Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY
“But today, we get number two, and not only had he figured out our pattern of response times, but he was waiting around to hit us when we arrived.”
“And,” Hobbie said, “his fleet was huge. Something like twenty capital ships. More than we thought he could field. Our intelligence hasn’t kept up with him.”
“So,” Forge concluded, “we have to change our tactics. To suit him. And that’s not good.”
Face Loran, from the little table he shared with Dia, said, “We don’t need to alter our tactics. We need to alter
. It looks like he hasn’t been bringing
into gravity wells, probably because of the beating we gave him the last time he did, until today—when he had an overwhelming force. If he can keep doing that, he’s going to beat us.”
Elassar Targon stood at the bar, drumming on the bar top with his knuckles. “We need to follow all the leads we’ve been getting. Even if some of them
traps. What about the rumor of the bacta hijacking being planned?”
Shalla reached an oversized couch and twirled as she fell onto it so she lay faceup. “Too obvious,” she said. “Odds are a
hundred to one that was one of Zsinj’s planted leads. We follow that and we get ambushed again.”
Elassar gave her a scornful look. “You’ve been doing all that analysis of leads, even before the Wraiths were back with
. Is that what you told the mission-planning staff?”
“So you’re the one who’s keeping General Solo running scared.”
Conversations subsided all over the pilot’s lounge as fliers turned to follow this exchange.
Shalla pulled herself back and upright so that she leaned back against one of the couch arms. She did not look happy. “You know, you’re wrong in so many ways it may take me a couple of days to straighten you out. First, I’m not the only one providing intelligence analysis to General Solo. I’m one of about thirty, and I’m a very distant link in that chain. Second, he’s not running scared. He just has responsibilities to keep his subordinates alive long enough for them to get the job done, a concept that may be a little lofty for a school-aged thrillseeker like you.”
Elassar’s face set. “Are we still no decor?”
Pilot’s parlance … by custom, only pilots were admitted to this lounge, and once inside, designations of rank, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “decor,” were largely ignored. Even so, it was sometimes a strain to maintain this custom when the most senior officers were present, which is why their visits to this lounge were infrequent and short.
Elassar took a deep breath, apparently considering his words. When they emerged, they were more reasoned than the Wraiths and Rogues were used to hearing from him. “I’m not going to pretend I know more about Zsinj or about intelligence operations than you. I don’t. What I do know is that a pilot’s job is to fly and to vape the enemy. The advice you and the others are giving to our superiors is keeping us from doing that.”
“You’re right,” Shalla said. “But pilots have other jobs. Such as not flying straight into the ground, straight into a star,
or straight into a battle situation chosen and lovingly set up by an enemy. I don’t question that you’re brave, Elassar. But are you so brave that you’re happy to die pointlessly?”
“So what do we do?” That was Dorset Konnair, an A-wing pilot of Polearm Squadron. She was a small woman of very pale skin and very dark hair, with a blue star-flare tattoo around her right eye. Her flight suit concealed her other tattoos, all of them in shades of blue. She was also very limber, as evidenced by the ease with which she sat, legs folded tailor-style, in her chair. Donos knew she was from Coruscant, which probably explained why she was quiet so often in pilot gatherings; Donos knew the kind of suspicion with which some New Republic veterans viewed Coruscant natives. “Either we keep running around gathering Zsinj’s crumbs and getting nowhere, or we bite on the bait he’s deliberately leaving and let him draw us in.”
Forge said, “We have to regain the initiative. Bait our own trap. Offer him something he can’t afford to refuse.”
Donos snorted. “Such as what?
Have her limp through Zsinj-controlled space like a wounded avian and hope he comes swooping in to finish her off?”
“No,” Elassar said. He struck another swashbuckling pose. “Offer him Elassar Targon, master of the uni-”
“Sithspit, you’re obnoxious.” Forge fixed Elassar with an amused glance. “But you’re on the right track. I was thinking we ought to offer him General Han Solo.”
“Don’t do that,” said Hobbie from his stool at the bar. His voice was more mournful than ever. “If Zsinj kills Solo, Wedge might be appointed to fill the vacancy.”
“Good point,” Forge said. “But bear with me a minute. Kell, didn’t you say that General Solo had gone gallivanting around in the
two, three months ago, delivering some high-security messages for the Inner Council?”
Kell, sharing a couch with Tyria, nodded. “That’s right.”
“There was no secret to the fact that he was moving about. And you used his trip to pull a fast one on Admiral Trigit. To distract him from his primary objective over Commenor’s moon. You made him think Solo was still around, a viable target.”
“Show due respect,” said Runt. A member of a species whose representatives were usually too tall to fit in a starfighter
cockpit, Runt was, by their standards, a midget, though he and Kell were the tallest of the Wraiths. His hairy body, his elongated face with flaring nostrils and large, square teeth, and his wide-eyed look all suggested that his kind were closer to being draft animals than intelligent humanoids, but his squadmates had found him to be a wise and capable being.
And somewhat odd. “You speak,” he continued, “of the only flight of Dinner Squadron. The one X-wing squadron with an undefeated record and no losses.”
“Oh, I forgot.” Forge smiled. “But what I’m saying is that we have a track record of General Solo occasionally embarking on special missions even while commanding the Zsinj task force, and if there’s anyone Zsinj might change his plans to nab, it’s Han Solo. A chance for revenge is a powerful motivator.”
“I like it.” The voice came from another of the egg-chairs against the wall. It was turned away from the room, so the other pilots present had presumed it was unoccupied or that anyone there was engrossed in his terminal.
Now the chair turned around to face the room. Its occupant was Han Solo—not decked out in the uncomfortable-looking uniform that was apparently his bane, but wearing the comfortable trousers, shirt, and vest that were his preferred dress. His clothes were spotted with sweat stains; obviously he hadn’t changed since his recent time on the bridge. But his expression was amused. “But there are two problems with this plan.”
Forge cleared her throat, concealing any surprise she might have felt. “And what are they, sir?”
“No ‘sir.’ No decor, remember? Problem number one is that the
is currently stowed on Princess Leia’s flagship, the
, and there’s no telling when I’ll see her again.”
Donos privately wondered which “her” he was referring to.
“Problem number two,” Solo continued, “is that we still don’t know what Zsinj is up to. And you Wraiths are largely to blame for that.”
The pilots under his command looked around for someone bearing a mark of guilt.
“By which I mean,” Solo said, “since you figured out that
he was planning to steal a second Super Star Destroyer,
, from Kuat, and since you figured out how to determine where it would be so we could all blow it up, you’ve forced Zsinj to revert to his backup plan. Which is what?”
Forge shook her head. “We don’t know.”
Face said, “Though we have one lead. Saffalore.”
That was an Imperial-held world in the Corporate Sector, home to a large corporation called Binring Biomedical. It was there that Piggy had been altered—had, in a sense, been created. A manufacturing facility owned by Zsinj on another world had fabricated the exact sort of transparisteel cages Piggy had been reared within, suggesting that Binring, too, might have a surreptitious relationship with the warlord.
“I’m as tired as you are of chasing down vague hints and leads and only dropping in after Zsinj is long gone,” Solo said. “So
is leaving the fleet for a while. Saffalore is our next port of call.” He rose and walked toward the lounge’s exit. “Still, I sort of like your idea of luring Zsinj out to come after me. I wouldn’t mind personally leading to Zsinj’s downfall.” He offered a smile, almost sinister, back toward the assembled pilots. “Give that plan some more thought, too.” Then he was gone.
“Never can tell when a Corellian will pop up,” Donos said.
The pilots were diverted by a banging sound—Elassar hammering his head and horns against the top of the bar. His face a mask of tragedy, he suspended hammering to look at his fellow pilots. “Now I am done,” he said. “I have performed the unluckiest deed possible. I’ve suggested that my commanding officer runs away from combat, and I’ve done so within his hearing.”
“True,” Shalla said. “To make it worse, you did it when we’re still on alert status. Meaning you can’t even blot out the memory with drink.”
“Don’t remind me. Shalla? Dear friend, kind lieutenant?”
“Will you kill me? Please?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Runt. With your great strength, you could tear one of my arms off and say it was a handshaking accident.”
Runt shook his head and offered up a human-style smile.
“Kell! You hate me, don’t you? Well, I have an offer for you …”
“Not now, Elassar. We have more important people to kill.”
Face perked up. “You know, Inyri, we could do what Kell and Runt did back in the raid on Folor Base.”
Forge snorted. “Run a couple of X-wings along together with malfunctioning shields and just pretend we’re the
“I didn’t mean that specifically. But in a general sense, yes. What they did was to fake up a
. With more time and more resources, we could do a better job.”
Forge considered and looked among the other pilots. Theirs were a mixed lot of dubious and approving expressions. “Maybe.”
Face continued, “Don’t you Rogues have the universe’s best quartermaster?”
“Emtrey, yes.” Forge nodded. M-3PO, called Emtrey, was a protocol droid attached to Rogue Squadron. He had a reputation for phenomenal skills at scrounging. “But he’s not as good as he used to be. We had to throttle back some of his programming.”
“Still, it’s worth thinking about.” Forge stood. “Let’s find a conference room with a holotable and fire some ideas around.”
The doors rose to admit Corran Horn. The former CorSec agent looked suspiciously at the pilots rising to their feet. “What did I miss?”
Some of the pilots laughed. In the months Rogue Squadron had been on
, Corran Horn and Han Solo had never been seen at the same place and time. It had spawned a running joke among the other pilots—the notion that, despite their disparate ages and personalities, they were the same person in disguise.
“We’ll tell you in the conference room,” Forge said. “You’re late, so you get to take the notes.”
Elassar fixed Horn with an imploring expression. “Lieutenant! With your skills, you could kill me and make it look like an accident. Please …”
• • •
Han Solo poked his head into Wedge’s office. “Got a minute?”
Wedge turned from his terminal and the report he was composing on the day’s aborted mission. “Come on in. Distract me. Please.”
The general seated himself with characteristic casualness and grimaced at the work Wedge was doing. “I thought you ought to be aware of some scuttlebutt. I tried to catch you at the pilot’s lounge, but you were hiding.”
Wedge snorted. “I had to have some words in private with the squadrons’s executive officers. About pilot morale. What is it?”
Solo’s face lost its usual cocky expression. Suddenly, alarmingly, he looked older and more tired. “It has nothing to do with Levian. This was relayed to me by some friends on Coruscant. The Intelligence investigation into the assassin who tried to kill Ackbar is looking into the possibility of a widespread Twi’lek conspiracy.”
“Conspiracy to do what?”
“They have no idea. The Twi’lek planet Ryloth has always traded with anyone who had credits. Intelligence says there’s a large warrior caste that resents the way the planet was dominated by humans for so long, and hates the way Ryloth is regarded as a merchant world—”
“That last part is true.”
“Well, Intelligence wonders whether this action is part of some fanatical conspiracy designed to strike against humans. There’s even talk of a conspiracy including several humanoid species, not just Twi’leks. And how such a group might want to eliminate Ackbar, who’s known to be friendly to humans.
“Also”—Solo leaned closer and dropped his voice—“Cracken’s people in Intelligence have tracked some interesting behavior among Twi’leks on Coruscant. Specifically, mid-level New Republic officers and advisors who have access to the powerful and the famous. Like the assassin, Jart Eyan. He was on leave just before his attempt to kill Ackbar. But apparently he and his family weren’t on leave where they were
supposed to be. They were out of sight for several days leading up to the murder attempt, though they’d set things up so their friends would believe they were at a resort. Where they were, what they were doing, nobody knows.”
“You’re leading up to something.”
“You have several Twi’leks among your pilots.”
“That’s right. Tal’dira with the Rogues, Dia Passik with the Wraiths, Nuro Tualin with Polearm. My executive officer with the Rogues is Twi’lek, as is one of my mechanics, Koyi Komad, for the squadron.”
“How sure are you of them?”
Wedge thought back. Tal’dira was a pride-filled warrior of the world of Ryloth. His word was his bond, and deception seemed like a talent beyond his capabilities. Dia was another matter; brought, like many Twi’lek females, as a slave off Ryloth, trained to be a dancer, she’d escaped and killed her owner. Or so her story went; it was true that elements of her background could not be confirmed. Nuro was a recent graduate of the New Republic’s Fleet Command Academy and had trained with General Crespin in A-wings on Folor Base, as had several of his squadmates; he was largely an unknown factor. Wedge had known Nawara Ven since he re-formed Rogue Squadron, and Koyi Komad for years.