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but each time, she had forcibly withdrawn her straying hand from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.
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
"Barka, do you hear me? Knight, this is King,
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
* * *
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.
"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
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
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
"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,
He stopped, intently pressing his comms earpiece
to his head, listening, nodding several times in quick succession.
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.
"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
"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
"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!"
He got up - jumped up, more like, finding himself
suddenly filled with renewed vigor at the prospect of the events
"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
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
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
"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!"
"You heard me right! Ram the bastard if you
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
"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 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
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!"
"Aw, forget about withdrawing! Prepare to
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
The boy blanched visibly upon looking over his
shoulder, then abruptly turned his head forward again, tight-lipped.
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
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
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,
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
The shuttle bucked worse than ever before. Very
close by, something exploded. The engine noise rose to an unpleasant,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
And then let the Rebels tremble in their caves!