Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, and to Kevin Anderson's "Jedi Academy" series of novels. Yavaris's crew are mine, as is Mefysyn and everyone on it (except Tycho, of course).
No copyright infringement is intended.
Qwi opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. She was bored in the rooms, especially without Wedge, and the broadcast was dismally monotonous, excruciatingly repetitive propaganda. She wanted to stretch her legs. The lieutenant who was standing there took a half step towards her and then paused. “Ah-, um-” he hesitated. It was the first time that anybody had spoken directly to her and he didn’t seem to know how to address her.
Qwi let him hem and haw a moment more, and then took pity on him. Remembering her instructions, she didn’t smile, only raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”
“Ah. Did you want something?”
“Yes. To walk. I am going to walk.”
“Ah-” he stopped.
She waited a moment, and then, as he seemed to have nothing to say, turned and began walking down the corridor, heading in the direction they hadn’t gone yet.
The young officer followed Qwi at a very respectful distance. She was amused. It seemed that young Mik Rieekan had been correct: they were afraid of her. It reminded her of the story Leia told about Luke Skywalker and the rancor ... these people treated her as she were as terrible as that, something Wedge kept under control, and now that he wasn’t here, they weren’t absolutely certain she’d remember she was tame. Or at least trained.
Amused, yes. Also annoyed. So she decided to go wherever she felt like going on this walk, and to see if they could get up the nerve to tell her someplace was forbidden. Or if they could not, to see whatever was down here.
She walked through the corridors, going wherever she felt like. The first guarded door she came to she simply approached as though she had every right to enter, the way Wedge walked, not arrogant but as though no one would ever dream of stopping her. The boy on guard-all of Hovath’s guards looked like children to her- hesitated a minute, and then scrambled to get away from her. She gave him a sideways glance as she pushed the door open and he snapped to attention. Qwi had to work not to laugh at him, but she managed it.
After that, it was easy. Guards seemed to assume if she’d gotten this far, she belonged there. Half of them even opened the door for her. She stalked through them, enjoying the game. It reminded her of some of the holofilms Wedge enjoyed, the ones where people had four and five layers of complicated identities and you never knew who they really were until the last five minutes. She wasn’t really seeing much, of course, but she knew she was where Hovath wouldn’t want her to be, and that was enough.
Then the scent of green, growing things reached her. Outside it was late autumn, nothing was growing, but she was definitely smelling flowers. She walked that way, trailed by her soldier, and after a few yards she heard birds. Ahead of her she saw glass doors with green and splashes of color beyond them. It had to be an inside garden. Forgetting the game for a minute, she quickened her pace; it would be so nice to see flowers again.
The guard at this door, who was a little older and perhaps more self-confident than the rest, stepped in front of her. “Ah-” he said; more self-confident or not, he too didn’t know how to address her. But he kept on going. “The animals. The Leader values the animals.”
Qwi stared at him, and then understood what he meant. She almost got angry, and then realized that it only meant they’d been successful at representing her as a fierce alien bodyguard and nearly laughed. She managed to repress that reaction, too, and said, “I’ve eaten.”
He gulped; she almost laughed again. But he moved out of the way and she went inside. A profusion of flowering plants met her eyes and nose. Warm, humid air enveloped her. Birdsong reached her ears. Thick grass yielded to her feet. The hall was large, the light clear and bright, and she might have been outside. She took deep breaths of the fragrant air, and, holding out her arms, spun under the blossom-laden trees in sheer joy. So immersed were her senses in the garden that she didn’t notice the gray-clad men until she nearly tripped over one.
Qwi knew that Wookiees had been used as slave labor at the Maw Installation. One of her diary entries had been a careful repetition of an explanation by Tol Sivron detailing the virtues of sentient labor over droids, of expiation of crimes by working for the Empire, and the needs of the Empire outweighing the rights of criminals... she didn’t remember whether she’d believed any of it; she hoped the word-for-word transcription meant she’d at least had trouble with it. But she did remember the Wookiees from the return to the Maw. And she’d read a great deal about the Empire, wanting to know about the people she’d worked with, what they’d done with her inventions... she knew slave labor when she saw it. And the thin, ragged men with chains on their ankles who, under the eyes of men in Hovath’s slick black and crimson uniforms, were lining a pathway with small boulders to achieve a rugged, natural look, were definitely slave labor.
The man she’d almost stumbled over had pulled out of her way and nearly fallen himself as his ankle chains brought him up short. Qwi reached out and caught him by the arm before she thought. For a moment, they were eye-to-eye. In his dirty, unshaven, but otherwise unremarkable human face eyes as brilliantly blue as power crystals caught at her torn memory. She knew those eyes. But she didn’t know him.
Before either of them could say anything, a force-rifle butt landed on the side of the man’s head, knocking him away from Qwi to land sprawling in the grass. The guard stepped quickly back as Qwi spun, staring at him in anger that she fought to control, and slowly, slowly, succeeded in mastering. The prisoner got to his feet with an effort and returned to his work.
Whatever she’d once thought about it, slavery now made her blood boil. Even if these were criminals, thieves or whatnot, they were ill-treated. And Hovath was the sort of man who would have prospered under the Empire; she doubted he left political opponents out of prison. There was absolutely nothing to do, of course, except let Wedge know so he could he include it in his report. But Mefysyn wasn’t requesting to join the Alliance, so there was no way to pressure them... All her pleasure in the garden was shattered. She turned and left.
But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she knew that man. She couldn’t put a name on him, she couldn’t put his face into any places, couldn’t hear his voice, but she was sure she knew him, knew him from years ago, knew him younger. Qwi pushed it away, thought about other things; she’d learned too well that fighting her memory was a losing struggle. If it could come, it would come on its own. And anyway, if he was an Imperial officer, as he most likely was, he probably deserved to be where he was.
So she walked on through the corridors, looking around and seeing little of interest, until she got tired of it and went back to the quarters they had been given. She could almost feel the young officer’s relief when she went inside. The predatory beast is back in its cage... She smiled as she wandered around the quarters. She wasn’t at all tired, and even if she slept now she’d only be up looking for something to do in four hours. Besides, she admitted ruefully to herself, the bed looked very empty.
And then suddenly she remembered: holos on the wall of Wedge’s apartment the first time she’d been there, nearly a year ago now. Wedge’s voice, quiet behind her: “That’s Marcan Voorhees. He’s dead now. They’re mostly dead... Rom here isn’t, nor is Malina... that’s Kapalvan, and Biggs... Tyree...” and then his voice changing, still quiet, still calm, but she had even then been too well attuned to him not to pick up the grief however deeply he buried it. “And that’s me and Tycho on Yag’Dhul.”
She had looked a long time at that picture, at the smiling blue-eyed man who made Wedge laugh and be so easy, the man he missed so. Marking the plain flight suits and the extravagant, individualized paint jobs on the fighters, she’d asked, “This was before you joined the Alliance?”
“No,” he’d said. “It’s a long story... I’ll tell you someday.”
He had, that and much more. She knew a great deal about Tycho Celchu now. But nobody had ever told her if those incredible heart-of-flame eyes were uncommon, like Admiral Afrit’s purple ones; human eyes varied so. Qwi sat on the end of the bed and closed her eyes. In the darkness of her mind’s eye she called up the picture of the younger, smiling Rebel and put it next to the prisoner’s face... Get rid of the beard, forget the difference in expressions; look at the nose, the cheekbones, the eyes and the way they’re set into the face... She opened her eyes. It was Tycho Celchu.
She stood up and began pacing, the better to think this thing out. Tycho (she couldn’t think of him by his surname) had been lost on a military mission, so he was probably a ‘legitimate’ prisoner... Still, they had to get him out. There was no question of anything else. But she had become, in the abstract at any rate, something of an expert on the Imperial mindset, and Hovath had it; she doubted he’d give Tycho up. She knew Wedge wouldn’t leave without him; she didn’t know if Wedge had the authority to threaten The Leader over something like this. Yavaris’s reduced battlegroup might be able to defeat them, although a Super Star Destroyer, even without hyperdrive and with such a small and probably undertrained crew, was a pretty hefty opponent. But whatever the result, no one in the Alliance would be happy with Wedge if he started a war over Tycho...
Besides, if she were Hovath, trying to deal with a visiting Alliance general, trying to keep relationships smooth and deceptive, and that general made such a demand, she’d deny the prisoner’s very existence. The first time Wedge mentioned him, she’d have him taken out and killed and his body disposed of. Anybody else she suspected he might be interested in, too. Then she’d invite Wedge down to inspect the prisons, saying innocently, “I don’t know what you’re talking about....”
And, to be honest, Qwi wanted to do this herself. She wanted to be able to give Wedge such a present. That she wanted to, though, didn’t mean that it wasn’t the only way it would work... if she could come up with the right plan. Hovath and the smart ones were on the ship; there had to be some way she could parlay her status as the unpredictable, dangerous alien into something... she stopped in her tracks. Yes. The predator off the leash... With Wedge gone everyone looked at her sideways as though they expected her to go berserk at any moment, anyway, she might as well use it. Her escort had seen her see Tycho, and those eyes of his would make a good identification mark.
She ran through her mental catalog of bad holonovels and came up with the appropriate role model. Wedge had laughed at it, but with an edge that meant it hit at some archetype that would scare these young men.... She untied her belt and, with it dangling from her hand, opened the door and leaned against the lintel. “Young man,” she said.
The lieutenant started and looked at her. “Ah-ah-” he said.
“Come here, young man,” Qwi smiled slightly at him. “I need something from you.”
He gulped, but came almost within reach. “Yes...?”
“Xuxxxxxx,” she said, dragging the last sound out in long hiss. “My master isn’t here. I don’t have a job tonight. I want to play. Bring me someone to play with.”
“Ah, someone to-” he said, his eyes darting down the hallway to where another guard was standing.
She flicked his leg lightly with the end of her belt. “Look at me,” she said. “I want someone to play with. Your Leader said to accommodate us, didn’t he? So, accommodate me... bring me someone to play with.” She let him worry for a moment, and then said, “I saw a prisoner today, in the garden.” Relief washed over his face. Qwi didn’t smile at him, but she did, slowly, put out her tongue and lick her lips. “He had the most amazingly tempting blue eyes. Very... delectable. Bring me him.”
“Blue eyes. Yes,” he said. “I will. Just wait here... ah, Xux. I’ll have him right here.”
“Good,” she smiled. “Because I’m feeling very… playful.”
He very nearly ran down the hall. Somehow, Qwi managed not to laugh until the door was shut. Then she did laugh. She got herself under control after a few moments, realizing it was more reaction than true amusement. She hadn’t really been sure it would work. And she was still less than halfway down the field... Tycho was strong enough to work, but he’d been a prisoner almost three years. She didn’t know whether he’d be mentally strong enough to follow through.
It was nearly half an hour before she heard a rap at the door. When it slid open, Tycho was there, with two guards and the lieutenant. They had cleaned him up for her, shaved him, though there was no hiding the afternoon’s bruise, and now there was no doubt of his identity. His blue eyes were wide-pupilled with a fear he was otherwise controlling pretty well; if she hadn’t been able to smell it on him, she might not have been sure. The expressions on the guards’ faces made it clear what the source of the fear was. She controlled the anger that leapt to her mind, and gestured at the chains on his wrists and ankles. “The key,” she said.
“What?” asked the lieutenant.
“I need the key,” she said, smiling. She reached out and tugged lightly on the links between Tycho’s hands; he flinched back into the guard’s rifle and froze, caught between two fears. “I can’t play properly if he can’t run.”
“Ah...” the lieutenant said; Qwi was beginning to wonder if he could start a sentence any other way. “I don’t think that’s...” his voice trailed off.
“Oh, please,” she said. “Remember my job; I won’t have any problems. But he has to be able to run.” She reached out and touched the lieutenant’s face, and then scratched him, smiling as he pulled away from her. “Or somebody else does,” she finished.
He took the key from one of the guards and handed it to her with alacrity. But he hadn’t fully lost his professionalism. “Reever here will wait outside, ah, Xux,” he said.
She didn’t mind that; it was the one who’d hit Tycho earlier. If they had to deal with him harshly, it wouldn’t bother her much. But now she ignored the guard and just nodded at the lieutenant. “If it makes you happy,” she said. “But he stays outside.”
She turned to Tycho and took hold of the chain on his wrists. “Come inside, pretty eyes,” she said and backed into her quarters, pulling him along. The door slid shut behind them. Qwi let go of the chain and took a good look at him: he was thin and bruised, and he was clearly tired. He was just as obviously strung tight and ready to run, if he could find someplace to run to.
“Sit down, Major Celchu, please,” she said. “I don’t intend to harm you.”
He sat down, carefully, perching on the edge of the chair, and not relaxing. “What do you intend?”
“I intend to take you back to the Republic with us, Tycho,” she said.
He sat quietly for a minute, staring. Qwi wondered if she should have tried to go a bit more slowly. There was probably too much in that sentence.
“How do you know my name?” he said finally. “I don’t know you.”
“No,” she said, sitting on the edge of the table within arm’s reach of him. He flinched slightly, almost imperceptibly. She linked her hands in her lap; the movement drew his eyes. “We’ve never met, but I’ve seen your picture, often. My husband is Wedge Antilles.”
“Wuh... Wuh...” he started, and then stopped. In a movement well enough practiced to keep the chain from hitting his face his fingers went to his temples and pressed hard, and he closed his eyes and shook his head. He took a couple of deep breaths and when he opened those blue eyes they seemed brighter than before. “You’re married to Wedge?”
She smiled and nodded. “Just over two weeks now.”
“Wedge. Married... huh. How is he?” he asked suddenly.
“He’s fine,” she started, but he interrupted her.
“They said, you ‘belonged’ to a general? Who? Madine? Is Wedge his group leader?” he leaned forward eagerly, his chains ringing softly. “Who’s here? Is the Alliance moving against Hovath?”
“Slow down, Tycho-Major, I’m sorry. Wedge always-”
“Tycho, Tycho is fine.” He grinned slightly. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it. Where is Wedge?”
“On Malevolence.” His uncomprehending look made her elaborate. “Hovath has a Super Star Destroyer.” That didn’t seem to surprise him; it must only be the ship's name he'd never heard. She continued, “He claims it has no hyperdrive; Wedge went to look at it. They don’t want women on it, so I stayed down here. Wedge... Wedge is the general, his battle cruiser is in orbit.” There was no point in telling him now that Crix Madine had died at Nar Shadda.
“Wedge is a general?” Tycho slumped back in his chair, staring at her. “I seem to have missed a lot.”
“Three years is a long time,” Qwi said gently. “Let me get those off of you; there’s some food here. Eat, and get some sleep. Later I’ll get you out, onto our shuttle. When Wedge gets back, I’ll tell him. He’s sick of this place anyway, he’ll wrap it up and we’ll leave.”
“Just like that?” Tycho half-laughed.
“Well, Wedge gets to make those decisions,” she said. He started to shake his head and she realized what he meant. “Well, of course I’ll have to kill you,” she smiled.
He stared, and then laughed. “Of course,” he said. “I suppose I don’t run fast enough.” He started laughing again, and didn’t seem able to stop.
Qwi regarded him with some concern. She wasn’t sure what to do, but this wasn’t healthy... in holonovels they always slapped them, but she couldn’t bring herself to hit Tycho. Instead, she reached out and grasped his shoulders, shaking him gently at first, and then harder. “Tycho,” she said urgently, “stop. Calm down. Calm down.”
He stopped laughing, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Suddenly, moving more quickly than she’d have thought he could, he grabbed her left hand. For a split second, no longer, she was afraid of him, before he raised his eyes to hers. “I believe you,” he said quietly, almost desperately. “Do you know why?” He didn’t give her time to answer. “Because of this.” He touched her wedding ring as though it were something fragile and precious. “Because of this,” he repeated, releasing her hand. He took a deep breath, and then another. “Wedge... he used to wear that on a chain, around his neck. Never took it off, not as far as I know...”
There was a subtext there, some emotion Qwi couldn’t decipher. It didn’t bother her, though; she’d discovered that human males had odd emotional bonds with each other that she couldn’t read well. The fact was, she’d found, they often couldn’t read them any better. They often just simplified to the strongest element, and here that was, unmistakably, what Wedge called love, though Tycho might be of that large number of human males who shied from the word... But later would do to worry that problem. She took Tycho’s hand in hers, squeezed it lightly. “It was his mother’s,” she answered softly.
He nodded. “So, if you’re wearing it... you must be his wife.”
Qwi was learning timing. This wasn’t the moment to point out that it could have been taken off Wedge’s body... She nodded at him. “I am. Now let me unlock those chains.” She suited the action to the word, and gestured at the bowl of fruit on the table. “Eat,” she told him, “and then get some sleep.”
He picked up a green-colored fruit and stared at it for a moment, as if he couldn’t quite remember what it was, then took a bite. Once started, he ate ravenously, finishing all the fruit in the bowl. She watched, amazed all over again at much humans could eat at one meal. She’d never seen Wedge eat like this; all things considered, she hoped she never would. She was also glad that Wedge had missed Tycho’s first meal... he was going to be angry enough as it was.
“I’m sorry that’s all there is,” she said when he was done.
He grinned a little. “If I ate much more I’d probably be sick,” he said. “You should have stopped me.”
She’d as soon have struck him. Besides, “Don’t worry,” she said, “they’ll bring more. They always do. Now you really need to get some sleep. I’ll wake you in three or four hours.” She showed him the bedroom, turned on the bedside light, and then paused in the door as a thought struck her. “Will you want some caff?”
He laughed again, but this time he stopped himself. “No,” he said. “That’s Wedge’s vice... I can wake up without it.”
“So can he,” she smiled, “just slowly, that’s all.” She went out into the other room, thinking. She rather hoped they could simply discourage the guard, but if necessary... well, if necessary, they could kill him. She had the blaster Wedge had insisted on leaving. If she couldn’t use it, she bet Tycho could.
She ran through several variants in her mind, and then made herself stop. It wouldn’t accomplish anything. The basic plan was sound, and that was all that mattered. Still, just in case, she wrote Wedge a letter, in Omwati, telling him the basic facts. Somewhere in her listing of the reasons she was rescuing Tycho on her own the letter turned intensely personal. Only the lack of vocabulary brought her up short. She and Wedge were the last speakers of Omwati in the universe, probably; he’d worked hard to learn it, with the flair for language she envied him, but they both spoke a ten-year-old’s version, perfectly grammatical but short on words. Oh, well, she thought, rereading the letter, it was probably just as well. And, with luck, he’d never see it anyway. She put it away and decided to take a short nap, herself. She curled up on the couch and closed her eyes.
She woke up a couple of hours later, refreshed and ready. If it weren’t for her conviction that Tycho needed a little more rest... she glanced in at him, he was sleeping like the dead, to use Wedge’s disturbing phrase. She had heard him wake, or at least make noise, several times soon after he’d lain down, but now he was getting rest. She would have liked let him sleep all night, but that wouldn’t work. They had to go outside in the dark, when few Mefysnans were about and she could plausibly lose Tycho. So, another hour or so and then she’d wake him.
When she went into the room, that woke him by itself. He sat up in a hurry, and then relaxed, remembering. “Now?” he asked.
He sat quietly for a minute, and then said, “You know... is it Xux?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, flustered. “I didn’t say! My name is Qwi, Qwi Xux before I married.”
“Qwi,” he repeated. “I’m glad you’re married to Wedge. He was always too much alone.”
She looked at him and considered that. She wasn’t entirely at home with what could be a tangle of relationships, but most of the books and movies, not to mention Mirax, indicated that husbands’ old friends were supposed to be wives’ enemies. Even Leia had problems with Han’s friends, some of them anyway, and Mirax had told her to be glad Wedge’s friends were mostly far away. That had struck her as foolish at the time, and still did. And especially with this man... So she said now, very seriously, “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are alive. Wedge has missed you more badly than I have words for. He will be that glad you’re back, I shall have to be very fond of you.”
He smiled and ducked his head. “I think I’m very glad you’re married to him.”
“Then we shall all be glad together,” she said, “but only if we get you out.”
He nodded and got off the bed.
She surveyed him and said, “Take off the shirt, Tycho. You need to look a little...”
“Used?” he offered, pulling the shirt over his head.
“Exactly,” Qwi approved. She inspected him. He looked thin, and bruised. But Qwi was working now, and emotions were pushed aside for later. “Can you stand a little pain?”
He laughed with genuine amusement. “I have been. What did you have in mind?”
She held up her hand. “A few scratches, for artistic verisimilitude.”
“Scratch away,” he invited.
She drew blood on his cheek, his shoulder, and his ribs. “That’s enough, I think,” she said, looking at him critically. “Now-” she held out her belt. “Give me your wrists.”
He held his hands out and she neatly tied one end of the belt around one of his wrists and looped it around the other. “Hold on to this, as if to take the strain,” she said, running it through his hand. “There. You look properly trussed.”
“Do you do this often, Qwi?” Tycho asked, sounding half alarmed and half amused.
“No,” she said. “I watch a lot of holofilms.” Qwi was perfectly serious; she didn’t understand why he laughed. “You must be scared now,” she chided him.
“I will be,” he reassured her.
“Good. I’m taking you outside, because there’s not enough room in here, and it’s stuffy and enclosed. I’m going to run you down and kill you unless you can escape and you don’t think you can,” Qwi gave him his instructions.
“Right,” he said, seriously enough for her peace of mind. “And really?”
“Really,” she said, “we shake this guard, one way or another, and we go to the Palatial Field. There’s a fence around it, and guards, but they’re all focused outwards. From the Residence itself there’s only one. And he’s mostly there to salute The Leader,” she said in disgust, shaking her head in dissatisfaction with such sloppiness.
Tycho laughed silently, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Good thing for us,” he pointed out.
“Yes,” she admitted. “Well, I’ll distract him, and you’ll go onto the field. We have a standard Barra-class cruiser shuttle; will you recognize it?”
“Like my mother,” he said, heartfeltly.
“Good. The shuttle’s registration number is 840, so the access code is the quad-root, to four decimal places... 5.3836,” she added in case he wasn’t up to taking quad-roots in his head after all this time. “Use the star on the pad for the decimal.”
“Five star thirty-eight thirty-six,” he repeated a couple of times. “Okay, five and three is eight, last two less two... got it.”
She shook her head. Remembering the number seemed easier than his mnemonic, but whatever worked. “Once you’re on board, just wait. Don’t do anything to draw attention. Wedge will be down from Malevolence sometime tomorrow, and once I tell him, we’ll leave as soon as we can. They don’t want us here much, and he’s fed to the teeth with them, so it shouldn’t be long. You can sleep, and I know there are emergency rations on board the shuttle. Just wait for us.”
He nodded, his eyes serious and, for the first time, really hopeful. “What do you do when you’re not rescuing prisoners, Qwi?” he asked.
She blinked at him. It was hardly germane, yet she was oddly pleased by the question, by his recognition that she would do something. “I’m a composer, of music,” she said; now was not the time to go into her life’s story, especially not since he was, she remembered, Alderaanian.
“Baroque, I’ll bet,” he said.
She blinked again. “Sometimes.” She picked up Wedge’s blaster and looked at it, and then carefully buckled it around her waist. She had to use the very first hole, five in from the worn place Wedge had made in a decade’s use.
Tycho looked at her critically. “I’m no expert,” he said, “but Wedge always wore that down lower. Where his hand is, not up high like that, like a security guard.”
“I don’t want to look like a policeman,” she agreed, and loosened the belt a notch, settling it around her hips instead. Once the grip was at the right level, she bent down and tied the holster straps around her knee. Standing up, she rested her hand on the blaster and asked, “How does this look?”
“That’s a standard-sized Pechora, isn’t it? It looks bigger on you, more, uh, nasty,” Tycho said.
Qwi shook her head slightly. “It’s Wedge’s; I think it’s really too big for my hand.”
“You’ve never used it?”
“No,” she said. She added, as his eyes widened, “Not this one.” Which was true: not any blaster included ‘not this one’.
“Well, with luck you won’t have to now,” he hoped.
“Stay close,” she said. “You can use it if need be.” She took hold of the dangling end of the belt. “Okay. Let’s go. Time to-”
Tycho finished it with her. “-get it done.” He smiled, briefly, and then shook himself, like a worvil coming out of water, and cringed. He looked as tired as he probably was, and more afraid than he had earlier. Entirely appropriate after four hours with the Alien Bitch Goddess Xuxxx....
“Good,” Qwi said. “Good.” Then she became Xuxxx, yanking on the belt and opening the door.
The guard looked around, his expression nervous. “Are you, uh, finished?”
“So soon?” Qwi asked. “Hardly. But there is no room inside.” She flexed her fingers. “He can’t run... so I’m taking him onto the grounds. It will not disturb your Leader, as he’s not here.”
“I... uh, I don’t think I can let you do that,” he said.
She widened her eyes at him. “I don’t think you can not let me,” she purred at him.
“I-” he started.
“Maybe I should say, I do think you can’t stop me,” she said.
“Well... I could come,” he offered.
“I don’t want you. Not to watch, at any rate,” she said. “You can come and play, if you want. It will give Blue Eyes a chance to rest a little.”
He flinched. She could hardly believe how completely they accepted her behavior. Had they actually ever met someone like this? “I don’t think-”
“That’s obvious,” she purred again. “Stay here.” She had released the tether, and now she took a step sideways and towards him, forcing him to turn his back on Tycho. “That will be easiest on everyone, don’t you think?” She raised her hand and he flinched back from her, and Tycho looped the belt around his throat and jerked. Qwi caught his wrists before he could grab at Tycho’s hands. In a couple of minutes he slumped. Tycho held on for a moment more; Qwi didn’t intend to stop him. She just let go of the man’s wrists and waited.
Then Tycho stopped himself, let go and stepped back. The guard hit the floor in an ungainly sprawl. Tycho stood over him, breathing hard.
“Is he dead?” Qwi asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tycho answered.
“That will simplify things,” she observed as she stooped to check his pulse. “He is still alive. We can just tuck him in here,” she said, pulling the guard toward an alcove. After a moment Tycho helped her arrange the man as though he were napping. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go. Stay close.”
It played out as she’d planned. They encountered no one in the dark halls on their way to the nearest door, and once outside they were able to approach the field without being observed. As Qwi remembered, there was only one guard watching the approach from the Residence. The field was lit, the shuttle clearly visible, and the gate open. With a sigh of relief, Qwi dropped Xuxxx and turned to Tycho, who stood, tense and breathing hard, looking at the field.
“You see the shuttle?”
“Oh, yes,” he breathed.
“Good. I’ll turn the guard away from you. You remember the access code?”
“Five star thirty-eight thirty-six,” he nodded. “And I remember, do nothing except wait.”
She smiled at him, reached out and touched his arm lightly. He handed her back her belt, and she looped it around her waist and tied it off. Then she said, quietly, “We’re very close; I just want to be careful.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s just...” he stopped.
“I know,” Qwi said. “You’re a major, you’re good at what you do. But if we’d gotten this close, and you’d forgotten the number, or, or anything, I’d never forgive myself.”
“I think I’m just a little crazy,” he said. “It’s finally... I mean, now I know.” He gestured at her. “I mean, you could have been stringing me along. Wedge might have been dead, or ... I was trying not to think about it, but, well,” he took a deep breath. “That really is an Alliance shuttle. That’s more creative than Hovath’s shown himself to be, even if someone like you would be working for him... so this is real. It is.”
She took his hands in hers. “Yes, Tycho. It is. We’re almost in goal. So hold together just a little bit longer.”
“Good. I’ll see you again, soon. And Wedge will be with me.” She gave his hands one last squeeze, and then released them and headed toward the guard.
He snapped to attention when he saw her, bringing his force rifle up in front of him in a sharp motion. “Ma’am!” he said, impressing her with either his self-possession or his training.
She half circled him, causing him to turn enough that Tycho had a clear entry to the field. “Good evening... is it sergeant?” she said.
“No, ma’am,” he said, relaxing slightly. “I’m only a private, ma’am. Good evening, yourself; are you going to your vessel, ma’am?”
A slight change in his voice alerted her that he probably didn’t have orders about that. Well, she didn’t want to anyway, she wanted him swearing she hadn’t. So she smiled at him and said, “No, private. I’m just taking the air. It’s stuffy inside. I only see two moons; aren’t there three?” Over his shoulder she saw Tycho run to the shuttle.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “but most nights Tot’s not visible. That’s its name. Brother, Sister, and Tiny Tot...” he grinned.
She smiled back. Tycho went inside and the door shut behind him. “Well, I won’t distract you from your job anymore. In fact, I’m getting slightly tired. Have a quiet evening, private.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “You, too.”
She nodded and walked back to the Residence, singing to herself. The other guard was still unconscious in the alcove. After a moment’s thought, Qwi took his force-rifle and pulled the power cartridge from it, taking it into her quarters and placing it on the table. Then, satisfied with her night’s work, she went to bed, practicing how to tell Wedge.
Wedge walked quietly through the halls. To anyone, like Qwi, who knew him well, it was probably obvious that he was strung tight. No Mefsynan would see it, though. At least, he trusted not; too bad he was wearing black. He felt as though he were quivering like a leashed hunting beast scenting prey and hoped it didn’t show. He didn’t speak, except to respond agreeably enough to the pleasantries addressed to him by members of The Leader’s party. Agreeably and noncommittally, informing them-again-that he didn’t make policy, only carried it out. They didn’t believe him, but that hadn’t ever bothered him. He’d stopped expecting that from Republican politicians a long time ago, and saw no reason for Mefysynans to be any different. Both sides were transparently dissembling: the Alliance people pretending they weren’t more than ready to shake the dust of Mefysyn from their boots, and the Mefysynans that they wouldn’t throw a party as soon as it happened. But that thinly veiled emotion masked Wedge’s real desire, and no one among their escorts seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary.
Once they were in their ground transport, Wedge leaned over to speak to their shuttle pilot. “Daylor,” he said quietly, “as soon as you’re aboard, make for the cockpit. Contact Yavaris and tell them we’re coming, then contact the field and tell them we’re going. Don’t ask for clearance, require it. Don’t make it clear that we want off this mudball as soon as, but we do.”
“Yessir,” said Daylor, “will do.”
Wedge leaned back against the seat and glanced at Qwi. “You’re sure?” he asked for what seemed to him at least the hundredth time. Either he was wrong about how often he’d inquired or she understood his emotions, because she didn’t get annoyed, only smiled quickly and nodded. He took a deep breath and let it out very slowly, still not really believing it. How many times could it be true?
The transport pulled to a stop. Daylor was last out, as protocol demanded, and first into the shuttle. She kept going, slowing only once on the way to the cockpit. Her eyes flicked, and then stayed, left and she missed a step, saying, her voice still in that senior-non-com steadiness he’d never heard broken (and hoped never to run into anything that could break), “Sir?”
“I know,” said Wedge, surprised at how steady his own voice was. His feet wouldn’t move, though. Just as well; he wouldn’t trust his voice if he saw Tycho.
“Yes, sir,” she said, continuing.
Behind him, Carlon shut the door. The sound of the seals closing released Wedge and he pushed past Qwi, noting as he did that she had her arm out to stop the lieutenant from following. But he only noted it, in passing; his attention was focused ahead, in the passenger lounge. Three steps brought him to the open area.
Tycho was there, standing with one hand on a seatback.
Wedge hesitated about two heartbeats, as if verifying the evidence of his eyes. Then, Alderaanian reserve be damned, he literally flung himself onto his friend, wrapping him in a long, hard embrace that started pure joy and ended in half anger. There were bones in Tycho that hadn’t been there before, or, rather, had been decently covered in flesh before. There was also grey in the brown hair. And bruises and scars... and the crystal-blue eyes were fever bright. Wedge choked down a killing rage.
Tycho had flinched, and Wedge released him abruptly, as suddenly worried that he’d hurt him. “Living stars,” he said, inadequately, wishing he still had his hands on Tycho to prove his reality, afraid to touch him again. “Living stars. Tycho...”
“Wedge,” Tycho solved the dilemma for him by reaching out his own hand and grasping Wedge’s shoulder, bruisingly hard. “Alderaan’s Graveyard.” He breathed out something that was half a laugh and half a sob.
“I’m going up front, sir,” Carlon said. Wedge barely noticed him. He couldn’t take his eyes off Tycho.
“It’s you,” Tycho said. “I mean, it’s really you...” He made the sound again, his eyes closing briefly. Wedge swallowed, put his hands on Tycho’s arm. He was peripherally aware of Qwi, standing close, but when Tycho suddenly opened those blue eyes, filled with a brief fear that Wedge could empathize with, he forgot everything but his friend. “It’s really you, Wedge,” Tycho said again. “I can’t believe you’re really here...”
“I’d have been here a lot sooner,” Wedge said fiercely. “We thought you were dead.”
“I know,” Tycho said quickly. “I know, Wedge.” He paused, started to speak, reconsidered, and said only, “I know.”
He let go of Wedge with one hand, reaching for a seat. Wedge eased him into it and dropped to his heels in front of it. “You have got to stop doing this,” he said.
Tycho managed a real laugh. “Which? The dying, or the coming back?”
“Well, which do you think?” Wedge said, resisting the impulse to push the over-long brown hair off Tycho’s forehead.
“I’ll, uh,” his voice had a hitch in it, “give it my careful consideration. God, Wedge,” he finished.
“It’s okay,” Wedge said carefully.
Whatever Tycho might have said next was lost when Daylor’s voice reached them. “Strap in, sir; we’ve got field clearance.”
“Just go,” said Wedge impatiently.
“Strap in, please, sir, it might get bumpy,” Daylor said patiently.
Wedge gave in; he knew that tone. He sat next to Tycho, Qwi, who had still not spoken, taking a seat opposite them. Tycho pulled on his straps, but couldn’t quite get them fastened. Wordlessly, Wedge reached over and one-handedly steadied, and then pushed home the latch-tongue that shook in the Alderaanian’s grip. Just briefly, Tycho’s eyes blazed anger and he pushed Wedge’s hand aside; as quickly as the anger had flared, it died, and his hand closed on Wedge’s for a moment.
Daylor in the cockpit registered the third buckle closing and lifted the shuttle off the field. A tension Wedge had been only partially aware of lifted; Tycho closed his eyes a moment, and Qwi smiled and said, “Now we’re in goal.”
Wedge glanced between his wife and his friend, and then said, “Yes. Ten minutes still to Yavaris, twelve at the outside, but for all practical purposes we’re there already.” Unless Hovath’s crazier than I think, unless he doesn’t let us get there... He didn’t say that, it was unlikely, and not anything Tycho needed to hear at the moment. “And Yavaris is home, or near enough. You’re safe now, Tycho. It’s done.”
But Tycho had had enough of emotion, it seemed, for what he said was, “I was sure I’d gotten it wrong. But no, those are stars on your collar. When?”
“It’s gone two years already,” said Wedge, and for the first time wondered consciously how much this man’s absence had contributed to that decision. He added, lightly, “It’s a good job. Pays well, I got a really nice office in Fleet HQ on Coruscant....”
Qwi, who’d been silent while they had found their way to safe footing, said, “Wedge is on the General Staff, and an advisor to the Council.”
“You-the Council?” Tycho’s incredulity was exaggerated but probably real.
Wedge remembered, with a sudden, sharp pang, the last time Tycho had come back to find him grown political. And that hadn’t been anything like now. “I’ll have you know,” he said, “I was, briefly, the General Staff’s representative on the Council.”
“Very briefly,” Wedge admitted. Details could wait.
“One thing, anyway,” Tycho said after a moment. “With those stars on your collar, you’re not still messing around with those idiot Wraiths anymore.”
“I deal with everybody, more or less,” said Wedge. “And ‘idiot’ is a bit strong.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tycho, his hand on his chest. Qwi blinked, and then caught Wedge’s eye and stayed quiet. Tycho was continuing, “I’ve forgotten my Corellian, I guess; I thought ‘idiot’ was a term of affection.”
“Idiot,” said Wedge, and then grinned at the battered Alderaanian. “You’ve never gotten over not qualifying for Wraith.”
“Oh, right,” Tycho grinned back. He turned to Qwi. “I almost qualified,” he said. “I was an Imperial defector, but I’m too good-looking, and I never got into trouble.”
“Never got into trouble?” Wedge snorted. “I’d hate to see what you call trouble, Celchu.”
“It doesn’t count,” Tycho explained with an angelic expression in his blue eyes, “when you’re framed.”
“Of course,” conceded Wedge, settling into the banter as though Tycho had been gone only a few months. All the joy that was bubbling inside him was finding the only outlet Tycho was likely to be comfortable with; Wedge’s words and tone were wry, but he felt drunk. “You were acquitted.”
“The charges were dismissed,” corrected Tycho. “My lawyer made sure of that.”
“Who?” Wedge asked with exaggerated incredulity.
“You’ll notice,” Tycho was still addressing Qwi, “he doesn’t contest the ‘good-looking’ part.”
Qwi’s musical laugh probably reached Daylor and Corlan. “Wedge isn’t much of a judge of male beauty,” she said.
Tycho’s forehead wrinkled and he looked sideways at Wedge. “Did she just imply that, since you weren’t arguing-?”
“That wasn’t an implication,” said Wedge.
“You’re well matched, all right,” he said. “Where’d you find her? Or did she find you?”
“That’s a long story,” said Wedge, and not one for the moment, either. “When we get back to Coruscant, I’ll tell you all about it. We’ll kill a couple of bottles of Montyrn and talk about old times, okay?”
“It’s a date,” Tycho’s slow smile finally drove the last fear out of his eyes. “You haven’t been married long, though; I don’t want to be in the way.”
“Idiot,” Wedge said again.
“I told you,” Qwi pointed out, “I intend to be very fond of you. We have a spare room.”
Wedge smiled at her. He loved her so much; she wasn’t the least annoyed that he’d forgotten her existence for a few minutes.
“I am still on active duty,” Tycho pointed out after a minute.
“You wish,” Wedge said acerbically. “You for sure aren’t flight-certifiable.”
“Well,” Tycho said.
Wedge waited, but apparently that was all there was. “I can have a major on my staff,” he said. “A commander, for that matter.”
“We can sort it out later, but it’ll be a while before you get out from under my eyes again,” Wedge said, surprising himself with his intensity. “Every time that happens, you go missing. My heart won’t stand another round of this.”
Tycho gave a short laugh. “I can’t argue with that.”
Daylor turned the shuttle on its side, engaging in some maneuver Wedge realized he was probably glad he wasn’t able to see, given how much he hated other people’s piloting him. Daylor, like all Wedge’s pilots, like Wedge himself, never flew in null-ack, for the feel of acceleration and movement was a cue to what your ship was really doing... Wedge’s conviction that Jek Porkins had died because he’d been unable to tell that he wasn’t pulling up, wasn’t ‘holding it’, had taken itself to half the Fleet’s fighters by now, traveling via training and transferred pilots. But it could be uncomfortable if you weren’t expecting it, and a sharply indrawn breath from Tycho hinted at more injury than was visible on the surface.
“You all right?” he asked.
The Alderaanian managed a grin. “I will be,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“Sure,” said Wedge. “After Win Keff has a look at you.”
“Sir,” said Daylor, “we’re approaching Yavaris. Docking in one minute.”
“Thank you,” Wedge said automatically, his mind moving ahead. “Lieutenant, I want the captain there.”
“Already called him, sir,” said Corlan.
“Good,” said Wedge, turning to Tycho. “That’s Mik Rieekan, by the way.”
“Young Mik is your cruiser captain? Have I been away longer than three years?” he asked plaintively. “Are the children running things now?”
“You sound like Feery,” Wedge said, amused. “Anyway, Mik’s not that young. He’s the same age we were when we took Coruscant.”
“That seems a long damned time ago,” Tycho said.
Wedge nodded. Barra-One slowed and dropped, settling to a stop. Wedge unbuckled and stood. “I’ll have Mik lay in the course to Coruscant,” he said, “and we’ll leave as soon as we get our X-Wings back on board.”
Tycho looked up from getting himself unstrapped. “You can’t leave yet, Wedge,” he said.
Wedge started to respond, but Corlan came past him to unlatch the door, Daylor following. “Nice flying, Chief,” Wedge said to her.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Wedge-” Tycho gripped him by the elbow. “We have to talk, before you leave Mefysyn.” His eyes and his tone were urgent.
“All right,” Wedge nodded. “We will.”
“Sir, welcome back,” Mik Rieekan said and then stopped dead, staring. “Major Celchu? Tycho?!”
Wedge smiled broadly. “Yes,” he said, savoring the moment. “We have a little souvenir ... Qwi picked him up,” he added.
“Commander Rieekan?” said Tycho. “Congratulations ... what’s your father think?” He looked suddenly worried, but this wasn’t a wrong-footed question.
Mik grinned. “He’s still annoyed I’m in the Fleet, but he’s coming around,” he said. “God, it’s good to see you, sir.”
“Commanders don’t sir majors,” Tycho said, stepping out of the shuttle carefully. “You jumped past me, Mik.”
Mik shot a worried glance at Wedge as Tycho nearly stumbled. Qwi, who was watching him carefully, caught his arm in time to keep him on his feet, but it was as obvious to Wedge as it seemed to be to Mik that Tycho needed rest, if nothing else. Wedge nodded to Mik, and then said, “Pleasant nothings to Mefysyn, Mik. You don’t know when we’re leaving ... or if. I’m capricious, if it comes to that.”
“Aye, sir,” said Mik. “With pleasure.” He and Corlan headed off together.
“And you,” Wedge turned to Tycho, “to medbay.”
“I don’t need that,” said Tycho a little querulously. “I’m just tired, and starving.”
“Yes, well, we’ll just let the doctor decide that,” said Wedge.
Tycho half-laughed. “Doctor? No medical droid?”
“I imagine we can find one for you if you insist,” said Wedge, taking his friend’s arm and implacably heading him toward the bay’s lifts.
Tycho came along, but he was shaking his head. “Nice to know some things in the galaxy never change,” he said.
“Such as?” Wedge obliged him by asking, though he knew what was coming.
“Wedge Antilles doesn’t like droids,” Tycho confirmed his guess by saying.
Wedge pushed the lift button. “Nothing wrong with your memory,” he said. “Or your lame sense of humor.”
Qwi, who had come with them, laughed her musical laugh. “We have a housekeeping droid,” she said. “Wedge and it get along well.”
“You’re kidding,” Tycho leaned against the lift wall and looked at her incredulously.
“What?” she asked.
“You have one? Not just have one come in twice a week? And this mad Corellian hasn’t killed it yet?”
She laughed again.
Wedge said, trying to sound affronted, “It’s Qwi’s. And I get along with it just fine.”
“I see,” said Tycho, as the lift opened.
“See what?” she asked as Wedge rolled his eyes.
“He doesn’t deal with it. You do. That’s why they get along.”
“Point made, Celchu,” said Wedge. “Now, in here, please.” He gestured at the medbay.
Tycho didn’t protest again, which worried Wedge more than a little. Qwi touched his arm, and then Tycho’s, and said, “You two go on. I’m going to our quarters.” Wedge smiled at her and then opened the door.
Win Keff rose from behind the desk as they entered. She’d been working; her short blond hair had that ruffled look that came from her restless hands running through it while she read or edited. As she’d once remarked, better her hair was messed up than her paperwork... Her grey-green eyes widened as she took in Tycho’s appearance. “Sir?”
“Major Celchu, Lieutenant Keff. The major needs a checkup,” understated Wedge.
“The Major Celchu?” she asked. “Aren’t you dead? I mean, you look fairly alive, but I’m sure you’ve been reported dead, and the General Staff doesn’t make mistakes, right, sir?” That was to Wedge. “And the thing is, I’m not sure what I can do for a dead man...” While she was chattering she took Tycho’s arm and led him to the exam room.
“Just do what you can, Win,” Wedge said, standing in the doorway between the office and the inner room. “We don’t expect much.”
“I’m waiting for you to get sick, sir,” she said, and gave Tycho an assist onto the table. His breath hissed through his teeth and her hands became abruptly both gentle and supportive. “Ribs?” she said, her voice calm.
“I think so,” said Tycho.
“Well, I’ll find out,” she said. “Lie down, and keep still.”
Wedge walked back into her office, sat on her desk, moving the holograph of her twin sons to make room, and called the bridge. “Anything from Mefysyn?”
“No, sir,” answered the bridge officer.
“Keep an eye on that SSD’s shadow. It’s not just a escort, it’s an Interdictor.”
It was a new voice, Mik Rieekan, who answered him. “An Interdictor, sir?”
“I can still recognize them,” he said wryly.
“Yes, sir,” Mik answered. “Is she operational?”
Wedge shook his head. “I don’t know. Chief Daylor was supposed to try for an ident on our way up, check with her and see if you find out where it came from.” He’d forgotten all about that, seeing Tycho, but he was sure Daylor hadn’t.
A couple of minutes later, Mik called back. “Sir? That Interdictor’s ID registers as one that we thought lost at Kansho... Lightsbane.”
“Falora,” said Wedge.
“Yes, sir.” Mik didn’t sound any happier about that than Wedge was.
“So, Malevolence isn’t a casual find... this is past coincidence.”
“I’d say so, sir,” Mik agreed. “If Falora’s here, or even was...”
“Yes,” Wedge said. There wasn’t much to add. “Is Malevolence quiet?”
“As a grave. For the moment, anyway. We’re keeping an eye on them both.”
“Contact the frigates. I want to be ready to leave in a hurry, if we have to. How many fighters do we have out?”
“Six: High, Low, and Close. Stormcat Squadron.”
“Bring in Close. And have the Asps and the rest of Cat standing by.”
Wedge wished now he’d talked to Tycho before letting Win get her hands on him. The addition of an Interdictor to the equation had changed things; that it was the Interdictor from Admiral Falora’s battle group, paired with Malevolence once before to the Alliance’s cost, made the solution even more unpalatable.
“And Mik-caff all around.”
Mik’s voice betrayed his grin. “We’re all awake up here, sir.”
“Well, stay that way.”
Wedge turned off the comm and let his mind drift, hoping that the various details would shift, resolve themselves into a less uninviting picture. A totalitarian government, armed and xenophobic. A Super Star Destroyer, fully armed and ready for hyperdrives. And an Interdictor. Bad. Very, very bad... The Council was going to have to do something about Hovath.
“Somebody is going to have tell you about chairs, sir,” Win said.
Wedge got off her desk, quirking an eyebrow at her. “How’s Major Celchu?”
“I’ve seen worse,” she said. “But I’ve seen better.”
“Impossible,” said Tycho over her shoulder.
She snorted. “His ego’s clearly in fine shape, unlike his hearing,” she said to Wedge, and then told Tycho, “Off your feet, I said.”
Tycho entered the office and sat in one of the chairs. He actually seemed less shaky, but he did look a trifle defiant.
“He never did take orders well,” said Wedge mendaciously. “I don’t expect you to fix that, though it would be nice.”
“Funny,” said Tycho. “To think, I actually missed that.”
Wedge couldn’t think of anything to say.
Win shook her head at them and sat behind her desk, pulling open a lower drawer and rummaging through it while she talked. “I want to tank him for about a week, though I have to get him rehydrated first. Food, too.”
“I told you I was hungry,” Tycho said. He’d obviously made it clear he was going to hear the news, good or bad.
“When aren’t you?” said Wedge, pushing his anger off to the side where he could make use of it, or deal with it, later.
Win ignored them. “After that, we need to get inside and do some repairs,” she sighed. “I think there’s some neural damage that’ll need the Fleet Hospital.” She pulled an apple out of the drawer with an air of triumph and got up to hand it to Tycho.
“Thank you,” said Tycho, and took a bite.
“The problem is,” said Win severely, “he says he has to talk to you first. So, talk, sir.” She sat down again and regarded them sternly.
“Hovath,” Tycho started, “has to be stopped.”
“I agree,” said Wedge. “When we get back to Coruscant-”
“No,” said Tycho, the urgency back in his voice. “Wedge, he has to be stopped now. There isn’t time to go through the Council, Mon Mothma won’t understand-”
Wedge’s response to that was cut off by a voice from the bridge. “Sir-Lightsbane is firing up her gravs.”
Wedge wasted a half-second being surprised. Then he slapped the comm unit on the CMO’s desk and said, “Can we get out of here?”
“No, sir,” the bridge officer said, adding, “We still have comms with Cat High.”
“Can they leave?” he asked, and then, in some surprise, “We’re not being jammed?”
“No, sir, we’re not. Cat High has a window for another-50 seconds.”
“Tell Cat High to scat for Coruscant,” Wedge said, “and tell them we are probably going to have to fight our way out of this. Reinforcements wouldn’t exactly be turned away.”
“Yes, sir. Relaying to Cat High.”
“Bring in Cat Low, get them on station, and alert the rest of the squadron.” Wedge started to turn off the comm unit, and then paused. “Who is Cat High?”
“Captain Kisli and Lieutenant Merric, sir.”
“Damn,” said Wedge, but without heat. It would be the Stormcats’ CO. “Have Herryn on the bridge ASAP along with Montyrn. I’m on my way.” He shut off the unit and turned for the door.
“Sir.” Win’s voice stopped him. “We’re outgunned, aren’t we? We can’t run?”
“Lightsbane is an Interdictor. Couple that with our orbit, and-”
“No, we can’t,” Tycho finished. He didn’t look at all surprised, Wedge noted. He stood up. “You got a spare X-Wing on this thing?”
Wedge leveled his gaze and his hand at Tycho. “You stay here. You’re not fit-and,” he added before Tycho could respond, “this isn’t about you. As soon as I saw those engine bays on Malevolence, let alone spotted Lightsbane in her shadow ... Hovath’s making a desperate move, but I suppose he’d rather tackle us than chance a full Republican fleet in his backyard. Keep him here, Win,” he added to the CMO and left the medbay.
“Sir,” the bridge officer’s voice broke the silence Wedge had left behind him. “Cat High is in hyperspace.”
Keff laughed soundlessly and toggled the switch. “You missed him, Lieutenant. You can tell him yourself in a minute.”
The lieutenant’s voice sounded ruefully amused. “Thanks, doc. Will do.”
“Final casualty reports, sir,” Hallerat said, holding out a data pad.
Wedge took a breath and the pad, scanning the figures. Not as bad as he’d feared, except the fighters. Eight killed, two injured badly enough to be grounded... Down to one squadron, mixed X- and A-Wings. Whoever came out from Coruscant would just have to bring more. He read through the whole list. Mik and the frigate commanders would want to write the letters, but there were names there Wedge knew too well, letters he would have to write himself.
He looked up at Hallerat. “Estimate on when Verbama will be able to jump?”
“Fourteen, maybe sixteen hours. Polon is much better off, she still has half her hyperdrives online, but they can use the time, too.” He didn’t mention the hit they themselves had taken, but Yavaris was still serviceably maneuverable if slower than usual.
“And no one has comms?”
“No, sir,” Hallerat said. “We’re still using visuals between ships, and riflemen between decks.”
“Like the glory days?” Wedge asked wryly.
“Sir?” the lieutenant answered tentatively.
“Sorry,” Wedge regarded his bridge officer contemplatively. “You aren’t old enough, are you?”
“Probably not, sir,” Hallerat said, smiling tiredly. “I never am.”
“It’s an old Imperial Academy reference,” said Wedge. “Something about oceans... never went myself, so I can’t explain it any better. Any estimate on when they’ll have comms back?”
“They think another hour, sir. They’re having to pull every circuit and replace them. And that’ll be voice only, maybe a visual patch on the bridge. The hololinks will be down until we get to a real yard.”
“All right. Where’s Commander Rieekan?”
“Down in engineering, sir. At least,” the young man temporized, “he was down there.”
Wedge levered himself out of the command chair. “I’ll see if I can find him. If he gets up here, tell him I want Admiral Ackbar as soon as we have comms.” He paused. “I’m going to medbay after engineering, and then my quarters. I’ll be back on the bridge within the hour.”
Wedge returned his salute and left, Hallerat’s “General’s off the bridge!” following him out the door. Getting to engineering was slightly more complicated than usual; half the lifts were out, and some corridors inaccessible, but he got there. He ran into Mik Rieekan coming out. “Are we all right in there?”
“We’ll hold together, Wedge,” said Mik, formality gone. The side of his face was turning a nice shade of purple where he’d hit something during the fight.
“Have you been to medbay for that?” Wedge said.
“No, it’s all right. Nothing’s broken... not so’s I can’t talk, anyway. It can wait; Keff’ll be busy.”
“And what the hell happened to our comms?”
“I don’t know,” said Wedge. “But if Hovath can do that-”
Mik whistled, shook his head, winced and swore. “How out of commission was Malevolence, anyway?”
“Not very. Two days to drop engines in, maybe less depending on where they were hiding them.”
“We have to go back, boss. Lightsbane wasn’t exactly crippled, and him loose with that and whatever the hell he’s got that fried our comms…”
Wedge knew. He was still chilled at how closely they’d come to losing Verbama; if the frigate had lost both hyperdrives at once, fallen into normal space by herself, they would never have found her. Unless she’d been lucky enough to be able to limp home unhindered, he’d have had a lot of letters to write. “We will, Mik,” he said. “As soon as we can get comms with Coruscant. We can get back before Malevolence can leave.”
“Verbama probably can’t fight, but-”
“I don’t care who they send up from the Fleet, Mik,” said Wedge, “they aren’t leaving us out of this.”
Mik returned his smile. If his was as grim as his cruiser captain’s, Wedge reflected, he wouldn’t have wanted to run into himself in the dark. But he’d never appreciated being on the losing end, no matter how brief his stay. “Do they need me in there?” he gestured at engineering.
“No,” Mik said, “they’re working.”
“Right. I’m going to medbay.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mik, “I’ve got a few more places to check in, and then I’m heading back to the bridge.”
Wedge nodded. “I’ll be up there myself, soon enough.” It was Mik’s job to keep the ship running, after all, and Wedge intended to stay out of his way. “One thing, Mik-comms.”
“We’re working on it.”
“I know. When they’re back up, I want Ackbar.”
Mik nodded. “Yes, sir. As soon as we can.”
“Okay. I’ll let you get back to work, then,” Wedge said. They headed in opposite directions, Wedge making his way to medbay. He didn’t know what Tycho had to tell him, maybe nothing he didn’t already know, now, but he had to hear it. And he was sure that Win would have managed to hang onto her irritation that Tycho wouldn’t do as told all the way through the battle and its aftermath. So the sooner he debriefed Tycho, the better his chief medical officer would be pleased.
Things were busy in the medical section, but Win, disheveled and stained, met him when he arrived. “It’s about time you showed up,” she greeted him, but without real heat. “You’re all right?”
He nodded, looking past her shoulder.
She put a hand up to stop him. “No room, sir. You come back later to make the rounds, okay? Right now, you can take Major Celchu across the hall and talk to him, so I can eliminate that problem, if nothing else.”
He nodded. “Where is he?”
“I’ll send him out. Anything else? Are we done for the moment?”
“Yes, we are. It’ll be a while before we go back, couple of days probably, and we’ll have a medical frigate out here by then.”
“Good,” she said, and turned.
“Oh, Win!” Wedge remembered.
“Can you give me something for Commander Rieekan? He went face first into a bulkhead or something; anyway, it’s got to be painful.”
“Ummm,” she said. “Unlike some of us, whose heads are their least vulnerable spots.”
“Care to elaborate on that statement?” he asked.
“I don’t think I need to,” she grinned. “I’ll get something for the commander. And tell him I want to see him before the day’s done.”
She left; after a moment or two Tycho came out. He looked better. Part of that was probably that he was dressed and barbered, but he also didn’t look quite as shaky. In fact, he actually looked keen; adrenaline, Wedge reckoned. When he went down, it would be a rather spectacular crash. Better talk fast, or, rather, listen hard.
“Your doctor told me to give you this for Mik,” Tycho said, holding out a small package. Wedge tucked it away in his jacket pocket. “She’s, umm, interesting. Are things as bad as they look from here?” he changed the subject.
“Probably not,” said Wedge. “Yavaris is in pretty good shape, all things considered. One of the frigates is dead in normal space, but reparable. Our main problem is comms-we don’t have any. In here,” he opened the door to Win Keff’s spartan emergency bunkroom.
“You can’t talk to Coruscant,” Tycho said rather than asked.
He wasn’t too keyed up to sit, Wedge saw; he settled on the bunk and Wedge himself straddled the single chair. “Not at present,” he answered. “Talk to me, Tycho. What’s happening down there?”
“Some of this is going to be old news, I guess,” said Tycho. “I should have said it earlier-”
“Leave that,” said Wedge impatiently. “Give me something I can use.”
“Okay. Everything... Hovath has an admiral, or at least had one, the guards weren’t that clear on whether he was still alive. But his SSD-Malevolence?-is crewed by Imps, pretty much, and so’s the Interdictor. Hovath moved in on Mefysyn after Palpatine died. There used to be an alien population here... Hovath had them all killed. He doesn’t like non-humans. And he’s expansionist. They’ve been getting those ships ready to go for years, and they’re ready. Practically every male in the population between 17 and 50’s in uniform.. .and, Wedge, he’s practiced. He took out two mining colonies last year.”
“Sith. That was him?”
Tycho nodded. “What happened on your end?”
“We got distracted,” said Wedge, carefully but casually, “another admiral, a real battle group, the prototype Death Star, and a rogue Jedi... the colonies got lost in the confusion.”
“What is it with these people?” said Tycho plaintively. “You kill Palpatine and a hundred Moffs and warlords jump up, and every time one of them goes down, you get three or four admirals and two-bit dictators.”
Wedge shrugged. “Between them, Palpatine and Vader pretty much sucked up all the power. They die, there’s a vacuum. Don’t you planetborn always say Nature abhors a vacuum? Maybe we should concentrate on being grateful all that Darkside stuff didn’t just dump into one person.”
“Maybe,” Tycho didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“Look,” Wedge changed the subject, “has he got any more surprises? A Star Destroyer hidden behind one of the system’s gas giants? IP/EMP generators on the entrance vectors? A Lord of the Sith in his summer palace?”
“No, nothing like that. A lot of conventional stuff, five or six squadrons of TIEs, but you already know about them.”
“I should have told you this before,” Tycho repeated.
“Forget that. You held us here long enough to slow him down, that’s what counts. Now we have a chance to finish him.” Wedge stood up. “And we will, here and... well, real soon now.”
“Good... I know some details,” Tycho added. “Like where his shipyard is. And his garrisons, some of them.”
“Good,” said Wedge. “We’ll need that. Later, though. Right now,” he stood up, “you get some sleep, and maybe I can keep you out of Win’s clutches.”
“I’m doubting that,” said Tycho. “She seems pretty determined.”
“She is,” said Wedge, “but so am I. Anyway, she’s busy, and you’re out of sight for the moment. Take care of yourself, and she may let you slide for a day or two.”
“I’ve been sliding for a few years,” Tycho said with something that was close to real humor, “tell her I can hang together for a few more days.”
“Will do,” said Wedge, “but you needn’t think you’re getting more than that from me... When it’s time, you’re going into a tank if I have to put you there personally. And I can, and I will.”
“I know,” said Tycho.
They were both quiet for a moment, and then they both spoke at the same time.
They laughed. Wedge shook his head. “Get some sleep, you idiot,” he said. “I’m busy.”
“I’m sure,” Tycho said, very seriously. “Don’t let me slow you down.”
“You don’t,” said Wedge. And then, because he had to, he put his hand out and pushed Tycho down flat on the bunk. The contact was reassuring. “Sleep,” he said. “That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir, General Antilles, sir,” said Tycho, “whatever you say, sir. May I take my shoes off first, sir?”
“Take off whatever you like,” said Wedge. “Just remember Win’ll probably walk in without knocking.”
“And that redheaded ensign?”
“Go to sleep,” said Wedge, going into the hall and shutting the door. Looking at his chrono, he headed towards his quarters, remembering to cut across on deck D to miss the broken lift. He waited for what seemed an eternity for the door to slide open, visions of unreported battle damage having time to run across his mind before it did. Then it opened, and Qwi stood up, her eyes relieved and her smile welcoming. The complex of emotions that had been in his mind for the last several hours simplified to one, and he crossed the floor quickly to take her narrow shoulders in his hands and kiss her. It might not have been the smartest thing he’d done all day, considering he was due back on the bridge shortly, but he didn’t care. He pulled her closer, feeling her respond to him, her arms tightening around him, and lost himself for a few moments.
Then he let go a little, breathing out a deeply contented sigh. He linked his hands together behind her back and smiled at her; she leaned back into his hold and put her hands on his chest, smiling back. “Did I tell you,” he said softly, “how much, how very much, I like your present?”
“No,” she said, “but I knew.”
“It’s probably the stupidest thing you ever did in your life, but I can’t quarrel too much with the results.”
“Can we have this argument later?” she asked.
“We can never have it, if you want,” he said.
“Just let that statement stand?” she smiled.
“I’ll deny I ever made it.”
She tilted her head a little, as if considering it, and then shook her head, setting her hair into a shiver of light. “No,” she said, “we’ll have it. But later, Wedge.” She reached up and touched the side of his face with the pads of her fingers, so gently he almost couldn’t feel it.
He turned his head into her touch, and she flattened her fingers against his cheek, turning the touch into a true caress. He rubbed his face against her hand; her fingers tugged gently at his earlobe. He closed his eyes and let her for a moment, and then pulled away a trifle. She let her hand rest on his shoulder and asked, “Are you not done for the day, then?”
“No,” he said regretfully, “not hardly. All our comms have been out, not just intraship; we haven’t reached Coruscant yet, and I have to be on the bridge for Ackbar in-” he shifted his hands, looking at his chrono “-about twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes?” she said, and then she moved her hand from his shoulder to the nape of his neck and began unbuttoning his jacket with her other hand. “That is long.” She pulled his head down and kissed him, and then backed towards the bedroom, drawing him with her, and said, “That is long enough.”
And it was. Eighteen minutes later, Wedge was buttoning his shirt and looking at Qwi. “Don’t get up,” he’d said, “I want to think of you like this.” Now he said, “I love you.”
“I can tell,” she said, reaching out to fasten his cuffs. When she finished the right one, he ran his fingers through her hair, and then, as she finished the left, he stood up. “Is Admiral Ackbar always going to be calling you at inconvenient times?” she asked, smiling.
“I hope not,” he said, “I might have to resign my commission.”
He picked up his jacket. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She lay back. “I’ll be here.”
“You’re watching too many holofilms,” Wedge said as he recognized the sultry tones. “I have to go.”
Her musical laugh followed him out into the hallway, lingering until the door shut. He pulled on his jacket and headed for the bridge.
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