The Red Leader’s X-Wing flew past Luke’s as Luke rubbed his nose with his gloved hand and pushed the stick down for an attack dive. “Watch yourself!” Red Leader said over the comm. “There’s a lot of fire coming from the right side of that deflection tower.”
“I’m on it.” Luke twisted his dive to cross the Death Star’s horizon. He aimed at the source of the surface fire. His laser bolts rained down on the onrushing surface.
“I’m going in,” Biggs said. “Cover me, Porkins.”
“I’m right with you, Red Three.”
As Luke pulled up, Red Three and Red Six both concentrated their fire on the deflection tower and it exploded. A series of sequential explosions skipped across a large section of the battle station’s surface, leaping from one terminal to the next. Biggs shot past, but the X-Wing behind him was hit with an energy wave between two explosions.
“I’ve got a problem here.” Porkins’ voice sounded distracted. “My converter’s running wild.”
“Eject,” Biggs ordered. The Imperials answered with heavy green laser bolts that Biggs’ X-Wing avoided.
“I can hold it.”
“No, I’m alright—” One green laser bolt hit and Red Six broke apart in a fireball. Luke’s breath caught, but there was no time to mourn a fallen comrade.
Luke, trust your feelings. That sounded like Ben, but nobody else was reacting to General Kenobi on the comm. He tapped his helmet comm before he thought that it was how the Emperor’s Hand had spoken to him telepathically before.
There was no time to reach back to Ben. He focused on the surface and fired. One of the firing stations exploded behind him as he pulled out of the strafing run.
“Squad leaders.” The control officer back at the base spoke over the comm and Luke was reminded again how voices sounded over the comlinks. “We’ve picked up a new group of signals. Enemy fighters coming your way.”
Luke glanced out of both sides of his cockpit and then back at his instrument panel. “My scope’s negative. I don’t see anything.”
“Pick up your visual scanning,” Red Leader ordered. “Here they come!”
Six TIE fighters dove toward them. The front four moved in sync until they reached the battle area and they swooped in separate directions.
“Watch it, Seven! You’ve got one on your tail.” Red Leader called over the comm.
Red Seven weaved high above the surface, but the TIE fighter stayed with him as it fired. Laser bolts connected with the X-Wing’s engines. “I’m hit—” Red Seven exploded in a fireball.
Luke’s skin crawled like Tusken Raiders were on their way. His head swiveled looking for TIE fighters, but nothing was behind him. He extended his focus to his squadron and his heart leaped into his throat. “Biggs! You’ve picked one up, watch it!”
“I can’t see it!” Biggs yelled back. He turned back to dive down to the surface. The TIE fighter matched that move and all the rest of Biggs’ twists. “He’s on me tight. I can’t shake him.” The TIE fighter fired, but Biggs swung his X-Wing out of the laser bolts path.
“I’ll be right there.” Luke accelerated toward the pair, chasing after the TIE fighter. Biggs twisted his X-Wing toward the surface and evaded the latest blasts from the enemy. Luke’s targeting system locked onto the TIE and he fired. The spherical ship exploded in a fireball.
“Pull in, Luke! Pull in!” Biggs shouted over the comm.
Wedge’s voice chimed in. “Watch your back, Luke! Fighter’s above you, coming in.”
Luke looped away from the Death Star’s surface to spot the TIE. He rolled as it began firing. One of the bolts furrowed his right upper engine, leaving fire its wake. “I’m hit, but not bad. Artoo, see what you can do with it. Hang on back there.”
Green laser bolts streaked past them and Artoo’s response showed up in Basic on a small screen on his instrument panel to the right of the primary display monitor. “I’ll fix it. You keep that dotkohu from hitting us again.”
Luke rocked the X-Wing and wondered how the astromech had learned Huttese. The TIE fighter had chased him into an area that they hadn’t blasted the heavy artillery into oblivion.
Red Leader spoke over the comm. “Red Ten, can you see Red Five?”
“There’s a heavy fire zone on this side. Red Five, where are you?”
None of those blast hit the TIE behind him. Luke soared away from the surface to get some room to move. “I can’t shake him!” He evaded the laser bolts and headed down again.
“I’m on it, Luke!” Wedge said over the comm. “Hold on.”
Luke shifted hard again to avoid the fire. “Blast it, Wedge, where are you?”
Red Two faced Luke’s X-Wing almost nose to nose before Luke shied to the right. Wedge’s turbo cannons took out the TIE fighter before it could react.
“Thanks, Wedge.” Luke heaved a sigh.
“Good shooting, Wedge,” Biggs added over the comm.
Mara smoothed the wrinkles in her uniform as she crossed the console room to the storage cabinet. She had set up a shifting cascade to let her out without triggering any alarms in the security system and broke into the closest food stores for ration bars during the night shift. So she was full at least. Sleep had been harder to get on the cold metal floor and constant interruptions which turned out to be her mind finding false alarms. Her body still ached from the Emperor’s attack and the travel lag was catching up with her. All she needed was a safe place to sleep away the pain.
This console room had a small medpac in the storage cabinet to handle slight emergencies without going all the way to the medcenter. She opened up the small doses of painkillers and stim pills and dry-swallowed them. Should she take the medpac with her or take a chance of finding better supplies along the way? She closed it and set it back on the shelf in the cabinet. And frowned all the way back to the seat and console she had claimed as her primary.
The second guessing really needed to stop. Ever since she had helped that farm boy get into the maintenance access and he had all but pleaded for her to meet them in the hangar bay and she turned him down, a low level dread itched across the Force. It wasn’t her danger sense, that feeling that always warned her to tread carefully or retreat from a situation, but it still made her question if she should have gone. Gone where though? To the Rebels? She was supposed to stop the lawbreakers, not join them. She wasn’t supposed to allow the murder of billions either. She could have left for any planet. She didn’t have to join the Rebels or give them any intel. Besides, they wouldn’t want her help to avenge Alderaan regardless. And it didn’t matter because she had remained here and the Death Star was in hyperspace now.
She reached back to give her braided hair a tug and her gaze was caught by the screen on the Death Star’s engines. It was out of hyperspace now and orbiting the gas giant Yavin. Where in the galaxy was Yavin? It wasn’t a Core World. She pulled up the astrogational information. The Outer Rim? That was a horrible target for their terror asset. She moved back to her screen showing computerized commands from the bridge. The Rebel agents had been tracked to the fourth moon of Yavin. Skywalker hadn’t escaped. Disappointment tightened her throat.
There were more details under the attack. Thirty one-man fighter ships were currently strafing the Death Star and doing an excellent job evading the turbo-lasers configured to destroy capital ships. The Death Star gave the order for TIE fighters to launch. This was her only chance to get off. She pulled up the schematics for the quickest route between her position and the fighter pilots ready rooms, committing the directions to memory before closing all the consoles and erasing all visible evidence she had been in this room.
By the time she found the area, the initial wave of TIE fighters had launched and Lord Vader had left to join them with his selected wingmen. One locker room had what she needed, a straggler tugging on his flight suit with his back to the door. Too bad she had lost all her weapons; shooting him like this would solve everything. She strode in and locked the door behind her.
The door caught his attention as he glanced over his shoulder. Her uniform made him straighten to near-attention before the lack of insignias confused him. “Can I help you, officer?”
Her lips curled up in a slight smile that men found flirty. She knew exactly where she stood with this. “You have a choice, pilot, easy or hard. I need your flight orders and ship.”
“What?” He stepped away from his locker among all the others against the wall. She matched his stance by stepping closer. “You want my ship, why?”
“Because it’s leaving this battle station.” She held out her hand for his code cylinder as she stepped closer.
His hands curled into fists as his confusion shifted to a sneer. “A damn traitor like the rest of Alderaan.” He charged forward and raised his fist for a punch.
Her grin widened as he chose the hard way. She pivoted around his blow and kicked when she was behind him. Her foot hit him mid-back, pushing him further off balance. Then she whirled around to face him. He staggered but managed not to hit the floor. But his arms were stretched out to push against the floor. She wrapped her legs around his neck and threw herself to the side.
He followed her down to the floor. His fist seized her pants and yanked.
The material held. She squeezed her legs.
He yanked again and slapped her leg against his vocal cords with his other hand as he wheezed.
She shifted her legs. His neck rolled until it cracked. Then he went limp.
Mara uncoiled from around him and tested his pulse. Hard way accomplished. She found his code cylinder on his belt. One of the lockers had a uniform hanging in it, so she didn’t bother stripping the former pilot. She dragged him into the ‘fresher stall and locked it. That would buy time if anyone entered this locker room after she left. She pulled the flight suit on over her Imperial Navy uniform and fastened the helmet on before leaving. All she had to do was fall in line with the other pilots heading to one of the ready rooms outside the TIE fighter hangar bays.
The code cylinder instructions didn’t hold any surprises, just proof that Lieutenant Qorl was activated in defense of the battle station. She climbed into the available TIE fighter the deck crew pointed her to and soon launched into the vacuum of space. The red ball of Yavin blocked the view of the moon with the rebel base. She should go there. This TIE fighter model didn’t have a hyperdrive unit. And to be brutally honest with herself, she wanted to see Skywalker.
She concentrated on the battle raging over the surface of the battle station. The Rebel snub-fighters consisted of Y-Wings and the X-Wings from Incom’s schematics from when the company was nationalized. The traitors that fled the company had managed to build the new starfighter. The pilots were good, but their ships weren’t as fast as the TIE fighter or as numerous. She picked one to follow, to look like she was following orders, while she opened up the bond with Skywalker.
The bond didn’t stretch through Yavin to its fourth satellite like she had expected. Instead it pointed to an X-Wing that spiraled before letting a volley loose on the surface. What the Corellian hells? Is the Rebellion so desperate for pilots they let you fly? She didn’t dare scream it through the bond at him; neither of them could afford the distraction. She ignored the TIE fighter pilots chatter and shifted into following him. His wings and fuselage were already streaked with soot. What had caused that, flying through a fireball?
That thought was soon interrupted by the part of her that was still outraged at being defeated by a pillow. She could finish her mission and shoot him down right now.
She jerked her thumb down on the stick, away from the firing control, as her stomach churned. How could she even consider that? The Emperor would never take her back. And Skywalker had saved her life and had wanted nothing more but to continue helping her. Is this how she considered repaying that? Nausea rose in her throat.
Skywalker’s X-Wing banked away from the Death Star surface. Mara followed, dodging the blasts from one of his comrades. She didn’t know their comm frequencies and she didn’t have any jammer equipment that could slice into what the Rebels were using. He jerked his ship to the side, trying to shake her off his tail. This was the worst possible time and place to reach out telepathically, especially to someone with no training, but it was her only option for communication.
Her danger sense flared before she attempted it. She shoved her stick to the right, breaking off her pursuit of Skywalker’s X-Wing as he dodged to the left. But the ship barreling straight down their previous trajectory was a TIE Advanced x1 prototype with the distinctive bent solar array wings, not one of Skywalker’s Rebels. Her mouth went dry as she accelerated. The laser bolts streaked past her.
She could feel a familiar fireball of anger that was the other pilot, churning the Force between them. But just in case she hadn’t correctly identified him, Vader’s vocabulator voice filled her helmet’s comm. “You will not kill my son, schutta of Palpatine.” And more laser fire spat at her as he chased her.
She accelerated away toward the gas giant. It wouldn’t do any good to protest her innocence. Vader never listened when he felt like this. Even her Master had to wait until Vader calmed down and then punish him for it. She didn’t have a Master any longer, and the Emperor would not punish Vader for killing her.
Her danger sense pulsed again and she jinked closer to Yavin’s gravity well. The bolt hit the bottom of her starboard solar array wing, but missed the cockpit. But the blow was enough to cause her to spin out of control.
Vader withdrew, satisfied that her fighter would fall into Yavin and be torn to pieces by the gas giant’s gravitational force.
Mara gritted her teeth and fought with the stick. She was not dying like this. She was not dying at all. The instrument panel wailed at her, showing her the danger zone of the gravity well. She was still spinning, and the stick was not responding. She shut off the ion engines and directional thrusters. She breathed out her doubt, closed her eyes, and focused on her danger sense.
NOW from it made her jab her finger on the thruster ignition button. They fired briefly and the spinning momentum shifted from rotating on the vertical axis to the horizontal. The gas giant loomed in the transparisteel viewport, but it was growing smaller. It was a dizzying view of where she had been. The battle was flashes of lasers and fireballs against the smaller gray sphere. She checked the instrument panel. She was out of the gravity well danger zone, but the planet had changed her trajectory. Time to stop this spin.
The ion engines and directional thrusters refused to ignite.
Her skin inside the flight suit prickled with sweat. She rerouted power relays on the instrument panel. Still no response from the engines. “Vader take Vader,” she snarled. The rate she was going didn’t leave her with much time to make in-cockpit repairs. The hum of her danger sense increased. What was she headed towards? The instrument panel showed the decreasing space between the TIE fighter and Yavin 4. Great, she was headed for the habitable satellite in this system. Entry into the atmosphere was going to end in a crash, shavit. She scrambled over the instrument panel again. One of these connections had to work, had to.
The atmosphere buffeted the spherical craft. And the directional thrusters finally responded. She aimed them to slow her descent, not that they had much thrust against her velocity and Yavin 4’s gravity. But she was able to flatten out the descent. By the Force, it had to be enough.