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ACES, EIGHTS AND REBELS
by Emperor's Fury
Part Four

Outside, the fighter battle raged. On the screen, it looked brutal.

* * *

All around her, the fighter battle raged. Caught inside of it, it was murderous.

Nia had cheered silently to herself when she had witnessed the Doomsday Script - Markas' Massacre Plan to most of her squadmates - work as planned, sending the Rebel fighters into abject retreat. Just as she had held her breath when, in an absolutely daredevil move, they had returned, taking the fight to the Imperial defenders for good. All around her, TIE fighter squadrons from Vengeance were doing their level best to hold back the inevitable after the enemy fighter waves had closed in on the convoy from both sides, but, outgunned and shieldless, she could see they were fighting a losing battle. What frustrated her most was the fact that, even with her fellow soldiers fighting and dying around her, she and her attack wing - consisting of the most powerful, most sophisticated fighter crafts the Empire had seen to date - were condemned to remain passive, having to wait for the word from Fighter Ops that would allow her to finally go active, to unleash the full fury of her wrath and the full destructive power of her squadron on those arrogant Rebel wing-wagglers. Over the past minutes, listening to the pleas for help and the dying screams of fellow pilots on the radio, she had more than once considered breaking orders and forcing a fight of her own, but each time, she had forcibly withdrawn her straying hand from the throttle. She remembered his words about discipline, the stern confidence in his voice when he had recounted and explained to her the events off Endor, and right now, she trusted his judgment.

Just as she remembered the look in his eyes and the sound of his voice in her ear, audible over her own racing heartbeat between kisses.

No, she forced herself to abandon that particular memory for the moment, not wanting to be distracted right now.

"Rapier Leader, Fighter Ops!" The control officer's voice was tense and hoarse.

"Rapier Leader!"

"Fighter reserve has been cleared for active status. Enemy fighter phalanx has attacked the convoy front, designated Assault Two, now inbound, relaying course and speed projection now. Orders are to intercept and engage. I say again, go active, intercept and engage. Good hunting!"

"Roger that, Fighter Ops! Rapier Flight on task!"

She felt the familiar sensation of an insetting adrenaline rush at the prospect of finally being able to fight, already powering up her bird as she switched channels.

"All Rapiers, this is Leader, we're active and into the fray! Form on my wing, accelerate to combat velocity. Let's show them some serious flying!"

There was no need to say more, knowing her squadmates' notorious habit of eavesdropping on the command line. The backwash of cheers almost drowned out her afterburner as she fired up her engines full throttle, pulling back on her stick simultaneously. Behind and below her, the rest of her squadron smoothly mirrored the maneuver, all crafts accelerating rapidly and moving away from the hull of the massive carrier vessel that had so far shielded them from detection. Trailing white-hot engine backwash, thundering afterburners threw them forward.

To the Rebels, they were virtually appearing out of nowhere, but Nia had to give credit where it was due: they certainly didn't waste any time gaping. Almost immediately, her flight came under fire as enemy fighters crossed its path. But for sheer speed and reckless flying, there would have been the first losses among her men within seconds.

She resisted the urge to order the formation broken, keeping her mind on the mission assigned to her, throwing forward her men and crafts at breakneck speed. Ceaseless cannon fire cleared their path.

The inside of the convoy was a cauldron of fiery death. The criss-crossing fire was so dense it felt like flying through a tunnel of multi-colored light. Her retina was awash with the after-images of countless stroboscopic laser blasts, making it hard for her to discern individual ships. Every second or so, dog-fighting attack crafts crossed her field of vision, mere flashes of red-on-white or black-on-gray against the black background of space. The massive bulks of fire-breathing capital ships blocked out the stars as they traded thunderous broadsides.

She craned her helmeted head. "Wolf Pack Leader, this is Rapier Leader, tell me you're out there."

"Rapier Leader, this is Wolf Pack Leader, we're on task and inbound." The other squadron leader's voice held a hint of irritation as if to say What else did you possibly expect...?

"Given your current course and speed, you should have visual contact about... now."

Nia gave a silent nod as she saw the Dire Wolf's squadron of TIE Interceptors fall smoothly into formation behind her own. Their leader's voice over the comms had a professional, matter-of-factly quality to itself, in spite of the fact that he was a clone. Or maybe right because of it.

"Tallyho!" The voice of one of her own pilots, distorted by static, announced enemy contact. "Ware Alliance fighters ahead, multiple contacts, headcount are forty-plus!"

Her own display now showed them, a cloud of angry red dots, distance shrinking rapidly as both fighter formations made for each other at flank speed. Her threat warning started its ceaseless buzzing almost immediately to announce enemy target acquisition. She forced herself to ignore it.

"Wolf Pack Flight, take the bombers. Rapier Flight, find the escort fighters!" Unshielded and vulnerable in a stand-up fight, the TIE Interceptors would stand a better chance against the enemy bombers while the advanced Defenders kept the X- and A-Wings at bay. Her computer bleeped its confirmation: Missile range had been reached. Her body rewarded her with an extra push of precious adrenaline as she focused her well-trained mind on the seconds to come. She was going to need every iota of reflexes she could muster right now.

"Missiles. Squadron volley." Communication was reduced to code-phrases and brief orders now as the deadly ballet of fighter combat commenced. Nothing more needed to be said, her squadmates knew the drill anyway. Time seemed to flow unbearably slow as her targeting system clicked down the individual seconds to missile lock. Finally, with a clear and loud bleep in her headphones, the moment was at hand, and it was sweet.

"Missiles, now, now, NOW!"

The missiles violently rocked her craft as they were released from their underwing racks, immediately gathering speed, racing ahead of her, hunting for their individual targets. Split seconds later, in a single rag-tag volley, every single Defender had launched two of the deadly darts of its own, creating a bow wave of preying warheads that were rushing straight towards the center of the Rebel formation. The comms was drowned in a chorus of shouts and battle cries.

Nia's blood ran cold as she noticed answering launch-flashes from the leading enemy crafts. She did not need the shrilling threat warning to know what was coming for her.

"Missile warning! Break! By pairs, break and attack!"

Her guns blitzed into life as she spoke, spraying space ahead of her with their rapid-fire drizzle. All along the line, her squadmates did the same in a desperate attempt to explode the inbound enemy warheads before they could strike home. Fiery clouds blossomed in rapid succession as several missiles were stopped. One, two, four, five, not enough. Not even halfway enough.

"Two, up and left!"

Nothing more needed to be said. Ozrell smoothly mirrored her maneuver as she broke out and pulled up to fool the enemy guidance systems in the last of moments, releasing whole clouds of chaff and flares at the same time. The Imperial fighter line virtually exploded as the others did likewise. She caught the briefest glimpse of something blue and impossibly fast streaking past her bird only scant yards away before the missile exploded somewhere behind her, way too close for her liking. White hot shrapnel peppered her flickering shields.

A high-pitched scream in her headphones, suddenly cut short by static, indicated that one of her friends had been that one crucial heartbeat too slow. She swore viciously.

"Kill the bastards! Kill them all!"

And with that, the Imperial and Alliance fighter swarms merged, and space itself around her suddenly seemed too tight.

Both the Imperial and Rebel fighter swarms had split into hunting pairs of individual crafts as each side had attempted to evade the missile volleys they had hurled at each other. Now, all guns blazing, they bore down on each other in a swirling melee, passing each other and racing through the tightest of loops and turns, trying to get a bead on their opponents. For several seconds, there was no picking targets, no conscious sighting of weapons, no sense of a coordinated attack as crafts of both sides desperately fought for that tiny advantage in speed and angle that would ultimately make the difference between life and death.

Suddenly, the Rebel fighter screen was wide open, and through that gap rushed the Interceptors of Wolf Pack Squadron, their clone pilots killing with machine-like precision as they went. Under their well-disciplined and coordinated fire, Rebel bombers flamed and died.

Nia's body was covered in sweat under the fabric of her flight suit as she wrestled with her stick to bring her bird around and into position behind a pair of enemy X-Wings, Ozrell being hard pressed to keep up with her swift and sudden high-G maneuvers while simultaneously trying to keep two more Rebel fighters from taking shots at his and Nia's own behinds. She had lost sight of everything else but the maelstrom of individual dogfights around her. Suddenly, the leading X-Wing filled her cockpit canopy, having come out of a counter-turn a fraction of a second too late, and she pressed down her guns, reducing the enemy bird into so much burning debris before pulling up right through the explosion's fireball. She was endangering herself by doing so, but she expected her pursuers to fly around the expanding gas cloud rather than follow her through, thus losing valuable time and space. And her gamble paid off.

Ignoring her depleted shields and the flashing engine overheat warnings, she banked hard and used the two or three extra seconds to kill the X-Wing's unlucky wingman, with some assistance from Ozrell this time, before the other fighters were able to close on her again.

Throwing her craft into a tight corkscrew, she looked around to find another target. With so many individual crafts locked into so confined a space as this, her tactical display would have been virtually useless even without the additional interference and the billowing chaff clouds. Right now, the only way to tell friend from foe was to identify every single craft by naked eye. Fighter combat was reduced to the level of archaic duels at close range. Right in front of her, an A-Wing and an Interceptor collided head-on and rent each other apart, pieces of each fighter continuing to fly into their original directions, trailing flame.

Enemy birds crossed her field of vision, and she moved to fall in behind them, trying to get to their high six position for a killing shot. Her own pursuers were still with her, raking her with sustained cannon bursts, but for the moment, she couldn't help it. She trusted Ozrell to keep her back clear and her sturdy mount to keep her alive. Squadron line was alive with pleas for support. Her friends were fighting and dying out there, she knew, but there was nothing she could do for them right now. All semblance of coordinated attack or maneuver, all unit cohesion beyond the intuitive bond between wingmen, had simply vanished. Every pilot was fighting for himself now, and lives of good men were cheap. This was fighter warfare at its worst, she realized. There was no decisive element to this slugfest any more, no meaning, no tactical finesse. Both sides were simply grinding each other down by sheer attrition until one or the other prevailed simply by having not been wiped out, itself too weak and exhausted by then to play any further useful role in this battle.

Sweat stung in her eyes as she sprayed her new target, dealing it several glancing hits. As if in retaliation, enemy shots bounced off her starboard wing.

Emperor's blood, that was way too close!

All she could do amidst this utter madness was fly and fight on, buy time and kill as many enemies as she could before one of them managed to kill her.

Which would most surely happen all too soon. By any reckoning, they wouldn't be able to hold out much longer.

* * *

They wouldn't be able to hold out much longer, by any reckoning. Not against such odds.

Markas wiped his burning eyes as he stared intently into the holocube, gauging the tactical opportunities. There really weren't many to speak of. Frankly spoken, there were none at all. Their situation was grim. Actually, it was rapidly becoming desperate.

There had been no more immediate losses among the civilian freighters, but his escorts were gradually being skinned, just as his attack craft strengths were dwindling. For the moment, all Imperial units were still pretty much giving as good as they were getting, but it would only be a matter of time. They certainly wouldn't make it all the way to the jump point before their line would finally give. It simply had to. It was, after all, a minor miracle it had held until now.

In addition to the loss of Bloodthirst, they had been forced to abandon Battlecry several minutes ago after severe hull damage had laid open the frigate's highly volatile plasma energy core. Its brave crew had volunteered to stay and fight nonetheless, but Markas' orders had been express. Preserving the lives of so many valuable crewmen seemed more important than pointless heroism under these circumstances.

Vengeance's main fighter service deck was a smoking cavern of mangled wreckage now, after a lone Y-Wing had crashed into it with its full payload of torpedoes, exploding stacked ammunition and coolant tanks. The carrier was still moving and fighting back, but Colonel Hyates' tirade of oaths and vulgarities over the command line had been something to behold.

A flight of TIE bombers had, albeit at the cost of a full one third of their number, managed to damage the enemy Assault Frigate so badly it had been forced to withdraw from the fight for the moment. But now, with their payload spent and unable to return to the safety of their carrier, the helpless attack crafts were desperately screaming for a fighter support that would never come as Rebel pilots took their revenge one by one.

Dire Wolf had killed one of the Rebel corvettes and crippled the Nebulon-B with a combination of turbolaser broadsides and lashing missile volleys. The ancient warship was fighting with a stamina and resilience that surprised even Markas, and its Captain and crew were excellently acquitting themselves, but locked in the duel with the MonCal cruiser, it was suffering massive damage. Its portside batteries had largely been silenced by now, and several of its decks were in flames. Right now, Captain Kesell was attempting to roll the ship along its length axis to present the enemy guns his comparatively intact Starboard side, but enemy bombers were relentlessly targeting the damaged sections like piranhas nibbling away at a wounded killer whale, each attack run prompting a fresh ripple of explosions along the Dreadnaught's superstructure. The occasional hunting pair of TIEs didn't even come close to making a difference.

The second enemy corvette had prudently withdrawn from Gun Crate's field of fire after taking several serious hits and was now shooting it out with Sabredance, while the frigate Warsong had taken up a protective position very close to the three Star Galleons, literally shielding the vulnerable troop transports from harm with the bulk of its own hull. All told, the majority of Imperial escorts had their backs forced to the wall by now.

Around and amongst the massive behemoths, the fighter battle raged. From a distance, it looked confused. Space had become a witch's cauldron of fire and death as the fighter strengths of both sides fought their private, merciless, high-speed miniature war. Had it not been for the increasing number of attack runs against Imperial capital ships, Markas couldn't have told which side was gaining the upper hand in this frenzied, close-up mess.

And his own ship? After the brief clash with the second enemy fighter phalanx, Gun Crate was once again suffering from a frustrating lack of targets, rendering its powerful gun batteries virtually useless. Worse yet, he, Markas, himself had been rendered virtually useless. He was supposed to be in charge of this, to command his troops, to issue orders and supervise their proper execution as the situation demanded, but there was nothing to command any more. The Rebels, with their superior numbers and the advantage of maneuver and initiative on their side, had robbed him of all options except to fight or die. And that 'or' was rapidly becoming an 'and'. Now, all the situation demanded was a defiant last stand.

For yet another time he considered breaking the battle line and turning his ship around to fight, then dismissed the idea once again. Tempted as he was, he strongly suspected that the lead his own cruiser was providing was everything that still held the convoy line together. Without his ship as their unwavering guiding star, the merchants would most probably lose it immediately, and the ensuing stampede would hasten their demise even more. Even were he foolish or desperate enough to order the whole formation broken, there would be nowhere to flee to. The Rebels, with their faster ships and superior fighters, would simply hunt them down and pick them off one at a time. No, all he could do was play his part to the end and try and make sure that their deaths would at least count for something. If the Rebels wanted his convoy, they would have to fight for it to his own dying breath.

"Captain!" The voice of one of his tactical officers sounded extraordinarily alarmed even by the current standards. "Priority call from Dire Wolf!"

"Patch it through!" He had a really bad feeling even as the speakers crackled into life.

"King, this is Knight!" It was Captain Kesell, Markas' old academy classmate, his voice laden with static, carrying more than a hint of the stress he was under. In the background, the shouting voices of men could be heard over what sounded like distant thunderclaps.

"I hear you! Report!"

"We have overall shield failure and massive internal damage to our engine section. Our Number Three reactor just became unstable, and we're gradually losing power for our gun batteries. I don't know how long we will be able to continue fighting. Get those power lines bridged, you moron, there's a red light for battery twenty-four!" The last words had obviously been directed at one of his bridge crewmen. A pause.

"King, I have seven decks in flames, including one engineering deck. Maybe we can... "

The line carried a booming noise, louder than all the others heard before. The background shouts increased in volume and intensity accordingly. Someone was yelling for damage reports at the top of his lungs. It took several seconds for Kesell's voice to come back as Markas listened raptly, his heart racing.

"King, our aft missile magazine just blew! Throne of Coruscant, Dren, we just lost attitude control. She's rolling! Helmsman, stabilize her! Emergency power to Starboard attitude thrusters now! We have to get her back under control!"

"Barka!" Markas shouted the name of his old friend, unsure if he was being heard but unable to listen in silence any more. "Barka, abandon ship! Abandon ship!"

There was no reply except for the whine of static, intermixed with choppy transmissions of what sounded like shouts and screams.

"Barka, do you hear me? Knight, this is King, respond!"

The line went dead. For half a second, everything was dead silent. Then the ceiling lights briefly went dim. Several screens blacked out. The holocube frizzed with interference, then blacked out, too, before resetting itself.

Markas heart sank. He closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer, shutting out the pale faces of the other officers, blank with disbelief. He did not need them right now to tell him what had happened. There was only one thing that caused an electromagnetic pulse wave massive enough to overwhelm even the electric and electronic systems of a cruiser.

The nearby death of another capital ship.

The Dire Wolf was gone. Who would be next?

* * *

The Dire Wolf was gone. Nia barely had time to register the fact. By her side, Ozrell died a fighter pilot's death as the Rebels finally broke the last ditch Imperial resistance, concentrated fire from at least three enemy crafts tearing through his shields and his ship before he had even time to scream. Crying out her dead friend's name with inarticulate anger, Nia brought her own bird around and confronted his killers, blindly letting rip with her cannons as tears of rage clouded her eyes. There was no regard for her own survival any more. Just the thirst for revenge.

* * *

The Dire Wolf was gone. Plain gone. Her death-flare had lit space all around as brightly as the birth of a star. Only it was nothing like a birth at all. On the contrary, the spectacular detonation, followed suit by an electromagnetic shock wave powerful enough to briefly short out half the bridge systems, had been the funeral of thousands of his brothers and sisters in arms.

Thor violently clenched his fists at the thought until the muscles in his lower arms ached.

But, if he admitted it, there was one more thing he was seriously worried about.

Not her, please don't tell me she's gone, too.

"Sir!"

"What?!" Even though he had been waiting for the report, the double stress he was under caused his reaction to be unnecessarily harsh as he looked up.

"Vengeance confirms that all surviving Rapier units are still on active transponders, as was before the shock wave. Some enemy birds seem to have been affected by the EMP, but our own TIEs should be generally fine, Fighter Ops says."

"Good!" he grunted, audibly letting out the breath he had not realized he had held, leaving Tactical Officer Ferst to silently wonder why his commander had so urgently requested this particular, seemingly insignificant piece of information right now.

Never thought I would ever be grateful for the minimalist philosophy of Imperial fighter construction .... Not enough wiring in these shoeboxes to catch an EMP, apparently.

"Update tactical grid!"

Back to business. With the ancient Dreadnought out of the equation, the enemy capitals were bound to find a new target very soon. If they chose Crate, he wanted to know immediately. Well, if it was going to be Crate, he would find out soon enough anyway.

If we're lucky, their systems are frakked even worse than ours for the moment. Then again, we haven't been in for much of a lucky day so far.

It took several seconds for Ferst to come up with anything useful as frantic technicians were busy all around to reset systems cooked off by the side effects of Dire Wolf's explosive demise.

"Sir, it looks like the Rebel fleet is in something of disarray. There's no coordinated firing at the moment. We're picking up massive radio traffic, ship-to-ship and ship-to-fighter, all overlaying and confused. The EMP has blinded at least some of their sensors, my guess is, but they're recovering fast. Sir, I..."

He stopped, intently pressing his comms earpiece to his head, listening, nodding several times in quick succession. "Confirm that!"

Somehow, oddly, he reminded Thor of a particular kind of domestic bird native to his home world.

"Sir, I have just received reports we have detected a massive energy source ahead, spaceborne and mobile. Energy signature readouts suggest cruiser-sized hostile contact, most probably enemy capital ship." He lowered his head as he spoke, lips tight, voice tense.

Another one! Bastards! Unmanly cowards! Thor was choked with conflicting emotions, disbelief mixed with irrational anger at this new increase in the already insuperable odds. That'll teach me to believe the Rebels are giving us a chance.

"Identify!"

"Hang on, Sir... ." Unceremoniously, Ferst jumped straight into the bridge pit, grabbing hold of a seat-back, leaning closely over the dumbfounded operator's shoulder to see the sensor readouts for himself.

"Liberator!" He looked up at Thor, completely throwing all bridge procedures and etiquette out of the window as he shouted his conclusion into his superior's face. "Enemy Liberator class cruiser!"

That made sense, Thor realized. The Liberator was one of the newer classes of capital ships to be fielded by the Alliance Navy and most certainly the enemy battle group's flag ship. Technically, it was a second-line vessel, command post, fighter carrier and troop transport, all intelligently and efficiently packed into its angular, horseshoe-shaped hull. For a massive fleet engagement like this, it was the ideal command and linebacker unit. Surely it had launched the second fighter wave that had directly attacked Crate, and most probably, its troop holds were crammed with Alliance Marines to board and capture anything that should be left once the ships-of-the-line had dealt with the Imperial escorts. He just wondered why its captain had brought his comparatively weak ship forward to intervene when the rest of his battle group was visibly winning the day.

And then it occurred to him.

That Liberator didn't come forward at all! This is their reserve and fallback position. They just never expected us to get this far, that's what!

And with that thought, in a moment of icy clarity, a plan had formed in his head, a plan that was so crazy, so absolutely counter to everything he had ever learned, that he couldn't quite believe it was his own.

Under normal circumstances, he would immediately have taken the rank squares off any officer brazen enough to suggest such a thing. Under the current conditions, it seemed precisely the right thing to do. He keyed his earpiece.

"Captain, this is the bridge!"

"Yes, I know, I can see it, too! We have to..."

"Captain, I request permission to break formation and conduct an unorthodox maneuver!"

"What?" A pause, as if Markas could not quite believe the fact his First Officer had just dared interrupt him in the middle of a command decision. "Is it going to help us?"

"To be honest, either it's going to win us the day or it will get us all killed."

Another pause, longer this time. "Do it!"

"Yes, Sir!"

He got up - jumped up, more like, finding himself suddenly filled with renewed vigor at the prospect of the events to come.

"Helmsman, disregard convoy formation, set course directly for the Liberator, flank speed ahead! Gunnery, as soon as you get a lock, I want you to plaster that bastard with everything you have! And reinforce all frontal shields! We're going to attack!"

Heads turned towards him at the slip of his language and the obvious breach of protocol - he would have normally been required to go through Ferst instead of issuing the orders directly.

Ah, to Kossal with protocol right now! The handbook walked the airlock a good while ago anyway!

He was surprised at the rush of adrenaline he was feeling, the anxiety of combat he had not felt with this undiminished intensity in years. This was nothing like the formalized, ritualized and detached Imperial way of fleet warfare. This was single combat writ large, pure and archaic, the Warrior's Way. It suddenly felt like something from the ancient hymns of his people. It was courageous, daring. It appealed to him.

More than that, it was getting to his head like alcohol. It was not unlike last night's sensation.

He felt the surge of acceleration rock the deck as the main drives kicked in hard. The enemy vessel grew larger and larger on the main viewscreen as distance shrunk away. When the main batteries sounded in a rolling volley at maximum range, it felt like the second-sweetest sound he had ever heard. Cheers from the bridge pit below made him look down, only to find Ferst, now personally acting as gunnery commander, precision-guiding the main battery fire at long range. In spite of the distance and the malfunctioning sensors, they were making numerous hits.

Thor made a mental note to recommend the man for promotion, should they live through this after all.

Then, suddenly, the impact flashes were met by answering muzzle flashes as the Liberator started returning fire with his broadside array of multi-barrel laser cannons. Isolated turreted turbolasers and ion cannons joined the barrage, eating away at the larger Strike Cruiser's frontal shields. As if insulted by the act, Gun Crate's fire nearly doubled in intensity a moment later as range for the cruiser's own ion cannons and secondary turbos was achieved. The enemy ship was hull-struck repeatedly as its shields were strained almost to the point of collapsing. And still the Imperial warship steamed towards its opponent at speed.

This, Thor realized, this finally was Strike Cruiser warfare at its ideal: Direct, aggressive and decisive, nothing less. Nothing less would even nearly do right now.

Both ships were hammering each other at near-to point-blank range now, neither giving nor asking any quarter. Both suffered shield burn-through almost simultaneously. Gun Crate shuddered under the impact of countless shots scarring her massively armored hull. The Rebel cruiser shuddered even worse as it was continuously raked. Thor had no idea any more as to how the overall fight for the convoy's survival was progressing. All that mattered to him now was this single enemy warship he was determined to overcome. Damage reports trickled in, reports of hull breaches, oxygen leaks, inter-deck fires. He barely paid them any attention.

"Mister Ferst! Everything you have into those forward launch bays! Now!"

"Aye, Sir!" The Liberator cruiser's fighter bays stood out like rectangular slits in its forward hull, visible even by naked eye at this close range, in spite of the armored bulkheads protecting them. Surely, they were protected by additional atmosphere shields. There would be internal shutters, fire-proof blast doors.

Nothing of it would stop the fiery might of a turbolaser.

A rag-tag volley left scattered burn-craters all over the Rebel's forward hull, blasts bouncing off armor, melting and tearing loose steel and ceramite plating. The answering barrage caused fire and debris to burst from Crate's hull with explosive decompression. Klaxons started to wail, warning of stress-induced structural damage. Down in the bridge pit, Ferst could be heard shouting for corrections.

The next volley went clean through the bulkheads protecting the Liberator's port fighter bay. The resulting secondary explosion was so powerful it blew out several adjoining decks. The Alliance cruiser's hull was buckled and torn from the inside, venting colossal jets of flame into space as the force of the blast found alternative means of escape. Stricken, the enemy vessel reeled.

"Energy spike! Sir, target is firing its main engines! They're trying to break off!"

"Helmsman! Keep heading straight for it! Collision course! Maintain flank speed!"

"Sir... ?"

"You heard me right! Ram the bastard if you have to!"

"Aye, Sir!"

Gun Crate's blunt nose came around, adjusting for the enemy's frantic attempts to evade. The distance shrunk rapidly. The Liberator's angular form filled the bridge screen. They were so close now Thor could discern individual features on the other ship's hull. And still the Strike Cruiser was gunning forward.

"Come on, come on, you lousy bastard," he muttered under his breath, willing the enemy captain to do what he waited for. What he counted on.

"Sir, target is broadcasting!"

Thor balled and shook his fist in triumph. That was all he had needed to hear.

That's right, you bastard, call your bastard friends! Tell them there's a Strike Cruiser on the loose, and it's out for your blood!

"Evade! Hard to port! Emergency power to Starboard attitude thrusters!"

Even as the deck began to pitch away steeply under his feet, he looked at the tactical display that showed the rest of the convoy. Before his eyes, the pattern began to change.

* * *

Before his eyes, the pattern began to change, and he could hardly believe it.

Suddenly, the opportunity was there, and it was his for the seizure.

"Patch me through to Fighter Ops! Now!"

* * *

She could sense the change in the pattern all around her even before the urgent call from Fighter Ops came over the line. One second, the Rebel fighters had been swarming all over her, hunting down the very few surviving TIEs as they pleased. The next, they were milling in disarray, frantically trying to break off combat for no obvious reason.

When the call came, she could hardly believe it. Suddenly, she understood. Suddenly, she saw the opportunity develop.

"Rally! All units, this is Rapier Leader! Rally now! After them! Give them hell!"

She didn't care for radio discipline any more as she shouted out the words hoarsely, knowing she would be heard and understood.

And she was.

A lone X-Wing crossed her bow, unbelievably close and fast, a darting stab of green-on-white, guns blazing.

The overhead control panel exploded into her face.

She smacked her head against a control panel as her bird bucked violently under her. Only the cushioned inside of her helmet saved her from a cracked skull. Even so, she screamed with the shock and the immense pain.

Dizzy, her vision swimming and red with her own blood, g-forces rapidly driving her sick, she wrestled with the controls as the star field outside her canopy rotated wildly.

Nothing. She was dead in space.

Her last conscious act was to reach for the ejector lever as her craft came apart around her.

I'm not going to make it...

The world went white.

* * *

Responding to their mother ship's pleas for support, the Alliance attack crafts were frantically trying to break off combat with what little remained of the Imperial fighter strengths, but it just wouldn't do right now. The surviving TIEs were out for revenge, and they gleefully, mercilessly, seized the opportunity to even the scores.

The Rebel capitals were faring somewhat better, though, and despite the ongoing firefight with the surviving Imperial escorts, they were closing in on the damaged Crate with a vengeance of their own. And fast.

Even as the Starboard batteries kept pumping point-blank turbofire into the burning Liberator, Thor knew it would only be a matter of time until the enemy armada caught up with his damaged ship, and then it would be his turn to do the burning. This fight was yet far from over. True, he had gambled, gambled everything, and he had won. He had played upon the Rebels' fear of his formidable ship just as they had played upon his fear of their fighters, and he had successfully tricked them into a panic reaction. His maneuver had bought his side an unexpected advantage, but the enemy was quickly recovering his wits. And he doubted that, even if the Imperials were to succeed in overcoming the Rebel fleet after all, the Strike Cruiser and its brave crew would live to see the end of it. From the tactical display, he could see the main body of the convoy - civilian freighters and troop carriers alike - limping for the relative safety of the jump point while the Rebels were concentrating their main efforts on him, and that knowledge gave him at least some comfort. It seemed that, in the end, their sacrifice would count for something.

He was about to give the order to turn the ship around and face the foe when a flash of white light, blindingly bright against the blackness of space, seared his eyes. It was bright enough to briefly make everybody and everything around him look deathly white, as if somehow, unnoticeable, death had suddenly come to claim them all. It froze the words in his throat even as he tried to blink away the dancing spots.

A jump flash.

The starburst phenomenon that announced the nearby arrival of a ship as it broke the light barrier, decelerating below jump speed.

Apparently, somebody's request for support had been heard.

There was a collective gasp on the bridge, to be followed by wild cheers as a familiar, steel-grey wedge shape winked into existence, blocking out the stars, and then all frequencies reverberated with the same booming voice that briefly seemed loud enough to shake space itself.

"Attention, all Alliance Navy units, this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Eradicator! This is your first and only warning! Withdraw now or suffer death!"

A pause.

"Aw, forget about withdrawing! Prepare to burn!"

The massive battleship ploughed forward like a spaceborne mountain, insuperable in its own might, disgorging waves of fighters as it blasted away with its belly batteries.

Thor was left dumbfounded, open-mouthed, stunned with the overpowering emotions washing over him. Barely seconds before had he all but walked under the shadow of imminent death.

"Great Empire, Sir, but what a day! What a day!"

Suddenly, Ferst was by his side. Tears were streaming down the young man's face and he was shivering all over, but his eyes were alight with an inner fire that belied his shaken looks. Thor couldn't help but grab his hand and clasp it, utterly lost for words. All he could manage was an emphatic nod. He had to bite his lip, feeling close to tears himself.

"Turn..." he had to struggle to keep his voice under control, "turn the ship around, maintain overwatch position until all freighters have completed the jump. Get Rapier Leader on the line and have our fighters return. And let's see to it that we get some of those internal fires under control."

"Aye, Sir... ," the young officer's face went graven. "Sir, didn't you hear it?"

"Hear what, man?!"

"Rapier Leader has been killed, sir."

"What?!" Thor froze. All of a sudden, the floor seemed to have receded under his feet. He felt like he had been punched in the stomach. A marrow-deep chill suddenly seized him, causing him prickling gooseflesh. He was sure his heart missed several beats with disbelief.

My Ancestors, let it not be true! Not her!

"Say that again!"

"Rapier Leader was reported destroyed in action several minutes ago. I thought the report had been forwarded to you. Rapier Four is now in charge of the squadron."

"Confirm that! And do it personally!"

"Aye, sir!" He turned away to speak into his comms set while Thor was left unable to do anything else but wait, tense, stunned, incapable to think of anything but her. He nearly felt he was going to be sick with dread.

"Sir, I have Rapier Four on the line, Lieutenant Asbek. He confirms Rapier Leader's craft has exploded after suffering critical damage. Sir, he claims he briefly picked up a crash locator beacon, but the area is swarming with Rebels by now." Ferst looked seriously alarmed. "He asks for further instructions. What should I tell him?"

There was no tactical thinking, no weighing of options. Instinctively, he knew there was only one thing left for him to do.

"Tell him to fall back, regroup and prepare to cover for a search-and-rescue mission."

"Aye, sir!" From Fersts tone, it was plain he wasn't believing his ears, but he relayed the order nonetheless, if with a moment's hesitation. Thor keyed his own earpiece.

"Captain, this is the bridge!"

"I hear you. Go ahead."

"Sir, I have just received word that Rapier Leader was incapacitated during the battle, but may have ejected into enemy-held space. I request permission to launch a search-and-rescue mission."

"Denied! We cannot risk sending anyone out there, not under these circumstances. They'd never make it back!"

"They don't have to! Two shuttles, our own Defenders for cover. They could achieve jump on their own and rendezvous with the main fleet later!" Thor couldn't believe Markas was really considering leaving one of his own behind.

"I said denied! Even with fighter cover, the Rebels would be all over the shuttles right away!"

"Sir, the Eradicator got the enemy on the run for the moment. I believe we have a brief time window before they can rally!" He had to fight to keep the rising desperation from his voice. "Captain, Commander Paragrin knows everything about our new fighters. We cannot just let her fall into enemy hands!"

"We have to take that risk. We don't even know she's still alive. I'm not sending living men after dead against such odds!"

"Captain, I volunteer! Two shuttles is all I ask! Let me give her a chance at least!"

"I said No!" Markas' was audibly becoming angry now. "What's the matter with you?"

"Captain, we cannot just leave her behind like that! I cannot leave her behind!"

There. I said it. Let Markas think of it what he will.

There was a long, drawn-out pause that seemed endless to him. When the Captain's voice came back, grave and foreboding, it nearly made his heart stop.

"Word will be had upon your return. Now go if you are going! Before I change my mind!"

A massive weight suddenly seemed to fall off Thor. For a fleeting moment, he felt weak in the knees with relief, then caught himself.

"Mister Ferst, you have the bridge! Place two Lambda Shuttles on immediate standby, engines running! See her safely through the jump! And don't you dare wait for me!"

Running for the lift shaft, he left a bewildered Lieutenant Ferst to wonder what in the galaxy had gotten into his First Officer.

* * *

The hot backwash of the whining shuttle engines hit him full in the face, whipping against his uniform and blowing off his cap within two seconds of his bursting from the lift exit. He simply let it go as he took the access ramp of the nearest craft with two quick strides, already hollering for the pilot to take off as he did so. The co-pilot, a very young ensign, made the mistake of not looking back at his passenger before starting to bitch.

"I wonder what madman ordered this mission. We're all gonna get butchered out there!"

Thor patted him on the shoulder, leaning forward between the two cockpit seats to take a view out of the forward canopy. "The madman is me, ensign," he stated calmly, casually. "And now I suggest you focus on getting this shuttle spaceborne before I punch your insubordinate face and take over your seat."

The boy blanched visibly upon looking over his shoulder, then abruptly turned his head forward again, tight-lipped. "Aye, sir!"

The pilot couldn't avoid smirking as he pushed forward on the throttle, the engine noise rising to an ear-pitching howl before the ramp slammed shut. "Strap yourself in, Commander, we're going to be in for quite a ride!"

Thor fell into a passenger seat as his own momentum pulled, fumbling with the safety belt as the shuttle accelerated recklessly, bursting from the hangar with breakneck speed even before the wings were fully lowered. He finally managed to snap the clasp shut and grabbed himself a pair of intercom headphones. The rear window showed the second Lambda shuttle leaving the bay mouth a few seconds later, albeit with more care and less speed.

"Pilot, monitor the emergency channel. And scan for crash locator beacons!"

"Aye, sir. Our fighter escort is hailing us. So far, we're clear of hostiles. But the area is swamped with space junk and debris from the Dire Wolf. I'm not getting any clear scan returns except at very close range."

"Then we will go in close, Lieutenant. Our mission is to make absolutely sure we are not leaving any living Imperial soldiers behind, and that's right what we'll do! Understood?"

"Understood, sir. This is your little fun trip, after all."

As the shuttle reached the edge of the expanding cloud of wreckage that had once been the Dreadnought Dire Wolf, it decelerated, now carefully, warily, edging forward through the tangled mess, flanked by the dodging fighters. They passed bizarre, glittering formations of frozen gas and drifting hull fragments, some of them small enough to be barely visible, others larger than the craft itself, moving by close enough for him to make out individual details. Up close, he realized it wasn't only the remains of the Wolf that made up the cloud. Rather, it was a graveyard of both Imperial and Alliance ships and fighters, judging by the variety and number of individual hull fragments. More than once, there were drifting bodies and body parts amidst them, frozen solid in all stages of vacuum-induced agony. Many of them were hideously burned. And those were the lucky ones, Thor knew, the ones that had already been dead upon contact with the vacuum of space. The sight made his imagination run wild, and the images it produced were gradually driving him mad. He had to forcibly avert his eyes from the window as a mostly intact TIE fighter drifted past, still slowly wheeling wing over wing, its canopy blown out, the lightless, gaping cockpit cavern dark and dead.

How many good lives have been lost today, ours and theirs? How many are dead to the plots and schemes of foul aliens and insurrectionists? How many more will have to die before we can finally end this war and restore peace and order to the galaxy?

He lowered his head, offering a silent prayer in his native tongue for the fallen warriors of both sides. The dead Rebels, after all, had fought courageously and with great skill, so he felt they, too, deserved as much respect in death as his own battle brothers and sisters.

The voice of the co-pilot over the headphones made him look up sharply.

"Commander, I believe we got something here!" The boy sounded positively excited.

"Can you perhaps be a little more precise, ensign?"

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I believe we are picking up an Imperial crash location transponder, very close, but very faint and fragmentary. The alphanumerical identification code seems to match that of Commander Paragrin's personal beacon."

"Triangulate it! And prepare to open the hatch! I'm getting vac-suited!"

"Yes, sir! Triangulating now!" The boy's voice was cut short when the cockpit door was unceremoniously slammed shut, effectively sealing off the crew compartment and turning it into a makeshift airlock. This way, Thor would be able to open the main ramp and take a little space walk without effectively suffocating his flight crew. Repair teams sometimes used the versatile and capacious Lambdas this way to deploy bulky equipment under zero-gravity conditions.

Ripping one of the heavy emergency space-suits from its locker, he hurriedly started climbing into it, fumbling with clasps, cables and oxygen feeder hoses. He dropped his safety line twice before succeeding to tie it fast, then dropped one of his gloves as he tried to don it with his other hand already sheathed. He was glad the flight crew couldn't see him right now, nor hear his ceaseless string of swear words. As his collar arrest clicked shut, he felt a cool, stale breeze of compressed air caress his face. Simultaneously, the built-in helmet radio crackled into life with a series of beeps that resounded inside the cupola of his helmet.

"Pilot, do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir, loud and clear. No need to shout."

Surprised, Thor lowered his voice by a fraction. Only now did he realize how long it had been since the last time he had worn a suit like this.

"Are we in position?"

"Yes, sir, we are. Distance to target now approximately fifty-five feet. I don't dare going any closer, our braking jets might push her away from us or throw her against a large piece of wreckage."

"Good! I'm ready! Maintain this position! Open the hatch!" Belatedly, he checked the status display on his left wrist. To his immense relief, he found all lights glowing a calm green, indicating his second skin was properly sealed.

Without warning, the deck before him dropped away as the ramp ground open. The explosive decompression catapulted him into space. Only in the last moment did he manage to brace one foot against the smooth metal and kick violently, turning his fall into something resembling a controlled leap forward. Free from the shuttle's artificial gravity, his own momentum carried him forward. Now, the only sounds he could hear were his own heavy, ragged breath and the faint hiss of static inside his helmet. The cumbersome space suit, stiff and inflated with internal pressure, hampered his every move. Outside his face shield, smaller pieces of debris sailed past. He did not dare bat them aside with his hands, their molten and torn edges looked sharp enough to cut even through the thick fabric of his suit. In the distance, a Defender crossed his field of vision, circling like a watchful bird of prey.

He craned his helmeted head, looking around.

There! His eyes could barely make out the shapeless form, glossy black and dully reflective, slowly rotating around its own axis. A TIE pilot's flight suit.

He swore. His trajectory wouldn't carry him exactly towards her. Chances were he was going to miss her by a foot or two. If that happened, he would have to pull himself back to the shuttle along his safety line and then jump off again. He doubted they would have time for that. Even so, they were running out.

Frantically, he tried to angle his body, trying to correct his course more into her direction by jerking his torso hard several times. All he did was slowly starting to rotate himself.

He was drifting ever closer to her with every moment, blindly flailing his arms as he sailed past her, scrambling for purchase, hoping against hope.

His right hand touched something. Instinctively, his fingers closed around the object tightly, and he held on to it with all his might.

The resulting counter-drag brought him back around to face her. Their space suits slammed into each other and he wrapped his other arm around her, clinging to her like to dear life itself. His head was knocked back when their helmets connected with the crack of plastic. He looked down at his balled right fist, hot with exhaustion and flushed with relief.

A finger. Somehow, miraculously, he had caught hold of one of her fingers. It was the object he had touched and held on to in his blind panic. One single digit had made the difference between life and death. Only reluctantly did he let go of it to tie his safety line to her belt.

It was then that he realized she was limp in his arms.

He froze, cold fear returning with a vengeance. Grabbing hold of her left wrist, he brought her status pad before his face. The oxygen indicator light was flashing a warning red. The gauge read zero.

No! It cannot be! It must not be! Not now! Not like this!

"Commander, you better hurry up! We have hostiles inbound, closing fast!"

He swore. They were definitely running out of time and luck. Hugging her tight, he fought for his safety line, pulling with all his tremendous strength to propel himself back towards the shuttle.

She cannot be dead. His mind raced. Unconscious, yes, but there must be some oxygen remaining inside her suit even if the tank is dry. How long ago did she run out? Great Ancestors, please don't let me be too late after all!

He gave another pull on the line, but it was limp, and he struggled with it for leverage.

I'm way too slow! I'm not going to make it back to the shuttle in time!

For a brief second, he pictured himself finding the end of the line cut and burnt, the shuttle killed by a Reb fighter, leaving him and her to become just another piece of floating space waste. Would he slowly choke to death as his oxygen supply gradually ran out? Or would he find a quick, merciful death at the hands of a vengeful Alliance pilot?

"Commander, brace for impact!"

Instinctively, he curled himself into a protective ball, shielding her limp form with his own body, as suddenly, something flat and steel-grey obstructed his field of vision.

There was a bone-breaking impact and a stinging pain in his shoulder and lower ribs that drove the wind from his lungs and nearly knocked him out. A second punch hit him flat in the back, causing pain to lance down his spine and pelvis, and then he found himself prone, looking upwards at what looked like the ceiling lighting panels of a shuttle's crew compartment.

Looking about, dazzled, gasping with serious pain, he really found himself back inside the shuttle, huddled back against the cockpit bulkhead, still holding her in his arms. Before his eyes, the ramp slammed shut.

"Sorry about the rough ride, Commander! I didn't have time for the usual retrieval procedure, so I had to resort to a somewhat unorthodox method to get you back aboard!"

Only upon hearing the words did Thor realize what the pilot had done: he had maneuvered the shuttle forward and precisely caught him and her with the open hatch mouth. And truly, all around Thor, the floor was littered with tell-tale nuggets of wreckage that had been collected along with the two of them.

Great Empire, there will be enough free-floating handbooks out there by the end of this day to form an asteroid belt of their own!

"Re..." he ground his teeth with the pain. Speaking, even breathing, hurt him badly. He was sure he had at least two ribs broken, not to mention the mounting pain in his right shoulder. Yet he forced himself to draw breath, sit up and answer the pilot. The effort left him dizzy, tears streaming freely down his face as he fought to control himself.

"Rebuild the internal atmosphere!" he finally managed to say. At least he had meant to say that, he couldn't quite hear himself through the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears. The inside of his helmet was smeared with moisture from his own breath, intermixed with spots of his own blood. He must have smacked his head against something on top of it all.

"Aye, sir! Hold on to something, we got hostiles all over us! This is going to get a little exciting!"

He didn't answer, fighting with his collar arrest. Moving his right arm hurt as bad as he had ever felt, but after two failed attempts, he managed to rip off his helmet and cast it aside. The air inside the crew cabin was still so thin it immediately made him choke, almost retch. For a second, he thought he was going to pass out with exhaustion and oxygen deprivation as black spots danced before his eyes, but then he recovered. Still, he could barely hear, and every single breath was an effort.

He nearly fell back over when the floor pitched and bucked beneath him. Only his good reflexes saved him as he grabbed a handrail to stabilize himself. His helmet rolled away. Obviously, the flight crew was taxing their mount to its limits, trying to avoid incoming fire. The reddish strobe light effect of nearby laser fire flashed past outside the port windows.

With the additional leverage provided by the handrail, he managed to upright himself into a kneeling position by her side, unfastening his gloves and fumbling with the unfamiliar sealing clamps of her flight helmet. After several long seconds, they finally came off and he gently eased the helmet off her head.

The clang of metal made him turn. The co-pilot had thrown the cockpit door open, clinging to the frame for support as the whole shuttle spun and rocked. Inside the cockpit behind him, a cacophony of various warning klaxons wailed continuously. The boy looked for the entire world like he was going to throw up any moment.

"Come over here! Help me! Fetch me the med-kit!" Thor hollered, returning his attention to her as the boy scrambled forward across the unsteady deck.

He didn't like what he saw. She was deathly pale, the coppery red of her sweat-soaked hair contrasting all the more with the whiteness of her skin. Her mouth was half-open, eyes bloodshot and rolled back in her head. She didn't seem to be breathing.

Trying hard to remember the basics of first aid, he breathed in deftly, bending down and pressing his mouth onto hers, forcing his breath into her lungs.

No visible reaction. He did it again for the same result.

"Come on, girl, don't die on me now!" Desperate, he finally resorted to slapping her in the face hard and repeatedly, not knowing what else to do now.

Her eyelids fluttered. He hit her again.

Spasms rocked her. She gagged.

And then, roughly and laboriously, she audibly drew breath.

He turned to the ensign who was looking on, wide-eyed, unmoving, the med-kit held limply in his hands. Thor snatched it from him and broke it open. Syringes, phials and bandages flew aside until he found what he was looking for: a small cylinder of pure oxygen with a form-fitting face mask. Steadying her head with one hand, he pressed the mask over her mouth and nose, thumbing the valve. There was the hiss of compressed gas as she breathed in deeply once, then again. A coughing fit shook her so violently it made him fear she would pass out again, but then her breathing rhythm became steady and she lay still, relaxed.

Her eyes opened. Slowly at first, blinking against the bright ceiling lights, then fully. For a second, she looked dazed. Then her gaze settled on him, and recognition dawned.

The look she gave him touched him more deeply than anything else ever had. It spoke volumes to him, told him all that needed to be said between them right now. He knew there was only one word to describe the emotion that was written in her eyes.

"You..." she choked, her voice hoarse, a mere whisper.

"Hush..." he dropped the oxygen bottle and soothingly touched her cheek. "Don't speak."

"You... came back... for me. I knew... you would come..."

He simply nodded, lost for words. There were tears on his face again, only now they were not born of pain or desperation any more. Still gently holding her head above the deck, he wiped them off with one hand, feeling the warm smear of his own blood on his face as he did so.

Another hideous lurch of the deck nearly threw him off his feet, reminding him that they were still anything but clear and safe. There was a whooping cheer from the cockpit as the pilot executed a high-G turn that made the shuttle's very frame groan with the strain. The med-kit skittered away across the herringbone floor, spilling its contents against the far row of benches.

The shuttle bucked worse than ever before. Very close by, something exploded. The engine noise rose to an unpleasant, sickening howl.

"Hold on, everybody," the pilot called out from the cockpit, sounding insanely cheerful, "we just lost the shields! Now it's getting really interesting!"

Severe hammer blows seemed to hit the shuttle front repeatedly, most probably small pieces of debris bouncing off the unprotected hull like metallic hail.

The young ensign clambered back towards the bulkhead, muttering an excuse into Thor's general direction as he passed him. Thor let him go. The boy was needed up front.

A quick glance out of the window showed him streams of neon red laser blasts, missing them way too close for his liking. At least, the occasional burst of green indicated their escort was still out there and fighting back.

He looked down to find her hand reaching out for his, her touch still weak and feeble. He clasped it and looked at her, trying to think of some reassuring phrase, but none would come.

Somehow, it didn't really matter any more. There was a mutual understanding between them that did not need spoken words. He felt a strange calm overtake him. If he died now, the last thing he would see in this life would be her face. As last sights went, he couldn't think of any better right now.

Outside, enemy laser fire ate into the wing. The howl of the overtaxed engines was deafening. The countless hammer blows of displaced debris were a constant background noise by now.

Then they stopped.

"We've cleared the cloud! Hold on back there! It's now or never!"

Thor was thrown down on his back hard with the sudden acceleration.

Outside, the stars became stripes.

* * *

"And so, as we bid our fellow soldiers this last farewell, let us honor their sacrifice by once again pledging our allegiance to the common cause they served unto their death, by once again reaffirming our obligation to fight on in their name so that their deaths may find a new and greater meaning as another stepping stone onwards to final victory. We cannot retrieve the bodies of our lost comrades to rest them in the soil of their home worlds, as they so surely deserve, nor can we erect a monument in the place of their passage, forever to remind us of their courage and dedication. So let us put them forever to rest in our memory, fellow soldiers, friends and loved ones that they were, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Let us erect monuments in our very hearts and pass on the tales of their courage, that they may eternally be remembered, beyond the end of this war, until space surrenders its dead."

Captain Markas lowered his head, allowing the audience a measure of time to make their own peace with the departed ones and to offer up personal prayers as they saw fit, to send a last, silent goodbye after a lost friend, love or brother-in-arms. He, too, had witnessed friends die that day, and even now, five days later, the wounds from these losses were still raw and painful to him.

Now, standing on Swift Vengeance's main flight deck behind a raised podium decorated with the Imperial banner, looking at the orderly lines of soldiers assembled for this funeral service, he felt the pain with reinforced acuteness, picturing all the once-familiar faces now forever absent from the ranks. And looking into those faces present, he could sense that they felt it, too. Losses had been dreadful during what was now swiftly becoming another piece of Navy legend. Virtually everybody present had lost friends, shipmates or squadron buddies in the fight for the convoy. Accordingly, each ship had already held its own individual ceremonies for lost crew members. This particular event aboard the Vengeance was dedicated to the memory of the pilots and crews of the attack craft squadrons who had fought stalwartly in defense of their brethren aboard the capital ships and the merchant transports and who, at seventy-five percent overall casualties, had paid the highest price of the battle. Rows and rows of dully metallic coffins, each draped with an individual flag and topped with a flight helmet, stretched along the whole length of the deck. Overhead, holographic images rotated in the air, proudly displaying the badges of all the squadrons to be today honored for their sacrifice. A black-clothed table held all the statues, gilded wreaths, pieces of jewelry and the numerous other gifts of appreciation that had been dedicated for this occasion by the grateful surviving merchant crews. Even the sharp smell in the air was a constant reminder of what the carrier and its crew had been through, the unmistakable if faint residue of burning and fresh paint that even the ventilation couldn't fully disperse.

Markas knew that, unlike those of soldiers killed onboard the capital ships, almost none of the coffins arrayed before him actually contained a body. The dead pilots and crews had, for the most part, suffered the same fate as the vessels they had met their deaths in. Exploded apart, incinerated, torn to pieces, they were still united with their crafts as merging clouds of drifting debris amidst the endless void between the distant stars. Accordingly, the coffins held only uniforms, boots, medals and whatever personal items their surviving squad mates had seen fit to represent, for this particular occasion, the living, breathing human being they had once belonged to.

This service was mostly symbolic, he knew. A last token of respect to the dead, surely, but mostly intended for the mental sake of the living, an occasion that formally and visibly marked the transition from a period of mourning the lost ones to one of coping with the loss. It would somewhat ease the psychic pain, helping the survivors to direct their gazes forward once more, to lead on their own lives. Especially among the attack craft squadrons with their closely-knit camaraderie, there would be a good many who secretly felt guilt at their own survival in the face of the deaths of so many of their friends, and they were desperately in need of any form of consolation.

Casting his gaze over the formation, he lingered for a few extra seconds on the sight of Thor Bjarnesson and Nia Paragrin, standing side by side in the front rank of the Crate's delegation. There were brilliant teardrops streaming freely down the woman's beautiful face even as she held her head defiantly erect, and Markas noticed his second-in-command reaching out to briefly clasp her hand in an unmistakable gesture of solace.

Ever since the aftermath of the engagement, after the two battered shuttles and the surviving handful of fighters had limped back aboard the equally battered cruiser, bringing home not only a certain female Commander miraculously rescued from the brink of death but also a likewisely fortunate TIE Bomber crew found marooned in their crippled craft, he had been torn between officially court-martialing Bjarnesson for refusing orders under battle conditions and officially recommending him for outstanding gallantry under fire.

Even given the solid friendship that bound them together, he had been on the very edge of doing the former when his burly Number One had openly confessed of his intimate relationship with what was, strictly spoken, a subordinate officer.

It had taken him long, lonesome hours of brooding in the recluse confines of his flag suite to finally come to a decision. In these hours, as he pondered the events of days and weeks past, it had occurred to him with painful clarity, that right now, the Imperial Navy needed soldiers of Thorgram Bjarnesson's caliber, and needed them desperately.

In the times of its old strength, as it ruled the stars supreme, the Empire had shaped courageous, daring soldiers like him.

Now, in the moment of its weakness, it had need of them. Greater need than it ever had before. In the mortal fight for its own future, it needed heroes that were to shape, to ultimately embody that future. And all the more so since they were currently in scarce supply. No, he would - could not - not rob the Empire of Thorgram Bjarnesson just like that. But he had tried to make sure that the man fully understood what was expected of him in return, nothing less. And so that was the oath he had taken from Thor Bjarnesson and Nia Paragrin alike: to strive and be this future for the Empire, whose fate had been laid in their hands also. To uphold the values and traditions that had once made the Empire strong and which were now, in the hour of its weakness, its most valuable heritage.

He had looked into their eyes as they had both made the pledge, and right there and then, he had known they both would rather die than fail in their obligation.

Redirecting his thoughts back to protocol, he breathed in deeply and nodded a silent signal to the leader of the armsmen detail before raising his voice once more.

"Honor Guard: Atten-tion!"

Dozens of boot heels crashed together in unison, causing the steel deck to soundly reverberate. In the ensuing silence, broken only by the whirring background noise of the ventilation and the occasional shuffling of cloth, the commands to present and sight arms rang out clear and loud. Then twelve blaster rifles thundered as one as the ceremonial salute volleys were fired over the coffins, to be followed by the sad, mourning call of a lone bugle that resonated throughout the cavernous flight deck, fading away like an echo from a distant afterlife.

And with that, the ceremony was over. All that was left for him now was to dismiss the assembled formation. After it had dispersed, the hangar's secondary tractor beams would see to the task of catapulting the coffins into space one by one, leaving them to follow their slow, drawn-out trajectory towards the system's sun.

He was about to dismiss the assembly when a flash of white at the far end of the deck caught his eye and froze the words in his throat as he instantly recognized the lone unexpected visitor.

He drew breath as his heartbeat suddenly doubled.

"Admiral on the deck!"

A disbelieving murmur briefly arose from the ranks as every single officer present threw up a smart salute. Heads turned towards the solitary figure as it stepped forward into the stark white glare of the ceiling lights, from the shadows of the far wall into full view.

Silence fell.

At a slow pace, Grand Admiral Thrawn walked down the line of soldiers frozen to motionless attention, every single carefully accentuated footfall ringing out sharply on the deck plating as he seemed to take in each face in turn with those smoldering, enigmatic red eyes of his. No other sound was audible. Even the ever-present ventilation seemed to be holding its breath, awed by his commanding presence. His impeccable white uniform shone almost painfully beneath the bright lighting, his tall boots were polished to mirror perfection. Not a single hair seemed out of place. For a good many of the soldiers present, it was the first time in their lives to actually lay eyes on the legendary Grand Admiral. So far, he had been a near-mythical figure to the great majority of them, the stuff of battlefleet legends, only to be whispered about in mess halls and crew dorms. Except for those serving on the bridge of his flagship Chimaera, very few people got to see the Admiral on something resembling a regular basis. Soldiers, by nature, were a gossiping breed, and so rumors about Thrawn, about his alien appearance, his reclusive ways, his brilliant understanding of art and his boundless military genius were afloat by the dozen, each one adding ever more decorum to his already awesome reputation as war leader.

Standing before them now, he more than lived up to this reputation. Up close, he was intimidating. He was the archetype of smooth military perfection.

Thrawn turned and raised his right arm to return the salute that Markas dutifully delivered, having hurried forward from behind the podium to greet the unexpected guest. Even he himself, at the rank and position of ship captain, had only had one previous personal encounter with the Thrawn so far, and to that he had been personally summoned at the Admiral's behest.

"At ease, Captain Markas. I wish to address the assembly." Thrawn's voice, in spite of its quiet, level quality, was clearly audible, with an undercurrent of authority that would not brook dispute, the voice of a man used to have his ways.

Markas nodded. "Aye, Sir. Formation: at ease!"

His hollered command was answered with the rumble of boot soles and the shuffle of cloth as everybody came to parade ground rest.

If nothing else, Thrawn's wish was highly unusual, but then, so was his presence in the first place. Even though he reputedly kept a close personal interest in the well-being of the troops serving under him, the Grand Admiral did not usually attend events such as this in person. There was only one explanation for his presence here and his intention to speak out right now, and it made Markas' chest swell with pride to see his stalwart troops so extraordinarily honored.

"Soldiers of the Empire!" The Admiral had no need to raise his voice. One could have heard a needle drop as everybody was hanging on his lips, frozen to rapt attention by the sheer force of his personality.

"Today, as we look upon our fallen fellow soldiers, we deeply mourn the loss of so many valiant friends. So many who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the Imperial cause. So many that we lost to the treachery of the enemy. And in the pain of this loss, it is all too easy to feel the burning shame of our own defeat."

He let his gaze sweep across the ranks, apparently judging the various facial expressions. Many a head, Markas noticed, was hanging low as if in silent acknowledgement.

"This was no defeat!" The Admiral's words broke the silence like a thunderclap, prompting those same heads to rise again. "Brave soldiers of the Empire, in your hour of mourning, know this! Know that your friends and fellow warriors did not make their sacrifice in vain. I am here today to inform you that the three divisions of troops you saw safely to their destinations, along with their equipment and supplies, have subsequently, decisively, turned the tide of battle at Kelvar and Ugenda Two!

Not only have these planets been cleansed from the foul stain of rebellion and have once again been welcomed back to the Empire proper, but also was their capture an essential precondition for other, greater plans that, even now, are beginning to gain momentum. Thanks to your valiant effort and that of your fallen brothers and sister in arms, the great strategy that will ultimately, inevitably, lead to the utter and complete destruction of the so-called New Republic, has been advanced another step.

You have fought hard and well, and you have won a great and decisive victory for the Empire, and it will not go unnoticed! I have personally made it imperative that each and every member of this task group, alive or dead, gets fully credited with the success of both planetary campaigns, and that every fallen is properly commemorated in the honor rolls of both planets."

There was a general murmur of surprise at the Admiral's words. This was highly unexpected praise from so high-ranking a superior, and a rare honor to be bestowed upon Navy personnel, made all the more rare for being personally bestowed by Thrawn himself. The Grand Admiral waited for the noise to subside before raising his voice to speak once more.

"Soldiers of the Empire, today I proudly salute your courage and dedication. The trial of this battle has come to pass, and you are left all the stronger for it. Today, let us mourn our lost ones as they deserve. But tomorrow, new missions await. We stand on the verge of a new offensive, greater and more important than anything we have executed so far. And I count on each and every one of you to stand by my side when the time comes!"

The silence that followed Thrawn's last words was not to last.

Somebody started it.

Others joined in. It grew in volume with every new voice until the cavernous hangar bay reverberated with the sound of the Admiral's name being chanted over and over again. It was deafening.

To Markas, it was sweet as victory. He was left marveling at Thrawn's rhetoric skills. With his brief speech, he had given them all they had so desperately needed to hear. He had brought them back from the edge of defeat and roused them all to a new fighting spirit that was almost fearsome to behold.

Yes, Markas thought, Thrawn would lead the Imperial Navy to war once again, and these men and women would doubtlessly follow him.

And then let the Rebels tremble in their caves!

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