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The X Wing loomed in the gunsight of the TIE Advanced as the green lock flashed. Raiven tightened his finger on the trigger, firing blasts of green laser energy into the stern of the New Republic starfighter. He was rewarded by a bright flash as the X Wing disintegrated under the hammer blows of his fire, forcing him to roll to starboard to avoid damage from the blast. He checked his sensor board for his flight leader, and turned in his direction.

The battle was going badly for the New Republic fighter squadron. The deep space patrol of 2 A Wings, 4 X Wings and 2 B Wings was reduced to just 2 X Wings and an A Wing - one of the B Wings had fled into hyperspace, badly damaged, a few minutes earlier. The rest of the fighters had fallen to the three - now two - TIE Advanced, as one of the T/As - Tzadkiel's, fell to the combined fire of the remaining Republic fighters.

Raiven tucked in behind Vyper's left wing as he opened fire on the remaining A Wing. The lightweight Republic fighter broke formation with the X Wings and tried to use it's superior speed to extend the distance on the Imperial fighters.

"Take the X Wings," came the terse comlink message. Raiven double clicked his comlink in reply.

Vyper's Advanced leaped ahead as he redirected his power settings to pursue the A Wing. These X Wings seemed to be a little better than the previous two, as one swung into a pursuit position to fire on Vyper, while the other hung back to cover his wingman.

Although Vyper's TIE Advanced was far faster than the Republic fighter, the X Wing fired off a quad burst as the Imperial fighter flashed past. Raiven responded with a quad burst of his own, while the second X Wing looped in an attempt to get behind him. As Vyper closed the gap on the A Wing, Raiven slotted in behind the first X Wing and started pounding on his shields, all the while watching his rear sensor scope. After his second burst of fire splashed across the X Wing's rear shield, a matching burst hit Raiven's rear, fired by the second X Wing. Raiven evaded left, then right, firing another quad burst into the first X Wing as he flashed past.

Raiven cut his throttle to 1/3 and swung to avoid the stream of fire from the X Wing, forcing it into a long outside loop. Jamming the throttles to max, he curved back behind his opponent, using the superior acceleration and manoeuvrability of the TIE to gain a position behind him. Raiven fired precision quad bursts into the X Wing's aft, quickly reducing it's shields and punching through. He watched as one bolt struck the R2 droid in it's socket, blasting white and green fragments into space. The next burst struck the port dorsal engine and sheared both port S-Foils clean off, destroying the Republic fighter.

Vyper caught up with the A Wing and opened fire before the Republic fighter could turn fully to engage him. Verdant bolts slammed into the side of the turning A Wing, rocking the small fighter. The return fire splashed across the TIE Advanced's forward shields, but it was too late. The next quad burst punched through the remaining shields on the front of the A Wing and converged on the cockpit, completely vaporising it.

Vyper turned to face the X Wing pursuing him as Raiven accelerated to catch it from behind. As the Republic fighter reached 2.5 klicks from Vyper's TIE, it broke away at a tangent. Raiven could clearly see the silver-white shape of a wolf's head as the X Wing jumped to hyperspace.

Raiven's forward viewscreen went black and the simulator canopy opened. Opposite the three pods used to simulate the Imperial craft, the pilots of Wolfshead Squadron who were flying the Republic craft stood in small groups, glowering at Raiven, Vyper and Tzadkiel as they climbed from their pods. Raiven deliberately kept his mien impassive, matching that of the squadron's XO. Vyper spoke to the pilots. "Go get yourselves a cup of caf. Meet us in the briefing room in 15 minutes for debriefing and your scores."

The pilots shuffled toward the exit as Vyper, Raiven and Tzadkiel walked to the control station, where the Squadron's training officer, Moose, sat at the main controller's console.

"You certainly gave them a good shaking, particularly on that last run," he said, punching buttons on the main control console and producing a holographic display of the scores. "What do you think of their performances?"

"I certainly wouldn't have liked to run up against them when I was still flying for the Empire," said Raiven.

"And don't forget that Raiven has the most recent TIE Advanced experience," added Vyper.

"They definitely learnt that they can't always rely on warheads to see them through," said Tzadkiel. "That last run without missiles cost the A Wings severely."

"Well, cannon are the main weapons on any starfighter," replied Moose, "It's good to see that they're getting plenty of gunnery practice. We won't always have full loadouts of warheads, particularly if we're operating for extended times behind enemy lines. I've assembled the reruns for you."

"OK, I'll handle the pep talk," said Vyper. "Raiven, you walk them through their mistakes. Keep them on edge a bit, but don't forget the encouragement for those that deserve it."

Moose headed to the briefing room, trailed by the erstwhile TIE pilots. After confirming the security seal on the door, he turned and spoke.

"I'd just like to remind you that the details of this training exercise are classified. Do not discuss them with the other half of the squadron, they will be performing this exercise tomorrow."

This brought a wry grin to the faces of many of the pilots sat in the seats facing the briefing dais.


"A couple of general points before we get into details. The TIE Advanced is rare and not widely deployed. But that won't save you if you run up against them. The purpose of this exercise was to teach you how to deal with them as best you can..."

Again, several of the pilots smiled at this. Vyper saw this and suppressed a grin of his own.

"...although they seemed to be a somewhat expensive set of lessons."

The grins faded.


Raiven stepped forward and activated the holoprojector.

"You made some mistakes out there. And you came up with some innovative solutions. Let's start at the beginning. Computer, play file 'Sparks' Death' 1...."

There was a groan from the back of the auditorium....

[Captain's ready room, Imperial Star Destroyer Dominance]

The captain of the newly commissioned Imperial Star Destroyer Dominance took a deep breath as he activated the holocomm device mounted in his huge desk.

Roygner. I haven't spoken to this one before, but if he's half as bad as they say he is, then this should be fun, to say the least.

"Good morning, Grand Admiral Roygner, sir," the captain said with a respectful nod. The foot high image on his desk nodded in acknowledgement.

"Good morning, Vice Admiral. Congratulations on your promotion and your new command."

"Thank you, sir," the captain said, carefully keeping his voice even and his features impassive. Thanking superior officers was usually a very risky business. Some would simply accept the thanks, but others would often bark that they were only doing their job, as their subordinates should be. Again the image of the tall, striking man resplendent in his white Grand Admiral's uniform nodded.

"I am now going to quickly brief you on your assignment," the hologram said, the deep, richly resonant voice of the owner barely distorted across the huge distance that separated sender and receiver.

"Your task fleet is now nearly in position," the image of Grand Admiral Roygner continued. "As you know, we have successfully held the Mantara sector for some years now, and it has proved to be a most valuable resource to us. However, as supplies of natural resources continue to dwindle, that importance decreases. The sector has no tactical importance whatsoever, but other areas do, and our forces are currently being deployed to counter two major Alliance offensives elsewhere.

"This leaves the Mantara sector undefended, and it is clearly an unacceptable situation that Imperial assets be left undefended."

The captain of the Dominance nodded gravely. The Empire depended upon consistency of strength to establish order - and it was consistency of strength, and tactical geniuses - like the Empire's twelve Grand Admirals - that had seen it survive to the present day. He studied this one, Roygner, whom he had of course heard of, but never seen before. The impeccably dressed figure in front of him was tall, he decided, well over six feet in height and possessing a lean build. The Grand Admiral's hair was a rich brown with greying temples, and his eyes were a striking grey. His voice, deep and resonant, spoke of power, authority, confidence, and aristocracy. He was quite handsome by human standards, and the Star Destroyer's captain felt himself transfixed by Roygner's eyes. The cold grey eyes stared piercingly at him like chips of slate as he spoke.

"Accordingly, the Mantara sector is to be relinquished as an Imperial asset," his image went on, as it began to pace slightly from left to right and back again.

"However, it will also be unacceptable to give the Alliance any chance of exploiting what resources do remain in the region. Therefore, those resources are to be taken or destroyed.

"That is where you and your task fleet come in, Vice Admiral," Roygner continued, his eyes narrowing fractionally. The captain of the Dominance felt as if they were boring into his soul. "You are hereby ordered to completely effect the retrieval, or, failing that, the destruction of all natural resources in the Mantara sector. You may use whatever means necessary, but not a single useful resource must remain. Is this clear?" The captain's mind was racing. Whatever means necessary? That could go far beyond just orbital bombardment - they're thinking of planetary viral bombs, core disruption technologies… he blinked once to clear his head. Roygner was waiting for an answer, his hands clasped firmly behind his back, and it was never good to keep a Grand Admiral waiting.

"Perfectly clear, sir," he answered, his tone even, although his eyes were a murky whirlpool of thoughts and emotions.

"Excellent," Roygner answered, his calm, almost musical voice somehow acquiring a menacing edge. The Grand Admiral turned and stared at the Dominance's captain for a few seconds, seeming to assess the latter, who felt uncomfortably like the senior officer was peering into his soul. Eventually, Roygner continued, his words precise and measured.

"Don't fail me, admiral," he said slowly. "You are in command of one of the greatest task forces in the Empire as it is today. Don't fail me. Grand Admiral Thrawn may be gone, but you will find that the Empire does not lack for strong leadership." The other forced down an overwhelming urge to squirm in his chair, then looked his superior officer directly in the eye and spoke, his voice hard and cold.

"Yes, sir. I won't." At that, the Grand Admiral nodded and his lips curved into a hint of a smile, half exposing white, even teeth.

"I'm sure you won't, Admiral," Roygner said, emphasising his subordinate's rank, as if to remind him of his rapidly increasing status, and how fragile that status was. Slowly he folded his arms and stroked his chin with one hand. "I have other matters to attend to. Good luck."

And with that the hologram disappeared.

The vice admiral sighed deeply and rubbed his forehead. He'd acquired his promotion and new command - of this ship and this task force - because of his involvement with the recent engagement between several Alliance starfighter squadrons and capital ships and Admiral Leto's Ninth Imperial fleet. In that engagement, most of the Alliance starfighter squadrons had been all but destroyed, and few of their capital ships had escaped severe damage or destruction. He'd been overjoyed to be the youngest ever Imperial officer to be promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral - beating even the Grand Admirals to flag rank. With the new insignia that he now wore proudly on his breast came the ability and responsibility to command large task groups. To get command of an Imperial task force of this size was a great achievement for any Imperial starship captain - but he was less than thrilled with his newest assignment. The captain of the ISD Dominance was fundamentally a good man, thoroughly devoted to the principles of structure and order and to the Empire that strove to establish them in the galaxy, but not always in agreement with the methods that the Empire chose to bring that about.

However, he reflected to himself, there were many factors which influenced men's actions. And one of the greatest of those was…


Fear of failing the Grand Admiral, fear of the Alliance gaining the upper hand in the galactic war that had been raging for so many years, fear of losing his command. Fear of losing himself.

No, that last fear did not apply here, he decided after some thought. Of all the men in the Galactic Empire, he trusted none more than Grand Admiral Thrawn, but anyone else thought worthy by the Emperor to be made a Grand Admiral was equally to be trusted and respected. The Grand Admirals were the masters of their profession, the greatest strategists and tacticians in the Empire, and if one of them had thought an assignment important enough to personally deliver it, then it must be important - and necessary - indeed.

The great men of the universe, the admiral decided, were men of vision and men of faith. I have the vision - that's why I serve the Empire. Now it's time to exercise the faith.

He leaned forward and touched a switch.

"XO, come to my ready room, please."

"On my way, sir," came the tinny reply, and the intercom switched off. The admiral leaned back in his chair and waited a minute until the door chime sounded.

"Come," he said, sitting up slightly as the doors hissed open and his executive officer entered. The latter stood stiffly at attention after approaching the senior officer's desk.

"Reporting as ordered, sir," he said crisply.

"Very good, at ease and sit down," the admiral said, motioning the man into a seat. The latter sat and waited respectfully for his captain to speak. To his surprise, the senior officer suddenly smiled a twisted smile, and remarked, "You're not going to believe what our assignment is."

"Sir? Try me."

"Very well. I'll tell you." And so he did.

When he'd finished, the XO sat in stunned silence for a full minute.

"Hell of a first assignment for us," he managed at last. The other nodded.

"It certainly is," he agreed. "What I'm most worried about is what the crew will think of this - and the crews of our other ships, too. While I think of that, I need you to schedule a captain's conference for tonight so we can move as soon as possible. I'll brief the captains and executive officers of all the ships in the fleet myself. You will of course be there as well." The XO nodded.

"Very good, sir." The captain of the Dominance stared at his executive officer for a few moments before he spoke again.

"Tell me, Captain. Are you all right to accomplish this mission? Speak freely."

"Vice Admiral Piett, sir, in all honesty, I have some doubts," the XO confessed, keeping his eyes on those of his superior officer. "However, I'm just a captain, and an executive officer at that. I don't know the broader picture, so I follow orders. I've had doubts before, but I've always done the job, and things have always come right in the end. That's exactly how I view this assignment, sir. I don't know what considerations are at work here, so I do the job I'm told to do and keep my questions to myself. And, sir," the XO continued with a frown, "you can be damn sure that I'll make certain the crew do exactly the same. The first man that balks at obeying an order will be counting deck plates from the comfort of the brig." Vice Admiral Norvad Piett nodded briefly.

"Very good, Captain. That's all for now. Dismissed."

"Sir." The other man stood to rigid attention and then left.

After the doors had slid closed, Piett stroked his chin thoughtfully. The youngest Imperial officer ever to make an admiral's rank, and the youngest to ever obtain command of a task force this size, he seemed set to follow in his father's footsteps. He searched in his mind for all the stories his father had told him as a young boy, tried to remember if the Admiral Piett of legend had ever had to carry out an assignment like this -

After he started working directly for Vader? No doubt. The Executor wasn't known for its immensity and grandness so much as for the destruction it caused.

Piett's thoughts shifted to another matter entirely, and he smiled faintly.

Now that White Squadron is finally out of the way, I can move on to other things. With that thought in mind, Vice Admiral Piett of the Imperial Navy leaned forward in his chair and set to work.

[On final approach to Alliance Space Platform Patience, Iberian System]

The young Alliance pilot known as Drake frowned and clenched his fist irritably. Glancing out the window of the Alliance shuttle Glittering Silver, he saw what he thought was one of the ugliest space "vehicles" in existence.

A Space Platform.

The Rebel Alliance didn't have that many platforms, Drake knew, which was part of the reason behind his curiosity at being flown to one. The other reason was that he wasn't being taken to his squadron's mothership, the frigate Wolf's Den. "Can't this old rustbucket move any faster than this?" he grumbled irritably to himself. A few feet in front of him, in the cockpit, the shuttle pilot and co-pilot heard him and exchanged glances. Yep, typical fighter jock. No respect for any ship that can't kill you either through excessive speed or weapons malfunctions.

"Glittering Silver, this is Patience Flight Control," a voice crackled over the comm suddenly. "You have clearance. Just sit back and enjoy the tractor ride in."

"Acknowledged, Patience," the pilot replied evenly, and then, with a small smile, "just make sure it's a nice, smooth, slow ride." He sat back and grinned, deliberately ignoring the barely inaudible curse coming from the back.

[Platform Patience Recreation Lounge 3A]

The recently promoted Commander Avery "Foxfire" Shroeder, and her executive officer, Captain Michael "Vyper" Stauber sat deep in conversation at one of the tables in the busy recreation lounge aboard the Patience.

"I don't like it," Vyper said with a quick sip of his drink, on this occasion something hot and non-alcoholic.

"Nor do I," Foxfire agreed with a frown. "We don't even have an operational ship, and they're assigning us this?"

"I know," Vyper continued, "but-" He stopped in mid-sentence and smiled for the first time since their briefing early that morning. "Hello, here's Drake."

"Back from the dead?!" Foxfire asked, with a look that was just a bit too melodramatic.

The young man had already spotted the pair and was headed over.

"Welcome back, stranger," Foxfire motioned Drake to have a seat and grinned.

"Thanks, Fox," Drake answered with a smile of his own. "Can't say that I like the venue for my homecoming party, though." Foxfire sighed.

"I know, believe me, I'm not too impressed with it either. Unfortunately, Vyper and I found out where we're headed this morning, and it looks even less bright than where we are now."

"Wonderful," Drake rolled his eyes. "Where's the squadron off to now? Freighter duty? Where's the Den, anyhow?"

"Slow down, slow down," Vyper admonished Drake gently. "There's a lot to tell you - you won't have heard most of it yet, it's only happened very recently." Drake's eyes narrowed fractionally and he folded his arms.

"Go for it. I'm listening."

"Well, basically we were just involved in the liberation of Iberya, Ibero's home planet," Vyper explained. "We all took lots of hits, and Wolfshead got hit hard. You know we lost people when Wolfshead was first formed, and the battle at Iberya did little to help with the gaps in our roster. Actually, we don't even have a new ship yet, which is why we're sitting here idle on this rusty tub of bolts. The Den is sadly on her way to some rest - she was destroyed in the battle at Iberya." And to Vyper's utter amazement, at that moment a glistening tear slowly rolled down Drake's cheek. The young man said nothing however, nor did he make any effort to wipe the tear away. The loss of the Joan d'Arc, Vyper knew, had hit the young man hard. It had become home to him, and at first he had been very hostile towards the new ship, the Wolf's Den. Finally, Drake had accepted her, grudgingly at first, but in the end as loyally as he ever had with the Joan. And now, he had lost his new ship, too. It must be like losing a loved one all over again, Vyper thought to himself. Drake was not alone, he knew. He himself was still dealing with the grief of loss - but now was not the time for such things to be dealt with. Necessity, unfortunately, had to bid them to wait. He took a deep breath, then continued. "This morning we received word of our new assignment. I can't tell you what it is yet - I'll save that till the briefing - but it's big. Very big."

"Isn't it always?" Drake sighed. Foxfire managed a small chuckle.

"With us? You bet," she answered him, her mouth twitching into a thin smile.

"I hope you can get packed and ready fast," Vyper continued with a grin of his own, "because we'll be leaving pretty soon. We have to move damn quickly on this one." Drake snorted, and finally wiped his face with a sleeve.

"Hey, I'm not even unpacked properly yet," he said wryly. "It certainly won't be a problem for me to pack everything again." Foxfire and Vyper smiled sympathetically, and Foxfire decided to change the subject.

"So, how was the course?" she asked lightly.

"Not too bad," Drake said with a cheeky grin, helping himself to a second drink Vyper had ordered. "I was lined up for pretty much the same course before I left Arrebnac. Advanced Security and Close Quarters Battle Training is a pretty rigorous course, but my natural talent prevailed and I easily passed it…"

"I see the rigours of the course didn't hurt your ego any," Vyper observed dryly. Drake beamed at him in return.

"Well, of course not," he chuckled. "Don't underestimate my ego, Vyper. It's one of the few parts of me that is utterly unbreakable - as I learnt on the course."

"Oh?" Foxfire's raised eyebrows were pointed questioningly at Drake.

"Ah, it's stupid really -" Drake paused for a drink - "we were doing a mockup stakeout. I was already in position in the "cantina" and one of the other clowns decided that he'd try and rush the bust. Unfortunately for me, I was too close to one of the bad guys and wasn't expecting anything and before I knew what had hit me, he'd grabbed my arm and flipped me onto my back, then he introduced me to the working end of a PR5 Blastech pistol. To add injury to insult, my left arm was broken - it got twisted in the fall. Course, there was a positive side to all this," Drake grinned. "The guys - the one that started the bust early and the instructor who accidentally broke my arm - felt pretty bad and bought me plenty of drinks." Vyper laughed.

"Glad you got something for your trouble, then," he said, polishing off his drink. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I think I'll be off. Drake, we'll be having a briefing at 0700 tomorrow." The younger man groaned.

"I have definitely had enough of early starts," he complained. "I really should have been a bureaucrat like Mum and Dad…" his voice trailed off for a moment before he seemed to come back to himself.

"Yep, cheers, Vyper," he said, standing. "I'll see you both bright and early tomorrow, then."

"See you later, Drake. Nice to have you back," was Foxfire's parting shot as the young man left the lounge. Drake smiled and lifted his hand in acknowledgment.

[Visiting Officer's Quarters, PLT Patience]

"At least the quarters on this floating brick are decent," Drake observed as he unpacked a few personal items into the standard Alliance vanity locker. Stripping out of his working uniform, he laid on the bed and began to read a holonovel. Somehow he couldn't concentrate.

She's gone, and I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

The thought brought on that lump in his throat, and Drake cleared it loudly to prevent himself from getting worked up again. A whole era is over - just gone. And it all happened while I was away. I didn't even get a chance to say any goodbyes. Drake frowned crossly. This was not a time to be melancholy. Forcing his thoughts elsewhere, the young man returned to his holonovel.

It was only a few minutes later that a shadow fell across the bed, and he turned around to look at the source.

A slow smile spread across his face.

Outside the viewport glided the beautiful gleaming hull of a New Republic ship, although it was unlike anything Drake had ever seen before.

He could not make out her name, but a large wolf's head was emblazoned on the sparkling superstructure. My God, what a ship. Drake almost felt guilty for so quickly admiring the new ship as he thought of the battered old Joan d'Arc and Wolf's Den, both now on their way to rest, either as a training ship or a hulk that glided through space. It did not occur to him that his thoughts - treating the two ships like girlfriends or lovers - were even slightly out of the ordinary. Well. We'll see if this new ship is as good the Joan and the Den were, won't we? The Wolfshead pilot dismissed thoughts of the fate of his old ships and squadron as depressing and less worthwhile than his relaxation, and settled back down to his holonovel, but in less than five minutes he was asleep.

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