Date: 50:3 (15 years after the Battle of Yavin)
Officer's Mess Hall, Farpoint
"David, may I join you?
"Earth to Sinclair!"
A laden tray thumped down onto the table, and Captain David Sinclair of the starship Hunter immediately went on the offensive. He was half out of his chair before he realized that his assailant was standing with her arms folded, looking down at him quizzically.
"I know—that idiom doesn't quite cut it on Farpoint, but at least I got your attention. Are you alright, David?"
"Corry, don't you know better than to disturb a man when he's eating?" Sinclair replied with a tinge of annoyance. He sank down heavily in his seat and became his usual courteous, slightly withdrawn self once again.
Lieutenant Colonel Corry Vrecken raised an eyebrow and murmured, "Thank you, I'd love to sit here," and proceeded to seat herself.
"I hate to correct you, Captain, but you weren't eating. In fact you haven't been eating for the past ten minutes... at least not since I first came in. You've been staring off into space and stirring that poor... er... ewww…" She wrinkled her nose. "What is that?"
Sinclair sighed and shoved his tray away. "It was supposed to be trimaak stew. The chef usually does a passable job, but today it's barely edible."
Corry pushed half of her sandwich toward him and then started eating the other half. After a few minutes of silence she dropped the crusts and asked, "So? Are you going to tell me or not?"
Sinclair looked at her appraisingly as he ate and then shook his head. "No. In fact, I'm not."
"You rat! I gave you my sandwich!"
He half smiled around a mouthful, but still shook his head ruefully. "You really don't want to know."
As he ate she watched him, her chin in her hand, and when he'd finished she said quietly, "When I first came to the table, your face—you looked so troubled. Please David, let me help. What's the matter?"
He turned a mug over in his hands, thinking, and finally looked over at her. "I'll warn you up front: you won't like this." When she didn't reply, he took a deep breath and then sat forward so that they could speak without being overheard.
"You remember the battle where Jaina died?"
Corry nodded. "I didn't even know she was gone until we'd gotten the final briefing. But yes, I remember."
Sinclair set the mug on the table and aligned it very precisely as he spoke.
"There's a rumor spreading around the base that Jaina deserted her wingman and ran from the battle. They're saying she was killed while running away and that two members of her squadron almost died because of it."
23rd Regiment Workshop, twenty minutes later
"I can't believe it! Jaina would never desert anyone!" Corry paced through the workshop, skirting chairs and benches, then rounding back again. The soundproof room was ideal for the discussion that now went on at a much higher volume.
"I agree. The Jaina that I knew would never have considered such a thing." Sinclair cleared a chair and sat almost gingerly, eyeing an odd contraption on the counter near him, his engineer's mind trying to pick it apart even as he listened to Corry. "However, we both know that under stress—or under outside influence—a person can do things that are not only against their better judgment, but against their moral code as well."
Corry shot him a withering look but continued her pacing. "Granted. But not Jaina! Surely not. Who would even suggest such a thing?"
Sinclair shrugged. "I heard about it from Essential, a former member of Ace Squadron. He's with Pulsar now, but Jaina trained him. He was very upset and asked me if I could verify the rumor. He'd heard it from some of the other pilots stationed on Hunter."
"Well then!" Corry stopped, her hands on her hips. "We either need to stop those people before the whole base begins to talk, or disprove the rumors once and for all."
"Exactly my thoughts." Sinclair picked up the contraption and rerouted a power feed before placing it back down, carefully. "But how do you suggest going about it? I've reviewed the sensor logs from the Hunter and those of the two pilots who were closest to Jaina during the battle, and they all tell the same story. Her ship was hit but she continued to fight for several minutes, even trying to lead although her communications were out. Then, without warning, she dropped out of formation and turned back toward Ashleigh, heading there at top speed—which is rather formidable in an A-wing."
Corry threw her hands up into the air. "Stupid A-wings! Why can't they have astromech onboard? Then we'd have a second source for what happened."
"Second source..." Sinclair's brow wrinkled as he thought. "That might be possible..."
"What?" Corry's pacing stopped dead at the note in his voice.
"Starfighters are all equipped with flight recorders…"
Corry began to get excited, "Surely that will solve the problem! We can bring her cockpit recordings to a court of inquiry if we have to! Why hasn't this already been done?"
"Simple answer is—we don't have the flight recorder." David held up his hand to stop her exclamation of surprise. "You have to remember, Corry, the system was still hot when we left. We grabbed what we could, but we had to concentrate our rescue efforts on those pilots who were still alive."
"Poor Jaina." Corry slumped down on a chair and dropped her head into her hands. "I can't think of a worse thing to happen to such a nice person. To have your name dragged through the mud..."
Sinclair made another adjustment to the object in his hand, while Corry watched listlessly. But soon a flicker appeared in the back of her eyes. "What if we went back? If we could find the recorder..."
"Be realistic, Corry. Odds are that the device was destroyed along with her ship." Sinclair sat back and tapped a finger against the strange object. "There were at least three TIEs swarming her when she died."
"But we can't really be sure, can we?" Corry leaned across the table, excitedly. "The answer could still be there! All we need is that recorder!"
Sinclair shook his head wearily. "We're grasping at straws, Corry. You know that, don't you?"
Corry's face fell at his remark and he took a long breath, then stood. "But it is Jaina's reputation, her memory. She deserves at least a look."
Admiral Fel's Office, one day later
"This is disturbing." Nick Fel put the datapad down carefully and squeezed the bridge of his nose for a moment. Sinclair's purported rumors about Jaina's death were just one more headache in a long day of headaches.
"Yes, sir! And it gets worse." Corry leaned forward, nearly on the edge of her seat. "Several people have been heard to lay blame for the death of these Ace members directly on Jaina's actions. And the new pilots, who never met her, are the quickest to tell the story."
"I hadn't heard any of this." Nick stood and walked to one of the large windows that looked over Farpoint. "I'm finding myself increasingly removed from the pilots. Perhaps that had better stop now." Turning, he faced the two officers seated in front of his desk. "But that's another matter. Any suggestions for damage control on this issue?"
Sinclair exchanged a look with Corry and then said slowly, "We'd like permission to go back to the site of the battle, Admiral. It will need to be a quiet mission. If we find nothing, or if we find damning evidence..."
"We'll be worse off than we are now," Nick finished. "But you think you can find something to explain her actions?"
"We should at least try, sir," Corry spoke up. "Thorn has already offered to let me use her Skipray. She thinks David has taken up the lost cause of teaching me to pilot the beast. And if you would authorize a fighter escort we can make it there and back in just two days."
"Latest intel reports that there has been no Imp activity at the shipyards, so we should be able to get in and out without too much risk," Sinclair offered.
Fel thought for a moment, taping a stylus absently against a small plaque on his desk. "You can have two fighters. I'll ask Melki to lend you a B-wing and we'll list this as a technical surveillance mission."
"Why a B-wing?" Corry asked curiously.
Sinclair answered while keying information into his own pad. "Sometimes the enemy salts debris fields with mines, to prevent us from doing exactly what we're planning on doing. The B-wing's ion cannon can clear most of those mines for us."
Corry's eyes widened. "They set mines?"
Nick forced a laugh. "There's too much wreckage floating around the galaxy, a damned sight too much. And 'the enemy' isn't the only one who plays this game. Salvagers will drop their own nets or mines, hoping to add to the debris and their profit margin."
"Reason has ion cannons." Corry looked from one man to the other. "Can't we use those?"
"You're going to have your hands full, searching the tons of debris out there. We'll also need to take advantage of the B-wing's shielding when we get in close." Nick leaned back, tossing his pad on the desk. "Don't worry; we'll get someone who can be discrete about the mission." He shrugged. "With the remains of an Imperial shipyard in-system, it's possible that the battle debris will have been ignored entirely."
Corry's eyes lit up. "Well… if we're going to be in the neighborhood… and the shipyards are just sitting there… perhaps we could..."
"No." Nick said flatly.
She sighed. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. It's my natural acquisitiveness. It gets the better of me sometimes."
"So I've noticed."
Sinclair finished his notes and looked up. "You mentioned two fighters, Admiral. What do you suggest for the second?"
Fel gave a wry smile. "An X-wing, of course. Have the ships designated Shadow One and Two. I'll meet you in orbit in two hours."
Near the abandoned Imperial Naval Shipyard
Light crinkled around the canopy of Shadow One, creating odd shadows in the X-wing's cockpit. Nick Fel adjusted his visor damper down another notch, dimming the pervasive light. It never paid to come out of hyperspace with your eyes dazzled.
This jump was short. Only fifteen minutes before, he and the B-wing pilot Dorn Velvok had been aboard Thorn's ship Reason, getting a bite to eat and stretching their legs before the start of the mission. Reason was still parked on the large asteroid they'd targeted for a safe hole, waiting for Fel and Velvok to scout ahead.
"Boltz, prepare for reentry. We're coming in hot this time."
The astromech answered with a complaining blat of sound, but attended to its duties quickly.
"You're starting to sound like Mike." Nick said dryly as he finished his own preparations.
It wasn't often that a pilot flew back to the site of a space battle. There was just too much empty space in the galaxy and no need to rehash old victories, or losses, when the enemy was on the move. The few times that Nick had revisited the scene of a battle he had found it eerily quiet compared with the hectic, heart pounding moments of combat.
And dead battlefields held their own dangers.
The blinding light seemed to draw out into long filaments and then the starfield snapped into existence around him.
Scans lit up across the board and Nick's hands flew across the controls, but twenty seconds of activity clearly showed the area to be free of vessels. At least vessels that were still flight worthy, or in one piece.
The debris cloud hadn't expanded as much as he'd guessed. Mostly it consisted of fragments, from palm sized chunks to microscopic slivers that would wreak havoc with unshielded engines. But suspended in the midst of this miasma were the burned out hulks that marked the end of yet another pilot's brilliant career.
A chime from his console and beep from Boltz sounded at the same moment. Above and to Nick's left, Shadow Two dropped in, just on schedule.
"Welcome back, Shadow Two. All clear here. Begin your scans on the debris cloud when you are ready. I'll continue monitoring the Imp facilities."
"Ready now, sir," came back the crisp reply. Shadow Two moved above the ecliptic of the majority of the battle debris and started an ion burst trail. Nick fell to his rear, keeping well clear of the bursts and watching Dorn's back. He also stayed to the outer edges of the cloud. Both Reason and the B-wing sported much stronger shields than Nick's X-wing, and for once he felt distinctly at a disadvantage.
"How many ships were involved?" Dorn asked, his voice tinged with awe as he continued his sweep.
"That's right, you weren't with us for this one, were you?" Nick avoided an amputated engine pod and came right back into position.
"No, sir, I joined soon after though."
Nick could hear the younger pilot carefully clear his throat. "Sir?"
"I never met Major Solo."
Nick waited for Dorn to finish both his sweep and his thought.
"I was just wondering, was she as good as they say?"
Nick rolled away from the edge of the debris and over the top, coming to high position on the far side. From here he could see light glinting coldly off the moon where Nemhain had been landlocked.
"Good?" Nick's voice was gruffer than he'd intended. "At flying? At leading? Or at being a friend you could count on?"
Silence stretch across the debris field for a long moment.
"Sorry, sir. Not my place to ask."
Nick shook his head. Too many. He remembered too many. He'd always thought that they'd stay clearly etched in his mind, but with so many gone or such a long time passed he found that some of the memories were beginning to soften at the edges. But this particular loss was too recent—it was still crystal clear.
"Jaina Solo was a born pilot, Dorn. But I think she was an even better squadron leader. She cared about details, but didn't let them get in the way of the objective or the people. And you know something odd? Unlike most pilots, she never treated this like it was some kind of personal game. You probably can't tell, since you're new, but she left a hole in Rogue Squadron. One that we're only just beginning to fill."
Shadow Two was now on Nick's wing, hanging in precise formation against the stars.
"Thank you, sir. I'll remember that."
* * * * *
Dorn slipped his glove from his hand and rubbed his palm vigorously on the leg of his flight suit, then quickly pulled the glove back into position. He'd developed quite a nasty burn on his hand during scrimmages between Pulsar and Talon that morning. The savannah outside Farpoint's main gate was turning into quite a pitch, and he'd be blasted if Talon won another match!
But he hadn't reported to the infirmary because the call for this mission had come through. And once he'd understood that he'd be flying wing for the Admiral, nothing but nothing was going to stop him from flying.
"I read six possibles, Admiral. The ion cannon should have nullified four of those, but I'm still reading weak signals from two."
"I see them," Nick answered. "And Two, let's leave the ranks off the comm, shall we? You can call me Lead. No need to advertise our presence more than that."
Dorn gulped. "Sorry, sir! Sir? Or… Lead? May I ask a question?"
He heard the Admiral laugh quietly. "Another? Sure. What?"
Just twenty meters beyond his canopy, the nose of the X-wing turned to point toward the lower quadrant of the debris cloud. "Go take care of those possibles, Two. And don't disturb anything you don't have to."
Dorn nodded and swooped low under the edge of the cloud and come up through it about a third of the way in. Twin streaks of light shattered the blackened reactor shielding that had registered on his scans. The shielding vaporized, but didn't detonate, and one of the blips disappeared from his scanner. Dorn pulled his vessel's nose further up and threaded his way around what had once been a TIE. On the far side a chunk of something that glinted like transparisteel winked at him. He eased his thumb off of the laser controls and his eyes narrowed. With a decisive jerk of his hand he sent a photon torpedo slinging toward the mass. The torpedo impacted, and a shatter of shards glinted off into space, then a double blast of light and heat jettisoned outwards, skipping off the B-wing's shields.
"Frell!" Dorn cursed under his breath.
"I'm betting that was a bomb, sir," he said clearly into the comm as he exited the cloud and took up position about it. He looked back to find Shadow One in exact formation on his wing.
"Well done. And that kind of shooting is 'why you'. You came highly recommended, Two. Both for your marksmanship and your flying skill." Nick chuckled lightly. "Also, Melki said you knew how to hold your tongue. Even when you're drunk."
Dorn felt himself color. "Thank you, sir... Lead."
"I'm heading in for a run over the shipyards. Stand here, contact Reason and tell them to proceed."
"Sorry Dorn, but you waited too long." Corry leaned over Davie's shoulder and laughed into the comm pickup. "I'm afraid Captain Sinclair ate the rest of the sandwiches as soon as you hit hyperspace."
Sinclair brushed her off his shoulder and said resignedly. "Coordinates received Shadow Two. We'll join you in ten minutes." Then he swiveled the command chair to watch as Corry strapped herself into the navigator's seat. "You're in a good mood."
"I'm in the best of moods!" Corry grinned at him as she entered the new coordinates into the flight computer. "We're here, the Imps are gone, and we'll have Jaina's name cleared in no time at all!"
He shook his head and turned back to his own station. "I doubt it will be that easy, Corry. You have no idea what this is going to be like. It's been months, much may have happened since we left."
"David, you really need to lighten up." She winked at him and then looked hopeful. "I don't suppose you're going to let me drive?"
He gave a short laugh and started the flight sequence. "Not hardly."
"Oh, come on! I did all the calculations to get out here, and I did them correctly. This is just a little five minute jump!"
Sinclair didn't answer and the Skipray entered hyperspace with the usual rush of power and light.
"Meanie," Corry muttered. "How am I ever supposed to learn?"
"The same way everyone else does—on a known training course that isn't littered with large pieces of spinning debris and bodies."
Corry snorted. "Everyone else? Who in Rogue Squadron, besides me, ever went through a New Republic flight course? They all learned to fly from their Uncle the Space Pirate! Or by stowing away on a slaver's ship. Or by rescuing an entire cargo of priceless tichi birds when the pilot was suddenly taken ill with some exotic stomach flu."
Sinclair finally cracked a grin. "A bit of an exaggeration, but I understand your point. You, however, will learn the proper way... just as I did. And that means no jumping into a dangerous situation when it's all you can do not to bounce out of your seat in excitement."
Corry stuck her tongue out at him and sat back to enjoy the light show.
"See? You're a twelve year old at heart." Sinclair keyed in one final sequence and then relaxed into his compression seat. "How you ever reached Lieutenant Colonel, I'll never know."
"I was promoted to the level of my incompetence." Corry smiled. "And I only act like I'm twelve because you treat me like I'm twelve. So... what do we do when we arrive? Start on the grid search?"
* * * * *
Three hours later, if Corry had been bouncing with excitement, she had long since stopped.
Their initial search point had been the last known position of Jaina's fighter. It didn't take long, even with normal expansion of the debris, for them to find the major components of Jaina's A-wing. What did take long was the fine maneuvering that Sinclair had to execute to get close. The area was thick with razor-like projectiles which popped tiny pricks of searing light as they bounced off the Skipray's shields. The visual and electronic 'noise' this created was a huge hindrance to their scans, reducing their search to a crawl.
Corry rubbed her eyes and targeted another square meter of space. She wasn't even looking out the viewport anymore, now her whole attention was focused on the various instruments which let her see what her eyes could no longer make out.
A strong hand squeezed her shoulder. "How's it coming?"
Corry didn't look up at him. She didn't want him to see how red her eyes were. Her voice was husky. "I found a scarf. A green silk scarf, or part of one. It was just floating, free of everything. Did she wear anything like that?"
"I don't know, Corry."
She quickly wiped her eyes on her hand and went back to the scans. "I didn't think that it would be like this. What if I find... a part of her..." Her voice broke.
"You need a break, Corry. I'll take over."
Sinclair pushed her out of the seat and pointed her back toward Thorn's small but functional galley. "If we find a body out here, it's not likely to be one of ours. We do our best to retrieve all our pilots, dead or alive."
"I suppose that's something." Corry said quietly, and headed back toward the galley. "Stim tea?"
Sinclair did a quick recalibration, started the search algorithms again and put the scanners on auto. He watched Corry out of the corner of his eye, trying to think of something to get her mind off the morbid work they were involved with. He'd known exactly what this type of searching was going to be like. He'd done this sort of thing before.
With a flick of a switch he opened a comm channel.
"Reason to Shadow Flight. Commencing on grid four-four-three by one-two. Hope you two are still awake out there."
Nick's voice came over the comm. "Acknowledged, Reason. Awake and nicely alone. No contacts."
"Here you are, David. Be careful, it's hot."
He looked up to find her standing beside him, a steaming mug in each hand. "Thanks, Corry."
She nodded and leaned against the bulkhead, looking out at the glinting cloud and the two fighters maneuvering just at the cloud's edge. She cradled her mug in her hands, as if to warm herself.
Sinclair put down the scalding liquid and turned to look at her. "I was wondering something. Just why is it that you call me David? Everyone else calls me by my nickname, Davie. And yet you insist on calling me David."
She blinked and stared at him, then she coughed and a small smile crossed her face. "Um... Well..."
"Come on. Tell me. You do it all the time. Surely you have a reason?"
Corry began to chuckle and then confided, rather inanely, "You just don't look like a Monkee to me."
"A monkey?" He shook his head. "I don't get it."
"It's supposed to be a compliment." She smiled wistfully. "I'm sorry. I didn't know it bothered you."
He shook his head and reached for his mug. This time it was his turn to clear his throat. He'd started a certain subject with her long ago, confiding things to her that he'd told few others. Now, alone, perhaps was the time to continue.
"I have one more thing I'd like to ask you about. This one is rather more..." he paused, unsure if he wanted to continue. "More personal."
Corry shifted from one foot to the other, her expression curious. "Yes?"
The comm crackled as Nick coughed into it. "You two do realize that you're talking over an open channel?"
Corry jumped at the unexpected voice, almost spilling her tea, and Davie growled before turning very deliberately toward the pickup. "You might have mentioned that a bit earlier, sir."
"I wanted to hear the answer to your first question. Always did wonder why Corry couldn't get your name right." Nick replied, his voice clear and undistorted from where he hung in space, now only 300 meters across the vacuum. "So? Are you going to make her toe the line, Captain? Address you properly?"
Sinclair surveyed Corry's very red face and then answered, "No, I think I'll just let her do what she pleases, sir. Seems the safest course of action."
"I always said you were a wise man, Sinclair. We've only got five more hours before we need to head back, or you'll be towing two very expensive fighters. And that could be embarrassing."
"Understood. We're moving as fast as we can."
Near the abandoned Imperial Naval Shipyard, two hours later
"Reason, go dark! Now!"
Nick watched in silence as four ships appeared on the scanners and quickly closed on the shipyards. Two TIE Fighters, a TIE Bomber and a Lambda-class shuttle entered the area from high above the ecliptic. Dorn's B-wing hung motionless beside him, and the steady pinging of Reason's probing had been squelched at his command. The intruders took one full run along the surface of the facility, then circled. But instead of heading in for a landing, they turned as one and flew head on toward Nick and Dorn.
"Unknown vessels. State your purpose," came the curt query.
"State your own purpose," Nick flung back. He smiled coldly. "You know who we are."
There was a long pause, then the Bomber and the shuttle looped upwards, running toward the station at full throttle. The TIEs engaged the Rogue fighters without preliminaries. Lasers bounced off Shadow One's shielding as the Imps closed range, but Nick didn't move.
"Sir?" Dorn's voice came over the flight's closed channel.
"Let them come. When they pass, break across my wake and then head for the shipyards. Destroy the bomber first."
As the TIEs grew closer Boltz started his usual litany of complaints. Nick's fighter began to bob as the blasts rebounded off his shields. He compensated, and began to count very softly.
At five kilometers he opened up, spraying space with a lacework of light. The TIEs broke above and below, racing out of the path of the lasers. Dorn swooped behind and below him, and tore toward the station. But Nick was already looping upwards, hot on the tail of the first TIE.
The fighter jigged, trying to get back to his wingman, but Nick easily had a lock on him. And he was only too aware that meant the other TIE would be on his tail in just a few seconds.
His quarry headed into the debris cloud. It was a suicide move for a ship with no shields, but the TIE made it almost half way through before one of its engines began to sputter with unharnessed energy. By then, Nick had a good lock and the TIE lit up the area, the severed cockpit somersaulting several times before an explosion made it just another casualty in an already cold battlefield.
Boltz screamed at the same frequency as the lock indicator and Nick sliced left and down, back into the cloud. The second TIE stayed out of the cloud, tracking him from above, but its lock was good. Or it might have been. Reason darted out of the dark, ripping toward the TIE at full speed, its upper gun turret blazing. The TIE tried to pull out but one engine flamed and then the superstructure exploded.
"Good shooting," Nick threw across the channel. He was already headed toward the shipyards.
"Thank you, sir!" A triumphant grin came with the words.
"Corry?" Nick called, surprised.
"You didn't think I was crazy enough to let her fly, did you?" Sinclair asked, as the Skipray did its best to catch up with Nick's X-wing.
Near the facility a series of blasts flashed across the darkness. The shuttle was already on its way out of the system, but the Bomber had made a new crater on the scared surface of the shipyard landing platform—the hard way.
"Sorry, Lead. The bomber is down, but the shuttle got away."
Nick shrugged. "Good job, Two. Let the other go. I want him to report what happened."
He made a mental note to send another party back to plant some passive sensors. He'd like to know just how popular this area was, and with whom.
"Reason, you may recommence search. But let's hurry it up. Those TIEs didn't fly here on their own. We might have some large company on the way."
He was cut off by a very unmilitary yelp of triumph from the Skipray.
"We've got it!"
Command Briefing Room, Farpoint
A small blackened lump sat in the middle of the polished table, highlighted rather dramatically by a light from above. Around the table the command staff and Rogue Squadron's flight leaders were no more than blurred faces as they observed the object.
Thorn nodded. "We were lucky. Most of the recordings are intact. We were able to piece together her last flight without too much problem. But we've lost the vid for some portions. What we've prepared for you is just the audio."
Nick leaned forward and made sure he had the attention of everyone in the room. Thorn had warned him what the recording contained, but he had yet to hear it for himself.
"Alright Thorn, let's hear what she has to say."
"Tighten it up, Six. Good. Now, let's see how Dekan handles this."
The recording obviously wasn't meant to be full. There was no chatter from regular channels, and no fleet signals. There were simply Jaina's private comms to her squadron, recorded over her cockpit line.
"Alright Four, you're on. Remember, blast in, firing as you go, then squelch everything and juke out of there. We're just sowing a little mental destruction."
Jaina's chuckle filled the room. "I know, it's nothing like an X-wing, but you'll learn to love the speed. And the enemy won't even know you're there until you're gone!"
The ambient sounds from the cockpit had been toned down, but a soft hiss signaled that something had changed in the recording. "Private note on Six. We should have held him in reserve for one more week. Get him flight time and make sure he doesn't sneak back to the X-wing sims! Three and Four are working well together."
"Excellent, Three. Rendezvous with Seven at 45.39. Two, we're going in low."
Several more minutes of quick comments followed the course of the battle, as Jaina directed her squadron into the more tangled messes, weaving among the Imp ships as the superior speed of the A-wings zipped them past their adversaries.
Suddenly a squeal cut across the recording. Even with Thorn's dampening of the audio, many people in the room winced. To Jaina, the sound must have been deafening. She cried out, as if in pain, then moaned into the comm. "This is Ace One, I've got canopy penetration. I'm sealed and still flying."
There was no other sound on the comm.
"Two! Flame it! Two! Stay with me! Four? Can you hear me? Don't get out ahead like that!"
A pop sounded across the comm and the pilots in the room looked sober. It was the sound of the tiny onboard med kit being cracked open.
"Frell." Jaina sucked in a long pain filled breath. "Oh well. Who needs two hands to fly anyway?"
"Two! Watch out for Three and Four. Wimes? Can anyone hear me?"
The ambient sound increased and it was clear that Jaina was working her comms. She cycled through all the channels, calling for her flight and still trying to keep on Two's wing.
"Pay attention, Eight! You've got a TIE closing on you!"
A new sound filled the room. A low beeping that Jaina immediately pounced on. "This is Ace One. Please acknowledge!" The beeping continued unabated.
Jaina made a few more adjustments and she sucked in a breath. "No. That can't be."
The comms were switched again and the Alpha Priority Band signal could be clearly heard on the cockpit mic.
"Fleet, this is Ace One. Please acknowledge! Fleet. Fleet, come in!"
The signal disappeared as she switched again.
"Five! This is One. I have to return to Ashleigh. Five, you are now leader."
The whine of the engines made it through to the recording and then Jaina's voice came clear as she spoke directly into the pickup. "Time 1856.25. I've intercepted what appears to be an Imperial signal, but the code is very old. Regardless, this data is... it may be suspect, but that's not my call. I can't verify that my signals are being received. Record that I now leave the squadron to the command of Ace Five. I only hope he can hear me. Returning to Ashleigh at red line."
The sound of the engines increased until the room thrummed in time with them.
Then energy crackled across the thrum.
"Ah, frell. Go away you blasted pests, I've got an errand to run."
Another crackle and this time something popped.
"Fleet, this is Ace One. Requesting immediate assistance. I have vital information for the Admiral. Now transmitting the data on Priority Band Alpha." There was a long pause when only the sound of the engines could be heard. "Fleet! This is Ace One. There's an infiltrator on board Nemhain! Repeat, the Nemhain rescue has been compromised!"
Something squealed, and Jaina sighed. "Fleet, I have three rather angry TIEs on my tail, and I'm down to half speed. Any assistance would be welcome. Continuing transition. Get this to Command at once."
The engine thrum crescendoed and then bottomed out with a metallic whine.
"This is Ace One. Engines blown. I'll stand and fight, but I need acknowledgement of my transmission. Please. Let me know you're received this. Please? Acknowledge?"
The low whiz cut through the transmission twice as Jaina turned and launched a salvo of concussion missiles.
"Guys? I know you're busy, but ..."
The recording ended abruptly.
Nick let the silence stretch out for almost a minute before he spoke. "She found out about Polltrok. She knew."
The stunned silence that hung around the table was almost palpable.
Nick rapped his fist on the table. "If Jaina had gotten her message through... If we'd turned on Polltrok before he could turn on us, how many lives would have been saved?"
"He wouldn't have gotten Starthrust," Thorn added quietly. "Those lives should be added to the balance also."
Nick stood and retrieved the blackened lump of metal from the center of the table. "I'll be submitting the name of Jaina Solo for a posthumous award of the New Republic's Trialon Star. I only wish I could present it to her in person."
He looked across the table at the gathered faces, and wondered briefly if there was an approved method of telling each of them how much he valued their service. How much they too would be missed if they were suddenly taken. He slipped the mangled recorder into his tunic pocket. Probably not.
"Will you all join me for a drink in the officer's lounge? We need to toast our honored dead."
* * * * *
The officer's lounge looked and sounded more like a subdued party than a funeral.
"It's a wake." Thorn smiled, pressing a glass into his hand. "Let's celebrate for her." Nick nodded and knocked back the drink—whatever it was. Across the room, he noticed the members of Ace Squadron, standing together with Dorn and Vrecken.
"We just had to get far enough back from the debris field." Corry was explaining. "And suddenly, there it was, just sitting there. Captain Sinclair thinks the recorder was hidden by all the interference while we were searching in the cloud, but I'm not so sure. It was like it wanted to be found."
At the bar, Sinclair tapped a glass to draw everyone's attention. "We have an old saying in the Navy... no crewman has ever been lost among the stars. Rather, they have undertaken the ultimate mission and embarked upon eternal patrol. Their duties do not end, but instead they stand guard forever."
Raising his glass, he called out in a loud voice across the room.
"To Jaina and all the others on Eternal Patrol."