Buck was right. They were in trouble.
By the time they arrived at the cockpit of the Rogue where Buck was presently at the controls, the freighter was already making its way out of the atmosphere. Around them, the overpowering amber skies of Bespin were diminishing quickly, being replaced by the deep, rich colors of indigo space. However, their departure from the planet had not removed them from the danger they had attempted to flee in Cloud City. The premonition of something else lurking in the seemingly disarming beauty of space came back to haunt Chris as he saw what was awaiting the Rogue as it escaped the planet's gravitational field.
The Star Destroyer was not alone.
Chris suspected the moment they had been airborne, the fighters that were hovering around the destroyer like flies to a rotting carcass, had also been launched to intercept the Rogue before it could make the jump to lightspeed. The number of fighters in the air indicated that the Empire was taking no chances with them; they meant to capture the rebels alive. It would have been quite flattering to know that they were considered so dangerous by the enemy if not for the fact that their chances of escaping this particular net was dwindling rapidly.
"I think we're in trouble," Vin stated in what had to be the understatement of the millennium.
"Josiah," Buck immediately took control of the situation because he of all people was an absolute master when it came to getting his ship out of tough scrapes and this one was no exception. "Get in the co-pilot's seat. I need someone to help me fly this thing if we're going to get out of this alive. Chris, I need you at the starboard gun ports."
"I'm on it," Chris nodded and immediately retreated out of the room
"I'll take port," Vin retorted and joined him, wasting no time because when those fighters came after them. They would come after them with all guns blazing. They had a slim advantage in the fact that the Empire wanted them captured alive but if they put up enough resistance that edict might change to simply eradicating them once and for all.
"I can take the rear gun ports," JD volunteered.
Buck looked over his shoulder in concern. "Are you sure?"
He did not want to appear as if he doubted the young man's abilities but the truth was, there could be no margin for error in this. The only way they were going to escape was to fight their way through those TIE's to gain enough distance to make the jump to hyperspace. Buck had been giving JD some lessons since they met but shooting simulated targets was one thing, shooting live targets was something else entirely because the deaths would be real, not some disappearing blip on a screen. While he was somewhat confident of JD's ability, he did not know if the kid was ready for that.
JD knew precisely what was going through Buck's head and while he was grateful to the older man for his consideration, even JD was perceptive enough to see that time was crucial here; they did not have it to debate the matter. "No," he answered truthfully. "But we don't have much of a choice do we?"
"Boy knows his mind," Josiah pointed out, offering JD a little support.
Buck would not have refused him even if he could because JD was right, they did not have a choice and as Josiah had pointed out, it was his decision. "Alright," Buck nodded after a moment of hesitation. "You know how to handle the controls?"
"Just like you showed me," JD called out as he started out of the cockpit, not waiting once he was given Buck's approval. Within seconds, he had disappeared from view.
"What about me?" Casey asked once he was gone.
"You can take a seat and strap yourself in," Josiah answered before Buck could make a response.
"But I can help," Casey pouted, even though she was uncertain how she might be able to be of assistance at this time. She just felt the need to be doing something; especially since it was her fault they were all in this situation in the first place.
"I appreciate the sentiment darling," Buck said as his hands flew across the lit cockpit control panel, "but right now the best thing you can do is keep out of the way."
Keep out of the way! Casey fumed upon hearing his statement though delivered in the nicest possible way; however, the occasion warranted that she simply obeyed without argument. Frowning, she placed herself in the seat and then remembered Aunt Nettie who was presently being taken care of by Nathan Jackson who had promptly taken charge of the old woman upon boarding the Rogue. Although Casey had never met Nathan, she knew him by sight, having familiarized herself with most of the rebels that occupied the Empire's most wanted list. Nathan was in prestigious company, being counted among the likes of Mon Mothma, Bel Iblis, Mary Travis and General Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"Where's Nathan?" Buck asked.
"He's in your medical bay," Josiah answered quickly. "Nettie was hurt on the way to the ship, he's trying to stabilize her so she'll survive the trip back to the Alliance."
"Nathan," Buck flicked on the switch that would allow him communications with that section of the freighter. "Secure yourself and your patient now."
"She's badly hurt," Nathan's voice returned. "I've got to get her stats under control," he protested.
"I know you do," Buck responded sympathetically. "But we don't have the time for that. We're surrounded by enemy fighters and a star destroyer. I'll have to do some fancy flying if we're gong to make the jump to light speed so the moment, you're going to have to buckle yourself and the lady in for the duration."
There was a brief pause and Casey wondered if Nathan would protest. She did not like the idea of having to leave Aunt Nettie to her injured state and would like to have said so but she understood, if somewhat begrudgingly, what was at stake here. Nathan understood it as well because a second later he responded to Buck's demand.
"Understood," he said quietly, obviously not liking it that his charge would have to wait to receive her treatment but forced to comply because the situation demanded nothing less.
Once he was certain that all of his passengers were secure, Buck faced the cockpit window and saw the Star Destroyer coming into view. The large ship cast a shadow through the plexiglassed window and it was an awesome sight to watch the enormous bulk defeat its size and design to sail gracefully forward in the soundless void of space. The fighters around it approaching on an attack vector, holding formation long enough to reach dispersal range and then the Rogue would be completely surrounded on all fronts. Buck took a deep breath, trying to remember when he had been in a fight like this and knew that it was a pointless exercise trying to recall the incident when he needed to be completely focussed. Resting his hands on the controls, he kept his eyes trained on the approaching enemy and spoke rather sedately, which seemed out of place coming from him.
"Josiah," Buck said smoothly. "All you have to do is keep up with me, compensate for every depletion on every system that I'm going to overload. You hear me?"
"Yeah," Josiah nodded, knowing that their survival depended on his making sure the ship was capable of keeping up with Buck's maneuvering skills. "I hear you."
Buck nodded and watched the TIE fighters in his console screen began to break up from their group formation to move into individual attack vectors. They were coming in fast and to survive, Buck was going to have to be faster. "Let's do it."
The Rogue exploded forward at maximum acceleration, the ignition of all thrusters creating a brilliant flare of blue from the engines as the freighter streaked away from the approaching ships. The TIE fighters in pursuit immediately matched her speed, burning up the dark skies as they surged forward with equal power. The pilots occupying the enemy ship had an attack plan already in motion as others of their scattered numbers began to enclose the space upon which the freighter was at its epicentre. They were aware that the only chance the rebel ship had of escaping was to gain enough velocity to reach lightspeed and were well prepared for that eventuality. With the Star Destroyer lagging behind, every second the TIE fighters were able to delay the freighter from reaching its end, was another second that the ship came closer and closer to being caught in a tractor beam.
Buck knew the strategy. It was standard Imperial procedure but he was not about to fall into the trap. He pulled the nose of the Rogue up sharply and began climbing, rising above the trajectory of the ships closing in on him. They had been pursuit him at maximum velocity and the sudden change in direction caught them by surprise. Buck knew the manoevre would not allow the Rogue to escape but it would give the ship valuable breathing space as he began to calculate the jump to hyperspace. He wanted to be able to jump immediately upon gaining breaking speed and managed to make the complex calculation while at the same time keeping one step ahead of the enemy.
The enemy regrouped as anticipated and immediately reconfigured their trajectory to maintain the pursuit. The correction took less than a hundredth of a second which was nowhere as long as the seconds that had ticked by when the Rogue's maneuvering had caught them off guard. Once again, the net was being flung, bound by links made up TIE fighters bent on driving them towards the Star Destroyer who was closing in on them from the distance. This time they change their tactic in order to ensure their prey did not escape. Pouring more power to their engines, a feat when taken up by a smaller vessel ensured its acceleration far outmatched the larger ship it was pursuing, the TIE's closed the gap between themselves and the Rogue and entered firing range. As soon as the Incom Cosair fell into their targeting scanners, the TIE fighters open fire.
This too did not fall anywhere beyond Buck's expectations of the situation. He knew that eventually, it would come down to this, a dogfight in open space. It was the reason why he had sent Chris, Vin and JD into the triad of gunnery turrets in the Rogue. Once again, he proved that he was a better pilot than he by swinging around his ship in a neat curve, much to tight for a vessel of its size but Buck knew his ship well and he knew what she could do. She managed the maneuver quite flawlessly and suddenly the TIE's behind him had to veer out of the way as the freighter came charging right at them. The formation scattered once again, as ships struggled frantically to get out of the way, one or two did not make it as they spun out of control before colliding into one of their pilot pilots. The others learned from the mistake, felt their anger at seeing comrades die and then regrouped once more for the kill.
This was not like pod racing.
Although that particular sport was hardly safe, it did not frighten JD Dunne as much as this did. In pod racing, things were simple. There were obstacles ahead and all one had to do to safety traverse the terrain and be declared the winner was to avoid them. As JD sat inside the rear gunnery turret, a small circular room in which a chair was mounted to the floor in front of the gun port controls, he felt the fear pressing against his insides and told himself that if he did not fear, he was a fool. Flexing his fingers at the hand held controls, JD swallowed thickly as he saw the TIE fighter's approaching the Rogue at rapid speed. All that stood between him and space was a thick sheet of plexiglass that allowed him to view the vacuum outside without the benefits of electronic imaging although he could defer to the console screen of his targeting scanner if he liked.
"Here they come," JD heard Buck announce.
He adjusted his headset and braced himself in the seat, returning his hands quickly to the controls, watching the approaching ships. Positioned at the rear of the Rogue, he could not only see the fighters that were closing in fast but also the large destroyer that was further back in the pursuit. JD reminded himself not to worry himself about the details and his eyes remained fixed on the TIE's as the group of nine suddenly split into three divergent groups. Two veered off to either side of him but one trio remained entrenched behind him.
He was jarred out of his observations by the first shots that ripped across the deflector shield before him. He could see the energy being absorbed by the invisible field of energy that kept them from being blown apart. The three were coming at him, firing across and he was doing nothing to stop them. The ship shuddered with each bolt of energy that struck the shields and JD knew he had to do something fast. He had volunteered to do this and there was no turning back now, Buck needed him to perform.
JD closed his eyes for a brief second and told himself that he was not in the gunnery turret of a star freighter firing Imperial TIE fighters but back home on that little backwater as Casey had called it so ignorantly. He was back at that last day, the one that prior to the day he had left for Cordoba. He had taken the pod racer that had won him all his victories, the one he had built from nothing, the one he knew he had to turn over to its new owners that night itself, for one last run. JD remembered staring across the plains of the Badlands, studying the meandering paths through rock and thought to himself that he knew everyone. That last flight when he had sailed through the course, JD had almost felt invincible. Everything since then had been a different kind of chaos but for one moment that day, he had felt uncertain about anything. If he was to be any good to Buck and the others, he would have to be that again.
JD opened his eyes, saw the TIE's in front of him and whispered softly to himself. "Catch me if you can."
A feeling of confidence swept over him and suddenly, he remembered why he had been so good pod racing. Humans could not normally indulge in pod racing because the speed and the reflexes required went beyond their ability to keep up with other species. Most who tried died but not JD. There was no Force in him that allowed him to keep up, just this utter feeling of absolute confidence that was beyond words to express. His hands began to move. He barely noticed the movements, following the targets with his transfixed gaze, refusing to let them escape him or the range of the weapons under his control. Enemy ships knew when they were targeted and the ships before him certainly displayed the signs of such knowledge for the lead ship desperately tried to escape his sights. JD barely flinched when he fired that first time, watching the bolt of energy streak through space that was twisting and turning around him thanks to Buck's expert handling of the ship, before meeting its target. The TIE fighter simply exploded, the circular fuselage erupting outward, sending its flat wings spiraling into the void in flames before the vacuum extinguished it forever.
The wingmen for the destroyed ship immediately started bombarding the turret with more blasts, attempting to breach the shields to take their revenge upon their leader's killer, unaware that even as they were pounding the Rogue with more firepower, he was preparing the same fate for them. JD did not even flinch as he target the left wingman, watching the craft flash on the console next to the firing controls when it had been acquired and he had a clear shot. It was not even registering on his brain what the digitized blip was in actuality, he was only concerned with that fact that he had to clear the screen for his next target. Firing just as indifferently upon the doomed vessel as he had done its predecessor, the craft vaporized in mid air.
He noticed other ships that had been conducting strafing runs across the Rogue were now breaking off from that action and rushing to aid the lone TIE fighter that was left remaining. JD forced away any notions of fear and remembered where he was and what he was doing. Once again, the Barren Straits flashed in his mind and the image renewed his sense of purpose as well as his concentration. He barely noticed when he destroyed the last of the original trio of ships that had been in pursuit, even though by now its destruction was witnessed by the other TIE fighters rushing to take its place.
JD hardly noticed the changing of the guard. His reflexes were moving so fast, his brain was barely registering the movement of his hands. All his senses had become fused and he was working so swiftly towards reaching his goal of eliminating as many TIE fighters from his line of sight the way he might circumnavigate the obstacles in the course of a pod race. Explosion after explosion flared before his eyes and all he could do in reaction was to move on, searching quickly for another target, honing the precision of his shooting to finer art than before. Everything else around him had dissolved into nothingness and entirety of his universe became the battle he was presently waging.
It was unlike anything he had ever felt.
"Where they're all going?" Vin Tanner questioned as he shot another TIE fighter out of the sky.
"I don't know," Chris Larabee responded through his headset.
At first, they had been inundated with enemy fighters until there were so many ships in the air that it felt like a swarm had surrounded them in space. However, as Vin and Chris, two exceptional pilots in their own right, continued the laborious task of fighting off the enemy ships in order to give the Rogue its corridor of escape, they found the number of ships attacking the starboard and port gun ports beginning to dwindle. The effort of the TIE fighters towards them seemed almost secondary in nature and Vin was genuinely perplexed. While they were far from forgotten since the enemy continued to make passes at their section of the Rogue, the TIE fighters seemed more focussed on the rear of the freighter.
"They're blasting the hell out of the rear turret," Vin retorted.
"Pick up your rear scanner," Buck said suddenly, his voice sounded strange almost as if there was a hint of astonishment in it.
Vin and Chris in their respective alcoves immediately obeyed and watched the destruction taking place on the targeting screens before them as blips disappeared at an astounding rate.
"Feetals Gizz!" Vin swore as he saw the rapid volley of blasts flying across the sky, vaporizing every ship that came into contact with it. He had thought he was fast in a gunnery turret but what he was seeing left in awe. "What the hell?"
"It's JD," Buck's voice filtered through Vin's headset with a mixture of awe and concern. "He's manning the rear gun ports," the pilot responded. "I count at least twelve kills so far."
"Twelve!" Vin exclaimed. He was uncertain of the exact number but the sharpshooter knew he had taken down at least seven ships so far but JD's tally was almost double that. "How did he manage that? The kid can barely shoot a gun," he cried.
"Have you ever seen pod racing?" Chris asked them both, not surprised by the number of JD's kill even though he was somewhat concerned that the youth had yet to pause and consider that each ship he was destroying had a life that was equally terminated when the flames had disappeared from the sky.
"Jabba the Hutt used to have them on Tatooine," Vin remarked. "There were not many humans who can do it."
"JD told me that he was supposedly the best pod racer on his home planet. If that's even remotely true than his reflexes are faster than most humans I've ever seen," Chris confessed readily.
"Could he be Force adept?" Vin ventured to ask as another ship flew by his targeting sights and was quickly destroyed for its trouble.
"No," Chris answered immediately before pausing a moment to take care of some TIE fighters coming at the starboard side of the ship. "I don't sense it in him. However he is doing this, it's purely a natural talent."
"I knew he had potential," Buck started to say and Vin could imagine the proud grin on his face even as he was speaking. "But I never imagined this."
"How long until we jump?" Chris asked, returning to the subject at hand. The Imperial forces were in disarray, scattering and regrouping, attempting to form some kind of battle plan. Chris would prefer to be gone before they formulated their new strategy.
"One minute and counting," Buck replied confidently. "They aren't enough of them to stop us now," the star pilot retorted.
"JD," Vin spoke into his headset. "Damn kid, where do you learn to shoot like that?"
JD did not answer for a few seconds as he considered his answer. Until Vin had spoken, he was so lost in what he was doing that he had barely heard the conversation echoing through his headset. All he had been aware of was this need to vanquish the enemy so that they could escape, everything else had become secondary and yet in the course of that determination to succeed, he had transcended himself in a way he could not define. JD wondered if it was possible to find enlightenment in the middle of a battle but somehow he had and he knew without even saying it, that he would never be the same again.
"I was just trying to help," JD said weakly.
"I'll say!" Buck exclaimed enthusiastically. "Kid, when we get back to the Alliance, I am going to make you in the greatest star pilot in the Rebel fleet. You got the gift."
"Buck," Chris' soothing voice entered the mix. "Take it easy."
JD was glad for the intervention because in all truth, upon regaining some measure of coherence following his performance, the young man was rather shaken. He had no idea that he had been capable of such skill and the fact that it started to dawn on him that lives had been lost, JD was not entirely sure whether it was a skill worth having. He stared at the stars before him, watched the drifting remains of what had been numerous ships, each occupied by someone alive, not any more thanks to him and felt a cold shiver run through his spine. As the Rogue pulled further and further away from the debris field, JD continued to stare at it even after the ship had jumped into hyperspace and there was nothing before him but the memory of what he had done.
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