Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY
“Very generous of you. What if you couldn’t pilot at all?”
“Then I’d volunteer for a gunnery position on the
“And in any of these three roles, what would you do about Lara Notsil?”
Donos hesitated, and his expression went from somber to melancholy. “I’d follow orders, sir.”
“What orders would you prefer?”
“Let her go.”
“And if you were ordered to fire on her?”
“I’d do it. I’ve sworn an oath to the New Republic. To hold its needs above my own.”
“And if you killed her? What would you do then?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Donos’s eyes lost focus as they stared off into the distance—perhaps to some future. His expression suggested that this future was not appealing to him. “I don’t know who I’d
“Fair enough.” Wedge regarded the lieutenant for a moment.
This wasn’t the Donos he’d met several months before. Not a man whose every worry, every crisis was kept bottled up inside.
Wedge typed a few words into his terminal and sent the file on to the ship’s central computer. “Donos, for your information, you were right. I’d rather be in an X-wing, and for the upcoming and future engagements I plan to be. And so will you. I’m certifying you fit to fly. You’ll be back with the Wraiths at Vahaba.”
Donos’s eyes opened wide. “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank me after you’ve performed your duties to my satisfaction. That’s when I’ll know I haven’t made a mistake. Dismissed.”
Vahaba was a red giant circled by numerous planets. At some time in the past, a celestial catastrophe had destroyed the largest of those worlds and scattered its remains in a thin ring around the sun. The asteroids were spread across such an enormous distance that the Vahaba Asteroid Belt was not a hazard to navigation; any capital ship could blast through it at full acceleration with minimal worry about collision with one of the belt’s misshapen stony satellites.
was close enough for her handlers to feel even that minimal worry. To Han Solo’s eye, Vahaba was a distant red dot, and none of the system’s planets was visible to the naked eye. Solo’s fleet hung in space so far out that no set of Imperial sensors within the planetary system would pick them up. Meanwhile, pairs of X-wings off
and his fleet’s other cruisers scoured the system.
And found nothing.
He resisted the urge to gripe, to drum on his chair arm, to ask once more if there were any updates. Or to tell the new sensor officer to quit looking at him. He’d felt the woman’s curious gaze on him ever since
joined his fleet.
To the bridge crew,
was an unknown, tagged Contact M-317. It hovered some considerable distance from the rest of the fleet, far out of the range of the most capable visual enhancer. Messages from Contact M-317 were supposed to be sent directly to Solo, and the communications officer was under direct orders not to monitor, not to record them.
Solo and a few others knew the distant ship to be an Imperial
-class cruiser, the new flagship of Admiral Rogriss. But it would be best for that information not to spread.
“New contact, sir.” The sensor officer’s quiet words nearly jolted Solo out of his seat.
“Let me see,” Solo said, and brought up his own chair’s terminal screen.
It lit up with a wobbly visual image. Distant ships, forming up slowly into an attack group. Solo nodded. Two Star Destroyers, one
-class, one Victory-class. Two Dreadnaughts. One smaller ship, a featureless needle at this distance; Solo couldn’t recognize it.
“Standard for a Zsinj group,” Solo said. “The question is, is this all he’s deploying to Vahaba, or is it just part of his fleet?” He raised his voice. “What’s the source of this recording?”
“A wingpair from Corsair Squadron, off
” said the comm officer. “They recorded this, using only visual sensors so they’d be harder to spot. Then one of the pair returned with the data while the other stayed out there to monitor.”
“Where is this?”
“At the approximate orbit of the outermost planet, on the approach from Halmad.”
“Reinforce the X-wings monitoring this group with another pair. As our reconnaissance units come in for refueling, assign half of them to concentrate on the orbit of the outermost planet, on the direct-line approaches from other surrounding stars.”
Solo settled back. His heart was pounding just a little faster.
“Sick of it yet?” Face asked his temporary wingman.
“We are growing absolutely sick of it, Face,” said Runt. The need for hyperdrive-equipped reconnaissance pairs had placed him with Face for this mission.
The starfield outside their cockpits was brilliant, unchanging. They cruised at sublight speeds at what would be considered the boundary of the Vahaba system.
“Good.” Face changed the timbre of his voice, dropping it a register, making it smooth, insidious. “ ‘Please don’t insult my intelligence. Please don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ ” He forced a falsetto. “ ‘I don’t, I really don’t. Please put down the blaster. You’re frightening me.’ ” He dropped into the lower register again. “ ‘Fright is the least of what you will suffer.’ ”
“Are we wrong?” Runt asked. “Or is this as terrible as we think? The writing is awful. You are not improving on it.”
“Sometimes you rise above your material, sometimes you don’t. I had to learn this when I was seven. It has never left me.” He dropped his voice again. “ ‘Now, tell me where the map is, or I—’ ”
“New contact, course thirteen degrees, down eighty-two.” Runt’s voice was suddenly crisp, professional.
“Roll for visual inspection, kill forward thrust, kill cockpit lights, passive sensors only.”
Face rolled his X-wing upside down. It would have been an unsettling experience in a vessel not equipped with an inertial compensator, but to his perspective it appeared only that the universe rotated around him. He shut down most of his vehicle systems and visually scanned the area of space Runt had indicated.
Nothing; the target was too far away. He brought up the visual enhancer on his sensor board and directed it toward the target area.
A minute’s worth of careful panning and searching yielded the target: a group of four ships in close formation. The smallest of them was too tiny to identify by class, but the other three were not. Three Star Destroyers, one of them an ancient
-class, one an
-class, and the other—
“We have her,” Face said. “
. Give me a minute while I calculate range, Six.”
Face ran numbers through his navigational computer and compared them with what he knew about the likely sensor ranges of Imperial capital ships. “All right,” he said. “Six, I want you to run ahead at one-third acceleration for ten minutes, then set your course to
station and transit back there. You were recording, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sir! Wait, let us check. Yes, we have it.”
The news hit
s bridge like a concussion missile. Solo came up out of his chair, began issuing orders. Captain Onoma did the same. Often their words overlapped one another.
“Recall all starfighters in close range,” Solo said. “Launch our hyperdrive-equipped shuttles to the regions we sent recon units to and have them transmit the new coordinates.”
“Battle stations,” Onoma said. “All spacetight doors to be closed in three minutes.”
“Transmit our course to Contact M-317,” Solo said. “Dispatch
to form up with M-317. They’re to shadow her at all times, protect her at all costs, not to interfere with her operations.”
“Bring our course to one-oh-six-point-two-two-four, elevation thirty-six-point-oh-nine-nine. Transmit same to fleet.”
crew to stand down and go to their secondary mission parameters; we won’t need them as bait.”
A low, unsettling rumble filled the bridge. Solo felt the hair on his arms and the back of his neck rise. He swung around to see Chewbacca standing in the doorway, his expression happy, uttering the jubilant hunting call. “That’s right, Chewie,” he said. “It’s our best shot yet.”
Lara was nearly jolted out of her seat by the high pitch and panic in the voice of the sensor officer, three seats down from her in the crew pit. “Contact, contact, a drop out of hyperspace, I read four, five, seven vessels cruiser size or better, total fleet size thirteen vessels. They’re already deploying starfighters.”
Boots clattered on the command walkway overhead and Lara saw Zsinj, General Melvar, and Captain Vellar, the stern-faced man who would have been master of
had not Zsinj chosen the vessel as his flagship, running forward, toward the main bow viewports. Zsinj skidded to a sudden stop halfway there and Melvar nearly crashed into him. It was obvious that Zsinj could see the enemy with the naked eye—they were
Lara rolled her chair back to get a look at the sensor officer’s terminal screen. It was filled with red blips, outnumbering Zsinj’s group more than three to one.
“Return to original course,” Zsinj shouted. His face was red. “Prepare for hyperspace. Signal the group. Inform Groups Two and Three. Tell them our situation and instruct them to stand by to jump to the abort rendezvous locations.”
Lara rolled back into place and nudged the technician next
to her, an Intelligence operative dedicated to analyzing patterns in comm traffic. “Why is he running?” she asked. “They outnumber us, but they couldn’t possibly destroy us before the rest of our fleet jumps in.”
The analyst gave her a look of scorn. “Zsinj’s doctrine,” he said. “No matter what the odds look like, if the enemy has chosen the battleground, he has more resources than we’re aware of. It becomes imperative to choose a new battlefield, one the enemy can’t have prepared. Don’t mistake that for cowardice.”
“I never would have, sir.” She returned her attention to her terminal, then typed a command, sixteen characters of gibberish, into her keyboard, and sent the command.
Somewhere under the floor beneath her, a utility droid that was spliced into the data cables should be intercepting the command, interpreting it, then switching the terminal over from its analysis duties to a direct connection with her quarters—a connection the ship’s computer was not set up to monitor.
She donned a set of goggles and plugged it into the terminal. “Hello, Tonin,” she whispered. “Are we set to disable the hyperdrive?”
His next transmission showed up on her goggles,
YES. BUT FROM THE MOMENT YOU ISSUE THE COMMAND, IT WILL TAKE A FEW MINUTES TO TAKE EFFECT
“Understood. On my command, we pin him in place and make our run for it. Three, two, one—”
“Sir, we’re in a gravity well,” the sensor operator shouted.
“Hold it, Tonin.”
Zsinj leaned down to look into the crew pit. “We’re not even near—damn. Sensors, identify the Interdictor. Captain Vellar, that’s our primary target. Dispatch
to annihilate that nuisance. Keep
in tight to us. Communications, new message for Groups Two and Three. Send them our current position—update it constantly. Tell them to hold in readiness to jump to our position on my order. If we’re not able to jump out of here before we’re likely to be disabled, we’ll just have to bring the fleet in here and fight on Solo’s preferred playground.”
“I’m disconnecting, Tonin. We may not have to reveal ourselves yet.” She typed and sent the countercommand, restoring the terminal to its proper function, and got back to work.
Wedge led his group in a wide loop around
, the lead ships of Solo’s fleet; around
, the Star Destroyers coming in to eliminate the Interdictor; and then straight in toward the retreating
Wedge was lead fighter in the lead squadron of twenty-four squadrons of fighters—every fighter in Solo’s fleet except those from the
, which were charged with the defense of
. Several of the X-wing squadrons were light, with pilots still scattered across the solar system, awaiting word that the battle had materialized, but the group was still imposing, the largest force he’d led in quite a while.
“Rogue Leader, this is
. Still no sign of starfighter deployment from your target.”
. X-wings, set your S-foils to attack position. All fighters, arm your weapons.” Wedge looped around so he was lined up more perfectly with
s long axis. The lack of starfighters didn’t surprise him; Zsinj was hoping to make a jump to hyperspace and didn’t want to lose time and pilots by deploying his TIEs and then summoning them back in. But that decision was about to cost him.
Ahead, the Super Star Destroyer’s turbolasers and other weapons flared into life. Space around the group was suddenly bright with laser flares and the ball-shaped detonation of concussion missiles.
“Leader to group: make a trench.” Wedge threw more power to acceleration and Rogue Squadron leaped out ahead. The X-wing squad to his starboard, the Gauntlets off the
, dropped back and sideslipped in directly behind. The Y-wing squad to his port, Lightning Squadron off
, slid in just as neatly behind them.
In a matter of seconds, the broad wing of starfighters became a single concentrated line.