Date: 39 (4 years after the Battle of Yavin)
Colonel Nick Fel sat almost motionless on the rock, gazing sightlessly out across the desert, contemplating. A speeder bike, hugging the ground as though overloaded, sped off into the distance, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. With a sigh, he slapped both hands down onto bare thighs.
"Yep. That went well."
Twenty-four hours earlier
The yell came from the back of the amphitheatre, but Nick couldn't identify the culprit. He took centre stage with a suppressed smile, verging on being a smirk. Shadow Squadron had only existed for a few short months, but they were already a tight-knit group, joking and teasing at their squadron leader's new rank insignia.
In truth, he was a little overwhelmed. The last time he'd been referred to as 'Colonel', it was as an Imperial pilot, and he was still surprised at how quickly the Alliance had taken him in, accepted him, and given him his own squadron to train.
But then, given the number of recruits the recently founded New Republic was getting every day, fresh squadrons popped up weekly.
Sprawled across the front row, Major Mike Burn cocked his head to one side. "Does this mean you're getting even more money than us now?"
Nick planted his datapad on the holoprojector and accessed his briefing, bringing up a huge brownish globe, orbited by a pair of uninteresting moons.
"This is Hegeron, an unremarkable world in the Ablajeck Sector. Its planetary government has decided to join the New Republic. There's been some disagreement on that point, mostly from the local Imperial garrison. They didn't hesitate in declaring martial law."
The hologram shifted to a bunker-like structure on the ground. "Intelligence suggests they have a single squadron of TIEs, which will jeopardise any attempt to neutralise the garrison. So, we're going in first to take them out and do as much damage to the facility's defences as we can. Simple. Unless there's any questions, you can all hit the sims. A package should be installed by the time you get there."
"Sorry, sir," a voice asked from the back. "But one squadron against an entire planet?"
Mike twisted round to look at the doubter. "Not just any squadron, kid. The prettiest squadron in the fleet."
"I wish I hadn't asked."
* * * * *
The nose of Nick Fel's X-wing glowed orange as it descended into Hegeron's atmosphere, most likely setting off every sensor array from here to the planet's northern pole. Stealth wasn't a requirement.
The predicted squadron of TIE Fighters rose to meet them, green laser blasts searing through the dry air. The two opposing flocks briefly and violently embraced before separating out into a furious entanglement.
"You with me, Two?"
"Think so, Lead." That was Lance Tambek, his new wingman. Nick had learned to pull more than a few exotic manoeuvres in an X-wing over the years, but the kid did an admirable job of keeping up.
Nick inverted his craft with a tight loop that brought a TIE into his crosshairs, then rolled to avoid the debris, conveniently resulting in the X-wing being right-side up. The concepts of 'up' and 'down' might be irrelevant in space, but he always found it was best to pay them some heed in atmosphere. If you wanted to keep your lunch, anyway.
"Lead, Seven. I've got new readings!" Seven's voice sounded worried as it interrupted his thoughts, almost frantic. "A squadron of Interceptors launching about ten clicks south."
Nick swore and wondered what strings the local governor had pulled to get those assigned to this backwater planet. "Don't panic. We can take them."
"Lead, Five." Mike came through on a private channel. "You sure about that? With an experienced squadron, sure…"
"Have a little faith, Five."
A TIE Fighter swooped down to make a head-to-head run against him. "If you want," Nick muttered to the unhearing TIE pilot. "It's your urn." He shunted power into his shields and blasted it to shreds with a single quad laser burst.
Those Interceptors were closing fast, flying in a tight formation that would make head-to-head tactics suicide even for a shielded X-wing. He could rake his lasers across the formation and take out two, maybe three of them. But a squadron's worth of quad laser cannons would be pointed right at him as he did it.
"Let the squints join the fray before you engage them," he ordered.
He swooped down on another TIE while waiting for the Interceptors to arrive, pleasantly surprised to find its pilot was above average and managed to dodge his shots. Unfortunately, he was concentrating so hard on avoiding Nick's lasers that he completely missed Shadow Two coming in from his side.
"Good shot, Two."
The second squadron joined them, their green lasers flashing as they sliced between New Republic and Imperial forces. A quick glance at his sensors told Nick that everyone had survived the first pass, which spoke for their luck if nothing else. A second glance told him he hadn't been entirely so lucky.
"Squint on my tail. Can you get it, Two?"
"I think so, Lead," Tambek replied. "Wait, pull up!"
Nick never saw the second Interceptor—his targeting sensors went offline around the same time he felt an explosion behind him and saw one S-foil spiral to the ground. Its aerodynamics ruined, his starfighter flipped into a flat spin, sky and surface switching erratically in his viewport.
"I'm taking her down."
"Lead, punch out!"
"Negative," Nick responded calmly. If he ejected now the fighter could crash into the city and kill dozens of civilians, if not more. He was going to have to try wrestle it to the ground. "Take command, Five."
Nick flicked the comlink off to avoid further argument and killed his remaining engines. The fighter's downward acceleration slowed but didn't stop, gravity still drawing the hurtling craft down faster than air resistance could slow it. He yanked the stick towards him, trying to counter the spin and pull the nose up.
"Boltz, give me some engine burn to counter this spin."
His astromech bleeped an affirmative and the X-wing began to plummet with some semblance of control, but on a course which would almost certainly land it in the city. Pre-emptively, Boltz pulled up a chart of the city layout, marked with the areas he could reasonably expect to reach.
"That looks promising." Nick pointed out a long wide street near the edge of the city. "A bit tighter than your usual landing strip, but we'll mange."
Boltz whistled an agreement and projected directions onto his HUD, along with a handful of trajectory and velocity calculations.
Nick watched his altimeter tick down rapidly, until it hit the X-wing's repulsorlift ceiling. He flicked the switch as soon as it lit up and the fighter bounced as if it had hit an invisible cushion, evening out as the repulsorlift engines compensated for the uneven aerodynamics.
Next, he triggered the S-foils, which ground against their motors but wouldn't close. "Guess that was a little much to ask," he muttered.
The city grew larger in front of him, turning from a grey smudge on the horizon to a fair-sized backwater city. He quickly spotted the sprawling, flat industrial sector of the city that his makeshift landing strip passed through.
A subdued beeping from his status board grew more insistent, drawing his attention to a blinking orange light marked 'repulsors'. "Boltz, ease output from the repulsors, I think they're—frak!" The X-wing jerked suddenly as the repulsors gave up and began accelerating towards the ground once again.
Desperately, Nick stabbed at the landing gear switch as the road approached faster and faster. Behind him Boltz screeched as the X-wing touched the ground. The landing gear absorbed the initial impact before collapsing and ripping out of the fighter's body. The remaining lower S-foil hit next, the fragile laser cannon snapping off as it dug into the ground, leaving a furrow in the dirt road. Eventually the S-foil itself gave way, tearing off the entire engine.
With no more support, his aft hit the ground and bounced again and again, sending shockwaves through the entire craft. Nick stabbed at the repulsorlift controls, which blatantly refused to re-engage.
The fighter skipped and skidded down the street like a stone across a lake, throwing him against his restraints, his helmet clattering against the side of the cockpit. The skips reduced in length and frequency, giving way to a screeching noise that Nick was fairly certain indicated the bottom of his hull was peeling away. Showers of sparks cascaded across his canopy, but eventually, friction came to his rescue and the craft slowed to a halt.
With a sigh of relief, he squeezed his eyes shut and pulled off his helmet, dropping it at his feet. He'd be telling that one in the tapcafe for a long time to come.
He opened his eyes a short time later and quickly wished he hadn't. Arrayed in front of him was an entire platoon of stormtroopers, backed up by an armoured troop transport and a Chariot LAV command speeder.
He blinked slowly. "Well stang."
He glanced behind him to make sure his R2 was still functioning. "Boltz, is our launcher working?" The word 'barely' appeared on his display. "Deactivate the warheads on the first pair."
On the astromech's confirmation, Nick paired up his launchers and fired off the two inert proton torpedoes. They jetted down the street, hugging the ground due to his fighter's position. Stormtroopers scattered in the brief seconds they had before the torpedoes impacted with the blockade.
The left torpedo ripped into the command speeder and sent it spinning on its repulsors. It knocked down a pair of E-Web cannons but never had a chance to do more damage, as the second torpedo slammed into the side of a troop transport. Fuel cells were compacted, engulfing the entire blockade in a ball of flame.
He scooped up the blaster from next to his seat and dropped low in the cockpit, then triggered the canopy and started shooting into the debris cloud. When nobody fired back he clambered out and made his way back towards his R2.
"Not leaving you here," he muttered. "I'll get you out of there somehow."
The little droid suddenly started to lift up on its own, and Nick watched it use tiny rockets to land safely on the ground with a frown. "I didn't know you could do that."
Boltz moved his body in a way that managed to somehow look like a shrug and wheeled off towards a side street.
Nick glanced back quickly and surveyed his X-wing. In short, there was no chance it would ever fly again. Two S-foils and an engine were missing and the slender body buckled and torn from its landing. He'd never felt entirely comfortable in it anyway. Its previous pilot had been killed during the evacuation of Yavin, and the ship often gave him a feeling he could only describe by likening it to the sensation of sitting in a seat that's still warm from its last occupant.
He found Boltz down a narrow alley and glanced around for somewhere to conceal the droid, and stopped when he saw a battered, rusted hatch mounted on the side of a building. The warehouse looked like it was still in use, but whatever was behind that hatch clearly wasn't.
With some assistance from the droid's cutting tool, Nick managed to pull the hatch up. As he suspected, inside was a cage for an elevator system. Rather than employing repulsors, the top was connected to a frayed cable that led up to a winch, further suggesting it was installed a long time ago and hadn't been used since.
"You'll have to power down," Nick told him. "They won't find you here. I'll come back for you."
Boltz whistled mournfully, shaking his domed head back and forth slightly as his lights dimmed and extinguished. Nick slammed the hatch down over him, checked his blaster power and ran into the city.
* * * * *
It was worse than he'd thought. The streets were deserted of anyone but Imperial troopers—apparently the garrison was so confident about its secret Interceptor squadron that they weren't pulling back troops to defend themselves.
Nick looked skyward, where the flashes of a distant dogfight lit up the sky, and felt a pang of guilt. Mike had logged as many hours in an X-wing as him and knew their pilots just as well, but he'd never commanded a squadron before, let alone a new squadron. He'd let his men down.
But moping wasn't going to get him back to them.
He'd managed to keep to back streets and alleyways so far, avoiding the patrols on the main streets. Fortunately for him, the garrison didn't seem to be kitted out to quell any serious insurrection. Normally the Empire would send out armed surveillance droids during a curfew to observe from above, but Nick didn't suppose anyone had ever expected this sleepy world to rebel—with the Emperor dead and the fleet still regrouping, he doubted anyone on Imperial Centre particularly cared.
A flash of movement at the end of the dim alley caught his eye and Nick spun to see a black probot drifting menacingly towards him, all sensor lenses and dangling manipulator arms. I'm developing a bad habit of speaking too soon.
A pair of lucky shots hit home on the droid's casing, but it didn't even acknowledge the blasts. Unlike models configured for reconnaissance, a surveillance model wouldn't self destruct on discovery. It just shot right back at you and reported it back later.
Nick turned and ran.
The probot's blaster cannon swivelled to face him and peppered the alley with blasts, all of them intentionally wide. The droid would be programmed to scare him into returning home, he knew, but if he put up too much resistance it would lose patience eventually and gun him down.
He kept running, knowing that the droid could easily pace him on its repulsorlifts. His only hope was to score a lucky shot or find somewhere the probot couldn't follow…
Nick's frantic train of thought was derailed as caught his foot on an abandoned crate and tripped, landing in a painful heap on the hard ground. He jammed his blaster hopelessly into the mass of arms and repulsors that suddenly loomed over him—and with a thunderous boom the droid shuddered and collapsed into a pile of smoking electronics.
A short being with tatty blue fur and a rodent-like face stood in a doorway behind it, cradling an ancient slugthrower that looked huge in its arms. He'd never met a Squib before, but he'd heard cautionary tales. Mostly from green pilots who'd visited their first rim-world market and come back penniless with armfuls of junk.
"Mean Imp troopers searching homes looking for you, friend" it squeaked, tossing him the keys for a speeder. "Get out of the city—they don't bother with the outlying settlements."
* * * * *
Shielding his eyes, Nick watched New Republic troop transports descend from the sky, blazing trails through the atmosphere. Y-wings accompanied them, ready to turn the garrison into a molten crater if necessary.
Get out of the city, he thought bitterly. What does a Squib know about escaping the Empire?
The Squib's landspeeder had turned out to be a useless wreck, and had given up under the heat about an hour ago. He'd abandoned it and set off on foot, hoping that any Imperial forces would still be zeroing in on the speeder and not him. He should've known better than to accept anything for free from a Squib.
Still, it should be safe to break comm silence now—his pursuers would have other things on their minds. He sank his hand into the pocket where he normally kept a personal comlink, but it came back empty. Brief, increasingly frantic checks of his flightsuit's many pockets likewise turned up nothing.
"Typical. Kriffing typical"
With his comlink presumably somewhere in his cockpit or his locker at their home base, he was stuck here. No way he could contact their ground forces or rescue flights. He doubted he could walk back to the wreck of his landspeeder in these conditions, never mind all the way back to town.
His search had at least turned up rations he'd stashed in one pocket for the return hyperspace journey. Nothing especially tasty, but better than nothing at all. He peeled off the ration bar's wrapper and sat down on a large rock with a sigh.
* * * * *
Hot air shimmered above the sand, wavering and distorting, its watery ripples teasing. The closest buildings were barely visible, just brown blotches in the distance, or maybe just another trick of the light.
Nick tossed his empty canteen to the ground. A stupid decision, heading straight out into the desert, but one he supposed he couldn't have avoided. He couldn't remember how long he should be able to survive without water out here, but he doubted it was very long.
He swatted irritably at an insect he could hear buzzing in his ear, but it refused to stop. The droning sound continued, seeming to grow louder, unhindered by his hand. He twisted and saw an overloaded speederbike heading towards him, piloted by a pair of small beings. As it got closer, he saw it was loaded with sacks full of broken electrical appliances, tacky antiques and all manner of other items. Their common traits seemed to be that they were shiny and worthless.
Two more Squibs, younger than the one he'd met earlier, jumped off the bike. Like their transport, their limited clothes were covered in worthless knick-knacks and shiny objects.
"Lost, friend?" one of them squeaked.
"Not at all," Nick forced a smile. "I know exactly where I am. But if I could borrow a comlink, I'd be grateful."
"Borrow?" the Squib scoffed. "Friend, we are Trisabreevadeeree and Borbarimarusorbus, but you can call me Tris and him Borb. We are salesmen extraordinaire. We sell, not lend."
"But I only need it for a few seconds," Nick argued.
"There's no rental shop around here, friend," Tris said. Borb mimed scanning the horizon and gave two affirming nods. "You'll have to buy."
"How lucky for me that you were just passing by," Nick said icily, slowly realising he had been well and truly conned by this trio of Squibs and their broken landspeeder.
Borb gave a nod and a huge grin and Tris dived into one of the overloaded sacks on the bike and pulled out a military headset comlink. Most likely scavenged from a stormtrooper helmet, it was highly illegal in the hands of anyone but Imperial troops, but that was a moot point considering Nick himself was supposedly a dangerous terrorist.
"Five hundred credits. But for you… four hundred!"
Borb made an odd noise through his nose and elbowed his generous friend, who responded in kind. They exchanged half a dozen jabs before resorting to slapping at each other's hands and snatching the comlink back and forth. Eventually, Tris emerged victorious after pushing Borb to the dusty ground. "Four hundred."
Borb stood up and brushed himself down with a quiet huff. He nodded his reluctant approval.
The landspeeder and comlink together were worth nowhere near four-hundred credits and they knew it. Not that he could pay if he wanted to. "No credits, fellows," he said, tugging at his flightsuit pockets in the universally recognised sign of an inability to pay. "But there's a landspeeder a few miles in that direction. It's yours for the comlink."
"How are you going to stop us taking it anyway?" Tris snickered.
"I, ah… fine." Nick expected they'd already scavenged what they could from the wreck anyway. He ran another quick search through his pockets. "I have thirty creds and a datapad."
"With memory stick?"
"Without." Nick wasn't about to hand that over.
"No deal!" Tris looked Nick up and down appraisingly, then grabbed a handful of flightsuit and rubbed it against his furry cheek. "But a full Alliance pilot's uniform could sell well at the moment…"
"Ladies and gentlebeings, the clothes worn by the hero of Hegeron's liberation…"
* * * * *
Nick sat almost motionless on the rock, gazing sightlessly out across the desert, contemplating. Tris and Borb's overloaded speeder bike sped off into the distance, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. With a sigh, he slapped both hands down onto bare thighs.
"Yep. That went well."
He picked up the comlink that lay beside him and set the frequency to their emergency search and rescue channel. "Shadow Leader requesting recovery. Repeat, Shadow Leader requesting recovery. This is Shadow—"
"Lead, Five. We read you," Mike finally answered. "Keep transmitting while we get a fix on you. We'll get someone to pick you up."
"Um, could you make it discrete? I'm… somewhat compromised."
"Copy, Lead. I'll come myself."
* * * * *
The sun had managed to trace a few dozen degrees across the sky before the shuttle descended from the sky, wings folding up as it touched the ground.
Funny, Nick thought. He'd have expected Mike to hijack a two-man Y-wing or something. A transport that size could hold his entire squadron…
With apologies to Joss Whedon and Troy Denning.