"Of course we've got time for this," Janson insisted. He put his mug of caf and a plate piled with sweet pastries on the table in the officer's mess, and dropped himself into a chair. As Hobbie sat down opposite him, he pulled the plate possessively closer. "If we can't work up those simulator packages for Wedge in less than a couple of hours, we should be ashamed of ourselves."
"Which is never going to happen to you, because you're shameless," Hobbie retorted. "You've even been known to go around wearing nothing but a toy Ewok." The reminder served its purpose of distracting Janson long enough for Hobbie to steal one of his pastries. Janson snorted indignantly and tried to steal it back, but Hobbie deftly avoided his grab and stuffed half the pastry into his mouth in one go.
"I hope you choke on it." Janson picked up a pastry that dripped with a pearlescent syrup, and lifted it to his mouth. Before he could bite into it, the comlink clipped to his jacket beeped. Janson heaved a martyred sigh, and answered the comlink with his free hand. "Janson here."
"Where are you ?" It was Wedge's voice, hard-edged and abrupt.
Hobbie swallowed his mouthful of food, and mouthed "I told you so."
Janson's mind worked as fast as it did in the cockpit of his X-wing in the middle of a dogfight, and for much the same reason. He considered a variety of answers, and matched them against the likelihood of Wedge already having looked for him in those places. The remaining options were modified by the tone of his commanding officer's voice. None of those options had entirely satisfactory outcomes, so Janson opted for the one likely to cause the least long-term damage: the truth.
"I'm in the officer's mess," he said.
"I want to see you in my office, right now, Lieutenant Janson." The order came out of the comlink loudly enough to silence conversation on the nearest tables.
"Yes, sir," Janson did his best to ignore the curious stares from the people seated nearby. "On my way."
Janson flinched at the curt tone, and switched off his comlink.
"I guess that joke you've been planning, and not telling me about, has caused a critical failure of Wedge's sense of humour," Hobbie remarked.
Janson looked across the table at his friend, and was relieved to see more sympathy in Hobbie's eyes than the words suggested. "Wedge shouldn't have opened that datafile yet," he said. Standing, he slugged back most of his caf, cast a regretful look at the pastries, and marched off to face the worst.
A few minutes later, Wes Janson was standing at attention in front of his commanding officer's desk, and sincerely wishing that he was somewhere else. He'd known Wedge Antilles for the best part of ten years now, and it was moments like this that made it clear how far Wedge had matured over that time. The young, hotshot pilot was now a respected officer who routinely worked alongside generals and admirals, and who wasn't afraid to make his opinion known to the highest officials of the New Republic. And the full force of that inner strength was currently aimed at Janson. It was one of those occasions when Janson was acutely aware that his friend was also his superior officer. Wedge might have refused a promotion to the rank of general, but right now he was as intimidating as any five-pip general Janson had ever encountered.
"If I am wrong, then I will apologize," Wedge said, his voice harsh. "But I am assuming it was you who planted that joke file in my datapad."
Janson nodded once. "Yes, sir. Not even Hobbie was in on it."
For a moment, Janson wondered if someone else had sliced another file into Wedge's datapad, something rather more offensive or upsetting than the prank he had intended. Wedge had scheduled a squadron briefing for later that afternoon, to inform the Rogues of some changes to the patrols they were flying from Home One. While Wedge and Tycho had been training in the gym earlier, Janson had substituted a file of his own, for the one that Wedge had been planning to show to the pilots. The idea had been that instead of a holograph of the Lowell system, the squadron would have been treated to a holograph of a particularly talented Twi'lek dancer performing a routine that was virtually guaranteed to reduce males of all species to a quivering puddle. Janson had thoughtfully tweaked the holo so the dancer was whispering Wedge's name as she writhed, and as a final touch, he'd sliced the programme so that simply pressing the stop button would have no effect. Janson had been looking forward to seeing the astonishment on Wedge's face, and the growing horror as repeated stabs at the off button failed to get rid of the embarrassing holo.
"I hope, I really hope, that your prank was meant to take place during the squadron briefing this afternoon ?" Wedge's straight, dark brows emphasised the intensity of his dark eyes as he glared across the desk.
"Yes, sir." Janson was beginning to feel faintly sick, but he forced himself to meet Wedge's gaze.
"You're probably not aware that this morning I had a meeting with General Salm, General Cracken and Admiral Ackbar," Wedge said.
Janson's stomach seemed to fall through the floor. He uttered a heartfelt groan and let the formality slip. "I'm sorry, Wedge."
If anything, Wedge's gaze grew fiercer. "You have no idea how sorry I was when that holo appeared, Lieutenant Janson." He put hard emphasis on the military rank. "And then when I couldn't get rid of it until I crashed my datapad."
There was silence for a moment, as Janson pictured the scene, and Wedge apparently tried to blank it from his memory. When Wedge spoke again, his voice had dropped ominously.
"First of all, I had to explain that this was not the kind of data I normally kept on my datapad, or anywhere else, for that matter." He paused and swallowed. "Then I had to explain that it was a badly-timed, and badly planned prank by one of the men in my command. Then I had to stand and say nothing for ten minutes while I listened to my superior officers telling me what they thought of the level of discipline in my command, and what they thought of my standards of operational security. And then I had to try and find the datafile I was supposed to have opened in the first place, and continue with the meeting."
A very small, distant part of Janson admitted to the humour of Wedge opening the embarrassing holofile in front of his startled superior officers, but there was no doubt that the joke had left Wedge humiliated and hurt, and that made Janson want to crawl into a hole somewhere and shoot himself. He took a long, deep breath before speaking.
"You know I never meant for anything like that to happen, Wedge. But it did, and it was my fault. I'm sorry I made you look a fool, and got you into trouble. I'll go and apologize personally to the generals and the admiral, if you want."
Wedge thought that over for a minute, clearly considering the responses Janson would get. A glimmer of dark satisfaction showed in his eyes as he nodded. Janson didn't find the expression very reassuring.
"I'll call them and let them know you're coming," Wedge said. "But first I want you to contact the rest of the squadron and tell them to be in the briefing room in one hour; something new's come up, and Rogue Squadron's been assigned to deal with it."
"Yes, sir." Janson paused, then added. "Will there be anything else ?"
Anger burned deep in Wedge's eyes as he looked across the desk. "Yes. You breached security when you tampered with my datafiles. I can't overlook that, Wes, especially as it became so public." Wedge was struggling to keep control of his temper. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Now is not a good time to make a decision about punishment. Dismissed."
Janson saluted sharply, about-turned and left Wedge's office. He walked away more slowly than usual, cursing himself under his breath. He wasn't looking forward to his meetings with the generals and Admiral Ackbar, but nothing they could say to him could be more painful than that interview with Wedge. Not even an admiral's anger could hurt more than that of a friend.
Hobbie kept watch on the door of the briefing room as the other pilots arrived. He acknowledged their greetings, but his attention was largely concerned with Janson's whereabouts. A brief message about this meeting was the only word he'd had from his friend since Wedge's abrupt summons had come on the comlink. A glance at his chrono told him that the meeting was due to start in two minutes. There had been no word about why the briefing had been rescheduled to take place earlier than intended. As Hobbie pondered, he spotted Janson finally slipping into the briefing room.
Unusually, Janson didn't look about at his friends, or wave to anyone. His usually merry face was sober as he found himself a seat near the door and slumped into it. Hobbie frowned as he got up and started moving closer to his friend. Every now and again, Wes's joking could push even Wedge's easy-going discipline too far. A few firm words from Wedge in his best Commanding Officer mode had always been enough to deal with the matter before. Now Janson looked as though he'd been kicked in the stomach.
Hobbie slipped behind Inyri and Asyr, who were chatting animatedly, and made his way between the seats towards Janson. Before he could reach him, the door opened again to admit Wedge. Their commander strode straight for the lectern at the front of the room. His face seemed impassive, but his stiff body language told another story to anyone who knew him well; Wedge was upset about something. As Wedge turned to face the waiting pilots, Hobbie sat in the nearest free chair. A quick look showed Janson four seats away, staring at the back of the seat in front of him. Wedge cleared his throat and the chatter died away, leaving an expectant quiet.
"As you may have guessed from the change to the time of this briefing, there has been a change in plans for Rogue Squadron," Wedge announced.
There was a soft murmur in the room; people drawing in breath suddenly, or letting it out. Wedge continued, speaking briskly.
"This morning we got word from an intelligence agent about a pirate crew operating out of a base not far from here. Intel have been trying to track this group, they call themselves the Redmoons, for some time. The agent managed to infiltrate the group and has set them up ready for us to take them out. Command got the 'go' signal from the agent four hours ago."
Wedge turned to the holoprojector unit beside the lectern. Hobbie thought that he hesitated for a moment before pressing a button. The image of a planet appeared above the projector, and Wedge relaxed minutely.
"This is the third planet of the Fresnel system. It has point seven of standard gravity and a thin atmosphere, with some nasty compounds in the mix. It's breathable, but only survivable for about an hour. That shouldn't concern any of us, though," Wedge added. He indicated a blue circle marked on the holo-planet's surface. "The Redmoons operate from a shielded base; they have two light freighters, with upgraded laser cannons and concussion missiles, and a dozen uglies and Headhunters. If a large armed force enters the system, they'll simply abandon the base, and flee in their ships. If a smaller force attacks, they'll put up the shields to protect the base, and use the snubfighters, and maybe the freighters, to drive off the attacking force and stop them from overwhelming the shields."
Wedge touched another control and the image changed, the shielded area growing in size and detail. Hobbie leaned forward in his seat to peer at the shield image more closely. There seemed to be a narrow gap at one point.
"As you can see, our agent managed to create a gap in the shields before leaving the base earlier today." Wedge pointed to the open space. "It's only a narrow space, which shouldn't show up on standard diagnostic tests, but we don't know how long it will be before the Redmoons find it and fix it. Hence, we will be leaving Home One to make the attack in one hour's time. Rogue Squadron will make a fifteen minute hyperspace hop to the Fresnel system. One Flight and Two Flight will engage the base's snubfighters, Three Flight will slip inside the shields and bomb that pirate base out of existence. Any questions ?"
Gavin raised his hand. "What if they've already repaired the gap in the shields ?"
Wedge smiled humourlessly. "Then Rogue Squadron vapes all their snubfighters, the freighters, and anything else they send into the skies. And then we hammer their shields until they collapse and then we bomb the base into oblivion."
Hobbie felt a chill at the way Wedge spoke. He knew full well that Wedge had strong reasons for despising pirates, but he rarely allowed his feelings to affect the way he did his job. Puzzled, Hobbie glanced across at Janson, who was now looking towards the door of the briefing room, as if planning a quick escape. At the front of the room, Wedge switched off the hologram.
"That will be all. We leave in one hour," Wedge said abruptly. Picking up his datapad, he turned sharply and left without looking back.
Hobbie shook his head. Something, presumably whatever it was that Janson had done, had really got to Wedge. The other pilots were talking now, discussing the mission, asking one another about Wedge's abrupt attitude. Ignoring them, Hobbie rose and started to make his way over to Janson. His friend moved faster, slipping out of his seat and heading for the door without looking back. Hobbie thought about calling to him then decided not to bother. It would only be ignored, and draw attention from everyone else. Hobbie sighed, and made his way over to Tycho instead. Perhaps he'd have some idea of what was up.
Wedge took in a deep breath, held it for a few moments, then let it out again slowly. It didn't help much; the events of the morning still set his nerves on edge. Travelling through hyperspace in the cockpit of his X-wing was normally a relaxing experience, even when he was on his way to a battle. It was a time of quiet, with minimal demands on his attention and patience. An X-wing cockpit was home to him as much as any room he'd stayed in since joining the Rebellion, way back when. He knew every sound, from the creak of his padded seat as he shifted his weight, to the faint sound of the life support and the different notes of the electronic equipment that surrounded him. These sounds were like the heartbeat and the breathing of his X-wing as it carried him through space.
But today, the familiar security of his cockpit couldn't keep his mind from those long, awful minutes in Admiral Ackbar's office this morning. The memory brought up another spike of annoyance at Wes. His intention had been to give the squadron a laugh during a routine meeting, Wedge knew that, but the reality had been very different. Wedge winced as he recalled some of the choice phrases that General Salm had used. Even Ackbar, who was remarkably tolerant of Wedge's rather idiosyncratic command methods, had shown his displeasure. All in all, it had been one of the worst experiences of his life since joining up. What made it worse, was that Wedge knew he deserved most of what had been said to him.
He had left his datapad where Janson could get hold of it and alter files. Admittedly Wedge trusted Janson implicitly, as he did every member of Rogue Squadron, but it was still unsafe behaviour. As General Cracken had pointed out, there had been a spy active in Rogue Squadron when they'd been working to liberate Coruscant from Isard. Wedge had nearly retorted that finding spies was the job of Intelligence, not Starfighter Command, so the fault wasn't his, but he'd managed to swallow the remark. Cracken's point was still valid; that spies could infiltrate groups like Rogue Squadron and that lapses of security were dangerous. Nor did it reflect well on Wedge's authority as an officer, if one of the men in his command felt free to tamper with files on his datapad. Admittedly, he couldn't think of anyone beside Janson who would do that without a really, really good reason, but if Janson did it and got away with it, others might start to see that behaviour as acceptable.
A quiet beeping drew Wedge's attention away from the dark thoughts circling in his head. He knew the tone of the hyperspace reversion signal as well as he knew the knew the sound of his own voice. He was checking the chrono for flight time and reaching for the hyperspace control even before he was consciously aware of what he was doing. The tunnel of light outside his cockpit resolved into the familiar stars of realspace. A quick glance at his sensor board reassured Wedge that the rest of Rogue Squadron had arrived in the Fresnel system with him. He hit his comm button.
"Okay, Rogues. Let's get in there fast and stomp on that base before any of the vermin infesting it have the chance to get away."
Wedge pushed full power to his engines and sped towards the third planet, an unattractive grey-brown ball.
There was no opposition until they were almost close enough to the planet to start scanning for the base.
"Lead, Three. I have contacts approaching from one-nine-four. I show twelve snubfighters."
That was Pedna Scotian talking. "Thanks, Three," Wedge answered. "S-foils to attack position. One Flight, Two Flight, prepare to engage. Save your proton torpedoes for now, in case we need them to blast through the base's shields. Three Flight, the base is yours. If you can't get through the shields, come join in with the rest of us and we'll see what we can do."
"Copy, Lead." That was Hobbie's voice, reassuring in its familiarity.
Three Flight fell back from the other groups as Rogue Squadron came about to meet their enemy.
Wedge's sensors were showing more detail on the enemy ships now. Four were Headhunters, probably little different from the one he'd flown to destroy the pirates who'd killed his parents. The other eight ships were Uglies: mostly mixtures of X-wing and TIE fighter. Wedge dropped his speed a little and shifted power to his forward shields before opening a general comm channel.
"This is Commander Wedge Antilles of the New Republic. Power down your weapons and return to your base."
"I thought starfighter commanders had more important things to do than to chase around after scum like us," came the mocking reply. "Did you get sent out here because you offended someone higher up the command food chain ?"
Wedge suppressed a hiss of anger as the taunt brought up memories of the embarrassing scene in Admiral Ackbar's office that morning. He pushed the feelings down, reminding himself that Rogue Squadron had been scheduled for this task for some time. He flicked his comm over to the squadron channel.
"One Flight on me. Let's show them how Rogue Squadron deal with those who don't give them the respect they deserve."
"We're with you, Lead." That was Tycho, on his port wing. Other affirmations came over the comm. Although Wedge's attention was focussed more on his sensors, and the approaching enemies; he noticed that something was missing from the voices he heard. Wedge felt a brief pang as he realized that Janson hadn't made one of his usual brash remarks at the prospect of a fight. There was no time to think about that now, though. His targeting system began to light up as the pirates' ships came within range. Setting his lasers to dual-fire, Wedge picked his first target.
The ugly had the fuselage of an X-wing, with the solar wing arrays of a TIE fighter attached either side in place of s-foils. It was a combination that always provoked an irrational dislike in Wedge. Still at long range, he triggered a quick burst just to starboard of the ugly. The pilot reacted fast, jinking his ship to port, and directly into the second burst from Wedge's lasers. The ugly's shields flared and died. The pilot sent his ship into a steep, downward spiral as the ships around him began to scatter. Wedge pushed his yoke forward and gave chase.
As planned, One Flight and Two Flight successfully kept the pirates engaged while Three Flight slipped away in search of the planetary base. Wedge twisted and turned his X-wing through the cloud of fighters as the engagement turned into a straightforward dogfight. The X-TIE ugly lasted less than a minute before Wedge's lasers blew it apart. He smiled darkly to himself and brought his ship round in a tight corkscrew to form up with Tycho again.
Two uglies dived at them, their laser fire splashing off Wedge's shields as he snap-rolled to starboard. The next couple of minutes were a furious dogfight as the X-wings and the uglies jockeyed for position. After the first two passes, Wedge realized that although the one he was duelling with was remarkably manoeuvrable, its lasers didn't pack much punch. He deliberately flew a little too wide on his loop, shunting more power to his rear shields, and let the ugly drop in behind him. He jinked the X-wing around as the ugly chased him, throwing laser energy at the rear of his fighter. Gate hooted as the laser bolts slowly drained the shields.
"I know what I'm doing," Wedge reassured him, cutting back on his speed slightly, and redirecting the power to his shields.
The chasing ugly was getting closer. The pilot kept up his barrage, concentrating on trying to finish off the X-wing. He was concentrating too hard. He chased Wedge right across Tycho's line of flight, right in front of Tycho's guns. Tycho fired a single, neat shot, and the light of the exploding ugly lit up Wedge's cockpit as he spiralled away and down.
"Nice shooting, Two," Wedge said, throwing a snap-shot at the ugly that was making a run at Tycho from below.
"You're welcome, Lead."
Another voice came over Wedge's comm.
"Lead, this is Three Flight. The gap in the shields is there, just like we were told. It must be something else that's going to go wrong." Hobbie purposefully dour tone made Wedge smile. "Commencing attack run now."
"Good luck, Three Flight," Wedge answered, glancing through his canopy at the planet.
A moment later, his attention was back on the furball. These pirates were good; they stayed in pairs and worked together as Rogue Squadron did. As Wedge upped his speed and started to climb, he saw two Headhunters coming to join the ugly that was harassing Tycho. The Headhunters were approaching Tycho from head on and slightly above his line of flight. The ugly was looping around below the X-wing, timing its attack run to that of the Headhunters.
"Two, just concentrate on flying evasive," Wedge ordered. "I'm on my way to you."
"Got you," Tycho answered. He sounded remarkably calm under the circumstances.
His X-wing began jittering about, then suddenly banked to starboard. His attackers had to adjust their flight path to follow him, but the X-wing was still effectively sandwiched between their ships. All three pirate ships were firing at him. Wedge was still too far away to help. He could only watch as the laser fire sliced through space around Tycho's ship. Some of the beams missed, but others battered away at his shields as the X-wing desperately rolled and danced about. The Headhunters separated as they approached Tycho, passing either side of him while the ugly climbed in the opposite direction. It passed in front of Tycho and he let off a snap shot that grazed the hybrid starfighter. Hitting his thrusters, Tycho accelerated in pursuit of the solo ship.
The moment he was in range, Wedge began firing at the two Headhunters. To his disappointment, they continued their tight turns and headed back after Tycho.
"Two, are you damaged ?" Wedge asked urgently.
"My shields are down. No other damage."
As he couldn't distract the Headhunters from their attack, Wedge stopped firing and shunted the extra power to his engines. He took a moment to glance at his sensor boards to check on the general progress of the fight. This little engagement had moved away from the main group, and closer to the planet. There was no one else close enough to help out or to interfere. The rest of the fight seemed to be in favour of the Rogues; all of them showed up on his sensor board and there were fewer pirates than before. Wedge absorbed this information in moments, and then returned his attention to Tycho and the three ships attacking him.
Tycho was now hard on the tail of the ugly, following it in a steep climb. The pirate began jinking his ship around, turned from hunter into hunted. The two Headhunters were pursuing Tycho, with Wedge chasing them in turn. Tycho fired first, sending a proton torpedo after the fleeing ugly. He broke off his chase as soon as the missile was away, banking steeply to port. The Headhunters fired as they changed direction to stay with him. Up ahead, the torpedo hit and the ugly vanished in a gout of bright flame. Wedge saw a smaller explosion from the upper wing of Tycho's ship as the Headhunters hit home. His heart seemed to stop for a moment, but the X-wing held together. Still at long range, Wedge switched to single-fire and blasted a furious series of shots at the Headhunters.
His lasers splashed against their shields without damaging the snubfighters, but this time the threat was enough to make them pay attention. Wedge breathed a little more easily as the Headhunters turned away from Tycho's erratically moving X-wing, and began to loop around towards himself.
"Tycho, report damage," Wedge asked, spiralling his ship away and round.
"Port stabilizer has gone," Tycho answered. He sounded a little distracted, but not too concerned. "I'm all right otherwise, but my manoeuvrability's gone."
"Head back towards the main group while I give this pair something to think about."
Wedge mentally tuned out the other voices on the comm as he studied the Headhunters on his scopes. They were heading towards him on divergent courses, no doubt aiming to bracket him between their ships. Wedge half-smiled, feeling himself slip into that strangely calm flow state, where the X-wing became an extension of his body, controlled more by thought than conscious action. He slowed his fighter slightly, feeding power to the shields as he evened them out. Precision was more important than speed for what he had in mind.
One Headhunter had looped around to come at him head-to-head; the other was swooping up from behind. It seemed to Wedge as though the lightest of touches sufficed to make his X-wing dance through space, slipping between the long-range bolts of light aimed at him. One Headhunter he could see through his canopy, streaks of scarlet striking from its stubby wings. The other was visible only on his scope, and through the light washing through his cockpit when an occasional hit splashed off his rear shields. Gate whistled something, his tone anxious, but it wasn't enough of a warning to break Wedge's concentration. Wedge's breathing and heartrate slowed as he watched his scopes, timing his move by instinct and feel, not numbers.
Gate shrilled as Wedge abruptly reversed his thrust and barrel-rolled his straining X-wing sideways. The two Headhunters were suddenly left facing one another, both still firing at the space where he had been moments before. Laser bolts criss-crossed before the pirates could respond to the disappearance of their intended target. In those moments of confusion, shots from one Headhunter hammered into the belly of the other. The oncoming snubfighter erupted into a mass of debris and flame. As Wedge finished his roll, the second Headhunter overshot him, unable to respond quickly enough to Wedge's sudden deceleration. Wedge flicked his control over to proton torpedoes, got a solid lock, and fired. He was already diving forwards again when the torpedo hit the Headhunter, engulfing it in fire.
Wedge took a slow, deep breath, trying to bring himself back to the wider world around himself. The sounds coming over his comm started to resolve themselves into familiar voices again. Gate was chirping, trying to bring something to his attention. Wedge glanced at his diagnostics board and saw that his shields were down. Gate was trying to bring them back online again. The brownish planet loomed large on the starboard side of his canopy, telling him he'd drifted some distance from the rest of the fight. Wedge turned his X-wing into a long loop as he checked his sensor board to see where the rest of the Rogues were.
"Wedge ! Break port now !"
Wedge responded to the sudden warning almost before the actual words made sense. He twitched the yoke hard sideways, feeling the X-wing shudder as it answered his demand. Something slammed into the side of his ship, jarring him as pain exploded through his body.
Janson watched in horror as the missile from the freighter hit Wedge's X-wing. The freighter had come up from the planet, somehow slipping past Three Flight as they attacked the base. Asyr had picked it up first, broadcasting a warning to the squadron; a warning that Wedge seemed to have missed as he tangled with the two Headhunters. Half of Rogue Squadron, Janson among them, had started after the freighter on an intercept course. It was heading away from them, relative down within the system, but its course came close enough to Wedge's ship for it to fire off a single concussion missile at the isolated snubfighter. The missile struck against the X-wing's fuselage, sending it into a tumbling spin.
"Wedge ! Answer me, Wedge !" Janson heard the panic in his own voice and shut up, listening hopefully for an answer.
Other voices came over the comm, but not Wedge's.
Janson glanced at the freighter and then at Wedge's erratically tumbling X-wing. He broke away from the group chasing the freighter and aimed instead for the damaged ship. Tycho was speaking, giving orders to the squadron, but Janson didn't listen. Instead, he spoke to his astromech.
"Ace, can you get anything from Gate ?"
The droid chirped, went silent for a few, long moments, then gave an affirmative whistle.
"Can he get anything from Wedge's life support monitor ? Is he still alive ?"
Janson stared through his canopy at Wedge's X-wing as he waited for the answer, aware that he was gripping his yoke too tightly from anxiety. He started when Ace trilled at him, his X-wing suddenly jinking as his hand twitched on the controls. Janson swallowed hard, and read the message scrolling up on his screen.
GATE SAYS THAT WEDGE IS ALIVE, BUT INJURED AND UNCONSCIOUS. THE CANOPY IS DAMAGED AND COCKPIT ATMOSPHERE HAS BEEN LOST.
Janson swore aloud. Wedge was helpless and had nothing but the emergency magcon field of his flightsuit to protect him.
"Ace, transmit everything Gate's told you to Captain Celchu's ship, and ask Tycho to call Home One for a support shuttle and tell them to get it here real fast. Then call Gate and ask if he can do anything to straighten the ship out and stop it tumbling."
Ace beeped a brisk affirmative. Janson let out a long breath; Wedge was still alive anyway. He'd screwed things up for Wedge this morning. Now he had to do things right.
As Janson closed with Wedge's X-wing, he could see that Gate was starting to exert some control. The tumbling roll slowed, then reversed briefly as the astromech overcorrected. The damaged X-wing yawed drunkenly and then settled into a stable position, drifting gently with the nose tilted slightly upward. Janson brought his own fighter around so it was facing towards Wedge's ship, and killed his thrust to minimum. Handling his controls as though they were made of spun sugar, Janson eased his ship forward close alongside Wedge's. He matched the gentle sidewards drift of Wedge's ship, then slid his own fighter forwards until the two ships were side-by-side, positioned so the nose of each rested between the splayed starboard s-foils of the other. The two cockpits were just a couple of metres apart.
"Ace, can you hold this relative position ?" Janson asked, keeping his hand light on the controls.
His droid answered with a confident chirp.
NO PROBLEM. GATE WILL KEEP HIS SHIP STEADY.
Only now could Janson take the time for a good look at his friend. The concussion missile had hit Wedge's X-wing just below the cockpit canopy, ripping apart the alloy skin of the fighter and tearing the canopy half off. Janson felt cold for a moment, knowing that if the missile had hit a little lower, it would have detonated the proton torpedoes the X-wing carried. If that had happened, there would be nothing left of Wedge and his ship. As it was, Janson could see Wedge, surrounded by the faint shimmer of the emergency magcon field provided by his flightsuit. He was slumped to one side, his head resting against the remains of the canopy.
Janson forced himself to sit still and think things through. The rescue shuttle he'd requested from Home One wouldn't be here for another fifteen minutes or so. Wedge would still have air to breathe, but the magcon field offered little protection from the cold of space. The fifteen minute wait for the shuttle would be risky for a pilot in good health, but Wedge's body temperature would be dropping anyway from shock. The combination of shock and heat loss to space could be deadly in less than fifteen minutes. Janson turned his attention to the sensor board, searching for the freighter that had been fleeing. It was engaged in a firefight with five X-wings, and taking a hammering, by the look of it. Even if it survived the fight reasonably intact, Janson couldn't see it being subdued and flown back here in less than ten minutes. Likewise, the other freighter that the pirates were supposed to have. Even if it hadn't been blown to pieces by Three Flight, it would take time to find it and get it up here.
Janson cursed, cast a glance over at the still figure in the other X-wing, and made up his mind. He quickly popped open a compartment under his seat and retrieved a small medpac, tucking it into a pocket. A panel at the side of his cockpit held a tether, which clipped to the harness of his flightsuit.
"OK, Ace. Hold station here while I go see to Wedge." As the droid chirped an answer, Janson activated his own magcon field, opened his canopy and pushed himself free of his X-wing.
As he floated between the ships, Gate anticipated him and released the canopy of Wedge's ship. It jerked up, shaking loose a few fragments of transparisteel, and stuck halfway open. Janson carefully caught hold of the twisted frame and used it to bring his gentle motion to a halt. Bracing his feet against the fuselage of the X-wing, he heaved the canopy upwards. It resisted briefly before jerking open, scattering more glittering shards into space.
"Gate, can you kill the gravity in the cockpit ?" Janson asked.
Wedge's astromech gave a short, affirmative whistle, then added a longer, plaintive series of beeps.
"I'm going to take care of him; I'm sure he'll be all right," Janson responded, guessing at what Gate had said.
He pulled himself around so he was sitting astride the edge of the cockpit, one leg hooked into the footwell to keep him anchored to the X-wing while leaving his hands free. The magcon fields surrounding each man hissed slightly and deformed as they came into contact in the tight space. There was a risk of one or both of the fields collapsing from the contact, but it was unlikely so long as the systems weren't overloaded. It was a risk Janson was willing to take for himself, and there was no choice for Wedge. If Janson didn't act now, Wedge would most likely die anyway.
Janson gently lifted Wedge's head and tilted it against the back of his seat. His helmet had been badly cracked by the blast damage and the shoulder of his flightsuit was torn. Janson grimaced at the sight, even as he reached for the medpac he'd brought.
"Gate, can you get a reading on Wedge's temperature ?"
He'd just got the hypo he wanted from the medpac when Gate's answer flashed up on a screen.
SENSORS INDICATE BODY TEMPERATURE OF 35.1C
"Sithspit," Janson muttered. Wedge's temperature had already dropped to the point of first stage hypothermia.
Taking a deep breath, Janson readied the hypo and slowly brought it up to Wedge's neck. The magcon field around Wedge resisted it at first, then Janson managed to ease the hypo through and bring it in contact with Wedge's skin. He triggered the dose of anti-shok and slowly withdrew his hand, feeling the faint crackle of the magcon fields as they readjusted themselves. Janson tucked the hypo into a pocket and looked anxiously at his friend. Wedge's face was white, marked with thin trails of congealed blood that had trickled from his nose. His breathing was shallow and strained in a way that Janson really didn't like.
"C'mon, Wedge, don't quit on me now," Janson muttered.
Moving carefully, he got Wedge free and pulled him out of the X-wing. Taking a firm hold of his friend, Janson aimed towards the cockpit of his own ship and launched them across the gap. For a few moments they glided gracefully through space. Janson grabbed the his open canopy with one hand, twisting himself around to brace his legs against the ship. Wedge's momentum threatened to pull him off balance, but Janson hung on grimly until Wedge was just floating limply beside him. Janson pulled him back and carefully lowered Wedge into the cockpit of his own X-wing, taking care not to let the low artificial gravity pull Wedge in too fast. Still moving carefully, aware of the magcon fields interacting, Janson settled Wedge in place and tilted his head back to keep his airway clear. In a few moments more he'd moved the fastening point of his tether to a recessed clip on the outside of his fighter, and triggered the switch to close the canopy.
Janson sighed as the canopy came down and a small light went green on the cockpit display.
"OK, Ace. Restore atmosphere, make it oxygen rich, and bring the temperature up to two degrees above standard. Keep monitoring him."
His astromech warbled a reply.
Janson took another look at Wedge, then turned his face to the stars. He'd done all he could now. He shivered, feeling the cold of space starting to bite now he had time to think about anything but helping Wedge. Now he saw that other X-wings had moved in close while he'd been busy, and a voice came over his comm.
"Good work there, Wes." It was Tycho, speaking from the nearest ship. "The rescue shuttle should be insystem in eight minutes."
Adding two minutes for the shuttle to reach the X-wings, that would have meant another ten minutes for space to leach the warmth and life from Wedge's body. Janson smiled to himself. He'd saved Wedge from that; had tipped the odds to give him a good chance of survival; had got it right. He shivered again.
"Hobbie, you receiving me ?" he asked.
"Wanna swap places ?"
Hobbie snorted. "Want to, no. Ask me again in five minutes and I might say yes, just so you won't plague me about leaving you out here in the cold, in years to come."
"I wouldn't do that," Janson protested.
He chuckled at Hobbie's indignant reply; bickering would help keep him warm while he waited.
Even if he'd been struck blind and deaf, Janson would have known he was in Medbay just from the smell. Hangars he associated with the smell of lubricants, ozone from the magcon fields, and hot alloys; Medbay smelt of bacta and disinfectants. He liked the smell of hangars better. Fortunately, he was just visiting the Medbay today. It was the first chance he'd had to see Wedge since his friend had finished bacta tank treatment and been transferred to a regular bed. Janson hesitated outside Wedge's room, then pressed the buzzer.
A few moments later the door slid open and he stepped inside. The bed filled most of the small room, with a bank of status monitors humming and beeping quietly at one side. Wedge was sitting propped up against his pillows, a swing-out display unit pushed to one side so he could see his visitor.
"Wes !" Wedge smiled with real pleasure and switched off the display unit.
Janson smiled back as he approached the bed, faintly giddy with relief. He sat down and looked at Wedge carefully.
"How are you ?" he asked. Wedge was a healthy colour and seeemed to be breathing OK, but his med tunic was open far enough that Janson could see a sensor attached to his chest.
"I feel pretty good in myself," Wedge answered cheerfully. "I still get headaches if I concentrate on anything for too long, but the Emdee droid says I'm making a good recovery from the blast damage. They want to keep me here under observation a little longer, but unless there's a problem, I should be discharged in a couple of days."
"So you get to lie around doing nothing a while longer ?"
Wedge nodded, his expression sobering. "Thanks to you, Wes. If you hadn't transferred me to your X-wing, I'd have been past the point of no return by the time help arrived."
"You were hurt. Anyone in the squadron would have done what they could to help you," Janson replied, remembering the fear that had stabbed him when he'd seen the missile hitting Wedge's ship.
"You took the initiative, you pulled off a very fancy piece of piloting - I've seen the holo pictures from your ship's camera - you knew that you needed to act, and quickly, and you put yourself at risk to transfer me to safety." Wedge paused. "No only going EV, but risking the integrity of your magcon field to haul me around. Maybe Tycho or Hobbie or Corran would have done the same thing, and done it as well. But none of them could have done it any better, Wes."
Janson started to smile, then bit it back. "I'm glad I got it right." He looked Wedge right in the eyes. "I got it so badly wrong in the morning. I let you down then, and I'd have rather died than do it again."
Wedge sighed. "You're not the only one at fault over that joke. I let the line between commanding officer and friend get too blurred." He smiled wryly. "There's a time and a place for everything, but out there, at Fresnel, you acted like a friend, and I'm grateful. You'll get an official commendation for your actions."
A weight seemed to lift from Janson's shoulders and he smiled, his eyes suddenly lighting up with mischief.
"Does winning a commendation mean I don't get punished for messing with your datapad ?" he asked.
Wedge looked at him, smiled slowly and evilly, and shook his head. "Sorry, Wes, that still stands. And as I've got nothing much to do for the next couple of days, I can give it plenty of thought."
Janson stared straight back at him. "I hope all that thinking gives you a headache."
Wedge laughed. "You're enough headache for any officer."
Janson grinned, leapt to his feet and snapped a crisp salute.
"Yes, Sir !"
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