Luke pushed the nose of the X-wing down, yanking the fighter round, twisting to intercept the TIE fighter and blasting at it in the turn. Then he hauled tightly away from the debris, pulling up to pirouette towards another target as the Imperial fighter erupted in a blossom of fire and wreckage. The grey/blue bulk of the planet turned, blocking out the stars ahead of him. A laser bolt streaked left to right beneath the nose, closely followed by a TIE trailed by an X-wing, guns blazing. Luke twisted his fighter to follow, but a further bloom of fire announced the Imperial's demise. The other X-wing pulled out, spiralling past the wreckage and back into the fray.
Luke yanked his fighter round, scanning the starscape for the remaining Imperials. Off to the right he saw a T-65 bearing down on a TIE that had locked-on to one of the rookies. Wingman gone, the intercepting Alliance fighter was oblivious to the two other Imperials moving in behind him. "Wedge!" Luke snapped in warning, spinning his fighter to intercept, "Pull out! Two on your tail!" His friend's X-wing flipped and turned... a heartbeat too late. The leading Imperial fired, destroying the last remnants of the X-wing's shields. The second TIE lined the X-wing up and fired, catching the starboard wings and the tail and sending bright green bolts of death ricocheting along the armoured side hull.
Wedge Antilles swore, a wash of dread thumping through his guts as the fighter juddered under the impact. Drunkenly, it swung to the left before lurching downwards, the upper starboard engine spewing debris. His Artoo unit howled into the cacophony of audio alarms. Panic began to push at him as he heard Luke's voice in his ear piece suddenly drowned out, a panel behind and to the left exploding in a shower of sparks. He flinched then swore again as the X-wing rocked under a second volley of Imperial fire that pushed the fighter into a lazy, tumbling spin. Wedge fought to right the fighter, struggling with the controls. But the damaged lower engine shrieked in final protest, tightening the fighter further into the spin as it blew out.
The two TIEs screamed overhead, turning back for the kill. One shattered suddenly into a ball of flame as Luke's aim found its mark. The other abruptly sheered away, twisting and writhing in an evasive pattern that did nothing to shake Skywalker's pursuing X-wing.
"Keep coming, Boss! I've got him lined up!" Alpha Flight's second in command told him.
"Copied!" Luke replied, continuing to chase his prey as his Second's fighter arrowed in from the left, her guns and her wingman's spitting laser fire. The second TIE exploded in a flower of flame that died almost instantly. Tennan's T-65 corkscrewed away from the debris, her wingman peeling off in the opposite direction. Luke pulled the nose round, hard, flipping his fighter in a tight arc towards Wedge's X-wing. The ship was spinning out of control, tumbling towards the planet. Sparks flared, sizzling across the remains of the ruptured starboard engines that still spewed fragments of debris. "Wedge," he yelled frantically, "Eject! Eject! Eject!"
"Boss!" Tennan's voice called in his ear, "Watch your six! One on your tail!"
Luke shocked back to his own situation, yanking his X-wing away from Wedge's dying fighter in a startled wave of fear: and dismay at his own stupidity. He pitched up in the turn as Tennan's voice continued, "Locking on... Bank right on my mark..."
~ # # ~
There was another shower of sparks and a muffled thud that spilled acrid smoke into the cabin. Wedge fought for control of the fighter. He risked a glance behind. The Artoo unit had triggered the extinguishers, but the smoke and fumes were already beginning to do their damage, filling his nose and mouth, making it difficult for him to breathe; stinging his eyes. He started coughing, his body trying to rid his lungs of the noxious cocktail. Then a soft breeze on his face informed him that the droid was recycling the air, dumping the fumes into space.
"Ceetwelve," he choked, "What's the damage?" The unit warbled a low keening sound that told Wedge, before the readout did, that the X-wing was dying. Luke's frantic call of "...Eject! Ejec..." was silenced in a crackle of sparks. The taste of burning insulation caught at his throat and the extinguishers triggered again. Resigned, he reached for the ejection cord, tugging hard, hearing the thwump as the explosive bolts that would catapult the cockpit clear of the mainframe primed. Then there was a screech of over-stressed metal and...
Wedge sat for a disbelieving moment. This could not be happening! First his shields had failed – now this? Then he swore, reaching to check that the safety flag had been removed, yanking sharply on the cord again. The cockpit remained stubbornly where it was. The ejection mechanism had somehow failed and he was stuck in the X-wing. Perfect! Just perfect!
Cursing under his breath he began to check the damage data more thoroughly. The fighter was badly crippled. She wouldn't last too much longer, especially not in the vacuum of space... But he was already being pulled by the planet's gravity... And both port engines were still serviceable. As long as he could get the foils closed there was a chance that...
The Artoo unit twittered at him and he snapped, "I know it's jammed! Shut up and idle the engines! And kill those damned alarms, will you!"
The unit said nothing, but the whine of the engines died chromatically, the cockpit falling suddenly, eerily quiet. Wedge closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. Then he leant forward, hitting the button to move the foils. The indicator flickered briefly red then, as Wedge opened his eyes, began to flash green. The mechanism hummed softly, the S-foils slowly sliding closed. Wedge heard the thump as they locked, instants before a steady white light confirmed the status. A smile tugged at his lips. Now at least he had a chance of stopping this damned tumble. He glanced at the readouts once more then pushed on the controls. Thrusters fired, fighting against the fighter's un-natural movement, slowly stabilising the pitch. The stars and planet slowed in their sickening lurch, beginning instead to roll across the canopy. He waited for a moment, gauging the direction of the spin, then pulled on the controls. The thrusters fired again, resisting the autorotation, pushing against the roll. For a long, sickening moment, the X-wing continued to spin. Then it levelled with a gut wrenching snap that pulled a groan of discomfort from the pilot.
Wedge quickly pushed the controls into neutral, "Okay, Ceetwelve?" The droid twittered and Wedge smiled, grimly, "Bring the engines back on line. We're going down."
~ # # ~
Luke pulled away as the TIE behind blew apart under Tennan's ministrations. "Artoo? Where's Wedge?" The droid dropped a picture of the planet onto his screen, zooming in to show the crippled fighter. Luke grinned as he saw that the X-wing was no longer spinning out of control. Wedge was alive... But what the hells was he up to? Why hadn't he just ejected?
"Beta Leader, this is Alpha Leader, do you copy?"
"Beta Leader, this is Alpha Leader, do you copy?"
Obviously not, he thought wryly, flipping the screen back to tactical. He frowned at the readout. Only a few TIEs left now and unless he did something soon, the X-wings would start getting in each other's way. And there were too many rookies in the Flights - all of them wanting a kill - for that to be safe. "Artoo, can you talk to Wedge's droid, find out what's wrong?"
There was a cautious burble. "Do what you can," Luke told him, "while I sort this lot out."
~ # # ~
"What's it like down there?" Wedge asked the Artoo unit as he gently eased the X-wing into the atmosphere. Ceetwelve whistled and beeped at him, dropping weather and terrain data onto the screen. Wedge began to project their descent profile onto the information but the Artoo unit mewled in warning, silencing the soft chime of an alarm as it dumped more data onto the screen.
Wedge sighed as he read. "Okay, Ceetwelve, shut it down." Praying to whichever goddesses were listening that the remaining engine would last out, he keyed through the pages, seeing from the data that at their present rate of descent it probably wouldn't. He closed his eyes, then mentally pulled himself together, pushing the nose of the fighter down to steepen the descent rate, easing the X-wing into a turn to remain well within the daylight side of the planet, "Ceetwelve, we need to get down fast..."
He trailed off as details of a landing site flashed onto the screen, "Are your circuits loose? This is water? T-65s don't float!" He began punching through the data, "What about this land mass..." Tutting in disgust he broke off, the droid twittering at him balefully. Mountains of unrelenting volcanic rock rose in almost a sheer cliff from the sea. There were a few reasonably flat areas, but trying to land in that terrain, crippled and half blind, would be nothing more than suicide.
Initial disbelief turned to dismay as he checked the descent profile against other areas. They had no alternative. He swore, retrieving the data on the droid's landing site - level rock lying just far enough beneath the surface to provide a reasonable cushioning effect for a flat landing. And they would be close enough to get to that island without too much difficulty. It would provide some shelter, although following his train if recent luck he'd probably get swept off by a freak wave... He smiled, bleakly. Well at least they wouldn't have to tempt the fates too far by trying to set down vertically on only one engine. And if he could get the gear down before she settled, the fighter wouldn't be totally submerged.
Locking the co-ordinates in, he turned the X-wing to match the new profile, "Okay, Ceetwelve, I concede," he said grudgingly. There was no answer from the back as he checked the altitude readout. Low enough to try the secondary ejection unit. If it was only the cockpit that was stuck in the main frame of the fighter, if the canopy would blow clear, then there was still a chance that he could eject. He looked at the terrain display again. Eject to where? Into the sea? He shook his head, at the moment it was safer to stay with the fighter.
Yeah, he thought, snorting, safer to stay with the X-wing... until the engine fails. Shaking his head he told the droid, "We go with you idea, Ceetwelve. But if I end up drowning, it'll all be your fault!"
~ # # ~
Tennan swung her fighter round, searching the sky for TIEs: seeing the last one die at the hands of one of Antilles' pilots. She smiled unpleasantly, turning the X-wing towards the group of fighters that Skywalker had pulled out of the fight. And frowned in momentary confusion as she watched the Commander's T-65 twist round, heading away towards the planet. Before she could question, she heard his voice in her earpiece, "Karrik, Antilles is stuck in his X-wing! I'm going after him. Take the flight and get out of here. Janson's got Antilles' flight, but you're the Senior Officer!"
"Boss," she warned, "this sector'll be crawling with Imperials soon!"
"I know! Send us back some help!"
"Sir," she tried again, "Command's gonna freak..."
"If Wedge has made it down alive," the Commander snapped back at her, "it'll only be a matter of time before the Imperials find him. And it'll all become academic! They'll be at the Base waiting for us to arrive. Take the flight and get out of here! Now!"
There was a moment's silence as she considered arguing with him. She didn't like this, thought it was asking for trouble... But what he said did make sense. Besides which, she thought sourly, how will it look to the low-hour Rookies if I start arguing with the Commanding Officer? She may yet have to give them orders that they didn't like. And if they hesitated, remembering her arguing with Skywalker, it might cost them their lives. Bottom line: Skywalker had all but ordered her to leave... And short of shooting him down there was no way she could stop him flying after Antilles! Damn him! She decided to concede gracefully, telling him grudgingly, "Okay, Boss, we're out of here."
"Get them back safely, Karrik."
She bit back a curse on his name, replying, "Yes, Sir." And I hope you know what you're doing! Then she turned her attention to what was, effectively, a twin Flight... even with the losses they had taken. "You get all that, Janson?"
"Sure did! I'm ready when you are!"
"All right, Ladies and Gentlemen," Karrik ordered, "Fun's over. Back into line. Everyone still got the next jump co-ordinates?"
The survivors acknowledged and began to regroup. She spared a glance at Skywalker's X-wing, watching as it streaked away towards the planet below. Shaking her head she muttered softly, "Good luck, Commander." But I've got a real bad feeling about this. "Set up the jump," she ordered, switching her concentration once again to the other ships, "Be ready to go on my mark!"
~ # # ~
Water flashed past below the X-wing as Wedge reduced the speed as far as he dared, slowly lowering the fighter towards the waves.
Too fast… Still too fast.
The X-wing reeled, speed fluctuating as a wave slammed into the underside, throwing Wedge against the restraints, his stomach lurching. The wing dropped, dragging down into the water, sloughing the fighter sideways. He fought the controls, trying to level the wings, pulling the nose up to keep the X-wing above the waves for as long as possible: knowing that it would begin to sink almost as soon as it touched the water.
The fighter juddered as first the tail, then the belly hit the surface, bouncing off to land on the next wave. The nose ploughed through the third wave, covering the canopy in spray, speed falling away dramatically as the remaining engine failed and the water reached out to drag the X-wing to a halt. There was a mild impact, the tail of the fighter hitting the flat rock below the surface followed by a low tearing sound as the rest of the T-65 settled, scraping along the shale. Then there was only the sound of his own rapid breathing as the fighter slid to a stop.
So much for getting the gear down, he thought bitterly. "Okay, Ceetwelve, let's get out of here." He flipped all the switches, running through the final emergency shut down procedures, "Ceetwelve, you okay back there?" There was no immediate answer from the little droid. Wedge hit the button to open the canopy, bracing himself for a flood of seawater into cockpit. The water was shallow enough to allow him to swim to the surface, rather than have to eject.
Instead of a flood of water there was a showering arc of sparks that rippled across the console. He flinched, yelping, throwing the cut-off switch to the electrics. Perfect! Just perfect!
He frowned, slowly becoming aware of a hissing sound, muffled by the helmet. Undoing the strap he pulled the helmet off, listening for a moment before dropped it at his feet and unlocking the restraints. Flipping them back he twisted in his seat, peering into the back of the cockpit. And stared in horror at the water coming in through the broken seal of the canopy. He turned back, looking aghast at the rapidly expanding pool of water sloshing around his feet, "Ah, shit! Ceetwelve, we've got to move it! Now!"
He scrambled back into the restraints, reaching for the helmet before pulling them tight. Securing the strap round his chin, he closed his eyes then reached down to the front of the seat, tearing off the protective cover and pulled the ejection handle.
"Come on, baby," he breathed, "Blow!" He pulled on the handle again but the seat remained stubbornly where it was. Swearing, he ripped the restraints off again, twisting round to try to gauge the flow of water, "Ceetwelve? Ceetwelve? Force damn you, answer me!"
There was no reply. Panic began to steal through him again. He crouched down on the seat, facing backwards, bracing his knees against the chair, pushing up against the canopy with his back: not caring that if he dislodged the canopy the ejection mechanism might punch the seat out. Unless he could get out of the fighter, he was dead anyway.
~ # # ~
Luke whooped in victory as the sensors locked on to the residual that could only have been left by an X-wing's engines, "Artoo, I've found something! From this signature, he's running on one engine. Track it and scan, he can't have gotten far."
The droid warbled at him as he punched in various descent paths, the earlier jubilation fading as he matched them with the terrain data, checking the landmasses for any possible landing sites. Worry settled itself in the pit of his stomach, gnawing at him as he realised that the possibility of a damaged fighter being able to land safely on any of these mountainous islands was very, very remote.
~ # # ~
The only way out, Wedge had decided, was to burn a hole in the canopy. It was a long shot, but it was better than sitting, waiting to drown. The liquid metal of the canopy hissed as it hit the water that was now above waist level. Wedge grimaced, gasping in pain. Holding the blaster with one hand he reached down through the water with the other hand to brush splatters of the still fiery metal from his legs. Finally giving up as the metal cooled to an almost bearable level, he gritted his teeth against the pain, trying to ignore the frigid water that seeped through the holes that the metal had burned in the suit.
He was running out of time, the water level rising towards his chest. In the back of his mind a small voice was telling him that this was useless, that he would never melt a large enough hole in the canopy without either the water level rising too far, or burning himself so badly that the pain blacked him out. He ignored the doubt, beginning to shiver uncontrollably, the icy cold from the seawater that invaded his suit slowly creeping through his body. His feet were already beginning to go numb. He clamped his teeth against the chattering and the ache, trying to concentrate solely on burning through the canopy.
~ # # ~
Luke manoeuvred the T-65 over the blurred image of the X-wing lying beneath the water, the dome of Wedge's droid and the top of the engines intermittently visible as waves lapped over. He lowered the fighter as far as he dared then selected the landing gear down, cracking the canopy. It hissed open as he unbuckled his straps, "Artoo, hold her steady. I don't want pitched into the water."
The unit twittered at him and he climbed out of the cockpit. Looking down, he could see the indistinct smudge of orange moving around, and grinned. Wedge was obviously conscious but unable to get the canopy open.
Reaching the last step he hesitated for a second before cautiously lowering one foot into the water. He touched the roof of the crashed X-wing, slowly putting his weight onto the leg. The downed fighter remained steady and with a sigh of relief, he brought his other foot down. The waves lapped round his calves. Turning his back against the slight spray caused by the hovering X-wing, he unclipped the lightsaber from his belt, thumbing it on, feeling the slight vibration through the handle as it thrummed into life.
~ # # ~
The water level was at Wedge's shoulders.
He tried to force his lungs to take calm, even breaths, but his whole body was shaking against the cold. A bolt of pain spasmed through his leg and he cried out, the blaster slipping from his grasp, sinking an eternity away from his reach. He looked in horror at his empty, gauntletted hands. Without the blaster he would never be able to burn his way out... He cried out again as another flash of pain tore through his leg. Arching back instinctively from the agony of the cramp, he slid slightly in his seat, his head dropping beneath the surface of the water that continued to invade the cockpit: his lungs filling with liquid as he tried to breathe.
The cramping hit again, this time in both legs, sending a wave of anguish through him, driving him further down below the surface. He gasped for oxygen, finding only water: the cold and the pain sapping him of the strength he needed to push himself up towards the slowly dwindling air supply trapped beneath the canopy.
~ # # ~
The water hissed into steam as Luke lowered the lightsaber, slowly beginning to cut through the canopy of his friend's fighter. The seawater should cool the metal enough that Wedge wasn't burned... he hoped. What really worried him was the possibility that the life support had been damaged, in which case Wedge would suffocate if he didn't get out. Seconds dragged by, seeming like hours, before the metal gave way, sinking into the cockpit. Air fizzled out as the water flowed in... But, Luke suddenly realised, for the amount of air that had escaped, the fighter must have been flooded.
Anxiety pushing at him to move faster, Luke clipped the lightsaber to his belt, falling into a crouch. Wedge was no longer moving. If he was trapped under the canopy that Luke had just cut away... Swearing, Luke dropped forward onto his knees, reaching down into the cockpit. Ice cold water flooded into his gauntlets, but he ignored it, grabbing a handful of cloth, hauling Wedge towards the surface. The fabric of the flight suit began to slip out of his hands and he reached down further, gripping Wedge under the arms. Sliding backwards on his knees, he dragged his friend's body out of the fighter.
Wedge gasped for air as his head broke the surface, then coughed. Relieved that he was still breathing, Luke held him as he began to retch, bringing up the seawater he had swallowed. He was shivering, his whole body shaking uncontrollably. Finally there was nothing left for Wedge to throw up and Luke grasped him under the arms again, "Come on, Wedge. We need to move."
"Come on!" Luke grunted, hauling Wedge to his feet, pulling an arm across his shoulder, supporting him.
"Don't worry, you'll be warm soon... Artoo, bring her down slightly!" The droid complied, the fighter settling slowly towards the surface, waves slopping round the landing gear as it disappeared beneath the water. Antilles cried out, his body going rigid in Luke's grasp. Then he collapsed against Luke.
"Wedge?" He twisted round, bending down, letting Wedge's body fall across his shoulders and lifting him off his feet. He steadied himself against the X-wing, lifting his foot up to the first rung then reached for the handhold. Step by step he dragged himself and the unconscious pilot up the side of the fighter. Steadying himself against the canopy he slowly swung one leg over the edge into the cockpit, pausing for a moment to get his balance before pulling his other leg over the edge. Carefully, he lowered Wedge's feet to the floor, the pilot's body slipping across his shoulders. He braced himself against the seat with one arm, holding Wedge tightly to him with the other. Then steadying himself with a hand against the side of the fighter, he sat down, Wedge cradled against his chest.
He undid Wedge's chinstrap, pulling the bulky helmet off, discarding it over the side. He didn't plan on going far with two people in a single seat fighter. "Artoo, find us somewhere to set down across there," he ordered. The unit burbled and the canopy swung closed, locking forward. There was a gently thwump as the gear retracted, "Wait a second, Artoo, there's something we have to do first. Take us over towards that island then swing her back round."
The little droid complied, the fighter rising slowly away from the surface of the water and heading towards the dark, rocky bluff. "Okay, Artoo," Luke told the unit, reaching awkwardly past Wedge to activate the targeting computer as the fighter turned. "Hold her steady, Artoo." Locking on to the downed X-wing, Luke fired. Then fired again. Wedge's fighter exploded in a blast of superheated seawater and metal fragments, showering the surrounding area with debris. The surface of the water boiled for a second more, then the waves claimed their domain. Luke reached forward, flipping a button, the computer sliding away, "Take us over and set us down, Artoo."
~ # # ~
The Commander left the communications console, crossing the bridge area of the pride of the Imperial fleet, to where Admiral Ozzel studied a tactical screen, "Sir?"
The man looked up at him, his gaze icy, "Yes!"
"Admiral, we've just received word from the squadron of TIE fighters detailed to cover the Bress system. The Leader reports that they have engaged two flights of Rebel X-wing-class fighters, near the third planet, Taspin. The transmission was interrupted before they could furnish us with more details."
Ozzel straightened slowly, considering the information for a moment before turning back to the tactical screen, scanning the charts for the Bress system. Irritation rose as he saw it lay more than a quadrant away from their present position... Lord Vader had made it quite clear that he wished any Rebels to be taken alive. Potential prisoners from this skirmish would have died by the time they reached there. Still, now that he looked more closely, the Requite was patrolling a system not far from that general area. Granted it was only a Scoutship, but with the TIEs already in the fray, nothing as heavily armed as the Executor would be required, initially. All that was necessary was the rounding up of the Rebel survivors, a task that the Requite's Commander Marrit would relish.
The Admiral straightened again, instructing, "Order the Requite to those co-ordinates. They are to investigate and collect any live Rebel debris, then await further orders." Straightening his uniform jacket he continued, "I will inform Lord Vader of the report!"
~ # # ~
Luke held Wedge tightly as the droid manoeuvred the fighter, slowly setting it onto the ground with a gently thump: starting the after landing checks as the pilot leant forward, hampered by Wedge's shivering body. He punched at a button and the canopy opened. A slight breeze ruffled playfully at his hair as he removed his flight helmet, dropping it into the back.
The injured pilot shivered a weak moan. "It's okay, Wedge," Luke told him, twisting round, easing his friend into the seat, "I'm going to get a MedPak. You'll be okay."
"Luke..." the voice was barely above a whisper, "s-so... cold."
"I know." Luke stepped out of the fighter onto the first rung to give himself room to work, "I'll get you something warm to drink in a minute." He reached down the side of the seat for the MedPak, seeing for the first time the extent of the blackened, charred patches on the legs of Wedge's suit. And the raw, open wounds weeping fluid and blood.
Luke stared at the burns, guilt pushing at him and for a moment he thought he was going to throw up... You did this! You burned him like this when you cut him out! You did this! Then a small voice of reason cut through... But Wedge would be dead now if you hadn't – drowned inside the fighter. Taking a deep breath, pulling himself together, he yanked the MedPak from the niche, laying it on top of the console. He broke it open, pulling free the tiny mediscanner and pressing it against Wedge's neck. Core temperature low, blood fluid below normal levels: Raise body temperature, the little device flashed. Apply rehydration pad.
Luke's initial concern deepened dramatically into worry.
"Had to land..." Antilles chittered weakly, "water..."
"It's okay, Wedge. It'll be okay." Dropping the scanner on the console he lifted an antiseptic dressing, spraying it over the pilot's burns. He tossed the canister back into the 'Pak, then pulled off one of Wedge's gauntlets, using the tiny laser knife to cut open the sleeve of the already damaged flight suit. Snapping open a rehydration pad he pressed it firmly onto Wedge's inner forearm then reached behind the seat for the rations. He pulled out a heated energy drinking, pressing the tab and giving it a quick shake. As he waited the few moments for it to heat, he noticed it was euolberry.
Wedge hated euolberry. Tough. Luke peeled off the lid, "Wedge, drink this, you'll be warmer."
Antilles looked at him, puzzled, "Luke...?"
"Yep, that's me. Come on, drink this." He held his friend's head, feeding him the drink like a child. Wedge was shivering so much that the hot liquid spilled down his front. Luke persisted. Finally the carton was empty and he discarded it. He touched Wedge's exposed wrist, feeling the skin cold and dry and ran the scanner again. Core temperature still dropping. The fluid level, however, was beginning to stabilise: Raise body temperature, the readout instructed. Keeping Wedge in the X-wing and feeding him hot drinks was about the only thing he could do, especially with the sun going down. Luke lifted his head, searching the sky briefly, knowing that it was too soon for help to be here. Hoping that Tennan and the rest had made it to Hoth, he willed them to get here before the Imperials did.
Wedge murmured something and Luke turned back to him reaching for another drink.