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Star Wars: X-Wing II: Wedge's Gamble, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  “Nine, we’ll take Vengeance.”

  “Negative, Five, definitely negative.” If they go in on the freighter it will pick them apart. “Hang off there and try for torp locks on the TIEs.”

  Glancing at his sensor displays, he marked the positions of the Y-wings, then rolled his ship and dove. Angry green laser bolts slashed through the blackness in front of him, but neither of the TIEs’ shots hit. The sensors reported the last two eyeballs had just pulled through a crisscross maneuver and were looping up and around to make another pass on him. That told him the last two pilots were good enough to have survived more than one fight in their ships.

  They rolled through their double-helix maneuver and Corran shot through the center of their spiral. Rolling out to the right he cut in front of one, inviting a hastily snapped shot. The TIE pilot took it, splashing lasers against the X-wing’s aft shield. Ignoring Whistler’s shrill shriek, Corran reinforced the rear shield, then rolled and began a dive.

  The eyeball rolled and started after him. Corran chopped his throttle back, then rolled and dove sharply. He remained in the dive for a couple of seconds, then rolled again and climbed. Rolling back out onto his original course, he popped in behind the TIE that had previously been on his tail and took a shot of his own.

  The eyeball juked at the last second, so the four laser bolts only clipped the top of one of the solar panels. The TIE starfighter began to whirl away, but it never exploded. Damaged as the ship was, it would be an easy target to follow and finish, but the last TIE sprayed laser fire against the X-wing’s shields, giving Corran a more immediate threat to deal with.

  Because it was coming in from the left, Corran rolled right, then cruised down through a diving turn that aimed him back along its inbound course. The TIE looped up, then rolled and came down through an inverse loop to cut across Corran’s tail. Corran let the X-wing sideslip right, but not before the eyeball had taken a shot at him. Whistler screamed, then a bank of lights started flashing on the fighter’s command console.

  Sithspawn! My shields are down. Corran stomped on the right rudder pedal, swinging the X-wing’s nose in that direction, then rolled up on the port stabilizer and pulled back on the stick. As the ship started to climb, another snap-roll to the left broke it off at right angles to the climb and away from pursuit. “Whistler, get the shields back up, fast.”

  A counter appeared on his main screen and began counting down from one and a half minutes.

  “Not good, not good at all.”

  The major advantage an X-wing had over a TIE starfighter was shields. The two fighters matched each other in speed and the TIE actually had the edge in maneuverability. Shields allowed the X-wings to survive more hits during a fight, and in dogfighting, the goal was surviving to the end and beyond. Corran felt he could outfly the TIE pilot, but engaging in combat while naked was not something that made him feel at all confident.

  He punched the throttle to full and pushed the fighter through a series of twists and loops that carried it away from the TIE, but no closer to the Y-wings. Time seemed to be passing very slowly to Corran, with each second on the counter seeming to take a minute to click off. The TIE pilot seemed content to circle around, trying to close with Corran, then he broke off and streaked in toward the Y-wings, coming up from beneath them.

  “Heads up, Five. Invert, you have incoming.”

  The Y-wings executed the flip in good order as Corran allocated power that would have normally gone to shields over to propulsion. That provided him a bit more speed, which let him close the gap with the eyeball.

  “Nine, I have missile lock.”

  “Shoot, Six, shoot.”

  The Y-wing let a proton torpedo go at point-blank range, but it shot past the eyeball and would have hit the X-wing had Corran not rolled fast. “Break outside, Champions!”

  The Y-wing pilots complied with Corran’s order, but did so slowly. The TIE spun in on Champion Five, pouring verdant laser bolts into its shields. The Y-wing pilot continued his roll and dive, and the TIE corrected to follow him, allowing himself to fly a level arc as he pursued his quarry.

  You’re mine, now. Corran eased back on his stick, millimeter by millimeter centering the Imperial fighter on his targeting crosshairs.

  Whistler shrilled a warning.

  Behind me? Who? He glanced at his sensors and saw the other TIE closing in on him and he wanted to break away. Can’t, Five is history if I do.

  Corran hit his trigger, tracking ruby energy darts along the TIE’s flight path. Even as he saw the lasers hit the eyeball’s wings and cockpit, he braced for the other TIE’s lasers burning through his ship. He saw his target explode and knew, as green laser bolts scythed down toward his ship, he was a dead man.

  He prepared himself for nothingness.

  He was not wholly disappointed.

  Nothing happened.

  Corran rolled left and climbed. “Find him, Whistler.”

  The droid gave back a negative report.

  “What about Vengeance?”

  Whistler reported it had gone to lightspeed.

  At least we’re clear there. Corran felt a shiver run down his spine. His left hand rose up and, through the fabric of his flight suit, touched a gold medallion he wore. It appears all my luck has not run out.

  “Five, Six, what happened to the other eyeball?”

  “I got him, Nine.”

  “With what, Six?”

  “The missile I launched.”

  It took Corran a second to make sense of the reply, then he remembered the missile that had almost hit him as he had come in on the TIE starfighter. “Six, you were aiming at the second TIE?”

  “Yes, sir, Lieutenant. Did I do something wrong?”

  Corran wanted to yell at him about choosing targets that have a higher threat factor—by virtue of being closer and, therefore, more likely to hit their target—but he stopped before he gave in to temptation. “Not wrong, Six, but it could have been more right.”

  “Yes, sir,” came a sheepish reply that remained full of nervous energy. “Next time, sir.”

  “Yeah, at least we can all be thankful there will be a next time.”

  Whistler tootled triumphantly as the X-wing’s shields came back up.

  Corran smiled. “Yes, I do appreciate your shaving seven seconds off the estimate, Whistler.” He keyed his comm unit. “Five, Six, mark the coordinates of your sleeping dupe, then we head in. We’ll have reports to fill out but the fact that we can fill them out means this has been a very good day.”


  Wedge Antilles shook hands with both of the pilots standing in his office. “Sorry to keep you waiting but we apparently have had another probe of the system by Imperial forces. The Imps didn’t make much of a fight of it, but we almost scrambled the rest of the squadron.” He walked around to his side of the transparisteel-topped desk, then waved the two of them to chairs. “Welcome to Rogue Squadron.”

  Both pilots smiled and thanked him.

  Wedge looked first at the Sullustan female. “Captain Nunb, I hope you do not think the fact that you were not selected to join Rogue Squadron six months ago reflects in any way a lack of respect for your skills as a pilot.”

  Aril Nunb shook her head, the slender plait of brown hair lashing one shoulder and another. “I harbored no such thought, Commander.”

  “But you were aware that I chose Captain Tycho Celchu to be my Executive Officer, not you?”

  A red-purple light flashed in her big garnet eyes. “Rumors to that effect were easily heard, but more easily ignored, sir.”

  Wedge smiled. Frank and practical, this I like. “Those rumors were true, Captain. My reasons were …”

  “Excuse me, sir, but you have no need to explain yourself to me.”

  “I think you will find, both of you, that Rogue Squadron is full of very good pilots. Our discipline is a bit more lax than in other units, and I tend to explain orders when I can because we rely on each other very heavily. No one shirks
duty here, no matter how dangerous. I think it is important that every member of the squadron knows where he or she stands.”

  The mouse-eared Sullustan nodded her head. “Yes, sir.”

  “I’d heard stories about you and your brother, especially concerning your exploits on behalf of the Alliance in stealing supplies from SoroSuub Corporation and turning them over to us. I saw firsthand how well your brother flies when he piloted the Millennium Falcon into the second Death Star and enabled Lando and me to blow the reactor and control structures. I saw then, and later in reviewing your performance tests, that the both of you have a native ability in a fighter that wasn’t learned and can’t be taught. Since the rebuilding of Rogue Squadron involved training pilots to higher and higher levels of efficiency, I didn’t think you were well suited to a role with us in such a training period.”

  “I understand, sir.”

  What she left unsaid told Wedge that she understood a lot more about the situation in the galaxy than she cared to mention. Rogue Squadron had lost four pilots, a full third of its strength, in the last six months. Under normal circumstances new pilots would be brought in and trained up to the squadron’s level of efficiency, but such training required time. Events in the galaxy did not give the New Republic’s forces much in the way of time, so the replacement pilots were being drawn from the best available candidates who expressed an interest in joining the unit.

  Wedge turned to the redheaded man seated next to the Sullustan. “I was surprised, Captain Cracken, to see your name appear on a list of candidates willing to replace pilots in Rogue Squadron. You’ve got your own flight group out on the Rim and you’re used to flying an A-wing, not an X-wing. Won’t you find us a bit slow for your tastes?”

  “I hope not, sir.” Pash Cracken frowned slightly.

  Wedge thought for a moment that the question had irritated the young pilot, but the reply had come in a voice that maintained its emotional neutrality. Cracken was the son of General Airen Cracken, one of the Alliance’s legendary leaders and the New Republic’s answer to Ysanne Isard. Airen Cracken had fabricated an identity for his son that allowed Pash to enter the Imperial Naval Academy. On his first assignment after graduation, Pash led his entire TIE wing in defecting to the Alliance. They became known as “Cracken’s Flight Group” and their killing of a Victory-class Star Destroyer had made them and their leader legendary as well.

  “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you want to leave your people behind and join us?”

  Cracken’s frown deepened and he shifted uneasily in his chair. “It’s a kind of hard to explain, sir.”

  “But your reasons must be strong because you’ll have to take a reduction in rank to Lieutenant to join us.”

  “I know that, sir.”

  Wedge opened his hands. “You may share as little as you want with the others in the squadron, Mr. Cracken, but I really do need to know why you want to be a Rogue.”

  Aril Nunb leaned forward in her chair. “Perhaps if I were to leave, sir?”

  Pash shook his head. “No, that’s not necessary.” Breath hissed in through clenched teeth. “This is going to sound odd.”

  “Perhaps, but we won’t know until you get it out.”

  “Yes, sir.” Pash sighed. “Pretty early on, because of time I spent fooling around with old Z-95 Headhunter simulators, my father realized I had a bit of a talent for flying. He encouraged my interest in flying and made all sorts of opportunities available for me to use simulators and then real starfighters. I soloed before I hit puberty and simulator battles had me beating some fairly good pilots. I knew I was good, but I didn’t know how good because I thought people praised my skill to get in good with my father.

  “When I went to the Academy I got a handle on how good I was. I was better than most of my instructors when I started, and by the time I graduated none of them could touch me. We were flying TIE starfighters and my squadrons weren’t losing a single pilot. I graduated right up at near the top of the class, and the guys who finished ahead of me were the guys in my squadron that I’d forced to leave the simulators and work on their academic studies.”

  Cracken’s hands curled into fists as strain entered his voice. “When we defected, when we killed the Exsanguinator, all my people followed my lead and most of us survived. Attrition has worn the unit down, that’s why we’re now part of Commander Varth’s wing, but the people that have been with me all the way along think I lead some sort of a charmed life. They think I won’t fail them, that I can’t be beaten. Those who have died along the way are accused of having done the wrong thing at the wrong time, and in some cases they’re right, but I have sent people to their deaths.

  “The new kids coming into the squadron are inculcated into this myth of my invincibility. My pilots are getting careless, and that’s going to get people killed. I know that happens, but because of the legend they’ve built me up into, I can’t get my people to listen to me or do the things I need them to do. If I stay there and some Imp outguesses me, everyone will follow me down in flames.”

  Wedge sat back and nodded slowly. Rogue Squadron’s unit roster had a lot of names on it, and save for a Jedi Knight, a couple of pilots assigned to training squadrons, and a few pilots who had left for other pursuits, anyone who wasn’t active duty was dead. Biggs Darklighter, Jek Porkins, Dak Ralter, and Bror Jace were all among the most talented and famous pilots the Empire had killed, but Wedge could attach faces to all the names on the roster, and knew the details of how each of them had died. That they had perished under his command did overwhelm him at times, so he found it very easy to understand Pash Cracken’s dilemma.

  “I would say, Lieutenant, that a change is due for you. Your unit will have to reassess how it operates in your absence, and that will certainly be a good turn of events.” Wedge tried to read Cracken’s expression, but he could not. “It strikes me, however, that there are plenty of other fighter units in the Alliance that would welcome a pilot of your skill—and most of them are A-wing units.”

  “Yes, sir, true, but they’re not Rogue Squadron.”

  “Why is it that important that you join Rogue Squadron?”

  Cracken’s shoulders slackened slightly—not so much that Wedge would have said he slumped in his chair, but Cracken had clearly decided he would withhold nothing from his answer. “Any other unit would put me in command and that would solve nothing. You see, because of my previous situation, I no longer have a perspective on how well I fly. I’m beginning to question myself and my performance, and that means I’m a hairsbreadth from doubting myself. If I’ve lost something, I need to know I’m not flying as well as I can, but if I lose my confidence, I lose everything.

  “Here, in Rogue Squadron, I’ll be measuring myself against the best our side has to offer.”

  Wedge pressed his hands together, fingertip to fingertip. “What does your father think of this change?”

  Cracken’s face slackened for a moment, then fire flared in his green eyes. “My father had nothing to do with this decision.”

  “But you have spoken to him about it?”


  “And he approved?”

  Cracken’s head came up. “He has nothing but the utmost of respect for you, Commander Antilles.”

  “That’s good to know.” Wedge frowned, drawing brown brows together to hood brown eyes. The conquest of the Pyria system had required two operations because Alliance Intelligence had failed to uncover some information about the Imperial installations on Borleias. The idea of Imperial operatives or traitors having set the Rebels up for their first defeat could not be ignored and any investigation of such allegations would fall to General Cracken and his people.

  While Wedge had absolutely no reservations about any of his people, his trust was not shared by others in the Alliance. General Salm, the leader of Defender Wing, had long been suspicious of Captain Tycho Celchu. While Salm had admitted to Wedge that he knew Tycho had not leaked information concerning the first Pyri
a assault to the Empire, he believed Tycho was an Imperial agent who would betray the Alliance at the worst possible moment.

  The conquest of the Pyria system had opened the way for the Rebel Alliance to strike at Coruscant, the Imperial homeworld. Taking Coruscant would confer upon the New Republic a legitimacy it had not yet earned in the eyes of much of the Empire’s citizenry. Those who were aware of the state of the Empire could find little to differentiate the Rebels from the Imperial warlords who were carving their own little realm out of the Empire. Though they might not believe assurances from Coruscant that the threat presented by the Alliance or people like Warlord Zsinj was minor, they did not yet see the Empire as a cadaver waiting for scavengers to carve it up.

  Coruscant was the key to establishing the New Republic as the new ruling force in the galaxy. Taking it was a bold step—a serious gamble that required thousands of factors to fall into place to win. Since Admiral Ackbar had ordered Wedge to attend the Provisional Council’s deliberations on the project, he knew Rogue Squadron would be heavily involved in the campaign. Airen Cracken had to be aware of that eventuality, too.

  In his place I’d consider planting an agent in Rogue Squadron to watch for any suspicious activity. But would I use my own son? Wedge looked at the younger Cracken for a moment and read disappointment on his face, not outrage or wounded pride. I’d be angry and indignant, fighting the implication of being a spy with an appeal to honor. Pash is not. Is he innocent, or just very much his father’s son?

  The Corellian leader of Rogue Squadron sat forward and rested his forearms on the desktop. “Trust is the key to this unit, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell your fellow pilots your deepest, darkest secrets. The people here are the best and I’m sure you’ll both fit in. Again, welcome to the unit.”