First Command

"First Command"

Part 1 -- The Leader

My head was reeling, I felt sick and I ached all over. The room was slowly spinning and that damn thrumming, which was usually just barely audible in my ears, was now quite loud. In short I was sobering up. It was a hell of a state of affairs when you had to be half in the bag before you felt normal, I can tell you. In addition to all my normal unpleasant symptoms of sobriety there was a noxious beeping going off every few minutes.

I managed to get into a semi-sitting position on my bunk and called for the lights. They did little to improve my mood. The beeping turned out to be the door buzzer. Swallowing hard I managed to croak out, "Come in!" and the door slid back, revealing Chris "Electro" Shock, Corsair Leader and my boss. Better known on the CRS Liberty as Capt'n Hook, but not to his face.

Electro looked around my quarters with borderline surprise. It was neat as a pin. Not a thing out of place, no clutter, no mess, hell, with the exception of the bunk on which I was sprawled, the place didn't look lived in at all. It was creepy.

"Erratic," I said. Chris raised an eyebrow and I continued, "Who'd have thought that an obsolete records droid would turn out to be a neat-freak."

My commander shook his head and sat down in the desk chair. He smiled and said, "Raven, you look like shit. As Executive Officer of Corsair you'd think you might take off your flight suit before passing out in your bunk." Leave it to Chris to be diplomatic. Finally he ran out of comments on my appearance and habits and came to the point of his visit. "I've been meaning to talk to you for awhile and I can't put it off any longer."

"Whoa! Buddy, Chris, I can explain." The room really did seem to be closing in on me now. "Honest. Look, the damage was not that extensive, besides how was I to know she was part of a marriage ritual, anyway I don't think they have any legitimate jurisdiction and in any case they can't prove a thing!"

Electro closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I came here to talk to you about Buccaneer Squadron. What are you going on about?"

Leave it to me to throw myself against a locked door only to find it unlatched. I thought fast and tried to dig myself out of the hole I had just created. "Talking about? Me? Oh, nothing, heh-heh, just pulling your leg buddy. Go on, you were talking about Buccaneer." Inwardly I took several deep breaths and said a silent thanks to any gods who wanted to claim responsibility for bailing me out again.

My commander seemed to take that at face value and pressed on. "As you know, Buccaneer was decimated during Corsair's first flight."

I nodded, knowing well the supply raid that had become known as "First Flight". The first operational mission that Corsair flew and that Buccaneer Squadron barely survived.

"Guardian has transferred to Bucc," continued Chris, "but you know his record... I'm worried about him flying Y-Wings again. I've conferred with Rogue Leader and Admiral Ra'Kaat and there is a consensus that we need to get a qualified commander in charge of that squadron before it self-destructs."

Now it was my turn to try to figure out what was going on. After disappearing from the Liberty, along with a chunk of Deck 5, I was still serving in the Alliance only because some of my close friends pulled a lot of strings for me. Chris had gotten me the Executive Officer position in Corsair by personally going out on a limb for me, as I was not considered by the brass to be overly reliable. I held up my end of the conversation by asking Chris if he wanted a drink. He declined as I managed to pull out the bottle I keep stashed under the mattress and took a long pull on some smooth 20-cycle-old scotch. It burned going down and the bouquet of the fermented grains cut the fog in my head like a dry wind. The thrumming faded away and I felt the room become stationary. "Chris," I said. "I agree that Buccaneer needs a commander. The previous Bucc CO wasn't at the helm long enough to get it kicked off before the losses Bucc took on First Flight. But, if you want recommendations then that's easy, Storm is your man. He has the skills, the drive, and the ability to whip Buccaneer into shape in no time. If you can pry him from TacOps and Rogue Squadron."

"Eddie turned it down." Electro took the bottle from the table and inspected the label. I managed to find him a glass and he joined me for a drink after all. "You know Storm. He wasn’t keen on giving up his X-Wing and leaving Rogue even for a command position. There are several other candidates but Buccaneer has gotten a bit of a reputation as a jinxed squadron and once these things get started they're hard to stop. Recruitment has been fouled up since Buccaneer barely got out of the planning phases. Most of that deadwood has been trimmed away, but even so, finding someone both capable and willing to take it on is not as easy as you might think."

I took another drink and the room came into sharper focus. "So what do you want me to do? Try to talk Eddie into reconsidering?"

Electro smiled like the gundark that ate the canary. "No, Eddie is not about to change his mind. We need a gung-ho stand-up pilot with both heart and guts. Until we find one I was hoping you'd take the job."

"First Command"

Part 2 -- The New Guy

There's something about deep space, when you're all alone. One sun, a dying blue fireball, raged in silent vigil in the center of the system, attended to by four lifeless hunks of rock in a constant fall around the burning orb. I released the control stick of my new Y-Wing, laid my head back against the command couch's headrest and squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel the Y's two powerful Koensayr R200 Ion Jet engines' rumble through the cockpit, and the soft beeping of the Fabritec ANs-5d sensor package's display unit pounded out a steady beat.

My new Y-Wing, anyway. The craft was old, itself; it had seen more action than most. There was a small lateral pull to the left, a problem that was noticeable but not threatening. I'd get it patched when I got back. It didn't really matter. I hadn't gone on this shakedown flight for a hardware checkout, I just needed to get away. And since I'd transferred out of Corsair, they wouldn't let me take an A-Wing out.

I let out a breath slowly and eased my eyes open. Beyond the transparisteel cockpit I watched the blue star burn its life away, slowly collapsing upon itself. I reached my hands out, took the stick and the throttle, and began running my ship through the sequence I saw so many times in my mind's eye.

I've heard that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. I've also heard that philosophers are full of Bantha dung. I ran my Y through its paces, watching the imaginary squints blaze and die under my guns, seeing the rest of Defender get torn to shreds. Spirit died first, a victim of a pair of Interceptors' quad guns. Orax and Tracer got mixed up and slammed together, their Y-Wings bending around each other in a twisted dance as their screams echoed in my head. Angel fragged another squint, but not before it speared Mac. The last transport jumped, and we began pulling back from the ISD Spearhead's fighter screen. Jinx got out, just ahead of Krayt, and then there were four as N'ran and Vixen both bought it. Shelia's scream still haunts me. I pulled up hard, cockpit green in the light backwash of the Imp's lasers, and tagged two of the bastards. Angel cut across my bow and got another, and Screamer and Pulse cleared.

Two left. I yelled at Cori to take off, but she said she wasn't leaving without me. We killed the last three squints, and were lining up to jump, when the next wave caught up. One more second, and we were gone. Just one...

I let go of the stick again. I felt the muscles in my jaw tighten and set. I wanted to pop the canopy of the Y, let space take me to Cori. "My Angel," I whispered. "Mine."

Instead I regained the stick and kicked the Y around, back towards the Liberty. It was time for Buccaneer Two to rejoin the land of the living. I left the blue star behind me to die, my memories I kept with me.

I touched back in the docking bay and quickly filled a tech in on the problem I'd picked up with the flight control. Then I headed into the pilot's locker room. After quickly stripping off my flight suit I ducked into the showers and turned the water up as hot as it would go.

I didn't do much washing after that. Instead, I stood under the jet flow, letting the water pound my head and back. I felt as tightly wound as I'd ever been, at least in recent memory, so I just soaked, letting the heat take some of the pain and my mind away.

"Hey, buddy," a voice echoed from the lockers. "What's up?"

I pegged the ID of the guy instantly, Flight Officer Vince "Stryker" Rambo, Corsair Twelve. He'd been one of my wingmen in the "fiasco," that the Corsairs simply called First Flight, and a bantering partner ever since. "Not much, Stryk, what's new with you?"

"Just wondering if you heard the news. Bucc's got a new CO."

"Really? Who'd they con in to that job?"


I froze, barely keeping my jaw from dropping. "Raven's in charge of Buccaneer?" My mind reeled. It wasn't that I didn't like the man--on the contrary, his laid-back style as Corsair's XO reminded me of most of the guys in Defender. But I didn't think he was cut out for a CO position. He had a way with the troops, to be sure, but his paperwork and organizational skills didn't seem all that great. "Did he name an XO?"

"Not that I know of. Listen, Adam, I'm late for a patrol. Catch ya later."

"Clear skies, Vince." Stryker disappeared, and I was left alone again. I closed my eyes, trying to decide on a course of action. It seemed pretty simple. I was going to have to go congratulate Jim. And keep an eye on him...

"First Command"

Part 3 -- The Transfers

I usually wake before the alarm goes off, but this day I was dreaming of my homeworld of Delaya, and as I climbed the giant trees of my home in my mind, I didn't notice the beeping of the alarm until it had run up to the third level. Unusual, as Wookies are much more sensitive to sound than the Calamari or the humans on board.

After getting up and checking my bowcaster, I went into the tiny refresher to take a shower. The facilities in my cabin were clearly designed for a shorter species, but someone had spilled liquor on my fur in the Lounge last night, and I needed to get it washed out before it stained. The group I had been with had gotten a bit wild, and I accidentally stepped on the Rogue talisman's tail, which led to a rather fun free-for-all and resulted in much broken furniture. It was good to see my squadmates blow off some steam, and good to flex my own muscles as well. There are not many creatures aboard the Liberty that I can "roughhouse" with without fear of crushing them. But the Banshee is quite formidable - and I had several bruises to prove it. All in good fun, of course.

As I stood under the air jets to dry my fur, I thought about how much Corsair had changed. Since our first mission we had not seen much action. But that was okay, we saw more than our share in the freighter raid. And I had not been assigned a replacement A-Wing as yet. It still peeved me mightily to have lost my ship taking out that Corvette on my first mission.

Still, I was very grateful that Hyl and Guardian had picked me up as I floated in space in the middle of the battle. Not many of the Buccaneers had been that lucky. With the dead and MIAs, Bucc Leader transferring out, and Mustang going into Rogue, Buccaneer had been down to one pilot. Then two, when Guardian suddenly transferred out of Corsair. Now the scuttlebutt was that Raven, my XO in Corsair, was taking over the bomber squadron as CO. For a human he drank a lot, but I felt he could be counted on in a pinch. At least the Banshee and Rooster seemed to like him and that was good enough for me.

It took forever to get my fur dry and I felt much better after getting it combed out. Picking up my bowcaster and the translator that Parody had made for me, I headed out to get some chow. A nice raw bantha haunch with some of Roo's special sauce sounded pretty good. And I could sharpen my fangs on the bone. I started to hurry.

On the way to the mess hall I got to thinking about Guardian and how he had pulled me out of the vacuum after I had to eject from my A-Wing. He'd been wounded himself but he manned the search and rescue shuttle and certainly saved my fur. And now that Buccaneer had a CO with combat experience... well a Y-Wing certainly had more head room than an A-Wing. So I stopped by Electro's office and spoke with Corsair's CO. He never said a word and I wondered if my translator was working. Then he asked me to take some paperwork to Raven, who he said I'd find down in the Lounge.

"And if you could sign this here," he indicated a datapad he pulled out of his desk drawer. "Sign it and then give it to Captain Lee for his signature as well," he finished. I looked at the pad... a transfer from Corsair Squadron to Buccaneer. Electro has already signed. It seemed that it didn't matter if my translator was working or not. I started to ask him how he knew I would be applying for a transfer before I knew it myself but he just looked up and smiled. "I'm sorry to lose you Groznik. You're a fine pilot," he said. Then he returned his gaze to the pile of paperwork on his desk.

That was quite a compliment coming from Capt'n Hook. I gave up my thoughts of breakfast and went down to the Lounge.

There I found both Raven and Guardian, sitting at the bar and arguing. I gathered that Guardian was trying to talk Raven into drinking some tea… good luck with that I thought. To get their attention I growled rather loudly, my translator having no idea what to do unless I spoke very softly remained silent. They both turned and I handed my former XO the datapad that Electro had given me. I modulated my voice and the translator managed to match my tone, "Captain Lee, Captain Schock said this requires your signature."

He barely glanced at it, tossed back his drink, and scratched his name on the pad. He then handed my request-for-transfer to Guardian and said, "Here Lieutenant, as newly appointed Executive Officer of Buccaneer Squadron, you should counter-sign Groz's request to become a Buccaneer."

Guardian looked shocked. He looked at the pad, then me, then Raven, then back at the datapad. "Executive Officer?" he sputtered. "Lieutenant? Me?" Raven had turned back around to the bar and had his back to us. He poured another drink for himself from the half empty bottle in front of him. Over his shoulder he said, "Yeah, yeah, raise your right hand, by the power vested in me, blah, blah, swear to uphold the Alliance, don't walk on the grass, etc., etc., herewith, heretofore, and party of the first part. You're hired. Now take care of Groz's paperwork and quit bugging me. Thanks." The Buccaneer CO seemed intent only on his drinking.

I slapped Guardian on the back by way of congratulations and knocked him clear off the barstool. He looked up and managed to say, "Welcome aboard, Groznik! I guess this makes you Buccaneer 3."

Raven half-turned and look down on his new XO. "Don't guess," was all he said and then turned back to his drink.

I laughed so hard I nearly blew up my new translator, "You both need looking after!"

I cracked the canopy of my A-Wing, sliding the helmet off my head and allowing the cool air of the landing area to blow in on my face. "These A-Wings were made for Jawas, I swear," I muttered. Even the ozone laden air of the docking bay felt good after running cover for incoming and outgoing shuttles. Cover duty was generally slow, and this night proved no different. I looked at my chrono, wondering if I could log a quick session in the sims before turning in. I was beat and decided the sims would have to wait. You never get enough sleep on the Liberty.

"Flight Officer David Barnett, Flight Officer David Barnet… please report to the Operations desk…" the overhead PA system began to drone as I was headed for the turbo-lifts. "What now?" I wondered.

There was a silver colored droid at the desk, "Yeah, that's me... Barnett, what do you need?"

"Good evening, sir. Lieutenant Burns respectfully requests your presence in his office, sir."

"Guardian? Respectfully requests? I bet he does. What's the occasion?"

"There was no message. He just wanted to see you following the completion of your patrol, sir. Good luck sir."

"Thanks. I'm on my way right now." I'd heard that Guardian had been promoted and given the dubious job of Buccaneer Squadron's Executive Officer. I made my way to the squadron offices. They were all dark except for a small cube at the end of the corridor. There I found Guardian, buried under a stack of folders, datacards, holodisks, and teacups. Behind him was a door leading to the CO's office. I noticed an empty scotch bottle in the IN box on the desk. Unlike Guardian's it was covered only with a fine layer of dust.

"Working late Adam?" I asked to get Guardian's attention.

Guardian looked up. "Working late or starting early, it's hard to tell the difference. Take a seat. What are you drinking?" he asked.

I knew Guardian was big on some herb drink but I opted for a glass of Yukon Jack, a drink native to the Abbaji system. I didn't usually drink hard liquor, but as I was hitting my bunk right after this little meeting, I made an exception. Guardian buzzed the ready room galley and almost immediately a boxish droid shuffled in carrying a tray. Guardian retrieved a pot of tea and my drink. "Thanks Erratic," he said as he finished up what he was working on and closed the datapad in front of him.

The droid didn't respond it just parked itself in the corner and shut itself down. Guardian sighed, "Erratic is a bit temperamental. Thanks for coming down Hyp. I assume you have heard about Raven's assignment as CO of Buccaneer and my sudden, uh, promotion, to XO?"

I had flown in the raid that had nearly wiped out the Buccaneers. The Alliance High Command would need to do some heavy re-stocking of the squad to get it back on it's feet and functioning. I had some doubts about Raven as CO, but Guardian would make an excellent XO. "Yeah, I heard the rumors." I replied. "Congratulations."

"Thanks," Guardian said. "Hyp, I've been looking at the sim logs. You have been putting in a lot of time in Y-Wings. You've scored some impressive numbers in some of the cap ship missions. I'll get right to the point, it's obvious Buccaneer needs a huge overhaul. There are a lot of new pilots coming out of the training squadrons but most of them can't handle a Y- or B-Wing. And almost none of them have combat experience."

"So, what's that got to do with me?" I asked, but I could see where this was going.

"Well," Guardian continued, "I'm thinking you might want to trade your A-Wing for a bomber. I know that you can fly from the way that you handled yourself and your wingman on First Flight, and I need someone I can count on as we try to piece this squadron back together. You interested?"

A slow grin spread over my face. I had indeed thought of Buccaneer… I had always wanted to fly a bomber... I loved the idea of taking on a capital ship. It looked like I might get my chance. "You want me to fly with Buccaneer? What's Raven say?"

"He's leaving recruiting up to me. If you want a slot you got it," said Guardian. "I cleared this with Electro, and I want you to come over and help us bomb the hell out of the Empire."

"No sweat. Count me in."

"First Command"

Part 4 -- The Old Guard

I knew I was dreaming but that didn't seem to matter. I'd had this dream before... and actually lived through it once. My Y-Wing was jostled wildly by laser fire from a TIE Advanced. My rear shields had already gone past red. Suddenly, the green bolts stopped and I was clear. A quick check of my CMD revealed who had saved my butt. It was one of the new Corsairs, the Wookiee Groznik. Corsair was full of green recruits but they seemed to be learning fast. Not surprising considering what a snafu this mission was turning out to be.

"Thanks Corsair 4," I said, "I was getting kind of annoyed at that bozo. Chipped the hell out of my paint job."

"Welcome Buccaneer," the Wookiee roared and a mechanical voice translated over my comm. I swung my Y-Wing back at the two frigates that were blocking the hyperspace exit vector for the freighters. I only had two torpedoes left, and I was still seven clicks out from the frigates. No good, I thought. Another whizzer zipped over my cockpit, its twin-ion engines roaring. Then I heard Rogue Leader order all Buccaneers to stay with the freighters. There were only five of us left. I swung back toward the freighters. A squint rushed by me, firing into my forward shields. I quickly equalized as best I could without letting the lasers drop below double charge. I then heard Predator tell Buccaneer 8 to eject, but he was too late.

The problem with this mission seemed obvious. We were all going to die. It wasn't really a matter of how, just when. We'd walked into a trap and were about to be clustered fu...

My comm crackled to life... "Green 11 to Rogue Squadron, did someone order a pizza?" With that, my adrenaline level shot past the red line. I knew that voice! That was Rick "Minuteman" Morrissey and if Minuteman was here, Green Squadron and the Rehz'nor would not be far behind. Fatigue burned away and I dumped my remaining shields to lasers and took up a position to cover one of the three freighters our commandos had captured.

Green turned the tide for us that day. Between them and Rogue they pulled the enemy frigates out of position and the freighters were ordered out. Just as I was about to make the jump as cover for one of the freighters, I was jolted from behind. My ship was spun to port side and my head hit the viewport. A TIE Advanced shot past my port engine nacelle. I switched to lasers and blasted a hole in the whizzer's ball cockpit before he could jinx. Flames rushed out just before the ion engines overloaded and exploded. One of my lasers blew and I checked my damage indicator. I was fubar, lost ion cannons, launchers, one of my lasers and my hyperdrive. My R2 reported no chance in hell of fixing the hyperdrive.

"This is Buccaneer 6," I said, "I'm damaged. Weapons and hyperdrive... I can't jump out. I've got fighters all over me. Requesting assistance."

"This is Corsair Leader, hang on Bucc 6." It was Chris "Electro" Schock the leader of the interceptors on this shindig. His A-wing rushed past me. He ran off a whizzer that was coming up on my six. "All right, Kyd, I'm going to run some interference for you. Head towards the Rehz'nor."

"Roger, Corsair Leader," I said. We started toward the Alliance frigate, but my R2 started having conniption fits. "Ah, Electro, it seems that we have company. Lot's of it and all the wrong color on my screen." The reinforcements from the Imperial's asteroid base had finally put in an appearance. They were between the Green Squadron frigate and us. "Uh, Chris?"

"I see 'em, Kyd," Electro replied. "We'll have to make our way back to Caspa IV." Electro and I swung our fighters around and back toward the gas giant in this system. "Arakyd," Electro said, "I'm picking up an Alliance beacon. Let's check it out."

"Roger," I said, "you lead." We leveled our fighters toward the beacon. No sooner than we'd reached one and a half clicks than we saw a beat-up Imperial shuttle picking up the Wookiee pilot. "Hey Electro, my IFF reads green on the Lamb."

"Mine too," Electro said. "Hang on, it could be a--" Then a new voice crackled over the comm.

"Hi boys! This is Corsair 6, your friendly Imperial shuttle driver! Guardian and I made it out and picked up a shuttle on Vertigo. Thought you could use some S&R. We made up pick up on Rimmer and, as you can see, we're just snagging Groz here."

"That's great, Hyl," Electro said. "Listen up, Arakyd here has lost his hyperdrive and he needs a ride back."

"Sure, no problem," Hyl replied. "Arakyd, jettison your R2 unit then eject. We'll pick you both up."

"Will do," I said. With that, I blew the couplings on my R2 and hit the eject lever. At this point in the dream I usually wake up and tonight was no different. I sat up remembered how glad I felt when I was pulled into that rescue shuttle. Most of Buccaneer Squadron had not been so lucky. The Imperial ambush had nearly wiped us out.

I got dressed and headed down to the Lounge thinking about the aftermath of that mission. Mustang was the only Buccaneer to make it back to the Liberty under his own power. We sweated out fate of Bucc Leader for three days then heard he'd been picked up and was on the Redemption. But he immediately put in a transfer to another squadron and never came back to the Liberty. Several of our pilots were still listed as 'missing - presumed dead'. Then Mustang was bumped up to Rogue. I was the only one left of the original Buccaneers.

But Buccaneer was not dead, not yet anyway. One of the Corsairs, the one who pulled me out the void in fact, Guardian, transferred into Buccaneer right after First Flight. And I heard that we just got a new CO. I knew Raven from way back when he flew in Rogue. He had his quirks but if anyone could put together a new Buccaneer he could. No, Buccaneer wasn't dead... not yet.

And for that, the Empire would be very sorry. Particularly the little Imperial weasel that planned the ambush that took out so many of my friends.

"First Command"

Part Five -- The Swordsman

The colors of hyperspace swirled around outside the veiwport. Peace, I thought. The only place untouched by the Empire, and never to be touched by it as well. One day, the Empire will be gone, and the galaxy will become as peaceful as hyperspace. But no peace for me, not yet. Trained to be a "protector" of a people forced to flee their own planet I was now taking a new calling. I was joining the Rebel Alliance as a starfighter pilot. One day, the Empire will pay... one day...

"Reversion to real space in five minutes," called the pilot of the Lamda class shuttle, breaking me out of my reverie. "All passengers, please strap in."

I began to work at the harness on my seat, while the others aboard did the same. I looked around me at the passengers around the shuttle. A few appeared to be pilots and a several looked like general ratings for the Liberty, all ready to fight, and possibly give their lives for the freedom of the galaxy. Some of them looked green, new to the fight, but as determined as even the most seasoned of pilots. One or two, by the look in their eyes, I knew had gone through much more than I could possible hope to understand.

I had passed the time with several of the passengers and found that two were also transferring to the Liberty as new pilots of Buccaneer. One fellow, who went by the callsign Greywolf, wore medic pips on his collar. It never hurt to have some medicos in a squadron. The other was an auburn haired female named Aradia that was quite striking in appearance, but unfortunately did not have much to say.

By the time we were all strapped in, the pilot spoke again, "Reversion to real space in five... four... three... two... reverting to real space, now."

The colors of hyperspace immediately turned to starlines, then to dots of light, as the shuttle reverted back to real space. What I saw in front of the shuttle was an awe inspiring sight, the Mon Calamari Cruiser Liberty almost filled the viewport, lit up by the light of nearby binary star system. A perfect graft between organic aesthetics and military might. On Lomabi, we never really had a true capship of this class, settling instead for fighters and ground-based weapons for defense.

The Liberty was home of the legendary Rogue Squadron, as well as her sister squadrons, Corsair and Buccaneer. The pilots among them were some of the best the Alliance had to offer. Maybe this is the place where I will be able to stay and call home for the rest of my fighting days.

The shuttle slowly entered the landing bay. When it touched down, I unstrapped and stretched to ease my muscles. I got up and reached for my small bag of the memories from home, not much but all I really needed. I slung my sword on my shoulder, which got me more than a few strange looks from my fellow passengers.

When all of us stepped off the shuttle ramp, we were greeted by the quartermaster of the Liberty. He seemed all spit and polish and from the way he was ordering around the tech crews, he made an Imperial drill sergeant look downright fatherly. He first directed the new Corsairs to a Lieutenant called Stryker, the executive officer of Corsair. Then he turned to the three of us.

"Flight Officers Rollins, Emerson, and Hasegawa…" he called. We three were joining Buccaneer and directed us to a records droid of some kind, called Erratic.

Erratic sure was a depressing droid, always complaining of something. Instead of taking us to the squad office he led us to someplace totally unpronounceable in Calamari but simply called the "Lounge" in Basic.

As we followed him though the corridors of the Liberty, I noticed that it was not like any ship I'd ever been on before. There seemed to be a limitless number of twists and turns, nothing ran in a straight line. How anyone avoided getting lost in a ship like this was beyond me. To make navigation even worse, the lights were so dim, I almost ran into the walls a couple of times before my vision finally adjusted.

The Lounge, which turned out to be a bar and gaming area, was even darker than the rest of the ship. It was a wonder how anyone could find the place comforting. I scanned the room and tried to follow the droid and the other pilots in the darkness. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw something dark move across the ceiling. I felt more than saw it moving to my left and coming towards me. I dropped into a forward roll and came up with my sword in my hands. Drawing the weapon from its scabbard activated it and I could feel the slight vibration of it in my hands. I wound up standing in a fighting crouch in front of a table where sat a Captain in an orange flight suit, my sword in a two handed grip. The droid and other two pilots were standing nearby and all were looking at me like I'd just lost my mind – they did not seem sure whether to laugh or call security. I looked around and could see nothing of whatever it was that had caused me to jump. I couldn't shake an image of large curved teeth, and I had the feeling that I was being laughed at by more than my shuttle companions.

"Saw that did you?" the Captain at the table said. "You're very perceptive Flight Officer…" he glanced at a datapad the droid handed him and took a sip from a very large glass of amber liquid. "Flight Officer Hasegawa. Paladin they call you, huh? Very fitting."

This was how we met our new Commanding Officer, Captain Jim "Raven" Lee, who was a most interesting and colorful individual.

Settling in was harder than I'd thought it would have been. I'm still not used to the dark on board. The simulation scenarios that our Executive Officer, Guardian, has us flying are extremely hard. The shadow that had stalked me in the Lounge that first day was the Rogue squadron talisman or mascot. A very strange creature called a Banshee.

About a month later a fellow Lomabian transferred into the squadron and I had someone to practice my blade skills with. Valkyrie was nearly as good as myself in the traditional fighting style and he had picked up some very interesting two-hand techniques in his travels since the Empire overran our homeworld.

All in all this proves to be a very interesting group of pilots I've fallen in with.

"First Command"

Part Six -- The Femme Fatale

The B-Wing fighter bounced mightily under a barrage of fire coming from behind. The scanners blinked, knocked off line. A mechanical whimper sounded behind the cockpit, followed by the spine-tingling crunching of a concussion missile pummeling a thruster control jet into slag.

"Get me those scanners back, right now!" Tonto was working at 72% efficiency today, after a particularly heated exchange with a power generator last night. Should've left him in maintenance, and taken a stock astromech. Loyalty wins out again.

"Shields have priority, Aradia, but if you wish..." Tonto's vox decoder gave away a hint of disappointment.

"Never mind...keep at it."

I shunted all power to the engines, trying to get a boost out of the lumbering craft, then slapped the left control panel to stop that annoying alarm from ringing in my ears. I already knew I was in deep trouble. Didn't need to be deafened at the same time. The TIE Advanced behind me was locking in for yet another missile strike, and I slammed the ship hard to port, in an attempt to circle around.

"Shields back on line, Aradia," Tonto sounded a little more hopeful, but he was not entirely convincing. I transferred all laser power into the shields for a short burst, and flicked the toggle to aft position. The T/I was stalking like a vornskyr, not giving an inch of breathing room. I got tone from his missile lock, and repeated a vulgar trademark slogan appropriate to the situation.

"Way too close for me to pull out of this one," I muttered reaching for the eject lever. But I was too late, as my B-Wing disintegrated around me.

I was nearly blinded by the lights of the training center as I opened the cockpit of the darkened simulator. I took a moment to adjust my eyes, only to see the solemn figure of Captain Jim "Raven" Lee leaning against the control panel, datapad in hand. He did not look pleased.

"Logic would dictate that one should eject in that situation." No, Raven was not at all pleased.

"Yes, sir. I thought I could pull it out, though and waited too long." I removed the bulky flight helmet, shaking back my hair. I really should've bailed out way before that last hit.

"This isn't some video game, Slicer. You can't just put in another credit and start again once you lose a ship. These things go on record. You'd better start taking these simulations a little more seriously."

I was at a loss for a suitable retort and I could feel my face redden, knowing he had hit the mark right on target. I managed to mutter a "Yes, sir", as he removed his hard gaze from me to his datapad.

"Your past scores indicate that you're a fair pilot. Your current simulation scores really aren't all that bad, either, ignoring what I've seen from you over the past three sessions. Would it be wise of me to assume that you're simply adjusting to your new home on the Liberty?" Raven looked down to me again, with a hint of a smile on his face. I couldn't decide if he was offering me an excuse out of an awkward situation, or simply testing me. I chose the latter. Raven didn't strike me as the kind of commander who let his pilots off the hook with lame excuses.

"No, sir. I've had little difficulty adjusting. The crew has been quite accommodating."

Raven crossed his arms, and raised his eyebrows. "So I've heard."

I wondered just what he meant by that remark. Our CO was one I had not figured out yet. He spent all his time drinking in the Lounge but never seemed to get tanked. He was never around unless, like now, you screwed up and then it turned out that he was standing front row center. And for someone who was never seemingly around he seemed to know everything about what was going on in the squadron.

"Then what's the problem, Emerson?" he asked pointedly.

I shifted uncomfortably under his even gaze. I've never been one to break a sweat when cornered, but Raven could look at you like he sees right through you. When I had first arrived upon the CRS Liberty, I had expected the leader of Buccaneer Squadron to be a typical hard-assed military type, or a desk bound pencil pusher. They're usually one or the other. Raven was certainly anything but. I honestly didn't even know if the man had a desk. If he does, it's more likely to be filled with scotch bottles than paperwork.

We were interrupted by my squadmate Flight Officer Brendan "Phrisco" Cohoe emerging from the adjacent room. So Phrisco was the one flying that squint against me. I had to match his wide grin, for he certainly earned one.

"Well done, Phrisco," Raven acknowledged. "But I'd advise you to take a look at your film clip before the next round – frames 471 through 755 particularly. You'll be flying a Y-Wing on the cooperative mission later this week."

"Thanks, sir," Phrisco removed his gloves and helmet, reaching over to shake my hand. "Nice sim, Slicer. You really gave me a good chase. Catch me at the Lounge later, and I'll treat you to a drink." He stepped out of the path of the swinging recovery arm, as Tonto was freed from his chamber.

"Thank, Phrisco, but you deserve the freebies. I'm the one that got slagged, remember?" Phrisco threw me another boyish grin as he headed towards the film room.

"How do you think you'll fare on the cooperative mission, Slicer?" Raven hadn't finished making the roster for that upcoming simulation, and it was doubtful that he would even let me in on the action.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if you assigned me to fly the transport, after that dismal showing." No need in showing false pride.

"You'll be lucky if I let you fly it, period." Raven looked down towards the deck plates, pensive, then back to me again. "I won't say that your sim was a total loss, because you showed some good maneuvers. But, listen, there is a lot more at stake here on the Liberty than meets the eye. Rumor in the Fleet has it that the rebuilt Buccaneer Squadron won't last past its first mission. Brass is betting that if it doesn't implode from internal shifts, it'll get blasted from the outside. Whether your problem is overconfidence, or lack of it, is something you'll have to settle for yourself. If you need help, ask. But I don't need any more head cases in the squadron than I've already got." He looked away for a moment, gritting his teeeth. "I don't want you to 'think' you can pull it out. Either know you can or eject. Get your scores up. It could mean the lives of your squadmates someday. Oh, and your billet here on the Liberty is depending on it."

He left me standing there, unsure of which of the ten emotions I was feeling should be primary. As the training center door whizzed open, he turned back towards me. "Oh, and when you're done practicing, come down for a drink and a few hands of Sabbacc. I have to win some cash back from Mike." Good, I thought. No hard feelings. But his invitation to Sabbacc was a definite dig, considering that my horrid performance in the last sim was still better than my last game of cards. Mixer must be crabbing about Raven's tab again. I managed a smile in his direction, which he returned three-fold before exiting.

"Guess he told you," Tonto chirped a mild rebuke as we strolled towards the turbolift.

"Hush, Tonto, else you'll find yourself crunching numbers up in Accounting." At least I had one more sim scheduled tomorrow morning, giving me a chance at redemption. The roster for practice sessions was filled, so there was little chance of my getting any more rounds in before that. Checking my wrist-chrono, I noticed there was still some time to get over to the gym and then catch some snooze.

The scheduled physical training program was the brainchild of Buccaneer's Executive Officer, Adam "Guardian" Burns. His dedication to the physical well being of the pilots went far beyond flying missions. He believed that a healthy mind was impossible without sound physical health, and incorporated this theory into the program. I had always thought I was in decent physical shape, but I would still wake up nearly every morning with some new ache or pain attributed to Guardian's workouts. He claimed this would go away in a few short weeks, apparently with the help of massive infusions of Ithorian Green Tea. I noticed, however, that Raven never seemed to join us for the exertions.

Exiting the turbo-lift, I was quite surprised to find the gym nearly deserted. I checked my chrono again, to ensure that I was not late. No, actually I was early. "Where is everyone?" I asked, to empty air.

"My sensors pick up several life forms in the adjacent area," volunteered Tonto. Approaching the next room, I heard the telltale signs of one of Paladin's workout. The clanging of steel weapons rang throughout the center. I poked my head in, finding several of my squadmates watching Paladin and Valkyrie in a mock battle. I had spent several of my workout periods just watching these two, for the skill involved simply amazed me. Whenever Valkyrie closed in on Paladin with a flourishing flurry of swings, Paladian would parry them repeatedly. And vice-versa. These two would go at it for hours, each looking to best the other. I often failed to complete my own workout, due to watching them.

I managed to swap some sim time with Greywolf and cut short my workout. After a better showing in the sim that Phrisco had waxed me on I felt better. I was approaching my quarters when Groznik stuck his furry head out of his room, located next door to mine. "Slicer, where you been the last few days? I haven't seen you at the Lounge..." his translator decoded. I showed him the flight helmet in my hands, smiling.

"Tell me Groz, how do you handle helmet hair?"

He grinned, and I had to stare at those pointy canines. "Yeah, I just came back from the sims myself," he howled softly. "They've really got Bucc going through the paces. Not to spoil anything, but Raven rigged a few surprises up in the sims while I was there."

I raised an eyebrow, contemplating this. "Surprises? I'm surprised when I survive the thing, period." Groz whuffed a throaty laugh.

"Raven's mantra is 'tough missions make tough pilots.' " Raven had that base covered, for sure. I retired to my quarters, with the Wookiees' words still echoing in my mind.

"Tonto, wake me up in six hours time. I don't want to be late." I pulled off my boots, and settled back onto the uncomfortable bunk, not even bothering to remove the flight suit. Trying to drift off to sleep, I couldn't help but think about the words Raven had spoken to me earlier. I had heard of the fate of the previous Buccaneer Squadron, and definitely shared my COs concern about the squad being decimated a second time. I certainly didn't have enough information to determine whether that prior disaster was the result of poor training or simply sheer bad luck. If the former Buccs were in the same program that I was struggling through, it couldn't have been because they were unprepared. The fight against the Adamant had cost the Buccaneer dearly.

The Adamant. Kendall. Just the name out loud was enough to give me shivers. I knew not only the name but the man it belonged to. When I was briefed on First Flight I made a quick search of the datanet and verified my suspicions. What in the world would make the Empire choose him as the commander of the Adamant?

When I escaped the slave ship Chupacabra, I took some solace in the knowledge that the Empire would surely demote Captain Kendall to deck officer, or worse. When I had heard that he was at the helm of an Imperial Frigate, I had nearly choked on my juri juice. Kendall was the same man who had murdered half a dozen helpless slaves before my eyes, savoring the sheer power of the act. The same man who summoned me to his quarters, as he had done to countless other female slaves, insisting upon total submission. I had spent nearly a month in the infirmary and a year in the brig after that visit--his stormtroopers had to physically take me from the room, for I nearly murdered him with my bare hands. I believe he still bears a scar from that visit.

I never got the six hours of sleep I desperately needed, between dwelling on Raven's words, trying to isolate the probable causes of my recent lack of success, and thinking about Kendall. Tonto was little help to me, for his recorded flight data contained nothing but proof of some seriously stupid maneuvers, making me all the more miserable. Arriving back at the training center, the others present were politely oblivious to my foul mood. Several members of Buccaneer Squadron were present, taking their turns, and being evaluated by Guardian, our XO.

As Tonto was being fed into his socket, I was approached by Guardian, who regarded me with a concerned gaze. "Everything okay, Slicer? You look a little tense. You should really cut back on those stim drinks." Oh, but a stim drink would've hit the spot all right.

"Just having a little problem with scoring, that's all," I said.

Guardian looked around at the other pilots preparing for their sims, then nodded, lowering his voice. "So I've noticed. Anything I can do to help?" I gave him my most stunning smile, for I was hoping he'd ask.

"You could volunteer to be my wingman for the sim..."

Guardian responded with a quiet laugh, shaking his head. "Sorry, but you have to stick with the AI guys for this one." Knowing I'd have a useless artificial wingman didn't help my mood one damn bit.

"Can I be a little blunt, concerning your scoring?" Guardian pulled a datapad out of his flight suit pocket, calling up the relevant information. "Seems your scores were just fine until three recorded sessions ago, and that would put it, oh..." he paused for a moment, thinking back. "About 7 days ago. Wasn't that about the same time you came down ill? If I recall, you had to leave the Lounge on rather short notice that evening. But you were quite fine the next day."

I thought back… that was the night was when Raven and Electro offered the new recruits the story of the Alliance versus the Adamant on Corsair's first flight.

"Is that right?" he asked again. In the short time I had known him, Adam had struck me as abnormally observant. Making that connection was just too creepy for words.

"Uh, yes. That would be about right," I offered, avoiding his eyes.

He knew by my awkward silence that he was getting closer, so he pushed once more, quite gently. "I took the liberty of checking your records that evening. It appears that you have met the commander of the Adamant before."

I turned then, to meet his eyes. "Yes, we have met."

Guardian sighed, and nodded, offering me a courteous hand up into the simulator cockpit. "Maybe one day you'll tell me what happened. But until then remember this: You were lucky to escape him with your life. The last Bucc 8 was not so fortunate."

Guardian leaned over the cockpit, his voice a harsh whisper. "We're gonna go get him, Aradia. The best revenge you could ever exact upon him requires that you be here with us." He looked at me, his eyes a stony glare. "So do your job and kill some Imps." Guardian jumped down from the sim cockpit, and slapped the side of the simulator, smiling once again. "Light 'em up, Bucc 8."

I sat in the darkened cockpit for several moments, stunned into silence, preparing for battle. Tonto was chirping some silly fast food jingle in MIDI, ready to mix it up. Primary diagnostics put him at 89.4 % --a marked improvement from yesterday. Suddenly the cockpit lit up with starlines, marking the start of the exercise. Raven's reassuring voice filled my headset.

"Okay, Bucc 8, you've got a cover mission coming your way. There's a frigate out there that needs fragging, and you're to cover the Y-Wing group assigned to the job with your B-Wing. There are quite a few gunboats patrolling the area, along with the usual TIE squads. Good luck."

The starlines were replaced with an iconized map of the battle area. I counted three initial GUNs, and the frigate. I assumed that the frigate would be spitting the fighters out at me. My stomach churned a little, remembering Guardian's words. Just do your job, cover the others. That's all. Cake, right? Keep the TIEs off their sixes. Toss a few missiles here and there, give the Ys a hand. Draw fire from the frigate. What made me most nervous was knowing that instead of the usual stellar lineup of Buccaneers in the Y group, I would be stuck with the AI pilots. I had to keep an even keener eye on these auto-pilot ships, because they weren't particularly well suited to defending themselves.

The starlines faded into spots as the sim engaged. Powering up lasers, I drained power into shields, glad that the B-Wings had a healthy rack on them. The Y squadron set up their formations as we approached the frigate. Light them up indeed, I thought...

"First Command"

Part Seven -- Setting Up Shop

The B-Wing dodged and weaved against the dark backdrop, trying to evade the jade blasts emanating from the pair of TIE Interceptors behind it. The B's maneuvers slowed as it took more and more hits; then the cockpit exploded, sending the pilot and the command couch sailing into the blackness of space. An instant later, the B-Wing blossomed into an orange fireball.

The image froze on the wall screen, and Guardian sighed. "Well," he muttered, "she ejected this time." He took a minute to enter Slicer's score into a small datapad, then tossed the pad and the stylus on his desk and killed the screen with the remote. "God, I gotta get some sleep."

Sleep had been high on Adam's list of priorities for the last few days, but downtime had been scarce. Between trying to train and assimilate a squadron of relatively new pilots into the Alliance navy and being kidnapped by pirates and hauled halfway across the sector to save a friend's life, he'd been relatively busy. And aside from some painkillers he hadn't been able to do anything for his black eye, which was slowly fading but still managed to remind him of the consequences of rash action in the face of overwhelming odds rather sharply.

And still he didn't have any time. One of the new pilots, Dan "Whisper" Crowley, had turned up positive in the physical for a small allergic reaction to Wookiee fur. They'd managed to get him started on immunizations for it, and, in time, they'd kill it, but by some sadistic twist of fate Whisper was assigned a sim pod that Groznik had just used in the training area. It hadn't been pretty--the young pilot had immediately broken into a painful-looking red rash and had a sneezing fit. He'd been moved into medical for 24 hours, and Guardian had promised to come check on him.

He grabbed a pile of datapads from the corner of his desk--requisition forms for necessities for the squadron; ordinance, training simulation programs, spare Y-wing parts, and a host of new R2 units. Things that needed a commanding officer's signature. Guardian doubted he'd get it. A gut feeling, really, but still...

The chime to his office sounded, and Adam straightened in his chair. "Come in!" he called, smoothing out the front of his jumpsuit. The door slid to the side, and Flight Officer Rafael "Hyl" Costa Guerra, Corsair 6, entered, datacard in hand. "Hey, Hyl," Guardian said smiling, "what's up?"

"Not much. I can't stay long. Corsair's got a full-squad sim in a few minutes, but I thought I'd run this up to you. Just came through on the Intel boards." Hyl had been training under the watchful eye of Liberty Intelligence chief C'our Denran. His memory capabilities sharpened by experience in human physiology, as well as his love for history had made him a natural for Intel work and he often helped Denran out. Hyl tossed the datacard to Guardian, turned, and strode out, waving over his shoulder.

Guardian snatched the datacard deftly out of the air, waited for the door to close, and then popped it into the nearest data reader. His face tightened into a scowl as he scanned the readout. "Interesting..."

Guardian ducked into the Liberty's lounge and, without looking up from the datapad in front of him, crossed to the end of the bar. One man sat there alone, Buccaneer's CO, Jim "Raven" Lee. Guardian slid into the stool next to Raven and waited for his superior to notice him.

After a moment Raven looked up from the shot glass in front of him. He turned, noticed Adam, groaned, and finished his drink. "Am I interrupting something?" Guardian asked, a slight edge in his voice.

"Nothing that can't wait. What's up?"

"I need your signature on these. Standard stuff," Guardian said, handing the majority of the datapads to Raven. "Replenishment reqs, a new motivator for Slicer's Y-Wing, a few of the new training programs, uniforms, nothing unusual." Raven glanced over the readouts and scribbled his signature on the pads using a data stylus. "Is that all?"

"No. Have you heard about Whisper?"

"Yeah, he's in sickbay with Wookiee-tosis, isn't he?" Raven turned back to the bar and motioned for Mixer to refill his glass.

"Yeah. Doc Banarj says he'll be out in less than a day, but I'm sure a visit from his CO would cheer him up. I left a note in your office about it, but I don't think a living creature has been in there since you took over the squad."

Raven smiled. "I was down there at 1400 hours, Lieutenant. His condition is improving and the prognosis is excellent. Cutter has started him on de-sensitizing injections and he should be Wookiee-proof by this time tomorrow."

Guardian was unimpressed. "Since you know your way around med-lab so well when are you going to be taking your physical eval? I ordered them for the entire squadron. That includes you."

Raven turned fully back to Guardian. "Is that what this is about?"

"No, but it came up. Raven, Medical doesn't have an updated record of you. This is not something to kid around about. We almost lost Chris because of the same reason."

"I'm fine."

"I know that, you know that, but they have to know…"

"No. And that's final, Lieutenant." Raven got a pained look in his eyes, one that Guardian had seen a lot and was starting to worry him more than Raven's drinking. "Look, Adam, if I have a problem I'm handling it. I know you're concerned about my drinking but it does not effect my performance so just drop it."

Guardian opened his mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it. There was something going on with his CO. Raven had taken the regular psych and physical checkups regularly while he was in Rogue. Then he had disappeared for a couple of months and when he came back to the Liberty and took up the position of Corsair XO he'd stopped taking them. He'd tried to find out why, then why Ra'kaat was looking the other way on this breech of ships protocol. He got nowhere on either item. But it had something to do with Raven's disappearance and no one was talking about what happened. But there were rumors... well, that mystery would have to wait until another time. Guardian had something else on his mind and he flipped open his last datapad.

"What's that?" Raven asked, annoyed.

Guardian drifted his gaze up and around the Lounge. Groznik was the only other pilot at the bar, but he was down at the other end of the bar, watching what passed for fish in the huge aquarium... he should be all right. He handed the datapad to Raven. "Intel just got this. The Adamant's resurfaced."

Raven snorted and tossed the pad on the bartop. "Yeah, and? We're under orders not to go after the Adamant."

"We can nail this guy, Jim," Adam implored. "After the First Flight fiasco, the Adamant had to limp to Sluis Van. It got there just ahead of the raid staged by Green Squadron, and ran at the first sign of Outlaw's group. It disappeared for three weeks, and you know that the convoy Corsair tagged last week was carrying a replacement hyperdrive for the Adamant. Now, it ducks out of hiding, awaiting fighter resupply, at a civilian station. It's just sitting there!"

"No, Guardian, we can't."

"What's stopping us?"

"A direct order from the High Command, that's what."

"Since when have you been concerned with what the brass says? We can run it as a Black Op, nobody has to--"

"No!" Raven hissed. "I'm skating on thin ice as it is, Adam. A lot of the uppity-ups want to see Buccaneer go straight down the tubes, and I'm not going to let that happen. Do you understand? Under no circumstances are you to take any action to engage the Adamant. Is that clear?"

Guardian nodded, stood, saluted, turned on his heel and left, fuming. Raven watched his XO's back as he stormed out of the Lounge. "From little spores do mighty dragons grow," he muttered and smiled. Then he returned to his drink.

"First Command"

Part Eight -- The Plan

The chrono on Guardian's wrist shrilly sounded, awakening him from his thoughts. He eyed the digital readout, noticing the stiffness in his arm as he reached a hand up to rub his tired eyes. It surprised him that remnants of his war injury still hung with him, although lately only in times of severe exhaustion. He had been sitting here in his quarters aboard the CRS Liberty for nearly 12 hours, and his eyes were beginning to burn from pouring over what seemed like an infinite loop of archival data downloaded from the Alliance data library. But, his duty as XO of the reformed Buccaneer Squadron was now calling him back into reality. Time to check on the troops.

He carefully removed the data card from the terminal slot, and keyed in his command sequence to access the network log. He scanned the listing, checking for evidence of his long session. None. Good, the slicer sequence had worked properly. His search had yielded few results, however.

His legs sighed in relief as he threaded his way through the busy corridors of the massive cruiser towards the simulator room. He had been spending far too much time behind a data station lately, and was not proud of breaking his own orders regarding physical training. The door to the sim room slid open, and the techs looked up from their places behind the control panels. He regarded them with a polite nod, dismissing them back to their duties. Reading the schedule board, he found no Buccaneers present. He rolled his eyes, and exited the room quickly, knowing just where he could find his pilots.

Rooster welcomed him warmly to the busy Lounge, and it cheered him somewhat to see her friendly face. She was engaged in a lively conversation with Andy 'Predator' Furlan, Rogue 10, and Rafael 'Hyl' Costa Guerra, Corsair 6. Guardian was reluctant to ruin their evening with his sour mood despite their insistence that he join them. Besides, he had found who he was looking for. Arakyd sat at a far table, with the giant Wookiee Groznik towering next to him.

"There you are Guardian," Ryan "Arakyd" McClure offered his XO a seat next to him. "I've been trying to catch up with you off duty for two days now." He sounded a little annoyed, but Guardian guessed that it was not from his XO's lack of visibility.

"I've been working on squadron business." Better leave it at that. No need to delve into unnecessary details, lest he arouse suspicion. Groznik shifted his large form in his small chair, clearly uncomfortable, yet attempting to look casual.

Arakyd lowered his voice, making it difficult to hear him in the boisterous room. "We've got some business with you, as well. You've been holding out on us, Adam."

Guardian eyed him curiously, straining his senses to detect Ryan's meaning. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that. What, exactly, have I been holding?"

Groznik ruffed out two synthesized syllables. "The Adamant."

Guardian leaned back against his chair, just as Rooster appeared with a steaming cup of tea. "This one's on me, Guardian. Maybe plugging you full of free drinks will get you to come around here more often."

Guardian gave her his best charming smile. "Wild Banthas couldn't keep me away from you for very long, Roo. But running a squadron is a busy job." His eyes found the form of Raven sitting at the full Sabbac table at the opposite side of the room. "Running it single-handedly is even busier." The tension faded momentarily as Rooster laughed, and offered her condolences.

When Rooster left them again, Ryan leveled his eyes at the senior officer. "We know that Alliance Intelligence has a lead on the Adamant, and we'd like to know why nothing is being done." So that was what they were up to. Guardian sighed out loud, clearly pissed.

"You don't have clearance to be sifting through classified intelligence reports, Kyd. Neither do you, Groz," said Guardian as he turned his head to face the Wookiee. Groznik showed him a set of pointy teeth as he grinned back at Adam.

"We don't need Alliance reports," Groznik gruffed another laugh. "All I need to do is come to the Lounge. How could you and Raven miss seeing a 2 1/2 meter high Wookiee sitting at the bar, during your argument a few days ago?"

Adam had seen him, but didn't think Wookiees could hear that well. He sighed, setting his cup down on the table. "How much did you hear?"

"Enough for us to know that Raven is content with letting the Adamant slip away from us again," Arakyd looked down towards the table. "I lost a lot of friends during that mission, Adam. My squadron was destroyed around me." The Imps had cornered the rebels like a womprat in a trap that day. "Groznik came to me, knowing how badly I want to even the score against the Adamant. We both want to right a few wrongs."

Adam could see painful words unsaid by Arakyd, knowing full well his anger. "I've gone as far as I can go with the subject, aside from pestering Admiral Ra'kaat. Regardless, Raven has already informed me that High Command has spoken on the subject. Our orders are to leave the Adamant alone."

"You're telling us old news, Guardian," muttered Groznik.

"Yeah," added Kyd. "Why don't you enlighten us with what you came up with while you've been hiding out. My guess is you've got something cooking in your quarters that certainly ain't Green Tea."

Guardian sighed again, looking again towards the Sabbac table that Buccaneer Leader called home. He couldn't understand how his CO could be so oblivious to the obvious. "We are under orders not to engage the Adamant. However," he added, almost casually, "I don't recall anyone ordering us to leave the commander of the Adamant alone." Groznik raised a furry brow, as Kyd looked on with interest.

"Then you have been holding out on us. What do you have planned?" Groz turned a knob on his translating unit, turning the volume down a notch.

"More importantly," Kyd added, "How can we help?" Guardian smiled solemnly then looked around the crowded room casually.

"Do you understand the possible repercussions of any action we take?"

"Guardian, why the hell are we doing all this extra training, if we aren't allowed to use what we've learned?"

"That's not the point."

Groznik nodded, offering his take on the situation. "Kyd, he means we could be in deep pudu, whether we succeed, or not."

"I'm willing to take the risk," Kyd sat back in his chair, eyeing the crowd. "It'd be worth it, in the long run." Groznik roared an agreement. "What's your plan?"

"Simple. We lure Kendall away from the Adamant."

Arakyd rolled his eyes. "Oh sure, simple. What's your bait?'

Guardian grinned mischievously, and finished off his tea in a single gulp. "This isn't the place to talk about it. Besides, the 'bait' must be consulted first."

The Engineering Deck was blissfully quiet, which was a welcome relief to Guardian's tired mind as the three exited the turbolift. Guardian punched a code into the access panel of the technicians' lab, and the door opened. They were met with the sight of Slicer and Michael "Parody" Miller, Corsair 7, leaning over a partially disassembled astromech droid. Aradia welcomed them with a smile. Arakyd moved in to get a better look.

"What happened to Tonto?" Arakyd asked, surveying the R2 unit's innards over Parody's shoulder. Parody was probing at some frayed circuitry with his finger, and just watching him flirt with disaster made Kyd a bit nervous.

Slicer pushed back her auburn hair, and scowled. "He had a run-in with a faulty power socket a few days ago, and has been glitchy ever since. I can't seem to isolate the ionized grid. Parody's arrived to save the day for me."

"What do you expect, from stolen equipment?" Parody grinned, taking the testing clips from her hands. "At least the little motormouth is quiet for a change."

Groznik growled in agreement.

"Ninety percent of Alliance property is stolen equipment, you know," offered Arakyd, as Guardian pulled on Slicer's sleeve, leading her away from the group.

"How would you like a little action away from the simulators?" Guardian stopped towards the rear of the tech lab, looking inside the corner office to make sure he wasn't being overheard. Again. Slicer's eyes lit up at the thought of a new challenge.

"Something more exiting than freighter patrols, I hope." Flying escort was one of the more tedious, yet firmly necessary jobs of any Alliance pilot.

Guardian smiled ruefully. "Definitely. I've come up with some ideas regarding our mutual Imperial friend." He noticed she flinched slightly. "I was hoping you'd be able to lend us a hand. "

Crossing her arms, Slicer nodded. "What's Tactical got planned?" Guardian clenched his teeth, then forced himself to relax again.

"Nothing. High Command wants the Adamant left alone. So we're going after Commander Kendall himself."

"So Raven wants Ra'kaat to boot him out of command by pulling a black op? It's a glorious way to go out, I must give him that."

Adam looked down to the deck plates, then towards the three pilots still tinkering with the astromech. "Raven doesn't know about it. This is my project." He met her eyes again. "What I'm asking you is, if you think dusting Kendall is worth your commission aboard the Liberty."

Aradia stared at him for a long moment, pondering the thought. "It would certainly boost morale around here."

"Naturally, but that doesn't answer my question."

"Who else is involved?"

"Just us four. None of this goes any further than the two of us, Groz, and Kyd."

She nodded, considering this. "What's your plan?"

He tilted his head, regarding her with his best are-you-serious expression. "Now, you really can't expect me to tell you that without giving me some sort of commitment." She grinned, enjoying the game.

"You want me to commit without reading the fine print first?"

"Hey, don't you trust your XO?" he said, returning her grin.

"Oh sure, play the guilt card. Count me in." Then, as an afterthought, she added: "For the good of the Alliance, of course."

"I intend to lure Kendall away from the Adamant. Then we kill him."

"Count me in twice. How, may I ask, do you intend to lure him off his cozy frigate?"

Guardian smiled, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I'm lookin' at the bait."

Slicer let off a single "Ha!" so loud that all three pilots, and Tonto, looked over in surprise at the two huddled in the corner. She lowered her voice to match his. "What makes you think he'd want to come after me? We didn't, ah, hit it off too well at our last little private session.

"He won't know it's you. What will bring him out is the information he'll think you're going to broker for him."

"What are we supposed to be selling him?"

"The identity of Targeter."

"First Command"

Part Nine -- The Briefing

"This is Matian Kendall, commander of the Imperial Frigate Adamant. Graduated top of his class from the Imperial Naval Academy branch on Coruscant. Served aboard the Victory-class Star Destroyer Butcher for six months before he was promoted to security officer aboard an Imperial slave ship working the Kessel run. He managed to lay blame on the slave uprising on the ship's captain and to work his way up the chain of command. He recently landed the Adamant's CO job."

"Intel's PsyOps readout on him looks like a textbook Imperial megalomaniac. Power hungry, ruthless, double-dealing, shrewd, and totally evil. Not a nice guy. If we catch him, we don't deal with him. We simply ice him. Believe me, he deserves it. The list of atrocities on his sheet runs as long as Groz's arm."

"This is Freeman Station. It's similar in layout to several stations in the Cron Drift. I've been there several times and made up a 3D layout so you'd better study it. Freeman is a low-key civilian installation on the trade route between the Core Worlds and the Corporate Sector. There's a lot of civilian freighter traffic that passes through, so a four-ship Y-Wing group shouldn't draw too much attention, especially after Tonto tweaks our IFF codes. Freeman Station is also home to this," Guardian passed out several advertising holopics. "This is Max Quentil's Cantina. Max owes me a few favors, and I've been in touch with him. He's willing to lend us a hand, as long as his head isn't on the executioner's block. I've done my best to assure him, but I can't be all that sure of his safety. If push comes to shove, he's to be considered unreliable."

"Now, this is the plan. Hyl in Corsair has helped us with some contacts that have dropped some mis-information into the right Imperial ears. Using the codename ‘Judas' I've arranged a meeting in the Cantina between Kendall and an exotic dancer that he thinks will put him in contact with someone who will sell him information that the Emperor will reward him dearly for. Slicer's going to play the part of Judas since she's the only one of us who can recognize Kendall in person."

Slicer snorted. "This just keeps getting better and better. Dancer in a strip joint, right?"

"No, no," Guardian replied. "The dancers in Max's place wear body paint, or did the last time I was in there. Look, we have to keep Kendall off-balance, thinking he's in control. You're his only hope of getting the identity of Targeter. He'll be so hungry to get his hands on that that he will hardly notice you, and he certainly won't be staring at your face. And just as well too, since he probably doesn't harbor a lot of warm feelings for you."

"Groz, you're going to be our way out. I want you near the door, making small talk with patrons. You're cover is bouncer. Try to be as inconspicuous as possible… well, as inconspicuous as a Wookiee can be. We're going to need to dye your fur, too, just in case the ISB has anything on you and Kendall's done his homework."

The translator turned the Wookiee's low howl into, "Only if it washes out."

"Of course. Kyd, you're mobile. We're going to get you a holdout and you're going to play a waiter. Move around, shmooze, serve drinks, but keep your eyes on the table where Slicer will be meeting with Kendall after her number on stage."

Slicer nearly choked on her juri juice, "I'm sorry, did you say dance number? On stage?"

Ignoring her protests, Guardian continued briefing his co-conspirators. "I'm going to pose as the actual seller. I'll pick up Kendall at the landing bay and tail him to the Cantina, arriving just after him. Slicer will validate that we've got the real Kendall and I'll join them at a table. We'll negotiate a little, make it look like we're trying to squeeze him. He'll get huffy no doubt, and then we'll agree to whatever he wants. We'll leave the Cantina, get him alone to give him the info, and cap him. Then, we pack up and go home. Simple."

"What happens if something goes wrong?" Kyd asked.

"Groz clears the door. Kyd, you put some shots up into the ceiling, down anybody who pulls a gun. I'll do the same, and we sprint for it. We're supposed to have a fix in courtesy of Max with a spaceport controller. We'll get clearance and jump before anybody cracks wise. If we're separated, get to the Ys and get back to the Liberty. Any more questions?"

"Yes, Lieutenant Burns. What do you wish me to do?" Guardian turned towards the squat astromech stationed nearby.

"Tonto, you're leading the motor pool. We're going to give you the warm-up codes, so you can prep the Ys for launch at any time. And especially after that last astromech incident, I wouldn't trust any other droid with our ships. At least, none of the generics. Oh, and you're also the only one with all the Intel data. Any other questions?"

No one said a word.

"Alright, then. Pack up. I've got the four of us scheduled for an extended training flight. We're scheduled to leave at 0630."

The conspirators left the empty machine shop on board the Liberty. From a nearby vent there was a quiet thunk and what sounded like steam escaping. "Interesssssssting."

"First Command"

Part Ten -- The Trap

Timing is going to be everything, Slicer thought to herself. Max Quentil’s Cantina was in full swing, with a Bith jive band playing their large brains out on a small stage in one corner. She writhed and turned through her number on a floating glass stage. Her dance was about over. As she cartwheeled into a series of back flips she saw the joint was packed. There were a dozen waiters working the floor (including an immaculately dressed Ryan "Arakyd" McClure, a white towel neatly draped over his arm.)

The band hit the final riff for her finale and she scissored through the air and landed on the last beat of the tune. The lights came up and she slipped off stage amidst the applause and the tossed credits of the patrons. She checked the chrono over the bar. Guardian had set the meeting to happen in five minutes, and knowing Kendall, he would be punctual. She decided not to change, the body make-up and wig she was wearing would be her best disguise anyway, and her appearance was guaranteed to distract the Imperial Officer.

She slipped into the reserved booth and a waiter sped past, placing a glass on the edge of the table. Sipping the drink, she again thought about how crucial the timing of this would be. She’d have to keep Kendall interested long enough for Adam to make an appropriate entrance, and then keep him off balance while he bargained for the information he thought they had to sell. It wasn’t going to be easy; but then, she hadn’t expected it to be.

Arakyd swept by her table again. Her glass disappeared, replaced by a similar, but full, chalice. She wondered what Ryan had served her this time--he seemed to like subjecting her to various forms of nonalcoholic stimulants. Guardian had made it very clear that they couldn’t risk having anyone tipsy in the least. Their lives depended on it.

She heard a loud woofing sound from the door. Looking up, she saw Groznik laughing it up with a mixed group of humans and aliens. The Wookiee seemed to be having a good time. At least someone was going to enjoy this.

Not that capping Kendall would be a chore. It was just…

There he was.

Slicer’s gaze locked on the man clothed in a nondescript outfit, still vaguely military-cut. Still, there was no mistaking the swagger in his step, the gleam in his eyes. Slicer’s blood took a sudden drop in temperature, and she finished of the rest of her stim drink in a single gulp.

Kendall took a slow look around the Cantina, and Slicer watched a small smile settle on his face. Then he stepped into the crowd and disappeared from her sight. She waited, knowing he’d show up. After a minute, the serpent she saw in her nightmares slid into the booth across from her.

"Is this seat available?" Kendall asked with a leer. At least that was according to plan. Kendall had a weakness for beautiful women and Slicer intended to use that weakness against him.

"For you it is," she answered in husky voice, very unlike her own. Guardian had sprayed her vocal cords with a drug that took her voice down to a lower register. All part of her disguise and it would wear off in a day or so. Kendall smiled at her but kept an eye on the crowd around them. She saw the scar she’d left him from their earlier encounter, on the left side of his neck. He turned back to her and grinned again.

"So, when do we begin? Once this business is over perhaps we could have a quiet dinner together?"

Slicer tried to look interested. "As soon as you’ve convinced me that you are who you claim to be then I’ll put you in touch with the person who has the information you want. The galaxy is a dangerous place and you can’t be too careful." She picked up her glass and waved it at a waiter to indicate she wanted another drink. This was also the signal to Arakyd that Kendall had taken the bait.

With a condescending look the commander of the Adamant pulled a small packet from his tunic and slid it across the table to Slicer. She glanced through his Imperial ID and nodded. "Everything appears in order. You know this is strictly a cash and carry deal. No letters of credit, no Imperial promises. Just cash."

"Of course, my dear. I understand completely. The money is available once I’m satisfied that the information is genuine. The Empire will pay handsomely for this information."

Guardian appeared and slid into the booth next to Slicer. "Sorry I’m late," he said. Slicer indicated the credentials Kendall had provided her and nodded. "Always pleased to meet a staunch defender of the Empire," he said. "What say we go take a look at the money and then we can do some business."

The Imperial studied Guardian a moment. "If you actually can provide me with the identity of the Rebel agent known as Targeter you will be amply rewarded. If on the other hand you are wasting my time things will not go so well for you and our lovely young friend here."

Slicer cut into the conversation, "Whoa, look I’m just setting up the meet for a percentage. I’m not taking sides in this thing at all."

"Nevertheless, we shall all remain in each others company until our business is concluded." With that Kendall produced a small pocket blaster and leveled it across the table. "Enough chit-chat. Let us indeed go look at the money and then hope your information is worth what I’m willing to pay for it."

Guardian and Slicer stood up and Kendall put the gun in his pocket, but kept it trained on the two in front of him. "Nice and easy, let’s make for the door."

As they approached the door a waiter hurried up to them. "Excuse me! You haven’t paid your tab!" He waved a datapad at them and held it out to Guardian. The waiter stepped up to the three and slid back the towel that was draped over his arm revealing a Merr-Sonn Model 44 blaster. Arakyd then jammed the barrel of the weapon into Kendall’s ribs. Slicer quietly retrieved Kendall’s gun.

Kendall seemed about to speak when the hulking figure of a Wookiee loomed over the group. Still playing the part of the waiter, Arakyd raised his voice and spoke to the bouncer, "These people refuse to pay their bill. Eighty-six them!"

"What’s going on?" Kendall demanded through clenched teeth as they were herded to the door.

"More than you know," Slicer replied. "You’re not a popular man in some parts of the galaxy."

Kendall chuckled. "Do you seriously think that you can get away with whatever you’re planning?"

Guardian ignored him and they reached the side door of the Cantina. Groznik punched in the code and the door slid open on what should have been an empty corridor. Immediately Slicer was grabbed and pulled outside; men in white armor poured through the portal, weapons already drawn. The music died as the band dove for cover. Arakyd thought about just shooting Kendall then and there but not only would he die, but his friends would be cut down as well. It was over in a matter of seconds.

"I’ve had ISB agents watching this station ever since ‘Judas’ contacted me," Kendall sneered. "I don’t know who you are, or what you planned, but I assure you, I will find out."

Kendall turned to one of his officers near Groznik. "Captain, take these traitors to the station detention area. Leave four of your best stormtroopers guarding them, the local constabulary is not reliable. Then have the rest of your men rejoin me at my shuttle. Once the Adamant has arrived and our supplies loaded the prisoners shall be transferred aboard and questioned. All but the female, I’ll question her personally." The man saluted then started out the door. Groznik, Aradia, Guardian, and Arakyd were hustled off to detention.

"First Command"

Part Eleven -- Turnabout

The detention block was small and all four Rebels were thrown into the same cell. Guardian lowered his eyes to the floor; he couldn’t bring himself to look at the friends he’d led into this mess. He wanted to say something, anything. But there wasn’t anything left. It looked like they were going to die.

Groznik roared in his native tongue, as he’d been relieved of his translator. He began pounding on the door. Kyd looked carefully around the cell, shrugged and collapsed into the wall cot on one side of the cell. Slicer moved to the back of the cell, her arms folded in front of her. Groznik stopped his pounding after a pair of moments, then sank to the floor near the door.

"Sorry, guys," Guardian choked. "It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have even thought about asking you all here."

"We’re here because we wanted to kill Kendall, Adam," Slicer answered. "We knew this might happen. It’s nobody’s fault. Kendall’s just a paranoid bastard, and he got lucky."

Guardian shook his head. "It was a bad idea from the beginning. I..."

Muffled cries came from the other side of the door. Guardian stopped, turning toward the sounds. There were no blaster shots as far as he could tell. Groz’s head tilted; he heard something. The big Wookiee lumbered to his feet, a happy cry echoing from his throat. "Groz," Adam asked. "What is it?"

Groznik’s answer came out to fast for Adam to translate, but suddenly the Wookiee stepped back away from the door. Guardian and Arakyd both moved towards the back of the room shielding Slicer. A shower of sparks ate through the control panel, then the door slid open and Max Quentil, a dusty-gray colored Ortolian, stepped in. "Anybody home?" The humanoid pachyderm sang.

"Max, what the hell are you doing here?" Guardian said, bouncing up off the bed and going to his friend. The alien retreated back into the control room while the ex-prisoners moved out of the cell.

"Helping to save your sorry hide, Adam," Max answered. Guardian looked up.

In the detention area there were five bodies. Four stormtroopers, their white armor splashed red in places and the Captain that had ambushed them so neatly as they tried to leave the Cantina. There were no apparent wounds on the man but he was very dead. "Max? You did this?"

"No way," the Ortolian retorted as though insulted. "As soon as you were snatched I was hauled out of bed by your friends. I led them here and before I knew what was happening they’d done this.

Two figures dressed entirely in black slipped into the room, one from the main access way and the other from a door leading to another cell block. "Outer corridor is clear," one of them said, his voice muffled by the black cloth covering his entire face. Both men wore hand blasters on their hips but one held a meter-long broadsword, the other a pair of thinner blades, one longer than the other. Both swords gleamed blood red. Slicer had seen swords of this type before and called out, "Paladin! That has got to be you!" Turning to the figure that had not spoken yet she said, "And a weeks pay says that is Valkyrie."

"You’d win," said Paladin as he pulled off his hood. "We don’t have much time… I suggest we leave." He gave Slicer a long look. "Nice outfit," he added.

"Would it sound too ungrateful if I asked how you came to be here?" Guardian asked.

"Raven sent Valkyrie and I as your backup. He thought you might need some help if things went wrong and it appears he was right. We were watching the Cantina and saw what happened as you were leaving. We thought Max here might have set you up so we had a talk with him and he agreed to help us get you out. He created a bit of a disturbance back at the Cantina to draw off the local security force, leaving just the Imperials here guarding you. After that, well…" he shrugged and nodded at the carnage strewn across the floor.

"Raven sent you? How in the name of the Force did Raven know what we were…" Guardian decided that this question would have to wait. "Max, thanks I…"

"Listen, Adam, we’re even. You saved my son’s life; I saved yours. No more favors."

"I just wanted to say thanks. We’re out of here, and as far as anyone knows we don’t know you. Go." The pair shook hands quickly, and the alien disappeared into the bowels of the station.

"Now, for the rest of you," Guardian turned and addressed the group. "Odds are that the Adamant has not arrived yet."

"The frigate’s in-system, Lieutenant," Valkyrie interrupted. "We passed her on the way in."

"Then that’s were he’s heading. If we launch quick enough, we might catch him in transit."

Valkyrie and Paladin nodded. "Raven said to do whatever you wanted once we joined up. It’s your call."

"Wait a minute," Arakyd interjected. "Are you sure we should just…"

"Look, he’s an easier target in a shuttle than in the Adamant. I’m going after him. You’re welcome to come if you want." Guardian turned and started heading toward the door, pausing only long enough to scoop up a blaster carbine from the corpse of a stormtrooper.

A look passed between the assembled pilots. After a moment, Arakyd said what they all needed to hear. "Let’s finish this."

"There he is." Guardian’s voice came in clear and calm over Slicer’s comm. The six Rebel Y-Wings regrouped above the station and headed out toward the Nebulon-B Escort Frigate Adamant. The lumbering Imperial craft stood out against the black backdrop of space like a Wookiee in a Jawa village. "One shuttle, five klicks. Distance to frigate: twenty clicks."

"Guardian, this is Slicer. I’ve got two flights of gunboats at eight kilometers and closing. Repeat: six ‘boats, inbound."

"Copy. Element up: Slicer and Arakyd, Groznik and Paladin, Valkyrie and I. If we get into a furball, don’t leave your wingman. Let’s dice the guns, get Kendall, and get the hell out."

A chorus of "copy" answered him, and Slicer juiced up her shields. "Tonto, how’s that motivator holding out?"

"Ninety percent efficiency, Aradia," the astromech answered. "Are we going to engage the frigate?"

"No. We’re only going after the shuttle, partner. Calm down."

The six Y-Wings flew in complete silence, then Tonto’s warning broke the monotony. "Aradia, we’re being targeted by a missile signature."

"Thanks, Tonto. Slicer to Guardian, they’re lookin’ at us funny."

"Copy, Eight. Shake and bake, everybody. If you fight clear, get Kendall. Break on my mark... three...two... one... mark!"

The six Y-Wings split out of formation in three two-ship elements, a practiced maneuver. The gunboats wavered for a moment, choosing their targets; in that instant the Ys cut back and dove straight into the heart of the gunboat formation, splitting the Imperials up.

Groznik’s battle yell sounded through the comm as he swung his craft out to follow one of the gunboats. The Wookiee began pumping laser fire into the gun’s rear arc. The Imperial pilot was good, however; he started a break right and threw his ship into a roll, then pulled off to port instead. Groz lost him as Paladin cut in front of him, trying to follow the Imperial fighter. Groz howled as he maneuvered his own fighter into an evasive pattern to avoid Paladin’s ship.

In the cut through the gunboats Guardian and Valkyrie had been separated. Adam was currently trying to track his wingman down, and eventually found the young pilot having a severe problem: two of the GUNs had ganged up on him and were hounding him mercilessly.

"I need a hand here!" Valkyrie’s voice came over the comm. Despite his situation he sounded calm. "Get these guys off of me, will you?"

"I’m on ‘em," Guardian whispered. He flipped the cap up on his flight stick and dropped in behind the enemy craft. A twitch of his left hand, then he lined up one of the guns in his sights. A twitch of one finger and two blue torpedoes were spit out of the front of his craft, just under his cockpit. The torps struck the gun between the engines, loosening their destructive energies on the gun’s central power core. The Imperial fighter fragmented, then blossomed into an orange fireball. Guardian threw his control yoke to the right to avoid slamming into a massive piece of wreckage, switched back to lasers, and dropped in on the tail of the other gunboat.

Paladin’s Y-Wing was stitching black holes in the armor of another gunboat. He’d managed to punch through the Imperial’s shields, and his shots were scattering around the fuselage of the enemy craft. One of the double blasts got lucky and split the cockpit open, cutting the pilot loose to vacuum. What a way to go, Paladin thought. "Two down," he said into the pickup.

"Make that three," Arakyd answered, as another gunboat died under the power of his lasers.

"Arakyd, Slicer, break off and continue pursuit," Guardian ordered. "The rest of us will mop these guys up."

"Copy, Two," Slicer answered. "Already on my way." She dumped her reserve laser energy into her shields, then reset her recharge rates to dump all power into the engines. She was going to catch this guy.

"Aradia, whoa, slow down!" Ryan squawked as her Y-Wing accelerated away. "Don’t get so far…"

"Six more gunboats entering the area!" Tonto chirped. "Range: one kilometer!"

"Where are they?" Slicer yelled back, looking around. "Where…"

There was a huge explosion underneath her. Two of her cockpit panels exploded in a shower of sparks. "Mayday, mayday, I’m in trouble!"

"Hang on, Slicer," Valkyrie replied. "On our way."

"Damage report!" Guardian yelled.

Slicer threw her stick in a wild pattern, trying desperately to avoid her unseen attackers. She stretched her neck to the side, trying to read the craft situation monitor. "Screen’s gone… Tonto! I need a sitrep!"

"Aradia, the motivator blew. We can’t go to hyperspace. Weapons all on-line, ejector is out… We’re also losing life support."

Slicer took a deep breath, then relayed the information out over the com. "Leave me, I’m done for."

Adam, don’t leave me... was the only thing Guardian heard. "Not again..." he whispered. Then he snapped. An inhuman scream tore loose from his throat and he dove into the midst of the six gunboats around Slicer and Arakyd. He flamed one in the first second, spearing it with another pair of torpedoes fired almost point blank; another he began hounding with his lasers.

In the midst of his attack, he managed to spit out another order. "Arakyd, take Valkyrie. You’re lead now, get everyone out of here. Running withdrawal, by the numbers."

"Guardian, we’re not leaving you and Slicer."

"That is an order. This isn’t a democracy. Take as many of them out as you can, but I want you out of here before the Adamant reaches us. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir."

"Guardian!" Paladin’s frantic voice echoed over the commlink. "The Adamant is launching fighters! Looks like their entire complement is heading this way!"

For Arakyd this situation had an eerie feeling of déjà vu. "Damn, the Intel reports have the Adamant waiting to be resupplied with fighters at Orway!"

"They must have got them early." Groznik checked his CMD. "We’re cut off!" growled Groznik. "There’s no way out. Just like First Flight…"

"Six more ships, emerging from hyperspace!" Valkyrie shouted.

Guardian suddenly felt very weary and wondered just exactly where he’d lost control of this situation.

"First Command"

Part Twelve -- Finale

The odds were 9 to 4 in favor of the Imps when Valkyrie announced that six more ships were emerging from hyperspace. The Adamant had cut off their retreat and was now launching fighters.

Guardian looked at his CMD and screens but could not pick up the new ships. "Valkyrie, where are they?" he shouted. He dumb-fired a torpedo into each of a pair of GUNs that were attacking Slicer.

"They’ve entered the system on the other side of the Adamant. They’re…"

Valkyrie was cut off as the command circuit came to life. "Buccaneer Leader to Buccaneer 2, we are making an attack run on the Adamant, what is your situation?" Raven’s voice sounded as casual as if he were ordering a drink in the Lounge.

Guardian knew his group was being pressed hard by the GUN's. Slicer couldn’t jump out and had taken damage. Missiles littered the space as the Rebel Y-Wings were forced into evasive maneuvers. The GUN's came in fast, or as fast as the lumbering starfighters could, but then again a gunboat against a Y-Wing is a pretty fair fight, except for the payload.

"You’re a sight for sore eyes Jim!" came Guardian’s exhausted reply. "Think you can give us a hand with these GUN's?"

"Help is coming. Keep them tied up until we can unload on the Adamant. Looks like they’ve launched everything they have towards you, which makes them a sitting duck. Hold tight for now."

Guardian could hear Buccaneer Leader issue orders to his flight group, "Hyp you’re with me. Greywolf, you and Whisper come to oh-one-five and set up your attack run. Phrisco and Animal, take your B-wings straight in and get off as many torps as you can before you have to break off."

Commander Kendall sat in the cockpit of his shuttle examining the current situation. A new strike force of 2 B-wing and 4 Y-wing starfighters had just exited hyperspace and was on an intercept course with the Adamant. The Adamant’s fighter screen had headed off to reinforce the GUNs that he’d had the foresight to have on hand when he set up this rendezvous. Spys were notoriously untrustworthy after all.

He picked up his commlink. "Frigate Adamant, this is Commander Kendall, clearance code Nu-Epsilon-Alpha-Tango-Omega, begin retreat to exit point zulu. Recall your fighters and have them interdict the new Rebel force."

But he could see that the Adamant’s fighters could not be recalled in time to stop the imminent attack by the Rebel newcomers. And with the armor and shield strength of the B-Wings the frigate was in real trouble. He turned to his shuttle pilot, "Captain, plot a course to our nearest starbase. You may make the jump when ready."

On board the Adamant the gravity of the situation was not lost on the senior officers on the bridge. "Concentrate all fire on the B-Wings! Bring us around to three-three-four!"

The navigator on station reported, "Sir, helm is responding but she’s sluggish. Port side engines are still undergoing repairs."

"Shields at 75%," called the Tac-Ops officer. "Engineering reports that’s the best they can do."

"Torpedoes incoming! Four, no six torpedoes… the B-Wings are breaking off."

"Two Y-Wings at two-seven-eight! They’re launching!"

"Combat! How long till our fighters can engage the Rebels?"

"Valkyrie," called Paladin. "You've got one on your tail, break hard right. Bring him into my sights... just a bit more, I’ve got tone - firing." Two blue streaks of death sped towards the unsuspecting GUN. The first torp overpowered the shields, while the second pierced the engine and exploded. "Scratch one!" reported Paladin.

Guardian could now see the yellow dots on his screen that indicated that Raven’s group was firing on the Adamant. But his Y-Wings were sorely pressed to make headway against the GUNs. "I don’t know what help Raven was talking about but we could sure use it now."

Just then a flight of A-Wings broke formation and dove through the beleaguered Y-Wings, peppering the GUNs with missiles. "Corsair Leader to Buccaneer 2, how can we assist you?" Four ships from Corsair had joined the battle.

Guardian took this as his chance to make a run on Kendall’s shuttle. He briefed Corsair Leader on Slicer’s condition and was assured that Corsair would cover her and call in for a S&R pickup. Flipping through his CMD he found the Imp shuttle and dumped everything he had to his engines as he took out after Kendall.

"More torpedoes incoming!" called the Tac-Ops officer on the bridge of the Adamant. Their shields were down to 10% and most of their systems had been damaged.

"We have fires in the aft sections," came a report.

The senior officer watched the tactical display as the B-Wings ducked in under their turbo laser barrage and began launching salvos of proton torpedoes. He punched a button on his armrest and a klaxon began to wail. "Abandon ship, repeat abandon ship!"

Brilliant blue steaks of proton energy darted around the hail of green laser fire the frigate was pouring out. A single torpedo caught the frigate’s boom near the engine nacelle. Escape pods began to explode away from the capital ship as the turbo lasers fell silent. The boom took a direct hit and the hull cracked, flames and debris flying into space as the explosive decompression sucked out everything it could. The fires onboard continued unabated as the automatic systems shut down. Finally, the dead hulk listed heavily on its starboard side. It exploded in a brilliant ball of fire, which drowned out the enthusiastic yelps of Raven’s Buccaneers. The decimated carcass of the frigate Adamant floated freely, reduced to mere space debris.

Guardian willed his ship to fly faster. The shuttle was still out of range and was moving into clear space, away from the battle. "Just a minute longer," he muttered. His target sight popped yellow but the shuttle began to pick up speed. They were making the jump to hyperspace. He pulled the trigger and fired his last two fish at the back of the retreating shuttle. But it winked out before the torpedoes could close the distance. "Damn."

The GUNs were also in retreat now, harassed every step of the way by Buccaneer and Corsair fighters. As the last of the Imperials hypered out a friendly voice was heard on the comm. "This is Alliance shuttle Compassion entering system on one-seven-oh. Acknowledge."

"Roo," called Guardian. "Glad you could make it. Buccaneer 8 needs a lift. Please begin recovery at once."

"Roger Buccaneer 2, proceeding with recovery operation." The Liberty’s Search and Rescue team went into action, picking up Slicer and Tonto from their damaged fighter.

Much later Raven, Guardian, Slicer, Arakyd, and Groznik were sitting at one of the tables in the Liberty Lounge. Mixer rolled up to the table weighted down under a heavy tray of drinks.

"Look Adam, High Command didn’t want Buccaneer going after the Adamant, period. The squadron was still recovering from First Flight and if it took any more casualties at the hands of Kendall morale would have dropped and the squadron’s detractors would have had a field day. So we were ordered not to seek and engage the Adamant."

"But you knew somehow that I was going after Kendall. And you didn’t stop me." Guardian was dying to know what Raven’s involvement in all this was.

"You bet I didn’t stop you," Raven said loudly. "I knew you’d go after Kendall. I was counting on it. I wanted the Adamant and I wanted her badly. I’m not the forgiving type in case you haven’t noticed. But I couldn’t go after her directly. When you took your group out I figured you were going after Kendall. I fudged the records and changed your recon flight to a supply mission. An Alliance commander is always authorized to seek out supplies and materials from whatever source he can. The official account shows that while picking up much needed medical supplies on Freeman Station your group was attacked by unknown Imperial forces. The rest of Buccaneer just happened to be close by on training maneuvers and came to your assistance, supported by elements of Corsair squadron, led by Corsair Leader himself. All done strictly by the book."

Arakyd laughed, "I think you might have wrinkled a page or two in that book."

Ignoring him Raven continued. "But your group all wanted Kendall for personal reasons and that can cloud your judgment. And no offense, but you have a better head for starfighter tactics than for planning a ground mission. So I sent Paladin and Valkyrie in as your backup team." Raven downed his drink and poured himself another shot. "Their Lomabian warrior training made them naturals for it."

Slicer spoke up. "How did you know what we were planning?" she asked.

"It’s hard to keep secrets on a starship," was all Raven would say.

Guardian laughed. "And here I was expecting a court-martial for exercising very poor judgment."

"Not at all. In fact I was thinking some promotions might be in order." Raven started at Guardian for several seconds. "Have you ever thought of commanding a squadron?" he asked.

Slicer let out a cheer and clapped Guardian on the back.

Raven turned his gaze on her. "Oh, and Lieutenant Emerson… about being out of uniform…"

Turning as red as the juri juice she was drinking, she slunk down in her chair as the Wookiee and the others laughed and hooted.

"…and you never told me you could dance."

The End.