A Promise Kept
This story is based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas and upon characters and situations created by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston in their X-Wing: Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron novels. Those of you out there who write Fan Fiction yourselves will understand what I mean when I mention that this story idea would not leave me alone until I got it down on paper. Consider that a tribute to the fabulous storytelling of those two gentlemen because that is what it is. I have also borrowed with permission one or two other items from a very talented Fan Fiction author, Iris Bailey, who has very kindly critiqued the work in progress and offered much encouragement.
The story begins a couple of months after the end of Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston. Spoiler warning: If you haven't read SoA, read it first. This is intended to be a short story sequel.
A rosy dawn was just beginning to paint itself across the midnight blue sky of the world of Dalarian. On a broad balcony, which overlooked the meticulously landscaped luxury resort hotel's grounds, watching the lightening sky, stood a dark haired, dark eyed man. His height, slightly below average, and his lithe build marked him as someone who could probably pass for a fighter pilot. Indeed, that was exactly what Wedge Antilles had been for more than half his life.
He now wore the rank of General and commanded task forces of capital ships, but he had felt the most fulfilled, at least in his career, when he had been an active fighter pilot in command of the New Republic's top fighter squadron.
Now, the greatest joy in his life was the woman who slept in the luxury suite to which the balcony he stood upon belonged. Iella Wessiri, now Iella Antilles, had been his beautiful bride for just over one week and they were on the incredibly beautiful world of Dalarian on their honeymoon.
Wedge reflected on the events of the last three months that had led to his being here with Iella and shook his head in wonder. Three months earlier, General Airen Cracken, Head of New Republic Intelligence, had caught Wedge in his quarters on Coruscant just as he was about to begin an extended leave of absence and coerced him into accepting a diplomatic mission. Wedge had been very reluctant to take the mission. He had really needed the leave of absence, but in retrospect, it had been the best thing that had ever happened to him because it had reunited him with Iella.
The diplomatic mission to the recently discovered world of Adumar had been fraught with difficulties, not the least of which was a rogue New Republic Intelligence officer. Wedge and the three Rogue Squadron pilots who had accompanied him to the fighter pilot obsessed nation of Cartann on Adumar had been used as pawns in the Intelligence officer's game -- to bring Adumar into the New Republic by any possible means. Darpen, the Intelligence officer, had manipulated people and events so that his objective would be met, but he had intended for Wedge and the other Rogues to die in the process.
Iella had been on Adumar under an assumed identity as an Intelligence operative under Darpen's command. Wedge had recognized her and secretly made contact with her. At first, their reunion had been awkward because she could not help him with the complications of his mission. The personal aspect of their reunion had also been difficult because of unresolved issues between them. It still caused Wedge quite a strong pang of pain to recall how close he had come to losing Iella forever.
But that was all in the past. On their return to Coruscant two months ago, Wedge had courted Iella and properly proposed to her. Both she and Wedge had delightedly enjoyed the courtship, and they had not wasted any time in planning their wedding.
And what a wedding it had been. The ceremony itself had been very dignified and moving. Wedge had not realized how many people he and Iella knew who were thrilled to be able to share their special day. The riot of color of the attending guests' finery included myriads of military and diplomatic uniforms, and rainbows of color decorated the civilian guests as well. To Wedge's eyes, though, they had all faded into nothing before the dazzling vision Iella had presented as she approached him in her silver-white gown. Just the memory took his breath away.
Wedge smiled as his thoughts returned to the reception that had followed the ceremony. In spite of the fact that both the current and the previous Chiefs-of-State of the New Republic and numerous other government officials were in attendance, the reception had quickly degenerated into a huge party with a capital "P". Leia Organa Solo certainly hadn't stood on ceremony. She had flung her arms around Wedge and Iella and told them how happy she was that her favorite Rogue had finally found the girl of his dreams.
Han Solo had been equally unrestrained in giving Wedge and Iella his congratulations. He teased Wedge about how long it had taken them to take the plunge, although he was fully aware of how difficult it had been for Iella to get over Diric's death.
In a strange way, Wedge felt that he had Diric's blessing to marry Iella. Wedge had had the opportunity to meet Diric Wessiri, Iella's husband, shortly after the liberation of Coruscant. Wedge and Iella, along with the rest of the Rogues and a few others, had played crucial roles in that critical event. Diric had just been freed from Ysanne Isard's custody, although not from her influence. He had assumed that Wedge and Iella had grown close while he had been imprisoned, but had told them that he harbored no ill feelings because of it. Both of them had assured him, truthfully, that there was nothing like that between them. Wedge had too much respect for happy marriages, as his parents' had been and Iella and Diric's obviously was. He had backed off immediately, although not without regrets for what might have been.
After Diric's death, Wedge and Iella's old CorSec partner and Rogue Squadron member, Corran Horn, had done whatever they could to help her. Wedge had put his own wishes aside; unable to bring himself to press her in any way, he had just been her friend. Eventually, though, his duties and hers had separated them.
Wedge had gone on to have a two year relationship with Qwi Xux, the Omwati scientist who had helped develop the Deathstar, the World Devastators, and the Sun Crusher for the Empire. She had defected to the New Republic when she had learned what her work had actually been used for, and Wedge had met her when he'd been assigned to be her personal bodyguard and escort. They had been reasonably happy together, but both of them had realized that neither could see a future with the other. They had broken up just a few weeks before the mission to Adumar. Qwi had not attended the wedding, but she had sent Wedge a message.
Wedge, you are fortunate to have found the woman you can share your future with. My very best wishes for all the happiness you deserve. Qwi.
He found himself still shaking his head over Qwi's message. Not many ex-girlfriends would be gracious enough to write as Qwi had.
His thoughts meandered on back to his friend, Luke Skywalker. Luke's congratulations had been just as warm and enthusiastic as everyone else's, but Wedge had noted a wistful look in his eyes. Luke had also had a couple of pretty serious relationships, but had not yet found the woman with whom he could share his difficult and demanding life.
More memories of the reception made the smile on Wedge's face broaden into a grin. Rogues, past and present; members of Wraith Squadron; and numerous other pilots made up a large proportion of the guest list. Wedge had endured Wes Janson's teasing and practical jokes for years. Wes had behaved himself during the ceremony, but had promptly assumed the role of Master of Ceremonies at the reception. He had offered numerous silly toasts; told barely acceptable stories of the Rogues adventures, ludicrously exaggerating Wedge's part in them; and led the entire assembly in raucous sing-alongs. Later on in the evening, Wes and some of the rowdier pilots had even cut loose with the "Rebel Yell" once or twice, much to the amusement of the rest of the guests.
Mirax Terrik Horn and her father, Booster Terrik, were the closest thing to a family that Wedge had since the death of his parents. His sister, Syal, had disappeared years ago with her husband, Soontir Fel, once the Empire's top fighter pilot, and briefly after his defection, a member of Rogue Squadron. Mirax and Booster had just beamed with happiness for him and Iella.
Another long-time friend was Ily'eene Milam. She had actually recruited Wedge to smuggle for the Rebel Alliance when he was just sixteen years old. When he became a fighter pilot, he had permanently loaned his freighter, the Zena's Pride, to her. Tears had stood in her eyes when she had greeted him and Iella at the reception. Years before, she had told Wedge that the right girl would come along for him one day, and his own eyes had misted up as they recalled that conversation long ago.
General Cracken had been among the guests as well. Wedge had come close to decking Cracken when he'd given him the Adumar assignment. But it had occurred to Wedge after the Adumar mission was over that Cracken knew that he and Iella were friends. It was entirely possible that he had been engaged in a bit of match-making in his own devious Intelligence officer's way.
On their return from Adumar, Cracken had personally debriefed Wedge and Iella. He had been deadly serious throughout the debriefing, especially when he heard the full extent of Tomer Darpen's criminal actions. Once the debriefing had been completed, however, he turned to Iella with a huge smile and told her not to show her face at New Republic Intelligence Headquarters for the next four months. Then he had told Wedge that Admiral Ackbar had given him identical orders to pass on to Wedge regarding showing his own face at Fleet Command. Wedge and Iella had realized that they weren't fooling anyone, not that they'd been trying, so they just got busy planning their wedding.
During all that time, however, Wedge had not forgotten the promise he had made to Admiral Rogriss. Rogriss had sacrificed his career as an Imperial officer rather than compromise his personal honor by breaking the promise he had made to the government of Cartann on the Empire's behalf. Wedge had given Rogriss his word that New Republic Intelligence would contact his son and daughter, tell them the truth about their father's actions at Adumar, and even offer them the opportunity to come to the New Republic if they wished to do so. General Cracken had told Wedge that it would be taken care of, but had given him no details or timetable.
He had just come to the decision that he would infiltrate the Imperial military to make the contact himself when he heard the glass door behind him slide open.
He turned and saw Iella standing in the open doorway. She wore a jade green silk robe and golden sleep tousled hair framed her face.
"Good morning, Beautiful."
She returned his welcoming smile then changed her expression to one of mock severity, "What's the idea of leaving me all alone in there? I was under the impression that you didn't ever want us to be apart again."
Wedge winced inwardly, but gave her a small laugh. "You are absolutely right; I don't. Cam'ere." He wrapped his arms around her tightly and kissed her forehead.
They were content to stand in the early morning light holding each other close for several minutes. Then Iella pulled back slightly to look up at Wedge, "Are you going to tell me what you were doing out here, or shall I tell you?"
Wedge looked back at her, confused. "What do you mean?"
Iella shook her head slowly and laughed, "You were thinking about your promise to Rogriss, weren't you?"
Wedge's eyes widened. "What makes you think that?"
"Sweetheart, I know you." Iella's deep blue eyes did indeed seem to Wedge to be able to see into his soul. "You gave him your word that our Intelligence people would contact his son and daughter, but since both of us have been temporarily booted out of our jobs, you don't have access to official information sources. You want to make sure your promise is kept."
Wedge looked at her in astonishment, "How do you do that? How do you know exactly what I'm thinking?"
She smiled at him, "I don't always, but in this instance it wasn't hard to figure out. That whole Adumar mess revolved around the concept of honor. Your word of honor means everything to you. You promised Rogriss that his children would hear the truth about him so now you intend to see to it yourself."
He was stunned speechless. "You are amazing, Iella, and you are right." He glanced down knowing he couldn't hide the guilt he felt for what he was about to do. "The last thing I want to do right now is leave you to do this, but I have to." Then he looked back into her beautiful, loving eyes, "Can you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. You're not leaving me..."
"No, Wedge. You're not listening. You're not leaving me because I'm coming with you."
"No, Iella. It's too dangerous."
He had seen that look on her face before and knew that she was not going to back down, and the tone in her voice confirmed it. "Wedge, I am a trained field operative and an expert slicer. You'll get a lot further with me to back you up than you will without me. And I can get unofficial access to the information and resources we need." Then her lips curled up in the slightest smile, "Besides, I've had two Imp identities for us ready to go almost since the minute we got back to Coruscant."
Wedge's jaw dropped. "No one has ever so completely outflanked me as you have." He stared at her wondering how he was ever going to keep up with his brilliant, beautiful bride. "You really knew I was going to try to contact Rogriss's children on my own? I didn't know I was going to until just now."
Iella smiled and slipped her arm through his as they went back into their suite, "Like I said before, Love, making good on your promise to Rogriss is a matter of honor with you. This leave of absence we're on is the ideal opportunity." Iella's face took on an expression of implacability, "as long as we go together."
Wedge sighed in resignation, "All right; you win. We go together."
Two days later, they were ready. The resort's management had been quite aware of their illustrious guests' identities, especially since their wedding had been extensively reported on by the holonews services, but had respected their wish for privacy. Amazingly enough, after the wedding, the news services had kept a respectful distance, although Wedge suspected that it could be attributed to some leverage that Hallis Saper, the Adumar mission's documentarian, held over her former colleagues.
Iella had spent some time over the last two days playing the resort's computer system like the master slicer she was. In order to hide their imminent departure, she had created the fiction that she and Wedge would be away from the resort on an extended excursion to one of the most remote parts of the planet, blissfully out of communication with the rest of the galaxy.
More slicing had created the identities under which they would leave Dalarian. The resort's computer system was under the impression that a middle-aged couple from an agrarian world had won an all-expenses-paid trip to Dalarian for a week. Iella's work had created the fiction that Master Zyan Kelden and his wife, Teela, had taken guided sightseeing tours, gambled in the casinos, and danced in the nightclubs having the time of their lives for the past week.
Wedge and Iella had spent the last two days actually playing the roles of Zyan and Teela Kelden to provide hard evidence of their existence. They had donned makeup, wigs, contact lenses, and wardrobes appropriate for the fictional Keldens, even pretending to stay in a somewhat less luxurious suite than their own. Wedge did not consider himself any kind of an actor, but he had thoroughly enjoyed playing his part, especially with Iella to coach him. She was every bit the expert Face Loran of Wraith Squadron had been in creating believable false identities.
Now it was time for the Keldens to return to their home after a once in a lifetime trip.
"Zyan Kelden!" Iella's voice sounded completely different with the nasal twang she injected into it. "Have you checked all the drawers and closets? I don't want to find out when we're half-way home that we forgot to pack the presents for the kids and grandkids."
She looked nothing like the gorgeous vision she had been on their wedding day. Her hair was mousy brown in color and was pulled back in a tight bun on the back of her head. Her complexion was ruddy and sun-tanned. Plastic inserts in her cheeks changed the shape of her face to suggest that she was heavy, and her baggy, drab travelling clothes added to the illusion of extra weight.
Wedge knew that she was speaking for the benefit of the porter droid that had come to their suite to carry their luggage down for checkout. He suppressed a smile and answered her with a matching twang, "Yes, Dear. I've checked everywhere twice. Everything is packed."
The image reflected back at Wedge in the mirror over the dresser showed a full-faced man with muddy green eyes and dull brown hair shot with gray on his head and in his beard. Judicious padding incorporated into Zyan's civilian travelling clothes suggested that he had indulged himself just a little too much in the resort's dining establishments.
"All right, Droid. I suppose we're ready to go," Iella said. She turned to Wedge and added, "Oh, Zyan. This was such a wonderful trip. Do you think we'll ever be able to come back here again?"
"Well, Dear, I could do without the Bantha ride next time, but the scenery around the pool was verrry nice."
Iella slapped him playfully on the arm, "Oooh, you ..." Her face took on the expression of someone about to impart momentous news, "You know, I heard that that handsome General Antilles and his wife were staying here. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to meet them?"
Wedge had not expected Iella's remark and struggled not to burst out laughing. At last he answered, "Now, Teela. They're on their honeymoon. They have better things to do than socialize with the likes of us."
Even through the makeup and disguises, Wedge and Iella shared their secret delight in this least perilous part of their coming odyssey. They continued their playacting banter throughout the checkout process, all through the ride to the commercial spaceport, and as they boarded the interstellar liner that would supposedly carry them home. Finally, after they had shut the door of their small stateroom, they fell into each other's arms and laughed till tears streamed down their faces.
In addition to using her slicing skills to create their temporary identities, Iella had provided herself and Wedge with secure holocomm access to make further arrangements for their sojourn into the Empire. Wedge had contacted a very surprised Ily'eene Milam to arrange to borrow the Zena's Pride from her. They had met her at the liner's first port of call having abandoned Zyan and Teela Kelden to electronic oblivion. After agreeing on a coded signal which would tell Ily'eene when and where to meet them later, they had taken the Pride off to another spaceport to rendezvous with Iella's contact.
Wedge smiled to himself as he recalled the look on Ily'eene's face when he and Iella had explained what they were about to do. Yes, he was probably just a little crazy to be doing this, especially since they were supposed to be on their honeymoon, but Ily'eene had known him long enough to understand his reasons.
He and Iella were in non-descript civilian attire only minimally disguised as they sat in a tapcaf waiting for Iella's contact to meet them. She had not told him whom she'd spoken to on the holocomm; only that it was someone in Intelligence who was already on the inside in the Imperial military who would be able to help them situate themselves to contact Rogriss's son. Terek Rogriss was in the Imperial navy, and therefore, easier for them to contact. Assuming that they could convince him of their veracity and persuade him to come over to the New Republic, Terek's assistance would make it easier to locate and contact his sister.
Iella looked up from the cup of caf in front of her and smiled, "Ah, here he comes now."
Wedge twisted around in his seat to see who was approaching them. And could hardly believe his eyes. The hair was the wrong color, dark blond, and the eyes were gray instead of green, but the face belonged to Face Loran.
He stood and smiled extending a hand in greeting, "What the devil are you doing here?" He knew not to use Face's real name or nickname in a public place, but had no pseudonym to call him by. "Back home when we saw you, I thought you were between jobs."
Face grinned and shook Wedge's hand, "Nope. But there was no way any of us were going to miss that party, and," he glanced at Iella, "our boss approved, but we had to hightail it right back afterward." He leaned down to kiss Iella on the cheek. When he straightened back up, his eyes glinted with amusement, "I would have thought that you would have better things to do, but the big boss said that you would be catching up with us in about two weeks. Did married life get boring that fast?"
Wedge was surprised to hear that Cracken had anticipated him, but realized that he probably shouldn't have been. That man had been one step ahead of him for as long as he'd known him. He grinned as he sat and gestured for Face to join them. "No. It'll never get boring with this lady. So, you know what we need to do?" Wedge purposely kept his language vague.
Face nodded. "It's your contact. We just did some ground work."
Iella reached over to squeeze Wedge's hand, "Right after we finished our talk with the boss, he put our friend here and his team on it. They got into preliminary position, but they needed to wait for us because your new acquaintance gave you some way to get them to trust you, which you neglected to pass on in our chat."
He looked at Iella, "How did you know that?"
She just smiled, "I have my ways. Come on, let's get out of here."
They dropped some coins on the table and walked out. As they made their way down the street, Wedge questioned Face to try to fill in the blanks. "Is the whole gang in on this?"
Face shook his head, "No, not directly. Under the circumstances, that would be just a little too conspicuous, but the ones who can't be on the spot are hidden close by for backup."
Wedge nodded knowing that Dia, Runt, Elassar and especially Piggy would definitely stand out in a crowd of Imperial military personnel, or just about anywhere in Imperial space for that matter.
"There is another member of the team," Face said. "You know her, but she would just as soon you forget her as soon as this little caper is finished."
Wedge stared at Face, "You don't mean Kirney?" He was stunned. Kirney Slane was the most recent name Wedge knew that had been adopted by Gara Petothel, the former Imperial Intelligence agent who had infiltrated Wraith Squadron. She'd had a change of heart once she had joined the Wraiths and had dedicated herself to the New Republic. Circumstances had caused her cover identity to unravel and she'd been forced to flee to Warlord Zsinj and Iron Fist. Even then, she'd remained loyal to the Wraiths and the New Republic and had been instrumental in bringing him down. Unfortunately, she was still considered a traitor. Wedge himself had helped cover her final disappearance, but apparently it wasn't as final as he'd thought.
"You're not serious?" he asked Face.
Face nodded. They had reached the docking bay where the Pride waited and went aboard. "You know about the last message she sent Donos from Corellia. He did go and see her. When he got back, he called me and we had a long talk. They had worked through all their problems, but she still felt that she needed to make up for what she'd done on behalf of Admiral Trigit. Donos convinced me that she could be trusted, and that took some doing. She has been part of my team ever since, although not on the books. Outside the rest of the team, Iella, who has been our Control ever since we moved over to Intelligence, by the way, is the only one at NRI who knows about her."
Iella brought three cups of caf to the table and sat down next to Wedge, "Face and Myn had to convince me too, Wedge, and you know how hard that can be."
Wedge gave her a rueful smile, "Yes, I do know. She and Myn are still together, aren't they?" he asked Face.
"Yes and no. Her being persona non grata in the New Republic has made it difficult for them to spend much time together, but they've made the best of it."
Wedge shook his head, "He's better suited for Intelligence than I realized. I never suspected a thing. I wonder if Tycho knows." He saw Iella's face, "Don't say it; I already know the answer. Of course he does. After what he's been through, he would be very sympathetic to her situation."
Iella smiled, "I talked to him, Wedge. With everything else you've had to think about, he didn't think it was necessary to burden you. And Myn swore up, down, and sideways that he'd never let his relationship with Kirney put the Rogues, Wraiths, or the New Republic at risk."
His gaze moved from Iella to Face and back again, "I feel like I've been running around in a fog for the last five years not knowing what has been going on right in front of me." He gave both of them a stern look, "I'm going to have a serious talk with Tycho when we get back."
Their first hop was only a few hours in length to the spaceport on Chorax. Wedge knew it well from his time as a smuggler years ago. It was a safe enough place to leave the Pride, under one of its' alternate IDs, till they made it back out of Imperial space. It also was a busy enough port that they could easily find a ride to their next destination where they would be picked up by Imperial transportation to report to their posting, which Face and his team had set up.
On the trip to Chorax, though, Wedge had the chance to question Face more about the mission ahead of them, and catch up on the lives of the rest of the Wraiths . Face was more than pleased to tell Wedge about the Wraiths. He and Dia, and Kell and Tyria, had gotten married, which Wedge knew because he'd been at their weddings. Face said that Tyria's Force talents had blossomed since she and Kell had tied the knot. He thought that marriage had stabilized them both, which had allowed Tyria to relax and not put so much pressure on herself to perform. After this assignment was over, she was going to take a leave of absence to go back to Luke's Academy on Yavin and see if she could harness her talent and direct it more effectively.
Face and Dia had talked about adopting children, but felt that one of them really would have to stay home with them and not be out on undercover assignments. Iella was working on having Dia made her assistant, which would keep her involved in Intelligence, but not out in the field. As soon as that was arranged, the adoptions could go forward.
As Face had talked about adopting children, a ripple of resentment had crossed Iella's face. Wedge hadn't seen it, for which she was grateful. She would not have to explain the memory that had caused it. Face and Dia had no one but themselves and the Children's Services people to answer to in considering and being considered for inter-species adoption. Two other dear friends had not been so fortunate. Gavin Darklighter and Asyr Sei'lar had been thwarted by the Bothan Councillor, Borssk Fey'yla, in their plans to marry and adopt children. Asyr had even faked her own death in order to be able to someday change the system that had made that possible, but she had broken Gavin's heart and her own in the process.
Shalla had been Face's XO ever since they had moved over to Intelligence. She and Piggy were great pals, and she kept him from suffering from bouts of depression. Piggy was considering moving back over to Fleet Ops because whenever they weren't out in the field, Admiral Ackbar was yanking him over to do battle analysis, which he loved. Elassar Targon was still driving everyone crazy with his good luck charms, and earnestly pursuing Shalla, who kept affectionately shooting him down. Runt was still Runt, but he was becoming a couple of squadrons in one body. A new personality would emerge with just the right skill or tactic at just the right time, and only Kell seemed to be able to keep up with them all.
Wedge had seen and talked to the Wraiths at his wedding, if only briefly. This more detailed update from Face was a very welcome way to pass the time on their trip to Chorax.
Then, unexpectedly, Face changed the subject. "You know, Sir, I wish you'd told me before that Wynssa Starflare was actually your sister."
Wedge stared at him. "How did you find out about that?"
Face grinned, pleased that he had taken his former commander by surprise. "When we moved over to Intelligence, General Cracken made it a standing order that whenever we were undercover in the Empire, we were to look for any information about Wynssa Starflare and her husband, Baron Fel. We knew, of course, that Fel had briefly been a Rogue after his defection. When I asked Iella about it, she told me that Wynssa was really your sister, Syal. I'm the only one in the Wraiths who knows, though. Iella asked me to keep it to myself, and I have."
Wedge turned to Iella, "Why didn't you tell me?"
She smiled at both of them, "There really wasn't anything to tell. They haven't found anything we didn't already know, and I didn't want to get your hopes up. We'll find them someday, though."
Face continued, "Anyway, now that I know ... I just wanted to tell you that I thought she was a really wonderful person. She was always very kind to me. She and I both knew that the holos we were making for the Empire were utter garbage. When we would rehearse, we'd change the lines to make the Imps sound even more ridiculous than they were, but we always got it right for the cameras." His eyes glinted with amusement again, "I had such a crush on her ..."
Wedge grinned knowing that while Face probably did indeed have a crush on his sister when he'd been a kid, he'd said it now to lighten Wedge's mood. It had worked, too. "I know we'll find them and I truly appreciate whatever you will do to make it happen, but that is for the future." His expression became all business again, "Now tell me what you've set up with my brilliant bride here for our Imp cover identities."
The name on the door read Admiral Mordan Dellis, Chief of Sector Operations. The man to whom the name belonged would have matched the stereotypical image of an Imperial naval officer to the last detail. He was tall, pale skinned from long-term lack of exposure to natural sunlight, and sharp featured to the point of appearing cruel. His light blue eyes held no warmth as he looked up from the datapad on the desk before him at the three officers in front of him. "Thank you, Commander Jareck, for escorting Captain Bardan and Lieutenant Nesselle here." He nodded slightly to Face. "Please wait outside for a few minutes, while we talk. Then you can make the arrangements for your rendezvous with the Antagonizer.
Face snapped a crisp salute, turned smartly on his heel and left the Admiral's office.
"Captain Bardan," the Admiral addressed Wedge. "I see here in your file that you transferred from Fighter Command to Fleet Operations. That is an unusual career move."
Iella had prepared Wedge for that point being brought up and he answered smoothly, "That is true, Sir, but we must all serve the Empire in our fullest capacity. At the Academy, in addition to ranking highly enough to serve with our fighter squadrons, I also apparently excelled in resource management. As you can see in my file, Fleet Operations adopted my Senior Thesis when Rebel victories began to cut into our resources and materiel. Fleet Ops thought that the person who had developed the plan ought to administer it."
Dellis nodded, "But why inspection tours of our capital ships, Bardan?"
Wedge offered him a tight smile, "They thought that a fresh eye might be able to see where ship operations could be made more efficient."
"I see." He looked Iella up and down in a disapproving manner. "And why does Lieutenant Nesselle accompany you?"
Dellis was obviously from the old school of Imperial officers who felt that females had no place in the Imperial military. Wedge counted to five silently. He was well aware of the gender bias in the Imperial military, but had also crossed swords with high ranking female Imps who would have vaporized the desk-flying dolt in front of him. "She is my assistant," he said putting just the right amount of disdain in his voice. "She takes notes on my inspection tours and writes up the reports I dictate to her."
He felt like a heel saying it, but Iella had told him that it was necessary to treat her as other Imperial officers would expect in order to maintain their cover. "I know that nothing you have to say while you are in your role changes how you feel. What is in your heart is all that matters to me, and I can see that in your eyes no matter what role you play," she'd told him.
"Very well then, Bardan." He made a notation to the datapad adding his authorization for the inspection tour before handing it back to Wedge. "Commander Jareck and his pilot will accompany you on your tour. They will be temporarily detached from the Antagonizer when you move on to the next ship."
"Thank you, Sir." Wedge and Iella saluted and left the Imperial bureaucrat to his busy work.
They made only innocuous conversation as they went from the administration building to the shuttle hangar. Once they entered the shuttle that would take them to the Antagonizer, Face visibly loosened up indicating to Wedge that it was safe to talk freely. "Hey!" he called up to the cockpit. "Come on back here and say hello to our passengers."
A small framed, dark complected woman appeared in the passageway leading to the cockpit. No Imperial naval uniform or regulation pulled back hair could disguise the huge dimpled smile of Shalla Nelprin. "You sure have a strange idea about what a honeymoon should be, Sir," she said.
Wedge had to force down a blush, but Iella came to his rescue. "You don't know it yet, young lady," she said with a smile, "but where you are isn't nearly as important as who you're with."
Wedge managed to recover himself. "Look, you two," he said. "Can we just drop the honeymoon cracks? And while we're at it, drop that 'Sir' stuff too. I'm not your commanding officer anymore. She is." He jerked his thumb at Iella.
Face and Shalla exchanged a quick glance, "Yes Sir," they said in unison.
Wedge rolled his eyes skyward and silently thanked his lucky stars that Wes Janson was safely back with the Rogues.
The shuttle Ambergris, had made the jump to lightspeed and after engaging the autopilot, Shalla came back to the passenger compartment to take part in the discussion of the mission to come.
Face gestured at her to sit and continued to speak, "Kell is assigned to the same section of Engineering as Terek," he said. "It's handy having a slicer of Kirney's caliber who is used to working with Imp protocols on the bridge. She's the one who sliced all of our ID's into the personnel files at Fleet Ops."
Wedge had believed her when she'd said that she had never betrayed the Wraiths in her last transmission before fleeing to Warlord Zsinj, but he still shuddered inwardly at the idea of Gara Petothel actually back at work in an Intelligence capacity with all of their lives at stake. In five years of working with the Intelligence configuration of the Wraiths, however, if she had not betrayed them, Wedge thought he should really try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Iella caught his eye and he could tell that she had guessed his thoughts, again.
"We'll have to be very careful about how we make contact with Terek," Face said looking thoughtful. "Since his father's defection, he's been watched closely, but Tyria and Kell are certain that they've got his minders spotted. Kell and Terek are developing a cautious friendship. They work out together when they're off duty and Tyria says that Terek can occasionally get the drop on him." He handed Wedge a datapad, "This has the details of the others' Imp identities. I'm a mid-level bridge officer for ship operations, which is why Kirney had the computer kick my name out to go pick you up at Fleet Command."
Wedge looked at the datapad for a moment, then up at Shalla, "Ensign Nyva Cassanran? Interesting name, Shalla."
Shalla's dimples deepened as her smile widened, "I'm just playing my own little game. It's my father's real name turned inside out."
Shalla's father had been an Intelligence officer in the Old Republic, one of the few who had escaped capture. He had raised both of his daughters to believe in and fight for the Rebel cause.
Wedge returned her smile, "Even unsung tweaking of the Imps deserves applause, Shalla. Good for you."
The passenger compartment rang suddenly with the alarm indicating their imminent emergence from hyperspace. Shalla stood to run for the cockpit, but then turned back to Wedge, "Would you care to do the honors, Sir?"
Wedge smiled, "Thanks. No, Shalla. I'm an Imperial captain; you're my chauffeur, remember?"
She winked at Face. "That uniform has already gone to his head," she said and disappeared into the cockpit.
Wedge strode down the boarding ramp of the shuttle as if he owned it. He held himself ramrod straight and looked every inch an Imperial naval officer in the stark black uniform, knee boots in polished black leather, and the black peaked cap that covered his short dark auburn hair. The contact lenses in his eyes made them a cold gray and a thin mustache of the same auburn color topped his upper lip.
Face and Iella followed him down the ramp together and Shalla brought up the rear of the little group. Face looked like a recruiting poster for the Imperial navy: tall, blond, keen gray eyes, and a crisp black uniform. He moved to position himself between Wedge and the captain of the Antagonizer in case he would be called upon to perform introductions.
Iella, standing behind and slightly to Wedge's left, looked as non-descript as she could manage. She had dyed her hair jet black and wore it pulled back in a tight braid down her back. Her deep blue eyes were hidden behind dark brown contact lenses. She had managed to hide her perfect golden complexion behind not quite pasty makeup, but she'd had a more difficult time with that damnable black uniform. It was supposed to be tailored to a snug fit, but that would have made her stand out where she was already more conspicuous, being a visitor to the ship and female. She and Shalla had fiddled with the uniform until it disguised her figure somewhat, but it was most uncomfortable.
Shalla, as a lowly ensign and a female, was beneath the notice of the superior officers she had piloted. Her normally cheerful face was schooled into a rigid expressionless mask.
Wedge ignored his three companions and walked straight over to the captain of the ship. He snapped a salute, "Captain Quion. I am Captain Bardan."
Face had told Wedge that Quion had little patience for what he thought of as interference in the command of his ship. They had agreed that the best way to get his cooperation would be for Wedge to affect the same sort of disdain for the job he was supposed to do, at the same time letting the captain know that he was a capable fighter pilot anxious to return to real active duty.
Wedge looked around the main landing bay. "You have no idea, Captain, how much I miss being in a hangar like this preparing to go out and face the enemy." It was the absolute truth, although he had neglected to mention who he thought that enemy might be.
Quion had looked bored with the prospect of greeting another data pusher from Fleet Ops, but quickly took another look at the officer before him. Bardan was avidly looking around the landing bay, his eyes resting longer on the TIE Interceptors in their launch racks.
"Welcome to the Antagonizer, Captain Bardan. If luck is with us, you'll be able to observe how we deal with the enemy."
"That would be a most welcome opportunity indeed, although my preference would be to be out there destroying them," Wedge answered.
He brought his attention back to Quion. Slightly over average height and just beginning to show signs of approaching middle age, the beginnings of jowls and wrinkles appearing on his face, there was something undefinably wrong about the man Wedge faced. "Duty first, however," he said. "My orders are to conduct inspections of capital ship operations and suggest ways to improve efficiency. Imperial resources are not what they used to be and every effort must be made not to waste what we have."
Quion nodded. This was a man he could talk to, not like that idiot, Dellis. "Of course, Captain."
Wedge finally turned around to introduce Iella, "This is my assistant, Lieutenant Nesselle. She will be accompanying me on the inspection tour to take notes."
Iella saluted. "It is an honor to be here, Sir."
She had apparently not made herself look inconspicuous enough. When Quion deigned to acknowledge her, it quickly became an appraising leer and Iella made a mental note never to let herself be cornered alone with him.
"The pleasure is mine, Lieutenant," he said shaking her hand, but holding it a little too long for propriety.
Face was appalled at the way Quion was mentally undressing Iella, especially since it was right in front of her husband, though Quion could not know that. Still, Captain Bardan was her commanding officer. Quion should have at least respected that. Quickly, he interjected, "Perhaps our visitors would like to be shown to their quarters, Sir?"
"Of course, Jareck. See to it. Your assistant can bunk in with one of the other women officers, Captain." It was obvious to all of them that that other officer would conveniently be on duty when Lieutenant Nesselle was in those quarters.
Iella looked past Quion at Wedge and Face and Shalla. All three of them looked ready to hand-feed him to a Krayt Dragon. In small pieces.
"No." Wedge's voice was completely flat. Had he been at the fire controls of an X-wing, Quion would have been obliterated on the spot in a quad-linked laser barrage. "Nesselle and I will be working late into the evenings writing up the inspection reports."
Quion shrugged, "Very well. Her quarters will be next to yours."
The tension eased and they realized that Quion had assumed that Captain Bardan was protecting his property, so to speak. Iella would still need to be careful, but now that the ground rules were understood, Quion would be less disgustingly blatant.
Wedge gave Face a speaking look that told him he would be answering some very tough questions. He had a few questions of his own he was going to get answers to.
Dismissing Shalla, but giving her a hand signal to meet him later, Face escorted Wedge and Iella to their quarters. After they had determined that there were no surveillance devices trained on them, Wedge rounded on Face, "Shalla, Tyria, and Kirney have had to fend off that animal?" he said straining to keep his voice down. He turned to Iella, "Are you all right?" he asked pulling her into a fierce hug.
She clung to him for a moment, then pulled herself back, "I'm fine, Wedge. I know how to handle him."
Face looked at Wedge helplessly, "I'm so sorry, Wedge. They never breathed a word to me. I had no idea Quion was like that." Then he looked at Iella, "I'm really sorry, Boss. Just say the word and we'll all bug out."
Iella released herself from Wedge's arms, but clasped one hand tightly. "No. I'm fine, Face. We're here to do a job and we're going to do it. Captain Octopus thinks that I'm Bardan's personal property so we'll just play it that way." She flashed Wedge a quick smile, "I'm willing to play the part of Captain Bardan's mistress. You'll be right here to protect me."
Wedge rolled his eyes to the ceiling, but said nothing.
She looked back at Face, "I am concerned for the others, though. You had better check on them and make sure that they have a safe bolthole till we do bug out."
Face was still shaken, but gave a determined nod. "Right. I'll be back in a couple of hours to escort you to dinner with the captain." He shuddered, got himself back under control, and left them.
Wedge took Iella in his arms again and held her tightly. "Sweetheart, are you sure you want to stick this out? Not even my promise to Rogriss is worth your coming to any kind of harm on this mission. If he ever lays a finger on you again, I will rip him apart with my bare hands."
She kissed him as hard as she could, "I know you will, and I'll help you; but we came here to talk to Rogriss's son and that is what we're going to do." She could feel Wedge's heart pounding like a triphammer; he was still afraid for her. Hers was pounding too. Here was incontrovertible proof that it was not a good idea for married couples to go into the field on missions together. She had to do something to distract them both from the unexpected trauma they'd just been through. "I always did fancy a honeymoon on an Imperial Star Destroyer." Putting her hands on his chest, she pushed Wedge across the room and down onto the bunk, "So how about some honeymooning, Mister?"
"Iella!" Wedge's voice was a strangled whisper.
"The name's Darian Nesselle, Captain Bardan. And don't you forget it."
Face met Shalla at their usual spot, a seldom used corridor between two conference rooms at the base of the Command Tower. After making sure that there was no one within earshot, Face asked her point-blank, "Has that Hutt slime ever done anything like that to any of you?"
Shalla's normally cheerful expression was deadly serious, "He's never made a pass at me, but then I'm not his type."
Face raised an eyebrow, "His type?"
She smiled at him mirthlessly, "I can be in the Imp military because I'm human, Face, but look at me. I might be at risk just being female, but I'm short and dark-skinned as well; not the 'Ideal Imp Officer' at all."
Face hadn't realized it until just then, but Shalla had double the normal Imp prejudices to contend with.
"Shalla, I am sorry. When we get out of this one, I'm going to personally tell Cracken to scratch us from field assignments for a while. Imps like Quion and Ice Heart -- they make me sick!" he said vehemently. Then taking himself in hand, he asked, "Do you have a place safe to hole up?"
Her smile widened, "The best place on this tub. Our ride out of here."
He smiled back at her, "Just stay close to it then, but if you can, try to get to Tyria and Kell first. Tell them what happened, but keep Kell from tearing off to the bridge to pulverize Quion. Our good former commander has first crack at him. I'm going to talk to our gal upstairs. Be careful."
Two hours later, Face knocked on Wedge's door. Wedge had calmed down considerably, and Iella had a self-satisfied little smirk on her face that she did not bother to hide from Face. He was no fool. He knew exactly how she had calmed Wedge down and how the next act in the drama would play. Captain Bardan would be all business unless he thought he was unobserved. Then he would momentarily offer his mistress a quick caress or soft look. Lieutenant Nesselle would have a more difficult time restraining herself and it would be obvious that she was doing so.
Face kept a straight face, but inside he was grinning. Wedge was a better actor than he gave himself credit for; they were both good at this. Oh well, NRI's loss was Fleet Command's gain. He closed the door and gave Wedge and Iella a quick update. "Shalla is fine. She said that she doesn't meet the captain's standards for attractiveness."
The look on his face told them exactly how he felt about that, and Wedge and Iella were grateful that the other Wraiths who were not present did not have to suffer such indignities.
"She went down to Engineering and warned Tyria and Kell, but she came back with news too. Tyria says that she can't be absolutely certain, but she thinks Rogriss is planning something. Her sense is that the sooner you make contact the better. Kell has been busy with his demolition tricks. It has been hard to stay out of Terek's way because they both have the same job, to inspect and repair miles of computer and power conduits. His experience repairing that kind of stuff on the Night Caller and Sungrass came in handy, though. He's got demolition packages stashed in places no one would think to look. If and when you give the word, he can cause major computer and power failures."
"Tyria has been safe from Captain Quion because he rarely goes down to Engineering, but even if he did, all he'd see would be a grease monkey. She tags along behind Kell or Terek as they do their inspections and hands them their tools. She's a Mechanic's Mate, no pun intended, and I've actually seen Kell wipe the grease off his hands on the back of her coverall."
Wedge smiled at the image. "What about Kirney?"
Face became more serious. "She said that Quion is an odd one. He'll go for long stretches without bothering any of the female crew, then all of a sudden cut a whole swath. He was apparently in one of his slumps when we first came aboard. He started up again after I had gone to meet you, which is why I didn't know about it. She carefully questioned some of the other women officers this afternoon when the captain was off the bridge. It looks as if she may be his next target; she's going to be at the dinner in the Officers' Mess tonight. I know she's as anxious to get away from this flying midden as the rest of us."
"All right, Face. If we can keep our host on the subject, I want you to suggest that the inspection tour tomorrow begin in Engineering. I won't make the contact then unless I have to, but I will ask to speak to individual crew members. You or I will 'randomly' select Terek and have him report here after his shift to be interviewed." Wedge's expression was grim. "We're not going to waste time with this. I think Tyria is right and Terek is going to make a break for it on his own. Rogriss said that it wasn't in his son's records, but he is a qualified shuttle pilot. We need to get to him before he goes or we'll never find his sister. As soon as we've got him, we're bugging out. Kell's demolitions will be our diversion." He turned to Iella, "Does that sound all right to you?"
She smiled at him, "You read my mind."
He grinned back at her, "No, that's your trick. Come on, let's get this dinner over with."
The Senior Officers' Mess was located on the forward side of Deck Five of the Command Tower. It was a spacious room very much in keeping with the notion that the higher one's rank the greater the privileges that went with that rank. Even on a sixteen hundred meter long Star Destroyer, space was at a premium, but not for the ranking officers. The color scheme was typically Imperial, lighter grays and white on the walls, dark gray carpeting on the floor, and large pieces of abstract art done in maroons, purples, grays, and black. On the wall behind the head of the long rectangular table, hung a meter and a half wide black metal wall sculpture of the Imperial Crest. The wall to the right of the Captain's seat was dominated by oversized viewports, which overlooked the white triangular shape of the rest of the ship.
Dinner with Captain Quion and the other senior officers of the ship had been one of the most agonizing experiences of Wedge's life. Kirney Slane had been introduced as Lieutenant Yevalla Rinkos, one of the ship's most promising sensor analysis specialists. The compliment included in the introduction confirmed to everyone present that she was indeed Quion's next intended conquest. Quion had dominated the conversation most of the evening. He had regaled the group with tales of his exploits as a pilot in his younger days. Kirney had been seated opposite Wedge on Quion's left and had been the intended target of the captain's stories. He was reciting his accomplishments with the intent of impressing Yevalla.
Quion had looked over at Iella, seated next to Wedge, as well to gauge her reaction. He had not entirely given up on adding Lieutenant Nesselle to his conquests, but was not pressing that as much as his interest in Lieutenant Rinkos. Iella, in her guise as Lieutenant Nesselle, had made appreciative comments once or twice, but had spent more time making eyes at Captain Bardan and trying to look as if she was doing no such thing. She had absorbed every nuance of Quion's simultaneous 'pursuit' of herself and Yevalla and was hard pressed to keep her dinner down.
Wedge and Face, both accomplished pilots, listened to Quion's stories torn between the necessity to appear interested and impressed and the almost uncontrollable urge to laugh in his face. He had been a good enough pilot to survive the battles he'd fought in, but only because the maneuvers he had described were defensive and designed to keep the particular fighter out of the thickest part of the battle. Wedge and Face had exchanged a look across the table that said as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud, Quion is nothing but a coward. How he had gone from flying as he himself had described to being in command of a capital ship was beyond Wedge.
Face had repeatedly tried to steer the conversation to the inspection scheduled to begin in the morning, but had been rebuffed with increasing asperity by the captain. Finally, Wedge, being of equal rank and therefore not subject to Quion's orders, called an end to the evening, "Thank you, Captain, for a most enjoyable evening." He pushed himself back from the table and stood. "Commander Jareck, if you would be so good as to meet us at 08:00 hours tomorrow?"
The others had stood when Wedge did and Face answered, "Yes, Sir. May I suggest that you begin your inspection in Engineering?"
"Excellent." He nodded to Quion, "Good night, Captain. Come along, Lieutenant." Iella turned and followed him from the room.
Face looked to see if he would have an opportunity to speak to Kirney. The captain was momentarily engaged in conversation with another officer so he asked her quietly, "Are you going to be able to hold him off? He seems determined."
She gave him only the briefest glance, but it clearly expressed her appreciation of his concern for her welfare, "I'll manage."
"Bug out tomorrow on the signal," and he turned and left.
"Hey, Terek," the blond, blue-eyed giant shouted across the locker room. "Did you hear that some data pusher from Fleet Ops is coming down here to tell us which bin to throw the grease rags in?"
Kell Tainer, currently going by the name Norys Falsayne, looked around his open locker door to find Terek Rogriss.
Rogriss looked as white as a sheet, "Don't do that, Norys! I nearly jumped out of my skin when you yelled."
Kell looked at him apologetically, "Sorry. None of those clowns are in here, though. They wouldn't recognize a gymnasium if they tripped over it, and none of them have seen the inside of a shower for a month. You could smell them coming from the other end of the ship."
Rogriss smiled, but was still wound tight, which surprised Kell a little. Only a short while before, Terek had had one of his better days and managed to pin him twice with wrestling moves he had not used on Kell before.
Kell looked up at the clock on the locker room wall, "Oops! We'd better get a move on. It wouldn't do to be late for our inspection. I wonder what solvent Gisia had to take a bath in to cut through the grease."
They left the locker room and walked to the turbolift bay. Terek, looking up at Kell and grinning said, "You'd better not wonder about that too loud, Norys. It's all right for the Brassheads to fraternize, but the Grunts better keep their minds on their work."
Kell snorted. "If the Grunts don't get to 'fraternize', where will future little Grunts come from?"
Terek laughed. Then his mood changed, "Norys, you've been a good friend when I didn't have any left. I just want to say thanks."
Kell knew right away that today was the day Terek was going to do whatever he had planned. He didn't have a chance to answer Terek because the turbolift had arrived and other Engineering personnel were on it heading down for their duty shifts.
They followed the crowd into Engineering, pulled coveralls on over their uniforms, and headed off to their work site.
"Norys! Terek! Wait for me!" They turned around and saw a dark haired waif running after them. They also heard quite a bit of snickering.
Tyria, otherwise known as Gisia Lorman, ignored the snickers and caught up with Kell and Terek. Usually covered with grease, she tended to be overlooked, but because of the impending inspection, she was in a clean coverall and appeared more attractive than most of the clods in the Maintenance Division expected her to be. Her best camouflage, therefore, was to stick close to Norys, the object of her unrequited crush.
Kell rolled his eyes and turned to keep walking, but Terek smiled and put a friendly arm around her shoulders, "Don't worry, Gisia. You'll wear him down."
They had reached their work site and stopped. "Terek, you go on down to the next junction and get started there," Kell said. "I can't fit into the access hatch here, but Gisia can. I'm going to boost her up and talk her through what needs doing. We'll catch up with you in a little while."
Terek winked at Tyria, "Take your time, Norys," and trotted down the hall.
When he was out of earshot, Kell turned to her, "Today's the day. When we were coming down for our shift, he thanked me for being his friend like he was leaving and saying goodbye. We may not have time for a drawn out contact dance. Somehow we have to let Face know that the General has to make the contact during the inspection and then bug out as soon as possible afterwards. The demolitions are set."
"I'll do what I can, Love, but you know it's always iffy under pressure."
He squeezed her hand wishing he could hold her in his arms instead, "Do the best you can, Sweetheart. Here, let me give you a boost."
Face went up to the bridge to check on Kirney before going to meet Wedge and Iella. The captain had not yet made his appearance, but Kirney was at her station looking much worse for wear. He made a slow circle around the upper walkway winding up next to her station. Quietly, he asked her, "Did he ...? Are you all right?"
She looked up at him with a tight smile, "Right after you left, I told him that something I had eaten had made me sick and ran out of there looking like I was about to throw up," she whispered. "When I got back to my quarters, I did throw up."
"I felt like throwing up myself."
"My roommate is jealous of his interest in me, and might possibly have given me away if I hadn't actually appeared to be sick all night. I went into the refresher every hour on the hour and made myself throw up." She gave him a wan smile, "It wasn't hard. All I had to do was imagine his slimy hands on me." A sad smile crept over her features, "It's been too long since Myn and I have had a chance to be together."
Face unobtrusively gave her shoulder a squeeze in empathy.
"At least I have a legitimate excuse to leave the bridge in a hurry." She glanced around to make certain that no one would hear what she said next. "It took some doing, but I've programmed some weapons and sensor malfunctions to go along with Kell's fireworks. I wish I had Tonin with me. We could have had some real fireworks."
Face started to grin, then smothered it, "Tonin is fine where he is. Just move as fast as you can when you get the signal."
"And this is one of the power conduit maintenance teams," Face said approaching Kell, Tyria, and Terek Rogriss. "Name and rank?" he said snapping his fingers.
The three of them had whirled around at the sound of Face's voice and snapped to attention.
"Norys Falsayne. Mechanic, Second Class," Kell said, snapping a salute.
"Gisia Lorman. Mechanic's Mate," Tyria had gotten herself covered with grease again and became virtually invisible as soon as she stopped speaking.
"Terek Rogriss. Mechanic, Second Class."
Wedge ignored Kell and Tyria to study Rogriss. "Rogriss. You have come down in the world, haven't you?" The contempt in his voice was palpable.
Face had been watching Kell looking for a signal of some kind when his vision blurred. Tyria's voice sounded inside his head, Make contact now! His vision cleared and he could see that her eyes were closed in concentration. He glanced at Kell, who gave him a slight nod.
He looked up and down the corridor. No one else was in sight; he had to risk it. He put a hand on Wedge's shoulder to get his attention, "Right now."
Terek had stiffened when Wedge had addressed him, but now something else seemed to be going on.
Wedge's whole demeanor shifted from stern, Imperial disapproval to real, human concern. "Terek, I have a message for you from your father."
Terek stiffened again feeling trapped, "My father is dead. He betrayed the Empire and was killed for it."
"No, Terek. Listen. `Adherence to duty without conscience betrays honor.' He believes that with every fiber of his being, and he taught it to you and your sister. His conscience did not allow him to betray his honor. He wants you to understand why he did what he did. I can tell you because I was there, but I know it would mean everything to him to be able to tell you himself."
Terek's eyes flew around looking for a way to escape, "No! You're lying. This is a trick!"
Kell put his hand on Terek's shoulder and looked him straight in the eye, "Terek, it isn't a trick. Just a couple of hours ago, you thanked me for being your friend. I'm a better friend than you know; we all are."
Terek looked around. Face, Iella, and Tyria had crowded in around Wedge and Kell, all of them abandoning stiff Imperial mannerisms. "We were sent here to help you. We'll even take you to your father, if that is what you want, but we need to go now," Kell added.
Tyria reached out to touch his hand, "Terek, what does your heart tell you?" She had discarded her little waif persona to look at him intently.
He stared at her. "To trust you," he said finally, releasing a deep breath, "but I can't leave my sister ..." Distress was evident on his face.
"We won't leave her," Wedge said, "but we need your help to find her."
Voices coming from down the corridor heralded the approach of Unfriendlies. "Follow our lead and look like you think you are in trouble," Wedge said quietly just before the Chief Engineer and Captain Quion appeared around the corner.
"Oh, here you are, Bardan," Quion said jovially. "Chief Tegomrey said you'd given him the slip."
Wedge and the rest of his group had slipped effortlessly back into their alternate identities. Even Rogriss looked appropriately nervous to be in the presence of such senior officers. "My apologies, Chief. When your duties required your attention, I just continued on with Jareck here." He turned to Face, "Have these three sent to my quarters. I'll be along shortly to conduct the interviews."
"Interviews?" Quion said raising an eyebrow.
"Yes. I find that having representative members of the crew from different areas of ship operations explain exactly how they do their jobs, and more importantly, why they do them that way provides valuable information for finding ways to streamline the work. I start at the bottom and work my way up." Wedge turned to the Chief Engineer, "I'll be talking to you in the next day or so and even you, Captain," he added turning to Quion briefly before looking back at the Chief. "For now, let me say that I have been very impressed with what I have seen so far in your domain. Jareck?"
"Yes, Sir." He ushered Terek, Tyria, and Kell ahead of him and away from the captain.
Wedge turned to Tegomrey, "If you will excuse us? Captain, would you care to join us for the interviews?" He had begun walking in the direction Face had gone hoping that it was toward a bank of turbolifts.
Quion looked as if that was the last thing he wanted to do. "Thank you, no. There are matters requiring my attention on the bridge."
They parted company at the turbolifts and Wedge and Iella both sagged against the walls of their 'lift in relief for a moment, although they said nothing. Then Iella unobtrusively flicked a particular switch on her comlink.
Shalla was the first one to reach the shuttle Ambergris after receiving the 'bug out' signal on her comlink. As one of the Antagonizer's complement of shuttle pilots, she did not appear to be out of place when she began doing a pre-flight walkaround of the ship. She checked to make sure that its' fuel had been topped off after the last flight and she visually examined the twin laser cannons just below the cockpit just as she had been taught to do with any vehicle about to go into combat. The familiar ritual had a calming effect while she waited for the rest of the team and their target to appear.
A few minutes later, Face, Tyria, Kell, and Terek Rogriss appeared at the entrance to the landing bay. Face could legitimately have business there since he was in Ship Ops, but three Engineering Grunts would have a more difficult time explaining their presence. A distraction was needed to let them get aboard the shuttle undetected.
All of a sudden, a distraction happened of its' own accord. Sort of. The first of Kell's demolition packages sent small shudders through the deck plates. Lights flickered and sirens began blaring. The maintenance crews that had been working on the various ships ran to the nearest computer banks to find out what was happening. The ship's PA system emitted two high-pitched tones to get the attention of the crew, "Attention! Fire suppression teams report to Engineering. Repeat. "Fire suppression teams repor- " The PA went silent and computer screens began flickering.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Face and the others ran to the shuttle and slipped aboard. Kell went forward to the cockpit to help Shalla finish the pre-flight and man the forward lasers. Face told Terek to keep quiet and strap in, while he stood at the hatch keeping an eye out for Wedge, Iella, and Kirney to appear.
Terek, his eyes wide, turned in his seat to look at Tyria who had strapped in next to him, "All of you came here to help me get away and take me to my father?"
She smiled at him, "The General will explain everything as soon as we get out of here?"
"General ...?" His eyes opened even wider. "You mean ... That was General Antilles?"
"When Security hauled me out of my bunk in the middle of the night, they asked me over and over if I knew of any kind of contact between my father and General Antilles ..."
Face turned around for a moment, "The only one before Adumar was indirect. About five years ago, your father commanded an Imperial task force whose job was to eliminate Warlord Zsinj. He initiated a temporary truce between his task force and General Solo's. Commander Antilles, as he was at the time, was in charge of the fighter wings with the task force. He ..."
Face turned back at the sound of running footsteps approaching. Wedge and Iella raced aboard and Wedge asked, "Is everyone here?"
Face looked him in the eye, obviously concerned, and then back out the hatch as he answered, "No. Kirney isn't here yet."
Wedge was not pleased with that answer.
The non-regulation comlink in Kirney's pocket had sounded a barely audible two-toned beep and she had instantly gone into her previously determined plan of action. She executed a series of commands at her work station which would, with a five minute delay, begin to wreak havoc with sensor and weapons controls until Kell's demolitions hopefully cut power all together.
She turned to the Executive Officer currently in charge of the bridge, using her nervousness to help her look as pale as she had earlier, "Permission to leave the bridge, Sir? I think I'm going to be sick."
The Exec, who had been at the dinner the night before and had seen her precipitous departure, gave her a disgusted look and waved his dismissal.
She ran for the doors with one hand covering her mouth. Just as she reached the doors, they swished open, activated from the other side. She skidded to a stop and barely avoided barreling into Quion.
He put his hands on her upper arms to steady her on her feet, "Ah, just the person I was looking for ..."
"Sorry, Sir. Gonna be sick," she said, her voice muffled behind her hand. She twisted herself free and ran for the closest turbolift.
Behind her, Quion turned to enter the bridge. He saw the Exec's still disgusted look and opened his mouth to ask what had prompted it, when the first shudders of Kell's demolitions packages made themselves felt in the deck plates.
Quion only had time to ask, rather stupidly, "What was that?" before the alarms began blaring.
As the explosions and other fireworks increased, Face became more and more agitated. "Come on, Kirney, come on. Where are you?" He still stood at the hatch and had drawn his blaster to cover her if necessary. By then, half of the normal lighting in the landing bay had blown out from power surges.
Wedge joined him looking out the hatch with his own blaster drawn. "Look," he said, "there she is!"
She had just run through the door, but the landing bay's security detail, which had been distracted when the others had boarded, noticed her and began heading toward her firing. She ran forward to hide behind some storage crates, but a blaster shot grazed her left leg just as she reached cover.
Wedge and Face opened fire on the security detail to take their attention from her. Another alarm began wailing in the landing bay, "Security breach in main landing bay. Security Backup to main landing bay."
"I'm going out to get her. Cover me." Face called over his shoulder to Wedge. He ran crouching low to avoid the blaster bolts flying at him and dove behind the crates where Kirney hid.
Kneeling beside her, he saw that she was biting her lip to keep from crying out, "How bad is it?"
"It's just a graze, but it hurts like the devil."
"Can you stand?" he asked pulling one of her arms over his neck and putting his other arm around her waist to support her. "We've got to run."
Iella had come to take Face's position in the hatchway and augment Wedge's covering fire. She picked off two of the security detail, and then saw movement behind the crate where Face and Kirney hid. "They're ready to run."
A loud boom reverberated in the landing bay as the shuttle's forward lasers fired. More powerful than the hand weapons, those laser bolts vaporized bulkheads and started several fires, which in turn activated the automatic fire suppression system. Foam spraying from above obscured targets for both sides of the firefight.
The security detail were knocked from their feet by the concussion of air that hit them, but Face and Kirney had braced themselves in preparation to run. They made it to the boarding ramp just as a third type of alarm began whooping in the air, "Battle Stations! Battle Stations! We are under attack!"
Face and Kirney stumbled up the ramp and into the shuttle and Wedge slammed the control to close the hatch. "Launch now, Shalla!" he shouted.
The shuttle rose on its' repulsorlifts, drifted laterally toward the open landing bay, and dropped through the magnetic containment field.
Face had gently placed Kirney in a seat and secured her safety harness while Iella placed a pressure bandage over the blaster graze on her leg, but she grabbed Face's arm, "Tell Shalla to fly along the belly of the ship. The sensors are blind there and we can make the jump to lightspeed."
"I heard her, Face."
Iella pressed a self-injecting pain killer patch close to the wound on Kirney's leg and the tightness on her face eased as the pain diminished. She looked up at Face smiling through the tears of pain, "I told you that I had a few more surprises to add to Kell's fireworks. The attack is a sensor malfunction. There's nobody here but us Wraiths, Boss. I thought the more distractions they had to deal with the better. I messed up the main fire controls, too. I didn't think we should have to dodge any potshots they might want to take to discourage us from leaving."
"Good work, Kirney," Face said, pride in his team evident in his voice.
Shalla's voice came through, both on the intercom and the open door to the cockpit, "Make your call, Face. We go to lightspeed in fifteen seconds."
Face pulled out his NRI issue long-range comlink and flicked the switch, "Wraith One to Wraith Flight. Package wrapped. Proceed to rendezvous."
Piggy's unmistakable voice came back, "Flight to One. Acknowledged. Out."
The stars swirled and elongated in pseudomotion around the Imperial shuttle before it disappeared into hyperspace.
Wedge moved to sit in the seat Face had vacated next to Kirney. He saw her apprehensive expression and smiled. "I don't mean this the way it sounds, but ... I never expected to see you again."
Iella was still kneeling in front of her. "It's all right. Face and I explained everything," she said with a reassuring smile.
Kirney looked from Iella back to Wedge, "You're not going to turn me in?"
"No, I'm not going to turn you in. What you did was wrong and it can never be changed, but you're a different person now. You became this different person that day at Lavisar five years ago when you didn't take a shot at my unshielded back." He smiled when he saw her eyes go wide at her sudden recall of that pivotal day in her life. "Or maybe it was even before that when someone made a transmission telling us that Admiral Trigit was about to escape?" Her eyes went wider still. "Myn forgave you a long time ago." Giving her hand a gentle pat, he added, "With Iella's help, we may even be able to figure out a way for you to come home."
Kirney's eyes filled with tears that had nothing to do with pain. "Thank you, Sir."
Wedge stood and moved over to where Terek Rogriss sat with Tyria, who had been quietly explaining what was going on with Kirney. The others, including Shalla and Kell, having put the shuttle on autopilot, gathered around him, Kell perching on the arm of Tyria's seat and resting a hand on her shoulder.
He glanced at Tyria. "What have you told him so far?"
"Just a very quick explanation of Kirney's situation. We haven't even gotten around to formal introductions, Sir," she answered.
"Well, why don't we do that first?"
Terek's eyes were wide with awe. "I know who you are, Sir, but I don't understand why you've done this. Why did you risk coming into the Empire?"
There was a lot of his father in the young man sitting before Wedge. "I came because I made your father a promise. Do you remember what I said to you back on the Antagonizer?"
"'Adherence to duty without conscience betrays honor.' Yes, I remember."
"Your father taught you and your sister that, didn't he?"
At Terek's nod, he continued, "He believes that with all his heart and he lives by it. At Adumar, he swore an oath on behalf of the Empire that his ship would leave peacefully if Adumar chose to join the New Republic. Other Imperial officers, including General Turr Phennir, who was my counterpart on that mission, were prepared to break that oath in order to compel Adumar to join the Empire; by invasion, if necessary."
Wedge could see that the young man was absorbing every word he said. "Your father sacrificed his career in order to prevent his ship and those other officers from calling in the waiting invasion force. That gave the New Republic time to get its' forces into position to defend Adumar. His only regret was that he would never see you and your sister again and would not have the chance to explain his actions to you. That was when I promised him, I gave him my word of honor, that you would hear the truth."
Terek swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Thank you for that, Sir. To listen to my father being called a traitor was more than I could take. They told me that he had died a traitor and that my sister and I would always be known as the children of a traitor. I was going to steal a shuttle, go to my sister, and have her leave with me. How did you know to pull me out today?" He looked at Tyria and Kell, "You've obviously been watching me for a while."
Wedge smiled, pleased that Terek had taken everything as well as he had. "The 'how' isn't really as important as the 'why'. We needed you in order to be able to find your sister, but once we realized that you were about to bolt, we had to change our plans on the fly. We're going to have to move quickly. We didn't cover our tracks, and once they discover that you are no longer on the ship, your sister will be in even more danger. There is no time to set up a secure contact procedure. You're going to have to get her to trust us and come with us."
"She'll come," Terek said with certainty. "As soon as she sees me, she'll know something is wrong." He turned to Kell. "Norys, you are a better friend than I imagined. Thanks for risking your neck to pull me out."
Kell grinned. "You're welcome, but the name's not Norys. I'm Kell Tainer and this is my wife, Tyria," he said squeezing her shoulder.
Terek's jaw dropped. "Your wife?" Then he burst out laughing.
Several hours later, the Imperial shuttle, Ambergris, until recently part of the complement of shuttles belonging to the Star Destroyer Antagonizer, hung in deep space flanked by four TIE Interceptors. Another shuttle, a Sentinel-class landing craft identifying itself as the Lara's Folly, approached slowly for docking.
Inside the Ambergris, Kell stood next to the hatch controls, "Docking confirmed." He pressed a button on the panel, "Equalizing pressure in the docking collar." The light turned green and the door slid open.
The whole company was lined up to go across to the Folly, but Wedge turned back to Kirney, who was behind him, "Who's flying the Folly anyway?" All of the Wraiths were accounted for, but Wedge's count came up one short.
"My astromech, Tonin, and my co-pilot."
The others had gone through the docking collar so Wedge and Kirney followed. All of the other seats in the passenger compartment had been taken so Wedge plopped himself into the last one against the forward bulkhead right next to the little ramp that led to the cockpit. Everything was very quiet, which caught Wedge's attention. He looked around at the others. All of them, except Terek, who was as non-plussed as he was, had studiously bland expressions on their faces.
Then Kirney said, "Oh, here's my co-pilot now."
Wedge twisted toward the cockpit access ramp and found himself face to muzzle with a real, live Ewok. "Greetings, General Antilles," he said in a gravelly sing-song voice.
Wedge slumped back in his seat, "That's it. I'm done. I've completely lost my mind."
Six live voices and four others on the intercom chimed, "Yub Yub, General."
Laughter erupted and Wedge cracked a smile.
"We've been waiting five years for a chance to do that," Face sputtered struggling to regain control of himself.
Wedge ignored him. "One of Zsinj's refugees?" he asked Kirney.
She nodded also trying to get herself under control, "And he really is an excellent pilot, just like Lieutenant Kettch. Allow me to introduce Kolot."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Kolot," he said, shaking the Ewok's paw and having to work very hard not to burst out laughing himself.
Terek had obviously never seen a creature like Kolot, let alone heard one speak. His eyes were as big as saucers. Tyria leaned over, "It's a long-running joke from when we were a regular fighter unit and the General was our commanding officer."
"Oh," was all Terek could manage to say.
Iella looked very amused. "It's a shame Wes wasn't here to see this."
"I'm glad he wasn't," Wedge said, mock horror on his face. "I'd never hear the end of it."
He smiled again, but quickly brought everyone's attention back to the business at hand. "All right, enough fooling around. Kell, go set the charge in the other shuttle. We don't have time to waste."
They had left the Ambergris a rapidly dissipating fireball a couple of hundred lightyears behind them. Their four unit TIE Interceptor escort flight was hidden on a desolate, but habitable planet on the opposite side of the system. They had arrived on Jassaris Two quite officially at the spaceport closest to Asori Rogriss's home in an Imperial landing craft designated as surplus and not rigged for combat. The ship's computer had automatically transmitted one of its' alternate registry files identifying it as the freelance trading ship Golden Claw.
Terek had told Wedge and Iella that his sister had been a high ranking officer in a financial institution, but had lost her job after their father's defection. The Naval Intelligence people that had interrogated him had told him that his sister would be punished as he was going to be by being forced to do menial, mind-bending work in full view of their former friends and colleagues.
They had shed their uniforms and taken on another Wraith cover, a group of traders known to operate in both the New Republic and the Empire, but tolerated by both governments. Kirney had quickly gained access to the local Imperial data network and located Asori Rogriss. She worked as a records clerk in the municipal administration complex and lived in a small apartment in a rundown building. Face and Kirney had manufactured an errand which took them to the records section where Asori worked. They had determined that the contact could not be made there. Too many people could see her at her work station and anything that they could devise as a contact procedure would be observed.
They waited until early evening, when her work shift was over and carefully followed her as she made her way home. She walked with her head down and spoke to no one.
When they realized that she was going to walk through a park, Wedge sent Face and Kell around to try to secure a place to make contact. Then he nudged Terek forward, "Go and catch up to her as quietly as you can. We'll be right behind you. Try not to let her raise any kind of alarm."
Terek nodded and walked faster to catch up with his sister. "Asori," he called softly. She stiffened but kept walking. "'Sori, it's Terek."
She stopped and turned and when she saw his face she gasped, "Terek! What ..."
"Keep walking. Go as slowly as you want, but don't stop. I'm here with friends. They helped me get away from my ship. They can take us to our father."
She stopped in her tracks, "It's a trick, Terek! They've tricked you. Father's dead."
"No he isn't, Asori." Wedge and Iella had come up behind them. Wedge's hair color had not changed from the auburn of Captain Bardan, nor had the military short length, but somehow Face had managed to make it appear to be a wild mane. A similarly fuller mustache and the corresponding wardrobe transformed him from the Imperial officer into a typically flamboyant trader.
Startled, she spun around.
Wedge's intent gaze did not match his appearance, "'Adherence to duty without conscience betrays honor.' You know those words, Asori. Your father taught them to you and your brother." After a moment's silence, he continued, "You were told that your father betrayed the Empire. What he did not betray was his honor. You know what honor is and what it means to him. What the Empire expected of him would have meant betraying his honor and his conscience."
Asori sucked in a breath, "Father? He's ... alive?"
Terek grabbed her hand, "He's alive, 'Sori! And they can take us to him."
Hope lit her eyes for a moment, but fear drove it away. "I'm being watched. It's too dangerous."
"Not if we move fast," Wedge said. "We need to get back to the ship, but you need to be disguised."
She looked searchingly at her brother's face and could see that he believed these people and trusted them. Then she turned to Wedge again, "All right, I'll come with you ..."
Iella, now a flaming redhead, and wearing a very short-skirted green dress and large gold earrings, had been carrying an oversized bag. "How would you feel about being a professional companion for some space weary traders?" she asked Asori pulling out some flashier clothing and accessories to match what she wore. She turned to Wedge and Terek, "Give us about five minutes."
Wedge and Terek moved off and Iella pulled Asori into the shadows. In less than five minutes Iella and Asori emerged from the trees. They linked arms with Wedge and Terek, who whistled at his sister's transformation, and Face and Kell, who had joined them.
Asori remembered Face, her eyes wide, "You came into the office earlier."
Face nodded, "There was no way to make contact there so we had to wait." They were about to leave the park. "Remember, you're not Asori. You're a professional companion who is going to show a couple of space traders a good time."
At Face's suggestion, the group headed back in the general direction of the spaceport. The tapcafs and cantinas would offer them the background scenery to correspond with their appearance and make it easier to spot any Imperial military personnel who might show any interest in them.
Iella had been walking in front with Wedge and Terek while Face and Kell escorted Asori. She looked back over her shoulder to speak to Face, "Here it is, Danko. Mordillo's. They have the best nerf steaks around and the lomin-ale is ice cold just like you wanted."
Face took his cue and ran with it. "And after dinner, maybe some dancin'? Whadaya say, Jaleela?"
"Not this time, Danko. I promised all my dances to Rafkin tonight," she said squeezing Wedge's arm.
"Hey," Kell said. "You're gonna dance with me too, aren't you Jaleela?" They had reached the entrance to the cantina. "We're supposed to be celebratin'. I'm the one who ..."
"Oh, Prassie. Quitcher bellyachin'," Wedge growled. "You kin have a dance with her. Come on, let's get a table. I'm hungry."
Wedge went over to the bar, palmed a suitable gratuity over to the bartender and was pointed to a large booth toward the back of the cantina. They sat down and ordered a round of drinks in keeping with their apparent desire to celebrate. Terek reached for his obviously about to knock it back out of sheer nervousness, but Face caught his eye and gave him a minute shake of the head. "You're a trader out for a night on the town," he whispered. "You have nothing to be nervous about. Relax."
Kirney had gone back to the ship after the initial contact attempt had failed. She sat at the modified comm unit and tapped into the local Imperial datanet again to monitor activity. She had reported the reason for the delay to Shalla when she had first returned, but was nervous about it. An hour ago, Wedge had called very quickly saying that they had made the contact, but that they would be further delayed returning to the shuttle while they attempted to cover their tracks.
Shalla came into the cockpit, "Has there been any alarm raised about Terek?" she asked.
Before Kirney had a chance to answer, a signal chimed from the comm unit. "Hold on, Shalla. This might be something." She tapped a few keys and began reading the information that flowed across the screen. "Uh oh. The local Imp authorities have just been alerted to his disappearance and they say he had help. Looks like we've been made."
Shalla frowned. "We've got to get them back here and get out of here before an arrest warrant is issued for Asori." She pursed her lips in concentration for a moment, then looked at Kirney, "How fast can you whip together an Imp Public Security ID for yourself? Nothing fancy; just something to flash around to onlookers."
"Just a few minutes. Why?"
A huge smile broke across her face. "We have to keep the Imps from arresting Asori, right? We're just going to go out there and arrest her ourselves -- and her co-conspirators as well."
Kirney grinned, "Sounds good to me."
"Tell Kolot to pre-flight the ship and keep her ready to take off at a moment's notice. I'll get Tyria. We'll be your Stormie muscle."
Mordillo's had gotten crowded and noisy as the evening crowd began to fill the place up. Several groups of rough looking characters were scattered throughout the cantina and some were obviously looking for trouble. Iella and Asori had gone to the ladies' refresher to elaborate on Asori's transformed appearance and were making their way back through the crowd when one very large rough looking man, probably a pirate, grabbed Asori's hand as she tried to get past him. "Come on, Sweet Cheeks. Siddown and have a drink with me."
Asori froze, but Iella reacted instantly. She had seen Terek about to lunge away from their table to defend his sister, but Face was holding him back. Wedge and Kell, however, were on their feet and heading straight toward them. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Bantha Breath. See Prassie there?" she asked pointing at Kell who was bearing down on them. "He'll twist your arm off and feed it to you."
The pirate laughed and made a grab for Iella too as he pulled Asori toward himself. Iella stomped down hard on his foot with a high heeled shoe. He yelped in pain and shoved Asori away from himself to go after Iella. Kell steadied Asori on her feet and pushed her behind himself so that she could reach the relative safety of their table where Face and Terek stood ready to wade in if necessary.
Iella twisted away from him leaving a clear path for Kell and Wedge to do whatever was necessary to discourage the pirate's interest in them. The pirate was not so easily discouraged, which pleased the cantina patrons. They began putting down bets as to who would win the two on one fight. The pirate swung wildly at Kell with his right fist, but was knocked off balance staggering into another table full of less than savory characters. They had been content to watch the fight, but having their drinks smashed to the floor made them decidedly unhappy. The fight became a three way battle: Wedge and Kell, the pirate and the four other toughs.
The pirate concentrated on Kell, who was closest in size to him, which left Wedge to deal with the other four. He was not without experience in brawling as well as a variety of self-defense techniques thanks to workouts with Wes, but it was still four on one. Face and Terek did not hesitate to join the fray. Terek leapt at one of the toughs from behind wrapping one arm around his neck as they crashed to the floor. Surprise was on his side. His opponent never had the chance to break his fall and knocked himself unconscious as he hit. Quickly, Terek disentangled himself from the man and looked to see where to attack next.
Wedge saw another of the toughs approaching him head on. Instead of retreating, he advanced, grabbed his wrist and pivoted under him using leverage and momentum to send him flying into another table. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another of the toughs come at him. He swung his leg around in a high arc that intersected with the attacker's chin and sent him crashing into another table.
Face charged at the last of the toughs and landed a very powerful punch to the kidney followed by a chop with the side of his hand to his neck dropping the tough to the floor.
Just as he was about to turn around to see if Kell required any help, the sound of a blaster being fired silenced the entire cantina. No one fell screaming in pain from being hit by the blaster fire, which seemed to surprise everyone present.
When Face pulled himself upright to look around, he noticed an Imperial Public Security officer flanked by two troopers, all three of them female, but looking well able to deal with anyone in the place. All three had weapons drawn; the officer, who looked remarkably like Kirney Slane he noted suppressing a grin, had her blaster pointing at the ceiling where there was now a smoking hole. The crowd that had moments before been cheering on the combatants tried to slink back to their seats as surreptitiously as possible.
"Citizens, this sort of behavior is unacceptable," she said in a clipped Imperial tone. "I want to know who started this brawl immediately." Audience and combatants started speaking all at once.
"Silence!" she bellowed. She turned to Shalla and Tyria. "Put them all in restraints. We will conduct the investigation at Headquarters."
"It was all his fault," Iella said pointing at the pirate. "He started it." Her protest offered in order to give Kirney an excuse to apprehend her and Asori as well.
"Enough!" Kirney held up her hand and gestured at Tyria. "These two will be detained as well."
Tyria put their hands behind them and put restraints on them, but did not seal them. Shalla had done the same with Wedge, Kell, Face, and Terek, who still looked frightened for his sister, although he had acquitted himself well in the fight.
The pirate and the other four toughs had staggered to their feet and looked sullen to find themselves being placed under arrest. Shalla had sealed the restraints she had placed on them and gestured with her blaster, "Move it, you." Tyria followed suit with her charges.
Kirney turned to the rest of the crowd, "IPS had better not be called down here again this evening," she said in her sternest voice before following the others out of the cantina.
Shalla was in the lead with her group and Wedge fell back to speak to Kirney, "We need to ditch them and get back to the ship," he said quietly.
"I know. That's why we came looking for you. Word just came through the Imp datanet to arrest Asori."
The lead group had just turned a corner when a half squad of stormtroopers and two Imperial Naval Intell officers practically ran into them. Wedge and Kirney heard Shalla say, "Sorry, Sir," and hurried around the corner.
The senior of the two officers stepped back startled, "What is this?" he asked, clearly annoyed.
Kirney hurried up to him and saluted, "I beg your pardon, Sir. These people are under arrest for disorderly conduct. My officers and I are taking them to Headquarters," she said pulling her Imperial ID from a pocket and presenting it.
Iella caught Asori's eye for a moment and then began flirting with the junior officer. Asori swallowed nervously and tried to imitate her, while Wedge, Face, and Kell kept silent hoping that they would not have to take on the stormtroopers in order to make good their escape. Terek almost gave them away in spite of the disguise he wore; he stared at the officers with huge eyes, white with fear. These were the officers who had interrogated him on the Antagonizer after his father's defection.
The senior officer was too wrapped up in his own concerns to take notice and dismissed Kirney's explanation with a wave of his hand. He glanced at her ID before handing it back to her and pulled out a datapad to show her. "Have you seen any of these people, Officer Tomrys?" The small screen flicked through the pictures of the Wraiths who had been aboard the Antagonizer in their Imperial disguises and Asori and Terek. "This one is the son of a traitor. The others helped him escape from Imperial justice. We have reason to believe that they are coming to Jassaris to help his sister escape. We have arrest warrants for all of them."
"No, Sir. I haven't seen them," she said, grateful that she had thought to put a blonde wig on over her distinctive reddish-gold hair. "But we've been out on this disorderly conduct call."
"If you see them, arrest them immediately and contact Naval Intelligence at the base."
"Yes Sir," she said offering an IPS approximation of a military salute.
As soon as the Imperial's were out of sight, Kirney directed her two junior officers to herd their charges down the nearest alley.
The pirate and the other four toughs began to get suspicious. "Hey," they protested. "This isn't the way to Public Security HQ."
They were out of sight of the main street and suddenly six sets of restraints were no longer restraining anything. After a brief scuffle, the pirate and the toughs lay unconscious in the alley.
"You're right," Kell said looking down at them.
Kirney, Shalla, and Tyria quickly shed the uniforms they wore over outfits in bright yellow, purple, and red that corresponded to what Iella and Asori wore and hand combed their hair out into more non-regulation styles. Each of the women took the arm of one of the men and they left their sleeping friends behind.
They made it back to the spaceport and their shuttle without further incident, and Kirney went straight to the cockpit to talk to Tonin and Kolot. "Have we got clearance to liftoff?"
Kolot chittered then answered, "First yes, now no."
Wedge and Face had followed Kirney to the cockpit. "They must have called a ground stop to prevent anyone sneaking off-planet. We may have to blast our way out of here," Wedge said frowning.
Terek had followed Wedge and Face up to the cockpit, but there was no room so he just stood in the doorway, "Those officers were from the Antagonizer. They're the ones who interrogated me. Now you're all going to get killed because of me." His face was a mixture of guilt, resignation, and fear -- not for himself, but for his sister and their new friends.
"Not if we have anything to say about it," Wedge said clapping him on the shoulder. He turned to Face, "Call in the reserves, Face. We're going blast our way out of here."
Kirney had been working at the comm station and turned to look at Wedge, "The Antagonizer isn't up there. Quion only sent a couple of shuttles after us and they're down here on the ground."
"Good to know, Kirney, but we'll still have to dodge planetary defense batteries as well as the local fighter garrison. See if you can find out anything about those and whatever else they might be able to send after us."
Face pulled out his comlink, "Wraith One to Wraith Flight. Second package wrapped, but grounded. Set up to shuck."
Piggy's voice came back distorted through the Alliance's low band transmission frequency, "Flight to One. Acknowledged. Shoot the Moon." The other four Wraiths who could not come to Jassaris with them had been hiding on Jassaris Four on the opposite side of the system ready to fly cover when the ground team made their escape. 'Shoot the Moon' meant that they would sneak close to Jassaris Two and hide on its moon to wait for them. 'Shuck' meant that the ground team would most likely be pursued by the enemy when they came and the hidden fighters would have to discourage them from pressing the pursuit. "Flight, out."
"Sir?" Kirney's voice was urgent. "An 'All Points Bulletin' has just been issued. They're onto us. If we're going, it better be now. The pirate blew the whistle on us and probably knows to send the Imps here to the spaceport to look for traders."
"All right then. Get over here and fly your bird, Kirney," Wedge said indicating the pilot's seat next to Kolot.
"If you don't mind, Sir ... you're the best pilot here. You take her. Kolot can handle weapons."
He shot her a quick grin. "Thanks," he said as he slipped into the pilot's seat and secured the safety harness. "Face get back there and tell them to strap in. It's going to be a rough ride."
The repulsorlift popped the shuttle out of the docking bay and Wedge immediately engaged the main sublight drive heading straight for space. He had had the opportunity to fly many different types of ships, both Alliance and Imperial, over the years. He had even flown a shuttle identical to the Folly, but he was amazed at how well it responded to his control. He glanced back at Kirney, who gave him a quick smile, "You'd be amazed at what Kell has been able to do with her, Sir. Cubber taught him an awful lot."
The main comm board erupted with the voice of Jassaris Control, "Golden Claw, you are ordered to return to the spaceport immediately. You were not given clearance to depart. Return immediately. Acknowledge, Golden Claw."
Seeing Wedge shake his head, Kirney did not respond to Jassaris Control. They were almost out of the atmosphere, but a half squadron of TIE Interceptors were in pursuit, and the two assault shuttles from the Antagonizer had just left the ground.
Planetary defense batteries were filling the sky with lethal bolts of coherent light, but Wedge flew the Folly as if he didn't realize that he was in a shuttle rather than a snub fighter. Kirney had sent the information about the planetary defense batteries to a monitor on the pilot's console so that Wedge could calculate where he would be able to avoid the heaviest concentration of fire, and the shields were still holding at full strength.
The TIE Interceptors were faster than any possible enhancements could make the Folly and were breaking formation to flank them. "Kolot, does this bird have proton torps?"
"Can you get a firing solution on those shuttles behind us and fire the lasers at the squints trying to flank us?"
"Tonin get lock on shuttles, General."
"All right. Go ahead and fire torps as soon as you get a lock. Even if they break the lock, a proximity explosion might give us a little breathing space."
A computer tone indicated that Tonin had gotten the lock on one of the shuttles and Wedge felt, as well as heard, the two torps fire. The first shuttle was quite close and flew right through the fireball that one of the proton torpedoes had made when it exploded at its programmed range. As soon as Wedge saw the Imp shuttle enter the debris cloud, he pushed the yoke forward putting the shuttle into a dive relative to its previous course. He had seen four blips tagged as friendlies appear on his sensor screen coming directly at him. He had given them the fireball as an additional screen and then gotten out of their way. Two of them fired two torpedoes each, which tore through the shuttle's shields and obliterated it.
The half squadron of TIEs from the surface had been hammering them, but lost them momentarily when Wedge made the dive. They found the Folly again, and stitched her with laser fire again, but the enhanced shields seemed to be holding up.
Realizing that fire from the TIEs that had come from the direction of the planet's moon was responsible for the first shuttle's destruction, three of the Interceptors turned to engage Wraith Flight. The planetary garrison apparently did not have the most talented pilots available to it because the Wraiths made short work of them. The other three buzzed around the Folly like angry insects and kept up the barrage of laser fire, which was beginning to cut into shield strength, but Wedge did not permit any sustained fire to land on any one portion of the ship's shields.
"Kolot, see if you can get a lock on the second shuttle and switch control of the laser cannons over to me. I'm not here just to drive." He grinned remembering that he had said exactly the same thing during the Wraiths' final battle with Admiral Trigit.
The more powerful laser cannons of the shuttle that was still pursuing them began eating away more of their shield strength, but they were still well above critical levels. Wraith Flight had knocked out another of the TIEs, but the last two had formed up with the shuttle and were providing covering fire for it while it rained laser fire on the Folly. The Wraiths split into two wing pairs and looped off in opposite directions, one above the shuttle's plane of flight and the other below. As they finished their loops and headed back toward the Imp shuttle, both sets of Wraiths opened fire with their lasers, each on one of the TIEs flanking the shuttle. Both exploded within milliseconds of each other, the shrapnel from the explosions buffeting the shuttle. Wedge took advantage of the Imp pilot's distraction and fired sheets of laser energy right at the cockpit. It's forward shields must have flickered allowing his shots to hit home. The shuttle exploded and Wedge had to pull back on the yoke hard for the Folly to shoot over the expanding debris cloud.
A Thakwaashi war cry rang from the speaker, then Runt's voice announced, "Dinner Squadron strikes again!"
Wedge grinned and let go a gusty sigh of relief, but Kirney cut it short. "We've got to get out of here. The Antagonizer just emerged from hyperspace at the edge of the system. Face tell them Tonin has rendezvous Aerie One programmed."
Face's voice came back over the intercom, "Got it."
Wedge saw that the Wraiths had formed up around them, heard them acknowledge Face's order, and watched them disappear into hyperspace just as he pulled the levers back to execute his own jump. The stars spun and elongated in pseudomotion before exploding into the white tunnel of hyperspace.
"Kolot, would you mind taking over while I go back to check on our passengers?" Wedge said to his furry little co-pilot.
"I fly, General," he said pulling the metal arm and leg extensions he used for flying out of a storage slot next to his seat.
Wedge looked at Kirney and just shook his head, then got up and went aft.
"Is everyone all right back here?"
"Just promise us that you won't become a commercial shuttle pilot if you ever retire, Sir," Shalla said with her huge smile firmly in place.
"You could sell tickets and be the feature attraction at Baron Calrissian's Hologram Fun World and it wouldn't even be a hologram. It would be a real ride," Kell said with a grin.
Wedge made no other comment besides a grin of his own. Then he turned to Terek and Asori, who were gaping at the informal camaraderie between the General and his people. "No one would ever dream of talking to a superior officer like that in the Imperial military," Terek said his voice registering shocked disbelief.
Iella had been strapped into a seat next to Asori. She smiled as she loosened her safety harness, "Normally, our military personnel observe proper decorum, but this bunch have a special license to tease Wedge."
"That's right," Face chimed in. "He rescued us from courts martial and other career disasters so now he has to put up with us. So how do you like flying with an Ewok pilot, Sir?"
Wedge ignored him. "I'm afraid that your choices are somewhat limited as to where you can go now," he said addressing Terek and Asori. "It was not my original intention to force you to leave the Empire, but if you stay you will be captured and imprisoned or worse."
Asori looked up at him, "You told Terek that you could take us to our father. Is it true? Is he really alive?"
He sat down in the seat across from her and smiled. "Yes it's true. He really is alive. As I told your brother, the one regret your father had about doing what he did was knowing that he would never see the two of you again. I believe that nothing would mean as much to him as that."
Asori looked from Wedge to her brother and clasped his hand tightly. After exchanging a nod of agreement, she turned back to Wedge and said, "Yes, please. If you can, take us to our father." She turned back to her brother who took her in his arms and tears of happiness streamed down both their faces.
They made several hyperspace jumps to confuse their trail. Their destination was a small out of the way system deep in Imperial space, but of no tactical or other importance. The Wraiths had set it up early on in their time with Intelligence as a staging base. It had all the fuel, food and other supplies that they needed, but was entirely maintained by a crew of droids. As an Intelligence base, it was completely concealed and undetectable by casual scanning, but it was on a pleasant habitable world, which made it an ideal retreat for when they could not go all the way back to the New Republic.
They spent a few days at the Aerie, as the Wraiths referred to it, stretching their legs and getting the Imperial kinks out of their systems. Terek and Asori were introduced to the four other Wraiths who had covered their rescue and escape. They were aware of other sentient species, but having been brought up on an Imperial world had never spent any time with such beings. They were surprised and pleased to discover that Twi'leks, Devaronians, Thakwaashi, and even Gamorreans had many of the same likes, dislikes, and concerns as anyone else they had ever met in their lives.
The Wraiths, better than most, understood what it meant to be outsiders and took it upon themselves to give Terek and Asori a basic orientation on the New Republic, warts and all. Wedge told them the full story of how their father had ended up doing what he'd done and why. He also told them of Tomer Darpen's treachery to illustrate that the New Republic did not claim to be perfect, but its intention was to be a just government for all its citizens. When Darpen's malfeasance was discovered, he was apprehended and would be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Iella, Tyria, and Face took the time to return to their natural hair color, but Wedge never got around to changing his back. He spent quite a bit of time exploring the hidden base itself, but he and Iella also went for long walks in the woods near the base, as did the others. It was an idyllic interlude, but one that was over too soon to suit any of them. They boarded the shuttle and fighters with only one change in the configuration of personnel. Piggy stayed with the shuttle and Kell took his Interceptor and place as Wraith Flight leader.
Once more, they took several random hyperspace jumps to conceal the location of the Aerie before leaving Imperial space and then several more before rendezvousing at Chorax for a final farewell. The Wraiths returned to Coruscant to report to General Cracken, and Wedge, Iella, Terek, and Asori took off for Adumar aboard the Zena's Pride.
"Adumar Central Control. This is the freighter, Zena's Pride, requesting permission to land," Wedge said into the comm headset microphone.
Once Wedge and his group had parted company with the Wraiths, Iella had again used her Intell authority to tap into the holocomm system to contact Adumar. Wedge had spoken directly with the new Perator of Cartann, Balass ke Teldan. He had informed him of the mission they had just returned from, to contact Admiral Rogriss's children, and explained that they had brought them out of the Empire. He requested and received permission to bring Asori and Terek to Adumar to be reunited with their father, where they would be allowed to stay.
Perator Balass still held Wedge in high esteem. Admiral Rogriss had also earned the young Perator's respect, both for what he had done to prevent the Empire from invading Adumar, and for his efforts to help improve Adumar's ability to defend itself. He would have been willing to make a public ceremony of the reunion, but Wedge had convinced him to keep it a quieter event. The Empire's own Intelligence operatives on Adumar had not yet been apprehended so security was a major consideration.
"Adumar Central Control to Zena's Pride. Welcome back, Sir." As a security precaution, Control had apparently been told not to use Wedge's name in an open transmission. "Please direct your ship to the Cartann Bladedrome."
"Acknowledged, Control. Thanks."
This was the same approach he had made four months earlier when he had arrived on his diplomatic mission. At least they're not shooting at me this time, Wedge thought with a grin.
Iella had been sitting in the seat directly behind Wedge. She looked out of the cockpit and noticed a small reception committee -- of about a hundred. "You drew a bigger crowd last time, Sweetheart," she said with a smile.
He grinned over his shoulder at her, "You know I hate crowds. Well, at least this time I won't be expected to make a speech." He glanced out at the group waiting for them to land and saw that the majority of them were wearing flightsuits. "Looks like most of them are pilots. I don't need to worry about trying to make a good impression on them."
"No, you made quite an impression on them the last time you were here."
Wedge brought the ship in to a smooth landing about thirty meters away from the front of the group. Standing in front of them were Admiral Rogriss and, to Wedge's surprise, Perator Balass. He instructed his astromech, Sneaky, to complete the shutdown procedures and stood to go aft. Iella started to stand, but a wave of dizziness caused her to slump against Wedge for a moment.
"Are you all right, Love?" he asked full of concern.
"I'm fine. I just need a second or two to get my land legs back." This had never happened to her before. She stood again, but the dizziness did not return.
They went aft to join Terek and Asori. "Your father is out there," Wedge said with a smile. "What are you waiting for?" He activated the control to open the hatch and extend the boarding ramp. Terek and Asori walked down ahead of them, but by the time he and Iella had reached the bottom of the ramp, they were running toward their father.
There was not much of the stiff, decorous, Imperial officer in the man who extended his arms to the children he had never hoped to see again. The three of them stood embracing each other with tears streaming down their faces not even able to speak for several minutes.
Wedge and Iella walked over and greeted the Perator, "Thank you for permitting us to bring the Admiral's children here, Your Excellency," Wedge said as they shook hands.
"No, General. We must thank you once again for demonstrating that honor does not equate with glory."
"Glory has never been a priority for me, Excellency."
"No. And it is no longer the priority it once was for our pilots, thanks to you. The flight simulators we received from the New Republic have been in constant use since they arrived. The Defense Minister tells me that our combat efficiency numbers are rising rapidly. Soon we will be able to make a real contribution of pilots to the armed forces of the New Republic as well as the proton torpedoes they will need to fight."
His tone was wistful. Wedge knew it was because he realized that as leader of Cartann and a member of the ruling council of the Adumari Union, he would never again have the opportunity to fly in combat.
"The Empire is still out there and we need all the help we can get," Wedge answered.
Admiral Rogriss turned to Wedge with his son and daughter on either side of him, "'Thank you' hardly seems adequate for giving me back my children, General. You are truly a man of honor. I am grateful to you that I did not lose mine." He extended his hand and they exchanged a silent acknowledgement of their mutual understanding.
"I only did what I promised I'd do, Admiral," he said.
The Perator interrupted, "General, may I ask, could you and your lady be persuaded to stay with us at least for an evening to celebrate this reunion?"
Wedge looked at Iella, who nodded, smiling. "We'd be delighted, Excellency."
The celebratory banquet was on a far smaller scale than the lavish parties they had attended on their first visit to Cartann. Perator Balass, having been a pilot, preferred the company of pilots to that of court functionaries. It was much more informal and the talk was animated. The whole assembly burst out laughing and teased Wedge when Terek let slip that he and Iella had gone on this contact / rescue mission when they were supposed to be on their honeymoon, but he endured the teasing with good grace.
Wedge and Iella both noticed that Admiral Rogriss looked more and more disturbed as he heard the things Wedge and his son and daughter had to say. He and Terek had told the assembled dinner guests about Captain Quion and the nature of his command of a capital ship. Then his daughter spoke of the living conditions of the normal citizenry of the Empire. When Wedge asked him about it, he said that he had been blind to what had been going on right in front of him. The corruption was more than he could tolerate and that he was glad to be away from it. While his adjustment to living outside the Empire would take time, the ideals that the New Republic aspired to would make it worth the effort.
After spending the night as the personal guests of the Perator, Wedge and Iella returned to the Cartann Bladedrome to head for home. Again, the Perator had come to see them off, as had all three of the Rogrisses.
The Admiral came and shook hands once more with Wedge, "Thank you again for risking yourself and your wife to bring my children here to me."
Wedge smiled, "I'd like to think that you would do the same, if the situation were reversed."
"I would hope so, General." He glanced over at Iella, "Thank you as well, Mistress Antilles. Please tell your team that I am very grateful to them for their assistance in rescuing my children."
"You're welcome, Sir."
Then Rogriss turned back to Wedge with a smile he could not quite decipher, "Now General, I believe you had better take your wife and get back to enjoying your honeymoon. New responsibilities will be upon you soon enough."
Wedge and Iella waved a final goodbye and boarded the Pride. After receiving their clearance to depart, he popped the Pride up on it repulsorlifts, circled the Bladedrome once and shot off at a steep angle for space.
He had his back to Iella and missed the brief flicker of something that washed across her face. In spite of the discomfort she felt, she smiled. If it was what she suspected ...
Wedge emerged from the cabin still toweling his hair dry. He smiled at Iella, who sat at the table nursing a mug of herbal tea, "I'm glad to finally get that orange goo out of my hair and get rid of that ridiculous mustache," he said tossing the towel into the recycler and finger combing his hair more or less into place.
Iella's eyes crinkled in amusement, "Me too. That mustache tickled, and you were never meant to be a red-head."
Wedge laughed. "You, on the other hand, are beautiful no matter what color you dye your hair." He leaned down to kiss her before turning to the galley to pour himself a mug of caf. "I'm going to call Ily'eene and tell her that we're keeping the Pride a while longer. I want to have you all to myself again before we head home."
"Wedge, Darling. .."
Something in Iella's voice made him turn back to look at her.
"It won't be just the two of us," she said, her eyes shining.
Shock was quickly replaced by the most incredible feeling of joy as the meaning of her words sank in. "Iella! You're ...?"
She said nothing, but the shine in her eyes brightened as Wedge ran to embrace her letting loose with the loudest whoop of joy of his entire life.
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