“Rogues, lock S-foils into attack position.”
Jaina flipped the switch on her control panel and the horizontal wings of her craft split in two, proving the reason for the X-wing name. She kept a tight grip on the stick, holding professional formation with her wing group as the Rogues sped out of the Star Destroyer’s hangar bay and towards the Baci fleet. It was immense and frightening to behold, like a shower of sickle moons raining death. Jaina had to partially close herself off from the Force because of the sheer number of minds aware of her. It was a little sickening, but she kept her sabacc face on despite the fact no one could see her.
“Eleven, tighten it up,” a voice came over the comm.
Jaina cursed under her breath and eased back into her spot. The distractions the Baci provided had caused her to momentarily slip away from the shield trio in her flight. Her flight consisted of Rogues Ten, Eleven, and Twelve, their flight leader being Pash Cracken and her other wingmate a young woman by the name of Anni Capstan. “Sorry, Ten.” He double clicked his comm in a clear signal to cut any unnecessary chatter.
“Rogue Squadron,” a voice from the bridge of the Galactic Voyager announced over the squadron comm frequency, “target enemy vessel at twenty nine degrees starboard of your current position. Provide cover for incoming dropships.”
“Understood, Voyager,” Gavin replied. The indicated target was around the equivalent of a Dreadnaught in size and armament, but with a curved shape, like an elliptical cut in half. It was much larger from its belly to its top that from starboard to portside. To Jaina, it looked like a massive flying fin. “Flights one, two, and three prepare for an attack run. Four flight, escort dropship 9970 into atmosphere.” There was a chorale of comm clicks.
“Eleven, Twelve, form up on me,” Pash ordered. Jaina fell in line behind his X-wing, forming the right point of their triangle shaped arrangement. Their shields overlapped, providing extra support as he led them in a swooping pass towards the group of troop carriers making for Tatooine’s surface.
Jaina kept her eyes on the scopes as well as the lumbering Baci vessels. The Rebellion forces were slowly moving to engage, though none of the capital ships were in range of each other’s guns. In the middle there was a nasty clash of smaller fighters, like a swarm of flitnats buzzing around each other and the heads of the bigger ships. The Chiss task force—that consisted of eight clawcraft squadrons, five Chiss Star Destroyers, and seven corvettes—were moving in on the enemy’s portside flank, and were closest to a full out slugging match. They were only a fraction of what the Ascendancy had promised to send in exchange for a confidentiality agreement over their new superweapon, but they seriously tipped the odds of this fight in the hands of the Rebellion. Fleetingly, Jaina wondered which pinprick was Jag Fel’s clawcraft. She didn’t have time to think about it long.
“Four Flight, watch your starboard side, enemies coming in at oh-oh-two-three-nine-seven,” Pash Cracken’s voice broke her meditation.
“I see them,” Anni Capstan announced. Jaina did too. She counted ten snubfighter sized vessels coming in hard and fast for the troop transport they were trying to escort through the melee and onto Tatooine.
“Stay close. Target forward craft on my mark,” Pash’s voice was cold and authoritative, and it sent a little thrill over her spine. She ignored it and let her thumb hover over the firing stud. “Fighter in range in three, two, one, mark!” All three X-wings fired at once, twelve lasers all soaring to the one fighter. Amazingly, it curved at the last instant and all their shots vanished into space. Jaina wanted to smack herself in the forehead.
“Ten, we’re never going to hit them like this. They’re reading our intentions in the Force,” she said, curving back towards the undefended troop carrier.
“How do you know?”
Jaina bit back a snappy retort. “I can feel it just like they can,” her words came out just in time to dodge as they came within the enemy’s firing range. Two blasts pounded into her aft shields, and several more sped past and into the hull of the drop ship. “We’ve got to be random about it so they can’t get as good a feel for us. Trust me on this one.”
There was a pause in which the only noise was the sound of lasers slamming into hull armor. Then, “Understood. You better be right about this. Four Flight, break on my mark and engage at will. Three, two, one, mark.”
Jaina swung her X-wing in an upward spiral and held the position for four heartbeats before slamming her stick forward to plunge the ship in a relative downward motion. Her torpedo launchers found a lock and she released it. The torp left a bright ion trail, and she saw it detonate against the enemy fighter’s shields, blowing the whole thing apart. At the same time she peppered its distracted wingmate with laserfire, punching through its shields and ripping open the fin-ship open to vacuum.
“I got two,” she announced, knowing it was against protocol but too proud of herself to stay silent.
“Good. Only three left,” Pash replied coolly.
Jaina scanned her instruments in amazement. “But…there were ten of them following us.”
“That’s right,” came his easy response. “Two for you, one for Anni, and four for me. Three left.”
She cast a look at his X-wing alongside her, watching the bobbing helmet through his canopy. Could he really be that good? She supposed he had to be. With no words, she double-clicked her comm and turned to the remaining fin ships.
“Here they come,” Anni announced.
“And they’ve brought more finnies,” Jaina grunted, watching the extra fighters regroup on an approach vector.
“Finnies?” Pash asked.
“What else am I going to call them?” Jaina returned.
She got a short laugh in answer. “Okay. Let’s get to it then.”
- * *
The Millennium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace in the middle of the Rebellion fleet, with Han at the controls, Chewie in the copilot seat and Jacen in the upper quads. The Baci fleet hung in an almost-blockade around Tatooine, massive and alien as anything Han had ever seen. The ships were built on a tall vertical axis, like thin, curved metal sheets of different sizes hanging over the desert like so many crescent moons.
He whistled through his teeth, and Chewie growled low in his throat. “Tell me about it, Chewie. Hey kid, you better get those things warmed up. Looks like we’re going to be busy,” he added into the internal comm.
“I’m on it Dad,” Jacen assured him. “You just line me up with a target and I’ll do the rest.”
“I don’t think we’re going to have a targeting problem,” Han muttered. “You can probably close your eyes and just swing from side to side.” Chewbacca barked a short laugh.
Han turned momentarily back towards Tatooine’s surface. If Luke was right, his princess had escaped and was somewhere down there waiting for him to come rescue her. For what might have been the millionth time he regretted letting Wedge talk him into flying with one of the assault groups. He should be down there, scouring the sands until he found her. But Mara was there, and Anakin. They could find her in the Force much quicker than he could by himself. It still chafed, though.
“Captain Solo, our orders?” a very clipped and military voice—a vaguely familiar one—beckoned over the comm. Han scowled at his instruments. They had assigned one of those Chiss squadrons to him as well, which he predicted would be much more of an annoyance than a help. But there was nothing to be done about that either.
“That you, Junior?” He asked with a grin, knowing Fel would be aggravated by the blatant disrespect and lack of protocol.
There was an angry pause. “This is Colonel Fel flying as Spike Lead,” he answered at last.
“That’s what I thought. Listen, you just do your thing and I’ll do mine. When you need help just holler and if I’m not too busy cleaning Baci guts off my viewport I’ll try to bail you out. Falcon out,” he grinned wider as he imagined the stiff colonel’s lack of amusement.
“Jacen, hold on back there. It’s going to be a rough ride.”
- * *
Cale glanced through the widescreens on the bridge of the Dintellion at the sizeable fleet that had just entered the system. Without any of the customary procedure of negotiation first, the fleet split into three groups and moved to engage his own. Cale smiled.
“Zeya, I think it’s time you moved in our ground team,” he spoke casually over his shoulder.
She moved to stand beside him, face hard and her arms crossed over her breast. “If I find Leia…”
He pondered that question. When she had been out of his reach, he had wanted her dead. But now that it was possible to claim her and the baby again—and that she served as an excellent decoy—he wasn’t so sure. “If you can, disarm and recapture her. If it’s too much of a nuisance just kill her and get it over with. But don’t let her return to her family.”
She nodded politely. Then, with a smirk, “I rather hope I encounter a Jedi to test my lightsaber on.”
Cale turned to look down at her overly cheerful face. She had constructed her own Jedi weapon with success, and trained fanatically with it since. She had gotten quite good in his estimation, but good might not be good enough when against a fully trained Jedi. But Zeya was his most resourceful and powerful ally. He had full confidence that she would make it out alive, by whatever means necessary. “Don’t hope too hard, Zeya. I’d rather invent some plan to wipe them all out at once. They’re my only concern in this endeavor, and that’s only a minor irritant.”
She made a considerable effort to hide her eye roll from the subordinates scurrying about on the bridge. “That’s fine for you. But I don’t like being second best. I want to know that I can beat them if I have to.”
He waved her off. “You’ll do fine. Now go, and make that retreat look convincing.”
- * *
Leia ran through the panicked streets with the other inhabitants of Bestine, trying to blend in with the sand covered locals. None of them had any idea what was going on, and truthfully she only had a vague knowledge of it herself. But she did know that there was a Baci fleet up there, and that meant she had to find some place to hide fast.
One of the spaceport hubs loomed ahead, a russet dome reaching for the sky. Having no better ideas, she jogged in that direction. The entrances to a dozen docking bays were being flooded as beings hurried to flee the planet under siege. Leia moved inside one of the bays, searching for somewhere that could conceal her. The ship inside was prepping for takeoff, it’s cargo that should have been loaded still scattered about the alcove. Three meter by three meter crates were stacked in high piles all around the edges of the port. A grin touched on her lips.
As the ship lifted away Leia sprinted towards the abandoned crates. They were heavy and full of Force knows what, but that wasn’t her concern. She came to the highest pile and circled it like a predator would its prey. Then, seeing no other alternative, she stretched out a hand and lifted the topmost container out of the stack and set it on the floor beside her. It wasn’t hard to climb to the peak and drop down into the recess left by the box. Then she stretched out and returned the carton to its place above her, only instead of down in the crevice where it had been she balance it on the edge, covering her hiding hole.
Leia settled back to wait.
- * *
The drop ship set down on the far edge of the city Bestine. Mara still had no definite feel of Leia’s presence, but she sensed a slight tremor in the Force around the city. That, and the comm message Luke had received convinced her to put down there. “Soldiers, I want every nook and cranny of this place scoured until you’ve found Ambassador Solo. You’ve all been given her physical profile account, and anyone who matches that description is to be brought to me. Is that understood?” There was a unanimous affirmative. “Then go to it! Go!”
They jumped lithely into the sands and sprinted toward the city gates, blasters at the ready. All around the city other dropships were following suit. Mara dropped into the dunes herself and slid to the bottom of the sand pile. She turned and looked back up into the hold where Anakin still stood, lightsaber in hand but disengaged. She cocked her head in the direction of the citadel. “Come on, Slick. We’ve got work to do.”
He jumped down into the dusty pile beside her, a determined look on his face. “She’s here. I can feel it.”
Mara patted him on the shoulder and headed off after her troops. They were a quarter of the way to the outer gates when the sand started to blow in an unnatural wind. She turned and looked up, and descending out of the sky was a cloud of Baci craft. “Oh, shavit,” she muttered, and ignited her lightsaber. Anakin followed suit. With her left hand she pulled out the comlink and announced on the command frequency, “Units 540 and 880 return to initial landing zone. Bring the heavy artillery and pulse cannons to the front. Kyp, Eelysa, one of you find Leia and the other come give Anakin and I some backup.” Rows of troopers turned on their heel and veered back in the direction they had come. The heavy guns were put on their tripods and opened up on the landing vessels. Some exploded in balls of fire and shrapnel before ever touching the ground.
Mara turned an indomitable look on her nephew. He had the same look on his face Luke got when he was about to do something he naively considered noble, when usually it was juts foolish. “Stay close and try not to do anything stupid.” He didn’t take offense, but just nodded.
Then the Baci began to return fire. Small one man fighters whizzed by in strafing runs, cutting the ranks of rebel troops into shreds. Mara kept a tight grip on her lightsaber and stood her ground, refusing to give an inch. Fire rained down around her, crystallizing the sands as some came close enough to blister her skin. She returned any fire she could back in the direction of the ships.
They touched down, and immediately armored Baci soldiers poured out of the hatches, firing the whole way. Mara charged, swinging her blue blade in a deathly arc to cut through their storm. She found it hard to keep a center in the Force with so many other minds stretching out to find the same balance; they were much more adept at such situations than she was. More and more she noticed that her lightsaber missed its mark, mostly because by the time she swung there was no longer a target there. They were tracking her movements as a group and trying to coordinate a systematic attack against her. Not good at all.
Mara sent five final blaster bolts back at her assailants and leaped into an airborne spiral. She twisted as she went, rolling in Force guided motion to avoid the weapons tracking her. She landed on her feet a good ten meters behind the ranks of her soldiers, but immediately shouldered her way forward to cover Anakin’s retreat. Once he was behind her she moved backwards again, still blocking the streams of enemy fire. “Anakin, this is too intense for you! Get into the city walls and find Leia, then get her out of here!”
He shook his head only once, then dropped to his knees and slammed his whole fist into the earth. A ripple like a concussions grenade swelled the sands under the feet of a whole corps of Baci gunmen and swallowed them under the dunes. Mara looked at her nephew in incredulity. “Where did you learn to do that?” she demanded.
“It’s called improvising, Aunt Mara.” His blue eyes glazed momentarily. “Trouble,” he nodded off to their right. Mara felt it even as he spoke. She swiveled in that direction, trusting him to cover her for a moment. On the landing ramp of a Baci carrier stood a woman, tall and dark haired like the rest of her race. But in her hand was a blazing viridian lightsaber, and her black eyes smiled at Mara. She raised the saber in salute, beckoning the Jedi. Mara’s grip shifted on the hilt of her own weapon instinctively.
“I’ll take care of this. Hold them back as best you can. Try not to get yourself killed.” Then she somersaulted over the lances of deathly energy shooting from both sides to land a good fifty meters away from the woman. She immediately broke into a sprint upon impact, relying on her own physical strength to propel her across the desert instead of the Force. The woman met her half way.
They clashed like a pair of snarling nexu, Mara feinting a drive with the point of her saber towards her opponent’s head, but instead breaking back her wrist to get inside her guard near the hilt. But the Baci was clever, and cracked her left forearm against Mara’s clasped hands while attacking from the opposite side. Mara threw herself onto her back and swept the other’s feet out from under her, leaving them both prone on the ground.
Mara recovered first and rolled to the right and up on one knee, then yanked her hold out blaster from its sleeve holster and fired three shots. The Baci avoided all three and with a savage and surprisingly powerful yank in the Force, tugged it out of Mara’s hands. Her lightsaber cut it in half mid-air, and the pieces scattered to either side.
“Where did you get that?” Mara demanded as they both eyed each other over the laser swords. The blue-green hue of the Baci woman’s blade made her ebony hair glow the same shade, and cast her eyes a sickly olive.
“I made it,” she answered in a thick accent.
“Why?” Mara circled her slowly, keeping her footwork light and steady.
She received a feral grin. “The better to kill you with.” She lunged at Mara with a flurry of blows, rapidly switching sides and directions to throw the Jedi off balance. Mara kept pace easily. She was pretty good, but not nearly good enough for a fully trained and well seasoned Jedi Master.
Mara parried a low blow at her left ankle and took advantage of the Baci’s open left flank. She moved into a gorgeous roundhouse kick, and clearly heard the cracking of bone when her booted right foot connected with the other’s head. The Baci staggered forward a few steps, and a lesser Jedi would have used the opportunity to attack her exposed back. But Mara wasn’t worried about victory, but answers. Instead, she put all her weight into a downward jab of her elbow that drove the Baci to her knees. Mara circled to face her again, keeping her lightsaber at low guard. “Who are you?” she challenged, searching for an opportunity to disarm the other woman. But so far she was keeping the lightsaber in a solid hold.
The Baci looked up, and Mara noted a small trickling of blood from her nose. But rather than a reply, Mara was taken off guard by an unexpected Force punch from behind. It pitched her forward, straight towards the other’s waiting blade. Mara tried to roll to the right as she fell, but only partially succeeded. The viridian blade burned a neat hole in Mara’s left shoulder, and for a crucial second Mara lost sight of everything but the pain. But she had spent too many years as the Emperor’s Hand, and her combat instincts saved her. She was reeling away even as she hit the ground, kicking out viciously. Her left foot contacted with something hard, and there was an accompanying oomph sound in response.
When Mara again gained control over the pain and her vision she was lying on her back two meters away from where she had fallen, and the Baci was scrambling through the sand to the spot where Mara had dropped her lightsaber. Desperately Mara called it in the Force into her hand, and it leaped to life as soon as it hit her palm. She found her feet slowly but calmly, suppressing her pain and panic as best she could. Mara found with disgust that her left hand couldn’t support the weight of the grip, and when she tried the whole right side of her body burned like she was one fire. She shifted her weapon to her right hand. “Clever. But now you’ve tired my patience,” she muttered, then pounced, quick as lightning.
She pivoted on her left foot, catching the unprepared Baci under the chin with the other. She finished the rotation and dropped into a crouch before driving the point of her blade forward like a spear. The Baci jumped out of the way, bringing her own saber down like a hammer at Mara’s head. Mara caught her hilt in her left hand, having forgotten her injury in the surges of adrenaline. The agony caused her to scream, but true to her nature she held fast. The heat of her impairment fueled her into action, and she drove the lightsaber into the Baci’s side.
The woman cried out in hurt and surprise, falling away from Mara. But the Jedi was done playing, and she stalked forward in search of a finish. Then, out of nowhere, the dirt at Mara’s feet exploded into a cloud of sand and dust, shooting up into her face. Mara staggered backwards, swinging her lightsaber defensively. She was temporarily blinded, the grains of sand choking her lungs and grating against her eyeballs. She coughed furiously, still spinning in a defensive ring. But no attack came.
Eventually the dust attack settled and Mara was able to crack open one irritated eye. It was just in time to see her prey bounding up the ramp of her freighter. Mara took ten half-hearted steps in pursuit before it lifted off the ground and back towards space.