Stephen looked around the room and saw faces that each knew hate, knew death, knew pain. They had
assembled because they had a chance to destroy the root of their spite. They would have traded their lives
for that one chance. Most of them, in reality, were going to.
"We all know the situation," Stephen began solemnly. And they all did. But he would tell them again
"We all know the situation," Stephen began solemnly. And they all did. But he would tell them again anyway.
"We have gathered this day to declare with finality the rule of the Empire in this lawless system." Admiral Hallard gave a stern look to each of his officers, a look of intensity that each of them feared. "For over a decade the Nacians have had the honor of serving the Emperor, and their efforts, their contributions, of both labor and material, have not gone unnoticed. But they are ungrateful. They want only to benefit themselves, and do not see the virtue in the sacrifices we ask of them in the name of the good for the Empire. Too long their transgressions have gone unpunished, because our need of the Nacians' resources made retribution unthinkable. But no longer.
"Today we bring an ultimatum to the SilverEagles and the treacherous leaders of the their Trade Council. They will submit, or watch their world torn apart. They will surrender, or we will level their cities, consume their crops, and vaporize their oceans. The Despoiler and the Adamant, the only remaining Imperial forces in the sector, will converge on Nacihom Prime in a few hours. And if we meet resistance, our turbo-lasers will rain upon their world like the droplets of Armageddon itself."
"No more fighting and hiding. They are coming to destroy us. We have no choice but to stand against them." Stephen wanted to find inspirational words. But he couldn't. There was nothing but calm resignation in the eyes of his men, his friends, many even his family. They were resigned to the hopelessness of their situation. They knew they would fight, and they knew they would die. And they knew their world's death would follow.
They all looked at him, the members of the SilverEagles, and those looks told him there was no hope.
A fleet of modified freighters, makeshift starfighters, and inadequate pilots surrounded the SES Silvereagle. The pilots on the frigate were all professionals, made skilled by two years of rebellion and warfare. They were outmanned and outclassed. Simply, outmatched. There could be no standing against the combined might two Imperial star destroyers. The defensive fleet would be crushed.
"But we won't fail."
Stephen looked to Ariana, who was standing with Scott at the rear of the briefing room. At least their faces had expressions. None of the other pilots dared to feel emotion, or risked holding hope. Why bother, they all wondered. But Stephen's closest friend and his fiancee each shared an expression which spoke their knowledge of how the battle must end, and their hope that somehow they were wrong. They shared a knowledge, one just as strong as that which told them their situation was impossible, that there was a way to prevail. They also shared expressions of love, for him, for their world, for the apathetic pilots around them. Stephen couldn't blame his men for feeling nothing. He knew it was their defense mechanism, when all others had failed. But in a moment when he sought to inspire, he was in turn inspired by the strength he saw in the only two people he really loved.
"We will attack in three waves. A group of us here, in y-wings and Z-95s, will charge the imperials before they make orbit. Before we take too many losses, the first wave will pull back to the rest of the fleet, which will actually have split into two forces, the smaller of the groups to hide and take shelter behind the moon. We will then await them. The frigate will remain, as will the half of us who were not in the first wave. Here we will fight them, and then retreat once again.
"I know Hallard. He will think our first wave a probe, our second wave our main defense force. He has never engaged us in a standard battle like this before. He has underestimated us at every turn during this conflict, and I have confidence he will do so again. He will take the retreat of our second wave as simple, cowardly flight, terrified desertion. For the first time since he made the mistake of occupying this system by force, he will truly feel as though he has the upper hand. He'll be so elated that he'll pursue us."
Then Stephen's eyes glazed over, as he pictured the scene on the bridge of the imperial command ship.
"He will give the order to pursue, and his XO, good old spineless Merriam, will mention that their goal was only to drive us away, to free their turbolasers for bombardment of the planet. But this will only drive Hallard further into the trap. He will demand pursuit and probably my head on a plate. He will nearly go crazy. And in their fear of him, his officers will obey, because even though their commander is taking unnecessary risks, they all know they will vanquish us regardless, so they pursue."
Then Scott looked at Ariana. His gentile eyes caressed her features until she looked back up at him. His expression changed, and she only saw the very thoughts displayed on his face that she herself was just thinking. She turned back to look across the room, across the galaxy, could see Stephen's eyes lose focus, getting wrapped up in his personal struggle with Hallard, trying to convince himself that the vision he saw would actually play out. It only made her hate Hallard more when she saw the hate twist inside him, a man who knew only love for his world.
"Their scan crews will pick up the remainder of our fleet, and be concerned for only moment, because when they see how small the reserve force is, they laugh at its pitifully weak number. It only incites them more. And by the time they notice the turbolaser batteries on the moon firing back at them, and picking them apart the way they had thought to do to our homes, we will make our final strike." Then Steve turned his focus back from his vision, and directly to Ariana's eyes, the transition imperceptible. "And we will win."
"You will be among them, won't you, my friend." Hallard had dismissed his officers. They were making preparations. The attack would begin shortly. "You have been my most worthy foe," he said to the vision he himself was seeing, as he stared out the window in his briefing room at the tiny blue ball that was Nacihom.
Hallard was having visions of the Silverknight strapping into his y-wing, and embarking on his last mission. He could see the y-wing destroy countless numbers of his TIE fighters. But he could also see that lone y- wing overwhelmed by the sheer density of enemy fire.
"You will fight and die, defending the system you love. How wretched. You were a worthy foe, my friend, but you will not have been worthy enough. Your greatest weakness has been your phenomenal skill in the cockpit. You will imagine your most useful place being there, fighting. You won't be able to sit on the bridge of your command ship and coordinate the effort the way you should. You will leave it to others, or perhaps will have the delusion that whatever orders you have given will be carried out the way you imagine. You have never been in this kind of battle before. You don't know the chaos, the anarchy that will ensue. Your meager fleet will be consumed by panic and fear long before it is consumed by fire. Otherwise, you might actually have bested me. It is unfortunate that you and I will never meet. I understand that to look into your eyes is to know the definition of emotion, passion. Passion consumes just as does fire, my friend. You should have learned that. Perhaps, in your last seconds, you will."
"The Merchants," as the military personnel of the SilverEagles called the freelance, civilian side of their fleet, which was in truth over 85% of its number, "have been briefed. We have coordinated with them, and they know which wave they belong to and exactly what the plan is. We have only now to accomplish it.
"So. No more words. Let's get to our fighters."
The group of forty pilots stood and shuffled to the flight deck. Stephen moved from the podium he had been speaking at, through the wave of bodies, to his companions. Together they made their way to the flight deck as well.
"I think it's going to work," Scott said, sounding very much as though he meant it.
"It will work. Trust me." Stephen knew Hallard well, better than Hallard did, probably. And no one really appreciated that.
"It will," Ariana confirmed. She meant it. There was no doubt in her mind. If Stephen could think it up, and it was made to happen, she had faith that his plans would work. He had never let her down before, never been wrong before about people, especially somehow the ones he'd never met. Steve could feel that faith as she wrapped her arm around him. "The only question is how many of us will be left to see it work."
And for the first time that thought occurred to Stephen. He had been so focused on his plans, his orders, and the situation, that he hadn't even really thought about the danger. He stopped walking and looked down at Ariana. Scott continued on to his own y-wing.
"I know," she laughed before he could even speak. She loved him, but Steve had an annoying tendency to be dramatic. She smiled and shook her head. "I know." She leaned into him and kissed him, her eyes bright in the face of Steve's gloom. She had no fear. She trusted her ability to fly, and Steve's ability to lead. She didn't really understand much about strategy, or the art of war. She just knew how to destroy TIE fighters, and better than most. She understood the plans for the battle, but not really the concept behind them. She just had faith that because they were Steve's plans, they would be successful. It was a foregone conclusion for her that they would meet after the battle, clasp each other's sweaty bodies as they always did after combat, and work out their tension together in private. She was concerned about Scott though. He was like a brother to the two of them. And even though she knew she and Steve would come out of this, she worried about Scott.
"You just keep an eye on Scott out there. I think your mood has finally gotten to him." She smiled again, and headed off for her Headhunter, her curls bouncing playfully. But Stephen held fast to her hand, and spun her around.
And even though she knew there would be a tomorrow for them, she didn't want that feeling to go away, to be driven away by the words she knew her fiancee wanted so badly to speak. So before he could say them, she grabbed the back of his neck and pulled his lips to hers again. This kiss lasted longer, and possessed much more meaning - a goodbye kiss Stephen would later think. Then she broke free of him and skipped to her fighter, even the small Z-95 dwarfing her lithe frame. She hopped in and put her helmet on and the canopy closed.
Scott watched it all as he circled his fighter, feigning a preflight the entire time. He saw Steve's lips move after she was in her fighter and spinning it up. The words were familiar enough to him and easy to read even from across the bay. The look on Steve's face was troubled, and no one would really be able to distinguish it from the look he typically had. Scott could however. It was the very subtlety that made it profound, for a man as fiery and moody as Stephen rarely had subtle expressions, and the few he displayed meant more than his normal dramitism ever could.
"Lucky bastard," Scott mumbled.
Stephen made his way over to his own y-wing, finally, after bumping into a dozen other pilots on the way with last minute questions or doubts. And when he slid his hand across the underbelly of his fighter's cockpit, his focus shifted entirely. It was time for battle, and Stephen hadn't become the pilot he was by letting anything but the battle into his mind before or during the fighting.
Scott noticed, and his mood transformed instantly as well.
"You ready, bud?" Scott asked as ascended to his own cockpit.
"The question is whether they are," Stephen replied with a smile, his battle ego assuming control over him.
"The bastards don't have a clue." It was Scott's way of saying he thought the plan had a chance, even though he really didn't.
Steve's smile only broadened. "Nope."
The situation planetside was one of utter disorder. The people had only just learned of the imminent Star Destroyer attack hours ago, and those with the ability were gathering up and moving off-world. They had no delusions about what was to soon become of their world. Countless were the stories of planets tortured by the Empire and its evil ships. They had all seen the pictures, and heard the stories. The ones who could not find passage off the planet were in a state of total panic, heading for the relatively safer rural areas in exoduses from the cities. More people died during the Nacians' fit of fear than even encompassed the defensive fleet in orbit.
"Comm/scan?" Admiral Hallard turned from his position on the bridge to face his most senior bridge staff.
"There is a group of ships in high orbit of the planet, sir. Some large freighters, probably converted to gunships, and the Silvereagle, all clearly defined. The rest are small cargo carriers. Indeterminate number of fighters. I have a signal also closing on our position, some twelve starfighters, probably y-wings."
"Are we in turbo-laser range?"
"Of the fighters, no sir."
"The fighters are between us and their fleet?"
"And their fleet is directly between us and the planet."
"Alright. Commence firing."
"Sir? We are not in range, for accurate targeting."
"Perhaps not. But whatever blasts don't make contact with starships will undoubtedly strike the planet surface. I don't care about surgery on the planet as yet. We will simply bludgeon them, tenderize them.
"Very well, sir."
And the order was given. At such extreme range, the turbo-laser gunners could not hope to target anything, neither targets in space nor targets on the planet. But they were undoubtedly in contact range with the surface.
"Scare some of those ungrateful bastards off their pitiful little world," Hallard cursed softly.
The timing was very precise. Once it was time to draw back, the initial strike force of eight y-wings and four escort Z-95 Headhunters would never be able to outrun the TIE fighters that would venture from the unholy wombs of the Star Destroyers. So the hit and fade had to be timed so that the TIE fighters, if they chose to pursue, would only find themselves far from their bases and in the middle of a SilverEagle fleet. This way the TIEs would have to pull back as well, for pursuit would only be folly. However, if timed too early, the TIEs would have time to pursue, gain, and make their kills before they reached the defensive forces in orbit. Too late, and the Nacian pilots would be consumed by the sheer numbers they would face.
Leading the escorting effort, Ariana made the point in the diamond formation of Headhunters, nearly a full click ahead of the formation of y-wings. Ariana was the most accomplished Z-95 pilot in the SilverEagle Squadron. She was already considering her tactical ideas when a series of long green bolts streaked past her cockpit, probably a quarter click above. They came without warning, and without any anticipation.
"What the hell?"
Ariana turned as best she could in her straps to look behind her. The bolts continued past, until she could no longer see them. There was no way the star destroyers could target her yet, her mind told her. But just in case:
"Alright everyone, tighten up the formation. I don't want more than centimeters separating us. That goes for you too back there, guys," she said to the y-wings. "They're just firing test shots, probably trying to get lucky. Don't let them." A series of acknowledgments filtered through to her. The bolts continued, some approaching as near as meters to the groups. But there were no hits.
"Come on," she muttered to herself. "Send me some TIE fighters to feast on." The image made her smile. This was going to be such a glorious battle. For just a moment, she allowed herself to look past the battle, to what always followed after between her and Steve, a little time alone to work out the tensions. He would be so worked up this night. It promised to be very spirited, especially following the high of accomplishing the impossible, driving away the Empire - forever. It might even be a good time to tell him of the child she was carrying.
Stephen and Scott were simply patrolling through the fleet, showing their gleaming starfighters for all the assembled civilian warriors, the merchants and the haulers, trying to inspire them. The two best friends had already made their transitions to their battle personalities, Silverknight and Eaglescout respectively. In these guises, there was nothing but battle, nothing but their instincts and their skills, nothing but their fleet and starships, no friends, no lovers, only ally and foe. Except for each other. They were one in combat. When separate they were fearsome. Combined, fighting side by side, they were the very hands of death itself. They could kill and destroy their enemies, their only thoughts being of after the fighter in their sights was destroyed, where the next threat would come from and how to counter it.
They were so good together for many reasons. Principally was their drive to be the best, to be the utmost professionals on the field, to be the undisputed victors of every engagement. They were good also because of the love they had for each other, refusing to let the other take hits. They moved through the chaos of conflict as one unit, one leading and destroying, the other watching out for the former, destroying all who would try to interfere. And these roles of leader and follower often changed several times throughout a single fight, as one had the hot hand and then passed it to the other. It was an evolving process for them, and because of the continuous mental adjustments they made, there was no enemy or situation they could face behind the sticks of their starfighters that they could not best.
It was all these reasons, and others, that produced a cold reaction in a passionate man. A large freighter, which had been converted into a minor arms platform, bristling with laser guns, turbolasers, ion cannons, and missile launchers, took a direct hit and ignited with a bright flash. The blast had come from nowhere, with no warning. It didn't take long for Silverknight to realize that Hallard was firing blindly simply for the scare value. The freighter wasn't destroyed, but half of it was gutted or torn away, and there were probably no survivors. Silver mourned their loss, not of life, but of fighting capacity. He would mourn their passing after he and his world were no longer under threat of annihilation.
Then a call came across his headset. It was Eagle.
"The ones that don't hit anything will strike the surface."
"Um-hm." Silver replied, not much concerned by the observation.
"It'll scare the people, make them want to flee the planet all the more. Some of them might even take it into their damned fool heads to launch themselves right into the heart of the fighting."
Then Silverknight became concerned.
"Damn. That'll make a mess of things." A tiny part of the two men wept at the thought of true civilians being slaughtered right in the middle of the starfight. But they were more concerned how the untrained soldiers in their fleet would react.
"Should we send out a general order, no diverting from the main tactical plan to protect the innocents," Eagle asked, already seeing this tearing apart the delicate plan Stephen had laid forth earlier.
Silverknight was unaccustomed to making strategic calls from behind the stick. His typical attacks, hit-and- fades, required very little instruction, were seldom very complex, and were always carried out by trained veterans. It was always a matter of carving out an intelligent, often times brilliant, strategic plan, and then getting in the fighters and performing the tactical deeds necessary to complete the task. Stephen would have made the right call, but Silverknight made a poor decision.
"No. Let's not make this anymore complicated than we absolutely have to. Give the civilians too many orders, they start to get confused."
"Can't argue there," Eaglescout replied.
So instead, a general order was issued from the pseudo-fleet's flagship, the Silvereagle, to pick up visual scans and take whatever evasive maneuvers were necessary to avoid direct hits from the random turbolaser blasts, but they were all doing this now anyway.
"Bombers and Interceptors!" Ariana called back to the Y-wings behind her. "Wow, they don't plan to play around," she mumbled to herself after.
"Well, maybe now we'll show them just how amateurish their battle plans are." Hallard smiled as he watched the display, the first actions of a foe unaccustomed to organized battle as predictable as those of a first-year academy student.
It always happened like this. Since naval activities had been incorporated in war, an oh-so-basic tactic was to use speedy craft to make an initial hit on enemy forces and then retreat so that any possible pursuit would only be cut off and destroyed. The best way to deal with it was to simply overwhelm the small, tactically quick and maneuverable craft with some of his own. So he launched the craft that would incorporate his initial strike early, to deal with the first foes and then to assume escort positions for the rest of the trip to the battle. All the TIE Interceptor and Bomber forces were launched from both star destroyers to act as that initial attack - a total of seventy-two TIEs facing the SilverEagles' four Z-95's and eight y-wings.
"Ok guys," Ariana said over her comm link. "They're throwing them out now, bigtime. Luckily they can only launch six craft at a time. So we just need to be sure not to miss. They have to come through us to get to the y-wings. Lets be sure we don't have to turn back to get any." Ariana knew that if they could kill six fighters at a time, which ought to have been an easy task, then this might not go so badly. They were going to have to get the y-wings to nearly pointblank range of the star destroyers in order to make the torpedo runs successful. Otherwise the turbo-lasers could easily pick off the slow-moving warheads.
"Get ready guys. We're in range in 30 seconds. Remember, break formation quickly, but don't stray too far."
The first wave was four bombers and two interceptors. There was another wave angling in on a different vector, from the other star destroyer. Timed correctly, they could move back and forth very easily. TIE pilots were so predictable, because the Empire didn't bother to waste too much time or money on training.
Finally the first wave was in range for missiles, and it would have to missiles that took out those bombers, before they raced passed to fire their own on the y-wings. Each of the Z-95's fired their missiles, and each struck a bomber a fatal blow. But Ariana's flight only had a total of six missiles per ship. TIEs liked to fly in close formation, because formation flying was one thing they were actually taught, if not maneuvers or targeting, and thanks to this aspect of Imperial military tactics, one of the interceptors went down as shrapnel from his wards sliced him to shreds. Then it was one on four, and Ariana's own lasers made very quick work of that last.
It would have made more sense to launch six interceptors first, Ariana thought, then some bombers. The Interceptors would likely have been enough to make chaos of the Z-95 flight, and bombers would have had a better chance of making it through. Too bad for the Imperials though, they never had been too skilled at making use of their numbers.
"They went for the Adamant, sir. They got to the bombers first."
Hallard was very capable of seeing that for himself.
"Damn," he cursed.
No one would ever know how pivotal that part of the plan was. Naturally, knowing that Hallard would, in his arrogance, assume his ship would be the target, Stephen had sent the initial strike against the Adamant. He didn't think it would make much of a difference past the first wave, because once the first one was gone, the flight of Interceptors would get there next, and the only difference between the two possible situations was a total of six TIEs. But it was just that one little outguessing of Hallard on Steve's part that set the entire process in motion. Hallard started the battle, in his own mind, one step, one point which existed only on his own mental scorecard, behind in the game.
Things got much more interesting after survivors from various waves of attackers made it past the Z-95's, and the y-wings were forced into a little dogfighting. But as the TIEs straggled in, they were destroyed almost to a man. The SilverEagles were just too well trained, and possessed superior aim. Ariana lost one of her wingman to a pair of rapidly succeeding missile strikes. One of the y-wings was damaged beyond the repair abilities of the R2 unit, and his death was certain if he continued the assault. But he did not turn away.
Eventually Ariana's three-man element made it to the star destroyer they had been ordered to attack. They turned from their evasive maneuvers every now and again to pump a laser blast or two into the behemoth's shields, because they knew every last one would count in this fight. Star Destroyer shields regenerated too slowly after taking hits, and though in the time it would take them to reach the fleet they would likely have regenerated the power lost to those few laser blasts, it would be just that much less they would regenerate from the proton torpedo strikes soon to follow.
Ariana had already lost count of the number of Interceptors she'd downed, probably near twenty she told herself. TIEs were now mobbing her, turbolasers were streaking about, and the y-wings would be on their own for the remainder of their flight to the star destroyer, which was just a little over a click. Ariana knew that it would be much more difficult to face the Imperials once they were fully deployed and crashed against the defensive fleet. But it was still amazing to her how much a difference it made facing TIEs in small groups versus the swarms they were designed to use.
But a swarm was quickly what she was finding herself dealing with. Another Z-95 wend down, vaporized by an unlucky pointblank turbolaser hit. The bombers were becoming much more of a problem now. The Imperials didn't care about using missiles, they practically had more than it would take to destroy a planet on each of the star destroyers. So the bombers were firing missiles as soon as they had locks. Soon Ariana was spending all her time evading missiles, and then her final wingmate went down, also victim to missiles. There was nothing more she could do.
Out the corner of her eye, as she cycled through a series of memorized maneuvers designed to throw off missiles' targeting locks, she saw the wedge of y-wings enter the battle in earnest, spitting out lasers and ions as quickly as their ships could, spraying them everywhere, sure to either hit a TIE or the star destroyer. They all already had missile lock on the starship, but wanted to wait until as near the craft as possible. Ariana started targeting missiles vectoring in on the strike force, and shot them down almost as efficiently as she did the TIEs. One of the y-wings went down before launching its eight torpedoes. That was a hard hit, and a lucky break for the star destroyer. However, it was too late for the Adamant to avoid the remaining fifty-six. The y-wings were close enough to launch without the turbo-laser gunners having a prayer of intercepting one.
It was beautiful to see the torpedoes striking the shields of the star destroyer. The explosions were not only weakening the shields, but vaporizing TIEs too close. The shock waves were sending the y-wings careening off course and Ariana took some damage to her right laser cannon. She would be fighting the rest of the battle with a single laser. But it was worth it. She put full power to engines and started weaving her way out of range of the star destroyer. Ariana did not want to leave her y-wing pilots behind, but she knew she would do more to affect the outcome of the battle back with the fleet than battling to the death to save the y-wings here.
None of the TIEs pursuing her possessed nearly the skill to hit her as she executed wild and random direction changes, always careful to keep the planet in her sights, and the TIEs decided to pull back to strike as many fatal blows to the y-wings as they could.
The already damaged y-wing went down quickly, as was inevitable. Three others were lost as well before the remaining three made it out of range on the star destroyers. They were taking hits to their hulls, but the two-seater craft were strong enough to sustain several direct hits, and the ion-gunners were doing an excellent job of stopping TIEs in their tracks. Eventually an order to pull back must have been given by the Imperials, because the TIEs ceased their firing and turned around to join the formation.
As one, the four remaining SilverEagle fighters slowed their flight to charge their shields.
"Report," Ariana ordered.
"Dagger Four here," replied the highest ranking survivor of the y-wing flight. "Dagger Flight reports positive hits on all fired torpedoes, a total of fifty-six. The Adamant's shields are down, and she has suffered light hull damage." Ariana's Z-95 had a very limited sensors package, so all information on the status of the ships around her had to come from the y-wings.
"Dagger Four will need only rearming, no serious damage. Dagger Five reports severe shield generator damage, as well as cockpit depresurization and pilot death - gunner now in flight control. Dagger Seven reports only R2 loss."
"Very well, Dagger Flight. Will relay information to base." Ariana proceeded to give her report to Tactical on the Silvereagle. All of the craft in the initial strike would land and refit. All the remaining y-wings would be reloaded with concussion missiles. Five's gunner would move up in the cockpit to the pilot's chair, and a turbolaser gunner would be reassigned as his ion-gunner/co-pilot, and Seven would need a new R2. Ariana's own status was not good. Her right laser cannon was beyond repair, and the SilverEagles didn't exactly have spare starfighters just sitting around. They could replace it, but it would take a few days to do that, not the hour they now had remaining before the battle would begin in earnest. She'd never been faced with this situation before.
"Status report," Hallard asked softly. Twelve starfighters, and he'd lost over forty TIEs, and the Adamant had taken hard hits. Unbelievable.
"Sir, the Adamant's shields are down, and her hull armor has taken damage. No casualties, no functional damage. Estimate shield regeneration to 12% at time of contact with the fleet. Thirty-two lost Interceptors, thirteen lost Bombers. All other designated TIEs are deployed. ETA with the SilverEagle fleet is fifty minutes."
Comm/Scan was happy that the debacle was not his fault.
"Deploy the TIE Fighters as well then. All of them."
"Yes, sir." Comm/scan went to that task.
Hallard's Executive Officer, Captain Merriam, leaned near and whispered a question.
"Do we advance with the Adamant, sir? Perhaps hold her back, advance with the TIE fleet and the Despoiler, and then bring her in should her weapons be needed."
Hallard only turned and stared hard at his XO.
"We will advance as the unit that we are."
"Then perhaps we could send the Adamant away from the fleet to strike at the planet. The SilverEagles would be sure to follow, divide their forces, make it easier to destroy them, sir."
"Captain," Hallard replied with ice in his voice. "Do not question my motives or tactics. The SilverEagles have bested us at every turn, because our men are not trained to fight against a guerrilla attack. This was no different just now. They merely performed a guerrilla attack on us again and proved why they have driven the majority of my fleet from this sector. But once we meet in pitched battle, they will be crushed. They cannot wage that type of war. Once we attain orbit, we will attack their main fleet. If they choose to pull back, to try to draw us into more of their style of fight, we will simply begin to tear apart their world. They will be forced to face us. And in that battle, they cannot hope to win. I don't care if the Adamant is in fragments, she will join us in our attack, because that is how we fight battles our way, and our way will defeat them. If you have anything remotely intelligent to add, tell me in private, and no not discuss this with me on the bridge, or I will kill you myself. Understood? I will not be questioned, nor will I be defeated. This is my day."
Then Hallard turned to his gunnery-control officer.
"Fire at the planet. I don't care what you hit. Just shoot it."
The situation on the planet was becoming more chaotic. After a short fifteen minute respite from the bombardment, it began again, only worse this time. The entire hemisphere was being pummeled by random blasts from starships not quite so far away anymore. Starports were the very centers of the chaos, as people did anything to get off-planet. Seats were auctioned off for everything from money to possessions to offers of servitude and slavery. Ships of all kinds were lifting off and speeding into space. Orbital ports were emptying with record speed, and orbital space suddenly became very crowded. Most people were trying their best to avoid the general vicinity of the two rapidly converging fleets, but as the space lanes got crowded, and as collisions occurred everywhere, it seemed that the safest place to be was with the defensive fleet. Many pilots, from experienced smuggling vets to soft family heads, took stock of the situation and decided that they could probably go through the area of the battlefield before the two fleets met. Some really could, but most could not. And even after the battle began, people continued to fly through the area, some with thoughts of joining the battle, others simply because it was the shortest distance between where they were and where they wanted to be, their panic to escape the planet carried through into their desire to leave the system, not stopping to think that simply going around would be far safer. Few realized that it was also standard procedure when fighting over a planet to establish a stationary, geosynchronous orbit for the battle. People who did not leave orbit quickly ended up wandering into the fight whether they had planned to or not.
Hallard watched from the bridge. He had a holographic representation of the battlefield before him, but he mostly kept his gaze out the window, watching the specks, flares, and sparks that were actually men dying and killing. It was going well so far. The fleet was smaller than Hallard had been led to believe. The group of freighters and starfighters clashed against a literal swarm of some 130 assorted TIE fighters, interceptors, and bombers. Then the star destroyers opened up with their turbolasers on the SilverEagles, taking their attention from the planet to the battle. With the rate at which the Nacians were going down, this battle would be over in less than three hours. He would have smiled, but he was still angry about the Adamant. He was nonetheless feeling very good that finally, for the very first time since he and Silverknight had begun clashing heads, he had the upper hand. It was nothing short of ecstasy for him, watching explosion after explosion in space, then consulting his holograph and seeing a SilverEagle craft wink out of existence. Then he smiled, as he recognized that he felt no dread, no fear or anticipation as to what the SilverEagles had planned this time. It had always been something unexpected. But not this time. This time it was all going his way. There wasn't anything he hadn't planned for.
The first thing Silverknight had ordered everyone to target was the threat of the bombers. There were very few of them, but they alone possessed the power to destroy Silverknight's plan. They had to be wasted, with efficiency and speed. But it just wasn't happening like that. The fighters from off the Silvereagle had yet to take a casualty in the second phase of the battle. But it was difficult to find twenty bombers amidst one hundred and thirty, especially when they were doing such a good job of striking from largely concealed positions.
It had been proceeding for just over half an hour, and already he was losing his largest weapons platforms. All small freighters and starfighters were to sweep the battlefield searching for bombers and taking their focus away from that task only in the event of an emergency. The larger freighters and barges, which had been undergoing modifications for months in anticipation of this battle, were simply to target incoming warheads and TIEs, to stay alive and largely undamaged. But the problem was that the non-professional pilots were breaking off of their bomber-hunting task when they started taking hits, each more self- concerned than willing to sacrifice for the whole of the system. And so the task of dispatching the bombers fell to the SilverEagle pilots themselves.
It didn't take long once the problem was recognized. Realizing that they were taking far too many casualties, the captain aboard the Silvereagle took the time to have his men locate the bombers, then to relay the information to Silverknight. From there it was easy to find and eradicate them. However, it came at great cost, over half of the fleet was now merely debris. It was happening far faster than either Stephen or Hallard had thought, though speed worked much more to the SilverEagles' benefit.
Once the bombers were destroyed it became a spectacular firefight. Y-wings, Z-95's, and TIE fighters all battled like martial arts experts, twisting and feinting, the quickest the killer, a high-paced adrenaline-filled death match. Meanwhile, the capital ships exchanged punches like boxers. Neither side maneuvering much, each just giving the other the best beating he could, the toughest to survive, the weakest to fall. One side merely converted freighters and liners led by a small starship, the other a pair of the most powerful warships ever created. But the SilverEagles were pulling their punches.
The Imperial TIE pilots could not match the skill possessed by the SilverEagles' starfighter pilots. And when matched against more than simply those pilots, when the TIEs faced tough and quick light freighters also, and had to conduct their business among a muddle of larger ships with gunners dedicated to finishing them off, they were slaughtered in very much the same way they had imagined their vastly superior numbers should have enabled them to do against those foes.
Hallard, aboard his star destroyer, watched and wondered, briefly, why the SilverEagles' only prayer of defeating him and his warships were so focused on the TIE fighters. He didn't learn his lesson from the attack only an hour prior, and ordered his gunners to take apart the SilverEagles' fleet of meager capitol ships, to ignore the pittance of the starfighters. So just as quickly as it took for the SilverEagles to reduce his number of TIE fighters to less than ten percent of their original numbers, his gunners had similarly devastated their fleet. The Adamant had taken so little fire, in fact, that her shields held at just about 10% as well, and she suffered no further damage. But the battle hadn't been quite so clear-cut. There was the wild card that Hallard had anticipated perfectly, and Stephen did not.
The battle was spectacular, and everyone for millions of miles around could see, especially the people on the planet. As the battle progressed, the traffic in orbit became ever more dense, and in all the confusion, there were hundreds of small personal ships that had stayed too long in orbit, and had found themselves wandering right into the warpath. The chaos tripled with this development, and as the star destroyer gunners proceeded to target the civilians, the bad blood really started to boil. And the reserve fleet that Hallard knew Silverknight well enough to predict came out of hiding.
It was just too easy, Hallard thought. He knew his enemy would not commit all his forces to this one stand. Silverknight may have been many things, and though he would have died to protect his home and would never give up defending it, he was no patriotic fool. Even if this battle was lost and the civilization on the planet itself was destroyed, Stephen would have set plans in motion to continue the fight. Hallard had needed some way to draw out this force, and this was it. With the SilverEagle fleet in shambles and countless foolish civilians dying, a tiny reserve force was detected emerging from the sensor shadow of the Nacihom Prime's moon, Novasharpe. They were too few to make any difference, but here they came nonetheless, unable to hold their positions and watch the slaughter they were now walking into themselves.
"What the HELL!"
It was going too fast for Silverknight to keep up. It had taken less than an hour and a half to reach the point they were at, and he could now see a gaggle of starships heading for the fight from the vicinity of the moon. There were very few TIE's left, but they seemed to all be targeting him. He didn't know where Eagle was gone to, or anyone else. All he knew was that the area of the battlefield was so littered with debris that he had to spend more time evading it than he could the remaining TIE fighters. He couldn't see what was left of the fleet, but it was easy to see that flight of makeshift warships nearing the point of conflict. Didn't those damned fools know that if they moved out of position that all would be lost?
There were still countless civilian private ships wandering into the fight, their operators too unaware of the mechanics of orbital flight to understand their danger until far too late to change their fates. The imperial gunners were now focused on them, and innocents were dying all around. As Silverknight weaved through the carcasses of freighters and starfighters, avoiding the fire of the three TIE Fighters pursuing him through the field, he switched comm frequencies to the Silvereagle.
"Damnit, Captain! What the hell is going on?"
"Silverknight, we have about half of the Phase 3 group breaking ranks and headed here at maximum speed. They cannot be held back. It's time for us to go to Phase 3. We have taken too many casualties."
"We are the sole remaining starship from the Phase 2 fleet. It's just us, and you guys in the fighters. It's time to go!"
"Alright, pull back then, and get those fools from Phase 3 to turn back too."
And then Silverknight could see it. The green shower that had been all around him shifted, and a small group of converted medium freighters, all with the markings of a local businessman, began taking hard hits. They returned fire, focusing it on the Despoiler, and causing only a fraction of the damage they were taking.
Silverknight began spewing a long string of curses as he took his pursuing TIE's on a high speed chase through the debris field, unaware that he was still on the frequency to his base ship. Eventually the TIEs made fatal navigation errors and Silverknight turned his full attention to the star destroyers. As he moved into attack position, he remembered his carrier.
"Fall back. Everyone fall back to Phase 3. Send the word to the rest of the squadron."
"We're already pulling back. The rest of Phase 3 reports full readiness. You and Eaglescout are all that's left."
"Look Steve, just head back for us and let's get our asses to Phase 3! Its just what's left of the Phase 3 fleet, the Silvereagle, and you and Eaglescout. That's it man. Now get over here and lets finish this!"
"I gotcha big daddy. I finally got the last of those damned TIE fighters off me, and I'm heading for your location."
"Yeah, a whole planet."
"Status report please." Hallard was just on the edge of elation.
"That reserve force is gone now, sir. We are at 80% shield strength and holding. The Adamant is down to 10%. We are clear of all hostiles. The Silvereagle is pulling back, and there are only two y-wings now pulling out of the debris field and into attack position."
"Very well, signal the Adamant. Move out of the debris field so we can fire upon the planet clearly."
A little red light began flashing on the comm station panel on the bridge of the Silvereagle.
"Bingo!" The officer at the comm station clapped his hands loudly. "Captain, signal!"
"Finally! Get me a lock on that! Then send the frequency and encryption to Silver's R2."
"This is crazy, Steve."
Steve was only feeling numb now. He had never imagined that his entire fleet would be obliterated like this. He was thinking about Ariana in his subconscious, but he wasn't really thinking about her at the moment. He was a man still aware of the situation, and what he could worry about and what he couldn't. He just felt numb.
"You hear me? This is crazy!" Scott was starting to think that maybe Steve had lost it, realized that Ariana was dead, and was just going to end it with a suicide run on Hallard's ship. But if that was the case, Scott didn't mind too much following. Scott didn't take it with any less hurt than Steve when he looked out across the battlefield and saw that there was nothing left aside from the civilian craft. Scott had never really thought this was going to work, so he was ready to die, and there could be no better way to go than while dealing final blows to the embodiment of all his hate. He would rather be dead than see his world after Hallard was done with it anyway.
"Arm your protons, bud," Steve said, softly and emotionlessly. "I just got a little present from the Silvereagle. Listen, and you'll know when to fire off the torps. Then we pull off and head for Phase 3."
As Scott watched the star destroyers loom in his vision, and he watched the turbolasers pump blast after blast into the hulks of the ships that has ventured from behind the moon, he shrugged. Now or later, it didn't matter anymore.
"Oh yes, and those y-wings," Hallard continued. "Finish them while we wait for optimal position for bombardment."
"Sir, I'm getting a signal. It's coded from the ISD Silverknight? What the hell?"
"Put it through, now," Hallard interrupted.
"It's up sir." And a hologram image of a helmeted man, the cockpit of a y-wing in the backdrop, appeared on the small hologram projector at the comm/scan station. Hallard descended from the bridge to the workstation below.
"Hello? Who is this," Hallard demanded, though he knew.
"Well, well, Hallard. At last we meet." Hallard turned to gunnery-control.
"Hold off on those y-wings for just a moment. Target them, but don't fire." Then he spoke to the hologram, positioning himself so that his own image would appear on the y-wing's screen. "So, we obviously have our different strengths, you and I," Hallard spoke, smug beyond his ability to contain
"Not really. I just wanted to tell you that I'm impressed with the way you've conducted this battle. You've been completely inept until now, so this is an interesting change of pace. I just didn't want you to think that you'd seen all my plan. And I wanted to be sure we met before I killed you."
"Bold words from a man who will himself be dead in moments."
"True, but before I go, I wanted to enjoy the irony of this moment."
"That you are so happy with yourself just shortly before you will meet your end. I've played you too well. I fed you just enough of exactly what you thought to expect, so that when the deathblow comes you won't even see it. I never imagined an Imperial occupation fleet would be so easy to defeat. We've played a good game together, but only because you had so much power. If you possessed even a fraction of that power in skill, this might have ended differently for you. But on behalf of Nacihom, let me officially thank you for being the most incompetent tactician the Imperial Navy ever had the misfortune to promote to Admiral. Now, Scott."
The hologram winked out, and Hallard was so red, his veins bulged so much, that the entire bridge staff started at him. Many of them had dreamed of speaking to him like that, and they all now possessed a greater respect for their enemy, if only because he had the balls to say what he thought to Hallard. Hallard himself was at the moment totally speechless.
Then they could all feel the ship vibrate in a way that bespoke of warhead hits. They all knew the feeling very well.
"Destroy them!" Hallard screamed the command with so much fury that he spit across the face of the man at comm/scan. "Kill them!" Then he grabbed the head of the junior officer monitoring engine emissions and performance, and snapped it back and sideways, killing the officer instantly. "Kill them!"
But it was too late. By the time the bridge crew had recovered and the order was actually given, the y-wings were out of targeting range. But just as Steve had hoped, the two star destroyers were now altering course on an intercept.
"Well said," Scott mentioned.
"Thanks," Steve replied.
"Good work, guys," came the voice of the Silvereagle's captain. "Sixteen proton torpedo hits, Despoiler down to 65% shields. That might be enough."
"When those bastards are in firing range for our turbolasers, open em up. And I mean targeting range. By the time they figure out what's going on they won't be able to run fast enough."
And such was the case. The star destroyers moved as quickly as they could to destroy the y-wings and whatever was left of the Silverknight's plan. Hallard was still convinced of his superiority in this battle, but now it was personal. At first he had hoped that Silverknight would live long enough to watch his world ripped apart. Now he just wanted the man killed. Once and for all, so that he would never have to worry about it again. As he neared the moon he took notice of a collection of some twelve to fifteen more of the Nacians' pitiful mockeries of warships. They would be finished before either of the star destroyers took damage.
"The captain of the Adamant requests permission to take the flank, sir," Comm/scan reported to Hallard, meaning that the Adamant didn't want to be the first in line to fight the final skirmish with the SilverEagles. After the course correction, the Adamant was simply closer to the moon than Hallard's vessel, and would naturally be engaged first. Hallard made no reply, and therefore none was sent to the Adamant.
So when a couple hundred green blasts lanced their way from the dark side of the moon, very clear and distinguishable, they all struck the Adamant. Her shields absorbed the first ten to twenty hits, but after that the hull began taking damage, and as pieces of the craft were ripped away by the two hundred hits that followed, the Adamant pulled away, and got back out of range as quickly as possible. The gunners on Novasharpe could easily have finished her off, but the Despoiler was already firing at them, and she was their main concern. The Imperial gunners were swift and precise, and by the time the moon-based turbolasers were prepped for another blast, one quarter of their number was lost. But that would not be enough to save the Despoiler. Just under two hundred blasts struck her and her shields buckled, her defenses went next, her turbo-lasers targeted with such accuracy that she would never again fire against the moon. She turned away as well, trying to escape her death, but was still in range for another wave of turbolaser hits. There was very little left of the Despoiler after that last series of blasts, and before a final series could be fired, she was out of range.
Stephen watched from the cockpit of his y-wing, not too far away. He was at full stop, with no enemies to engage or evade. He simply watched, as did all Nacians within visual range, as the last remnants of the Empire in their sector, their system, were driven away. The Adamant was too far away already to see much of, but the Despoiler was still very clear. There were explosions going off all across her innards, vast sections of the outer hull were ripped away or vaporized, dozens of decks laid naked before the vacuum of the void, gasses spewing out, equipment and furniture too, men exploding just as surely as pieces of their ship were. But still she was able to limp away, no fatal hits delivered to her stellar reactor. What none of the SilverEagles could see was that tiny light freighter docking with the Despoiler. No one saw it leave either. No one could see it because it was outfitted with the latest ECM packages, and the SilverEagles didn't posses very good sensors anyway. A full report on the damage was entering Steve's ears from the sensor crews aboard the Silvereagle. He listened, only because he couldn't avoid it. Neither star destroyer had weapons or shields. Neither could likely attain hyperspace. Then there was a question asked of him.
"No," he replied. "They aren't going anywhere. We'll find them and deal with them. But not this day. I just want this to end, now. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. And a lot of funerals to attend."
Stephen could feel the weight begin to descend on him, as he could no longer hold it back by pretending there was something more important at the moment. There wasn't. He wanted to wait until he was alone, but he was never more alone than he was at that moment, in his starfighter. Stephen just watched the broken star destroyers go, and let himself go. He didn't weep for all the dead, though he did feel sorrow for them. He wept for a single person, whose love he would never feel again.
Scott wept as well. But his was a joyful weeping. Men and women died in combat, and he felt honored by their sacrifices, and felt proud that he would live to carry on the work they had started together. He felt ultimate joy, however, in knowing that he would live the dream they had dreamed together. The dream of freedom. It was now a reality. He would have traded his life for it, and it was only gravy that he didn't have to.
All across the system, though, people wept. They wept for all kinds of different reasons. But after they all came to grips with the loss, they realized their gain. It was a feeling like none other, to experience freedom for the first time in a generation. And for their freedom, the pains of anguish, loss, indeed of death, weighed all together like eagles' feathers in their hands.