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Starfighters swarmed from the sides of the Mon Calamari cruiser Mon Remonda like insects from a deep-space nest. They formed up in four groupstwo X-wing, one A-wing, one B-wingand descended toward Levian Two, the world Mon Remonda now orbited. From this altitude, it seemed stony and orange and impossibly inhospitable, but the comm chatter the pilots were picking up suggested otherwise.
"Entering Delta Sector. More of the same. I'll map-flag locations of survivors." "Ravine Six here. Repulsorlift is out. I'm going to have to attempt a high-speed landing." "Ravine Six, switch to ten-oh-three. You've got your own controller standing by." "Beta Sector Base, this is Beta Ten. I read unknowns descending, four groups." "Beta Ten, this is Base. There are some TIEs in the unknowns but they're mostly friendlies."
Wedge sighed and activated his comm unit. "Beta Sector Base, this is Rogue Leader. You've got Rogue, Wraith, Polearm, and Nova Squadrons in descent to your position. Looks like we're a little late to the party."
"'Fraid so, Rogue Leader. You've missed a Raptor raid. They blasted out of here half an hour ago. We've got settlements and facilities hit all over this hemisphere. Could we interest you in some search-and-rescue action?"
"Glad to oblige. Give us vectors for twenty search pairs and we'll get on it."
"Ships dropping out of hyperspace!" It was Mon Remonda's sensor officer, Golorno, a human young enough not to be able to keep his voice level in times of stress. "I count four, five, six capital ships!"
Han Solo abandoned his armature-mounted chair and moved to stand behind Golorno. He turned to his communications officer. "Recall the starfighters now." Then he leaned over Golorno's shoulder. "Details, I need details," he said.
"Uh, uh, two Star Destroyers, one Imperial-class, one Victory-class. One heavy cruiser, a Dreadnaught, I think. Two light cruiserstelemetry says probably Carrack-class. At the back of the formation . . ." The young officer's voice dropped. "One Super-class Star Destroyer."
"Iron Fist." Solo straightened and slapped his hands together. "He's finally decided to come in for a scrap."
He calculated unit strengths. His flagship was Mon Remonda, one of the most powerful of the Mon Calamari cruisers, and its pilot complement, led by Wedge Antilles, couldn't be better. Also in this portion of his fleet were Mon Karren, a Mon Cal cruiser of more normal strength, Tedevium, a frigate recently converted from a training ship back to a combat vessel, and Etherhawk, a Marauder-class corvette that was just one restoration job ahead of being dilapidated. Not nearly enough strength to handle the fleet Zsinj had assembled against him . . . but Zsinj didn't know that Solo's Group 2 was standing by outside the Levian system. One holocomm call and Solo's strength would be doubled, making this more of a fair slugging match. "Call in Group Two," he ordered. "How long before Zsinj's force reaches us?"
"Three minutes, sir."
"How long before the starfighters return?"
"They're grouping. Four or five minutes, sir."
Solo sighed. "Slugging match" was to be the correct phrase for it.
An impulse caused him to turn back to the door out of the bridge. As he'd suspected, Chewbacca was there, just outside, standing by. The Wookiee, who chose to have no official role in the anti-Zsinj group, but preferred to stay near the bridge and Solo, had come up as soon as the tenor of voices from the bridge sounded different. Solo gave him a confident grin.
"A second group is dropping out of hyperspace, sir!"
Solo whipped around to stare at the sensor screen again. It was broadening, updatingthe data stream at the bottom indicated that the sensor screen was being supplemented by information from Tedevium.
It showed another force of capital ships appearing on the far side of Levian Two. Telemetry indicated that the new force included two Star Destroyers, two Dreadnaughts, a light cruiser, and a Lancer-class frigatea vessel designed especially to assault swarms of starfighters.
"We're in trouble," Solo said.
Golorno turned to look up at Solo. He wasn't able to mask his fear.
Solo gave him a reassuring half grin. "Don't worry. I know when to dump my cargo and run." He turned to the navigator. "Set us a course out of here. What's the closest path to get us out of Levian Two's gravity well?"
The Mon Calamari navigator consulted his board. "Directly through the Super Star Destroyer's force, sir."
"Figures. Make that our primary course. Pass it on to our group."
"Communications, revise my order to Group Two. Tell them to be on course and ready for a jump at any second, but to stand by."
He turned to Captain Onoma, a Mon Calamari male with salmon-colored skin. "Captain, take us out."
"Third hostile group dropping out of hyperspace!"
Solo turned to look, disbelieving, at Golorno. "You have got to be kidding."
Wedge Antilles stood his X-wing on its tail and blasted toward the sky.
He'd sent Polearm Squadron, the A-wing unit commanded by Captain Todra Mayn, on ahead. There was little tactical sense in keeping the faster craft back with the X-wings and B-wings. Now Wedge led Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron in escorting Nova Squadron, the B-wing unit.
Sensor data arriving from Mon Remonda showed Solo's group closing slowly on a unit of six capital ships. The Mon Cal cruiser was already swarming with enemy starfighters, and defenders from Mon Karren and Tedevium.
Wedge added up the numbers on that. Those two ships could field five squadrons of starfighters between them. The enemy force ahead could field nearly twenty-two squadrons. And then there were enemies coming up from behindas Wedge's squadrons cleared the atmosphere, his sensors picked up two additional groups of capital ships chasing Solo's force.
This was not going to be good.
Wedge wondered if Baron Fel was among the starfighter pilots assaulting Mon Remonda. Soontir Fel was one of the greatest pilots ever to emerge from the Imperial Academy, one of the greatest to have flown with Rogue Squadronand a man who shared a secret with Wedge Antilles.
They were brothers-in-law. Only they and a very few others knew that famous Imperial actress Wynssa Starflare was also Wedge's sister Syal Antilles. Since the disappearance of Fel and Syal several years ago, Wedge had had no news whatsoever of his sister. Now Fel was back, but flying for the wrong side, and there was still no word of Syal. It was a secret Wedge kept very close. One of his own pilots, Face Loran, had even starred in a holodrama with Wynssa Starflare, but Wedge had never confided the secret to him, even to obtain Face's reminiscences about his sister.
And now, once again, Wedge was rushing into battle with a force that might include Fel, leading to the grim possibility that he might have to shoot down his own brother-in-law . . . and perhaps lose any clue Fel might offer to Syal's fate.
Sensors showed that the Iron Fist force had, since the last communication from Mon Remonda, turned about and was now retreating before Han Solo's force. Wedge nodded. If Zsinj maintained a course toward the planet, his force and Solo's would blast past one another in a matter of split seconds, exchanging one low-accuracy barrage, and then Zsinj would have to turn his force around to pursue. By retreating before Solo on the shortest course to an area of space where the New Republic fleet could engage their hyperdrives, he prolonged the engagement.
Wedge's squadrons caught up to Mon Remonda, but circled around several kilometers from the Mon Cal cruiser. At this distance, the swarming dogfight between starfighters near the cruiser looked like twinkling stars. A grim simileWedge reminded himself that some of those twinkles were explosions that had once been friends and allies.
"S-foils to attack position," he ordered, and suited action to words by toggling the appropriate switch above his line of sight. His S-foils split and locked into the familiar profile that gave the X-wing its name. "B-wings, you may arm your weapons."
His sensors showed Zsinj's force spread out before the approaching Mon Remonda. Straightforward tactics; it meant Mon Remonda couldn't expect to make a minor course change to elude a tight group of ships even temporarily. Any minor course change would still send Mon Remonda into the umbrella of enemy ships; any major course change would allow the pursuit ships to catch up.
But this tactic was about to work in Wedge's favor.
They dove in toward Iron Fist's stern. Sensors showed no starfighter response from the Super Star Destroyereither the remaining squadrons were being slow to scramble, or all squadrons were engaged with Mon Remonda.
Then flashes of light emerged from the destroyer's stern, congregating on Wedge's force, and the ball-like detonations of concussion missiles began to fill the space around them. Wedge was rocked by a near miss. "Begin evasive maneuvers," he said. "X-wings, ready torpedoes. Remember, port engines only."
Pair by pair, his X-wings began a dance, juking and jinking to throw off the aim of the Imperial gunners they so rapidly approached. The B-wings hung back, allowing the X-wings to draw the initial fire.
Wedge's range meter scrolled down below two kilometers, the maximum effective range for his targeting computer. Enemy turbolaser fire increased in intensityand proximity.
At fifteen hundred meters, he said, "Launch one, launch two." He fired, sending paired proton torpedoes toward one of Iron Fist's stern engines. More blue streaks than he could count emerged from his X-wings, instantly crossing the distance to the destroyer, which was suddenly and brilliantly illuminated by their detonations against the port side of the stern.
He looped to port. "Novas, your turn."
"Acknowledged, and thanks, Rogue Leader." That was the voice of Nova One. "Novas, launch one and begin ion fire."
Blue streaks leaped from the B-wings. Then the ungainly-looking craft continued their dive toward Iron Fist's engines, their ion cannons sustaining fire against the destroyer's stern.
Wedge wished them success. They were designed to hurt capital ships; their pilots knew what they were doing. But if Iron Fist called back its starfighters and the Novas didn't notice in time, the entire squad could be lost.
Now it was time to meet the weak link of this force: Zsinj's light cruisers.