Chapter Six

Twelve Gallant fighters sat patiently amongst the void. Regrouped after a quick round of communications, the squadron was ready to descend upon their target.

"Alright," Rem called out over the team's unified comm, calm but authoritative. "We don't know who or what we're going up against. But the plan hasn't changed. The moment we arrive, we surround the target. I will attempt to establish communications, whilst the rest of the team does everything they can to block the target's escape. The second it initiates hostile action, we will defend ourselves. Primary objective is to disable, but do not hesitate to destroy the target should it be deemed necessary. We don't know its capabilities, or even if it's alone, so keep your eyes and ears open."

"Or for one of us, just ears," Erin whispered to himself, making sure his comm was closed.

"Is everyone ready?" Rem continued. A series of firm 'ayes' sounded off. "That's what I want to hear. Tessa, link everyone's nav systems and prepare to jump."

The twelve pilots watched as their dashboards flickered and lit up all on their own. Coordinates and commands were being issued by the droid until every starfighter gave the same exact reading. The hyperdrives fired up in perfect synchronicity. The ships were aligned. All that remained was the final command.

Rem passed her gaze over the console one last time for confirmation. "Let's do this."

The stars on the infinite horizon began to stretch, turning from dots to lines as the twelve vessels made the jump to hyperspace. The previous area returned to its usual state of emptiness as the Gallants disappeared, thrusting themselves forward in an instant. The familiar blue tunnel surrounded the twelve starfighters, only this time, when it collapsed, they would not be alone.

Eleven Imperial starfighters sat patiently at the front of the gray fleet, headed by its vibrant leader. Zuren and the rest of the vanguard squadron stared down the motley gathering of rebel and mercenary crafts that refused to budge under the gaze of their oppressors.

"Alright," Zuren called out over the newly formed team's comm, brash and full of vigor. "Listen up, because I don't like having to repeat myself. Our job is to teach these rebel scum the error of their ways. Not only have they turned their backs on the Empire, they had the gall to raise arms against us. Therefore, it falls to us to make an example of them. Strikes-1 through 5 will fire the opening volley. The enemy may be standing their ground now, but the moment they witness the true might of this fleet, they will scatter. After that, we will move in and destroy whomever we can before the other squadrons can steal our fun. Understood?"

A series of 'yes, my lord's filled the Flight Commander's vessel.

"That's what I want to hear!" Zuren declared. "Let's do this! And try not to get scrapped by our own warships."

Within the bridge of the command vessel, Admiral Fiernan sounded the call to begin. In unison, five Terminus-class destroyers aligned their batteries, sending forth a barrage of cannon fire. The countless bolts crossed the gap separating the two forces, and effortlessly tore through the forward vessels of the rebel fleet.

The assorted freighters and starfighters behind their fallen fellows began to fan out. The time for passive resistance had been forced to an end. As the Imperial destroyers prepared their next volley, Zuren urged his craft forward, followed by his personal squadron.

There was a droning hum in the cockpits of the twelve Gallants as they simultaneously dropped back into realspace. Then, it was quickly replaced by the familiar silence. Hands firmly secured around their ships' controls, the pilots of Torrid Squadron would not allow their guard to drop as they prepared to engage their target.

Sensors blared as they picked up the enemy vessel a short distance ahead. But even with their target in their sights, there was a moment of hesitation in each of the pilots.

Rather than floating amongst the vast emptiness of space, the target was surrounded by what appeared to be an assortment of junk and debris. Minor clumps of metal and scrap orbited the vessel, none larger than newly arrived starfighters. The vessel itself was unrecognizable. It's chassis was atypical, in that that is was utterly simple. Like a brick with engines jutting from its rear, the rectangular vessel was smooth in its faces, rigid in its edges. The freighter-sized ship possessed no distinguishing features. No weapons. No attachments. Not even viewports. A dark gray prism that floated amongst the similarly colored flotsam.

"What kind of ship is that?" Marvus muttered.

"Not sure," Haron admitted. "I can't tell if it's of Imperial make."

"We'll find out soon enough," Rem calmly said. "Everyone, surround the target."

Without another word the pilots heeded their commander's order. Urging their vessels forward, the wedge-shaped formation soon deformed before utterly collapsing. The Gallants spread out and formed a ring around the still motionless slab of metal nestled amongst the debris.

"What's with the junk around it?" Zal asked as he moved into position. "I thought hyperlanes were supposed to be empty."

"Could be an attempt to mask its signature," Fen calmly suggested. "Surround itself with junk, nothing big enough to generate a mass shadow…"

"But enough to keep something surrounded by it from jumping," Chanta added. "It's practically cut off its own escape."

"Who needs to escape when you're disguised as scrap," Erin offered.

"Well, if it wants to be mistaken for scrap, we'll happily oblige it," Varah said, cracking a sharp smile.

"Hold on," Rem called out. "It still hasn't reacted to our presence. Don't need to escalate things prematurely."

"Have you been able to contact the vessel?" Dunn calmly spoke up, his electronically tinged voice as chilling as ever.

"Not yet," Rem replied, a touch of concern in her voice. As the commander looked over her ship's console, the sound of her droid filled the cockpit.

"Commander, I cannot detect any life signs aboard the target vessel," Tessa explained. "Nor do I detect any systems necessary for habitation."

"The vessel appears to be unmanned," Rem called out over the team comm.

"That means we can scrap it right?" Varah asked.

"Wait, there's something odd about this," Rem quickly replied.

"It's likely an automated vessel," Fen suggested. "Following a set programming."

"That would explain the 'peculiar readings' we got from Admiral Trevel," said Seraak. "It was following a pattern, that's how we were able to pinpoint its location."

"And if it's automated, that means it can be predicted… manipulated," Haron stated. "If we brought a larger ship to its next location, we could capture the vessel completely intact."

"Or we could let it do its thing, and just monitor the information it sends out," Seraak suggested.

"We don't know if it's delivering its data to one or more sources," Rem replied. "And if that information puts traders along this route in danger, I don't think we can risk letting it continue."

"Well then, I'm getting a lock on its engines just in case," Varah sounded off.

Rem's eyes widened. "Wait, don't-"

Just then, more than a three dozen pings simultaneously flared on the Gallants' sensors. A multitude of power signatures had appeared out of nowhere, none of them stemming directly from the target vessel.

"Looks like we got trouble," Marvus muttered, hastily passing his gaze over his console.

"Everybody, move!" Rem shouted.

The pilots broke formation, fanning out from their ring around the target vessel and surrounding debris. As they did, the gentle floating clumps of metal and scrap began to shift and shake. Slabs unfurled into wings. Tubes emitted an orange glow. Cannons emerged from the nondescript forms.

"Drones!" Fen called out, breaking her usual calm, collected tone.

The disguised bundles of scrap began to break their orbit around the motionless freighter, seeking out the nearest target. Outnumbering the Gallants three to one, the swarm of tiny vessels pointed themselves toward whatever fighter they could find and opened fire.

Amidst the calamity of Imperial warships continually firing their canons toward the dispersed rebel fleet, Zuren and his fellow starfighters weaved through the initial layer of scrap and debris, setting their sights on the vessels nimble enough to dodge the destroyers' volleys.

The Sith zeroed in on his first target in a matter of moments. No time wasted on locking on or checking sensors, Zuren tore into the personal vessel in front of him, unleashing a quick torrent of red laser fire. The precise volley instantly dispersed the vessel in an explosion that was quickly snuffed by the vacuum of space.

Pressing forward, the Flight Commander urged his team deeper into the conflict, dodging the litany of cannon fire surrounding them. Along the way, the rest of the vanguard squadron would lash out at approaching vessels, ensuring no one managed to touch their leader.

The rebels were on the defensive. They looked for any opening they could to strike the Imperials, but none revealed themselves. The motley assortment of ships couldn't hope to overcome the organized might of their foes. As they scattered and spread out, the rest of the fleet's squadrons had been fielded, and kept the fight contained. Light fighters prevented their enemy's escape. Destroyers downed the larger vessels one right after another. And Zuren was in the middle of it all, reveling in the conflict.

Back on the bridge of the command vessel, Fiernan and Feras calmly looked over the holomap of the battle before them.

"Zuren is quite the capable pilot," said Fiernan. "The rebel fleet is on the brink of retreat. We should ready a coordinated strike, make sure none manage to slip away."

Feras turned his gaze from the map to look out the forward viewport, watching the battle unfold before his own red eyes. They darted from distant vessel to distant vessel, watching explosion after explosion.

"Pull the command vessel forward," Feras calmly suggested.

The admiral looked to his advisor with a tilt of his head. "Might I ask why?"

"The rebels have no hope of winning," Feras coldly stated. "With no opening, they have no choice but to flee. Give them an opening, and they will stay just long enough to seal their fate."

"You would purposely put this ship in danger?" Fiernan asked.

"There is no danger," Feras declared. "We are merely presenting a false opportunity for the enemy. They will attempt to make one final strike, and we will have Zuren flank them. Better they attack us than the fighters."

The admiral narrowed his gaze as he remained silent. After a few slow breaths, he tensed as he saw the Chiss slowly look over his shoulder. Their eyes met, and the advisor's won out. Turning back to the holoprojector, Fiernan placed a finger on the comm, ready to issue a command.

The battle was upon Torrid Squadron.

As they darted around the empty stretch of space, they had only their maneuvers to dodge the nipping laser fire of the swarm of irregular, asymmetrical drones.

"Tessa, engage Bifurcation," Rem commanded, juking her vessel back and forth. "Everyone fan out and deal with the drones. Watch each other's backs, same pairs as before."

The erratic movements of the twelve starfighters quickly became more focused. Rather than wildly flying around whilst the unmanned seekers lashed out at them, the squadron split into the same six teams of two that had spent their previous moments searching for this very spot.

Rem and Haron were the first to move to each other's side, and the rest soon followed. Dunn and Seraak kept their cool as they put some distance between themselves and the main target. Fen and Marvus kept a wide gap between them, but never strayed from each other's sights. Jerel and Erin had already gone on the offensive, firing their cannons at whatever drone they could get in front of them. Chanta and Zal moved in total unison, only the slightest of gaps separating their two vessels. Varah and Loona plunged themselves straight into the fray, skimming just over the original target as their engines flared.

Split up, the pursuing drones did the same. Five to seven unmanned fighters followed their targets, their small size and nimble speed making up for whatever rudimentary programming guided them. The Gallants were some of the most advanced vessels in the Republic fleet, but even they could struggle to outmaneuver such agile foes. But there was more to Torrid Squadron than its technology.

Whether it be side by side or in a line, the pairs moved together, totally in sync with their partner. Just as the drones following them had zeroed in on, their targets parted, splitting the pursuers up even further. The drones knew of only one way to attack, and so they did. Trailing behind each Gallant fighter, the unmanned fighters followed the ships' movements as well as they could, releasing sporadic laser fire whenever their targeting systems deemed it prudent.

The sloppy shots passed over and around the expert pilots. Within no time at all, Torrid Squadron was back in control. They were leading their foes as much as they were being followed. With a trail of drones in their wake, the ships would run themselves in front of their partner, giving the other a clear shot at the pursuers.

Red bolts left the Gallants' cannons, and instantly ripped the drones apart. The seekers once disguised as scrap metal had found themselves looking the part once more. In a matter of minutes, the automated protectors' numbers had been cut in half. All that was left was to steadily strike down the rest.

Erin and Jerel made particularly short work of the drones pursuing them, crisscrossing in front of each other to deal with the others' hunters. As one of the seekers neared his partner, the Miraluka released a single bolt, expertly nailing the automated fighter. The drone exploded in a quick burst of energy and metal sufficient enough to rock the cyborg's vessel.

"Hey Jerel, you want to let them get a little closer next time?" Erin teased.

"I don't know Erin, if I did, I might accidentally hit you again," Jerel jokingly replied.

The pair shared a quick chuckle as they searched for the remaining drones following them. The Miraluka had none on his tail, and the one following Erin had disappeared from behind him. A moment later, the drone made itself known, this time in front of the cyborg's vessel.

Erin cracked a confident smirk and clinched his fists around the ship's controls. With a deep breath, he fired a pair of bolts toward the lone seeker. His eyes widened as the drone surged forward with a quick burst of energy, slipping between the two red bolts. The cyborg tried to pull away, but there wasn't enough time before the unmanned fighter drove itself straight into its target. Erin's shut his eyes and winced as he felt his vessel shake. But when he opened them, all he saw was his forward shields slightly fizzling and pieces of scrap dispersing around him, the impact having done no damage.

The cyborg pilot breathed a sigh of relief as he wiped his brow, only for a siren to ring out in his cockpit.

"Warning," Tessa called out, still utterly calm in her monotone deliver. "Foreign object detected on the right wing."

Erin perked up, only to see a piece of scrap metal embedded in his wing just outside his viewport. As he narrowed his gaze, he saw the piece begin to move, a series of metallic claws and wires emerging from its underside, clinging to the hull of Gallant.

"Damn," Erin muttered before opening his comm. "Some part of the thing is still functioning and is now trying to chew its way through my wing."

"Can you shake it off?" Jerel quickly asked.

Erin gave with starfighter a quick twirl. The piece remained, only now a stream of sparks sprouted from its belly.

"Don't think so," Erin replied.

"Alright, keep straight and don't swerve," Jerel called out.

There was a silence as Erin processed his partner's words. "Wait, what are you-"

The cyborg's vessel shook. As he hastily panned his gaze, he could see his shields flare up as a crimson bolt struck them.

"Did you just shoot at me?" Erin shouted.

"Looks like it didn't make it past the shields. Take them offline and I should be able to hit it," Jerel calmly suggested.

"I'm not powering down my shields so that you can shoot me!" Erin shouted.

"Warning," Tessa's voice returned. "Structural integrity of right wing in danger of being compromised."

Erin palmed his face as he released a low sigh. "Are you sure you can hit it?"

"I'm sure," Jerel declared.

"Well, you heard him Tessa. Power down shields," Erin mumbled. The console in front of the cyborg shined an angry red as they displayed the fact that the ship was defenseless. Just as he was about to give the go ahead, a single red bolt collided with the machine digging through his wing. The assemblage of claws and wires was instantly scattered, leaving only a small surface wound on the wing in its place.

"Did I get it?" Jerel called out.

Erin was still speechless, gawking at the sight just outside his viewport.