His X-wing did a corkscrew spin that was just barely in control, a wild ride that looked like a crash in rogress.
From his perspective, stars blurred into crazy lines, but he kept most of his focus on his readouts, watching for the TIE on his tail. On another level, he trusted his instinct, knowing that it wouldn?t fail him, that he will only pull off ?another crazy Skywalker stunt?.
He juked to the left, hard, and the TIE followed without hesitation, without thinking?and crashed full speed into a fragment of space debris from the TIE that Luke had already destroyed. Spotting debris would be nearly impossible in normal circumstances, just a little black spot where they were no stars.
?This is Rogue Leader, I got my tail,? Luke said calmly. They couldn?t recognize his voice; he couldn?t recognize theirs, either. That was partly lack of proper equipment, partly protection against voice identification by the Imperials.
?I can?t ? I?ve got a tail, I can?t shake him ?? a voice interrupted.
Luke switched to private. ?Is that Red Squadron, Rogue Seven? I?m busy, care to lend a hand??
Wedge didn?t respond to Luke. ?Red Squadron, this is Rogue Seven, how can we assist?? Wedge?s voice came through calm and clear, despite the garbled static overlying everything.
Luke didn?t wait, the need to act filling him and coming through him, guiding him to do what was necessary. ?Rogues Three, Four, and Six, you?re with me,? Luke said on a private channel, taking a breath. They silently fell into formation around Luke, Six taking Luke?s wing. Rogue Two, Janey, didn?t survive first contact.
They headed for the Imperial outpost, taking out defenses along the surface of the moon, dodging shots, looking out for each other. Somehow it seemed to Luke that they moved faster, when there was the ground to orient them. The stars didn?t change for the little movements, the fast runs. Their experience and fast reflexes served them well, letting them react quickly to automated turbolasers rising out of the moon dust to fire.
Luke kept the wide channel open, listening to the battle between Red Squadron, half of Rogue Squadron, and the two TIE wings. Outnumbered, as usual, though not severely this time. Manageable.
He heard the one from Rogue Squadron again, recognizing that desperation. ?This is Red Five, I can?t ??
?Stay with me,? he heard Red Six insist. ?Stay with me, Five ??
?Damn!? No clue who said that.
?We lost Five.?
Luke took out another pair of defenses, breathing deeply, knowing that someone had been killed, but he couldn?t remember who Five was. But death tingled at his senses, little reverbs that wouldn?t leave him alone, and that?s a crazy Skywalker stunt that no one knows about. Rogue Six simply followed, having nothing to hit.
?This is Six. I think we should take another run, make sure there?s nothing left. We don?t want the Golden to get shot down,? Six said.
Luke nodded uselessly. ?Agreed, Six; it needs to be done.? They were taking this supply depot to save lives; bacta was a valuable commodity, one that they could not always afford to pay for, even when Thyferra was willing to sell. For that reason, it was also expected by the Imperials that they would attack, and Imperials didn?t have any problem going overboard in traps. ?This is Rogue Leader. Red, can you handle the TIE?s??
?This is Red Leader. We could use some help.? A little strained.
?All right.? They?d do the final run later. ?Rogues??
They swung as one back to the battle. Luke took quick note of the survivors, with no surprise of the numbers: six of Red Squadron was gone. The Rogues he had left behind were still intact, but they were still two short, having lost Rogue Five and Ten. There were only fourteen TIE?s left, but they were fighting hard.
The rest passed in a blur. Action and words.
?Seven, cover me ??
?I?m hit! I?m hit!?
?Take my wing, Seven ??
?Your left, Nine, your left!?
?Got my tail.?
?Three to go...?
?That one is acting strange.?
That sounded like Wedge. ?Rogue Seven?? Luke interjected on a private channel.
?That TIE, Lead. I think it?s surrendering.?
?You?re kidding,? but Luke turned his attention to the TIE in the distance. It had gone completely still and powered down its weapons. ?You?re not kidding,? Luke said with a sigh. Switch to wide channel. ?Rogue Seven, care to approach with me??
?You got it, Lead.? Wedge fell into a wingman position with natural ease. They approached the TIE in standard attack position, ready to swing away from weapons fire at any moment.
?TIE fighter, do you copy?? Luke said on a completely open channel.
A moment of silence.
?Copy, or we will fire,? Luke said flatly, wondering if that would carry through.
?This is TIE Eight, I copy. I wish to defect.? His voice came through clearly, a human voice. A real voice. Tired, young.
?And you decided this in the middle of a battle?? Wedge interrupted, disbelief plain even over the static.
?Shut it, Seven,? Luke snapped on a private channel. Chastised, Wedge went silent.
?TIE Eight, do not move. Repeat, do not move. Power down your drives. We will guide you to the base when it is safe to do so. You will do everything we tell you to do when we say it. Do you copy??
?Yes, sir. I copy.?
Luke sighed, and almost wished the TIE pilot had been uncooperative. He switched to a private channel. ?Wedge, we get to babysit until the Golden arrives and secures the supply depot.?
Over the wide channel, he heard the last TIE go out in a blaze of fire, and an unrecognizable voice: ?Got the last one. That make me an ace? Five down...? Luke switched that channel off.
?Wonderful,? Wedge said shortly, his breathing coming across as harsh static.
Luke smiled tiredly at the stars. ?Yeah.?
Taking supply depots was generally a quick affair. Get in, take out the Imps, grab the supplies as quickly as possible, and get out. Generally speaking, it was also a job for newer squadrons to take out any defenses. Rogue Squadron got assigned to this one because it was a bacta supply they were after ? more than 50 tons worth, very valuable.
Naturally, they had better ? and more ? pilots than Luke or Commander Narra had hoped for. Red Squadron lost half of its pilots. Half. Luke lost two.
So when he walked up to the captain of the Golden, Luke?s first words were, ?Good intel??
?Very good intel,? Captain Karr replied, a smile on his normally grim face. ?Everything we thought, and more.?
Luke nodded, the thought buoying him up from his exhaustion. ?Good.?
?I heard about the TIE pilot defecting,? Karr commented, raising an eyebrow, then looking again at the datapad, making notations of some kind as men behind him loaded the Golden?s bay.
Luke grimaced, twitching, letting the waves of reaction to battle and nerves sweep through him and away. ?Yes. Rather convenient timing to defect, I?d say. But I?ll leave that for Intelligence to decide.?
The pilot had landed in the supply base without making any untoward moves, clearly seeing that Luke and Wedge were just looking for a reason to shoot him down. Luke shook his head, wishing...well, it didn?t matter. There were former Imperials in the Rebellion. Plenty of them. It was a difficult situation at times, and sometimes Luke wished for simplicity when two of his pilots were trying to kill each other over some past battle. If the TIE pilot was a true defector...
Karr looked up at him, cynicism in his eyes. ?I heard from one of Red Squadron that he?s the one who took out Callie.? Red Five.
?Hell,? Luke said, energy running through his body, go-go-go, and Karr just shook his head as Luke ran off to find where they were holding the TIE pilot.
He tapped his comm. ?Wedge? Do me a favor, tell me where they put the TIE pilot??
?An empty storage room in the west corridor, I think. Why??
Luke didn?t answer, just tapped the comm off and ran in that direction. Then he stopped, having a thought. Before he got to the corridor he quickly commed Red Leader. Might as well let him know what was going on. Wedge hadn?t said which storage room, but as soon as Luke reached the corridor, he saw guards from Karr?s ship standing outside a door. Damn Karr.
They stiffened as he approached, and didn?t interfere when he wordlessly reached past them. The door slid open.
The Imperial pilot was on the floor, curled up around himself, coughing. Hender kicked him again, then looked up at Luke with guileless eyes. Another of Red Squadron, a young woman, just looked at Luke with a blank expression. She stood apart, watching, a silent permission.
?Lieutenant,? Luke said flatly. ?Stand down.?
Hender?s lips tightened. ?Sir ??
?I know your wingmate is dead,? Luke said shortly. ?But we don?t do this, Hender. This is them, not us.?
Hender looked away, clearly on the verge of losing control. He twitched as Luke did, on the edge of reaction, that edge that allowed them to act quickly.
Luke stepped forward, not waiting but pushing. ?What the hell do you think you?re doing?? he said, voice soft. No static, no barrier to recognition here. ?Do you think this is right?? he asked, and even to himself he sounded odd. ?Because those guards let you pass? I can assure you, they?ll be getting it as worse as you will be for this stunt.? As would Karr for his tacit allowance of it, but no need for Hender to know about that.
?This isn?t a stunt! He?s just a coward, who didn?t want to go out in battle!? the young woman snarled, glaring at the pilot.
The pilot looked at Luke, frightened. It looked odd to see an Imperial more frightened than arrogantly superior; in a cockpit one didn?t see the terror flash before their eyes when they realized the inferior had bested them.
Luke?s gaze returned the fear with disinterest. He turned back to Hender.
?This is what we are,? Hender said quietly. ?We?re loyal to our people. Loyal. He is nothing to that.?
Luke stared at him. He struggled for words, out of his reach, the concepts dancing in his hand unspoken. He felt stretched thin, unrecognizable. But he had to try. ?What do we fight for, Hender??
?We fight for freedom, don?t we?? Luke persisted.
?Yes, sir.? Grimly.
?Red Five screwed up in that battle, didn?t she? She made a mistake??
The young woman, Red Nine, Luke guessed, began to cry, silent tears that were nearly invisible.
?What would you have done if she had survived? You were in charge of that battle group.?
?I ? I would have grounded her temporarily, then made her relearn everything.? His face was tight with tension. ?I would have made sure she never left her wingmate, no matter how frightened she was.?
Luke nodded. ?I would have done the same.? He paused, not looking at the Imperial pilot; this wasn?t about him, really. ?Because mistakes happen. People aren?t perfect, are they? You know, Han Solo was an Imperial. A good pilot, a good shot,? Luke added matter-of-factly. ?But that doesn?t matter so much now, does it? He?s a Rebel. One of us.?
?Killing Rebels, then trying to defect, is more than a mistake, sir,? Hender ground out, seeing where Luke was going.
?Yes, it is,? Luke said immediately. ?But mistakes are only mistakes in hindsight, Lieutenant. I don?t know if this pilot will be another Tycho, Han, or another Madine. I honestly don?t really care at this point.? He licked his lips. ?I?m not an orator, some...wise particularly eloquent or wise person, Hender. But we...the Rebellion fights for more than an abstract concept of freedom. We fight for an ideal.?
?We?re supposed to live that ideal,? the young woman whispered, closing her eyes, and briefly, powerfully, Luke wanted to hug her. Yes. He couldn?t really speak of this thing he fought for, but it was like a bright light in his mind, something to reach for.
?Yes,? Luke said at last. ?This war is ? hard. I think when it comes down to it, we?ll have little else than our beliefs, but we?ll have something. Don?t you agree, Lieutenant??
Hender didn?t look like he agreed. He looked abruptly tired. ?Yes, sir.?
Luke heard the door slide open, but didn?t look.
?I believe Commander Skywalker is correct,? Commander Andel said shortly into the silence. ?Dismissed.?
Hender and the young woman almost saluted, but Luke waved them off. They nodded at something Andel said as they passed.
?Thank you, thank you ?? the Imperial pilot babbled, stumbling to his feet.
?I didn?t do it for you,? Luke said coldly, and walked out. After a moment, he heard Andel follow. Not yet acknowledging Andel, Luke looked at the guards and said in a very low, controlled tone, ?Captain Karr will be hearing from me.?
Then he headed down the hallway, glancing at Andel finally, raising an eyebrow.
?It was a good thing you did,? Andel said, looking at Luke evenly. Andel was ten years his senior, but his gaze was sympathetic and not judgmental when he looked at Luke, a meeting of equals.
?Not enough, though,? Luke said.
?It never is. But you know that.?
?I?ve got two letters to write,? Luke said quietly. Not that the letters will necessarily go anywhere; sometimes it wasn?t safe to contact the family of Rebel Alliance members. At first, he was told which ones needed them and which ones didn?t, but after a while, he just ignored that and wrote the letters anyway. They needed to be written.
?Six,? Andel said, closing his eyes briefly.
Luke didn?t offer his help. ?May the Force be with you,? he said instead, meaning it.
To his surprise, Andel smiled at him. ?It already is with you.? The corridor ended, and Andel headed away from Luke, who stood still, and thought of stars that didn?t move unless you did.
Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.