"Green Leader, watch your six!"
Cazie Rilek tore at the control yoke of her B-wing. The massive wing rotated on the command pod, whining in protest as three bolts of green laser energy ripped through space where her fighter had been seconds before. Rebalancing her shields, she winced at the metal squeal that erupted from the stressed frame of her fighter. Three Imperial TIE fighters screamed by too quickly to lock onto her fighter. Cazie was thrown against her crash webbing as she accelerated her craft.
"Three, check your scope! Freighters are makin' a run for it!"
Swiping the beads of sweat from her forehead, Cazie pushed the B-wing into a hard dive. The stars sped past her transparisteel cockpit, dizzying her. Readjusting her shields, Cazie checked her scope.
Three Imperial freighters remaining.
Two cargo containers. Five TIE fighters.
Nine Alliance signals. Three green blips closed on the Imperial freighters' escaping signals. Cazie gritted her teeth, wheeling her fighter around. A TIE raced past mere meters from her cockpit, widening her eyes. Pulling back on the control yoke, she watched the orange surface of the planet Spiar blur by her cockpit. They had just ambushed an Imperial convoy that was setting up a listening post on Spiar.
"Caz, Imp landing barges are holding pattern inside the atmosphere!"
"Leave 'em! Worry about those TIEs!"
If the Empire succeeded installing the hidden garrison, the Rebellion on Spiar's sister planet Ord Veica would be over. The war-torn planet was one of the few systems that had welcomed the Alliance on the Outer Rim.
Cazie scrolled through her targeting computer, locking onto one of the remaining corvettes. Jinking her B-wing, she toggled her laser cannons off. Arming her proton torpedoes, she checked her rear scope.
Steadying the yoke as she oriented her B-wing onto the firing corvette, Cazie felt adrenaline pound through her body. The targeting computer struggled to lock onto the Imperial ship.
"C'mon, you piece of-"
The long beep from her console made her smile. The corvette had stopped firing. Now it was targeting her. Cazie clamped her fingers down on the torpedo release, watching two pairs of proton torpedoes rocket away from her fighter. Green laser energy erupted from the top turret of the Imperial corvette as it rolled in a desperate evasive maneuver. Laser bolts spanged off her viewport as she ripped the yoke back towards herself. The stars blurred as her sluggish fighter pulled out of harm's way. Cazie prayed the corvette's barrage of laser fire hadn't destroyed any of her torpedoes.
Her rear shields evaporated as her ship was rocked from behind. Two TIEs had appeared on her rear scope out of nowhere. Trying to maintain control with one hand and balance her shields with the other, she screamed into the comm.
"Rixxie! Where the hell are you?"
Cazie faked a left break, pumping what remaining power she had into the B-wing's massive engines. The cockpit vibrated as she tore the yoke right. Enemy signals on her rear scope danced crazily, hopping to her front scope. Her maneuver placed an Imperial dead in her sights.
Flipping to cannons and firing all at once, Cazie gritted her teeth, expecting an Imperial fireball. The spent cannons sputtered three red bolts, one of them glancing off the TIE's solar fin. The Imperial fighter dove off her scope.
These birds were definitely not designed for dogfighting.
Alliance brass hadn't expected the TIEs. Checking her scope again, Cazie grinned. Only two Imperial freighters remained.
Green Four, Five and Six were dogging the other Imperial corvette. Wheeling her B-wing around, she watched the orange surface of the planet speed past her viewport. Orienting on the Imperial corvette again, Cazie's finger twitched over the firing stud.
The corvette spewed flames from its bridge as it rolled onto one side. The blocky engines consumed themselves in a white hot explosion that dimmed her viewport. The glowing remains of the corvette tumbled towards the planet's atmosphere.
Cazie blinked as she looked up.
An Imperial TIE was on a dead-on collision with her fighter, cannons ablaze. Cazie's mouth went wide as the watched the green bolts slide by her cockpit in slow motion.
The TIE erupted. She sped through the expanding cloud of hot gas.
"Sorry, Caz! I got hung up back there!"
"Ab...about time!" she swallowed. Checking her scope again, she watched the other Imperial corvette's signal blink out.
"Yes! Cimma, take Nine and Ten, clean up those eyeballs! Tibs, you still loaded?"
Cazie smiled, starting a scan for the remaining Imperial barges.
"You're with me! Rixxie, try to stay on my wing this time, we're heading planetside to kill those landing barges before they hit dirt!"
"Loud and clear, Commander," responded her wingman.
If the Imperial barges managed to touch down on Spiar, their ground-to-air ordnance would make rooting them out a costly fight. Cazie wasn't about to let that happen. Rocketing into the upper atmosphere, Cazie took a long overdue breath, watching the splotched surface of the planet fill her viewport. Panicked static erupted in her ear.
"Get em' off me!"
It was Hank. Cazie checked her scope. Three of the remaining four TIEs had grouped together, harrying Green Five with a curtain of laser fire. Nowlan's gravelly voice erupted in static on the comm.
"We are not close enough to assist, Commander."
Cazie gritted her teeth at the former Imperial's tone. Shaking her head, she wheeled her fighter around, the drag of Spiar's high atmosphere slowing her turn.
"Rixxie, Tibs, get those barges before they hit the surface. I'm going after Hank!"
"Caz, you know you-"
She flicked off the comm. Dumping all power into the B-wing's engines, she felt the craft vibrate as she sped out of the atmosphere and back into space.
Hold on, Hank.
Haycer's panicked voice erupted in her ear.
"Caz...those freighters got through our jamming!"
That meant one thing. Reinforcements were on the way. Chances were that the Star Destroyer that had dropped the barges would be the first to hear the distress call. And the Alliance Nebulon-B Freedom still had to hyper in to grab the two containers that hung in space over the planet.
This was going to be close.
Cazie eyeballed her front scope, flicking her eyes forward. Green bolts of energy caught her attention against the black of space. Orienting on the melee, Cazie bit her lip, willing her sluggish fighter to accelerate. The taxed engines vibrated her entire body as she rocketed towards Green Five.
"Hang on, Hank!"
Cazie heard no response. Watching his ship take hit after hit, her stomach knotted. One of the three TIEs peeled off, speeding in a wide arc. Cazie's jaw pulsed. The Imperial was either trying to draw her off or flank her.
"Oh no you don't," she whispered to herself. Cutting inside the Imperial's turn, she steered her fighter towards the onrushing TIE. The Imperial pilot jinked his craft away from the near collision, roaring past, giving Cazie the few precious seconds she needed. Diverting some of the engine power to her cannons, she reoriented on her quarry.
Hank had come full circle in his unsuccessful attempt to shake the Imperial fighters. Cazie had managed to close some of the space between them with her last maneuver. Gripping the yoke with sweaty palms, Cazie closed her finger over the firing stud. She was still three clicks away.
Red lances of laser energy shot into the void, tracing a glowing path towards the elusive Imperial ships. Her laser fire danced around the TIEs, missing its mark. One of the TIEs scored on Hank's B-wing, sparking an explosion in the massive engines. The two TIEs shot by his ship as it decelerated; glowing trails of plasma spewed out behind the B-wing's shattered engines. The pair of Imperials began their tight arc that would bring them around to finish him off.
Two clicks. She was still too far away.
Hank's ship had lost power, coming to a complete stop. A blink caught her eye as the Nebulon-B frigate Freedom decelerated out of hyperspace, shooting past her viewport. Ignoring the Alliance capital ship, Cazie bit her lip.
"Hank! Eject! Hank, copy! Hank!"
The Imperials made a beeline towards the dead B-wing.
One click. Cazie lit up her cannons. The TIEs fired, the crippled B-wing an easy mark. The fighter buckled under the assault, the laser assault blowing the main wing off. Cazie's breath caught in her throat.
Time stood still.
Hank's fighter exploded in a raging ball of flame.
Cazie's cannons caught one of the TIEs as it roared by, fracturing its solar panel. The flash burned the image into her retinas. The Imperial fighter spun off into space, exploding.
Every muscle in her frame tightened as she locked onto the remaining TIE. Charging her cannons, Cazie felt her ship slow as she closed on the circling TIE. The Imperial zipped in and out of her targeting reticle as she fought to keep its tail. Lighting up her cannons, she watched the red bolts surround the TIE.
"Son of a-"
Her cannons found their mark. The TIE blossomed into a yellow cloud, one flaming solar panel flipping off into space. Cazie eyed her scope. The last Imperial freighter had succumbed to her squadron's attack. The Freedom's tugs were busy finishing their capture of the Imperial containers. The last TIE blinked out.
But now there were only eight B-wing signals. Cazie choked back the tears that burned her eyes. Static erupted in her ear.
"Green Leader this is Freedom. Good work, Commander, prepare for your jump."
Cazie scowled at the Nebulon-B hanging in space off her wing. Swallowing, she steadied her voice.
"Negative, Freedom, two of my team are still planetside."
"Check your scope, they are breaking atmosphere now."
Cazie steered her B-wing in a slow arc, bringing the Nebulon-B into her viewport, with Spiar hanging in space behind the Alliance capital ship. The glint of B-wing hull caught her eye emerging from the planets atmosphere. Rixxie and Tibs had made quick work of the three remaining Imperial barges.
Cazie's face wrinkled with grief. Hank was still gone.
I wasn't fast enough. Wasn't smart enough.
"Freedom, this is Green Leader...scan for a chair beac-"
The panel in front of her erupted in a shower of sparks, spraying her face. Ripping off her restraints, she beat the panel with her gloved hands, roaring a string of curses at the fighter. Flames leapt out of the console in response. Burned-in images of sparks danced in her view. Cazie reached behind her, hands blindly searching for the canister of flame retardant. Scrabbling for the small silver canister, she fumbled with it in her blindness.
Finding the tiny trigger, Cazie doused the entire cockpit in flame retardant foam. The acrid smell of smoke and evaporating foam filled her nose. Blinking again, Cazie dropped the canister to the deck with a clang, swiping her helmet from her sweat-soaked head. Running her fingers over the foam drenched console, Cazie swore at the diagnostic that flashed across her screen.
She had no comm. No weapons. No navigation computer. She couldn't go to hyperspace. A zip of adrenaline shot through her as she pictured an Imperial Star Destroyer blinking in from hyperspace to find just her and her invalid B-wing.
That would be a short fight.
Cazie lined her ship up with the flight deck of the Freedom, cutting the throttle as the Nebulon-B grew larger in her viewport. Through the magnetic shield, she could just make out a few of the techs hopping around newly captured cargo containers that sat on the flight deck. Her ship shuddered as the Freedom's tractor beam grabbed her B-wing. Breathing out, she dropped her head back against the worn seat, reluctant tears flowing down her face.
Hank was dead. Caziella Rilek had never lost one of her team before.
Never lost a friend.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she balled her fists, willing her grief away.
Her grief almost won.
Cazie watched another tug flit out of the Freedom's flight deck. For just a moment, she watched the tiny craft, her brain not registering its significance. Her eyes lit up as she sat bolt upright in her seat. She was yelling into her headpiece before she remembered that it no longer functioned.
"Freedom, tha...ahhhh dammit!"
Without her comm system, Cazie couldn't confirm that the tug was sent to recover her squad mate. She searched for another possible explanation, coming up with none. With a Star Destroyer most likely on the way, they wouldn't risk the tug holding up their departure for anything less than a pilot recovery.
"Got to be. There's no other reason."
Cazie watched the load lifters in the open bay jockey cargo palates around to make room for her to tractor in. Wiping her eyes, Cazie squirmed in her seat as the Freedom's bay swallowed her fighter. Her eyes tingled as the flight deck's overhead lights streamed into her cockpit.
"Got to be. He's got be alright."
Cazie closed her eyes against the glare, fighting her burning eyes. Her body jolted as her fighter touched down on the stained deck. A mobile med unit had been rushed in, awaiting the returning tug.
She didn't fight the tears this time.
Olaf Ragnar groaned as the door buzzed at him again. Forcing his eyes open, he stared into the darkness of his quarters.
The round ceiling lamps poured brilliant light into every corner of the captain's quarters
Burying his blonde head in the pillow, he groaned again before throwing one leg over the side of his bed, checking the chrono beside him. Two and a half hours.
Not enough sleep.
The door beeped again. Ragnar swore as he rubbed the blood into his white face. Sliding a long-sleeved green pullover over his head, he wobbled towards the door. Hitting the panel on the wall, he covered his eyes as the door hissed open.
A nervous looking young man stood before him, adjusting his navy green cap. Ragnar raised an eyebrow. At least he thought he had. Olaf Ragnar's head was still swimming in thick sleep.
"This had better not be for standard debrief. Aravett...if you want to be a Captain, I need you to start thinking like one...taking ownership."
"N-no sir. Not a standard report. I-"
The junior officer took a half step back.
Ragnar blinked his eyes open, willing his composure back to an acceptable level. Rubbing his face, he took a breath, feeling a wave of energy surge through him. Now he was nearly coherent.
"What, Lieutenant," he repeated evenly.
"The mission on Spiar..."
Ragnar felt the blood rush to his face.
"The entire force has been destroyed."
Now he was awake.
"Captain, from what we gather from the Hunter, it looked like a Rebel strike team. Hunter found the wreckage of an Alliance fighter. It was a total loss."
It was Olaf Ragnar's turn to take a step back.
Spiar had been his responsibility. His mission. He had analyzed the Intel, done the legwork, planned the insertion of the garrison. It had been the best possible location, the best possible insertion time.
The round-faced boy nodded as the door slid shut on his face, leaving Ragnar in the dimness of his quarters.
A total loss.
Taking three slow steps back to his bed, he sat down hard. The Spiar insertion team had taken six months to requisition from Coruscant. Another six to train. The only reason he had gotten the equipment and manpower in that time period was Ragnar's connections from his prior posting on the Empire's capital.
A total loss.
Staring at the floor, he felt his jaw tighten. He did not need another black mark on his record, not after what had happened on Coruscant. That was the reason he was out here on the Outer Rim, instead of sitting pretty in some cushy patrol assignment near the Core. Curling his fingers into a tight fist, Ragnar looked at his scarred knuckles.
The entire force has been destroyed.
He had failed.
Rising to his bare feet, Ragnar paced around his quarters, circling the black desk in the center. Pacing one full circle, he stopped, staring at his desk. His deck of worn Shevek cards formed a neat pile in the center of the black workstation. Sliding the chair out, he sat down at the mirror polished surface, tapping a button on its front. A data screen slid up with a hum as a small black keyboard unfolded. Breathing out, he placed his fingers over the keys. His calloused hands danced over the keyboard, tapping a staccato rhythm.
The lights pulsed higher, making him squint. He needed to be awake.
Paging through screen after screen, his eyes scanned the monochrome letters as they scrolled up.
"That's not it."
Opening another file, he nodded. The back of his neck tingled as he read the file header.
The personnel roster for the Spiar mission. Ragnar's finger hovered over the keyboard, shaking. He brought up the list, slowly paging through the names. He knew what was in the file even before he saw her name. He paged up again. Another page of names scrolled past; all had died.
His stomach knotted, brow tightening. Averting his gaze from the screen, he looked at the reflection of the ceiling lights on the black mirror surface of the desk. At the deck of cards. At anything but the screen. He leaned his face into his clenched fist. At that moment, he heard every sound, felt every vibration on the Star Destroyer.
Olaf Ragnar looked at the name again. Ragnar hadn't heard from her in six days. His last memory of his lover was her face-her eyes-as the shuttle hatch had closed.
His lips tightened, trying to constrain the emotion that threatened to erupt. He hadn't felt her touch in over a week.
He would never get the chance again.
Slamming his fist into the glass table top, Ragnar was rewarded with a sharp crack. The cards jumped as a web of cracks shot outward from his fist, splitting the polished permaglass in a hundred places.
His mission had failed.
His lover was gone.
They found the wreckage of an Alliance fighter.
Ragnar looked at the ruined surface of the desk. An Alliance fighter. Tapping the desk intercom, he cleared his throat, speaking into the air.
"The Hunter...what type of wreckage did they recover?"
"The Hunter's technicians seemed to think it was an Alliance B-wing. Initial analysis told them it had Slayn and Korpil's design written all over it."
Ragnar sat back. The duraplas chair creaked underneath his weight.
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
Clicking the comm off, Olaf Ragnar stared at the crimson blood racing through the hair thin cracks on the desk surface.
Reesca's waving black hair flashed through his brain. For a second he could almost smell her.
Ragnar smiled, fondling the deck of Shevek cards with his uninjured hand. The stack tipped, the cards fanning out on the desk.
It was time to play his ace in the hole.
Time for revenge.
Cazie balanced her tray on one hand, sneaking up behind Hank. Whirling her hand though his blonde hair, she felt him jump. He leaned forward until his girth hit the metal table, trying to crank his neck around. Dropping his fork to the table, he cracked an oafish smile as he saw his assailant.
"That's the second time you've been ambushed big man."
Dropping her tray next to him, Cazie slid one leg over the bench, scanning the Liberty's mess hall. Rixxie didn't even look up at her as she sat down, busy trying to slide closer to Viare across the long table. The elfish woman tossed her mane of black hair, hitting Rixxie in the face with it.
Hungry humans and aliens filled the mess hall, feeding the buzz of a hundred conversations and their own grumbling stomachs. Cazie scanned the winding line that snaked almost all the way around the hall. She spotted Haycer, then Cimma. Waving to the pair, Cazie set herself down next to Hank. Nowlan's back was turned to her as he perused the lunch selections. Cazie barely averted a frown as she turned back towards the table.
Her stomach growled at her, the smell of meat sauce in the air diverting her attention from her surly squad mate. Elbowing Hank, she cracked a grin, sliding a forkful of balka greens into her mouth. Hank looked down at his tray, his red face blushing crimson.
Rixxie finger-combed his short black hair back, looking at Cazie from across the table.
"Okay fearless leader...what do we do with the human vacuum cleaner here?"
Cazie watched Hank's face flush redder. Viare grabbed Rixxie's arm, perking up.
"How about KP for a month?"
Hank cocked his head. "C'mon guys I already said-"
"Gotcha'!" the two chimed in together. Viare flicked a wet gleen seed at Hank, giggling. Rixxie leaned into the table.
"I'm just glad...you know."
Nowlan set his tray down on the table, giving the group a nod as he sat. His face looked as if it had been set in durasteel. Without a word to anyone, he started eating. Cazie felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She wondered if anyone else had heard his sarcasm to her over Spiar, or if it had been her imagination.
That, or her guilt for not assigning Hank proper wing coverage. Cazie glanced at the ex-Imperial, shaking her head imperceptibly.
Haycer slid his tray onto the table next, hitting a lanky leg on the metal as he sat. The thin metal bonged, drawing every head at the table. Cimma slid in next to him, laughing at his misstep. The humanoid woman seemed to live for ribbing the lanky man. Scratching the thin fleshy crest that ran down the center of her bald spotted head, she plopped down on the bench.
A gray skinned Mon Cal slid onto the end of the bench next to Cazie, his huge orange goggle-eyes blinking at her.
"Greetings, Commander." The Mon Cal croaked in a haughty tone. Cazie nodded, tugging a chitinous crimson arm as she smiled back.
Stabbing a forkful of greens, Cazie looked around the table. They were still missing two. On cue, a pair of mouse eared Sullustans hopped onto the far end of the bench, neither with a tray. One of them jabbered something at her.
"Yeah Tibs, Bantha steaks again. Sorry. I'll have to talk to someone about that."
Tibs went back to jabbering to his partner, Baaul. Cazie didn't understand much conversational Sullustan, but she thought she caught the word for flatulence in the heated exchange. Swallowing another salty bite, Cazie looked around the table, setting her fork down.
"We all here? Good. Everyone give me an ear for a second."
Rixxie smirked at Cazie, his hand disappearing under the bench. Viare jumped, Rixxie laughed. Then Viare slapped his head.
"Watch that, or you'll be the first B-wing pilot with a black eye and one hand!"
"Get a room!" yelled Cimma, her spotted face twisting in mock disgust. Haycer blushed, trying to hide a crooked tooth smile. Deckal slurped another spoonful of soup before cocking his crimson gray head towards her.
"Ok, Caz, I think we're all...ready," Rixxie said, casting a sly look at Viare.
Cazie scanned her squadron. All eyes were on her. All except one pair. Nowlan.
"I can hear you, Commander," he replied, his eyes never leaving his tray. Cazie felt the blood rush to her head as she looked at the former Imperial pilot. Nowlan Janeer had defected from the Empire a year and a half ago. Cazie hadn't gotten his entire story, but she had learned that some of his family had died in an Imperial raid almost at the minute that Nowlan was graduating from Canis Ott Academy. She nodded to herself.
Sometimes Cazie wasn't sure what side of the war Nowlan was really on. She exhaled-slow and even.
"First things first, folks. You saw what happened to Hank over Spiar."
Several nods. Hank's head drooped lower.
"The Imps are getting smarter, at least those Imps. I know I don't have to remind any of you of this, but don't ever leave your wingman. I don't care if the Death Star was going to blow away Atrivis and you've got the last proton torpedo on the Outer Rim...maintain your coverage."
Haycer perked up, choking on a forkful. "Probably better if they had dusted Coruscant, then we wouldn't be in this mess!"
"I hear you, Hayce, but don't make me remind you again, that almost cost us one sandy haired B-wing pilot."
Hank looked at her, trying-and failing-to hide the sheepish look on his red blotched face. Cazie took a sip from her cup, putting it down. Taking a breath, she looked down at the table.
"It's gonna' be even more important for our next mission."
Cazie heard utensils hit the table. Without even looking up, she knew all eyes were on her. Cimma was the first one to break the silence.
A collective groan circled the table.
"I know I know...Brass assures me that this will be the last one for at least two weeks. I can-"
"That's what they said last time."
"I know, Viare. I know."
A blurt of Sullustan erupted from the end of the table.
"You said it Tibby...this is spast, we need some downtime, Caz!"
"I heartily concur, Lieutenant," added Deckal, rolling an orange eye, "one must seek a balance. Even in war."
Cazie felt the blood filling her cheeks. More blood rushed to her face when she saw the slight smile on Nowlan's chiseled face as he kept chewing, pretending to ignore her. He was enjoying this.
"I don't like it any more than you. But this is how it is right now. And I need all of...all of you."
Cazie watched them pass glances to each other, resigning themselves to their next mission. Hank piped in.
"W-what's the mission?"
Cazie took a deep breath.
"We are going back. Not to Spiar, but to Ord Veica. The Imps have a convoy of weapons and a garrison replacement for the energy plants there. If they deliver them, that's another step forward for them controlling the planet. And this sector."
"So...we walk in and clean them up," asked Rixxie.
"Caz, isn't that where you're from?" Viare asked, plucking a petite bite of greens from her fork.
"Yeah, that's right. Home sweet home. Anyways...we won't be alone this time. Brass has graced us with a few of Merto's rocket jockeys and a couple Y-wings."
Haycer came to life, slapping a palm on the metal table. "Haw, zips and pigs. I wonder which one gets flamed first!"
Nine pairs of eyes locked onto the lanky man as a silence clamped down on the table. Cazie felt the blood rush to her face. Cimma looked over at her. Cazie knew she had to say something.
"Hayce...that's...that isn't funny."
Cazie watched the man's face go from tan to crimson as he realized the magnitude of his faux pas. Green squadron had always had a 'friendly' rivalry with Ferro Merto and the other Alliance pilots. In the past the rivalry had chalked itself up to pranks and quips.
Haycer had just crossed the line.
He also had a distinct talent for shoving his boot into his mouth. All the way in.
"Sorry. That was dumb."
Haycer went to stand up, reaching for his half full tray.
"Sit...down," Cimma smiled, pulling him back.
Cazie grinned at the humanoid woman. Cimma and Haycer had gotten a lot closer lately.
Hank scraped the last of his food off his bare tray, his eyes tracking the table. They locked onto Deckal's tray, mounded with Bantha flank steaks and Atrivan radishes.
"You gonna'...eat that?"
Cazie raised her chin, planting both palms on the table as she stood up.
"Get some sleep. We're gonna' need it."
"Copy that, Caz...where you going?" Rixxie nodded.
"I have to watch Hebnor refit my cockpit. I swear that svank adds some newfangled improvement every time I request a simple repair."
"I hear you. Catch you later."
Cazie lifted her half-empty tray, walking past the line of hungry Rebels. Waving at a man whose name she didn't recall, she dropped her tray onto the crowded conveyer and disappeared into the corridor.
Nowlan watched her leave from the corner of his eye, never moving his head from his tray.
Pounding the canviplas target, Olaf Ragnar's fists pummeled a staccato rhythm. He didn't see the sweat streaked target. Instead, a single face danced in his mind's eye. It had no distinguishing features, save one.
A Rebel B-wing pilot.
Sweat flew, slicing the Rec room floor. Ragnar faked with a right jab then a hook, driving his left fist up into the octagonal punching bag. The thick frame rocked side to side, absorbing the power of the quick blow. Snapping his head around, Ragnar fired a kick into the remote bag opposite him, tagging it before it had a chance to dart out of the way. The workout droid flew several feet, flitting in a circle around him as he turned back to the stationary target. Ducking an imaginary attack, Olaf Ragnar drove an overhand blow into the top of the target. Catching the motion of the remote from the corner of his eye, he swung his fist in a wide overhead arc.
Dodging backwards, the drone target sensed his open chest, darting in to ram him from his feet. Ragnar grinned, showing teeth.
Arcing his chest inwards, he slipped the attack of the remote as it shot by him. The robotic target corrected its course, but not before Ragnar had planted two solid kicks into its surface, and another fist as it darted out of range. Leaping the six feet to the other stationary target, Ragnar planted a kick into it that almost tore a hole in the pliable surface. Slamming into the target with his elbows, Olaf Ragnar saw a new face...Reesca Ganantara.
Sweat stung his eyes, squinting them shut. From behind he heard the hum of the drone closing on his exposed back. He heard cursing. The stream of obscenities was erupting from his mouth. Ragnar felt his jaw clench impossibly tight.
Swiveling, he shot a blind block behind him to catch the darting drone. Feeling the contact without seeing the remote, he drove an open palm into the target. Clamping his fingers into the slick canviplas, Olaf Ragnar saw the Rebel face again.
Tightening his grip, he heard the rising whine of the drone's servos as it tried to escape his grasp. The repulsors tugged at his arm, trying to free the padded droid.
Pulling the drone down to his waist level, Ragnar squeezed harder. Willing his fingers together, he visualized the face. He swung his other fist over and down; it slammed into the outside of the drone. Feeling a crunch, he smelled smoke, hearing two pitiful beeps. The little droid's struggles ceased. Ragnar tossed the smoking machine to the blue floor of the Rec room. Wisps of smoke trailed out of the padded globe as it rolled to a stop.
Scowling, Ragnar saw the crowd of junior officers that had gathered in a loose circle around him. Looking straight at one of the taller bridge officers, Olaf Ragnar took a step towards him.
"Talk to Tech. Upgrade those damned things," he breathed.
Striding through the assemblage, the Captain walked into the showers. Stripping bare, he tossed his drenched clothing onto the bench outside of the narrow stall. Waving his hand in front of the sensor, he stepped into the stream of water. Ragnar dipped his blonde head into the warm deluge, rubbing his face with both hands.
Reesca's beautifully smooth face danced in his mind's eye. Olaf Ragnar tried to remember the last time he had touched her face. He could not have fathomed their last time together would truly be their last time. Letting his hands slide down to his mouth, he stared at the beads on the shower wall, listening to the water hitting the stall floor.
Slurping in a mouthful of warm water, Ragnar smiled as he conjured another face in his mind. Spitting the water into the shower wall, Ragnar clenched his fist, picturing the Rebel traitor under his command. His ace in the hole. In his mind's eye, he visualized the mission that was to come. The convoy to Ord Veica. The Alliance B-wings blinking out of hyperspace, intent on another easy kill.
Olaf Ragnar almost laughed to himself. Waving the water off, he stood in the stall, dripping dry.
This was going to be too easy.
Cazie stepped up the metal ladder, looking over the open cockpit of her parked B-wing fighter. An enormous load lifter rumbled by her parked fighter on thick treads, vibrating the cavernous flight deck of the Liberty as it ferried a palate of concussion missiles across the bay. Besides the few techs and droids buzzing around on the expansive deck, Cazie was alone.
Stepping on the lip of the cockpit, she pushed herself up off the ladder, getting a solid footing on the hull of her fighter. Climbing onto the massive engine housing, she sat on the cool durasteel, letting her breath escape her lips. The hissing of a powerspanner echoed around the vaulted walls. Cazie leaned back, closing her eyes.
The B-wing's cockpit was closest thing she had to a home since she had been forced to leave Ord Veica. Two years had seemed like ten lifetimes, each with their separate chapters.
Snapping her mind back, she began planning their upcoming mission.
I should be sleeping.
Her B-wing squadron was due to hyper in on the night side of Ord Veica in less than four hours. The Imperial convoy was slated to emerge from hyperspace close to the planet's orbit to speed its transition to the surface. Twelve freighters, loaded to the brim. Intel pinned two or three capital ships as possible escorts, possibly a Star Destroyer. Doubtful, since the Empire had been busy chasing the Alliance around the Core and Mid Rim for the past year, but a possibility nonetheless. A Star Destroyer would really up the ante. Cazie shuddered, suddenly cold.
Cazie's head jerked up, the harsh ceiling lights far above attacking her tired eyes. Shielding her face, she peered through her fingers. A familiar smile stood on the wing below her.
"Hank? What are...why aren't you sleeping?"
The heavy set man nodded, looking up at her, then back at his feet.
"I...don't know, Caz."
She looked at his eyes for a second before he averted them. What she saw there tightened her throat.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the engine housing, she hopped down to the wing, wincing as pins and needles shocked through her legs. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she smiled at him. Cazie felt the fear as well. Not just the usual preflight jitters...she had a clawing doubt about the upcoming mission.
"Is it the Spiar mission?"
She wasn't about to let Hank see that doubt.
Hank considered her words, his face flushing a bright red. That was all the answer she needed.
"I...I have...a bad feeling about this one, Cazie. I know that...I probably shouldn't be telling you this, with the mission so close and all. I...just...had to tell someone."
"Hank, relax, I'm glad you came to me."
Better her than one of the other pilots. Cazie painted a smile on her face.
"Listen, I know what you are feeling. Do you remember the mission in the Koorlian cluster? The one where I got tagged by that asteroid, you thought I was good as gone?"
"Well guess what? I wasn't worried. Not one bit. Do you know why?"
Cazie put her hand on his shoulder.
"Because of my team. Because of you. I knew that you would never leave me out there to die. Why do you think I picked all of you? It's not because you are all best friends...stang, you see how Rixxie and Cimma are at each others throats...How Nowlan and...well it's because we all work together like a fine tuned hyperdrive. Green squadron is the best there is."
Hank nodded again. Cazie was glad her pep talk was passing muster; because she wasn't sure she believed the whole of her conviction.
"The best there is," she repeated, looking him square in the face," what happened to you over Spiar was a fluke. Nothing more. You're among the best, Hank."
Sweeping his straight hair out of his eyes, he tried to hide a smile.
"Thanks, Cazie. Thanks a lot."
He offered her his hand. Cazie gripped the ham hand, tightening her jaw as she returned his grip.
"Get some sleep."
Climbing down off the B-wing's fuselage, Hank disappeared under the fighter. Cazie was alone again. She folded her arms, leaning back against the engine housing. Shaking her head, she tightened her fist, rapping on the durasteel housing.
She felt the same way Hank did. And the worst part was, Cazie Rilek knew that pre-flight jitters were not what was haunting her right now. It was the fact she knew something was not right about their upcoming mission, and the fact that she could not put her finger on it.
Looking down at her hand, she scowled.
A splotch of grease had been pressed into her hand. Smelling the granular sludge, Cazie wrinkled her face. The acrid lubricant smelled familiar, but she could not place it. Small grains dotted the brown smear in her palm. Smelling it again, Cazie wiped it on the leg of her coverall.
The load lifter that had been carrying the palate of concussion missiles came crawling back the other direction, its forks empty. Cazie watched it make a slow turn, heading for the far side of the bay, past the other parked B-wings.
"Must be Merto...late again. Dumb rocket jockey."
The A-wing fighter pilot was notoriously late preparing his squadron for battle. The concussion missiles that he insisted on supplying his squadron were fighter killers. Most of Merto's pilots used them to hunt the thick hulled TIE bombers.
Gripping the cool metal of the ladder, Cazie hopped down to the floor, heading for the turbolift. She needed sleep. In seven hours she would be in the cockpit again. She disappeared into the lift, stifling a yawn as the door slid shut behind her.
Five seconds later, a figure emerged from behind a loose stack of cargo crates. The shadowed figure looked towards the closed turbolift door, then around the bay before stepping out from under the blade wing.
He glanced around the bay again. Heading for the opposite side of the bay, Nowlan disappeared into the shadows.
A ghostly life size image of the younger man flickered on the bridge of the Victory-class Star Destroyer Crusher. The transmission fizzled, garbling the younger man's response. The hologram reformed, leaving a quizzical look on the lieutenant's face.
"Captain, the convoy is on schedule. Coordinates will drop them halfway between Spiar and Ord Veica. TIE escorts already holding pattern around the hyperspace beacon. Corvettes Runner and Swift are all green."
"And our Interdictor?"
"Harm is holding pattern on the far side of Ord Veica. When the convoy makes high orbit, Harm will be ready."
"Good job, Lieutenant."
Trying to suppress a smile, Ragnar watched the Lieutenant's image shift and disperse. Olaf Ragnar whirled on his heels, striding past the bridge pit. The pit crew buzzed with activity, checking and double checking the Crusher's every system. Ragnar scanned his crew as he stopped at the transparisteel viewports lining the front of the bridge. He rolled a small Shevek card over in his palm, staring at the curtain of stars hanging in black space. Turning to the bridge pit, he raised his chin.
"Thirty minutes, Captain."
Turning back to the viewport, Ragnar smiled, flipping the card between his fingers.
Ragnar wished the Alliance was something he could destroy with his bare hands, a single punch, a single kick that would break the back of the Alliance like the bones of the people he had fought. Like the neck of his last superior officer on Coruscant. Smiling, he remembered the way killing had felt. The dull snap-pop of the man's vertebrae, his neck caught in Ragnar's forearms. Dealing death had been surprisingly easy. No fanfare, no dramatic scene. Just the crack of a bone, and Ragnar was holding a limp doll.
Absently rubbing the back of the Shevek card with his thumb, he remembered that day. The Imperial he had killed had been a member of the Senate family Bryleen. Captain H'raytsho Bryleen. After a quick arrest and quicker court martial, Ragnar's charges had been dismissed and he had been reassigned from the Core to the Outer Rim. It had been that first assignment that had brought him face to face with Reesca Ganantara.
A long time ago.
Olaf Ragnar's eyes wandered over the tapestry of stars. Below, the wedged hull of the Crusher jutted out into space, bristling with turbolaser emplacements.
Ragnar had found out that the Bryleen family had used him. He had been a pawn, set under Captain Bryleen's command to make sure that the blowhard was put out of commission. Ragnar never had found out why.
Not that it mattered now.
Flipping the card over in his palm, he looked down.
Olaf Ragnar smiled.
Cazie looked down at her display.
"Twenty seconds," she whispered to herself. Running her console through a battery of system diagnostics for the third time, she willed herself to breathe. Resting her head back against the chair, she stared at the brilliant mosaic of hyperspace. Cazie felt her adrenaline threatening to pound its way out of her body as she closed her eyes for a brief moment.
Hank's face and the fear that had echoed from his eyes stung her brain still. In the two years she had known the man who used to race pods on Stenax, she had never seen fear in his face. Cazie had always quietly assumed that was due to Hank's thick head.
His words last night on the flight deck had set her on edge. With five seconds left until reversion, on edge is not where Cazie Rilek needed to be.
Mentally counting down, Cazie eased the hyperdrive lever forward, feeling the B-wing's sublight engines kick in. The stars shrank as the craft decelerated. Cazie's eyes grew wide, trying to take in the entire scene at once.
Ahead of her, the dark surface of Ord Veica rushed up to greet her. The familiar spidery blotch of lights that was Temple city dotted the surface.
She was home.
"Green Squadron, report in."
But she wasn't staying.
Her team checked in by the numbers. Except Nowlan.
"Green Nine, report."
A few seconds passed, the surface of Ord Veica growing larger in her viewport.
"Green Nine...standing by."
Cazie shook her head, shuddering.
It feels like I am flying with an Imperial.
Balancing her shields, she checked her scope. Nine B-wing fighters. Three A-wings. The two Y-wing signals that blinked out of hyperspace behind them rounded out the attack force. Cazie opened up her comm channel.
"Green...form up. Merto's escorting the Y-wings, so we won't have a lot of help there. The convoy is due in three minutes. As we come around the planet, watch the glare, it'll cut your visual...watch your scopes for those TIEs. Stick to your wing."
Cazie watched nine Alliance signals form up on her tail, followed by the five trailing fighters.
The Y-wings had been loaded with heavy rockets. Cazie smiled to herself. The perfect freighter killers. Flicking her eyes to her scope again, Cazie hit the throttle. The engines opened up, vibrating her teeth as she rocketed around the planet.
"Sixty seconds," she whispered to herself, tightening her worn gloves. Feeling the grease that Hank had stained into her palm, she frowned. The smell had been so familiar to her, but Cazie still had not been able to place the odor. She had tried to clean it with lube solvent twice, but some of the smudge still stained her skin.
The day side of the planet rolled underneath them, the glare of the rising sun automatically polarizing her viewport. Even with the shaded transparisteel, the Ord Veican sun made her squint. A glimpse of Ord Veica's sister planet, Spiar, rolled up in her cockpit off to her left.
Averting her gaze from the bright sun, Cazie checked her scope. No Imperial signals yet. Just Green squadron, two Y-wings and three A-wing fighters. Cazie hoped that Merto had the foresight to install the Alliance's newest advanced missiles in his A-wings...just in case.
Loosening her grip on the control yoke, she pulled her glove back.
It's not grease.
It was residue. She felt her heart leap into her throat. The residue came from the palates of concussion missiles when they were cold stored. The bulk explosive would seep through the cooled constricted metal seams of the missile, coagulating on the outside shell. The problem was something the techs had been trying to work around for months.
What was Hank doing handling concussion missiles? B-wings were never used in fighter-to-fighter combat, always heavier missions.
"What were you doing with-"
A buzz of static interrupted her train of thought. It was Deckal.
"Nine, remain on station," croaked the Mon Cal.
Cazie looked at her scope. Nowlan's fighter had left formation, beginning a wide arc taking him away from the planet's surface, making the attack force easier to detect. Cazie gritted her teeth. This couldn't be happening.
"Nine, get back in formation. Nowlan."
No response. Cazie felt the knot in her stomach tighten.
"Nowlan, copy! Get back on Deckal's wing! Nowlan! Get back in formation! That's an order!"
Cazie watched his signal separate from the attack group. It did not look like Nowlan was stopping, and he certainly wasn't responding.
"Green Leader, this is Merto. Want me to get him?"
"No! Stay on target. We're out of time," Cazie responded, willing the fear out of her voice.
"Copy. Good call, Commander."
Cazie squinted into empty space.
The Imperial convoy blinked out of hyperspace. Twelve blocky freighters decelerated into realspace, forming a wide double line. Cazie checked the twelve signals. The Imperial convoy had jumped in further from Ord Veica than Intel had calculated. The red blips on her scope multiplied into fourteen, seventeen, then twenty-four.
The blood beat inside her buzzing head.
"Heads up! A dozen eyeballs at zero-zero-two!"
Cazie felt the backwash hit her as one of the A-wing fighters roared past her B-wing, speeding up for its attack run on the swarm of TIE fighters. The quick ship's massive engines shrank as the A-wing rocketed towards the convoy.
Cazie paged through her targeting computer, bringing up the lead freighter. She switched to proton torpedoes, listening as her targeting computer acquired a lock on the freighter. Nowlan was now three clicks away and holding.
What the hell was he thinking?
Her computer let out a long beep. She fired. Cazie smiled as two pairs of proton torpedoes roared from her fighter, streaking towards the first freighter. The Imperial freighter started a painfully slow evasive turn.
"Good luck, pal."
The TIEs had started to close on their attack group. Cazie could see the A-wing that had streaked far ahead of their group. A glint off its hull danced in between the maze of freighters and a hail of green laser fire. A missile alert screamed at her.
Cazie watched a pair of concussion missiles race towards the convoy of freighters, her face twisting in confusion. The knot in her stomach clenched again. The quick missiles had come from one of her team. Something struck her as very wrong. Her B-wing quadroon hadn't loaded concussion missiles...had they?
"We didn't load miss-"
"Green Seven, break right, I'll cover you!"
"Copy, Cimma!" Cazie snapped her mind back. She needed her focus for this battle now.
Cazie rolled her fighter, watching the stars blur by her cockpit. Righting her craft, she caught the fiery death throes of the first Imperial freighter as multiple explosions consumed the ship. Cazie sped through her targeting computer, bringing up the pair of tracking concussion missiles.
"Who fired those missiles?"
Another missile alert wailed at her. Now she was being targeted. Throwing all power into her engines, she tried to accelerate her craft into the convoy. Her attacker fired his payload.
Cazie hadn't seen any bombers, and standard TIEs usually didn't come equipped with torpedo ordnance. Cazie held her breath as she tracked the incoming torpedoes. Her brain swam.
The first A-wing's signal blinked out. Craning her head, Cazie caught the tail end of the expanding explosion that had caught the quick fighter.
"Green Leader, what the hell are you doing?"
It was Ferro Merto.
"One of your team just killed Hansen! What the hell are you doing?"
Cazie's brain rolled as she jinked her fighter to avoid the incoming torpedoes. Panicked eyes flicked over her scope. Cazie quickly confirmed the source of the torpedoes that now dogged her craft. Her mouth dropped open.
She couldn't believe it.
But then again, she did.
"Emerging from hyperspace, Captain."
Ragnar watched the star lines shrink to dots; the crimson surface of Ord Veica rushed up to meet him. Off the left side of his Victory class Star Destroyer, explosions dotted the space around the freighter convoy. He turned towards the bridge pit, watching one of the ensigns intently. The boyish face snapped up.
"Fourteen Alliance signals, Captain...two A-wing class, two Y-wing class...ten B-wing. One of our freighters was destroyed."
"Hold here. Signal the Harm. Launch all TIE crews."
Ragnar turned back to the viewport, watching the battle unfold in the distance. A mosaic of explosions began to dot the blackness of space.
"Now," he whispered to himself. Clenching his fist, he mentally willed his operative into motion. He wished he could give the Alliance traitor the command personally. Such was the price of success.
"Sir we just lost another freighter! Harm is on approach!"
Lieutenant Aravett rushed up to him, chest heaving, forgetting his salute.
"Captain at this distance, the Alliance strike force will have annihilated the convoy before we can get the pilots near them! Our supplies-"
"Lieutenant Aravett," he smiled, leaning closer to the man. The Lieutenant backed up half a step.
"Those freighters...are empty."
"Green leader, Y-wings are starting their run!"
"Copy , Haycer, I see it!"
Cazie looked at the scope again, praying her eyes had just failed. A Victory class Star Destroyer and two corvettes had just jumped out of hyperspace six clicks away from the Imperial freighters. No doubt the capital ships would be launching TIEs within seconds.
Her missile alert sang.
The distraction almost cost Cazie her life. Pushing the control yoke forward with all her strength, Cazie watched the stars roll as Nowlan's proton torpedoes roared over her head.
"Dammit, you bastard...I'm gonna kill you!"
The torpedoes did not start their long slow loop around to finish the job. Instead, they tracked a new target. Another B-wing.
Cazie watched his fighter dip and roll to avoid the slow torpedoes, finally ducking under one of the freighters. The hungry torpedoes bit into the side of the Imperial freighter, starting a chain of explosions as the boxy craft came apart in flames.
Why is Nowlan firing at Hank?
Cazie's adrenaline addled brain couldn't sift through what was happening quickly enough.
She dodged another TIE, diving under a freighter as she lit up her front cannons. Small explosions strafed the surface of the freighter as she roared past, firing all the way. A glint of Alliance hull in the distance caught her focus.
Cazie Rilek's gut froze.
Hank was firing on one of the Y-wings. His B-wing spat red cannon fire at the desperately evading ship.
"Caz! Heads up! Interdictor at six-four-two!"
Cazie's mouth dropped open as she registered the capital ship's signal emerging from behind the planet.
"It's a trap!"
The Interdictor was getting closer. Quickly. The cones of artificial gravity spilled over onto Cazie's scope. They couldn't go to hyperspace.
A B-wing fighter roared by her cockpit, nearly cracking the transparisteel. Cazie jerked back, ripping her body against the restraints.
It was Nowlan. Cazie dove between another pair of freighters, glancing at her scope. The Victory Star Destroyer had just launched its TIEs. Too many to count.
The metallic taste of fear blossomed in her mouth. They had been set up.
A Rebel signal blinked out. Green Six.
Orienting on another TIE fighter, Cazie watched the freighters' numbers dwindle. She locked on to Nowlan's signal, wheeling her fighter around.
Bringing her ship out of its tight curve, Cazie watched the melee unfold in front of her. Hank's cannons lit up, tagging the other Y-wing. The Alliance fighter dove, its attack run aborted. Nowlan's fighter jinked, firing his cannons at Hank's B-wing.
Rixxie exploded over the comm.
"What the hell is going on?"
The next voice Cazie heard turned her blood cold. Nowlan.
"Commander, it seems one of our own has gone bad."
Cazie flinched, glancing at her gloved hands.
At my stained hands.
The stain had come from cold stored concussion missiles. The first salvo fired had been concussion missiles, not torpedoes. Hank had intended on hunting fighters with shields. Their fighters. Torpedoes would have been too slow, even to catch a B-wing. Cazie made a snap decision.
"Green Squadron, watch Green Five. Take those freighters out. Merto! Get on Green Five!"
Swallowing, she finished her sentence.
"Take him down!" Cazie felt like she had stepped outside her body and was looking in. She had just ordered the death of one of her own squad mates. Someone she had known for two years. Confused voices erupted in her ear. She tuned them out, scanning her scope.
The TIEs that had launched from the Star Destroyer were within three clicks of the convoy.
"Strike One, copy!"
The battered Y-wing pilot roared back at her over the comm.
"Green Leader, was that one of yours?"
"Listen pilot! I am covering your wing!" She screamed back, ignoring him," we have to take down that Interdictor!"
Cazie wheeled her fighter around. Another B-wing blinked out on her scope.
The Y-wing rose into her view. Her team's chatter echoed in her ears. The Y-wing started a hard curve; Cazie yanked her control yoke to copy the maneuver. Both craft roared on an attack vector towards the Interdictor. Cazie targeted the capital ship on her computer, switching to her remaining proton torpedoes. The Y-wing pilot's voice crackled over her headset.
"Don't you screw me too, Cazie Rilek."
Cazie shook her head to herself, her stinging eyes welling up. She swiped her eyes with the back of her glove. Hank was one of her team.
Had been one of my team.
"Copy that...Strike One...I'm leading you all the way in."
Her targeting computer beeped as it acquired the capital ship's signal. The Star Destroyer's TIEs had reached the freighters. Another A-wing blinked out. Cazie wondered fleetingly if Merto had just died...and had he managed to kill Hank before he had taken the final jump?
"Strike One, I'm taking out the generators."
"Copy, Green Leader, I'm locked and loaded, four heavies!"
Hopefully four heavy bombs were all they would need.
Cazie's computer beeped. She fired six pairs of torpedoes, watching as they streaked hungrily towards the hull of the oncoming Interdictor. Switching to cannons, she threw all power to her forward shields. Dog fighting with an Interdictor was never an option, but she might be able to draw some fire off of the Y-wing. On cue, the front turbolasers of the Interdictor erupted with a green curtain of laser fire.
Two of her torpedoes puffed into tiny clouds of flame, skewered by the turbolaser gunners. Cazie veered, creating a bigger space between her and her wingman. So far, no TIE's had broken off from the main group to intercept their attack run.
Another B-wing signal disappeared. Cazie did not even have time to see which one of her friends had just died.
Cazie's front shield took a solid hit. Draining her cannons, she pumped the last bit of power into her front deflectors.
Her first pair of torpedoes bit into the round shield generator of the Interdictor, disappearing. The second pair followed.
The entire generator pulsed and exploded. A massive shard of rent durasteel was hurled into the second generator, tearing a gash in the screeching metal. An orange plume of plasma erupted from the remaining sphere as the Harm began to list.
Cazie peeled away, rebalancing her shields. She caught a glimpse of one of the massive space bombs leave the Y-wing, heading for the unshielded Interdictor. The top of the Imperial ship's bridge section erupted in a ball of flame as the second generator exploded.
Cazie checked her scope. Strike One blinked out. The Y-wing's signal disappeared.
She had to take down that Interdictor. The rest of her team was too far away, and nearing their jump points fast.
"Caz! Where are you?"
"Two-two-one! Taking down this Interdictor!"
"We need help! Hank's bugged out...too many TIEs!"
"Copy. I'll be there soon!"
Hang on, Rixxie.
A blathering of Sullustan screamed over her headset.
"What did he say?"
Viare's voice yelled back at her. "He said the freighters are empty! Empty, Caz!"
The full magnitude of their betrayal hit home. Her face drained white.
Cazie shook her head. Green squadron had been set up, and taken the bait.
No more tears burned her eyes. Turning her fighter towards the besieged Interdictor, she charged her cannons, strengthening her front shields. Cazie pumped the throttle, closing on the dying capital ship. The Y-wing's only shot had scored, the space bomb nearly crippling the ship. A plume of red flame erupted from one of the gravity well projectors as the Interdictor struggled to right itself. The Imperial ship's artificial gravity well had been cut in half by the single heavy bomb. But the remaining half of the gravity well still trapped her team.
Cazie scanned her torpedo inventory.
Wheeling her fighter around on the command pod, Cazie switched off the targeting computer. Eyeballing her approach to the capital ship, she closed as another hit spanged off her shields.
Two clicks. Her finger shook over the firing stud.
One-point-five clicks. Another bolt glanced off of her front shields, rocking the entire ship.
One click. Her shields evaporated.
Cazie fired, her thumb turning white on the stud. Her last two torpedoes rocketed away.
Veering, Cazie diverted her engine power to her rear shields. The hum of the B-wing's droning engines deepened as her craft slowed. Checking her scope, Cazie swallowed.
Rixxie, Baaul and Cimma still flew. They were trying to stay alive in the swarm of TIEs. Nowlan's signal was still on her scope. The traitor's signal was three clicks away now, running for the Victory Star Destroyer.
"Hank," she whispered. Cazie shook her head. Four of her friends were dead.
Cazie felt a wave of black energy course through her body. Tightening her grip on the control yoke, she narrowed her eyes. The Interdictor's signal had disappeared. The gravity wells were gone.
We're gonna' make it.
"I'm on my way! Clear to jump!"
"Copy, Caz, Merto's keeping them busy!"
Hang on, Cimma.
Cazie hit the throttle; her body pressed back into her seat as her B-wing shot forward. Three of the empty freighters hung in space, providing her team some cover from the TIE assault.
One of the TIE's took a glancing hit from Merto's cannons, spinning into a remaining freighter. The TIE ended its life as a blast of flame on the thick hull.
"Nowlan...you still out there?"
"H-how?" Her guilt choked her.
"I just knew. Explain later. If we have one."
"Copy...ETA to jump?"
Cazie willed her sluggish B-wing to accelerate. She was almost within range.
"I'll try to keep them off you long enough," Cazie yelled.
"Caz, don't do anything stupid! They're all over us here!"
"Rixxie, make your jump! I'll be right behind!"
One of the three remaining freighters started to buckle as a series of explosions blossomed on its surface. A second later, it exploded, taking two TIEs with it in a ball of expanding flame. Cazie tapped her navigation computer, starting the calculations to take her into hyperspace. Paging through her targeting system, she brought up Hank's B-wing. Four clicks away.
She gritted her teeth, her hate seeking a vent.
The traitor was not worth the effort...or the risk.
Charging her cannons, Cazie opened her throttle, roaring into the cloud of TIEs. Trying to keep one eye on her front scope and the other out the viewport, she counted down.
Ten seconds until freedom.
Olaf Ragnar leaned forward on the ledge under the bridge viewport, watching the burning hulk of the Harm start its slow descent into the Ord Veican atmosphere. The remaining underside of the wedged hull began to glow as the flaming derelict began its plunge towards the planet's surface.
"Bomber pilots launched, Captain."
Ragnar watched the hail of laser fire begin to subside, explosions coming fewer and further between as the Crusher bore down on the battle. Smiling, he flexed his hand. The Empire always had superior numbers. Right now, this was a numbers game.
Ragnar turned back to the ensign in the bridge pit.
"They are making their hyperspace jumps!"
"How many?" Ragnar barked, his chest tightening.
"One...Y-wing class...several B-wing lining up to make their runs."
"We will be on them in moments, Captain."
Olaf Ragnar turned back to the bridge viewport of the Crusher.
It had come down to a race.
"Bombers! Six marks at...five-one-seven!"
"Copy that, Cimma, get the hell out of here!"
"Planet's gravity's messing up our systems, Caz!"
Cazie Rilek watched the two Corvettes open fire on the fleeing B-wing fighters. A group of TIEs had focused on Ferro Merto's A-wing, determined to take him out of the battle. Whether or not they succeeded did not matter. The fact was he could no longer provide cover for the retreating fighters. Cazie watched the Victory class Star Destroyer bearing down on the melee. Even with the Interdictor gone, her team couldn't sit still long enough to make the calculations for the jump.
Cazie veered her fighter under the remaining freighter. The nearest corvette opened fire, its tracking green bolts chasing as she ducked behind the blocky ship. The corvette's dorsal turret kept firing into the freighter.
"They are taking away our cover!"
"Copy that, Rixxie...where's Baaul?"
"Are you still loaded?"
Cazie got three quick affirmatives.
"Take out the closest corvette! It's our only chance!"
"Already on it, Caz!" Rixxie yelled.
Wheeling her fighter around, Cazie brought the Imperial corvette into her sights. Throwing all her shields forward, she transferred engine power to her cannons.
She fired. A trio of red laser bolts danced over the corvette's shields, punching through. Cazie held the firing stud down as the corvettes ventral turret oriented on her and began to return fire. Her laser bolts bit into the hull of the corvette as the turret drew a bead on her.
A B-wing fighter crossed her path, loosing a pair of proton torpedoes directly into the corvette's bridge. The corvette's turrets stopped firing. The entire head of the ship exploded as Cazie roared past. Veering through the cloud of flame, Cazie watched her shields dip.
"Nice shot! Now get out of here!"
Cazie pulled back on her control yoke, bring an oncoming TIE into her sights. She fired.
Her laser fire danced around the Imperial, finally finding its mark. Trying to stop a crazy grin, Cazie flicked her eyes over her rear scope.
Rixxie had just made his jump.
Cazie rebalanced her shields, trying to flank a pursuing TIE and keep her distance from the encroaching Star Destroyer. The massive capital ship had started to fire into the fray, its front turbolasers spewing bolts of green energy past her. Cazie knew that eventually those thick bolts would find their target.
Another Alliance signal disappeared. Cimma had gone into hyperspace.
Pumping energy into her front shields, she dove under the freighter, trying to put some distance between her and the pursuing corvette. The Star Destroyer targeted the remaining freighter, pumping it full of laser fire. The decoy ship evaporated in a ball of flaming gas, taking her last piece of cover with it.
Another signal disappeared-then another. The last Y-wing, and Baaul. All shot into hyperspace.
They were going to make it.
Ferro Merto's signal blinked off her scope. He had not made it into hyperspace.
"Commander, do I have to order you to make your jump?"
It was Nowlan.
"Get out of here, Nowlan! Unless you are thinking of joining the Empire again!"
"No, Commander, I do not think they would welcome me back."
Cazie smiled to herself.
"Thank you, Nowlan."
His signal blinked out. Nowlan had escaped into hyperspace. Cazie looked at her navigation computer. It had the jump programmed. Jinking to avoid a pursuing TIE, Cazie looked up at her missile alert. The bombers had launched missiles at her.
This was going to be close. Her S-foils began to hum shut. Cazie felt her jaw harden.
"Hank, I know you can hear me! I'll see you in hell!"
The missiles were closing on her. Fast. Two clicks.
Her S-foils locked shut, her craft slowing.
Cazie bit her lip as the missiles tracked her. One click.
Her eyes widened. She could see the missiles now. Blue efflux tracked towards her.
The stars lengthened.
Olaf Ragnar stood at the bridge, looking out at the empty space above Ord Veica. Just seconds ago it had been filled with fleeing ships and a pitched laser battle. The only thing that caught his eye was the returning TIEs, tracing lazy perimeter circles as they wound their way back to the Crusher. Taking a deep breath, he let his hands drop by his sides.
He had thought the deaths of the Alliance pilots would have avenged his failure...Reesca. Olaf felt as if his heart was swimming in an obscure pool, while he blindly groped for it. He had thought he would have felt something...more.
"Captain, one Rebel B-wing on approach. Its transponder...it's Imperial."
"I know, Ensign. All sight off of that target."
"It...is hailing us."
Olaf turned from the viewport, taking the three steps into the bridge pit. Putting a hand on the ensign's shoulder, Olaf smiled at the young man. The Ensign's eyebrows popped up as he rose, surrendering his chair to the Captain. Ragnar settled into the warm seat, fingers tracing over the communications console. The screen fizzled to life, a sweaty faced Alliance pilot appearing. Peeling off his helmet, the blotchy faced man tilted his head.
"Mission accomplished, Ragnar."
"Yes," he nodded," well done pilot. Well done."
Ragnar still couldn't shake the thick blanket of indifference that had lodged itself over him. The feeling turned his senses dull, diluted. Like a haze had settled over his reality. Hank continued talking through the grainy transmission.
"One of my stabilizers was fried. I am going to need a tractor in."
Ragnar paused, then looked back at the Ensign standing behind him, tilting his head once. Turning back to Hank's face on the grainy transmission, Ragnar smiled, showing teeth. He had his solution.
"Right away. Standby."
Flicking the screen off, he turned to the man behind him again.
Hank dropped his helmet into his lap, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove.
"Stang, I'm soaked."
Looking out his viewport, he saw the wedged hull of the Crusher growing larger in his viewport. All he needed now was a hot shower.
And a huge meal. Not that Imperial mess hall slop either. Officer's rations.
Cazie's last words to him had stung. He had known the woman for two years, and had even gotten to like her, her fire.
Great little body, too.
Hank shook his head. He had known it would come down to this at some point. It was lucky for him that his entrance into the Alliance had not been too heavily scrutinized. Hank smiled.
I'll see you in hell.
Cazie's words had not stung quite that much.
"Still love ya, Caz."
Otherwise, the Alliance never would have found out he was an Imperial plant. Hank smiled to himself, making a mental list of the things he was going to buy with his Imperial credits. Coruscant vacation, a new yacht? A Twi'lek?
A TIE cruised by his carbon scored viewport, veering into a wide arc on its way back to the Crusher's belly bay. Another fighter circled close by. The remaining corvette moved into position on the Star Destroyer's flank. Hank smiled to himself. Olaf Ragnar seemed like a good Captain. Of course he had wasted his limited resources on simple revenge, wasted Hank's infiltration on a half-baked, half-successful retaliation. Smiling, Hank leaned his head back against the rest.
"What do I know...I just work here," he smiled to himself. Hank wondered what Ragnar's answer would be if he had asked for a place on his Star Destroyer.
Hank wondered why they hadn't grabbed him with the tractor beam yet.
His missile alert screamed at him. Hank's eyes snapped open. His face wrinkled as his eyes flew over his console. The breath left his lungs.
Two concussion missiles had rocketed out of the Crusher's forward missile launcher.
He was the target.
Hank watched the missiles circle down and around, accelerating as their telemetry locked onto his B-wing. Hank had his answer.
The last thing he heard was his own labored breathing.
The last thing he saw was Cazie Rilek's face.
I'll see you in hell.
Cazie sat alone in her dim quarters. Slumped against the wall on her bunk, she looked down at her upturned palms. Her eyes traced the web of lines that tracked her skin.
Her debriefing had taken place yesterday. Cazie had been alone since then. She breathed out, a deep, long breath. Leaning her head back against the wall, she looked up at the crimson lights spilling into her quarters. Cazie Rilek could not form a coherent thought in her head.
She smiled at herself, a shallow expression.
Cazie did not want to think right now.
Her door buzzed.
She sucked in another breath, trying to reply to her caller. All that came out were tears. She should be with her team right now.
What was left of it.
But Cazie could not make herself get off her bunk. Her door hissed open. The corridor lights outside backlit a familiar silhouette.
He stood in the door; the bright corridor lights streamed into her quarters. Cazie raised her eyebrows, realizing what he was waiting for. She motioned him into the room.
Old Imperial training.
Nowlan took two measured steps into the room, stopping a few feet from her bunk. The door hissed shut. Cazie took a breath, feeling her stomach quake. She thought she would have more time alone before-
Nowlan was looking right at her.
She definitely needed more time alone.
Nowlan cocked his shaved head.
"Commander, you had asked me how I knew about the traitor."
Cazie looked at the floor, grief gripping her insides. She had forgotten about that. It was not like Cazie needed to know now. The knowledge certainly would not change the fact that four of her friends had died. It would not change the fact that she had been flying with an Imperial spy.
Right under my nose. I should have been smarter.
Nowlan had no doubt been debriefed by Brass already. She knew they would be interested in his apparent insubordination over Ord Veica.
Cazie did not need to know. Right now she did not want to know. She felt Nowlan perch on the end of her bunk. He was waiting for her to look at him.
Cazie braved a look into his gray eyes. The grip on her insides twisted. Cazie tried to hold in the flood of emotion. She did not want to look at him. Did not want him to look at her. Did not want him here. The rush of grief overtook her. She folded in a spasm of weeping, dropping her head into her hands, slumped into herself. She tried to tell him to get out. Cazie could not push the words through the wave of anguish.
Nowlan placed a hand on her shoulder. Cazie's sorrow mixed with growing rage.
"Why? Why didn't I see it? Hank was...he was..."
Cazie nodded, tears blurring her eyes. She should not be pouring herself out to a man she was supposed to be leading. Cazie could not help her grief, could not stop it. Her racing emotions teetered on the edge of a very deep precipice.
Nowlan sat silently, hand on her shoulder.
"I...they were my...friends," she sobbed, her anguish twisting her words. Cazie never wanted to set foot in another B-wing.
"Commander, it is not your job to detect Imperial plants."
"I know what my job is! What...was."
The set lines of Nowlan's square face did not flinch.
Cazie swiped her flooding eyes, pointing at the door.
"Maybe you should go."
Nowlan rose to his feet, taking two steps towards the door. Cazie did not hear the hiss of the door opening. Why couldn't he just leave her alone? Cazie sucked in a deep breath, readying a verbal assault. Anything to get the man out of her quarters, out of her presence.
Nowlan was looking her square in the face.
"You are welcome, Cazie Rilek...I am proud to serve under you."
Her assault fizzled and died. Her words evaporated as Nowlan saluted gently.
"Always have been."
The former Imperial turned on his heels, waiting as the door hissed open. Striding out into the corridor, he turned and was gone. The door hissed shut, leaving Cazie alone in the darkness again.
The echo of Nowlan's words filled the emptiness that remained.
Original cover by Mark Jade. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.