While the ground forces prepared to meet the impending threat of Imperial troops; Buck Wilmington hurried into the flight deck filled with technicians hastily preparing rebel ships for departure. Maintenance men and engineers were tripping over themselves to get the work done, most having been roused out of bed only minutes before. While the bulk of fighters had already departed from the base, Gold squadron had remained last because at the moment it was far more important to have fighters protecting the transports that would be attempting to evacuate. Now that those ships had launched, Gold squadron would be making a similar departure in order to provide air support to the ground forces that were assembling a battle line to halt the terrestrial advance of the Imperial forces that would attempt to capture the base on the ground.
Buck felt as if he could not move fast enough knowing Chris, Vin and Josiah was out on those barren plains, preparing to fight the large ground assault force the Empire was deploying to capture the Colu base. As he struggled to put on his flight suit, he made his way towards his X wing and noticed that JD was already climbing into the cockpit of his own craft. Seeing the young man ready himself for battle only caused Buck to work even harder to pull the suit over his shoulders so that he could continue the journey towards his ship. JD had not noticed and Buck took a moment to observe the boy as he prepared to face a battle he could not possibly imagine. JD had come such a long way since Buck had met him on that outpost in the middle of nowhere. The kid was almost shanghaied by Rodians slavers when Buck had stepped in and kept him from making an unfortunate mistake. JD had actually believed those slavers would give him passage to Coruscant so he could race pods.
The kid had been that green.
Sliding into the cockpit of his X wing fighter, Buck allowed himself no more than a second to get settled within the confines of the craft before he began initialising the pre-flight preparations. Strapping himself into his seat, he secured the helmet over his head and slide down the visor before he turned his attention to the cockpit controls before him. Flicking a few switches on the panel, the initialisation process for launch brought the cockpit to life with flashing screens and blinking lights across the board as the X wing's computer diagnostic computer ran a check of all systems. He was glad that automation was capable of handling this part of the process because they did not have time to waste and he could turn to the more important task of moving the craft to launch position.
"Captain Wilmington are you ready?" Buck heard one of the technicians inquiring. Huge clamps would hoist the X -wing to the launch bay as soon as its controllers determined that it was permissible by the craft's pilot. .
"As ready as I am ever gonna be," Buck replied quickly securing his headset around his ears and face. "Get her in position," he ordered. A few seconds later, he heard the huge metal grips enclosing his ship and raising it off the ground. The X wing moved through the hanger deck, bypassing other ships in similar modes of travel before it was lowered gently onto to the launch deck. The X wing set down with a slight jolt and Buck looked through the canopy to see technicians and maintenance people moving out of the way as the enormous launch bay doors before him began to slide apart with a loud groan of metal under pressure.
Flexing his still drowsy fingers to co-ordinate them better, Buck lay his hands on controls and began the launch procedure. The X wing began to reverberate with a low hum as its engines worked steadily to reach the climax of engine ignition. Buck could feel the slight rumblings under his seat and through his bones as the powerful propulsion system inhabiting the shell of the X wing prepared itself for departure. Buck was about to initiate the launch when suddenly, a voice broke through the roar of the engines throughout the cockpit, erupting static in his headsets.
"Buck, is that you?"
Tapping his headset in silent acknowledgement of its operating capacity as well as surprise as to who was talking to him, Buck quickly responded. "Chris? What are you doing on this frequency?"
"I had flight command patch me through," Chris said quickly. The burst of static indicated Chris was communicating with Buck through a portable com unit, which meant he must already be on the battlefront. "Buck, we need you to break off from the main force of ships giving us aerial support."
"What's up?" Buck asked, aware that a request like this could only mean there was something out there beyond Chris Larabee's ability to deal with. The thought frightened him somewhat.
"They've deployed AT-ATs," Chris returned swiftly, unable to waste time with anything but the facts. "We can handle the division of troops they got out here and even the walkers, but we've got nothing that can take out an AT-AT. They'll wipe us out before they even get to the line. If there's anyway of stopping them....."
"It's got to be by air," Buck finished off before Chris could.
"Yeah," Chris said shortly. "That's right."
"I'm on my way," Buck responded without needing to think twice. "You just hold the fort until I do."
"You know we will." Buck could almost see the little smile on Chris' face when the Jedi made his response. "Good luck."
"Hey," Buck grinned, not about to end any conversation as if it was going to their last. "May the Force be with you."
He did not have chance to respond because a burst of static indicated that the firing had begun and Buck did not bother to try and resume communication between them. At this time, it was far more important that he made his launch and get in the air. Given the clearance to take off, Buck put his hands on the throttle and pushed the appropriate activation controls. The X-wing exploded out of the launch bay, streaking through the air, whipping up wind and noise as he surged through the open doors and found himself gaining altitude once he was beyond the walls of the facility. The g force of initial launch kept him pinned to the seat until the effect of maximum thrust had started to diminish. By the time that had happened, Buck was already climbing into the air, leaving the base behind him. However, he was not breaking the atmosphere with the other ships that were leaving to fight the Imperials in the air. He had a more important task to take care of.
He had to even out some odds for Chris.
At first they were unable to believe what they were seeing.
As JD Dunne and the rest of the fighter squadrons emerged from the assailed rebel base and entered the space around the planet, they were met with a nightmarish sight. Beyond the fringes of Colu's stratosphere, where atmosphere ended and space began, were the Imperial ships they knew to be in the system but had never seen for themselves until now. Unfortunately, knowing the Empire was present, did not have as much impact as seeing the Imperial war machine with their own eyes. There were so many TIE fighters in the air, supported by large heavy battle cruisers that the sight of them was enough to send real shivers of fear through all the rebel pilots that were expected to do battle with them.
The ships covered every corner of the black space shared by the tiny contingent of rebel ships. The TIE fighters were making their way rapidly towards the rebel fleet, coming in fast on an attack vector, giving their enemies little time to form a defensive pattern of their own before reaching them. It was the largest fleet of TIE fighters that JD had ever seen and it chilled him to realise that those ships were all hunting for a taste of rebel blood. Looking out the cockpit, JD counted no more than two squadrons of X wings to do battle with this killer force. The rest of the squadrons had been deployed to provide air support to the forces that were presently fighting the Imperial ground assault or offering fighter escorts to the transports involved in the evacuation process.
JD knew that all that was keeping the Empire from completely overwhelming the evacuation process, were the X-wing fighters in the air. Without them, the Empire would destroy both the transports scrambling to leave the system and their troops on the ground. For any of those forces to survive, the X-wings already in the air and the warship Purgatory, who was currently outnumbered three to one, was all that stood between the Empire and an utter rebel defeat. There was not even the chance of expecting reinforcements because the nearest rebel base was almost two days away and any calls for support would never get to them in time even if their distress calls were answered, which JD doubted it would be. The rebellion did not squander resources in hopeless battles. The nature of the cause made everyone expendable, no matter how much they might wish it otherwise. JD shuddered to think what the Imperials had in store for the rebels that were unable to withstand this assault and were captured alive.
"Are they crazy!" someone exclaimed through the ship-to-ship communications on JD's headset. "They expect two squadrons to deal with that?" Although JD did not recognise the voice, he did share the sentiments of that fellow pilot. The odds were not simply overwhelming, they were devastating. Already the battle between the two forces had been decided. It only required the formality of combat to seal its fate. However, JD would not have voiced it in such a manner. Whatever the odds, they still had a battle to fight and he would have liked to delude himself with the illusion that they might win the day, even if it was highly unlikely.
"Who's the highest ranking officer?" JD asked.
Since no one was taking the initiative, JD decided that someone had to speak out and co-ordinate them into an attack force capable of launching a defense. The TIE fighters had already started attacking and the three star destroyers had wiped out a good number of ships when they were attempting to reach the Purgatory in order to provide air support to its fighters already in the air.
For a few seconds there was a grim silence that confirmed what they had suspected since they had launched from Colu. That no squadron leader had made it from the surface. Someone was calling the surface to reach Buck or one of the squadron leaders focussed on providing air support to the ground forces who were being bombarded by the TIE fighters deployed there. A grim mood of discouragement and disillusionment had begun to set in on all the remaining pilots when finally JD heard his voice echoing through the headset before he knew what he was doing.
"All right," JD spoke with a confident voice, not entirely his own, as he addressed all of his comrades. "It looks like we are going to have to do this on our own. I'm sure one of the squadron leaders on Colu has been summoned, so we have to survive until he gets here." What JD failed to say, but was aware the others knew, was that even if a signal was sent to the pilots on the surface, there was no way of knowing whether or not they would be able to break off and if help would arrive in time to help them.
"Everyone, get into squadron formation," he continued after a seconds thought. "We are protecting the Purgatory at all costs. She is our only warship and shes badly outnumbered. Once you know who's left of your team, we'll separate into groups of three. One will take the point; the other two will take left and right flank. If there aren't enough members of your own squadron left, team up with the others. When I give the signal, we will switch to maximum acceleration and fly towards the sun. That should blindside them enough for us to get behind them. Once we're there, we'll take the offensive. However, under no circumstances is anyone to break from their wingmen. Is that understood?"
JD tried to remember all the things that Buck had taught him and wished more than ever that the pilot were here. However, Buck was undertaking a task of equal importance as his own and JD had no choice but to carry on without him, hoping that what he had learned from Buck was enough. He had no wish to lead others into battle and he did not know whether or not they would listen to him. For a few seconds, he held his breath, wondering if they would tell him he was crazy or follow his orders. He honestly did not know which way it would go.
"Attention all fighter squadrons," a familiar voice cackled through their headsets.
"Ezra!" JD exclaimed, never feeling more grateful at hearing the command officer's voice then at that moment.
"You heard Lieutenant Dunne's orders," Ezra ignored responding to him directly and continued to address all the pilots instead. "Carry on."
"Alright!" JD heard someone else declare. "Let's do it!"
While the outlook was still bleak, JD's strategy was sound and with Ezra's endorsement of his orders, the other pilots who sorely needed to feel some sense of leadership in the battlefield were more than ready to support it. Despite their superior flying abilities and their devotion to duty, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming odds that they were facing. Around them, the lack of organisation was costing them with explosions erupting through space, with the ominous realisation that each flare of light heralded the death of another comrade. They needed a battle plan and they needed it fast. JD may have been a novice but having some kind of strategy gave the outnumbered Rebel Alliance pilots much needed confidence and a semblance of hope that they may yet survive this engagement.
The Rebel ships fell into tight formation once the order was given. JD learned that there were a slightly higher number of them than he had initially estimated. The X wings quickly grouped into squadrons before following JD's plan of splitting into groups of three to aid in the defense of the Purgatory. By the time this was done, Ezra had moved the Purgatory into optimum position to take advantage of the added air support. JD took the lead, since he was giving the orders. The others altered their course trajectory to match his and headed towards the Coluan sun.
"Ezra," he took a moment to make a private communication with the commander of the Purgatory as the X wing flew swiftly towards the brightening star. "What are our chances, really?" he asked softly.
For a moment, there was only silence as Ezra deliberated his answer and that pause made JD even more apprehensive then before. There was a decided trace of gloom in the air and JD felt colder within the confines of the cockpit than ever before. It was not unusual for the temperature to be as such while in flight, but he knew it had nothing to do with that. He was scared and he had good reason to be despite his efforts to seem otherwise.
"They are not good," Ezra said when he finally responded. The answer seemed as if it had almost been wrenched from him. JD could detect the strain in his voice, even through the com unit. "We are fighting three to one odds on almost all levels of this battle. We do not have reinforcements to call upon if our resources are strained. They do. They have more than sufficient numbers to hold us here just as surely as we are attempting to distract them in order for our transports can escape. We will be exceedingly fortunate if we can survive that long."
JD cursed softly once he had his answer and now wished he had not asked. Perhaps it was better to die in ignorance than to realise that they never really had a chance at all.
Ezra Standish wished he had been able to give JD words of encouragement but he could not bring himself to deceive the younger man into believing things were better than they were. Ezra made it a habit never to reveal the whole truth to anyone about a given situation but he found that with JD Dunne, it was not so easy to do. Perhaps it was because the young man was one of those few people who looked upon him as a friend with unconditional trust and he was not eager to take advantage of that innocence by plying it with falsehoods that would soon reveal themselves anyway. Whatever the reason, Ezra had not lied when he confessed that it was highly unlikely that the Purgatory would survive the onslaught of the three star destroyers that were on fast approach.
The destroyers had held back when the Purgatory had first emerged to fight, opting to soften the rebels up by deploying their TIE fighter squadrons to pick at the ship like fleas on a large carcass. While the Purgatory reeled from the heavy bombardment of the small fighters, the three destroyers had spent their time targeting the rebel fighters that were attempting to engage on its behalf. Monitoring attack signals, the laser cannons knew which ships to attack and therefore decimated the ranks of the squadron leaders, in order to leave the fighters disorientated and in disarray. The tactic proved formidable, allowing the TIE fighters to then close in on the collection of X-wing and Y-wing fighters and destroy them with relative ease.
"Nathan," Ezra spoke out loud to his first officer on board the Purgatory. He did not have to shift his gaze from the display before him to know that Nathan was standing close by, awaiting his orders. "How long until interception range?"
"Five minutes and closing," Nathan answered automatically as he glanced at the station next to him and made the speedy determination.
"We need to give our fighters some room to move," Ezra replied quickly, his senses reeling from one too many explosions that were rebel ships being destroyed by TIE fighters. "I want us to move away from the planet and towards the sun at maximum acceleration."
Nathan and half the bridge crew stared sharply at Ezra, all aware of how much against protocol and regulations that order was. The Purgatory, though certainly smaller than the three destroyers closing in on it, was still a heavy battle cruiser in its own right. Colu's sun was a red giant and the tremendous gravitational pull of such a stellar body was nothing to be taken lightly. The radiation levels alone could melt the hull of the Purgatory before it even entered what passed for the star's atmosphere. On all accounts, it was a highly dangerous act to think of moving close to it.
"Ezra, that will exceed safety parameters," Nathan pointed out, even though he knew he really should not be questioning Ezra's order during combat.
If Ezra minded being questioned about his order, he did not say anything to that effect. However, the commander of the Purgatory intended to have his orders carried out and he swiveled around in his chair and regarded his first officer with his usual indifferent facade. "Nathan, carry out the order," Ezra said slowly before adding with an air of total command in his voice. "Now."
"Yes Sir," Nathan nodded. His compliance would ensure that the rest of the bridge crew would obey the commander without question. It was not often that the bridge crew of the Purgatory had reason to question its commanding officer but his request was far from reasonable, let alone sane. Nathan understood their apprehension even though, as first officer, he knew he had erred in pausing to make Ezra reissue his order. The commander should never have to do that and when this was all over, if they survived, Nathan would make his apologies to Ezra for questioning him in front of the crew. "You heard the Commander, alter our course and head for Colu."
The ship immediately veered away from the scene of the battle, surging toward the Coluan sun. Its size was so immense that it almost filled the entire display as the Purgatory moved towards it. The bridge was soon filled with the crimson glow of its flaming brilliance.
"Lower the blast shields," Ezra ordered and immediately the display reverted to a digital representation of what was ahead instead of an image. Even through the display screen, the blinding aura of such a large stellar body could harm optic nerves that gazed upon it for too long.
"The destroyers are in pursuit," someone declared in the background.
"Good," Ezra returned. "That will take the pressure off our fighters from defending us and allow us a moment of respite from their fighter bombardment. Smaller crafts are in far more danger of being affected by intense radiation levels then we are."
Nathan, who now began to have some idea of what Ezra was planning, leaned over and whispered quietly in Ezra's ear. "You think this plan can work?" he asked, not with scepticism, but with genuine hope that Ezra had some definitive strategy of dealing with the pursuing ships.
"It will be risky," Ezra answered, understanding his concern and Nathan's fears if he was wrong in his judgement. "However, I am counting on the fact that those ships are more determined to board us then they are in seeing us destroyed. Every one of us on board the Purgatory can give the Empire valuable strategic information about the Rebellion, not just here on Colu but throughout the galaxy. If they capture us alive, they have access to all that information. I am counting that they prefer to get us alive rather than blow us out of the sky. So they will follow us."
"But we can't survive those radiation levels any better than they can," Nathan pointed out, his gaze glancing apprehensively at the red star that was looming larger and larger on the display.
"No, but we are smaller and far more maneuverable," he returned automatically. "Those destroyers are huge ships and their strength lies in their armory and their arsenal. That is why they always carry a large complement of TIE fighters so that they can slow down vessels with better speed and maneuvering capabilities and capture them with tractor beams."
"Commander, they're attempting to lock a tractor beam onto us," one of the bridge officers declared from his station, proving Ezra was correct in his theory that the enemy wished to capture them alive.
"Maximum acceleration!" Ezra retorted automatically. "Divert power from other systems if you have to but ensure that we remain out of its range!"
"Ezra I hope you know what you're doing," Nathan swallowed thickly as the power surging through the ship could be felt by groans of protest in the structure as the Purgatory moved through space at speed that well exceeded safety limits and beyond the parameters of its intended design. Despite the fact the bridge crew was trying their best to hide it, there was no denying the atmosphere of fear running through everyone present. Given their present situation, it was impossible for them not to feel any other way.
"If I do not," Ezra met his gaze as the ship heaved again. "It will not matter one way or another. We will be dead."
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