Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, and to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wings" series of novels. All of the Rogues (except Wedge, Tycho, and Wes) are mine. Kail Naffi is Sithkitten's creation.
No copyright infringement is intended.
They were preparing to leave Yavin when the task force appeared, and the running fight to cover the retreat began. It never achieved the status of a battle, though from the snub jock’s perspective at least there was little to distinguish an ‘encounter’ from a ‘skirmish’ from an ‘action’ from a ‘battle.’ A nagging worry in Wedge’s mind had made him wonder if they shouldn’t perhaps have left earlier, say immediately after the battle, but since nobody else seemed to think so he did his best to dismiss it. That Yavin might be Dantooine and Verbama all over again didn’t seem to have occurred to General Dodonna, and Wedge figured the general knew what he was doing.
They were all about to discover that a lifetime in Imperial service gave a man blind spots, that always being on the side that controlled the ultimate high ground-the very space around the planet-and had the biggest guns left one unprepared to be surprised. A hard lesson, but Rieekan and the others would learn it. Jan Dodonna would give his life so that they could.
And Dodonna wasn’t the only one who never made it off Yavin; and not all those who got off made it out of its gravity well. As always, the fighter squadrons took losses; the Rogues, not yet fully reconstituted after the battle, lost three more. Ground troops died covering the retreat to the transports. And two transports didn’t get away. One of them, the one that shattered into innumerable pieces, crippling its own escorts, held most of the primary command center crew, Colonel Vertrix and his staff.
Including Inidia D’Treyvan.
Wedge found out on Versace.
Inidia’s death added a wholly new element to the usual mixture of emotions that he had to deal with in a battle’s aftermath. Losing Ruun, Kepple, and, especially, Antel San, was one thing; losing Dodonna and Vertrix was another; losing Inidia ... that hurt far, far more deeply and more personally. In detached moments of self-evaluation, it astounded him how deeply he could miss her after less than a month; after nine dinners, two afternoons, a dozen nights... Especially since, looking back, he began to grow doubtful that he’d ever known her, or what she wanted, well. Or, sometimes, even at all.
It made him doubly fearful over those he knew he loved, Mirax and Leia, and afraid to
let someone else get close at all; it started him building walls that he would never
entirely tear down.
Wedge always left the office door open. That way, if the door was shut, people knew better than to bother him. Technically, of course, it was Luke’s office, but Luke was very much an absentee commander. Wedge took his duties as XO seriously, maybe too seriously, according to some people. He didn’t agree with that; there were only so many hours in the day, and if you flew, ate, slept, trained, and did two men’s paperwork, then you had used them all up. No time for a personal life, and nothing to give up to make time. That was all there was to it. There was a war on, after all.
At any rate, especially now while they were rebuilding the squadron after its losses at Yavin, Wedge liked to leave the door open so any of his ... their ... pilots or enlisted men could come in whenever they wanted with whatever was bothering them. But when he raised his head and saw Commander Williard entering, he briefly wished he had a lock and a viciously programmed protocol droid, like Leia’s only with some ability to actually carry out its orders.
He and Williard didn’t get along, hadn’t since the first day they’d met. Unlike Colonel Vertrix, whose position had been that any man willing to risk Imperial prison or worse for the Rebellion was a man he could work with, even respect perhaps, Williard disapproved of undisciplined, unregulated free-lancers. And even Wedge’s putting on the Alliance uniform hadn’t done anything to change the older man’s basic opinions. He was always punctilious, but never anything more.
Of course, Wedge tried to bear in mind, the commander had a hard life. He’d abandoned his career, been abandoned by most of his friends and family, had his entire planet destroyed, and was watching as his new life was taken over by people he wouldn’t have given the time of day to before. And his princess was having puppy eyes made at her by a penniless farm boy of no breeding, and was showing no signs of disliking the experience. And if the Alderaanian officer ever deciphered Han Solo’s Corellian style, he’d be even more upset than he was now. But remembering all of that didn’t make Williard any easier to get along with, no matter how much Wedge respected his abilities.
Wedge stood up as the senior officer entered. “Good afternoon, Commander,” he said, “what can I do for you?”
“This,” Williard gestured at the man who had come into the office behind him, “is Tycho Celchu.”
Celchu smiled, held out his hand. “Lieutenant Antilles, glad to meet you.”
Wedge returned the smile and shook the hand, assessing the man as he did. Celchu was about Wedge’s own age, maybe a year older; a couple of inches taller and twenty-five pounds heavier, he was medium: medium height, medium build, medium length medium brown hair, and medium looks. He’d have easily faded into the crowd on nine out of ten planets except for one thing: his eyes. They were the most astoundingly blue eyes Wedge had ever seen, as intense as a power source and brilliant as a crystal. You’d never overlook them and you’d never forget them. More to the point, perhaps, Celchu was wearing an Imperial uniform, the black of a TIE fighter stationed on one of the big ones, Star Destroyer or better.
“You’ve not finished making the squadron up to strength, have you?” Williard knew the answer; at least, if he read the reports that were forwarded to him he did.
“No, sir; we haven’t,” answered Wedge. “We’re three short still.”
“Two, now. I thought Lieutenant Celchu would fit in nicely,” Williard smiled. “I’ve added him to the roster.”
Have you? “Well, welcome to the squadron, Lieutenant,” Wedge said mildly.
“I’m sure Captain Skywalker will welcome a pilot of Lieutenant Celchu’s experience and background,” said Williard, with just the faintest stress on the last word.
“I’m sure he will,” agreed Wedge. “I’ll make sure he meets the lieutenant as soon as he returns to the squadron. For the time being, I’ll see to assigning quarters. Lieutenant Hothagan!” he called.
Rom came into the office through the connecting door from the orderly room next to it. “Yes, sir?” he asked, clued by Wedge’s formal address that something was up.
“Lieutenants Celchu - Hothagan,” Wedge indicated them to each other. “Lieutenant Celchu is joining the squadron. Will you see that he’s settled in?”
“Yes, sir.” Rom, his face alight with suppressed curiosity, backed out of the office and Celchu followed him.
“Lieutenant Celchu is an able pilot,” said Williard.
Wedge regarded him evenly. “Maybe we could speak candidly? For the sake of the squadron?”
“Your meaning, Lieutenant?” Williard could never quite bring himself to not use the rank, but, or so it seemed to Wedge, he always said it as though it were in quotes.
“My meaning is, that if you’ve brought Celchu in to replace me as executive officer, we should just do it. If it’s done quickly, it will be better for all concerned.” Wedge hesitated for a moment as he heard the door to the orderly room close. He wasn’t certain if he’d done that on purpose or not. He’d have rather taken the subject up with Celchu personally, but on the other hand.... Sith take it. He continued, “After all, I’m sure you don’t intend to undermine the command structure of the squadron.”
“No,” Williard protested. “No, of course not. And Lieutenant Celchu isn’t here to replace you, he’s ...” he paused, seeming to search for just the right phrase, “... here to lend some combat experience to a unit which is now mostly made up of people who haven’t seen much, if any.”
“That’ll change in a hurry, I’m afraid,” Wedge said involuntarily
“Yes,” agreed Williard. For a moment, they seemed in accord. Williard added, “Lieutenant Celchu is an honor graduate from the Academy. He is also Alderaanian.”
An Alderaanian honor graduate. Even Rieekan might see value in that. Sith, even I might see value in that. But Wedge wasn’t ready to step aside for anybody, unasked. “Well, just so we understand each other,” he said.
“I think we do,” said Williard. “I think we do.”
I’ll bet we do, thought Wedge. “Good. I’m sure Lieutenant Celchu will be an asset to the squadron.”
“So am I, Lieutenant Antilles,” nodded Williard. “So am I. Well, I’ll see myself out, shall I?”
Wedge sat back down slowly and looked at his paperwork. He’d wondered how long it would take Williard to try to override what Dodonna’d done. He thought Rieekan might still be on his side. On my side... did I just think that? Am I turning political? He shook his head angrily and returned to his work. After a minute, he realized he’d let Celchu walk off without making sure Rom would think of uniforms... He shook his head again; if politics were going to interfere with running the squadron, he was going to have to start paying closer attention to what he was doing. He got up and went into the orderly room for the squadron runner.
Tycho followed “call me Rom” Hothagan down the hallway, although he’d much rather have stayed and listened to more of the conversation his new XO was having with the Wing Commander, because it sounded very much like it was going to concern him. He really wasn’t here to take somebody’s job, all he wanted was the chance to kill Imperials, the more the better. And from what he’d heard to date, this was the place to do it. He wasn’t interested in running a squadron, only in fighting in one. Only in avenging Alderaan. And he didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with his new superiors.
“So,” said Hothagan casually, “you were a squadron leader with the Empire?”
Sith. Him too? Tycho shook his head. “No, nothing of the sort. I was just a fighter jock, like you.”
“Academy graduate, though, right?”
“Yes, I was that.”
“Some of the others are, too. Like Sainer. I’ll put you in with him, you two should get along.”
“Fine,” said Tycho. “Wherever.”
Hothagan pushed open the double doors leading to the squadron’s section of the floor, ten rooms, or so Tycho guessed counting the doors along the hallway. “This is the commander’s, Luke’s, Luke Skywalker that is,” he said waving to his right. “He’s not here right now. That’s Wedge’s, Lieutenant Antilles’s,” to the left. “And this one, well, by common consensus it’s empty. I mean, it’s nobody’s exactly, we sort of use it to hang out in.”
Tycho nodded. There was a lot of first naming here, even of the squadron leader. That wasn’t at all what he was used to. “So, when we’re full strength, there’ll be four single rooms?”
“Yeah,” Hothagan nodded. “For the time being, anyway, till we move again. Our senior pilots. And Malina, of course, but then she's one of the hot hands, so she might anyway...”
“A woman?” Tycho wasn’t sure that’s what the young man, boy really, had just said. But it sure had sounded like it.
“Yeah,” the dark-haired lieutenant nodded as though it were no big deal. “Malina’s hot, she made ace in three missions, including Yavin. She got four there. Not that she was flying with us at the time, she transferred in ’cause Luke asked for her. Captain Felt was glad to get rid of her, she broke his arm when he put it the wrong place, but she flies like Sith come calling, you know? Carro’s her wingman. Here’s your room,” he halted in front of the last room on the right before the next set of double doors and rapped on it. “Sainsy! You in?” There was no answer; he shrugged and said, “Guess not,” and opened the door. “Just dump your things in there; Sainsy’s probably at the mess hall. Know where that is? Hungry?”
“Yes, and yes,” said Tycho. “Thanks very much, Hoth-Rom.”
“Hey, no problem. Gotta get back to the orderly room, I’ve got OOD. If you need anything, just holler. Or ask Wedge, he’ll take care of you.”
“Rom!” Tycho halted him. “What about uniforms?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Quartermaster’ll fit you out; ask Sainsy. Or you just go yourself, it’s that kind of warehouse thing two buildings down from the mess hall.” Hothagan turned around again and left.
Well, okay. I’m about as popular as a Moff with halitosis. Tycho looked around the room. His “things” consisted of a flight bag, all he’d taken with him when he went ‘on leave’. That was fortunate, because Sainer had pretty much spread all over the room. He was a knick-knack collector, that was immediately obvious, and a large flattened picture of a complex set of moons in a bright sky dominated the wall over the bed Sainer was sleeping in. The other bed, and both desks, were loaded down with stuff: datapads, clothes, boxes, more knick-knacks. The man was seriously into clutter.
Tycho found a space on one of the desks to drop his bag. Fortunately, it was only midafternoon. Surely Sainer would be back before nightfall. Tycho decided to get a new uniform before he ate; perhaps if he were in tan instead of black he could eat in peace. Hope I can identify a ‘kind of a warehouse thing’....
“Sir?” The voice came from the hallway, through the still open door. An enlisted man stood there.
“You’re Lieutenant Celchu? Lieutenant Antilles told me to make sure you got over to the QM, drew some uniforms, flight gear, whatever else you need.”
“Fine,” said Tycho, honestly surprised and somewhat encouraged. Maybe his abandonment was just Hothagan’s usual style, not something personal. Or at least, only on Hothagan’s part.
“If you’ll come with me, sir?” The soldier led Tycho outside and over to the QM building. Tycho wasn’t sure he’d have found it on his on his own; it was heavy on the ‘kind of’ and light on the ‘warehouse’, and Hothagan’s “two buildings” didn’t include two other, albeit small, ones. And once inside, it was unlike any Imperial Quartermaster’s he’d ever seen. Every thing around Versace was very different from any military installation he’d ever been to. The Rebellion was casual, that was the word for it; first names and QMs that treated officers like enlisted men, pulling uniforms and flight suits and equipment off shelves and slapping it all down on the counter top for Tycho to check... The only things he took any real care at fitting were the flight mask and helmet. It dawned on Tycho that he wasn’t going to walk out with a provisional uniform while the rest of them were tailored; what he got was what he was going to get. If it didn’t fit him well, then... then he’d look like half of the officers he’d passed on the way in.
He tried on the light tan pilot’s uniform and discovered that the QM sergeant had a good eye for size. When he came out, carrying his Imperial black for want of anything else to do with it, he saw that the enlisted man, a corporal some dozen years older than he, had impressed a couple more soldiers from somewhere and started loading them up. Between them, they got most of Tycho’s new belongings and headed back to the officers’ quarters. Tycho trailed after them with the rest, trying to remember when he’d last, while in uniform, carried anything more substantial than a weapon or briefing notes. He had been a first-year cadet, he thought. A long time ago...
“Just shove that stuff out of the way,” the corporal told the others. “Lieutenant Sainer’ll just have to pull in a bit.” He sounded unconcerned. “You take what space is yours, sir; the lieutenant won’t mind. Do you need anything else?” The other two, having dropped their armfuls, left.
Tycho glanced around the room. “No, thanks. I don’t think so.”
“Right, sir. You know where everything is? The officers’ mess?”
“Yes,” Tycho nodded.
“Okay, sir. I’ll get back to the orderly room then,” he paused a minute in case Tycho thought of something and then followed the other two out.
Tycho hesitated between unpacking and eating. He decided on the latter, if only because he figured it would be better if he let ‘Sainsy’ move his own belongings. He settled the unfamiliar cap on and walked over to the officers’ mess. Where he discovered he was supposed to serve himself. When he had his tray, he stood uncertainly for a minute, looking around the room. A tall, lanky redheaded lieutenant came up to him while he was deciding where to sit.
“Hi,” he said cheerfully. “You just in?”
“Yes,” Tycho answered.
“Academy? Thought so,” he said when Tycho nodded. “You got the look; had it myself. This place is real culture shock. Grab a chair anywhere, I’ll get some caff and see if I can help out any.”
“Thanks,” Tycho said with feeling. He found a chair with his back to the wall (somehow he just felt more comfortable knowing no one could walk up behind him today) and finished looking around. There were a lot of tan-clad children here, it seemed. He supposed the difference was that when a 17-year-old joined the Imperial Navy, he went to the Academy for three years, and here they put him in a fighter right off. That probably explained ‘call me Rom’ and even why the XO looked so young. There were also a lot of women, and even a handful of non-humans.
There were also civilians, mostly looking like they ought to be arrested. Well, Imperial propaganda couldn’t be wrong all the time. And, looking at it rationally, if you were an illegal rebellion, you couldn’t expect legitimate corporations like SoroSuub, CorImExCo, or Amderma to carry supplies for you. It was improbable enough that Koensayer and Incom sold them fighters, but Tycho supposed that could be arranged through middlemen or something. Actually delivering supplies, that would have to be left to independent contractors, to be polite about it. It seemed strange that the mercs were eating here, but he supposed they had to eat somewhere.
The redhead slid into the chair across from him and extended his hand. “Tyll Sainer,” he said.
“Whatever you heard, it’s not true,” he grinned.
“No, it’s ...” Tycho took the hand. “Tycho Celchu, your new room-mate.”
“Ah,” Sainer said, making a self-deprecating face. “Sorry. I’m pretty sure I can fit into half a room. Really.” He grinned, and then frowned in remembrance. “Tycho Celchu... I think we were in the same class.”
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant Sainer,” said Tycho. “I don’t remember...”
“No reason for you to. I was definitely down in the middle of the pack.” He grinned. “My name barely registered with my platoon.”
Tycho found the grin infectious. He himself had aimed high, graduated first, gotten the Accuser ... he might as well have aimed just to graduate as far as his original long-term goals went. Sainer had probably enjoyed the Academy more.
“So,” said the redhead, “you’re with Rogue, Lieutenant? Welcome aboard.”
“Rogue?” Tycho said cautiously. He’d certainly heard the name, but... “Commander Williard said, Red.”
“Red, Rogue. Same thing. Depends on who’s talking. Red’s official; Rogue is us.”
“I see.” Rogue Squadron, the traitors... he might just be right at home, he supposed.
“We used to be ten ex-Imperial. Now we’re down to you and me, Lieutenant.”
“What about the commander?” asked Tycho.
“Luke, Captain Skywalker... or did you mean Commander Williard?”
“No, the captain. He’s not?”
“No. What Lu- Captain Skywalker is, is Jedi.”
“Jedi?” Tycho couldn’t believe Sainer was serious. Everyone knew there were no Jedi left, except Vader. “A Jedi’s son, you mean?”
“Yeah, but he’s Jedi himself. He really is,” Sainer insisted. “Now, he’s not legend-stuff, but he’s strong in the Force. He fired the torps that got the Death Star. That killed Alderaan,” he added to Tycho’s incomprehension.
“Captain Skywalker brought down the thing that killed Alderaan?” repeated Tycho.
“Yep,” nodded Sainer. “Along with Lieutenant Antilles and a Corellian mercenary called Solo. Captain Skywalker actually fired the money shots, though.”
Tycho nodded. This was the right place for him. He glanced around. Even the scruffy civilians looked good to him now. He looked back at Sainer, curiosity surfacing. “What’s it like, Lieutenant? Having a Jedi for a squadron leader?”
“I almost don’t know what to tell you,” Sainer shrugged. “He’s not around much. Jedi-stuff, I guess. We mostly deal with We- Lieutenant Antilles.”
“What’s he like, then?” This was the important question.
“Well....” Sainer paused a moment, and then said, straightforwardly, “Mind if I ask you a question, Lieutenant?”
“Tycho. I get the feeling that’s the way it’s done here.”
Sainer smiled at him. “That is the way. Mind, Luke’s still the captain, and Wedge is the exec and mostly boss, Luke being gone most of the time. We’re trying to build a republic here, but we’re still a military.”
“I understand.” He wasn’t sure it would work, but he was willing enough to try it. “So, what’s your question, Tyll?”
“Just Sainsy,” he said, his nose wrinkling. “Nobody calls me Tyll.... Are you Williard’s man? I mean, we’ve heard he wants to ease Wedge out.”
“No. I don’t know what the commander may have in mind, I mean, but I’m not here to do anybody out of anything.” Tycho hoped he sounded convincing; he wanted this laid. “Like I told Hothagan, I’m just a fighter jock. I’m here to fly. Period.”
Sainer nodded slowly. “Good. So, what’s Wedge like? Sharp. Real sharp. And he’s got it. He can fly like nobody’s business. Shattered his novice at Dantooine-eight kills.”
“Eight?” In his first combat? That was flying.
“Confirmed eight.” Sainer sounded like he wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was ten, or a dozen. “He’s Corellian, used to be a smuggler, arms and such for us, but I was there the day Princess Leia Organa as much as said he’d made the Kessel run-”
“Leia Organa?” Tycho repeated, with a hitch of pain. She’d been an Alderaanian Imperial Senator, though from the other district. The news was that she’d been killed by Rebels. This sounded like she’d been one of them, though; another Imperial lie, like the death of Alderaan itself...
“Yeah. You know her?”
“No. I saw her once, on Coruscant.”
“Well, you’ll see a lot more of her if you stick with us; she and Wedge are pretty close. Luke, too, I think,” he added with another grin.
“She’s not dead?” Tycho asked.
“Dead? No, she wasn’t on Alderaan. In fact, she was on the Death Star when they took Alderaan out-you all right?”
“Yes,” Tycho said briskly. “That’s wonderful news.”
Sainer’s blue eyes suddenly widened. “Oh, man; Celchu.” He said the name as if recognizing its origin for the first time. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re Alderaanian, aren’t you? I’m sorry.”
“Forget it,” said Tycho. “It’s all right. Don’t worry about it. You’re saying Antilles ran spice?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Sainer, shrugging again. “Like I said, I was there when Princess Leia as good as said he did, but Wedge says he never ran anything more than glit, not that I’m all that clear on the distinction myself,” he added a disclaimer. “Anyway, whatever, he’s been with us about a year, off and on.”
Tycho had no idea how you could be with a unit ‘off and on’, and it was a bit more than he felt capable of exploring at the moment. “How old is he?”
“Shoo, I don’t know,” Sainer said. “A year or so younger than us, I think. Hard to tell. He annoys Williard, not the right background, you know. He’s not a gentleman, doesn’t know painting or music and can’t tell you the difference between 6th century and 9th century Shiressryn sculpture.”
“Lucky him,” said Tycho, remembering the endless cultural classes at the academy.
“Right,” grinned Sainer, “gentlemen, please observe the position of the left hand of the hero-figure in the tableau...” They both laughed, sharing a moment of memory. “Anyway, Williard, sculpture, or spice notwithstanding, we’d follow him into the Maw.”
“Well, relax. And tell everyone else to relax. I’m not here to take his job.”
“Williard know that?”
“He will, if he has to,” promised Tycho.
“Good. You have any other questions? You met Williard. You met Wedge? Well, you met Rom and he’s OOD so you must’ve met Wedge. Been to the QM? Well, you’ve got a uniform, though I suppose you could have gotten that someplace else; got all your gear?”
Tycho nodded. Sainer was going to be an interesting room-mate, he could tell. He hoped he lived through it.
“Got any hours in an X-Wing?”
“Where would I have done that?”
“Good point. Well, they’re not as fast as TIEs, don’t maneuver quite as sharply... still, they pack a very nice punch, have just luverly shields, and they’ve got hyperdrive. You’ll learn.” He stood. “I’ll get on back and clear out your half of the room.” A concerned look crossed his face. “Anybody warn you about Malina Afrit?”
“Rom told me she broke somebody’s arm?” He put a lot of disbelief into that. He’d decided Hothagan was pulling his leg.
But Sainer was confirming it, almost as though it were usual. “Yes, she did. Just don’t touch and you’ll be fine.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I’ll tell you, Tycho; the woman can flat out fly. And she’s an ace. She’s got some kind of heavy personal grudge going, I don’t know the details. But she’s damned good. We’re lucky to have her.”
“If you say so,” said Tycho. Women fighter pilots were an oxymoron as far as he was concerned but he wasn’t in charge. When on Coruscant, as the Coruscantians, but when on Thyferra as the Thyferrans.
“No, thanks,” Tycho shook his head. “I think I’ll have some more caff, and familiarize myself with the base.”
Sainer nodded. “See you later, then. Any more questions you come up with, make a note. I’ll answer them all.”
Tycho nodded back at him. First thing, he thought, I’d better see the exec. He finished his caff and then walked back towards the administration building.
Lieutenant Antilles’s door was still open, and he was still immersed in paperwork. If he hadn’t had Sainer’s statement that the exec flew, and flew well, he’d have figured him for another desk pilot, the way he was going at it. Now he guessed the man hated it so much he let it pile up and then attacked it. Either that, or he was just conscientious, and, somehow, that didn’t square with the casual attitude Tycho had seen around here so far.
He looked the lieutenant over before interrupting him. He might get a clue to the best way to approach him, and he was pretty sure that was going to be delicate at best. His own fault, he’d been so glad to meet another Alderaanian that he’d missed Williard’s motives altogether. Now everybody thought he was slaved to Williard’s course.
The exec was maybe his age, maybe a year younger, he agreed with Sainer on that. His dark brown hair showed glints of red in the rich afternoon light slanting through the window, and it was thick and a little shaggy. He was thin and Tycho remembered him a couple of inches shorter; about average height for an X-Wing pilot, Tycho guessed, recalling what he’d heard in his old squadron back on the Accuser about the Incom fighters the Empire had begun replacing a decade or so back. One thing he wasn’t looking forward to was their cramped cockpits; he imagined Sainer hit his head on the roof of his pretty often. But Antilles, like Hothagan, looked short and slim enough to fit inside with room to spare. He was also right-handed and looked intense. Other than that, Tycho could glean nothing; there weren’t even any pictures on the desk. Which might be a clue in itself, but Tycho couldn’t guess to what.
He shrugged and then knocked lightly on the lintel of the open door.
Rom had come back to the office with a cheerful “I put him in with Sainsy, pointed him at the QM, and warned him about Malina, so he’s set.”
Wedge no longer took Rom at face value, but, as usual, there wasn’t anything really visible below the surface. How much of that did Rom believe, and how much of it was hidden agenda? And how much of it was worth getting into it over? Well, that, at least, Wedge could answer: none of it. Damar would make sure Celchu actually found the quartermaster and got what he needed, so that was okay. And Sainer was in fact a good choice for his room-mate; he was fairly easygoing and would appreciate Celchu’s difficulties in adjusting. On the other hand, with no warning he might be abrupt, and since there was little chance he’d been in his quarters at this time of day, Celchu was staring at an upcoming displacement of his unknown room-mate. There was no question but that Sainer had a lot of stuff. And ‘warning’ him about Malina... well, if he needed it, it was good that he had been, but Wedge wasn’t entirely sure that it was the sort of thing that made a good impression, especially the way Rom had probably done it. So exactly how ‘set’ Celchu was was open to debate, though Wedge didn’t intend to.
Instead he just sighed internally and said, “Thanks, Rom.”
“No problem at all,” Rom had said and gone back into the duty room, settling down with his feet up to watch, enraptured, a twelve-year-old comedy broadcast from the next system, captured, tightened, and redigitized by a couple of techs with too much time on their hands.
‘No problem at all’. Not for Rom, maybe. But Rom had reduced life to its essentials: anything that wasn’t threatening to kill him wasn’t a problem. Things were a trifle more complex when you were the squadron exec. Especially when Rom was in your squadron.
Well, tomorrow at the morning briefing he’d make sure Celchu knew everyone, and then they could talk about his skills, his training, what he needed, and how he’d fit in. He’d need time in an X-Wing, that was certain. If he and Sainer were getting along, Wedge thought, they could be paired up. Once nice thing about having a pilot foisted onto you by the wing commander, he mused, it should be easy to get him a fighter. He turned his attention back to the quarterly reports. Dodonna had made a huge difference in the way the Rebellion worked, and in the main Wedge approved, but... did we really need paperwork?
He had gotten so used to people hanging about in the corridor, reading the administrivia and notices on the bulletin board by the office, talking, waiting for others, that he no longer noticed them. It wasn’t until the man rapped lightly on the lintel that he realized Celchu was standing in the doorway. Wedge looked up, his welcome changing slightly when he recognized who is was. “Lieutenant Celchu,” he said. “Come in. What can I do for you?”
Celchu entered, looking somewhat uncomfortable. He came to attention in front of Wedge’s desk. “I thought we might talk, Lieutenant.”
Wedge waved him to a chair. “I see you got over to the quartermaster. Did you get everything you needed?”
“Yes, sir, I did. I think so, anyway; the QM sergeant seemed pretty thorough.” Celchu stayed standing.
“Corporal Damar said you were in with Lieutenant Sainer; he’s a good man. Have him take a look and make sure you’re completely equipped.” Wedge gestured again at the chair. “Please, have a seat, Lieutenant; this isn’t the Imperial Fleet.”
“No, sir. I mean, yes sir. That’s becoming more apparent by the minute.”
Wedge regarded him seriously. “Generally, those who come out of the Fleet adjust pretty well to our ways. They do work, though I gather they seem a bit, umm, slipshod to the Academy-trained mind.”
“I would say, rather, casual, sir, or maybe informal,” said Celchu.
“Boss? Oh, sorry,” Wes Janson pulled up abruptly on the threshold when he saw Celchu.
“What is it, Wes?” asked Wedge.
“Nothing, it can wait; tomorrow’s fine, Wedge,” the sandy-haired youngster said and backed out.
“Informal, you said? I see your point, Lieutenant.” Wedge leaned back in his chair, amused.
“Yes, sir. I do want to talk with you, sir, but ... this may not be the best place.”
“You could be right, Lieutenant. What do you suggest? Have you eaten?”
“Yes, sir,” said Celchu. “It’s a little crowded in there, I think, sir.”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” Wedge thought for a minute. “We could go to the DownTime.”
Wedge felt his mouth quirking. He could guess what the pilot was thinking. “Versace used to be a smugglers’ meet. The DownTime has privacy-shielded booths.”
“Yes, sir.” Celchu remained impassive, but those blue eyes were slightly startled.
Wedge glanced down at his desk. “Give me five or six minutes to wind things up, Lieutenant, and we’ll go.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll step outside and read the bulletin board.”
Wedge smiled. “As you wish, Lieutenant Celchu. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
Celchu saluted, out of force of habit probably. Wedge didn’t blink, just saluted back. Celchu left the office, and Wedge turned back to his desk. He entered the changes he’d made and saved the file, and then began gathering up his papers to store away. He knew he was moving with deliberation, but he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to have this conversation. He was certainly sure, on reflection, that the DownTime was not the right place to have it; using the privacy shields might cause more speculation than not.
Malina walked into the office, leaving the door open behind her.
“Afternoon, Malina,” Wedge said. “Something?”
“What’s this?” her voice was low, hostile sounding, but that was the way it always was.
“What’s what?” Wedge answered, more amused than anything else.
“It’s not dark yet, and you’re finished for the day?”
He answered her without thinking. “Do you want something, or did you just come here to harass me?” Remembering Celchu just beyond the open door he gave it up; the Imp-exImp-was going to have to get used to them.
“Tyree told me to tell you he pulled your starboard engines.”
“He what?” Wedge spread his hands in the air. “There was nothing wrong with either of those engines.”
“He said you could have it back in three or four days.”
“I wish he would talk to me before he did things like that,” said Wedge, but in his heart he knew it would never happen.
Malina snorted. “It’s easier to tell you he’s done it than ask you if he can. And easiest to get somebody else. And why I’m running messages between the two of you, I don’t know.”
“Because he expects it.” Wedge said ruefully. “Three days?”
“Or four. He also said if you were going up, he would check out ‘whatever they gave’ you. Those’re his words.”
“I’ll bet they were. Offend every other mech in the bay.”
“You love it.” She sounded amused, even though there was a growl in her voice still. “You going to eat?”
“Actually, I am, but we’ve got a new pilot-”
“I heard,” she interpolated, a slight edge to her voice.
Wedge continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “And he and I are going to DownTime.”
“That him in the hall memorizing the bulletin board?”
“Yes.” Wedge snapped the desk drawers shut. “Come meet him.”
Celchu turned from the memos when they came out. Wedge thought he’d have known the man was Alderaanian without being told. Like all of them still functional, he was, on the surface, calm and even reasonable. But that normal Alderaanian stability was a facade, no more. Celchu’s radiantly blue eyes held a desolation as deep as anything Wedge had ever seen, and a hunger for revenge that was as fierce as it was, ultimately, meaningless. It was that knowledge that had broken many of Celchu’s compatriots. Wedge was thinking of Kail Naffi. He'd let that man down, though to be honest he didn't know what he could have done different. Wedge hoped this pilot was like his princess instead, tough enough to get through. He thought so. Something about the man looked like a survivor.
“Lieutenant Celchu,” he said, “this is Lieutenant Afrit. Malina, Tycho,” he added, gesturing between them.
Malina looked the man over and nodded abruptly. “Good to meet you, Tycho Celchu,” she said.
“Yes, same...” Celchu looked uncertain about offering his hand.
Malina caught it, the way she did everything, and her mouth twitched in what Wedge had decided was as close as she came to laughing. She held out her hand, and Celchu took it. “We’re told you can fly,” she said. “Good to have you here. Wedge,” she turned towards him, nodding a goodbye, and strode off down the hallway.
Celchu watched her go, and then looked at Wedge. “Informal,” he repeated. This time, though, there was an almost imperceptible quiver in his voice.
Wedge felt his own lips twitching. “Well,” he said, “we may be a bit more informal than most. Do you like trees?”
“Do I what, sir?”
“Trees,” Wedge repeated, starting down the hallway in the opposite direction from Malina’s, heading for the door. “The only other Alderaanian I’m on friendly terms with likes trees. And she tells me we have some very beautiful trees only a little bit off our way to DownTime.”
“Trees,” Celchu said. “Yes, I… I like trees, sir.”
“Good. Let’s go look at them. Perhaps,” Wedge added as he pushed open the door, earning himself a sidewise glance, “you can explain to me just what it is about these particular trees that makes them worth looking at.”
“You don’t like trees?”
“No, I like trees just fine. Reasonable trees,” Wedge stressed. “Trees about this tall-” he spanned a half-meter with his hands. “I’m well aware that trees are good oxygen scrubbers, but trees like these, they can fall on you. I don’t like things that fall on me.”
Celchu laughed. “I never really thought of them as oxygen scrubbers,” he said. “I guess they are, but…”
Wedge was just making meaningless conversation until they got somewhere with a little privacy, but he was suddenly pleased with the way things were going. That had been a genuine, startled-out-of-him, laugh, and from the look in the man’s eyes, he didn’t think many of those had come along lately. “Well,” he kept it up. “They are. I mean, most plants are fuel, and I guess trees, too, but they’re mostly for the oxygen. Flowers are esthetically pleasing scrubbers-”
“Where were you born?” Celchu asked. “I thought you were Corellian.”
Wedge shook his head. “I am, but the term takes in a lot more territory than just Corellia itself. The Sector’s huge-and you don’t want the canned lecture, I’m sure, so I’ll cut to the answer. I’m station-born. Planets give me the willies.”
“Wow.” Celchu’s voice was awed, but Wedge knew it wasn’t because of anything he’d said; they’d just topped the rise and the Alderaanian had gotten his first look at what was called ‘The Whispering Circle’: thirteen trees and sixteen standing stones in an outer ring of twelves with a Y of four stones and a single tree in the very center. Versaccans didn’t come here much, which was one reason the base had been built in the area, but a lot of off-worlders in the Rebellion found it a good place for meditations and even prayers. At this time of day it was usually deserted; Wedge figured it a good place for a private conversation. No one would wonder that he’d taken Celchu to see it.
“You really don’t think this is something special?” the ex-Imperial asked after a few moments’ silence.
“No,” Wedge said softly. “I admire the geometry of it, and the astronomy-it lines up with the sun on the summer solstice and the equinoxes. I can even feel, a little, the passion that went into making it. But the trees themselves: they’re just trees.”
Celchu shook his head slightly. “They must be thousands of years old.”
“That’s it? They’re old? That’s why they’re special? The stones are older. The solstice is even older than that.”
“Now you’re kidding me.”
Wedge was, but only a little. He did actually think the circle would have been more impressive without the trees; for one thing, they hadn’t grown equally and for another, they messed up the symmetry. But he didn’t say so, just nodded and started down the gentle slope. After several minutes, he looked at the other man. “So, what’s on your mind?”
“Look-I, uh, I seem to have walked into the second act of the play without a script for the first act,” Celchu said. “I mean, there’s a lot going on here that I don’t understand.”
“Join the club.”
“No, I mean-there seems to be a lot going on involving me. Sainer gave me to understand you and the commander don’t, well,” he hesitated.
“No. We don’t,” Wedge said. “Whatever. I’m everything he doesn’t approve of.” He thought that over and added, “Almost, anyway. At least I’m male.”
Celchu was startled into another laugh. “Yes, I can see where Afrit would discompose him even more.”
“Things are changing,” Wedge shrugged. “They’re just changing faster than he wants them to. And maybe further, too.”
“Well, that’s actually it,” Celchu said. “What he wants-I’m not part of it. All I want to be part of is this squadron. He may have had his reasons for putting me here, but I’ve got my own for wanting to stay, and you’re part of it. Sainer told me, you got the thing that killed Alderaan. I want to be part of the squadron that did that.”
Sainsy knows better than that, was Wedge’s first reaction. His second was, that was easier than I expected.. His third was to say, “It’s a good squadron. We aren’t, probably, like anything you’ve dealt with before, but we work well together. We’re different, our backgrounds are different, but it’s my opinion that’s one of our strengths. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that Malina, or Rom, or Luke, or Cort Herowik, or I, for that matter, come at things from a different vector than your average Imperial. We’re… unexpected.”
And again Celchu laughed. This time the laugh went into those desolate eyes and warmed them. “That’s certainly the word for it,” he said. “I never expected… but I want you to know, I mean it, I don’t want your job. I want to bring down the Empire. I want-” he broke off, and then finished. “That’s all I want: to stay in this squadron and do-” He swallowed hard.
“You’ll get the chance,” Wedge promised him. The man wanted watching, that was clear. He reconsidered his notion of pairing him and Sainer; the redhead wouldn’t know what to look for. Rom could fly with Sainer for a while, he’d take Celchu himself. If there was a death-wish, like Naffi's, inside those crystal-blue eyes, Wedge couldn’t turn it loose it on one of the squadron. He hoped there wasn’t, and was surprised at the strength of that hope. Unexpected could be applied both ways. He impulsively put out his hand. “Welcome to the Rebellion, Tycho,” he said.
Tycho Celchu hesitated only a moment, and then reached his own hand out. “Thanks, Wedge,” he said. “It’s good to be here.”
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