Part Two of SKIRMISHES

by Haru Windsong

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Strapped into the seat of the trainer, Luke adjusted his helmet and ensured all cockpit connections were on line. Today five veterans were taking on two squadrons of rookies fresh from the ranges. Prior to this mission the trainees had graduated on familiarization with X-Wing fighters and were feeling decidedly cocky. What they were wholly unaware of was the ringer now in the works.

'Then again,' Luke considered with a hint of mischief, 'no one in Control is aware of my presence either.'

Even if they had no one would have informed the rookies they would be going up against someone considered one of the best pilots in the New Republic. To know that would definitely affect the trainees in one of two ways. A portion of them would react adversely, becoming overly nervous and foul up. The others, the hotshots, would do their best to ignore all of the rules in an effort to take out the prize. For that reason alone Luke had elected to relieve one of the veterans without alerting anyone in Training Command Centre to his actions.

While everyone prepared for mission commencement, Luke Skywalker re-keyed the briefing. Adrenaline surged as he reviewed the write-up. He took three breaths. Drew on the Force to calm his heart rate. Yoda's observation echoed in the recesses of his mind.

'Adventure? Hah! Excitement? A Jedi seeks not these things.'

With an apology to his Master, he read the mission plan. 'Enemy squadron enters Fantom Sector.' The Jedi Master shook his head and muttered under his breath. "Who comes up with these names?" He continued reading the display. 'Following insertion into normal space, proceed to marker buoy and recalibrate for next jump. Be warned. At some point after dropping from hyperspace you can expect arrival of Marker Group, opposing force. Success of this mission relies upon at least one enemy craft escaping. Use your initiative but do not act outside normal parameters.'

On the surface it sounded simple enough. But experience suggested there was much more to this precise than met the eye. Something he had rapidly taken to heart after joining the Rebellion was the old military adage: 'Never assume anything.' He quickly scanned his weapons load, energy read-outs and droid connection.

"Ah hah. No droid." Tapping into the display, Luke accessed his craft's schematics and capabilities. "A shuttle. That should definitely make things interesting."

"All enemy personnel prepare for launch."

Across his headset, voices responded. "Angle One, ready."

"Angle Two, ready."

"Angle Three, ready."

"Angle Four, ready." Luke responded readily, amused by the thought that his companions were in for a little surprise once they discovered he had replaced the pre-assigned pilot on short notice.

Fate and the Force had dealt a perverse hand in that the officer whose place he had taken had required time off at the last minute due to a personal emergency. As he had flown with Luke on numerous missions during the worst of times he had felt sufficiently confident to request the Jedi Master replace him, with no one else the wiser.

Given this opportunity, Luke had opted to fill in first and inform the brass later. Since all flight crew voices were mechanically modified to conceal their identity from the trainees, it would be up to him to decide whom he would alert to his presence in the simulation.

The last enemy pilot logged into the simulation. "Angle Five, ready. Let's get this mission underway."

"Launch in Tee minus three---two---one. Launch."

There was no actual outside image. In place of cockpit view ports were simula-screens which accurately translated ongoing computer data into real-time by-play. It was patently obvious from the lack of voice inflections that the duty technician was bored. For him it was simply another day overseeing yet another batch of recruits in the simulation; to ensure there were no unexpected technical glitches, and to log all incoming information from the simulators. Just to set the man back on his toes, Luke reached out through the Force and triggered a series of relays.

Luke's wingman blurted. "Whoa! Wait a minute!"

"What's wrong, Angle Two?"

Justifiably outraged at the unexpected difficulty, Angle Two shot back. "Got some power indicators red-lining. What are you pulling, Control? This wasn't in the onboard briefing."

Now fully awake, the technician hurriedly reassessed his board. "Ah---just a minute, Angle Two."

"What do you mean, just a minute?"

"There seems to be an anomaly in the set-up."

Prepared for this, Luke switched to a secure channel. "Leave it, Control. Angle Two, we're going to make this simulation as realistic as possible."

"Who said that?" Familiar with all his people, Angle Five, Flight Leader for the training scenario, demanded identification of the obscure voice. As he switched to the solo channel to speak privately with the guilty culprit he answered his own question within two beats. "General Skywalker? Is that you?"

"Not as far as the rookies know, Mael," said Luke. "Let's just keep it that way."

"How'd you manage that? I thought Commander Luzan was supposed to be Angle Four?"

"Let's just say he convinced me to give him a day's Short Leave."

After a pause, Mael Barler responded. "Copy that, Angle Four."

Cut out of the conversation by their use of the solo channel, the technician inquired, "Commander Barler, is everything all right?"

"Just fine, Control," said Barler, switching back to scheduled open mike feed. "Mission's a go. Let's get this thing under way."

Someone else in Control cut across the chatter. "All enemy fighters please return to mission relays. You are coming up on hyper drop point."

"Roger that, Control."

On the cockpit simula-screen their forward image dopplered down to normal space as the shuttles arrived at their checkpoint. Spread out ahead of them was a thin asteroid band. Fifteen minutes elapse time was allotted them for this mission. This meant their opposition would be putting in an appearance shortly. A vibration in the Force alerted Luke and he forced himself to rein in the temptation to employ it to pick up what he knew should be there and allowed the designated Flight Leader to do his job.

"I've located the buoy." On cue Angle Two announced their second objective. "It's directly opposite us, beyond the asteroid belt."

"Suggest we circumvent this debris field," said Angle Five. From inflections their leader's voice Luke suspected he was hoping their surprise pilot would offer up a comment of his own. "These shuttles don't have sufficient power to take the number of impacts we're liable to encounter by penetrating it beyond the outer barrier layer."

"Concur, Flight Leader."

"Up and over?" Luke asked, playing devil's advocate.

"Suits," said their Flight Leader, happy to comply with the more experienced member of their team. "Maintain radio silence until we reach the buoy."

Angle Squadron banked up and over the asteroid field, one wary eye on their Heads-Up Displays for any anomalies. Uncomfortable with his self-imposed restriction against using the Force, Luke continually scanned his HUDs. He felt his pulse rate increasing with each passing second. Even though this just a simulation, combat preparedness peaked. They cruised over the mass of tumbling meteorites, keeping well clear, power transferred from weapons to shields.

"Heads up, people." Flight Leader broke radio silence. "We've got company."

Proximity alarms went off in all five enemy craft. Angle One demanded, "Where the hell were they?"

"Far side of the asteroid belt," Luke said calmly as blips appeared on cue on his HUDs. "I make it---eleven fighters coming up from below. Six X-Wings, the rest A-Wings."

Angle Three reflected, "This could prove interesting."

Not about to be caught flat-footed, Angle Five gave them their orders. "One and Two, break left. Three and Four, break right. I'll run interference. At least one of us has got to get through with the schematics."

"Roger that."

Angle Squadron scattered. Amongst Alliance and Imperial forces this was known as the classic sucker play. And the rookies, for all their training, acted like the rank amateurs they were. Out on their first live training mission all but one swarmed the lure.

Like a fish on a line, Angle Flight Leader played them, drawing ten of the eleven away from the asteroid belt. His actions were successful. His squadron gained precious time in which to make the jump point. One A-Wing blossomed on screen. Died. A second staggered to a halt. Badly damaged, engines off-line and shields seriously depleted the rookie drifted, helpless in cyberspace.

Fortune favoured Angle Five no further. Under the concentrated power of an X-Wing and an A-Wing, shields crumpled and the shuttle disintegrated. The remaining rebels regrouped and set course for the fleeing shuttles.

"We've lost Flight Leader." Angle One observed unnecessarily. "About now they'll have figured out their mistake and will split their forces to pursue the rest of us. Do not engage unless---"

"Torpedoes launched." Luke announced that warning across Angle One. "Take evasive action."

Shields set full aft he jinked left, threw every remaining ounce of power into his craft's thrusters, and out-ran the two torpedoes closing on him. Acquisition lost, the torpedoes careened off into space. Satisfied with the results, Luke turned back on the enemy and raced through their ranks at top speed. His unexpected reaction to their proximity forced them to scatter. Not about to be thrown off, the rookies rallied, attempting to loop back around behind him.

But the Jedi Master refused to be cornered. His teeth bared with fierce delight, Luke dropped in behind an A-Wing and took it out before the pilot quite knew he was there. Off to his left Luke saw his wingman vanish from the display.

"Okay," he said to himself. "You're on your own."

Rapidly assessing the odds, Luke realized they were all running out of time in more ways than one. Only two minutes remained for Angle Squadron to make their escape, while three and a half minutes remained for the rookies to successfully complete the simulation.

There remained only one member other than himself from his task group. And they were outnumbered three to one. If they tried for the jump point they would be swarmed with no hope of survival. Nor could they continue out-manoeuvring their opponents much longer.

"No escape in that direction." Aware of the futility of attempting an assist or of reaching the jump buoy, the Jedi Master considered remaining options. A wicked grin tinged Luke's lips. He corkscrewed away from a fighter closing in on his six.

"What's the wild card in this scenario?"

Even as he asked himself that question, Luke knew the solution. He dove toward the asteroids. At the outer perimeter he risked slowing his forward speed with a short retro burst. Cannon fire blazed across his aft shields. Luke wove back and forth, twisting and turning wildly as he bled power from guns and engines. Again and again he transferred it to the shuttle's shields until he eluded his attacker. After what seemed a lifetime he slid between three large chunks of space blasted rock and ice. Not willing to pursue his prey into the debris field, the X-Wing pilot soared up and away, barely avoiding smearing himself across a particularly large chunk of rock.

Luke reminded himself that safety was relative in his present position. Ranged in size from dust motes to boulders as large as a Calamari frigate, tumbling asteroids created hazards few pilots were insane enough to attempt. Of course he knew one reckless freighter pilot who could claim just such dubious fame. After matching speed with a house-size rock, Luke watched with regret as the firefight ended with the destruction of Angle Two.

A buzzer sounded in his cockpit: Time was up on his end of the scenario. Beyond the asteroid belt the three surviving rookies inspected the situation. Ensconced within the belt Luke could imagine them arguing for and against pursuing him. In reality they conversed on a secure link even as they would under real combat conditions. On the other hand he knew exactly what they were dealing with. To all intents and purposes he had vanished from their displays, concealed by the bulk of his chosen shelter.

Suddenly something wholly unexpected entered the scene. Two Imperial corvettes dropped from hyperspace and lumbered toward the marker buoy. Within seconds, a swarm of TIE fighters popped up on the display. This gave Angle Squadron half-points for successful delivery of the schematics. Outnumbered, the opposition fled into the security of hyperspace. A voice sounded over the com-system.

"Test simulation has ended. Alliance forces failed in their objectives. All crews to debriefing."

Screen and instruments went blank. The simulation powered down. Harness straps released, Luke popped his cockpit canopy, stretched and stood. He felt pleasantly tired following the exacting mission. Around him rose a babble of voices. His flight commented on a particularly interesting manoeuvre on the part of one trainee.

Across the open floor with its gimballed simulators the rookies were arguing various facets from their own attacks. Mischief getting the better of him, Luke opted to keep his flight helmet on. With a touch of the Force he distracted the rookies and caused his fellow veterans to ignore what ought to have appeared peculiar. Generally pilots were quick to divest themselves of their helmets after sweating in them for upward of an hour. This was how Luke wanted it to be as he brought up the rear.

Only Angle Five was in on the secret. Across the floor he flashed Luke a 'thumbs up'. He hung back until Luke caught up with him. "That was a nice trick. Personally I wouldn't have had the guts to try it."

"I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but a veteran or the desperate," said Luke quietly. With a wink and a grin, Angle Five hurried to catch up with the others of their flight.

They filed into the Flight Simulator Briefing Room. General Rieekan watched them sit. Flight helmets rested on knees. Here and there a free hand scratched an itchy scalp. Rieekan's keen eyes lit on the fifth member of the 'enemy' who took a seat one row higher up, behind the rest. Suspicious and curious, he frowned. But there were more important things to be dealt with than one veteran's personality quirks. Principally, the royal shambles the trainees had made of what ought to have proved a simple mission. All business, he activated the holographic recording of the latest simulated action.

"In light of this being your first simulated live- action scenario," Carlist began his briefing pleasantly enough, "you all did relatively well." Several rookies nudged one another at that. Smiles flashed at the praise but Rieekan was not finished. His voice dropped dangerously low. "However, you all failed miserable in two vital areas. First, you forgot to pair off, select your targets and cover your wingman."

Suddenly there were red faces all round. From his vantage Luke studied the youngsters. Observed how a couple appeared to shrink in stature beneath Rieekan's condemnation of their behaviour. Sympathy moved him but he kept quiet. Blunt criticism now would save many of these young lives later.

"Worse." The General continued remorselessly. "You fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Can anyone tell me what that was? Red Three?"

Without waiting for anyone to volunteer, Rieekan picked out a luckless rookie from the group. Blushing furiously, the young woman stammered, "We went for the single shuttle. We were suckered."

"Right. Now would you---any of you---mind telling me what you've been taught repeatedly throughout these previous weeks?"

Before the female rookie responded she risked a glance at her companions. "We are to split up and attack each element in pairs, or singly if necessary."

"Right." Hands locked behind his back in classic military 'at ease' posture, Carlist rocked slightly on the balls of his feet. He keyed the display again. "So kindly explain exactly what was in your collective minds this time?"

No one responded. Bodies shifted uneasily beneath his penetrating stare. Carlist allowed his gaze to sweep the gathering. Locked on the one pilot high up in the tiers. Luke Skywalker chose that moment to finally remove his helmet. Propped it in his lap. He flashed a grin at Rieekan and nodded, acknowledging the other's surprise at his presence.

"General Skywalker." Unable to stop himself, Rieekan identified the unexpected addition in the designated enemy group. "What are you doing here? And where's Angle Four?"

Heads turned. Rookies gaped in shock at the sight of the Jedi Master clad in a bright orange flight suit and wearing an impish grin that took years off his countenance. Sweat rumpled his fair hair. Loose ends of it were glued about his forehead so that his combat-worn features appeared no older than they were.

"I gave him the day off, sir. Thought I'd try my hand at this newest batch of hot-shots."

His somewhat flippant reply was not quite what the cadets were expecting. Nor was Rieekan, although he opted to ignore it. "Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to assist us."

"You're more than welcome."

Luke refrained from commenting that his so-called busy schedule was effectively on hold. A fact of which Rieekan was well aware since he was one of those directly responsible for putting him on alert status. Return to active duty left him with far too much time on his hands. Hence his reason for trading places with Luzan when the opportunity presented itself.

"Okay, people. The distraction's over," said Rieekan, returning to business. He waited until their complete attention was once more focused on him. "You now know your first error was in consolidating your attack on the solitary shuttle at the outset of the mission. You compounded that error by not covering your wingmen when you eventually closed on the remaining enemy craft. Let's move on with your debriefing."

Point after point was covered, detailed and reinforced by the display at the centre of the room. To his personal consternation, Luke spotted an error of his own. He made a mental note not to repeat the mistake even as he studied the remainder of the scenario. Rieekan droned on. By the time they reached the mission wrap-up not one of the rookies looked as cocksure as they had when they entered the debriefing room. Then again, even the veterans had learned something new.

"Finally," Carlist summed up the briefing, "you failed your two mission objectives. You not only failed to eliminate all five shuttles, you blundered miserably in obtaining the schematics in the shuttles' computer cores." Now he rounded on the rookies' flight leader. "Would you mind explaining to me, cadet, why you felt it necessary to destroy the single shuttle you disabled before either you or your companions secured the information package?"

There was no satisfactory reply to that massive blunder. And the rookie responsible for the bungled operation dropped his gaze away. Unable to look at anyone he suddenly found something of interest in the vicinity of his flight boots.

Even though he knew why Rieekan was being so hard on the rookie, another pang of sympathy shot through Luke. It was vitally necessary to everyone that they learn from their errors if they were to have any chance whatsoever of survival in this combat-ready environment. On either side of the cadet his companions slid sympathetic glances in his direction.

"Right. Enough said. Copies of this scenario will be forwarded to your quarters for you to review. I want a precise from each of you discussing your mistakes and what you will do in future to avoid committing them again. Comments?"

The veterans shook their heads and the General deactivated the hologram. He was about to dismiss them, when a voice spoke up from among the trainees. "Excuse me, sir?"

Rieekan paused. "What is it, Cadet---?"

Cued, the rookie identified himself. "Cadet Rommir, sir."

"Yes, Rommir."

"Sir, the scenario wasn't entirely fair," said the young man. He was tall, skinny and gawky. Barely out of adolescence and, for Luke, highly reminiscent of himself at that age.

"Fair?" Rieekan all but barked that scornful retort. "Life's not fair, Cadet! Best you remember that."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." Determined to be heard the cadet cleared his throat and pressed on. "What I meant to say, sir, was that one of the enemy craft reacted outside the scenario parameters."

"Did it, now?"

"Yes, sir."

Not entirely surprised, Carlist stared back up the bleachers to where the Jedi Master sat. Luke's expression was unfathomable. Even without reviewing flight numbers of the respective enemy forces the General suspected who the culprit was. Carlist turned back to the cadet.

"Mister Rommir, whatever appears in your mission briefing is meant as a suggestion of what you may expect. Much as we all wish otherwise the enemy seldom if ever react as we would like them to do during a skirmish. And that---and nothing else, governs these missions."

"Yes, sir. I see."

"Good. Now that I've made that point," Rieekan allowed his tone to become more congenial, "please explain what happened."

Encouraged, Rommir drew a deep breath before presenting his observation. "Well, sir, we were in pursuit of the last shuttle, would in fact have over-taken it except it turned back into the asteroid belt and disappeared."

Intrigued, Carlist pressed the cadet. "Did you say it went into the asteroid belt?"

"Yes, sir."

"And disappeared."

"Yes, sir."

Curiosity pricked, General Rieekan recalled the holographic display. He summoned up the last few minutes of the mission. There for all to see in support of the cadet's words, the sole surviving shuttle performed the most beautiful about-face he had ever witnessed. It dove straight through the opposing force in an unorthodox move worthy of Han Solo, and, after a brief running battle, vanished into the asteroid field. A soft whistle went up from somewhere amongst the veteran ranks. Judicious fiddling of controls on Rieekan's part soon located the sneaky fugitive paralleling an asteroid. And with it, for his eyes only, the identity code of the offender.

"Well. That explains why you lost him on your HUDs." Slowly turning to face Luke, Carlist said, "Nice manoeuvre, General Skywalker. Where did you learn that one?"

Veterans and cadets turned as one. They stared in astonishment at the enigmatic expression presented them by the Jedi Master. His answer was forthright.

"From a very good friend, General."

"A friend. That wouldn't happen to have been General Solo, would it?"

Unabashed, Luke shrugged. "We're repeatedly told to learn from the best."

Irritated by the perspective of numerous brash youngsters attempting to copy the Jedi Master, Rieekan stared Luke straight in the eye. "Perhaps you would also be so good as to ensure these cadets receive a complete briefing on that incident immediately following the conclusion of this meeting? Including all associated perils entailed in just such a series of manoeuvres."

"I'd be more than happy to," said Luke. Helmet in hand, he rose and moved down the tiers. "Unfortunately that briefing will have to wait until the day after tomorrow. I'm going to be tied up for the rest of today, as well as tomorrow, with business up-fleet."

"At your convenience, then, General. Until then, gentlemen," Rieekan scanned the cadets one more time, pinning each with a meaningful stare. "I suggest you all refrain from even considering such an effort on your part until you've listened to what the General has to say." Nods and sombre expressions all round acknowledged his orders. Hands spread, Rieekan said, "You're dismissed."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Three weeks back at the daily grind and Wedge was heartily sick of Staff Officer work. There were messages requiring his attention covering everything from personnel problems to ship movements and re-supply difficulties. He compiled end-action reports on operational requirements that had been attended to and submitted them up the chain of command to Alfiar Jornik. In addition, he was expected to produce briefs suggesting adjustments in training schedules and manning plots.

He had also been handed the job of dealing with on-going complaints from local residents surrounding the Fleet's ground and low-level aerial training ranges on Coruscant. All of which kept him fully occupied in his office from oh-seven hundred hours until supper. Then he took the remainder back to his quarters, with Flit more often than not in tow to assist in clearing out the remainder of the day's workload.

Somewhere in amongst all of that he needed to find time to draft, perfect and submit his personal prcis on his elite fighter group. Reconstruction of Rogue Squadron, his baby, remained in infancy stage since the bacta wars for all Fleet invariably turned to it when the need arose. As yet he had not had the opportunity to present the outline to Jornik and Rieekan. Somehow he thought they would approve it. Rogue Squadron was a personal favourite of theirs, too. But there was a lot of work to be done before he dared broach the subject, not the least of which were availability and viability of new X-Wing snub-fighters. Nothing else would suffice.

Then there was the question of whether or not he could bleed off the necessary prime personnel to supplement his primary crews, techs and pilots, as well as put together and augment training for back-up crews in both areas without detrimental repercussions to proficiency in the rest of the Fleet. Presently the rest of his people were either on leave of absence or assisting with training newly graduated pilots. Horn and Darklighter were away inspecting the production of new fighters and the practicability of exchanging Artoo units for a new droid.

Annoyed by the prospect, Wedge muttered to himself. "New and improved by designer standards doesn't always mean better for fighting purposes."

Seated at his desk, he switched on his vid-screen and began scanning through the morning's priority message traffic. Only two pieces required immediate attention. That occupied him for no more than ten minutes. He stretched himself over the chair back, hands locked together over his head. Listened as several vertebrae snicked back into place. Then he gloomily returned to the stack of daily paperwork. Although an archaic expression from a by-gone era, it was a term still heavily employed by staff members.

Through the open door of his small office he made out his BATMAN. Perched on the edge of her seat, Flit was applying herself to those files he had sent on for her to draft responses for his signature. She was proving highly competent at fielding calls, redirecting the most important to him, while stalling less pressing requests. Or taking messages for him to call back when time permitted.

Were it not for her sharp wit Wedge was positive he would long since have gone insane. Other senior officers might counsel her concerning lack of respect for rank but her ability to know just when to pull his leg over some particularly annoying subject kept his sense of humour primed. More than a necessity, given his present situation.

His voice mail chimed urgently. Wedge activated the line access. Discovered a written message rather than a person on the other end. An aggrieved sigh escaped him as he scanned the order.

'Put everything on back burner for next two days. Report to departure field within the hour. Shuttle waiting to take you to Headquarters frigate WINDCHIME. You will be sitting three promotions boards, plus reviewing five recommendations for commissioning from the ranks.'

"Oh, great!"

That meant the rest of the morning and half the afternoon written off just for perusing files. Later, time permitting they would get into interviews. Those would definitely run into tomorrow, if not the next day. And if there was anything Wedge disliked, it was sitting boards. The only thing worse than promotions and commissioning were Redresses of Grievance.

"I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies." Hands pressed against the edge of his desk, he glowered at the screen and its unwelcome diversion.

"Did you say something, sir?"

Wedge gave Flit credit for acute hearing and the knack of sensing when he was talking about something she ought not to be listened in on. A holdover from her field days with Cov-Ops and a talent he greatly appreciated.

"Field my calls, Flit," he said.

She turned her seat to face him. "Going out, sir?"

"Business up-Fleet." With that he switched off his terminal and left the office. Outside the office he paused. "If anything important comes up, patch the call through to Ops. They'll know where to locate me."

"Right, sir."

Slipping away to his room, Wedge hurriedly changed into his dress uniform. No medals today, only undressed ribbons lined the left breast. Three tiers of twelve represented numerous campaigns and their associated medals. Special service commendations, five in all ranked above them. They were bad enough. Irritated, he sniffed to himself. For all they were visible reminders of his successes he always felt like a glorified salad. At least he could dispense with the extraneous odds and ends. Talons, wings, eyes, scimitars were removed and tucked into a spare box for safekeeping along with his medals. Wedge checked himself over once more before leaving the room. By then Flit had caught up with him and was already hard at work at the secondary office terminal across the sitting room of his quarters.

He called to Flit as he headed for the door. "See you tomorrow afternoon---I hope."

"Yes, sir. Ah---sir?"

Flit's call halted him in his tracks. "Something wrong?"

"Not really, sir. It's just," she crossed the room, "you've got a large bit of lint stuck to your tunic back."

Eyes rolling, Wedge patiently waited for her to remove it. She held up her fingers, displaying the offender.

"I know, I know." He grumbled back at the sight of it and watched Flit release it. When the bit of fluff fluttered to the floor she pantomimed an exploding bomb. Wedge expounded the ancient military adage. "My mother dresses me funny."

At that, Flit grinned. She shook her head. "Actually, sir, I was thinking more along the lines of 'I can dress you up, but I can't take you anywhere'."

"Is that insubordination I hear?"

Exhibiting much of her old skill, his BATMAN ducked an imaginary slap aimed in her direction. Danced back several paces and giggled. Both were acutely aware their actions were highly unprofessional, but they were equally conscious of the unspoken ground rules. It was also a display very few people would ever witness.

"No, sir. Absolutely not, sir." Face studiously expressionless, except for her eyes Flit awaited her superior's response. Wedge grunted. She smiled. "I'll order you a hover-car, sir."

"You just do that." Still feigning anger, Wedge glowered at her.

But the twinkle in his eyes spoiled the effect. Over-night tote in hand, Wedge left his apartment and headed for the senior staff officers' duty transport stand. By the time he reached the outside of the sprawling Palace his requested transportation was ready and waiting. It took five minutes for the duty driver to convey him to the shuttle field.

As his vehicle set down in the priority parking area outside the landing bay, the large freight shuttle's Loadmaster emerged to greet him. Still somewhat uncomfortable with all the formality, Wedge returned the man's salute.

"May I take that, sir?" Without waiting for a reply, the Loadmaster took the tote from his passenger's unresisting grasp. He said, "We're on standby for launch, so if you'll come with me?"

Wedge acknowledged the information and accompanied him through the narrow tunnel and out into the open. This was not a Lambda class shuttle, but rather a larger vessel with two levels immediately abaft its drooping nose where the cockpit was located. Determined to make conversation, Wedge asked. "Got a large passenger load on board?"

"No, sir, principally cargo. Only live ones on the manifest are you and one other dignitary."

"Oh."

"We sort of like it that way, sir." A suggestion of a smile touched the Loadie's lips, familiar with dignitaries and their vagaries. "Makes for a quicker trip."

'It would,' considered Wedge. When the Loadmaster would have shown him to his seat above, Wedge waved him aside. "I know where I'm going, mister. Wouldn't want to slow things down by keeping you from your pre-flight checks."

"Thanks, sir."

Immediately inside the shuttle Wedge turned sharp left and mounted one of the two short flights of steps flanking the entrance ramp. These led up out of the cargo bay and primary passenger cabin where ground assault forces could be carried into the area assigned for senior staff, dignitaries and crew. This cabin was just abaft the cockpit. Behind him the Loadie stored his tote and went back outside to perform a last minute walk-around on the shuttle prior to lift-off.

Inside, Wedge entered the VIP lounge. Upon catching sight of his solitary companion for the flight up, Wedge paused. Then he joined Luke Skywalker in one of the seats next to the cockpit entrance, facing the Jedi Master across the central aisle.

Intrigued, Wedge prodded his friend. "So what are you doing here?"

"Going up to CHIME to sit some boards."

"Caught you, too, did they?"

A rhetorical question; Luke responded with a hitch of his shoulders. The Loadie stuck his head above deck, checked to ensure they were both strapped in then disappeared back downstairs to inspect the cargo lashed down in the rear of the shuttle. Moments later he reappeared. Went past them and disappeared into the cockpit.

Over the speakers set into the headrests of their seats Luke and Wedge picked up the conversation in the cockpit as the flight crew switched on internal communications.

"All secure, Lieutenant. Both VIPs are strapped in. We're ready to lift."

"Very good, Renni. Get yourself settled."

Cabin pressure altered subtly as the ramp came up and the hatch closed. Wedge made himself comfortable. Eyes closed, he listened to the crew as they went through their final flight checks.

"You know," he said to Luke without opening his eyes, "I'd as soon be flying myself up."

"Not possible," said Luke. "You know senior staff officers aren't permitted to crew for themselves except under special conditions."

"Quit quoting regs," said Wedge and looked at Luke. The Jedi Master had his eyes closed. Wedge reached out with one boot toe and knocked his friend in the kneecap.

At the friendly tap Luke lazily opened one eye. His lips curved upward just a fraction before he settled back in his seat. Unable to get a rise out of his friend, Wedge closed his eyes once more. Behind him the bulkhead hummed with transmitted engine noise as the shuttle prepared to lift off. Gentle vibrations rippled through his body. And then he was pushed down into his seat by opposing planetary forces. Lulled by the familiarity of space flight, Wedge dozed.

Across from him, the Jedi Master also put the time to good use. Drifting on the periphery of meditation, Luke drew on the Force, refreshing and replenishing himself. Judiciously conscious of Leia's concerns for his well being the last thing he wanted was to suffer a relapse. There were too many things to do and far too little time in which to accomplish them. Unfortunately, he was also rapidly learning the hardest lesson of all: Patience. Yoda's words returned repeatedly to haunt him these days.

'You are reckless.'

Which went hand in hand with his Aunt Beru's favourite saying, 'Make haste a little more slowly.'

Encompassed in her sagacity was a fascinating play on those words he now realized. As a bored orphan on a rim world he had never thought to consider the paradox inherent in them. Now, even with the time he had not considered it until this moment. And Luke found Beru's phrase turning aimlessly around his brain throughout the twenty-minute flight to the Headquarters frigate.

Before Wedge was quite aware, the shuttle banked gracefully. Started its approach, threading a passage through several Calamari cruisers that were preparing to jump out-system on a personnel exchange and supply run to one of their affiliate bases.

"Frigate WINDCHIME. This is Shuttle CASSUL requesting flight clearance and docking instructions."

Drawn from his snooze by that announcement, Wedge said, "Wish I knew whose bright idea it was to christen the frigate with that particular name."

Luke shot back. "The Calamari delegation."

"Figures." Disgusted, Wedge shook his head and refocused his attention on the flight crew's conversation.

"CASSUL, please activate your identification transponder and stand by to receive instructions."

"Roger that, WINDCHIME. Please be advised that we have two VIPs on board."

"Copy that, CASSUL. Wait one." A pause. "CASSUL, we have you on locator now. Landing instructions being transmitted. Please place controls on automatic. We will retrieve you the minute INDEPENDENCE and her escort has acquired the transition point. Inform the Generals they will be met by an Honour Guard."

"We copy, WINDCHIME. I have them on cabin audio. They are advised."

"Just great." Annoyed by all the pomp that went with his new rank, Wedge grumbled to his friend. "So much for any hope that we'd be able to simply slip aboard without a lot of fuss."

"You've really got a hope." Thoroughly amused, Luke shot back. "Welcome to the joys of senior staff officer status."

"I've already been there," said Wedge.

"Ah." Luke held up a finger. "But only as a Flight Commander. Not quite the same thing as being a General who still possesses active flight status."

"When they let me use it."

"You and me both." With those words Luke gently reminded him that he was not alone.

"At least you get to escape every so often. Tell me something."

"What?"

"Why did they move HQ from the INDEPENDENCE?"

A distant look filled Luke's eyes. He shook himself. "She's been tasked to escort the latest batch of flight crew graduates on a mission at undisclosed coordinates"

"Real or imaginary?" Although it was against regulations, Wedge still felt inclined to be in the know.

"You got me," said Luke with what could have been genuine disinterest. Somehow Wedge doubted it. "But with them being so green, I suspect it's a mock tangle to see how they react under real-time combat simulation."

"Thereby winnowing out the last of the chaff."

Wedge reflected on the logic of that. He knew the havoc inherent when recruits were tossed into the fray, having been in on one such training exercise shortly after the bacta war. There had been a couple of collisions and one rookie had been killed because of inattention during the heat of the mock battle.

"Better they learn this way than in a real conflict." To that sound observation Wedge could only agree. They lost too many good fighters as it was under actual combat conditions.

Engine pitch altered, alerting them to their impending arrival. Hydraulics hummed, signifying the raising of the port and starboard stabilizers. Then the grumble of extending landing gear rumbled through the shuttle cabin. Moments later, a gentle thump informed them they were grounded in one of the frigate's hangars.

"We're down, sirs." Protocol dictated the shuttle's pilot apprise them of what they already knew. In response Wedge leaned forward and flashed back a high sign to let the crew know he and Luke had heard them. As the passengers unstrapped, their pilot stated, "I've been asked to request you wait for the parade to draw up, sir."

"Parade?" On his feet, Luke stepped into the cockpit entrance. "Who's out there?"

The pilot's head turned toward the transparency. "Looks like the latest batch of graduating recruits, sir. They're not yet vacuum qualified."

That explained much. Without that training the recruits were not yet issued their battle armour. With any craft the size of the shuttle the magnetic shield had to be dropped for it to acquire the frigate's landing bay. Which meant the troops could not form up until the shield was raised. Luke returned to the dignitaries cabin. He and Wedge made their way down to the lower level. There they waited for the ramp to open.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Exhaling a reluctant sigh, the ramp lowered. Stale ship air filled the shuttle. Wedge breathed deeply, appreciating the familiar, comforting aroma indicative of space travel. In spite of three massive hydroponics sections through which all ship air passed and the fresheners designed to mask the taste of air repeatedly reused, there was no concealing the fact that it was canned air. But all spacers, be they the lowest technician or senior officer, welcomed that taste simply because to them it implied freedom.

Too many years on the run from the Imperium, Wedge now realized. Yet his enthusiasm at being back in space after a three-week hiatus was in no way dampened. Luke gestured expansively, insisting Wedge precede him. Unaware of any subterfuge on his friend's part, Wedge stepped out boldly. He marched down the ramp with Luke a stride behind. At the bottom of the ramp, they halted and returned the salute of a young Lieutenant.

"Recruit Graduating Class Nine-One-Three ready for inspection. Second-Lieutenant Brassil, Officer Commanding, reporting, sirs."

Brassil's eyes darted quickly between the two Generals, searching for the one who would take the lead in this impromptu inspection. Anxiety blossomed as he recognized the Jedi Master in company with the Fleet's newest general. As much as he hated being caught short this way, Wedge suspected Brassil knew he and Luke were just as put out.

Without turning his head, Wedge slid a look toward Luke Skywalker. But the Jedi Master remained studiously at his heel. Exasperated, it took all Wedge's self-control not to roll his eyes. Did not miss the suggestion of relief on the young Second Lieutenant's face when he realized it was Wedge who would take the lead. Composure recovered, Wedge responded in best parade discipline.

"Thank you for inviting us to inspect the troops, Lieutenant."

"It's our pleasure, sir. There are forty graduates in this class."

"Very good, Lieutenant. Please lead on."

Snapping a parade ground salute, the Second Lieutenant waited for it to be returned, then he spun on heel and led the way to where the recruits were formed up. Wedge allowed the junior officer to get just beyond earshot. From the corner of his mouth he whispered back over his shoulder. "I'm gonna get you for this, Luke."

The Jedi Master responded with an incomprehensible expression suggesting he was covering a laugh. Maintaining a respectable level of decorum, they joined the Second Lieutenant. He faced them, his troops now standing at Attention in Open Order dressing to permit ease of inspection.

As was to be expected after three weeks intensive Basic Training, all smartly turned out. Wedge and Luke took it in turns to speak with certain individuals. Their actions produced a smile here, a solemn response there. Eyes surreptitiously trailed them, drawn by the presence of the Jedi Master. Within the ranks they encountered Windy. Neither paused to talk to her. To her credit, Windy displayed no outward emotion at being passed over.

At the end of the third file, Wedge cut hard left and returned to the front of the parade. The Second Lieutenant hurried to catch up.

"Sir."

Wedge took the salute. "Carry on, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir."

With Luke trailing him like a shadow, Wedge headed for the hangar door. The minute they stepped through the lock, Wedge halted and glared at his companion.

"Very funny, Luke. Did you really have to do that to me?"

Eyes twinkling with restrained mirth, Luke replied. "I'm told it builds character."

"Right."

"You're a senior staff officer now," said Luke, "You need the practice. Besides you should get used to these things."

"Tell me you are and I'll quit griping."

As he expected, the Jedi Master refused to be drawn out. Someone approached during their conversation and hesitated. Edged forward as though uncertain whether to risk disturbing their conversation. Uncertain what to do, but needing to attract their attention without interrupting what might be an important discussion the man cleared his throat.

"Generals?" They turned. Another nervous Second Lieutenant hovered uneasily a short distance away. "I've been sent to show you to your temporary quarters."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Luke responded levelly, somehow putting the young officer at ease.

"This way, please, sirs."

Their escort led them to the nearest turbo-lift that whisked them up to officers' quarters level. Here he directed them to two adjacent cabins that were, by ship's standard, luxurious. Perks came with the rank, as all members of the service were aware. But there were times when Wedge felt senior officers received too many, that it made them forget how the rest of the military lived.

"Your bags will be brought up from the shuttle, sirs." Once again Wedge was politely reminded of service protocol.

"Where's the Board sitting?" Obviously expecting Luke's question, the junior officer rattled off a deck and room number.

"Very good, Lieutenant. We can find our way. Thank you for your assistance." Their guide dismissed, Wedge glanced at Luke. He waited until certain the junior officer was gone before speaking.

"Might as well head on over. I'm sure they're expecting us."

"No doubt."

Familiar with the frigate's layout they knew several shortcuts to their destination. Startled ordinary crewmen stared after the passing officers, unaccustomed to seeing anyone outside of their own Commander in the less reputable areas of the ship. Sight of Luke's black clothing brought smothered smiles to many a veteran face, but caused one young technician to drop a tool. Wedge automatically retrieved it in passing and handed it back, receiving a stammered thank you in return.

Before long they arrived outside the boardroom. In addition to Carlist Rieekan, five other officers were present. Heads turned as Wedge and Luke entered the room. Someone made what could easily have been construed as a snide aside remark to a companion concerning rank having its privileges; a remark intended to be overheard. Accustomed to their unsought notoriety drawing envy, Luke and Wedge let it slide.

Wedge recalled something his grandfather had told him as a child desperate for attention from the popular crowd. 'You can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time.'

Generally Wedge preferred to be himself and let the credits lie where they fell. Much like the Jedi Master. Both refused to go out of their way to make people like them. And ignorance definitely did not deserve to be dignified by a response of any sort.

"Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you, Generals for taking time out of your busy schedules to assist in clearing this backlog. I'm sorry you were tapped on such short notice." Rieekan greeted them. In as much he aired his displeasure over the sardonic rejoinder. "Please make yourselves comfortable."

Two empty chairs remained between Rieekan and the two officers along the right side of the table. No sooner had Wedge sat than he realized personalities around the table were literally polarized. Those directly across from him and Luke were clearly among the group in fleet who did not think highly of their heroes; who considered them publicity seekers. It never ceased to amaze Wedge that even during times of conflict there were those who found time to pursue petty personal vendettas for imagined slights.

'Of course,' he corrected himself, 'it's just such in-fighting that, in the long run proved to be at the root of the Emperor's downfall. Pray it doesn't happen to us, too.'

"On your vid-screens you'll find the first file on the table," said Rieekan, all business. "Shall we begin?"

The first two files proved fairly straightforward. Service records for both individuals were reviewed, along with notes of appreciation and recommendation from Commanding Officers throughout the fleet under which the two officers had served. Honours and awards were taken into consideration, as well as training advancement and officer progression test scores. No one objected to promoting either member to Lieutenant Commander.

When the third file appeared on the screen, however, Wedge felt his hackles rise. He waited patiently for his turn to speak. And when he did, his first words grabbed everyone's attention.

"I'm sorry, sir. I cannot, in good conscience approve promotion for this individual."

Astonished by the vehemence in Wedge's voice, Rieekan leaned forward. "What reason do you have, General Antilles?"

"I have several, sir. Gentlemen."

Wedge met and briefly held the gaze of each member of the board. In that short space he organized his objections rather than risk blurting out complaints like a spoiled child. At the same time he took the opportunity to weigh the reactions of those around him. Only Luke remained enigmatic, wholly unreadable. His friend's blank facade troubled Wedge and left him wondering which way the Jedi Master would vote when the time came.

Stubbornly refusing to let that deter him, Wedge voiced his concerns. "It is my experience that Lieutenant-Commander Alerston is not what I would term quality officer material. Further promotion will place him in diplomatic circles where his penchant for indiscretion and crassness, which often borders on vulgarity, would only serve to embarrass our government."

Again Wedge paused. Fixed his gaze firmly on the vid-screen at his elbow. "Whether in combat or on the ranges he is reckless, frequently ignoring or modifying orders to suit his own purposes."

"Like certain others we all know." One of Wedge's opponents quietly slipped that in.

Not about to allow that uncalled for remark to go unchallenged, Luke Skywalker slowly rose. He stared down the table at the offender. Cold, implacable, he declared. "Neither General Antilles, nor I are given to disobeying direct orders. Nor do we alter those orders unless circumstances make it unavoidable."

"Thank you, General Skywalker." Voice as chilling as ice, Rieekan ruthlessly admonished the officer who had spoken out of turn. He waited for Luke to take his seat again. "As General Skywalker has reiterated; among those present, no one has committed a gross act of disobedience while under combat orders. I will not countenance discourteous remarks from those presence."

Head ducked away from Rieekan's glare the Commander who had spoken out of turn sought consolation from his companions. Only one responded in any fashion, and he confined it to a sympathetic look tempered with caution. Relieved that Luke and Rieekan had defused the moment, Wedge continued.

"If I may, sir?" Rieekan nodded, and Wedge went on. "Since his appointment to Flight Commander under my command I've kept track of complaints reference his insubordination and frequent deviations from regulations. Among those reports are incidents with trainees on the ranges."

One of the dissenters across the table retaliated. "Are you referring to Alerston's ability to produce the best results in pilot candidates?"

Wedge rounded on his opponent. Somehow he kept his voice within reasonable decibels as he responded. "I have nothing against officers who urge personnel to pursue excellence. What I strenuously object to are officers who consistently demonstrate reckless behaviour on the ranges in front of new recruits. And who encourage inexperienced crews to emulate them in their efforts to attain the inaccessible. As a result the attrition rate under his auspices through injury and death has bordered on dangerously high."

Concerned by Wedge's remarks, Rieekan demanded proof. "Do you have incontrovertible substantiation for these allegations, Wedge?"

"Yes, sir, I do. As I said, I've kept close watch on Rathe's actions for some time. Had I remained on as Rogue Squadron's Commander I would have presented my allegations up through the chain of command. As is, I've briefed my subordinates to keep him under close scrutiny. Consequently we have amassed a substantial file on various---incidents and complaints." He glanced around the table. "Give me a moment to access my personal files."

"Certainly."

Palpable resentment radiated from two of his contemporaries down the opposite side of the table. Somehow Wedge ignored it and applied himself to requesting a downlink through ship's communications. The moment a channel was assigned and connected to his office he input his personal security code. Free to access files, Wedge uploaded all pertinent information to the sub-computer built into the boardroom table. Within minutes all necessary information appeared on the table vid-screens.

"If you'll examine the information before you," said Wedge blandly, "I think you'll concur with my observations."

Several more minutes passed. Around the table Wedge watched expressions alter from outright belligerence to disbelief. Scepticism switched to outrage and astonishment. What surprised Wedge was the lack of gratification he felt at bringing Rathe's failings to the attention of the Board. Instead, he experienced only pity for an officer who had destroyed a promising career through recklessness.

Cheeks puffed in reflection of disbelief, Rieekan slumped back in his chair. "Well." He stared around the room at the other board members. "It appears we have something more serious than a case of disorderly conduct, gentlemen."

"Sir, there is one other matter that might as well be tabled now." Wedge waited until Rieekan nodded. "In addition to these problems, there's the matter of Commander Alerston's inability to conduct himself with decorum in mixed company. His sense of what is humorous quite frankly borders on---obnoxious. I've received various verbal complaints from a number of female pilots concerning off-colour jokes they consider inexcusably vulgar."

"Crew from Rogue Squadron, General?"

"No, sir. From Alerston's squadron."

"Why should they bring their complaints to you?" One of Alerston's adherents glowered, doubtful and irritated by what he clearly considered character assassination.

Quickly Wedge countered. "Because they feel unable to approach his superiors."

One eyebrow shooting up, Rieekan drew a long, slow, deep breath. Gradually released it. "Thank you, General Antilles. You were quite correct in bringing this to our attention. This matter will definitely have to be reviewed at considerable length at a later period. Is there anyone here who opposes the decision to decline the proposed promotion for this officer?"

No one offered even the slightest allusion of opposition to Wedge's objections. But he caught thinly veiled rage in the eyes of a Commander at the far end of the table. Pointedly ignoring the man, Wedge glanced back to Luke. To his surprise, his friend offered no outward sign of either support or condemnation, only the suggestion that they would speak later in private concerning this matter.

A check of the chronometer and Rieekan momentarily pursed his lips in thought. "I think we just have time to consider two of the five applications for commissioning from the ranks before we break for the midday meal."

To optimize time, Rieekan selected the two senior non-commissioned members and transferred their files to the vid-screens for consideration. Everything proved comparatively ordinary. Both Sergeants came highly recommended by their superiors. Their records spoke for the candidates and there were no dissenters when each individual's name finally went to vote. No sooner was the Board finished assessing the Sergeants than the frigate's midday meal bell softly chimed through the decks. Rieekan slapped the palms of his hands lightly down on the tabletop.

"Well, gentlemen. I think we should break for a meal, don't you?"

The meeting broke up. In unspoken accord Wedge and Luke waited until all the rest had left. Then they made their way to the senior staff officers' mess hall. Along the way, Wedge broached the subject of Alerston.

"You didn't appear pleased with my speaking up concerning Rathe. How come?"

One finger rubbing along the side of his nose in thought, Luke said quietly, "Sometimes it's best to leave things well enough alone."

"But Rathe's dangerous, Luke. And I dislike him being in a position to teach impressionable kids to be reckless."

"Perhaps. But I'd say you've made an enemy today."

Wedge shot Luke a disturbed look. "How's he to know I was responsible for his promotion being stalled?" Then promptly recalled the enmity aroused in other members of the Board. "Don't answer that. It was a stupid question. But I still think it was the right decision."

"You may simply wind have encouraged him to push himself to extremes to prove you wrong." As always, Luke played devil's advocate, pursuing angles Wedge had ignored. "They haven't removed him from active flight status, you know."

For a full minute Wedge considered the Jedi Master's observation, then swore softly. "Damn. You're right. Why didn't I just keep my mouth shut?"

"You were, as you've just reiterated, doing what you thought was right."

"Yet I may simply have compounded the problem."

"Perhaps." Luke paused just outside the mess. Stepped aside to clear the doorway, drawing Wedge with him. "This time, however, it'll be me who's keeping an eye on him. I'll alert a couple of the others as well. If we have to pull his flight status, it'll be on our recommendation. Not yours. And given that our observations will be made from a point of neutrality they certainly won't be able to accuse us of being prejudice."

"Where I am?" Faking a cough of disgust, Wedge jerked his head. "All right. Point taken. I'm hungry. Coming?"

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

They took their meal in companionable silence, just the two of them at a table to one side of the dining hall. Across the room Rathe Alerston's cronies glanced repeatedly in their direction, but otherwise studiously ignored them. For his part, Wedge pointedly refused to allow childish behaviour from so-called adults to ruin his meal. When the rest of the Board members headed back to the meeting room, Luke and Wedge accompanied them.

Once again they took their seats around the boardroom table. Everyone looked comfortably replete following the meal. Even the officers who disliked Wedge no longer appeared bothered by his presence at the Board. Rieekan, as Chairman, called them to order. He glanced down at his personal vid-screen.

"Our next order of business, gentlemen, is a commissioning from the junior ranks, in particular a newly graduating Recruit. I realize this is a somewhat unusual request. However her instructors feel, and I concur, that this candidate's knowledge and expertise will be wasted in the Non-Commissioned ranks."

General Rieekan had Wedge's undivided attention. He sensed rather than saw Luke tense ever so slightly, just a hint of tightening fabric, then a certain stillness that betrayed the Jedi Master. Everyone waited for Rieekan to outline the reasons behind someone so new to the service being considered for officer training.

"This individual is only recently arrived at Coruscant. Despite joining training late---a circumstance not of her own making I might add---she nonetheless managed to pass near the top of her class."

"Where did she place, sir?" Someone to Luke's right posed that question. It was not unreasonable. Nor was it wholly unexpected.

"Fourth out of a class of fifty-two. In fact, she missed third by point two of a percentile. There were, I might add," said Rieekan, "nine failures and three recoursed from that class. And the candidate before us was the third oldest of her peers."

Several heads nodded appreciation. A tiny niggling voice dug at Wedge as he listened to the recitation. Not yet finished, Carlist Rieekan picked up where he had left off.

"Although her standard of education is lacking due to limitations posed by her environment, she has demonstrated a maturity beyond the years of most officer candidates." Disapproval surfaced at that statement but Carlist Rieekan pressed on. "In spite of the educational handicap the candidate has exhibited a remarkable ability to learn. She has, I might add, already successfully completed two of seven Officer Progression Development exams. Plus she only requires a brief check-out to conclude vacu-suit training."

Before Rieekan could continue, Luke rose to his feet. Rested his hands against the table. "Excuse me, sir. Would you mind answering a question for me?"

Puzzled, Rieekan nodded. "Certainly, Master Skywalker."

"Is the candidate being advanced for commissioning Recruit Marica Winolder?"

"I fail to see that has any relevance." The officer to Luke's immediate right retaliated. Turned to Rieekan. "General, we're short on time."

Wedge noted frowns from several of their peers when Luke displayed potential foreknowledge of the person under review. Equally intrigued, Rieekan held up a hand, silencing further objections.

"Allow General Skywalker explain himself. Luke?"

Luke remained adamant. "Sir, I require an answer to my question first."

"All right," said Carlist. "As you suspect, the candidate is indeed Marica Winolder. Now, may we hear your objections?"

With a shake of his head, Luke explained. "I'm not objecting to this candidate's proposed advancement, sir. I welcome it. But I must request permission to withdraw from the Board at this time. At least until deliberation on this particular individual is concluded."

His remarks instigated another round of exclamations and muttering. "Of all the---"

"Bad enough they put down Alerston, but--"

"You'd think there's a personal grudge---"

"Quiet." Speaking softly, but with notable intensity Rieekan quieted the babble of voices. "Enough. I'm certain you have your reasons, Luke. I, for one, would appreciate an explanation."

"Of course, sir."

Before Luke had the opportunity to speak, however, Wedge rose, cutting off Luke. Now that he understood what lay behind his friend's decision to withdraw he realized he, too, would have to leave the room. "General?"

"What is it, Wedge?"

"I wish to withdraw, also."

"I don't believe this," exploded yet another officer.

Exasperated sighs, rolled eyes and head shaking also greeted Wedge's announcement. Rieekan dragged his upper lip into his mouth, raked it with his teeth in an effort to control his own irritation.

"Pray explain yourselves, gentlemen. I don't care who speaks first, but we're all dying to hear what lies behind this mutual decision to remove yourselves from the Board."

With a glance toward Luke, Wedge spoke quickly. "Luke grew up with Windy---Recruit Winolder---on Tatooine. It was Winolder who assisted us in making our escape from Tatooine three weeks ago, and who also helped us to destroy or drive off three squadrons of TIE fighters when the FALCON broke down and fell out of hyperspace. In addition, I was the one who recommended her enrolment in the service. Because of this we feel we are prejudiced toward her and would not wish our presence to mar a fair and equitable consideration of her advancement."

Grey eyes peered out at them from under bushy grey-white eyebrows. It was obvious General Rieekan was hard put not to laugh at the varied expressions on the rest of the Board members. He tugged at an errant lock of iron-grey hair. Several present were incredulous that anyone would absent themselves when a friend was being put forward for officer candidacy. It spoke well for the integrity of these two young senior officers. Pride swelled inside Rieekan. By standing beside the Jedi Master in the decision to withdraw, Wedge Antilles had confirmed the faith of everyone who had insisted upon his promotion across the objections of dissenters and conservatives. With a cough to recover his composure, Rieekan found his voice.

"In light of these revelations, gentlemen, I doubt anyone present will argue against you choice. You will be summoned back to the Board when we've concluded our deliberations."

Luke spoke for both of them. "Thank you, sir."

He inclined his head and drew Wedge from the room. Seated in the antechamber waiting for her interview, Windy leapt to her feet when they emerged. She stood smartly to attention. Luke glanced at her. Nodded acknowledgement. But neither he nor Wedge paused to speak to the rim-worlder. Faintly disappointed, Windy stared after them then resettled somewhat gingerly only when the outside door closed behind them.

As soon as the outside door swished shut, Wedge shot a look over his shoulder. "Hope she's not too upset by our departure."

"It was the right decision."

"You seem pretty certain."

Luke paused. He turned to face Wedge in the hallway and dropped his voice so none of the passing personnel could overhear him. "What do you suppose would have happened had we not spoken out?"

Brow furrowed, Wedge shook his head. "I'm not sure."

"In reviewing Windy's background they would have caught on to the fact that she grew up on Tatooine, near Anchorhead, the same as me. And someone would certainly notice that she arrived here on the FALCON. It's all in her dossier. Once that came to light it would have given our dissenters something to use against us. Following the display of animosity toward your objections regarding Rathe their course of action was clear. I refuse to place Windy in such an untenable position."

"They might still take it out on her," said Wedge thoughtfully. They began walking again, Luke surreptitiously guiding their footsteps toward the senior officers' mess.

"Possibly. But at least without us present the sting won't be there. And Rieekan's no fool." Luke reminded his friend of the earlier scene in the boardroom. "He'll see which way the wind's blowing if they attempt some such course of action and he won't let them throw up sand to mask their actions."

"They are a little transparent, aren't they?"

"Just a little?"

Luke's drawl drew a smothered laugh from his friend as they entered the mess. They selected a seat at the rear of the room, to one side of the observation window. A droid arrived, took their order and produced drinks; chilled fruit juice since they were both on duty.

They slipped into a comfortable silence, staring out the transparency at the stars and planet beyond. Of the fleet ships in orbit, all but one Calamari cruiser and three corvettes began moving out-system, headed toward advanced manoeuvres a hyper jump away.

Further away, on the fringes of the asteroid belt trainees on the verge of being permanently assigned to fighter squadrons were undergoing more intensive combat training. Wedge studied the miniature sparkle of lights. Sunlight on metal delineated various formations; like so many gnats swarming, breaking apart, and reforming. He realized they were implementing one of his suggestions. A tiny smile pulled one side of his mouth. As he turned to Luke to comment on his observation, he discovered the Jedi Master staring fixedly out into deep space.

"Luke?" No response. "Hey. Luke."

Wedge reached out and knocked his mug against the one in Luke's hand. His friend started. Some of his unfinished drink slopped onto the table between them. Very unJedi-like, that distraction worried Wedge. Luke blinked, looked blankly at Wedge for a moment. Then recognition returned.

"Hey." Concerned, Wedge set his drink aside. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah."

But Luke's response was far too hesitant. Something told Wedge not to interrupt. Patiently he waited while Luke took stock. When the Jedi Master returned to the view outside, his friend lowered his voice and asked pointedly.

"Is something wrong out there?"

"I---don't know."

"There wouldn't be something wrong with the Princess?"

"No. Leia's fine." That emerged firmly, decisive.

"What about Han and Chewie?"

"No. They're okay. All of them."

The unthinkable tripped from Wedge's lips. "Then, it wouldn't be an enemy incursion---"

Before he finished speaking, Luke was on his feet. "Come on!"

"What's wrong?"

Heads turned at that overly-loud command. Disapproval and curiosity followed them out as they dashed from the mess. Luke set a blistering pace making it impossible for Wedge to press for an answer. Nor was he quite sure where they were headed until Luke skidded to a halt outside the boardroom once more. They paused only as long as it took for the inner and outer doors to respond, passing an astonished Windy for a second time without speaking.

Their abrupt entry halted the discussion in progress. Incredulous at the unprecedented and unannounced intrusion, Rieekan rose. He stared at them.

"What---"

"Sorry, General." Luke spoke in a rush, urgency lending impetus and authority to his announcement. "Raise ship's shields immediately. Scramble all remaining squadrons. Recall the flight crews from Coruscant. And get those trainees back here!"

"Now what are you pulling, Skywalker?"

Luke rounded on the speaker. "There's no time for arguments, Commander. We have an Imperial assault force dropping out of hyperspace into this system right now!"

His announcement brought everyone to their feet. While some glared at him and Wedge in disbelief, the rest looked to Rieekan for direction. The old warrior had absolutely no doubts. He had served too many years with the old Jedi and knew what they were capable of. He slapped the Alert status key alongside his console.

"Do it now, gentlemen. This meeting is adjourned until a later time."

As officers scrambled to comply warning claxons blared throughout WINDCHIME. Rieekan looked at Luke and Wedge. "Most of the Squadron senior officers are planet-side, on furlough. Many of the combat-ready fighters are dirt-side, in for repairs and over-haul. I doubt we'll be able to scramble more than a third on short notice. However, there are three squadrons in the frigate's hangars. Two of them are without senior flight officers."

"On our way, sir."

Luke and Wedge spun from the room. Wedge paused in the antechamber. Ordered the confused Windy, "Get to your battle station, recruit."

"I don't have one yet, sir." Eyes wide, Windy stared at her friends.

"Then stick with General Rieekan. I'm sure he'll find you something appropriate. Now go."

Not waiting to see if Windy would comply Wedge bolted after Luke. He caught up with him at the turbo-lift where the Jedi Master was holding the door for him. They reached the hangar level. Dashed toward the fighter bay. An explosion rocked the frigate, throwing them against a wall. They recovered quickly, staggering through the blast door just in time as it came down.

"That didn't feel good."

"No," said Luke. Possibilities filtered down through the Force. "Looks like they're targeting the frigate. Come on. I'll be Red, you're Gold."

Launch technicians met them with flight suits and helmets in hand. All around them combat-hardened veterans donned their suits quickly, with minimal fuss. Someone directed Wedge toward the A-Wings while Luke automatically headed for the familiar snub fighters; Red Squadron with whom he had flown numerous missions and from whose ranks was drawn many of Rogue Squadrons pilots. Nearby several Y-Wings were also warming up. More crewmembers were scrambling across the deck. As Luke located his assigned fighter, the enormity of what they were about to do settled on his shoulders. He shook off foreboding. Scaled the ladder to the cockpit, slipped into the seat and strapped in. Behind him a strange Artoo unit warmed up the drive while Luke hurriedly drew on his helmet and assigned his flight's designation. Perched beside him, a technician silently connected his life-support hoses and communications. With a parting slap to Luke's helmet, the tech slithered down the side rails and removed the ladder. The cockpit lid came down. Directly across the hangar he made out Wedge running a pre-flight check on an A-Wing.

Perched on the ladder's top rung, Wedge's duty tech gave the lid a parting slap. Slipping to the floor, the tech removed the ladder, pulled the hose and got clear. Someone else took his place, prepared to marshal his fighter squadron.

"Red Leader, this is Red Two. We're ready when you are, sir." For all the others in his flight were as yet unaware who their designated lead was, they were professional in their report.

"Red Squadron, this is Red Leader. Stand by." Luke switched to tactical channel. "Flight Ops. This is Red Leader. We are ready to launch."

"Red Leader. You are in the slot for primary. Gold Leader will follow you out. Good luck, sir."

"Thank you, Ops." There might be a firefight outside the ship, but Luke still maintained a certain degree of politeness. "Red Squadron. Prepare to launch."

Repulsors came up. Technicians scurried for the exits. Magnetic shields dropped the minute the floor was cleared of all unprotected personnel. Fighters rose from the hangar floor, swivelled in place, and prepared to break for space.

"Red Squadron, on my mark----launch!"

No longer in doubt over who flew lead, someone responded eagerly. "Right with you, General Skywalker."

They drove for the opening with Gold Squadron hot on their tails. And emerged right in the middle of two squadrons of TIE fighters.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"Wedge. Break left. Split your squadron. Red Squadron, follow me. Stay tight until we're clear, then split up. Red Four, Red Five, you're with me. Go."

Dividing like water around boulders in a stream, Red and Gold Squadrons cut away from each other and their mother ship. They scattered abruptly in four directions, drawing TIE fighters from the vicinity of the beleaguered frigate. Even as they attracted enemy they attacked those fighters further out. TIE bombers suddenly discovered themselves being fired upon and temporarily lost interest in their primary target.

Directly ahead of Luke two of the standard TIE fighters crisscrossed his path. He selected one automatically, laid down fire in front of it and watched the pilot skip left. He blasted another volley across its bow, then immediately switched to the right. Unnerved by the accuracy of the pilot on his tail the TIE pilot made a fatal error; he slipped right, straight into Luke's tracers.

Shields flared and weakened. Luke bled power from his weapons to the shields, increased power to the engines. Messages from his Artoo unit flashed across the small translator screen. Three more enemy fighters latched onto his tail, one of them a bomber. He corkscrewed, slid right, pulled his nose hard up and over. And came down behind the unprepared Imperials. They dispersed, fleeing like a terrified womprats.

More concerned with the bomber, Luke concentrated on it, following it as it circumvented the frigate. For a moment he lost it. Relocated it and opened fire. Someone's A-Wing passed through his cannon fire. Instantly releasing pressure on the firing button, he prayed they had not suffered serious damage from the unintentional burst across their screens.

An old, oft-quoted adage flitted through his brain. Something one of post-Yavin Four Flight Instructors had frequently spouted: 'Friendly fire is anything but. So don't get caught in the middle of it. Watch your back. Watch your buddies.'

Unfortunately, in the heat of battle it was all too commonplace for individuals to find themselves either firing on, or being fired upon by their comrades. As with now when all was chaos and it was generally every pilot for themselves.

Another message appeared on the translator screen. Two enemy fighters closing fast from behind, one left and one right. Luke sensed their anticipation and allowed them to gain on him. They knew they were after someone above the ordinary fighter pilot. Overeager, they opened fire simultaneously. To their consternation and grief Luke abruptly dove. He rolled out the other side just in time to see one TIE fighter explode beneath the deadly accuracy of his comrade's cannons. In the moment of his death, he unwittingly disabled his wingman's TIE. Out of nowhere an A-Wing arrowed in and took out the damaged Imperial fighter.

        "Luke.  There's another whole wing of bombers coming in."
        Head turning to his HUDs, Luke tracked the new incursion.  "Damn.  Where did they come from?"

        Dismayed, he hastily took stock of the battle.  New Republic forces were holding their own, but only barely.  It was equally evident the Imperials had scored several telling shots on WINDCHIME.  The frigate appeared to be listing.  A review of information from his instruments confirmed its shields were down.  Fires raged in two of her hangars and whatever she still possessed in manoeuvrability came only from her acquisition retros.

        For a second Windy's face surfaced.  Luke thrust aside concern for his childhood friend.  With a prayer to the Force, he contacted his squadron.  "Red Squadron, regroup.  Get those bombers."

        "Right with you, Red Leader!"

        "Copy you, Luke."

        Red Squadron, minus one ship, reformed on their leader and drove back into the fray.  There was no time for regrets.  To find out what had happened to Red Six.  Off to their left, on the HUDs Luke picked up the remnants of Wedge's squadron closing fast.  Ahead of them, Blue Squadron was being drawn out of position.  It was too late to do anything but curse under his breath.  The Jedi Master ignored Alerston's group and dove straight into the pack of oncoming TIE bombers, selected torpedoes and fired two.  A bomber disintegrated.  Something in the Force tugged at Luke, urging him to save them.  He switched back to cannons.

        Their attack coordinated by their Flight Leader, Red Squadron singled out personal targets and went after them.  Gold Squadron followed behind, running covering fire.  Luke's first salvo damaged a bomber's shield.  Before he had the opportunity to follow it up his shields flared.  Pulsed again beneath an intense assault.  Frantically whistling, his astro-mech shrilled its fear into the vacuum of space.

        Wedge yelped.  "Watch it, Luke!  You've got two on your tail!"

        Rolling rapidly left, then right, Luke struggled to throw off his attackers, to no avail.  Desperately throwing shields to full aft, he bled power from cannons and poured on the speed.  His opponent remained glued to his tail.

        "Hang on, buddy.  I'm with you."

        Wedge's A-Wing soared down, filling Luke's forward view in a manoeuvre reminiscent of Yavin Four.  This time though Wedge released two torpedoes.  One of the two pinpoints on the HUDs vanished.  The other yawed away leaving Luke to recover and select another target.  Directly in front of him a gunship cut across his field of fire.  Heavily armoured, two torpedoes were required to knock down the shields to a level where cannon fire could eliminate it.

        Someone Luke did not recognize shouted, "Did anyone see where the hell those came from?"

        Wedge dropped in alongside and concentrated his fire in a pattern across the right side of the gunship. Meanwhile Luke released torpedoes one after the other.  Even with the incredible firepower lacing his vessel, the Imperial pilot remained determined to the end.  Locked on to WINDCHIME, he launched a torpedo directly at the frigate.  Before he could release another his craft came apart in a shower of metal fragments.  The Jedi Master replenished and re-balanced his shields from his weapons systems.

        "They're concentrating on the frigate."  Despair filled Wedge's voice.  "Almost none of them went after our corvette."

        "I noticed."  It was difficult for Luke to keep the sharp edge out of his words.  "Where's Blue Squadron?"

        "I don't know."

        Furious with Alerston's non-regulation escapades, Luke brought his X-Wing around.  There was no sign of Blue Training Squadron anywhere within range of his HUDs.  Another formation of TIE fighters popped up and the Jedi Master led his old wingman back into the thick of the now diminishing fight.  Despite the Alliance fighters' valiant efforts it was painfully obvious the frigate was experiencing continuing assaults.  In fact, WINDCHIME had already suffered irreparable damage.

        A crippled TIE Interceptor wobbled through space.  Unable to stop it, the Alliance crews watched helplessly as it entered an unprotected port in the frigate's side and exploded.  WINDCHIME visibly lurched in space.  Fire erupted from the hangar before the vacuum of space quenched it.  In pursuit of still another TIE Interceptor fighter, Luke took it out, came about and discovered he was well out on the perimeter of what had been the battlefield.

        Only damaged and allied fighters now occupied the area.  Several life-pods were emerging from WINDCHIME.  What remained of the attackers were rapidly disappearing out-system.  Four X-Wings and an equal number of A-Wings joined Luke.  After assessing the situation, Luke realized there was little they could do here.  However, there remained the base ships toward which the surviving Imperial fighters had to be heading.  He opened communications with Coruscant Control.

        "Fleet Operations, this is Red Leader."

        "Copy you, Red Leader.  Glad to hear you're still with us, sir."

        "Thanks.  Permission to pursue enemy fighters now departing the system."

        "Roger that, Red Leader."  On the other end of the link his contact hesitated. "Did you say departing the system?"

        "That's a roger, Ops."

        "All right, Red Leader.  Sabre and Stealth Squadrons are attacking a star destroyer in perihelion directly across the sun from us.  Are you joining them?"

        "Negative, Ops.  There are two enemy corvettes just beyond sensor range outside the system."

        "Copy that, Red Leader."  Again a pause while the comms tech struggled to make sense of how Luke knew the corvettes were there when all sensors in that region were off-line.  Suddenly an unfamiliar voice snapped an order.  "You're cleared to pursue remaining fighters, Red Leader."

        "Thanks, Ops."  Luke switched frequencies.  "Red Squadron, Gold Leader.  Form up and follow me.  We're going to find out where the rest of those fighters came from."

        "Right with you, Luke."

        Although A-Wings could out-run an X-Wing any day, Wedge kept his squadron tight in around Red Squadron.  Power directed from shields and weapons to thrusters, the aging snub-fighters tore through space in pursuit of the enemy.  Along the way they passed through several debris fields, testimony to where Rathe Alerston and his wing had vanished.  Just inside the system perimeter, they encountered a drifting B-Wing.

        As they approached, Luke called ahead.  "B-Wing pilot.  This is Red Leader.  Do you copy?"

        "This is Blue Three.  I copy you, sir."

        "Are you all right?"

        "Think so, sir.  Oxygen's low, though.  Life-support's damaged.  Don't know how long I can hold out."  The pilot sounded on edge, his speech hesitant; whether that was from an injury he was concealing or lack of breathable atmosphere in his craft was uncertain.

        "Copy that."  Luke made a command decision, one that would leave them two craft short for an operation that could well prove to be a suicide run.  "Red Two.  Drop out and lock up with Blue Three.  Tow him back to Coruscant.  Wedge, dispatch one of your squadron to run interference just in case."

        "Roger that, Luke.  Gold Five, stay with them."

        "Will do, sirs."  The designated A-Wing banked away.  Slowed appreciably, distance between him and the rest of the group rapidly expanded as the others continued on their way without pause.  "And good hunting."

        "Thanks, Gold Five.  Look after yourself."

        And they were out of range.  To all intents and purposes they were on their own, accountable only to their Flight Leaders and one another.  Eyes glued to their HUDs, the fighter crews and their droids coaxed every ounce of speed from ancient engines.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

On board WINDCHIME Windy halted in the smoke-filled hallway. Head bent over her knees against the painful stitch in her side, she sucked in a lung full of air. As acrid fumes accompanied the oxygen she inhaled she coughed violently. Nearby a droid was working diligently attempting to extinguish an electrical fire.

Almost from the outset of the conflict the frigate's communications had been targeted and eliminated. Someone particularly enterprising among the communications technicians successfully jury-rigged a ship-to-ship-to-planet link utilizing an otherwise useless Y-Wing. The grounded, ailing fighter was being used to rob parts for repairs on other, more serviceable craft. Stranded in the hangar bay nearest the bridge it had proved its worth one last time.

Unfortunately, internal communications remained off-line. So General Rieekan fell back on the oldest method of passing information and retrieving it. He put the new graduates to use as runners. Over the previous hour Windy was positive she had covered sufficient ground between decks to account for the distance between Tosche Station and Mos Eisley spaceport. A feat she would never have considered undertaking back home on Tatooine.

'Then again,' she silently reflected, 'since meeting up with Luke three weeks ago, I've done a lot of things I would never once have imagined possible.'

An explosion rocked the frigate, tossing her against a wall. Hands out, Windy fended off a hard collision with the bulkhead. She allowed her arms to give, cushioning her impact with the metal surface. Even so, her wrists stung with the force. Beneath her the floor heaved, an uncustomary movement for a space ship. Dizziness further compounded her worries, testament that ship gravity was seriously damaged.

Somehow she got herself moving again. Locating the only working turbo-lift still servicing the command level, she boarded it. On the way up she was jostled into the elevator walls twice more. But those were far less violent movements. The doors opened and she stepped out into total pandemonium.

Everywhere she looked there were sagging ceiling panels, buckled bulkheads and collapsed beams. Fragmented fibre optic conduits sprouted from ruined consoles. Electricity arched across workstations, spattered from frayed cables. Voices, shrill with tension and fear, shouted conflicting orders through the confusion. Temporarily inundated by the mayhem, Windy stared about her.

Directly across from her, where the communications technician had once sat was a pile of warped metal. A pair of legs stuck out from underneath. Windy moved forward to check on the individual trapped behind it. The Chief of Security was quite dead, his head at a grotesque angle. Blood pooled beneath his neck and head. Pinned crossways beneath him, the communications technician was also dead. Further on lay the crumpled body of the Second-in-Command, electrocuted just before Windy left the bridge the last time. Rieekan had ordered the Second's remains laid out against the far wall for retrieval by the damage crew. Clearly no one had made it this far yet. Nor, given the most recent turn of events, were they likely to.

Only five of the twelve bridge staff remained alive and mobile; two of them were arguing loudly. One of the three junior officers yelled at the senior engineering technician.

"We've got to get the retros working!"

Panic was the only emotion in the Second Lieutenant's voice as he hollered at one of the engineers still in the pit. Unsure what to do, Windy clambered over the rubble and worked her way to the catwalk between the technician pits.

"Where's the General?"

Her demand shook the Second Lieutenant out of his hysteria and brought the young officer round to face her. For several seconds the Lieutenant stared at her blankly. Then he pointed obliquely.

"In there. Dead. He and the Captain."

'There' proved to be the bridge briefing room. A massive beam lay at an acute angle across the doorway, partially blocking the opening. Beyond jumbled grey shapes filled an otherwise pitch-black void.

"Are you sure they're dead?"

When the Second Lieutenant failed to respond Windy leaned over the beam and peered into the dark room. The entire ceiling had collapsed during the attack. Only the surviving furniture provided any support to the twisted shambles inside. Still unconvinced, Windy dropped to all fours and shouted into the room.

"General Rieekan? Captain Worl?" She paused to listen. "General Rieekan? Can you hear me?"

No one responded to her call. She felt around in front of her. At floor level there was free space perhaps a body length deep. Without conscious thought Windy found herself crawling beneath the wreckage. Someone grabbed her from behind.

"Hey! Have you lost you mind? Stay out of there. The whole thing could collapse at any minute."

Hauled back into the open, Windy glared up at the junior officer standing over her. Respect for rank vanished. "All the more reason to see if there's anyone still alive in there."

"You're crazy."

"Maybe. But I don't see anyone else trying to help them." Windy stared at the semi-circle of faces now grouped behind the Second Lieutenant. "Were they alone in there?"

"Yes."

"All right. That improves the odds considerably. Someone get me a light. I can't see anything under here. Have it ready when I call."

Without waiting to see if anyone would again try to stop her, Windy crawled forward on her hands and knees. Her determination either impressed them or deterred them. No one touched her. Just beyond the door she dropped to her stomach. From then on it was slower going. She wormed forward on her belly. Dust and smoke clogged her nose and mouth. At one point a coughing fit forced her to halt. She found she could not recover her breath. Frantic, Windy yanked open the neck of her tunic and tugged her undershirt up over her mouth and nose. Rank sweat was preferable to the smoke. At least now she could breathe.

Determined to find the senior officers she squirmed forward, hands sweeping back and forth in front of her. Whenever possible she pushed debris aside, clearing the path behind her. When she could not shift an obstacle she crawled around it. Suddenly her fingers encountered fabric. For all she was hoping to locate the General the discovery came as a shock. Reflex made her jerk back. She barked her knuckles against the twisted frame of a chair, swore softly, and sucked bruised flesh.

"General?"

A muffled groan greeted her call. Heartened, she scrambled backwards to a spot where she could turn around. Two faces peered at her from beyond the doorway.

"Give me the light."

"Did you find them?

"Yes. Pass me the light."

"I'll bring it---"

"No. Stay put until I've had a chance to assess what it's like under there. We may not be able to free them without heavy equipment."

"Here it comes."

The senior electrical technician scooted the light across the floor. Windy caught it and doubled back around, returning to where she had found Rieekan and ship's Commanding Officer. It was immediately obvious what had transpired. When the ceiling came down, the General was sitting in his chair at the end of the table. Survival instincts had kicked in at the sound of tearing metal. The old man must have intuitively thrown himself sideways onto the floor between the seats. While the table and chairs took most of the weight of the ceiling panels, a collapsing beam crushed the seats, pinning Rieekan down.

Off to one side and behind Rieekan, Captain Worl had not been as fortunate. One large ceiling spar had pierced his chest. Windy looked hastily away and concentrated on the General.

By shining the light across dusty and torn fabric, Windy finally located Rieekan's face. Her superior flinched from the light. He gasped and went limp. Pain- filled eyes stared back at Windy. There was blood on the General's chin and tunic.

"Worl?"

"Dead, sir."

"Was afraid of that."

"Sir. Hang on. We'll get you out."

"Don't be a fool, girl. I'm dying. Leave me. Save yourselves. Abandon the ship."

"Not without you, sir."

"That's an order, mister."

Logic asserted itself. "Sorry, sir, but you're in no condition to give coherent orders. Second Lieutenant Charrod's senior on the bridge."

"Charrod? Force preserve us," the old man gasped weakly. Clearly he did not consider Charrod command material, at least not yet. His eyes focused. "You're Luke's friend, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Windy---that is what they call you, isn't it?" Windy nodded. Rieekan continued. "Do as I tell you. Give Charrod the order to abandon ship."

"Yes, sir. Once we're got you free. I'll be right back."

"Damn, irresponsible, insubordinate---"

Determined to make Windy see sense, Rieekan attempted to move. Again he gasped as pain slashed up through him, blurring his vision. Slumped back against the floor, the General gave up the bid to command the situation. Concerned by Rieekan's ashen face, Windy wriggled back to the bridge. Eager hands helped her to her feet. Charrod grabbed her shoulders.

"Did you find them? How are they?"

Windy extricated herself and told them the truth. "The Captain's dead, but General Rieekan's alive. However he's hurt."

"Can we get him out?"

"I think so but I'll need two people to help. In the meantime," Windy passed on Rieekan's orders, "he wants us to get all survivors to abandon ship."

"So you say." Frightened and angry, another junior officer moved to Charrod's shoulder. "We've only got your say so that the General's alive. How do we know you're telling the truth?"

"Because I said so. And where I come from you generally take a person at their word." Not about to back down in the face of the fear riding her accuser, Windy stared the man straight in the eye. "He wants us off WINDCHIME. Even I can tell she's done for, Lieutenant. Now let's get moving. You have your duty. Let me worry about the General."

"But---"

"Shut up, Halsi." Charrod rounded on his companion. "Sound the alarm. Get everyone to the life-pods."

"You too, sir," said Windy.

"No way. I'm staying to help---"

"Beggin' your pardon, sir." The senior engineer stepped forward. "You'll be needed to ensure the others get off. Just leave the General to us. We'll see he's brought out, sir."

Indecisive, Charrod hovered, staring at Windy. Only then did Windy realize that she, a mere Private bucking for commissioning was ordering seasoned veterans and officers about. Then again, she reasoned given the state of her uniform it was a miracle anyone knew what rank she---or anyone else---on the bridge held.

"Go." Regulations forgotten Windy gave Charrod a small push. Then she jerked her head at the senior engineer and his nearest companion. "Come on. Lend me a hand."

"What do you need?"

"There's a beam lying across a ceiling panel and some chairs. Rieekan's trapped under it. I'll need you two to lift it high enough for me to pull him out."

"Right with you."

Not waiting to see if Charrod would obey instructions, Windy dropped to her hands and knees and once again penetrated the room. The technicians accompanied her, close on her heels, one behind the other. Upon reaching the General they found Rieekan once more in command of his faculties. Their arrival made him shake his head carefully in disbelief.

"Mister Khoshort. You should know better than---"

"Meanin' no disrespect to your rank and all, sir, but shut up and let us get you out of there." Khoshort glanced at Windy. "Tell us what you want, ma'am."

With a tap of her hand to emphasize her directives Windy point to spots on either side of her. "Get your shoulders up under the panels---there and there. When I give the word, lift."

"Right. Piarac, think you can do that with your end?"

Piarac sized up the situation. "Gonna be a bit of a tight squeeze. Otherwise it don't look like a problem."

They flanked Windy, carefully positioned in preparation for the operation. Windy knotted her fist in the front of Rieekan's tunic. Their eyes met.

"I won't kid you, sir. This is probably going to hurt a lot."

Teeth gritting in preparation, Rieekan gave the order. "Just get it over with."

With a nod, Windy took two deep breaths, steadied herself. "Okay, on my mark. One---two---three---lift."

Grunts and groans attested to the technicians applying themselves to levering up the panel and beam above. Metal creaked. Dust filtered across them. Slowly obstructions rose a palm-width off the General. All her weight thrown behind her actions, Windy dragged the General around and out from beneath the debris. Rieekan let out a short, sharp cry and fell silent. Already moving, Windy kept going. The technicians eased their burden back into place and joined her. Together, they rapidly hauled Rieekan back to the bridge.

Back in the open they realized they were indeed alone. Red and amber lights flashed sporadically across the few consoles still working. Out of breath, Windy sagged over her knees. Hands against the tops of her thighs for support, she fought to regain her wind and slow her pulse. WINDCHIME shuddered violently. A throaty roar growled through the dying vessel.

"Now what, ma'am?"

Bent head tipped on its side, Windy gazed up at Khoshort. She shook her head. "I don't know. Where's the nearest life pod?"

"Won't do us no good," Piarac said as though they were discussing a practice drill rather than a real-life scenario. "That last explosion came from behind the bridge."

"Is the lift still working?"

"Pray the Force it is," said Khoshort.

It came to Windy that both these men were veterans of the war against the Empire, probably since before Biggs had become involved in the conflict. Compared to them she was a tyro. She could not help wondering where she found the nerve to give them orders.

Khoshort glanced at the unconscious form at their feet. "Personally I have no inclination to try hauling him through the emergency evac conduits. Right, then, Piarac. Let's get him up."

"Put him over my shoulders," said Windy.

"We can carry him between us."

"Too slow," Windy argued.

"Ma'am, he could have broken ribs."

Windy snapped back. "The idea's to get us out of here."

"You're the boss." With a shrug, Khoshort gestured to his companion. "Come on. Let's get him up there. At least he's unconscious." He peered at Windy closely. "Just as long as you figure you can carry him."

"Stop wasting time." Windy retaliated, afraid she might not be able to carry through with her plan to carry Rieekan to safety.

With infinite care, the technicians eased the General off the floor. They tenderly placed him across Windy's shoulders and balanced Rieekan's unconscious body there until Windy was positive she could take the weight. Carefully at first, then faster as Windy found her equilibrium with her unwieldy burden, they headed for the turbo-lift.

To their immeasurable relief the lift still worked. Khoshort slapped the controls to take them down three levels. Legs wobbling with exhaustion, Windy locked her knees and concentrated on just keeping her feet under her. At their destination, the technicians stepped out on either side. Hands beneath her elbows supported her as she stumbled and wove a ragged path along the corridor leading to the life pods. As they reached the nearest pod, Charrod emerged.

Irritated that the Second Lieutenant had blatantly ignored orders, Windy snarled at the junior officer, "You still here?"

"Held this one back in case you made it out." Charrod ignored her insubordination. "As a matter of fact, another minute and you'd have missed us."

Not about to risk another verbal match with Windy, Charrod drew Rieekan's still form from her shoulders. Aided by Khoshort, the Second Lieutenant passed the General inside. Worn out, Windy sagged against the nearest bulkhead. But the technicians refused to let her stay there. They dragged her through the hatch and clambered into the pod behind her, sealing the door. Once certain everyone was secure Khoshort hit the ejection switch.

They were propelled out into space, tumbling and twisting as the pod cleared the dying frigate. Retros kicked in, driving them well clear of the destruction zone. Designed to protect its precious cargo from flying debris, shields came up on cue. Trapped inside the rear of the pod, Windy collapsed in the nearest available spot. Eyes closed, she waited along with her companions for rescue or death.

Behind them WINDCHIME began slowly rolling in space, tumbling on her axis as damaged gravity systems went off-line. Without computer direction or human control at the helm retros fired randomly, further aggravating its deteriorating condition. All craft in the immediate vicinity withdrew as the once-magnificent vessel succumbed to her death throes.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Two large blips appeared on the fighters' displays. As they drew nearer a number of smaller dots separated from background. Inter-ship communication leapt into life.

"---can't shake him! Someone get him off me! Commander Alerston!"

That desperate plea was one each knew all too well. And it was all the more poignant because a woman cried out for assistance. Almost all of them had uttered that plea during their careers, in a similar form or another. But this time it was impossible for any of them to respond in time to that gut-wrenching scream for help. Even as they closed in on the corvettes and their surviving fighter escort the overwhelmed B-Wing came apart under concentrated power from the two gunships.

The remaining B-Wing spiralled out, headed back toward the Coruscant system. Luke sighed with relief then gasped in disbelief as the fighter performed a tight outside loop, dropping in behind a withdrawing attacker. Under most combat situations this manoeuvre worked. But this time a sole TIE fighter dropped in behind the B-Wing and it was immediately evident the Alliance pilot was incapable of either destroying his target or escaping his pursuer.

"Blue Squadron fighter. Blue Squadron fighter. Hang on. We're on our way."

Wedge's shout across the comm-link brought a prompt, if hesitant response. But it was not what any of them expected. "Sorry, Antilles. Guess I've bought it this time. Should have lis---"

"Rathe!"

No reply answered Wedge's shout. Only a rapidly expanding debris field greeted them as they pressed forward their attack against the corvettes. Power now redirected to weapons and shields, they slowed. Luke sized up the opposition and made a rapid tally of their remaining ordnance.

"Anyone got torpedoes?" In spite of all warnings in the Force, he had been forced to empty his own.

"Red Five. I've got two."

"Red Four, sir. I've got one."

"Gold Three, Red Leader. I've got three."

"Luke?" Wedge responded. "Got one left, buddy. What have you got in mind?"

"Gold Three, take Red Four and go for the nearest corvette. Get in as close as you dare, launch all torpedoes then take it out. Red Five, Wedge. You're with me. I'll cover you. Let's hit it, guys."

Again they redirected power. Bled it off the cannons to bring their shields back up to full and saved the rest for the engines. One eye on shields, bleeding power repeatedly from weapons to maintain them at full the tiny vengeful force charged in.

Split into two groups, the New Republic fighters bore down on the Imperial corvettes. Gold Three's group released all their missiles before Luke and his companions swung past the stern of the nearest vessel, en route to their objective.

"Watch it, Luke. Gunships."

Luke glanced at his HUDs. "Got 'em, Wedge. Stay on target. I'll run interference."

"Copy that."

Not about to let the enemy close on his friend, Luke hauled back on the yoke and pulled his X-Wing around in a tight turn. He bled more power off to the shields, peeled sharp right to avoid an incoming missile. Undeterred by their rapid approach he zigzagged back in, firing into the oncoming enemy. Unnerved, four gunships broke formation. They swung past him. Luke selected one and brought his cannons to bear. He set for single burst, spattering the enemy. At that moment he realized he was being drawn out of position. Focused once more, the Jedi Master switched targets as two more enemy craft arrowed in on his companions. Another burst of cannon fire successfully scattered the enemy once more.

Satisfied that he had temporarily diverted the Imperials' attention, Luke zeroed in on a particular gunship. Beneath his fire its shields dropped, came back up as the pilot bled off power. Dropped again. Firepower spattered across the X-Wing's shields. Luke jinked left, boosted shields and returned to his attack on his target. Shields going down again, the enemy craft came apart under the intensive fire.

Again fire splattered across Luke's fighter. He dodged. Dodged again. Nose dropping, the Jedi Master sideslipped his fighter halfway through an outside loop. His X-wing rolled out of the turn and dropped in behind his pursuer: a shuttle. Afraid of running up its stern, he powered back.

"Wedge! Watch it! Enemy shuttles!"

"I see 'em, Luke. Red Five's on the corvette. Be right with you."

"Red Three here, Red Leader. I'm with you, sir."

Ahead of Luke, the shuttle disintegrated. He switched directions and poured on the power. Both corvettes laid down an awesome, inter-laced fire field through which Luke wove. Several times gunners from the ships caught him in their sights but he evaded them before they could damage his fighter. His flight path took him over one corvette and beneath the other. As he passed them he raked both with cannon fire.

Shields around the nearest corvette collapsed, but her gunners refused to give up. The X-Wing's rear shields almost collapsed. Reflex sent Luke dodging and diving, once more bleeding power to the shields until certain they were back up within reasonable limits and he was once more out of range. To take out just one corvette required a combination of skill, cunning and the support of other fighters. With two or more, his companions needed every advantage his Force enhanced talents could provide.

From the corner of his eye he saw one corvette slowly roll over. Fire gushed from its sides. Before he could look away the ship exploded in an eye-blinding display. Unable to see, Luke reverted to his other 'sight'. Just in time. A shuttle and a gunship closed on him from opposing directions.

But neither enemy had counted on Wedge Antilles. Gold Leader rounded on the shuttle. Effectively distracted, the Imperial shuttle broke off its attack run. Left alone with the gunship, Luke led his attacker on a merry chase around the last dying corvette. Doggedly hanging on, the remaining gunship refused to be shaken. Shields dropping and nearly all his spare power drained, Luke tried one final tactic.

He twisted away from his pursuer and poured on the power. At the last second he yanked back on the yoke, bringing his X-Wing up and over in an inside loop. Droid-speak raced across the tiny screen. Before they were halfway into the loop Luke rammed the fighter's nose down, killed all thrust, and activated nose retros.

The violent manoeuvre threw him against his harness and snapped his head forward hard. Luke saw stars. All around him systems strenuously objected the unorthodox act. His droid shrilled at him. Unconsciousness threatened to over-whelm him. He let go, centered through the Force and found the gunship as it overshot him. Without conscious thought he opened fire just as Red Three and Red Five appeared from his left and right. Caught in the triple crossfire, the gunship had no chance.

The X-wing came out of the turn and Luke quickly recovered. With a shake of his head he focused on the remaining corvette. Repeated explosions rocked the enemy vessel. Carefully he rotated his head, easing nerves pinched by whiplash. No fighters or shuttles remained. Nor were there any survivors from the corvettes. Their crews had either been incapable of abandoning ship or elected to die with their vessels. Assailed by their death screams, Luke cut his tie to the Force. Bone and soul weary he gave the command.

"Let's go home."

"Roger that, Red Leader."

Thankful they had survived, they formed up around the lead X-Wing and turned back for Coruscant. Red Three had suffered some damage. Scorch marks and large gouges in the metal work testified just how close the pilot had come to death.

"Red Three. Are you all right?"

"Fine, sir. A little battered, but systems analysis shows everything's operating within optimal parameters."

"Good. Wedge?"

"Yeah, Luke?"

"Take lead, will you? I'm gonna catch some sleep."

"Sure, buddy. Go ahead. We'll let you know if anything happens."

"Thanks."

Head back, Luke put his X-Wing on its heading and tapped orders to his Artoo unit to cue him should his attention be required. Once certain it would pilot them home he set the proximity alarm. Then he closed his eyes and slipped effortlessly into sleep for the duration of the return flight.

The moment they entered Coruscant's orbit he woke. Still tired but alert, he sat up and took stock. Where WINDCHIME should have been there were only chunks of twisted metal and other unidentifiable wreckage scattered across space. Shuttles and transports cautiously worked through the rubble picking up life pods and sifting through the rest for bodies.

"Damn." Someone in the group put their fears into words. "They got the frigate."

Luke pushed aside concern for Windy and contacted Operations. "Fleet Ops, this is Red Leader. Do you copy?"

"Red Leader, this is Fleet Ops. Thank the Force you're alive, General Skywalker. We thought we'd lost you, sir."

"Not hardly." In spite of himself, Luke managed a tired laugh.

"Have you seen anything of General Antilles?"

"Right here, Ops," said Wedge. "Fleet's not going to get rid of us that easily."

"Sirs, you're requested to land at your earliest convenience."

Something was definitely wrong. It was evident in the Operations comms tech's voice. Worried, Luke asked, "What's wrong, Ops?"

"Sorry, Red Leader. General Jornik will meet you at the Ops briefing room with a complete explanation."

Now informed Operations was withholding something from them, Luke realized he would have to wait for an answer. "Roger that, Ops. We're on our way. Did Blue Three get back safely?"

"Yes, sir. And---thank you."

They swung past the rescue vessels and began their descent toward Coruscant's atmosphere. Wedge dropped in on his left wing. He avoided alluding to Windy's presence on board the destroyed frigate. "What do you think, Luke?"

Uncertain what Wedge was asking, Luke cautiously responded. "I'm not sure."

"Want to use the priority field near the Palace?"

"No." Direction of their conversation established, Luke ordered. "We'll set down in the MILLENNIUM FALCON's bay. The FALCON's still in for over-haul but there's more than enough room in there to accommodate the two of us. It'll put us right near Fleet Ops and Han won't begrudge us the use of it."

"If you say so. But I'll let you explain it to him."

"No problem, Wedge. Red and Gold fighters. The rest of you set down in the repair yards. Get your fighters over-hauled and ready for immediate turn-around. General Antilles and I are on our way to Ops."

"Roger, Red Leader."

"Copy that, General Skywalker."

They watched while the other fighters banked away from them. Aware his friend was troubled, Wedge switched to a more secure communications channel. "Luke, is there something going on that you're not telling me?"

"No, Wedge. Not that I know of."

"Just a feeling?"

"Yes."

They settled quickly through the atmosphere. Avoided med-evac shuttles still bringing in the wounded. Behind them five corvettes, three Calamari cruisers and a frigate emerged from hyperspace, dropped into the system and braked to a halt. Patrols shot up past them, scrambling to fill gaps left by dead, injured and worn-out flight crews.

As his fighter settled into the oversize bay designed to hold vessels larger than the FALCON, Luke caught sight of Artoo Detoo hovering on the perimeter of the bay. In spite of the sense of urgency pervading the Force, Luke took time to run post-flight checks and place the strange astro-mech on the hangar floor. Artoo immediately closed on the stranger, demanding an update. Once everything was shut down Luke popped the canopy. Helmet removed, he set it aside. Since there were no technicians handy with ladders, he slid over the side of the fighter and dropped lightly to the floor of the bay.

Wedge appeared around the side of his A-Wing. But Artoo beat him to Luke, whistling and beeping. Annoyed as only the little droid could be, he let his master know in no uncertain terms that he had absolutely no right flying any mission without his faithful droid along. Certainly not in the company of some stranger.

"All right, Artoo." Luke apologized for distressing his mechanized companion. "I'll try not to do it again."

"Is he telling you off for leaving him behind?"

"Han." For all his weariness Luke summoned a grin for the Corellian. "Of course he is."

"You should know better than to run off without your friends." Solo admonished him.

"Didn't have much choice," said Wedge.

"Sure," said Han. "You just wanted to keep all the fun to yourselves. Come on." He gestured to the entrance. "Got a hover-car waiting outside to get you over to Ops."

Neither Luke nor Wedge bothered to remove their flight suits. Hoses tucked out of the way, they hurried after Han. It took a couple of minutes to see that Artoo was safely secured on the rear of the hover-car. Then they were on board the vehicle. Their transport took them up and over, utilizing a priority flight pattern obviously previously assigned specifically for their use. Along the way Luke quizzed Han for a situation report.

"How bad are our losses?"

Surprisingly, Luke's question drew a neutral look from Han. Even Wedge stared at the uncustomary evasion from the freighter pilot. It was evident Han Solo was deciding just what to say, exactly how much to tell them and how to word it.

"Give it to us up front," said Wedge, not about accept anything but the truth. "We already know we lost the frigate."

"Got most of the crew off." Han's voice was strangely gruff. "Including the old man."

Alerted by the manner in which Han added that sentence almost as an after-thought, Wedge demanded, "Rieekan?"

Han nodded. The Jedi Master read between the lines. "How badly was he hurt?"

"They won't tell us. No one's gotten close to him since he was taken off the life-pod." Solo met Luke's gaze. "Maybe you can find out. Seems it was your buddy who got Carlist off the frigate before she went."

"Windy?"

"Uh huh."

The hover-car settled outside Fleet Operations. Before they were quite down, Luke was out the door his companions close on his heels. Artoo was left to trail along behind at his best possible speed as soon as the driver helped him from the rear compartment. Two junior aides and a Captain met them at the entrance.

"General Skywalker. You're wanted in Briefing immediately, sir. If you'll just follow us---"

Luke forestalled questions. "Where have they taken General Rieekan?"

"Fleet VIP medical section, sir," said the Captain. "Only high priority personnel are being sent there. The casualty list's so extensive there's no room anywhere else."

"Tell General Jornik I'll be along shortly. There's something I have to do."

Without thinking, the Captain put out a hand to restrain the Jedi Master as Luke stepped past him. He froze just as his fingers touched Luke's arm. They stared at one another until the Captain dropped his gaze.

"I'm sorry, sir." Taken aback by his own temerity, he apologized and took one step back. "I didn't mean to be disrespectful, but they're not allowing anyone in there without special authorization from the Council."

By the time the Captain finished what he was saying he was shouting after Luke's vanishing back. Helpless to stop the Jedi Master, the Captain turned to Wedge and Han for assistance. Received only mildly amused looks and shrugs in return.

"Don't look at me." Han told the officer, "I ain't his keeper. Just his brother-in-law."

"You best just take us to briefing," said Wedge firmly. "We'll let General Jornik know he's going to have to wait to start. I'm sure General Skywalker will be along shortly."

"Ah---yes, sir." Incapable of finding any other solution to his dilemma, the Captain sighed heavily. "If you'll follow me, sirs?"

"Sure thing. Lead on." Han gestured with his usual aplomb for the Captain to precede them.

Wedge glanced back at the distressed Artoo now pushing against his heels. "You, too, Artoo. They'll want you there. And there's no way you're going to catch up to Luke even if you do know where he's headed."

A stream of plaintive beeps escaped Artoo Detoo. Resigned, he accompanied Han and Wedge into Fleet Operations. Their unhappy guide continually looked back over his shoulder at them as though afraid they, too, would abandon him for their own pursuits. Fortunately, they did not. Nor was General Jornik overly concerned when he received news of Luke Skywalker's temporary deviation from routine.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Sight of a pilot racing through the Operations Centre was an uncommon enough sight where regulations specifically dictated otherwise unless under full alert status. Few people had time to identify the offender. Those who did stared after Luke Skywalker in amazement.

On any other occasion Luke would have taken a more roundabout route to the Fleet Operations Emergency Medical Centre. Today he knew there was no time. He nipped between or around duty personnel without a word, even vaulted a squat droid when no other alternative presented itself. At one corner he almost ran down a clerk. With a startled yip the young man flattened himself against one wall. Ancient tomes filled his arms. A fraction of Luke's thoughts were momentarily distracted. Even with all the chaos going on topside, administrative housekeeping went on. Someone was clearing out ancient dead-files and committing the information to data banks.

He burst from the building, cut across an open space, slipped between two more buildings and plunged through the doors of the medical centre. Orderlies and med-droids were everywhere. Screams and pleas for help filled the air. Muffled moans punctuated the short gaps between, over-ridden by the calls of the staff. Trauma, injury and death hung over the place, a miasma that all but inundated the Jedi Master. Over-whelmed medical staff was striving desperately to sedate the wounded not requiring immediate attention. Luke forced aside the oppressive veil as he sought out one particular room among the many.

Like a bloat fly drawn to the dying the Force directed Luke toward the right room. He flitted through the building, sensing death as a palpable entity beyond the door. Two guards blocked his way. The Jedi Master reached out and blanked their minds. As their heads turned aside, he went in. Across the room four people and a med-droid hovered around a bacta tank, among them, his sister. Heads turned at the sound of the door opening and closing.

"Luke!" Leia came towards him. "What are you doing here?"

Even as she spoke, the Princess glanced toward the tank. Suspended in pink bacta fluid Rieekan twitched slightly in spite of the sedatives filling his system. One of the two ministers glowered at Luke.

"Who gave you permission---"

Crix Madine rested a hand on the minister's arm, quieting him. Aware of what her brother could do, Leia stared up into his face.

"Luke. Is there anything you can do?"

In response to her question, he returned one of his own. "How is he?"

"Not good," said Leia.

Five-Six-Bee pivoted to face him. "The General has suffered extensive trauma to his chest and head. We have reset broken bones, sealed arteries and accelerated healing wherever possible, sir. But I am afraid his age is against him. And there was severe cranial damage."

"Luke?" Madine uttered that one word once more. Fell silent.

Now that she knew what had brought him, Leia grasped her brother's arm. Desperate, she pleaded, "Please, Luke. If you can do anything for him---"

"That's why I'm here," he said softly. "I'll do what I can but I need absolute quiet. No distractions."

She nodded and took one minister by the arm. With a nod to the Jedi Master, Madine urged the other one ahead of him. Both ministers protested but left the room without further encouragement. When the door opened, the guards automatically glanced in. Sight of the Jedi Master on the other side sent them into confusion. Princess Leia hurriedly soothed them as the door closed once more, shutting out the hubbub in the corridor.

Time was of the essence now. Luke removed his gloves and flight suit, setting them aside across a nearby diagnostic bed. Hands cupped against the tank curvature, he stared into the bacta depths. Eyes closing, Luke reached out with his feelings and slid effortlessly into the patient's body. Through the Force he sensed each injury.

The damage was so extensive Luke was astounded Carlist remained alive. Frayed tendons, muscles and blood vessels filled his perception. Two-thirds of the ribs had either been fractured or broken. Bone bruises marred Rieekan's pelvis and one knee had been dislocated. Both arms showed indications of fractures as well. All had been dealt with, the healing begun, but too slowly.

Focused on the injuries, Luke slipped through Carlist Rieekan's body. Slowly he teased each frayed or severed component back together, erased bruises. But Rieekan continued to lose ground. Determined not to lose what ground he had won, Luke redirected his attention further up, and discovered the source of the problem.

Diagnosed by Five-Six-Bee and initially treated, the trauma to Rieekan's brain was not responding to treatment. Tiny bleeders still pumped blood into the cavity beneath the old man's skull. With nowhere to go, pressure from the swelling contusion pressed dangerously against the brain.

His own depleted resources ignored, Luke worked quickly to seal off blood vessels. A new talent barely perfected coaxed bone to melt aside, fashioning a hole through which he pushed the pool of blood. Then he resealed the skull. Medical probes monitoring Rieekan discovered the errant fluid. Needles pricked the scalp and drew it off before it could find somewhere else to gather.

Certain he was winning, Luke continued his work. With feather delicate touch he soothed damaged brain cells and withdrew. Carlist's heart fluttered feebly, ss though he had lost the will to live. Afraid they would lose the old General in spite of his efforts, Luke searched for the patient's life spark. He urged the valiant old warrior to live.

'Too old. Too tired.' That response to his cajoling was more sensed than heard. 'Let me go.'

'Not yet, sir. We still need you a little longer.'

Rieekan hesitated on the brink. Almost Luke could see him hovering, indecisive. He sensed rather than saw Carlist glance into the abyss beyond. Knew what the old man saw and felt there, the peace every warrior sought when battle was done. As Jedi Master, Luke had done all he could. Now he held his breath and waited. Only Rieekan could make this final choice between life and death.

Rieekan conceded. 'All right.'

Snap! Transition back to reality was nerve wrenching. Pain filled. Eyes opening, Luke saw Rieekan's entire body thrash in the tank, a certain sign the old man would recover. Diodes flashing, Five-Six-Bee moved around the tank, examining life-signs with what would, in any sentient be classified as excitement.

On the brink of exhaustion, Luke slumped into a nearby chair and closed his eyes. He felt as though he had climbed every tree on Dagobah. Something stung his arm, rudely jerking him back to the present. The med-droid hovered at his side.

"You really ought not to over-exert yourself this way, sir." Five-Six-Bee admonished him. "Your reserves are all but depleted."

"What did you just give me?"

"A stimulant, sir. I know you're expected at briefing immediately you're done here."

"General Jornik?"

"Operations contacted me while you were---occupied."

The med-droid's polite way of referring to Luke's meditative healing state was almost laughable. But Luke was too tired to even chuckle. Behind him he heard the med-room door open and close.

"I think I'll just sit here for a bit," he said to the droid.

"Personally, I wish I could tie you down to a bed for the next week," said Leia, no less concerned than Two-One-Bee.

"I'll be fine." Luke scrubbed his fingers back and forth over his scalp, stirring sweat-matted hair and easing an itch.

"Sure you will." Leia commented with much the same inflections Han used on occasion. She wrapped her arms around Luke from behind, her chin resting against the crown of his head. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you, Luke. You're all the family I've got."

Arms stretching up and back, Luke gave her a small hug. "Don't worry. I'm not ready to join Ben and Yoda yet."

His words, more than anything else over the last few weeks frightened Leia. Her grip tightened. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back tears threatening to flow, and concentrated on directing some of her strength into her twin. Time was of the essence. Yet Leia did not want to let go for fear she would wake from sleep to find him gone forever from her life.

"It's all right, Leia. No matter what," Luke sought to reassure her, "I'll always be here for you. Remember that."

"Promise?"

"Always." He reaffirmed that with another tiny hug.

For several more seconds Leia held on to him, reluctant to let go. Then she drew back. Heaved a little sigh. "Come on. We're late for briefing."

One hand beneath her brother's elbow, Leia helped him out of the chair and passed him his flight gear. Luke threw it over his left arm and they left the ward. Gathered outside, the ministers and several other senior military personnel pressed forward, eager for answers. Leia waved them off.

"Gentlemen, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for a complete medical report until later. General Skywalker and I are expected at an emergency briefing."

"Excuse me, your Highness, but---"

"Larrenz, we're already late," Leia said, a chill bite to her voice.

Aware they were only succeeding in annoying the Princess further, everyone drew aside to permit Leia and her brother free passage. Neither twin spoke throughout the long walk back to Operations. The Princess carefully let Luke set the pace. Flight suit hoses gently brushed their legs. They were not entirely surprised to discover Artoo waiting for them when they entered the building. As they came toward him, Artoo pirouetted and trundled off down a nearby passage, preceding them to the appropriate briefing room among the seven within Operations.

Heads turned as they entered the room. Generals Jornik and Madine occupied the front of the room. Seated in the tiers were several ships' commanding officers and their seconds-in-command, plus the surviving flight commanders and their wingmen. A number of new faces rounded out the crowd. Near the front of the room Luke spotted several familiar faces, including Rogue Squadron's new Flight Commander. He led Leia down to two seats along the left side of the aisle, two rows back.

The place was redolent with hypertension, a leftover from the battle past and expectation at what the briefing might entail. Sharp, rank odour of sweaty bodies oozed from flight suits now that flight helmets had been removed. Anyone else might find the atmosphere offensive. Like the combat personnel, Leia found it strangely exhilarating. A holdover from too many years spent living on the edge along with the rest of the fugitive Alliance. Trapped on board ship, more often than not on the run from the Empire's clutches.

Jornik waited patiently until the Skywalker twins were seated with their old battle comrades. He nodded a silent greeting to them when their attention came to bear on him. Without further comment, he activated the hologram and faced his audience.

"I realize you're all very tired, people," he said quietly, respectful of their fatigue. "Your timely actions and skill have saved our fleet from certain destruction. All of us sympathize and wish we could offer you some respite. Unfortunately, at this time we are being forced to implement a plan that was initially only a tentative proposal.

"Few of you are presently aware of the enormity of our losses at this time. Even in light of your valiant effort we lost one frigate and numerous fighters and their crews. Additionally, approximately twenty-six percent of the Training Squadrons were wiped out at the onset of the Imperial assault."

Dismayed murmurs raced around the bleachers. Heads leaned sideways to catch whispered comments. Leia watched her neighbour's reactions, realizing her own pale face was mirrored over and over throughout the room. A hand enfolded hers. She turned to Han, found support in his eyes and turned back to the briefing.

"Greatly adding to our losses, all but one craft from Blue Training Squadron were eliminated." Blunt in his assessment, Jornik held Wedge's gaze as he spoke. "In effect, people, they caught us with our pants down."

"How'd they do it?" Lando's demand received supportive grunts from about the room.

"That's something we all asked while you were preoccupied with defence of this system and our ships. Our In-System Defence department supplied the answer." Unable to look any of them in the eye, Jornik stared over their heads while he explained. "Due to a rare planetary conjunction during which nearly all the system's orbiting bodies are on this side of the sun, an opening was created. Through it the Imperials launched their initial assault. They dropped a star destroyer from hyperspace directly across the solar plane from our position and sent out the first three waves of ships."

"That's the disturbance which alerted me." Luke quietly remarked aside to Wedge.

"At the same time they performed a sneak attack on our early warning system buoys. Took a leaf right out of our own files, replacing those buoys with their own. Then they brought in two corvettes with back-up fighters on the system perimeter."

"Which we chased and eliminated," said Wedge.

Alfiar Jornik's voice hardened appreciably. "The fact that we lost so many of our newest fighters is a particularly bad blow. Replacing the B-Wings will be a time-consuming operation since we had not expected to require more than individual replacement craft and spare parts until well into next year. Supply is working on speeding up demands for double production in half the time."

Alfiar paced across the front of the room between his audience and the holo-projector, gathering himself to continue the briefing. He did not relish what he must say next. No one moved. Eyes tracked his progress, ignoring Madine for the time being. Nor did the Chief of Security and Covert Operations do anything to disrupt the intensity of their attention.

"Red and Gold Squadrons were lightest hit," said Jornik. "Stealth and Sabre Squadrons strength will be easily rebuilt from those veterans and craft presently on leave and in for over-haul. Fortunately, half our squadron strength is out on manoeuvres. Rogue and Wraith Squadrons were away and maintained their complete compliments." His gaze lit on Gavin Horn in the front row. "However the mission about which you will now be briefed must be implemented within the next three days. Time being of the essence, and knowing you all need to eat and get some sleep, I'll proceed with the purpose of this briefing."

Until that moment the only image projected above the holo-projector was the symbol that the Alliance had taken for its own. Borrowed from the Clone Wars, the emblem was a stylized bird, wings swept back for speed in an attack dive, its head drawn up so as to be invisible. At Madine's touch, the symbol vanished. It was replaced by a star field.

Something about the display bothered Wedge. He whispered the Han. "Am I wrong or does that look familiar?"

"No, you're right. It's real familiar." The Corellian agreed, his eyes narrowing. His expression hardened. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Undeterred by the whispers from the second row, Alfiar continued. "This will be a double-prong attack. Five squadrons of fighters will precede the main body of the offensive in two waves. Following on their heels will be a cruiser and two corvettes."

"Due to the sensitivity of this mission I cannot dispense any further information at this time. An in-depth briefing will be provided when the fleet drops from hyperspace at a point two hours---one short jump---from target destination. Generals." Madine directed himself to the familiar group. "Your orders are ready for your perusal once you board REVERENCE. I ask that you spend tonight on board reviewing the orders of battle. Don't be afraid to make any relevant suggestions. We welcome your expertise. You may request anything extra you feel you'll require.

"That's it, people." Jornik clapped his hands together. "Eat. Rest, and get ready. We leave tomorrow with a light fighter escort. All other fighters will be carried by the heavy ships."

No one spoke, although numerous heads nodded. Younger crewmen and women looked nervous, shifting uneasily as the briefing broke up. Luke turned to his sister and discovered she and Han were holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. Behind Solo, the giant Wookiee moaned a low, soft note filled with emotion. Lando rose to his feet.

"Gotta go, guys. See you later on the cruiser."

"We'll be there."

"You better," said Lando Calrissian. "I'd hate to think you don't want to attend this party."

A hand raised in farewell Lando left the briefing room in the wake of the flight crews. Wedge mumbled an excuse to Luke and followed the one-time Administrator out. Amused, Luke watched him go. He turned back to his sister. She shook her head.

"I won't tell you both not to take chances. I know you too well," said Leia unhappily. "Just---come back."

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Two ranks of stormtroopers formed an aisle out across the hangar floor. Three deep, and fifteen down a side they watched, expressions concealed behind the blank facades of their helmets, as a shuttle entered the bay and set down. Atmosphere came back up with the return of the shield. At the rear of the hangar a personnel lock opened and four individuals emerged. Captain Boralle and his aide, Lieutenant Morem, flanked by the Security Officer and trailed by the ship's Sergeant-Major, marched purposefully forward. They halted a comfortable distance from the shuttle.

Hydraulics hissed as the ramp dropped. First to appear were six stormtroopers, rifle blasters held across their chests. They took up positions on either side of foot of the ramp. Admiral Thrawn emerged, hemmed in by two bodyguards, and followed by his ever-present shadow, Mara Jade. Behind were two more officers. Boralle saluted.

"Admiral. Welcome aboard RUTHLESS."

"Thank you, Captain. We shall dispense with formalities. I believe you know everyone here, anyway."

Captain Boralle nodded to his peers. Ignored Jade entirely. "Yes, sir."

"I wish to view the records of your encounter with the MILLENNIUM FALCON."

"Of course, Admiral. This way."

A broad sweep of Boralle's left hand indicated his ship was now the Admiral's. Winn Boralle stepped aside to permit his superior to pass. Thrawn studied the troopers standing at attention. As he advanced on the rank and file, a command barked across the stormtroopers' headphones. They pivoted on heel, facing in toward the narrow aisle between left and right ranks. The Admiral elected to forego a formal inspection.

He ordered the frigate's commander, "Walk with me."

Mara Jade at his back was the last thing with which Boralle was comfortable. It was unavoidable, though. He ignored her frank stare as he fell in beside Thrawn, his spine contracting at her proximity. Behind the pair the rest of the dignitaries sorted themselves out and trailed them from the bay. To Boralle's surprise, Thrawn's personal guard kept close, two paces to the rear. No one else attempted to close that gap. Not even Jade. In fact, when Boralle allowed himself the luxury of a surreptitious glance back, he discovered she was nowhere in sight.

"Don't concern yourself with Jade," said Thrawn, further startling Boralle by openly acknowledging his awareness of his subordinate's uneasiness. "She has her own agenda while I'm here."

"Yes, sir.

Boralle wondered and worried what exactly the Admiral's pet was up to. He was rudely yanked back to his surroundings by a question he ought to have expected but had set aside, distracted by Mara Jade's presence on his ship.

"Were you able to extract any useful information from the prisoners brought back from Tatooine?"

"Ah---yes, sir."

They reached the exit. Embarrassed at being caught off-guard, Boralle quickly opened the lock and again stepped aside for the Admiral to precede him. Instead, Thrawn signalled one of his guards on ahead. The trooper went through, checked his surroundings and came to attention. Ship lights glinted red off Thrawn's irises as he entered the corridor. On reflection, Boralle supposed he ought to feel insulted by the Admiral's visible lack of trust. But these were perilous times and no one could be certain whether or not there might be a mole in their midst.

Immediately across the passage the executive turbo-lift waited, its door locked open. Lieutenant Graszer stood ready. Eyes respectfully to the front, he waited for the party to board. Like his Captain, Graszer was amazed at the extent to which the Admiral's guards went to protect him. Once in the lift they placed themselves between their superior and the door, while still managing to closely monitor the rest of the personnel. Rynkon remained outside to oversee securing Thrawn's shuttle.

His code key inserted into the security panel, Graszer released the locking mechanism and sent the turbo-lift to its upper-most destination. Throughout the ride no one spoke. Graszer felt the Admiral's eyes fixed on him. Blood rushed to his face, flared across bare flesh at the back of his neck. Unable to move, he could only sweat out the three minutes to the bridge. It felt like a lifetime.

They reached the top, halting with a hush of compressed air. The door opened. Graszer locked it in place and drew back against the near wall. His eyes studiously fixed on the opposite side of the elevator until everyone else disembarked. Only then did he follow them out, passing two guards of honour stationed on either side of the entrance. He took up his usual position near the primary communications console. Prepared for their arrival, one of the junior staff officers bellowed out a warning.

"Admiral on the bridge."

Bodies stiffened to attention in their seats. Around the bridge booted feet of the Fire Pickets performed a counterpoint to rustling fabric in a uniform thud on decking.

The Admiral called back, "As you were."

Now Thrawn took his time, sauntering down the walkway leading between the control pits. Red eyes studied displays over the shoulders of nervous technicians from above. Invisible as only Fire Control could be, the pickets kept back in the shadows alongside bulkhead braces. Thrawn halted and gazed out the forward view port at the star field surrounding them. Several TIE fighters crossed the frigate's bow, swung by his flagship and disappeared from view against the stars. At long last he faced Boralle and his Second-in-Command.

"You have my congratulations. You run a taut vessel, Captain."

"Thank you, sir."

"I bring with me something that has long been overdue."

After a significant pause Thrawn continued, raising his voice for the entire bridge crew to hear. Unsure what to expect next, Boralle drew himself properly to attention, his eyes fixed on the Admiral. As patiently as was possible given the circumstances, he waited for the outcome. At a gesture by the Admiral, Thrawn's aide handed something to him. Thrawn approached, reached out and added another pip to Boralle's shoulders.

"Congratulations, Admiral Boralle."

Shock tingled up Boralle's spine and sent a thrill through his body. Unabashed the bridge crew burst into spontaneous applause. Somehow he managed to salute Thrawn and speak with a level of calm he did not feel.

"Thank you, sir."

"Lieutenant Graszer."

"Sir!"

Tense with anxiety and expectation, Graszer approached the Admiral, came to attention and saluted. The Admiral fastened another pip to his epaulettes as well.

"Captain Graszer, you will remain with Admiral Boralle as he Second-in-Command and aide. I expect big things from you, Captain."

"Thank you, sir."

Breathless with relief, elated by the sudden and unexpected elevation within the ranks, Graszer stepped back, saluted again, spun and returned to his original position across the bridge. Heart racing, he considered the enormity of his promotion.

Pleased with himself, and well aware of their amazement, Thrawn moved on to business. "Now that we've dispensed with ceremony, Admiral, I'd like to review the information you've compiled."

Not about to be caught off-guard again, Boralle answered readily. "Of course, sir. My briefing room and officers are at your disposal. Shall I send my Security Officer to you?"

"That will do to begin with," said Thrawn.

Boralle snapped his fingers. "Captain Graszer. Show Admiral Thrawn to the briefing room. See the appropriate files are available for his perusal. And have Lieutenant Rynkon report to the Admiral immediately."

"Right away, sir."

A stab of savage, unprecedented glee shot through Graszer as he contemplated Rynkon's reaction to his promotion. Guilty at his unworthy train of thought, Graszer clamped down on emotion. It would not do to let slip such pettiness in front of Admiral Thrawn. He caught Thrawn's eye.

"If you'll follow me, sir?"

Thrawn nodded, but paused to speak to Boralle before leaving the bridge. "Hold yourself in readiness for my summons, Winn. I'll want to discuss these matters with you personally after I've gone over the records."

"Of course, sir."

"And then I shall wish to brief you concerning a recent operation."

As much as the newly promoted Admiral wanted to inquire further into that enigmatic statement, Boralle bit back his questions. Came to attention. A junior officer called out.

"Admiral leaving the bridge."

Again personnel stiffened briefly at their positions, then relaxed the moment the lift departed. The air on the bridge visibly lightened. Boralle performed a tour of the bridge, checking in with each station. Not yet come to terms with his new rank, he examined display screens, collated the incoming stream of data. Hours passed. Eventually he left the bridge for the privacy of his own quarters and preoccupied the passing time with his daily routine. All too soon there came a buzz on his vid-comm.

"Admiral Boralle?"

Alerted by the call, Boralle closed the file and opened communications with the bridge. "Yes?"

"Admiral Thrawn would like to see you now, sir."

"Very good. Advise the Admiral that I am on my way."

Graszer acknowledged the order. "Will do, sir."

Promotions seldom came prior to disciplinary action. For that reason alone, Boralle was only slightly uneasy as he made his way to the room where Admiral Thrawn waited. He discovered his own Security Officer in attendance when he entered the briefing room. Thrawn looked up. Gestured Boralle to take a seat next to him.

"Very good, Lieutenant. You may go. But hold yourself ready. I may wish to speak with you again before I leave."

"Yes, sir." Rynkon saluted and left.

Once the Security Officer had departed Thrawn turned his attention to the frigate's commander. "Quite the skirmish, Boralle."

"With the MILLENNIUM FALCON? Yes, sir."

"Plain bad luck, the FALCON getting away like that."

"Sir."

Unprepared to commit himself to such an admission, Boralle watched Thrawn. Wary of what was to come, Boralle was prepared to defend his actions and the inability of his personnel to prevent the freighter's escape. Expression unreadable, Thrawn stared at the vid-screen before him.

"These things happen."

To Boralle's amazement his superior seemed relatively unconcerned. Irritated, perhaps, that such a prize as the FALCON had eluded them once again. But no more than Winn had been at the moment the freighter had leapt to hyperspace, trailing hydraulic fluid and lubricants. A scattering of beads that had only served to emphasize his frustration and rage as the freighter had escaped the net.

"As to this business with the rim-worlders." Thrawn tapped the electronic note pad set into the table. Looked up. "Was it really necessary to space one of them?"

"I felt additional---encouragement was necessary, yes, sir." Boralle justified his actions with logic learned at the Academy and through years of service since those days. "The woman was with Skywalker and Antilles longer than the others. She also appears to have confided at considerable length to Dennig."

"That was the reasoning you employed to make your decision on who to sacrifice?"

"Yes, sir."

"Pretty slim facts."

"We've worked on less, sir."

"True. What did you do with the other two?"

"Had them transported to one of the labour camps."

"All right, Boralle. I'm satisfied you and your people did everything possible to secure the rebels. And your Security staff was remarkably thorough in questioning the prisoners. A touch over-zealous, perhaps in the final execution, but commendable all the same."

"Thank you, sir."

"Not at all, Winn. You did your job. Which is more than others can say." Thrawn switched off the vid-screen and leaned back in his chair. Eyes gleaming in the boardroom's subdued lighting, he tapped his fingertips together. "I have some news which may prove of interest to you."

"Sir?"

"Three days ago we launched a surprise attack on the rebel fleet at Coruscant."

Breathless with anticipation, Boralle leaned forward a fraction. "Coruscant? How was that possible?"

"We timed it to coincide with a one hundred fifty-year planetary conjunction. This permitted one of our star destroyers to jump into the system and emerge in their blind spot on the opposite side of the sun. Two corvettes slipped through their sensor net and launched a strike force from just outside the system. The coordinated attack savaged their training fleet and succeeded in destroying a frigate."

"Remarkable."

Enthusiastic over the news, Boralle forced himself to appear less eager. His efforts were wasted. Eyes bright, flushed with the Empire's first major victory in years, he waited for Thrawn to continue. It was refreshing to hear of success after so many defeats.

Even as Thrawn pursued the briefing he withheld his dissatisfaction that his primary target, INDEPENDENCE had evaded them. "Additional intelligence from our operatives on Coruscant has it that the old man, Carlist Rieekan, was seriously injured. In fact, he may be dead at this moment."

"Wasn't it Rieekan who commanded the retreat from Hoth?"

Thrawn nodded and Boralle smiled to himself. This was definitely a pleasantly surprising coup. On a par with the one the rebels achieved when they killed Grand Moff Tarkin and his staff at Yavin Four. Rieekan's feats almost equalled those of Jan Dodonna, an old warrior from the Clone Wars whose exploits were nearly as legendary among the known worlds as those of Obi-wan Kenobi. To eliminate Carlist Rieekan would put the Imperium well along the road to recovering ground lost to this so-called New Republic.

"That is good to hear."

"Now, as to your present assignment." Alien eyes glittered red in the boardroom's subdued lighting. "You are to remain on station here. I realize you were hoping for something other than this, a more active posting. However, I prefer to keep my best officers out of the recent theatre of action as the fleet is preparing another thrust against the rebels' soft underbelly. You'll be hearing from me again soon enough."

"I see, sir. Thank you."

Initially displeased with the announcement, Boralle resigned himself to the inevitable. Whatever Thrawn was planning had to be an offensive of major proportions. If his peers were also suffering what appeared, on the surface, to be ignominious placements Boralle could swallow his own disappointment and wait. Time was always on the side of the patient. By irritating Thrawn, insisting on a different posting would avail him nothing except the complete opposite of what he most desired.

"Your reports will serve to bolster our troops," said Thrawn. He stood. "My investigation here is concluded, Winn. Your actions were correct and within regulations. I'll leave you to your duties."

"It was a pleasure having you on board, sir."

Something Boralle construed as humour flickered behind Thrawn's eyes. "I doubt that, Winn. However I appreciate the sentiment. Have my people summoned, please. We shall take our leave."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Fresh, eager faces, most of them extremely young, gazed down into the centre of the cruiser's briefing pit. Scattered here and there among the newly appointed Second- Lieutenants and senior Officer Cadets were older personnel. Luke's gaze lit on Windy. He nodded the slightest fraction when their eyes met and considered the rest of the group.

Eighteen staff in all: A nice round figure that would divide up well for the assault parties. Tension ran high throughout the gathering. Even the senior, combat-proven veterans were edgy, slightly hyperactive with the knowledge of impending battle. Here and there speculation caused younger male voices to rise to almost girlish pitch with enthusiasm. A brief second check of Windy revealed the rim-worlder was not as eager as her peers to re-engage their enemy. But then, Windy was older than the rest of the junior officers.

Satisfied, the Jedi Master rejoined his companions before the holo-plate. Admiral Ackbar and General Rieekan entered. Whispers rippled around the room at the sight of Rieekan whom everyone knew had, scant days earlier, been at death's door. In fact, reminders of his close call were highly evident to everyone present. Someone called the room to order as the two senior officers made their way down to stand next to the tank. The hubbub faded.

"As you were."

Rieekan's voice was thin, further evidence that he was not fully recovered from his brush with death. He surveyed the room, unaware that his simply being there bolstered those present. His personal staff and the senior assault officers took their seats at the front of the room. To Luke's surprise, Ackbar also sat.

Carlist appeared particularly sombre as he marshalled his thoughts. Only the Jedi Master caught the way in which he surreptitiously rested his weight against the edge of the holographic projector.

"As you are aware we have arrived at the pre-attack turn-around point. Many of you assembled here will be going into combat for the first time." He began carefully, his words measured. "As such, I expect each and every one of you to pay particularly close attention to this briefing. Once assigned to your assault officer you will obey him without question."

Bodies shifted. Heads turned. Given the seating arrangement it was impossible to sneak a whispered comment to a neighbour without being singled out. Acutely conscious of Rieekan's piercing gaze, of the quietly attentive officers lining the front rank at the base of the bleachers, no one dared voice a remark even in jest.

Cued by Rieekan's words, Ackbar now rose and moved. Under instruction of his long fingers the simulation above the holo-tank altered, displaying a tighter panorama of what lay in the region of space under review. Two Imperial ships leapt into view: a frigate and a corvette.

"Information brought back by General Solo provided an unexpected dividend when the MILLENNIUM FALCON suffered systems failure in this region of space. As you can see the Imperials have stationed two vessels on permanent patrol in this region."

Someone further along the tier called out a question. "Sir. You aren't proposing we capture one of these two ships, are you?"

"Both," said Madine, aware of the reaction to come, "would prove a definite bonus, particularly in light of our loss of the WINDCHIME. This is all you will be told at this time. Fighter crews will receive an in-depth briefing in the morning. General Calrissian?"

Heads turned as Lando rose so everyone could see him. He swept the gathering with a raking stare. "I have a break-down of ships, personnel and ordnance necessary to carrying out our arm of the attack, General. We brief before dawn, ship time."

"Very good, General Calrissian." Every action calculated to minimize stress on his battered body, Rieekan moved directly in front of them. As he gave them their orders, he watched the heroes of the war against the Empire intently. "General Solo, General Skywalker, General Antilles. You've already received your orders, supply and personnel lists."

Wedge responded for his comrades. "We're prepared, sir."

"Good. This is the target." A touch of the hologram controls and Rieekan brought up a three-dimensional display. A close-up of the largest image produced a second, louder shifting of bodies and a number of soft side-remarks. "As General Madine said, we are going to attempt to capture both vessels intact."

Han was unable to refrain from commenting. "Somewhat ambitious, aren't we?"

Lando Calrissian shook his head and stared at Han and Luke. Neither of them seemed put out by the proposed action. He suspected Solo was making a good show of concealing his real feelings. What the Jedi Master thought was anyone's guess.

"Perhaps." Rieekan responded to that tart comment with something near to his usual implacable nature. "But as I reiterated on Coruscant, with the destruction of WINDCHIME, plus the slow rate of production in the ship yards, we need to recoup our losses as rapidly as possible. This is the quickest method available to us."

"What about prospective loss of manpower?"

Ever the administrator at heart, Lando poked at a sore point with the Senior Operations Officer. And Rieekan did not welcome that inquiry. Still, he had to answer.

"We have enough if," and Carlist paused significantly, a meaningful look resting on each of his officers, "we attempt no heroics. Should we fail to secure the vessels, we set charges and eradicate them. I'd sooner lose vessels than people."

Unable to contain himself Han remarked with familiar aplomb, "That's nice to know."

Chuckles and sniggers rippled through the gathering. The overall mood lightened. Determined not to lose momentum, Rieekan hurried on.

"Initially, three squadrons of mixed fighters will commence their attack, softening up shields on the star destroyer. Two flights of B-Wings and Y-Wings will make the first run on the frigate, covered by two flights of X-Wings led by Rogue Squadron. Behind them, ten minutes into the assault, two more squadrons of B-Wings will disable the targets. By that time our main party of ships will arrive with the boarding parties.

"Heading up those ground assault parties will be General Solo, General Antilles and General Skywalker. As earlier designated, General Calrissian is Primary Assault Leader for the fighter groups." Lando acknowledged Rieekan's order with a curt nod. Carlist caught Han's eye. "General Solo?"

"We're ready, General Rieekan."

With a nod, Carlist continued. "Your target will be the star destroyer. Capture of this ship is not entirely essential, although it would prove an obvious bonus to the fleet."

"Understood, General."

"Have you selected your senior personnel?"

"General Skywalker, General Antilles and I have already discussed our preferences and selected those best suited to our requirements. I'll pull mine as soon as we're done here and brief them on specifics at that time. The rest of our teams are on stand-by."

"Very good."

Satisfied with Solo's professionalism, Rieekan moved on to Luke and Wedge. For a moment he considered the pair. They worked well together, the principle reason Fleet Operations had decided to go with sending them in on a mutual assault pattern.

"Generals, as you both know, you will be responsible for boarding and, Force willing, taking the frigate, RUTHLESS. I must warn you; Intelligence reports are that Boralle has recently been promoted to this position."

"He definitely won't take our arrival kindly," said Wedge with a fierce grin.

"He's sharp. Worked his way up through the ranks quickly. And, unlike many of his contemporaries did not resort to underhanded tactics or bribes to get where he is today. Don't underestimate him, Generals."

Hand gesturing to the display, Carlist brought all eyes to bear RUTHLESS. He fine-tuned the controls, enlarging the vessel until only it remained visible against a sparse backdrop of stars.

"Once shields are down insertion will take place at three major points." He stabbed a finger at each in turn. "Access to the engine room, primary fighter bays and bridge level must be targeted if you're to be successful. One group should be delegated to deal with the fighter and personnel armouries, if at all possible. Schematics of the ship indicate it differs little from our own. However, it is rumoured some alterations have been carried out on RUTHLESS so its layout conforms to Boralle's personal preferences. Therefore your best strategy will be to capture and question one of the enemy at the earliest possibility."

Wedge glanced at his friend and Luke responded for both teams. "Understood, sir."

"General Skywalker. Your skills are best suited to these areas."

Much as he hated throwing the New Republic's most precious resource into the thick of the fray, Rieekan indicated central and rear portions of the frigate where engines and armouries were located. All knowledge Cov-Ops had compiled thus far on the Jedi Master suggested he would have the best chance of succeeding in capturing those areas. Something in Luke's eyes told Carlist that he knew exactly why the planning team had selected him for this task. Luke purposefully turned his head, releasing Rieekan. Relieved, Rieekan stared at the new officers. All were intent upon the display. He added what generally went unsaid at most skirmish briefings.

"While securing your objectives, ensure you create as much mayhem as possible."

A grim smile tugged at Luke's mouth turning his blue eyes glacial cold. What he saw in the display went beyond the obvious. Dipped into innumerable possible futures. Yoda's warning concerning attempts to foresee the future stabbed across his vision. He shook aside foreboding. Concentrated on the here and now.

"General Antilles. Your team will take the bridge. Do it quickly. Once General Skywalker has secured the lower regions he is free to divert any available personnel to assist in capturing and securing the bridge." In response to that codicil to his instructions, Luke nodded. Carlist reminded them all. "Generals, several specially trained technicians are included in your teams. Their sole purpose is to infiltrate computer databases and retrieve all sensitive information. Try not to lose them in the firefight."

He looked at Han, who raised both eyebrows and fought down a witty rejoinder. Beneath him, Rieekan felt his legs weakening. Quickly he concluded. "I add this word of warning. Imperial Security has been installing self-destruct mechanisms throughout the fleet. We're uncertain whether either RUTHLESS or SPITEFUL are so equipped. But I'd rather not find out at your expense."

"We'll do our best," said Wedge.

"I know you will. All of you." Again Rieekan swept the room, memorized faces, and wondered which of those present would fail to return. In the third tier he picked out the young rim-worlder responsible for rescuing him from the disaster on WINDCHIME.

'Blood debts. I wonder if there will be time for me to repay this one?'

Temporarily holding rank of Acting Second-Lieutenant until she completed Officer Cadet training, Marica Winolder looked exceedingly edgy.

"Admiral Ackbar?"

Able to finally get off his feet, Rieekan turned the floor over to the Mon Calamari and eased gratefully into the seat vacated by Ackbar. Even that short session on his feet had severely tasked his faculties so freshly out of the medical centre. Admiral Ackbar appeared his usual thoughtful, cautious self. For all his battle experience and dedication to service he was, at heart, better suited to planetary operations. Over-seeing Rapid Response Emergency Teams. A position he had held on Calamar prior to being rudely thrust into combat by Emperor Palpatine's ruthless actions against his home world. A deep raspy inhalation filled the room. Ackbar began in his familiar measured speech.

"I know I need not warn you of the obvious. You will be on their ground. Operating by their rules."

"Not if I can help it," said Solo under his breath. And drew a remonstrating look from Rieekan four seats away.

"Fighter groups, accompanied by one heavy ship each will initiate penetration, dropping from hyperspace at several different points around this sector." Pointedly returning all attention to the hologram, Ackbar touched a switch and returned the display to its original size. Drew another deep harsh breath. "Thereby cutting off all avenues of escape. Forward assault group will eliminate any sensor buoys just prior to insertion.

"Several A-Wings will be sent in to lure the enemy out. Once our presence is detected, the Imperials should follow standard procedure, automatically launching their fighter cover. We will lure them away, engaging---"

"Annihilating," Lando amended under his breath. Solo grinned at him.

Ackbar continued as though nothing had interrupted his patter, "---all enemy squadrons, freeing the way for the boarding parties. We will continue providing distraction and covering actions throughout."

"Always assuming they comply with our expectations."

That came from Han, but he kept his words too low to disrupt the briefing. Only his immediate neighbours overheard. None of them more than twitched at his observation. Without missing a beat, Admiral Ackbar wrapped up his portion of the briefing.

"The fleet makes its final hyperspace jump in one hour, putting us on target in precisely," he glanced at his chronometer, "three hours twenty-three minutes ship time. Feed your teams, brief and equip them. Stores has a complete list of all your requirements as drafted and submitted by you prior to departure from Coruscant."

Bulbous eyes rested on the senior staff. Humour fading, Han and Lando assumed a more respectful mien. The Mon Calamari was reassured. These seasoned warriors might spar verbally, resort to sarcasm and wit at moments others felt inappropriate, but when called upon to support the New Republic they did so with unswerving loyalty. Frequently putting their lives on the line. This was not to say they did so without complaint. Quite the contrary, to do otherwise was not in their nature. However, their actions far out-weighed any grumbling. If anything, what Ackbar's peers saw as irritating, undesirable behaviour merely served to reassure the Calamari that he and the fleet could rely on them. Rieekan pushed himself back to his feet and turned to face expectant team staff.

"Very well, gentlemen. That concludes this briefing." Behind him the hologram vanished with a minute hiss of its program terminating. "It's in your hands. You have your orders. Study the ship layouts appended to your files. Organize your teams and brief your subordinates. And---may the Force be with you."

Back straight, he collected Ackbar and left the briefing room. Only Luke noticed how his legs quivered slightly with the stress of being up and about and back in the thick of combat so soon after leaving the bacta tank. Yet nothing short of death or restraint would have kept him away. Just as they passed from view, the Mon Calamari reached out to support his companion.

In their absence, Han stood. Lando blew out his cheeks as he watched Han scrub a hand across the back of his neck. Luke reflexively scratched the left side of his head with his right hand, an action his closest friends knew was indicative of nervousness in the face of impending combat.

"Guess we better get to it," said Lando. Before leaving he took time to shake hands with his friends and old battle comrades. "You guys be careful out there."

"You know it." Han's remark was supported by a subdued growl from Chewbacca. Whatever the Wookiee's comment it was rewarded with solemn reflection from the Corellian. "Take care of yourself, Lando."

"Think I'd let you get off without a chance to win back my ship?"

"Hey, the FALCON's my ship. Remember that. And she ain't negotiable."

"Not even on another hand of sabaac?"

"Not a chance." However bantering his tone, the Corellian was not joking this time. Concerned by what appeared to be impending trouble Luke considered intervening. But Lando raised an eyebrow, gave Han a familiar slap on the back and hurried off to brief his crews.

"Now what was that all about?" Curious, Wedge looked to Luke for enlightenment.

"Too long a story," said Luke, relieved now the tense moment was past. The last thing any of them needed at this juncture was an altercation of any sort between the one-time administrator of Bespin Cloud City and Han Solo. "Ask me later."

"Sure, buddy."

Chewie chuffed, to which his partner shrugged noncommittally. A glance at the pad in his hand and he began calling off names. Those junior officers selected to head up Solo's teams left their seats quickly. Ready to move, Windy suffered a mild stab of disappointment when she was not summoned. Deep inside, a small part of her wanted to accompany the Star Destroyer assault force. Now she waited expectantly, watching while others grouped around Han. Solo turned to Luke and Wedge.

"This is where the fun starts."

"Be careful, Han." Concerned, Luke shook hands with his brother in-law. Accepted a spontaneous hug from the Wookiee. "Watch his back, Chewie."

Head tipped briefly to one side, Chewbacca whined and shifted closer to Han. He shook his thick mane. Not about to be drawn into the exchange, Han rounded up his subordinates and headed out the door.

"Come on, Chewie. We've got things to do."

As Luke began calling out names, Windy anxiously edged forward on her seat. Wedge's command snapped her out of her reverie.

"Winolder. You're with me."

Discouraged, unable to conceal her emotions, Windy made her way down to the floor of the pit. Antilles stared at her, daring her to complain about the assignment. One deep breath and Windy forced disappointment from her face. She listened attentively to her superior.

"Let's go, people. We've got weapons to collect and combat pressure suits to pick up. I'll brief you in the mess."

From the corner of her eye Windy saw Luke leave, his subordinates bunched at his heels. Not surprisingly, most were excited at the prospect of coming under the Jedi Master's command. Aware of where Windy's attention was cantered, Wedge shifted closer to the rim-worlder and caught her attention.

Quietly he informed Windy of the reason for the decision. "Luke wanted you with me."

"I understand, sir."

"Do you?" For a minute Wedge studied his subordinate intently. Then he nodded. "Perhaps you do. You're learning. Come on. Time's short."

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Seated in the cockpit of the shuttle, Lando re-examined controls not nearly as familiar as he would like. Next to him, back as his co-pilot for the first time since the Battle of Endor was Nien Nunb. When Carlist Rieekan had approached the Sullustian on Coruscant, Nien had proved more than amenable to the notion. In fact, Lando was quite pleased to have a familiar hand assisting him in leading this attack.

The NESSIDY was armed to the teeth. Alliance technicians had spent two nights and a day in hyperspace mounting additional cannons, one to a stabilizer. Shields were reinforced. Since NESSIDY was now purely an assault craft she easily adapted to the peculiar additions. Weights and balance were adjusted to accommodate a flight crew of three, plus two spare gunners presently riding in the shuttle's waist.

"Coming up on drop point," said their navigator. Once they reached their destination his primary duty became redundant. From then on he would double as gunner on the nose cannons. This allowed the pilot and co-pilot to concentrate on flying the ship.

Nien Nunb shot a remark in his native tongue at their pilot. Familiar with Sullustian, Lando shrugged at that observation. "Your guess is as good as mine. Let's just make certain we eliminate those fighters before the rest of our guys join us."

"You pick 'em, we'll take 'em out." From behind them one of the two rear gunners flashed a show of confidence Lando did not quite feel. In fact, Calrissian was experiencing considerable trepidation, wondering how he had talked himself back into a major conflict. Much like Han Solo he was far happier pursuing personal interests.

'Although,' he rapidly amended, 'Han seems more and more content with the role circumstances are forcing him into. However far they might be from his one-time smuggling occupation.'

'But then,' Lando continued to himself, 'none of us are doing what we used to do. Or ever envisioned we would be doing.'

A prime case in point was Luke Skywalker. Rim-world raised, in the beginning as naive as they came, according to Solo. Now he was a Jedi Master, several times over a hero. Han Solo had started out as a Lieutenant in the Imperial forces. Turned smuggler when Imperial atrocities went beyond his ability to turn a blind eye. Now he was also a hero of the New Republic. And, through whatever subterfuge someone had utilized to provide the dubious information concerning his lineage, was now married to Leia Organa-Skywalker, titular head of the New Republic.

"Quite the turn-around." Unaware, he muttered that out loud. From the corner of his eye he caught the Sullustian staring at him. They exchanged nervous grins. The proximity detector went off and they got down to business.

"All right people. Stand by for drop. Prepare to throw full power to shields and bring us up to speed. Orrin?"

"Yes, sir?" The navigator glanced briefly over one shoulder.

"The minute those shields reach full capacity shunt fifty percent power to the engines, thirty to weapons. We'll bleed the rest to the shields from the guns as required."

"You're the boss."

"Just keep me apprised of our status. And take out that marker buoy first shot."

"Will do."

Starlight stretched, compressed, reformed as they slowed and dropped into normal space. Directly before them lay two behemoths: anvil and arrow, twenty-five klicks off the port bow. And tracking rapidly toward them, the long-range sensor-buoy. Orrin opened fire. One burst and the buoy disintegrated. Lando swung their nose round.

"All crews! Take out the fighter escort as quickly as possible. Gold and Red Squadrons remember; don't use your torpedoes unless it's absolutely necessary. Save them for the frigate and corvette. Rogue Squadron. When you get the opportunity, disable the corvette. Don't get caught in the cross-fire, guys."

Even though they had heard it all before, Lando insisted upon repeating it for the tyros in the group. Too many were fresh faces, straight off the ranges, with the debacle at Coruscant their first experience with real combat. It made him extremely uncomfortable. And Coran Horn was presently de facto commander of Rogue Squadron while Wedge led a ground assault team.

They closed on the enemy. Watched their displays, waiting for the any sign their presence had been noted. Several A-Wings powered in ahead of them as per instructions. Twelve klicks from target and their HUDs came alive with fighters scrambling from their mother ships. Single-seater, light TIE fighters emerged first. Bore down on the incoming opposition.

"This is it!"

Red Leader's shout broke up as her voice, high-pitched with excitement, skittered across the communications link. The best of the newest, she would probably be tapped by Fleet for a Rogue Squadron replacement if she survived this mission. X-Wings and A-Wings barrelled in, straight down the throats of the enemy. Two TIE fighters smacked themselves to pieces across the screens of incoming X-Wings. Another took severe damage and promptly disintegrated under the fire of a following Y-Wing.

"Look out, Strike Leader. Two on your tail."

Annoyed that he had let himself get distracted, Lando swore and threw the shuttle into a series of sharp manoeuvres that brought surprised shouts from the waist gunners. But they were snugly webbed in their seats and came to no harm. Two TIE fighters over-shot, crisscrossed and swooped around to repeat their passes. Neither finished the turn. NESSIDY's gunners lived up to their positions.

"Bomber." Orrin called the warning. Despite the situation his voice was surprisingly calm.

"Got it."

Yoke pushed hard forward, Lando flipped the shuttle up on its back and doubled them back on their course. They caught the bomber crew by surprise in a hail of fire. No one would ever expect a shuttle to be that manoeuvrable, another testament to New Republic ingenuity. Three pale blue streaks pierced space, careening into the corvette's shields one after the other. Two Y-Wings closed on the crippled vessel, ion cannons blazing. More torpedoes followed. Y-Wing swarmed their target.

"The corvette is disabled." The announcement came from the lead pilot as he pulled up and away, straight through the frigate's field of fire. "Mother of space!"

Lando held his breath. Watched until he was certain the Y-Wing was safely clear. "Gold Leader, are you okay?"

"Yeah. A bit bent, but everything's still operational, sir. Kay-Seven, you okay?" They heard him ask his droid.

"Well, watch it," said Lando.

"No need to tell me twice."

"Look out!"

Nien Nunb's unintelligible shout echoed Orrin's warning just as their shields flickered dangerously. Again Lando hauled hard over and pulled them out of the first burst of fire. He re-powered the shields and discovered two more enemy fighters closing fast.

"Three more coming in. Hang on tight."

"Make it good," said Orrin.

Nose pitched sharply down on their gravitational axis, Lando threw NESSIDY into a series of quick turns; a corkscrew and something which Orrin later recounted as a back flip. Two fighters careened into one another, leaving only expanding debris to mark their passing. The third panicked, went hard right, straight between an X-Wing and an A-Wing. The TIE fighter came apart.

"Another eyeball bites the big one." Someone yelled triumphantly.

Levelled out, Lando checked the HUDs. They had accounted for a majority of the enemy fighters. His wingmen appeared just off his port and starboard. The Second-in-Command waggled his stabilizers and gestured. Lando nodded confirmation.

"Okay, guys. Time for the big baby. Then we'll mop up the remnants before the rest of the fleet arrives."

"On it, Strike Leader."


On board RUTHLESS an alarm went off across the bridge. Startled from deep thought, Admiral Boralle whirled. "What's that?"

"Nineteen small ships, sir. Fighter class."

"Pirates?" Not daring to breathe beyond uttering that single word inquiry, Graszer stared at the damning display.

"No, sir. Rebels. Two squadrons of A-Wings."

"Get word to SPITEFUL. Battle stations. Launch all fighters."

Claxons went off. All non-essential systems powered down, RUTHLESS prepared for combat. Fighters appeared, soaring up out of their hangars on board frigate and corvette, SPITEFUL having replaced their previous escort. Off the bow they formed up and headed out to drive off their assailants. Incredulous at the Alliance's audacity in the wake of the disaster they had just suffered at Coruscant, Boralle moved to a position where he could watch the combat display.

Fighter discipline vanished immediately their forces encountered the enemy. Transponders on board his vessel showed as red blips on the read-out. As minutes dragged by the red blips were rapidly out-numbered by enemy blue.

"Sir! SPITEFUL reports additional enemy fighters. Two squadrons of X-wings and two heavy bomber class."

"Y-Wings?"

"Yes, sir. Also B-Wings and---a modified shuttle. We just lost our intelligence buoy."

Intent upon incoming telemetry the communications technician broke off to listen. Outside, the firefight raged around their escort. TIE fighter after TIE fighter vanished from their screens. Finger against the audio receiver in his ear, the comms tech looked up. Announced, "Sir, SPITEFUL reports they are without fighter cover."

"Tell them to withdraw."

Too late the message went out. Staggered by numerous missile impacts, SPITEFUL lurched forward. Ion cannons splattered across her hull. She went dead in space. Shields down, guns silent, she sloughed gracefully sideways. Frozen in disbelief, RUTHLESS' bridge staff stared out at the incoming fighters.

Into the vacuum of the moment the Communications Officer's words dropped like lead. "All communications channels are jammed, sir. We can't reach SPITEFUL or send out a call to the fleet."

Like blood-sucking flies swarming over their victim, the remaining Alliance launched one torpedo after another against the frigate. With predictable tenacity RUTHLESS shuddered over and over again, shaking off repeated strafing runs. Gunners targeted the persistent fighters. An A-Wing got too close and failed to break clear in time. The pilot ejected and was targeted by Imperial gunners. Now was no time for taking prisoners.

"More fighters, sir!"

Dumbfounded by the implausible, Boralle spun, staring out the transparency to the point in space where two more squadrons emerged from hyperspace. Without slowing their forward momentum, the deadly little craft pummelled the frigate's shields with a barrage of torpedoes and cannon fire.

"More B-Wings."

Dumbfounded that the New Republic would throw so many craft into an assault against his command, Boralle struggled to understand what was happening. To his Second he observed, "It doesn't make sense. Why all this?"

He never finished. RUTHLESS bucked like an unruly mount beneath the intensity of their firepower tossing personnel about corridors, cabins, hangars and bridge. Below decks several disabled TIE fighters and the Admiral's personal shuttle tore loose from storage mounts. One fighter crushed two technicians who failed to scramble clear in time. Metal fragments showered everything in the immediate vicinity, killing or maiming more personnel as the three craft caromed across the hangar. All vessels were immediately rendered unserviceable; the TIE fighters permanently decommissioned. Spare parts and disoriented droids and personnel littered the area. Several overhead cranes also broke free of their mountings and crashed to the floor, further adding to confusion.

On the bridge, Admiral Boralle and Captain Graszer staggered into consoles. They grabbed for support and found it just in time. Not so the Communications Officer who gave a startled shout and plunged into one of the dual workstation pits. His precipitous descent knocked a helmsman and one of the Damage Control technicians from their seats, leaving the helmsman unconscious. Someone dragged the helmsman aside and took his place. A medic dropped into the pit to examine the injured officer. It took no expert to see the obvious. The medic glanced up at the Admiral.

"Sorry, sir. The Communications Officer is dead. His neck's broken."

Boralle snapped back. "Leave him. Get the helmsman out of there."

Unceremoniously shoving the dead officer's body aside, the medic gestured to a companion waiting above. Between them they hefted the unconscious man up and out and removed him from the bridge. Fire pickets hastily levered the corpse from the pit. It stuffed out of the way.

Sparks flew as wiring short-circuited. Warning lights blinked frantically. Bridge lighting flickered, partially died then came back up again on emergency stand-by power. Extinguishers went off automatically, further adding to the mayhem. At the rear of the bridge one junior officer picked himself off the floor. Blood flowed freely down his right temple.

On hand against a bridge brace for support, Boralle bellowed into the pandemonium. "Status report!"

"Two-thirds of port-side cannons are off-line, sir. Shields are down to thirty-six percent." Fire Control gabbled back the report. "Still falling. We have only three fighters remaining for support. Heavy casualties in all hangars."

Even as the reports came in, two miniature flares against the black of space caught Boralle's eye. Sick to his stomach at the pandemonium Graszer murmured. "Ours."

"Siths damn them to the blackest hells!"

Heads turned briefly at the uncustomary vehemence in their commander's voice. Again RUTHLESS staggered. Damage Control dropped the death knell. "Shields down to twelve percent, sir."

"Can we go to hyper?"

Slowly shaking his head, the technician stared helplessly at the Admiral. "Sorry, Admiral. We lost the hyperspace drive two minutes ago. Manoeuvring thrusters are at one-third. Another strike on that quarter---"

A third shudder raced along the frigate's length, bringing down ceiling panels and tossing personnel savagely about like so much wind-blown refuse. Only by leaning into his console and gripping its sides was the Senior Damage Control technician able to remain in his seat. Frantic reports deafened him from all decks.

"Sir, shields have failed."

His announcement struck fear into junior staff. When the fourth and final assault hit the ship's resulting gyrations threw everyone to the floor along with everything not lashed down. It also brought down already loosened beams and panels and jarred consoles loose from their moorings. Already dangerously frayed conduits and cables were sundered. Sparks flew. Electrical fires broke out all around them. But Boralle was beyond noticing. The final attack had caught him unprepared and thrown him against a support beam. Unconscious, he lay beside the primary communications panel.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Transports clustered along one side of the hangar. Angular and ugly, they were the most serviceable of the opposing forces' craft. Their largest drawback was lack of manoeuvrability. With competent crew at the controls, though, they made up for part of that in heavy shielding and gunnery capabilities. But, as with shuttles Wedge felt particularly vulnerable when he was a passenger.

Each team hovered around the loading ramp of their designated craft; troops checked over weapons. Ensured spare clips were readily accessible. Those team members unable to complete checks due to burdens of heavy armament designed to punch through bulkheads and airlocks, were assisted by personnel responsible for protecting them.

Han Solo and his co-pilot were nowhere in sight, but Wedge had not expected to see them. Their teams were forming up in the hangar on the opposite side of the cruiser. Slowly he inspected his people, listening with half an ear to their idle chatter and forced jokes. He watched while they ran last minute checks on their gear. Fasteners were tightened, assistance given to comrades who were incapable of reaching all their equipment latches.

Farther up the line a black clad figure stepped into view from behind a transport. For a single moment every head turned. Conversation broke off. Attack teams, crews and technicians froze. Then, one by one they visibly relaxed. Clad in black battle armour, helmet in hand, Luke Skywalker moved among his people performing his own inspection.

Now that Wedge could see him properly he realized the severity of the Jedi Master's combat pressure suit was alleviated by matte silver highlights. Jagged lightning bolts ran around the wrists, down the sides from armpits to ankles. And high over the left breast, no larger than an ancient coin, stood the symbol for the Rebel Alliance. It was equally evident Luke was ill at ease in the outfit but admirably covering his discomfort.

Awe-struck, Windy gaped at the black clad figure. Fair hair stood out, stark against the Jedi Master's attire, making its austerity all the more striking. Now, more than ever, Luke Skywalker seemed a total stranger. In fact, to the veterans of Yavin Four and Endor he was the embodiment of the most terrifying visage to haunt the Rebel Alliance: Darth Vader.

"Someone definitely should have their bloody head examined." Wedge snapped, sotto voce, furious that their superiors had actually authorized construction of that particular battle armour.

"Huh?" Windy turned. "What do you mean?"

"That." Wedge Antilles stabbed a finger at the vision in black, forgetting his subordinate had never seen the vilified Dark Lord of the Sith. "Damn! It's enough they've made him a target for every Imperial we encounter on the frigate. But memory of Darth Vader's still far too fresh."

"His father?"

It was out before Windy thought. Instantly she regretted it and blatedly she could retract it. Dumbfounded, livid at what those words implied, her commander rounded on her. Wedge grabbed the rim-worlder by the arm and dragged her away from the transport.

"Where did you hear that?" He paused. "The FALCON. Did you actually sneak back to eavesdrop?" Speechless in the face of her commander's rage, Windy swallowed heavily. "You did, didn't you?" Windy managed a small nod. "You idiot. Behaving like an irresponsible child. Bad enough you know something only a privileged few should be privy to. Have you any idea what that information would do to morale if it became common knowledge?"

Because she did not, Windy shook her head. "Sorry, sir. I didn't mean--"

"Maybe not." Aware he was drawing undesirable attention to them, Wedge broke off. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. It would do no good getting over-wrought immediately prior to a mission. With difficulty he found the necessary words.

"Look, Windy. I'm sorry. I forget you have no experience with that black-hearted Sith. Vader was an abomination, for all he sired our greatest heroes." Astounded by the passion in Wedge's words, Windy listened with awe. "From now on just forget what you know. Okay? It's better for everyone."

"Sure, Wed---sir."

In light of the tension running between them, Wedge chose to overlook the slip. The New Republic already owed this green junior officer a debt for saving Rieekan's life. "Just see you do."

Ship's communications broke across the hangar chatter. "All assault personnel, load your transports."

Instinctively Wedge glanced in the general direction of the nearest speaker grill. Resigned, he clapped Windy on the back. "Okay, Lieutenant. Load her up."

There was no apparent rush. Yet within minutes no one remained on the hangar floor except technicians and droids. Ramps withdrew. Repulsors and engines came on line. Confined to the rear of the transport, Wedge struggled to appear nonchalant. To his task force he presented an outward appearance of preparedness and concern only for the job ahead. Beneath them the floor tilted slightly. All were thrust back in their seats a fraction before the little vessel's internal gravity compensated. In that instant he would have given almost anything to be outside with Rogue Squadron.

Silence filled the aft compartment, broken only by the harsh breathing of the team. Their transport jerked. Rocked again. Stomachs lurched as their vehicle dropped, then slipped sideways so quickly artificial gravity could not compensate fast enough. Somewhere up the ranks someone's breath caught in a muffled sob. Even with the alluvial dampers working at full capacity they all felt the quick reactions by their crew. Power whined, surged to recover where shields were depleted.

Sweat broke out on Wedge's brow. It trickled from his armpits, down his sides, soaking his shirt beneath his battle armour. At his side, Windy audibly gritted her teeth. Across the aisle, the other Second Lieutenant selected for Wedge's personal squad turned pale. In wide dark eyes, Wedge saw the youngster was suddenly facing reality: He could die the first time into a firefight without ever actually seeing action. Not the most pleasant thought, but death never was.

"I'd rather be flying." Someone further down the transport murmured a sentiment Wedge heartily seconded.

Again their transport shuddered. This time, however, the interior echoed with the 'crump' of metal contacting metal. Familiar with the sound of their conveyance locking seals against their target, veterans throughout the attack team made a last inspection of their weapons. They pulled on their helmets. The two junior officers belatedly copied their actions.

"Okay, folks. Listen up." Wedge gave his last minute orders, rushing his instructions. Within the confines of his helmet his voice sounded curiously flat. "We're going in fast. Seal off any side doors en route. Hit the turbo-lifts to the bridge as quickly as possible. We've got to prevent them from setting off the self-destruct. Remember. Our transports won't remain in place. They'll withdraw and await our signal for extraction, so once we leave them we're committed. Everyone got that?"

Although they had already covered all this in their briefing, his people answered heartily. "Yes, sir."

"Check helmet seals. Count off."

"One!"

"Two!"

"Three!"

Loud and clear, the call came back over the headsets rapidly, eleven in all. "Right. Stick to hand signals, everyone. You practiced them often enough on the way here. Use this frequency sparingly. Odds are the Imperials will locate us and figure out what we're up to if we don't."

"Yes, sir."

"Now spring that hatch and let's get inside."

Only a handful of Imperial stormtroopers confronted them when they broke into RUTHLESS. Smoke-filled corridors presented an unfamiliar haze through which they threaded, forcing them to hug the walls or become disoriented. Twice they encountered airtight hatches impeding their progress. Electronics experts moved forward. The first gave easily. But the second proved far more stubborn. Conscious of time trickling away, Wedge ordered the hatch blown.

In the wake of the explosion they plunged through the resulting haze, encountering several bodies along the way; troopers killed by the concussion. Beyond that a hail of blaster bolts momentarily halted their progress. Under Wedge's direction, his two junior officers lobbed in anti-personnel grenades. Their opposition died or withdrew in the wake of the vicious counter-attack. New Republic forces moved on.

High up as they were within the frigate's forward section they avoided most of the opposition. The majority of enemy personnel where consolidated lower down where Luke's group had boarded first. Given that advantage Wedge's party successfully met each objective. Several secondary turbo-lifts were put out of commission. Finally they located the security lift and the two general-purpose bridge lifts. Here his other two sections joined up with them. Along the way they had encountered more opposition and lost several of their number.

Via sign language, Wedge set his perimeter. Point men flanked the shafts while additional personnel went to work on the lift locks. Nothing blocked the way. Once the doors were open and all retrieval codes blocked or eradicate to prevent the lift being summoned to another level, Wedge readied his force for their primary assault. Now he removed his helmet to confer with his two Second Lieutenants.

"All right. Now comes the tricky part. We have to get to the bridge without losing too many people. There'll be guards waiting. First ones up will take this route. It should open at the rear of the bridge. Once you've secured the point, lay down covering file. The rest of us will use the primary lift. We'll be right on your heels."

"Yes, sir."

"Seranda. Take three volunteers. Keep well back on either side of the door when it opens. That ought to give you a couple of seconds. I won't tell you how to handle the situation once you're up there. Play it by ear."

"Understood, sir."

"Winolder. You're gonna cover them from the opposing lift."

Heart in her mouth, Windy nodded. For some reason she felt incredibly young compared to her superior. When one considered there was little more than two years between them, it was a bewildering sensation. Experience, she reasoned, was the deciding factor.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Further down the frigate, Luke led his party through a blown hatch. He paused to double-check his junior commanders were well covered by a veteran apiece. This was a task he would have felt better off pursuing alone, with no one else to worry about. But that was not to be. Eleven lives counted on him to bring them out in one piece. Eleven strangers, several of them were no older than he had been when he left Tatooine.

A flash of hand signs and Luke indicated they should split into two parties. He methodically divided their assault. One group was to move against the armouries while the other headed for the engine room. The battalion sergeants nodded. With two of the young officers apiece, they formed up. Luke led his group aft.

They moved stealthily through the frigate corridors, avoiding the enemy rather than engaging. It proved a peculiar form of combat for the unblooded members of the squad. But his veterans appreciate his versatility. An eerie atmosphere settled over them. Complete silence reigned within the confines of their battle armour. Only the multitude of breathing filled their headsets as they followed the Jedi Master.

Luke flitted on ahead, a shadow within shadows, his suit's silver highlights dancing through the darkness like so many star motes. He paused at intersections, occasionally gesturing them to draw back from view as parties of stormtroopers and other personnel thundered by, more often than not without seeing them. Resistance proved amazingly light. And the Force continued to favour them.

Before long they encountered five stormtroopers alone in a passage. Unfortunately for the enemy, they were facing the wrong direction. Reaching out, Luke froze them with a touch until his men immobilized them.

Helmets off, binders secured, the troopers glared at their captors, until they saw the Jedi Master. Two blanched. One swallowed heavily. Rank fear beyond the norm emanated from their prisoners. Luke removed his helmet.

"How many are left defending the engine room?"

His oddly modulated voice shook his team. Even hardened veterans gripped their weapons more tightly. They watched in awe as their captives' face lost all trace of emotion. Eyes blank, the troopers stared through the Jedi Master.

"Twelve outside." One stormtrooper responded, no inflections colouring his words. "Five inside."

"Thank you," said Luke. And knocked them unconscious with a Force bolt. He turned to his men. "Remove your battle armour and follow me."

They shucked their armour. Freed of encumbrances, they moved forward with added confidence. No further obstacles obstructed their path. Somehow Luke Skywalker knew exactly which corridors to lead them through, evading pursuit. Only the veterans wondered why shipboard sensors failed to detect them though none of them objected to this form of combat. The eerie, bloodless assault set all their nerves on edge, heightening their senses. All too soon they closed on the engine room.

As forewarned, twelve stormtroopers held the primary access and its side passageways. But Luke and his sergeants were not about to attempt storming such a heavily defended position. After a quick inspection of their position, the Jedi Master removed a grill high on wall and led half his remaining force into a massive conduit.

"How does he know where we're going?" One junior officer whispered to the sergeant at his back.

"He's a Jedi," said the veteran next in line.

Disgusted with their obtuseness, the sergeant retorted. "More likely it's because he studied the ship schematics of this area on the way here. Something you should have done. Now I suggest we cut the chatter and get moving. Time's short."

Brought back to reality by a down-to-earth explanation, the young officer scurried after the vanishing Jedi unaware Luke had overheard the entire whispered exchange. There was no real mystery to his knowledge. He had indeed spent numerous hours familiarizing himself with this emergency access system until he knew it blindfolded and could locate and disable sensors throughout. Around two bends and the conduit effectively placed them behind the enemy blockade. Another stretch of ducting brought them to just outside engineering. He halted.

"Half of you wait here for my signal." His whispered instructions were promptly relayed down the line of personnel. "The rest of you, follow me. Sergeants, make your selections. Let's go. We're almost there."

Members tolled off, the section divided once more. Those accompanying Luke squeezed forward and crawled off into the subdued lighting, leaving behind their comrades. Grouped around a grill, the others waited until they heard a crash. Blaster fire followed. As the guards up the passage raced back toward engineering, one sergeant opened fire through the grill.


An unexpected explosion rocked RUTHLESS, like a tauntaun attacked by a wampa. Higher up in the frigate, Wedge Antilles and his men were thrown wildly about the hall. Windy caromed into Wedge, knocking the breath from her superior. Both slithered onto the floor. They recovered quickly.

"What the hell---"

"Looks like Luke's group have reached the primary armament storage," said Wedge.

One of the veterans countered, "Either that, or some hotshot space jock got a little too eager."

"We just ran out of time people," declared Wedge. "Let's move it. You, you and you." He rapidly picked out three veterans he knew he could trust. "You're with Seranda. The rest of you---on me."

Down the passage they scrambled toward the service turbo-shafts. Under Wedge's instructions, four non-commissioned members peeled off to cover either end of the corridor against attempts by the Imperials to break through and relieve their beleaguered comrades above.

"Now for the bridge."

Confronted by the very real possibility that she would die, Windy found herself sweating profusely. Her heart thundered in anticipation as she accompanied Wedge into the first lift. One of the veterans attempted to dissuade their commander from taking the first run up, but he refused to budge.

"I won't stand by and expect others to take risks I won't take." The logic of that argument amazed Windy.

"If you're killed, sir---"

"Then command devolves to Winolder."

"Sir?" Their eyes locked. The Sergeant acquiesced. "Yes sir."

Shocked by that declaration, Windy stared at his mission Commander. "Me?"

Wedge flashed him a sour grin. "Think you can handle it, Lieutenant?"

Windy responded uneasily and wondered if he could, indeed, live up to expectations. "I---I'll do my best."

"That's all any of us want," Wedge said.

He signalled the man nearest the door to activate the controls. The lift rose smoothly. Pressed against the wall, Windy held her blaster, barrel up, against her chest. This was not the way they had originally planned it. Ready as she was, she still started when the door opened at bridge level.

Several blaster bolts greeted their arrival, exploding against the back wall. Hot metal particles spattered about the rear of the lift. Her training kicked in. Windy concentrated on where the bolts originated from and opened fire. She crouched instinctively, just in time to avoid being struck by return fire. Then she crawled forward on her stomach. Three of them made it out of the lift. Wedge hit the controls, returning it to where they had left the remainder of their people.

"Was that a good idea, sir?"

Windy's question irritated Wedge. He snapped back over the deafening thump of blaster fire. "Trying to give me orders, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir."

"Then shut up and do your job."

Unaccustomed to being snarled at, Windy stared at her Commander before she recalled where she was and hurriedly wriggled into a better position. Across the rear of the bridge several other attackers had taken cover behind various consoles. Two were dead, a third seriously wounded. A quick glance confirmed she was the only one not to have suffered any injury thus far; even Wedge was bleeding slightly from shrapnel wounds down his right temple and cheek.

Wedge dabbed at the cuts with the back of his glove and glowered at the offending blaster-slagged metal that had showered him. A quick assessment of their position confirmed they were now in control. He shouted to his people. "Hold your fire!"

Several more rounds were expended before all activity on their side ended. Reinforcements arrived. They took up positions next to those already in place. An occasional bolt 'crumped' against the panels behind which they sheltered. Wedge eased himself forward until he was lying next to Windy. Levered up on one elbow, he cautiously peered around the bulkhead behind which they were hunkered down.

"I want to speak to the Commanding Officer."

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