Authors: Michael Reaves
The command officer on deck, Captain Rax Exeter, waved Vil over.
“Cap, what’s up? Another drill?”
“Negative, Lieutenant. A group of prisoners somehow managed to take over one of the new
-class shuttles. They’re trying to get far enough away to make the jump to hyperspace. That isn’t going to happen on my watch. The ID codes and tracking will be in your fighter’s computer. Don’t let ’em get away, son.”
“No, sir. What about the crew?” Vil knew the new shuttles carried only a pilot and copilot.
“Assumed dead. These are bad guys doing this, Dance—traitors and murderers. That’s reason enough to cook them, but we do
want them getting away to tell anybody what the Empire is doing out here, do we?”
“Go, Lieutenant, go!”
Vil nodded, not bothering to salute, then turned and ran. As he did, he put his helmet on and locked it into place.
The hiss of air into his face was metallic and cool as the suit’s system went online. It felt very comforting. The vac suit’s extreme-temp-resistant weave of durasteel and plastoid, along with the polarizing densecris helmet, were the only things that would protect him from hard vacuum. Suit failure could make a strong man lose consciousness in under ten seconds, and die in under a minute. He’d seen it happen.
TIE fighters, in order to save mass, had no defensive shield generators, no hyperdrive capability, and no emergency life-support systems. They were thus fragile, but fast, and that was fine with Vil. He’d rather dodge enemy fire than hope it would bounce off. There was no skill in piloting some lumbering chunk of durasteel; might as well be sitting with your feet up at a turbolaser console back on the ship. Where was the fun in that?
The TIE tech had the hatch up on Black-11 as Vil arrived at the gantry above the ship. It was the work of an instant to clamber down and into the fighter’s snug cockpit.
The hatch came down and hissed shut. Vil touched the power-up stud, and the inside of the TIE—named for the twin ion engines that drove it—lit up. He scanned the controls with a quick and experienced eye. All systems were green.
The tech raised his hand in question. Vil waved back. “Go!”
“Copy that, ST-One-One. Prepare for insertion.”
Vil felt his lips twitch in annoyance. The Empire was determined to erase all signs of individuality in its pilots, on the absurd theory that nameless, faceless operators were somehow more effective. Thus the classification numbers, the anonymous flight suits and helmets, and the random rotation of spacecraft. The standardizing approach had worked reasonably well in the Clone Wars, but there was one important difference here: neither Vil nor any other TIE pilot that he knew of was a clone. None of the members
of Alpha Squad had any intention of being reduced to automata. If that was what the Empire really wanted, let them use droid pilots and see how well that worked.
His musing was interrupted by the small jolt of the cycling rack below the gantry kicking on. Vil’s ship began to move toward the launching bay door. He saw the tech slip his own helmet on and lock it down.
Already the bay pumps were working full blast, depressurizing the area. By the time the launch doors were open, the air would be cycled. Vil took a deep breath, readying himself for the heavy hand of g-force that would push him back into the seat when the engines hurled him forward.
Launch Control’s voice crackled in his headphones. “Alpha Squad Leader, stand by for launch.”
“Copy,” Vil said. The launch doors pulled back with tantalizing slowness, the hydraulic
of their movement made audible by conduction through the floor and Black-11’s frame.
“You are go for launch in five, four, three, two …
Outside the confines of the Star Destroyer, the vastness of space enveloped Lieutenant Vil Dance as the ion engines pushed the TIE past the last stray wisps of frozen air and into the infinite dark. He grinned. He always did. He couldn’t help it.
Back where I belong …
The flat blackness of space surrounded him. Behind him, he knew, the
was seemingly shrinking as they pulled away from it. “Down” and to port was the curvature of the prison planet. Though they were in polar orbit, Despayre’s axial tilt showed more of the night side than day. The dark hemisphere was mostly unrelieved blackness, with a few lonely lights here and there.
Vil flicked his comm—though it came on automatically at launch, a good pilot always toggled it, just to be sure. “Alpha Squad, pyramid formation on me as soon as you
are clear,” he said. “Go to tactical channel five, that’s tacfiver, and log in.”
Vil switched his own comm channel to five. It was a lower-powered band with a shorter range, but that was the point—you didn’t want the enemy overhearing you. And in some cases, it wasn’t a good idea for the comm officer monitoring you back on the base ship to be privy to conversations, either. They tended to be a bit more informal than the Empire liked.
There came a chorus of “Copy, Alpha Leader!” from the other eleven pilots in his squad as they switched over to the new channel.
It took only a few seconds for the last fighter to launch, and only a few more for the squad to form behind Vil.
“What’s the drill, Vil?” That from Benjo, aka ST-1-2, his second in command and right panelman.
“Alpha Squadron, we have a
-class shuttle captured by prisoners. They are running for hyper. Either they give up and come back, or we dust ’em.”
-class? That’s one of the new ones, right? They have any guns?”
Vil sighed. That was Raar Anyell, a Corellian like Vil himself, but not somebody you’d want to hold up as a prime example of the human species. “Don’t you bother to read the boards at all, Anyell?”
“I was just about to do that, sir, when the alarm went off. Was looking right at ’em. Had the latest notices right in my hand. Sir.”
The other pilots laughed, and even Vil had to grin. Anyell was a foul-up everywhere except in the cockpit, but he was a good enough pilot that Vil was willing to give him some slice.
His sensor screen pinged, giving him an image of their quarry. He altered course to intercept.
“Anybody else behind on his homework, listen up,” he said. “The
-class shuttle is twenty meters long, has
a top speed of fourteen hundred g, a Class-One hyperdrive, and can carry twenty troops in full battle gear—probably a couple more convicts in civvies.
“The ship carries three double-blaster cannons and two double-laser cannons. It can’t accelerate worth a wheep and it turns slower than a comet, but if you get in its sights, it
blow you to itty-bitty pieces. It would be embarrassing to have to inform your family you got shot apart by a shuttle, so stay alert.”
There came another chorus of acknowledgments:
“Anyell, I didn’t hear
“Oh, sorry, sir, I was taking a little nap. What was the question?”
Before the squad commander could reply, the shuttle suddenly loomed ahead. It was running as silently as possible, with no lights, but as its orbit brought it across the terminator and out of Despayre’s night side, the sunlight struck rays from its hull.
“There is our target, four kilometers dead ahead. I want a fast flyby so they can see us, and then I want a fountain pattern dispersal and loop, two klicks minimum distance and bracket, one, four, four, and two, you know who you are. I’ll move in close and have a word with whoever they have flying the stolen spacecraft.”
Benjo: “Aw, Lieutenant, come on, let us have a shot, too.”
“Negative. If you had a clue about the vessel, I might, but since you’re just as likely to shoot each other as the quarry, you’ll hold the bracket.”
More acknowledgments, but without much enthusiasm. He couldn’t blame his squad—they hadn’t had any action except drills since they’d been assigned to this project—but his secondary goal was to bring all his men back alive. The
primary, of course, was to accomplish their mission. He didn’t need a squad for this; any fighter pilot worth his spit should be able to deal with a lumbering shuttle, even one with the new-vehicle smell still in it. The Lambda’s delta vee wasn’t all that efficient, but with constant drive it could get above the solar plane and far enough out of the planet’s gravity well to engage its hyperdrive fairly soon—and once it was in the chute, they’d never find it.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
The pyramid-shaped formation zipped past the fleeing shuttle, close enough for Vil to see the pilot sitting in the command seat. He didn’t look surprised, of course—he would have seen them coming on the sensors. But he couldn’t outrun them, couldn’t dodge, and no way could he take out a full squad of TIE fighters even if he was the best gunner who’d ever lived, not in that boat. And anyway, Vil wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to try.
The squad flowered into the dispersal maneuver as ordered, looping out and away to their assigned positions, angled pressor beams in their arrays providing maneuverability. Vil pulled a high-g tight turn and came around to parallel the shuttle a few hundred meters away, slightly above it. He watched the wing turrets closely. As soon as they started to track him, he jinked to port, then to starboard, slowed, then sped up. They tried to keep up with him, but they were a hair too slow.
Vil toggled to a wide-band channel. They’d hear this back in the Destroyer, he knew.
“Attention, shuttle RLH-One. Turn the craft around and proceed immediately to Star Destroyer
’s tractor beam range.”
There was no answer; nothing but the slight hiss of the carrier.
“Shuttle craft, do you copy my transmission?”
Another pause. Then: “Yeah, we hear you, rocketjock. We aren’t of a mind to do that.”
Vil looked at his control panel. They were two minutes away from Minimum Safe Distance—the point far enough from Despayre where they could safely attempt the jump to lightspeed. Jump too close to a planet’s gravity well and the shift would tear the vessel apart. If the guy he was talking to had enough skill to fly the shuttle, he’d know that. His control panel would tell him when he reached MSD, and then it would be over. Lieutenant Dance would have failed a mission, for the first time.
, he thought. “Turn it around, or we
fire,” he said.
“You’d do that? Just blow us apart? Essentially murder fifteen men—and two women? One of them is old enough to be your granny. You can live with that?”
He was stalling for time, Vil knew. The beings on that shuttle were bad enough to have been sent to the galaxy’s number one prison planet, and the Imperial courts didn’t bother to do that with petty thieves or traffic violators. His granny hadn’t robbed any banks or killed anybody. Not that he knew of, anyway.
“Shuttle pilot, I say again—”
Vil saw the port turret on the shuttle open up. He cut across the craft’s flight path, angling away aft as the starboard gun began firing. He hit his thrusters full, coming up in a half loop and twisting away from the incoming laser-fire.
Even a good gunner couldn’t have spiked him at this angle, and these guys weren’t anywhere close to good enough. Still, the pulsed incandescent beams came close.
“Lieutenant—!” That from Benjo.
“Hold your position, Alpha Squad, there’s no problem here.” Cool and calm. Like discussing what they might be having for dinner.
He zipped Black-11 out of range.
The clock was running down. Less than a minute to MSD.
“Last chance, shuttle. Turn it around.
In answer, the pilot pulled the shuttle topward so his gunners could get a better angle. They started shooting again.
The shots were wild, but there was always a chance a stray beam could hit you, even by accident. And wouldn’t that be a glorious end to an unblemished career? To be killed by a convict on a milking shuttle?
Enough of this
. Vil hit the drive controls and damped the thrust to zero. Then he pushed the throttles to full, angled to port and topside, did a roll and loop, and came around, driving at the shuttle amidships.
He pressed the fire-control button.
Black-11 spat twin laser bolts from the low-temp tips—
blip-blip, blip-blip, blip-blip
Vil Dance was a better-than-average shooter. The bolts ripped into the shuttle, chewed it up, and as he overflew and peeled away to starboard-downside, the
blew apart, shattering into at least half a dozen large pieces and hundreds of smaller ones amid a cloud of flash-frozen air, liquid, and debris.
And pinwheeling bodies.
Vil switched back to tac-five. “Anyell, Lude, move in and check for survivors.” He kept his voice calm, emotionless, no big deal. His pulse was racing, but they didn’t have to know that. Let them think his heart pumped liquid oxy.
“None of ’em were wearing suits, Lieutenant,” Lude said a moment later. “No survivors. Too bad about that brand-new ship.”
“Good hit, Vil,” Benjo said. “Congratulations.”
Vil felt a warm glow of satisfaction. It had been a good hit. And they had been firing at him, so it wasn’t like shooting yorks in a canister. It had been a righteous response.
He switched back to the main op-chan. “Fighter Control, this is ST-One-One, Lieutenant Vil Dance of TIE fighter Alpha Squadron. Mission accomplished. You might want to send out a recovery vessel to pick up the pieces.”
“Copy, ST-One-One,” said Captain Exeter. “Good job.”
“Thank you, sir. Let’s return to base, Alpha Squad.”
Vil smiled as he waited for his team to form up again. This was the best job in the galaxy, being a fighter pilot. He couldn’t imagine a better one. He was young, not even twenty-five yet, and already a legend among his peers—and among the ladies as well. Life was good.
As they started for the Destroyer, Vil saw in the distance the frame of the gigantic battle station that was being built in planetary orbit. They were a hundred kilometers away from the structure, and it was still skeletal, its interior construction only just begun, but even so, it looked impossibly huge at this distance. It was to be the size of a small moon when it was finished, dwarfing the largest Star Destroyer.