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Gungan to the left

The 181st Imperial Fighter Group (PG-13)

By : Shock Wave

Archived on: Monday, May 8, 2006

They are icons of an Empireís might; while the Rebels have their vaunted X-wings, the Galactic Empire is defended by its legions of heroic TIE fighter pilots. The 181st Imperial Fighter Group, the most elite fighting unit of the Imperial Navy was once led by Baron Soontir Fel. Now with Felís defection and the attrition from Brentaal, the 181st is left to Felís second, Major Turr Phennir. Now he must reform the fighter group and build it back up to its former glory.

Dramatis Personae

The 181st Imperial Fighter Group

Rapier Lead: Major Turr Phennir (human male from Coruscant)
Rapier Two: Captain Jerec "Fel's Wrath" Ulath (human male from Chandrila)
Saber One: (Brevet)Captain Lorrir (human male from Coruscant)
Saber Five: Captain Ashton "Ashes" Pallor (human male from Corellia)
Saber Six: Captain Dann'l M'Pala (human male from Coruscant)
Saber Seven: Lieutenant Collyn Fenring (human male from Contruum)
Saber Eight: Lieutenant Lance "Lancer" Dargo (human male from Taanab)
Broadsword One: Commander Ozman Hallek (human male from Ralltiir)
Broadsword Two: Captain Hal Theelin (human male from Talus)

Imperial Military

Admiral Pluto Hades (human male from Corulag)
Commodore Pomp (human male from Brentaal IV)
Moff Iamar (human male from Coruscant)
Admiral Delak Krennel (human male from Corulag)
Admiral Teren Rogriss (human male from Empress-Teta)
Chief Petty Officer Nicco (human male)
General Talmont (human male)
Special Intelligence Agent Antar Farad'n (human male)

Imperial Civilians

Kym Yarum (human female from Corellia)
Edalia Iamar (human female from Coruscant)
Lani Iamar (human female from Coruscant)
Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence (human female from Coruscant)
Sate Pestage, Imperial successor (human male from Ciutric)

Chapter 1

The order to launch came through Ashton Pallor's helmet comlink, jolting him to full alertness. Flipping switches on his control panel, he activated his TIE Interceptor's repulserlifts and released the brackets holding the fighter to the landing rack. With a gloved hand, he eased the throttle forward until his Interceptor was out of the Star Destroyer Liquidator's landing bay. Into his comm, he ordered, "Delta Flight, form up on me. Two-thirds throttle, sensor gain to maximum." On his sensors, Ashton spotted a line of bulk freighters, about five kilometers out, passing through a checkpoint. Flanking the freighters was a quartet of Z-95 Headhunters, older starfighters with low grade weapons and even lower grade shields.

On Ashton's port wing hung Delta Two, flown by his friend Dann'l M'Pala. "Two, follow me on a flyby of those freighters; Three, Four, hang back two klicks from the checkpoint and watch out for trouble." He received acknowledgments over his helmet comm and throttled up to close with the freighters.

As they approached, Dann'l reported, "Manifest claims a cargo of protocol droid motivators, five hundred units each." When they closed to within one kilometer, the Z-95s escorting the freighters widened their formation and noticeably slowed their approach. Without incident the two TIE Interceptors zoomed past the freighters and circled back around.

"Mass of the cargo holds doesn't match up with their manifest claims," Ashton said coolly. "Liquidator, launch capture ships; Delta Flight, accelerate to attack speed. We've got smugglers." On their return approach, Ashton and Dann'l squeezed the dual triggers on their control yokes, each of them opening fire on a freighter. "Three, Four, engage Headhunters." Ashton yanked the control yoke to the left, heeling his Interceptor over onto its port solar wing array. Centering one of the Headhunters in his targeting brackets, he squeezed the triggers, sending quad-linked daggers of green energy stabbing into the slower craft. If it had been an X-wing, Ashton's shot would have decapitated the astromech droid riding behind the cockpit. Instead the laser blasts drilled through the transparisteel canopy, obliterating the pilot. Instinctively snaprolling his ship to starboard, he avoided a pair of red blaster shots from one of the other Headhunters. Juking and jinking left and right, Ashton's superior fighter quickly outdistanced the antiquated Z-95. A few quick shots from Dann'l's laser cannons chewed off the Headhunter's port stabilizer foil. Another, more precise shot, exploded the ship's engines. Ashton and Dann'l swung their Interceptors back toward the freighters and spotted Three and Four coming to rejoin formation as a DX-9 Stormtrooper transport docked with one of the disabled craft.

Then a new voice issued from Ashton's comlink, clipped and precise. "Delta Flight, good work. Return to Liquidator and report."

"Acknowledged, Major Phennir," Ashton responded.

Captain Ashton Pallor popped the hatch of the simulator pod and immediately removed his helmet, relishing the cool air of the sim chamber on his sweaty face. Launching his legs up and over the pod's lip, he dropped his lean frame to the deck. He looked over to the next pod over and spotted Dann'l combing back his slick red hair. "Nice run," Ashton called.

"Yeah Ashes, but I wish the major had had us against A-wings." Dann'l paused as he jogged over to Ashton, a merry glint in his green eyes. "Headhunters are like shooting at a bantha's broadside."

"A good enough pilot could turn a Z-95 Headhunter into a craft as deadly as a TIE Interceptor, Captain M'Pala." Major Phennir stepped up beside Dann'l; both junior officers snapped to attention. "A point that would have been clearly made if the four pilots I just scrubbed from the candidate roster were One Eighty-First material." Ashton and Dann'l exchanged nervous glances with their eyes. Major Turr Phennir, commander of the 181st and the best pilot since Colonel Soontir Fel, had made it abundantly clear over the past two weeks that only the best of the Empire's TIE pilots would be accepted into the 181st Imperial Fighter Group. He was a fairly short man, ideal for a fighter pilot, with short blonde hair that seemed naturally tousled and handsome features save for a nasty looking scar that ran vertically from the left side of his mouth, up to a few centimeters below his left eye.

Since the assault at Derra IV, the 181st had been led by Colonel Fel until only a few weeks ago. At the Battle Brentaal, the 181st had been charged with the task of protecting Imperial citizens fleeing from the planet and Fel had been captured after his Interceptor was hit by a Y-wing's ion cannon. Several other 181st pilots had been killed in action over Brentaal IV's capital city of Vuultin then later over the planet itself. Now Major Phennir was in command and faced the task of rebuilding the unit.

That was why Ashton and Dann'l were on Imperial Center, flying simulators for the major. Along with over two dozen other pilots, they each hoped to prove themselves worthy of filling one of the eleven spots left open by the casualties of Brentaal. For the past two weeks since Phennir had taken command, they had been simming and drilling against human and computer pilots alike. Every day there had been fewer and fewer candidates as more pilots were washed out of the selection. Ashton and Dann'l were confident they would make it. Both had survived the Battle of Endor, both were double aces-Dann'l even held the distinction of being the only TIE pilot to chase after Rebel starfighters into the Death Star's interior and make it back out alive. Yes, they were certain that Major Phennir would accept them into the 181st Imperial Fighter Group.

Ashton rode the lift up to the catwalk that extended out over the landing racks where the 181st's Saber Squadron TIE Interceptors hung, ready for launch. His flight helmet tucked under his left arm, he ran a gloved hand along the red stripe that had been newly sewn onto the left sleeve of his black flightsuit. Similar stripes ran along the right sleeve and down the legs. Just the sight of the 181st's signature blood-stripes on his uniform filled Ashton with more pride than the twelve kill markers he had earned at Endor.

Beside him, Dann'l caught Ashton admiring his stripes. "Just wait 'til you see the stripes on our new toys, Ashes," he said, offering a jubilant grin. As the lift reached the catwalk, Ashton spotted their new Interceptors, tucked into the second row in the hangar, with twin horizontal red stripes painted on the wing arrays. Ashton and Dann'l each trotted over to their respective fighters, their boots clanking on the durasteel catwalk. All around the landing racks, the other members of Saber Squadron stood ready to man their ships.

Standing at the leftmost Interceptor in the first row, Captain Lorrir, one of the survivors of Brentaal IV, raised his hand and spun it in a circle above his head. "Man your fighters and prepare to launch!" he shouted. His experience and status as a triple ace had earned Lorrir the position of squadron leader for the Sabers.

Ashton donned his helmet, attached the air hoses leading from the life-support chest-box he wore, and climbed down into his fighter. Pulling the hatch closed, he dogged it secure and strapped himself into the TIE's command couch. Flipping switches on the control console, he went through his preflight checklist. From his helmet comlink, he heard Captain Lorrir order all pilots to report their status. When it was his turn, Ashton said, "This is Saber Five, two lit and running green."

Then Major Phennir's voice broke over the comm. "All fighters, launch. Rendezvous two klicks south of the Imperial Palace; we're going to do some atmospheric practice." Two affirmatives issued from the comm channel, responses from Captain Lorrir and Broadsword Squadron's commander, Commander Ozman Hallek.

With the flip of a switch, Ashton engaged his Interceptor's repulserlifts and released the landing brackets holding him to the rack. Off his starboard wing, Dann'l and the other members of Two Flight did likewise. Nudging the throttle forward, they followed Captain Lorrir's One Flight out into the open air of Imperial Center's twilight cityscape. Rotating the control yoke, Ashton vectored his craft onto the appropriate heading and increased the throttle to sixty-six percent. Once at the assigned rendezvous point, Phennir announced, "We have a cargo train full of explosives running through the factory district. Our mission is to destroy the train before it reaches its target, the local Sienar Fleet Systems branch. Follow vector two-six-zero and strafe by pairs. This is a live fire exercise."

In minutes the cargo train was in sight. Then Lorrir's voice broke onto the frequency. "Rapier Lead, this is Saber One; I'm picking up new contacts bearing zero-zero-five."

"Copy Saber One. Saber Squad, investigate new contacts and report back."

Two Flight, we're on the starboard group," Ashton spoke into his comlink.

"Roger, Five," Dann'l answered. Ashton got similar replies from his other two pilots, Lance Dargo and Collyn Fenring.

As Saber Squadron closed with their targets, Ashton noticed that the unknowns were showing as green dots on his sensor board. So whoever it is, is using Rebel IFFs. Identify Friend/Foe transponders, or IFFs as they were commonly known, were devices built into every ship that was ever built and would identify that ship on any other craft's sensors. Imperials were commonly represented by red blips while Rebels were represented by green.

When the new targets came within visual range Ashton saw that the group of enemies was in fact a squadron of X-wings. When he brought up one of the Rebel fighters on his targeting display he found the ship to be identified as Rogue Nine. "Lead, this is Five; contacts are Rogue Squadron!"

"I copy, Five," came Lorrir's reply. "Fly fast and shoot straight!" With those words, the two squadrons converged in a cross of deadly laser fire. Ashton was amazed to see none of the 181st pilots had gone down in the initial head-to-head.

Heeling his fighter over onto its starboard wing array he pulled the control yoke back to his chest and made an impossibly tight turn in the Rogues' wake. Checking his sensors, he was glad to see that Dann'l and the others had stayed expertly with him. "Two Flight, break by pairs!" The 181st's TIE Interceptors caught up with the slower X-wings and Ashton squeezed the dual triggers, firing quad-linked bursts of laser fire at his target. The blast caught the Rebel in the port engine pods. With the unbalanced thrust, the X-wing heeled over to the left and crashed into a nearby factory.

"Five, break starboard!"

Ashton yanked his control yoke as far to the right as he could, stamping down on the right rudder pedal at the same time, and pulled up, spinning his fighter into a tight corkscrew to evade fire from the X-wing that had managed to get on his tail. Sweating beneath his helmet, he side-slipped left and right, darts of ruby energy slashing past him on all sides. "He's on me tight, Six, I can't shake him!"

"Sorry Five, I'm a little busy, myself." Dann'l's words came through strained as though through gritted teeth.

Just ahead, Ashton spotted a canyon in the vast cityscape and headed for it. At the last moment he inverted his Interceptor and pulled the yoke to his chest, diving straight down the crevice between buildings. Bobbing his fighter up and down to avoid speeder-traffic, he continued down several kilometers before leveling out and running along the ocean of neon lighting. Checking his sensors, Ashton noted that the Rogue pilot was still on his tail. Rogue Nine; this guy's good... Rotating the control yoke to the left, Ashton zipped down a main thoroughfare, cut out his thrusters and stamped down on the right rudder pedal. His craft jerked to starboard, rotating one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, facing him back the way he had come, as he powered up the repulsers. The X-wing swung into the intersection after him and Ashton squeezed the triggers, pouring kilojoules of coherent light into the Rebel's forward shields. The shields, which gave the X-wing a decided advantage in head-to-head runs, collapsed under Ashton's hail of fire and the enemy ship exploded, bits of shrapnel raining down into the duracrete canyons of Imperial Center.

"What the-that's Baron Fel!" someone shouted over the comm, startled.

Ashton jerked his head up and dialed his thrusters back up to maximum. He then heard Major Phennir's voice, full of anger to cover his shock, "Stick to your objectives, don't ask questions; Saber Squadron, we're coming to your aid."

Returning to the engagement, Ashton noticed that there were far fewer X-wings than when he had dove into the expressway, but surprisingly not a single TIE had been killed. "Five, Six here; I could use a bit of help, I've got two on my tail and they're not going anywhere."

"Roger, Six, on my way." Ashton set an intercept course for Dann'l's position and brought himself head-to-head with his friend. "Dive on my mark... Mark!" Dann'l M'Pala's Interceptor dove hard at an almost ninety degree angle. Opening fire on the rightmost X-wing, Ashton flashed past Dann'l's pursuers and was satisfied to hear an explosion as he looped around to port to catch the other Rebel fighter. That was easy. He must have had all his shield power aft to cover his rear. As he closed with the other X-wing, a stream of green laser fire flashed upward from beneath it, catching it in the belly, causing it to erupt like an overripe muju fruit. "Good shooting, Six."

"Thanks for the assist, Five."

"One Eighty-First, this is Rapier Lead; we're clear of hostiles. Return to your hangars and report immediately to the ready room for debriefing." A chorus of acknowledgments sounded across the comm as Ashton formed up with the rest of the Sabers.

Turr Phennir stood alone in his office in the 181st's HQ building. He glared at the holographic image of the Imperial Palace's communications operator, his anger seething. "Get me Director Isard," he snarled. He had come to his office directly from Rapier Squadron's hangar, not even taking time to remove his gear or change out of his flightsuit.

The operator, a cringing young man with an oversized larynx that bobbed up and down with fear, nodded and his image abruptly disappeared. In its place stood a holoprojection of Ysanne Isard, the Director of Imperial Intelligence. She wore the uniform of an Imperial admiral, blood-red in color rather than the standard grey. Her jet-black hair hung down to her shoulders with a pair of white side locks starting down from her temples. Her most distinctive feature, though, was her eyes. Her right eye, an icy blue, was colder than a Hoth glacier. In contrast, her left eye was a fiery red, as though the iris itself were made of molten lava. Her stance was one of unconcern, showing that whatever Phennir wanted, it was unimportant. She injected only the barest hint of curiosity into her voice. "Is there a problem, Major?"

Phennir narrowed his cold blue eyes at her, his contempt for her nearly showing through. "There certainly is Madame Director." He pointed a gloved finger at her. "And you're the cause of it."

She blinked, doing a marvelous job of looking taken aback. "What ever do you mean, Major Phennir?"

"You know full well what I mean, Isard. What business do you have interfering with my pilots' training?"

"The One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group is an elite unit, Major Phennir. You selected the eleven new pilots because they were superior to any of the other candidates. They should all be able to handle an unknown variable like the one I presented to you today."

"So you loaded twelve pilots into captured X-wings, called them Rogue Squadron because of your petty vendetta, and sacrificed them just to test us?"

Mind your tone, Major, and don't be silly. I'm not that cruel. I had your One Eighty-First washouts flying the X-wings by remote." She gave him a smug, self-satisfied smirk.

"Then would you mind explaining to me why you had one broadcasting as being flown by Colonel Baron Soontir Fel?" If looks were lasers, Phennir would have destroyed Isard's image. For the three-and-a-half years that he had flown with Fel, Phennir had gained an unparalleled respect for the man, as a friend and as a leader.

"Another test, Major Phennir, a test of where your loyalty lies. I have reason to believe that Baron Fel has gone over to the Rebels. I wanted to see if you would be able to shoot at him, considering the history you two have."

Shocked, Phennir's eyes went wide. "That's impossible! He's a prisoner of war. How dare you suggest such a thing?"

Isard clasped her hands behind her back. "Simple. First, Fel is captured at Brentaal IV. The same day, his wife goes missing. Then only a few days later, his family disappears off the face of Corellia."

Phennir stood stock still. "I cannot believe that the greatest soldier the Empire has ever known would align himself with the very anarchists that he himself claimed would destroy the galaxy."

"Believe what you wish, Major Phennir. But when you find that I am correct, you had best be able to do you duty and shoot Fel down." With that, Isard's image faded to nothingness as she cut the transmission.

Chapter 2

The pilots of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group were gathered in a semi- circular shaped briefing hall in their HQ building. At the back of the room were several rows of tiered seats and at the front was a lectern in front of a large holoprojector for tactical analysis. In the first few rows of seats, the fliers were chatting with each other, swooping their hands through the air, miming aerial maneuvers, and swapping stories about the recent training session. Major Phennir, still in his flightsuit, stepped into the room and a hush fell over the thirty-six pilots in the room. "What's the story, sir?" Commander Hallek asked, rubbing a hand over a day's worth of stubble. He was tall for a fighter pilot with a powerful build, jet-black hair, and sea-green eyes. Altogether, he looked as if he'd stepped out of a recruiting holo.

Phennir clasped his hands behind his back. "Gentlemen, today's training exercise was interrupted, without my prior knowledge, by Director Ysanne Isard. The X-wings you shot down were unmanned and flown remotely by the pilots I scrubbed from the candidate list."

"What about the X-wing labeled 'Fel'?" Commander Hallek questioned.

A look of menace crossed Phennir's face for a moment before he answered. "Isard believes that Baron Fel has defected to the Rebels." A clamor filled the room as each of the pilots turned to each other and began talking wildly. "A-Ten-hut!" Silenced, the 181st came to attention and looked straight ahead. "Now," Phennir continued slowly, "I refuse to believe Isard's claim. I flew with Fel for three-and-a-half years and he was the most dedicated man in the unit. But don't be surprised if Imperial Intelligence starts slandering and debasing his good name. It's out of our hands and is none of our concern. Remember, first and last, our mission is to destroy the enemy and the enemy is the Rebel Alliance. If Isard turns out to be right about Fel and he is flying with Rogue Squadron, I expect whoever has him in their sights to vape him without hesitation." He paused and let that statement sink into his men. "Shoot first, remember the good man and devoted soldier he was later. Understood?"

"Sir, yes sir!" the collected pilots said in unison.

Only six days later, after more extensive training sessions, of which only two others were interrupted by Isard, the rebuilt 181st Imperial Fighter Group's pilots stood, in full dress uniforms, on the grand concourse in front of the Imperial Palace. Before them stood an ocean of people, churning with activity. Adults were cheering, children were waving small banners with the Imperial emblem on them, and the Imperial Martial Theme was being played over the concourse's sound system. On a large holoprojector, the image of Sate Pestage, the Emperor's successor, officially recognized the fighter group's return to active service. "To mark this momentous occasion," Pestage spoke, "it gives me great pleasure to bestow the rank of colonel on Major Turr Phennir, the One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group's new commander. Also, the two men whom he has chosen as his accompanying squadron commanders shall be elevated to the rank of major."

A roar of approval issued from the crowd as a plump man with a chaplain mustache and a high widow's peak, Imperial Center's local Moff Iamar, handed new rank badges to Phennir, Lorrir, and Hallek. "Congratulations, men." Iamar spoke at a level so the 181st could hear him. "In honor of your promotions and your return to active service, I'd like to invite you all to a dinner party aboard my personal skyhook this evening."

"We'd be honored to accept your invitation, governor," Phennir answered.

"Good. Perhaps you could find an escort for my daughter among your pilots as well? She has a fixation for fighter pilots."

"Of course sir."

Moff Iamar saluted and every man of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group returned his gesture, to the crowd's overwhelming applause.

That night, Ashton and Dann'l rode the turbolift up to Moff Iamar's private skyhook, their uniforms pressed to razor-sharp perfection. Not having time to shave, Ashton sported a rakish-looking goatee and mustache while Dann'l, having not been able to comb his helmet-tousled hair, was a mess of reddish-orange bed-head. The woman hanging on Dann'l's arm, though, could not stop running her fingers through it. Edalia Iamar, the moff's daughter, was a short-shorter, even, than Ashton and Dann'l-delicate- looking woman with cropped scarlet hair and deep blue eyes. It was obvious to both men that she was the "rebelling-against-daddy" type. Ashton uncomfortably tried to avert his eyes as she and Dann'l covered each other in the sort of kisses that were usually reserved for darkened alleys.

Finally, the turbolift dinged and the doors opened to a large ballroom filled with chatting officials and dignitaries. All around were members of the 181st, enticing women or demonstrating maneuvers with their hands to fascinated-looking politicians. They were easy to spot; on the sleeves and collars of their dress uniforms were the unit's trademark blood- stripes. Ashton, Dann'l, and Edalia stepped out into the throng and were immediately swept up in the buzz of conversations. Dann'l leaned in close to Ashton, lipstick smeared around his mouth. "Uh, listen Ashes, I hate to leave you alone with these piranha-beetles, but..." He trailed off as Edalia tugged him away by the sleeve to a more secluded part of the room.

Ashton shook his head in amazement. Looking about the room, he spotted Collyn and Lance trying their luck with a pair of twin blonde women across the way. Shrugging with uncertainty, he went over to the bar and claimed a seat. "A glass of ruby wine, please, and leave the bottle," he asked the bartender. The bartender poured the blood-red liquid into a wineglass and set it in front of Ashton. "Thank you," he said, lifting the glass to his lips.

"What's the matter, Captain? Not a social creature?" a gruff voice asked to Ashton's left.

"Not especially fond of politicians..." Ashton began as he turned. When he found himself face to face with a grey-hared man in an admiral's uniform, he set his wineglass down and bolted to attention.

"At ease, Captain. Neither am I." Ashton relaxed and the admiral offered his hand. "Admiral Pluto Hades, ISD Tartarus."

Ashton shook Hades' hand and answered, "Captain Ashton Pallor, One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group."

Hades took a wineglass from the bar and poured himself a helping from Ashton's bottle. "So Pallor, you're not enjoying the Moff's party?" Hades was a tall, cadaverously thin man with slate grey eyes and sunken cheeks.

Ashton rolled his eyes and replied, "No, but I have a friend who sure is." Looking across the room over Hades' shoulder, he spotted Dann'l and Edalia sneaking into another, darkened, room. He couldn't help letting out a low chuckle before taking another sip of his wine.

"Hmm... yes. You're Corellian, are you not? Your accent stands out like a Wookiee in a room full of Stormtroopers."

"Well, Speech wasn't one of my better classes at Prefsbelt IV; I never really picked up the Imperial syntax."

"Perhaps you need to spend some more time soaking up the culture of Imperial Center. Do you enjoy music, Captain?"

"Of course."

"Well, some colleagues and I are leaving early to attend a concert by the Imperial Philharmonic Orchestra, would you care to join us in my private box?"

Ashton's eyes widened. Here was a high ranking Imperial officer, an admiral no less, asking him if he, a mere captain, wanted to sit in a private box and watch a performance by the Imperial Philharmonic. "I'd be honored sir. When do we leave?"

Hades chuckled and patted Ashton on the shoulder. "Calm down, Captain Pallor. My hovercar will be here in an hour to take us to the symphony hall. For now, try to enjoy yourself without getting too drunk, hm?" With that, Admiral Hades turned on his heel and walked away to converse with some other dignitary.

Ashton sat in the admiral's spacious private box, looking down almost thirty meters to the rows of filled seats below. To his right, the commander of Admiral Hades' Imperial Star Destroyer, Commodore Pomp, sat, gabbing away with one of the admiral's accompanying staff officers. Pomp was a fairly rotund man with a receding hairline and flabby jowls that bobbed as he spoke, which he did often.

As the house lights dimmed, Hades leaned over and sharply shushed the loud-mouthed commodore. The stage lights came up and the Orchestra's conductor stepped up to a comlink stand where he rattled off the night's musical selections. Get on with the show, Ashton thought excitedly to himself as he lifted a pair of macrobinoculars to his face. The conductor stepped up to the podium, raised his baton, and almost immediately Ashton was swept up in a glorious wave of classical melodies from the early days of the Empire.

As Ashton played his macrobinoculars across the performers, the most beautiful sound to ever enter his ears filled the air. Vainly, he swept his vision across the instrumentalists, trying to locate the soloist. Then he spotted her. From what he could see of her through the macrobinoculars, she was young, about his age, with long, dark blonde hair that was held back from her face. She wore an electric-violet gown that glittered where it caught the stage lights and accentuated her trim form. Her delicate fingers played expertly across the strings of her noli'iv as she drew the bow back and forth. For the barest moment, Ashton swore he saw her glance up from her music-holo at him.

Ashton's heart melted. He had to meet this woman, whose beauty of form was matched only by the beauty of her musical talent. Quickly, he devised a plan. If she had indeed looked up at the admiral's private box, then Ashton would easily be recognized by her due to the bright red blood- stripes on his uniform sleeves; and there was no way that he could forget her heavenly visage, even with the poor detail afforded him by the macrobinoculars' meager magnification. If only he could some way find himself backstage...

After the show, Ashton thanked Admiral Hades for allowing him to accompany his staff to the concert and apologized that he could not rejoin them at Moff Iamar's party. He then stole away to the lobby where masses of audience members were pouring through the exits to waiting hoverlimos. Due to the crowds of people, he managed to sneak into the concert hall's ground floor unseen, where he strode confidently toward the stage. He easily hopped up to the meter-tall platform and marched to the stage door behind the large, ornate sound dampers, his booted feet clomping on the hollow duraplast.

Backstage, Ashton was greeted by a cacophony of conversations by the now relaxed Orchestra members. Stretching up onto his tip-toes, he tried to spot the noli'iv player he had admired during the show. Just as he spotted her electric-violet gown and drawn-back golden curls, he heard a woman shriek, "Look there! He's one of them!"

Ashton's eyes went wide as everyone around him whirled about to stare in his direction. A young woman with long, dark brown hair, an attractive face, and wearing a deep blue gown, ran up to him, shaking with excitement. "You are one of the new members of the One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group, aren't you?" she asked, a hopeful gleam in her eyes.

The pilot looked helplessly at the gorgeous noli'iv player as she smiled humorously at him. "Uh... yes; yes I am," he answered the excited girl's question. "I'm Captain Ashton Pallor."

All around him, women of all descriptions burst into hushed conversation. "He's a pilot?" "How brave." "He's so handsome." "I wonder if he knows Colonel Phennir?" "Do you think the rest are as cute as him?"

Gulping back a sudden wave of dread, Ashton started to back up toward the stage door. Without hesitation, the excited young woman nuzzled up to him and batted large brown eyes at him. "If you don't have a date, Captain, I'd be happy to escort you tonight."

Tugging at his uniform's collar, Ashton nervously tried to form a response. This was definitely not a part of his plan. Then, like a benevolent emancipator, the heavenly noli'iv player swept through the crowd of women and took Ashton by the arm, flashing him a wink. "Now, now, Lani, you don't want to frighten the Big Bad Fighter Pilot, do you?"

Her voice, Ashton thought in elation. It's as lovely and melodious as any melody from her noli'iv. Now that he saw her up close, he noticed her pale blue eyes, her high, smooth forehead, and the golden curls of her hair interspersed with strands of brown and black. Also, he saw that her gown was decorated with a dark violet floral pattern, featuring various blossoms from Corellia's wild meadows.

Leading Ashton through the parting swarm of awestruck women, she continued. "After all, the poor dear has just today become a member of the One Eighty-First. He'll be facing terrible battles against the Rebel menace in the future. We shouldn't be rudely flaunting ourselves before this noble and selfless soldier." As she said this last bit, she and Ashton disappeared through the backstage exit to an alley, leaving the Imperial Philharmonic Orchestra behind.

They were out of the alley and strolling along a nearby glidewalk when Ashton finally found his voice. "Thanks for the rescue back there. I don't know what I would've done without you."

She looked at him with sapphire eyes and said, "You looked like you needed some help. Especially with Lani's taste for pilots." She rolled her eyes and let out a short, melodious laugh.

"She wouldn't happen to know a woman named Edalia Iamar, would she?" Ashton chuckled.

"Yes, they're sisters." She cocked a suspicious eyebrow at him. "Why?"

"Edalia is all over my wingman right now," he answered, urging a laugh from her. Her mirthful eyes sparkled in the light of Imperial Center's towering spires and speeding hovercars. "I'm sorry, where are my manners; I still don't know your name," he said after a moment of silence.

She smiled sweetly and said, "I'm Kym Yarum."

Ashton took her hand and kissed the back of it. Quietly, he said, "A pleasure to meet you, Mistress Yarum."

Kym couldn't keep herself from giggling at his ridiculously theatrical etiquette. "And a pleasure to meet you, Captain Pallor."

"Please, call me Ashton."

"And you may call me Kym."

"Very well, Kym." For a moment they stood there, bathed in the glow of surrounding streetlights and passing speeder traffic, looking into each other's eyes. Eventually, Ashton's mouth cracked into a grin. Immediately, Kym's expression fell into a smile and they both burst out laughing. "So, why did you save my life back there?" he managed through his chuckling.

Kym took a deep breath to compose herself. She let it out in a heartfelt sigh and answered, "Nostalgia, I suppose. Your accent."

Ashton looked at her quizzically, taking her hands in his. "Are you from Corellia?"

She nodded thoughtfully.

"So you saved a homeworld boy?"

Kym gave him a flirtatious smirk. "It didn't hurt that you're also handsome."

"It's awfully late, Kym," Ashton pointed out, gazing into her sapphire eyes. "Would you mind if I saw you home?"

She smiled at him and once again took him by the arm. "Not at all."

As they traversed the winding streets and lifts of Imperial Center's layer upon layer of city, they spoke of anything and everything that came to mind. Ashton couldn't remember the last time he had been so comfortable speaking with a woman. He told her of his exploits at Endor and she explained to him her role in the Imperial Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of their conversation, however, was taken up by Corellia.

"So what part of Home are you from?" Ashton asked as they rode a turbolift down to her flat's level.

A wistful look crossed her face. "My family lived on an agro-combine a few kilometers outside of Coronet. My father worked for the combine as a labor overseer. He and my mother spent a lot of money so I could attend the Imperial University of Music." She gazed off into space for a moment, cherishing fond memories. "What about you?"

"My family lived on the outskirts of Coronet City, in the suburbs. My father designed mining equipment for a local firm. I left for the Academy on Prefsbelt IV when I was nineteen."

"Did you study anything other than flying while you were there?" she asked, curiosity in her voice.

"Actually, yes," Ashton answered. "I was a member of the Academy Martial Band for four years." The lift reached the appropriate level and they stepped off into the small lobby of Kym's apartment building.

"Really? What did you play?"

He looked at her with a big grin on his face. "I was strictly percussion while outside a cockpit."

Kym cracked a smile. "I knew it. You have the cocky bearing of a pilot, supplemented by the arrogant swagger of a marching percussionist." They exchanged a brief laugh as they reached Kym's door.

"Well, Kym, I guess this is goodnight," Ashton slowly stated.

Kym nodded, looking into his eyes. "I guess this is."

Without hesitating, Ashton swept Kym up in his arms and kissed her, passionately. She returned his kiss and snaked her arms up around his neck. They stood like that in the corridor, in front of the entrance to Kym's flat, for several heartbeats. Only when the need for air threatened to blackout his vision, did Ashton pull back. Gazing deeply into her eyes, a dreamy look on his face, he said, "If I'm curled up in the corner in pain, I'm doing a wonderful job of hallucinating that I'm not."

Kym smiled, her sapphire eyes squinting with amusement. "Keep in touch," she whispered, and, without waiting for a reply, she disappeared through the door.

Ashton stood there a moment, then a smile broke onto his face. As he turned and marched away with a spring in his step, he whistled the tune of Kym's solo.

It was long past midnight. As Ashton was about to hit the call button beside the turbolift to Moff Iamar's skyhook, the doors opened with a loud ding. Ashton stepped back and Dann'l M'Pala, the flap of his uniform's tunic hanging open and holding his head with one hand, staggered out of the lift. "Ugh, where've you been?" he asked, bleary-eyed.

Ashton looked his friend up and down, taking in his appearance. "You look awful. What happened to you?"

Dann'l sat on the duracrete walkway and looked up at the Corellian. "I asked you first. Where'd you go?"

Realizing that he wasn't going to win this engagement, Ashton sighed and sat down next to Dann'l. "Admiral Hades invited me along with his staff officers to the Imperial Philharmonic Orchestra's concert. Afterward, I met a woman, one of the orchestra members, and now I think I'm in love." He flashed Dann'l a jolly grin. "So what happened to you, anyway? I've seen CorSec pick up drunks that looked better than you."

Dann'l let out a low moan. Sniffing the air, Ashton noted that there was only the slightest hint of alcohol on his friend's breath. "Well, it turns out I'm engaged." Dann'l held up his left hand, indicating a gold band on his ring-finger.

Ashton's eyes went wide as he grabbed Dann'l's hand. "Sithspit! How'd that happen?"

"I don't know... I went to bed with Edalia, and when I woke up, there's a ring on my finger. I got dressed as fast as I could and as soon as I'm in the main room where the party is, Moff Iamar shakes my hand and congratulates me on the engagement."

Ashton stared into Dann'l's eyes for a few moments before his composure broke and he burst out laughing. He fell backward on the sidewalk, holding his stomach as he squeezed his eyes shut, amused tears rolling down his cheeks. "Dann'l, I know you're a kidder, but this time takes the ryshcate."

Dann'l glared at his friend, his eyes red-rimmed. "I'm not joking, Ashes, I'm really engaged to this woman!"

Ashton sat up, wiping his face. After a pause, he asked, "What are you going to do about it?"

"Postpone the wedding long enough for the One Eighty-First to get reassigned!"

"I don't know if that's going to work. Moff Iamar has some powerful sway and I don't think he's going to want his son-in-law killed in action."

This time Dann'l fell back to the duracrete, letting out a long, low moan.

After a long silence, Ashton asked, "You know what's even funnier?" Dann'l grunted and Ashton continued. "At the concert tonight, I was propositioned by Edalia's sister."

Dann'l sat bolt upright, his eyes wide with fear. "Oh no. She has a sister? What kind of wingman are you? You're supposed to be looking out for me!"

Ashton stood and offered his friend a hand up. "Come on, Dann'l. Let's find ourselves a bar to get drunk in and some naval troopers to beat up on."

The Outlander Club was one of Imperial Center's most upscale of all the dive bars. Frequented by slumming politicians, Imperial soldiers, and wealthier groups of aliens and garishly decorated with bright neon signs and equally bright drinks, it was the perfect place to make a scene. Ashton and Dann'l burst through the club's front door, their uniform tunics open and their sleeves rolled up, startling several patrons and causing others to look in their direction.

The two pilots marched boldly up to the bar. The bartender, a snobbish looking gentleman, gave them a peculiar look and asked, "What do you... gentlemen... want?"

Dann'l turned to Ashton and, affecting an insulted tone, said, "Did you hear what he called us?"

"He called us gentlemen," Ashton replied, in an equally insulted tone.

"Well, I'm not going to take that lying down." Dann'l turned back the bartender and poked a finger into the man's chest. "We are the Aces of Endor and we are here to get drunk."

Next to them, a naval trooper in full dress uniform turned to his companions and purposely spoke loud enough for Ashton and Dann'l to hear. "If they were at Endor, then their aim must not be much better than their manners." His three friends offered hearty laughs and their own opinions about TIE fighter pilots.

Slowly, both Ashton and Dann'l turned to the table of spit-shined naval troopers...

Chapter 3

Colonel Turr Phennir glared daggers at Ashton and Dann'l through the durasteel bars of the tiny stockade cell they sat in. "Just what the hell were you thinking when you ransacked that nightclub?"

"Thinking?" Ashton asked.

Dann'l hiccuped and said, "Who's accused us of thinking?"

Phennir rolled his eyes as he crossed his arms over his chest. "You men are drunk and disgraceful."

Ashton turned to Dann'l, saluted, and said, "Hello Captain Drunk."

Dann'l returned the salute. "Hello Captain Disgraceful." The two inebriated pilots burst into uproarious laughter.

Frustrated, Phennir drew his sidearm and fired once into the ceiling. "Sober up, damn it! You're lucky you're not being brought up on charges." He took a few calming breaths as he holstered his blaster. "Now officially I'm mad as a Rancor with a sore tooth at you, and will be taking disciplinary action. Unofficially, however-those four naval troopers came out the worse for the engagement, right?"

"Uh, yes sir," Ashton answered.

"In that case, I'm bailing you two out of the stockade and taking you back to One Eighty-First HQ."

"It's been all over the Holonet News all morning," Phennir explained to Major Lorrir and Major Hallek as he turned on his office's holoprojector. Just as he had predicted, Isard and Imperial Intelligence had begun a smear campaign against Baron Fel. As the news reports flashed by, Fel was vilified and debased at every turn. He was accused of having incited his students to hijack the Rand Ecliptic five years ago. Credit for whipping the 181st into shape and their first victory at Ord Biniir was taken away from him and given to General Evir Derricote, the man that had run the unit into the ground. But when the Intel mudslingers blamed the loss of Brentaal IV on Fel, Phennir couldn't take it anymore and switched the projector off.

Major Lorrir snorted. "I should have known Fel had a hand in Brentaal. Admiral Isoto couldn't have made our defense that sloppy and disjointed."

Admiral Lon Isoto was the commanding officer placed in charge of Brentaal's defenses by Ysanne Isard. Colonel Fel had suspected that Isoto was chosen for his ineptness and ability to be manipulated, thus making the loss of Brentaal IV Isard's objective in the first place.

Phennir raised a blonde eyebrow at Lorrir. "Not to mention ill- advised?"

"Yes. Well, at least now we know the truth: Isoto was the hero and Fel was the criminal."

Major Hallek cleared his throat and took a step away from Lorrir as Phennir's face became a mask of rage. The colonel lashed out with a punch that caught Lorrir across the jaw, spinning him around to his right. As the major sprawled on the floor, Phennir fixed him with a glare. "Soontir Fel was the greatest hero the Empire ever knew, Lorrir! Now he's rotting away in some poorly maintained, unsanitary, Rebel prison!" Phennir pointed accusingly at the inactive holoprojector. "Is this how we honor our heroes?"

Lorrir tried to get up but Phennir shoved him back to the floor and kept shouting. "Admiral Lon Isoto was a self-indulgent fool! You were there, for Palpatine's sake! I was swept up by his charisma, too, after the sortie over Oradin but when the Rebels came for Vuultin, I realized Fel was right. Isard is evil and power-hungry and Pestage is her puppet."

His face red, Phennir noticed a grin on Hallek's face and a twinkle in his sea-green eyes, and asked, "And just what are you smiling about?"

Hallek let out a short chuckle before he answered. "I'm just glad to have the old, pre-Brentaal Turr Phennir back, sir."

Phennir settled a determined expression on his sharp features. "That's right and Isard's not going to get her claws in him. Oz, call Rapier, Saber, and Broadsword together in the ready room. I want them all to know about this right away."

Hallek nodded, turned, and marched out of Phennir's office.

Phennir looked down at Major Lorrir, still on the floor, and said, mockingly, "Get up, Major, you look undignified."

The three squadrons of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group gathered in their HQ building's ready room. Dann'l M'Pala held an ice pack to his forehead while Ashton Pallor wore a pair of opaque welder's goggles he'd stolen from the Saber Squadron hangar. Dann'l let out a low moan. "Ugh, I drank way too much last night," he groaned.

Ashton, leaning against the tier of seats behind him, asked, "How do you know? I can't even remember the drinking."

Collyn Fenring and Lance Dargo sidled up next to the hungover pilots. "Late night last night?" Collyn asked sarcastically. Ashton and Dann'l both answered with a low, drawn out, moan.

"What's the last thing, if anything, you remember?" Lance grinned, his white teeth a sharp contrast to his coffee-colored skin, bristling his immaculately trimmed mustache.

"Something about gentlemen and... manners..." Ashton croaked.

Just then, Colonel Phennir stepped into the ready room, followed by Major Lorrir who was holding his jaw. "I've got a few things to tell you," Phennir said, addressing the entire fighter group. He stepped up to the lectern and continued. "First of all, because of our elite status, the Imperial High Command has finally decided to upgrade our Interceptors. To increase our chances of surviving an engagement, each one of our fighters is being equipped with a pilot-ejection system and low-power shield systems. The reason that they're low-powered is so they won't mass as much and our fighters won't lose as much speed or maneuverability." He paused a moment as a round of hoots, whistles, and applause passed through the assembled pilots. "Also, I've just this morning received the One Eighty- First's new assignment: we're to be stationed aboard the ISD Tartarus as a part of Admiral Hades' task force in the hunt for Warlord Zsinj. We'll be shuttling our fighters up to the Tartarus ourselves in two weeks."

Lance Dargo raised his hand and asked, "Begging your pardon, Colonel, but isn't Admiral Rogriss handling Zsinj?"

"Director Isard has convinced Sate Pestage to launch another task force, splitting the galaxy in two." Lance nodded his understanding and Phennir went on, looking each pilot in the eyes in turn. "There's one more thing I'd like to discuss with you before I conclude the group meeting. Sate Pestage isn't going to be able to hold power for long. It was obvious to Baron Fel that Isard is playing Pestage for a fool and it's just as obvious to me. Back at Brentaal, I tried to persuade the colonel to strike out on his own. I did so because I felt that the One Eighty-First would be better off with him as a warlord than with Isard as an empress. I'm not going to stick around if Isard seizes power from Pestage and I'd like to know how many of you would be willing to follow me to one of the other Imperial power bases? Holding yourself apart won't earn you my wrath but for the sake of the unit, I think we should stick together."

Ashton and Dann'l looked at each other and nodded, despite their hangovers. Stepping forward, they both said, "We're with you, sir." They were followed by Collyn and Lance, then the whole of Rapier Squadron. The majority of Broadsword Squadron, including Major Hallek, stepped forward and Three Flight from Saber Squadron. In all, only six pilots, including Major Lorrir and his flight group, stayed behind, refusing to abandon Isard's Empire.

Phennir looked upon his men, swallowing hard as he realized the loyalty he'd managed to instill in most of them. Every one of the eleven replacement pilots had stepped forward in support of his quiet insurrection. After a moment, Major Hallek stepped forward, offering his hand. "Congratulations, sir."

Taking it, Phennir ran a hand through his light blonde hair. "Thank you, Oz. Thank you men." After one last look out at the pilots of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group, he said, "That's all; dismissed."

Outside the ready room, Lorrir stopped Turr Phennir on his way back to his office. "Sir, what you're proposing to the men is treason," he stated, astonishment on his face.

"Not at all, Major," Phennir replied, not breaking his stride. "Isard isn't the legitimate ruler of the Empire; she herself denies having anything to do with the governing process."

"But sir," Lorrir protested, following, "you know that I can't just sit by and let you abscond with thirty TIE Interceptors. This is Imperial property we're talking about! It's my duty to report this to my superiors."

Phennir stopped and let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. Have your report on my desk, in triplicate, by nineteen hundred hours, ship's time."

"I beg your pardon, Colonel?" Lorrir looked quizzically at Phennir.

"I don't know if you understand the chain of command completely, but I'm your superior!"

Lorrir grabbed Phennir's uniform sleeve and glared directly into his eyes. "Director Isard is going to hear about this and you know as well as I that she will take action."

Slowly, deliberately, Phennir removed Lorrir's hand from his uniform. "How? I'm a hero of the Galactic Empire, recognized by the Emperor himself. I've got a host of senior staff and junior officers singing my praises, including twenty-nine other pilots under my command. I'm the last bastion of Imperial valor that the citizens of the Empire have left to look up to, now that Fel's been taken down by the propaganda machine." Phennir's icy blue gaze bored into Lorrir's and he spoke deliberately and firmly. "Isard cannot touch me."

With those last words, he turned away from Major Lorrir and continued marching to his office.

Only a few days later, Ashton sat with Kym, holding her hand across a table, at a small, open-air caf? on one of Imperial Center's upper levels. Above them, the sky was clear of speeder traffic and not a single cloud intruded over their pleasant meeting. "I'm glad you could make it," he said graciously.

"I'm afraid I can't stay long," she replied. "The Philharmonic's got a rehearsal tonight. We'll be playing the score for an opera on Kuat in a month." She had an excited look in her eyes as she spoke. Ashton could tell she was looking forward to it.

Leaning back in his chair, he said, "I wish I could see it. The One Eighty-First is being stationed on the Tartarus to scour the galaxy for Warlord Zsinj with Admiral Hades' task force."

"He's the one that ran off with the Super Star Destroyer after Endor?"

"That's right, the Iron Fist. Rumor has it he's even tailored himself a grand admiral's uniform." Ashton paused to take a sip of tea. Changing the subject, he took Kym's hands in both of his and said, "I couldn't stop dreaming about you last night."

Though her cheeks darkened slightly, Kym laughed lightly. "Better not dream of me too much, Ashton. I wouldn't want you preoccupied in your cockpit."

Ashton cracked a roguish grin and replied, "Don't worry, my little dragon pearl. I've got the best reason in the galaxy to come back alive." He sat there a moment, looking into her pale blue eyes, his own brown gaze intense yet soft, dreamy but earnest. Finally he said, "My friend, Dann'l M'Pala, is taking Edalia Iamar to the opening ceremony of the newest wing at the Galactic Museum tomorrow night and he invited me along. Would you come with me?"

Kym looked at him quizzically. "Why's he taking her out?"

Ashton burst out laughing before he could help himself. Eventually, wiping tears from his eyes, he answered, "She's his fianc?e and he's afraid of the moff."

A smile spread over Kym's features and she too started laughing. "She vaped him, huh?"

"Came up on his six and he never saw her coming."

As their laughter began to die down, Kym cleared her throat and said, "Of course I'll come with you." With that, she tugged him close by his goatee and gave him a kiss.

Deep within the Imperial Palace's Inner Sanctum, Sate Pestage, adorned in violet finery, sat engaged in a mental dogfight with Ysanne Isard. "I don't like the idea of sending our most celebrated elite unit on a wild nuna chase," Pestage said, his voice echoing in the enormous chamber. Here, the Emperor himself sat in solitude within the slate grey walls, his throne in the middle of a platform that hung out over an abyss, contemplating how best to rule his galaxy. "The One Eighty-First would be better used combating the Rebels."

Isard, in her omnipresent blood-red admiral's uniform, gave him a tight smirk. Oh, how Pestage wished he had but a fraction of the Emperor's power so he could wipe that sneer off her face. "But Warlord Zsinj is a rebel, Vizier." She insisted on referring to him by the title he had held under Palpatine, Grand Vizier. It annoyed him to no end. "He is merely a different kind of rebel. By devoting our mightiest force to dealing with him, we show the Rebel Alliance that they are of less concern to us."

"Prompting an attack!" Pestage blurted.

"Yes!" Isard's fiery eye blazed. "A bold, arrogant attack on a high profile target just to show us that we have more to fear from them than from Zsinj."

"Which is when you plan to trap them?" Pestage asked doubtfully. "The Empire has been dangling juicy bait before the Rebels for years! What has it gained us but two Death Stars reduced to atoms and an Emperor murdered?" Pestage detested Isard's plans-within-plans.

Isard clasped her hands behind her back. "The Emperor knew that victory does not come without risk or sacrifice, Vizier. Our concern with Zsinj will draw the Rebels out. I will find their target using my Intelligence resources, and Admiral Hades will destroy them with the One Eighty-First."

Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence, stormed out of the Inner Sanctum. Fool! she thought. But not as big a fool as I'd thought. Turr Phennir was dangerous. His loyalty was obviously still with the Empire but Isard believed he had become too much like his predecessor, Soontir Fel. It would be best to keep him far away from her important operations where he couldn't cause any trouble. If he died in combat against Zsinj's Raptors, so much the better.

Pestage, on the other hand, seemed to be up to something. For the past week he'd been gathering military assets at his home planet of Ciutric and he had grown increasingly paranoid. Isard would have to keep a watchful eye on his activities. Perhaps she would assign Admiral Tavira to the task.

The day had come. The 181st Imperial Fighter Group was about to take off from their hangars and land aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Tartarus. In Saber Squadron's hangar, Ashton rode the lift up to the landing rack catwalk, his flight helmet tucked under his left arm. He had his right arm around Kym's waist, holding her close.

All around them, the hangar was silent; the only fighters remaining were the four TIE Interceptors of Two Flight. The lift reached the top and Ashton and Kym stepped off onto the catwalk. "I'm going to miss you," Ashton whispered as they walked to his Interceptor where it hung in its brackets. They stopped and he pulled Kym close to him.

"I know," she whispered back. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. She hugged him furiously, resting her head on his chest.

"Hey, hey... It's okay...," he tried to comfort her, stroking her soft curls. "I promise I'll come back." The words sounded somewhat hollow in his ears. There was no way he could make that sort of promise; he knew all too well the dangers faced by TIE pilots. Ashton lifted her chin up and gazed deeply into her sapphire eyes. "I love you."

A single tear escaped Kym's composure. "I know," she choked out. With that, she kissed him, fiercely.

Ashton closed his eyes and leaned forward, kissing her back. A thousand things ran through his mind. He saw the day he had first met her, at the Imperial Philharmonic Orchestra concert. He saw their lunch at the caf?; he still hadn't told her what he'd agreed to do for Colonel Phennir. He saw the opening ceremony of the new wing at the Galactic Museum. They had shared many laughs that day as Dann'l uncomfortably fiddled with his ring. She had asked why Dann'l always called him Ashes. Ashton had answered that it was because for all three times he'd been shot down, he still hadn't been reduced to them. All this flashed through his memory as he stood there, locked in an embrace with the woman he'd come to love.

"Please be careful," Kym managed.

"You know I will." Slowly, reluctantly, Ashton disengaged himself from Kym and marched to his fighter. He noticed that Dann'l and Edalia were sharing their own tender moment over by Dann'l's Interceptor. Maybe she was beginning to grow on him.

Ashton gave Kym one last look before climbing into his TIE and dogging the hatch shut. Flipping switches, he ran through the startup sequence and donned his helmet, attaching the air hoses. "Saber Five, two lit and in the green," he called into his helmet comlink.

Over the comm, Dann'l cleared his throat and replied, "Saber Six, two running hot; all systems green."

"Saber Seven, both check out green," Collyn Fenring reported.

"Saber Eight, nothing wrong yet," Lance Dargo finished.

Activating his repulserlifts, Ashton disengaged the landing brackets and gently moved his fighter out of the hangar. Glancing back through his rear viewport, he spotted Kym standing with Edalia, waving him and Two Flight goodbye. The four TIE Interceptors formed up outside the hangar and vectored toward the sky.

As they left Imperial Center's atmosphere and passed through the protective layers of energy shielding, the sky around them changed from an inviting blue to a deep black, flecked with stars. Ahead of them was the rest of Saber Squadron and, beyond them, Admiral Hades' task force. Several minor support ships surrounded three Imperial Dreadnoughts, a Lancer-class anti-starfighter frigate, two Victory-class Star Destroyers, and two Imperial-class Star Destroyers. The Imperial Star Destroyers were impressive to see. One point six kilometers long, they were enormous, bone- white, dagger-shaped vessels that carried six TIE squadrons each. One of those Imperial Star Destroyers was their destination, the Tartarus, Admiral Hades' flagship.

Ashton and Two Flight formed up with the rest of Saber Squadron and vectored toward the Tartarus. As they altered their course to enter the Star Destroyer's hangar, Ashton took a moment to glance at a still-holo of Kym he'd attached to his control panel. I love you, he thought, and I will come home to you.

Chapter 4

Two days after Admiral Hades' task force left Imperial Center, Colonel Turr Phennir called the 181st together in the Tartarus' ready room. Being aboard a Star Destroyer, the room was a much smaller version of the one from their HQ building, planet-side. Phennir stood at the front of the room, behind the lectern, detailing the 181st's role in Hades' operations while the other pilots sat on the tiered seats, listening intently. "As the task force's chief fighter unit, we'll be given free reign over each of our mission profiles. Or rather, I should say, I'll have free reign over each of our mission profiles. It's only been six-and-a-half months since the death of the Emperor at Endor and, already, Warlord Zsinj has managed to bully several star systems into declaring allegiance to his own little empire. High Command suspects that he has several more that we don't even know about."

"What's Hades' plan for tracking Zsinj down?" Hallek asked.

"He plans to hop from one system to the next within what is suspected to be 'Zsinj-controlled space'. At every opportunity, we will engage Zsinj's forces, whittling away at his fleet."

"No offense to the admiral, but that's not a very inspired plan," Ashton commented.

"No," Phennir conceded, "but it is likely that eventually Zsinj will be drawn out by our attacks and try to counter us with the Iron Fist. In the end, that's our goal. The Iron Fist's destruction." Phennir paused for questions or comments. Hearing none, he continued. "We'll be running several simulators based on the systems Hades plans on hitting and their projected strengths. We'll also be simming confrontations with Zsinj's primary fleet, which will include the Iron Fist."

Pressing a button on his data-pad, Phennir brought an image of Zsinj's Super Star Destroyer up on the tactical holoprojector. With a laser pointer, he indicated several spots on the Iron Fist's image. "Concentrated attacks will be made on the shield-generator domes, the engine housing, and the ventral spine where it's exposed by the docking bay. Most of these targets will be hit by our capital ships while we keep Zsinj's fighters occupied. However, if opportunity arises, the One Eighty-First will make concentrated strafing runs on Iron Fist's hull." Phennir indicated the massive city-like structures along the command ship's dorsal surface. "At Endor, the Rebels proved that starfighters can attack a Super Star Destroyer's bridge by flying through the cavernous dorsal structure. That's how a Rebel suicide pilot managed to take out the Executor."

Dann'l raised his hand. "What do we do if Zsinj attacks us with a superior force?"

"In that circumstance, Admiral Hades will hold Zsinj as long as possible and send word to Admiral Rogriss' task force for assistance. Any further questions?" There were none. "In that case, report to the simulator wing by fifteen-thirty hours to prep for our first mission; dismissed."

Two hours later, Ashton climbed out of one of the Tartarus' simulator pods, doffing his helmet and gasping for breath. For a moment he just laid there on the cool durasteel deck of the simulator wing, letting the sweat drip down his face. Dann'l staggered up to him and dropped his own helmet to the floor. He swayed for a moment then fell square on his rear beside Ashton.

"That... was insane," Dann'l panted, wiping perspiration from his brow with a sleeve of his flightsuit.

"I can't believe that Storinal is going to be defended by a wing-and- a-half of TIE Interceptors," Ashton replied. "Nine squadrons against only three because Hades is going to hold the rest of the task force in reserve."

"I guess that's the price we pay for being the best."

Changing the subject, Ashton commented, "You know, I noticed something about Major Lorrir in that last sim run."

"Yeah, what's that?" Dann'l asked.

"He side-slips too much. Every time an enemy fighter is on his six, he goes and breaks either port or starboard. He never dives, he never reverse-throttle hops; if someone's on his tail, he always side-slips."

"Wow," Dann'l replied. "All those times I simmed against him, it turns out I was being overly cautious. I thought he was leading me into a trap." After a long pause, Dann'l stood and offered Ashton a hand up. "Come on, let's see if they're still serving alcohol in the officers' lounge."

"I'm already there," Ashton replied, getting up. "And Collyn," he called, "next time don't try to skip along the edge of Storinal's atmosphere. You'll live longer."

Turr Phennir sat in the ready room with Oz Hallek and Major Lorrir. They sat around the room's tactical holoprojector, analyzing the 181st's last set of simulations on the Storinal raid. Phennir pointed at a group of grey box-like buildings on the planet's surface. "Here are the hangars where those four groups launch from. Notice how all of their bay doors face the east."

"That's where Hades had the One Eighty-First attack from," Hallek noted. "We managed to take out a quarter of the enemy force, on average, with the first pass but we also lost about half a squadron each time."

"I'm not too fond of that prospect. I'd like to minimize casualties as much as I can," Phennir replied, a frown crossing his scarred face. "It's too bad the Empire wants the real estate or Admiral Hades could just blast the TIE bunkers from orbit."

Hallek pointed to a thick grove of trees just south of the bunkers. "There's a river running through here that might be wide enough for a single fighter to fly through. We'd have to go single file but we'd be able to sneak up on Zsinj's TIEs from under the tree level."

"That could work," Lorrir spoke up. "But how do we stop them from spotting us on our way into the atmosphere?"

Phennir hit a few keys on his data-pad and responded, "I have an idea on that." The hologram of Storinal's surface changed from a daytime setting to nighttime. In the sky several kilometers west of the TIE bunkers, a shower of meteorites flashed through the atmosphere. "We load our fighters' storage spaces with large chunks of junk from the Tartarus' garbage bay. We jettison it as we enter the atmosphere and, presto! We look like meteorites as the trash burns up in the atmosphere."

Hallek looked Phennir in the eye. "Turr, that's brilliant. Then we just use terrain-following flight to get to the mouth of the river and sneak on in. They'll never see us coming."

"What if we pass ground-based gun emplacements?" Lorrir quipped.

"Broadsword Squadron will hang back a kilometer from Rapier and Saber Squadrons," Phennir answered. "We'll feed telemetry data to them so they'll know what to expect and can clean it up as they go by."

"Since Zsinj'll probably have a comm line to the TIE bunkers," Hallek said, "we can have Hades send a commando team down to cut off communications with a few well-placed parcels of Nergon Fourteen high explosive."

Phennir nodded in agreement. "Sounds like we have ourselves a plan, gentlemen."

Three days later, Ashton was descending into Storinal's atmosphere with the rest of the 181st. All around them, meteors burned up in the atmosphere leaving incandescent trails of light. The three squadrons were under orders from Colonel Phennir to observe strict comm silence until they were over their target. At the designated altitude, he popped open his TIE Interceptor's storage compartment, ejecting the large hunk of trash stored there. Through his cockpit viewport, he saw the other TIEs around him doing likewise.

They were followed by little tails of fire down to the lower reaches of the planet's atmosphere where they pulled up and skimmed along ten meters above the ground. Broadsword Squadron took up their position a kilometer behind Rapier and Saber and Ashton set his instruments to feed their data to Broadsword's pilots. Mentally preparing himself for the battle to come, Ashton took a moment to glance at the holograph of Kym on his control panel.

That's when they passed the first gun emplacement. It opened fire on Colonel Phennir's flight group, which scattered immediately. The gun's second shot took out Rapier Seven, clipping off his starboard wing array and sending him spinning into a hillside. Ashton dropped his targeting box over the laser cannon and fired a quad-linked burst, raining shrapnel across the landscape. Damn! Ashton thought. The mission's barely started and we've already lost a pilot.

Minutes later, Colonel Phennir's flight group took out another camouflaged gun emplacement, followed by a third only moments later. Finally the 181st came to the estuary where their river emptied into the ocean. Each Interceptor heeled over to port in turn and all thirty-five craft skimmed above the water's glassy surface, single-file. Occasionally Ashton could hear branches clipping his wing arrays as he flew along the winding river's path.

For nearly twenty minutes, they flew beneath the tree level until Colonel Phennir broke comm silence. "Form up and quad your lasers. We are now three klicks out from the target." All together, the 181st's Interceptors lifted up from the river above the tree line and formed themselves into three attack diamonds per squadron. In the distance, Ashton saw the four squat, slate-grey, duracrete bunkers where Zsinj's planetary defense fighters were stored.

Rapier Squadron strafed the bunker to the West while Saber Squadron opened fire on the easternmost bunker. As Broadsword Squadron brought up the rear, they blasted away at the bunker to the South. As the three TIE bunkers burned, the Rapiers circled around to hit the northern installation. "Rapier Lead, this is Broadsword One," Major Hallek called over the comm. "I read twenty-four, repeat two-four, contacts bearing two- two-seven."

"I copy, Broadsword One," Phennir answered. "Break off and engage new contacts. Saber One, take your squad up to twenty kilometers and watch for more hostiles."

"Roger Rapier Lead," Lorrir acknowledged.

Pulling back on his control yoke, Ashton and Two Flight followed the rest of Saber Squadron into Storinal's upper atmosphere.

Major Oz Hallek vectored his craft toward the two approaching squadrons of TIE Interceptors. "Broadsword Squadron, break by flights on my mark," he ordered into his helmet comlink. Tightening his gloved hands on the control yoke, he could feel the sweat dripping down his face and wanted nothing more than to wipe his brow. That's the only problem with these enclosed helmets, he thought.

When the Broadswords were within a kilometer of the enemy Interceptors, Hallek called, "Break!" Hauling his yoke to the left, he pressed the left rudder pedal as hard as he could, fishtailing his fighter's Twin Ion Engines to starboard. "Still with me, Two?"

"I'm with you; two marks bearing in at one-seventy," replied Hallek's wingman, Captain Hal Theelin.

"I'm on the leader, side-slip starboard and chop back thrust."

"As ordered, Broadsword One."

For a spilt second, Hallek cut off his thrusters, leaving his aerodynamically incorrect craft gliding through the air. Setting his thrusters to reverse, he dialed the throttle back up to full and both his pursuers flashed past him. The reverse-throttle hop had placed him squarely on the tails of his would-be attackers. Tightening up on the dual triggers, he fired two dual-linked shots into his nearest enemy. The first pair of laser bolts blew off the Interceptor's top hatch; the second pair drilled right through the Twin Ion Engine ports, blasting the fragile craft into a bright fireball and bits of shrapnel.

Hal, on the other hand still had the other Interceptor on his six. Hallek settled the targeting box over his wingman's assailant and squeezed the triggers as it went green, indicating a target lock. His shot went wide, grazing the enemy fighter's port solar wing panel. Hallek's eyes went wide with horror as the hostile craft fired a quad-linked burst into Hal's aft. A haze surrounded his wingman's Interceptor as the green energy dissipated mere centimeters over the craft's surface. "What do you know," Hal called over the comlink. "These shields actually work!" Hallek breathed a sigh of relief and fired again upon the enemy. This time he was rewarded with an incandescent explosion as his target blew apart.

"All right, Two, form up," Hallek ordered. "We're going to circle around and fly right through the main dogfight."

"I'm right with you, One."

Turr Phennir inverted his fighter and pulled the control yoke to his chest, diving towards the ground. The two hostile fighters on his tail did likewise and followed him down. Pulling up, he dodged his Interceptor left and right as he skimmed Storinal's surface, sheets of emerald laser fire flashing past his viewport.

Rolling onto his starboard solar array, he dialed down his throttle and pulled up on the yoke. His pursuers couldn't quite match the tightness of his turn and one slammed into a tree, flashing into a bright ball of flame. The other turned in a wide arc past Phennir, allowing him to settle his targeting box on the fighter's rear. With a single quad-linked burst from his laser cannons, he dispatched his foe.

Vectoring back toward the main engagement zone, he shunted energy from his lasers to reinforce his shields. Flipping his lasers over to single-fire, he picked a target and opened fire. The enemy fighter flashed into incandescence and Phennir settled his cross-hair over another enemy. Squeezing the triggers, he sent it crashing to the ground in flames. Another target, and another hostile fighter burst into flame.

In the blink of an eye, he had passed through the swarm of starfighters, picking off targets of opportunity. Circling around, he called, "One Eighty-First, report."

"This is Broadsword One; we are clear of hostiles."

"Saber One reports no approaching enemies."

"Form up and return to the Tartarus," Phennir ordered. A string of affirmatives answered him and he vectored his TIE Interceptor up toward space. As he left the atmosphere, he looked back through his rear viewport at the flaming wrecks of the TIEs that had sided with Warlord Zsinj. What a useless waste of Imperial equipment, he thought.

"Your thoughts, Colonel?" Admiral Hades asked. He sat at the head of a large, lozenge-shaped table around which the obese Commodore Pomp and his staff officers sat, along with Phennir, Hallek, and Lorrir. The table was in the center of a four meter square wardroom aboard the Tartarus. The walls were the Imperial standard slate grey but the floor had been carpeted with an expensive scarlet rug that had been imported from Kuat.

"For the most part, the mission objectives were achieved," Phennir answered. "The One Eighty-First confirmed the existence of Zsinj's forces in this system and even managed to neutralize an entire fighter wing." He turned to his right to look at Major Hallek.

Hallek took up the oratory, scratching at the stubble accumulating on his face. "We suffered minimal casualties losing only Rapier Seven, Broadsword Eight, and Broadsword Twelve. With a twenty-four-to-one kill ratio, that makes our losses essentially insignificant."

"Especially since Lieutenant Xax was killed by ground fire and not enemy fighter activity," Lorrir broke in.

"And what does the presence of one of Zsinj's TIE Interceptor wings at Storinal tell us?" Commodore Pomp asked, his jowls jiggling.

"Simple." Admiral Hades turned in his chair toward the plump officer. "It tells us that there is a high likelihood that Zsinj has similar divisions in at least one of the surrounding systems. We merely need to discover which one it is."

"Where do we start?" Phennir asked.

We start with the closest one. The Undil System."

Chapter 5

Turr Phennir and Oz Hallek sat on opposite sides of a desk in Phennir's tiny office aboard the Tartarus. On his desk, Phennir had a data-pad, a holoprojector, and a holocube displaying a static image of a young man who looked remarkably like Phennir without a facial scar. Phennir ran a hand through his unruly blonde hair and shook his head. "I don't like it. Our deserter group is now down to twenty-seven."

"The pilots we lost at Storinal have been replaced already," Hallek replied, leaning back in the salvaged TIE fighter command couch that served as a chair. "We could try to recruit the replacements into our fold."

Phennir shook his head, a frown twisting his facial scar into an ugly line. "Can't risk tipping Admiral Hades to our plans. I'm not sure he can be trusted not to inform on us."

"We're already risking Isard finding out since we've got Lorrir running around loose."

"I know, I know. But what am I supposed to do? Dismiss him from the unit? I won't throw Saber Squadron at an impossible objective just to eliminate one dissident pilot. Besides, chances are he's already squealed."

Hallek nodded in agreement. "So what do we do?"

Phennir stood and paced about the cramped office. "We're going to start running simulators. Our twenty-seven pilots against forces equal in strength but not of the same composition of Hades' task force. The objectives will not be their destruction but our escape. Call Captain Pallor in here."

Hallek complied and as they waited he indicated the holocube on Phennir's desk. "Relative of yours, Turr?"

Phennir sat back down and picked up the holocube. "This is my older brother, Kaz. He was killed at the Battle of Yavin." Hatred materialized on Phennir's face, twisting his scar. "From the holo data I've gleaned from every possible source, I found he was shot down by Wedge Antilles."

Hallek started, sitting bolt upright, his eyes going wide. "The Wedge Antilles?"

"That's right," Phennir murmured. "The man who now leads Rogue Squadron." Setting the holocube back on the desk but still looking at the image, he continued. "That's why I joined the One Eighty-First, all those years ago: so I could get a chance to kill my brother's murderer." Phennir closed his eyes and swallowed back a lump that had formed in his throat. "What about you, Oz?" he asked, opening his eyes again.

Hallek shrugged. "I joined up after Hoth. Wanted to be the very best I could be and the One Eighty-First was the way to do that. Plus it got me out of the personal fleet of Ralltiir's local moff."

Just then there was a knock at the door. "Come in, Captain," Phennir called.

The door to Phennir's office hissed open and Ashton stepped through, coming to attention and throwing his best salute. "At ease, Ashes. There's something important we need to discuss, namely your role in Saber Squadron."

Shifting his eyes from left to right, Ashton tugged at the collar of his uniform. "Uh, Colonel, I can explain."

Phennir cocked an amused eyebrow at the Corellian. "Relax Ashes, you haven't done anything wrong since I bailed you and Dann'l out of the stockade. I want you to know that during operations involving our departure from Isard's empire you'll be acting as Saber's commander."

Ashton's jaw dropped at what he just heard. "Sir, I'm honored. Thank you."

"You'll also continue as the squadron's commanding officer after we've made our escape."

"If I live, you mean," Ashton replied, flashing a lopsided grin. "Will I be able to name my own XO?"

Hallek chuckled. "Careful Turr. Just imagine giving him and Dann'l their own squadron. The lum will flow like the ocean of Mon Calimari and those two will be running through the streets leaving mayhem in their wake."

Phennir smiled, cheeriness shining in his eyes. "That's a risk we just have to take, Oz."

Days later, Ashton stepped into the Tartarus' hangar clad in full flight gear. The rest of the 181st's pilots were milling about their fighters waiting for the order to launch when they reached the Undil System. Suddenly the ship shook violently and loudspeakers blared, "All pilots to your stations; we've been pulled from hyperspace early. The Iron Fist is directly forward of the bow. Launch!"

The Iron Fist? How'd Zsinj know where we'd be? The Tartarus rocked as it was hit by a salvo of turbolaser fire from the Super Star Destroyer. As Ashton skidded across the catwalk, he was sure that Admiral Hades was none too pleased with Zsinj's surprise. Looking over to his wingman's Interceptor, he saw that Dann'l was struggling to attach the air hoses to his flight helmet.

Just then, Dann'l pointed and, over the comlink, shouted, "Hit the deck!" suiting action to words.

Ashton turned and was blown backward off his feet as a pair of concussion missiles streaked into the bay and destroyed a group of TIE fighters still in their landing brackets. Red warning klaxons bathed the flaming hangar in a bloody light as sirens screamed. Picking himself up off the grated catwalk, Ashton made it to his ship and ran the startup sequence. "Come on Dann'l," he said into the comlink. "I'm not much good without a wingman."

"I'm with you Five; let's launch!"

"The Aces of Endor ride again!" Ashton called as he released the brackets and blasted out of the burning hangar, his friend tucked into his starboard aft quarter.

"Don't think you're going to leave us behind!" came Lance's voice on the comm. Ashton looked and spotted two more TIE Interceptors from the 181st following them on his aft sensors.

"All right Two Flight, form up. We've got to buy the Tartarus time to clean out its hangar and launch the rest of the One Eighty-First." Ashton heeled his fighter onto its port wing array and centered a TIE Raptor in his targeting box. The Raptor was an ugly, inelegant craft of Zsinj's own design. It had the basic ball-shaped TIE cockpit with four hexagonal solar panels attached directly to the hull, rather than with bracing pylons. The targeting box went green and Ashton squeezed the dual triggers on his control yoke, sending quad-liked daggers of emerald light stabbing into the nimble Raptor. The Raptor's ball cockpit exploded and the four solar wings continued forward, spinning erratically.

"Five, I've got four marks making a run on Tartarus' shield generators," Collyn reported.

"I copy; go to Attack Diamond Six." On Ashton's order, the four TIE Interceptors rearranged themselves into a diamond formation with Dann'l M'Pala, in Saber Six, at the upper point and Ashton at the lower point. Lance and Collyn took up positions at the left and right points respectively. Two Flight vectored up at the Tartarus' bridge tower and spotted a quartet of Raptors making a pass at the shield generator globes. "Unlinked mass fire on my order." The Interceptors closed to one kilometer of Zsinj's fighters and Ashton shouted over the comm, "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

An endless stream of green energy lanced from the diamond of Interceptors. In one pass, all four Raptors were destroyed.

"Thanks for the save, Sabers," Admiral Hades' voice called over Ashton's comlink.

"Just repaying you for the cultural lesson, Admiral," Ashton answered as he vectored toward an incoming flock of Raptors.

"That 'cultural lesson' was pretty good looking. Let's save him again; maybe we'll get some too!" Collyn laughed.

"Cut the chatter, form up, and kill those Raptors!" Colonel Phennir ordered. Ashton checked his sensors and, sure enough, Rapier Squadron had managed to launch its fighters. "They got the fires put out and are now jettisoning what was destroyed. One of Broadsword's Interceptors was lost in the explosion."

Ashton vectored toward Phennir's squadron, Two Flight following in his wake. On his sensors, he spotted two full Raptor squadrons harassing the Phlegathon, Hades' Lancer-class frigate. The agile fighters dashed in and out of the frigate's range, taking potshots as the Imperial gunners struggled to catch them. "Open fire!" Phennir ordered. A river of green laser fire arced between the sixteen Interceptors and the twenty-four Raptors. In less than a second, the forces Zsinj had attacking Hades' Lancer frigate were reduced by half. The remaining Raptors peeled away from the Phlegathon to engage the 181st. Two were immediately blasted into dust by the frigate's guns.

Ashton inverted his fighter and pulled the control yoke to his chest, heeling over to pursue Zsinj's forces. "Two Flight, break by pairs and engage Raptors at will. Keep them off our capital ships." A red light burned on his control yoke, a warning that an enemy fighter was trying for a laser lock on him. Cutting back his thrust, Ashton shoved the yoke forward as bolts of green coherent light flashed overhead. Into his comlink, he called, "I've picked one up; Six give me a hand."

"I'm on him, Five," Dann'l answered. Ashton rolled his Interceptor onto its starboard wing array and stamped down on the right rudder pedal. Chopping back his thrust, he reversed his original course and led his pursuer right into Dann'l's sights. Dann'l fired two dual-linked bursts from his laser cannons, wiping the Raptor off Ashton's tail.

A quartet of Raptors vectored straight toward Ashton and Dann'l. They're willing to go head-to-head. What kind of fanaticism has Zsinj instilled in these guys? Just as they came within range, the four Raptors were engulfed in a wave of laser fire brushing over their hulls. Ashton looked up to his right and spotted a pair of TIE Interceptors, red stripes on their wings, juking and jinking around each other as they tore the enemy ships apart.

A loud whoop of joy came over the comlink. It was immediately followed by Lance's excited voice, "That's five!"

"Congrats," Ashton answered.

"That means you get to buy the drinks when we get back," Dann'l chimed in.

On the bridge of the Imperial Star Destroyer Tartarus, Admiral Hades stood hunched over a tactical display. His task force had been pulled out of hyperspace by the mass shadow of Undil IV's moon. It had been blind luck that a navigational miscalculation had brought them out right on top of the Iron Fist and its two accompanying Star Destroyers. Now his fighters were tied up in dogfighting Zsinj's Raptors and the Iron Fist was hammering the Victory-class Star Destroyer Styx while trying to make a getaway. "Helm, bring us about, zero-six-three," Hades ordered. "Increase to flank speed, open up with the long-range guns at the earliest opportunity."

Hades examined the tactical holo again. If he could get his other Imperial Star Destroyer, the Persephone, and the undamaged Victory ship, Dis, in range of Iron Fist's bow, he could catch Zsinj in a crossfire. To Commodore Pomp, he said, "Order the Styx to disengage Iron Fist, fall back, and protect the Phlegathon. Then have Dis go to flank speed and broadside Zsinj's bow as hard as he can."

"Yes Admiral." The fat man saluted and jogged to the comm station.

Through the bridge viewport, Hades could see the Iron Fist's massive stern with its thirteen sublight drive engines. Every four or five seconds, a barrage of green turbolaser fire would stab out from the Tartarus' bow and slam into the Super Star Destroyer's stern, weakening shields and buckling armor plates. Then the guns would go silent for another few seconds as they recharged their energy for another long-range volley. Zsinj's flagship eventually started trailing globs of melted hull that had resolidified in the cold vacuum of space.

Eventually Hades saw sheets of turbolaser fire arc between the Iron Fist's dagger-shaped prow and the almost invisible Victory Star Destroyer, Dis. As the two ships rained destruction on each other, Hades noticed the Super Star Destroyer shying away from the smaller ship. "Commodore, order the Persephone to ignore Zsinj's starboard ISD and to attack the Iron Fist's bow!"

"At once, Admiral," Pomp responded, his jowls jiggling.

Turr Phennir rolled his fighter onto its starboard wing array and pushed the control yoke forward as he dove onto a Raptor's tail. Squeezing the dual triggers, he fired several dual-linked rounds of laser fire into the enemy's aft end. One shot pierced the port engine nacelle, detonating the fighter's engines.

Suddenly he heard a cry from his comm. "This is Rapier Twelve; I can't shake this guy!" A moment later, Rapier Twelve screamed, "I've lost my lateral controls; I can't maneuver!"

"Twelve, punch out!" Phennir ordered.

"Ejector malfunction!"

Phennir cursed under his breath. "Hang on Twelve, I'm coming!" Phennir rolled over and made a beeline for Rapier Twelve's helplessly careening Interceptor. Settling the targeting brackets over Twelve's attacker, Phennir struggled for a solid lock. Just as the box went green indicating a good shot, the TIE Raptor fired a dual-linked barrage that impacted directly in the center of the Interceptor's ball-shaped cockpit. Phennir fired, but too late; Rapier Twelve blossomed into an incandescent cloud of fire and free-floating atoms. The Raptor in Phennir's sights was similarly reduced to debris.

Almost in unison, the majority of Zsinj's fighters disengaged from their various dogfights and vectored back toward the Iron Fist and it's two accompanying Star Destroyers. Seeing the opportunity the Raptors' recall presented, Phennir called into his helmet comlink, "Rapier, Saber, Broadsword, go to Dagger Formation; set up for a strafing run on Iron Fist's dorsal side." A string of affirmatives came back and he vectored his TIE Interceptor toward Zsinj's Super Star Destroyer. "Accelerate to attack speed and quad your laser cannons." The enormous stern of the Iron Fist loomed in Phennir's forward viewport. Picking a spot on the ship's hull, he settled his targeting box on it and waited until he was in range. The box went green and Phennir ordered, "Fire!"

Sheets of green quad-linked energy flashed past Phennir's vision, tearing long furrows into Iron Fist's dorsal hull. Holding down the firing controls as he zipped over the huge capital ship, he sent a steady stream of coherent light stabbing into Zsinj's flagship. Behind him, the thirty- two other pilots of the 181st dodged and fired, evading the big ship's guns and getting in as many shots as possible. Just as the 181st Imperial Fighter Group began looping around for another pass, the Iron Fist escaped Undil IV's gravity well and jumped to hyperspace and safety. A split second later and Zsinj's two other Star Destroyers were gone as well.

Ashton doffed his helmet and immediately collapsed to the catwalk, panting. Wiping away sweat with a gloved hand, he picked himself up and walked to the small room serving as a pilot's lounge adjacent to the hangar. The lounge was decorated with a deep red carpet, bright lighting, and static holos of some of the greatest TIE pilots in Imperial history, such as "Mauler" Mithel and Maarek Stele. Colonel Phennir had pointed out a bare space on one wall, commenting that it had probably been where Baron Fel's image had hung.

The lounge's sound system was programmed with several musical selections that a pilot could specifically choose or could be randomly selected by the computer. At the moment, a slow, soothing jizz number filled the inviting room. Ashton went up to the drink dispenser and selected a chilled bottle labeled "Fruit Fizz". As he plopped down in a cushioned seat, other members of the 181st started wandering into the lounge.

Dann'l stepped in, followed by Collyn and Lance, then Oz Hallek. Dann'l grabbed a bottle of lomin ale and sat in the chair next to Ashton's. Collyn and Lance took seats at the sabacc table and Oz took up a spot in front of the entertainment holoprojector. Hal Theelin and Jerec "Fel's Wrath" Ulath stepped in and joined in Collyn's and Lance's sabacc game.

"Let's hear it for the One Eighty-First's newest ace!" Turr Phennir shouted from the lounge's entrance, gesturing in Lance's direction. "Lance, come here." The other pilots started applauding as Lance stood up from his seat and stepped over to where Turr stood. "The official scans are in; Lance, you killed more Raptors than anyone else in your squadron today." Turr waited for another round of applause to die down before he continued. "In fact, you even shot down more enemy fighters than the Phlegathon."

"In that case, we ought to call him "Lancer!" Dann'l called out.

"Lancer it is!" Turr replied. "And now: initiation!" Turr threw a gesture to Oz, who promptly brought out a bottle of homemade lum.

"This stuff'll take the paint right off a freighter's hull," Oz mentioned, tapping the bottle with his index finger.

"How many Raptors did you shoot down, Lancer?" Turr asked, a grin curling his facial scar.

Lancer's brow furrowed as he thought. "Uh... seven... why?" he answered.

"Seven shots!" Fel's Wrath called out gleefully.

Lancer gulped once, hard. Smiling broadly, all the pilots gathered in close as Hal took seven shot glasses out from behind the lounge's bar counter. Fel's Wrath stepped up behind Lancer and tied a blindfold over his eyes. As Hal poured the lum-shine into the seven shot glasses, Turr, Oz, and Fel's Wrath spun the blindfolded Lancer around seven times. After the seventh revolution, Turr took Lancer's blindfold off and turned him in the direction of the bar. Dizzy and off-balance, Lancer staggered over to the bar and reached an unsteady hand for the first glass.

"The rule is," Oz explained, "you have to drink all seven as fast as possible. If you spill one then we put you in an enviro-suit with a tether and Fel's Wrath over there gets to drag you behind his TIE seven times around the moon."

Lancer nodded shakily. With a swaying hand, he lifted the first glass to his lips and belted it down. Slamming the glass to the countertop, he grabbed up the second glass and drained it as well. As he picked up the third glass, he nearly flopped forward over the bar but regained his balance and polished off the third shot. The fourth and fifth shots, he drank while steadying himself against the bar. By the sixth drink, he was hanging on by his fingertips and right after downing the seventh, he hit the floor.

The gathered pilots burst into cheers as the back of Lancer's head smacked the carpet. As Oz and Hal hefted Lancer up off the floor, draping his arms over their shoulders, Lancer drunkenly stated, "Tha'ss sssome good shine." His head then lolled forward and he began snoring. Everyone burst out laughing as Oz and Hal dumped Lancer's inebriated form onto a couch.

The 181st's jocularity was interrupted, however, as a news report broke over the holoprojector. "It has just been confirmed by Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard that Sate Pestage, the successor to the Imperial throne, has abdicated from Imperial Center and is currently running from the authorities," the anchorwoman stated. "A tribunal has been formed to maintain order by former Imperial advisors Challer and Plumba, and is headed by General Carvin.

Oz looked over at Turr somberly. "This isn't good, Turr."

"Not good at all," the blonde man agreed. "This means we're going to have to put our plan into effect sooner than we'd hoped.

"Why would Pestage suddenly abandon his position?" Fel's Wrath asked. "It just doesn't make sense, Turr."

"It makes perfect sense," Ashton said. "Ever since Brentaal, Pestage has been secretly living in fear of Ysanne Isard."

Dann'l nodded. "Right, he probably sensed his end coming and decided to try and escape."

"Where could he possibly go?" Hal asked. "Isard's got her claws everywhere."

They all thought for a moment. Finally Oz snapped his fingers. "The Rebels. They're the only chance he's got of getting away from her. And for a price, they'll accept him since they tend to make a habit of harboring traitors."

"No matter where he plans to go, the fact is Isard's chances of taking over are significantly greater than before." Turr pointed out. "And, chances are we'll get pulled from this Zsinj hunt to deal with Pestage."

Chapter 6

It couldn't have been planned out, Hades thought as he sat behind the wide, solid oak desk in his office. He was reviewing the holorecordings of his engagement with Warlord Zsinj at Undil IV from every conceivable angle. It's impossible for him to have known we were going to be in the Undil System but if he did... Hades rubbed his bleary eyes. He'd been at this for three hours, staring at the tiny transparent representations of his task force brawling with the Iron Fist. If he had known, the only thing that saved us was that navigation error. Indeed if his ships had come out of hyperspace where they should have, Zsinj's forces would have been in the perfect position to cut off any escape lane and reduce Hades' group to atoms. Somehow... Somehow he knew...

Various pilots from the 181st sat in the pilot lounge, amusing themselves in whatever way they could. The life of a fighter pilot was often described as hours of boredom punctuated by nanoseconds of sheer terror. At the moment, Ashton, Dann'l, Collyn, and Lancer were experiencing the former, sitting around the sabacc table, sipping glasses of Corellian brandy.

Sabacc is a card game that dates back to the Old Republic's early days, ancient history to the pilots of the 181st. The game is played with a deck of seventy-six cards in four suits: sabers, staves, flasks, and coins. Numerical values for the cards for each suit range from positive one to positive eleven and are accompanied by four ranking cards: the Commander, the Mistress, the Master, and the Ace, with values of positive twelve to fifteen. The deck is completed by sixteen face cards, two of each type, with various zero and negative values: the Idiot, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Endurance, Balance, Demise, Moderation, the Evil One, and the Star.

The value of any card can change at random during the game via an electronic impulse generated by the sabacc table's randomizer. Within seconds, a winning hand can become a losing one. In the center of the table is an interference field where cards can be placed by the players to freeze their value at any time. The object of the game is to have the highest total value of cards without exceeding positive or negative twenty-three. The game is over either when a player has a hand equaling exactly twenty- three or a hand known as an Idiot's Array: the Idiot, valued at zero, and a two and a three of any suit-literally twenty-three.

"So what do you suppose is going to be done about Pestage?" Collyn asked, opening the betting by tossing one credit into the hand pot and one into the sabacc pot.

As the other players tossed in their bets, Dann'l replied, "Well, no doubt Isard's going to try to do something. Capture him and parade him as a traitor would be my guess."

"Who's she going to send after him?" Lancer asked, smoothing his mustache. "I raise three."

"Probably her own Special Intelligence people," Ashton answered. "I'll see three, raise two."

"You really think Carvin and the Tribunal will let her?" Collyn asked, matching the bet.

Dann'l matched the bet as well, then tossed in four credits. He held in his hands the five of coins and the Ace of staves, giving him a total of twenty. "What makes you think they'll know? They'll be sending their own forces to collect Pestage and when the two groups run into each other, it's not going to be pretty."

Collyn looked at his cards disgustedly and folded. "Do you think Colonel Phennir's right about them pulling the One Eighty-First from hunting Zsinj?"

"Wouldn't doubt it; we are the best they've got." Lancer covered Dann'l's bet and raised another three credits.

"Hit me," Ashton grunted. Lancer slapped a card down in front of him, face down, and he took it, adding it to his hand. "What do you suppose the Admiral wanted to talk to Turr about? He's been in Hades' office for an hour now." Examining his cards for a moment, Ashton raised the bet another four credits.

Come on... hold... Dann'l thought to his cards. "I'll stay."

Lancer matched Ashton's bet and said, "Call." He laid down the ten of flasks and the eight of coins. "Eighteen."

Dann'l grinned widely and laid down his hand. "Twenty."

Calmly, somberly, Ashton set down his cards: the nine of sabers, the eight of staves, and the six of flasks. "Twenty-three. Pure sabacc."

The others gaped at Ashton's incredible and unfathomable luck. Just as the Corellian reached for the pile of credits in the center of the table, all of the pilot's comlinks sounded. "All Saber Squadron personnel, report to the flight deck immediately. Repeat, all Saber Squadron personnel to the flight deck."

"Sith spawn!" Ashton growled as he took big handfuls of credits and started stuffing them in his flightsuit's pockets. "Let's go!"

Colonel Turr Phennir stood at attention across the desk in Admiral Hades' private office. "You wanted to see me sir?"

"Yes, Colonel," the cadaverously thin admiral replied. "We need to have a talk about your One Eighty-First's recent sim activity. It seems they've been partaking in a lot of battle simulations that haven't been approved by my mission planners."

Turr nodded. "Just taking measures to keep my pilots at the top of their performance."

Hades leaned forward in his chair and glared at Turr. "Colonel, don't take me for a fool. I've had Intel-analysis training. There's a common link between each unauthorized use of the sim software: each time your pilots are flying against capital ship and fighter forces of equal strength to my own."

Turr's expression didn't change and Hades leaned back. "I commend you, Colonel; you certainly didn't make cracking that puzzle easy. You did an admirable job of mixing up your opposition's composition. Now the only thing left to ask is why?" Admiral Hades pressed his hands together, fingertip to fingertip. "Can you explain yourself, Colonel Phennir?"

"Absolutely," the pilot replied. "Isard is taking over Imperial Center and the One Eighty-First isn't going to stick around when she does. It's that simple."

The gray-haired admiral looked frankly at Turr. After a moment of thought, he said, "I see. And how do you intend for a group of fighters incapable of hyperspace travel to escape from Isard?"

"We'd find a way," Turr answered defiantly.

"You know what would help? A ride from a Star Destroyer."

Turr raised an eyebrow at Hades. "I beg your pardon sir?"

"You're not the only one dreading an Empire under the control of Ysanne Isard. I'm sad to say she's going to further fragment the Empire we fought so hard to maintain. But she will bring more harm on Imperial Center than the Rebels ever could."

Turr took a seat opposite Admiral Hades. "What do you have planned?"

"Admiral Rogriss and I, who have been in constant communication during our hunt for Warlord Zsinj, have come to the decision that we will seek out Captain Pellaeon's contingent, currently in retreat from the Rebel Alliance."

"I remember Pellaeon," Turr said, scratching his chin. "Good officer. Good man. He managed to bring enough organization back to the fleet at Endor to maintain an orderly retreat from the system."

"That's correct. The forces he's managed to hold together, coupled with Rogriss' task force and my own, should be strong enough to at least preserve the Empire's New Order against the Rebels."

"Admiral, a number of my pilots have opted to stay with Isard's regime and I'm sure some of your men have done the same. What is to become of them?"

Hades folded his hands on the desktop. "That's something that's been troubling me as well. I'm certain Isard has a number of informants aboard my ships. I do, however, hold the loyalty of the task force's Stormtroopers; they can round up those who dissent and we can leave them aboard shuttles, troop carriers, or escape pods."

Turr nodded. "Sounds feasible."

Just then, Turr's comlink sounded. "All Saber Squadron personnel, report to the flight deck immediately. Repeat, all Saber Squadron personnel to the flight deck."

Turr looked questioningly at Hades. "Admiral?"

"Not an order I had issued." Hades turned to the comlink built into his desk and pressed the button connecting him to the bridge. "Commodore Pomp, what's going on?"

"We received a distress signal from a damaged freighter just outside the Parmel System. I've asked for Saber Squadron of the One Eighty-First to oversee recovery," Pomp answered.

"Why wasn't I informed of the distress call?" Hades asked coldly.

"Sir, I thought it unnecessary to disturb you with so routine a matter," Pomp stammered.

"Think again, Commodore. I'll be on the bridge in five minutes."

"Yes Admiral."

Hades stood and nodded to Turr as he left, the pilot on his heels.

The freighter hung in space ten kilometers off the Tartarus' port bow. Approximately twelve meters across, it had called for assistance; the captain claimed they had been attacked by pirates. As Saber Squadron approached the stricken vessel, Dann'l M'Pala felt something strange about it. Activating his helmet comlink, he said, "Five, Six here. I don't mean to sound like I'm going Jedi here, but I've got a bad feeling about this ship. There's plenty of debris floating around out here but I'm not reading any damaged systems aboard the freighter."

"I read you, Six. Also it looks like some of the laser scoring might have been painted on," Ashton answered. "Control, what's the average mass of this freighter class?"

"Those things usually mass about two kilotons," a voice from the Tartarus responded.

As he followed his flight group in closer to the damaged freighter, Dann'l keyed his comm again. "Ashes, I've got an anomalous mass reading: only one thousand kilograms."

"Saber One, Saber Five. Recommend we break off immediately."

"Nonsense, Five," Lorrir answered through the squadron's tactical frequency. "It's just a harmless freighter; what harm can it do? Or are those nerves of yours finally starting to go?" Dann'l could hear the sneer in Lorrir's voice, even through the comm static.

"'Harmless freighter.' Tarkin's famous last words," Dann'l muttered to himself. Through his cockpit viewport, he saw the freighter suddenly burst open at the seams as One Flight passed over it. His eyes went wide as six A-wings boiled out of the decoy shell that had been the freighter. "Sith spawn! It's an ambush!"

"Two Flight, on me," Ashton ordered. "Arm your lasers and help One Flight scrape those slims off their backs!" Just as Ashton finished speaking, six more A-wings appeared on Dann'l's sensors.

Sleek and wedge-shaped, the nimble A-wings, or slims in pilot slang, were capable of speeds greater than a TIE Interceptor. They also boasted hyperdrives, shield generators, and a pair of concussion missile launchers along with their dual laser cannons, making them some of the deadliest fighters in the Rebel fleet.

"Six more coming out of hyperspace, bearing one-two-zero," Dann'l reported.

"Three Flight has the newcomers," called Saber Nine.

Turning his Interceptor to starboard, Dann'l positioned himself on Ashton's port rear quarter and set his lasers to dual fire. While this slowed his rate of fire, it increased the chances that he could kill an A- wing outright. Together, Ashton and Dann'l vectored in at the group of slims chasing One Flight. Squeezing the dual triggers, Dann'l snapped off a quick burst of laser fire at the nearest Rebel. The agile fighter juked and jinked, its shields absorbing most of Dann'l shots. Finally, daggers of energy pierced the hull and the A-wing shattered in a bright incandescent flash.

Ashton broke to the left and Dann'l rotated his control yoke to port, slipping in on his wingman's starboard side. "Six, take lead, I got your back.

"As ordered, Five," Dann'l responded, increasing his throttle to take the lead position. Rolling out to starboard, he angled in at another pair of A-wings. Dropping his targeting brackets just ahead of the trailing slim, he tightened up on the triggers and let the Rebel fly into his dual- linked blaze. The green barrage punctured the fighter's shields and cored its right engine. The doomed fighter spiraled away and exploded brilliantly.

"Six, give me a hand, I've got two on my tail!" Ashton called.

Dann'l pulled the yoke back to his chest and inverted his Interceptor. Off in the distance, he spotted Ashton's fighter looping and rolling as a pair of A-wings took shots at him. Dann'l switched his lasers to single fire and centered his targeting brackets over the rightmost Rebel. Tightening his fingers on the triggers, he unleashed a lethal jet of coherent light into the slim's nose. The Rebel pilot must have had his shields full aft because Dann'l's shots tore it to pieces in seconds. "That's one!" Dann'l called to his friend.

"This other guy's on me tight, I don't think I can shake him," Ashton responded through gritted teeth.

Dann'l flashed past Ashton and his pursuer, kicked his Interceptor over to port and reversed course to follow. The A-wing continued to match Ashton's evasive maneuvers while taking shots to box him in. Jerking the controls from side to side, Dann'l struggled to get a lock on his friend's assailant. Just then, the Rebel fired a pair of scarlet laser bolts that struck Ashton's fighter on the port wing pylon. The Interceptor's left solar wing array sheared off and went spiraling off into space. The main body of the Imperial fighter went hurtling away in a different direction, out of control and defenseless.

"Sith spawn! Five, punch out! Punch out!" Dann'l squeezed the triggers on his control yoke, hailing laser fire after the Rebel starfighter. The agile ship inverted and dove under Dann'l's assault. Giving chase, Dann'l continued his firestorm until he caught the A-wing directly in the transparisteel cockpit canopy, killing the pilot. "Five, report!"

"Six, you have Two Flight," Ashton answered. Relief flooded through Dann'l at the sound of the Corellian's voice. "Have Tartarus send a shuttle to pick me up." Then, as quickly as it had come, Dann'l's relief melted away. As Ashton waved his hands at Dann'l's Interceptor, a razor-sharp piece of debris came hurtling toward the floating Corellian, severing his left arm below the elbow. Though the enclosed flight helmet he wore obscured his face, Dann'l was sure Ashton's eyes had gone wide with panic as he clutched the stump to his chest.

"Tartarus, this is Saber Six," Dann'l shouted into the comm. "Saber Five is extra-vehicular and wounded; send a rescue shuttle now!"

"Major Lorrir to Saber Squadron. The scum are running for hyperspace; move to intercept."

"Ignore that order," Colonel Phennir barked over the comlink. "All One Eighty-First craft are to form up and return to the Tartarus immediately."

Dejection could be heard in Lorrir's voice, even through the comm static. "As ordered, Colonel. Returning home."

"And Major, I want you in my office in ten minutes."

Colonel Turr Phennir's office did not seem nearly as homey as it had when Ashton and Oz had been there. This was Turr's intention as he paced back and forth behind his desk. "You were given all the warning in the galaxy, Major." Turr stood straight, towering over Major Lorrir. "I've reviewed the comm and sensor data of each TIE Interceptor that survived that little engagement. You know what I discovered?"

Lorrir swallowed hard, nervous under Phennir's scrutiny. "No sir. What?"

"I discovered that Captain Pallor, if he survives, is the most qualified to be commanding Saber Squadron!"

Lorrir started to stand up, started to protest, but Phennir shouted, "Sit, Major!"

Phennir's pale blue eyes cut into Lorrir like twin vibroblades. "Now, thanks to your arrogant lack of analysis, he's in a bacta tank with no left arm and damage from vacuum exposure. He was the lucky one! You do know that two pilots from Saber's third flight group never came back, don't you?" Lorrir flinched as the colonel glared at him. "As soon as Ashton recovers, I'm having him fit for a prosthetic. You better hope his flying is still up to par or you'll wish those slim pilots had gotten you instead!"

Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence, stood alone in her office. She was not looking forward to the incoming holo-transmission. She despised having to deal with the person on the other end. Putting it off won't make it any easier, she told herself. But making him impatient will make things harder for him. Standing fully erect in her scarlet admiral's uniform and looking very intimidating, she activated her holoprojector.

The image that resolved itself before her was that of a corpulent, middle-aged man in a grand admiral's uniform, a rank that he had never held. His eyes were smoldering coals above a pair of rosy cheeks that looked almost jolly. His drooping handlebar mustachios looked ridiculous on him as he twirled one with a thick finger. "You have some explaining to do, Isard!" the fat man said bluntly, his double chin bobbing as he spoke.

"I beg your pardon, Warlord Zsinj?" Isard replied, raising a brow over her frigid right eye and clasping her hands at the small of her back. "What do I possibly have to explain to you?"

Zsinj pointed an accusing finger at her. "Don't play the innocent with me! You sold me faulty information. Hades' task force appeared well outside the trap I set for him in the Undil System." The warlord grabbed the armrests of his command chair and dug his fingernails into them. "I barely escaped with Iron Fist intact!"

Isard gave the cherubic warlord a mocking grin; she knew for a fact that Zsinj's Super Star Destroyer alone would have been enough to demolish Admiral Hades' forces. It would have, too, if you weren't so overprotective of it. Out loud, she said, "My dear Warlord, there was nothing that could have been done. My agent aboard Tartarus has assured me that Hades' premature exit from hyperspace was purely by accident and that the man responsible has paid dearly for his mistake."

Zsinj snorted in disgust. "That's all well and good, Madame Director, but the fact remains that Hades is now surely onto your treachery."

Isard's molten left eye blazed. "How dare you speak to me of treachery, Warlord, when you yourself horde Imperial materiel in order to carve out your own little realm? Everything I have done has been to preserve Palpatine's Empire!"

"And Palpatine is dead, murdered at Endor by Rebel scum over half a year ago," Zsinj retorted.

"And what have you done to avenge his death?"

"I'd be able to say I had dealt with your problem for you if you had managed to deliver it into my hands," the warlord answered smugly. "You'll be pleased to hear I took another stab at Phennir and the One Eighty-First at the Parmel System."

"How so?" Isard did not like the idea of Zsinj taking initiative in trying to eliminate the 181st Imperial Fighter Group.

Zsinj leaned back in his command chair, placing his hands over his plump belly, interlacing his fingers. "I lured them there with a distress signal recorded from a freighter I attacked some months ago. When the One Eighty-First was sent to investigate, I sprung the trap, attacking Phennir's pilots with a squadron of A-wings I had privately purchased, in order to make it appear as though it were a Rebel ambuscade."

"And the results of this trap?" Isard asked, inwardly furious at Zsinj's air of self-satisfaction.

Zsinj smiled, his dark eyes peering out from behind fat cheeks.

"You'll know as soon as I do. Zsinj out." With that, Warlord Zsinj abruptly cut the transmission and his image faded out.

Isard turned away from her holoprojector to stare out her office's transparisteel viewport that overlooked Imperial Center. Her agent aboard the Tartarus would do well to report soon. She was growing tired of Zsinj's games. Furthermore, she was fed up with the fools of the Tribunal. They're sending Admiral Krennel to collect Pestage from Ciutric, the Rebels will send their best to reacquire him, and I have a team of my own there to prevent Pestage from falling into either of their hands.

The Rebels were no doubt sending Rogue Squadron to extract Sate Pestage from Ciutric. Isard's prediction that Baron Fel now served the Rebellion had been proven correct when Rogue Squadron undertook a mission to rescue one of their downed pilots on Axxila a few weeks ago. Fel had used an Imperial Intelligence code to prevent Admiral Krennel from attacking the Rebels and Leonia Tavira's pirate band that were escaping the planet and Pestage had ordered Krennel to obey. Since then, Pestage had bartered passage to Ciutric from Tavira, who promptly reported the transaction to Isard in hopes of a reward. Later, Ciutric's planetary governor reported to the Tribunal that he had captured Pestage and awaited their retrieval of him. Perhaps Phennir won't need to be eliminated if he is shown the true nature of his dear Colonel Fel firsthand. She then amended, That's assuming Zsinj failed to do his job yet again, of course.

Chapter 7

Admiral Hades and Commodore Pomp stood in quiet conversation on the Tartarus' bridge. They were polar opposites in appearance; Hades was tall and pale with an emaciated look while Pomp was short and fat, almost toad- like in appearance. It had been a day since the A-wing attack and Hades was still pulling information from the minute details. "I don't think it was a Rebel attack, Commodore."

"No, sir? But the Dodonna-Blissex A-wing is known to be in use by the Rebellion," the chubby officer responded.

"Yes, and it's a very expensive piece of hardware," Hades pointed out. "Too much risk and not enough return involved in sending only a single squadron into an area where an Imperial Star Destroyer and its attendant ships are at no disadvantage. Whoever sent them has to have enough credit resources that the loss of a whole squadron would be insignificant to them."

Hades waited for Pomp to respond. After a moment, Pomp shrugged his fat-laden shoulders. "Who, sir?"

"Zsinj," Hades said simply. "He's the only one with that kind of money, save the Empire itself."

Pomp raised a curious eyebrow. "Is that your only proof, Admiral? I don't think the Tribunal will buy that."

"Not at all," the admiral answered. "Take a look at this." Hades activated one of the bridge's holoprojectors, displaying the sortie with the A-wings. "Trace the hyperspace jumps to their sources and destinations."

Pomp studied the holographic display of the surrounding systems. "Vulpine and Garos?"

"Both on the Imperial/Zsinj border," Hades confirmed. "Those fighters came from Zsinj's fleet. He's got a notorious reputation for always wanting to get even when he's embarrassed."

"Which is what we did to him at Undil IV when we made the Iron Fist run," the commodore caught on.

"Very good, Commodore, you're catching onto how Zsinj thinks."

Just then, the Tartarus' communications officer called, "Admiral, I have an incoming transmission addressed to you and Colonel Phennir."

Hades nodded to the comm officer. "I'll take it in my office, thank you." To Pomp, he said, "You have the con, Commodore Pomp." Pomp saluted as Hades made his way from the bridge.

Dann'l M'Pala watched his friend floating unconscious in the bacta tank. The MD droid had told him that Ashton was healing nicely and that there should be no long term effects. Dann'l could see that what was left of Ashton's arm had completely healed, as had the hypothermia that resulted from the limb's exposure to the cold vacuum of space. Dann'l couldn't tell if there was any internal damage, though, as his friend bobbed up and down in the pink liquid.

A medical marvel, bacta is capable of healing any wound, damaged tissue, or illness in a fraction of the time required to heal naturally, and with a minimum of scarring. Bacta can be applied to patients in a variety of methods. For minor cuts or gashes, a bacta patch could be applied. A severed or broken limb was usually placed in a bacta cast. In the case of more serious and extensive damage, both internal and external, a full bacta immersion was called for.

Wringing his hands, Dann'l murmured aloud, "Come on Ashes, don't do this to me." He managed a weak grin. "You know Kym's going to kill me if you die on me here, right?"

A native of Imperial Center, Dann'l had only known Ashton since they first met at the Imperial Academy on Prefsbelt IV. They had become fast friends and pushed each other to excel. After graduation, they were placed in different squadrons within the same TIE fighter wing.

Their first taste of combat had been the Battle of Endor where they had desperately tried to keep the Rebels at bay. During the battle, they earned double ace status; Ashton had shot down six X-wings, four B-wings, and two A-wings, while Dann'l had killed five Y-wings, three X-wings, two A- wings, and a B-wing. Endor became the Empire's worst defeat. The Super Star Destroyer Executor, flagship of the mighty Darth Vader, had slammed into the Death Star's hull and was consumed in a vast explosion. The Death Star itself died next, taking Emperor Palpatine and Vader with it.

Dann'l and Ashton had come through the battle unscathed and were sent to Imperial Center where they were both promoted to captain and were hailed as heroes. After six months of touring the Empire as war heroes, fighting in mere skirmishes, they were offered candidacy for the 181st Imperial Fighter Group and they jumped at the opportunity, eager to return to real combat.

With a heavy sigh, Dann'l levered himself up off the crate he was sitting on. Taking a moment to stretch and crack his back, he groaned, "I need a drink."

Turr stepped into Hades' office, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I hope this is good, sir, because I was getting the best rack time of my career."

"Oh it's important, all right," Hades replied. "Have a seat. We've got bad news." The gaunt admiral activated the holoprojector on his desk and an image of Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence appeared.

"Admiral Pluto Hades, by now you must have heard of Sate Pestage's abdication from Imperial Center," the holorecording spoke. "He has been located and detained and we are sending Admiral Krennel to fetch him. Your orders are to meet the Escort Carrier Vindictive at Onderon and transfer the One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group to its fighter bay. You have three days." The image of Isard faded out and Hades looked at Turr.

"So she's sending us after Pestage after all," Turr mused. "And with Admiral Krennel, no less." He looked at Hades. "We're going to have to rethink our escape, Admiral."

"A minor setback," Hades assured him. "As soon as this Pestage assignment is complete, I'll have you transferred back to my task force and we'll continue as planned."

An inky, black shroud surrounded him. Who was he? From out of the void, a soft, feminine voice called, "Wake up, Ashton." That's right, his name was Ashton! It all came back to him then. He was Ashton Pallor of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group, a loyal son of the Empire and Corellia. "Ashton, wake up," the angelic voice called again, more insistently this time.

Where am I? I remember being shot down by that A-wing, I was floating in my ejector seat, and then... what? Ashton tried to survey the empty nothingness. I must be dead. Not much of an afterlife they have here.


The Corellian's eyes fluttered open. He was lying on his back in a grassy field. He lifted his head off the soft earth and propped himself up on his elbows. As he looked around, Ashton recognized where he was. My friends and I used to play in this field when we were kids. How did I get to Corellia? He turned his head in the direction the voice had come from.

Beside him, a beautiful woman with curly, dark blonde hair interspersed with black sat on her knees, her pale blue eyes staring at him in wonderment. She wore a simple green twill gown and sandals that laced all the way up to her knees. In her hair was a garland of violet wildflowers and she slowly twirled another one in her hands. "You fell asleep, dearest," she playfully scolded. "You were dead to the world."

In a rush, Ashton sat up on his knees and hugged her to him. "Oh Kym, I had a horrible nightmare. I was afraid I'd lost you."

"It's okay," Kym whispered. "You're home, you're safe. There's nothing to be afraid of." She patted him softly, reassuringly, on the back.

"You mean the world to me, Kym. I never want to lose you. Ever. I love you with all my heart and soul."

"You'll never lose me, Ashton." There was something strange about her voice then. It seemed... huskier. Ashton pulled away from their embrace, wanted to ask what was wrong. To his horror, Kym's green twill gown was stained red with blood. He looked down and saw that he was wearing his flightsuit, its black fabric bloodied as well. Ashton looked back up into Kym's eyes and a jolt of sheer terror ran up and down his spine; her left iris had turned a molten red.

Ashton stood and backed away in fear. Kym, in that voice that was not her own, said, "No matter where you go or what you do, you will never, ever, lose me. I promise you that." Then, starting at the roots, an ebony blackness flowed through Kym's hair, leaving only two white forelocks. The garland of wildflowers withered, then burst into a flaming halo as she threw back her head, cackling evilly.

As Ashton continued to back up, he tripped over something in the tall grass and hit the ground hard. He looked and saw that he had fallen over the mutilated body of his friend, Dann'l M'Pala. Suddenly, he was no longer lying in a peaceful Corellian meadow from his childhood but rather, was wallowing in a mound of corpses. Among the dead, he recognized Lancer and Collyn, Turr and Oz, Fel's Wrath and Hal, and his other friends from the 181st. Ashton couldn't take it any longer. He screamed in terror.

Ashton's heart leaped and his eyes snapped open as he jerked into wakefulness. Something must have been wrong with his eyes; his vision was a sea of pink. Groggily, he realized, No, nothing wrong with my eyes. Through the bubbly pink liquid, he spotted Dann'l, Collyn, and Lancer, all smiling and waving at him. Beneath the oxygen mask strapped to his face, Ashton smiled back. Dann'l pointed upward and Ashton looked in that direction. Above him, a medic opened the hatch at the top of the bacta tank and waved him upward. Kicking his feet, Ashton launched himself through the liquid and was hefted out of the tank.

The medic removed the oxygen mask and the biting stench of bacta greeted Ashton's nostrils as an MD droid draped a towel over his wet, sticky shoulders. The Corellian pilot reached for the ladder but was struck with an odd sensation when only his right hand contacted the cool metal. Looking down at his left arm, he groaned, "Ah, Sithspit, that's right." Effortlessly he wiggled the stump. "Well how about that? Just enough arm left to work the elbow."

"Don't worry, Ashes," Dann'l chuckled from the lower level of the medical facility. "The colonel's going to get you a replacement. You know this is the fourth time you've been shot down?"

"And the first time I walked away with more than a few minor scratches." Ashton paused, wiggling the stump a few times. "Or should I say less?" he grinned.

The next day, Ashton sat alone in the cabin he shared with Dann'l aboard the Tartarus. His experiences in the Parmel system had deeply troubled him. He had asked his friend for some privacy and was now trying to find peace in his bonsai tree. His most prized possession, the little bonsai normally helped Ashton focus his thoughts and relax. He had taken up the hobby of pruning and training the tree's branches shortly after the Battle of Endor and many were the times it had helped calm him before going into battle. Right now his thoughts were a turmoil.

His new left arm was one of the highest quality prosthetics available. A mechanical construct wired directly to his nerve tissue then covered with synthetic flesh, it precisely resembled the limb it had replaced, right down to the little freckle beside the ring-finger's knuckle. It was even programmed to recognize certain data as painful. The only aspect that distinguished it as a fake was Ashton's current lack of skill in manipulating it. He was literally relearning to use his left hand.

As he sat tending to his bonsai, his thoughts wandered to his nightmare in the bacta tank. The thought of losing Kym had scared him out of his wits. He nearly lost her forever by way of his own death by hypothermia but, thankfully, he'd been picked up in time. While he was in the tank, she had sent a letter to his personal data pad saying the Kuati opera had been a huge success and that she looked forward to seeing him again on Imperial Center. He did love her so, that, to avoid losing her, he would gladly go so far as to resign his commission.

However, as his contemplation continued to dwell on the nightmare, Ashton remembered his fall onto the pile of his friends' bodies. He couldn't help but feel that as long as he was there, he could do everything in his power to prevent their deaths. His sense of duty required him to stay with the 181st.

In his distraction, Ashton accidentally slipped with the laser shears, slashing off one of the bonsai's branches. Resting his chin in the palm of his prosthetic hand, Ashton set the shears aside and growled, "I'm butchering it." Leaning back in his chair, he ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, groaning his frustration. I can't let myself lose Kym. She's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. I would gladly spend the rest of my days with her, but I can't abandon my duty to the people who depend on me: my friends, my squadron mates, and the people of the Empire. In that moment, Ashton's mind became clear and he knew what he would do. He would not forsake the Empire now when it needed him most, but he would show Kym just how much he truly wanted to be a part of her life.

Elsewhere, Dann'l M'Pala stepped up to the bar in the pilot's lounge, heaving a sigh. "Lum and tonic, no ice," he grunted to the service droid behind the counter. As the shiny silver android prepared his drink, he turned and took a look around the lounge. A few pilots from other squadrons sat in front of the entertainment holo-projector while some others sat in booths along the walls, twisting their hands through the air demonstrating maneuvers they'd pulled at one time or another. Lancer, Collyn, and Hal occupied the sabacc table where Major Hallek was cleaning them out of their credits and, off in one corner, Fel's Wrath and a tall woman with shoulder length brown hair danced to a slow tune from Churba.

Dann'l's drink arrived and he lifted it to his lips, partially to conceal his growing smile. Fel's Wrath was short, even for a fighter pilot; only about 1.36 meters in height. What was so funny was the fact that he didn't even come up to chest level on the uniformed woman. But the really striking thing was that Fel's Wrath was normally so sensitive about his stature that he was constantly looking for a fight to compensate for it. As a result, he'd spent a few nights in the brig after taking offense from and beating the senses out of not one, but two off duty Stormtroopers. Unfortunately the whole incident had earned him a reputation and, since he never backed down from a fight, the rest of the 181st usually had to keep him out of trouble.

Just then, Dann'l cast a wary eye at the lounge's entrance as four black-uniformed naval troopers, wearing their glossy-black flaring clamshell helmets but apparently off duty, sidled in. One of them had what looked to be a fading black eye. What's the Dorky-Hat Patrol doing here? Dann'l wondered, giving them a sidelong glance as they stepped up to the bar, two on either side of him. "What're you doing here, Nicco?" he growled, not even looking at them.

The one with the black eye turned to Dann'l; quiet malice practically emanated from him. "We're just looking for some relaxation and refreshment, M'Pala," he replied. "And since you TIE jockeys have the best accommodations on the ship, we decided to come here."

"Well let's just have a nice, civilized drink then, Chief Petty Nicco. We don't want a repeat of the last time we met." A cold, cruel smile spread across Dann'l's face. "When the MP's had to drag your unconscious form from the Outlander Club to the paddy-wagon."

Grumbling, Nicco ordered a drink and everyone sat in silence, the pilots watching the troopers out of the corners of their eyes and vice versa. The uneasy silence was broken, however, when one of the other naval troopers turned to Nicco and commented, "That's something you don't see every day, Chief: pretty girl like that dancing with a shaved Ewok." The other interlopers burst into uproarious laughter as Ulath turned to face them. Before he could get two steps, his date caught him by the collar and held him back while the naval troopers guffawed.

"What's the matter, Shorty?" Nicco asked. "She fight all your battles for you?"

"Knock it off, Nicco," Dann'l warned.

"All I want to know is, isn't he a little puny for a TIE jockey?"

"Aren't you a little ugly for a Hutt?" Jerec spat.

"You're going to get it, you little-!" That's as far as Nicco got before Dann'l punched him across the jaw, spinning him to the ground. As Nicco got up, he slammed his shoulder into Dann'l's stomach, pinning the pilot to the bar. The other members of the 181st leaped up from the sabacc table and joined the fray, setting themselves on the other naval troopers, as Jerec's date released him and four more troopers charged through the lounge door.

Sith spawn, they probably have someone watching the door so no one else gets in, Dann'l thought as Fel's Wrath leaped onto Nicco's back. The bigger man spun, causing the short pilot's feet to kick out, catching Dann'l in the chin and launching him over the bar counter. Nicco reached behind his back and yanked Ulath off him, throwing the smaller man to the floor.

As Fel's Wrath tried to get up, the naval trooper kicked him squarely in the ribs. As Nicco swung his leg to kick him again, Jerec grabbed Nicco's foot and brought his fist up under the trooper's chin in an uppercut. He followed it up with a kick to the kneecap and two quick jabs to the face. Nicco staggered back and Dann'l came up to smash a bottle of Corellian whiskey over his head. "What a bloody waste," he said dryly, glancing at the bottle's neck in his hand.

Just then, two more naval troopers grabbed Fel's Wrath by the arms, lifted him up, and slammed him down on the sabacc table. The table collapsed beneath him and he landed on his back amidst a shower of scattered credits and playing cards. Lancer grabbed one of the troopers from behind and Collyn took the trooper down with a punch that looked, to Dann'l, like it started a kilometer behind him. The other trooper spun Collyn around and smashed him across the face with a doubled fist, dropping the pilot to the ground as blood spurted from him nostrils. Lancer grabbed up a section of the collapsed table and swung it hard into the side of the trooper's head, battering him to the ground.

Jerec's eyes snapped open and he leaped up, grabbing Lancer by the collar. "Whoa! Whoa! It's me!" Lancer pleaded, raising his hands to ward off a blow.

Fel's Wrath let out a relieved breath and jokingly replied, "You need to be more careful, Lancer. I nearly vaped you." Flashing the other pilot a grin, he released Lancer's uniform and moved on to the next naval trooper.

Dann'l hopped over the bar and kneed a trooper in the stomach. The trooper doubled over and Dann'l sent him crashing to the floor with a double-fisted blow to the back of the skull. Suddenly, another naval trooper wrapped an arm around Dann'l's throat and started squeezing. Dann'l tried to pry the man's arm free, but to no avail. As his vision started to go black, he fell to the ground, gasping for air as Major Hallek lifted the trooper bodily in the air. Hallek slammed him down onto the bar and ran him along the countertop, knocking over glasses and bottles, to the other end of the bar where Hal smashed a serving tray into the top of the trooper's head, sounding a dull crack.

Hallek then grabbed another trooper's collar in both hands and lifted him off the ground, slamming the helpless trooper into a nearby wall. The man's head bounced off the holo of "Mauler" Mithel and Hallek let him drop to his feet where the pilot finished him off with a right hook to the jaw. Hal grabbed another by the shoulders and dropped him with a head-butt.

All the pilots of the 181st turned to the one remaining naval trooper, who was now cowering in the corner, and ominously advanced toward him. "What should we do with him?" Lancer asked.

"I've got an idea," Fel's Wrath said, smiling wickedly.

Chapter 8

"You did what?" Ashton blurted, overtaken by disbelief.

He, Dann'l, and Fel's Wrath were strolling through the hangar bay's upper level. The sounds of repairs being made to ships and the smell of industrial solvents wafted up from the lower deck. All around were the 181st Imperial Fighter Group's TIE Interceptors, along with three squadrons of TIE fighters, older model starfighters that had stood the test of time, a testament to how well they were designed to begin with. The Interceptor's creators had been hard-pressed to improve upon the Sienar Fleet Systems TIE fighter. What they came up with had been the basic TIE fighter's ball-shaped cockpit with the chin-mounted laser cannons removed in order to increase the Twin Ion Engines' power output, making the Interceptor faster and more maneuverable. A pair of forked, dagger-shaped wings that canted inward around the cockpit ball replaced the fighter's vertical hexagonal wing panels. The Interceptor's laser cannons were located on the four wing-tips.

Dann'l and Fel's Wrath had been relating to Ashton the story of their brawl with Chief Petty Officer Nicco and his naval troopers. Jerec smiled, a conspiratorial grin that spread across his sharp, noble-features. "It's just like we told you, Ashes. Major Hallek held him down while the rest of us stripped him down to his shorts. We then painted red stripes down his arms and legs, and-this is the best part," he added, almost cracking up, "we painted the slogan 'One Eighty-First: We Fly, You Die' on his chest!"

Ashton laughed so hard, it hurt. "'We Fly, You Die'. That's pretty catchy." They stepped through the door into the hangar's adjoining TIE pilot lounge. Surveying the wreckage; the overturned tables, the scattered sabacc cards, and the stinking puddles of spilled drinks; he swiped away a tear and asked, "How long after you sent him running through the ship did the MP's come for you?"

"About fifteen minutes," Dann'l replied, taking a seat before the entertainment holo. "But they decided to let us off and haul in the Dorky-Hat Patrol!"

"No love lost between Stormies and Bucket-Heads," Ashton commented dryly. "I wish I'd been there. Tell you what; when we get back to Imperial Center, the first round's on me."

Ulath's head jerked around in the Corellian's direction. "I'm going to hold you to that," he chuckled.

Admiral Delak Krennel stood alone in his spacious office aboard the Star Destroyer Reckoning, his hands clasped behind his back. The room's glow lamps had been darkened and the only illumination came from the holoprojector imbedded in the floor. Why waste time studying the art of a culture, when all I need to know I can learn from a tactical hologram like this? Krennel had a fair complexion, a blonde crew-cut, and a beauty mark beneath his right eye. While he mused over bitter thoughts of his time in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy, serving under Grand Admiral Thrawn, he studied the three-dimensional representation of Ciutric's capital city. Miniature TIE fighters zipped in formation above the buildings and tiny Stormtroopers poured through the streets. A buzz issued from the office's entrance and Krennel simply answered, "Enter."

A hiss of compressed gasses sounded as the door opened and closed. "Admiral Krennel, playing with a child's amusement program?" the intruder inquired in a mocking tone.

"Hardly, though your mistaking it for such doesn't surprise me," he countered, turning to face Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence, clad in her customary red uniform. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to give you your orders," Isard answered him, tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear.

Krennel crossed his arms over his chest. "I have my orders, from General Carvin." He narrowed his eyes, throwing Isard a hard stare. "I don't take orders from you."

"Not formally, no," she granted. "Perhaps you would prefer I phrase them as an advisory."

Krennel scoffed at the thought. "And what would you advise me, Madame Director?"

Isard started toward Krennel and the holoprojector. "That you keep that sneer out of your voice and do what I tell you to do." Isard's icy tone and the flash of her mismatched eyes implied the consequences of disobeying her. "I have people on Ciutric securing Pestage. Leave him in their control. When you return, they will bring Pestage to me. Carvin will be angry but I will see to it that you are protected."

She reached the hologram of Ciutric's capital and began peering around at the buildings. "With Pestage's flight, power is in flux here on Imperial Center. People dabble in it, but no one has secured it yet."

Distractedly, Krennel began picking dirt from his fingernails with the tip of his prosthetic right hand's little finger. "A man with two masters is a fool. I've already aligned myself with General Carvin." Unlike most others, Krennel had forgone covering the prosthetic with synth-flesh, leaving his right arm a bare mechanical skeleton from the elbow down. He could crack a man's neck with it without half trying, it was so strong. He was tempted to demonstrate this fact to Isard.

Kneeling among the holographic buildings Isard replied, "A man with the wrong master is a fool. Controlling the military can make one powerful, but controlling the government can make a man the Emperor.

"My goal is the preservation of the Empire." She looked coyly in Krennel's direction. "I will need a strong leader to help me attain that goal. Carvin is neither strong nor a leader."

"And me?" Krennel snorted at where Isard was leading him, though she had piqued his interest.

"You disappointed me at Axxila, but you can redeem yourself."

"And I would do this by bringing Pestage to you?"

Isard nodded. "That would be a very good start, yes. And I will help you."

"How?" the blonde man asked.

"I'm sending Binder with you," she replied.

Krennel thought Isard's offer over. An Interdictor cruiser. Excellent. Aloud, he stated, "Nothing will escape the Ciutric system."

"See that it's so, Admiral, and none of your goals will escape your future, either," Isard replied as she passed through his office door.

Krennel went back to studying his tactical holo display. Thrawn, much as he despised the alien, would never let himself be taken in by Isard's manipulations. Krennel, on the other hand, saw the benefits of accepting her offer. The thought of controlling entire star systems appealed to him, as did commanding vast fleets of warships. The Empire was slowly crumbling and all it would take to pick up the pieces would be a strong leader.

The Rebel Alliance was giving many Imperial officials a bad example to follow. Much of the military's high ranking leadership was striking out on their own, believing that they too could defeat a vast foe with a small band of guerrillas. Thus far, Warlord Zsinj and High Admiral Teradoc were the only success stories. They were laying low, building their forces and waiting for the Empire and the New Republic, as the Rebels like to call themselves, to finish each other off.

Zsinj and Teradoc were also very ambitious men; Krennel remembered them jockeying for power and influence within the fleet's upper echelons. Their advantage was having the resources to match that ambition. Admiral Krennel had an abundance of ambition but lacked the monetary and military resources to back it up.

Suddenly, an idea struck Krennel. A smile split his fair features as he adjusted the hologram to encompass the entire planet of Ciutric. Yes, that was the way. He would go along with Isard's scheming for now and Ciutric would be a stepping stone on his path to power.

Chapter 9

Kym Yarum stood with Edalia Iamar in the 181st Imperial Fighter Group's hangar on Imperial Center. It was midday and sunlight poured in through the massive starfighter entrance. Kym had been looking forward to the day Ashton would be back from the 181st's hunt for Warlord Zsinj. To greet him she had dressed in a simple red blouse and a black skirt that hung down to her ankles.

She enjoyed spending time with Ashton but he always seemed somewhat dour to her. He was sweet and thoughtful, but for some reason, Kym was a tumult of mixed emotions when she thought of him. She definitely cared for Ashton, she knew that for sure, but had been dismayed when he told her that he loved her. The words had taken her by such surprise that she had barely been able to answer him. I cried that day, she thought sadly, in this very hangar. I cried because I'm not sure if I love him back.

Abruptly, the high-pitched whine of repulserlifts shook Kym from her thoughts. She looked up and could see in the distance thirty-three TIE Interceptors, with their canted, dagger-shaped wings, escorting a Lambda-class shuttle to the hangar. The starships slowed as they approached the entrance and the TIEs set themselves gingerly in their landing brackets. The shuttle's wings folded up to lock into place on either side of the dorsal stabilizer fin and the landing gear extended as it settled down on the hangar floor. For a moment, fear crept into Kym's belly when she noticed that Ashton's landing site remained empty. That fear, however, was banished as the shuttle's ramp lowered and the bearded Corellian, in his grey dress uniform, stepped out into the light.

A smile spread across Ashton's features as she tried to jog over to him, a difficult task in the open-toed heels she wore. When she reached him, he swept her up in a fierce hug, his arms encircling her slender frame. Suddenly there was a sharp pain in her shoulder and she jerked back, making a small sound of protest.

"I'm so sorry," Ashton stammered, his face flushing with embarrassment. He flexed the fingers of his left hand. "I'm still not used to working it yet."

Kym looked at him curiously, not taking his meaning. "What are you talking about?" she asked. "What happened out there?"

The pilot let out a sigh and took her hand in his right. "In the Parmel System, Saber Squadron and I were ambushed by a squadron of A-wings. I was forced to eject and my left arm was lopped off by a piece of debris." He paused as he took a deep breath. "I blacked out and woke up in a bacta tank," he shuddered at the thought. Holding up his left hand, he finished, "This is a replacement limb."

That's when it hit Kym. The complete understanding that Ashton's life could end on any given day struck her like a bucket of ice water. She had known on an intellectual level that he risked his life every time he went up in the cockpit. She even knew that this was not the first time he had ever been shot down. However, now she could feel on an emotional level the frailty of Ashton's existence. She was taken aback by this understanding and the way he acted, so calm and at ease as if the danger to his life was of no consequence, absolutely frightened her. She could feel tears begin to well up as she searched his face for assurance that living meant something to him.

She found it in the way he looked at her. His eyes possessed an intensity she was sure only before shone beneath his flight helmet. "Nothing," he stated in a halting, unsure voice, "has ever frightened me more than the thought that I had lost you forever, Kym." He swallowed hard and continued. "You are my day, my life. There's so much I want to say when we have the time but right now I have to attend a debriefing session. Please meet me at the Hotel Imperial tonight?"

Ashton's request surprised Kym. Her eyes widened at the mere mention of the Hotel Imperial. The price of a room there could cost upwards of 25 thousand credits. Such extravagance made her wary of his intentions but she immediately buried her suspicions and answered, "I can be there at twenty-one hundred hours."

Ashton gave her hand a gentle squeeze and kissed her lightly on the mouth. "Thank you so much," he replied as he drew back and headed off with the other pilots, glancing over his shoulder at her.

That night, Kym had arrived at the Hotel Imperial looking resplendent in a pale blue gown that matched her eyes. Her hair was piled on top of her head with several strands artfully left unbound to look like escapees. Around her neck was a radiant pearl necklace with a single opalescent Krayt Dragon Pearl resting where her collar bones met.

She could not believe where she was. Not only had Ashton managed to book a room at the Hotel Imperial, but they were now standing together in the Emperor's Suite, the single largest, most luxurious-most expensive-set of rooms in the hotel. The suite was typically reserved for the most important of visitors to Imperial Center and had to be reserved months in advance. But here she was, standing in the midst of the most elegant furnishings she'd seen in her life, as soft music emanated from tiny speakers in the ceiling and a silver protocol droid poured two glasses of champagne. It was as if Kym was living in a dream and for a moment she felt her head spin at the thought. "How did you manage all this?"

Ashton, dressed in a simple navy blue tunic and black trousers with gold stitching down the outsides of the legs, looked at her sheepishly. "I called in a few favors, promised a lot more." He paused, shrugging his shoulders. "Had to rattle a few teeth..." He trailed off, biting his lower lip. She could tell he was working himself up to something; he was strangely cute when he got nervous. That thought troubled her, that he could face death in a TIE cockpit but be so timid when he had something important to say.

Smiling sweetly to put him at ease, Kym said, "You're trying to tell me something, Ashton. What is it?"

Ashton let out a short laugh. "Yeah... it's just..." He was struggling now. Kym could see the flurry of emotions playing over his features. "I... Kym, I love you," he said in a rush.

Kym crossed her arms impatiently. Looking him straight in the eye, she replied, "Ashton, you've told me that before without any trouble. What is it you're really trying to say?"

"Uh, yeah... It's just that... well, I really love you."

If it was this hard for him to say, Kym wondered if she really wanted to hear it.

Giving up on words, Ashton dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out a small box. "I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you." He opened the box toward her, revealing a modestly sized diamond ring. "Will you marry me?"

Kym couldn't speak. How could she? She looked into Ashton's pleading stare and could see in his eyes that he had staked his every hope, his every dream on this one gamble. With one word she could make him the happiest man in the galaxy. Her breath became ragged and she couldn't summon her voice. A million fears and doubts raced through her mind but they all boiled down to one question: Do I love him? And at that moment she knew in her heart that she did.

An eternity passed in the span of a heartbeat. Finally she found her voice. "I can't," she choked out, near tears. "I love you-I really do, but... I just can't marry you, Ashton. I'm sorry." She knew she had hurt him badly. Her stomach ached in sympathy for him.

He suddenly looked very tired, as though he'd become twice his age. "Why?" he managed weakly.

Tears streamed from her eyes as she gathered her resolve. "I can't marry you because I can't handle the torture of living in fear for you every day of my life," she sobbed. "I don't want to be a widow."

Ashton gathered her hands in his and said, "You're protecting yourself from something that may never happen." Gently, he wiped a tear from her cheek. "We can't know the future. All we can know is that we love each other. I want to know I have someone to come back to."

"Why do you have to make it so hard to argue with you?" Kym begged. "Why can't you just let me go?"

"Because I know that if I let you walk out that door without this ring on your finger I'll be making the biggest mistake of my life."

For a moment Kym just looked at him sadly, unable to speak. She wanted to love him for the rest of her life but if they wed, she knew that hers would not be the only heart broken if he died. Finally she said, "News of your death would hurt me whether or not we marry... but what if we have children?"

Ashton swallowed hard. For a moment he opened his mouth to answer, then immediately closed it. He looked at her helplessly and said, "I don't know. I'm being honest with you." Again he clasped her hands in his. "I would hope that they'd be brought up lovingly, taught right from wrong. I would hope that their mother would tell them how much their daddy loved them and wanted to make the galaxy safer for them."

Kym knew, deep down, that he would be as devoted a husband and father as possible. She hugged him tightly, as though she were afraid that to let go of him would be to let him go forever. He didn't have much time on Imperial Center before the 181st left for Ciutric and he might not be as lucky this time. Tenderly, Ashton kissed her forehead. "Please," he whispered, "be my wife. I could never love anyone as much as I love you."

"I... I...," she faltered. Her voice caught in her throat. She loved him deeply but couldn't speak. She couldn't bring herself to say anything. She wondered, Is love enough? What about security? I suppose we could worry about children when that situation came up.

His words rang in her ears. We can't know the future. All we can know is that we love each other. Almost inaudibly, she said, "Yes." She swallowed past the lump that had formed in her throat. "I want my future to be with you." She sniffed back another wave of tears and looked into his dark brown eyes. "I will marry you, Ashton Pallor."

Ashton hugged her tighter and kissed her forehead. "And I swear I will love you for all time, Kym Yarum." With that, he kissed her lips and she drank in his presence, letting herself be swept away in their love for one another.

The next day, Ashton reported to Colonel Turr Phennir's office at the 181st's HQ as ordered. There, Turr and Oz slapped Ashton on the back when he told them the good news. "Congratulations, Ashes," Hallek said, a wide smile gleaming out from the carpet of stubble on his face.

"I look forward to the wedding," Turr added, shaking Ashton's hand. He then cleared his throat and pulled a small envelop from his uniform tunic. "By the way, your promotion went through. Congratulations, Commander."

The Corellian opened the envelope and pulled out a new rank badge with three red squares above three blue ones. He immediately removed his captain's insignia and began attaching the commander's badge. "Thank you, Colonel. For your congratulations on the promotion and the wedding."

Turr sat behind his desk while Oz took a seat on the corner of it. "You'll be given command of Saber Squadron after the Ciutric operation," Turr continued. "That's when Admiral Hades will request our presence back with his task force and we'll be able to return to our escape plan."

Ashton chewed his lip for a moment. "What about Kym?" he asked cautiously.

Oz gave him a steady look. "The admiral has people here on Imperial Center. They can keep her in a safe house."

"In the meantime, Commander Pallor," Turr pointed out, "you have to report to the sim chamber so we can get you checked out on your new arm." He smiled devilishly, twisting his facial scar into an ugly curl.

Dann'l M'Pala sat next to Edalia Iamar in a fancy bistro near the Palace District. Accompanying them were Fel's Wrath and Edalia's sister, Lani. The two pilots were clad in their dress uniforms, looking very sharp and, in Jerec's case, irritated. Lani, like her sister, was shorter than Dann'l, but even she looked down at him. The fact that Dann'l had conned the shorter pilot into coming did not help his mood. "All you need to do," Dann'l had told him, "is avoid suggestive conversation."

"It's so nice that you could pry yourself away from the base, Love," Edalia said sweetly. "It gives us time to discuss the wedding."

Dann'l bristled at the thought. He still found it very unpleasant that he had been duped into this engagement. "Of course, honey," he replied through gritted teeth. "You know, I'm still very tired from the trip back to Imperial Center, why don't we call lunch off early?"

"I agree," Fel's Wrath said, getting up. "We should get some rest."

"But our food hasn't even arrived," Edalia pointed out. "You'll feel better when you've eaten something other than ship's rations."

The two pilots looked at each other. They couldn't just pass up the chance to get some real food. Reluctantly, Jerec sat down.

"How is Ashton? You're a friend of his, aren't you?" Lani asked, more than curious.

"Oh, he's fine," Dann'l answered. "He got shot down a few days ago; had to have his left arm replaced."

"Oh dear," Lani gasped. "He's not in shock is he? Does he need comforting?"

Fel's Wrath snickered. "I think he's been comforted enough."

Under the table, Dann'l elbowed the other pilot in the ribs. "A day in the bacta tank and a few hours in the simulator pods is all the comfort a guy like Ashes really needs."

Lani let out an enamored sigh. "How brave. Not a care at all for his one well-being, giving his all for the Empire..."

Fel's Wrath raised an eyebrow at the woman. "Right..." For a moment they sat in awkward silence, then the Chandrilan looked around the bistro, muttering, "I need a drink; where's that waiter?"

Just then, the restaurant's new arrivals caught his eye. Nudging Dann'l, he whispered, "Look who the Gundark dragged in."

Dann'l followed Fel's Wrath's thumb and spotted Chief Petty Officer Nicco and three other naval troopers, all in dress uniforms, entering the bistro. "Oh great," he groaned. "What, do they actually follow us looking for trouble? What are they doing here?"

"They must have been banned from the Outlander Club."

"I meant, how did they get off the Tartarus?"

Jerec shrugged. "What's the plan? Should we jump them, or should I count down from three and then we jump them?"

Shaking his head, Dann'l answered, "Neither. We skip the check; the last thing we need is trouble with Colonel Phennir because of them."

"I'm your wing," the other pilot replied. "What's our exit vector?"

Desperately, Dann'l looked about the bistro as discreetly as possible. Not a lot of options. Numerous people provided them cover but there was no way out the front door. And while he wasn't opposed to just leaving Edalia and her sister here, he had no idea how they were going to get away from them. He then turned to his fianc?e and said, "Please excuse us, dear. We need to use the refresher station."

With that, they got up and headed for the refresher. "That's your plan?" Fel's Wrath snickered. "We're going to sneak out the refresher station window like a couple of punk kids?"

Dann'l glared at his friend. "You got a better idea?"

"Nope," Fel's Wrath replied with a shake of his head.

Turr Phennir and Oz Hallek stood outside Ashton's simulator pod, judging his performance levels on various missions. At the moment, they had him flying a recreation of the assault at Derra IV and he was doing remarkably well. "I'd say that prosthetic of his hasn't slowed him down at all," Oz commented. "If anything, he's flying better than before."

Turr nodded absently as he watched Ashton's guns take out yet another Rebel transport. Just then, a trio of pilots from off the Reckoning entered the sim chamber with their flight helmets tucked under their arms. Turr looked up as they approached and recognized the pilot wearing the general's insignia. Shaking his hand, Turr said, "A pleasure to meet you, General Talmont."

"Likewise," Talmont replied. He was tall and lanky with a mushroom of straight brown hair and thick sideburns. He and his pilots wore the black flightsuit and bulky chest- and back-armor plates that were the standard uniform of TIE pilots throughout the fleet.

Turr, like Baron Fel before him, encouraged the 181st to forego the armor in favor of lighter and more flexible flak vests that he and Oz now wore. Fel's argument against the armor had been that it reduced a pilot's mobility inside the already cramped TIE cockpit and Turr heartily agreed. "It's said the One Eighty-First is the best. I'd love to see your boys in action, Colonel. It's too bad they'll be held in reserve at Ciutric," Talmont commented, an edge to his voice.

Turr raised a questioning eyebrow. "Begging your pardon, sir? What do you mean reserve?"

"Exactly what I said," Talmont responded with just a hint of a self-satisfied smirk. "The One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group isn't really needed to capture Pestage or even to secure the city. You'll stay aboard Binder until Admiral Krennel calls for you."

Phennir nodded, irritated by this self-important glory hound. "I see. So what will your Three Twenty-Fifth Tactical Fighter Wing be doing?"

"Securing the airspace," Talmont replied matter-of-factly. "Flying patrols to ensure the Rebel scum don't try anything stupid."

Turr crossed his arms over his chest. "What about ceasing air traffic? Securing star ports? Forcing down ships that try to run?"

The arrogant general nodded. "Indeed, that will be part of our mission profile."

"You're going to do all that and engage the Rebels? Sounds to me like you'll be spread pretty thin."

"It won't matter, Colonel. The Three Twenty-Fifth can handle anything those dregs can put in the air."

"With all due respect, General," Turr growled, "a handful of TIE fighters will be flying bull's-eyes if they're against the Rebels' Rogue Squadron. My Interceptors are faster, more maneuverable in and out of atmosphere, and more heavily armed. We've also faced the Rogues before, at Brentaal, and know what to expect from them." He spitted Talmont with an even stare. "We're better suited to the task than your pilots."

"For your sake, Colonel, I will forget what you've said," General Talmont said coldly, his face going red. "You have your orders. I suggest you don't sully your spotless career by persisting with this insubordination."

Turr gave Talmont an icy glare. "As ordered, sir." Stiffly, he saluted, turned, and marched out of the sim chamber, muttering under his breath as he left. "Fool." How could a general in the Imperial starfighter forces be so bloody stupid about approaching a mission this important? The Empire certainly wasn't what it once was. The sooner we get out of here, the better. If this is what the Empire we give our lives to serve has degenerated to, Isard can have it!

Chapter 10

All was quiet on Ciutric. It was midday and nothing out of the ordinary had happened all week. Still, Antar Farad'n refused to let his guard down. He crouched beside the second story window of a warehouse, watching the prison where Sate Pestage was being held. The primary Special Intelligence team had just moved in to extract the traitor while Farad'n and his team watched for trouble.

Wiping perspiration from his smoothly shaven head, he peered through a pair of macrobinoculars and could just make out the shape of one of the primary team's agents, guarding the entrance from the inside. The prison was a minimum security facility, meant for housing political prisoners and minor offenders. It's really more of a jail than a prison, Farad'n mused.

Suddenly, a high-pitched air raid siren wailed through the city and a group of X-wing starfighters flashed by overhead. A pair of beetle-shaped assault shuttles dropped into the streets, weapons laying down cover fire. The ramps lowered and a wave of commandos poured forth from each, wearing a hodgepodge of scavenged Stormtrooper armor. The agent guarding the entrance to the prison opened fire and was cut down in a hail of blaster bolts.

"Sithspit!" Farad'n exclaimed. Into his comlink, he shouted, "Team Two, open fire! Drive the Rebels back to the shuttles!" Immediately, more blasters joined the fire fight as Farad'n grabbed up his own rifle and started taking shots from his perch within the warehouse. A few Rebels went down but even more found cover behind parked land speeders, inside the mouths of alleyways, and in the shadows of their own assault shuttles.

A trio of commandos, led by a bearded Devaronian with a pair of tall horns poking through the top of his helmet, made it inside the prison, guns blazing. "Team One, you have three incoming, Rebel commandos," Farad'n called into the comlink, but all that answered him was static. Sith spawn! They're jamming our transmissions!

Farad'n turned and rushed for the stairway to join his team on the ground. He burst through the warehouse door and leapt for cover behind the nearest land speeder. "Situations looking bad, Onik!" he shouted over the whine of blaster fire to the man next to him. He peered around the edge of the speeder and fired off a few shots. "Rebels are jamming our comlinks and are about to acquire Pestage!"

Onik slapped a new power pack into his blaster pistol. "What do we do?" He poked his pistol around their cover and scattered a few shots in the Rebels' direction, hoping he would hit something.

"All we can do is try to delay them until support arrives!" Farad'n answered. Just as he spoke, the three Rebel commandos charged out of the prison, firing their blasters at any Special Intelligence agent who gave chase. With them was an old man clad in purple robes, his head kept down low by the Devaronian leading the commando team. Farad'n pointed to the horned alien and shouted to his team, "Burn him down!"

The sound of blaster fire intensified as Pestage's protectors neared the assault shuttles. Onik leaned around the land speeder and began firing wildly at the Rebels until he was thrown backward by a blaster bolt that caught him in the face. Finally, the Devaronian got Pestage safely aboard one of the assault shuttles and ordered a retreat to his fellow commandos. The rebels, in their mismatched Stormtrooper armor, ran back up the entrance ramps, firing into the Imperial ranks all the way. When the last man was aboard, the beetle-shaped craft closed their entry ports and lifted off the ground, keeping the Intelligence teams pinned down as they flew off to the West.

A buzz issued from Farad'n's comlink. "Yes," he said into the device.

"What's going on down there?" asked a livid voice.

"We've lost the package," the Intelligence agent reported. "Orders?"

"My forces will deal with the Rebels," the voice growled. "Remain where you are; I want a full report when I arrive at the prison."

"As ordered."

"Krennel out!"

The Imperial Star Destroyer Reckoning and the Interdictor cruiser Binder had come out of hyperspace right on top of the fleeing Rebel ships. Aboard the Reckoning, Admiral Delak Krennel stormed over to the bridge's scanner officer. "What's their strength?" he demanded.

"Thirty-six Y-wings, twelve X-wings, and two assault shuttles, sir," the lieutenant replied.

Krennel turned to the Reckoning's comm officer. "Order Binder to power up its gravity well generators. Then launch the Three Twenty-Fifth. I want those Rebels captured and I want Pestage taken alive!"

The comm officer relayed Krennel's orders and a moment later, a slight tremor passed through the ship as the Interdictor brought its generators online. While significantly smaller than an Imperial Star Destroyer, an Interdictor cruiser's four globe-shaped gravity well generators could project an enormous mass shadow to prevent ships from fleeing into hyperspace. Essentially it added another planetary body to a star system, altering the system's gravitational layout and thereby cutting off many possible escape routes. The generators, however, required so much energy to operate, that an Interdictor could not power up its shields simultaneously. Thus, they were forced to rely on larger ships like the Reckoning for protection.

Through the bridge viewport, Krennel saw swarms of TIE fighters boil up from beneath the ship's prow to engage the Rebel fighters. Isard's blundering agents had better not have cost me Pestage. If they have... He clenched his mechanical right fist in silent rage.

General Talmont vectored his TIE fighter toward the nearest Y-wing. He squeezed the dual triggers on his control yoke, lacing a deadly stream of green laser fire over his target. At first the Rebel fighter's shields held but Talmont's continuous barrage overwhelmed it and the wishbone- shaped craft exploded. The general smiled beneath his helmet. Let Phennir worry. These Rebels are no match for us.

Into his comm, he called, "First and Second squadrons have the X- wings. Third and Fourth, keep after the wishbones. Fifth and Sixth are to chase those assault shuttles within range of Reckoning's tractor beams." A series of double clicks came back over the comlink, confirmation of his orders.

He rotated his control yoke, turning his fighter toward the approaching X-wings. The two opposing groups converged and flashes of red and green energy arced between the fighters. Talmont allowed himself to marvel at the skill with which these Rebels maneuvered their crafts. One by one, red dots indicating fellow TIE fighters winked out of existence on his sensor displays. He jerked the yoke from side to side, dodging streaks of scarlet light. He managed to find himself on an X-wing's tail and was about to tighten up on the triggers when suddenly it disappeared. "What the-"

Talmont looked wildly at his instruments, trying to locate the enemy starfighter. Without warning, his wingman exploded in a brilliant ball of incandescent gas. Talmont whirled his head around and spotted the X-wing through his rear cockpit viewport. The Rebel must have performed a reverse throttle hop to make Talmont fly right by his target. He immediately rotated his control yoke, inverting his fighter, and pulled up into a sharp dive that was impossible for the X-wing to duplicate.

More and more Imperials died on his sensors until finally the two assault shuttles and all twelve X-wings broke off and headed back for the planet. The Y-wings broke off the engagement and ran for the nearest exit vector into hyperspace. Into his comlink, Talmont ordered, "First, Second, and Third squadrons, head dirt-side and refuel. Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, return to the Reckoning and await further orders."

The pilots of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group had nothing to do. Being held in reserve kept them on alert status but the lack of activity to occupy the time bored them to tears. Turr, Oz, and Ashton kept their eyes on the tactical display in the Binder's TIE pilot ready room. As they watched, more and more Imperial fighters disappeared, destroyed by the Rebels they had come here to trap. Turr shook his head disgustedly. "That idiot Talmont's getting his men killed out there. Those pointer pilots have to be the Rogues," he pointed out, using the Imperial slang term for X- wings.

"He's already lost an eighth of the Three Twenty-Fifth," Oz nodded in agreement. "If we ever have to depend on him, remind me to point my Interceptor's nose at the ground and get it over with quickly."

"Didn't you come up against Rogue Squadron at Brentaal?" Ashton asked, stroking his goatee as he studied the holographic monitor.

Turr and Oz both nodded this time. "I even went up against one of their best, Tycho Celchu, and barely got out of it alive," Turr answered.

"And Celchu was a student of Colonel Fel's," Oz added grimly. "By all rights he should have vaped you."

Just then, the ship-wide comm sounded. "All pilots stand down from alert status. The Rebels are going to ground. Repeat: all pilots are to stand down from alert status."

"Figures," Turr said, blowing out a disappointed breath.

Ashton cocked an eyebrow at his commander. "Beg your pardon, sir?"

"The only Rebel casualties out there were Y-wings, Ashes," the blonde man explained. "So Antilles ordered the wishbones to withdraw and the Rogues to head planet-side to draw Talmont off their escape. He's a bit too selfless."

"That kind of action is likely to cost him someday," Ashton remarked.

"Agreed," Turr said darkly. "And I'll make sure he pays in full."

An uncomfortable silence fell over them, then, and they were eventually saved by the sound of Turr's comlink. "Colonel Phennir, here," he reported into the device.

"Colonel, Admiral Krennel is shuttling down to the Ciutric spaceport and wants an escort from the One Eighty-First," spoke Major Lorrir's voice. "Shall I have my flight group prep for launch?"

"No Major, stand down as ordered," Turr answered. "I'll have my flight do it personally. Phennir out." With that, he thumbed off the device, slipped it into his flightsuit pocket, and stood to leave.

After he'd gone, Ashton turned to Oz and asked, "What's with him?"

The major's eyes shifted from side to side, unsure whether or not he should answer. Then, his mind made up, he said, "Turr's got a score to settle with Wedge Antilles. You'll have to get the rest from him."

"Right," Ashton nodded absently.

Just then, Dann'l M'Pala appeared in the ready room door. "Hey Ashes!" he called, "Sabacc game with Collyn, Lancer, Hal, and Fel's Wrath; you want in?"

"You know it," the Corellian answered, jumping up from his seat eagerly. At least I won't be bored for a few hours.

"I might as well sit in too," Oz sighed, hoisting himself to his feet and following them out the door.

Hours later, well into the planetary night, a klaxon blared through the Binder's pilot quarters, sounding a general scramble. Ashton bolted upright out of bed, jerked out of a very pleasant dream about Kym, and rubbed sleep grit from his eyes. Jumping out of bed, he rushed to don his flightsuit, wasting a few seconds as he accidentally put his foot into the wrong boot.

Meanwhile he could hear feet clomping through the corridor outside. Frantically, he ran out into the hall, flight gear dangling around his neck, flak vest half secured, and his helmet tucked under one arm. Turning to follow the other pilots of the 181st, he spotted Dann'l hopping along while tugging on his left boot.

"What's going on?" Ashton asked over the noise of the alert sirens.

"How the heck should I know?" Dann'l replied, finally getting his boot on. "I was sound asleep."

Exactly two minutes after the scramble order had gone out, the 181st Imperial Fighter Group had launched from the Interdictor Binder and was receiving the low-down over their comlinks from Colonel Phennir. "The Rogues are covering the escape of the two assault shuttles and a transport ship that arrived an hour ago. They're making runs on Reckoning and Binder; stop them."

"As ordered, Rapier Lead," Major Hallek responded through the comm.

"Acknowledged," Major Lorrir replied. "Saber Squadron, break by flights and engage the enemy."

Ashton vectored in on the approaching formation of Rebel fighters. "Two Flight, on me. Stick to me like stink on a Hutt, we're making a run on the starboard shuttle."

A myriad of clicks sounded over the comm channel, confirmation of his orders. The ten pointers roared overhead as a squadron from General Talmont's 325th Tactical Fighter Wing tried to get the drop on them. They're either brave or foolish, Ashton thought. My money's on the latter. For a moment he spared a glance at the holograph of Kym he kept on his control yoke. Then Two Flight was a kilometer-and-a-half from their target. "Two Flight, open fire!"

The four TIE Interceptors unleashed a barrage of emerald laser energy, battering the shuttle's shields. The other ship returned fire with what little armament it had, missing the more agile fighters completely. The Imperials flashed past the shuttle faster than the human eye could follow, flew out some distance, and circled around for another run. "All right Two Flight, try to take those shields down this time!" Ashton called.

Just then he spotted a pair of green blips coming up fast on his aft sensors. "Abort strafing run and go evasive," he ordered. "Break by pairs, we've got bandits on our tails." Ashton twisted his control yoke to the left and pulled it back to his chest, corkscrewing to port, away from Collyn and Lancer. Dann'l stayed expertly in the Corellian's starboard-aft quarter, mimicking his movements perfectly.

The two X-wings broke starboard, chasing down the other two pilots of Two Flight. Collyn and Lancer juked and jinked, dodging bursts of scarlet light. Despite their efforts, though, they could not shake the Rogues. Ashton and Dann'l began to circle around to wipe the pointers off their backs when suddenly over a score of Y-wings burst into view as they exited hyperspace.

"Sithspit!" Dann'l cursed over the comlink as Ashton pulled back on the control yoke to avoid a collision. "Where'd these guys come from?"

"Must be the bomber wing that scooted before," Ashton answered, clenching his jaw as he spiraled among the oncoming Rebels. "They must've gone to the edge of the system to regroup." He looped and rolled as his computer alerted him to not one, but two laser locks on his craft.

Meanwhile, Collyn and Lancer were still being boxed in by the two X-wings on their tails. Desperately, Collyn dove toward the planet. One of the pointers broke off to follow as the other continued after his wingman. Collyn twisted his fighter around so it was level with Ciutric's horizon and pointed the nose down toward the planet's surface.

Ashton recognized his friend's tactic. Keying his comm, he asked, "Seven, what do you think you're doing?"

"I've got to scrape this pointer off my six," came Collyn's voice, the barest hint of fear lining the edges.

"Negative, turn towards me and I'll vape him," Ashton ordered. "Do not bump the atmosphere!"

Collyn's Interceptor bucked as it struck Ciutric's upper atmosphere. "I know what I'm doing," he called. The ship and its pursuer shook violently as they skipped along the air. The tremors were enough to spoil the Rebel's aim, just as Collyn had intended.

"Damn it, Collyn, pull out!" Static filled his ears. Collyn's comm system must have shorted out from the jolting.

Friction built up as the Interceptor continued to skip over the layer of gas surrounding the planet. With its stronger shields, the X-wing was better capable of handling the heat but soon the underside of Collyn's hull began to glow. It started as a dim red but it was not long until the fighter's belly was bright orange. The jostling craft rocked and shuddered more and more violently as the stress built.

"He's going in too steep!" Ashton called to Dann'l and Lancer. But there was nothing they could do; they were tied up with dogfights of their own, maneuvering erratically to keep out of enemy gun sights.

Finally the stress placed upon the fragile Interceptor was too much. The starboard wing array sheared off, trailing debris. The remainder of Collyn's craft spiraled into the atmosphere of Ciutric, a flaming wreck, and Collyn was gone. He likely died long before he hit the ground.

Simultaneously a little chunk of Hoth coalesced in Ashton's belly and a Sarlacc squirmed in his guts. "Two Flight, form up!" he barked. With that, he stamped down on the left rudder pedal, slewing his ship to port, and rotated the control yoke ninety degrees in the same direction. Tightening up on the dual triggers, he rained down coherent light on a hapless Y-wing.

The wishbone shattered as Dann'l and Lancer pulled up on Ashton's left and right respectively. Together, they jockeyed about, vaping one Y- wing after another.

Suddenly the comlink squawked. "One Eight-First Eye-Eff-Gee, this is Binder. We're under torpedo attack. Help us!"

"Acknowledged!" Colonel Phennir's voice responded. "One Eighty-First, look sharp. Rapier has the pointers. Saber and Broadsword, try to knock down those warheads!"

"As ordered, Lead," Ashton said, answering before Major Lorrir could speak.

Chapter 11

Ashton threw his helmet angrily onto his bunk. "Damn it!" Dann'l and Lancer stood somberly behind him, unsure of what to say. "I told him!" the Corellian hissed. "I told him not to skip the atmosphere!"

"It wasn't your fault, Ashes," Dann'l tried, hoping his friend would believe it.

Ashton turned around and glared at Dann'l. "It was my fault, because I couldn't help him!" Frustrated, he slammed a fist against the wall. "I knew he couldn't outfly that X-wing and I did nothing."

"Damn it, Ashes!" Lancer snapped. "I was Collyn's wingman and I flew with him a hell of a lot longer than you did. His problem was he was too brash for his own good but could never back it up. He told me he needed to prove he was as good as everyone else and that's why he died!"

"I should have done something, I should have gone after that pointer on his tail," Ashton argued.

"There were over a dozen wishbones on top of us," Dann'l tried to reason, jabbing a finger at him. "What would you have done, besides get your own ship shot to pieces?"

Ashton sat on his bunk and held his head in his hands, wallowing in self-pity. "I just can't believe he's gone."

Just then, Turr appeared in the doorway to the small billet. "Pilots die, Commander. It's a fact we have to live with every day." Ashton looked up as the blonde man crossed the room and stood over him. "You're going to lose a lot of pilots, most of them friends, while in the One Eighty-First. All you can do is accept it and fight on. Especially now that Saber Squadron is under your command; I've just dismissed Major Lorrir." With that, Turr turned and left the room, hoping Ashton would snap out of it soon. Their chance was drawing near.

Dead! Ysanne Isard stormed through the halls of the Imperial Palace, her steps echoing off the vaulted ceiling, wearing her ire like a cloak. Each person she passed scurried from her path like a frightened animal, wary of invoking her wrath. Pestage is dead and Krennel has betrayed me again! she thought.

As she marched through the Palace toward the Tribunal's meeting chamber, she tried to compose herself, running through a few simple breathing exercises. While her master's Force did not flow through her, she still found its teachings useful. It would not do for her to let her feelings show in front of those three self-appointed fools.

Finding her center, she thought over the recent developments she'd learned of merely an hour ago. Sate Pestage was dead, Admiral Krennel had seized control of the Ciutric Hegemony, and the loyalty of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group was still in question. There were so many things going wrong with her quest to preserve the Empire, maybe it was time to eliminate a few thorns in her side. She smiled at the thought, a glint in her molten left eye as she stepped into the council chamber.

The Imperial Star Destroyer Tartarus hung in orbit above Imperial Center, drifting serenely among the Golan defense platforms and the hundreds of warships that comprised the capital's watch-keeping fleet. Binder sat several kilometers away on Tartarus' port side. On the larger vessel's bridge, Admiral Hades stood regarding his holographic display, deep in thought. He had just received disturbing news the night before which now forced him to consider advancing his timetable. All three members of the ruling tribunal had been assassinated and Ysanne Isard had assumed direct control over the Empire. Hades and his task force were not ready yet. But we have no choice, he thought, a frown creasing his cadaverous features.

Footsteps echoed through the deathly still silence of the bridge as Commodore Pomp waddled his way toward the admiral. When he stood less than a hand's breadth away from Hades, Pomp said in a low voice, "The One Eighty-First has just arrived from Binder, sir."

"Good," Hades responded. This was some good news. At least Colonel Phennir was back. Hades could use his help in this matter. Perhaps we should go ahead with the plan; Admiral Rogriss is already waiting in the Empress-Teta system.

"What course shall we set?" Pomp asked, his low voice breaking into Hades' deliberation. The admiral thought he detected a hint of strain in the commodore's voice, as if he were nervous about something. He did not blame him. Word of Isard's takeover made him nervous just thinking about it.

The admiral closed his eyes for a moment, considering. Rogriss awaited him at Empress-Teta. The rest of the task force remained at Duro. The decision weighed down on him like a planet. All at once he blew out a weary sigh and replied, "Empress-Teta." Nodding, partly to reassure himself, he repeated, "Set course for Empress-Teta. I have an important conference to attend there."

"I thought so," Pomp replied coldly.

Something pressed against Hades' belly. "What the-?" The admiral never finished his sentence. A supernova of pain erupted in his stomach, blossoming like a flower in springtime. His vision blurred and blackness began to creep in at the corners as he staggered back a step, clutching at the gaping blaster wound in his belly. Blood began to stain his uniform, a crimson ring slowly spreading outward from the smoking hole. As Hades' sight faded he saw Commodore Pomp holding his issue sidearm, his face a mask of disgust. Finally the searing pain was too much and the admiral's legs gave out. He collapsed to the deck in a heap and slowly the pain went away.

Pomp turned to the speechless bridge crew, holstering his blaster pistol. Keying the ship-wide intercom on the admiral's command chair, he announced, "Attention all crew: Admiral Hades has been executed as a traitor to the Empire by the order of Director Isard. He had planned to take us to Empress-Teta where he was to defect to the Rebels and turn us all over to their custody. As the acting commander, I am ordering the immediate arrest of his accomplices: Colonel Phennir and the One Eighty-First Imperial Fighter Group." With that, he keyed off the ship's comm and turned to the bridge crew. "Get me in touch with Director Isard," he ordered.

"Sith spawn!" Turr cursed, standing from his seat at the bar. He and the other pilots stood in the Tartarus' lounge. Pomp's broadcast came as an unwelcome surprise to all of them.

"You might as well give up and turn yourselves in," Major Lorrir shouted. "I tried to warn you this would happen, right at the outset, but your self-assurance is now your undoing!"

"Shut up!" Oz growled, grabbing Lorrir by the collar and delivering a hard punch across his jaw. Lorrir fell to the floor, limp and unconscious. Oz turned to Turr and asked, "What's the plan, sir?"

Turr looked at his men, banishing fear form his eyes and from his heart. "Stormtroopers will be here any minute. We're going to need weapons, so take down the first few that step through that door." He pointed, indicating the exit to the rest of the ship.

Fel's Wrath cracked his knuckles eagerly. "Got it. What next?"

"It's hopeless to try holding out here," Turr continued. "They'll expect us to head for the main bay where our Interceptors are. That's out of the question since we need something hyperspace capable. So we don't do what they expect from a bunch of TIE jockeys and we head for the VIP hangar and steal a shuttle."

"Where'll we go?" Ashton asked.

"Hades was going to take the Tartarus to Empress-Teta. That's where he said Admiral Rogriss was going to meet us."

Turr was interrupted by a loud, ear-splitting hiss that filled the lounge. The pilots dove for cover, turning over the tables, huddling on either side of the door in preparation, or taking refuge behind the bar. The hissing grew in volume until finally the door ruptured inward and a squad of Stormtroopers began to pour into the lounge, blasters firing. Oz grabbed the first trooper and hurled him into his comrades, spilling them to the ground in a clatter of armor. Lancer launched himself over the bar, along with two other pilots, and tackled another soldier. One of the other pilots grabbed the trooper's weapon and tossed it to Turr, but was immediately cut down in a blaze of blaster fire.

Jerec brought the heel of his hand up under another Stormtrooper's chin pitching him backward, and grabbed up his rifle. He shot the next two that came at him and connected his knee to the abdomen of another. Ashton and Dann'l slammed two troopers' helmets together, commandeering their weapons. Soon the Stormtrooper squad was subdued and four pilots lay dead.

"Come on," Turr panted, hefting his blaster rifle. "We have to get to the hangar." With that, the deserters crept into the corridor, weapons ready. "Don't take any chances," he whispered to the others. "If you spot a Stormy, open fire." The pilots sounded a string of affirmatives.

"Turr, take Rapier and Broadsword and secure the hangar," Ashton suggested. "I'll take Saber and disable Tartarus' weapons so we can escape."

Turr thought it over, chewing his scarred lip. It was risky but they didn't have much choice. It certainly wouldn't do them any good to get blasted to atoms on their way out. "Good luck," he said, making his decision. "We'll meet you at the shuttle." Ashton nodded and he and what remained of Saber Squadron charged off down another hallway.

The small security office was dark, lit only by computer terminals and video monitors, and bustled with activity as naval troopers tried to locate the renegade pilots. "What do you mean you've lost them?" Commodore Pomp snarled, furious.

"I told you," Chief Petty Officer Nicco growled into this comlink. He stood over the troopers, monitoring their work and trying to spot anything they missed. "They took out an entire Stormtrooper squad in the pilots' lounge and took their weapons," he continued, annoyed by the blustering officer. "I assume they're heading for the main hangar but they're smashing all the holocams they pass."

"Find them!" Pomp shouted in his ear. Nicco could almost hear the fat man's jowls jiggling in anger. "When Isard assigned you here, she assured me you were one of her best agents!"

"My men are working as fast as they can, Commodore," Nicco assured. "Turr Phennir and the One Eighty-First will not escape." He cut the transmission before Pomp could reply. "And neither will that festering Dann'l M'Pala," he hissed, clenching a fist to check his rage.

"Chief Nicco," a voice called from across the office, taking his attention away from his hatred of the TIE pilot. "We've spotted a group of the traitors."

"Where?" Nicco demanded, rushing over to where the naval trooper sat before a monitor.

"They're heading for power control," the subordinate reported. "They may be trying to disable the ship."

Nicco turned to a Stormtrooper captain. "Send two platoons to the hangars, one to the main, the other to the VIP. I'll take a third to power control and stop them from crippling the ship."

The black-clad officer nodded and simply said, "Affirmative."

"And Captain," Nicco continued, "Isard wants Colonel Phennir. Alive if possible; dead... just as good."

Bank upon bank of terminals lined the walls of the power control station and a row of six massive conduits ran from floor to ceiling, splitting the room down the middle into a U shape. The power conduits, humming with energy, were surrounded by a black- and yellow-striped safety railing where the floor was cut away and one could look straight down to see where they ran directly to the ship's reactor.

"Which one powers the ship's weapons?" Ashton asked, stooping over a terminal.

Dann'l pressed his blaster against the back of his captive's head. The naval officer gulped in fear, his eyes darting around at the armed pilots and the other captive technicians. His lieutenant's insignia marked him as the one in charge and he now regretted it. "Number Four," he stammered.

Quickly, Lancer stepped up in front of a terminal, ready to shut down Conduit Number Four. Ashton gave the lieutenant in Dann'l's grasp a hard stare. "You know what'll happen if you lied and that's the one for, oh, say, life support?" he asked blandly, letting his glare inject the menace into his words. "Everyone onboard will die, not just us."

The lieutenant swallowed hard again. "Number Two!" he confessed. "Weapons is Number Two!"

"Good boy," Ashton whispered. Inwardly he sighed in relief. That was too close.

As Lancer moved to a different terminal, Dann'l felt a strange, unexplainable tingle at the back of his neck. Before he knew it, he shouted, "Everyone get down!"

Just then the door to the control room exploded inward and time seemed to slow down. A stream of blaster fire poured into the room. Several technicians went down in flashes of light and bursts of smoke; Dann'l's prisoner caught a blaster bolt in the head, his face becoming a red crater. The pilot dropped the dead lieutenant and dove for the floor as more shots ricocheted off the walls, shattered terminal screens, and pinged against the power conduits.

The uninjured pilots returned fire as the wounded rolled around in pain, screaming on the floor. Dann'l picked himself up off the ground, his ears ringing from the explosion. Through the haze and smoke he spotted a naval trooper aiming a blaster pistol. With everything moving as if coated in tree sap, Dann'l saw that the trooper-Nicco!-was aiming at Ashton. Leaping across the room, he shoved his friend to the floor, firing repeatedly in Nicco's direction.

The pilot caught Nicco's shot in the shoulder. He hit the ground clutching his wound and gritting his teeth against the incredible pain shooting through his arm. Ashton rolled over onto his back and emptied his blaster into the second power conduit. The large pipe sparked and shattered, the remaining portion going dim as it lost power. Ashton then turned to his friend. "Dann'l!"

"I'm fine," Dann'l growled through his teeth, still cradling his shoulder. The Corellian helped him to his feet as the firing stopped. He looked over and saw Chief Petty Officer Nicco laying on his back, his uniform stained red from several blaster wounds in his chest. His mouth hung open in a silent scream.

"Come on," Ashton called to the rest of the Sabers. "We've got a shuttle to catch."

An inferno of blaster fire erupted in the VIP hangar. Pinned down behind a Lambda-class shuttle by the suppression fire of two platoons of Stormtroopers, Rapier and Broadsword squadron lay just short of their goal: a DX-9 troop transport capable of carrying the entire fighter group. "I think they've got at least two E-webs up there!" Oz shouted above the din of blaster fire. He stuck his rifle around the corner of the shuttle and fired off a few blind shots.

"Saber will be here soon!" Turr called back. "Coming from power control should bring them in to our right; they'll have a clear line of fire at those Stormies!"

Someone shouted, "Grenade!" and a wave of heat and a sudden tremor shook the hangar. Several pilots were knocked to the deck.

"Sithspit!" Oz cursed. "That could've detonated the shuttle's fuel cells!"

Turr pointed up with his thumb. "Ulath, get on top, shield yourself behind the stabilizer fin, and see if you can't hit the troops manning those E-webs!"

"Gotcha," Fel's Wrath replied, as Hal gave him a boost.

I hope he's as good a sniper as he is a brawler, Turr thought.

Just then he heard Ashton shout from across the hangar, "Turr, make for the transport; we'll cover you!" A chorus of blaster fire followed his voice.

Without thinking, Turr gestured for the others to follow him and shouted, "Let's go!" Charging out from behind cover, they ran for the troopship, their banging footsteps lost in the roar of battle. Saber Squadron kept the Stormtroopers pinned down with a steady stream of fire. Turr opened the hatch and ran for the cockpit, yelling, "Give Saber some cover!"

Oz, Hal, and Fel's Wrath stood just inside the hatch, firing repeatedly at the Stormtroopers as Saber Squadron sprinted down to the transport. The remaining pilots dove through the entrance and the three turned to follow. Right when he turned around, a blaster bolt tore through Hal's back. Oz swore and punched the control to close the hatch. Hal fell to his knees then landed face down on the deck.

"Take off!" Lancer shouted toward the cockpit, running to take the copilot seat next to Turr.

Oz and Jerec knelt down beside Hal, turning him over onto his back. The pilot's uniform was slick and a pool of blood slowly spread across the deck beneath him. He coughed once and a trickle of red ran from the corner of his mouth. Desperately, Oz held his wingman's hand, vainly trying to comfort him. "Don't worry, Hal, you'll be fine, you'll see." His voice cracked as his dying friend looked up at him with fear in his eyes.

The deck shook as the ship took off, then went still as the inertial dampers kicked in. Gasping for breath, Hal placed a shaky hand over Oz's. Then, his eyes fluttered closed, and his head fell back. Oz clenched his fists and slammed them down on the cool, metal deck. "Damn!" he shouted.

Then Turr called back from the cockpit, "Binder's got its gravity wells up! We can't make it to Empress-Teta!"

"Sith spawn!" Ashton hissed, standing in the hatch between the cockpit and the hold. "Where can we go?"

"The only opening takes us straight out to the Rhen Var," Lancer answered.

"Punch it!" Turr ordered. At that, that stars elongated and the 181st Imperial Fighter Group leaped forward into hyperspace aboard their stolen transport. Tartarus, Binder, and Imperial Center remained behind, unable to touch them.

Hours later, the DX-9 Stormtrooper transport, whose current crew had dubbed Liberator, reverted to realspace on the edge of the Rhen Var system. Looking out at the vast starfield before them, Turr sighed heavily in relief and resignation. "That's it," he said. "We don't have enough fuel to make it in-system, let alone to the planet." Guilt ate away at him. Of the twenty-nine pilots he'd originally convinced to defect with him, only seventeen remained alive. So many good men had died because of him in the past few hours.

"At least we're fee," Lancer replied brightly from the copilot seat beside him. Turr wearily looked over to see him smiling at him, his white teeth contrasting against his coffee-colored skin and thick black mustache. "We're free thanks to you, sir. Isard's greed would have killed us all eventually but you refused to let that happen."

Turr looked back toward the hold, where his friend and comrade, Oz Hallek, mourned his lost wingman. Hal had flown with the 181st since before Endor. He was a good pilot and a good friend. Turr then remembered his conversation with Ashton aboard Binder after Collyn had died. You're going to lose a lot of pilots, most of them friends, while in the One Eighty-First. All you can do is accept it and fight on.

He was suddenly shaken out of his reverie by an authoritative voice from the comm unit. "Unidentified transport; this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera." The voice was so unexpected, the two pilots actually jumped in their seats.

Quickly glancing over the ship's sensors, Lancer reported, "ImpStar Deuce, right on our six, eight klicks out."

"Someone must have followed us!" Turr cried.

The huge vessel loomed behind them menacingly. "Shut down your weapons and shields," the voice continued, "by order of Captain Pellaeon."

Turr's mood suddenly shifted as he let out a whoop of joy. Keying the comm, he happily replied, "Just the man we were hoping to see!" Then, turning around to the others in the hold, he called, "We made it!"



Ashton strode down the catwalk, tucking his helmet beneath his left arm. The hangar aboard the Chimaera was much the same as that aboard the Tartarus, noisy, bustling with activity, and smelling of industrial solvents. He'd just gotten back from a routine patrol with Dann'l and was anxious to read the letter he'd received from Kym. Even during her isolation on Imperial Center she'd been able to get messages to him. "Won't be too much longer now," he said conversationally. "Soon I'll be a happily married man. You ought to find yourself a nice girl and settle down."

"No thank you," Dann'l replied emphatically. Ashton still teased him about his forced engagement to Edalia Iamar. "Like I've always said, why buy the nerf when you get the blue milk for free?"

Ashton chuckled at the banter. For the past two years the 181st Imperial Fighter Group had flown for Captain Pellaeon and the Empire had steadily been retreating from the encroaching Rebels. Despite all that, life was good, as far as he was concerned. He'd managed to keep up a correspondence with Kym and knew she'd be joining him soon; it was just a matter of time. On top of that, he had had his own squadron to command.

As he and Dann'l stepped out of the hangar, they were met by Turr, holding out his hand for them to stop. His face looked drawn, his eyes scrunched at the corners. "Ashton," he said quietly, "we have to talk."

"What is it?" the Corellian asked, slowing his pace. "What's wrong, Colonel?"

Turr swallowed past a lump in his throat. It had to be bad news, whatever it was. "I've just received word that a month ago there was a Rebel strike on Imperial Center. They've taken the planet."

"That's impossible," Ashton gasped. "How could that happen?"

"Rogue Squadron," Turr answered. "But there's more. Yesterday, a Super Star Destroyer blasted its way out of the city. Somehow... somehow it had been buried beneath the city and it shot its way free. Hundreds of megablocks were destroyed in every direction..." Turr's voice caught in his throat. "Ashton... Kym was killed. Her safe-house was one of the buildings destroyed."

Ashton's eyebrows shot up and his knees went weak. At that moment a black hole opened in his guts. With his eyes staring blankly into space, he fell to his knees. "I don't believe it..." he whispered. "How? How could this happen?" Turr and Dann'l knelt down beside him, worry and concern on their faces.

"I'm sorry Ashton," Turr said.

Ashton squeezed his eyes shut, tears running down his face. He couldn't move, he couldn't feel. He had nothing. "This can't... this isn't..." He sat at a loss for words. He'd just gotten a letter from her yesterday and today he found out that the woman he loved was dead. He trembled on the floor, aching as images of Kym flashed through his mind. He saw her eyes, blue as the sky, her hair like a golden field of wheat. He saw the night they first met, the day she saw him off in the hangar, the day she awaited his return. He remembered the night she agreed to marry him and how elated he'd been by her answer. Just like that, it was all gone. He would never see her again; never hold her, kiss her, tell her he loved her. He let out a long, agonized moan. His friends could do nothing but stare at him worriedly as he sat on the deck, wallowing in grief. No amount of bacta would ease his pain.

Original cover by Shock Wave. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.

Fan Fiction Rating

Current Rating is 8.65 in 26 total ratings.

Reader Comments

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Author: otacon138  (signed)
Date posted: 5/10/2006 11:50:42 AM
otacon138's Comments:

A very good story. The way the dogfight sequences were written was reminiscent of the star wars x-wing books(a very good thing),but it doesnt really stand out that much. All in all, a very good fanfic. Keep writing!

Author: Gabri_Jade  (signed)
Date posted: 6/17/2006 8:52:38 PM
Gabri_Jade's Comments:

I really enjoyed this story. I found the characters to be very well drawn and sympathetic, and it was fascinating to see things from the Imperial point of view. I particularly liked the ending. The emotional impact of that is a tribute to your characterization - it wouldn't have half the effect it does if the reader hadn't come to care about the characters. It also dovetails nicely with the events of the X-Wing books. Really a great story, well structured and well written. :)

Author: Ben
Date posted: 6/30/2006 5:26:20 AM
Ben's Comments:

A really nice fiction, I enjoyed reading about the Imperial side of things for a change. It was an interesting aspect. I would've liked to see some of Ashton's views on the war and the Rebels, Zsinj etc..

But still, a great story!

Author: Mad Ike  (signed)
Date posted: 10/7/2006 2:01:53 AM
Mad Ike's Comments:

Nice job. Always interesting to see the other side of the fence as it were.

Author: sharyntyre
Date posted: 10/29/2006 9:01:53 AM
sharyntyre's Comments:

Good read, as mentioned above it reminded me of the X-wing series, which I love. Its great to see Dark side/ Imperial stories, not that I have anything against Jedi and the rebellion, of course.

I'll be looking for more of your stuff too.

Author: Thrawn Car'das
Date posted: 6/1/2008 1:15:53 PM
Thrawn Car'das's Comments:

Good read, any hope of a sequel?

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