The AT AT had seemed ominous and foreboding when Chris had viewed it from a distance away. The ultimate expression of modern warfare embodied in its odd quadruped locomotion, appearing more like a metal sculpture of an animal than a weapon of destruction. It was the forerunner in terrestrial assault vehicles for the Imperial war machine and as it crossed the desert horizon, nearing the rebel forces that had drawn battle lines and were prepared to defeat it at all costs, its reputation seemed to be very much deserved. In the distance it had appeared large but in view of the naked eye, it seemed enormous. It fairly towered in the sky like a building and it moved with far more haste then one would give such a construct credit.
Its huge metallic head, fully armored as the rest of it, reared towards the rebel lines and the huge cannons that resembled mandibles in its placement, began firing almost as soon as they were in range. The bolts of energy were devastating; not quite possessing the strength and intensity of a thermal detonator but enough to ensure that there were dead bodies after each impact. The rebel targeted the AT ATs, all two of them, almost as soon as the large behemoth entered the range of its own mobile cannons but after the first few blasts, it was evident that the AT AT's armor was simply too thick. The best that they were managing was to leave behind darkened marks on the surface of its gray hull. The AT AT's seemed to shrug off the blasts and continue onwards, always immediately returning fire on the cannons that had attempted to destroy it and succeeding where the enemy had failed.
Josiah had been in charge of the cannon batteries. Like most of the Republic Senators, his past had seen him undertake some manner of military service and he was more than capable of taking charge of the battle on this front. Unfortunately, skill was not what was needed here. It was superior firepower, which unfortunately, the Empire seemed to have a great deal of. He had instructed all cannons to concentrate on the AT AT's which were the greatest threat at the moment, leaving all lesser weapons to the Imperial walkers who were closing in on them with just as much efficiency as their large counter part. However the laser cannons were no match for the thick hide of the AT AT's and with each attempt to shoot down the enormous transports, the AT AT's returned their efforts in kind.
"He's gone," Josiah grunted as he pulled out the body of the young rebel manning the latest cannon to be destroyed by the AT AT. The former senator tried not to let his sorrow show as he saw the youthful face, covered in blood and dirt, following the utter destruction of the cannon that he had been firing. On the battle field there was not much that could be done. He was only one of many lying dead in the sand, one of many whose blood was soaking in the earth as the fighting raged on.
"It's completely destroyed," the unit leader muttered as he stared briefly at the remnants of the weapon, nothing more than a twisted hulk of burning metal once the AT AT was done with it.
"That's six," Josiah sighed, raising his eyes to the front and seeing at least four more continuing its seemingly futile assault on the AT AT's. By now, even those carrying smaller, shoulder braced cannons were aiming at the armored craft that was far too close for liking by this point. "If we don't start slowing those things down soon, we'll have to fall back."
"We can't fall back," Chris Larabee declared as he heard Josiah making that revelation. "If we don't hold the line here, when they break through they'll be a hell of a lot closer to base. The closer they get, they more in range they will be to the shield generator."
"We can't stop them Chris," Josiah insisted, staring at the bodies that had already been piled up in the short duration. "That armor is too thick, the cannon fire is just impacting off their hulls. We can't even penetrate it."
"Where the hell is Buck? We're getting slaughtered out here!" Vin Tanner demanded as he joined his friends at the scene of the latest cannon's destruction. The former bounty hunter turned Jedi apprentice had been lending his skills to the rebels who were armed with blast rifles, trying to kill as many of the advancing stormtroopers that were approaching across the sandy plain. While they were making some progress in cutting down the numbers coming for them, it was not enough. The stormtroopers had too much support from the walkers and the AT AT's beside them. Rebel snipers were laying down a heavy barrage from their blasters and blast rifles, however, with the armored walkers and AT AT's clearing the way, the Imperial losses were minor compared to the rebel dead that was piling up the invisible line they had drawn as the front.
"He's on his way," Chris replied, able to sense that his friend was trying his best to reach them. Glancing upwards at the sky, the others followed his gaze as they witnessed briefly the pitched aerial battle that was taking place above them. The battle on the ground had become so fierce that none of them really noticed the fighting in the air even though it was just as vicious as any waged on the surface of Colu itself. Chris could tell Buck was trying his hardest to break away and reach them but he was having troubles of his own as his efforts to reach them had been temporarily stalled by the TIE fighters who were providing aerial support to the Imperials engaged in the ground assault.
"I think he's got troubles of his own," Josiah remarked, requiring no clairvoyance to make that determination. "However, we still have a big problem," he returned his attention to the Imperial assault team that was still closing in on them.
The senator let his gaze sweep across the battlefront for a moment, allowing his senses to absorb the intensity of the moment. He could see the fear in the eyes of their comrades as they attempted to hold the line against the Imperial forces. Some were firing almost blindly at the stormtroopers approaching. Others were more focussed, attempting to knock out the armored walkers that were flanking the troopers with their blast launchers that were held on their shoulders. Josiah knew how heavy the weapons were and felt a swell of pride, knowing that the rebel soldiers would keep firing until they had exhausted the weapons artillery. He had already seen too many friends and comrades die attempting to take on the AT ATs and Josiah knew that if they did not think of some other way to combat the Imperial arsenal, they would never leave Colu alive.
Chris knew what Josiah was thinking and he was right. They could not wait for Buck to arrive. If they waited any longer, they were going to die right where they were standing and their mission to protect the others evacuating from the base even now would fail. Despite himself, Chris found himself thinking about Mary and how much she was depending on them to allow their forces time to withdraw from Colu before the Empire reached them. He did not like much the idea of disappointing her and started to think of how he might keep that from happening. For a few seconds, he did not speak, allowing his mind to consider their situation. They had held the line as she had asked but the tactic was getting them killed wholesale. Mary had offered the best advice she could under the circumstances but even she had been realistic about their chances. There was no way the rebels could withstand the might of the Imperial assault; they simply did not have the firepower to do it.
Suddenly it came to Chris with such a sharp burst of inspiration that he saw Vin Tanner staring at him in amazement once its brilliance faded from his mind.
"Chris, you're crazy," Vin mused.
"What?" Josiah stared at him. "What's crazy?" The senator knew the habits of the duo well enough to guess that Chris had come up with an idea.
Chris did not say anything as he turned back to the advancing walkers in the distance. For a long moment, he merely stared at their approach, trying to discern whether or not this gamble he was about to make had merit or was instead suicide.
"Chris," Josiah repeated himself because their mental bond gave Vin a good idea what Chris was attempting.
Chris faced the senator once again and responded with a little smile. "Perhaps if we can't beat them with our fire power, we ought to see how we would do if we had theirs?"
Josiah had a bad feeling that he was not going to like this idea very much.
Buck Wilmington was starting to get really upset.
When he had launched from the rebel base, he had done so with the intention that he would be going to the aid of Chris, Josiah, Vin and the rest of the rebel ground troops who were at this time, suffering at the business end of two rather formidable AT ATs. He knew the damn things by reputation. As a pilot, he could not help but hear the stories of destruction they caused whenever they were deployed planet side. When Chris had contacted him when he had been attempting to take off to join the battle in the space above Colu instead of on it, he had not hesitated to come to the Jedi's aid. There was no way in hell he was allowing any of his friends to be murdered by one of those metal monstrosities. Launching from the rebel base, he immediately set course for the skies above the battle ground, hoping that his ship would do what mobile cannons and portable launchers could not, that is destroy the AT AT's before they wiped out the entire rebel ground force.
Unfortunately, no sooner had he attempted to reach them, his ship became engulfed in the aerial battle taking place between the fighters that were lending air support to each of their sides respectively. The battle was intense as only close quarter dog fighting could be. As much as Buck wanted to cut and run, he could simply not leave the pilots who were struggling to hold their own against TIE fighters who were coming in fresh. With three star destroyers in orbit around Colu, the reinforcements were coming as fast as the rebels could destroy them. Many of the X-wing pilots were starting to get tired and low on fuel, the situation was so dire that Buck could not leave when every available man was needed.
"Pick up your rear scanner!" Buck shouted into his com unit, capturing the attention of all other pilots because he was easily the most experienced pilot in the air.
It took a few seconds for them to comply but the reaction once they did was most audible indeed. Buck heard groans of disbelief amidst a grim silence that they were just as doomed as their brothers on the ground. Buck however, had no intention of dying today and certainly not at the hands of a bunch of Imperial glamour boys. No siree, not him.
"I can count three squadrons," Buck said firmly. He did not need to see the scanner readings to know that they were probably coming in straight from the hangar of one of the destroyers that Ezra was probably engaging now. "Those are short range fighters. If I'm right, they're probably fueled up and a whole lot fresher than we are. Keep sharp."
"Doesn't matter," Buck recognized the voice of Captain Raphael. Raphael was one of the few pilots that Buck admired in the rebel fleet. A native of Coruscant, Raphael had been flying most of his life and he was very good at it. Knowing that the man was in this battle gave Buck a great deal of confidence that they might get a victory out of this engagement, despite the odds at present. "Between the two of us, we'll take care of them."
Buck could picture Raphael's smile and he was not about to disagree with that optimism. "Good to be flying with you Raphael."
"Try and keep up." Raphael grinned from inside the cockpit of his ship, aware that Buck would take it in the spirit it was given. "Well amigo, shall we show these Imperial scum how it's really done?"
"I think I can oblige you," Buck smiled and then spoke loudly into his com set so that the rest of the pilots would pay attention. "Listen up, we need to take care of these guys fast. Those walkers and AT AT's down there are pounding our boys to pieces. Without our firepower, they don't stand a chance! So I want all computers off. We're going to do this by instinct."
A chorus of disapproval immediately flooded into his com set like a cacophony of birds chattering in the trees before the sun had set.
"I don't want to hear it! Without our targeting computers, we'll have an edge on them. They can't anticipate any move we make that's not already in a computer simulation. This is the only way we're going to survive taking on these numbers. Now, they're fanning out," Buck explained the flight patterns taken by the fighters and quickly formed some idea what they were attempting to do. He was a fighter pilot who had been doing this as long as he could remember and he knew the strategy they were attempting to use on himself and his comrades. "I think they're trying to drive us onto the surface."
"We need to spread out," Raphael continued, showing the rest of the fighters that he and Buck were doing this together and they had a plan. "They're coming at us in tight formation so we need to out think them and destroy them one at a time. We're going to break them apart one way or another."
As Buck listened to Raphael giving out attack orders, he took a deep breath and switched off his ship's computer system. The control panel before him immediately registered the deactivation of the vital system but Buck ignored it, taking manual control of his ship. However, before he could even put his hands on the firing controls, he felt the starboard side of the X-wing jerk violently to one side. His head smacked against the cushioned headrest of his seat as he fumbled for the com set attached to the side of his helmet that had come loose with the impact. A TIE fighter swooped past him and Buck followed its path across the canopy before it disappeared behind him. The X wing nevertheless heaved in protest at the close proximity of the maneuver while the hull vibrated in loud resonance at the surge of wind and air that rushed against it.
"Alright," he announced into the com set and hoped the others would be just as prepared. "Anything gets in our way, shoot it down! We strike hard and fast, don't give them a chance to catch a breath. They're good but we're better. Let's do it!"
"Watch your tail, Red 4!" JD shouted into his headset at the X wing that had barely missed being destroyed by one of the Imperial ships. Although it had momentarily evaded its pursuer, JD could see the metal of its hull flare up with heat, where it was singed by enemy fire. However, the pursuing ship was not about to desist in its attack and quickly resumed the chase. "Red 4," he barked. "Get back into formation! Where's your wing man?"
Whatever the response, the pilots' voice was drowned out by the cackle of static as it was fired upon again. His attempts to shake off his pursuer were unsuccessful and only served to send him into panic, which made him no good to himself or the battle being fought. With resounding determination, JD knew that unless someone acted quickly, Red 4 was going to die. Taking a deep breath, he decided that someone would have to be himself. "Red 4, I'm coming in!" he ordered bristly. "Hang on!"
"I'll try," Red 4 answered nervously.
JD felt the X wing surge forward as he forced the controls to take his ship towards Red 4, who could not last much longer. "I'm targeting it now. Hold on!" JD declared, hoping Red 4 could remain ahead of his attacker long enough for JD to help him. Forcing the throttle of the X wing's controls as far as it would go, JD poured more energy into its acceleration. However, he had reasons for speed. Looking through his cockpit window, he could see that Red 4's engine was smoking and that the craft was losing speed quickly. Within seconds, the enemy ship would be in kill range.
With his wingmen, both on his left and right flank, JD forced the X wing into a neat curve that placed himself behind the rear of the ship intent on destroying Red 4. JD concentrated on nothing else but acquiring his target when he saw the enemy ship sailing into the range of his targeting computer. His hand lay poised on the button of the throttle that gave him weapons control, waiting for the opportune moment to fire. When the ship moved into the kill zone, JD knew it was time. Pushing down hard on the button, the X wing let loose fearsome streaks of energy that struck the craft in midsection.
The explosion blinded him for a few seconds as the vacuum extinguished the eruption as quickly as it had flared. Debris drifted around for a few further seconds, before dissipating into the darkness altogether. Wherever Red 4 was, he radioed in to tender his thanks to JD who had saved his life. JD could no longer tell how long they had been out here, battling the seemingly endless supply of TIE fighters that were determined to clear the way for the destroyers to attack the transports that were desperately trying to leave the system from the Colu base. The evacuation process was almost completed, but the ships required to hold back the Imperial tide feared they would not last that long. In an effort to alleviate the burden of protecting it, Ezra had taken the Purgatory out of the kill zone, leading away the destroyers and a sizeable number of TIE fighters as well and giving the X-wings room to breathe.
However, the breathing space was slight as the X-wings were still greatly outnumbered and JD could no longer say how many friends had been lost even though he remembered all their faces. His mind was too focussed on staying alive himself and preventing any more deaths of the friends he had remaining. A stray thought impressed itself upon his mind as he thought about Chris and the others and hoped wherever they were, they were safe. Still, JD knew inwardly that if one of the fellowship were dead, he would know it. He was not Force adept like Chris but the bond between the seven was almost as strong as any forged by the seven.
All of a sudden, JD felt his X wing jolt forward, after being struck by the blast of another attacking ship. He had managed to swerve out of harms way only because his reactions were almost instinctive and his controls were more than just machinery but rather an extension of himself. Unfortunately, the attack had come after his pursuer had killed one of his wingmen.
"How bad are you hit?" A friendly voice demanded. JD immediately knew it to be his remaining wingman, Finn X'ster.
"Bad enough," he replied, accessing the damage through the diagnostic computers, while at the same time trying hard to maintain the balance of the craft, which was on a dangerous slant towards starboard. Glancing momentarily out of the window, the computer assessment was confirmed by his visual sighting that part of the wing had been destroyed. All that remained of it was twisted and smoldering metal "My right engine has been damaged. All I can do is reinforce the shield, which isn't much really."
He was not alone in his situation. The number of rebel ships was steadily dwindling. Even though they were flying with as much skill as they could possibly muster, they were unable to stave off the overwhelming numbers that were surrounding them. The reality of the situation was that they could not stay in the air for very much longer, because the enemy ships were winning by sheer wealth of numbers. With Purgatory leading the destroyers away from the main body of fighters, none of the damaged ships could land and were thus forced to fight even though some of them were having trouble even remaining in the air. The X wings would soon run out of fuel and when that happened, JD had no idea how they were going to survive, let alone continue to protect the evacuation process that was taking place frantically on the planet's surface.
In the corner of his canopy, JD saw the flare of yet another X wing and another sign that one of his comrades just died.
"That was Red 5," someone said quietly. "Maggie."
JD blinked momentarily, trying to block out the sorrow of her death. Although he had not known Maggie Jace very well, he had remembered seeing her around the base. She had a reputation of being one of the best pilots they knew and JD briefly recalled Buck telling him that she was a damn fine woman. JD sensed that Buck's relationship with Maggie might have been a little more intimate than the ladies man might have revealed. JD promised himself that if he survived this day, he would bring the news of her death to his best friend himself and not let Buck hear it from someone who would not understand that she had been more than just another notch on his belt but also a good friend. Trying to block out the cries of pilots in mortally wounded ships seconds before death was starting to take its toll on all the rebels that remained. Their death screams tore through their ship to ship com units without mercy.
JD was beginning to wonder if this was truly the end for all of them.
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