Path to Glory:
Wraith Squadron

Part 1

Cole looked out at the rolling blue/green ocean that seemed to stretch for infinity before him. It was a curious sight for him. It was so…wet. Cole was born and raised on Ariz. The largely desert world had very few 'oceans'. Mon Cal, on the other hand, was a planet almost completely covered with water. 'What a strange journey that has brought me to this alien world,' Grifter mused to himself.

A Mon Calamari waiter waddled over from the bar and dropped off another glass of Stimwiskey. Grifter slipped the fish-eyed thing another twenty credits and muttered the cursory 'thank you' in it's own language. It waddled back off, seeming to be pleased at the generous tip and the humans' knowledge of its native language. It was one of only a handful of phrases of Mon Cal Grifter actually knew. Whenever the fleet stopped at a port of call, the Personnel Office, or PO, always disseminated information on the local culture to anyone who would be taking shore leave on the planet. In addition to the currency exchange rates, local governments and their regulations, and locations of Embassies or other safe havens, it always included just enough local language briefings to get food, directions, lodgings, and 'recreational' activities. The latter of which Grifter thought he would pass on this trip. He might have become a bit more progressive in his view of some alien cultures during his service with the Alliance Second 'Saber' Wing, but there were some lines he just was NOT ready to cross.

With a slight shudder at that last mental image, Grifter turned his attention to his fifth glass of Stimwiskey. It was fast becoming one of his favorite drinks. As strong and flavorful as the best Corellian whiskey, it had some kind of additive that allowed a person to get three sheets to the wind with great ease yet maintain a level of alertness no matter how drunk they got. Grifter had done his fair share of scientific research on the matter the past week. He was fast becoming quite the expert on getting drunk on alien worlds.

Grifter squeezed the object he palmed in his hand one more time before plopping the metal triangle in the glass. He watched it plunge to the bottom. A kind of smile came across his face at the symbolism of it. Picking up his glass, he turned to the main room of the fresh air bar. The large open area was very clean and brightly colored for a bar. Grifter generally preferred dark, smoky and loud to bright, cheery and subdued, but booze was booze. Whatever's its name, the place was packed with people, about a third of them wearing one from of Republic uniform or another. It was a nice place all the same, quite popular both with the local upper class and with officers on leave. It really was just too damned quiet for him.

Grifter jumped up on his table and raised his glass in the air. "Excuse me, may I have your intention please!" A few people chuckled at the misspoken word. A few more prepared to raise their glass as well. One or two looked nervously around the room. Waiting for the slight murmurs of hushed conversation to die down, Grifter pressed on. "I would like a toast. To the Emperor!" A few gasps could be heard. "May he die horribly and burn of all eternity in the hottest halls of hell!" There was a collection of here-heres and a few pounds of the tables in response. Cole wasn't finished yet though. "And to the all mighty, all knowing grand poobah's of the Alliance High Command!" Even more cautious cheers and raises of glasses. "May they not get half my squadron massacred next time." Glasses dropped at that. There were a few nods of heads across the room, a few murmurs of 'damned straight'. There were no cheers.

Grifter slammed back half of the Stimwiskey as another Mon Calamari waiter came over to guide him off the table. "Sir, please keep your voice down. If you don't, I'm going to have…" Grifter slapped his left arm around the fish-heads shoulder, shutting him up for the time being. "And to our good friends the Mon Calme..Calli..ah frell it…TO THE FISH HEADS!! May they not find themselves sautéing in my frying pan with a stick of butter." There were some good laughs at that one as Cole gave the Mon Calamari a big wet kiss on the side of its head. It ran off wiping the side of its face with a cloth, muttering in its own language. Cole gave it a little wink as it ran off, and then turned his attention to the holoplayer over in the corner. It had gone unused to this point. 'Well, I'll change that', Cole thought to himself as he looked over the selection. 'Crap, crap, crap, ahh, what do we have…oh, just more crap. Crap, homosexual crap…hmm, what's this? YES! Excellent, here we go!' Grifter made his selection. The display flashed 'Whiskey In the Jar', then the deafening sound of amplified guitars filled the room.

Grifter banged his head up and down as he weaved his way back to his seat. Lighting up a new stick of spice, he inhaled the blue smoke and looked at his half empty glass of Stimwiskey. The metal triangle still shined at the bottom of the glass. Cole raised the glass to his forehead and gave another silent toast. 'To you, my friends,' Cole thought to himself. 'I miss you. Keep the place warm for me.'

Just as Cole was about to slam back the last of the modified alcohol the main door to the bar flew open. Grifter shielded his eyes from the reflected sunlight that beamed off the ocean waters through the open door. "Close the damned door!" he yelled at the new comer. The silhouette walked over towards Grifter's table as the door slowly swung closed behind it. As it got closer, Grifter's eyes focused enough to make out the visitor.

"Hey Chief! Oh, excuse me, Sub Lieutenant. My bad." Grifter apologized as he drew in other puff of the smelly spice cigarette.

"How are you doing Cole?" the newly promoted DDD asked his friend, waving away the mistake in rank. Things had been changing fast for the 131st. It wasn't always easy to keep up.

"Oh, just peachy Exec." DDD had been promoted to the position of Executive Officer of Wraith Squadron just a few days before. It would have been a joyous occasion for them if the reason hadn't been so grim. Between the battles in the Unknown Region and the recent fleet action with the Emancipator Task Force, the 131st Covert Action Squadron, like the rest of the fleet, had taken serious losses. Positions that had been filled by trusted officers and friends now found themselves unmanned. 'It's a hell of a way to get a promotion,' Cole thought again, looking down at his glass. "Can I get you a drink, sir?" Cole looked up and began to motion for the waiter again.

"No thanks Grifter, I'm on business. I hate to do this, but I've come to collect you and the others. Shore leave has been cancelled. We're to be formed up ready to leave the surface and report to Commander Celsen by 1900 hours." DDD grimaced at having to deliver his friend this news. DDD could have used a few more days of drinking and remembrance himself. But life did go on, and there was a war raging out there still.

Grifter didn't say a word. He just looked at his glass for a few more seconds. Then, taking one more drag of his cigarette, he then stubbed it out and knocked back the last of his drink. Grifter reached into his mouth and pulled out the metallic triangle that had been at the bottom of his drink. He looked at it for a little while, then wiped it off on his sleeve and fixed it to the label of his uniform shirt.

"Ensign Cole 'Grifter' Sted, Third Flight Lead, Wraith 9, reporting for duty as ordered, sir."

"Dammit Pal, we're not ready!"

Commodore Pallos looked his friend in the eye. "We're going to have to be ready," he said as evenly as possible.

Commander Derek 'Scythe' Celsen pounded his fist onto the armchair again. "Wraith Squadron is barely sixty percent operational! Sithspawn, we still don't even have enough pilots to fill half the Xwings out there!" he said, pointing to the collection of T-65C's that sat outside the spaceport conference room.

"JC says he's graduating the entire class that flew with us during the battle. Those kids held their own just fine in some of the hardest combat we've both seen. I'd say they'll make fine replacement pilots for you." Pallos paused for the response he knew was coming.

"Sure, they're fine pilots, but not a single one of them is special operations qualified. None of them have been to Yavin 4. None of them have any training or experience in Naval Intelligence or strategic operations. None of them have ever been a part of an insurgency force. None of them have ever operated using guerilla tactics. Every single one of them is spit and polish regular Navy fighter jocks. Now that's all well and good, but our mission is NOT space superiority dammit!! Unless the Admiral's office intends to re-organize us." Scythe paused himself at that. It was a distinct possibility. Wraith Squadron had always been something of a rouge element to some of the higher ups. There were plenty of officers in High Command that understood the worth and effectiveness of the 131st Covert Action Squadron. But there were just as many that were hardcore regular Army/Navy through and through. Those types chaffed at the unconventional nature and personalities of the Wraiths. There were more than a few rumblings in the past of having them reformed into more of a conventional fighter squadron. But they did perform a vital mission, and their past record had shielded them from some of the 'eccentricities' of the members. Besides, they were the only squadron organized in such a way to do those missions. Scythe would have liked to see Saber Squadron try their hand at strategic reconnaissance, or Green Dagger train an alien population as an indigenous combat unit and employ them as an insurgent combat force from the ground up. If the Admiralty tried to destroy Wraith Squadron from the inside by assigning a bunch of Regular Navy pukes, a vital asset would be lost.

Pallos decided to play devils advocate for a bit. "We did just fine flying for the Big E. We had more space-to-space kills than Green Dagger, and almost as many as Saber. We can do space superiority if we have to."

Scythe looked Pallos straight in the eye. It was a strange organization that made up Wraith Squadron. Pallos was a full ranking Commodore, responsible for Naval Intelligence operations and with a direct hand in planning strategy with the Admirals office. As such he was Commander Celsen's superior officer. But Pallos was also a reserve pilot for Wraith Squadron. In those circumstances, in the field, he took orders from Celsen. Such was life in unconventional warfare operations.

"Of course we CAN. Our pilots are some of the most sierra hotel jocks in the galaxy. I'd pit us against those stinky cheese slicers any day." Pallos frowned quizzically at the expression. Scythe waved it off. "One of the men came up with that as a derogative comment about Green Dagger. It's stuck for some reason. Anyway, the point is, it's not our mission, and it's not what we're organized around. We are trained and equipped to operate as insurgents or counter insurgents in an unconventional war, getting our resupply or reinforcement from indigenous forces or captured enemy equipment. As such, regular fleet supplies don't come to us as often as other squadrons. Now, if you put us in a conventional space superiority mission, tied to a fixed base of operations, you limit our mobility, and you prevent us from our normal method of resupply. And without increasing our take of the resources from the rest of the fleet, you'll wear us out. And that's what's been happening! We've been stuck on the Black Cloud for over a year now. Ever since the Unknown encounter, we've been operating as a standard fighter squadron, yet we only get a third of the supplies that the other squadrons get!! And we're being wasted dammit! Every single one of MY pilots is a trained intelligence officer, every single one of MY pilots is a fully trained Ranger, everyone of MY pilots has some special skill that makes him unique to the mission we have. Now don't get me wrong, we've all loved the ability to kill Imperials in great big bloody batches. I know that all the new kill marks on their fighters are making them happy, happy enough to ignore the lack of food, the lack of sleep, the lack of missiles, the lack of fuel. But that 'happy' feeling only lasts so long. They're being wasted in that mission, and it's wearing them to the bone! Now, after one of the biggest fleet engagements we've been through, after losing half of their friends, after barely a week of shore leave, you want to send a bunch of FNG's to us with none of our training, and either expect my guys to get them up to speed in a few days OR continue on as a we've been doing without the resources we need to do it? They haven't even had time to wash the blood off their uniforms! Your asking too much of them Davin."

Pallos flinched at the mention of his former name. Derek thought to apologize for a second, but decided his hurt 'feelings' could wait. There were more pressing matters, and if he felt a little twang, too damned bad. Maybe it would be help him empathize a little more with what his pilots were going through.

Pallos finally sat down across from Scythe. He let out a long breath before proceeding. "The Admirals office knows the hardships your pilots have been through. We're all stretched pretty thin Derek. The entire fleet is below desired efficiency. Defender was hit just as hard too. But this comes from the President himself. Agamar is…"

"A 'strategic asset of great value'," Scythe finished the cliché for him.

Pallos nodded. "Yes it is."

Pallos stood up and poured himself a drink. He offered one to Scythe. Scythe took a whiff of the liquid and decided to pass. Whatever changes the man he had known as Davin Brahm was going through, it sure had changed his taste in liquid consumables. 'That stuff smells strong enough to melt a hyperdrive motivator' Scythe thought to himself.

"The food resources of Agamar are of vital importance. It is located at a strategic choke point in that quadrant. The local citizens can be a great source of recruitment and reinforcement. Yadda yadda yadda." Pallos finished with a snort. Scythe let out a little chuckle at the comment. Pallos then leaned forward.

"High Command also knows our units value Scythe," Pallos continued with a smile. "So does President Mep, believe it or not. We've managed to piss plenty of people off, that's to be sure, but we've also saved enough asses with our actions that we're still somewhat untouchable. Don't worry Scythe, Wraith is not going anywhere."

Pallos took another sip of his drink. He looked Commander Celsen right in the eye and cracked a huge grin. "In fact, Wraith's operational model is exactly what the entire Wing is going to be trying to emulate very soon. The 131st is about to become the most famous squadron on Agamar."