Read Solo Command Online

Authors: Aaron Allston

Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY

Solo Command (9 page)

BOOK: Solo Command
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Until then, she’d do whatever she could to keep them alive. To help them win. Soon, she’d confess all to her commander, Wedge Antilles, and he’d use her knowledge to help bring Zsinj to ruin.

Soon.

She shook away these distracting thoughts and forced herself to listen to her commander’s words.

“Wraith Squadron,” Wedge said, “has an admirable history of executing missions on its own, with minimal support … or no support at all. Let’s assume that Zsinj has come to this realization. What we’re going to do is change the rules on him. The Wraiths will be going in with their usual tactics … but they’ll have a little support standing ready. By which I mean Rogue Squadron.”

Several of the Wraiths made appreciative comments, but Gavin Darklighter of the Rogues made a face. “Now we’re baby-sitters,” he said.

Face shot him an amused look. “What if we light up a target for you baby-sitters to hit?”

“A real target,” Gavin said. “Not just some defenseless motor pool or repair facility.”

“A real target,” Face said. “Something that shoots back.”

Gavin schooled his face into an expression resembling dignity. “Then I’ll be content to baby-sit. This time.”

“Are you through?” Wedge asked. There was no censure in his voice, but side conversations quieted. Gavin nodded.

“Good,” Wedge said. “Now, the Wraiths have a general agenda. Acquire information on what Zsinj might be doing at Binring Biomedical. We suspect a connection because his facility on Xartun was constructing the exact sort of cell Piggy essentially grew up in on Saffalore, at Binring. When Face, acting as Kargin of the Hawk-bats, had dinner with Zsinj, the
warlord expressed considerable interest in the story of Lieutenant Kettch, a fictitious Ewok pilot with a story identical to Piggy’s. This also suggests that the warlord has ties to facilities that perform modifications on humanoids. The Wraiths are to find out what they can about this modification program and Zsinj’s ties to it.

“Piggy hasn’t bothered to hide his background. Once he joined Starfighter Command, he became the most conspicuous Gamorrean serving the New Republic, and it became futile to hide where he came from. So our enemies may know we’re coming. They probably don’t know when. If there’s anything left to find, it will probably be protected by standing defenses that have been geared for Piggy’s squadmates. Which is one more reason to change tactics when appropriate. I’ll hand this over to Wraith One.”

He sat and Face stood. The younger pilot looked very sure of himself these days, Lara decided. Not arrogant, but at ease with what he was being called on to do. That was a good sign.

“We’re going to take our mission in stages,” Face said. “
Mon Remonda
support crews are going to make a visit to an asteroid belt around one of the planets in the Saffalore system and divert several waves of small and mid-sized asteroids toward Saffalore. These will simulate a series of natural meteor showers. The Rogues and Wraiths, in our respective starfighters, will be accompanying the third, largest, shower into the planet’s atmosphere, which will hit—if our mathematicians get their numbers right—in their polar ice cap, where their sensors are less substantial. We’ll fly in ground-following mode from our arrival point to a site near Lurark, the center of their planetary government. There the Rogues will set up base camp and the Wraiths will head on in to Lurark.

“Our initial goal is to find out where on Saffalore is the facility where Piggy was altered. The way Piggy has explained it, the circumstances under which he was smuggled out prevented him from knowing where he’d been held, though he suspected that it was within a few hundred kilometers of Lurark, if not in the city itself. A good guess would be the main Binring Biomedical facility in the city. But our first step there will be to try
to find out what name Zsinj is using at the business end of Binring Biomedical. A simple check on their planetary net or a visit to whatever they use for a central business registry office ought to do it.”

“No,” Lara said.

Face looked at her expectantly.

“I mean, no,
sir
,” she said, and was annoyed to feel herself blush. Genuine embarrassment—how long had it been since she’d felt that?

“Don’t worry about it. Why no?”

She said, “You’ve suggested that we need to operate on principles of maximum paranoia. Well, you don’t just march in to their records center—or access it via a terminal—and say, ‘Who owns this company?’ Let’s assume they’re as paranoid as we are. They might have set things up to flag queries like that.”

“Well, I was thinking more about an anonymous check, or something using an intermediary. Are you recommending that we slice the network and try to steal the information?”

Lara shook her head. “No, save that tactic for critical information. What I’m suggesting is that we find out whether the information you’re talking about is flagged; that fact itself would be valuable to know. We just lead with a safe question—from a different questioner—so we have a standard of comparison for behavior. For instance, let’s say you, Face, decide to make the Binring query. Before you do, I go in, find out the name of a corporation we think is completely straight and above board, and ask the same question about
it
. I note what they do and how long it takes them to answer that question, and report that back to you. Then, when you go in—”

“I have a standard of comparison.” Face nodded. “I get what you’re saying. If they take a lot of extra time or vary their routine in some substantial way, we know they’ve been alerted.”

“We also tail you on your exit, in case they decide to do the same thing. We can slip their tail or take him out, but we don’t let him follow you.”

“Right. You make a lot of sense. Anyone tell you you’re a natural for intelligence work?”

Lara shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

“All right,” Face continued. “If we get that piece of information, we pursue it to see what else Zsinj might own on Saffalore—”

“No,” Lara said. Then heads turned her way again and she felt herself flush red once more.

Face’s voice remained calm. “Why not?”

“Well … on the Wraiths’s other missions, we often found the name Zsinj was using on-planet, but never found any other major business enterprises owned by those names. Either he’s investing in one business per planet, or he’s using multiple names for multiple businesses. If history is any indication, there’s no use in running down those names—not yet. If we ever want to try to mess with his accounts, his assets, using that name is good. For what we’re doing with this mission, though, it’s just a distraction. Something to cost us time his people may be using to hunt us down. In fact, I don’t recommend that first bit, about finding the name he’s using in his association with Binring, until
after
we’ve done our major raid, or maybe simultaneously. It may not be an important enough piece of information to risk anything on acquiring it.”

Face considered. “Maybe you’re right. Very well. Lara’s right. We will be staging a raid on their major fabrications facility, in the hope that he’s following true to form and has a special Zsinj facility tucked away in there somewhere—or at the very least in the hope that we can figure out where the secret facility is from data in the public facility. So we’ll follow our standard member assignments and protocols—”

“No,” Lara said. Several Wraiths and Rogues laughed outright.

Face put his head down for a moment, then raised it, his expression one of long suffering, and turned to Wedge. “Is this what it’s like for you?”

Wedge smiled. “You have no idea.”

“From the bottom of my heart, I apologize, most sincerely, for every time I spoke up in a mission briefing. I mean it.”

Wedge nodded. “I appreciate that, but I have to tell you: you’ve only just started to suffer.”

“I believe you.” Face turned back to Lara. “No,
what
?”

She gave him an apologetic look. “We’ve changed protocol already. We have Rogue Squadron on hand to look out for us. If we don’t integrate this resource—this very, very dangerous and capable resource—”

Impassive, Tycho gestured, waving for her to keep the compliments coming.

“—from the very beginning, then there’s no reason to have them along. We’d have to improvise their participation.”

“She’s right,” Tycho said. “And I’ve had some thoughts about this. We could have the Wraiths, before or during their intrusion, get to certain key spots on the Binring buildings and plant targets there. Infrared markers, comm tracers, anything to give us an edge. Then if they needed to call an air strike, they could give us very precise data on where we needed to put our damage. ‘Thirty-seven meters on heading two-five-five from Marker Number Three’ is very precise, and our astromechs could integrate those instructions onto our heads-up displays on the fly.”

“Good point,” Wedge said. “Face, you haven’t done enough work in figuring out how to exploit all your resources.”

“I’m not used to
having
resources.”

Wedge nodded. “Welcome to the real Starfighter Command. And having to think like a soldier instead of a pirate. All right, people, let’s hear the rest of Face’s plan. We’re going to dissect it and reassemble it into something more likely to keep us all alive.”

Brightness—illumination piercing the pinkness around him—awakened Piggy.

He could hear nothing, feel almost nothing—only the respirator adhering to his face, supplying him with air to breathe. It took him a split second to recall where he was, why most of his senses seemed to be failing him. Then he opened his eyes.

As with the last couple of times he’d awakened, he floated, suspended, in a bacta tank taller than a Wookiee. The bacta medium colored everything pink. He could see, beyond the confines of the tank, the antiseptic wardroom that was his temporary home. A medical technician, a dark-haired human female,
waved at him, offering a smile that humans called “perky.” He knew that human males could not help but be cheered by it. Nor was he entirely immune to it; the fact that she made the effort to reach him still lifted his spirits a notch. He waved in return, his motion slowed by the thick liquid.

Something was different. He ran through his checklist of surroundings, events, and circumstances to see what had been added. Nothing. He reversed it to look for what had been removed.

Pain. Ah, that was it. He didn’t hurt anymore. He looked down at his stomach, which had not so long ago featured an injury that looked like a smoking crater, and saw only new flesh and some scar tissue.

Good. He would be leaving soon. He wasn’t bored, was never bored—he could always work up problems of math, of navigation, of logic to keep himself occupied. But the lack of contact with others, the lack of activity that was useful, was beginning to annoy him.

There was motion outside his tank. He focused on several people walking with purpose into the wardroom, toward him, surrounding his tank—his fellow Wraiths. Their expressions were cheerful, and it was not the forced cheer that several had exhibited during previous visits.

The perky technician was waving at him, and when she had his attention, she gestured upward. He glanced up to see the top hatch opening. He kicked himself upward and moments later emerged into real air for the first time in many days.

When he once again had his feet on the ground, had a robe around him and a towel to mop away the remaining traces of bacta medium, he could begin to take in the words of his comrades.

Face said, “Forgive the intrusion, but we heard that the new vintage of Piggy was being decanted.”

Lara said, “But it looks like it’s turned to vinegar.”

Dia said, “And it’s corked.”

A young Devaronian he did not know said, “I am pleased to meet you. I need you to kill me. Nobody else will.”

The perky technician said, “You’ll need as much as possible to avoid activities that put a strain on your stomach muscles.”

Janson said, “To make sure you remember this little event, we’ve had some special things made up for you. Bacta-flavored candy. Bacta-flavored brandy. Bacta-flavored cheese.”

Shalla said, “Kell and I worked up an instructional manual for you. It’s called,
How to Dodge
.”

Piggy mopped away at his damp skin and allowed himself a slight smile. It was good to be home.

The third meteor shower in as many days peppered the frozen arctic regions of Saffalore’s northern hemisphere. Few of the meteors survived long enough to hammer the planet’s surface; most burned up from the friction of their descent through the atmosphere, often leaving behind long trails to mark the fiery ends to their travels. A few had enough mass left to strike the ground as meteorites, often leaving deep craters in the hard, uncultivated ground.

And then there were the fabricated objects in their midst. Starfighters, almost two dozen, maneuvered away from the true meteorites and pulled up sharply from their descent, missing collisions with the ground sometimes by only a few dozen meters.

There were no rebukes for too-chancy flying over the comm waves. These pilots were keeping comm silence, staying in visual range of one another.

Three of the vehicles were TIE interceptors, the most lethal starfighters of the Empire. The remainder were X-wings, heavily laden with extra fuel pods under their S-foils.

The danger with an intrusion like this
, Donos decided,
is that it’s boring enough that you become distracted, and still dangerous enough to leave you dead
. Terrain-following flying was a tricky skill. Most of what they would be crossing tonight was tundra, hard-frozen ground and an ice sheet over it, offering little to endanger them. But there were occasional hilly regions and one mountain range to cross before they reached their objective. Under a comm blackout, each pilot had to keep a close eye on the sensors; he couldn’t rely on the sharp sight of his fellows.

Donos kept his focus on the sensors. Focus was no problem
for him. As a sniper for the Corellian armed forces, he’d learned to keep his attention unwavering on his target. Lives had depended on his ability to do so. He’d been good at it.

BOOK: Solo Command
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