Solaris Knight – Chapter 2

At the approach of Silena’s champion, the armored figure did not flinch. In fact, the deathly warrior stopped in his tracks, crossing his arms to impose his broadness across Tolomir’s approach. “Hail, Paladin of the Piercing Light.”

The formal greeting was enough to slow Tolomir, though his heart quickened. Few would openly challenge the champion of any Divine so openly without confidence or strategy. To do so alone was the end of many misguided heroes. “You have me at a disadvantage, warrior. You know me, yet I don’t recall you.”

“I would expect not, our paths only cross now in convenience,” the armored figure answered. “Only the brave or the fools would walk this road alone, and to do so naked makes you dangerous in either regard.” 

The steel-clad roadblock then gestured to Tolomir’s chest, “And since I do not see madness in your steps, I find purpose in your breath. Such willpower must be Divine, else you would cower before me.” 

Tolomir stepped forward, tilting his head up to meet his mystery companion eye-to-helm. In place of armor or robes, Silena had demanded her champion be open to Light at all times, so she may sustain and shield him as the extension of her will.  In return, Tolomir felt no chill or oppression from heat, though his Divine cared little for the gawkings of mortal company. “You assume correctly, knight. Just as I find your wake reeking of death and fear, beyond a mortal capacity. So we are at odds.”

The larger man chuckled a deep mirth, removing his helmet. Beneath the metal were the scars of several battles cut deep into ruby skin, crystal blue eyes and the down-curved horns erupting from his skull,  inherited from long-thinned drakkanah bloodlines. Standing head and shoulders taller than Tolomir, the opposing man nodded to the Paladin. “And now your face is known to me. When we meet in the Unending Battle, every time I rip your spine from your back will give joy to my Master.”

Tolomir nodded in understanding. “I understand, fellow Paladin. And when I tear your head from its helm, my Silena will absolve you in purifying Light. Whom do you serve, death-knight?”

The taller man bellowed a mighty laugh, “A glorious decree! I serve Val-Toom, Master of the Gate between Life and Death. I am Harkar Moorath, my Master’s Blade and servant.”

“Do you intend to disrupt my Divine’s will? Your challenge is not part of her wishes this day.” Tolomir demanded, feeling the spark of her Light swell in his chest and his fists.

“Nor is it mine. My Master has demanded I extract payment from a nobleman to the East that has dared to defy Death through unnatural things.” Harkar stated. “But I do not doubt that we will cross paths again.”

“Until that time, know that Tolomir Dayfire, Bringer of my Lady’s Light, will not be slain until Silena desires it. No Champion or Divine will change that.” 

With a smile revealing carnivorous teeth, Harkar donned his helmet anew, a signal to both that the standoff was ended. Merely crossing beside the death-knight would have weighed down any mortal, drowning their soul in the cold grip of fear. But Tolomir was untouched by this aura, as his Divine had willed it so. And as he expected, the champion of Val-Toom did not flinch at the radiance Tolomir exuded, which would purge any wickedness that came so close. 

Tolomir recognized the sound of steel cutting the breeze and spun around with arms crossed in a shielding measure, catching Harkar’s broadsword only inches from his sternum. The blade rang out like it stuck metal, stopped only a hair’s length from Tolomir’s flesh by Silena’s protective invocation that he recited every morning. “A betrayal, Moorath?”

“A test of strength, Dayfire!” Harkar countered, straining to push his weapon that extra distance to his opponent’s bones. Tolomir could see that the massive slab of steel had been sharpened to a fine edge on either side, and its length was scarred by multiple marks. The magic embedded deep in the metal tried with all its force to slice him, but the will of the Light gave it no space to do so.

“Your weapon is weak, death-knight” Tolomir countered, pushing the swing back with a hard shove. “Your Master doesn’t demand fine craftsmanship, I see.”

Harkar laughed again, stepping back from his attack and tilting his blade to let the light catch its flat side, before swinging it up behind his back and returning it to whatever space it rested in that Tolomir couldn’t see. “Each name I engrave in my sword is a blessing in his name. Yours, I will carve in the handle as one of my greatest victories.”

This time, it was Val-Toom’s champion who turned his back, “I will dream of that kill, Dayfire.” And with that promise, Harkar took to his path, from a walk to a Divine-commanded sprint away from Tolomir. Silena’s paladin watched until the death-knight crossed the Diamond Road’s entry into a wooded stretch before he continued his trek toward Barthselheim. You’ll die dreaming, of that I promise you. For mine is the highest Divine, the greatest purpose.

The encounter remained in his mind through the setting of her Light to pave the way for Meline Lorora to cover the sky in her violet robes and still most creatures large and small. By then, Tolomir had followed the Diamond Road up to the outermost loop around Barthselheim. Though the worn stones under his feet were not graced by the shadows of the great city walls, even being within eyesight of the great trade metropolis was thought to bring fortune and favor to any merchant. 

And as large as the metropolis’ sentry force was, it could not hope to cover every step from the city and across the outer rings, so the whispers of voices out of a long-abandoned stone hovel alerted Tolomir to the criminal element waiting to ambush any carrier of coin or goods. The ‘whizz!’ of an arrow leaving its bow ground the Paladin’s stride to a halt as he spun around and met the arrow’s tip with this open palm. The flimsy projectile smashed against the protection invocation like it had been shot into stone and splintered apart into so many twigs.

Alarmed chattering picked up and feet sprinted across grass and stone behind him, telling Tolomir that he was waylaid by at least two burglars, who were light in their step and unhindered by the night sky. That narrowed his focus quickly. Dunnar, scavangers of gold and bone…and usually not so brave.

He waited until one of the sprinting burglars crossed directly beside him before springing into action. He raised his palm and locked his arm “By the will of my Lady Silena, be purified by the Light!”

The kill was instant, as the radiant javelin launched from his hand and struck true. The startled thief caught its majesty in his side, the Light quickly burning through rubbish armor and flesh. Without scream or warning, the vagrant simply evaporated like the smoke from a raging torch.

The loss of their comrade earned Tolomir a wail of rage from the second vandal, and the sound of a blade against stone. Turning toward the hovel, the moonlight gave away the outline of a leaping figure, knife coming down to cleave Dayfire’s head from his shoulders. But the Dunnar were no bigger than proper children, so the Paladin’s outstretched hand caught the thief in midair with a ‘ghurck!’of a hand squeezing a throat.

“You are brave to raid these roads, sinner. You must be skilled.” Tolomir said with no joy or praise.

The Dunnar hissed through filthy, jagged teeth at him. “No…guards. Easy to… take what we want.”

Tolomir couldn’t recall ever hearing of a time when the soldiers of Barthselheim failed to patrol these stones. But the thief had no reason to deceive him now, as Tolomir carried no coin. “And I shall give you the greatest reward for your transgressions. Your service to my Lady will please her.” Bringing the thrashing creature closer, the Paladin placed his other hand on the furred chest of the Dunnar. The gentle hand shone brilliantly with his Lady’s will, causing the thief to scream in pain before its body crumpled and dissolved away. Only a small glowing ember remained in his hand now.

“Silena forgives you, and awaits your audience.” Tolomir prayed before tossing the ember straight up into the night sky, where it would join the infinite thralls of his Lady that the Night Dream-giver could not block.

*****

Part 2 of my first dive into high-fantasy/magic and all around way-out-of-my-wheelhouse project. Both a challenge and a bit of fun to start the end of 2020.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 3

He was almost all the way down the runway and to the concealed communications van when the screams of swearing became understandable. The source of which didn’t surprise Akula in the least, but the ferocity was quite impressive. Standing next to the HAVOC, Drakon had removed her helmet and was berating her co-pilot for whatever it was he’d done that didn’t match exactly with her direction. As with the last several crewmen paired with her, the co-pilot and gunner for the attack helicopter yelled back, which normally would have just continued the tirade. But this time was different, and the subordinate had yelled back in his native Georgian. Any nearby chatter or commotion immediately stopped as anyone who heard it turned to gaze at the man, who looked most unnerved by the attention. 

Which meant he didn’t see Drakon’s fist catch him in the nose, knocking his head back into the side of the Mi-28 and laying the man out cold on the landing pad. A move that the pilot followed with a kick to the side and to spit on her co-pilot. “Insolent trash!” she yelled at him, before noticing Akula watching the scene. The crimson quickly faded from her cheeks as she ran a hand  through her bobbed black hair. “Why can’t we get proper manning for these jobs?” she asked with a sigh. 

Akula just shook his head. “Because Silverback likes watching you beat people, it’s how he gets off, the fat fuck.”

Drakon laughed at that and jogged across the runway to where Akula stood, helmet tucked under her arm. “I’m glad you called in an assist, it’s dull as fuck flying circles up there waiting for someone to screw up.”

Akula let himself grin a little, to offset the unease still bouncing around in his mind, “You’re welcome, though you missed a spot giving us the buzz treatment on the way back!” A point he punctuated by running one hand through the personally buzzed mop of brown hair on his head.

Standing on her tiptoes, Drakon mussed Akula’s dew with her free hand, “Nah, looks like I did you a favor. Now your Bear can flirt with you and not me!”

He had to laugh at that, “I think you’re the only woman who’s ever frightened that cossack!”

“Good!” Drakon smirked, before nonchalantly pointing her thumb at the van. “Gonna tell Kontrol about your surprise guest, or will Silverback eat that one?”

Akula grimaced at that, hiding his astonishment that she’d actually seen the Korean in her flyby. “My mission, my report…should’ve been my team’s interrogation. Did you hear they brought Solomon down?”

The pilot nodded grimly. “It’s not just him, they brought Navuk too. Heard them working a few nights back on someone Pauk’s team brought in…”

Clenching his fist to repress the shudder, Akula looked back to the small square block of stone where the Korean had been taken. Below the shifting sands, Solomon would break the man’s will to live, while Navuk would learn all the poor bastard’s secrets. Unlike the simple direct methods of violence Akula’s team was crafted for, those two were savants in torture and suffering not seen since Stalin’s reign.

Desperate to change the subject, the soldier looked back over Drakon’s head to her HAVOC. “Glad to see they finally got you something that didn’t see action in the Afghan War.”

Thankful for the snap back to happier things, she smiled over-exuberantly, “Da, it’s good to not worry about putting my boot through the floor. Still, that old ‘8 could dance when she had to. May she rust well.”

Akula chuckled, thinking back to being tossed out of the rear hatch during a windy drop in the rocky wastelands known as Mongolia. A memory that made his ribs ache, but his chest feel light.

A moment that wasn’t lost on Drakon, “Pasha’s probably on shift now. Go file your report, let her see you. Poor little milyy must be lonely.”

“We do have much to discuss,” he thought aloud, looking up into the clear blue sky, “Nosorog may become a problem.”

“Another case of shit hiring,” the pilot scowled. “Would be a shame if a Vikhr wound up in his ass.”

Even if it was mostly a joke, Akula let his imagination wander with that thought, about the few remaining fibers of the Chechen would remain when the anti-tank rocket hit him center-of-mass. How easy it would be to just call it a training accident… “You think in wicked ways, Liliya.”

“And you watch your back Maykl, before that filthy rhino gores you.”

Before Akula could reply, the echo of thundering boorishness resonated up the runway as Silverback approached with a howl. Seeing their frontline manager so red with anger, the soldier just shook his head. “He’s going to fire you this time, you know.”

Drakon gave a scathing ‘hiss’ to that. “Let him try, I’ll kick his ass back to Kabul.” With a shake of her head and one last nod to Akula, the pilot answered the summon of their overlord. A showdown that he very much wished he could watch, but she was right. There was a report to file, a smile to soothe him, and the melodic voice of his beloved to pull him out of the crush and back to the shore.

Offset from the end of the runway strip, under a blanket of camouflage netting and generator noise, the three-axle SATCOM truck waited, looking favorably empty at the moment. Only one fellow soldier leaned against the front tire, lost in his assigned detail of counting every grain of Saharan sand through closed eyes. Not even meaning to, Akula simply walked up to the door of the truck without so much as an acknowledgement. Already full of anger and disgust, the Shark carefully placed one hand on the vehicle door while raising the other forearm.

I’m doing you a favor, before Silverback catches you sleeping… In one fluid second, Akula cranked the truck’s side door open as loudly as he could, jolting the sleeping sentry out of his stupor. Easily, Akula pinned the man to the side of the truck with his forearm and pressed, letting the shock of the attack drive the sleeping soldier’s eyes wide as Akula held him there for a moment. “Nice job, Trup. Now you sleep forever, and I’m stealing every secret this van has.”

The choking comrade tried to retort something, but Akula freed his other hand from the truck and tossed Trup spine-first into the sand. The smaller defender gasped for the breath stolen by the impact, and Akula let the daze clear away before leaning down to growl in Trup’s face. “Start running.”

A face of agonized disappointment washed over the grounded soldier as he nodded his understanding. True to Akula’s order, the beaten man simply started running back down the runway. If he’s still going when I’m done, I’ll give him to Volk. He’d enjoy someone to stalk for training…

Now angered by both insolence and incompetence, Aklua stepped up into the comms cabin and paused, letting the cold air conditioning wash over him. The shock tensed his muscles and made him grimace, but he welcomed the sensation of sweat freezing to his brow. 

Once the Shark was properly chilled, he made his way down the narrow aisle of chairs and headphones to the front end of the cabin. Below the row of equipment and snugly tucked behind cabling, a small drawer was mounted and locked. Akula pressed his thumb to a small panel on the front, holding it the required three seconds until the internal lock to ‘click’ open and the drawer to pop open. From its contents, the team leader pulled a white smart card and slipped it into the reader to activate the secured computer. The “samyy sekretnyy” banner flashed before him as he logged in to begin the monotony of typing up the mission summary. “At least the Navy prepared me for paperwork…” he muttered.

Most of the documentation was simple enough; team cohesion, ammo expenditure, any interaction with outside forces beyond the target.

That last section gave him pause, and he leaned back in his seat. Now he could breathe, and really think about what it was his team had found. A true North Korean contact here in Libya, speaking with the same sand-rat we’d been sent after. They didn’t turn him away, so money’s probably changed hands already. And they had the uranium already consolidated and packed up for delivery. So how was he getting all that out of here?

Suspecting the captured laptop wouldn’t tell him much, but having more questions than answers, Akula pulled the device out and powered it on. And as he expected, the password screen stared back at him in Hangul. So only he could log in, probably didn’t trust the seller with open access to whatever’s in here.  Still, as a precaution, he set the captured device on the other side of the trailer and plugged it into a stand-alone tower that would probe it for hidden transmitters or other malicious bits of betrayal.

Just as he’d done with Silverback, Akula left the laptop out of the official report before saving the document into his personal folder and then password-locking it. He knew full well the bellowing and barking their operations commander would hit him with once Silverback found out about the computer, but the team leader had complied the exact wording of the mission as the contract allowed. Let Kontrol sort this out, once they figure out what’s in this thing… 

With that done, Akula opened the Messenger function of his account, one of only four functions afforded to him. And when he saw who was online, back home in the cooler Moscow morning, he let himself truly smile for the first time today. “Good morning, babochka, sleep well?”

“Not really, was up most of the night, though I’m guessing it was less work than yours.” Pasha wrote back, which Akula read back to himself in that wonderfully delicate voice of hers. 

He wanted to dive in, to ask all the questions close to his heart about her day. To see her face, even over the digital line. Or even better, to wrap her back up in his coat as they walked by Lake Syamozero. But now is not the time for dreams

Akula knew all too well that even this enciphered chat would not remain secure. Somewhere, thousands of miles from his seat, some bored Brit, Scandinavian, or Yankee, was sitting at their own computer and watching the bits flow to and from. Wildfire made sure to brief its teams before every mission on how many outsiders they expected to be watching them.

“Just wait until you read the report. It’s got Silverback red in the face.” The team lead responded vaguely, sending his finished report to Pasha, and then waiting.  

“Blyad, you’re joking!” She soon responded, being a much faster reader than he was an author.

“I wish, life would be simpler if I were.” Akula scowled at the screen. “Is anyone else in your spaces today?”

“Not at the moment, morning coffee just started,” she responded back equally cryptically, though he understood perfectly. “Why?”

“I have a gift for you.” A point that was punctuated by the sanitizer behind him ‘ping’ing to alert Akula it had finished. With that done, he plugged in a new cable and began the intensive process of device-mirroring, to copy all that the laptop was over to Kontrol.

“Is it your return flight?” She asked, jamming a sorrowful screw between his ribs. Akula growled to himself. You have to know she’d ask, idiot

“I wish so, instead I gift you a complication.”

“Der’mo, don’t say such things!” Pasha scolded, which Akula couldn’t tell if she were snide or serious. But given what he was about to send her, he could feel just how deep her frown would be across her lips, how far her shoulders would drop away from the messy russet curls Akula loved to swim in.

“It’s not something I wanted to bring you, babochka. Had half a mind to ignore it.” he confessed, now wishing he and Pauk had switched assignments a few days ago. That Spider would love having this golden nugget in his web…

Finally, the Korean’s device had finished, and the virtual copy hovered before him, a treasure trove of trouble and possible intelligence. “Still, you’ll understand when you see it.”

Five clicks later, and the upload began. Billions of bytes raced half the world away, and given how long it took Pasha to type her response, Akula wondered how far her jaw had dropped.

“You just found this?” She asked, the plain question failing to mask her stunned expression in his mind.

“Da, and you’ve got the only copy. Not even that worthless mudak Silverback knows about it.”

“Why? He’s going to have you arrested when he finds out!” Pasha responded in alarm.

“Because that dinosaur would use it as a boot-rest before he did anything useful with it!” Akula retorted, still feeling the embers of fire from his return conversation with the boorish boss. “Can you do anything with it?”

“Not me, but I know who can. I’m sure the basement-dwellers would love to slap their label on this find when the final report comes out.” Pasha chided, which made Akula crack a small grin. “Of course they will, FSB glory-hogs…”

“It will take some time to get through this mess, especially if I have to bring Petro or Vylnia in to translate. You should get rest, get some blood in your stomach.” Pasha advised, which made the Shark’s belly rumble. “It hears you, dorogaya. I promise, I won’t let this bounty keep me from being safe.”

“You better not, asshole. I’ll get you the full rundown of what we get.” she replied with, though the notification of continued typing didn’t fade away. “He misses you, you know. I see it in his eyes.”

The smile wrapped Akula up in warmth before he even realized it, and his hand twitched to cradle the most delicate cargo he’d ever been blessed enough to hold. “And I him, more than he’ll ever know. Give our little lapachka my love.”

“Always…” Pasha’s final message read before the chat window closed. Now lost in thoughts over two-thousand miles away, he dove deeper into his personal file, opening a poorly-labeled ‘New Folder’. Inside was but one item; a badly-lit, most candid picture of his babochka. Her midnight hair had been hastily rolled in a bun to keep tiny hands from pulling it, and her glasses were more smudges and dust than visual aids. She wore an oversized hoodie and thick sweats, as she never seemed to generate her own body heat, but that never bothered the ice-water Shark. Even in this moment, her beauty would shame Catherine herself

The only competition to such radiance sat balanced against her hip, equal parts amazed and stupefied at the world around him. Newborn blue eyes looked up at her, the only open spot on the little one’s face Akula could clearly see. No matter how many times Pasha had described him, the Shark had only his imagination to paint the picture her words relayed. Still, it was a framed moment in time he could spend all night watching, though it would never move. Sleep well, little Andre. The world will be just a little safer when you wake again.

******

Part three of the Wildfire group, and the mess they’ve stumbled into. It’s been a long time since I kept focus with a full-on story prospect for this long. But it’s been a joy to complicate their lives to date, and its a long way left to go.

I hope you all enjoy.

The Ageless Knight

In the age of the sword, I was the stone.
The wall between the faithful and the invader
Many an empire coveted me
And my bones tell their tales of ruin

When cannons erupted, I became steel
Implacable when forged, indomitable when wielded
I crawled through the mud and sailed seas of blood
The bulwark shaped by evolution

When men grew wings, I too took flight
Shedding the impenetrable for the shredding
Mustangs and albatrosses were my feast
Snapping the halos of those once mighty

Now, I am vigilance
The sentry against all things
Be it tiny or cloaked
Be it human or other
I am the shield they must breach

I am Vityaz
Defender of my mother
Guardian of my skies
Yours is the wickedness I cannot let past

***

NaNo research certainly takes one down a rabbit-hole of information. Some of it useful, some of it not. And some of it gets tucked away to churn and grow into its own thing

I hope you all enjoy.

Joyride for the Soul

He could feel it, that itch in the back of his mind that persisted the longer he sat idle or ignoring it. Some would call it the inability to focus. Others would call it an addiction rearing its ugly head into reality. His dear wife Iella called it one of his ‘defining character traits, even if it comes in handy at the worst times.’ But whatever its name, General Wedge Antilles was feeling it now; the need to fly.

A need made many times more insistent by the mountain of paperwork sitting in front of him, or the fact that the cruiser Mon Aurora had been sitting still for almost a week over the garden world of Pyranna Bor’neth. Everytime Wedge looked out his window, he was green by infinite stretches of green and blue, only recently discovered and settled to supply the larger galaxy with critically needed food. It was the kind of serenity he’d only heard of in holo-vids or propaganda. So there was temptation to reach out and just touch it even from orbit. A need made worse through the sad fact he hadn’t had time to do so since Rogue Squadron met up with the Aurora while in-transit to its final destination, making for a straight week of stacked-up bureaucracy for Antilles and a week of training drills for his pilots. 

Much of the work was the routine signing of forms and logistical headaches that he was unfortunately getting used to in his generalship. Such were the things that made the New Republic live and breath, so that much he was privileged to do. But it was the top of his pile that drove the itch to fly, because he needed the moment to think. Sure, such a need may have been a little irresponsible, using up fuel and time that wasn’t always available, but Wedge could hear his wife’s loving prodding across the galaxy. It’s all you’re going to think about until you do it, my dear.

“Alright, alright, you win.” Wedge whispered with a smile, before tapping on his desktop comlink. “Hanger Deck, this is Antillies. Please prep my starfighter for launch.”

“Yes General! It’ll be ready the moment you come down!” the maintenance crew lead answered eagerly, which Wedge would admit was a little contagious. Having given into the temptation, it was a little difficult to keep the same glee from his own face. “Gate, file us a flight plan with the cruiser’s control crew. Mark it as…hmmm, call it a shakedown.”

The R5 astromech droid chittered its understanding of the request, before giving its pilot a positive peep to relay that the flight plan had been prepped and cleared. There may have been a little vanity at work when Wedge nodded his approval at the rapid reply, but given the slow pace of the week, there were few reasons to deny the request of a General.

Despite the uptick in mood Wedge felt about walking to the hanger with purpose, that last un-fulfilled task still bounced around in his mind. How it would change the dynamics of Rogue Squadron, balanced on the razor’s edge of how the New Republic and other starfighter squadrons would benefit from such a change. And how do I tell them? 

The sounds of a bustling hanger washed over him like a refreshing breeze of engine exhaust, crew chief swearing, and the beeping of overworked droids. The moment the closest crewman saw who had graced them with his presence, the young Rodian snapped to his feet to salute Wedge, but Antilles waved him down. Such bravado and ceremony wasn’t why he was here, and he’d had enough of it to fill a lifetime. Still, most of the workers and grease-monkeys he passed on the way to his X-Wing whispered something in awe of him.

Already at attention in waiting, the crew chief standing by Wedge’s personal fighter also gave the crisp salute. “As requested, she’s all ready to fly within acceptable specs.”

A sentence that made Wedge chuckle internally, since he could remember a time when ‘acceptable’ meant ‘flyable and nothing else’. “Good work Hulkori. You do Grizli Squadron proud.”

The maintainer lit up like a rising sun, and Wedge swore the young man’s head swelled a few centimeters, before the General motioned for his astromech to link up for takeoff. Gently declining Hulkori’s offer to hold his helmet while the pilot got comfortable, Wedge let himself sink into the g-chair of his starfighter. A spot as familiar to him as any could ever be, Antilles closed his eyes and ran his gloved hands across familiar switches, buttons and levers. Each one, he could call by name, and each one had probably saved his life at one point.

The shrill whine of the X-Wing’s four engines coming to life was practically a comfort anymore, he’d heard it so often. As a joke on several occasions, Gate played the sound for Wedge whenever the General was frustrated or otherwise distracted. A habit which Iella had scolded the droid for, often leading to the astromech waddling away to sulk.

“Rogue Leader, four lit and in the green. Beginning checkout flight.” Wedge called out as the starfighter gently rose from the hanger floor. Most any other work going on around him stopped for a moment as the X-Wing gracefully floated out of the mag-shield and into the hard vacuum of space. Even sealed in the canopy, he could feel the moment he left the artificial atmosphere behind for space, and it made him smile.

He let the starfighter contine drifting forward as he set the cockpit atmosphere to his liking, reducing the cockpit heat setting as well as the artificial gravity while making sure his legs could extend fully on the rudder. Once he had the internals right where he wanted them, Wedge gently slid the throttle forward, letting the X-Wing slowly build up its speed as he headed planetward. 

“Alright, Gate. Start your system checkouts, we’ll be hitting the atmo terminus in a moment.” Wedge ordered, and the R5 warbled back its questions. “Yes, I’m sure the ground crew did fine, but it never hurts to know.”

As he’d expected, the moment the X-Wing hit a certain atmospheric resistance, its shields kicked on with a low power setting. Friction-generated fire surrounded him for a moment, and he could feel the high winds of near-space limits trying to bounce him around. But it was all over as fast as it began, and the cool blue of a clear sky welcomed Wedge like it had been waiting for him. 

Scanning the horizon below him, Wedge could make out the eternal clashes of surf against sand, the creeping gloom of a summer storm far off his nose, and the luscious browns and reds of a great forest below. It reminded him of Endor’s forest moon, where the Rebel Alliance had fought so desperately to finally end the tyranny of Palpatine and Darth Vader, and where so few of his friends and comrades had returned from.  Thoughts of which made his gloves tighten on the control yoke and his eyes focus.

Time for the real paces… he allowed himself to decide, before opening the X-Wing’s signature s-foils to their open position and shutting off the fighter’s main sensor nodes. With one deep breath in, Wedge pointed his nose straight down and let the X-Wing begin a screaming dive towards the foliage below. Even in the plummet, Wedge let the starfighter talk to him, feeling the subtle shifts in the rudder and how the winds hit his port side just a little harder than the starboard. Only when he was less than a hundred meters above the treeline did Gate chitter a sound of alarm, which Rogue Leader responded to by rolling inverted and pulling the diving X-Wing in as tight a loop as it could make under full power. 

He kept the loop going until he was facing the open infinity of the sky once more, before standing the fighter on its right side and snapping into a tight turn back into his previous direction. Wedge let the X-Wing skate above the top branches as if they were a sheet of ice, bouncing along with the changing contours and slipping the rudder each direction. Each motion, each maneuver soothed the itch that had been building in the base of his skull, letting him drown out that nagging voice that had been building in his temple for just a precious few moments. 

Suddenly, the forest disappeared under him, giving way to a massive canyon cut by an unforgiving river. Naturally, Wedge let the X-Wing fall gracefully with gravity until its thrust sprayed hot mist behind him. Putting all power to engines, Rogue Leader pitched and turned through the winding stones and impossible angles. Whenever possible, he’d even complete a full aileron roll with each turn, letting the world spin around him as much as his own thoughts spun within. 

The canyon continued on for several kilometers before beginning a gradual smoothing-out to be one with the surface again, at which point Wedge stood the X-Wing on its tail and blasted straight up into an encroaching cloud front. Gusts of turbulence and sheets of cold rain slammed into him from all sides, and he soaked in every bounce and dip the starfighter made to compensate. Annoyed at being pelted by the elements, Gate griped at the ace pilot. 

“I know, I know. I’ll send you for an oil bath once we’re done, I promise.” Wedge conceded, gently pulling the starfighter above the chaos of the weather so that the beaming sun could dry it.

“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say the stoic, ever-dutiful General Antillies was shirking his own duties.” A familiar voice called out to him over the comlink, instantly doubling the size of Wedge’s smile. “My duties still include identifying officers suspected of treason, Rogue Two.”

Colonel Tycho Celchu laughed at the barb as his own X-Wing drifted down from the sky to meet Wedge at the same flight level, “Sure, toss me in a cell, and then we have Janson in command of not just Rogue Squadron, but the entire air wing on the Aurora.

“And I’d only have them doing fly-bys of my cabin every other hour, thank you very much!” interrupted Major Wes Janson in Rogue Three, passing both Wedge and Tycho on full power before pulling tight loop back to settle in formation. “I mean, what else have they been doing all week, computer-based training?”

“Three’s just mad that Grizli Squadron figured out his bag of tricks in the sims and kept popping him with torpedoes at range.” glowered Rogue Four, Major Derek ‘Hobbie’ Kilvian. 

“Sounds about right”, Tycho added, “Three loves his side-slips, even in Imp fighters.”

“Makes it more challenging.” Wes retorted. “Plus, every newbie that sees a squint do that is aghast that it’s even possible, every time.”

Wedge kept quiet for the moment, just letting the banter fill his canopy and his soul. To each of these men, Antilles owed his life a dozen times over. Since the earliest days of the Rebel Alliance, and through the fires of every subsequent war, these four had formed a bond above perception or rebuff. They were brothers, they were family.

Which is why the report titled “Assignment Projections and Allotments” and the names on it had dug into Wedge’s mind the moment he read it. He knew, with the push of a button, he could squash the transfer notices and only a few administrative grunts would ever know it. 

But to stand in the way of the needs of the New Republic? To deny up-and-coming starfighter aces the unique training and experiences that his Rouges brought to the fleet? It was a weight that Wedge knew he was trying to outfly today, but it had sought him out at this moment.

“So brought you down here, boss? Just taking a joyride on official time?” Tycho probed his friend, which made Wedge ‘sigh’ in acknowledgement. “Partly. Mainy…just coming to terms with the times. You’ve each been re-assigned by Starfighter Command out of Rogue Squadron.”

For a moment, there was silence. Each pilot felt the punch of those words in different ways. And as was tradition by now, Wes was first to respond. “Oh good, new minds to mold and corrupt!”

Wedge had to chuckle at that, for it was almost clairvoyant. “You’re actually on the credits there, Three. You got picked for instructor duty on Commenor.”

“I’ll be sure to give General Salm your best, boss! Defender Wing won’t know what hit them once I’m done re-writing their training.” Rogue Three responded, surprisingly excited for Wedge’s ears.

“Same goes for you, Two. You got tagged for Solar Fang Squadron out of Borleias.” Wedge relayed to Tycho, to which the second pilot gave a sage hum. “Aggressor squadron, makes sense. I can show the new recruits how dangerous TIEs can really be in proper hands.”

“Four, you got the special assignment. Test pilot for the R&D squadron over on Mon Cala.” Antilles announced, earning approving whistles from Tycho and applause from Wes. “Not bad, Hobbie! Now you’ll have to learn how to swim!”

“And you’ll have to learn decency and how to act around kids, Three. Force help us all!”

“Speaking of,” Tycho clued in on, “With these moves, who moves up to lead the Squadron? You stepping down to just the Rogues again?”

“No,” Wedge began, still in disbelief that these words were going to leave his lips, “Rogue Squadron will be led by Gavin Darklighter.”

“Oh wow, now I feel old.” Janson shot back with, “Is he even old enough to fly solo?”

“If he is, that makes us ancient.” Hobbie snorted. “We’ll need to prepare him for ‘the burdens of command’.”

“I’m pretty sure that Gavin could still drink you both under the table.” Tycho retorted, before asking, “You okay with this, Wedge?”

General Antilles decided to just let his mind crack open and spill out what it may, these three deserved the uncut truth. “We won’t be flying forever, Rogues. As much as we try to. Maybe it’s time we start getting the young blood ready to be better than us.”

“Wait, wait, I’m trying to picture an old, retired, and not-crochety Wedge Antilles,” Wes chuckled. “Nope, sorry, not seeing it. Boss is gonna retire in the cockpit, even if it kills him.”

“Nah, Iella will kill him first,” Hobbie countered. “Probably in ways that would make Darth Vader feel sick.” 

It was in that moment, when the final rays of the setting sun kissed their sky goodnight, that Rogue Leader was at peace with his decision. “You’re probably right, Hobbie. One more reason I’m counting on you all to get these younglings in the best shape we can get them.”

“You can count on us, Lead.” Rogue Two responded, before closing the S-foils of his X-Wing and beginning a slow ascent back to the orbiting star cruiser.

“Yub-yub, General! Oh man, I can’t wait to tell that story of you in an Ewok suit!” Rogue Three laughed, following Two’s ascent but adding in a lazy roll for style points.

“I can too swim…I just don’t like to.” Rogue Four countered, beginning the return journey as well and leaving Wedge alone once more. The lead ace watched his fellow pilots ascend beyond him, a moment he felt more than saw in his chest and at last felt that most all was right in his world. They would always be Rogue Squadron, even if they didn’t always wear the colors of the legendary unit. And when the sun finally set on their skies, it would rise on the next generation that had been made better by them, through them, and for the greater galaxy.

“Rogue Lead, initiating return to the Aurora. My compliments to the hanger crew, my X-Wing handles like a dream.”

*****

Sure, I’m supposed to be neck deep in my NaNo project(s) right now, but everyone needs a break once in a while. And re-visiting Rogue Squadron has always been mine.

I hope you all enjoy,