Wedge Antilles rolled over uneasily in his sleep, the light cover tangling around his legs. He kicked at
it, murmuring impatient, unhappy sounds. For a few moments he lay still, then the howl of a siren shattered
the quiet. Wedge started, thrashing again as the sound entered his dream.
"Don't. No." The words came out as whispers, but in his mind he was screaming.
On and on the deathly wail went, as Wedge grew more agitated. The nightmare speeded up, worse than it had been for years. The siren's raw brutality added new echoes to the old terror.
"No, Mom !" he cried, jerked from his dream at last. He froze for a moment, bewildered by the continuing wail of the siren. His heart was pounding. Wedge dimly realized that the sound was for real. He sat up, slapping at the illumination sensor with one hand and brushing the hair from his face with the other. Rising light levels brought some comfort. Trained reactions took over as he came to full wakefulness. That was surely the evacuation signal; Wedge hit the intercom button.
"What's happening ?"
"Imp attack," came the flustered reply. "Half a squad of TIE bombers targeting the base."
"Tell the techs to get the Rogues' ships prepped, Antilles out." The terror of his dream began to fade as Wedge switched to dealing with his new problem.
He was half into his orange flightsuit when his door slid open and Tycho put his head round. "Rogues are ready to go !" he yelled over the noise of the siren.
Wedge nodded, tugging at the fastener. A powerful, muffled explosion sounded somewhere above them. Both men glanced at the ceiling.
"Those bombers will probably be gone by the time we get in the air," Tycho said.
"They may have brought some friends," Wedge pointed out, stamping his feet into his boots. Grabbing his gloves, he left the room and his few personal belongings behind.
Most of Nakano base was underground; a mass of corridors linking hangars and living sections. It was built into the side of a hill, so although the hangar was only two levels above the pilots' deep quarters, it opened through a very short tunnel onto the outside world. Even if they couldn't get into the air in time to deal with the bombers, Rogue Squadron might still be needed to harass any attempt by the Imperials to land ground troops. At the very worst, they would have the chance to get away with their ships and protect the transports evacuating the ground staff.
The other four members of Rogue Squadron were in the corridor. They all looked wide awake, fully dressed and ready for anything, especially Plourr.
"What kept you, Boss?" Hobbie asked as they jogged along the corridor.
"Well he certainly didn't stop to do his hair," Plourr joked, running easily. She was a tall and powerful woman, probably capable of pulling the arms off a wookiee, and willing to try if you dared her.
Wedge didn't answer, still feeling disconnected from reality. Another bomb hit somewhere overhead. The walls of the corridor shook as duracrete dust rained down on them.
"I hope this thing's gonna stay up," Hobbie said anxiously. His light brown hair was so thoroughly dusted with powder he seemed to have gone prematurely grey.
"It wouldn't dare fall in on Rogue Squadron," Wes said boldly.
"You mean it wouldn't dare fall in on Plourr," Dllr answered. Plourr laughed, leading the group along.
"Stay deep as long as possible," Tycho ordered.
"Right." Plourr swerved down a side corridor.
More bombs struck overhead. Cracks appeared in the walls and ceiling. Dust set the Rogues coughing as they ran on. Their quarters weren't that far from the hangar but tonight it seemed to be twice the distance. Plourr passed the elevators, not wishing to get trapped if the power failed or the bombing knocked them off their tracks. The emergency stairwells were just a few paces further on. She skidded to a halt and pulled the door aside, too impatient to let the autos work at their own speed.
A bomb hit right above the stairwell. The blast hit them almost before the noise. Wedge was knocked clear off his feet, colliding with whoever was behind him. He could dimly hear the yells of the others. Someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.
"Wedge ! Are you all right ?"
"Yeah." His ears were ringing and he was out of breath, but it could have been much worse. Grabbing Wes' arm, Wedge hauled himself to his feet and looked about. Dllr was clutching his ears; the Sullustan's sensitive hearing made him vulnerable to noise and abrupt changes in pressure. Plourr seemed to have grazed the side of her head, but there was no other sign of injury in the group.
"We'd better keep moving," Wedge ordered.
"We can still get up a level here," Plourr said, looking around the buckled door.
"OK; go for it."
The upper levels of the narrow stairwell had fallen in on the lower ones, but there was enough room for them to squeeze through.
"If we'd gotten here a few seconds earlier.." Hobbie let the thought trail away.
"We didn't, Wes grunted as he boosted Dllr over a chunk of duracrete.
Already ahead, Plourr grabbed the short Sullustan's hands and hauled him up. "Come'n, Wedge," she called, reaching down for her commanding officer.
Wedge glanced at the massive slab of duracrete, then swallowed his pride and took her help. It was better than floundering around on an obstacle the taller people could manage without trouble. Wes, Tycho and Hobbie followed, using their greater reach to scramble over easily. Plourr didn't wait. She eased herself between a fallen girder and the wall, then ducked under a bundle of cables that gave Wedge no trouble. He was right behind her when she opened the door.
Flames roared at them through the opening.
"Sithspawn !" Plourr jumped back so fast she nearly fell over Dllr.
Wedge pulled away too, his eyes fixed on the flames. Heat washed over his face.
"Can we get through ?" Hobbie called, untangling himself from the cables on the stairs.
Shielding her head with her sleeve, Plourr peered through the door more cautiously. "I think so," she reported. "Our suits should give us enough protection to get to the next stairwell." She grinned recklessly at her companions. "Last one though's a rancor's playmate." Diving through, she raced down the burning corridor.
Wedge stepped forward, then hesitated. "Go on," the words came out awkwardly as he waved the other on.
Dllr, Wes and Hobbie all went, dashing into the scorching heat. Only Tycho paused, looking straight at Wedge.
"Are you all right ?"
"Sure," Wedge answered automatically. His heart was pounding and he was already breathing in short, irregular gasps. Hard orange and yellow light reflected in his eyes as he stared at the fire; terrified and yet terrified to look away.
Tycho had never seen anything so close to sheer panic in Wedge's face. "I didn't know you were afraid of fire," he said quietly.
"It's just like my dream." Wedge swallowed. "I was dreaming of Mom and Dad when the siren woke me. I was dreaming of how they died."
"Ah..." Tycho's family had died instantly when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan. He knew how Wedge's parents had plunged back into a burning refuelling depot to detach it from the rest of the orbital station. Hundreds of lives had been saved, but Wedge had helplessly watched the burning depot explode with his parents trapped inside. "We've got to keep going."
"I know." Wedge took a deep breath; heat seemed to scorch down into his chest. He staggered, coughing.
While Wedge was off-balance, Tycho grabbed his arm and shoved him through the door. He crowded close behind, not giving Wedge the chance to retreat.
"Go on !" Tycho pushed Wedge forward.
The walls and ceiling seemed to be burning. Rolling carpets of golden flames surrounded them as Wedge stumbled forward. Every breath sucked heat into their lungs. As they passed an open door, flames danced playfully at them. Wedge turned his face away, protecting himself with his arm. He tried to run faster but his lungs were full of smoke. Panic made him run blindly on, forgetting about the exit he was supposed to be looking for.
"Here! Wedge !" Tycho grabbed the back of Wedge's flight suit and pulled him through a door. Wedge tore himself free, on the point of resuming his flight, but came to his senses in time.
This stairwell had been bombed too, but the air was clearer than in the corridor. Great, dark cracks marred the walls and there was an unpleasant haze of smoke, but no obvious flames. Wedge's knees buckled, leaving him slumped against the wall. Tycho took a moment to peer up the stairwell. Wes was there, looking back for them.
"We're all right !" Tycho called up. "Go on."
Wes signalled back, then left.
Tycho turned back to his commanding officer. Wedge's face was smeared with smoke; he looked very young and very frightened. "We made it through the worst bit," Tycho said bracingly.
Wedge nodded, not trusting himself to speak yet. He mind was racing with impressions; the flames, the heat, the smell. That horror was the last thing his parents had known.
"The others will be waiting," Tycho went on. "They need you, Captain Antilles."
"What ? Yes." Wedge forced himself back to the present. He wasn't an adolescent any more; he was an officer, respected and honoured. "I'd rather go blow up another Death Star than run through fire again." He managed a faint smile.
"We can't have a Rogue Squadron without Wedge Antilles," Tycho said, helping his friend up. "It's a by-law in the constitution of the New Republic."
"I'd be lucky to get a sub-paragraph."
Wedge started to run up the stairs, keeping his mind on the X-wing waiting for him in the hangar. That was where he belonged; nothing could touch him there. He was Rogue Leader.
A bomb struck somewhere close. The blast threw Wedge painfully against the hard steps. Noise and fire crumbled around him as sections of the stairwell gave way. Wedge crossed his arms over his head as debris fell on and around him. Something heavy landed on his back and slid off. Dust and smoke filled the air. Lighter material pattered down on his flight suit. As it eased off, Wedge raised his head cautiously. The sparking end of a cable swung freely, inches from his nose. Turning away, Wedge coughed and spat out filthy mucus.
"Tycho ?" Speaking tore at his smoke-inflamed throat.
Wedge braced himself against the thankfully solid steps and rolled, letting debris slide off him. His ribs and legs ached, but he seemed to have nothing worse than a comprehensive set of bruises. As he turned, he got a clearer look at the rest of the stairwell. The smoke was thicker, illuminated by flames. Fallen debris was burning all around him; flames licked through the ceiling and gashes in the wall.
"Wedge !" Tycho called more anxiously.
He was lying at the foot of the stairs, trapped under a girder and bundles of cables. The paint on the girder was burning. Tycho was struggling, trying to untangle himself from the cables, but the weight of the girder hampered his efforts. His flight suit gave some protection but it was already turning grey and black from the heat.
Wedge's courage drained away at the sight. He clamped his mouth closed, holding down the scream that shook him. Trying not to think, he slid down a couple of stairs, getting closer to his friend. He would have to lean into those flames to life the girder. Wedge shivered weakly.
"Help me," Tycho pleaded. Pinned as he was, he couldn't see Wedge's face, but he could guess what was happening.
"I..Tycho..." Wedge closed his eyes. He simply couldn't go back down into the fire, but he couldn't leave Tycho to burn here either. The very dilemma gnawed at his will.
"Wedge ! Help !" Panic infected Tycho's voice. He knew that if Wedge caught the fear and panicked, he would die, but he couldn't help it.
Wedge rocked back and forth. He had to do something; Tycho's life depended on it.
The station depends on it.
Hundreds of lives.
The words echoed back at him. It was what his parents had said when they went back into the burning depot.
We don't really have a choice.
"Neither do I." Wedge didn't know he'd spoken aloud. Pushing himself forward, he slithered down the last few stairs. Plunging on, he grabbed the nearest end of the girder and lifted. Fire scorched his face, forcing him to close his eyes. The heat seared through his flight gloves. He could feel Tycho moving; cables jerked as his friend wriggled free. His hands were starting to burn. His flight suit was burning; in a moment it would catch fire. Wedge clung on to the girder.
"Wedge ! Drop it !"
Wedge released his hold, staggering backwards. Tycho was on the bottom stairs; upright, scorched, dishevelled and alive. Glancing down at his own flight suit, Wedge saw that the top surface was blackened, but nothing worse. His hands were sore but there was no time to take his gloves off and look. He was still surrounded by burning debris and the smoke was getting thicker. Joining Tycho on the stairs, Wedge helped him up.
"Can you run ?"
Tycho nodded. "Even if I can't, I will."
Helping each other, they scrambled through the obstacle course of the stairwell.
The upper corridor was battered but still passable. A minute later they were in the hangar. Already the whine of repulsor engines made conversation difficult. The last two technicians detached hoses from X-wings, hauling equipment to the light freighter waiting near the hangar doors. The deck officer ran across to the pilots as they appeared.
"Your ships are ready to go, Sir," he told Wedge, his eyes wide as he took in their already battle-worn appearance.
"Thank you. You'd better get into your transport," Wedge answered.
The officer hesitated before asking. "Are you fit to fly, Sir ?"
Wedge grinned, his teeth white in his smokey face. "The zero-G field in my cockpit will feel better to my buises than getting strapped into a freighter. We'll cover you all right."
Tycho nodded too. "We're Rogues; we can do anything, remember ?"
The officer smiled. "Of course." He turned away, moving with fresh confidence as he gathered up men and equipment.
As they reached their X-wings, Tycho touched Wedge on the shoulder. "Thanks for coming back. I know how hard that was."
"I had no choice," Wedge answered simply. "No choice at all."
Strapping himself into his cockpit, Wedge flicked on his intercom. "All Rogues, this is Rogue Leader. Let's go, folks; we've got work to do."
"We're with you, Lead," Plourr responded for them. "Let's go trash some Imps."
Wedge eased his fighter into the air and flew out to do battle. Soreness and panic faded away as he soared into the sky. The others followed, trusting him to lead them safely as always. For them, it was no choice either.
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