Prologue: Phare system

A small group of alphabet fighters hanging in space next to an old MC-80. Woody had the lead of the fighter formation in an X-Wing.

'Darkness, I always knew these X-Wings were damn slow, but I never knew they were that bad compared to my good old Defender.' Woody thought. 'How did the rebels defeat us with those?' His thoughts were interrupted by some loud beeps coming from the R3 in his back. "Shut up, R3. I already told you to just give me a sign on the HUD when were all ready to jump. If you disturb my thoughts only one more time with your noise, I'll make sure you'll end up cleaning the Challenges toilets for the rest of your existence!"

The beeping ended suddenly and a small sign in the HUD showed that the other fighters were ready for the jump.

"Woody to all fighters, you know the time plan, coordinates and all other details of our little mission. Jump on my mark." While reaching out to activate the hyperdrive of his own fighter, Woody said "Mark!"

* * * * *

As Woody deactivated the hyperdrive, whirling colours of hyperspace turned into the blackness of the normal space again, the stars in the background, and at a short distance the triangular shape of an ISD, together with its support vessels. Wood knew it was the Hammer.

Next to him, half the squadron of alphabet fighters had fallen out of hyperspace, in perfect formation with him. Woody knew that Pell would be in another X-Wing, leading the same attack on the Warrior a few light years away.

"Gentlemen, continue as planned. You know your tasks. Good luck!"

* * * * *

Prologue, Part II: Aurora system

More used to the stark, militarily efficient architecture of an Imperial Star Destroyer, Vice Admiral Silvius found himself feeling out of place amongst the grandeur of the Imperial Palace on Aurora Prime, the capital planet of the Emperor's Hammer. Tall, sweeping columns of exotic marble held an arched ceiling painted delicately to represent the core systems that made up the Imperial remnant; a huge central star representing Aurora itself. Every feature was aggrandized, every surface was intricately decorated; a proclamation to the universe of the power and respect demanded by the EH.

An adjutant hurried over to Silvius before snapping to attention before him. The woman was young, and would have been attractive were it not for the stern visage that was permanently etched upon her face - the result of years of strict imperial discipline. Silvius regarded her, slowly, before returning his attention to the data-pad in his hand. He read for a few more moments before properly acknowledging her arrival.

"Adjutant," he simply stated.

"The Grand Admiral is ready to receive you, sir," she said, stiffly. Silvius wondered if she was new to the role. Her lack of ease around officers of his rank, despite being stationed at so influential a location, suggested as much.

"Carry on," Silvius replied. The adjutant snapped once more to attention, before executing an efficient about turn and marching off down the corridor. Silvius followed, matching her pace. It was all very well making subordinates such as her to wait on him, but to keep the Grand Admiral waiting was another matter.

They passed through more grand halls, some as large as the launching deck aboard the Aggressor, some even larger. All were filled with officials and administrators of all types, busying themselves with the great bureaucracy required to run a galactic empire. Many turned to stare as he passed. Despite the relative recentness of his appointment as an Admiral in the fleet, his name had amassed a significant reputation, as an admiral and pilot. There were few in the Corps who could match his service record, despite his relatively short career thus far. That, and seeing him away from the Aggressor in anything other than a cockpit was an exceptionally rare event. After his promotion ceremony, this was only the second time he had actually visited the palace.

Shortly, they arrived at a massive set of ornate doors, constructed out of a black oak almost as dark as the void of space. Flanking the door were the red-robed Imperial Guards - the personal bodyguard of the Grand Admiral. Silvius had never seen the guards in action, but it was said their combat prowess was almost a match for a Sith Lord. Silvius was momentarily curious as to if or how that had ever been tested, before refocusing his attention on the matter at hand. The doors before him swung open, and he marched it alone, the adjutant moving to wait beside the door. As he passed through the great arch, the doors swung back on their return journey, closing with a very firm thud.

"Silvius!" Rapier called, "Come in, Come in!" The Grand Admiral seemed in remarkably good spirits today, Silvius thought.

"Here as requested, Grand Admiral," Silvius saluted. That raised a chuckle from Rapier, who dismissed Silvius's formality with a gesture.

"Please, Rapier now." The Grand Admiral said, "You are now part of the highest command structures of the Hammer, that grants you certain privileges. The first of which, is being able to drop the formalities in private." As if to confirm this, the admiral poured a glass of a purple liquid and slid it across to Silvius, before pouring one for himself, and settling down in a large armchair near the balcony.

Silvius followed Rapier and leant against the balcony, looking out over the city below. It reminded Silvius of Coruscant, but with a newer feel to it. Whereas Coruscant had been a capital planet for millennia, Aurora Prime had become and Imperial Capital only a few decades ago. He turned from the view and faced Rapier.

"So, what can I do for you?" Silvius asked. Rapier smiled, but didn't immediately respond. He gazed out over the view for a few moments more.

"You are aware of the upcoming training exercise?" Rapier asked.

"I'm looking forward to it. Whilst Woody and Pell are off having fun in their new X-Wings, I'll be in operational command of the Corps, under your supervision, of course, Grand Admiral." Silvius bowed slightly, raising his glass to Rapier, who laughed, catching the humour in Silvius's gesture.

"Ha! Yes, indeed!" Rapier replied. "I wonder, however, if we are missing an opportunity here."

"In what way?" Silvius asked.

"These last few years, every major exercise or incident, Woody and Pell have been at the helm. They have proven themselves very capable of running very thorough drills, and repelling advances of the New Republic. But when was the last time they were truly out of their comfort zones? When were they the ones under pressure?"

Silvius shrugged. He could remember a few times where officer grumblings wound the pair of admirals up a bit, but nothing more serious than that. Rapier continued.

"The recent slicer attacks... They put us on the back foot. Twice. That cannot stand. Are we sure the admirals are still up to the job? Can they still lead when out of their comfort zones? The Hammer has been stable for so long now. We've not had an extended conflict in nearly a decade. We have brought peace and order to our part of the galaxy, and carved out our niche in the universe. We may not be galactic conquerors, but here The Empire endures. That cannot be allowed to falter." Rapier's expression had become sterner now. For all the initial informality, Silvius could see that this matter was playing on Rapier's mind.

"What do you propose?" Silvius enquired.

Rapier remained in thought for a few moments.

"Do you believe the Warrior and Hammer will be able to repel this simulated attack, even with the virus we've embedded within their systems?"

"I do," Silvius replied. "We may not have the fleet strength we once had, but I would put those two vessels up against any opponent and expect victory. I've flown more than most, and alongside many of the pilots of both ships in our little destabilisation forays into hostile territory. I've seen what even their greener pilots are capable of. If any ships in the galaxy could handle such an attack, they'd be ours."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," Rapier said. "It is always heartening to hear that our forces are indeed as competent as we demand them to be. I, of course, agree with your assessment. Woody and Pell are both excellent pilots in their own right, but even with the virus, they will only be drawing from their own defence squadrons - hardly a match for the elite of the TIE Corps. I expect them to find themselves quickly on the back foot."

"And that will put them to the test?"

"Not quite," Rapier went on. "The Hammer and Warrior will undoubtedly identify the presence of the virus quickly. We have installed new electronic defence capabilities just for this purpose. It's half of the point of these drills - to test their effectiveness. Tell me, what would you do if you believed that the hackers were attacking, and broadcasting a signal to cripple your weaponry?"

Silvius thought for a moment.

"Shut down communications."

"Exactly," Rapier said. "How, then, will Pellaeon and Elwood inform the Hammer and Warrior it is just a drill?"

"Surely we planned for this?" Silvius wracked his brain. He couldn't remember it coming up at any of the planning briefings, but surely it must have done? Rapier seemed to sense his thoughts.

"No, we didn't. I ensured the conversation always steered away from such matters. Somewhat skilfully, if I do say so myself."

"So you knew you'd be sending them off with no way to call an end to the drills?" Silvius asked, almost shocked. He knew the Imperial officers were a ruthless lot, but this was pushing the limits.

"I did." Rapier sipped his drink, and seemed to relax at having made the admission. A weight seem lifted now it had been shared.

"I am not happy about the hacker attack," he went on. "I do not blame either of them of course, nor question their response. But I did question if I myself had been sufficiently rigorous in keeping my admirals on their toes. Had I allowed complacency to creep in? Have I allowed us to become too comfortable in our current position?"

Silvius tried to avoid the gaze of the high admiral. He had heard such grumblings in the comms net. But pilots always grumbled. It was one way to burn off the stress of duty and combat.

"So I have decided to put our admirals to the test. Strip them of their commands, their uniforms, their very vessels, and let them see how they fair against a true test. And who is more capable of delivering that test then the Corps themselves? And the best part is, they walked right into it with a smile on their faces. They are eager for a chance to test themselves against the Corps. They just don't realise how thorough this test will be?"

Silvius stood amazed. The audacity of the plan was immense, the political skill required to manoeuvre admirals of such experience and skill into it unknowingly was beyond imagining. And Rapier had pulled it off right under the noses of the entire TIE Corps admiralty board. Rapier was right, they had all walked into his plan with a smile on our faces, Silvius included. Despite the informality of the occasion, Silvius snapped to attention and bowed to the grand admiral, a new and deeper respect for the skill of this grandee of the Emperor's Hammer growing within him. Rapier smiled and waved an acknowledgement.

"Drink, drink, Silvius," Rapier commanded, easing the tension of the moment. Silvius did so, calming himself with the burning heat of the liquor. A thought occurred to him.

"Against the might of the Warrior and Hammer, there is every chance Woody and Pell could not come through this alive..." Silvius said.

"Then they will have failed the test, and I will be looking for a new TIE Corps Commander," Rapier replied, giving Silvius a look he couldn't entirely read. "Do you doubt their abilities?"

"No, of course not!" replied Silvius, immediately.

"Then we have nothing to worry about!" Rapier beamed. "This should be immensely interesting. I think we shall enjoy this."

At that, they charged their glasses, and drank.

* * * * *

Chapter One: Test of Courage

The swirling, hyper-natural energies of hyperspace burst apart in a sudden flash, and the solid black of real space returned, flecked with swirls of distant blue nebula. Hanging before the distant stars was the great mass of an Imperial Star Destroyer, it's gun-grey hull shining brightly in the reflected light of the system's star. Every detail was clearly visible at this distance. Pellaeon and his squadron had dropped out of space at a perfect distance for this unannounced drill - far enough for the officers on board to issue emergency response orders, but close enough that anything other than the most perfect response would be too slow. Pell was not surprised by this. He had overseen the hyperspace calculations himself, favouring his own abilities over even that of the R3 astromech droid mounted behind him in the hull of the T-70 X-Wing fighter he was flying. Improvements in this design over the still widely available T-65s would improve his ability to hold his own against the advanced star fighters he knew he would be facing. He pushed to the back of his mind the fact that, even with this newer variant, he was flying a craft notably slower and less well armed than the TIE Defenders and Missile Boats commonly used within the Emperor's Hammer fleets.

"Black Leader to all squadrons," he began, thumbing his comms button, "Commence your attack runs, as instructed. Watch for escort fighters."

Twisting his flight stick, he began a corkscrew approach to his target. His squadron, all elite pilots selected from the best of the Challenge's fighter compliment, formed up seamlessly on his wing. A quick glance at his radar showed the squadron of A-Wings and B-Wings beginning their own runs, whilst the larger bulk of an MC-80 cruiser moved slowly into its assigned position.

"Now," Pellaeon said to himself, "Let's see what the Warrior does."

* * * * *

Rear Admiral Pete Mitchell sat on the command deck of the Warrior, the bridge crew busying themselves beneath his firm gaze. The chair still had a feeling of newness - he had yet to stamp his own impression onto the ship and her crew, and reverently hoped an opportunity would soon present itself. As per orders, the Warrior battlegroup was now widely dispersed across the Emperor's Hammer space, watching for any sign of incursion or aggressive act. The Corps were still maintaining a high level of alert following the communications blackout caused by slicers damaging Imperial records. Although the attack was never against any high profile system - mostly just ridiculous name changes and altered combat records - the possibility of it being an initial probe ahead of a larger attack could not be ignored. Mitchell almost hoped it was. He itched for the chance to lead the Warrior to glory, but the days of rapid imperial expansion seemed a long time ago. The Emperor's Hammer was almost comfortable in its present situation - a secure hold on a number of resource-rich planets that ensured long term survival and the ability to resist incursion from any other 'so called' Imperials, or the Republic. There was little opportunity for glory in endless patrolling, or hunting down the few pirate bands who attempted to ply their trade within the borders of EH space.

Mitchell busied himself scrutinising the various reports from the Warrior battlegroup; an encounter with a rogue freighter here, an odd sensor reading that turned out to be little more than an unusual asteroid - nothing that warranted his attention. He was half reading a report about a derelict that the DRDII Centaur had bombarded - just to be sure - when the emergency claxon roared to life.

Mitchell was almost pleased.

* * * * *

As radar returns suddenly pinged across his tactical display, Colonel Plif pushed the throttle on his Missile Boat to maximum. He banked his craft towards the first group of incoming craft, checking that all other members of Kappa had done the same.

Kappa Squadron was on escort duty, as was their assigned role on the Warrior. It was sometimes a less glamorous role that he'd wish - Kappa was rarely first choice to lead an assault, more the exact opposite. It was nothing to do with capability, but of the other elite squadrons aboard, there were dedicated assault, close support and long range squadrons who were more fully trained and tested in those roles. Kappa was often enough employed to escort those squadrons on their missions, but it still seemed that it was their missions, and not Kappa's. However, Kappa was always first choice when it came to making sure keeping the Warrior safe, or whichever other craft they were assigned to. It was in defence that Kappa shined, and there were many Imperial personnel who owed their lives to the efforts of Kappa. It looked like that list might grow longer today.

Without his needing to prompt, the squadron reported their readiness in quick succession, and began closing the gap on the oncoming fighters. They were close, but far enough for Plif to spare a moment to check the situation. Three fighter squadrons, and an MC80 cruiser.

"This scum must have a death wish," Plif muttered to himself. Even with the new models of X-Wing, his readouts showed that the accompanying A-Wings and B-Wings were the classic designs that the Emperor's Hammer had been fighting for decades. Even outnumbered more than three to one, the Missile Boats and TIE Defenders of Kappa would tear these attackers apart in minutes. Each Missile Boat was loaded with heavy rockets or advanced torpedoes, as well as an additional bank of concussion missiles - more than enough fire power to reduce a whole fleet to ash, nevermind a handful of sub-par fighters and a single Calamari cruiser.

"Watch for additional forces," Plif ordered, "This can't be it, unless they have some sort of deathwish. Flight 1, with me on the B Wings and A Wings. Flight 2, use your rockets to bring down the cruiser's shields, then contain any new fighters launching to reinforce. Flight 3 on those T-70s, then disable the cruiser. Usual drill. I want these idiots dead within 5 minutes."

Plif was annoyed. Not at the fact they were under attack, nor at his squadron, but at the idiotic attempt to take on a Type II Imperial Star Destroyer, packed with elite squadrons, with nothing other than alphabet fighters and a single MC80. HE valued a worthy foe, an enemy who could test him and his squadron. He wouldn't even consider this as worthy of a simulator exercise for pilots to play with on their down time. Ah well. Such was the lot of someone in service to the Emperor.

A thought briefly formed in the back of his mind, as he approached missile range of the incoming fighters. The ships all showed New Republic ident codes. The republic were misguided usurpers, traitors and rebels, rightfully hated, but they were far from stupid. And this attack was stupid. Unless he was missing something. As his HUD began to blink yellow, indicating the start of missile lock, he pushed the thought to the edge of his consciousness. Maintain situational awareness, deal with the known threat first.

* * * * *

An incessant warning note indicated to Pellaeon that the flight of TIE Defenders were locking onto his squadron. Even in the updated model of X-Wing, filled with his best pilots, and with odds of 3 to 1, he knew the balance of power lay with the TIEs. The pilots of Kappa would know that to, and be expecting a quick victory, with every justification. The Elite squadrons of the Corps were either drawn from the best of the standard squadrons, or trained especially for the role, and outmatched even the best of the Challenge's defence forces. That is what they were trained and designed to be, and Pellaeon, along with Elwood and Silvius, had worked with dedication to ensure that this was the case. He would have been insulted had anyone suggested otherwise.

In normal circumstances, he estimated that his current force could maintain their assault for no longer than 10 minutes, with a projected loss rate of nearly 100%. Even that estimate was greatly extended by the knowledge of his own prowess in the cockpit, aided by his substantial, dark abilities with The Force.

Under normal circumstances, this was a suicide mission.

Time then, Pellaeon thought, to make these circumstances abnormal.

A fleeting moment of concentration, and a button depressed apparently of its own accord. Electronic signals were instantly emitted from a range of transmitting devices mounted on the fighters and cruiser around him.

Pellaeon smilled, and began to establish his own lock on the first of the oncoming defenders.

"Advantage; Pellaeon," he mused to himself.

* * * * *

Lieutenant Colonel Repulsor stared in shock at his displays as his cockpit flickered in the red light of their distorting images.

"Systems are going wild here," he reported, listening to a garbled, static-filled reply from one of his wingmen. What the krell was going on?

He had no time to think. He was mere seconds from attack range of a full squadron of X-Wings. He made to bank away, gain space and time to reset his systems when the monitored snapped back into focus and normality resumed. With no further time to react, he repositioned his HUD targeting reticule into the path of the oncoming fighters and squeezed the trigger. A quad-shot of lasers blazed away from his Defender towards the enemy, but Rep immediately knew something wasn't right. The power depletion from the shot was less than it should be - even the sound of the discharge was muted. He maintained his attack, and shot after shot confirmed his suspicions. His weapons were definitely powered down. A sudden burst of energy discharge before him caused his fighter to buck and shake - he'd been hit by a substantial volley of return fire from the lead X-Wing, and his shields had taken the brunt of the damage, but left his forward shields dangerously weak, despite being set to full forwards. The X-Wings clearly weren't firing at partial power.

"Repulsor to Leo," Rep called as he jinked to the side, flying in a climbing corkscrew away from the now chasing X-Wings, "Take control of the fligh, I'm having system troubles here."

"Check your system!" Leo shouted, clearly in his own difficulty.

"Thanks. It never would have occurred to me to do that," Rep growled in reply, pulling his righter into a steep dive, weaving amongst and scattering the X-Wing formation. A few of his laser shots hit home, but even off a visual check he could see it was to little effect.

"No, check them now - What are they set to?" Leo's frustration was clear, his usually jovial nature replaced by the hard concentration of a pilot in a fight for his life. Rep checked. A quick, intuitive motion drilled into him by years of training pulled up his system display.

A large blinking red icon indicated all systems were set to training mode.

Rep hit the sequence of commands to restore systems to full combat readiness. It bleeped a confirmation tone, but the red training icon continued to blink. He had to bank hard away from the path of a pair of concussion missiles, brining his craft hard about and deploying chaff, before he could try again, but to the same lack of effect.

A hissing, static filled voice came over the comms.

"Plif to Kappa, is anyone NOT stuck on training mode?" There was a clear anger in his voice. Rep listened as grunting affirmatives came over the comms system. Rep paused for a moment before his reply. He had just established a missile lock on one of the X-Wings, and hit the missile release button as he closed to almost point-blank range. The red, glowing trails of the warheads streaked towards the targets. If his lasers were out, he'd take them out with warheads. With his standard load of missiles, that meant he'd take down eight. The Missile Boats would handle the rest. A moment later, the missiles impacted against the enemy fighter's shields, bursting into a flare of incinerating propellant. But the warheads did not detonate. The complex systems designed to ensure the warheads exploded in the most effective way for the programmed target had remained stubbornly inactive. Just as if they were in training mode. The warheads were designed to not explode until so ordered, a necessity in a weapon mounted onto a combat fighter. No pilot wanted their warheads going off each time they took a hit. At this exact moment, Rep would have been quite happy to accept that risk for a weapon system that had even a hope of damaging these craft.

"Rep here, all systems locked in training mode, even warheads."

"We could have told you that," Romanov replied. His Missile Boat was armed with little more than self-guided firebombs - a somewhat ineffective weapon in the hard vaccum of space.

"Ideas?" Plif asked, his voice betraying his frustration at being so hobbled in their ability to conduct their most dearly held duty of protecting the Warrior.

"Harsh language?" suggested Hawkins.

"Believe me, if that were the case, half of these damned ships would be a microscopic debris field by now..." came Drachen's rather abrupt reply. He was clearly not enjoying the swing away from Kappa in terms of battlefield advantage.

"Plif to Warrior," Rep heard, "If you have any ideas, we'd love to hear them."

* * * * *

Mitchell strode across the Warrior's bridge purposefully, barely missing a step as a wave of torpedoes impacted on the bridge shielding, sending many of his officers sprawling. As he passed the comms station, he heard Plif's request for ideas. He knew that for such an experienced officer, a previous COM of this very ship, to be requesting help, things must indeed be desperate. Mitchell's fury was barely contained. His first true test, and as things stood, his ship was not faring well. The main guns were offline, only the point defence weapons were operational. The warhead launchers were all but useless with warheads that refused to detonate. The whole ship was locked tightly into training mode.

Mitchell continued past the comms station to the latest addition to the bridge stations - a dedicated electronic warfare station, a significantly upgraded version of the old jamming units. Two Imperial coders were feverously staring at screens, but otherwise motionless. Sophisticated electronic equipment was mounted on their heads, directly interfacing their own neural patterns with that of the ship. They didn't appear to even notice Mitchell as he arrived, their physical senses subsumed by the electronic systems of the Star Destroyer itself.

"Report," Mitchell ordered, directing his voice towards the communication port on the console, rather than the officers themselves.

"The incoming vessels are transmitting a signal that has introduced a virus into our systems, locking all processes into training mode." The voice was monotone, bereft of emotion, as if Mitchell was speaking directly with the computer, rather than the man responding.

"Virus?" Mitchell replied, His face grew stern. The hackers. They were back. After crippling the Corps twice in the last few months, now they were playing their hand. Suddenly, the pitiful force ranged against him made sense. You didn't need huge fleets when you could cripple your enemy with the press of a key. These hackers, or slicers as they were often known, must have known that they could not gather the resources to make a conventional attack on the Emperor's Hammer. The previous attacks on databanks and communications were clearly little more than the precursor for this very attack. The events of the last few months fell suddenly and sharply into place.

"The virus," the coder continued, "has circumvented our standard electronic defences. Possibilities include previously encountered electronic attack protocols, or knowledge of relevant security codes. Attempting to purge invasive code now."

"The weapon systems under additional protection from the main systems. How did they breach both?" Mitchell asked.

"All main systems are still operational. All Weapon systems remain operational," the operative replied, "attacking systems designed to instigate training mode has allowed the virus to avoid the highest levels of defence, whilst still impacting our offensive output. The virus is very advanced, and there is a possibility that the slicers who created it have knowledge of our systems."

"Save the analysis," Mitchell ordered, "I want it fixed. Now." He turned to leave but the coder continued, not apparently noticing the 'end' of the conversation.

"Purging the virus from this vessel will take approximately two standard hours, during which time all systems will need to be off line. This is a sub-optimal tactical situation to execute such a procedure." Perhaps it was the emotionless monotone that did it, but Mitchell felt like giving the operative a stout kick to see if that might encourage it to work as desired. If the operative was aware of this fact, he... it... Michell couldn't quite decide which he felt the coder was, it didn't show.

"Tactical analysis suggests an alternative approach..." The operative suggested.

* * * * *

"Orders from on high!" Bawled the deck officer, "Pull every main drive, disable all comms systems, then plug in the spares. No wireless, no radio, nothing. If it can't be hardwired into the main system, get rid of it!"

Colonel Mark Schueler paced up and down the deck, brimming with frustration. His squadron had been kept grounded, ships sitting idly on the flight deck whilst Kappa was out there flying about in what he understood to be highly expensive bathtubs, for all the offensive capability they had been left with. The rivalry between the two squadrons was intense, but never at the expense of the greater good of the Corps. He hated that it was Kappa out there and not Theta, but hated more that a fellow squadron of the Corps was in trouble and he was helpless to do anything to assist.

"What the hell is going on?" Schueler shouted at the deck officer as technicians began pulling appart his squadron's vessels with impressive speed.

"Electronic attack, sir," the officer replied, passing tools over to the technicians, "It's those damned hackers, they've attacked and used some sort of virus to lock us into training mode."

"And how does pulling apart my ships remedy this? Why the hell aren't our coders fixing it remotely?"

"Take too long. We're pulling all the infected drives, disabling the ability of your ships to receive any sort of electronic communication, then shoving the quaternary spares in. They are the only one's not plugged into any system, so they should be uninfected. You won't have any up to date hyperdrive data, but," he paused as he lugged a large section of hull plate out of the way, "You'll be able to use the weapons." At this, the officer leant into the workings of the ship, gave a hard yank and came away with a small device with snapped cabling trailing from it. "You won't be able to talk to each other out there, but you'll be able to blow some hackers to bits. Will that do?"

"If you can get me into space with a working gun," Schueler replied, "I'll see to it your whole deck crew have double drink rations for the rest of your careers." The deck officer smiled, tossed Schueler the removed receiver, and turned back to his work.

Schueler wased no time, and quickly moved to his squadron.

"Listen in," he began. The squad came immediately to attention. This was no time for their usual banter, and every member of the squad was as desperate as Schueler to get out and into the fray. "We're being attacked by the hackers who took us down a few months back. We'll be launching soon, fully armed, but with no communications, even coded."

"How will we coordinate our efforts?" General Yoda asked. Schueler had never quite gotten over the name being so familiar to that of a Jedi traitor, but the pilot's skill was unmistakeable.

"We won't. Watch your monitors, watch movement on the radar, look for clusters of Imperial or hackers." Schueler replied. "It's no different than flying with a damaged comms system, and you've all been trained for that. Just because we're starting off like that will not be an excuse for failure. Is that clear?"

"Sir!" chorused the squadron.

"Good. Get to your ships, be ready to launch as soon as they are prepped, and good hunting. Let's let these hackers know they chose the wrong squadron to mess with."

* * * * *

Plif dodged wildly as a pair of A-Wings and an X-Wing sprayed the space around his fighter with laser fire. This X-Wing pilot had been on Plif for what seemed an age. Despite the enhanced speed and agility of his Missile Boat, he could never evade the X-Wing for long. He'd gotten some ineffective warhead strikes on the A-Wings, even managing to reduce one's shields to less than half, but he'd not got a single hit on the X-Wing. Either this was some new variant of the fighter, or the pilot was something else. Where did a bunch of slicers get a pilot of this quality? In simulators, sure, but out here in real space? He wondered if it was some new form of AI. Anyone with the skill to breach Imperial data security had to be able to do some impressive things electronically. Up until this point, all Kappa had been able to do was shoot down incoming warheads with their hobbled lasers, but doing so under hot pursuit by the enemy fighters and their fully operational lasers. There was only so long the squadron could keep this up before enough they would be taking losses.

"Plif to Warrior. What the hell are we doing out here?" he called. "How long do you want us to be the targets?"

"Mitchell here," the Commodore replied, his voice distorted by static, "Prepare for communications silence. Re-enforcements are being launched shortly, keep them busy until then. We are ordering a full shutdown of all electronic communication to prevent the spread of a virus. Visual signals only."

Visual signals, thought Plif. How long had it been since he'd relied on those? Had he ever? Even now, most naval ships were equipped with signal lights and flare deployment systems as the very last resort when faced with either significant electronic jamming or total communications system failures. However, Plif could not recall a single incident of them being used in active combat during his career. He had to hurriedly search his memory for the flash and colour codes he'd need to be able to have any chance of understanding the instructions from the Warrior.

"Plif to Kappa," he called, glancing about trying to get eyeballs on the X-Wing that had followed him so doggedly. "Prepare to lose comms with the Warrior. Visual signals only."

"Visual Signals?" Leo Replied, "Do we need to set the sails, too?"

"Cut it, Leo," Plif replied, "Prepare for re-enforcement. Let's stay alive until then."

A flash of red laser fire slammed into his rear shields, finally collapsing them. Before serious damage was sustained, Plif wrenched back the throttle and banked into a hard turn, pushing the agility of the Missile Boat to its limit. More fire arced past his view screen, showing that his pursuer was still on him. Who the hell was this pilot?

* * * * *

Pellaeon was enjoying this more than anything he had in a long time.

Not only was what he assumed was Plif proving a worthy adversary in the cockpit, Kappa was performing admirably under the circumstances they had found themselves in. Only with his full concentration, and his Sith-trained force abilities, had he been able to stay on Plif's tail, and had very nearly scored what would be considered a 'kill' in the exercise's review sessions. In such an inferior craft such as this X-Wing, he felt he was performing well above mission expectations.

That, and frustrating his subordinates, even with such 'underhanded' methods as the code that had been embedded within their systems, was always a perk of high rank.

The Warrior itself was perhaps proving cautious. He was surprised no further squadrons had yet been launched. Was Mitchell being overly cautious, or simply conservative in the face of the limitations placed on his squadrons? Pellaeon decided he would need to review bridge logs before he could make that decision. As if in answer to his thoughts, one of his squadron reported in.

"The Warrior is launching more fighters. Avengers and Boats."

"That will be Theta," Pellaeon replied, "Let's see how they compare to Kappa. I will take Kappa. The rest of you, get me a 'kill' on Theta. Remember, we keep up the façade until the first 'kill'."

Pellaeon knew there was a degree of ego within his order. Yes, his X-Wings would move to take on Theta, leaving the A-Wings on Kappa. But he wanted to get that first 'kill', and against Plif. It would not, of course, be a kill - as long as one solid hit was made, it would count and the signals would go out that this was a drill. Until then, he wanted to be the one to score 'first blood'. Pellaeon had briefly lost Plif in giving his communication to the squad. He reached out with his preternatural senses, locating Plif's mind and moving with it. He found such methods were more accurate even than the advanced targeting systems in his craft. It enabled him to know not just where his target was, but where they would choose to go, and so pre-empt their manoeuvres. Plif was not without his own level of ability, but that was not quite on the same level as the Fleet Admiral's.

Plif's craft came into clear view as Pellaeon followed the threads of possibility and correctly predicted Plif's moves before the Kappa Commander even had thought of them consciously. Pellaeon's target reticule went green. His finger began to squeeze his trigger; a slow, smooth motion that would keep the target precisely targeted.

Suddenly, Pellaeon was knocked sideways in his seat, the stars spinning in a blur beyond his view screen. His head rang with the force of what was unmistakeably the impact of a fully active warhead. Warning tones blared into life, and numerous icons flashed red on his control panels. His shields were gone, a crack ran across the radar screen, causing it to distort wildly, and his hull had taken significant damage. Had this been an old T-65, he had no doubt he would now be floating in space, most likely dead.

As the ringing in his ears faded, voices all talking at once came over the comms systems.

"Red 4 to Red leader, new fighters have full capabilities..."

"Red Leader, the Missile Boats are launching rockets at the cruiser!"

"Red Leader..."

"Red Leader..."

And more voices fought for attention. How in the name of the Emperor had they gotten weapons back online? The code was purpose written by the SOO's office to be beyond all current EH coding defences. Dumping all energy into engines, he pulled his ship away from the main fight, glancing at the weaving TIE Advanced fighters of Theta and their supporting Missile Boats scattering the rest of the T-70s and the A Wings. If things did not end soon, there would undoubtedly be deaths.

"This is Red Leader, send the signal. Announce the drill." Pellaeon ordered.

"Red Leader, we need orders! Do we retaliate?" came the reply.

"Red Leader, come in please!" called another voice.

"Send the damned signal!" Pell ordered, again.

"Command to Red Leader, do you copy?"

Pellaeon switched to his damage display computer. His main transmitter was out. The code transmitters were still working, but they were replacing several of the back-ups for the main comms transmitter. With that inoperative, he had no way of ordering the sending of the signal that would announce this as a training exercise, and not a genuine attack. How long would the Captain of the cruiser wait before sending the signal himself? He would be battling between overstepping his authority whilst Pellaeon lived, and risking the lives of the Imperial personnel currently masquerading as invaders. His R3 unit was already effecting repairs, but it would be another thirty seconds until the transmitter was operational. A lot could happen in 30 seconds.

As that thought passed through his head, his ship became suddenly sluggish, unresponsive to his commands. Tractor beam. A glance in his rear tactical camera showed a Missile Boat directly behind him, a faint blue glow emanating from the beam emitter mounted below the main hull. Beyond that, a TIE Advanced, circling round towards him. The Missile Boat had not yet fired. It must be Kappa, and they had proven vulnerable to the initial code attack. He hit a button on his flight stick, and he saw the blue light of the emmiter fade.

Twenty seconds until comms were back online.

* * * * *

Plif turned his beams on again. They kept shutting off. What was happening?

Then it hit him. Comms. Comms silence. What did the Warrior know that required total comms silence? It could only be that THAT was how the virus was being utilised, via the comms system. HE broke radio silence.

"Plif to Kappa," he began, "Disable your comms! Now!" Before he had a chance to act, Leo answered.

"Disable how?" Leo asked.

"Just do it!" Plif shouted. He reached and removed his side arm - a short laser pistol designed to offer him some defence should he be forced to eject or land somewhere hostile. Turning his head, he directed it towards the comms unit, and fired. In the close confines of the cockpit, the blast was horrendous, even from a relatively light blaster pistol. Sparks erupted from the console. The deck officer would not be happy.

He turned again to the now struggling X-Wing that had hounded him so relentlessly. Hitting the beam emmiter, it turned on... and held!

* * * * *

Pellaeon hammered the signal button, but the beam did not break. His ship remained firmly on course, with the Missile Boat and oncoming TIE Advanced looming larger in his rear display. Things were getting quickly out of hand.

A ping indicated his transmitter was now online.

"Send the damned signal!" Pell called. A moment later a burst of coded signals displayed across his screens. The same data would be being projected directly into the main comms array of the Warrior as well, announcing the status of this attack as a drill, under the direct supervision of himself and High Admiral Elwood.

Still, the two Imperial fighters closed on his ship.

"This is Fleet Admiral Pellaeon to all Imperial vessels," Pellaeon called into the comms, unable to hide a slight tone of urgency from his voice, "This is a drill, repeat, this is a drill. Set all systems to training mode. Respond."

Silence. Nothing but the warning tone of an acquiring lock.

A strange calm overcame Pellaeon as he saw the sudden flash of twin warheads launching from the TIE Advanced. Time slowed as the dark energies of the force swirled through his mind. In an instant, he saw all the many paths that ended in his death amidst a fiery explosion. Fate, it seemed, had decided today was to be his last.

Well, Fate can go to hell, thought Pellaeon. Twisting in his seat, he waved his hand behind him, as if swatting at an annoying insect. The twin-linked warheads suddenly veered off course, colliding and exploding harmlessly behind him. He reached out again, as if towards the Missile Boat, and clenched his fist. The glow of the beam emitter spluttered and died as the housing it was mounted in was crushed by an unseen force. As the energies of the dark side filled him, he was aware of all the minds around him. He felt the exhilaration of the pilots of the Warrior as they saw the tables turning, and the fear infecting those pilots who now found themselves in combat with elite pilots in advanced fighters with fully functioning weapons, and no intention to heed the orders that this was a drill. He reached further, and sensed the thoughts of his pursuers.

The order wasn't responded to because it was not heard... Pellaeon became suddenly aware of the orders of the Warrior's Commodore. Total communications silence had been taken more literally than he imagined it would have been. The comms systems on the Theta Starfighters had been completely removed, the Warrior's own arrays disconnected. They could not respond to the order because they could not receive it!

The gravity of this hit Pellaeon like a bantha kick. This was no longer a drill, this was a real fight, with no clear way of ending it without significant bloodshed. He would either have to take down the Warrior for real, if that were still possible now they seemed to be bringing active fighters to bear, or retreat. The very idea galled him. No, he pushed that emotion away. This was about the good of the Corps, not his personal pride. The Warrior had responded beyond all expectations when faced with an apparent combined electronic and real attack. The drill was successful; the Warrior had passed with flying colours. The only matter now was to end it.

"Admiral! We are taking heavy rocket fire!" The Captain of the cruiser called, the pretence of 'Red Leader' dropped. "What are your orders?"

"This drill is over." Pellaeon replied. "Make for hyperspace. We will return to the rendezvous, then contact Silvius and get him to order the flagship to stand down." Pellaeon listened as the order to retreat to hyperspace was given, but realised even now, this order would be too late for many. Green indicator lights on his still-flickering radar began to vanish, and the screams of the dying briefly echoed across his radio before being abruptly cut out. They were standard personnel. Their loss was acceptable, for the greater good of the Emperor's Hammer.

Looking out across space, Pellaeon saw the cruise make a quick turn, then accelerate away as it made the jump to hyperspace. The smaller fighters began to follow, although several were clearly never going to make it to the jump point. His own HUD began flashing a warning that a lock was again being established on his craft. He glanced back at the TIE Advanced and Missile Boat still following - two elite squadrons of the corps represented in that pairing, working in silent tandem to take out this perceived threat to the Emperor's Hammer. As they fell rapidly behind him as his ship made the jump, he decided that this has been a costly, but very worth-while venture.

* * * * *

"We can't raise Silvius?" Pellaeon asked High Admiral Elwood.

"No," Elwood replied. Woody's 'simulated' attack on the Hammer had proven as eventful as Pellaeon's. Vice Admiral Prower had made the same realisation that Mitchell had - that the comms were being used for, or at least vulnerable to, an electronic attack, and had disabled all communication systems for fear of the virus spreading to other Imperial vessels. His response had been rather more blunt than that of Mitchell. Rather than deliberately sabotage his advanced fighters, he launched the basic TIE Fighter squadrons of the Hammer, ordering them to sacrifice themselves for the glory of the Emperor's Hammer, flying kamikaze into the attacking alphabet fighters. Impressed by the directness of Prower's approach and his cold, hard acceptance of loss to achieve ultimate victory, Elwood had also signalled a return to the rendezvous. The Warrior and Hammer had been sorely tested, but both had found ways to overcome unexpected odds. They had served the Corps well.

But now, they found themselves facing the unexpected.

"We've tried multiple times, but no reply," Elwood continued. "It seems, in fact, as if we may have been a little too convincing. Have you watched INN recently?"

"I've been a little busy to sit down and watch the news channels." Pell retorted.

"Try." Elwood suggested. Pell reached across the desk and grabbed a data-slate. He keyed into the INN network broadcast. It was dead. He looked to Woody, who nodded.

"They are all like that. The EH has gone dark. All comms signals jammed, blocked or disabled. We seem to have convinced them that the hackers who attacked us weeks ago can now disable Imperial Weapon systems, and they are taking no chances. At least, that's how I read it."

"Well," replied Pell, "That may present somewhat of a problem. We are currently sat in an MC80 cruiser that, as far as the Corps knows, has been positively identified as a hacker vessel making aggressive moves into EH space, with no way to communicate that this is not, in fact, the case."

"Indeed." Elwood replied, taking a sip of a glass of chaquilla.

"You do know what will happen if we fly this thing to headquarters and try to announce our arrival?" Pell asked.

"They will shoot first, ask questions later. We would do the same."

"Any suggestions?"

"It seems to me," Woody mused, "We need to infiltrate our own space, find Silvius, wherever he has go to, and get him to bring this to an end."

"You don't suppose Silvius has deliberately not informed people of the drill?" Pell wondered.

"Who knows? It would hardly be unusual for an Imperial officer to show such... ambition."

"Then what is our first step?" Pell asked.

"You were in the Infiltrator Wing once, weren't you? You tell me!"

* * * * *