For a moment, Colonel Tycho Celchu couldn’t remember which planet he was on. Anuri, that was it, Anuri. This cantina, not too far from the spaceport, had little to distinguish it from the dozens, or hundreds, that he’d visited on what felt like a similar number of planets. These dimly-lit, smoky bars of dubious entertainments and equally dubious drinks were rarely his own choice. He was brought to them by a certain type of friend, like two of the men with him now, or by some of the odder demands of his job as commander of Rogue Squadron.
Not that anyone was likely to take them for a group of elite pilots right now, he thought, looking at his casually-dressed companions. Hobbie needed a shave, Gavin sported a smudge of engine lubricant over his right eyebrow and Janson’s shirt sleeve was torn and offered glimpses of his toned bicep as he moved. Tycho was the best turned-out of the four, as fitted his role as owner-captain of the freighter they had arrived in. Even so, the dark blue jacket he wore was frayed at the cuffs and his long boots were in dire need of polishing.
Some things though, were the same as always. Janson was leaning back in his chair in an artfully casual pose as he eyed a pretty Bothan female sitting a couple of tables away.
“Of course she keeps looking this way. She fancies me,” Janson told Hobbie.
The taller pilot sighed mournfully. “She probably recognises us and is planning to report our presence here to someone.”
Janson shook his head. “The only thing she’s recognising is a stunningly handsome male sitting at this table.”
“Yes, but Tycho’s not interested in her,” Gavin put in.
Hobbie laughed and Tycho grinned at Janson, who was glaring at the youngest pilot. No, some things never changed. But others had. Tycho suddenly turned and looked away from the group, missing the sound of a laugh he hadn’t heard in nearly two years.
Tycho gazed absently at the crowded bar, his face immobile as he pushed away unhappy memories. He became aware that he was looking at the back of a male human, sitting on a stool at the bar between a Gotal and a burly male Twi’lek. It was difficult to be sure, but the man seemed shorter than average, slender, with dark brown hair caught into a short ponytail. He was dressed in much the same style as Tycho and the other Rogues, including the heavy blaster holstered on his right hip. He wasn’t talking to the beings either side of him, but seemed to have most of his attention on the whiskey glass in his left hand. As Tycho watched, he lifted the glass and took a swallow. Tycho couldn’t see his face, but there was something in the movement that made him catch his breath. He stared a moment longer, sure that his imagination saw similarities where none existed. The man lowered his glass and as Tycho had half-expected, set the liquid inside swirling with a deft motion that he studied thoughtfully.
Leaving the other three still talking, Tycho rose and pushed his way through other drinkers to the bar. He stopped just behind the dark-haired man, seeing the moment of tension in the other’s shoulders that told him his approach had been noticed. That slight movement, and the partial turn of the head were painfully familiar.
“Wedge,” Tycho said softly.
Wedge Antilles turned sharply, surprised.
Tycho’s smile froze as he saw his friend’s face properly. It wasn’t just the longer hair that had changed in the last two years. It wasn’t even the long scar that slashed from Wedge’s nose, across his right cheek to his jaw. It was the hardness of Wedge’s whole face, the fine lines around his eyes that suggested lingering bitterness, and the bleakness Tycho saw in those dark eyes.
The bleakness vanished as Wedge recognized Tycho in turn and started to smile. The smile halted and Wedge looked wary.
“What are you doing here ?” he asked.
“I…we…we’re here to pick up some data.” Tycho answered. “I had no idea you were even on this planet, let alone in this bar.” In spite of everything, pleasure welled up inside him at seeing Wedge again.
Wedge studied him for a moment, his expression softening slightly. “I guess you’re posing as a down-on-his-luck freighter captain and going to the same places they do, which is why you ran into this unlucky freighter.”
“Something like that,” Tycho answered awkwardly. On a sudden impulse, he put his hand on Wedge’s arm. “Come and join us for a while.”
Again, there was the glimpse of light in Wedge’s face before the shutters came down. Wedge shook his head once, a sharp movement. “I’d better not.”
“Why not ?” Tycho insisted, tightening his hold on Wedge’s arm. “It was the New Republic that kicked you out, Wedge, not your friends. We are your friends still, and by the stars, we’ve missed you.”
Wedge looked away for a few moments, taking a deep breath. When he faced Tycho again there was a warmth in his eyes that had been missing before. “All right.”
Tycho led the way to the chipped, drink-stained table. The bickering between the Rogues had got quite lively and they paid little attention to Tycho’s return until he and Wedge had got close. Gavin was the first to notice Wedge, his expression cycling from surprise, to dismay, to delight. Janson and Hobbie looked round too, their faces mirroring Gavin’s. Janson was the quickest from his chair, beating Hobbie by a split second to reach Wedge and grab him up into an exuberant hug. The next few minutes were a melee of ecstatic hugging, back slapping, whooping and laughter. Tycho’s heart lifted as Wedge laughed with his friends. It was a sound he hadn’t heard since before Adumar.
Seated at the table, with fresh drinks all round, Wedge began asking eager questions about the rest of Rogue Squadron, the Wraiths, Winter and others he’d not seen for so long. Mirax was the only one of his old friends he’d seen in the last few months, meeting her and baby Valin on the Errant Venture.
“Princess Leia attended a Starfighter Command function about a month ago,” Tycho told Wedge. “She asked if we’d heard anything from you.”
Wedge smiled. “I bet the twins are a real handful now.”
“You could come visit Coruscant,” Janson suggested. “You’re entitled to travel where you like, and there’s plenty of people would like to see you again.”
Wedge shook his head, setting loose tendrils of long hair swaying about his face. “I’m no ornament to anyone’s social status,” he said grimly. “It wouldn’t do anyone’s career any good to be associated with the New Republic’s most disgraced ex-general.”
Even Janson’s merry face turned dark as Wedge continued speaking.
“I’m sure that the people I want to see on Coruscant would be happy to see me. But I’d be spotted, and recognized, and it would be all over the holonews. Remember all the sludgenews headlines about my court martial ?”
Tycho could, only too well. The mission to Adumar had been a disaster almost from the start. Wedge had been intending to take a leave of absence, wanting to find more to himself and his life than being General Antilles. Cracken had insisted he take a mission he didn’t want, in a diplomatic role he had no experience in. The Adumari obsession with duels and their casual attitude to death had sickened all of them and they’d soon found that the situation was more complicated than they’d been led to believe. Iella’s unexpected presence might have been a help, but something had happened between her and Wedge during that midnight meeting at the plaza. All Wedge had said afterwards was that Iella had roughly confirmed his suspicions about Intelligence’s earlier contact with Adumar, but she hadn’t been able to help further. Tycho believed that there had also been a more personal conversation, but knew no details about that.
After the meeting with Iella, Wedge had been subdued, moody, and increasingly frustrated with his orders from the mysterious local head of Intelligence. It had all blown up in Wedge’s refusal to take part in live-fire duels. The animosity between Wedge and the Intelligence head, Tomar, had let the Imperials win over Adumar. Back on Coruscant, Wedge had been court martialled, blamed for the whole Adumar fiasco, and kicked out of the New Republic military with a dishonourable discharge. The news channels had revelled in the story of the handsome, multiply-decorated hero who had fallen from grace.
Wedge shook his head. “I won’t go through that again, and I won’t risk dragging anyone else into my mess.”
The group was silent for a minute; none of the Rogues could refute the sense in Wedge’s decision. Wedge was the first to break the silence, looking over at Tycho.
“So how’s your job here on Anuri going ?”
Tycho shrugged. “Slowly. We’re waiting to be contacted. The seller should have seen the name of our ship on the docking lists by now. We’ve got nothing to do but act like broke spacers on leave until we get a message.”
“Which means we’re actually under orders to come to places like this,” Janson put in, an irrepressible grin spreading across his face.
Wedge’s mood suddenly lifted and he grinned back at his old friend. “So who did you sleep with to land this mission then ?”
“General Cracken,” Hobbie said, before Janson could answer.
Wedge burst out laughing as Janson scowled. “That conjures up images I really don’t want in my head.”
Tycho barely heard the beeping of his comlink for the noise the others were making. He fished the comlink from his jacket pocket, waving for the others to quieten down, and flicked it on.
“Gilmour here, captain of the Thornback Ray.” He listened to the speaker for a few moments. “I understand. We’ll be there in one standard hour from now.” He checked his chrono. “Gilmour out.”
“You have to leave now ?” Wedge asked, as though expecting bad news.
Hobbie, Janson and Gavin all wore looks of dismay, silently pleading with Tycho to let them spend longer with their former commander. Tycho had been thinking about the mission while the others had been joking. Now he looked at Wedge.
“We have to go, but I’d like you to come along with us, for a while at least.”
Wedge looked straight back at him, understanding what wasn’t said aloud, and nodded.
Gavin drove the low-rent speeder while the other four conferred in the back.
“I take it this speeder’s clean ?” Wedge asked, referring to the absence of listening devices.
“Cleaner than a Hutt’s plate after a meal,” Janson answered promptly. “I checked it myself.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘maybe’ then,” Wedge said dryly. He switched his attention to Tycho. “So, Colonel Celchu, I take it that you’re about to confide details of a top-secret New Republic mission to an unauthorised civilian with a bad reputation ?”
“I’m about to divulge details of a top-secret New Republic mission to a brilliant former officer, who is uniquely qualified to help, and who I trust with my life and my honour.”
Wedge looked away for a moment. He had to clear his throat before speaking again. “So how can I help ?”
“There’s been rumours for a while that the Empire has been developing an entirely new kind of starfighter,” Tycho told him. “The TIE Defenders are good, but too expensive for them to produce in any real quantity. Regular TIEs they can produce by the hangarful, but we all know the faults with those. The Empire wants a mass-produced starfighter that’s hyperspace capable, has some shields at least, and which handles better in atmosphere than a traditional TIE.”
Humour lit Wedge’s eyes. “You mean they want X-wings ?”
Tycho smiled. “Essentially, yes. That’s the kind of all-round fighter they’ve been developing.”
“So Starfighter Command want to know what their pilots are likely to be flying against in the future ?”
“A commercial spy has managed to get a set of specs for the new fighter. We’ve been sent to take a look at the data, and buy it if it seems good,” Tycho explained. “Intelligence had been trying to get this data for a while, and were pretty sore when someone beat them to it. General Cracken wanted to send Intel agents to make the deal, but Admiral Ackbar insisted it had to be pilots, who could make a better assessment on whether the data was worth the price being asked.” Tycho smiled wryly. “Relations between Ackbar and Cracken have been strained since Adumar.”
It was the wrong thing to say. He could see from Wedge’s face that Wedge blamed himself for the division between Intelligence and Fleet.
“Why do you want me along ?” Wedge asked. “You’re as good a pilot as I am.”
“Maybe so. But you’re more technically minded than any of us. You test-flew the A-wing and the B-wing, Wedge, and you know more about how starships actually work than any of us four. I can look at the specs for a new starfighter and say ‘Yes, that looks possible, it looks good’, but you understand the engineering better than I do. You’re more likely to see if this data represents a real ship, or if it’s bogus.”
Wedge leaned back in his seat, gazing absently at the ceiling of the speeder as he thought. Tycho studied him, his gaze drawn to the long scar across his cheek. His mental image of Wedge hadn’t adapted to include the scar yet, so it stood out more to him than it would to a stranger. Wedge suddenly lifted his head, fixing Tycho with an intent look.
“If all goes well, you could write a report on this without mentioning my presence. If something goes wrong, you’ll have to report that you chose to include a court-martialled ex-officer on a sensitive mission. You could end up firing your life down the tubes like I did.”
Tycho smiled grimly. “If things go wrong, I intend to get myself shot, so someone else can write up the report. And with you in the team, things are less likely to go wrong. Our contacts are expecting four of us, so that’s what they’ll get. We can drop Janson off a couple of blocks from the rendezvous, and keep him outside as our skifter.”
“Oh, great,” Janson grumbled. “How come I get to do the walking ?”
“It’ll do you good,” Wedge told him. “I noticed you’re starting to spread at the waist.”
Hobbie sniggered at that while Janson sputtered indignant denials, and pointed accusingly at Wedge.
“Just for that outrageous lie, you’ll be last on my list of people-to-rescue-when-it-all-goes-wrong.”
Wedge looked back to Tycho, who met his gaze steadily. He nodded. “I’m in.”
Tycho relaxed and smiled. “Good.”
The rendezvous was at an industrial unit that manufactured small garden buildings, greenhouses and the like. Just before entering, Wedge pulled the band from his ponytail and shook his hair out. The loose, flowing hair seemed to change the shape of his face, and partially concealed his features. The hardness was back in Wedge’s eyes. It was not the focus Tycho had seen before when they were about to go into a risky situation, or even the cold anger he’d seen from Wedge on rare occasions. This was something darker, bleaker. Tycho repressed a sudden shudder and led them inside.
A pair of Rodians were waiting inside, both heavily armed. The aliens’ enormous eyes studied the humans unblinkingly, then one gestured sharply to a door at the back of the showroom. The Rodians moved apart, flanking the Rogues as Tycho led them to the office door. Beyond, the small office was clearly the heart of this business. Personal holos adorned the walls, mugs with old caf stains were scattered about and scraps of flimsi with hand-written notes sat on the corner of a desk, weighed down by the head of a hydrospanner.
A desk had been dragged into the middle of the room. Two empty chairs were waiting at the side nearer the door. On the far side sat a dark-skinned human male, dressed in neat, unobtrusive clothes, and a Devaronian, strikingly dressed in black and red. Tycho took one of the empty chairs and Wedge the other, leaving Hobbie and Gavin to stand at the back of the room, flanked by the Rodians. The Devaronian nodded politely towards Tycho.
“You have your credit authorization ?”
Tycho nodded, producing a memory card and a datapad from his jacket pocket. As he inserted the card into the datapad, the human opened and switched on a datapad too. Tycho’s datapad was pushed across the desk to the Devaronian, and the dark-skinned human’s came across towards Wedge. On its screen was a diagram of the new starfighter. It reminded Tycho of the ships developed by the Twi’leks, the Chir’daki, or Deathseeds. At the centre of the starfighter was the familiar ball cockpit of the TIE fighter. Forward-curving wings were attached to a collar that allowed them to rotate independently of the cockpit. Both wings were tipped with laser cannons, and torpedo ports were built into the underside of the cockpit ball. Wedge pulled the datapad close and began to study the data in more detail.
The Devaronian was checking the sum on the credit authorization Tycho had handed over. The amount to be paid, a figure that had made Tycho whistle, had been agreed in advance between Intel and the data sellers. The credit transfer would only become active when the data for a receiving account was entered, and when Tycho entered the correct code to release the block on the card. No doubt the card with the technical data was also protected with a code. The Devaronian finished his checks, apparently satisfied, and looked over at Wedge.
Wedge was not to be hurried. He brought up screen after screen of technical data, frowning to himself as he read the numbers and diagrams. Time seemed to stretch out. The Devaronian drummed his fingers on the desk, caught himself at it and folded his hands together. Tycho fought down an urge to do the same. Someone behind him shifted their weight restlessly. The dark-skinned human opened his mouth, as if to speak, then changed his mind. At last, Wedge leaned back in his chair, looked over at Tycho and nodded. Everyone relaxed, just a little.
It took barely two minutes to exchange data for credits, and a minute after that, they were climbing back into the speeder. Hands stayed close to blasters all the way, but no one panicked, no one got hurt. Once inside the speeder, Tycho fastened the data card into a secure pocket built into the waistband of his trousers, and relaxed back into his seat with a sigh.
“All that planning, for something over so quickly,” Gavin remarked from the driver’s seat.
Hobbie’s face got longer than usual. “It’s not over yet,” he said dolefully. “We can’t really say it’s over until we’re all back on Coruscant, handing that data card to Admiral Ackbar.”
Gavin pulled over to allow Janson to scramble aboard.
“Is the ship worth the planet-sized fortune we just paid to learn about it ?” Janson asked. “And more importantly, is it worth the time I just spent hanging around the dullest industrial estate on this side of the Outer Rim ?”
Wedge finished tying back his hair. “It’s a very neat piece of engineering,” he reported. “More versatile than any TIE except the Defender. I don’t think it will be quite as fast as a TIE but it will match an X-wing easily enough.”
“How many torpedoes does it carry ?” Hobbie asked.
“Six, same as us, and they’ve only just made those fit,” Wedge answered. “More missile capacity would have altered the aerodynamics and cost them speed. Fitting bigger engines would alter the profile again, and be more expensive.”
“How much of it is based on standard TIE components ?” Janson asked.
They continued to discuss the new starfighter as Gavin drove them at a steady pace towards the spaceport. Night had fallen, and the city was illuminated with a mess of colourful advertizing boards, constantly shifting from one advertisement to the next. Lights of speeders were strung in ribbons along the busy roads. Wedge had his datapad open and was studying the fighter’s schematics with Tycho, looking for vulnerable points, when Janson interrupted.
“Boss, we’re being followed.”
Wedge and Tycho looked up together. Tycho heard Wedge draw in a breath, about to ask a question, then stop himself, remembering he was no longer in command. There was a moment’s awkward silence before Tycho managed to speak.
“How long, and what kind of vehicle ?”
“A little over five minutes,” Janson reported, his merry face unusually subdued as his gaze flickered between Tycho and Wedge. “It’s a dark blue SoroSub Nine-Fifty Cruiser. Usually about four vehicles back from us and often in another lane. It’s done some sharp lane-cutting to stay with us when we’ve made turnings.”
“What’s the maximum flight altitude of a Nine-Fifty ?” Wedge asked.
Janson thought hard for a moment. “Four meters.”
“How long till we reach the spaceport ?” Tycho asked Gavin.
“Approximately five minutes if we stick to the main roads,” Gavin answered after a glance at his nav screen.
Tycho looked at Wedge. “If they know enough about us to bother following us, they’re going to have a good idea where we’re headed. We could spend time shaking them off our tail only to find them waiting for us at the spaceport anyway.”
“Maybe even at our dock,” Hobbie added gloomily.
“I’d like to know who’s tailing us,” Wedge said, closing down the datapad and passing the datacard back to Tycho.
“Do you think those spies sold us out ?” Gavin asked.
Tycho answered him. “I got the impression that Intelligence had worked with these people before. I don’t think General Cracken would have dealt with them, and for such a large amount of money, unless he felt they were pretty reliable.”
“If there was even a reasonable suspicion that they sold us out, they’d never be able to sell anything to the New Republic again,” Janson said.
“It could be that the Imps found their security had been breached,” Wedge suggested. “They tracked down the spies and then waited to see who the data was sold to. Then they get the chance to wipe out both the spies and the buyers, retrieve the data, and maybe make it look like the deal went wrong, and spies and buyers killed one another. They kill two womp rats with one boulder, and get away clean.”
“That sure sounds like Imperial thinking,” Tycho said. He grinned darkly. “I’m glad you’re on our side, Wedge.”
Wedge returned the smile. “You know, I never thought of applying to join the Imperial Navy. I could test-fly this new starfighter for them.”
Tycho shuddered. “More to the point, what do we do right now ?”
“It’s likely they’re going to ambush us at some point, so we get our ambush in first.” Wedge leaned forward between seats to study the nav screen. “Turn off into that warehouse zone,” he ordered Gavin, pointing at the screen. “We need to lose them just long enough to set up for them, but not by so much they stop trying to follow and head for the spaceport.”
“Got it, Boss,” Gavin answered enthusiastically.
Wedge dropped back into his seat and buckled the safety belt. “It could be a bumpy ride.”
“Good,” said Janson, smiling.
A couple of minutes later they were off the main highway and winding through the streets of the warehouse district. As soon as Janson confirmed that they were still being tailed, Gavin increased speed, handling the speeder adroitly as he took right-angled corners. These access roads to the warehouses were much quieter than the highway. The main hazards were the large, slow-moving cargo haulers, shipping loads to and from the spaceport. Gavin neatly side-slipped them as they appeared in his path, grinning to himself as he swung the speeder about. Pilots rarely make good passengers, even when one of their own is at the controls. Tycho reminded himself firmly that Gavin could handle this as well as he could, and managed not to give any advice. Judging by their expressions, Hobbie and Janson were having the same struggle.
Wedge seemed intent on something else, gazing out of the window in search of something. As Gavin turned the speeder down yet another narrow street, Wedge saw what he’d been looking for.
“There ! Our roadblock. Pull in.” He pointed at a cargo-hauler loaded high with large sheets of transparisteel. It was standing outside a warehouse, but the warehouse doors were closed and there was no sign of anyone working there. As Gavin swung the speeder in alongside the hauler, Wedge continued issuing orders. “Hobbie, with me to move the hauler and take up position far side. The rest of you find cover on this side of the street.”
The speeder had barely stopped moving before its occupants were scrambling out. Wedge sprinted for the cargo hauler, leaping onto the open driver’s platform with Hobbie close behind. Hobbie stood guard, blaster at the ready, while Wedge worked some magic with an illegal keycard to override the lockdown system and get the hauler started. Tycho and Janson ran past, aiming to take cover behind a pair of cargo crates. The hauler roared into life, rising on its repulsors. Wedge drove it backwards, not bothering to look where he was going, and set it at an angle across the narrow road. It was barely half-a-dozen speeder lengths from the turn Gavin had just brought them around, floating a little over a meter above the road. The transparisteel sheets loaded on the back made a roadblock nearly five meters high. Wedge and Hobbie jumped from the hauler and ran for the cover of a lifter unit parked outside the warehouse opposite. Gavin joined Tycho and Janson behind the cargo crates.
Tycho had barely started to get his breath back after his dash into cover, when the dark blue Nine-Fifty came around the corner at a good speed. The driver did his best, he didn’t panic and try to swerve around the obstacle, but gunned his engines in an effort to go over it. The speeder’s nose didn’t come up far enough though. The airspeeder hit the load of transparisteel with an awe-inspiring crack, before the repulsor field on the belly of the speeder pushed it away again. Shattered transparisteel cascaded off the hauler as the speeder spun backwards, its front end crushed. The driver still had some control, and managed to halt the spin, with the speeder dipping drunkenly to the front right side.
Wedge came partially out of his cover and fired a single blaster bolt into the crumpled front of the speeder.
“Come out with your hands raised and in clear view,” he ordered.
Nothing happened for a couple of seconds, then a pair of blaster bolts fired from inside the speeder forced him to duck back behind the lifter.
“Safe to say they’re hostile,” remarked Gavin, opening fire on the speeder.
“They had their chance,” Tycho agreed, pouring blaster bolts at a side window that had been cracked in the crash.
Beside him, Janson was lying almost flat on the duracrete in order to shoot up at the underside of the speeder. Shot after shot hit the same place, chewing away at the repulsor coils and hampering the driver’s efforts to turn the speeder.
Blaster fire ripped back and forth across the street. The occupants of the speeder directed most of their fire to the group behind the cargo crates, no doubt worried by the damage Janson was doing to the speeder. On the other side of the street, Wedge and Hobbie kept up a steady barrage, one of them aiming for the damaged front end, and the other pouring bolts at the passenger compartment. Janson’s steady work paid off as something beneath the speeder exploded. The Nine-Fifty lurched and then dropped to the ground, the front viewport shattering with the impact. A few seconds later, a cloud of dark smoke billowed from the front end, half-obscuring the speeder.
Janson let out a whoop. “That’s got them !”
Those inside the speeder hadn’t given up yet. A few shots still came out of the smoke. Tycho shifted his aim to area of the smoke where he thought the now-unprotected front viewport was. He could just about hear other, more distant shots, that reassured him that Wedge and Hobbie were both still active. Gavin, however, was the first to hear another sound. He stopped shooting for a moment to turn and look along the street, in the opposite direction to that they’d entered by. A plain, passenger-carrier repulsor-van swung into view at the far end of the road and accelerated towards the fight.
“I think they’ve got backup,” Gavin yelled over the blaster noise.
Tycho shifted position to take a look. As he did, the repulsor-van decelerated sharply and doors swung open on both sides. Men dressed in black combat gear with visored helmets, and carrying blaster rifles began to leap out, every move professional. Tycho’s comlink beeped and he ducked back to answer it, letting Gavin fire past him at the new enemy.
“Tych. Give us covering fire,” Wedge ordered. “We’re coming through between the Nine-Fifty and the hauler.”
“Got you,” Tycho answered. The comlink clicked once, to indicate that Wedge had heard him. “Covering fire into that speeder,” Tycho ordered in turn as he switched off the comlink.
The hauler and its cargo would shelter Wedge and Hobbie from the new arrivals as they sprinted back across the road. There was still some smoke coming from the front of the downed airspeeder, but not enough to give really effective cover on its own. Tycho, Janson and Gavin all began raining blaster bolts into the speeder. The return fire slackened off noticeably. Tycho divided his concentration between shooting, and anxiously watching for Wedge and Hobbie.
They came into view suddenly, firing recklessly at the speeder as they ran. Hobbie was slightly in the lead. Blaster bolts seared the air around them as they reached the thinning smoke and raced within a few feet of the speeder. Tycho and the others half-rose from cover, risking themselves to get better shots at the speeder occupants. Hobbie stumbled, but Tycho forced himself to concentrate on aiming and firing his blaster pistol. Then Wedge and Hobbie were sprinting over the last few yards of open ground, Wedge alongside Hobbie and helping him. Suddenly, there was no more blaster fire coming back from the speeder. Tycho and Gavin moved aside to let Wedge and Hobbie dive in behind the battered cargo crates.
For a few moments, all that could be heard was the sound of Wedge and Hobbie gasping for breath. Hobbie had his left hand clasped against his right shoulder, pain lining his face. Tycho risked a glimpse past the cargo hauler at the troops pounding towards them from the repulsor-van.
“We’ve got to keep moving,” he warned.
Their own airspeeder was now between them and the oncoming enemies. They didn’t stand a chance of reaching it.
“Into the warehouse; more cover,” Wedge said, hauling himself to his feet.
Tycho joined Janson in giving covering fire as they retreated to the nearest door. Wedge reached it first, producing a multi-pronged tool from a pocket and tackling the lock mechanism. Hobbie waited close by, hand still clasped against his injured shoulder. Gavin took the chance to slip a fresh power pack into his blaster. A short exclamation from Wedge signalled success, and they piled through the door into the dimly lit interior.
Massive rows of shelving ran from the front to the back of the warehouse. Sheets of transparisteel, durasteel frames, crates and barrels of who-knew-what filled the shelves, with a few items stacked here and there in the aisles between the shelves.
“There’ll be an emergency exit at the far end,” Tycho said, leading the way.
They set off at a fast jog. Wedge, Tycho and Janson all managed to change blaster packs on the move. Hobbie had holstered his gun. His face was pale with pain and shock, but he kept up with the others. A crash from behind and an increase in light told them that the enemy troopers had broken in through the main warehouse doors. Tycho picked up the pace, anxious to beat them to the far end of the long building and reach the exit first. He couldn’t see the troopers, but from the thudding footsteps, they were running along another aisle parallel to the one the Rogues were in.
A blaster rifle fired behind him, the shot burning a hole in a crate ahead and to his right. Tycho slowed and looked back over his shoulder. Four troopers had entered through the personnel door that Wedge had opened. They had a clear line of sight along the aisle that the Rogues were in, and their blaster rifles had a range advantage over the pistols that Tycho and his friends carried. More blaster bolts sizzled past, one coming so close to Gavin’s head that he winced from the heat. To keep running along this aisle was to be target practice for the troopers behind them.
The nearest cover was a trio of cold-storage crates stacked to one side. Tycho swerved that way, followed by the others. A few moments later, they were crouched together behind the dubious shelter of the crates. Blaster bolts began to thud into the crates with alarming regularity.
“Good plan, Tycho,” Hobbie gasped, leaning back against a crate. “I needed to stop for a breather.”
Gavin and Wedge had already started to return occasional shots. The troopers had dropped into the cover of a stack of slatecrete roof tiles. There was no point in wasting the power packs in laying down a barrage of shots that were unlikely to hit at this distance. The troopers continued to blast away at the crates that sheltered the Rogues.
“We’ve got to move,” Tycho said, looking around for inspiration.
“And before the main group get to the far end of this aisle and we get trapped between them,” Wedge added, snapping a quick shot at the four troopers.
Tycho shifted closer to him and spoke quietly. “I’m sorry for getting you involved in this mess.”
Wedge flashed a sudden, brilliant smile, that warmed his eyes. “Just like old times.”
In spite of the situation, Tycho couldn’t help but smile back. “Good times..
Wedge nodded, the light suddenly dying from his face. “We can’t go back, but you have to find a way to move forward.”
He turned before Tycho could say anything, and took a cautious look back down the aisle towards the four troopers. “Wes, aim for the support on this side of bay A 03. I want you to hit it just above first shelf level.”
“I’m on it.” Janson changed places with Gavin and began to take aim as Wedge had told him.
Wedge, Gavin and Tycho increased their rate of fire, making it too risky for the troopers to try for an aimed shot at what little of Janson they could see. Janson’s first shot scraped the support he was aiming for and exploded against a sheet of transparisteel stacked on the shelf. It was a long and tricky shot with a pistol, especially with intermittent fire coming back their way, but Tycho had faith in Janson. He concentrated on doing his own part: keeping the troopers pinned down. Janson’s next shot hit, chewing away part of the shelf support. He kept up a steady stream of fire, every bolt hitting the same spot on the support. Tycho couldn’t see Janson’s face, but he knew the look of cold satisfaction that would be there.
One of the troopers stood up, desperate to get a better shot at Janson. Three blaster bolts came his way, before he could get his rifle in line, and he toppled backwards. Tycho had no idea who had hit him. The other three troopers ceased firing and ducked out of sight, most likely pulling back. They were too late. The shelf support suddenly collapsed, letting the edge of the shelf above the troopers tilt forward. A meter high stack of transparisteel plates slid forward, and toppled onto the troopers’ position. The shelving stack began to fall in on itself like a house of cards collapsing. As the transparisteel hit and disintegrated into lethal shards, crates, shelving and stacks of slatecrete tiles poured down.
Tycho winced, wondering how many of the troopers had ended up beneath that pile of building materials. Dust swirled into the air as items continued to cascade down, spreading right across the aisle.
“Good work, Wes,” Wedge said. He helped Hobbie to his feet. “Time to go.”
They set off again at a brisk jog, Gavin close beside Hobbie and ready to offer help. Janson stayed at the back of the group, glancing over his shoulder now and again at the pile of debris, to check for signs of life. The aisle seemed almost as long to Tycho as when they’d started. It was difficult to hear anything over their own footsteps, but he was sure he could hear the thunder of other feet getting closer. At last they were reaching the end of the aisle. The back wall of the warehouse didn’t have shelf units, but more goods were stacked on the floor, close against the wall. Tycho looked for an exit sign, wondering whether to go left or right. He was about ten yards from the end of the aisle, when half a dozen troopers suddenly appeared around the corner.
Both groups came to a halt in some surprise. Reflexes scattered blaster bolts across the space between them, before common sense said it was suicidal to stand in the open and exchange fire. The Rogues went one way and the troopers went another. One trooper lay crumpled in the open, a victim of Janson’s inborn talent for blasters. This time, Tycho and the others found themselves taking cover behind some crated laundry machines.
“Didn’t we just leave this party ?” Janson asked of no one in particular.
“Anyone hurt ?” Tycho asked, looking anxiously at each man in turn.
Wedge, Gavin and Janson all shook their heads.
“Close enough,” Wedge said, displaying a scorched patch on his jacket sleeve where a blaster bolt had missed by a hair’s-breadth.
Hobbie didn’t look too good, but he had no new injury. “Everyone’s doing just great apart from me,” he said, sitting with his back to a crate for support. “So business as usual.”
“Which, in this case, means being trapped in some barely inadequate cover, wondering how long it will take for our enemy’s backup to arrive and surround us,” Janson explained helpfully.
“Are we sure they’ve got backup for their backup ?” Gavin asked.
“Almost certainly,” Wedge answered. “And we don’t. And as well organized as this lot are, they probably know that we don’t.”
Janson ventured a peek over a crate at the troopers, drawing a couple of close shots. He ducked back again, a gleam in his eyes as he faced the new challenge.
“There’s no shelving to bring down on them this time,” he reported. “They’re in cover between some cargo-hold crates and some yellow barrels.”
Tycho looked at Wedge, whose expression was grim. The longer they were delayed here, the more likely it was that their enemies would bring backup. For all they knew, their freighter was being impounded or fitted with a tracking device. Hobbie’s condition was another cause for concern. None of them was carrying a medpac of any kind. It was plain to see that shock was really starting to set in. No one would think for a minute of leaving him behind, but he would soon be slowing them down.
Wedge tried to get a look over a crate, only to drop back hurriedly as a blaster bolt almost parted his hair.
“Someone point a blaster their way and make them duck for a few seconds,” he asked, switching places with Tycho. “I want to take a look.”
Tycho and Gavin did as he asked, holding blasters just above the crates and firing blind in the approximate direction of the troopers. Wedge popped up again and got a brief look at the situation before returning to cover. The others ceased fire.
“Any ideas ?” Tycho asked.
Wedge didn’t answer immediately, wrapped in his thoughts. His expression changed, a hard bleakness coming into his eyes, that worried Tycho. “The yellow barrels,” he said quietly. Wedge looked straight at Tycho. “I saw three pressurized barrels behind those troopers. I recognized the warning symbols on them. The barrels contain Tibanna gas.”
Tycho understood immediately. “Explosive. And can be set off by a blaster bolt.” A sudden rush of hope faded as he looked at Wedge’s face.
“It’s a tricky shot from this angle,” Wedge continued, his voice flat. “We’ve got to divert them for several seconds for Wes to take the shot.”
The others were openly listening now. Janson nodded thoughtfully as the problem was outlined.
“A power-pack grenade ?” Gavin suggested. “That would give them something else to think about, and might even set off the gas.”
“Does anyone have a spare blaster pack ?” Wedge asked.
The silence was answer enough.
Blind covering fire wouldn’t be so effective a second time. The troopers they were facing had helmets with protective visors, which enabled them to take more risks than the Rogues could. Even surrender wasn’t an option. Tycho had no doubt that these were Imperial troops they were facing. The Empire had already passed the death sentence on Wedge, and would most likely do the same to other members of Rogue Squadron.
“These are professionals,” Wedge continued. “They’re not going to fall for simple diversions. It has to be a credible threat.”
Tycho was getting a cold feeling in his gut. “Don’t do it,” he said urgently.
“I’ve faced worse things in my life,” Wedge answered calmly. “I’ll run to that loader in the next aisle, and draw their fire that way. You, Tycho, and Gavin can start firing from here and keep them too busy to get a good shot at Wes. Wes, your best angle is from where Gavin is now.”
Tycho took hold of Wedge’s arm. “You’re not in command now, Wedge,” he said bluntly. “We don’t have to do what you say.”
“Especially when it means you committing suicide,” Janson added, his face as serious as Tycho had ever seen him.
“You can’t command me either, Tycho,” Wedge answered. Emotions flashed through his dark eyes: hopelessness, determination and a fierce pride. “We haven’t got the time to debate this. We fought together, and all risked our lives to bring about this New Republic.” He looked at each of them in turn. “It still needs you all to fight for it. There’s nothing more for me to give, except this.”
Tycho slowly released his hold on Wedge’s arm. Gavin and Janson shuffled around to change places. Tycho never knew how he did it, but he turned away from Wedge and readied himself to straighten up and start shooting.
In a sudden flurry of movement, Wedge was away, sprinting across the open ground at an angle to where the troopers were. Tycho heard the first rifle shot come in response, then he, Janson and Gavin were up on their feet, with a clear view of the troopers’ position, and of Wedge. Tycho fired as fast as he could work the trigger, Gavin doing the same, while Janson lined up that tricky shot at the yellow barrels. Blaster bolts scorched through the air in all directions. Some, too much, was aimed at Wedge as he jinked back and forth, firing a few unaimed shots of his own in return. Tycho’s shots, and Gavin’s were mostly hitting the sturdy cargo-hold crates, or going above, and into the back wall of the warehouse. A few shots came back at them from the troopers who couldn’t get a clear shot at Wedge. One blaster bolt hit the top of a packing crate so close to Janson that he flinched, losing his aim.
Tycho saw Wedge stagger suddenly, and fight to regain his balance. He kept firing, fighting back a cry of anguish as Wedge jerked under the impact of more hits, and fell. He dimly registered the sound of Janson’s blaster firing. Tycho saw Wedge hit the ground, and then the barrels of Tibanna gas exploded.
Tycho wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he could get his thoughts into coherent order. He was sprawled behind the crated laundry machines, his ears ringing. Janson and Gavin were in a similar state, looking as dazed as he felt. Hobbie had been fully sheltered from the blast by the crates but there was pain and fear on his long face as he looked at Tycho.
“Wedge ?” he asked.
Tycho picked up his blaster and rose, cautiously peering over the crates. A quick look was enough to show him that the troopers offered no more threat. Wedge still lay unmoving where Tycho had seen him fall. Shoving his blaster into its holster, Tycho ran to him. His knees seemed to buckle, and he sat heavily on the warehouse floor. His arms still worked though. Gently, Tycho rolled Wedge onto his back. Hope soared for a moment, as he realized that Wedge was still breathing, but the reality of two blaster burns to Wedge’s chest, crushed that hope utterly. He lifted Wedge’s head and shoulders into his lap, brushing a stray lock of hair from Wedge’s face.
Wedge stirred a little, his eyes opening.
“Wedge ? It’s Tycho.” Tycho was half-aware that others were gathered round, but his attention was wholly on Wedge.
Wedge’s eyes focussed on Tycho for a moment. “Ty…tell her…I love…” His gaze softened and his eyes slid closed again. “Iell…” The name slurred away as he lost consciousness.
Wedge breathed a half dozen times more as his life slipped away. Then his chest didn’t rise again and he lay still in Tycho’s hold. Tears stung Tycho’s eyes as he bowed his head. He gradually became aware of someone shaking his shoulder, and looked up, blinking, to see Janson.
“Wedge died to buy us time to get out of here,” Janson said simply. His face was smudged with tears too. “We can’t waste that time.”
Tycho nodded, and sniffed inelegantly. He took a deep breath, forcing his mind to start working again. “We need transport to the spaceport,” he said. “They’re probably on a lookout for our speeder.”
“We could take their repulsor-van,” Gavin suggested. He’d moved to where the troopers had been sheltering, and was searching the remains. “There may still be a driver in the van.” He paused, gulped, and continued speaking. “But we can put together a couple of uniforms from this lot and borrow their helmets.”
“It’s worth a try,” Tycho agreed. Reluctantly, he released his hold and carefully lowered Wedge’s head to the floor of the warehouse. He helped strip bodies, collecting IDs from them to give to Intelligence later, and equipped Janson and Gavin as black-clad troopers. They worked in near-silence, numbed by shock. When they were ready, Tycho helped Hobbie up, then lifted Wedge’s body into his arms. Almost before he knew it, they were at the main doors of the warehouse, and Janson and Gavin were striding out to the repulsor-van. Janson leaned forward to speak to someone in the driver’s compartment. A quick shot from his blaster rifle and the van was theirs.
Gavin helped Hobbie into the back of the van and searched for a medpac. Tycho climbed into the van on his own and laid Wedge on one of the long passenger benches. Only when he’d pulled crash webbing over Wedge’s body, to hold it in place, did he drop into one of the other seats, suddenly exhausted. Janson accelerated the van away, making Gavin sway as he tended to Hobbie’s wound. Tycho sat silently, looking across the van to where Wedge lay. Wedge’s head had rolled to one side, hiding the scarred cheek. Death had smoothed the lines of bitterness from around his eyes. Only the strands of long hair trailing across his face spoiled the illusion that nothing had changed in the last two years. Wedge looked more peaceful that he had since… since before…
“He died back on Adumar,” Hobbie said quietly. “Being court-martialled and used as a scapegoat by the New Republic tore his heart out. But if he’d betrayed himself by agreeing to the live-weapon duels, that would have killed him too.”
Tycho nodded sadly. “He kept his honour, and he died with honour. And I want the whole of the New Republic to know that,” he added fiercely. “I won’t let his reputation stay in the gutter. Wedge Antilles will be remembered the way he deserves.”
Once back on Coruscant, Tycho’s first priority was to visit Mirax and Corran. It was evening, local time, and he found them in their apartment. There, he broke the news to them, seeing the shock on Corran’s face, and the sparkle draining from Mirax’s brown eyes. Mirax clung to her husband’s arm, silent tears sliding down her face. Corran shook his head.
“It’s so unfair,” he said hoarsely. “Wedge…Wedge helped make the New Republic what it is and they abandoned him - worse than that - when he became inconvenient.”
“We won’t let them forget him,” Tycho promised. “Wedge was a Rogue, and Rogues look after their own. You remember how Wedge stood by me after I was in Lusankya, and during my trial ?”
“Afterwards, Mon Mothma made a public announcement, saying that my trial had been part of an Intelligence operation to uncover Imperial spies, and that I’d willingly allowed myself to become a target for hate as part of the plan. I think there should be a public explanation that Wedge allowed himself to be blamed for the Adumar situation in order for him to go undercover, and that he died as a hero, serving the New Republic.”
Mirax gasped. “That’s a wonderful idea, Tycho, but how are you going to swing it ? You’d have to get official approval from the highest levels.”
Tycho smiled humourlessly. “I intend to. I have direct access to Admiral Ackbar and Princess Leia will see me if Winter asks. From Leia, I can get in contact with Luke Skywalker; Leia can talk to Mon Mothma. They all knew Wedge, they all respected him. They know he deserves this.
“What can we do to help ?” Mirax asked.
Tycho took a deep breath. “Before I contract Admiral Ackbar and the others, I’d like you to come with me now. I have to go speak to Iella, and I think she’s going to need a friend to stay with her.”
Mirax wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. “Of course.”
Beside her, Corran nodded. “She won’t be alone.”
Iella wasn’t alone that night, nor at the public memorial service that followed the quiet funeral. Corran sat on one side of her at the memorial, with Mirax and Booster on the other side. Tycho wasn’t sure that she’d attended fully to all the speeches, letting her gaze wander to the holofilms of Wedge displayed about the great hall. But she looked up steadily when he stepped up to the dais, and read aloud a passage from an ancient poem..
Tbe paragraph quoted above by Tycho is by Alexander Pope.
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DISCLAIMER: Star Wars and all associated characters and concepts are copyright to Lucasfilm Ltd, and are merely borrowed here, with no commercial intent. This story is my own work: do not copy, print or post anywhere, in any form, without my permission.