Wes Janson poured on the speed, accelerating down through the thin atmosphere of Möerdaast, leading the group of eight fighters towards the penal facility. Another two X-wings had broken off, to add to the escort for Aksha's shuttle as he climbed the ship up through the atmosphere.
Janson keyed the mic. "Falcon, this is Rascal Three, do you copy?"
There was a short pause then Solo's voice replied, "Rascal Three, Falcon, go ahead."
"Star Destroyer just joined the party!" Janson warned. "Get your butt out of there!"
"Yeah, we heard," Han assured him, looking out of the flight deck at the almost empty hangar. The last of the freed prisoners were being ushered aboard the other ship, the Ashwaarya. A small squad of soldiers appeared through the hatch on the far side of the hangar, running fast.
"We're almost locked and loaded!" Han told Janson. He pulled off the headset, pushing himself out of the seat and telling Chewie, "Start her up, buddy! I'll go make sure we don't leave anyone behind."
Chewbacca nodded, already beginning to run through the start sequence for the engines. Han turned, heading out of the flight deck and through the ship. There were beings everywhere, crowded into the communal area, sitting in the corridors. They were all half-naked, bemused and bedraggled. They looked at him with nervous, fearful expressions.
Han clenched his jaw in anger, a sudden sense of foreboding settling around him. The smuggler in him screamed at him to get out, to get away from this, that this was nothing to do with him... but another part of him knew that it was already too late. It had been too late the moment his conscience had kicked in and dragged him back to Yavin.
And now he had ties holding him here... Friends... People who watched his back, who had risked their lives to protect him and Chewie... People like Derlin and Antilles...
And the Empire chasing you, another voice taunted in his head. And a Star Destroyer right above you, trying to hunt you down...
Swearing, muttering about damned-fool rescues, he moved towards the ramp.
The squad of soldiers were running up it. Han nodded to the sergeant, eyeing another man he didn't recognise. The man had discarded his jacket but Han knew an Imperial uniform when he saw it. And since the Imperial wasn't in chains, Han concluded he must be the Rebel SpecOps Colonel, code-name Chameleon.
"Derlin's on the Home One, with Antilles and Nabrood," Han told them.
"Any news on how he's doing?" the Colonel asked.
"None," Han admitted, "but they've got their hands full up there right now."
"I heard," the Colonel told him.
"Well, we're the last," the sergeant confirmed. "We can leave any time you're ready."
Han nodded, turning, telling them, "Then grab yourself a seat! This could be a rough ride!"
"Admiral," the tactical officer warned Ackbar, "the Star Destroyer is moving in. It's trying to cut us off from the shuttles!"
"And the TIEs?" Ackbar asked.
"Still heading towards us, Sir. They're ignoring the other ships."
"How long until the Millennium Falcon and Ashwaarya are airborne?" Ackbar asked the mission controller.
"They're lifting now, Sir," she reported.
"Tell them and the shuttles not yet aboard, to go to plan 'B'! They jump to hyperspace as soon as they clear the atmosphere!" Ackbar ordered. "We'll meet them at the alternate rendezvous!"
He turned, ordering, "Helmsman, plot a course to take us across the Star Destroyer's bow! If it gets close enough to lock a tractor beam onto those shuttles, they're lost! And be ready to jump to hyperspace at my command!"
"Plotting now, Sir!" the helmsman confirmed.
On the planet below, Chewbacca lifted the Falcon lifted, turning it slowly as the landing gear retracted, then carefully manoeuvring towards the hangar entrance. Behind the Falcon, the Ashwaarya also lifted and followed. As the Falcon cleared the hangar doors, four X-wings swept in, taking up position above and behind the ship.
"Falcon," Janson's voice announced, "we're on our own. Plan B!"
"Copied, Rascal," Han confirmed. "Plan B... "
"Captain Piett, Sir?"
Piett turned, looking at the tactical officer.
"The Mon Calamari cruiser is changing course," the man supplied. "It's moving to cross our bow..."
"Belay that order," Vader countermanded.
The Rebel crew were playing right into his hands. They were moving in, in anticipation that the Executor would not risk any hazardous manoeuvres. They had badly miscalculated. They were, instead, putting the ship within his grasp.
"Maintain speed and plot their course!" he ordered. "Keep us above the cruiser! And ready the tractor beams!"
On the bridge of the Home One, the mission controller reported, "Shuttle Nine has jumped to hyperspace with escort, Admiral. Shuttle Ten will clear the atmosphere in the next few minutes."
"Sir," another officer informed him, "the TIEs have engaged! Aft batteries have opened fire." A small shudder rippled through the ship, as if to emphasise it. Then another.
"Admiral," the officer went on, "they appear to be targeting the hyperdrive engines… nothing else!"
A gnawing sense of unease settled in the pit of Ackbar's stomach. The TIEs, he realised, were trying to disable the Home One, not destroy it. At sublight speeds, the Star Destroyer was less manoeuvrable but faster. Without hyperdrive engines, it would only be a matter of time before the Star Destroyer disabled the Home One's turbolasers and had the ship held fast in tractor beams...
"They're trying to board us!" the Executive Officer commented softly, his thoughts mirroring Ackbar's.
Both of them were aware of what that would initiate: a bloody, deck-by-deck battle that would end up with everyone aboard the Mon Calamarai cruiser dead or in chains. The Alliance personnel would take a good number of Imperials with them but, ultimately, they would be no match for the sheer numbers of stormtroopers aboard the Star Destroyer. And it was only a matter of time before Imperial reinforcements arrived.
The forward batteries began firing on the Star Destroyer as the cruiser moved within range of the Imperial ship. In answer, the Star Destroyer began returning fire.
Caught between ensuring the safety of everyone aboard the Home One, or the protection of almost one-hundred and fifty souls on the ships below, Ackbar made the only decision he could. He turned to his XO. "My regrets to Shuttle Ten, the Ashwaarya and the Falcon. Tell them that we can no longer protect them!"
The XO nodded, swallowing, confirming, "Aye, Sir!" before moving away.
"Helmsman, full astern!"Ackbar ordered.
"Full astern, aye, Admiral!"
"Lock down all inertial dampers!" Ackbar went on. "Prepare for evasive manoeuvres!"
The tension level on the bridge jumped at his words, but it was focussed and calm, not flustered. Ackbar acknowledged that the crew was apprehensive, but he also knew they would perform their duties without hesitation. They were well-trained and every single one of them knew what was at stake.
A slight shudder rippled through the cruiser as the thrusters fought the forward inertia, dragging the huge ship to a halt.
"Inertial dampers locked," the chief engineer confirmed.
"Four TIEs destroyed… One burned up in the sublight wash," the tactical officer reported. "No damage to the engines, Sir. The TIEs have broken off… but are coming back in for another pass!"
"Then let's see if we can take another few out," Ackbar commented before ordering, "Helmsman, prepare to bring the ship about! Navigator, make ready for a jump to lightspeed!"
Aboard the tenth shuttle, Lieutenant Haniff-Brin Aksha swore, keying the mike, asking, "Rascal Seven, did you copy? We're on our own!"
"I copied, Brin," Tarn Mison told him, pouring through the data being thrown onto the tactical display by his astromech droid. "Damn it! That Destroyer's coming in fast! Come right, heading point-four-five! It'll keep us ahead of the bloody thing, at least until we reach the outer ionosphere!"
"Coming right," Brin acknowledged, inputting the new heading, "point... four... five!"
The shuttle wasn't built for manoeuvrability, however. It turned wide and slow. Cold, hard dread settled in the pit of Brin's stomach. He pulled up another display, extrapolating the course and speed vectors for his shuttle, the X-wings and the Star Destroyer.
They weren't going to make it. The Star Destroyer was going to intercept them.
"Corporal!" he called.
There was a moment's delay then the soldier appeared at the door. "Sir?"
"Man the cannon!" Brin ordered. "We might have a fight on our hands."
The corporal nodded acknowledgement, disappearing into the body of the shuttle.
In the X-wing, Tarn could also see that the Star Destroyer was going to overtake the shuttle. A warning flag appeared on his screen, an alarm beginning to chime. "Ahhh, poodoo!" he cursed. "Give a bloke a break, will ya!"
The Star Destroyer was already trying to lock a tractor beam onto them.
"Form up!" he ordered the other X-wings. "Two pairs! Stay behind the shuttle! With any luck we'll fool their sensors and the tractors will target us..."
Brin swallowed hard against the panic that rose up and swept over him. He closed his eyes, fighting back the memories that shoved into his mind: of hanging, helpless in a cell; drugs coursing through his body, punches slamming into his back and belly…
How many Rebels were with you?
He shook his head, trying to calm his breathing, closing his trembling hands into fists. The tractor-lock alarm warbled briefly before falling silent.
He wasn't going to allow this to happen! He could not, would not, allow himself, or any of the people in the body of the shuttle, to end up back in Imperial hands. Not when they were so close…
Jumping to hyperspace while still within a planetary atmosphere was a dangerous manoeuvre… but it was less risky than being dragged aboard the Star Destroyer. He keyed the mic, telling Tarn, "Rascal Seven, break off and get out of here! I'm making the jump now!"
Tarn swore but, under the circumstances, he couldn't have agreed more with Brin's decision.
"Copied, Shuttle Seven! All wings! Break! Break! Break!"
He peeled away from the shuttle, his wingman following, the other two X-wings pairing off in the other direction, all of them accelerating as fast as they could.
Brin waited for as long as he dared, giving the fighters time to get out of range. The tractor-beam alarm warbled again and Brin knew that he was out of time. Closing his eyes, hoping that the tractor wasn't locked and that the shuttle wouldn't rip apart, he hit the jump button.
"Helmsman," Ackbar ordered, "all stop! On my mark, bring us around! Turn as tight as you can, then take us to full sub-light! With any luck, we'll fry that Destroyer's sensors in our wash!"
"Aye, Sir!" the helmsman confirmed, cutting power to all the ship's engines, plotting the manoeuvre as the navigator fed him data for the jump to lightspeed.
Ackbar took a deep breath. Then he ordered, "Turn! Turn! Turn! Mark!"
"Turning, aye, Sir."
Despite the inertial dampers, the artificial gravity struggled to cope as the helmsman turned the ship almost on the spot. Ackbar felt himself pushed forward by the centrifugal force. On the view screen, the image of the Star Destroyer slid away to the side as the bow of the cruiser swung around. The ship creaked, protesting the manoeuvre.
"View astern!" Ackbar ordered.
The screen flickered and the image changed to the scene behind the ship. The Star Destroyer hove into view, sliding in from the edge of the screen to dead centre. The image distorted as the helmsman stopped the turn and poured on the power.
The cruiser surged forward.
Ackbar smiled. The ion stream from the engines should distort the Star Destroyer's sensor readings, hopefully blinding them for long enough to provide some measure of cover for the Millennium Falcon and the Ashwaarya to head out of the Möerdaast atmosphere and escape into hyperspace.
The Home One was accelerating away from Möerdaast… but they weren't moving away from the Star Destroyer, Ackbar realised. It had also turned and accelerated, pursuing them. More than that, it was closing the distance. The Empire, it appeared, was determined to detain and board them.
Ackbar barked a short, impenitent laugh. Not today. The Empire would not board his ship today!
"Helmsman," he ordered, softly, "take us into hyperspace!"
The only sound on the bridge of the Star Destroyer was the hiss and pop of the sensor screens as the ion wash from the Mon Calamari ship distorted the readings… and the measured, even rasp of Vader's respiration unit.
The Dark Lord of the Sith stood unmoving, gazing out of the durasteel viewport at the point where the Rebel cruiser had just disappeared. Apprehension and anxiety flowed towards him from the bridge personnel as they realised that the Rebel cruiser had evaded them, escaping into hyperspace. He heard Ozzel issuing orders to track any other ships in the sector.
No other ships mattered. The cruiser was gone. His son was gone. And Vader harboured no hopes that Antilles was still secured in the penal facility below.
"Admiral…" a voice began. "Sir… we are receiving reports of another Rebel attack, on the penal facility on Orinackra..."
The statement pulled Vader out of his reverie. A second attack, timed to coincide with the first? He turned as Ozzel ordered that the officer confirm the report.
Instead, the man hesitated, obviously listening to another report in his earpiece. Looking at Ozzel, the officer offered, "Admiral... There has also been an attack on the Tarkin facility on Ruul..."
A three-fold assault, Vader considered. The Rebel Alliance was growing more daring. The Emperor was going to be displeased with their audacity.
Another thought occurred to him: the Executor had received no distress message from Möerdaast. Only his own incentive had brought the Executor here. It was entirely possible that the Empire was still unaware of this, third attack…
Vader closed his eyes, his jaw clenching as he anticipated the Emperor's reaction to the news… and the report that the Mon Calamari cruiser had evaded him.
Coming so soon after his release from confinement, Vader knew that there was a very real possibility of the Emperor ordering his return to Coruscant… which would hamper his efforts to find his son.
Bracing himself for Palpatine's reaction, knowing that any further delay would only increase the Emperor's ire, Vader strode across the bridge, ordering, "Open a channel to Coruscant! I will inform the Emperor of this attack myself! Dispatch troops to the surface!" he continued. "Find out what damage the Rebels have done! Have the prison Director brought to the Executor! And secure a prisoner list from all three facilities! Determine who the Rebels were trying to rescue and bring that information to me!"
"At once, Lord Vader," Ozzel assured him.
Skimming as close to the lava flows and the sharp, jagged, volcanic structures as he dared, Wes Janson flew away from the penal facility, his wingman flying as tightly as he could beside him. The Millennium Falcon followed them, a pair of fighters shadowing Solo's ship off the port side. Behind the Falcon, the Ashwaarya also skimmed across the volcanic surface, two X-wings riding off her starboard side. Another two fighters followed them, bringing up the rear.
Janson's astromech droid mewled softly, throwing data onto the tactical screen. The Home One had jumped into hyperspace, as had the T-65s. Imperial fighters were now heading towards the surface… but from the looks of things, they were routing towards the penal facility and either hadn't seen, or were no longer interested in, the Falcon, the Ashwaarya and their X-wing escort. Janson doubted that it was the latter and knew that it was only a matter of time before the TIEs spotted them. Their only chance of escape lay in staying too far ahead of the fighters, or the Star Destroyer, to be intercepted before they pulled up to a safe altitude to jump to hyperspace.
A gush of lava spewed up in front of him and Janson swore, swerving right, away from his wingman, to avoid it.
Behind him, the Millennium Falcon also swerved right. On the flight deck, Chewbacca brayed at Han and the Corellian shot him a sour look. "Yeah? Well, I'd rather be down here avoiding lava, than up there avoiding TIEs, buddy!"
Chewie mewled another comment and Han glared at him, accusing, "Well, maybe you should have thought of that before giving me the silent, moody treatment at Yavin! We only went back because I couldn't take any more of your sulking!"
Chewie growled a denial of the accusation.
"Well, if Wookiees don't sulk," Han countered, angrily, "you must be half…"
Chewie cut him off with a terse reply that left Han open-mouthed.
"I did not turn back because of Her Royal Ice Princess-ship!" he denied. "And you're crazy if you think we're sticking around because I have a soft spot for her! Leia has no soft spots! She's all Rebellion, and hard edges, and…"
He broke off, glancing behind at the flight deck door as it opened. Demaec Freyh stepped inside, nodding to Solo, telling him, "Your passengers are as settled as they're going to be... Colonel Demaec Freyh," he went on, introducing himself to Chewbacca as the Wookiee turned to look at him, "Alliance Special Ops. Any news on Derlin or Antilles?"
"We're in radio silence," Han told him. "The Home One had to bail out."
A curl of apprehension wound through Freyh's gut. "Did all the shuttles make it aboard?"
"At least one didn't," Han supplied. "We're running silent to put some space between us and that Star Destroyer before we head for hyperspace ourselves."
"And the other transport?" Freyh asked.
"The Ashwaarya's right behind us," Han told him. "We've got an eight-wing T-65 escort, too."
"Sounds like good odds," Freyh commented, softly. "Mind if I stick around until we jump?"
"Grab a seat," Han told him. "And hang on!"
The small, attack transport manoeuvred slowly into the hangar under the direction of the marshaller, landing gear extending as it sank onto the ground. General Vanden Willard, Commanding Officer of the Alliance base on New Kisge, stood at the edge of the hangar, waiting until the ramp extended before walking across towards the ship. He nodded in welcome to the two, grubby and dishevelled officers who moved down the ramp towards him.
"Captain Valdez, Major Farr," he greeted, "welcome to Delta Base."
Toryn Farr smiled at him. "It's good to be here, Sir…"
"Sir," Shawn Valdez acknowledged, frowning, wondering why their arrival would merit a welcome from such a senior officer. He'd expected to be met and taken to debrief by Alliance Intelligence, not the Delta Base commanding officer.
The General's next words gave him his answer.
"Major," Willard told Farr, "Special Ops have acted on intelligence concerning Alliance pilots taken prisoner after the attack on the Bilbringi shipyards..."
Toryn Farr looked at him, swallowing down the constriction of grief that rose up into her throat. Her younger sister, Samoc, had died at Bilbringi...
Willard took a step towards her and Farr almost retreated, only just managing to stand her ground. The pain of the loss was still too raw in her chest and, physically exhausted from days evading the Empire after the attack on Chandra, she was afraid that any physical contact would shatter her into pieces, emotionally.
Then she realised that the General was smiling. Smiling...?
"Samoc is alive," he told her. "She's a little the worse the wear of an Imperial detention facility, but she's safe and on her way here."
Toryn blinked. Then she dragged in a sob of air, gaping at the General in disbelief, shaking her head, not quite sure that she'd heard him correctly. Her legs were shaking as she took a second breath, managing simply, "What?"
"Major Farr," the General confirmed, "your sister, Samoc, has been rescued from an Imperial detention facility. She, and another pilot, are on their way here, now, with the Special Ops team who went in for them." His smile widened. "She's safe, Major."
Toryn couldn't speak: she couldn't breathe. Emotions swamped her, leaving her dizzy and elated and unable to take it all in. Her legs gave way and both Willard and Valdez stepped in, catching her before she crumpled to the floor.
"Whoa, Major," Valdez told her gently, holding her upright with Willard's help. "We've got you..."
"Breathe, Major!" Willard ordered, a sharp edge of authority creeping into his voice.
Toryn dragged in lungful of air, laughing it out as tears coursed down her face. She couldn't take it all in. Samoc was alive! Her little sister was alive!
"I'm sorry..." she tried. "I'm sorry... Sir... I..."
"I'll overlook it, Major!" Willard assured her. "Just this once! Now on your feet!" he ordered, the firmness in his tone brooking no argument, "This is conduct unbecoming of a ranking officer, Major, and we are drawing attention!"
The discipline did as he had hoped, breaking through the flood of emotion. Slowly, Willard released his grip on Farr as she found her feet: the ragged, frantic breathing returning to a more normal, if laboured, pace. Shawn Valdez kept a hand beneath the Major's elbow, steadying her as she fought to bring her emotion under control and brushed away tears with the back of her hand.
"Get to medical," Willard ordered. "Both of you. Have either of you slept?"
"We caught a few hours on the way here, General," Valdez confirmed.
"Good. Then, once you've finished in medical and cleaned yourselves up, Major Anders will want you both in debrief. There's a lot you need to catch up on."
"Yes, Sir," they both confirmed. Then Valdez asked, ""General? Were there any losses at Chandra?"
"The evacuation was successful," Willard confirmed. "Now," he went on before either of them could ask any more questions, "both of you, get to medical."