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Star Wars - I, Jedi

Michael A. Stackpole

  Star Wars - I, Jedi

  by Michael A Stackpole


  None of us liked waiting in ambush, primarily because we couldn't be wholly certain we weren't the ones being set up for a hotvape. The Invids-the pirate crews working with the ex-Imperial Star Destroyer Invidious-had so far eluded the best efforts of the New Republic to engage them. They seemed to know where we would be, when we would get there, and in what force, then planned their raids appropriately. As a result we spent a lot of time doing battle-damage assessments on their efforts, and they really pushed to give us plenty of BDA work.

  Rogue Squadron had gone to ground to wait on several of the larger asteroids in the K'vath system. This location put us in close proximity to K'vath 5's primary moon, Alakatha. We pow-ered down our engines and had our sensors in passive mode only to avoid detection by the folks we wanted to trap. According to our mission briefing, New Republic Intelligence had gotten a tip they considered reliable that at least part of Leonia Tavira's pirate fleet would be hitting a luxury liner coming out of the resort coast on Alakatha's northern continent. Mirax and I had actually honeymooned there three years ago, before Thrawn turned the New Republic insideout, so I had fond memories of the place and could well remember the wealth dripping in jewels and precious metals from the throats and hands of the New RepubliCs elite.

  I glanced at my X-wing's chronometer. "The Glitterstar is still on schedule?"

  Whistler, nestled behind my cockpit, hooted with just a hint of derision in his voice.

  "Yes, I know I told you to let me know if there was a change and, no, I didn't think it had slipped your circuits." I forced my gloved hands open, then rotated my wrists to get rid of some of the tension. "I'm just anxious."

  He blatted a quick comment at me.

  "Hey, just because patience is a virtue, that doesn't make impatience a vice." I sighed and turned the latter half of it into a piece of a Jedi breathing exercise Luke Skywalker had urged upon me when trying to recruit me as a Jedi. Breathing in through my nose to a count of four, I held the breath for a seven count, then exhaled in eight beats. With each breath I let more tension flow out of me. I sought the clarity of mind I'd need for the coming battle-if the Invids materialized-but it eluded me with the ease the Invids had shown in escaping the New Republic.

  Things kept seeming to happen fast. Mirax and I married fast, and while I did not at all regret having done so, events conspired to make our married life extremely difficult. Grand Admiral Thrawn and his antics ruined our first anniversary, and rescuing Jan Dodonna and the others who had once been imprisoned with me on the Lusankya had called me away during the second. And then the reborn Emperor's assault on Coruscant dropped a Star Destroyer on what had been our home. Neither of us were there at the time, which was standard operating procedure far too often.

  In fact, the only benefit of being assigned to go after the Invids was that their leader, ex-Moff Leonia Tarira, seemed to have a taste for a life of leisure. When her Invidious vanished between raids, we usually had a week of down time before having to worry about another attack. Mirax and I put this free time to good use, rebuilding our home and our relationship, but with that came some consequences that I saw as incredibly disruptiveon the scale of Thrawn disruptive.

  Mirax decided she wanted children.

  I have nothing against kids-as long as they go home with

  their parents at the end of the day. Expressing this opinion in those terms to Mirax was not the smartest thing I had ever done and, in fact, proved to be one of the more painful ones. The hurt and pain in her eyes haunted me for a long time. Deep down, I knew there would be no dissuading her, and I wasn't even sure, in the end, I wanted to.

  I did try, however, and employed most of the standard arguments to do so. The "this is an unsettled time in the galaxy" ploy lost out to the fact that our parents had faced a similar choice and we'd turned out pretty well. The "uncertainty of my job" argument wilted beneath the logic of my life insurance and then withered away when Mirax gave me a glimpse at the accounts files-the real ones-for her import/export business. She pointed out that she could easily support the three or four of us and I'd not have to work a single second, outside of caring for the children. And, she noted, that carrying a child for nine full months meant she would already have 3.11 years of forty-hour weeks of childcare logged and that I would owe her.

  Over and above all that, she said I'd make a great father. She noted that my father had done a great job with me. Having learned from him the skills of being a father, she just knew I'd be wonderful with kids. In using that argument, she turned the love and respect I had for my father around on me. She made it seem as if I was dishonoring his memory by not bringing children into the world. It was a most persuasive argument, as she knew it would be, and hammered me pretty hard.

  In retrospect, I should have given up at the start and saved the two of us a great deal of grief. She makes her living-a vely good living, it turns out-convincing all sorts of folks that junk no one else wants is absolutely vital to them. While she en-gaged me in logical discussions-focusing my defenses on that avenue of attack-she slipped past my guard on a purely emotional level. Little comments about what kind of child our genetic lottery would produce got me investing brain-sweat in solving that puzzle. That went straight to the detective training in methe training that wouldn't let me drop a case until I had an answer.

  Which, in this case, meant a child.

  She also managed to flick on the HoloNet monitors when some event featuring news about Leia Organa Solo's three-year-old twins was being shown. The children were frighteningly cute and their very existence had been blamed for a babybinge in the New Republic. I knew Mirax was not so shallow as to be wanting a child out of envy or to be trendy, but she did note that she was Leia's age, and that it was a good time to have a child or two.

  And that cuteness factor really can get under your skin. The New Republic media avoided showing the twins drooling and dripping the way children do, and they really maximized the appealing things about the toddlers. It got so that when I did remember dreams, they were of me cradling a sleeping child in my arms. Oddly enough, I stopped thinking of those dreams as nightmares pretty quickly and did my best to preserve them in my mind.

  Realizing I was lost, I began to bargain for time. Mirax flat refused to accept fixed time dates, mainly because I was thinking in years, so I made things conditional. I told her once the Invids were taken care of, we'd make a final decision. She accepted my decision a bit better than I expected, which started preying on me, and making me feel guilty. I would have thought that was a tactic she'd decided to use, but she thought guilt was a hammer and she's definitely a vibroblade fan.

  I exhaled slowly again. "Whistler, remind me when we get home, Mirax and I need to make a decision on this baby thing, now, not later. Tavira's not going to dictate my life."

  Whistler's happy high staccato sailed down into a low warning tone.

  I glanced at my primary monitor. The Glitterstar had lifted from Alakatha and another ship had appeared insystem. Whistler identified it as a modified bulk cruiser known as the BooU Full. Unlike the liner's sleek design, the cruiser was studded with warty protrusions that quickly detached themselves and began to run in on the liner.

  I keyed my comm. "Rogue Lead, three flight has contact.

  One cruiser and eighteen uglies heading in on the Glitterstar."

  Tycho's voice came back cool and calm. "I copy, Nine. Engage the fighters with two flight. One has the cruiser."

  I flicked over to three flight's tactical channel. "Light them up, Rogues, we have the fighters."

  I started the engines, then shunted power to the repulsorlift coils. The X-wing rose like a gho
st from a grave and came about to point its nose toward the liner. As Ooryl's X-wing pulled up on my left and my other two pilots, Vurrulf and Ghufran, arrived on the right, I punched the throttle full forward and launched myself into the fight.

  A smile blossomed on my face. Any sapient creature making a claim to sanity would find hurtling along in a fragile craft of metal and ferroceramics to be stupid or suicidal. Pushing that same craft into battle merely compounded the situation, and I knew it. By the same token, very few experiences in life can compare to flying in combat-or engaging any enemy in a fight-because doing that is the one point where civilization demands us to harness our animal nature and employ it against a most dangerous prey. Without being physically and mentally and even mechanically at my best, I would die and my friends might even die with me.

  But I had no intention of letting that happen.

  With a flick of my thumb I switched from lasers over to proton torpedoes and allowed for single fire. I selected an initial target and eased the crosshairs on my heads-up display onto its outline. Whistler beeped steadily as he worked for a target lock, then the box surrounding the fighter went red and his tone became a constant.

  I hit the trigger and launched my first proton torpedo. It streaked away hot and pinkish-white, trailed by others lancing out from my flight. While employing proton torpedoes against fighters is seen as overkill by some pilots, within Rogue Squadron using such a tactic was always seen as an expedient way of lowering the odds against us-odds that were usually longer than a Hutt and decidedly more ugly.

  The Invids used a form of customdesigned fighter called a Tri-fighter. It started with the ball cockpit and ion engine assembly of Seinar Svstem's basic TIE fighter-a commodity which, after hydrogen and stupidity, was the most plentiful in the galaxyand married it to a trio of angular blades set 120 degrees apart. The bottom two served as landing gear, while the third came up over the top of the cockpit. The fighter still had the TIE's twin lasers mounted beneath the cockpit, while the third tine sprouted an ion cannon. The ships also had some basic shields, which explained why they were more successful than your basic eyeball, and side viewports cut into the hull gave the pilot more visibility. Because the trio of tines looked as if they were grasping at the cockpit, we'd nicknamed the design "clutch."

  The shields and extra visibility didn't help the clutch I'd targeted. The proton torpedo jammed itself right up the left engine's exhaust port and actually punched out through the cockpit before detonating. The fighter flew into the roiling, golden ball of fire and just vanished. Three more clutches ex-ploded nearby, then another three exploded off to starboard, where two flight was coming in.

  "Pick targets carefully, three flight. Ooryl, we're on the pair to port."

  "Ten copies, Nine."

  I kicked my X-wing up on the port stabilizer foils and hauled back on the stick. Chopping power to the engine, I tightened the circle, then rolled out to the right as the pirates started a long serpentine turn. I switched over from missiles to dual lasers and immediately got a yellow box around the lead fighter. I goosed the throttle back to full to close range and keyed my comm. "I'm on the leader."

  Oorvl gave me a double-click on his comm to let me know he'd gotten the message. Nudging the stick just a bit right, the targeting box went green and I hit the firing button. Two red bolts hit the target. The first fried the shields. The clutch trailed sparks from the shield generator like a comet trailing ice. The second bolt pierced the cockpit and though it hit kind of high, it hit hard, too. Sparks shot from the hole and the clutch began a slow spiral down toward Alakatha.

  Ooryl rolled to port as the other clutch broke. I brought my X-wing around in behind him as he lined his shot up. Tile Gand's first two shots blasted past the shields and burned furrows in the ship's hull. The next two drilled the engines, jetting the disintegrating ship forward on a golden gout of flame. The flame abruptly died, leaving the Tri-fighter to tumble through space out toward the asteroid belt.

  Up through the cockpit canopy I could see the green and white streaky ball of Alakatha and the Glitterstar rising up from it. Off to starboard the Boot), Full seemed to crouch in the void like a malignant insect. The turbolasers along its spine and in a bellv turret fired out, trying to track one fiight's X-wings, but the shots were no real danger to the fighters. Colonel Celchu, Hobbie, Janson and Gavin Darklighter were old hands at pulling the teeth of raiders like these. As long as we kept the clutches busy, the Booty Full had no chance.

  The X-wing's first slashing attack came from Tycho and Hobhie. They rolled through and each drove a proton torpedo into the aft shields. Coming from the other direction, Gavin and Wes Janson strafed the ship with laser fire. Gavin's second burst melted the belly turret clean away while Janson's shots nibbled away at the ship's aft vector jets. The Booty Full was done, though I had no doubts it would take a couple more passes before the crew realized that and surrendered.

  I followed Ooryl up and around the back toward the fight. It had fairly well degenerated into a chase-and-kill run. The loss of seven ships before they even saw their enemies had clearly shocked the pirates and, more importantly, brought their numbers down close to ours. While clutches were more agile than X-wings-not by much, but by enough to make fighting them difficult-they couldn't outrun us or outgun us. Lacking the discipline of a trained military unit like Rogue Squadron, when panic set in, they fell apart and made our job that much easier.

  Ooryl settled in on one and hit it with a full quad burst from his lasers. The clutch exploded, but boiling in through the explosion came another clutch making a head-to-head pass at Ooryl. The clutch got off a shot with the ion cannon that sent a lightning storm skittering over Ooryl's shields, but they died before the ion blast did. The motivator blew on his R5 unit and Whistler reported his engines were out.

  "Ooryl, go for a restart." I didn't know if he still had comm or not, but I offered that bit of advice and fired a dual burst at the clutch. Hastily aimed, the shot missed low, but did cause the clutch to veer off. Rolling out to the right, I headed in after him. "This is Nine on one. Someone watch my back."

  Vurrulf, the Klatooinan in three flight, barked a harsh, "I copy, on it," so I felt a bit safer in pursuing the clutch. One of the worst things a pilot can do is to get so locked in on a target that he misses what else is happening. When situational awareness focuses down on one target, the hunter becomes hunted and never knows what hits him. It's a rookie mistake and while I'm no rookie, I'm not immune to it.

  The clutch's pilot was good and clearly had no desire to die, but Whistler wasn't reporting that he'd powered down his weapons, so he was just as clearly willing to fight. I tried to settle in on him, but he modulated his throttle and used his ship's agility to keep breaking before I could get a lock. I snapped a couple of shots off at him, but they missed wide or high. Try as I might, I was having trouble keeping up with his shifts and cuts.

  I pulled back on the throttle and let him gain some distance. His juking antics continued, but with range the movements that had ripped him out of my sights in close barely broke the edges of my targeting box. I hit the firing button and sent two paired bursts at him. One pair lanced through the aft shield and mangled one of the landing tines. The other two energy darts clipped the thrust vector vents on the port side, limiting his maneuverability.

  Whistler displayed a comm frequency being used by the clutch and I punched it up on my comm unit. "This is Captain Corran Horn of the New Republic Armed Forces. I will accept your surrender."

  A woman answered me. "Don't you know, Invids never surrender?"

  "Not true of the BooO' Ftdl."

  "Riizolo is a fool, but he doesn't have a capital warrant out on his head. I do." She laughed. "I have nothing to live for, except my honor. One pass, Horn, you and me."

  "You'll die." A single pass would negate the clutch's agility advantage. She had to know that.

  "But perhaps not alone." Her ship stopped jinking and headed out on a long loop. "Allow me th
is honor." The clutch turned and began its run at me.

  I wanted to do as she asked, and would have, except for one thing: the Invids had proved over and over again that they had no honor.

  I switched to proton torpedoes, got a quick tone-lock from Whistler and pulled the trigger. The missile shot from my X-wing and sprinted straight for her ship. As good as she was, the clutch pilot knew there was no dodging it. She fired with both lasers, but they missed. Then, at the last moment, she shot an ion blast that hit the missile. Blue lightning played over it, burning out every circuit that allowed the torpedo to track and close on her ship.

  I'm fairly certain, just for a second, she thought she had won. The problem with a projectile is that even if its sophisticated circuitry fails, it still has a lot of kinetic energy built up. Even if it never senses the proximity of its target and detonates, that much mass moving that fast treats a clutch cockpit much the way a needle treats a bubble. The torpedo drove the ion engines out the back of the clutch, where they exploded. The fighter's hollow remains slowly spun off through space and would eventually burn through the atmosphere and give resort guests a thrill.

  Whistler made my threat screen all green indicating no more active hostiles in the area. Three flight reported in and Ooryl was back up and running. His forward shield had collapsed and refused to come back up, but otherwise he was fine. Vurrulf and Ghufran reported no trouble with their X-wings. As it turned out only Reme Pollar in two flight had been hit hard enough to be forced extra-vehicular, but she reported she would be fine until the Skipray blast boat from the Glitterstar picked her up.