The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Fifteen
Atanei stared sullenly at his chrono and ticked off the seconds with his gloved fingers on the thrust control of his A Wing. She was a stylish lady and he'd grown quite fond of her: she was sleek, speedy and lethal, and she bore the five TIE kills, acquired at Endor, painted on her gleaming flanks with pride. She was also predictable, and unlike a certain other sleek and speedy lady she responded as expected when he worked her controls.
He shrugged his shoulders up and down to shake off the tension. Ackbar had promised to make this engagement as realistic as possible, and it looked as though he was living up to that promise. The Rebel fleet was playing the aggressive role: they were the Imperials on a mission to wipe out a Rebel supply train, and the Iicini'ians were the train, supposedly in the act of preparing to leave the system. Simulated intelligence reports, fed to him through the computers, had placed the enemy as due to arrive outside the orbit of Cini #5 at some time in the next thirty minutes. That was the only information they had, but the size and conformation of the enemy fleet would doubtless be revealed shortly. Of one thing Atanei was sure, in fact he was counting on it. Rogue Squadron would definitely be involved.
"Reverting to real space in thirty seconds," Wedge ran his eyes over the navicom. "Prepare to launch on my mark, and remember we're the bad guys so we attack. Normal support protocols do not apply."
"In other words, give them hell," Wes translated cheerily to Tycho on their private channel, as he initiated his X Wing's warm-up sequence.
The two squadrons of X Wings and Y Wings were lodged in the hangar deck of the Mon Remonda. Admiral Ackbar had chosen to leave the Reliant at the I-M military space station as it was undergoing some repairs to its weapons systems. His counterpart in the Iicini'ian navy, Admiral Lusafi, had left with his battle group early. Instead of heading sunwards to the usual jump point, General Tavaala had ordered Lusafi to use the secondary jump zone between Ootacini'ia and its small neighbouring world. This allowed Lusafi to take his ships close enough to Mantrusian Port Control to make their presence felt. Ackbar had decided to adopt the flying wedge formation, running at the Rebel group and disgorging his fighters when within close range. It was a ploy he had countered on more occasions than he wished to remember. He had ordered his group to jump to the empty reaches of space between the Cini and Nantik systems, run a quick check to ensure that the simulators were correctly calibrated, and then jump back to engage Lusafi's 'supply train'.
The pilots inside their snubfighters felt the change from hyperspace as a slight jolt followed by an increased whine from the engines as they made the transition to sub-light mode. The bridge crew had a clear view of their intended target: the Fia Kalooan, an old refurbished Imperial dreadnought, was followed by three lightly armed Corellian freighters in triangular formation, behind which was a rearguard of four smaller gunships, three guarding the tails of the freighters and one riding shotgun. Each freighter was also protected by a flight of A Wings, each flight positioned so it covered its charge's weakest points. In theory the Rebels' main purpose was to protect their freighters, and ensure the precious supplies they carried reached their destination. Ackbar's aim was therefore to break through the defence shield and destroy them, a task which his powerful Mon Calamari Star Cruiser could probably have achieved with the minimum of help. However, as the real Rebels had proved again and again, probability carried little weight in battle. As if to prove the point, the defenders immediately turned to face the oncoming threat, and began to tighten their formation so that the freighters were partially protected by the bulk of the dreadnought.
In reply, and according to Ackbar's orders, the commanders of the two corvettes and three gunships formed the wedge configuration with the Mon Remonda at point. The Mon Calamari's strategy was going to be one of surprise. By swapping vectors and making a micro-jump he intended to come at the opposing fleet from behind, and batter his way through the weaker gunship defence to destroy the freighters and their theoretical supplies. Assuming that this move would make Lusafi order his fighter squadron to leave their charges and harry the Mon Remonda, he expected Wedge to order the Rogues out as soon as they had completed the jump, to counter the A Wings.
Wedge felt the momentary change in vibration as the Mon Remonda executed the move to bring it up behind the Iicini'ian group. A green light flashed on his control board.
"Three flight, you're lead. Two, you stay with us half a klick behind, and try and draw the vessels Three lets through away from centre."
"Which vessels that Three lets through?" quipped Tycho smugly.
"Cut the backchat, Rogue Seven. You're launching now."
Wedge's voice sounded stern, but in reality he hadn't felt the usual adrenalin rush which even a simulated exercise gave him. Unlike Tycho, he wasn't so much under-estimating the capability of the A Wing pilots, he just didn't feel like fighting. Mentally he was still sitting on the sand in the twilight, drinking ice-cold pitaro juice and sharing memories of favourite childhood holovids with Kerensa. The more he talked with her, the more he found they had in common. He sighed. It would be nice if she was here now, watching from the bridge of the Star Cruiser perhaps, so he could impress her with his flying. Then they could return to base, take the speeder into town to a secluded restaurant and celebrate the victory.
"Uh, Commander. Do we follow you or what?" there was a note of definite amusement in Wes's tone. It was the same note Wedge had noticed earlier at breakfast, after Wes had watched him absentmindedly pouring a pot of coffeine into the bowl of sweetener instead of into his cup.
"We'll follow you," Wedge replied, feeling a cold tingle in the pit of his stomach. This was not good form, and certainly no way to begin an exercise. He shook his head to clear away the memory of a certain set of dark smiling eyes which seemed to keep wanting to return, and pushed forward his thrust control.
Admiral Lusafi must have guessed Ackbar's intention, for his group were already in the process of reorganising when Wedge's flight had cleared the hangar's magnetic field. The Fia Kalooan had begun slipping through the ranks to be back in the forefront, and the A Wings were already on their way to engage the Rogues. As long as there were skirmishing fighters in between the two battle groups, the chances of the Mon Remonda having a clear shot on the Rebel dreadnought were considerably reduced.
Suddenly, Wedge realised it wasn't going to be quite as simple as that. Two of the Rebel gunships had left formation and mingled with the A Wings, presumably intending to use the melee of fighters which would soon ensue as a means to approach the capital ship. Even if they scored no effective hits, they would distract its crew from targeting the old dreadnought. Nor would they be alone in this diversion. The dreadnought was at that moment disgorging two flights of Y Wings, which with their bombing capacity were doubtless going to be used to augment the gunship attack. As long as his own fighters were in the line of fire, Admiral Ackbar would be loathe to use his redoubtable fire power; instead he would have to move his own gunships and corvettes out of formation to counter the attackers.
It was obvious that Wedge's own squadron would be fully committed with Captain Neekau's A Wings, so Wedge assumed that Ackbar would send his Y Wings to forestall Lusafi's before they came too close. The more time they spent forestalling, however, the more time this would give Lusafi to move his freighters far enough away to jump to safety.
"The Iicni'ians have taken the initiative, Rogues, and they'll probably try to keep us close to the Remonda. We need to break through these A Wings and reach the Dreadnought."
"Rogue Four, you have one on your tail," came Hobbie's voice.
"Really? That must be why I've been flying in these loops hoping you might notice," said Wes grimly.
"Er, yeah I did notice," the voice faded for a moment, then after a noticeable sigh of relief it resumed more strongly. "But I had one following me. These guys are good."
"Does he take some sort of perverse pleasure in stating the obvious," said Plourr between gritted teeth.
Wedge was too busy to reply. He'd almost had one A Wing centred in the crosshairs, when another with five TIEs painted on its side had accelerated through the gap, allowing the first to break free. Wedge recognised the second ship as the one he'd seen Captain Neekau climbing into earlier, and it seemed likely that the other was his wingman, because both had then settled on Wedge's tail, and no amount of duping and jinxing was shifting them. Wedge quickly inverted and looped down to come up again behind the wingman, only to find Neekau had duplicated his move and was still behind. He felt a cold trickle of perspiration between his shoulder blades, and at last achieved the adrenalin rush he'd lacked earlier.
Judging by the strange little nasal whoop he'd just heard, Dllr Nep had made at least one kill, and he heard Tycho's voice telling someone to dive. As soon as the fighter had settled on his tail he had automatically gone to pull energy from his four fusial thrust engines to augment his aft shields. Just in time he remembered that for the purposes of the simulation he was a TIE and therefore had no shields, and he was about to hit the rudder when he heard a beep from his weapons console which indicated that Neekau had a target lock on him. Now that made it a little more interesting. He accelerated until he was within half a kilometre of the wingman's rear, let his pursuer signal the launch of a proton torpedo, counted to two and then wrestled his X Wing into a steep climb. At the apex he saw the missile from the rear vessel strike a hit on its mate. On his tactical screen a blue blip went black.
He swung away in a wide sweep and keeping one eye open for pursuers, quickly surveyed the scene on either side of the fighter engagement. Two Rebel Y Wings wallowed well clear of Ackbar's group, but so did one Imperial corvette: Lusafi's tactics had achieved some success. As he watched, another Rebel Y Wing took a fatal hit from the Mon Remonda, but only after it had debilitated one of the cruiser's forward turrets, an event marked on the graphic display by white light markers. Lusafi was cleverly keeping the Fia Kalooan positioned to gain maximum protection from the fighters, and he was slipping backwards. Soon he would be beyond the reach of the Remonda's lasers. Three red blips, signifying the three Imperial gunships, began to move towards the retreating Rebel fleet.
"Two and Three flights, go with those gunships and stop those freighters," said Wedge urgently. "One flight, we've got ... ," he checked the console, "seven A Wings between us. Normal odds in other words. And keep trying to draw them away. Lusafi's using us as a screen."
"Would have thought the Admiral would have taken that dreadnought by now," Hobbie's voice sounded strained.
"Those two gunships have been keeping him busy," explained Wedge. "Plus our Y Wings let a few of theirs through and they're blocking him."
"Suicidal," said Wes wryly.
"Effective," came Tycho's voice. "Three on me, we're breaking now."
"Can't do it, sir," came Dllr Nep's agitated tones.
Wedge looped around to where the A Wing that had nearly hit him earlier was hot on Nep's tail. He angled down at sixty degrees and primed his lasers, but just as he was about to press the button the ship broke to port.
"You're clear, Rogue Eight," he said.
"I owe you one, Commander," they heard the Sullustan exhale with relief, and he cut away to follow Tycho.
Wedge didn't have time to acknowledge his pilot's thanks. Neekau's five-TIE ship had executed a reverse loop and was coming towards him at full throttle. Wedge swung the nose of his fighter thirty degrees to starboard, and swooped down in an arc which brought him up neatly on the A Wing's exhaust. He got one burst of laser fire away which bathed the portside engine in white light, but before he could fire again, the vessel fell away into a steep dive. As Wedge adjusted his own trajectory to follow, the other pilot inverted and turned the downward motion into the lower segment of an upwards circle, maneuvring to return to his favoured position at Wedge's rear. Wedge had predicted that would be his intention. Just after the pilot inverted he followed suit, but applied a touch of right rudder so his X Wing slurred to inscribe a circle which brought him up at a tangent to the other's motion. As Wedge shot up towards the ship's underside, he lobbed another laser shot which caught the edge of the port fin. The ship spiralled up and away, but Wedge stuck grimly behind it, chasing it well clear of the original battle area. He heard another beep on the console, but couldn't look to see whose it was.
The others had followed his orders, and the Remonda had already begun to move into the gap they had created, and was gathering speed, although it was still being harried. By now Wedge's forehead was wet with perspiration, and his hands felt clammy inside his flight gloves. Neekau was as good as his boasts; but the picture of Neekau and Kerensa talking heatedly in the hangar kept flickering at the back of Wedge's mind. He had the uncomfortable feeling that the Iicini'ian was turning this into a grudge battle.
He let his eye slide down for a quick update on the graphic display. One freighter was out, as was one X Wing, and all the gunships were showing damage. The Remonda was pursuing the Fia Kalooan which had turned tail, but it was herding its two remaining freighters in front of it, and all three were picking up speed. His gaze returned to his forward screen, but Neekau had disappeared. Suddenly Wedge was glad that Kerensa wasn't there. This battle wasn't as decisive as he had assumed it would be. Or had he actively made that assumption? Wasn't it more a case of not really thinking about it at all? The warning beep of a target lock brought him back to his situation. He blinked in disbelief. Had he really not noticed the A Wing sneak down to sit in his slipstream?
Above him loomed a Rebel gunship being pursued by two Imperial Y Wings. Wedge shot through the gap, and then wrestled his stick forward to push his X Wing into a long dive which took him back towards the rest of his flight. The confusion of signals from the other ships had broken the lock. An A Wing suddenly spiralled up from below meeting his own trajectory at an angle of sixty degrees. Either the pilot hadn't noticed Wedge, or he was too busy concentrating on levelling his ship and returning to the fray, but his angle of flight allowed Wedge to keep him in his crosshair long enough to penetrate his shields and destroy him with a sustained blast from his lasers. The computer registered another blip. Wedge missed the normal acknowledging beeps from his R2 unit, but as they were meant to be TIEs they had been forced to leave their droids on the Mon Remonda.
"Thanks, lead," came Plourr's voice.
"Rogues Two and Three, break away and get those Y Wings away from the Remonda."
"As ordered," Plourr peeled away immediately.
"A bit busy, sir," said Blag Roofan distractedly.
Wedge frowned. None of the three A Wings remaining had challenged Plourr's departure. Not long after he'd despatched Two and Three flights earlier, he'd noticed a flight of them disengage as well. He'd had a feeling they had been responsible for the beep he'd heard not long after, and it was quite likely they had helped take out the second Imperial corvette which was wallowing to his left. Presumably they had then joined the skirmishing around the Fia Kalooan. He prepared himself for possible evasive, rerouting power from the engines to his lasers, when to his surprise the fighter pursuing Blag suddenly swung away and followed the third in the direction of the Rebel fleet. Blag accelerated clear in order to follow Plourr to the Remonda, leaving just the one A Wing. Wedge's frown deepened as he felt the familiar prickle of his instinct warning him that there was something threatening behind him, so he pulled his fighter's nose up and rolled ninety degrees. This was definitely a grudge battle. Obviously Neekau favours his personal vendettas over the importance of the mission, he thought, which was surprising considering the generally dedicated attitude shown by the other senior Iicini'ian officers. Still Kerensa said he was a jerk; and it looks like she's right.
He led the A Wing in a wide sweeping curve, jinking and duping, and bringing them towards one of the Rebel gunships. Just to remind Neekau of the purpose of the exercise, he squirted a few bursts of laser fire at the gunship's rear turret, applied a touch of etheric rudder to swing him to port, unloaded a few more bursts into the starboard turret and pushed his stick down hard to dive beneath the vessel and away. Neekau had overshot the gunship, but he executed a wide loop which Wedge could see was going to bring him around perpendicular to his own vector. He should throw the ship into a corkscrew to make it difficult for Neekau to get a firing solution on him, but he was beginning to feel the unusual flickerings of anger and frustration boiling up inside. Instead he touched the rudder again to bring his ship around to face the A Wing. You want to go one on one, Neekau, fine. But let's make it head to head. A laser blast flashed towards him but Neekau had overcorrected for Wedge's momentum, and it slid harmlessly to port. The A Wing slid neatly into his crosshairs and Wedge fired, hitting his opponent's forward shield. He fired again. The lasers hit, but because Neekau had his nose up, they hit low, and as the ship blasted over the top of Wedge's X Wing, the Corellian saw that the forward shield was still partially intact. A green light flashed on his navicom.
"Commander Antilles, you may not have noticed, but you may return to position alpha," came a tight voice loaded with what Wedge suspected might be a Mon Calamari form of sarcasm. Uh oh, he thought.
"Yessir," he replied, quickly checking the status board. The Fia Kalooan had made it into hyperspace with serious damage to all but two of its turbolasers, but it had preserved one of its freighters. All of its gunships were dead in space, but so was one of the Imperials', as were both Imperialcorvettes. It looked as though the exercise had ended in a tactical draw, and no doubt Admiral Ackbar would not be pleased, although it could be argued that this suggested the Iicini'ians would be valuable allies. Wedge considered this for a moment, but decided that such an argument would probably not go down too well at this point.
"Returning as ordered," he said firmly. Neekau, he noticed, had already peeled away and was on his way back to his fleet. As Wedge approached the Mon Remonda the thought occurred that the encounter had provided quite a bit in the way of unfinished business.
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