AN: I wrote this story many years ago when I first started writing fan fiction. And itis the main story in what's become known as my "Missing Universe." I have updated it slightly and "matured" some of the writing. There are some similar themes in this story to the "Dark Times" tale that I've been currently working on. What can I say? I have a liking for stories where Luke ends up in Imperial custody - although he is somewhat younger in this story than in "Network" and not quite as experienced.

For time line this takes place about 6 months after the Battle of Yavin.

Disclaimer: Everything Star Wars belongs to George Lucas and Lucasfilm. I borrow the universe just for fun, not profit.

Previously published in the fanzine "The Wookiee Commode" 6, 1988(ish)

Missing

I.

Night gave the small Rebel squad added cover during their retreat through the dense woodland. Their footsteps were slow, their energy low. Rain battered down upon their tired bodies, pulling their morale down further, into the pits. Their forced march was hampered by fallen logs, dense forest vegetation and pools of thick mud. Each of them longed for his own warm bunk back at the Rebel base. No one spoke; it would use up too much needed energy. They concentrated only on staying awake and moving their aching legs.

A flare rose from behind them, lighting up the night sky like a small sun. They dove for cover behind bushes, logs and in puddles of mud, as several laser bursts shattered the trees around them. Sharp splinters of wood, almost as deadly as the shots which caused them, rained down upon the drenched Rebels. The Empire had caught up with them once more.

The squad responded with their own volley of fire, taking small consolation from a cry of pain coming from the Imperials' direction. Their mission had been a fiasco, and they now doubted that any of them would survive the retreat back to their ship. When they left the base at the start of their operation, the squad had been at full strength: twelve men, plus two escort pilots. Their number was now depleted to six. The Empire had been waiting for them; their information had been false, and they had walked right into a trap.

The flare dulled and the shooting ceased.

Luke Skywalker sniffed and wiped the rain drop from the tip of his nose with the back of his hand. His eyes searched the dark forest for a glimpse of white which would provide him with a target. In the temporary darkness, he crawled cautiously toward his neighbour, hardly conscious of the mud which squelched beneath him. Another flare illuminated the scene and he threw himself flat, covering his head with his hands as more trees splintered above. He heard a scream close by; nausea rising in his throat as another one of his companions died.

"Luke!"

He turned in the direction of the shout. "Yeah?"

Wedge Antilles crawled out of the undergrowth, ignoring the mud which clung to him; a trickle of blood from a grazed forehead ran down his cheek, mingling with the rain and dirt. Fatigue was clearly visible in his features. "Captain's dead."

Luke muttered a curse under his breath. "Now what happens?"

"That's up to you, Luke; you're in command now."

"I'm a pilot, dammit! I don't know anything about ground force tactics." Luke experienced a fleeting moment of panic, his mouth suddenly going dry. He glanced desperately around him at the men whose lives now depended upon him, feeling totally out of his depths and wishing that he had never suggested to Wedge that they join the squad during its re-con mission. Baby sitting the X-Wings and troop transport, and the boredom of waiting for the ground squad to return, suddenly seemed a lot more preferable to a wet and muddy death.

They hugged the ground as more fire from the stormtroopers whizzed overhead, thudding into the damp plant life. Steam rose, and the smell of smouldering vegetation assaulted their nostrils. The Imperials were gaining ground. Wedge squeezed off a few bursts of his own toward their concealed pursuers. "You've got the highest rank, pal; it's your show."

"Okay," Luke frantically searched his mind for a solution to their dire situation. "How far do you figure the transport is?"

'"Bout a kilometre."

"Think we can make it?"

"Don't ask stupid questions."

A tree burst above them, showering them with shards of wood.

"I figure we have about thirty seconds between each flare," Luke calculated wiping blood from a scratch on his face. "We have to make use of that time. When the next one dies, we run for it."

Wedge nodded, and crawled off to relay Luke's command to the remaining squad members. Luke prayed his idea would work; if it didn't then, for them, the Rebellion would end here among the damp flora. He wiped his dripping blaster with his equally dripping sleeve.

A new flare rose high among the trees. Both sides took full advantage of the light, and a brief, but fierce, fire-fight ensued.

The flare died. Luke sprang to his feet and sprinted through the drenched foliage, trying to ignore the dull ache in his legs. Sounds of footsteps around him told him the rest of the squad were following his example. As he ran, he counted the seconds; when he reached thirty, he threw himself down, shouting for the squad to do likewise. A second later, the forest was lit again. A cry from his left informed him that someone was too slow. There was another short exchange of blaster fire.

Taking thirty seconds at a time, the remaining Rebels slowly made their way to the transport. As Luke flattened himself in the mud once more, he caught a glimpse of their goal, flanked by his and Wedge's X-wings. He heard Antilles' whoop of delight. One more sprint should see them safe. His adrenaline flow increased, giving extra strength to his tired body.

The flare died. Luke dashed into the clearing, heading toward his fighter. These thirty seconds should see him sheltering under the ship; the next should find him in the cockpit with the canopy down, and the engine's gunning to life.

Wedge ignored his fighter, heading instead for the closer transport; with the captain dead, someone else had to pilot it. Behind him ran the two remaining squad members.

As he darted across the clearing, Luke counted the time: "Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen..."

The sky lit up once more. Luke hesitated in mid-stride. It was early! The tiny sun made the Rebels easy targets for the chasing troopers as they dashed across the open area. Luke threw himself onto the wet grass. He waited for the flare to die as doubts began to flood his mind, but the light remained bright and he glanced up in horror toward the glow as it continued to hover above them. Remote flood lights! He looked over at the ground troops as they zigzagged toward the ship. He saw Wedge following their example, dodging the red bursts of light that came from behind them. He forced himself up, only to fall back down as panic numbed his limbs. Light and noise surrounded him.

When he looked back up it was to see a final flash of green as the last ground soldier dashed up the transport's ramp. He gritted his teeth and pushed himself up onto his feet. He now ignored his fighter and headed for the transport's entrance. The ramp began to rise.

"No!" he screamed, as he threw himself forward in desperation. Then he was pushed him hard from the side, thrown violently, crying out in sudden pain as his foot caught on a fallen log. He fell, rolled in the damp grass, his hand losing its grip on his blaster. Suns burst in his head as he tried to pull himself back to his feet. His arms had lost their strength, his legs had lost feeling. As the Rebels' transport slowly rose from the ground, and in the final seconds before he blacked out, Luke realized he'd caught one of the pursuing 'soldier's blaster shots.

The Rebels' ship gained speed as it rose into the night sky, followed by laser fire from the pistols of the Imperials who now spilled into the clearing. Their shots were in vain; the ship was soon out of range and out of sight. They lowered their weapons and turned their attention to the two Rebel X-wings, hoping the fighter's droids, or the ships' data banks held something of worth.

One of the white-clad soldiers spotted a patch of grey, illuminated by the overhead lights, in the long grass. He bent down and picked up a fallen blaster by the body of the Rebel officer. He noticed the scorched material around the large blaster wound in the soldier's side. Following the order to make sure that all the Rebels were dead, he drew back his foot and kicked the cauterised injury. He grunted in satisfaction at the lack of reaction, and knelt to rifle through the pockets of the grey uniform, but he found nothing other than a few credits and a holo-picture of a young woman. Disappointed, he dropped the holo and sauntered back to his companions, wondering if they had found anything in the two fighters.

ooOOoo

The stars outside the cockpit window streaked to infinity. Wedge sat back in the pilot's chair, sighing with relief now that they were safely within hyperspace. There was a moment back there when he had thought they might not make it. Who could have guessed the Imperials would have search lights helping with the chase that had been an unexpected and unwelcome development. But they were safe now, and in a couple of hours they would be back at the base. He groaned as he realized he and Luke would have to explain to Princess Leia what had gone wrong. He hoped Luke was still on good terms with her. A yawn escaped him and he stretched his aching limbs. He decided he'd sleep for a week when he got back. He closed his eyes.

"Wedge."

He turned to face the squad's sergeant, who had just entered the cockpit. The non-com was covered with drying mud; leaves clung to his clothing, and dirt streaked his tired face. Wedge knew he also looked as bad. "Yeah?

"Lieutenant Skywalker didn't make it."

The blood drained from Wedge's face; he felt it trickling down to his heart, where the pressure built up. He suddenly felt ill, his head hurt, bile rose in his throat. He laughed. "Sure he made it. I saw him heading for his fighter. He'll be right behind us." But his words sounded false, even to his own ears.

The sergeant shook his head slowly. "He caught a burst as he headed for us, and even if he wasn't killed, it's unlikely he made it to a fighter. The troopers were right behind us."

Wedge quietly nodded; accepting the soldier's words. He'd lost another comrade. He groaned once more. Not only would he have to explain the failed mission to the princess, but also that one of her closest friends had been killed. He cleared his throat and found his voice. "Thanks, Sergeant. I think we'd better get some rest before we get back." He closed his eyes as though to sleep, but he knew he wouldn't. He knew he'd play the last few hours through his mind, over and over, looking for an alternative ending to the mission; one in which Luke emerged alive. It was a pointless exercise, but one that was common to anyone who grieved.

The sergeant returned to his one remaining squad member, leaving the young pilot to mourn the loss of his friend in private.