giving her a clear run.

Jalb refocused on his target and watched as the hull integrity figure on his CMD slowly ticked down. The target loomed larger in his view as he continued to bear in and the turbolaser fire intensified in his direction as the gunnery crews attempted to stop his attack.

Starfire pulled off, leaving her target still functional. "I didn't finish the job!" She reported. "Going to set up for another run."

The same Jade Squadron pilot that had saved Jalb before with his timely shooting replied. "I'll be there this time to screen you!" The determination in his voice left no doubt that the job would be done or he'd die trying.

Jalb looked back at his own target with fatalistic determination as he decided right then and there that he would either destroy the bulbous target with his guns, or finish the job by ramming it with his ship.

"Pull out, Lead!"

Jalb ignored Starfire as he shunted shield energy into his lasers to overpower them once more. His ship shuddered as he took a glancing blow from a turbolaser, one of the crews was able to track him better as he slowed down even more to stay on target.

The shunt worked its magic, however, as the extra energy in his blasts managed to do the job. Meters in front of his nose, the shield generator erupted outward in a shower of flame and shrapnel. The shimmer of the shields shuddered as they went down briefly; the other generator was too damaged to fully pick up the slack now that its counterpart was a rapidly expanding cloud of fire.

He slammed the throttle forward and gritted his teeth as he flew through the inferno. Skippy wailed angrily in response to his course. As he came out the other side, flames trailed on his wingtips briefly and his S-Foils had an unhealthy amount of carbon scoring.

"Rogue Leader, are you alright?"

Jalb jinked his ship to avoid the tail guns on the Star Destroyer. "Yeah, Deuce!" he replied in a tone more jubilant than was perhaps warranted but the adrenaline was still spiking in his system. He noticed a Jade Squadron X-wing that appeared to be making its way toward the point it could properly cover Starfire on her second run at her damaged shield generator. Pulling in behind the ship, he took a moment to survey the scene around him. Not liking the odds, he sighed. "We're going to need more firepower here, Skip," he said sadly to his astromech.

Skippy let loose a low tremolo in reply.


[ Knight's A-wing ]

Another launcher disappeared in a flash of blaster fire from Knight's A-wing. As he passed over the rooftop, Knight could already hear the warning blare that another missile was locked on to him.

"Missile! Missile! Missile!" Knight shouted. "You see where it come from Eight?"

"I saw it. Making a run on it." BattleDog announced.

Knight trusted his wingmate to snag the SAM launcher and focused on ditching the projectile trying to kill him. With the throttle wide open, Knight pulled up to gain some altitude. The beeps got more insistent. Knight cut the throttle and made a sharp turn that put the ground 'above' him.

"Missile! Frell! Going evasive!" A new voice cried out. It took Knight a moment. It wasn't BattleDog. The Imperials must be getting wise to the weasel plan. Knight grimaced as he threw his A-wing into another tight turn. He could hear the alarm slow down.

"Rev, I'll try to loop around and pop the missile." Raptor called.

"Got another launcher!" BattleDog crowed. "Knight, are you clear yet?"

Another hard turn and the alarm announced the missile had lost its lock. "I'm clear. You see where that one on Bucc Seven came from?"

"Negative. I didn't see it."

"Let's see if we can't clear Rev's tail." Knight suggested, and pulled his A-wing into a tight loop.

"I can't shake it!" Rev shouted over the wing channel.

Knight scanned the sky while he tried to cycle through friendlies. As he looked up Knight caught sight of a B-wing twisting wildly. Knight grimaced and pulled back harder on the stick, as if he could will the A-wing to turn harder.

Before he could even level crosshairs, a fireball erupted where Rev's B-wing was. Debris arcing towards the ground. "Frell." Knight whispered. If Rev had survived, there was nothing Knight could pick out from the debris that resembled a chute.


"Did he get clear?"

"I don't see a chute." Knight said quietly.

"Dammit! Frell! Karking Imps! Missile! Missile! Missile!" Knight could recognize Bulldog's voice. Unfortunately, other bomber pilots started to shout out missile locks. All the chaos started to make Knight feel overwhelmed.

"Corsair, weaseling isn't working." Dragon's voice came in loud and clear over the shouting. "Start targeting missiles and keep the bombers clear."

Knight acknowledged the order, picked up speed, and started to climb. This brought him closer to the Star Destroy. It was the first time Knight realized that the fight had crept closer and closer to the looming capital ship. A couple point-defense cannons started to track his A-wing. The shots trailed far behind the little interceptor.

"Getting a little close there Seven." Battledog warned.

Switching targeting to projectiles, Knight made a sharp turn back to the buccaneer bombers below. "Needed some height." Nearby, Knight could see a B-wing trying to evade a missile. Knight thumbed a button on the stick and targeted the missile. Leading the projectile, Knight watched the range tick down.

This missile wouldn't hit its mark. Knight squeezed the trigger and filled the space in front of the missile with blaster fire. The missile turned into a fireball far behind the Bucc fighter.

Knight heard a "thanks" from the bomber, but he didn't respond. On to the next pilot in need.

"Destroyer is moving. Pivoting to us!" Knight couldn't tell who called it out. Could be one of the new pilots in Bucc. Knight took the chance to glance at the Star Destroyer. It was on the move. As if finally the capital ship had noticed the fighters. Additional point defense emplacements opened up with a new ferocity. If the missiles didn't have the New Republic fighters scattered around, this certainly would.

"Fresh squadron of TIEs is launching from the Conviction!" This voice Knight did recognize: Freak.

"I'm starting to think we're outnumbered here." Knight quipped.

"We're going to have to split our attention." Dragon said. "Buccaneer, we've got to move our attention to the fighters. They'll tear us apart just as quickly as the missiles."

"Do it." Knight heard Animal grunt over the comms.

"We've got ourrrr bomberrrrs backs." Bearcat assured. Knight grinned at the new Buccaneer pilot's confidence. Hopefully he'd keep that if they all survived. Going up against long odds was something that Renegade wing seemed to do on a frequent basis.

Knight cut the throttle and made a tight turn towards BattleDog. "Eight, I think we're gonna need to pair up for this. I'm heading toward you."

BattleDog's voice crackled through, "Agreed. Forming on your wing."

Knight kicked his A-wing on its port side and looked 'up' to see the last of the TIEs as they raced out of the Star Destroyer's hangar. They weren't really in formation. Just launched as fast as they could. Knight assumed the rush was needed to keep the New Republic fighters off balance.

Knight redistributed some power to his blasters and picked out the last TIE out of the hangar. It'll take more than that to throw off Renegade wing.

To be concluded...