Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY
Of course, at a certain point, the suspicion that there was something wrong, something unfair, with what he was doing had begun to eat away at him. Yes, every target he had taken down as a sniper had been on the verge of killing an innocent … or many innocents. But the fact that he could never afford to give them a chance still nagged at him.
Enlistment in Starfighter Command had seemed the answer. He’d proven that he had the reflexes, the technical grounding necessary to become a pilot. There was never any moral quandary—everyone he brought down as a pilot had a chance to shoot back. He’d risen quickly and surely through the ranks, earning his lieutenancy within a year, being granted the temporary rank of brevet captain soon afterward.
His own command, Talon Squadron. Every member except Donos killed in the ambush on an uninhabited world no one wanted. Leaving him with a blot on his career he might never be able to erase. A blot on his mind he might not ever be able to heal.
He raised the visor on his helmet and pressed his hands to his eyes. His inclination was to steer away from these thoughts. He couldn’t afford to do that. The emotions that rose—threatening to overwhelm him—whenever he sent his mind down this course were enemies he had to defeat. He had to hammer away at them until they left him alone forever. And he had to keep control of himself while doing it, so others would not see his weakness.
He’d lost eleven subordinates, fellow pilots, some of them friends. He’d lost his command; Talon Squadron had been decommissioned. He’d even lost his mind, or at least misplaced it, turning into an emotional wreck sometime later, when the loss of his astromech plunged him back into vivid memories of the destruction of Talon Squadron.
His new squadmates had lured him back to reality. Had forced him to look once again at life. To begin thinking again about his present, about his future.
He returned his attention to his sensors. There would be no future if he plowed into a hillside.
All right, then. There were two paths open to him … assuming he didn’t get killed before he could begin to follow them.
First was the one that had dominated his thinking ever since Talon Squadron had died. For months, he’d considered putting in for a transfer to Intelligence, or resigning his commission altogether, so he could devote his life to tracking down the individuals who had destroyed Talon Squadron.
Inyri Forge had been right. Revenge was a powerful motivator. A desire for revenge, for justice, was always with Donos. It welcomed him to each new day when he awoke, lurked at the back of his mind as he did his work, made soothing promises to him every night when he drifted off to sleep. And sometimes it occupied his dreams. He knew, deep down, that if he were able to find the responsible parties under his snubfighter guns or in the sight of his laser rifle, he’d pull the trigger without hesitation, without qualm … regardless of what it cost him.
Of course, two of the most important conspirators behind the destruction of his squadron were already dead. Admiral Apwar Trigit had planned the ambush. Lieutenant Gara Petothel had provided Trigit with the data he needed for that operation. Petothel had died on Trigit’s Star Destroyer,
, and Trigit had died soon after, trying to escape in a TIE interceptor, brought down by Donos himself.
But others had to have been involved. Imperial Intelligence operatives had gotten Lieutenant Petothel her false identity and her posting with Fleet Command. They’d smuggled her from New Republic-controlled space to
. Elements of the 181st Imperial Fighter Group now inexplicably helping Warlord Zsinj had participated in the ambush. There were plenty more conspirators who needed to die.
But part of him no longer wanted to be the instrument of that death. An ever-growing part of him wanted to live a normal life. And that led to his second choice, the one he’d been toying with ever since he had recovered from his collapse: stay in Starfighter Command and try to rebuild his career, regain his respectability … renew his life.
A woman named Falynn Sandskimmer had loved him. He didn’t know whether he’d loved her in return, whether he’d even been able to at the time. But he’d had affection for her,
and what she’d felt for him had reminded him of what it was like to be a normal human. She, too, had died aboard
, before he’d ever had the chance to sort out his feelings for her.
And now … he checked his sensor board for Wraith Two. There she was, toward the head of their formation, tucked in neatly behind Wraith One. Lara Notsil.
He’d exchanged so little with Notsil. Some advice. One ground mission in which he’d saved her from kidnapping at the hands of Zsinj agents. Conversation in pilots’ lounges and during leave time.
But for the little amount of time they’d shared, she did occupy a lot of his thinking. Her intelligence and her beauty drew him. And her secrecy: she seemed to have no affection for the life she’d lost, the life of a farm girl from the world of Aldivy, and yet so much of her was private, locked behind doors that obviously led to her childhood.
And one other thing seemed so familiar to him: the way she seemed adrift, cut off from her past, yet having no apparent idea how to navigate toward her future. He understood that part of her, felt tremendous sympathy for her. They were so alike.
Yet that would mean nothing if neither one of them did anything about it. She might not even be aware of how he felt, of what he was thinking.
She isn’t aware
, an inner voice told him.
And she’s not going to be. Don’t foul up her life the way you’ve fouled up your own. Do something conclusive with your life. Resign your commission. Hunt down your enemies. Settle the accounts of your pilots
True. He shouldn’t force his way into her life, only to abandon her when he went off on some justified spree of revenge. Better to leave her alone.
But what if he could offer her as much life, as much of a future, as he thought she could offer him?
Now you’re using that misfiring hunk of erratic machinery you refer to as a brain
That startled him. The words were in the voice of Ton Phanan, a fellow Wraith; they were typical of his ordinary conversation.
Ton, who’d died mere weeks ago. Ton, who had also decided that he had no future, and perhaps had died because he couldn’t bring himself to struggle for his life as hard as he should.
And there it was. Donos did have a future, as Ton did not. Donos could choose to abandon it and pursue his life of revenge, and then maybe …
… come back from it if he lived. Or he could just choose to live. Which meant doing something harder than he’d ever done before.
He might just have to forgive himself for letting his pilots die.
He might just have to initiate a conversation with a young woman who was suddenly important to him.
It was a spot where the hillside leveled out in a treeless glade some seventy meters in diameter. Without repulsorlifts, they could never have all landed upon it, but Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron arrayed themselves precisely, in neat rows and columns.
As the pilots scrambled out of their cockpits under the sliver of a moon, Wedge said, “Get those camouflage covers out. Transfer any fuel remaining from the auxiliary tanks into the interceptors. Snap it up. I want us blanketed down and out of sight in ten minutes. We have dawn in less than an hour. Hobbie, Corran, Asyr, Tal’dira, I want you out on first watch. Everyone else, four hours’ sleep. Face?” He crooked a finger.
He and Face took a few steps aside to be out of the bustle of pilot preparations. The ground underneath was covered by shin-high grasses that were too pale a green to be healthy-looking in Wedge’s eyes. “We had a pretty good look at the northeast approaches to Lurark. Did you see anything to give us new problems?”
Face shook his head. “I don’t think so. The big question is how to acquire transport—the city doesn’t seem to be set up for pedestrian traffic.”
“That’s up to you. Sleep on it.”
Face managed a rueful grin Wedge could barely see in the moonlight. “Oh, sure. As though I could sleep.”
• • •
Once he had the camo covers tied down over his X-wing and had made sure that his astromech, Clink, was settled in, Donos sought out Lara. He found her under her own camouflage cover, kneeling on the starboard S-foils of her snubfighter, whispering to her own R2, Tonin. He waited patiently until she emerged and extended a hand to help her down. “Could I have a word with you?” he asked, and was immediately annoyed with himself, at the formality of his voice.
He led her into the deeper shadow between her X-wing and Kell’s TIE interceptor. “There’s something I wanted you to think about.” There, that was better—a more normal tone to his voice, in spite of the way his chest suddenly felt compressed. He was in full control again.
She looked at him, and one eyebrow went up, a mocking look. “Rebel pilots have the biggest egos in all the known universe …”
“Well it’s not like that. I’m asking out of a sense of fairness. Since I’m spending all this time thinking about you.”
Her smile faded. “Myn, I’m not amused.”
“Good. I’m not trying to amuse you. Look, I just spent a long time working up the nerve to bring this up with you at all. It was harder than almost anything I’ve done. So don’t be amused. Take it seriously.”
She took a step back from him, bringing her up against the wing array of Kell’s interceptor. “No, no, no. Just turn around and go find someone else to be interested in. I’m not right for you.”
He couldn’t keep the smile from coming to his face. “Oh, that’s a very good sign.”
“You didn’t say, ‘Go away, I don’t like you.’ You started suggesting reasons that are theoretically in my best interest.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, as though to protect herself from a chill, and glared. “I
“Now you’re lying. You do that a lot, just like Face. I’m
getting better at figuring out when you’re doing it.” He stepped in close. “You can’t get rid of me by lying to me.”
“I’m a mess. I’m barely fit to fly.”
“Me, too. We make a perfect couple.”
“If I don’t get killed, I’m sure my career is going to crater. I’m going to be a tremendous embarrassment to the Wraiths.”
“How about that—me, too! Another thing we have in common.”
“Stop it!” She looked surprised by the volume of her voice and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
Donos looked, too, but the camp was still bustling with activity. No one stopped to peer at the source of the cry.
When he looked at Lara’s face again, though, something had changed. There was a stillness to her, a watchfulness that was almost reptilian. He suppressed an urge to step away from her.
“I could say twelve words,” Lara said, “and when I was done, the very least you’d do is turn away and leave me alone forever.”
He could tell that she was speaking the truth, and the fact that she had the power to do this, to send him away, dismayed him. “Then don’t say them.”
Donos had really only meant to let her know of his interest, perhaps to rattle her, but she now looked so distant and lost that he couldn’t just let her be. He put his arms around her and drew her to him.
When her lips met his, they were clenched tight and she was shaking. But then she relaxed into the kiss. Her arms snaked up around his neck. She made a noise that was part wail, and only he could hear it.
There she was, suddenly part of him, and he wondered how he’d ever lived so long without her being there.
Then she drew back her head, her remoteness gone, her expression a little curious, a little anxious.
“That’s more like it,” he said. And realized immediately that it was the wrong thing to say.
She gave him a look he could only imagine her normally offering to someone pouring paint into her X-wing’s engines. “Thanks,” she said. “For reminding me what a gasbag of ego
you are.” She turned him around, trading places with him, and gave him a hard shove.
His head banged into the interceptor wing. “Ow,” he said.
She spun and walked away from him at a fast stride. “Stay away from me, Lieutenant,” she said. “Just keep away.”
Oh, well. Considering how badly he usually did with people, that hadn’t gone poorly at all. Donos sighed and headed back to his snubfighter, resisting the urge to whistle.
The landspeeder Seteem Ervic drove along the old country road was old and slow, but it was still powerful enough to haul a several-ton load of grain cakes from his family business to his customers in Lurark.
He ran a hand through what was left of his hair. He could buy a newer, sportier speeder, of course. But he hadn’t inherited the family’s failing concern and then built it into a flourishing business by throwing money away on nonessentials. He was almost rich. He’d never be rich if he loaded up on luxuries.
True, it had taken him years. Cost him his first wife, who said he was boring, that they never had anything to talk about. Cost him his hair, which had fallen away as the seasons had passed. At least his hair was something to talk about. And, true, nothing ever really happened to him. But he was almost rich, and that was what counted. If his brightest daughter turned out the way he expected her to, she’d take his solid business and make a worldwide concern out of it. And she’d be rich for real.
He rounded a bend in the dusty road and something happened to him.
There, a hundred meters up, something lay in the road. As he got closer, in spite of the glare from the sun, he could see it
was a body—a human body. He slowed, and when he was a mere handful of meters away, locked the landspeeder down in hover mode and hopped out to take a look.
Human female, dark-skinned, eyes closed, lying in the dust as though she’d been thrown—from what? A speeder? There was no recent sign of repulsor traffic on this road. A riding animal? No hoof marks. In fact, there were no footprints around her.