Project Echo: Part 10
Rating: PG
Gillian F. Taylor

Tycho moved cautiously, half-crouching to make himself less visible. In the deepening twilight, the other Rogues were shadowy shapes in the scrubby undergrowth, their passage marked by soft rustling of the native plants as they moved. All six wore black TIE pilot uniforms; the helmets they carried in backpacks made them into strangely hunchbacked creatures in the dim light. The fern-trees ahead began to thin as they reached the edge of the fernwood, and Tycho could see the glow of artifical light beyond.

Wedge reached the edge of the treeline and knelt down. Tycho and the others gathered around him. Corran and Heikki both had fair skin which could be picked out in the gloom. Ghazal's dusky brown skin and black hair meant that only the whites of her eyes were showed up much. Ooryl's grey-green skin made him almost invisible; just the glitter of his large compound eyes revealed his presence. Ghazal slipped off her backpack and pulled a sneaker cape from a side pocket. Tycho glanced across at Wedge, who was examining the ground ahead. He was alert, but in spite of his controlled expression, Tycho sensed that he was extremely tense inside.

It was something Tycho had noticed more and more in the last week as they prepared for the infiltration of the Pomezia Corporation base on Galdo. Wedge had planned the mission, worked out the logistics, practised in the Defender sims and briefed the squadron with his usual ability. But all the time he seemed slightly withdrawn: his conversations were brief and to the point, he made less eye contact than usual and his posture and movements betrayed some inner stress. Most of the other squadron members had picked up on it too, and unit morale had sagged a little in spite of Wes' increased flow of bad jokes.

But now, half the squadron was outside the base where the Echo ships were based. They had arrived on planet in ones and twos earlier in the day, by regular shuttle flights from the next system, passing Immigration with false IDs provided by Intel. Heikki, one of the less well-known faces, had hired a repulsorvan, which they had used to drive out into the country, leaving it concealed in the fern woods about a mile from the Pomezia Corp base. The rest of the Rogues had left the Redemption in a nearby system and jumped to this one in their X-wings, and were now waiting behind Galdo's outer neighbour, a dry, frozen planet that was largely uninhabited. They were only a few minutes' flight away, ready to provide backup to the infiltration team when they flew out in the stolen Echo ships.

Ghazal wriggled into the sneaker cape, which was really a loose-fitting one-piece, and drew up the hood, pulling flaps around so it concealed almost all her face except for her eyes. She slipped on a pair of night crawler goggles, and sank down on to her belly. Carefully, she left the cover of the tree ferns and began to wriggle across the open ground between the fernwood and the compound perimeter. Micro scanners built into the cloak scanned the surroundings and the liquid crystal mesh woven into the fabric changed in colour and pattern so the cloak and wearer blended in. Insulation also built into the fabric prevented Ghazal from showing up on infra-red sensors. The goggles had a matt outer surface, hiding her eyes, while also enhancing her night vision. They had IR sensors, range finder and a zoom lens built in too.

Not that any of the Rogues really needed the night crawler goggles to see the obstacles ahead. There was 100 meters of more open ground between the edge of the fernwood and the three meter high electrosteel fence that surrounded the base. A security droid patrolled on the inner side of the fence, walking back and forth an irregular number of steps in each direction, so anyone approaching never knew for sure when it would change direction. Local laws on light polluction meant no permanent floodlights around the perimeter, but there was lighting around the buildings, and floodlights ready for emergencies.

Ghazal made her way slowly across the open ground. Her home planet, Tirrix, had been governed for many years by a dictatorship sympathetic to the Empire. Naturally, a resistance movement had grown up and Ghazal had been a part of it from her early teens, until the dictatorship had been overthrown a couple of years ago. Her commando skills had contributed towards her selection for Rogue Squadron, and were proving their use now. The open ground was covered with knee-high coarse grass, with clumps of longer grasses and patches of a long-stemmed, spiky shrub. Every time the droid moved away from her, she crawled a few meters further on, dropping down and freezing in place when it turned.

The other Rogues waited in silence as she crept to within a couple of meters of the fence. In the low light, Tycho could just barely pick her out, even though he knew where to look. The silvery security droid had visual sensors set more to the sides of its head, like a prey animal, to give it a wider field of vision than a human. Its blind spot was a narrow arc almost directly behind itself. Tycho held his breath as the droid passed Ghazal and walked away from her on its patrol. He estimated angles and distances, silently urging her to get her timing right.

"Now," whispered Corran under his breath.

As he spoke, Ghazal rose to a kneeling position and quickly aimed a wide-mouthed pistol at the retreating droid. Tycho saw a dim blue flash as she fired, and then the ion mine hit the droid. The quickest way of dealing with a droid was to shoot it with an ion beam. However, if Ghazal had tried to fire an ion beam through the electrosteel fence, the beam would have lit up the charged fence, and not penetrated. The small ion mine only discharged when it hit and stuck to its target. Blue energy crackled over the droid, which threw its arms out, flailing as it staggered around. It took a couple of aimless steps then fell and lay jerking at random until the mine was fully discharged. The brilliant blue energy died away and the droid lay still, leaving just a smell of ozone in the night air.

Wedge was the first to rise, leading the other Rogues as they hurried across the open ground to the fence.

"Good work," he said to Ghazal.

"Thank you, sir." She had slipped off the cloak and goggles, and stuffed them back into the backpack that Ooryl handed her.

Heikki and Corran were unloading equipment from their own backpacks. Working together smoothly, they attached the bypass clamps to the electrosteel fence and joined them with cables. With the bypass circuit complete, Wedge produced a small beam tool and cut a hole in the fence. A quick shove pushed the cut section free, and the Rogues climbed through safely. Staying close, blasters in hand, they jogged across to the distinctively shaped TIE hangar on the east of the compound.

The Rogues halted by a personnel door set to one side of the main vehicle doors. Corrans jogged to one end of the building and Ghazal to the other, to keep lookout while Heikki began slicing the keypad. Tycho, Wedge and Ooryl stood around him in a semi-circle, facing outwards with their blasters drawn. With his free hand, Tycho got out a small receiver and set it to scan through the local channels.

"Minimal comm traffic," he reported quietly. He held the scanner to his ear and listened for a moment. "Just someone wanting to know why Bran is taking so long to fetch the caf."

He kept the scanner to his ear and turned to glance at Heikki. The fair-haired pilot had pried the front of the keypad off and was poking probes into the wiring behind, a look of fierce concentration on his pleasant face. A soft noise of alarm brought Tycho round to look in Ghazal's direction. She was right by the corner of the hangar, crouching low as she waited. The dark shape of a human guard appeared, walking a normal patrol. Ghazal exploded upwards before he noticed her so low down. She struck with her bare hands and the guard folded, with an explosive grunt that Tycho could hear. Ghazal struck again before the guard had the chance to draw breath, her attack precise and skilled. The guard simply folded and lay motionless on the ground.

"Heikki?" Wedge's voice was low and urgent.

"Just got to switch the data lines," Heikki replied, rapidly plugging and unplugging wires.

"Ooryl, help Ghazal bring him here," Wedge ordered as he gestured for Corran to rejoin them.

Ooryl ran to join Ghazal and helped the slender woman carry the unconscious guard to the hangar door.

"Done!" said Heikki triumphantly as Corran arrived at a jog. The door slid open silently, spilling out a soft glow of light from within the hangar.

Wedge waved them through, waiting for Ghazal and Ooryl to arrive before he followed them through into the hangar. An entire squadron of Defenders was neatly arrayed in the centre of the bay, facing the main vehicle entrance.

Heikki let out a low whistle. "Those trips look mean enough in the sims, but a whole squad up close in front of you ... wow."

Tycho knew what he meant. The TIE Defender, known to New Republic pilots as 'trips' on account of its triple solar arrays, was a mean looking starfighter. The solar arrays were spaced evenly around the spherical cockpit, largely enclosing it. It had the same pointed wings as the Interceptor, but each set of panels formed an outward curve, instead of the inward curve of the Interceptor. The half-dozen angular ends of solar arrays pointing forward gave the Defender the bristling look of a clawed foot when viewed head on. It was a fast, agile, powerful craft, every bit as mean as it looked.

Ooryl and Ghazal quickly bound the limp guard, removing his comlink and his blaster.

"We'd better start on liberating these," Corran said, glancing about at the fighters. "We don't know how long it'll take us to get through any security and have them ready to fly." He glanced over at Wedge, expecting a gesture of confirmation from his commander.

Wedge stayed still, his eyes fixed on the machines lined in front of him. Tycho realized he was holding his breath as he waited for Wedge to act. At last, Wedge looked around at the other Rogues. He looked to Tycho like a wild creature caught in a trap. His jaw clenched tight as he met Tycho's gaze. Wedge swallowed and then shook his head abruptly.

"It's a trap," he said sharply.

← To Part 9 | To Part 11 →

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