Authors comments about the story.
As was common in every military vessel of a certain size, the activity level on the bridge of the New Republic Strike Carrier Wolf's Lair never slowed down. There were always officers and technical personnel on duty attending the different consoles: monitoring the flights in and out of the hangar, the traffic in the nearby space, the reports from the fighter patrols, the performance of the ship itself, and a thousand other things. People were constantly entering and leaving the bridge, and, generally, nobody had the time to enjoy the splendid spectacle provided by the large transparisteel viewport that dominated the place. Since Colonel Gen'yaa had declared a pre-alert status for all operations, the tension on the bridge was so solid that it could almost be cut with a vibroblade. People could feel the invariably stern look of the Bothan woman fixed on them from her elevated command chair at the back of the compartment. That sensation was more than enough to make everybody avoid any distraction and stay focused on their task.
Neither did anybody relax when, like now, it was Lieutenant Colonel Wumb commanding the ship. Instead of being seated back there, his habit was to pace the bridge constantly, frequently stopping behind someone's position to watch. He usually stayed there for a few moments, rarely more than five or ten minutes, and only occasionally asked questions or made suggestions. Often, he took a seat at an unoccupied console and browsed a little. Everybody was conscious by now that he didn't do this deliberately, in order to make them feel his presence and somehow to stimulate them to work more intensely. Although he now occupied a command position, the bridge officers commented in whispers that the Sullustan would never completely stop being a crewman--that is, one of them. They appreciated him for that and didn't respect him any less than Colonel Gen'yaa.
Ensign Proteys, the Mon Calamari male currently assigned to the control of the fighter screen, was fully aware of the Sullustan standing at his back but didn't allow that to distract him. The conversations of the fighter pilots, far from the relaxed exchanges of only a week ago, were loaded with anxiety. Every new contact on the scanners could mean the all-but-announced arrival of the Corellian fleet. Intelligence reports discussed unusual movements by the Corellian Navy. Even before the Diktat's now famous allocution had ended, several warships had abandoned their previous orbits around Corellia, Selonia and Centerpoint. Others, which had been watching the wide commerce routes commonly known as the Corellian Run, had been relieved by less powerful vessels but had not returned to their bases. The destination of all those ships was unknown, but predictable. Sooner or later, they were coming to the Seibergia system. Proteys had all their technical data available at his console. In case a Corellian armed force entered the system and Wolfshead Squadron units were the first to detect them, his work would be of the utmost importance. His would be the task of matching the sensor readings against known Corellian ships so Admiral Sinessis and the captains of every New Republic ship had as much information as possible about what they had to face. He couldn't fail.
Lieutenant Colonel Wumb watched as Ensign Proteys revised again the profiles of several Corellian ships. This is at least the third time in the last hour. He must be able to identify them by sight by now. Wumb was not foreign to the nervousness of the young Mon Calamari, but his greater experience allowed him to keep it well under control. The Sullustan was a veteran of a more than a dozen major struggles between the Alliance and the Imperial Navy, including the battle of Endor. Yes, he knew very well what a space battle was like. And, being a Sullustan, Wumb's memory was darn good.
At Endor, the ship on which he was serving--the Tannia, ironically enough, a Corellian Corvette--had been severely damaged by the explosion of the Calamari Cruiser Liberty when she was hit by the Death Star's super laser. With the bridge literally vanished and more than half of the crew dead or injured, the Tannia drifted uncontrolled towards the Home One, Admiral Ackbar's flagship. Then a First Lieutenant, Wumb managed to recover control from the secondary bridge barely seconds before Home One's gunners would have been forced to blow it apart before it crashed against their own ship. As crippled as the Tannia was, Wumb and what remained of the crew were able to return to the fight and make their contribution to the historical victory of that day. For this action he had received the Kalidor Crescent and had been promoted to Commander.
A year later, his next ship, the Nebulon-B Frigate Wolf's Den, was lost in the battle of Iberya. That was the second time in his career he had believed he was going to die. Mortally hit, the ship fell in flames toward Iberya's atmosphere. The evacuation pod located on the bridge section was damaged and unusable. Doomed as the few survivors were, still Gen'yaa ordered them to fire the few operative weapons against the Imperial orbital defenses. Wumb managed a battery himself. Suddenly, the Compassion appeared from nowhere and they were rescued at the last moment. The battle was won and Iberya was liberated. The Wolf's Den and Wolfshead Squadron had helped, decisively, to save the day for the young New Republic.
That was only six months ago. Gen'yaa received the Rebel Heart for her proven courage, and Wumb was promoted again, this time to Lieutenant Colonel. Medals and promotions come fast in these times of endless war, he reflected. Almost at fast as the increase in the victim count. Wumb shifted his look from Ensign Proteys's screen to the viewport. Space always seemed so peaceful a place, but he knew better. Those stars he was seeing now had been the silent witnesses of countless episodes of violence, destruction and death. And they still were. For all goodness, may we not see the beginning of a new war today, when we're still fighting in another. The Sullustan suppressed a sigh and turned towards the next console on Proteys's right. This was attended by Ensign Sarago, a human female, whose main task at the moment was to oversee the Wolf's Lair's search & rescue shuttle's flight to the Balanish Country.
"Have the Compassion and her escorts reported their arrival at the camp?"
"Not yet, sir. They are delayed by about ten minutes due to the weather conditions in the area. There's a terrible snowstorm down there."
"All right. Inform me as soon as they do."
Wumb resumed his pacing up and down the bridge for several minutes until A-PD5, the advanced protocol droid in charge of the communications, called his attention. "Sir, I have a request for a holographic transmission from the Brave Soul for you," the droid announced. "It's Colonel Gen'yaa."
"Very well." Wumb walked towards the command chair, where he would be inside the area covered by the holo-tricorder installed on the bridge. "Open the link, A-PD5."
"Receiving now, sir." Immediately Colonel Gen'yaa's figure, a quarter of her real size, materialized in front of him.
"At your orders, ma'am."
"Has the committee's shuttle arrived yet?" the Bothan asked without preamble.
"Not yet, ma'am. I've given instructions to our fighters to escort them directly to the Brave Soul as soon as they enter normal space."
"Very well. Everything is ready here for the first session. I'll return to the Lair as soon as I've reported the results of our preliminary investigation." Results you've not shared with me, by the way, Wumb thought. "Did our pilots change their minds at the last moment?" Gen'yaa didn't need to clarify which pilots she referred to.
"No, ma'am. They boarded the Compassion and are on their way..."
"Sir," Ensign Proteys said turning to look at Lieutenant Colonel Wumb. The Sullustan felt his body tense suddenly. The Ensign would not have interrupted a conversation with Colonel Gen'yaa, of all people, unless he had a very good reason. The Mon Calamari's bulging eyes seemed about to jump from their orbits. "What is it, Ensign?" He kept his voice even, fully aware of Colonel Gen'yaa's look fixed on him.
"Sir, you should hear this." Without waiting for confirmation, he turned on the speakers so Wumb could hear the transmissions sent by Wolfshead Squadron's pilots. The Sullustan nodded to A-PD5, who made the needed adjustments on the transmission unit, so Colonel Gen'yaa would also be able to hear them clearly through the link opened between the Wolf's Lair and the Brave Soul.
"... got three more signals," the voice of one of the fighter pilots was clearly heard on the bridge. "Correction, there are six. They've exited from hyperspace at twelve-two-seven."
"Boy, that one is big." A second pilot commented.
"Five more, flight leader."
"Heads up, people, this is getting serious." Arachnoid's voice was heard. "Wolf's Lair, this is Wolfshead Nine."
Lieutenant Colonel Wumb pressed a key on the command chair's arm. The small monitor installed on it informed him that he could now talk directly to the pilots on the pre-arranged combat frequency.
"Wolfshead Nine, this is Lieutenant Colonel Wumb. We are receiving you."
"Sir, this is bad. We've got three Corellian capital ships, including one I've not seen before. The computer identifies it as a Nova Class Cruiser. The other two are Pulsar Class Cruisers. There are several anti-starfighter Frigates, and a whole squadron of latest generation Corvettes, combined with a few Gunships. They have trailing behind what appears to be a convoy of medium freighters. Sir, the Nova is deploying fighters. We are still too far away to tell the types."
"We've identified the Nova Class as the First Citizen, sir." Ensign Proteys informed. With the corner of his eye, Wumb could see that Colonel Gen'yaa was talking to someone outside the projection field.
We won't be able to stop them. That was Wumb's most immediate thought. At last, the predictions had come true and Corellia had made its movement. And what a movement this was. Those cruisers were representative of Corellian shipyards' newest designs for battleships. Angular lines, distributed control and shields, and impressive weaponry. Some months ago, the New Republic had started negotiations to purchase a certain number of both ships, but the political situation had complicated badly before any agreement could be reached. The Diktat had explicitly forbidden any sale of military equipment to the New Republic, not even through third parties. Wumb had read about these types, and what he remembered made him frown with concern. For all he knew, a single Pulsar Class could face the Brave Soul, the most powerful ship the New Republic had in the area, in superiority conditions. Although smaller than Republic Dreadnoughts, the Pulsar Class Cruisers were more advanced in all fields, especially maneuverability and shield strength. If that was not enough, they had brought two of them, and with them a Nova Class, the very pride of their fleet. Wumb hastily consulted the Lair's computer, looking for the most recent reports distributed by the New Republic Intelligence. If the data were correct, only two of these ships were operative with the Corellian Navy, with a third undergoing final field tests before delivery. Intelligence estimated that a Nova Class Cruiser vessel would be a serious match for an Imperial II Class Star Destroyer, and it was definitely superior to Mon Calamari Cruisers, maybe with the exception of Home One. What the hell, even without that Nova, they have more firepower than what they need to beat us. Wumb watched the data appearing on the bridge tactical screen, as the sensor inputs sent by the fighters resolved into ship profiles, with increasing uneasiness. There were six CC-9800s, the Corellian equivalent of the Nebulon-B2 Modified Frigates in use by the Empire. They were specially designed to track and destroy starfighters in the middle of a battle. Operating cooperatively, several of them could overpower a capital ship like the Brave Soul, and a medium ship like the Wolf's Lair could be put out of combat by just two of them. The Corvettes were evolved from the Blockade Runners still used by the New Republic, and they were considerably better.
Considering the numbers and the quality of the ships they had summoned, the Corellian Navy was disposed to break the New Republic blockade on Seibergia by brute force. Wumb mentally revised the composition of the New Republic fleet. Besides the Brave Soul and the Wolf's Lair, they had four veteran Nebulon-B Frigates and half a dozen Blockade Runners. The Brave Soul carried an Y-Wing squadron and two of the Frigates contributed with their own fighter complement. More than enough for the blockade, but by all means inferior to what they had now in front of them. The Sullustan clenched his fists on the chair arms. We have not a single chance.
"We copy, Wolfshead Nine." the Sullustan said, concealing his concern. "Send us all the sensor data you can collect, especially from the capital ships. You will receive reinforcements as soon as possible." Wumb accompanied that sentence with a gesture of his hand directed to Ensign Proteys. The Mon Calamari acknowledged his understanding with a nod and keyed a code on his console. Alarms started to sound, warning the crewmen that the ship was about to enter combat. Within the next five minutes, all personnel must occupy their stations, and all the operative fighters had to be airborne in ten. While the bridge officers issued orders, Wumb continued giving instructions to Arachnoid. "Right now you're all we have to contain the Corellians. Keep your distance and don't reply to provocations. That means don't open fire unless fired upon. Is that clear enough?"
"Very well. Wolf's Lair out."
"I've informed the admiral." Colonel Gen'yaa said with a neutral voice as soon as Wumb cut his communication with the front line fighters. "His instructions for you are to move the Lair in an interception course. Even now, the Brave Soul and the rest of the fleet are heading your present position at top speed. Ignore the fighters and the medium vessels, but if one of those capital ships try to get through, use the ion cannon."
"I understand, ma'am." And you do, too. A direct hit from the Wolf's Lair's ion cannon could put one of those cruisers out of combat for a while, provided they could get close enough, but the Strike Carrier wouldn't have a chance of standing the response fire from the other two. If we ever get to that, we are doomed. Nevertheless, tactically the sacrifice of the Wolf's Lair would make sense. If they were able to stop, if only temporarily, one of the three biggest enemy ships--Wumb realized that, for the first time, he used in his thoughts the word enemy to refer the Corellians-- the odds would be better for the rest of the New Republic vessels.
"Good luck, Captain." Gen'yaa's tone seemed warmer for an instant. "I know that the Lair is in the best hands. Brave Soul out."
"Thanks, ma'am," Wumb answered to the vanishing hologram. It was easy to imagine that Colonel Gen'yaa was not happy being so far from her ship just when she was about to enter combat. The Sullustan could sympathize with her for that. At the same time he was mildly surprised by the fact that, apart from transmitting Admiral Sinessis' orders, she had not given him the slightest suggestion about what he had to do. She doesn't trust my judgement about political matters, but she does completely when it comes to the military. I don't know if I should feel angry or flattered.
"Sir, the Pulsar Class ships are the Independent and the Sovereign." Ensign Proteys recited.
"I remember the Sovereign," Wumb muttered for himself. That was the ship that had intercepted an Imperial Star Destroyer that had entered Corellian space without previous warning some months ago. The Destroyer's name was, ironically, the Unstoppable, and her captain seemingly thought that Corellia was just like another part of the Empire. His mistake almost cost him his ship, and forced Sate Pestage to present formal apologies to the Diktat. The Unstoppable's captain surely paid for that with his stripes, and maybe with something else, too. The incident was the favorite gossip among the New Republic Navy officers for a long time. Wumb consulted on his monitor the information available on the Wolf's Lair's databanks about the First Citizen and the Independent. Just as he expected, he found that their captains and crews were reportedly combat experienced too. There's no doubt. They are throwing their best at us. Wumb took a deep breath and closed his rodent-like eyes for a second. In that time, he heard again in his mind the cries of the wounded on board the Tannia and the Wolf's Den, but Wumb silenced those terrible memories. They could not do any good in this moment, when he was about to risk the lives of yet another crew. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel the looks on him of those present on the bridge. Some of them would unavoidably reflect the fear of not seeing their families, their friends, their homes, or their planets again. He had to shield himself against those looks, which he could not afford to notice. He also put aside his personal thoughts and concerns, his own fears and hopes, and everything else that could distract him from the task ahead. When he opened his eyes again, his mind was absolutely focused on his present mission. There was nothing else for him now.
Maybe there never would be.
Wumb addressed the Navigation Officer with firm and controlled voice, forcing himself to pronounce every consonant correctly and not cluck like many Sullustans did when they spoke in Basic. "Lieutenant Vaiwehannen?"
"The course is already plotted, sir." The Twi'lek reported.
Wumb nodded in approval and pushed another key on his command chair, opening communications with the Engineering section. "Lieutenant Boradelis, are you there?"
"Yes sir," the Mon Calamari's voice came through the intercom.
"We're facing off with three big cruisers. Once we enter in combat we won't need as much speed as we'll need shield strength."
"Understood, sir. We'll do our best."
"Well. Another thing is that we might need to use the ion cannon, so be ready to compensate for the energy drain it will cause."
"I see, sir. It will be useful if you can give us a two-second warning before firing."
"I'll give you that, Lieutenant. Bridge out. Ensign Sarago, tell the Compassion to stay on the surface until ordered otherwise. Order her escorts..." Wumb paused, reading new and serious trouble in the woman's expression. "Ensign?"
"I've just received a distress call from the Compassion, sir."
"What has happened?"
"I don't know yet. One moment, sir. Wolfshead Fourteen is now reporting." Sarago made a pause while she listened intently to her headset. Wumb used the time to toss another look at the tactical screen, where all the Corellian ships were now displayed. The Frigates were already maneuvering to the front line of the formation, while the modified Corvettes and the Gunships had split in two groups covering both flanks. Classic and effective. He noticed Ensign Sarago turning to look at him. She had mentioned before that the Compassion was flying through a storm. If the shuttle had suffered an accident, there was no way they could send a rescue party precisely now.
"Sir, the Compassion has been shot down."
That was unexpected. "Shot down?"
"Yes, sir. That's what Wolfshead Fourteen has just reported."
The Sullustan leaned back in his chair. On the tactical screen, the ship symbols continued to move. Ensign Proteys announced every new positive identification over the voices of the frontline pilots, about to make contact with the Corellian fighters. The Lair's bulkheads vibrated slightly as the ship accelerated to its maximum sub-light speed. Armament officers worked on fire solutions against the capital ships. This could not have happened at a worse moment, Wumb thought with despair. He knew all the people on board that shuttle. The good doctor, the pilots, and above all the Lumi, the one her squadmates called Rooster. The same who had risked her life to rescue both Gen'yaa and himself off the Wolf's Den before it became a torch in the skies of Iberya. To lose her and her passengers would be a tragedy, but he could not allow his feelings to affect his judgement. As much as I hate it, there is only one thing that can be done now.
"Let me talk to Wolfshead Fourteen myself, Ensign."
Don't open fire unless fired upon. Of course, Arachnoid knew well what Lieutenant Colonel Wumb meant. If they opened fire against such an overwhelming force they would be vaped. Period. If the Corellians were the ones who shot first, they would be vaped exactly the same, but at least they could not be blamed for starting a war. Not a big consolation for us if things come to that point, though.
"Look, people," he said through the intercom, "we are here to buy time for the rest of the fleet, and that's what we are gonna do. Form in pairs and when their scout fighters reach our position try to fly around them. If they continue toward our fleet, we follow them and keep their tails in our sights. If they maneuver to engage us, we break contact and see what happens. Is that clear?"
Several affirmative answers were heard. They were four A-Wings and two X-Wings against how many potential enemies? His sensors were already showing two full squadrons of Corellian fighters, quickly reducing the distance that separated them from Wolfshead Squadron patrol. Not to mention the whole armada that was coming behind. His onboard computer identified the fighters as X-Wings. Corellian Navy had adopted the Incom Corporation's most famous craft almost at the same time the Rebel Alliance did, although in smaller numbers. The reputation of their pilots could not be more impressive. The top ace lists of both sides in the Galactic Civil War had many Corellian names in the upper positions, including some living legends like Wedge Antilles or the imperial top ace Baron Soontir Fel. Fortunately for Arachnoid and his partners, none of them would be at the flightstick of any of those X-Wings. Nevertheless, if those who left Corellia were that good, one had to wonder how good those who stayed at home were. Outnumbering us four to one, they don't need to be any good to vaporize us.
"This is Ten. Have you noticed anything curious about their formation?" That was Solo, the only Corellian pilot in Wolfshead Squadron. He and Sacart were piloting the X-Wings. Solo held the same rank than Arachnoid, but the A-Wing pilot was nominally in command of this group, at least until Vyper or Ibero showed up. Like almost every pilot in the squadron, Arachnoid was concerned about how Solo would react in case they had to fight against his own people. He realized that the answer to that unspoken question might be terribly important in the next few minutes, but this was not the best moment to ask him. Oh, damn it...
"Their formation?" Arachnoid had been paying more attention to Solo's tone, looking for a hint to find out what his mind condition was, than to his words, but then he saw what the other pilot meant. This is just too much... "A parade! They're flying like they're showing off for a parade!"
The two Corellian squadrons were approaching one beside the other, adopting a double diamond formation, every one composed by four smaller diamonds with four fighters each. Every ship was flying at a different level so the effect could be appreciated from all directions. Had the situation been different, Arachnoid would have applauded. Now he felt offended and furious instead. But, who do these clowns think they are?
"I'll save you the effort to check it out," Solo continued. "The media ship that Twenty had to shoe away a while ago is back. They sure are enjoying this."
"Yes, I bet they are," Arachnoid muttered between gritted teeth. All the tiredness, boredom and frustration he had felt in the last weeks condensed now into wrath against the Corellians. For an instant the only thing he wanted to do was to put all of his concussion missiles into the middle of their formation. He felt sweat drops rolling down his forehead and his neck. His head itched under the helmet, and suddenly he realized how quickly he was breathing. They said there would be provocations, and they were right. I can't allow this to blind me. He had to remind himself of the orders he had been given and above all that there were real lives at stake. His and his squadmates', to start with. Keep it cool or you will screw it up.
"By the way," Solo added, "my R2 unit says those X-Wings are a different version than ours. One more recent. If his data are correct, they are about five percent faster, and can be armed with advanced concussion missiles instead of proton torpedoes."
"New Republic fighters," a baritone voice was heard on the New Republic standard frequency. "This is Commander Baler, from the Corellian Navy. We're escorting a cargo convoy to Seibergia. Clear the area or we will consider you as hostiles."
Of course you will. "This is Commander Somarriva, from the New Republic. Pretty, that exhibition of yours." Arachnoid checked his HUD display. The Corellian X-Wings were only ten klicks away. Even at this moderate speed, in less than a minute the New Republic fighters would be inside their missile range. "Is this what you call an escort? I wonder what your idea of an invasion force is."
"We are not invaders. Seibergia is our friend and ally, and we're here invited by the legitimate government, which can't be said of you. I won't repeat this again. Clear the area or we will consider you as hostiles."
"Well, it is not our intention to disturb you." Six klicks. "Our mission here is to protect the civilian traffic in the area and to prevent the delivery of weapons to both sides in the conflict."
"I've been told you have a curious way to protect the civilian traffic. Coronet and Helibia Squadrons, lock S-Foils in attack position." The Corellian Commander had given that order deliberately on the same open frequency. Damned conceited Corellian. Does he think they're going to scare us away so easily?
"Don't get nervous, Commander. We are just supposed to scan your freighters and verify that they are not carrying weapons." Three klicks. Now we see how serious they are. "After that, we will be pleased to escort them ourselves."
"Coronet and Helibia Squadrons, choose targets at your discretion." Arachnoid
didn't have to check the distance again. His threat indicator started blinking
in yellow and three seconds later it changed to red. The computer emitted an
insistent warning tone. He shivered against his will. At least three fighters
had obtained a missile lock on him.
"Compassion, this is Wolfshead Twenty-Two." Raiven's voice sounded in Drake's headphones. "Please, acknowledge."
There was no answer. Either the shuttle's transmission unit had been damaged by the impact, or her passengers were not in condition to answer to their calls. Drake hoped with all his heart that it was the first. Five hundred meters below, his partner was performing his second pass over the smoking remains of the Compassion, looking for a signal, a hint of movement, something that suggested that there had been survivors.
"Can you see anything?"
"Negative. The hull doesn't look very bad, but what remains of the left wing has fallen on top of the cockpit, concealing it from view. Damn, if only I could slow down a bit..."
"Maybe later." Under other conditions, Raiven could cut his engines and hang the X-Wing on its repulsorlifts over the crippled shuttle to have a better look of it. For the moment he could not even think of it. Not with whatever that had hit the Compassion still around, maybe even now aiming at the escort fighters. They had not seen anything, besides that column of refugees they had flown over seconds before Rooster's distress call. Drake thought that the attack had not come from that direction, but there was no way to be sure. Might one of them be carrying a portable launcher? The pilot bit his lower lip. That didn't make sense. He had spotted children in the group, and he was not inclined to think that the Seibergian paramilitary would be traveling with children. And if they were Balanish, as they appeared, why would they shoot at a New Republic ship? Unless they had shot before knowing they were from the New Republic. This place makes you paranoid. He wondered how it was possible that there had not been other accidents here before Moose killed those refugees. Who knows, maybe there have been more incidents like that one, but no one noticed. Drake frowned. That was not a comforting thought. In any case, he didn't believe that the attack on the Compassion could have been an accident. There was an enemy out there, but where? Drake watched his sensors intently and with growing anxiety. Nothing. The snowstorm was creating echoes and interference all around them, making it all but impossible to obtain reliable readings. He was certain enough that there were no other fighters in the area, but in this terrain and under such weather conditions, a dozen ground batteries could be hidden between the rocks and he wouldn't spot them for his life. Or for my friends' lives. He had hoped that Raiven's descent to inspect the Compassion would make their hidden enemy move, but his X-Wing's instruments failed to detect anything.
"Compassion, this is Wolfshead Twenty-Two," Raiven repeated. "Please, acknowledge."
"Wolfshead Fourteen, this is the Wolf's Lair."
Drake blinked. That had been Lieutenant Colonel Wumb's voice. "This is Fourteen. I copy you, sir."
"I've been informed that the Compassion has been shot down. Are there any survivors?"
"We don't know yet, sir. We have localized the shuttle, but we can't see the cockpit's real damage from the air. So far they are not answering our calls. There's no way we can land here, even without hostiles in the area."
"Have you identified the Compassion's aggressor?"
"Negative, sir. Our sensors don't detect any other ship in the area beside ourselves, so I think they must be camouflaged on the ground. We are having problems to localize them because the snowstorm."
"I see. Transmit the coordinates of the crash site to our camps. If we have commandos operating nearby, maybe they'll be able to do something. Immediately after, you are to abandon the planet and join the rest of Wolfshead Squadron as fast as your ships allow it."
"Sir, repeat the last order, please."
"You understood it all right the first time, Lieutenant. Transmit the coordinates and leave. A Corellian armed force has entered the system. You and your fighters are needed to help defend the fleet. Ensign Sarago will provide you with new flight data. Wumb out."
Drake was shocked. Seemingly, the fleet was about to be attacked by the Corellians. What they all had feared these last days had actually happened. By Lieutenant Colonel Wumb's words and tone, things were as bad as to need up to the last available fighter. He took a glance towards the ground. Down there, the Compassion was a gray spot quickly covering with white. Should they leave their friends and partners to their luck? Drake hit the side of the canopy with his gloved fist. He had never felt so bad, but he and Raiven could not be in two places at the same time. Here, they didn't know if they really could be of help. For all they knew, there might be nobody alive inside the wreckage of the Compassion.
"Drake?" Raiven called. Drake knew his partner had reached the same conclusion as him. As terrible as it was, they had no options and no time to lose.
"I know, mate, I know. I'm transmitting the damned coordinates in this moment."
Ibero felt momentarily disoriented when the alarms woke him up, abruptly. He
had to repeat the order to turn the lights on twice, because the first time
the computer was unable to understand him. That was not strange, considering
his sleepy voice and the fact that he had spoken in Iberyan instead of Basic.
With a mechanical gesture, he reached for his flightsuit and started to put it
on even before understanding what was happening. The last mist of sleep had
vanished by the time he closed the seals of the boots and fastened the life
support unit onto his chest. So, here we go again. When he took his helmet
from the closet, he accidentally activated his hand holoprojector. He had left
it right beside the helmet. His wife and his daughter smiled at him as they
had done at the exact instant when he had taken that picture. Ibero's heart
seemed to stop for a second, when he once more realized that he might not see
them again. In his wife's eyes he could see the eternal question, that one she
never said aloud but that didn't need to be spoken. Why don't you leave it?
Since the battle of Iberya he had received several offers to work on his home
planet, ranging from a project leader position in his former engineering company
to a commission as flight instructor at the Military Pilots Academy. Temptation
was strong. He only had to send his resignation to the Starfighter Command Headquarters
and take a seat on the first ship to Iberya he could find. His wife would be
happy, and he would be able to see their daughter grow up. That would not happen
if he ended up being killed somewhere, incinerated in his cockpit or frozen
in space. The thought of his wife fighting the tears every time Lucia asked
about her father terrified him. Sometimes he considered that
he had already done his share in the war against the Empire and
deserved the right to recover his own life. Some of those times he had been
about to start writing that resignation letter, the contents of which he had often
organized in his mind, but he had always prevented himself from doing so. He
knew that if he ever wrote it, he would send it. In those moments, he thought
of the look of his squad-mates when he went to say them good bye, and an immense
sense of shame filled him. Many of them had been fighting long before he put
his feet on a combat ship for the first time. Some didn't have a life of their
own to be returned, not any more. They would sure understand his reasons, but
Ibero just didn't feel able to let them down. He had tried once to explain that
to his wife, but she didn't want to hear it. "There are things that are better
not to try to explain," she had said, and she was right. This is becoming
harder and harder every day. Ibero cursed and opened the door of his quarters,
joining other pilots who ran along the corridor toward the Wolf's Lair's
main hangar. Inside the closet, the holoprojector still showed the frozen image
of his family.
The four elevators of the Wolf's Lair were working at their full capability, taking ships from the hangar deck of the Strike Carrier to the flight deck below. The A-Wing ahead of Spook took position on the closest platform and immediately disappeared below. He was the next. While he waited for his turn to be launched, Spook started the X-Wing's four engines and checked each one's status, feeling a strange knot in his stomach. This was not an exercise. Lasers were going to be fired fully charged and proton torpedoes would be launched for real. The last time Spook had had to fight for his life, his A-Wing was hit by an ion cannon bolt shot by the Imperial Star Destroyer Indomitable. Minutes later his disabled fighter was dragged in by a tractor beam and he was captured. Spook had spent nearly three years in a concentration camp until shortly after the battle of Endor, when he and some of his fellow prisoners were able to fight their way out. He had found that the Rebel Alliance he had known had become the New Republic, and he immediately knew where his place was. Less than a year after his escape, he was again serving in a fighter squadron. So far, all of his missions had been practices and patrols, and even a couple of trips with the search & rescue shuttle. But now it was for real again. His heart beat with the anxiety of combat as it did that last time, what seemed an eternity ago, when he drove his fighter out of the Calamari Cruiser Intrepid's hangar to never come back. Spook had a strong deja-vu sensation when he flew through the Wolf's Lair magnetic containment field on board his brand new fighter. This time I'll be back for lunch. I promise.
The elevator in front of him returned to its position. When the green lights turned on, he engaged the repulsorlifts and taxied the X-Wing smoothly to the platform, touching down right in the middle of the yellow ring. In a matter of seconds the elevator stopped at the flight deck and Spook received the go signal. He closed the canopy and directed power again to the repulsorlifts. On his right, the X-Wing piloted by Ibero started to move forward, toward the starboard exit. On his left two B-Wings, Sparks's and Parody's, initiated the take-off maneuver. They were the last ones to leave. One after another, from right to left, they went out through the magnetic containment field. On the other side a million stars surrounded them, but this was not a time to enjoy the view.
"All fighters," Vyper's voice sounded loud and clear through the intercom, "acknowledge by numbers and follow me."
"This is Two-Four," Spook answered when his turn came at the end of the list.
"Ready to go, Wolfshead Leader."
"Wolfshead Squadron, don't engage the Corellian X-Wings!" Arachnoid ordered, using the open frequency like the Corellian Commander had done. He hoped that this would prevent him from ordering his pilots to open fire. Unless they've decided to shoot no matter what we do. "Change course to allow them a safe passage." He pushed the flightstick to make his A-Wing dive smoothly beneath the Corellians. Firestorm, flying as his wingman, followed him closely. Hardrive and Hawk maneuvered to port while Solo and Sacart turned to starboard. The warning tone ceased as the Corellian fighters reached Wolfshead ships' previous position and continued on a straight course. Arachnoid looked up in time to have a glance at the white and green craft before they disappeared from view. He puffed, momentarily relieved. All right, what are they going to do now? The Corellians had not altered their formation in the very least until that moment, but now they broke into elements of four and turned 180 degrees to pursue the New Republic fighters.
"It seems they are going to stick with us, Nine." Solo said.
Arachnoid took a look at his rear sensor screen and frowned. "If they want to play, we'll have to play."
"Not a good idea, Nine. For the time being we should limit ourselves to fly evasive. Any aggressive movement on our side, and there won't be any way to stop the butchery."
"Maybe you're right." Or maybe you're just trying to avoid the unavoidable. If we're forced to defend ourselves, will you be able to shoot at your fellow Corellians? Arachnoid grimaced. He could not ask Solo that now, in the middle of this mess, and with the rest of the pilots listening. As if we didn't have problems enough. In front of him, Arachnoid could see the bulk of the Corellian fleet approaching, lead by three CC-9800 Frigates. "Let's try to keep them busy for a while without starting any fire. Don't get too close to any of those Frigates."
Five clicks were heard through the intercom, as every pilot acknowledged Arachnoid's instructions. A second later, his threat indicator was blinking again. His rear sensors showed four X-Wings following him.
"New Republic fighters," Commander Baler's voice was heard one more time. "Retire immediately to a ten klick radius from our ships. Comply with the order or we'll open fire against you."
"I'm sorry Commander, as I've said, we have orders to scan your freighters first."
"You're not going to take any scan today." Without any other warning, Arachnoid saw orange bolts flash by both flanks of his A-Wing. He had no way to know if the pilot who had shot was that Commander Baler, but he felt the blood boiling in his veins. "I don't know how this is going to end," he muttered for himself, "but I've got to teach that stiff-neck some manners."
"Commander Baler," Arachnoid said in a harsh tone, "I must warn you. Don't force us to take any offensive action." He felt almost sick. For an instant, he wondered if it could have something to do with his problems to sleep lately, or maybe with the meatballs the squadron's Wookie cook had prepared for the last lunch, but Arachnoid discarded it all. It's these Corellians and their prepotency what it's giving me nausea.
"Don't force us to do that." Baler answered. Immediately after the first shot, Firestorm had increased the distance that separated his fighter from Arachnoid's. That would allow him to threaten Arachnoid's pursuers, but also left himself defenseless before another quartet of X-Wings now taking positions on his tail. Damn it! They're shepherding us out of here as if we were a herd of stupid Banthas.
"Nine, give me the order and I'll light the bastard up." Firestorm said.
"And then the others fry you. Not yet, Two-Three." Although I'm dying to do exactly that. "Lieutenant Colonel Wumb told us not to shoot unless we're fired upon, so we wait until we're hit."
On the main bridge of the New Republic Dreadnought Brave Soul, Colonel Gen'yaa could hardly contain her impatience. Nobody would have guessed her uneasiness seeing her, though. She looked like an ice block, standing discretely beside Admiral Sinessis and the Brave Soul's captain, a male Duros called Odicri. Admiral Sinessis had ordered the communications officer to contact the Corellian command, but they were still waiting for a reply that never came.
"It seems that they don't want to talk to us." Sinessis said sourly. As many other high officers in the New Republic, he had begun his career in the Imperial Navy. That had been twenty five years ago, long before the appearance of the Rebellion. He worked loyally for the Empire for eighteen years. In the last two, the light cruiser he commanded transported workers to military construction sites all over the galaxy. Nothing remarkable in times of peace, except for the detail that the workers were actually alien slaves, mainly Wookies and Mon Calamari. Sinessis was so disgusted with this kind of mission that, after seeing several petitions for a change of destination rejected, he had almost decided to resign from the Imperial Navy and start a new life in the merchant fleet. It was then when he was approached by an old classmate from the Naval Academy who recruited him for the Alliance. Now, after seven years combating the Empire he once served, Sinessis still felt a certain embarrassment every time he met a member of the species he had helped to enslave. His knowledge of the Viayak Cluster came from his days in the Imperial Navy and had been key for his designation to command the New Republic operations in the area. Gen'yaa knew all this because she had seen a copy of his service file, provided by her contacts in the Bothan Spy Network. It was good to know who you work for.
"That shouldn't come as a surprise, sir," she answered to Sinessis' last comment. "They won't start any conversation with us before gaining control of the system. That will give them a decisive advantage in a hypothetical negotiation with the New Republic."
Odicri shook his head. "The only thing that will be negotiated then will be how fast we must get out of here."
"They count on the power of the armada they've sent to dissuade us from presenting them any resistance." Sinessis pointed out. "But we can't just stand here watching how they take the system and then negotiate a political surrender. If the New Republic shows that weakness barely a year after its foundation, many will see in it the proof that the Empire will beat us at the end, no matter the victories we've gotten so far. The New Republic will be dismembered in less time than it took to declare its creation."
"Brave Soul, this is Lieutenant Colonel Wumb from the Wolf's Lair."
The admiral nodded to the communications officer. "This is Admiral Sinessis," he answered. "We're copying you, Lieutenant Colonel."
"Sir, our screen fighters are being shot at. There are no casualties yet, but I don't know how long they will be able to resist."
Sinessis frowned with concern. "Have the Corellians used torpedoes or missiles against your people?"
"Negative, sir. Just lasers, but they don't seem to be really trying to shoot them down. I'd say that they don't have permission to do that yet."
"Good." The admiral seemed to cheer up a bit. "That at least proves they are not looking for a direct confrontation. We've sent our Y-Wings to help you. They should be there in... twelve minutes, maybe less."
"The rest of Wolfshead Squadron is in its way, too. They will reach our perimeter in two minutes, but the fighters alone won't be enough to stop them, sir."
"I know. What's your estimated arrival time to the combat area?"
"Considering that the combat area is advancing toward us, we calculate ten minutes."
"I see." At a sign from Captain Odicri, one of the bridge officers made the estimations for the rest of the fleet to appear on a screen, so the admiral could see them from where he was standing. "Four of our Corvettes will be there in fifteen minutes. The Arvel Crynyd, the Bedannis Fey'lya, and the Bria Tharen will be arriving shortly after that. I've had to leave the other two Corvettes and the remaining Frigate behind. In case the Seibergian ships docked on their orbital station decide to help the Corellians, we must have something to cover our rear. On the other hand, the Brave Soul will need almost half an hour yet to catch up."
"I know what we have to do, sir."
"Good luck, Captain."
"Thanks, sir. Wolf's Lair out."
Admiral Sinessis nodded solemnly, although Wumb could not see the gesture.
Colonel Gen'yaa did, but she didn't say anything. What Wumb had to do could
mean the loss of the Wolf's Lair and her crew, including Wumb. She had
been in situations where she could have died with her ship several times, and
it had almost happened with the Wolf's Den. What was new for her was
the sensation of fearing for her crew and her ship but being away from them,
unable to help, and unable to share their luck. She would change places with
Wumb in this same moment if she had that chance. The admiral looked at her,
and she saw understanding in his eyes. Then Gen'yaa did something that she had
done very few times in her life. She avoided someone else's direct look.
Arachnoid took a quick look over his shoulder and saw two of the X-Wings on his tail shifting places to keep him covered. One of them shot another salvo, which passed a meter and a half above Arachnoid's head, making his shields glow. The son of... How long will we have to stand this? He started to perform evasive maneuvers trying to keep an eye on the closest Frigates, only six klicks away now. If we don't do something soon they're going to get through. But what can we do against that? Sweat had already soaked the neck of his flightsuit and was running down his back. The physical discomfort joined with his growing anxiety. He caressed the main trigger on the flightstick with two fingers, wondering if he would be able to shoot down at least a pair of his pursuers before they had a chance to react. Almost without thinking, he switched the weapon selector to concussion missiles and shifted to dual mode, so his two warhead launchers would shoot at the same time.
His onboard computer beeped. A new ship had exited from hyperspace, transmitting a New Republic identification code.
"Nine, this is Seven!" Hardrive called. "It's the committee's shuttle. They have entered normal space between the Corellians and us!"
"Between...?" He had no time to finish the sentence. The leading Frigate shot a burst that caught the shuttle full on target, collapsing its shields instantly. A second shot barely a tenth of a second later blew it out of existence. The crew and passengers never knew what hit them. Arachnoid felt a mad fury rising inside of him.
"Wolf's Lair, this is Wolfshead Nine!" Arachnoid called, taking another look back at the Corellian X-Wings after him. He repeated the call twice, but there was no other answer than a burst of static. The Corellian capital ships were now running interference on all the New Republic frequencies. Their fighters' transmission units wouldn't reach anywhere beyond two or three klicks. He almost smiled. Nobody will be able to accuse us of not asking for confirmations. New green dots appeared in the boundaries of his sensor displays. They came from the Wolf's Lair's position. The rest of the squadron is almost here. There's no more waiting.
"This is Nine, that was one of our ships and it has been definitely fired upon." His voice sounded raspy. Arachnoid cleared his throat before speaking again. When he did it, he felt suddenly calmed, almost at rest. "Now we shoot down as many of theirs as we can."
"Nine, wait!" Solo called.
"On my signal," Arachnoid ordered, ignoring his partner's call. His mouth's corners twitched up in a feral grin. "One, two, NOW!"