Path to Glory:
Wraith Squadron

Part 8

Republic Star Destroyer Class II(refit) 'Emancipator', Saber/Defender Task Force Head Quarters, entering the Agamarian system. . .

Sub Lieutenant DDD secured his harness to the ejection seat of his T-65C A2 Xwing starfighter. Tightening down the restraining straps, he scanned his instruments. The quad fusion thrust engines were already warmed to the proper ignition temperature. The R2 unit was secured in its pit and reported it was running an internal diagnostic of the fire control sensors. The fuel indicator read a full load. Both the shield system and the blaster cannons were heated up and on standby. Just a push of the master ignition switch would ignite the quad engines, feeding the offensive and defensive systems with precious power. Everything seemed to be in order.

Looking through the canopy across the massive silver gray hangar deck of the Star Destroyer, he saw the line of Wraith Xwings on his left. The cavernous, unified design of the Emancipator's hangar also gave him a good view of Defender Wing's fighters too, as well as the gaggle of Lambda shuttles and troop transports packed in the capital ship. All the Wraiths and Defenders had their cockpit canopies down and locked, the R2 units were all secured in their pits, and the feint glow emanating from the rear of each starfighter was testament to the mains warmed up and ready for ignition. Everything did indeed seem to be in order.

Yet Sub Lieutenant DDD was not a happy man. "Wraith Squadron, Wraith Lead, comms check," he called out. His designator for this mission was half of his consternation. Instead of his normal position of Wraith Twelve, he was the number One, the head honcho, the man. He was acting commanding officer of the 131st Covert Action Squadron now, and surprisingly it was not a pleasant feeling. The other half of his discomfort was painfully obvious as he heard the other Wraiths report back.

"Three is humming," Royal Assassin called out, possibly the only Wraith still in a good mood. The man was just impossible to bring down it seemed.

Ensign 'Klick' Bader followed. "Four reads you five by five."

"Six reads five by five," Jarron called out.

"Wraith Eight is receiving, level five signal strength, level five signal clarity," Sub Lieutenant Zanzetsuken called out in his accented yet flawless Basic.

"Nine reads five by five," Grifter followed.

Finally, Vuffi replied, "'Tail end Charlie here', read you loud and clear Lead."

'Seven…' DDD thought again. 'Seven mission ready pilots out of squadron of twelve. Oh well, it could be worse.' Fortunately the Wraith's mission appeared to be a cakewalk. Just guide some transports to the planet and land. Of course, the easiest of missions could turn into a nightmare of a fur ball in the blink of an eye. And if that happened, Wraith was tired and under strength.

Commander Wongtam, actually a General now if the scuttlebutt was right, was still waiting for them on Agamar with Hatcher and his people. Chief Ogre was still in Sick Bay. He'd be transferred down to the planet with the rest of the wounded and medical personnel before the Emancipator broke orbit. Chief Kal, the other new transfer pilot, was flying one of the transports. The Wraith Seven slot hadn't even been filled yet. Add to that the fact that the rest of the Wraiths had been flying back and forth to Agamar, rolling around in the mud for the last forty-eight hours without enough rest.

And then there was the case of Commander Celsen. Grifter had called the other Wraiths together for an emergency meeting right after his talk with Scythe, just before leaving for the Avery to go see Den. The news of Derek's impending court-martial and the possible reassignment of the 131st came like a blow to the gut for most of the pilots. DDD had received a coded message from the Commander shortly thereafter. It had said simply "Take care of the squadron. May the Force be with you." As a result, the Wraiths were tired, hungry, scarred, and angry. They were missing some of their best pilots and their commander.

DDD grimaced. Remembering his training in the Jedi arts, the Lieutenant took a deep slow breath, holding it for a few seconds before letting blow out through his mouth. Taking off his flight helmet, he rubbed a gloved hand through his blonde hair as he closed his eyes and tried to flush the frustration away and find the peace and serenity of the Force, the same benevolent power that his twisted Ysalamari infused DNA would never let him touch again.

A series of beeps and whistles from DDD's astromech stalled the former Jedi's appraisal of Wraith Squadron's mission readiness. At the same time the R2 unit's complex digital speech was translated on the Combat Multifunction Display located in the center his console. The Basic text read "Diagnostic complete, fire control system operating within design parameters. Firmware upgrade for operation within Agamarian magnetosphere fully integrated. We should have no trouble detecting and tracking any craft sir."

"Excellent R2," DDD replied. "Keep running all systems off the auxiliary power unit for now. We might be sitting here for awhile, I'd like to conserve energy."

The astromech droid whistled in acknowledgement. Swiveling its gray dome head around, it called out to the GP-8 droid that was passing under the T-65's right s-foil. The General Purpose droid then relayed the message to the deck officer, who in turn passed it on to the rest of the deck crew doing last minute fueling and services of the rest of the Wraiths. Within a minute all fighters that had had their APU's disconnected we're being reconnected by the gray uniformed Alliance personnel and their droid assistants.

"Okay Wraiths," DDD called out "if you've got a holopad to read, bust it out. We're most likely not launching anytime soon. If you'd like to take a nap, make sure tell your R2 unit to wake you if any transmissions come through."

"I have to pee," RA called out over the channel.

"By the Force, can't you just hold it?!" Jarron said.

"Too late," RA said sheepishly.

"Ewww!" was the simultaneous reply from Vuffi Jarron and Klick.

"Hey, I'm using the relief hose," RA shot back.

"We know," Grifter replied. "It's what your using it for that we question."

"Yea," Klick chimed in with a chuckle. "You ever notice how he always has to 'urinate' just before a mission?"

"I think he does it on purpose," Vuffi offered.

"Of course he does," Grifter agreed. "I mean, have you noticed his routine? He always shows up at briefing in his flight suit, ready to go. Then he rushes though preflight, skipping half the steps, leaving his droid to do it all. After which he runs to the locker room to 'change', even though he's all ready to go."

"I bet you he went to the rec room for thirty minutes," Zanzetsuken pondered.

"Yessir, probably dropped a few credits on the girls before rushing back here to 'relieve' himself with his Xwing's suction tube" Grifter concurred.

"That's not true," Royal said indignantly. "I usually use yours instead."

The other Wraiths laughed or gagged at that. Grifter just frowned. "Well, that would explain this itch I have," he said.

DDD put his helmet back on with a sigh. "Gentlemen, please. Try to get some rest. We've got a long day ahead of us."

"Are we going to make it back in time for Commander Celsen's trial?" Zan asked.

"I don't know," DDD said worriedly. "I hope so. But the Emancipator is supposed to break out of orbit and head back to Mon Cal as soon as we hit dirt side. Unless they have the hearing on the planet, we might have to watch it over the holonet."

"Sithspit," Vuffi cursed.

"That…huh…that's frelled," RA said in a strained, grunting voice.

"When exactly does it convene again?" Jarron asked.

"1800 hours," Grifter answered.

Vuffi asked "Is Den going to be able to make it?" "1800 hours," Grifter answered.

Cole hesitated to answer. Finally, he took a breath and said "I, ah, I didn't tell him."

"What?" DDD asked. "Why not?"

"He's still recovering. He's got a lot on his mind right now just with getting better. There was nothing he could do, and he hasn't been around long enough yet to truly comprehend what's going on. Sithspit, I don't even comprehend what's going on. I just didn't want to add to his troubles right now," Cole finished.

The rest of the squadron silently accepted Cole's logic and went back to their little preflight rituals. RA could be seen wiping the condensation off the interior of his canopy before he sat back as far as possible in the pilot couch and nodded off. Klick fiddled a little with his convergence settings, cycling the blaster cannon convergence back and forth from 500 meters to 1 kilometer. DDD attempted to return to his meditation, once again seeking out the Force despite himself. Jarron appeared to be playing a game of Battlegrounds with his astromech on the CMD.

For his part, Grifter couldn't seem to focus on anything for too long. He checked the power packs on his twin DL-44 blasters, Betsy and Becky. Done with that, he tried reading a few pages from the new novel he had downloaded to his datapad. Unable to keep his focus on the text, he then dialed in tactical frequency three and listen to the running report of the Green Dagger's on their advance recon.

Cole heard the familiar voice of 'Ice' Striker, the Jedi Master that had rescued him from Deviate. The man Cole's father had told him to seek out. The man Gar Sted had trusted so much that his last message to Cole had been to trust this Jedi, that he would be the key to finding his mother and father again. Jayce Striker was also the man that had proven incapable of establishing contact with Gar and Lor Sted for nearly two years.

'No,' Grifter thought defiantly. 'No, I will not think of you right now. Stay away dammit.' With that Cole shut off the comm. unit and closed his eyes. A chirp from his astromech unit opened them again.

The translated Basic text scrolled across the CMD. "Would you like to listen to some music? I have access to Republic morale stations."

"No," Grifter responded coolly, trying to keep his emotions about his parents spilling into his distaste for droids. "By the way, which one of you tin cans did they stick me with this time."

"My designation is R2K9," scrolled across the screen.

"K9, heh?" Grifter mused. "Ok, from now on when you work for me your name is Mutt. Now Mutt, let me get one thing clear here. You are a tool. A very smart, useful tool, but a tool nonetheless. You are at my disposal. I don't want you second guessing my decisions, talking back, or refusing my orders, understood?"

"It is my duty to serve you to the best of my abilities," was the text translation of the indignant sounding chirp. Then after a few seconds, more text followed. "Or if you prefer, 'woof woof'."

"Great, I get walking ratchet set with an ego and a sense of humor," Grifter thought, shaking his head. "Look, you just keep your eye thingy open checking my 180 and make sure the ship doesn't fly apart. Otherwise keep your comments to yourself unless asked for. You do that and I won't have any reason to gripe. We'll get along famously."

'Mutt' let out a good digital squelch at that. Strangely there was no text translation to accompany the sound. 'Interesting,' Cole thought.

"Talk behind my back all you want, just do it quietly," Grifter said, closing his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep, the image of his mother and father floated like ghosts behind his eyes.

Ten minutes later, Mutt's high-pitched squeal accompanied DDD's booming voice over the comm. channel. "Wraiths, heat em up! We've got customers. Switch to TAC One," the Lieutenant ordered.

Cole rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with one hand, using the other to switch to the Alliance command frequency. Immediately Admiral Kirby Starfox's even voice crackled over the headphones.

"**** of plans. A passenger liner is under attack by pirates a few kilometers away from where we have exited hyperspace. We are going to launch all fighters now. You will receive specific orders from your Squadron Commanders momentarily. May the force be with you," Starfire finished.

"Well, that was refreshing," Grifter said as he looked out his right side at the crew chief standing just in front of his starboard s-foil. The technician held up his hands with his fists closed, signaling Cole that he was not clear to hit the ignition button yet. The Tech kept his hands up as he watched another of his comrades rapidly unhooking the APU cable from its receptacle under the Xwing's lower starboard fusion engine. The crewman finally yanked out the heavy insulated cable and slung it over his shoulder, slapping the cover hatch closed as he ran to the rear, being sure to stay clear of the exhaust nozzles of the powerful fusion thrusters.

Seeing that the crewman was clear, the Tech dropped on hand and gave a circling motion with the other fist. Grifter nodded and punched the master ignition. He held the large metal button down as he felt the rumble of the Incom engines come to life, spewing out super hot plasma in a three meter directed cone of energy behind each of the four engines. As the temperature indicator rose Grifter let off the button and flipped the four regulator levers to the up position. Now the engines were literally feeding of themselves, using their own energy to keep them going. In addition, the deadly plume of plasma receded to four self-contained points of red energy within each engine nozzle. Finally the four indicator lights just ahead of the throttle assembly on his left console blinked green.

"Nine has four lit and in the green," Grifter called out. Soon thereafter the rest of the Wraiths repeated his announcement. Grifter eased the throttle forward to low idle and shunted power to the repulsor lifts. With Grifter gently lifting the altitude sliders on the console, the T-65C first wobbled, and then glided to a height of two meters of the deck.

Cole watched as the other Xwings began to slowly float over to the huge square opening to space in the center of the hangar. Nearly a hundred meters away he could see the Xwings of the Defender 'pukes' also begin to taxi. Grifter waited for the thumbs up from his own crew chief before he snapped a smart salute and followed the other Wraiths to the launch point and whatever mission lay beyond.


Five minutes later seven Xwings were zooming through space. "Lock s-foils in attack position," DDD ordered. The Lieutenant followed his own order by reaching out with his left hand and slapping down the large lever that split the four s-foils into the unmistakable X configuration for which the T-65 was so famous. His armament panel sprung to life, showing four fully charged blaster cannons ready to fire.

Looking to his left and to his right, he saw the other Xwings open up as well. Wraith Squadron was locked, loaded, and ready for action. 'CIC, this is Wraith Lead with seven very nasty ghosts, looking for some meat. Where do you want us?"

"Roger that Wraith Lead," the Emancipator Combat Information Center Officer on duty responded. "Be advised, space liner 'Crown Jewels' is broadcasting a distress guard. Saber and Green Dagger are in route. Send half your squadron to provide escort to the Crown Jewels. The rest will join Twilight to provide fighter cover for any attack on the Emancipator itself."

"Acknowledged," DDD replied. "Alright gentlemen, you heard it. Nine, take Third Flight and join up with Saber and Green Dagger. The rest of you with me."

"Understood Lead," Cole responded. "Alright Vuffi, it's just you and me buddy."

"I'm right with you Nine," Vuffi said. "Getting a vector now. Got it! Read Crown Jewels at zero seven five mark one three, range seven thousand klicks."

"Confirmed," Grifter said. "Make out two flight groups of R-41's supported by E shuttles. Ok, lets close the gap. Pour on the fire Ten. Take shields and cannons down one notch, accelerate to 125 Kps."

Vuffi double clicked his microphone in reply as he dialed in the new power settings, shunting off some of the bleed engine power from maintaining the shields and cannons, sending it back into the second stage fusion chamber of the fusial thrust engines. The momentary bump in power caused the Wraiths to be pressed back into their ejection seats before the inertial compensators adjusted to the new force.

"Wraith Lead, Third Flight is burning for the engagement zone, ETA…two minutes."

"Good luck, may the…" DDD trailed off, catching himself before actually saying the age-old adage of good fortune.

Grifter grinned, saying "It's ok Exec, there ain't no atheists in cockpits."

"Ninety seconds till intercept," Vuffi warned.

"Switch back to maintenance level on cannons and shields at twenty seconds," Grifter ordered.

"Mutt, confirm IFF is sending and receiving," Cole barked at the droid. "Don't want to get shot by some trigger happy Saber by mistake."

"Identification Friend or Foe subsystem is transmitting and receiving properly," came the text across the CMD.

Satisfied, Grifter switched over to tactical channel two. Immediately his speaker came to life.

"Watch yourself Saber Lead, Starchaser coming up on your 210 position!" "Dagger Five is on it." "Negative Dagger Five, stay with the Crown, Lead is fine." "Woohoo! Sierra Hotel move Lead!!" "Saber Four is engaging hostiles at 050mark85." "I've got your wing Four." "Saber Lead going cannons…scratch one more!" "Emancipator CIC copies Saber Lead, good work, that's five for you already."

'Five?!' Grifter thought with surprise. There weren't many pilots that were good, quick, or lucky enough to make ace in one mission. Some pilots never made ace at all, though the ones that survived generally did eventually. There were a lot of bad buys out there after all.

The battle kept pouring in over Grifter's communications system. "Dagger Six, break high right!" "Ejecting!" "SAR, Dagger Six is EVA, send pick up ASAP!" "He's on you now Five!" "Five is totally defensive, somebody get this scumbag off me!" "Saber Lead is on it" "On your right wing Lead, about twelve meters low." "Roger that Two." "Dagger Twelve orbiting at ***" "Escort Shuttles are engaging!!" "Dagger Five, bug out low and right to sector three, Saber Lead is going hot with guns!" "You're clear Five, your bandit is sucking vacuum." "Lead's got six vaped now!" "Keep your focus Nine, there's still bandits in the area." "Saber Lead, Dagger Lead, those E Shuttles are chewing through us. Request assistance in se***" "Dagger Lead's been hit!!" "I've got a visual on him, he's intact, sparking something fierce though…" "Dagger Lead is FUBAR, heading for the barn." "Dagger Lead, Dagger Two, acknowledged. Seven, Eight, on his wing." "Confirmed Two." "Dagger Eleven is making a pass on E Shuttle from the right." "Saber's Nine and Ten are on his left Dagger Eleven." " Taking fire!"

Just then the star field in front of Grifter was punctured with a fiery explosion, the result of some fighter's oxygen supply being ignited. Two seconds later Cole could make out the red tracers of starfighter class blaster cannons crisscrossing among the infinite black beyond.

"Tally ho!" Grifter called out to Vuffi. "Nine has visual."

"Copy that," Vuffi replied. "Looks like a pleasant little furball. R-41's seem pretty well contained."

"Those Escort Shuttle's are hurting them though," Grifter countered. Switching back to the hectic comm. chatter of the battle, Grifter pressed the transmit switch. "Wraith Flight entering sector three, two ship formation with cannons. What can we do for you gentlemen?"

"Hold one Wraith," one of the combatants responded. Grifter's CMD display traced the transmission to a T-65C off his port front quarter. The IFF identified it as Saber Lead. Grifter watched as the Saber pitched up violently and went head to head with one of the surviving Starchasers that was attempting to make a run on the Xwing from above.

'Well, I ain't waiting,' Grifter thought. "Weapons free Ten," Grifter called out to Vuffi. "Take targets of opportunity and watch your background."

"Going hot," Vuffi replied. Grifter watched as Vuffi's Xwing instantly rolled ninety degrees to starboard and broke away from Grifter, it's quad fusial thrust engines glowing an angry red.

Looking forward again, Cole saw whoever 'Saber Lead' was and the hostile R-41 trade shots before passing head on at impossible speed. "Wraith Nine is on your bandit Saber Lead!" Grifter called out as he pushed forward on the control column. The T-65 pitched down with incredible speed, the maneuvering thrusters on the open s-foils propelling the fighter around the turn.

"Roger that Wraith Nine, appreciate the help," came Saber Leads reply.

Cole swiveled his head around, looking for any motion or cannon muzzle flashes coming his way, before focusing tightly on the enemy Starchaser. Turning the sensitivity dial down slightly on his control stick, Cole made fine corrections to his flight path as the range to the Starchaser rapidly counted down. At nine hundred meters Cole pitched up again and pulled lead. His CMD displayed the vector and relative velocity of the R-41 centered in it's targeting display, feeding the information to the subsystem controlling the convergence of the four blaster cannons mounted on the s-foil tips. At eight hundred meters the computers settled on a proper setting. Instantly the crosshairs on the HUD glowed green and a beeping noise began it's regular beat in Grifter's ears. "Wraith is going guns!" Grifter yelled as he squeezed down on the trigger.

Twelve streaks of supercharged particles lanced out at the R-41, crushing its rear defector shield and causing the starboard most engine to blink out in a shower of molten metal. Unfortunately it wasn't a clean hit. Half of the cannon rounds passed just behind the fighter. Grifter cursed and hurriedly adjusted the convergence of his blasters.

Immediately the Starchaser pilot abandoned his pursuit of Saber Lead and began a series of evasive turns. Grifter and his more maneuverable Xwing followed. Cole fired another blast as the Starchaser crossed back through his crosshairs. The rolling scissors tactic of the unidentified pilot were successful, the shot went wide by a good three meters.

Reacting quickly, Cole turned out of the R-41's plane of maneuver, breaking out of the scissors, and snap rolled over the top. Looking straight up through his canopy, Grifter saw that the Starchaser pilot had lost sight of him and was continuing his weaving pattern. Out of the corner of his eye Cole also saw Saber Lead rolling in on the doomed Starchaser as well. 'Oh no you don't,' Grifter thought, 'this one's mine!'

Satisfied that the kill shot would be his, Grifter pulled lead again on the half crippled Starchaser. However, instead of the targeting crosshairs becoming that welcoming green, Grifter saw the threat warning indicator wink on with a blood read hue. Half a second later R2K9 squealed. "Escort Shuttle firing on our position!" was the translated text.

Cole cursed and snap rolled to the port, breaking off his pursuit of the R-41. "Sorry Saber Lead, I've got to take care of this E Shuttle now. He's all yours," Grifter said regretfully. Grifter heard the double click of Saber Lead's mic indicating he received and understood the last transmission.

Clearing his CMD display of any lock, Grifter then reconfigured the targeting computer to trace the targeting lock of the Escort Shuttle and return the favor. Instantly the ominous image of the well-armed and armored shuttle filled the CMD. Checking the position of the bracketed dot representing the E Shuttle on his sensor scopes, Grifter twisted his head around to look back over his left shoulder. There, slightly higher than the plane of this fighter, was the ship, licking out at him with green tongues of death.

"Vaped another Starchaser, thanks for the assist Wraith Nine" Saber Lead said. Cole saw the preset dot that was his R-41 wink out on his rear scope. 'Damn, at least I'll get a partial,' he thought as he brought his Xwing around to bore in on the E Shuttle.

Mutt warbled as more green tracers flew past. Grifter chopped his throttle to one third, directing the excess energy of the fusion generators instead to the maneuvering jets along the trailing edge of the s-foils. The reduced thrust of the main engines and increased thrust of the vector nozzles made the Xwing incredibly responsive. Using the enhanced turning capability, Grifter barrel rolled around the enemy fire, keeping the shuttle itself in the center of his corkscrew.

Whoever was manning the main turret of the E Shuttle was good though. Most of the laser shots just barely missed Cole's tumbling Xwing. Cole cursed at the enemy's competence, watching with interest as his laser lock indicator kept blinking red as the gunner would adjust his aim and get a new solution on the Xwing.

'Frell this,' Grifter thought as he kicked full opposite rudder, slewing the T-65 at right angles to the left handed barrel roll. As the shuttle and its menacing rear turret passed through the center of his view, Grifter squeezed off two quick quad bursts of the cannons. It wasn't enough to pierce the heavy shields, but it was enough to scare the gunner. For two precious seconds the green blaster energy went wide over Grifter's port s-foil.

Grifter grinned. Using the brief respite from the oppressive fire, he punched the throttle back up to full, closing the distance on the pirate shuttle. At eleven hundred meters Cole boresighted the shuttle and mashed the fire trigger down as hard as possible, trying to will more energy into his red streaks of destruction. Five full quad bursts of energy slammed into the rear of the shuttle just as Cole saw the turret barrel turn back to his position.

But skilled or not, the gunner was too late. The first four shots destroyed what was left of the rear shield and shorted out the fire control system of the turret. A millisecond later the next quad blast completely ionized the gun and its user. The last three successive blasts liquefied or atomized hull plating further and further into the shuttle, finally igniting the pressurized main hold.

As Grifter dived under the mortally wounded shuttle, he saw glowing cracks form in the outer hull near the large shielded cockpit. Finally the burning oxygen inside the shuttle erupted out, the fire being consumed instantly by the cold vacuum of space.

"Good kill Wraith Nine," somebody called out over the channel. Grifter double clicked his mike in response. A cold, thin smile could be seen on his face.


More communications from the other fighter pilots broke Cole out of his satisfied trance. "Contact, one Murian Transport at 030 mark 60 relative, range six thousand kilometers."

"Emancipator copies Saber Lead, pursue and destroy," came the order from command and control.

"Copy that Big E, Saber Lead is attacking. Anyone not messing with a Starchaser or E Shuttle right now form up on my wing."

"Wraith Nine copies, coming up on your starboard side, a little low," Grifter said. He saw the friendly Xwing waggle its s-foils slightly from side to side in acknowledgement.

"Cutter here, Green Dagger is with you too." Grifter looked back and saw that indeed one of the small RZ-1 Awings was rapidly closing from the rear.

"Yay, the gangs all here," Grifter replied.

"Salving targeting systems now," Saber Lead said. Mutt chirped that they were receiving the signal from the Saber's computer. Grifter pushed the accept button over the right multifunction display. Immediately the MUTR filled this CMD. Its shields were raised, and the tracking spikes Cole's TWR were receiving indicated that its guns were ready too. Somehow the large, asymmetric transport just looked a lot more menacing.

"That must be the support ship for the others, whoever they are," Cole mused.

"Well, whoever they are, they aren't going to be around long enough to make any more trouble," Saber Lead quipped.

Something in the pilots voice seemed very familiar to Cole. It was hard to make out with the electronic scramble, but Grifter definitely thought he knew whom this pilot was. The strange thing was, Grifter didn't actually know Saber Squadrons current chain of command. Their squadron leader was actually classified, and Grifter's slicing hadn't gotten that far yet. 'Whoever he is, he's damned good,' Grifter thought. The thought of attacking the MUTR with such a skilled pilot in the lead made him a little easier.

Seconds seemed to slow to minutes as the three Alliance pilots screamed in on the MUTR. At two kilometers the familiar green tracers began to strike out from the large transport. "They're lighting us up!" Cutter called out.

'Pretty light,' Cole thought. 'Perhaps these things aren't all they're cracked up to be.'

As if to confirm his suspicion, Saber Lead dived down on the port hull protrusion. "I'll take care of this, you guys stay safe. Try to keep those guns quiet if you can, but don't risk you're ships. I can handle this I think," he said.

Grifter double clicked his mike, then looked back to Cutter and his Green Dagger Awing. "Cover Saber Lead. Let's pour it on!" he said.

The Xwing and Awing dived down on the port hull. Grifter maintained a relatively steady course as Cutter and his nimble little ship danced around, attracting most of the fire in a vain attempt to bracket the RZ-1. Grifter shamelessly used the distraction to empty half of his cannon charge on the Murian ship.

"30 percent, 10 percent, come ON!" Grifter yelled to the air around him as he watched the shield reading on the MUTR countdown on his CMD. Just then a close shot from one of the turrets zinged past his port shield generator coil, burning off half of the fighter's shields and buffeting the ship. Mutt squealed in protest at the glancing blow.

"Keep your bolts together tin can!" Grifter yelled as he jerked by on the stick and broke off his strafing run. He slapped at the power shunt switch as he started a random zigzag pattern back out to one kilometer from the ship. Hitting the switch, he transferred his remaining stored cannon power to his shields, bringing them back up to 67 percent. Moving his hand to the recharge settings, he dialed up the cannon recharge one notch, sending some of his engine power to re-energize the blaster cannons.

Cole watched with anticipation as the cannon charge meter crawled back up to half full. Satisfied, he leveled off the power meter and accelerated back up to 100 Kps. "Ok tin can, watch this!" Grifter said as he prepared to dive back down on the MUTR.

Instead of a series of chirps and whistles, Cole was surprised to hear the R2 unit emit something that sounded curiously like a digital laugh. Slightly confused, he looked down to read the translation. "Look left," was all the Basic letters said.

Looking over his left shoulder, Cole let out a disappointed breath. "Damn," he said as he watched the MUTR roll over, fiery vents of air poking out of its cracked hull.

"That's SEVEN full kills for Saber Lead!" some excited Technician from the Emancipator CIC room exclaimed over the open frequency.

"Good kills all around Saber Lead," Grifter said with respect.

"Thank you Ensign Sted," the unknown pilot said. A few seconds later, he added "I was glad to have you on my wing."

Grifter was surprised that the unknown Commander actually knew his name, especially since Cole had no idea who he was. Still, the voice did seemed damned familiar, and the way the pilot was almost apologetic in his speech… 'No, it couldn't be,' Grifter thought. 'They don't let full star Admirals fly tactical fighters. No way.'

Grifter watched as the Xwing in question speed off to rejoin the others from its squadron. The last of the R-41's had been vaped, along with the last E Shuttle. In the far distance Cole's scanners picked up a Lambda class shuttle exit the Emancipators hangar. The Search and Rescue craft was sent out to pick up Green Dagger Six and any other Alliance pilots that were forced to go EVA, as well as any enemy pilots that were so lucky to get out of their ships in one piece. The former would be shipped down to the planet to be taken care of by the medical personnel that were landing at this moment. The latter would be taken aboard the Emancipator and interrogated.

Which would be a perfect cover for Cole. "Wraith Nine to Wraith Lead, come in."

"Lead here, go ahead."

"Go secure," Grifter barked.

A few seconds later DDD came back. "What's up Cole?"

"Sir, request to remain with the Emancipator to help interrogate the prisoners."

"What?" was the Sub Lieutenants shocked reply. "Ensign, the Emancipator is hypering back to Mon Cal just as soon as we hit dirt."

"I know that sir, but we're just gonna be setting up camp for at least the next week. I can go with the Big E, help with the prisoners, then take my Xwing and be back before we hook up with Hatcher's camp again."

"And you can attend Commander Celsen's trial," DDD added.

"To be honest, the thought did cross my mind," Grifter admitted. "Come on DDD, you don't need me right now. I'll be back before you miss me, and one of us should be with Derek now, if not the whole squadron."

DDD waited a few seconds before replying. "That's gonna be a hell of a flight back, just you in an Xwing cockpit for four days. Make sure to pack plenty of whiskey."

Grifter laughed. "Yessir, will do. I'll keep you and the other Wraiths informed as to what's going on. Don't blow up the planet while I'm gone." With that Grifter changed course, called the Emancipator, and requested permission to land.


Five minutes later Cole was waving to one of the crew chiefs to bring over a ladder as the X-Wing canopy slowly raised. As he unbuckled his restraining harness, the astromech droid emitted a short series of beeps and whistles.

"I don't care Mutt," Cole responded. "I'm not leaving Commander Celsen alone right now. Look at it this way, if they court-martial me too, at least you'll get a new pilot."

"Well, dreams do come true then, even for droids," came the translation on the CMD.

"Very funny," Cole responded. "Either way, I'm not stepping foot off this ship until Scythe is back in the cockpit."

Just then the droid let out a series of loud whistles. Cole saw it rocking back and forth in its pit behind the cockpit. It looked like someone had grounded a power coupling on the tin cans head it was fidgeting so much. "What are you going on about now?" Grifter asked with some annoyance.

"Start stepping," was the cryptic translation.

"What?" Grifter asked quizzically. Looking out of the cockpit at the bustling crewmen running back and forth to the last of the transports and fighters preparing to take off, the Wraith finally saw what the droid saw. "Commander?" he yelled.

Walking on the gleaming polished decks toward a waiting T-65 was Commander Scythe, dressed head to toe in his orange flight suit, his life support harness affixed to his chest, his helmet cradled in the crook of his left arm.

"Commander, what are you doing?" Cole asked.

"My job," was the solemn reply from the Jedi.

"Sir, you've been relieved of command. If you launch now…"

"I cleared it with Pallos and Admiral Starfox. I'm not about to let my squadron go down, not without a fight. If the 131st is destroyed, I'll go down with it, not watching on some holovids. By the way Ensign, shouldn't you be out there with 'em?"

"Yessir!" Grifter replied as he waved away the crew chief and his ladder. Sitting back down in the cockpit, he began to rapidly reconnect his harness as the canopy began to lower. "Well Mutt, looks like you've still got a pilot for now," he said as he called flight control for permission to launch again.