Home
About Us
Our Men
Troopers and Guards
Other Imperials
What's New
Fan Fiction
Fan Art & Films
Submissions

Message Board/Mailing List
Links
Contact

 

ACES, EIGHTS AND REBELS
by Emperor's Fury

DISCLAIMER: Some of the Characters, Ships and Places mentioned in this story belong to George Lucas and Timothy Zahn. In using them for this narrative purpose, no plagiarism or malevolent violation of copyright laws is intended.


CAPITAL SHIPS THEY were called, and, marveling at the majestic, massive beauty of the slowly maneuvering Star Destroyers for perhaps the ten thousandth time in his career, Captain Dren Markas fully understood why. More so, he knew he would never grow tired of the sight. Their plain yet elegant lines running smoothly from their pointed prows to the raised fortresses of their stately bridge towers and onwards to the powerful, flaring drives, their heavily armored hulls studded with gun turrets and turbolaser batteries, these mighty, serene warships were more than simply that, he thought, they were far beyond a lifeless conglomerate of steel and ceramic alloys. They were an unmistakable symbol of power, a constant reminder of peace, stability and progress under the Empire's banner and a harbinger of doom for all who sought to oppose it.

Looking closer, he could even identify several of the closer ships by name, recognizing the tell-tale trademarks each of them had acquired over years and decades of service. Right over there, that was the Inexorable, as usual clouded in her buzzing TIE squadrons. Her master, Flag Captain Anaq Sequa, was one of the most brilliant tacticians when it came to the use of his vessel's fighter strengths, therefore the fighter and bomber crews on this particular ship tended to see some of the best and most intense training throughout the Empire and were a prized asset in almost every battle group across the Imperial Navy. And there, somewhat in the background, partially obscured by a darting Carrack cruiser, was the Victory Class Destroyer Inflexible. Good, old, stout and resolute Inflexible. Under veteran Captain Theersel Brix, she had seen some of the fiercest and most brutal fighting imaginable during the past decade and was renowned for a heroic rearguard action following the all-out debacle at Endor, buying time for the battered, disarrayed Imperial fleet to regroup their lines and see off the pursuing Rebel ships in a series of fierce, close-quarter running battles. She wore the patched-up scars of uncounted blast marks and missile impacts like decorations. In the distance, he could also make out what was unmistakably Flag Captain Pellaeon's Chimaera, the mighty flagship of Grand Admiral Thrawn himself, constantly looking somewhat gloomy and forbidding to an unsuspecting onlooker. Or maybe it was just the Admiral’s reputation that was playing tricks on his subconscious perception. Thrawn was a cunning, ruthless and driven fleet commander with strategic and tactical skills and instincts that were doubtless5 second to none, yet his stern and impersonal manners, his strictly disclosed ways and his alien appearance sometimes made those around him almost as wary of him as people had been of the late and admittedly unlamented Darth Vader. On the other hand, he was widely known to be a fair and just man who did not share the mercilessness and the murderous temper of the notorious Sith Lord. All considered, Markas found himself feeling immensely proud of serving under his command, knowing Thrawn was the one contemporary great hope of an Empire struggling to recover its own former greatness after a series of shameful defeats, already a living legend in his own right. The Admiral lived and breathed all the great and glorious values and principles of Imperial Navy officerhood.

The sound of quiet laughter tore him out of his self-focused thoughts. Looking around for the source, he found his tall, overly muscular First Officer, Commander Thorgram Bjarnesson, sharing a casual joke with one of the gunnery officers. The sight made him smile. His crew was in unusually high spirits since the last clash of arms with contingents of the Rebel 56th Fleet, a meeting in which they had performed in an exemplary and meritorious way. The memory of it also made his own chest swell with pride. In spite of still suffering from serious unrepaired battle damage, his ship had been at the spearhead of an attack that had broken the lines of a mismatched Rebel Cruiser group, scattering the broken and dying hulks of several enemy ships in its wake and finally opening a breach for the Imperial Assault Carriers and their cargo of Stormtroopers to board and subsequentially capture the Alliance's fleet supply station in the outer fringes of an uninhabited star system in the Corellia sector. He could still vividly picture the moment when he had had the Rebel flagship, a Mon Calamari battlecruiser by the name of Qu'Anath'Sul, in the sights of his main gun batteries, a hair’s breadth away from setting her ablazing from prow to stern. If... yes, if it had not been for one lone, desperately brave Nebulon-B Class frigate that had intervened at the very last of seconds, throwing itself into his line of fire and vainly pummeling away at his vastly superior Strike Cruiser with its pitifully puny laser batteries. His vengeful gunnery crews had mercilessly torn the small ship apart barely a moment later with a single thundering turbolaser volley, but the resulting delay had been enough for the MonCal cruiser to escape its just punishment once again, joining the panicked retreat of its few surviving brethren, bleeding oxygen and debris as it limped into hyperspace. Even so, Markas told himself, they would meet again one day or the other, and then the scores would be settled once and for all.

Yet still, his own ship, oddly named the Gun Crate, had suffered badly once more, and repairs were far from complete at this point of time, as the barely suppressed smells of burned insulation and fresh paint constantly reminded him. They had lost several of their frontal turbolaser batteries in that last fight and had sustained hull breaches on four decks on the starboard side alone. The bridgeside sensor domes had been hit by stray torpedoes and were barely functioning, running on auxiliary power and constant running repairs. And the main engines, having been badly shot up even before, had taken another severe beating which brought speed and maneuverability down to a crawl for the time being. In spite of all this, crew casualties had been mercifully light except with his understrength fighter squadron. Reduced to two surviving crafts and an injured pilot who had bailed out of his burning cockpit, his TIE Interceptors had ceased to be an effective fighting unit. At his request, the survivors had been transferred to fleet reserve to form a core of experienced frontline pilots for a newly created squadron and return to fight another day. A replacement squadron, to fill the deserted fighter cradles in the echoing, cavernous hangar bay, was still due to arrive.

Bjarnesson and the gunnery officer seemed to have finished their exchange. The man, one of the new replacement crew members with a face Markas could not yet match a name to, threw up a smart salute as he was dismissed, making his way to the elevator turboshaft while Bjarnesson's long, purposeful strides took him across the bridge towards his Captain’s command chair. Slightly under seven feet tall, he towered over everybody else on the bridge, his muscular bulk filling his impeccable gray uniform almost to bursting. With short-cropped blond hair and eyes the color of blue glacier ice, he stood like a hero of ancient saga. The heels of his tall, polished black leather boots slammed together with a resounding crash as he dutifully held out a datapad to his superior. "Reports and latest comms, Sir!"

"At ease, Thor!" Markas smiled at the formality as he took the proffered pad from his friend's hand and scrolled through the short list of files it contained. They had served alongside each other for years now, and despite everything they had braved and bested together, his massive First Officer had never quite lost all of his stiffness. "So, how are the new crewmen doing?"

"Integrating quickly, and learning fast. They're a good bunch, and the drills are really helping! At the current rate, we will have them at full combat readiness within a week."

"Good work. I hope you aren't working them too hard during their first days aboard?" Markas winked, knowing his second-in-command's obsession with alarm and combat drills.

"Not harder than usual. I almost get the impression we got the pick of the new boys from fleet reserve this time."

Slowly, Markas nodded. He had come to a similar conclusion himself. Apparently, it was a kind of a subtle reward that had been bestowed upon his ship by the Admiral himself.

"What's our repairs status at the moment?"

"All hull breaches have been solidly sealed and patches applied to the hull that should hold against about everything short of heavy ordnance fire. Sensors are working, but only with limited range, and targeting is still at best guess, but we should have that fixed within the next thirty-six hours. Fifty-five percent engine power restored so far, sir. We should be able to do seventy, but only over short periods of time. The techboys have some difficulty getting the new coolant circuits up and running, so Chief Engineer Keelan has told me. The last crew shuttles have just completed disembarkation, so we are at one hundred percent personnel again, including the new Armsmen detail."

Markas nodded. Like his fighter pilots, his shipboard detail of security troopers had suffered extraordinary casualties during the last action they had seen, the remainder having been transferred and integrated elsewhere throughout the fleet to make up ever-occurring combat losses.

"And, sir, our new fighter detachment is about to dock. There is correlated data on that pad that I am sure you shall find interesting."

The tone in Bjarnesson's voice produced a raised eyebrow from Markas as he rifled through the data once more, finding and opening the file. What he read briefly made him pause to think. "Now, that's interesting... ."

"Sir?"

"Just out of curiosity: How long has the Imperial Navy stuck with the practice of assigning battle-damaged ships like us to convoy escort duty?"

That question obviously caught his second-in-command off guard. Frowning, he tilted his head to one side. "As far as I know, Sir, the approach is taught as standard at the Imperial Navy War College, and has been ever since. Is there anything wrong?"

"Nothing, Thor. Go welcome the commander of the fighter squadron and tell him to report to the strategy briefing room as soon as he's got his birds inside."

"Will do, sir." As he strode away, Bjarnesson noticed that Markas was visibly distracted again, thoughtfully stroking his chin. Something clearly nagged at the Captain. Something about the new fighters perhaps? Whatever it was, it certainly escaped him at this moment.

Why do I find that thought immensely worrying?

* * *

Standing behind the solid armorglass of the fighter bay's observation window, Bjarnesson could not help but admire the sleek, easy grace with which the last of the new TIE Defenders came in low for the terminal phase of its approach run, passing the atmosphere containment field and firing its braking jets as it was simultaneously caught by the hangar's secondary tractor beams and repulsor fields. Within a heartbeat, its speed visibly decreased until it hovered under the high-arched ceiling at the close end of the bay, main engines and attitude thrusters gradually dying away. Finally, it came to rest on its landing gear as the tractor projectors carefully inched it down on the black metal floor. This would be the squadron commander's craft, he knew even without seeing the hull markings, traditionally the last one to enter the safety of the armored hangar bay. Last one home, first one out to hunt, the saying went among Imperial Navy flight crews, and the custom stuck even during routine flights and under the relative safety of fleet rally points such as this. Impatiently, Bjarnesson shifted his weight from one foot to another. Around him, sirens blared as green safety lights lit up all along the bay walls, indicating safe function of the containment field. As firemen and crash emergency teams in heavy space suits started stowing away their equipment, ground crewmen and technicians immediately began to spill from airlocks and vacuum-sealed blast doors to tend to the newly arrived fighters, manhandling fuel and coolant pipes and repulsor haulers to carefully berth the precious machines into their maintenance cradles. Meanwhile, hatches were thrown on several fighters and metal ladders wheeled into position as the first pilots started leaving their cockpits, visibly stiff-legged from long, wearying space travel aboard their cramped, confined fighters. He frowned at the sight. The Defender class fighter was an unorthodox, awkward design in his eyes, the irregularly-set triple wing arrays around the cylindrical hull reminding him of a predatory fish native to his home world, or of some kind of alien bird. Yet, it was a bird of prey in the purest sense. He knew that the TIE Defender did not only possess speed and agility roughly equivalent to the Rebel Alliance's A-Wing, but was also equipped with the latest shield and hyperdrive technologies in a remarkable breach with all established Imperial fighter construction traditions. And with its powerful arsenal of rapid-fire laser cannons and underwing missile racks, it also packed a fearsome punch. It was clearly the last word in fighter design throughout Imperial-controlled space, the most efficient and most highly sophisticated attack craft he had ever seen. Only small numbers slowly filtered out of the shipyards and into frontline service with the battlefleets, battlefleets that had, for years, urgently requested a replacement for the aging, outclassed TIE fighter and bomber designs. This was it. The answer to those thrice-cursed Rebel B-Wings. The future of Imperial fighter warfare. And yet, he felt reluctant to accept the fact whenever he laid his gaze on one. Worse still, he could not precisely pinpoint the reason for his feelings.

I know they aren't, but they look fragile to me. And somehow... alien.

Maybe that was it, he decided. They simply did not have the look of the clear-cut, straight-lined Imperial construction pattern he was used to. Rather, they had a warped, outlandish look about them that he normally associated with the creations of some obscure non-human species. He wondered if, in the war against the so-called New Republic, the situation had become so desperate that Imperial Research and Construction Corps had started to accept alien beings into their ranks. Clearly, the Emperor wouldn't have approved of such a practice. Then again, he had approved of the existence of Thrawn... Commander Thorgram Bjarnesson liked to think of himself as a conservative when it came to fleet politics, and sometimes, it was still hard on him to practically serve under an alien, capable though it - he! - was.

Fool, he mentally admonished himself. Stay focused. Yours is not to question the decisions of Imperial High Command. Nor the Admiral, either. Alien or not, there's no one like him when it comes to outwitting Rebels.

And with that grim decision, he entered the fighter bay, the bustling techs and crews giving way and saluting as he strode towards the craft of the squadron leader, as did some of the new pilots that had already shed their bulky flight suit helmets. Bjarnesson immediately warmed to the men as he briefly nodded greetings to each of them. They had the distinctive hard-eyed look of veterans, and an air of self-awareness about themselves that spoke volumes about their level of experience and combat readiness. None of them averted his gaze as he probed their eyes for signs of insecurity, betraying the tempered steel that underlaid their youthful outward appearance. First-class pilots for first-rate machines, and they knew it. He could already picture the female crew members falling for these men in rows.

Holding his step, he looked up to the cockpit ten feet above his head and saw movement behind the tinted armorglass as the squadron leader apparently had finally completed his post-flight checks. He was not surprised to find a line of about ten enemy fighter silhouettes painted in red below the unit and squadron markings on the side of the hull. What did surprise him was the fact that there were also two unmistakable B-Wing shapes among them.

Here's somebody who has been up against the best and lives to tell, he thought. Can't wait to down a few drinks with that guy and hear his tales.

Leaning against the forward landing gear leg, arms folded before his chest, he waited the few moments it took the pilot to climb down the ladder and unfasten the clasps on his helmet. Compressed air hissed as rebreather feeds were uncoupled.

"Commander Thorgram Bjarnesson, First Officer. Welcome aboard! Good to have you boys here, and no..."

He stopped, in mid-sentence, the last words of his enthusiastic greeting frozen on his lips.

The helmet had come off, and long red hair had fallen over the collar of the black flight suit, reflecting the light like polished copper. The pale, almost translucent skin of her stern, beautiful young face was sprinkled with freckles. She turned to him and fixated him with eyes that were as brightly green and piercing as laser bolts. Ripping off one of her gloves, she held out a slender, long-fingered hand.

"Flight Commander Nia Paragrin, Rapier Squadron."

"Charmed..." was all he managed.

She tilted her head to one side, frowning, and he was suddenly very aware of the way he was openly staring at her. Quickly, he fought to regain his composure, shaking the proffered hand and finding his grip firmly returned. Surprise or not, he wouldn't be shown off by her in front of his - and her - men. In spite of his efforts, he felt himself beginning to blush.

And, naturally, she had noticed.

"Is anything wrong?"

"Ahmm... no... . Actually, I was just expecting... somebody else."

"A man." It was not a question.

"Don't think... ."

"Oh, come on, Commander!" she interrupted him briskly, slamming her right hand into her hip, left one still holding her helmet. "Spare me your Fleet machismo, I've heard it all anyway. Now, if we can cut the crap, I'd be grateful if you would stop gaping at me and took me to your Captain. I believe we have business to discuss."

* * *

“Now, gentlemen, you know as much as I do. This is what we are facing, no less. And I think all of us are fully aware of what this situation implicates.”

Captain Markas finished his mission briefing, leaning forward on the heavy, gloss black steel plate of the conference table and regarding each of the gravely nodding lifesize holograms in turn, trying to read the various expressions on the seven grainy, black and white faces projected into the air above its surface.

Captain Barka Kesell of the Dire Wolf, an old comrade-in-arms and Academy classmate of Markas, was a quiet and introverted man and a reliable, courageous, if unimaginative soldier. His ship, an ancient and battered Katana Class Dreadnought that dated back to the early days of the derelict Old Republic, had recently been pulled out of front line service because of its temperamental and constantly ailing main drives.

Flight Colonel Moss Belal Hyates, senior Fighter Wing Commander of the Imperial Carrier Ship Swift Vengeance, one-eyed and battle-scarred, a taciturn and humorless man who had spent the greater part of his adult life in a TIE cockpit and wore the decorations to prove it. Custom in the Imperial Navy demanded for the Fighter Boss to represent the carrier, being the one responsible for the tactical deployment of his attack craft squadrons, while the vessel’s Captain was practically limited to transporting the fighter and bomber strengths to where they were needed and so played a more subaltern role.

Commander Rennek Mishkanaka and Commander Pel Wostok, the respective masters of the Carrack Class Light Escort Cruisers Bloodthirst and Saberdance, both of them newly promoted and remarkably young to hold such an elevated position, one impatient and over-eager to prove himself in battle, the other possessed by a fierce zeal and almost fanatical devotion to duty.

Commander Kynn Dekkart and Commander Senior Grade Sjenne Kull, whose Lancer Class Flak Frigates Battlecry and Warsong were the only ships not temporarily transferred to this squadron due to battle damage but permanently assigned to convoy duty because of their fearsome anti-fighter capability. Markas placed an immense measure of trust in these men for their unparalleled knowledge and experience in this particular field of warfare. Especially Kull, a thickset and prematurely balding man, was a skilled and able tactician with a reputation for never shrinking back from a fight to safeguard the ships under his protection, no matter what the odds. He was also one of the few Lancer captains to claim a capital ship kill into the bargain.

And, last but not least, Captain Merrys Vitrell, the commander of the Patrol Boat squadron. Short and frail, with a nondescript face dominated by massive, round spectacles, and a constantly daydreaming attitude, his unimpressive physical appearance nonetheless concealed an adventurer’s mind, bright and literate.

His fellow ship captains attending the meeting via holographic comms line to avoid the time-consuming process of shuttle transfer, the only other persons present beside himself were Bjarnesson, as usually seated by his Captain’s side, and the new fighter commander, Paragrin.

Emperor, he thought, but isn't she a head-turner?! Even standing at an easy parade rest at the right-hand side wall, still wearing her flight suit, hair in disarray, looking weary and exhausted in spite of her determined efforts not to let it show, she was strikingly beautiful.

And there, above the main tactical projector in the middle of the table, hovered the three-dimensional star chart that showed their course projection and the star systems that were the destinations for the different ships that made up their convoy. All told, he currently had seventeen freighters, troop transports and civilian cargo liners in his keeping, from massive Star Galleon military bulk carriers loaded with Imperial soldiery, war gear and supplies down to small, privately owned merchant ships that had traded the waiting time at the fleet rally point for the relative safety of a massive convoy under Navy protection.

My ships. My convoy. My responsibility. he concluded, feeling the immense weight of this responsibility pressing down onto his shoulders. He had been given overall command of the small flotilla of escort ships, the orders being signed by none other than the Grand Admiral himself, and, at least in theory, all civilian captains were also answerable to him. A prestigious position, to be sure, and one that held the promise of promotion and progress, but the burden that came with it was not to be taken lightly. It was up to him now to guide and guard all those ships, their crews and cargo through one of the most unstable and pirate-infested regions of space within a radius of six sectors, dangerously close to the ever-shifting frontline that stretched between two hotly contested star systems. Imperial military presence in the heartland of these areas was scarce at best, the majority of the Fleet's resources being tied up in battle with the Rebels. Enemy raider fleets and scatter groups constantly preyed upon military and civilian traffic alike, and pirates lay in ambush along the major trade routes to gather the spoils of war whenever an opportunity presented itself. There, presented on the holochart as bright, angry red spheres, were the four systems they were most likely to run into trouble in.

The Rimward Frontier. The Kyassin Drift. Hellsreach Deep. And the notorious Sholoth's Landfall system, swarming with pirates, smugglers and outlaws. The outbreak of the Rebellion and the gradual loss of Imperial political and military influence after the Emperor's death had thrown some of these areas into an outright state of anarchy where bandit kingdoms and small criminal enterprises thrived while the Empire bitterly fought over the remains of its former self to regain control. And this was right where he was taking his convoy of desperately needed supplies and reinforcements. Right into the mouth of hell, into the realm of death. If this is the so-called New Republic the Rebels promised the galaxy, I'm glad to be no part of it.

He sat up straight, looking around. "So, your readiness reports?" He had read those already, of course, but he knew there was almost always a difference between a formal written report and a Captain's true opinion, and he wanted to hear the latter from each one personally. "Captain Kesell?"

The holo fizzled with static, the answering voice coming slightly distorted. "Our gun batteries are fully operational, Dren, but our engine cores are constantly redlining whenever we try to push them beyond sixty percent sublight. That still makes us faster than some of these cargo junkheaps, but she's still lumbering like a drunken Bantha and slow on a turn. Short of docking her in, I could do with a few skilled engineers sooner or later."

"I'll see if we can manage a shuttle transfer at our first destination. Just keep those turbolasers of yours charged and in good working order."

"We'll give those Rebels a warm welcome any time, sure enough!"

"I trust you to. Now, Colonel Hyates?"

"My squadrons are at full strength and combat ready, sir," the ancient veteran rasped hoarsely, "and we have munitions aplenty, but we still have one launch deck out of order for repairs. As it is, I can give you two squadrons of TIE bombers with full fighter escort launched and running within two minutes of any given scramble alert, but it will take us about eight minutes to ready the deck and launch the remaining two squadrons. Also, I request we schedule additional squadron level integration exercises soon as we can to improve the co-operation between my pilots and yours."

"I understand your request, Colonel, but I am going to hold my squadron of Defenders back along with the Dire Wolf's Interceptors as a mobile reserve to deploy, should the situation require it." He could immediately tell that this decision did not sit well with Hyates, who had surely hoped to have all the convoy's attack craft strengths under his personal command, but after his experience with surprise attacks from hyperjump-capable Rebel bombers not long ago, he believed he had a good enough reason for his decision. And he trusted the man to understand the necessity of it.

He was not disappointed when Hyates nodded slowly at his words, then let a mischievous grin split his disfigured lips. "A mobile reserve, eh? Guess there might be some Y-Wing pilots who're surely going to hate that idea."

"I reckon they're going to hate your fighter squadrons a lot more, but my pilots will be glad to mop up whatever you care to leave over for us, Colonel."

That prompted some dry, rasping laughter, but earned him an angry glance and a frown from Paragrin, who looked anything but happy at the prospect of missing a fight. Young and hot-headed. Maybe too young for squadron command. Let's hope she can follow orders, or she's going to be serious trouble.

But that's one of the problems of our time. A full generation of the best and most promising officers and cadets died on the Executor at Endor.

He pushed the thought aside. "Commander Mishkanaka?"

The young officer seemed to grow two inches when he was addressed, nodding enthusiastically. "We're up to it, sir, whatever comes."

"I do not doubt that. What is your ship's status?"

"Massive hull damage on the port side, sir. We have patched up most of it, but we cannot install proper armor plating until we see the next dockyard. We still have two sections sealed off and exposed to vacuum, and we have lost most of our flank batteries on that side."

Markas paused, thinking. He had seen the massive hull breaches that the Bloodthirst had sustained in her last clash with Alliance ships, ugly, scorched and distorted scars and burn marks where enemy turbos had torn through her comparatively light armor and caused massive internal fires in several compartments. He knew that Mishkanaka had managed to mount a daredevil fighting retreat despite heavy crew casualties, but he also was all too aware that the ship had only gotten shot up so badly because the young firebrand had single-handedly tried to engage an enemy Dreadnought.

"Commander Wostok?"

"Bad news first, sir, Sabredance has taken damage to practically all her major systems," came the grim-faced answer. "Good news is that none of it is so serious as to gravely affect our overall fighting capability. Most of it is merely annoying, but we have almost completed running repairs. We're ready to fulfill our duty to the Empire."

"Well done, Commander. Keep it up. Commander Kull, your frigates?"

"Ready and eager, Captain Markas. Quite a rough ride you picked for us, but about time my gunnery crews get a decent workout."

"Very well. I have received your suggestions concerning defensive formations and combat procedure drills for the cargo ships, and I approve of them. Have them circulated throughout the convoy and make sure it is understood that they are imperative for the civilian merchant captains. Also, I need you and Commander Dekkart to ride shepherd for the smaller ships."

"I'll personally kick each and every one of their lousy arses back into line if necessary, sir!"

Markas laughed. "That's the spirit. You know I rely on your good advice to pull this off. Commander Vitrell, your squadron?"

"Four units, including my own horse." Vitrell's voice had a queasy, high-pitched quality to it. "We're under strength, but saddled up and well supplied. Sound the charge and we'll ride."

"Glad to hear it." Markas coughed, suddenly feeling the urge to clear his throat. "All right, gentlemen, I won't pretend this will be easy. This mass of ships is going to attract every pirate and Rebel within three sectors, and they will swarm all over us like Kratahflies. But I fully trust in our ability to live up to this challenge. Once more we do our dangerous duty. Once more we embark upon a perilous journey. The Rebels believe we are on the brink of defeat." He slammed his fist down onto the tabletop hard, momentarily causing the holographic figures to fizzle. "We're not! We're the Imperial Navy. We're the Empire's shield and sword, and we will not shrink from our responsibility. We'll make the Alliance see the error of their beliefs. We'll teach them a lesson they will not forget and get this convoy home safely. Make ready, gentlemen, we go to war."

And, raising his voice over the chorus of raucous approvals: "Mister Bjarnesson, take us out of orbit."

* * *

"King, this is Rapier Leader, over?"

"Rapier Leader, this is King, read you loud and clear. Report in."

Nia angrily bit her lower lip at the sound of the voice belonging to that hulking Commander, Markas' unbearable First Officer. What was his name again? Ah yes, Bjarnesson. Even across the command radio line, she felt he sounded arrogant.

"Rapier Leader, we have completed our patrol sweep, standard search radius, rear convoy sector. No hostile activity." She was silently frustrated at the fact. More so, she was deeply bored. This was their second stop at one of their destination systems, the convoy having dropped out of hyperspace to dismiss some of the freighters and welcome several new ones once before already, and so far they had encountered neither pirates nor Rebels. She knew she should be grateful for that, but she could not help but long for the thrill of a good fight, the unique adrenalin rush she felt whenever she pitted her skills against that of an enemy pilot, laser bolts searing past her cockpit mere inches away, a rush that constantly brought her close to the ecstasy only sex could normally fill her with, a feeling of life so intense that every single nerve inside her body vibrated with energy. Oh, but how she missed that! With an effort, she forced her drifting mind back into focus. "Anything else before we return?"

"Standby." A short pause. "Rapier Leader, there's a merchant ship reporting engine trouble, drifting out of formation, relative vector Two-Eight-One Decimal Five, distance zero point three light seconds from your current position. Battlecry is out of position, but closing in to support. Escort the ship until they arrive."

Oh great. That's precisely what I need right now, shepherding a derelict, malfunctioning cargo crate. Why do I get the impression this oaf Bjarnesson passed me that dumb job by design? I should kick that tub back into line by feeding it a missile, just to see his face afterwards.

"Rapier Leader, roger that. Out." Before Bjarnesson could say another word, she cut the connection, then switched to squadron line.

"Two, this is Leader, did you copy?"

"Every word, Leader." Ozrell, her wingman, had eavesdropped on the command frequency, just as she had expected him to do. "At least we get to bully a fat, whining cargo trucker."

"Right. I hope this time they told those stupid amateurs that we're coming, and we're the good guys." Two days ago, a flight of fighters from Swift Vengeance had come under fire from a panicking merchant whose crew had mistaken the approaching crafts for pirates. Obviously, they had either failed to properly identify the TIEs for what they were or simply hadn't bothered. Personally, Nia suspected the last. "Stand by for acceleration, come to port on vector Two-Eight-One. Three... two... one... thrust!"

Gunning her engine, she touched her attitude controls as her fighter lurched forward and leaned into a high-G turn. By her side, Ozrell's craft neatly mirrored her maneuver, but he fanned out slightly to cover her rear. Several seconds passed as her navigation computer klicked down the distance to the convoy. Soon, she could make out the glittering running lights of several ships against the star-sprinkled background blackness of space. And there, somewhat in a distance, her tactical display showed the merchant ship in distress, limping and struggling to catch up with the main body of the convoy, drives visibly stuttering and failing. The Frigate Battlecry would use her tractor beams to tow the ship for the time it would take for temporary repairs to be made, and until then, she and Ozrell would ride shotgun. The ship in question was an old, slow and cumbersome Sienna Industries Standard Liner with its characteristic swollen, barrel-shaped cargo hold, its blunt-nosed crew compartment and a circular set of propulsion drives obviously badly in need of overhaul. Making a close pass, she could see it was also slowly rolling along its length axis, as if its stabilizers and attitude control were malfunctioning. Pock marks and impact scars from micro-asteroids pitted its hull. Looking run-down and battered, it was light years away from the compact, functional and efficient design of an Imperial Star Galleon. At least she wasn't greeted by laser bolts as she came around in a wide turn and waggled her wings to reassure the cargo captain that help had arrived.

Suddenly, her helmet comms crackled. "Nia... I keep getting some weird echoes from the direction of that small moon. Can you confirm that?"

Immediately, she was alarmed. Whenever her wingman addressed her by her first name, something deeply worried him. Checking the direction he indicated on her tactical display, she found her worst fears and her dearest wish confirmed when a cloud of bright red dots appeared at the periphery of her screen.

"King, this is Rapier Leader. Flash. SitRep." Her use of the priority code phrase immediately cut through and silenced the routine chatter on the command line.

"This is King. I hear your SitRep." From the wary tone in Bjarnesson's voice she could tell he already knew she wasn't calling just to give him a weather update.

"King, I have multiple attack craft class contacts inbound for the convoy from your relative vector One-Five-Zero, unidentified and probably hostile. I say again, probable hostiles inbound from vector One-Five-Zero. Rapier Leader is moving to investigate."

Bjarnesson's orders of general alert, of scramble procedures and defensive formation maneuvers were cut short when she switched the comms line back, throwing her fighter around and pushing her throttle well into afterburner at the same time. Violent G-forces pushed her into her chair when her bird brought its full, unchecked engine power to bear. "Two, form on my wing and accelerate to combat velocity!"

"I'm with you, Leader!"

Rushing towards her targets with ever-increasing speed, she could feel the thrill of battle overcome her. A rush of adrenaline-fuelled energy made her hands tremble with anticipation as they danced over the controls, awakening green readiness lights on her shields and weapons status boards, and she could feel her blood singing in her veins. Ozrell's craft had fallen into line slightly behind her and to port. Several other fighters were en route to back them up, but were still too far away to join the fray in time. For the moment, they were alone.

With the distance between them and the unknown crafts rapidly closing, Nia's computer had started filtering the incoming data and now produced an identification along with a sharp, buzzing sound in her headphones as it registered the characteristic emissions of an enemy targeting radar seeking a lock. She banked her fighter sharply to shake it off.

Definitely no Rebels. Whoever they are, this is the lousiest attempt at an attack formation I've ever seen.

"King, this is Rapier Leader!" She could hear the strain of the high-velocity maneuver in her own voice. "Inbound attack crafts now positively identified as hostile. I say again, inbound flight is hostile. I count at least two dozen fighter and bomber class targets, probably pirate raider group. Please confirm, over!"

"This is King, I confirm at least two dozen hostiles, inbound. Rapier Leader, break off and disengage. Battlecry is moving to intercept."

She checked her tactical display, immediately knowing that the frigate would come too late. Another moment and the raiders - a mismatched group comprised of too many different types of attack crafts to count at a glance - would be all over the limping merchant. She definitely wasn't going to let that happen.

"Negative, King. We're going to engage and delay the hostiles. Send reinforcements. Rapier Leader out!" Without wasting another second by waiting for a doubtlessly furious reply, she kicked the link.

"Two, this is Leader, break and attack. Weapons free!"

"Copy that, Leader!" Ozrell definitely loved it. "Tallyho!"

In a well-rehearsed maneuver, both TIEs broke formation, speeding away into different directions to confuse their opponents. Thumbing her weapons selector switch, Nia brought the target reticules for her missiles to life on her HUD and pulled it over the leading enemy fighter that her computer had identified as an old, outclassed Z-95 Headhunter. Its pilot immediately reacted and tried to dive out of her course vector, but she had anticipated the move and easily held the crosshairs steady for the few seconds her sophisticated computer needed to chew on the firing solution. When the intermittent, rapid bleeping of her targeter had turned into a single tone, she fired.

"Rapier Leader, two slammers away!" she sang out as she watched her missiles leave the launch racks, already pulling a hard upswing turn and rolling to avoid another enemy targeting attempt. A second later, Ozrell echoed her words as he released two missiles of his own.

The luckless Headhunter's panicky evasive maneuvers came too late. Barely a few heartbeats later, her first missile shattered its weak shields. The second reduced it to a rapidly expanding cloud of debris and burning gas. "Rapier Leader, two slammers on target. Splash one Bandit."

Ozrell's target, a stub-winged Aggressor, managed to survive for three more seconds before his missiles hit home. Two other enemy fighters, blindly trying to evade the Aggressor's sudden and spectacular funeral, collided and tore each other apart.

Now things started getting really hairy. Nia's last maneuver had catapulted her straight into the middle of the enemy fighter formation, and she got hammered by laser bolts from at least three opponents. At least, at this point-blank range, the pirates had to refrain from using missiles lest they risk of hitting each other, but that did not keep several of them from vengefully giving pursuit and showering her craft with their cannons. More and more hits exploded against her weakening rear shields. Aimlessly spraying laser fire right and left, she hit her afterburner, propelling herself out of harm's way by firing her attitude thrusters and executing a tight sidelong tailspin. Under these conditions, she could play her TIE's agility and maneuverability to its fullest extent to outfly and confuse her would-be attackers who had determinedly, if vainly, tried to mirror her move.

Momentarily safe, she craned her neck as she came round, searching for her wingman's craft. "Two, where are you?"

"To your left and up. I got two Bandits on my high six and closing. Can't shake them."

"Cross-vector maneuver, on my mark. Standby... standby... execute!"

At her command, both she and Ozrell banked their fighters hard, heading straight for each other, then reversing the turn in the last possible second. The Defenders raced past each other, dangerously close. Nia's lasers exploded one of Ozrell's pursuers, the other one broke away and tried to run, the hunter turned the hunted in a matter of a fraction of seconds. A heartbeat later she was on his tail.

But this time it turned out she had encountered an equal opponent. While the pirates she had dueled with earlier had displayed mediocre abilities at best and had been no match for her, a daughter of the best training the Imperial Fighter School had to offer, she quickly found out that this particular pirate apparently possessed pilot instincts and skills that roughly matched her own. She had to struggle just to stay behind him as he forced his Aggressor into tight turns, spins and loopings, and each time she succeeded at getting him into her gun sights, he managed to evade her hastily fired volleys in another unforeseeable, daredevil maneuver. Her breath came in ragged gasps now, and her gloved hands were slick with her own sweat.

Suddenly, when she reversed her turn and rolled out of a perfectly executed corkscrew looping, the Aggressor was gone.

She looked around, taken aback.

Her unspoken question was answered a heartbeat later when a well-aimed burst of lasercannon fire hammered into her starboard and rear shields, causing several red warning lamps to light up on her display. A muffled shriek escaped her throat when her stricken craft rocked violently beneath her and was thrown off course. In spite of her restraining seat belts, she almost let go of the control column when her helmeted skull connected with an overhead instrument board hard. For a second, stars danced before her eyes. Shaking her head to clear her field of vision, she lost another second to her momentary disorientation.

It was all the time the enemy pilot needed.

Pushing her stick forward hard, kicking the afterburner and throwing herself into a headlong downward swing at the same time, she already felt it would come too late. Reddish laser bolts, bright and stinging, raked her as she propelled herself right back into the middle of the swirling fighter melee. Enemy crafts rushed past right and left as she narrowly evaded them, hoping against hope that her attacker would loose his nerve and break off pursuit. He didn't.

In the space of just a few moments, the tables had turned completely. Now she was the one fleeing for her life, volley after volley of gunfire just barely missing her or exploding against her shields. Whatever she tried, however skillfully she dived, banked and cartwheeled, the Aggressor doggedly refused to let go, repeatedly lashing her with his highly precise cannonfire as her evasive maneuvers became increasingly desperate. Already, flashing threat indicators and the whine of overloading condensators heralded an imminent shield collapse. A feeling of icy fear prickled down the back of her neck, taking more and more hold of her with every passing second. With a considerable effort, she fought it down before it would utterly paralyze her.

"Rapier Leader, hard to port and down!"

Barely had she heard the order in her headphones when she already reacted, unthinkingly, by instinct alone, not a fraction of a second too early. Laser bolts criss-crossed the tight space between her craft and the Aggressor, whipping right through where she had been just a heartbeat before. In the corner of her eye, vision blurred from the high-G turn, she saw a dark, predatory shape wink past her cockpit just before her nemesis was shredded apart, exploding in a dirty, red-streaked fireball of burning fuel and a cloud of white hot fragments that peppered her shields.

"Leader, this is four, you're clear." It took her a second to register the voice in her headphones, to make their meaning sink in. She was still close to hyperventilating, her breath coming hard, fast and rasping, her heart hammering wildly inside her chest. Sweat soaked her suit and had pooled between her breasts, wet hair clinging to her temples and forehead inside her helmet. A heady adrenaline high still gripped her, and she felt her hands around the control column shaking as she slowly eased it off and leveled her craft. It was all she could do to prevent herself from breaking into a coughing fit when she tried to clear her throat.

"Nia, this is Mirk, you all right in there?" The concern in her squadmate's voice was clearly audible as he pulled his fighter closer to her port wing. Behind him, she noticed several other familiar shapes. Her squadron had finally arrived and rescued her in the nick of time.

"I'm... I'm okay." She was shocked at how hoarse and shaky her own voice sounded. Emperor's blood, but that was a close call. Only now did she fully realize how narrowly she had been spared.

"You sure?"

"Don't worry about me!" In a flash of hot anger, a measure of her regular, professional self-assuredness reasserted itself. Damn it, she had been close to death before, she wasn't going to balk now.

"Just wanted to check. Your bird looks more than a little blowtorched."

"Give me a checkup." At a quick glance, she scanned her status board for red and yellow warning indicators, finding mercifully few. Her depleted laser cannons were recharging just now, as were her shields, and she still had missiles left. Prolonged flying on afterburner had overheated her thrusters, and her controls were reacting sluggishly, but apart from that, she was in good fighting shape.

"Looks like you lost a stabilizer, you're trailing sparks. But apart from that, I can see only superficial damage." His voice betrayed his relief at the fact.

"Thank you, Mirks." The words would not come easy, but they came. "If you hadn't... ."

"Oh, spare me the speeches, Nia. You'd have done the same for me."

"How's Ozrell?"

"Badly shot up, but alive. Aslinn is escorting him back to the ship." That explained the absence of Mirk's own wingman. "Some of these pirates are hard as nails, good flyers, too. We barely reached you in time." There was an unmistakable hint of reproach in his voice, and she knew he was on the verge of seriously chiding her for her recklessness. That reminded her of that oaf Bjarnesson and the dressing-down yet to come. Angrily, she pushed the thought away.

"What's our tactical situation?"

"We're holding, but barely. See for yourself."

She did, turning her craft back round to the scene of the ongoing battle and switching her gaze from her tactical display to her armorglass front window and back several times. Apparently, the sheer momentum of her and Ozrell's onslaught had momentarily thrown the raiders' main battle line into disarray. Follow-up attacks by TIE fighters and Interceptors had capitalized on that, driving a steel wedge right through the heart of the enemy fighter formation, which was by now milling in confusion, pilots and crafts locked in a deadly, close-quarter dogfight with their Imperial counterparts.

The resulting delay had bought the two Lancer Class frigates the time they needed to cordon off the convoy's main body, and both ships were now enthusiastically slugging away at several attack craft that had managed to breach the Imperial fighter screen. Their combined firepower was brutally overwhelming. In their immediate vicinity, Nia counted at least three fiery death flashes in as many seconds.

Further out, one of the Carrack cruisers, supported by two Patrol Boats, was dueling with what seemed to be a Corellian corvette and two Skipray gunboats which, in turn, were protecting at least three pinnace-sized ships. Most probably commercial cargo lighters or something similar, converted to troop transports and fitted with temporary weapon mounts, they were sure to be packed with boarders and able to wreak real havoc among the lightly armed freighters if they were allowed close enough to deliver their deadly cargo. As she watched the ships circle each other, blasting away with turrets and broadside batteries, she noticed something alarming. Though outgunned and severely hammered, the raider corvette was not only using its superior speed and maneuverability to mount a fighting withdrawal, but was also luring the cruiser into pursuit while the Skiprays held the Patrol Boats at bay. And whoever was commanding the Carrack was happily falling for it, allowing himself to be outflanked by the pinnaces who gratefully seized this opportunity. Thrusters flared as they made a dash for the slow-moving convoy formation which was, by now, apparently in a state of rapid disintegration. Fighters from Swift Vengeance were racing to intercept them, but she doubted they could mount enough concentrated firepower to stop the raiders before they could capture one of the fleeing freighters, maybe even two. Immediately, a plan formed in her head, all shock-induced exhaustion falling from her when the familiar battle fever took hold once more.

She looked about, making a quick headcount of the surrounding fighters.

"Four, how many Rapiers are with us?"

"Six, including you and me. Two and Three are heading home, and the other four ride shotgun for our troop carriers." That was sound tactics, since the cumbersome and vulnerable Star Galleons were near-to defenseless and needed the additional protection, but that meant she had only six of her sophisticated TIE Defenders at her disposal to deal with this new threat, barely half her squadron's original strength. Which did not restrain her even for a single second.

"We need to kill those pinnaces!"

"Forget the pinnaces, Nia. Here's our problem!"

She looked up, alarmed, as a massive shadow blocked out the stars.

Towering, gigantic, hatchet-shaped, the Nebulon-B frigate ploughed forward at flank speed, punching her way through the Imperial fighter screen with unstoppable might, dealing death right and left as it joined the fray in a daredevil move, apparently hell-bent to clear a path for the boarding transports and thus turn the day on its head for the raiders. A trio of TIEs got into its path and were instantly obliterated by its fearsome close-in ordnance while roaring turbolasers effortlessly tore one of the Patrol Boats to burning scraps in a withering firestorm. Nia winced as brave men and women died.

For an instant, she was stunned at the sight of the speeding behemoth before training and instinct brought her mind back into action. Quickly, she came to a decision even as she switched to squadron line.

"Four, this is Leader, take Five and Six and destroy those boarders. Rapiers Seven and Eight, form on my wings, accelerate to combat speed, wedge formation. Execute, now!" As she spat the orders, she hit her afterburner once more, ignoring the painful creak of tortured metal from her vessel's airframe as she came round hard, heading directly for the frigate. Two more fighters took position at either side of her. She switched to the command line. "Priority call! This is Rapier Leader, any TIE Defenders out there, report in!"

Seconds passed, then: "Rapier Leader, this is Echo Leader, read you loud and clear. We have eight ships and a full spread of torps, and we are eager to use them." A young, male voice she remembered having heard over the comms a couple of times during the last days, carrying the tone of anxiety and well-suppressed nervousness.

"Echo Leader, good to have you with us. Form on my vector and prepare to engage the enemy frigate."

"We can't get close enough without their fighters picking us off!" Under normal circumstances, he would have been correct, the slow-moving, cumbersome double-hull bomber crafts being too easy a target for any given starfighter to survive without a proper escort screen.

"Rapier flight will clear you a path. Just stay on our tail and follow us in!"

"Hold you to that, Rapier Leader!" On her tactical display, she could see the icons representing Echo squadron changing their course vector and spreading out into a loose battle line behind her own flight of ships. The Nebulon-B had almost reached the picket line of the Lancer frigates and looked ready to engage them and draw their fire, the pinnaces clustering in its wake as if seeking the protection of a mother beast until the time came for them to pounce at the fleeing freighters. Another Carrack cruiser was approaching from the far side of the convoy, but was still too far away to engage. Her heart leapt as she watched Mirk's three-strong flight brave the heavy defense fire to engage the nearest pinnace, trying to pick it off with missiles. Explosions blossomed as the warheads hit home, but the sturdy transport craft refused even to slow down.

"Leader, this is Seven, ware enemy fighter screen ahead!"

Checking her display, she saw them coming, four fast-moving red dots, rapidly closing in, their course vector projections clearly betraying their intention to intercept and engage the approaching Imperial machines. Looking through her canopy, she could already make them out by naked eye, darting specks of brightness where the distant sunlight glinted off their reflecting parts.

"Seven, Eight, this is Leader, you are weapons-free. Don't let them break through to the bombers." Even as she issued the order, she thumbed her own weapons selector once more, bringing the leading enemy fighter-- an aging, cannon-heavy Trapjaw, her computer said-- into the center of her crosshairs. Another threat warning buzzed in her ears, but she forced herself to ignore it, trusting her advanced targeting computer to give her the split-second advantage she needed. And it did.

"Rapier Leader, two slammers away!" Her triumphant cry was echoed by her fellow pilots as they each released two missiles of their own. Once more, Imperial war gear and training proved superior to that of the pirates as Nia watched the Trapjaw breaking off and changing course, vainly trying to climb away. Her missiles had closed the distance too quickly for him to ever having had a chance. Seconds later, the raider fighter disintegrated along with two of his squadmates. The lone surviving pirate tried to evade her murderous attention as she raked him with cannonfire to keep him from realigning his own missiles, but that only brought him into the line of fire of Rapier Seven. The outnumbered and outclassed Headhunter, hit by volley after volley of brightly green laser bolts, repeatedly rocked and tumbled as they mercilessly shredded him apart, their combined firepower utterly devastating. Its port wing spectacularly detached itself as internal fuel tanks were punctured and their contents ignited, throwing the helpless fighter into an uncontrolled spin. Then its hull was ruptured and torn like a mess tin as shots started punching clean through it. Ablaze and trailing freezing gas-burns streaked through with oil-black smoke, it continued its headlong, spiraling plunge to death until its main power plant and engines fireballed. A white hot, blindingly bright explosion consumed it, leaving behind nothing but scorched, soot-blackened pieces of debris. Nia watched the craft die with a mixture of righteous satisfaction and morbid fascination. She had rarely been so close.

Then, suddenly, the massive, cliff-steep hull of the frigate loomed intimidatingly before her as the distance shrunk rapidly. From so close, it appeared even larger than before, a fire-breathing dragon that dwarfed her tiny attack craft, intent on her destruction. Immediately, flak fire started bursting against her shields as gunners picked up the inbound Imperials, unfocussed yet, but heavy and sustained. Its sheer amount was overwhelming.

"Seven, Eight, with me. Prepare to go in!" She found she could not completely banish the nervousness from her own voice. What she was about to do now would be suicide to attempt with almost any other craft. Rebel X-Wing pilots had done it from time to time in the past. TIE Defender pilots did it so often they had their own code phrase for it.

"Wild Rancor! Now, now, now!"

And in an unbelievably daring, skilled and reckless move, the three TIEs bore down on the frigate on full throttle, like falling stars, crash-diving down right into where the defense fire was thickest. The amount of fire they were receiving grew from overwhelming to murderous. Shots, too many to count, clipped Nia's weakening shields, hundreds more missing her by a hair's breadth. She was so close now she could clearly make out individual landmarks on the frigate's thickly armored, ribbed and studded superstructure. Only speed and lightning-quick reaction kept her alive as she jinked and spun, hugging the hull. Her two remaining missiles would not even dent those armor plates, but that had never been her intention.

Her computer's insistent bleeping melted into single tone, and the moment was at hand.

Releasing her last missiles from their underwing racks, she pulled up hard and hit the afterburner, speeding away from the frigate as fast as her engines would allow. Behind her, all hell broke loose as her slammers struck.

Guided by the unmistakable targeting radar emissions, they zeroed in on their sources: the frigate's numerous close-in defense turrets. Several quick-thinking gunners tried to avoid their impending doom by hastily shutting their radars down as they realized what was coming at them, but the warheads' guidance systems were not so easily misled. Others redirected their fire in the last of seconds and attempted to target the inbound missiles, but they, too, were a fraction too slow. Only one of the six slammers was prematurely brought down by turret fire, the others found and destroyed their individual targets with unerring accuracy. They punched right through the outer layers of armor protecting five close-in defense turrets that housed twin-linked, rapid-fire laser cannons, exploding a split-second later. All five turrets were ripped apart from the inside, one actually detaching from the hull and spiraling away into space as it was torn free of its mountings by the force of the blast, burning itself out in the process. Secondary explosions ravaged through the adjoining decks as atmosphere ignited, pipelines were cut and power feeds short-circuited. Emergency damage-containment mechanisms kicked in, closing bulkheads and redirecting power and fuel away from the damaged sections as they were supposed to do. In doing so, they undoubtedly saved countless lives for the moment, but the unintended side-effect of this measure was to prove utterly devastating. Suddenly, several turrets left intact by the original conflagrations were rendered useless as their electrical supply was drained away. Helpless, frustrated gunnery crews screamed in vain into dead commlinks or hammered against shutters that would not yield. Most of the defense fire simply fell silent.

Within scant seconds, the Nebulon-B found itself shorn of the majority of its starboard close-in turret array, the Defenders' attack leaving it crippled and vulnerable, wide open for the TIE bombers following in their wake.

Breathing hard under the adrenaline rush, Nia gave a hoarse cry of triumph that echoed inside her helmet as her craft emerged from the firestorm relatively unscathed. Holding a course that would take her away from the frigate, she was still busily dodging vengeful fire that chased her from the still functioning portside turrets, but most of the gunners apparently were too stunned with surprise to properly find their mark. Switching channels, she listened to the excited chatter of the bomber crews behind her as they commenced their own attack run.

"Echo Seven, two slammers away!"

"Echo Eight, going in!"

"Watch that turret on your ten o'clock!"

"You're too low! Pull up! Pull up!"

"I'm hit, I'm hit!"

"Echo Three, two slammers on target!"

"Echo Four, two slammers on target, target well struck!"

"Great shot, Four! Emperor's butt, look how she burns!"

It was true. Under the sledgehammer blows of multiple anti-ship torpedo impacts, the frigate was dying. Shields collapsed, her starboard hull was covered in rapidly expanding patches of flame that vomited coronas of burning gas into space with each new internal explosion, wracking the ship like a man in the grip of spasms. It was no sudden, spectacular explosion, only a drawn-out death by fire as it burned from within, turning from a moving and fighting ship into a blazing hulk in a matter of moments. Slowly, the massive warship started rolling, drifting off course as its main drives and artificial gravitation were lost in its death throes, the elongated boom holding the rear engine compartment visibly folding in on itself, finally shattering like a rotten tree trunk under the structural stress. Off balance, the front end began to keel over as its own overloading power plant rent it apart. Shuttles and lifeboats fled the Nebulon-B's funeral in the nick of time before the wreckage was eaten up by the expanding plasma cloud.

Nia brought her craft around. "Seven, Eight, this is Leader, report your status."

"Leader, this is Seven. Shields at a minimum, some minor hull damage, but battle-ready and still with you."

"Good to hear it, Delen. Eight, how are you?"

There was a pause, the link yielding nothing but fizzling static.

"Eight? Aristes? Report in."

"Nia... ." It was Delen, his voice graven.

"Rapier Eight, this is Rapier Leader, report your status!"

"Nia... he's dead."

"What?! No!" She simply refused to believe that, her eyes frantically searching her display for the icon representing her squadmate. It was not there.

"Rapier Eight, this is Rapier Leader, report status and position!"

"Nia, please... . I was right next to him when he got hit, while trying to pull up, just after the missile launch. He was thrown off course and crashed into a turret."

No! She violently refused to accept that Aristes should be dead. He was her squadmate, her friend, they were together since their days in Fighter School. They had lived together, trained together, fought together. He had always been there for her during all that time. He could not simply be gone. He may have ejected... .

"All ships, all ships, this is Rapier Leader. Pilot down, I say again, pilot down. I need a rescue shuttle."

"Nia... . We were just called back to the mothership. They say the raiders have fallen back and we won the day. I know it's hard to accept, I feel the same way about it, but he's lost. Come on, girl, let us go home."

She sagged, her head falling to her chest, eyes rapidly filling with tears. It hurt so much. A part of her still did not want to let go of Aristes, another, smaller part slowly but painstakingly began to acknowledge the fact that he had fallen. She felt responsible for his death, it had been her lead that he had followed into the fire, but rationality's voice told her that it had been the right decision to make, that it had been necessary. Told her that sometimes, in war, soldiers fell, and that his fate could just as well have been her own. Somehow, she hated herself for that thought. If anything, it made the feeling of guilt even worse.

When she had made a landing, last one back aboard the Gun Crate, and the howl of her engines had died away minutes ago, she was still weeping.

* * *asdf

Frustratedly, Thorgram tossed the data slate back onto the tabletop and rubbed his aching eyes as the lines he was trying to read started swimming and dancing once again. Glancing at the wall chrono, he found it was two o'clock in the night, as standard ship time measured it. He had been on the bridge for seven hours straight, including the battle that had seen the raiders repelled, effectively commanding the ship, overseeing the aftermath of the fight and safely executing the pre-plotted navigational course back to the outer fringes of the system from where they could conduct the jump into hyperspace. All at the same time, while Captain Markas had tried to rally and regroup the battered and disarrayed lines of the convoy. The battle had been a mess in that respect, most of the civilian cargo ships having simply ignored the formation and procedure drills of the past days at the first sight of the incoming boarders. After the first two or three had broken and run, it had become a stampede that had left the escort ships struggling to hurriedly form a new battle line. With the help of Commander Kull and Commander Dekkart, he had finally succeeded in restoring some kind of order among the shaken and panicking cargo captains, most of which had experienced their first close-up taste of war. During more than one heated discussions with infuriated merchants, colorful tirades full of verbal abuse had rained down on the Imperial Navy in general and Markas in particular, until Kull had simply declared all debates closed. The freighter captains had deferred to him immediately, but Bjarnesson was yet unsure if that fact should be contributed to Kull's reputation, his much greater experience in working with civilians or to his unveiled threat of bringing down his ship's firepower on anyone unwise enough to break formation or disobey Markas' orders even once more in the future. Perhaps it was a mixture of all three, he concluded.

Now, after they had commenced the hyperspace jump, Thor was going through the reports, and that made him even more weary than he already was.

All told, they had fared pretty well, given the fact that they had been ambushed by a massive force of pirates, a surprise attack that would have wreaked havoc among the freighters, had it not been for the last-minute warning received from Commander Paragrin. How the raiders had managed to avoid detection for such a measure of time until the convoy had practically wandered into their gunsights was as yet uncertain, but it was assumed by now that they had hidden their ships in the radar shadow of one of the system's smaller moons, thus evading the forward long-range recon sweep conducted by fighters and Patrol Boats, biding their time until they could strike against the weakly guarded rear section of the convoy.

Cunning, for pirates. And a plan that had come close to succeeding. Even so, they had lost two freighters to the onslaught. One had been accidentally rammed by a raider pinnace as it had messed up its high-speed approach to deliver its boarders, both ships boring into each other and quite spectacularly succumbing to the following conflagration. The other, the one that had originally reported engine problems, had indeed been boarded and captured. After the retreat of their brethren, the pirates had effectively found themselves trapped on a disabled ship with nowhere to run to. Faced with Markas' demand for surrender and the threat of a counter-boarding operation by stormtroopers, they had overloaded the freighter's engine core and subsequently caused a fatal explosion. Two of the Patrol Boats plus several fighters and bombers had also been lost in the fierce fighting.

The loss of the Patrol Boats was particularly painful as they had been reliable and efficient long-range reconnaissance platforms and a quite powerful reserve force in a pinch. Without them, the convoy's early-warning and quick-reaction capabilities were severely hampered. Only because that young fool Mishkanaka had broken the battle line - against expressive orders, mark you! - to force a fight against that raider corvette. Captain Markas had given him a major dressing-down for his carelessness, promising him a court martial if he should ever attempt such a stunt again, but the damage was done nonetheless, and Imperial soldiers had paid the price with their lives.

Yet, there was also an upside to it, despite the hideous butcher's bill. The Imperial forces had not only destroyed the majority of the pirate fighter crafts and routed the rest, they had also succeeded in killing the Nebulon-B frigate and crippling the Corellian Corvette as it had covered the retreat of the gunboats. In the course of he clean-up operations, attack crafts from Swift Vengeance had detected and destroyed a pirate auxiliary carrier vessel - a light bulk freighter awkwardly converted to fighter mothership - lurking on the dark side of the moon.

Reaching for his half-emptied coffee cup, he recoiled in distaste as he found the black liquid completely cold and stale. Pushing back his chair, he got up from his desk and crossed the room towards the small pantry alcove, intending to pour himself a fresh measure. After spilling a few drops, the aluminum vessel ran dry, and he put it down with an angry growl.

I am drinking way too much of that stuff, but I have to stay sharp now. This is important.

Making a quick call for a steward to bring him some fresh coffee and sandwiches, he returned to his table and dug into the work with a vengeance. The next couple of files contained interrogation protocols. Search-and-rescue shuttles had discovered several lifepods from the destroyed raider frigate and picked up the shell-shocked survivors. Most of them had been pirates, mere lowlife, criminal scum, outcasts of society that were, by now, crowding the brigs aboard the Crate and the Dire Wolf. Their questioning had only yielded limited results, but by now, it was almost certain that the convoy had faced not a single band of raiders but in fact a conglomerate of several local pirate factions that had, for once, put their rivalries and petty internecine fighting aside to gang up on the larger prey.

It's pretty impressive how people are able to cooperate when greed is involved. That might precisely be one of the things that holds the Rebellion together. At least as long as the Empire stands. And that is also going to be one of the things that will tear this neo-liberal so-called New Republic apart sooner or later, of that I am sure. Sibling rivalry and internecine bids for power by warring fractions. From what I hear, it has already begun, the same phenomenon that was eating away at the dysfunctional original Republic long before the Empire arose and restored order. Our enemy's greatest weakness, besides their arrogance perhaps, and one the Empire will exploit when the time comes. The New Republic is weak, misled and corrupted down to its core.

And the facts to prove his point were right here, before his eyes: Not all of the survivors from the raider force had been mere pirates. Some had been mercenaries who had talked willingly. Apparently, they had been hired to fight against the Empire, their services paid for with Republic money. With their capture, all semblance of loyalty towards their former employer seemed to have vanished. Maybe they were hoping for a quick release, maybe even for a new employment with the Empire. Well, they would soon learn, much to their own discomfort, that the Imperial Navy's attitude towards hired thugs, bounty hunters and cutthroats had changed drastically since the days of Darth Vader.

And here was the winner: One lifeboat had even contained a half-dozen men wearing what were unmistakably Rebel uniforms, albeit with unit badges and rank markings removed. Deserters, it had at first been thought. But upon their interrogation, they had presented documents of identification and claimed for themselves the status of prisoners of war for being regular Republic Fleet and Marines officers. Questioned for their reason to be aboard a pirate ship, they had come up with a real surprise: The Nebulon-B frigate had not been a pirate ship at all, at least not in the purest sense of the word. It had been a Republic ship-of-the-line not long ago, handed over to one particular pirate gang in return for their promise to raid Imperial shipping lines at the Rebels' behest, crewed by a rag-tag mixture of true pirates and mercenaries. The Rebel officers had acted as liaison, interim command crew and military instructors, training the pirates in the disciplines of fleet warfare and boarding tactics. It was an explanation for the unusually cunning surprise attack with which they had almost caught the convoy escorts off guard. It was also a concept whose moral depravedness and deviancy appalled Bjarnesson. He knew that the Rebels sought the support of smugglers and rogue traders to solve their logistics and transportation problems. Now they were apparently even seeking the help of pirates, aliens and mercenaries to fight their wars. Was there any dishonorable act these barbarians would not seek to commit? It was more than appalling to him, it was outrageous. It went against everything that he believed in. It gave fuel to his righteous wrath against everything even remotely connected with the Rebel Alliance. Reading those protocols made him clench his fists and grind his teeth.

When the steward knocked, he was surprised at how harsh his own voice sounded as he barked the order to enter. The young man hurriedly placed the food and beverage on the table and virtually fled the room as soon as he was done, the look of intimidation at the sight of his obviously angry superior plainly written on his face. The door closed behind him.

When the knocking returned a moment later, Thor looked up quizzically. "Yes?!"

He was surprised to find the new squadron commander standing in the doorframe, the upstart girl pilot with the Amazon attitude. What was her name again? Ah yes, Paragrin, Nia Paragrin.

"Commander Paragrin, please enter and take a seat. I have not expected to see you so late in the day."

"Couldn't sleep." she murmured as she crossed the room and visibly slumped into a chair. From up close, she looked extremely weary, and her eyes were swollen and bloodshot. "That coffee over there?" She pointed.

"Help yourself." He waited until she had returned with a generously filled steaming mug and a sandwich. "What can I do for you?"

"Perhaps I can do something for you." From one of the numerous pockets that studded her black flight overall, she produced a datadisc. "I've been through my sensor logs and my gun camera footage, and I found something interesting." She waited until he had slid the disc into a reader below the viewscreen set into his desk. "This is a close-up from the attack on the pirate Nebulon. See those hull markings? And the engine signature readout? There's a pattern. That's no ordinary run-down, second-hand pirate junkheap. That's an Alliance warship, not less."

He leaned back into his leather-padded chair, folding his arms, sighing. "Good work, Commander. I hate to disappoint you, but we know that already." He passed her the slate containing the interrogation protocols. Hesitantly, she took it, whistling in surprise at several points as she rifled through the files.

"Now that's something. I knew the Rebels were a bunch of down-and-low bastards, but messing around with pirates... ?"

"My thoughts almost exactly. ISB will rejoice when they learn of that."

"Bet ya. I'd lay real money there were one or two of their best fighter pilots involved, too." There was sarcasm in her tone.

Suddenly, he remembered something, picking up another data slate, frowning at the contents. "While you are here, Commander, I have a matter of importance to discuss with you. If you are not too exhausted, that is."

She gave a dismissive shrug, munching on the whitebread. "Go ahead."

"I have received reports that two of your pilots, Lieutenants Ozrell Berren and Corho Mayalni, were involved in a brawl with several enlisted men in the crew mess tonight. In fact, they reportedly started it."

"They were provoked," she stated spitefully.

"My sources say they were the ones doing the provoking!"

"Well, mine say differently."

"It was a brawl over a woman!" Slowly, her disrespectful ways were really angering him.

"So boys will be boys. Typical male behavior. You should sympathize. Anyway, that's no longer your business."

"But it is, Commander Paragrin. This is an Imperial Navy warship, and I am its acting First Officer. I am responsible for all matters concerning the discipline of its crew."

"I am responsible for all matters concerning my squadron. And I have already taken matters into my own hands."

"You have done what?!" Now she had gotten him furious. His face rapidly reddening, he leaned forward across the table.

"You heard me." She did not seem in the least impressed at his outbreak. "I have already effected disciplinary measures. Both Lieutenants are banned from the mess halls for the duration of the mission. The problem will not occur again in the future. Case closed."

"Now that is enough!" He hammered his fist down on the tabletop. "I will no longer tolerate such insolence! You and your pilots are now part of this crew, Commander Paragrin, if you like it or not. You will learn to integrate and cooperate! And you will never - never again - undermine my authority by taking matters into your own hands, as you so pointedly stated it. Besides, the case is not closed yet, not by a long way, not while I am responsible. Your pilots are going to face a court martial."

"What?!" Now that had gotten her infuriated as well. She had jumped up. "On what charge?"

"Conduct unbecoming an Imperial officer."

"Now listen, that is ridiculous... !"

"Be silent!" he roared, all his pent-up frustration finally unleashed. "Sit down and be silent! I will not put up with your disrespectful behavior anymore, nor with the blatant lack of discipline displayed by your pilots! Do I make myself understood?"

Slowly, hesitantly, she sat back down, her face all barely suppressed wrath and hatred. "Yes... ." she muttered through clenched teeth, followed seconds later by a hardly audible 'Sir'. "Very well. I will prepare my defense."

"You will do what?" He was taken aback. "You are not going to be accused."

"I am the commanding officer of Rapier Squadron. If this matter affects my men, it affects me in the first place. I will protect my pilots at all cost, whatever comes, be it in battle or in court. You will either do this across me or not at all. But maybe we can solve this without a court martial and all this disciplinary fuss. Which, I believe, would be in the interest of this ship and this mission."

He paused, serious, eyeing her curiously for a second. "Show me how."

"This is clearly a thing between you and me. You try to extend your authority over me and my pilots, and I resent that. It's an honor issue between Imperial officers. We'll handle this the old-fashioned way."

"Are you proposing a duel?" He was unsure if he should burst out laughing at the very thought of it. Duels had been a common way of settling minor disputes between officers, a tradition dating back to the early days of the Empire, even back to the days of the Republic. The Emperor had kept with that practice during his time, but Bjarnesson had always thought that this derelict tradition had died with him.

"Precisely that." Her face was serious, determined. She obviously meant it.

"Grand Admiral Thrawn has officially forbidden all duels."

"Actually, that's not entirely correct. The Admiral has forbidden all duels fought with lethal means so as to prevent unnecessary casualties among officers in times of crisis. I can cite the edict if you want. Besides, nobody said this has to be an official affair."

"No need to quote the handbook. So, Commander, let us assume for a moment that I am willing to put up with this crazy idea of yours. What do you suggest?"

"The gym. Tomorrow, after the day shift. I'll give you a decent beating. And afterwards, you will drop all charges against my men and let me handle all discipline matters concerning my squadron in the future."

He tilted his head to one side. "You seem to be pretty sure of yourself. What if I win?"

She looked down, hesitant, murmuring.

"What? Say that again!"

She looked him straight into the eyes. "Then you can have your court martial."

"And you and your men will integrate into the crew and follow orders?"

"Agreed."

"You realize you are one foot smaller than me? And about sixty pounds lighter?"

"Rather seventy, I'd say. What's the matter, Commander, lacking the balls to stomach a defeat? Or are you afraid to be shown off by a woman?" In that brief moment, she reminded him of their first meeting in the fighter bay. There she had shown the same steely determination and the same look in her eyes. Only the triumphant smile was new, he noticed. That and the way she had brushed her hair back over her ear, emphasizing her slender neckline. He suddenly realized he was finding her attractive, despite the weariness that lined her face. And despite her openly disrespectful behavior. Her courage and forthright attitude impressed him. There was something in her that reminded him of himself when he had been her age. Despite himself, he found himself reluctantly giving in.

"Very well, Commander, in the interest of crew morale, I will go along with your suggestion." He proffered her hand, which she shook. "But you will find you have gotten yourself a lot more than you bargained for."

"That remains to be seen." She got up and made for the door.

"Oh, and Commander Paragrin?" he called after her before she could leave.

She turned in the open door. "Yes?"

"I am honestly sorry about that squadmate you lost. Lieutenant Aristes Enal. I am sure he was a good man."

For a fleeting second, true emotion played across her face, a crack opening in her carefully maintained facade of self-assurance. Suddenly, she looked very tired again. And very lonely. Sadly, she shook her had.

"You didn't know him like I did. See you in the gym tomorrow." And with that, she was gone. The door hissed shut behind her.

For long seconds, he stared at the blank wall, wondering what he had let himself in for. And why he kept thinking of her despite his efforts to focus on the reports again.

Continued in Part Two

Disclaimer: This Star Wars fan site is not in any way, shape, or form connected with or approved by Lucasfilm Ltd. or any of its licensees. (Hello…the Imps are the “good guys” here…that should give you a clue.) All Star Wars images and characters belong to the Maker George Lucas. We’re not making any money. It's just for fun. George, please don't sue us. If something shouldn't be here…just let us know…and we’ll remove it.
Web Design By L Squared Artwork