"Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I've watched all your suffering
As the battles raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
Brothers in Arms"
JavraH arrived ten minutes early. Then sat for the next few minutes in mild trepidation, trying to calm her nerves, racking her memory for any reason why Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles would want to see her. Her simulator scores hadn't been that bad... in fact she'd done quite well in the last few outings, was way ahead of a lot of the other pilots. She smiled a little. Kennet and the others had nick-named her Tie-down because she had never been any further than the farm she grew up on... but they hadn't called her that for a while. Not after she'd whipped Kennet's butt in the sim...
There was, of course, the slight issue of the practical joke that had gone sort of sour, but that had been ages ago. Surely...
The door opened. JavraH took a deep breath, looking up. But it was only Gabhaan, one of the other rookies. He swaggered in, sitting down as if it was all a great effort for him and that it was all beneath him. JavraH looked away, rolling her eyes. Arrogant, self import, Academy trained...
"Any idea why we're here?" he asked.
"Haven't a clue."
The door opened again, and they both stood as Antilles walked in, followed by a Lieutenant and..... General Solo. What the hells, JavraH thought, is so important that Solo's involved? The three men walked across to the table, pulling out seats. Wedge remained standing as Han and Jomanock sat down, looking across at the two rookies: JavraH so obviously nervous, Gabhaan, as always, self assured.
Goddess, he thought with a pang, he could never have looked that young, could he? And yet he'd been the same age as JavraH when he flew against the Death Star at Yavin.... eons ago it seemed now, but it was what, five six years... Pushing down the memories he smiled, indicating the two empty chairs, "Please, sit down."
He took his own seat, waiting until the two young pilots had settled themselves before beginning. "The Millennium Falcon, under the command of General Solo, is to rendezvous with the spice freighter Glan'enn. She's enroute to Dantooine, but is carrying cargo and possibly new personnel for us. Gabhaan, you'll fly wingman to Lieutenant Jomanock, JavraH, you'll fly wingman to me. We'll be riding as the Falcon's escort. The trip will be easy, two jumps there, two jumps back. And if the transfer goes as planned we should be back here before nightfall."
He turned in his chair, pressing a remote, a map of a star system brightening the screen behind him. "We meet the Glan'enn on the far side of Beriin system." A small red light began to pulse indicating where the freighter would be waiting. "Her routing will drop her out of hyperspace just before we arrive." He turned back to the two rookies, "Our job is to cover the Falcon while she's vulnerable, during the transfer. As far as we're aware there has been no significant Imperial movement in that area lately, but that doesn't count for much. So keep your eyes and ears open. The Glan'enn's Captain has made it quite clear that he won't wait around if anything gets the drop on us..."
"Can't blame him for that," Solo murmured.
"Exactly," Wedge agreed with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "So if it does happen, the Falcon will immediately break off." He looked round the other three pilots, "We provide covering fire until she's on her own and in hyperspace. Then we get out, meeting the Falcon at the first return jump point." He leant back in his chair, attention on Gabhaan and JavraH, "As long as things go to plan, on the return route, General Solo has agreed to help us carry out real-time manoeuvres, to get the two of you used to flying battle situation outside the simulator. For that purpose, on the way back, our roles will be reversed. I'll fly as your wingman, JavraH, and Lieutenant Jomanock will fly as yours, Gabhaan. Nothing difficult, but you'll be giving orders, rather than taking them."
"Understood, Sir," JavraH said. Gabhaan merely nodded.
"Callsigns for the mission are Beta, Leader to five. I'm Beta Leader; General Solo, Beta Two; Lieutenant, Beta Three; JavraH, Beta Four; Gabhaan, Beta Five. The jump points and co-ordinates are being loaded into your astro-nav droids now, and the ground crews are checking the fighters. We leave in one hour..."
He checked his chrono, "That's oh-seven fifteen. Any further questions?" The two pilots shook their heads, "Fine. JavraH, Gabhaan: Lieutenant Jomanock and I will go over the finer points with you just before we leave. Dismissed." They rose, crossing the room quickly, the door sliding shut behind them.
Wedge leant forward again, elbows on the table, "This should be a Milk Run, gentlemen." He pushed a hard copy printout towards Han, "This is a copy of the tally. There will be eight, maybe nine crates of machine parts and, at the last count, four passengers. The Glan'enn's Captain estimates that the transfer should take no more than about half an hour from docking to disengaging." Han nodded, lifting the inventory, scanning through it as Wedge turned to Jomanock, "As for the rookies, watch Gabhaan. He's not a bad pilot but he's too sure of himself. Needs to brought down a peg or two before he flies as someone's wingman for real and gets both of them killed. His instructor's words were that he's not as good as he thinks he is. I've got his simulator reports here of you want to read up."
Jomanock nodded, "That would be a help."
Wedge handed over the data module, grinning, "Be as nasty as you like."
"It'll be a pleasure, Sir," the Lieutenant assured him.
"So what's the story with JavraH?" Han asked.
"Almost completely the opposite. She's a natural. And she's worked hard, done her homework, but she needs to build her confidence. Her reaction time is slower than it could be because she hesitates slightly on her decisions. Most of the time the decisions are right, but it's cost her on the sim scores. We need to get that process more instinctive, and her instructors feel that putting her in the real situation will either make or break her. And if we make her, my guess is that she'll make Flight Leader within the year.... so this is important."
"Fine... How do you want me to play it?" Han asked."Play it hard with both of them. Push them to their limits..." Devilment flashed in his eyes, "But push JavraH even harder."
~ # # ~
The object of discussion walked down the hall in a daze. Goddess, she was going to fly a task with Antilles: wingman to Red Leader! Sure, it was only for a while, just this mission but..... Goddess!
"JavraH?" Gabhaan caught her arm, pulling her to a stop. "Jav! Have you been listening to anything I've said?" She grinned, sheepishly. "Thought not," he huffed, good naturedly, "Mooning over the Lieutenant-Colonel were we?"
She gave him a look of mock horror, "How can you possibly accuse me of that when, like every other female on the base, I'm ready to drop at your feet alone?" She ducked, laughing, as he swiped at her head.
"I can't help it if I'm suave," he began, posing, "sophisticated, ruggedly good looking..."
"...modest," she finished for him, starting down the hall again.
He threw her a sour look, walking quickly to catch up with her. "I still want to know how you managed to swing it as Antilles wingman?"
"So do I," she sighed heavily.
"Ah, piece of cake!"
"Sure! With Antilles breathing down my neck, watching my every mistake. No problem!"
"You must have done something to impress him, Jav," he told her, giving her a sidelong glance, his voice sincere.
"Mmm..." she sighed, not convinced.
"Look, by this evening it'll all be over..."
She stopped, shaking her head at him in wonder, "Aren't you even the slightest bit nervous?"
"Sure," he admitted, seriously. Then turned back to her, finishing with a tight, evil little smile, "But not as nervous as I'd be with Antilles on my tail." She made a small, exasperated sound, shoving him sideways. He laughed. "Come on, I'll shout you a fruit juice. Just don't forget to pee before you climb into the fighter for four hours."
~ # # ~
JavraH walked across the hanger towards her X-wing. The Lieutenant had caught Gabhaan as they left the changing area, saying that he wanted to go over some of the mission details. JavraH sighed, her guts churning, knowing that Antilles was waiting for her out there, somewhere. The ground crew hovered round the fighter finishing the final preparations. They tossed greetings at her, not waiting for her reply. The Chief Tech waited at the bottom of the ladder. He gave her a small nod as she put her foot on the first rung, "She's all checked and ready to go, Ma'am. No problems."
JavraH looked at him, the nervousness fading slightly. He'd called her Ma'am.... He grinned at the surprise on her face, as if only just realising himself what he'd said. "Well," he told her, shrugging, "you won't be a Rookie after this one. You'd better get used to people calling you Ma'am." The nerves receded a little further still. She laid a hand on his shoulder, saying simply, "Thank you." Then the trepidation returned in full force as Wedge Antilles walked round the nose of the fighter towards them.
"Sir," the Chief greeted with a slight nod of his head.
Javrah turned, stepping back down off the ladder, "Sir." She saw the Lieutenant-Colonel glance at the man behind her. She didn't see the wink the Chief gave Antilles, or the quick thumbs up sign. Antilles took another step towards them.
"Chief, can you leave us for a moment."
"Surely, Sir." The man turned, moving towards the rear of the X-wing.
"Relax," Wedge told Javrah, "I'm just giving you some advance warning: it's going to be tough on the way back. General Solo's going to come at you, all guns blazing. Forget my rank, you'll be in charge. If you get it wrong it doesn't matter, I won't chew you out. As far as I'm concerned you learn things better by experience, and I'm not expecting you to get it right all the time. As long as you've given it your best shot I'll be happy. You're a good pilot, JavraH, you've got potential." She smiled, slightly embarrassed, "But," he continued, "I want you to do me a favour..."
He paused, and she frowned, "Sir?""Your reaction times are slower than they could be, because once you've made
a decision you always ask yourself if it's the right one. Right?"
She nodded, "Yes, Sir."
"Most of the conclusions you make are right," he told her. "So on this mission I want you to act as soon as you've made the decision. Don't second guess yourself, just get the job done. Okay?"
He smiled, "Fine. And if it all goes wrong, don't worry, it won't have been your fault. This is just an experiment.... just have confidence in your abilities. Play around with the power you have as wingcontrol. A good wingman will make or break the pairing, but if the control misses the opportunities, the pairing won't be effective."
She returned the smile, telling him, "I understand, Sir."
"Good. Then enjoy yourself. But just remember, it's a long while since I was a wingman. Be kind to me if I mess up."
~ # # ~
The Controller watched the Millennium Falcon as it glided slowly towards the hanger mouth. One by one, the four X-wings lifted from the floor of the dispersal bay, hovering for a moment as the gear retracted. "Control, Beta consort ready to go," Antilles' voice crackled in her ear piece.
Now there was a man, she thought with a sigh, telling him, "Beta Consort, clear to go, number one. The Falcon has already lifted."
"Clear to go, Control." The X-wings turned lazily in unison, drifting over the other ships crowded into the hanger, towards the exit. The Controller leant forward, following them out of sight. Then another ship called for her attention.
His fighter cleared the doors and Wedge pushed on the power, grinning in pleasure as the X-wing surged forward, pressing him into the seat as it climbed away from the ground vegetation into the cloudless, azure sky. This is the life, he thought. He glanced round. JavraH was slightly behind to his right, matching him for speed. Behind and to the left he could see the two other fighters. A shadow fell across the cockpit. Wedge looked up at the belly of the Falcon as Han's voice quipped, "Glad you guys could make it!"
~ # # ~
"Ma'am, there's an incoming message... coded, priority Four."
Leia frowned, walking across the Ops room to the communications console. The Commander moved out of the chair to let her sit down, moving away. Leia punched in her authorization code as she slid into the seat. There was a moment's delay, then the message scrolled onto the screen.
Downhigher hesitated, turning back, unsettled by the Princess' sudden, sharp intake of breath. As he watched, the colour drained from her face. He took a step towards her, "Ma'am, is everything all right?"
She nodded slowly, eyes still rivetted to the screen, then turned to look at him. Giving him a wan smile she lied, "Yes... Thank you."
He turned away, shrugging. Leia down-loaded the message onto hard copy, then destroyed the log. The sheet slid from the console and she picked it up, rising slowly to her feet. Clutching the message she walked across the Ops room to Rieekan's office, the door, as always, lying open. She stood outside for a moment, running through the ramifications of the communication in her mind.
Rieekan looked up. Leia stood at the door, lost in thought. He frowned, sitting back in the chair, "Your Highness?" His voice broke the spell and she looked at him, stepping through the door, closing it behind her. Rieekan was already on his feet, walking round the desk towards her, tension tightening in his chest as he saw the look on her face. She was ashen.... "Leia, what is it?"In answer she handed him a hard copy of a message, sinking listlessly into a chair as he scanned it. His eyes widened in dismay and he looked up at her, aghast, "For a new Senate to be set up this quickly after Palpatine's death.... they must have been planning..." He trailed off, dropping against his desk.
`"The Emperor was too sure of his immortality," she disputed. "This must have been done by the underlings... without his knowledge..." Leia shook her head in amazement, "I wonder if Palpatine knew he was losing his grasp....."
"Or he was giving those who thought to oppose him enough rope to hang themselves..." Rieekan offered, looking back down at the communication, "Whatever the reasoning, this makes our position.... worrying."
Leia gave a cold, bitter laugh, "If not impossible! A new Imperial Senate comprising the Military Governors of each world," she shook her head. "The Empire will be stronger than ever!"
"We can't afford to think like that!" he told her sharply. "Palpatine's death did the Empire great deal of damage. Look how the ranks of the Alliance are swelling. It gave the people the courage to join us. This," he said, shaking the print-out, "will make those who haven't, think twice! People have tasted their freedom, Your Highness. They'll remember what it feels like when the Imperial fist starts to close round them again!" He sighed, the sudden flash of ire gone, "Its just going to be that much more difficult now...."
She looked at him, her eyes glittering, the self pity already gone, "I'm sorry," she apologised, softly.
Rieekan smiled, walking the few steps towards her, placing a hand gently on her shoulder, "No need, Leia. We all have our bouts of doubt. It's what makes us who we are."
She rose, hugging him quickly. Then broke away. "Thank you," she smiled. Then indicated the message he still held in his hand, "So what are we going to do about this?"
"I think it's best to wait until we have a few more details to give people. I'll contact Mon Mothma, see what I can find out. Meanwhile, we say nothing. Once I have all the facts, I'll present them to everyone."
~ # # ~
Wedge sat in the X-wing, dosing. The first jump had gone without incident, they were half way across the second jump, and with any luck the Glan'enn would have arrived bang on time and they wouldn't have to wait around for her. Then the fun would really start! And if the rookies proved their worth, when he got back he'd be able to upgrade their status from Pilot to Pilot Officer.... By which time the Controller who'd shown them out should be off duty, and a little bird had let slip that she might just be interested. He smiled, drowsily, thinking of the ground work that he'd already done: like the lyna thorn-bud he'd managed to get hold of. That little delivery should be arriving with her right about...
There was a slight, almost imperceptible jolt. He snapped fully awake, alarm chimes beginning to wail. Collision avoidance? Denial stabbed through him as his fingers danced across the data consoles. Couldn't possibly be, he'd been through this sector before! There was nothing here to collide with.... unless the guys back at base had fed the droid the wrong damned co-ordinates.....
Then his head snapped forward as he was thrown against the restraints, an invisible hand reaching out, yanking him abruptly out of hyperspace. Adrenalin rushed into his system. A gravity well! Goddess, only a gravity well could pull you into normal space like that! Shit, he must be close. Fragmented stars settled around him into normal space and the Artoo unit burbled, throwing the requested data onto the screen: showing that he was exactly where he ought to be..... except....
Wedge lifted his head from the sensor display, looking dead ahead, praying that his eyes would negate what his instruments were telling him. Disbelief pushed at him, fear beginning to leaden the pit of his stomach, winding icy tendrils down his spine: his mouth suddenly dry.
"Sir, what the hells is that?" JhavraH's uncertain voice crackled in his ear piece. But another question broke in before he could answer her.
"Antilles," Han Solo asked slowly, voice tinged with cold surprise and anger, "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
Wedge glanced round then checked his other side: all five ships had been pulled out of hyperspace, the Falcon and her X-wing escort. The Falcon was already beginning to turn away, "If you're going to tell me that you're looking at a Death Star, then yes!"
Chewbacca growled, waving a hand in the air and Han threw a glance at him. Biting back a sarcastic remark, he spoke to Antilles instead, "That's what I thought! Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Too late!" Wedge said tersely, "They've seen us. We've got incoming, people!" A group of tiny specks had detached themselves from the massive bulk of the globe. Shit, this was a training mission! He was stuck out here with only one other seasoned fighter pilot and two rookies who'd done all their combat in simulators, more likely to shoot him out of the sky than any TIEs. "JhavraH, Gabhaan," Antilles ordered the two junior pilots, "Back trace the jump! Calculate now and escort the Falcon back to base! Jomanock, you're with me!" He pushed the throttle open, fighter accelerated away, Jomanock close on his tail.
"Antilles," Solo warned, "you don't stand a chance!"
"None of us do if we can't buy you the time to make the jump! And how the hell else is Rieekan going to warn the Alliance about this?"
On the flight deck of the Falcon, Han shot a look at Chewbacca who had slipped out of his seat to begin the jump calculations, warning Han that the X-wing pilot was right. Then rumbling something under his breath about Leia. Han pulled a frustrated face, loathed to leave the fight. But the TIEs were closing too fast to leave time for any discussion. And, he suddenly remembered, he was out here with rookies! Swearing, he keyed the mike, "Antilles, if they evacuate, I'll wait for you as long as I can."
Despite the grimness of the situation, Wedge smiled. He'd grown to like the Corellian, even through the front of bravado that infuriated most people. It was the small touches of friendship, just like that last comment, that showed you exactly what the real Han Solo was like. "We'll be there," he promised. "Just keep an eye on the rookies!"
"Sir...." one of the pilot's began.
"JhavraH, escort the Falcon! Get your butt out of here, that's an order!" He didn't wait for an answer. "Jomanock, stay close."
"Like glue, Sir!" The grim determination in the Lieutenant's voice brought another smile to Wedge's lips. "Deeten, calculate the jump co-ordinates. I may need them in a hurry!" The calm of imminent battle was beginning to wash through him, driving down the fear and panic as he engaged the first pair of TIEs. Gabhaan flipped his fighter round, taking up position beside JhavraH, "Ready?"
"Standby!" How could he sound so in control when her hands were shaking and she wanted to throw up? Cause he's been to the Academy and you've never been further than your own back yard, dolt! Taking a deep breath she pulled herself together, one eye on the incoming TIEs. "...Ceenine, you done?" The little droid warbled, a flag on the data screen beginning to flash. "Ready!" she called, "Falcon, we've got your starboard covered. Ready to jump when you are." She glanced off to the right. Shit! They weren't going to make it.... "Gabhaan, take position! We'll need to cover the Falcon!"
"Just inputting the calculations now," Han told her. "We'll be there in five... four... three..." He risked a glance in the direction of the Death Star. Four TIEs had ignored the engagement, three of them getting too damned close for comfort. Gabhaan had followed JavraH round and she had already begun firing at the lead TIE. As he watched, the trailing Imperial ship exploded. Then the starscape disintegrated into the blur of hyperspace.
JhavraH fired at the oncoming TIEs until the Falcon shot forward and disappeared. Then spun her fighter quickly away from the answering Imperial enthusiasm, Gabhaan shadowing her. Co-ordinates locked in, Jhavrah hit the button just as a flash jolted the T-65 sideways. The fighter shuddered, sparks erupting from the front console as the starscape tried to fragment, engines fluctuating wildly out of sync. Reaching for the ejection handle she had enough time to transmit, "I'm hit!" Then the undamaged engine threw itself into hyperspace, ripping the fighter apart.
~ # # ~
Wedge fired three volleys, veering up and right as Jomanock fired, sliding down and left. One of the TIEs bucked briefly before exploding spectacularly. Another of the Imperial fighters split, following Wedge's X-wing, spitting laser fire. The remaining four, slowed only slightly by having to take avoiding action, sailed on towards the Falcon and her escort. Wedge pulled all the way round, following them, bolts of bright death spurting past him as he danced around in front of his pursuer. For a moment he had one of the other Imperial ships in his sights and fired. There was an almost immediate flare against the ship's hull and the TIE began to lose speed, falling behind its companion. Wedge allowed himself a tight smile, twisting his X-wing away as laser fire skimmed past him.
Jomanock lined the disabled TIE up in his sights, blasting it into fragments, his laser fire hitting one of the other TIEs as the first disintegrated. He pulled out, looping back towards Antilles, trying to track the TIE that his C.O. was attempting to shake. The Lieutenant winced at the blast of light that erupted from the Lieutenant-Colonel's upper starboard foil, a laser bolt brushing the tip.
The X-wing slewed momentarily out of control. Cursing, regaining command of his fighter, Wedge pushed it into a tight tumble, then snapped out of the roll, heading back towards the Falcon's position. Damn it, get off my tail! "Deeten, I need those co-ordinates!" Data started scrolling onto the screen. There was another flash of light behind him. The Artoo unit screamed.
"I'm on you, Boss!" Jomanock's voice said in his ear piece, "Keep coming!"
Below him Wedge caught a glimpse of something white. But the X-wing bucked suddenly sideways as the TIE pilot's aim finally hit true. Jomanock arrowed in seconds too late, guns spewing laser fire: his fighter slicing through the fireball that had been Wedge's hunter only moments before. The Lieutenant rolled his X-wing, shooting past Wedge towards the remaining TIEs. "You okay, Sir?"
Port engine output was falling dramatically, most of the other associated readouts red-lining. "I'm losing an engine! Go help them, I'll cover you!" "Pay back time!" he heard the pilot quip as he pushed the starboard engine to full power, lurching after Jomanock, trying to coax the damaged engine into some semblance of functionality. Temperature was still rising... It wasn't going to work, damn it! Come on baby, he willed it, settle down! For a brief moment the readings dipped into the green and it looked as if... then they soared into the red again and he was forced to admit defeat, Deeten warning him that the coolant pressure was dropping dangerously low.
Wedge ignored the Artoo unit as it began to squeal at him, cancelling the alarms, cursing as the core temperature in the remaining engine began to climb. Then he heard JhavraH's voice yelling that she was hit. There was a brief bloom of fire from the direction of the TIEs. Wedge swore tightly, hoping that had been one of the Imperials and that JhavraH had had the time to make the jump. Checking the data again he finally admitted that he'd had it. If he didn't make the jump into hyperspace now, he wasn't going to have enough power to punch through. "Jomanock...." he began.
The X-wing slammed to a sudden halt, the starboard engine beginning to howl in protest, the fighter juddering. "What the....." The data revealed the horrifying truth. His guts twisted in leaden disbelief as he realised what was wrong.
"Jomanock," he ordered, "Get the hell out of here! Now!"
Wedge cut the Lieutenant off, "I'm caught in a tractor! You're on your own!"
For a brief moment Jomanock considered disobeying, going back to help. But a shower of laser fire around his fighter changed his mind. He'd already seen JhavraH's ship blow, he had no idea if the Falcon or Gabhaan had made it.... and if they hadn't he was the only one who could warn the Rebel Alliance of the existence of a third Death Star. Swallowing down the constriction in his throat he told Antilles, "Understood, Sir. May the Force be with you."
Locking the jump co-ordinates he soared away from the space station and the Lieutenant-Colonel. Laser bolts zipping past him, he hit the jump button: and accelerated into the safety of hyperspace. The TIEs, robbed of their prey, swept round, angling back towards Wedge's X-wing. Slowing as they reached the crippled Rebel fighter, they settled either side and to the front, escorting it towards the space station: dark sentinels of superiority. What the hells did they think he was going to do, Wedge thought, break free of the tractor and blow the whole place to bits! "Deeten," he ordered, shaking his head, "wipe your memory banks, erase everything!"
The droid mewled, throwing questions onto the screen, pulling a short, sharp laugh from Wedge. "Yes, Deeten, we are in deep trouble. But I don't think they'll melt you down. I'm sure they'll find a use for you, somewhere." Soothed, the little unit burbled then began carrying out his orders.
Wedge had left the throttle on full power and the X-wing juddered and roiled against the tractor beam that drew her inexorably towards the station, her remaining engine screaming in protest as she tried to pull the other way. Wedge attempted, briefly, to restart the other engine, but all he got was a coolant warning light that automatically shut the sequence down. He watched the readouts on the other engine slowly climbing towards the red, realising finally that his fighter wouldn't quite blow herself apart before they got to him. Still it had been worth a try.
The adrenalin and calm of battle was dying now, leaving fear to settle sickeningly in the pit of his stomach. The bulk of the station loomed ever closer. The bulk, Wedge finally appreciated now that he had the time to think it through, of a fully complete Death Star! Goddess... that meant that all the time they had been planning the destruction of the station at Endor, focused on the fact the Palpatine would be there; all that time this must have been sitting in hiding somewhere. Palpatine must have been laughing all the way to Endor, he thought, bitterly. Set the Rebels up against an easy target, one that looks only half finished..... And while they had been learning, to their cost, just how incomplete that station had been; while they had been celebrating the demise of the Empire, laying plans to set up a new Republic; this monstrosity had been lurking out of sight....
Closing his eyes, feeling suddenly and totally drained, he tried to swallow down the emotion. Would this damned bloodshed and killing never end? How many times could the Alliance be knocked back before it finally disintegrated? They had thought the war almost won after the victory at Endor; all over the galaxy people had celebrated.... And then they'd realised that the war was far from over, that the Empire still lingered on in some sort of existence. Even without the Emperor.
With a slight bump the X-wing settled onto the floor of the hanger. Wedge opened his eyes, blinking briefly in the light. Then looked around at the ranks of white armoured troops assembled to greet him. He wasn't afraid, he told himself! So why did he want to throw up? He sat, waiting. His hands were sweating, the rest of his body was freezing, and he wiped his palms on the legs of his flight suit.
Finally he sensed movement at his side, but he forced himself not to move, gazing straight ahead into the cockpit. Panic welled up again, but he thrust it down, forcing himself to take deep, even breaths. The canopy clicked, then began to hiss open. He closed his eyes, willing himself to stay calm. The deafening wail of the engine reverberated round the hanger over the blare of a klaxon. Above the cacophony he heard someone yell, "Get out!"
Slowly, he opened his eyes, looking round. A grey garbed officer stood on a mobile platform, flanked by a rank of Stormtroopers, their rifles pointing into the cockpit. With as much grace and dignity as he could muster, Wedge undid the harness, flipping the straps off his shoulders and stood; pulling off the flight helmet, running his hand through his hair. Then swung his legs over the side of the X-wing, dropping the few inches onto the platform. The officer regarded him coldly as two of the troopers swung their rifles down, grabbing hold of Wedge's arms.
Beneath them, Wedge was aware of technicians swarming in, moving around the other side of the fighter. Moments later, as the platform descended towards the ground, the scream of the engine wound chromatically down towards a bearable level. The soldiers pushed him forward, off the ramp. The officer grabbed the flight helmet from him, dropping it beside the X-wing as another, higher ranking, officer walked up to them. The man stood for a moment, hands clasped behind his back, surveying the catch. Wedge looked back at him, keeping his face neutral. The officer lashed out, backhanding Wedge across the face, snapping his head back. "Rebel scum!"
Wedge recovered himself, shock turning to anger. Tasting blood in his mouth, he licked away the thin trickle on his lip as another stormtrooper stepped forward, fixing binders round his wrists. The officer turned, ordering, "Bring him!"
~ # # ~
The Falcon dropped out of hyperspace, running in towards the red/cream planet, Solo already on the radio. "Mitre Base, this is Beta Two. Do you read?"
A hiss of static, then a slightly bemused voice answered, "Beta Two, this is Mitre Base. You forget something?"
Wishing, with all his heart, that was all that was wrong, Han keyed the mike, "Mitre Base, Run aborted. I say again, Run aborted. Code two alert! Request landing instructions?"
"Code two acknowledged, Falcon." The tone of the voice had changed, now completely business-like, "Route direct to the West entrance. Request data on fighter escort?"
Before he could answer a younger voice broke in, "Mitre Base, Mitre Base, this is Beta Five, do you read?"
"Beta Five," the Controller answered, voice calm, steady, filled with authority, "this is Mitre Base. Go ahead."
There was a moment's silence, when Han could almost hear the young pilot pulling himself together. Chewie barked a comment and Han nodded grimly, "Yeah. But I'd be pretty shook up if I were him. This was supposed to be a milk run!"
The Controller was talking again, not waiting for the fighter pilot's reply, "Beta Five, route direct to the West Entrance. Beta Two approximately two minutes ahead, report if you get him in sight."
"Roger that, Mitre Base," Gabhaan responded, relief tinging his voice. "Beta Two....?"
"Just follow us in, Kid!"
Han grimaced at Chewie, who remained silent, "Understood, Kid. Just follow us in."
"Following," was the only reply.
Then another, more urgent voice burst onto the frequency, "Mitre Base, this
is Beta Three, do you read?"
"Beta Three, Mitre Base, go ahead."
"Code One! Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles in enemy hands!"
Chewbacca groaned. Han closed his eyes briefly, his mood sinking even further. He keyed the mike after Mitre had acknowledged Jomanock's call, "Mitre, we'll need to brief Governor Rieekan and the Princess Leia as soon as we land."
There was a slight pause, then the sweet, lovely voice that he adored more than anything else in the galaxy told him, "We'll be waiting, Han."
"Leia..." he began, starting to warn her to begin an evacuation immediately. Then wondered if he should wait until they were on the ground. The image of the Death Star loomed up in his mind... along with memories of the frantic flight from Hoth. And the people who had been left behind there to die. For a desperate moment he wished vehemently for the carefree life of the smuggler he had been, hating the rank that sat so heavily on him now.
Then Leia's concerned voice cut through everything, swamping that desire, "Han... what is it?"
Taking a deep breath he glanced at Chewbacca, who shrugged. "Leia you'd better advise Rieekan to start an evacuation. Now."
~ # # ~
Wedge's jaw throbbed as he trudged numbly along the corridors of the Death Star behind the Imperial Officer. The binders bit into the skin of his wrists, the stormtroopers' grip tight around his upper arms. But behind the facade of compliance, he drank up the details of the station. Despite the grimness of the situation he'd found some hope, remembering that Princess Leia had survived the first Death Star... and Luke the second. Sure, the situation was hopeless, but things sometimes had a funny way of turning out. And if he told himself that often enough, he might just begin to believe it.
Finally they emerged from a corridor into a large open area. Ranks of consoles marched elegantly from the outer edge towards a star dappled observation window. Black uniformed personnel moved purposefully about their duties, some glancing at the newcomers: most ignoring them. The officer from the hanger strode across the deck towards a tall, slim, white haired man, "Sir, the prisoner is here."
Grand Moff Anjouk turned. Amongst the sleek, dark elegance of his bridge, the Rebel pilot's bright, orange flight suit looked rather incongruous. The pilot returned his gaze, calmly. Well, Anjouk admitted magnanimously, courage was one of the two things the Rebel Alliance did not lack. The other was stupidity. He turned to the Intelligence Officer, "Well?"
"The larger ship was the Millennium Falcon, Sir. We have no data yet on the two fighters who escaped. The prisoner's ship," he continued, glancing up at the Rebel, "bears the markings of Red Leader: Lieutenant-Colonel Wedge Antilles."
Anjouk quirked an eyebrow, "Antilles...." A man who occupied a not unimpressive place on the Imperial wanted list. What sort of mission would have called for the Millennium Falcon to be escorted by one of the Rebel Alliance's most skilled fighter pilots. Hands clasped behind his back, he walked across to the pilot. "I must admit to being rather taken aback by your reaction to seeing this Space Station, Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles."
If the Rebel was surprised that Anjouk knew his identity, he gave no sign. Anjouk smiled. "Surely the Rebel Alliance could not have been so naive as to believe that the Emperor would commission only one Death Star? Or was the collective Rebel astonishment just as great when you encountered the third station at Endor?"
That got a reaction: quickly covered, but most definitely there! Anjouk suppressed a smile. "Tell me, Lieutenant-Colonel, what was so important about your mission that it called for not only the Millennium Falcon, but Red Leader as escort?"
Antilles opened his mouth, but Anjouk held up a hand, silencing him, "No, no! Let me guess? You would rather die then divulge any information! Am I right?" He took a step closer to the Rebel, "Believe me, Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles, die: you will. Unfortunately, not before you tell me everything I want to know!" Turning, moving away he continued, "You see, you know so much information that will be useful to us." He gave Antilles a malicious smile, "Contrary to popular Rebel belief, the Empire is far from dead... There were those of us unconvinced with the Emperor's objectives, culminating with his plans at Endor. Indeed, the Emperor seemed more preoccupied with trying to capture the Rebel Skywalker," he said the name like a dirty word and was rewarded with a flare of anger in Antilles' eyes, "than crushing the Rebel Alliance. Therefore, and at much risk to our own lives, a small group of the most high ranking officers put together the corner stones of an agenda to fall back on: should anything unpleasant happen to the Emperor. An agenda which swung smoothly into action after the unfortunate events of Endor. As we speak, a Military Senate is being convened. Within days, Palpatine's Empire will, once again, be one, cohesive force!"
"Which brings me to you, Lieutenant-Colonel. Not only do you have knowledge of the current political situation within the Rebel Alliance, know how the minds of Mothma, Organa, Skywalker and the rest work, there's the troop movements you must surely have been privy to: ships who are supplying the Alliance with the consumables and hard wear you must so desperately need; locations of hidden bases and so much more... You see how important you are, Lieutenant-Colonel? With your help we can take a massive step closer to destroying your precious Rebel Alliance and establishing the identity of the reformed Empire!"
Anjouk stepped back towards Antilles, "However, you have something of much greater importance to me, Lieutenant-Colonel. The Death Star at Endor was destroyed, something I believe you were instrumental in, because it was incomplete. But you were also very involved in the destruction of Tarkin's, Death Star at Yavin! And as you obviously have information that even the Lord Darth Vader was unable to give the Emperor, you, Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles, are going to help me prevent the same situation occurring on this space station!"
The Rebel regarded him for a moment, then said, softly, "In your dreams!"
"No, my dear Lieutenant-Colonel," Anjouk countered, giving him a chilling smile, "In your nightmares!" He turned his back, ordering simply, "Take him down!"
~ # # ~
General Lando Calrissian, Commanding Officer of the Jade Fleet ground troops lounged against the door, watching as Luke Skywalker, delicately balanced on one hand, placed his other hand on the floor then slowly let his body swing down. Stopping the movement once his torso and legs were parallel to the floor, he lifted the first hand away, balancing on the other.
Luke felt his arm muscles beginning to tremble, despite his manipulation of the Force, warning him that he'd done enough for today. Slowly he let his legs drop until they touched the floor. Then, pushing off, he launched himself into the air, back flipping neatly, intending to land on the balls of his feet.
An image, sharp and agonizing, slammed at him, breaking his concentration. He landed awkwardly, his ankle twisting, pitching him to the floor. The impact jarred along his arm and shoulder. He lay still, gathering the Force again, reaching out towards the source of the vision. It was almost gone, but the traces were enough: Wedge Antilles lying, beaten and unconscious, on the floor of an Imperial detention cell, surrounded by black uniformed personnel. There was a vague impression of someone else there, he could almost see the orange flight suit they wore. But the image had slipped from his grasp, although the terrified resolve he had sensed from Wedge remained: the encounter leaving him cold, weak and empty.
Lando had, at first, laughed as Luke landed in an inelegant heap on the floor. But as the seconds passed and his friend didn't move, Lando moved towards him, concern growing. He crouched by the young Jedi, placing a hand on his shoulder, "Luke?" Skywalker's face was ashen, breathing coming in rapid shallow gasps. His eyes were open, pupils dilated. Lando swore, turning towards the door to get help. But Luke made a small sound and Lando hesitated, dropping back down beside him, "Luke?"
Skywalker turned his head, looking at Lando, then began to sit up. Lando
helped him, asking, "Are you okay? You took a real funny turn."
Luke nodded, sitting on the floor, rubbing his hand across his face, "I'm fine... I... I just sensed something... that.." Yoda's voice came, unbidden, to his mind: one of many possible futures have you seen. But the cell had seemed so familiar, as if he had once been there himself. "I have to go to the Mitre Base, Lando."
"Mitre? For what?" Lando's voice was concerned, unsure.
Luke shook his head, "I.... something's wrong, I could sense it. I think Wedge could be in trouble."
~ # # ~
Leia was waiting at the bottom of the ramp as he strode down, Chewbacca two steps behind. "Han," she began, but he held up a finger silencing her, gathering her to him. Chewbacca moved in protectively on the other side. "Wait 'til we get everyone together. Have the others landed..." He broke off, turning his attention to the commotion off to the left. Then Gabhaan broke through the throng, closely followed by Jomanock. Their faces were pale, Gabhaan's knuckles white as he clutched his flight helmet. Leia had seen through Han's deceptively casual manner, couldn't mistake the other pilots' obvious distress, and took control. Slipping out of Han's embrace she briefly squeezed his hand, telling them all, "Governor Rieekan and the others are waiting, Gentlemen. Come with me, please!"
Han dropped into step between the two fighter pilots as they began to walk across the hanger. "You guys okay?"
Gabhaan nodded, not trusting himself to speak. But Jomanock answered, "I've been better, Sir."
Han hesitated for a moment, then decided that the man was going to be questioned anyway, he may as well get used to it. Gently, he asked, "What happened, Lieutenant?"
Jomanock refused to look at the Corellian, guilt welling up inside him, "They got him in a tractor beam..." He stopped, taking a long, deep breath before he could continue, "He ordered me to leave. We couldn't be sure that you'd make it back."
"You did the right thing," Han told him, giving him a side-long glance.
"Doesn't stop me feeling like shit, Sir."
Chewbacca listened to the exchange wishing, not for the first time, that he could speak the human's language: wanting to give the pilot some words of comfort. He too had once had to leave a friend behind in the clutches of the Empire. Only, Han had been returned to them alive. The chances of Antilles getting out of this in one piece were slim. Too slim. Chewbacca would never forget the feelings of loss, helplessness and guilt that had gripped him on Bespin. He wanted Jomanock to know that someone understood what he was going through. But having no way to do so, he remained silent.
Han turned for a moment, as if sensing his friend's sadness. But they had reached the briefing room, and any comment Han was going to make was forgotten.
~ # # ~"Sir?"
Anjouk turned. "Sir," the Major continued, "We are picking up what may be the ejection module of a T-65 fighter. Do you wish us to investigate and retrieve it?"
"Why wasn't this recognised before, Major?"
The officer swallowed, "I'm sorry, Sir, but there was no way of knowing before. If it is an escape module, the retrieval beacon hasn't been activated. Debris was shielding it, Sir. It's only just cleared enough for us to see that there's something more substantial there."
Two, Anjouk thought. Two Rebels! This could prove most interesting for the officers tasked with interrogating Antilles. Concealing a smile he turned away, ordering, "If the Rebel is alive, bring it on board."
~ # # ~
Rieekan stopped pacing as the door opened, turning towards the conference table, indicating that everyone should sit. But Solo was already saying, "Sir we have a major problem! We got yanked out of hyperspace by.... by a Death Star."
Leia had known that the news was bad, but never had she expected something so devastating... This, coupled with the news they had received from Coruscant not long after the Beta squad left... She collapsed slowly into her chair.
Rieekan gazed open mouthed at the Corellian, then said, softly, "You'd better start from the beginning, General Solo."
Han sighed, shooting a look at Chewie as he sat down. "We'd made the first jump, were about half a parsec into the second, through the Crevan system. The proximity alarms went off and then we were dragged out of hyperspace. And there it was, almost directly ahead. Antilles and the Lieutenant here tried to buy time for us to make the jump back... but JhavraH didn't make it."
"I saw her X-wing go up just as I began the jump, Sir," Gabhaan offered.
"I see," Rieekan said, slowly. "And Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles?"
"The Lieutenant-Colonel was hit and lost one of his engines," Jomanock told him. "We'd taken out two of the TIEs, but another four got through us and headed for the Falcon and the rook.." he began, then finished, "...other X-wings. The Lieutenant-Colonel told me to leave him and go after the TIEs, that he would cover me. I heard JavraH yell that she was hit, saw an explosion. Then the Lieutenant-Colonel shouted that he was caught in a tractor beam. He ordered me to leave... and I left him, Sir." The self recrimination hung heavily in the air, but no-one contradicted the young man. Now was not the time.
"Are you sure that the..." Rieekan hesitated for a moment, as if having trouble saying the words, "Death Star was.... fully complete?"
Han sighed, "As far as I could see. But Jomanock got a lot nearer. I didn't stick around to get too close a look."
"It appeared fully operational, Governor. I logged all the sensor data, there should be something in that."
"Then we were right to pre-note the evacuation. I'll countersign the order. As much as I hate to say it, I don't think anyone here is naive enough to assume that Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles won't break under questioning. And if there's a Death Star coming after us, we may not have much time. Lieutenant, Officer Gabhaan, rejoin your flights. As far as it goes you were attacked at the first jump point. Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles had to eject and is now in enemy hands. Nothing is to be said about this new threat, understood? We can discuss the situation more fully.... later!"
They all murmured assent. Rieekan nodded, "Very well. Dismissed."
Leia remained seated as they all rose to leave. Rieekan stopped as he passed her, "I'll appraise Mon Mothma and the others of the situation, Your Highness." She glanced up at him, nodding numbly.
Han turned at the door, realising that she was still sitting at the table. Chewbacca rumbled a question. Han shook his head, moving aside to let Rieekan past, "No. You go ahead, I'll be there as soon as I can." The Wookiee began to turn away, but Han stopped him, "Chewie, see if you can make sure that no-one badgers Jomanock and Gabhaan about what's happened. The less people ask, the easier it'll be on them."
Chewbacca nodded, moving back along the corridor towards the hanger.
Leia sat, head in her hands. "You okay?" Han asked, gently.
Leia looked up at him, her face white, "Oh Han...." She shook her head, looking away. "It all seemed so simple after Endor... Palpatine was dead, the Death Star destroyed... the spectacular beginning of the end for the Empire. Even after the euphoria wore off and we saw just how well the Empire still appeared to be functioning, I was still able to convince myself that we were on our way, finally, to ridding ourselves of it. That, give a little time, the Empire would slowly crumble into nothing... But now..." A tear slid down her cheek and she dashed it away, "Now..."
"Hey," Han attempted, "it's only a Death Star! We've already destroyed the other two!"
She looked at him, another tear spilling down her cheek, "Han, they've reconvened the Senate on Coruscant: with the Military Governors who are now in control. We received word just after you left."
Han blinked, turning away to try and hide his dismay, knowing what this meant to the Rebellion: the Empire was no-where near as ready to fall apart as they'd thought.
"And now Wedge is gone," she was continuing, her voice trembling, "and all I can think about is..." She broke down and Han drew her to her feet, holding her close, stroking her head gently as she sobbed against him.
This, he thought, had been a long time coming. She had bottled up too much fear and grief, shouldering it along with all the other responsibilities that had fallen to her. Not once had she spoken to him about what happened to her on the Death Star, although Luke had told him that she had watched Alderaan destroyed. She had resolutely swept aside her emotions. Even before Hoth she had thrown herself into restructuring the Alliance, using the little influence she still had as a Princess of Alderaan to get what the Alliance so desperately needed. And then into finding him.
On Endor she had almost broken down. But not fully. And he loved her for it, loved her even more now.
Finally she pushed herself away and he held her shoulders, looking down at
her. She wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. "Sorry."
He grinned at her, then kissed her lightly on the forehead, "For what, Your
Royalness... admitting that you're human?"
~ # # ~
Lanine's relief had arrived and she'd given up the seat to him, handing over without thinking. And then the enormity of the whole situation had suddenly crashed in on her. While she'd been working; while she'd been sorting out the traffic that suddenly flared into life when, almost immediately after the General's warning, Rieekan had called the evacuation; during that time, she'd been able to forget Beta Three's words. But now that she was standing here with nothing to do... She looked at the thorn-bud lying in her hand, encased in its delicate wrapping, the words echoing in her mind: Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles in enemy hands...
"A little bird tells me," the message attached to the wrapping read, "that you would do almost anything for meila pastries.... Would the almost anything include having dinner with a pilot? Have an answer when I get back, or the pastries get it!" He'd signed it simply, "Wedge" then scrawled beside it, "(that's Red Leader, just in case you were wondering)"
She closed her eyes, swallowing down the lump that had appeared in her throat. Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles in enemy hands... A tear slid unchecked down her cheek. She felt a hand on her arm, opened her eyes, lifting her head. Darik, the Ops Officer, stood in front of her, his face concerned. Only half an hour before he'd been pulling fun at her, joking about the thorn-bud and ground crew who fraternised with air crew. She looked back down at the flower, the action causing tears to spill down her cheeks. She was only half aware of movement at Darik's side, then he was handing her the cup of hot, sweet cafin that one of the Lieutenant's had brought her. She tried to push it away, but he placed it firmly in her hand, "Drink it, Commander!"
She was shaking, the hot liquid spilling over the side of the cup. Gently, he lifted the flower from her other hand, laying it in his own palm, repeating, "Drink it!" She wrapped her hands round the cup, steadying it and he waited until she'd taken the first sip, then told her, "I'll be back in a minute."
She stared at the cafin, not seeing him bend down beside the Controller, asking him something. The man glanced round quickly, a frown of sympathy brushing his forehead. He nodded. Darik patted his shoulder in thanks, then moved back across to her. He'd shared the watch with her for the last two years, the longest time he'd ever worked with anyone since he joined the Rebel Alliance, and he knew her better than he knew his own sister. "If you want, I can get someone else in? If you need some time..."
She was shaking her head, exactly what he'd expected, "I'd rather... work."
"Fine. Finish that, then you can get back on duty." He turned, beckoning the Lieutenant who had brought the cafin. "Find a box, or something, to put this in," he told him, holding out the flower, pulling his hand back before the man could reach for it. The Lieutenant nodded, turning away.
She was finishing the last dregs of cafin. Darik exchanged the thorn-bud for the cup. She wiped at her face with the free hand, pulling herself together. "Okay?" he asked. She nodded quickly, then walked past him towards the Controller's position. She lifted her headset from the niche, slipping it on.
"What have you got?" The other man outlined the traffic situation, pointing out the ships and their different needs. She nodded, "Fine, I've got it." He slid out of the seat, peeling off his headset. Placing the thorn-bud on the console in front of her, she sat down.
Darik stood a little way behind her, hearing her order, "Negative, Sperrin. Hold position, I will call you." He beckoned the other Controller with a wave of his hand. The man moved across to join him. "Can you stay here and monitor her," Darik asked him. "Subtly," he stressed, "just in case. She should be okay, but I can't take the risk...."
"No problem, Sir. If she loses it, I'll let you know before I take over. If,"
he emphasised, "she loses it."
Darik nodded, his face grim, turning away to his other duties. This was a bad
business, he thought. A bad, bad business.
~ # # ~
The door crashed open. Wedge pulled himself to his feet, the cold of the floor seeping quickly into the soles of his feet. They'd stripped him of his flight suit and boots, leaving him only the fawn uniform trousers and shirt. Two Imperial officers stepped down into the cell, half dragging/half carrying another orange clad form. The cascade of dark wavy hair had escaped its confining band and hung down across her face, leaving Wedge in no doubt as to who it was.
They reached the bottom step and unceremoniously dropped JhavraH face down onto the floor. Wedge remained where he was, waiting until they had gone before he made his move. He dropped to one knee beside her, reaching out, gently turning her over. She moaned softly. Her eyes flickered briefly, but remained closed. He held her, cradling her head in the crook of his arm, brushing the hair away from her face.
There had been a fire in the cockpit; the front of her suit blackened, her face smudged with soot. Part of the front console must have fallen across her legs, burning the boots. The sharp metal had cut into the fabric of her flight suit, destroying any fire retardence. Blood mingled with the dirt.
The door crashed open again. "She needs medical attention!" Wedge demanded of whoever was there, not looking up. The Interrogation Officer smiled, sauntering down the few steps into the cell, two others following, taking up position either side of the door. "That," he told the Rebel pilot, "is entirely up to you, Lieutenant-Colonel. If you decide to be reasonable, then so shall I."
Wedge looked slowly up at the man, mouth tightening into a hard line of disgust and anger. JhavraH's head moved against his arm and he glanced back down. Her eyes were open, glazed with pain, but aware. A small frown brushed across her forehead. It was obvious that she'd heard the comment and knew exactly what it meant. Wedge saw and understood the slight shake of her head. Flashing her a quick grin, filling his voice with anger and loathing, he told the Imperial, "Go to Hell!"
A smile tugged briefly at her lips, then her eyes slid closed.
The two officers at the door were moving round him. They grabbed his arms, dragging him to his feet and away from JhavraH. The Interrogator regarded him, eyes glinting, "Then we shall have to find a way to make you more reasonable."
He swiped at JhavraH's legs with his foot. She screamed.
Wedge ripped free of the guards, launching himself at the officer, sending him flying backwards: both of them crashing to the floor. Wedge's hands clamped round the man's neck, slamming his head off the deck. A klaxon began to wail, then the other Imperials were trying to drag him off their colleague. Light exploded through his head, stunning him, as one of them hit him with the butt of a pistol. But he refused to let go. He was aware of more people rushing into the cell, then pain flashed through his head again. His grip on the officer slackened and they finally succeeded in hauling him away from the Imperial. A boot slammed into his back and he yelped. The boot struck again.... and again. Instinctively he tried to turn away, but another blow to his head brought shadows rushing in, leaving him only half conscious as the beating continued... dropping him, finally, into darkness.
When awareness returned, they were all still in the cell. He lay on his side, a stormtrooper standing at his shoulder, rifle aimed at his chest. The others were helping the Interrogator to his feet. The man stepped towards him, but Wedge was having difficulty trying to focus. From far away he heard someone say, "You have just signed your Rebel whore's death warrant!" The blurred image of the officer grabbed something from one of the others, pointing it at JhavraH. The explosion of sound stabbed through Wedge as the man fired a pistol. Then they were moving out of the cell, the stormtrooper backing towards the door, rifle still aimed at the Rebel prisoner's heart.
But Wedge had slipped back into unconsciousness before the stormtrooper had even reached the steps.
~ # # ~"You take care, Artoo," Threepio was lamenting as Luke clambered up the side of the fighter.
"You're sure about this?" Lando Calrissian asked him again.
Luke glanced down as he dropped into the seat, nodding grimly, "Positive. Something is wrong, I can feel it."
Calrissian, still not totally convinced, smiled at him indulgently. "Well then, safe journey." He backed away, Threepio following as the ground crew began removing coolant pipes and ladders. The canopy hissed closed. Luke ran through the start checks, waiting for the Chief Tech to give him the thumbs up, before turning the engines. Read-outs rose, then settled into the normal pattern. "Ready Artoo?"
The droid burbled. Luke glanced at the screen, smiling. "Threepio will be fine without us, Artoo. Lando will take care of it." Shaking his head at the droid's chirruped enthusiasm, Luke called, "Control, this is Sandman. Requesting clearance to lift."
"Sandman, lift at your discretion."
Luke acknowledged, turning his attention to the marshaller, who gently guided him off the ground, ensuring that the X-wing wouldn't collide with any of the others crowded into the hanger. Satisfied that the fighter was clear and free, he signalled that Skywalker was on his own. Luke lifted a hand in acknowledgement, then eased the X-wing towards the hanger mouth.
"Sandman, your departure approved, you are number one to go. Force be with you, Colonel."
"Clear to go, Control. See you later."
The X-wing sailed out of the hanger into the starlit darkness of space. Luke checked that the co-ordinates were locked as they glided away from the frigate, then settled back, the hyperdrive pushing him gently into his seat as the stars fragmented into the incandescent corridor of hyperspace.
~ # # ~
"Sir," the Lieutenant warned him, "incoming transmission from Coruscant."
Anjouk turned, striding across the command deck towards his private retreat, his sanctuary from the rigours of command, "In my office!" he ordered.
The lights rose automatically as he walked across the soft carpeting towards his desk. He sat down, leaning back in the chair, turning it towards the viewscreen that covered most of the far wall. The picture snapped into existence. Anjouk smiled in greeting at the dark haired, pristine uniformed figure: the Grand Moff's counterpart in the Imperial Senate, "Baile, my old friend, how goes the Empire?"
"Very well, Gahn," Baile told him pleasantly, flashing a wide, content grin, "Very well, indeed. As expected after our little announcement, there was some unrest on the more far flung worlds... but nothing to warrant your intervention. Yet!" He shook his head, "There are always those who neither understand nor appreciate what is best for them."
"Indeed," Anjouk agreed, frowning in sympathy.
"Rest assured, however," Baile continued, "their rumblings will be.... calmed." He shrugged, dismissing the irritation, "But to other things. You wished to discuss something with me?"
"Yes," Anjouk began, choosing his words carefully, "I have some news..."
"Fortunate or unfortunate?" Baile asked, eyes narrowing at the tone in the Grand Moff's voice.
"Both sides of the coin, my friend," Anjouk placated before conceding, "There has been a small incident.... which unfortunately will have resulted in the Rebel Alliance now being aware of the existence of this station. We were stumbled upon by a small number of their ships.... Unfortunately, not all were destroyed."
Baile frowned, deep in thought, "That shouldn't create too much of a problem. Obviously it destroys the advantage of surprise when your services are finally called upon.... but rumours coming from the Alliance itself may actually work to our benefit..."
"We have one other advantage," Anjouk broke in, keeping his face neutral as Baile raised an eyebrow, "We captured one of the Rebels alive..." It wasn't completely the truth, but having just been informed by his own, private sources, of the girl's death, he wasn't about to admit that he had lost a prisoner, "It has turned out to be an interesting acquisition."
Baile leaned forward, eagerly, "They're talking?"
"Not," Anjouk confessed, "quite. But the information he will ultimately supply be extremely useful." He smiled, "It appears that we have procured the services of Lieutenant-Colonel Wedge Antilles."
"Antilles..." Baile muttered, frowning, trying to place the name, "Antilles..."
"Better known in Alliance circles as Red Leader," Anjouk offered.
The name fell into place, "Antilles!" Baile's face lit up, "You have indeed been fortunate, old friend."
"I thought that the news would interest you. My officers are working on him as we speak."
"Good. Good," Baile enthused, "Contact me again once you have gained some information. In the meantime, I will inform the rest of the Senate of your catch."
~ # # ~
Wedge opened his eyes. The blurred image of JhavraH lay across the floor. He tried to push himself into a sitting position, but pain knifed along his spine, the room spinning sickeningly. Groaning, he closed his eyes, waiting until his stomach settled: trying at the same time to find the energy to move. Instinct told him to lie where he was, that trying to move was going to hurt... but he had to get to JhavraH.
Finally, bracing himself, he flopped over onto his front and crawled the vast, few feet to the other pilot. The exertion left him nauseatingly weak and he had to rest again before reaching out, searching for a pulse against her neck. She was cold, her skin waxen to the touch. No pulse beat against his fingers.
He laid his head on the floor as guilt and grief stabbed at him, letting his arm fall across her; dropping slowly into blissful darkness once more.
~ # # ~
Han lifted another box from the trolley, turning to hand it to Chewbacca. The Wookiee, taking hold of it, growled that Leia was on her way. Han turned, absently rubbing at the ache in the small of his back as he watched her make her way across the hanger. The dark circles under her eyes had lifted, he noticed with relief, and she looked more in control now than she ever had. She returned his wide smile as she reached him, "We've just received a message from Lando."
"That old pirate! What did he want?"
"Luke's on his way here."
Chewbacca rumbled a question and Leia shook her head, "I don't think he could know about the evacuation, we've kept that under wraps for the moment. But with Luke you never know. The message just said that he'd "gone all weird" and had left the fleet for here."
Han glanced at Chewie, then asked her, "Do you have any idea?"
Leia shook her head, "He's too far away for me to sense anything from him."
"Well, we'll find out when he arrives! Until then," he said, taking hold of her shoulders, kissing her lightly on the forehead, "we've all got things to do!"
She smiled, reaching up, brushing his lips with her own. His arm dropped to her waist and she broke free, grinning, "You've got work to do, remember?"
He pulled a face as she turned away, walking across the hanger, throwing him a quick look before disappearing into the melee. Han looked at Chewbacca, "What do you think?"
The Wookiee rumbled an answer and Han gave him a rueful smile, reaching for another crate, "Yeah. Me too."
~ # # ~
Luke waited for a few moments, watching that everything remained in the green. Now that he was actually out here and on his way, doubt was beginning to creep in. Maybe he was over-reacting.... What he had seen in his meditation was only one of many possible futures: Yoda had warned him about that .... But this time there was something different, something that he couldn't quite identify. He couldn't shake off the feeling that it wasn't the future he had seen, that it was the present. But...
The image loomed up again: Wedge lying on the floor of an Imperial cell surrounded by black uniformed personnel. Closing his eyes, regulating his breathing he schooled himself towards meditation. The peaceful calm evaded him, broken each time by the image of Wedge. Finally he rejected meditation, holding on to the image, focusing his attention on the pain and the fear that he sensed, trying to project his presence towards his friend. For a moment it seemed that it might work, then the Dark Side reared up, pushing against his concentration, tempting him to let it in. Use your anger to destroy the
"No!" Luke pushed the Dark Side away, wrenched himself from the vision of Wedge, his concern for the young man leaving his heart thumping inside his chest, sweat breaking out across his forehead. The sense of foreboding returned, stronger than before. Sighing, he rested his head on the back of the chair, letting himself fall into a restless sleep.
Someone was calling his name, dragging him back towards painful consciousness. For a moment, before he opened his eyes, Wedge couldn't work out why he hurt so much. Then it all came crashing back in... But that had been Luke's voice! Fear gripped him, his eyes flying open. No, please! Goddess, it couldn't be... how could they have...
But he was lying on the cell floor, alone. Relief eased the pain slightly.
They had removed JhavraH's body. He attempted to sit up, but fire raced along his spine, across his back, stealing his breath. Flashes of light danced across his eyes, blinding him and he lay back down. The Death Star thrummed around him, the noise grating inside his head. He found his mind drifting, his body alert for the sound of footsteps. Funny how he'd never really seen himself going out like this, always saw himself dying in a blaze of fire during some battle.... not this. But more surprising was the calm realisation that he had accepted death. Any hope of heroic escape attempts had died with JavraH....
He pushed that thought away, guilt pricking at his consciousness. If he hadn't gone for that little shit she'd still be..... dead, he finally admitted to himself. They'd have tortured her to make you talk and she'd still have died! Ah, JavraH, I'm sorry, Kiddo.
The image of her soot smudged face smiled at him in his mind.
The door opened. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the booted feet thudding into the cell. Three of them: what a surprise. Hands grabbed him, dragging him up. Pain exploded, ripping across his back. He cried out, his legs for a moment unable to support his weight. He opened his eyes, but the flashing, whirling kaleidoscope of light in his head, left him all but blind.
"Lieutenant-Colonel Antilles, this could be so much easier for you if you would just co-operate," someone was telling him. "The obvious conclusion is that you will give us the information we want. Why make it more difficult on yourself?"
Wedge remained silent. The man was right, they would make him talk. But all that he had to do was stall them long enough to let Mitre evacuate... It wasn't the dying that frightened him any more: acceptance had brought with it an unforeseen peace that he'd never dreamed he could experience. No, it wasn't the dying, it was the way he died... He acknowledged that he would break.... the terror was that he would break too soon...
The man was sighing, "Very well, Lieutenant-Colonel. We'll play it your way." Then they were dragging him backwards, shoving him up against the bulkhead. Restraining clamps slid from the wall, locking round his wrists, neck and waist. Someone was tugging at the sleeve of his shirt. "One last time, Lieutenant-Colonel. Will you co-operate?"
Fire rippled along his spine and across his back, the kaleidoscope of rainbow coloured lights still blinded him, pins and needles rapping at his fingers.
He took a breath. "Go to hell."