The author would like to acknowledge the contributions and assistance of several people without whom this story would never have been completed. Thank you Iris Bailey, for giving me permission to borrow the character of Ily'eene Milam and use her in my story. I would never have started writing without your encouragement. Thank you Diana and Theronda. That battle had been giving me fits for months. Your help has been invaluable. And thank you Shanon, for being patient with me, and encouraging my writing efforts. I hope it turns out to be worth the wait.
The story takes place approximately four months after the end of ESB. Wedge Antilles has been promoted to the rank of Captain and is in command of Rogue Squadron. They have just returned to the fleet after three months of advanced combat training under the tyrannical Commander Varth at Atrivis.
This story is the second in Hobbie's Saga, following Not Just Another Pilot. It starts out looking like a straight Star Wars adventure story, but this is where Hobbie's romance with his first love begins ...
"Hey, Wedge. You don't look so good. Are you all right?"
"It's just a headache, Tycho. I'll take something for it after we've seen the Admiral. Tomorrow, first thing, I need to go talk to Princess Leia. Can you do me a favor? Would you find out from Fleet Fighter Command what our patrol schedule's going to be?"
"Sure. No problem."
The two young pilots were walking from the turbolift toward Admiral Ackbar's office aboard Home One. Rogue Squadron had just returned to the fleet after three months of advanced combat training under Commander Varth out in the Atrivis Sector. It had been a long flight back and all of them were exhausted. The rest of the squadron had stumbled off to their quarters to sleep, but the Admiral had asked to see Wedge and Tycho briefly before they did the same.
They had arrived at the Admiral's office and stepped into the anteroom, "Wedge Antilles and Tycho Celchu to see Admiral Ackbar."
The Mon Calamari aide sitting at the desk waved a flippered hand at the door to the inner office, "Welcome back, Captain. Go on in. He's expecting you."
Because the huge Mon Calamari ship housed representatives of many of the species who were members of the Alliance, and since many of them didn't feel comfortable in very humid environments, the common areas of the ship maintained lower humidity levels. The Admiral, however, kept the humidity in his office somewhat higher. It hit Wedge as if he had run into a wall and the dull ache in his head intensified to a pounding throb.
"Ah, there you are." Ackbar gestured to the two chairs across the desk from his own, "Sit down, gentlemen. How was your flight?"
"Long and dull, Sir," Wedge answered as he and Tycho sat. "But dull is better than the alternative."
Ackbar studied Wedge for a moment and noticed that Tycho had looked over at him in surprise as well. "That does not sound like the Wedge Antilles who left here three months ago." Something was not right with the young human, but he could not quite trust his own observations yet about what was or was not normal variation for human behavior.
"Sorry, Sir. It was a long flight back. I guess I'm just tired and have to sleep it off."
"Yes. Well, I won't keep you long. I just wanted to get a quick sense from the two of you about how you think your training with Commander Varth went."
Wedge and Tycho exchanged rueful smiles. "You had told me before we left that he would be a difficult commanding officer. He was that. He really pushed us hard and we learned a great deal from him, but I think we managed to surprise him a time or two ourselves."
"Good. That confirms what he reported." Ackbar favored them with the Mon Calamari approximation of a smile. "He says that you are well on your way to becoming the tactical strike unit we need. We have missions in the early planning stages right now that Rogue Squadron is suited for, and we need to have you here so that you can be included in the planning sessions. Based on those sessions, I would like you two to work up simulator exercises for your pilots."
He leaned forward and rested his arms on the desk, "I want you to be as well prepared as possible when the time comes to carry out those missions. Also, there is no telling when Luke might be calling the Rogues in to help him rescue Han."
Tycho asked, " Excuse me, Sir, but has Baron Calrissian had any luck getting information about Boba Fett's whereabouts?"
"No, Mr. Celchu." The Admiral sat back in his chair, "The Princess will join the search herself shortly, but she did not want to leave without saying goodbye to you Rogues. In the meantime, once you have had a chance to rest, you will be put back into the patrol rotation. We'll talk more about your time with Commander Varth, but I think you had better go and start getting caught up on that sleep." He stood up. "Dismissed gentlemen."
Tycho stood and started to salute the Admiral. Wedge had also started to stand, but the motion caused the pounding throb at his temples to become a blinding pain behind his eyes. A gasp escaped his lips and he collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Tycho turned at Wedge's gasp, but wasn't quick enough to catch him. "Wedge! Wedge! Are you all right?"
Admiral Ackbar immediately came around his desk and knelt down next to Wedge. He flicked the intercom switch, "Sirlul, call the infirmary and tell them to get a gurney and an emergency medical team to my office immediately. Captain Antilles has collapsed."
Ackbar turned to Tycho, who had stretched Wedge out on the floor and was trying to get a response, any response from him. "Mr. Celchu, was he ill before you left the base at Atrivis?"
"No, Sir. He was fine on the flight here, other than being tired, but we were all tired. It was a long flight back. He did mention that he had a headache when we were coming up to your office from the landing bay, but he didn't say it was incapacitating." Tycho noticed the sheen of sweat on Wedge's face and put a hand on his forehead. "Sir, he's got a fever. He's burning up!"
Ackbar stood. "This is not good, Mr. Celchu. Illnesses affect different species in different ways, but there are a large number of humans in the fleet. We cannot risk an epidemic running rampant. Order all pilots and support personnel in your squadron to report to the main landing bay immediately. How are you feeling? Do you have a headache?"
"Good. I want you to take your personnel over to the Redemption. You will all need to be kept isolated until we know what this illness is. I will have the shuttle waiting for you in the landing bay."
Tycho stood up, but kept his eyes on Wedge as he pulled his comlink out of a pocket in his flight suit.
Just then the door to the Admiral's office opened and the EMT's came in pushing the repulsor gurney in front of them.
Ackbar briefed the EMT's. "He apparently had a severe headache and collapsed when he tried to stand up. He is also running a fever. We need to know as soon as possible what he has and if there is any danger of it running through the fleet."
"Yes, Sir." the lead EMT told him. "We'll have to get him over to Redemption for that though." The medtechs, with Tycho's help, lifted Wedge onto the gurney then they headed out the door.
Tycho turned to the Admiral. "Sir, we'll be right behind them..."
Ackbar could see how worried Tycho was about his friend and commanding officer. "Yes, Mr. Celchu. After your people have been checked out by the medics, you may stay until there is some definite word about Wedge."
"Thank you, Sir." He was already talking into his comlink as he left the office at a fast clip.
Wes Janson and Hobbie Klivian had just crawled into their bunks in the cabin they shared when Tycho's voice emerged in stereo from the two comlinks laying on the desk "Attention, all Rogues. Report to the main landing bay immediately."
Wes just groaned and dragged his pillow up to cover his head. Hobbie propped himself up on an elbow and reached up to grab his comlink. "What is it, Tycho? This had better be good."
Tycho's voice crackled out of the speakers of the two comlinks, "Wedge just collapsed in Admiral Ackbar's office. He's burning with a fever. They're taking him over to the Redemption."
Hobbie sat up and reached across the space between the bunks to slap Wes on the shoulder, "Do they know what it is?"
"No. That's why everyone needs to report to the hangar. We have to be tested too to make sure that we don't also have whatever it is and that it doesn't run through the fleet."
"Okay, Tych. We'll be right there. You keep calling everyone else. Out."
Wes sat up as soon as he'd heard Tycho say that Wedge had collapsed. "I thought he didn't look right when we were getting ready to head out this morning. It looked like he was just tired because of how hard Varth worked us."
They both started pulling on their shipboard uniforms. "We are all beat, but Wedge looked like he was fighting a headache..." A thought occurred to Hobbie. "Wes. Headache, fever, collapse? What does that sound like to you?"
He looked up from pulling his boots on. "Bilbringi Fever? Oooh, nasty! Come on. Let's get out of here."
The initial flurry of activity involved in rousing the Rogues and getting them checked out over on the Medical Frigate had long since passed. The medical droids had cleared the Rogue pilots and technicians of being carriers of Bilbringi Fever and had immunized them against it for good measure, but none of them had been inclined to leave the hospital ship. In fact, they had begun to make real nuisances of themselves, repeatedly asking to speak to the doctor who was treating Wedge. In desperation, the doctor had finally called Princess Leia to ask her to prevail upon the Rogues to return to Home One.
The Princess came into the waiting room the Rogues had commandeered. "Hello, boys." She had been told about Wedge's collapse, but was trying to keep a firm grip on her fears for him.
They stood as she entered, some of them looking as if they expected her to be the bearer of bad news.
"Has there been some word yet, Your Highness?"
She put her hands up to stop the impending barrage of questions. "No, there isn't any word yet and there won't be for a while, but the doctors would like you to go on back to Home One."
She raised her hands again as they began to protest. "Look. Your sitting here is not going to help him and you know it. You just got back here and you're all dead tired, which makes everything seem worse. You have responsibilities, don't you?" She pinned Wes, Hobbie and Tycho, the senior members of the squadron, with an intense gaze. "You go back into the perimeter patrol rotation again tomorrow. You need to get a good night's rest for that, don't you?"
Tycho nodded. "Yes Ma'am. We do, but..."
She cut off the rest of what he was going to say. "I know. You're worried about Wedge." She turned around and took in the rest of the pilots' and techs' concerned expressions. "All of you are and the doctors know that, but you can't stay here."
Tycho started to protest again, but Leia forestalled his objection. "Please go on back to your quarters. I'll stay here to wait for the doctors' report and call you as soon as there is anything to tell."
They began reluctantly shuffling toward the door, although Wes, Hobbie, Tycho, and Tarrin really looked as if they wanted to stay. Leia had no choice but to bring out her most compelling argument. "You know Wedge would tell you to go."
They couldn't argue with that so they did finally turn to leave, but not before they got her to reiterate her promise to call them the instant she heard anything.
Blackness and pain shooting agonizingly around inside his head were the only sensations Wedge was aware of as he struggled to stay close to consciousness. Voices sounded through the pain, both familiar and not. "Wedge!...Wedge!...Are you alright?...Was he ill before ... Atrivis? ... fever! ... burning up! ... Isolation, now! ... results on that CBC STAT! ... checked the others? ... Bilbringi Fever ... Sithspit! ... medication start working? ... Set up for an ice bath ... got to get his temp down ..." the words played over and over but he could not tell if he was really hearing them or if his fevered mind was replaying them. Then blackness rose up and claimed him.
Medical droids and other medical personnel of the various species represented in the fleet bustled around, but did not seem to be operating in crisis mode. Leia did not wish to keep them from their duties, but she did intend to find out about Wedge's condition. She was just about to stop a nurse to find out where Wedge even was when she heard herself being addressed. She turned to see a human doctor and nurse heading toward her.
"Your Highness," the doctor said again. "I'm Doctor Telsan. You would like to find out about Captain Antilles?"
"Yes, Dr. Telsan," she said anxiously. "I promised his squadron that I would and that I'd let them know what I found out as soon as I could."
The doctor had not appeared agitated as he'd approached her, but when she mentioned the Rogues, he glanced down nervously.
"Is Wedge going to be alright?" Leia felt panic beginning to rise.
The doctor looked back up at her with guild-ridden eyes. "I'm afraid I'm the one who asked that you come to the Medcenter, Your Highness."
"Oh no ...Wedge isn't ..." Leia gasped as she covered her mouth.
Then the doctor grasped what Leia feared. "Oh no, Your Highness. Captain Antilles is seriously ill, but he isn't dying."
Leia let out a huge sigh of relief, but then looked at the doctor still confused, "Then what ..."
"Forgive me, Your Highness, but we really needed to get the other pilots and techs from Captain Antilles' unit out of here. My staff had cleared them hours ago, but they refused to leave. They weren't exactly badgering us about Captain Antilles, but they were crowding us. We are very tight for time and space as it is; we can't have a couple of dozen people just hanging around and asking for updates every five minutes ..." he broke off with a pleading look.
Leia smiled. "I understand, Doctor. I've already sent them back to their own ship, and I'll see to it that they don't all descend on you at once in the future. You'd better tell me about Wedge's condition, though, so I can tell them or I might not be able to hold them back."
Telsan looked relieved. "Yes of course, Your Highness. Captain Antilles does indeed have Bilbringi Fever, which is serious because it is so highly contagious and every precaution must be taken to keep it from running through the fleet. He is very lucky that his fever didn't spike until after he was back here with the fleet. I understand that the flight back from his previous posting was a very long one. If this fever isn't brought down very quickly after the first spike hits ..." the doctor paused for a moment. "He was very lucky. As it is, he will remain in isolation for several days until the danger of contagion has passed. We have him on very strong medication, but his fever will spike again several times as his system fights the virus and he will also have excruciating headaches." He looked at Leia beseechingly. "Your Highness, please tell his friends that Captain Antilles will recover, but that there is nothing that they can do here."
Leia took the doctor's hand and shook it gratefully. "I do understand that, Doctor, and I'll make them understand it too." She paused for a moment, then asked, "May I see him? I do understand about quarantine procedures, but it would mean a lot to me and to his friends if I can report firsthand observations."
"Yes, of course, Your Highness. Ms. Ponsed here will get you gowned and masked and show you to Captain Antilles' room."
Leia shook his hand again. "Thank you, Dr. Telsan."
"You're welcome, Your Highness. Admiral Ackbar has asked me to keep him updated on Captain Antilles' condition. Shall I keep you posted too?"
She nodded. "Yes, Doctor. Please do. I was scheduled to leave on a mission, but I'm postponing it until after Wedge has recovered. Thank you."
Telsan smiled. "I must get back to my other patients, but I'll keep a close eye on Captain Antilles." He turned and strode off down the corridor.
Leia turned and addressed the nurse who had stood silently throughout the entire discussion with Doctor Telsan. "Alright, Ms. Ponsed. Where do we go for the gowns and masks?"
The nurse, a pert redhead, looked flustered. "Oh! I'm sorry, Your Highness. This way, please." she said and directed Leia down the hall toward the nurses' lounge.
"Ms. Ponsed, relax. I don't bite."
The nurse laughed nervously, but consciously stopped herself. "In here, Ma'am" she said holding the door for the Princess to walk through.
"Please don't call me 'Ma'am', Ms. Ponsed. It sounds like an old woman. What's your first name?"
"Nia, Ma'... My first name is Nia, Your Highness."
"Well, I suppose I'll have to settle for 'Your Highness'. All right, Nia. Shall we get me gowned up so that I can see Wedge? If I don't report something to those rascals soon, they'll come back and tear this place apart."
Nia had handed Leia the gown and mask, but sucked in a quick breath. "Derek wouldn't do that, would he?"
"Derek?" Leia asked puzzled. Then her mind flitted back to the day the Rogues had left to go to Atrivis. She had seen, but not paid particular attention to, a redheaded girl saying goodbye to Hobbie. "You know Hobbie ... I mean ... Derek Klivian?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I was one of the nurses who took care of him after Hoth."
Leia smiled realizing that Nia had fallen hard for the injured Rogue. She took Nia's hand in hers. "No 'Ma'am', remember? No, Hobbie wouldn't really do that, and neither would the others. They just really care about Wedge, and they're very worried about him." A thought occurred to her. "They were badgering you for news about Wedge, weren't they?"
Nia looked down guiltily and nodded.
"I'll give them a piece of my mind about that," Leia said with a note of exasperation in her voice.
"Oh no, Your Highness! They meant no harm. You said yourself that they were worried about Captain Antilles," she said obviously afraid that she'd gotten them into trouble.
Leia looked back at the young nurse as she put on the gown and mask. "You don't need to defend them, Nia. They are more than capable of doing that for themselves. I know they're worried about Wedge, but that is no excuse for disrupting the Medcenter and especially bothering you." She turned her back to Nia. "If you'll tie me up, I'm ready to go."
She caught a glimpse of Nia in a mirror nervously chewing her lip as she did up the ties on Leia's gown and mask. "Don't worry, Nia. I'll straighten everything out."
Nia had told her that Wedge was sedated to allow his body some semblance of rest, otherwise the fever would have had him thrashing around. Even sedated, Wedge was rocking slightly from side to side and squeezing his eyes tightly closed. She put one gloved hand to his forehead and the other on his arm. Instantly, he visibly calmed down and she began talking to him. "Wedge, it's Leia. It's all right, Wedge. You're going to be all right. You're in the Medcenter. You have Bilbringi Fever, but you're being treated and you're going to be fine." She kept talking to him until slipped into more peaceful sleep. She sat there a few minutes longer and then left to find Nia waiting for her.
She smiled at the young girl's concern. "He was restless in spite of the sedation, but I talked to him until he slipped into a deeper sleep."
Nia still looked apprehensive. "That's what he really needs to get him through this, Your Highness; someone to sit with him and talk to him when the fever goes really high. The high fever makes the patient delirious, but someone sitting and talking to the patient almost always calms them through the worst of the fever spikes even when they're not really conscious." Nia's apprehension changed to distressed frustration. "But we haven't got enough people to do that; to just sit with them."
Leia stared off distractedly as they walked back to the nurses' lounge. "Someone to stay with him? Hmm. I'll be here as much as I can, Nia, but I do have other responsibilities." She tapped her chin with one finger. "I think I know someone, though, who can be here with Wedge and won't get in the way of the staff like the Rogues did." She patted Nia on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Nia. I'll take care of this."
Nia stared after her as she left the Medcenter still overwhelmed at having actually met Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, but oddly at ease with it too.
The blackness receded briefly, but this time the voice was Leia's, "Wedge, it's Leia ... It's all right, Wedge ... You're going to be all right ... You're in the Medcenter ... You have Bilbringi Fever, but you're being treated and you're going to be fine ..." When he heard Leia say Bilbringi Fever he began to feel panic, but her voice kept reassuring him until awareness slipped away.
She sat in the intership shuttle on her way to Home One and tried to focus her mind on what she would tell the Rogues to reassure them about Wedge. Everyone knew how serious Bilbringi Fever was and that Wedge's recovery would take some time, but they would feel so helpless. She thought again about what the young nurse, Nia, had told her about Wedge needing someone to be with him as he fought off this illness and the person she thought would fit the bill. She'd contact her as soon as she spoke to Admiral Ackbar, even before she tracked down the Rogues. Leia smiled to herself satisfied with her solution to that problem.
Admiral Ackbar rose as Leia entered his office. "Your Highness. I was just about to contact Doctor Telsan. Do you have some additional news about Captain Antilles?" He gestured for her to take a seat in front of his desk.
"Yes, Admiral. I do." Leia answered as she took the chair he indicated. "Wedge does have Bilbringi Fever as I'm sure Dr. Telsan already told you. He was very lucky that they had already gotten back here to the fleet by the time his fever spiked the first time. If that first spike isn't brought down immediately, it can be fatal."
Leia was learning to read the Admiral and could easily see how concerned he was for Wedge, which was confirmed by his next question to her.
"He is going to recover, isn't he, Your Highness?"
"Yes, he is, but it will be somewhat problematical. That is something I wanted to discuss with you."
Ackbar was puzzled. "I don't understand."
"I'll try to explain. In the normal progression of the illness, the patient's fever spikes several times and he suffers almost constantly from excruciating headaches. Medications can and do control the fever and the headaches to some extent, but his nurse told me that having someone close to the patient there to talk to him as much as possible and as soothingly as possible speeds the recovery. It keeps him calm enough for the medication to work more effectively,even when he's really not conscious. I saw it for myself when I spoke to Wedge."
The Admiral had been very interested in her discourse, but it still didn't make sense. "I'm afraid I still don't understand, Your Highness."
"I know. I'm coming to that. I came to you because I need your help. I came here even before I went to talk to the Rogues because if I were to tell them what I've just told you, they would take it upon themselves to look after him. They mean well, but they would completely disrupt the Medcenter. As it is, the doctor had to call me to get them to leave."
Ackbar chuckled. "Yes, I can see that. But what is it that you need my help with?"
"I told his nurse that I would be there as much as I could, but then I thought of someone who could be there all the time -- if you have her temporarily detached from Ordnance and Supply."
The Admiral nodded. "You are speaking of Ily'eene Milam, aren't you?"
Leia smiled, "Yes. She is very close to Wedge -- like an older sister, and this is something I know she'd be willing to do for him. She's also much less likely to turn the Medcenter upside down. I know that our supply situation is somewhat desperate, but my friend, Winter, can take over her assignments for the timebeing. Wedge really needs Ily'eene right now."
Ackbar nodded. "Yes, I understand. I too, want Wedge to recover from this as quickly as possible. He is a gifted leader as well as a skilled pilot." He paused, "It is interesting that, although all of the beings involved in the Alliance are important to us, certain individuals impel us to move the stars and planets to help them."
Leia nodded smiling. "Actually, I think most of us feel that way about all the Rogues, but Wedge is a very special young man."
Ackbar reached for his intercom. "Lieutenant Sirlul. Please get in touch with Ily'eene Milam through Ordnance and Supply and have her report to Princess Leia in the Medcenter on the Redemption in an hour. Tell her that the Princess will explain her change of assignment."
"Thank you so much, Admiral."
"Not at all, Your Highness. It is enlightened self-interest for me to help him so he can get back to helping us."
Leia smiled to herself as she made her way to the pilots' lounge not far from the flight deck. Now if I can just calm the boys down...
She walked into the lounge and was all but knocked down as the Rogues, their techs, and various other ship's personnel crowded around her all talking at once.
"Is Wedge all right?"
"Is he going to be okay?"
"Does he really have Bilbringi Fever?"
She held up her hands. "Boys, boys! I can't tell you anything if you don't give me enough room to breathe."
They backed up a couple of paces and quieted down, but were still very anxious. Hobbie asked the question they all wanted, but dreaded, the answer to. "Is Wedge going to be all right?"
Leia's smile gave them part of their answer and she gave them the rest. "Yes. Wedge is going to be all right."
"Does he have Bilbringi Fever?" Wes Janson asked next.
"Then he's going to need us," Wes said, several of the other Rogues nodding their agreement.
"No!" Leia said firmly. "You are not going back to the Medcenter until I tell you you can."
"But ..." the protests started.
She cut them off. "I know. You want to help him, but you can't. The place was in an uproar when you were there earlier, and that is not fair to the other patients or to the staff." She pinned Hobbie with an intense look as she said it, and he had the grace to look sheepish as he realized just whom she was pointedly not referring to.
"I'm making arrangements for Ily'eene Milam to stay with Wedge. She will help him through his recovery, and she will report his progress to you as well as me. But you will not go over there until I give you permission. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
She started to move further into the room. "Now, let me sit down and I'll tell you everything the doctor told me."
The pilots and techs parted in front of her as she made her way to a chair and sat down. "One thing the doctors want to know is where and when he could possibly have been exposed to Bilbringi Fever. Something you can do to help is try to reconstruct everything he did and everywhere he went while you were at Atrivis. Knowing how long the virus has been in his system will help them plot the course of treatment."
Wes, Hobbie, Tycho and Tarrin nodded already starting on that task while they continued to listen to her.
"The first priority was to get his fever down. It was dangerously high by the time he was brought to the Medcenter. Frankly, they were surprised that he had made it to Admiral Ackbar's office based on what you told them, Tycho. They did reduce the fever, but it took an ice bath as well as medication. That's how high it was."
Eyes widened as the Rogues realized just how sick Wedge was, but they kept quiet as Leia continued her briefing. "They ran a whole battery of tests, but they were certain that it was Bilbringi Fever and the tests confirmed it. He's going to be in isolation for at least several more days, which is another reason you can't see him. The more people that come and go, even following quarantine protocols, the greater the risk that the virus will get loose in the fleet. And that would be serious trouble."
"Okay, Your Highness. We get the picture," Wes said. "But you can't stop us from worrying about him."
"Believe me, boys, you won't be the only ones," Leia said as she stood. "I've got to get back to the Redemption. Admiral Ackbar has had Ily'eene sent over there and she doesn't even know why yet. I'll be talking to you again soon. I promise."
Ily'eene sat in the waiting room she had been ordered to report to and wondered what in the galaxy the Princess could possibly have to tell her that it had to be here. She knew that Wedge's squadron, and she smiled with pride that it was his squadron, was due back.
She and Wedge had a very special relationship. She had lost her husband early on in the Rebellion, and Wedge had lost his family when he was only fifteen. He had volunteered to smuggle for the Alliance not long afterward and Ily'eene had gone with him on his first mission. They had grown close very quickly. Later on, they had 'adopted' each other and were closer than many real brothers and sisters. When he became a fighter pilot, he had permanently loaned his freighter, the Zena's Pride, and his astromech, Sneaky, to her. Even after that, they had occasionally gone on special missions together flying the Pride, which for additional security, had never been signed over to the Alliance.
She became increasingly concerned as she waited for Leia. Could something have happened to them? There haven't been any recent reports of fighter units engaging Empire forces. What could it be?
Just then the Princess came in straight across the room, took both her hands and sat down next to her on the couch. "Ily'eene, I'm so glad you're here and not on a supply run right now."
Ily'eene's gut told her immediately that something was wrong. "What is it Leia? Did something happen to Wedge or the squadron? Are they all right? Did they not make it back?"
"The Rogues are fine, Ily'eene. They got back last night, but Wedge is not all right. He collapsed in Admiral Ackbar's office."
Ily'eene sucked in a tiny breath. "What happened?"
"He's got Bilbringi Fever. He must have picked it up when they were at Atrivis, but we don't know exactly when or how. We just have to be grateful that the first fever spike didn't hit him till he was back here. As it is, they had a difficult time getting his temperature down. When I left him two hours ago, he still hadn't regained consciousness, but that is to be expected."
"I know. I've been in places where Bilbringi has run wild. I know he's in isolation, but may I see him?" She was still very worried about her 'adopted little brother'.
"Yes. That's why I asked for you to report here. A nurse who had helped look after Wedge told me that Bilbringi Fever patients recover more quickly and with less trauma from the fever dreams if there is someone close to them who can talk to them and keep them calm. Would you be willing to do that for Wedge?"
"Of course, but my..."
Leia waved the expected objection away. "Admiral Ackbar himself will have you temporarily reassigned, and Winter can take over your current assignments. All you need to do is help Wedge get through this. That is all that matters right now."
"I'll do anything to help Wedge. I owe him my life."
"I know, Ily'eene. More than a few of us do. We all care about him too. Come on," Leia said standing up. "Let's get gowned up and I'll take you to him."
They walked down the hall toward the nurses' lounge where Leia had changed earlier. "Oh. There is one more thing, Ily'eene. I forbade the boys from coming back here without my express permission, but I think they would have snuck over anyway, if I hadn't promised them that you would give them regular reports of Wedge's progress." She smiled to herself remembering the many occasions that the Rogues had bent rules to suit themselves.
Ily'eene saw Leia's smile and could tell what she was thinking. "They're scoundrels, the lot of them, and Wedge is the one who keeps them in line, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is. So the quicker we get him well and back in command, the better. Here we are."
The nurses' lounge was not empty. "Nia. I'm glad you're here. I'd like you to meet Ily'eene Milam. She is a very good friend of Wedge's and she's going to stay with him. Admiral Ackbar authorized it, and as soon as I've taken her to Wedge, I'll talk to Dr. Telsan. That will take at least some of the burden off the staff."
"Dr. Telsan is with Captain Antilles now, Your Highness," Nia said, although she did not appear to be overly concerned.
Leia and Ily'eene both took a quick breath. "Has something happened?"
"No, Your Highness. He's still sleeping just as you left him, but Dr. Telsan did promise you that he would keep a close eye on him."
Both women grinned as they sighed in relief. "I'm grateful that the doctor is so conscientious," Leia said. "Come on. Let's get gowned up and get down there."
Doctor Telsan was making notations on Wedge's chart when his nurse, the Princess and another woman he didn't recognize entered the room. "Your Highness. He is still unconscious, but much calmer than before. Ms. Ponsed told me that you had managed to do that. It is very important for him to remain as calm as possible."
"Yes, Doctor. I just did it by instinct, but afterward Ms. Ponsed told me that the calmer patients can be kept during the fever spikes and headache episodes, the more quickly they'll recover."
"She is an excellent nurse. Unfortunately, she is only one," the doctor said glancing in her direction.
Nia blushed behind her mask, but said nothing.
"Doctor, this may seem to be an imposition, but I think it will actually help you out -- at least in Captain Antilles' case. This is Ily'eene Milam," Leia said gesturing toward her. "She is a very close friend of Captain Antilles and she has agreed to stay with Wedge. If your staff only need to provide actual medical care, it should relieve the pressure somewhat. Admiral Ackbar has authorized her temporary reassignment here, if you agree."
"Of course, Your Highness," Telsan said relief obvious in his voice. "Ms. Milam, we are in your debt."
"You have no idea, Doctor," Leia said smiling behind her mask. "The only way I could keep the Rogues from barging back over here, regardless of direct orders to the contrary, was to promise them that Ily'eene would report Wedge's condition regularly."
His eyes widened. "Then we are doubly in your debt. Anything you need, Ms. Milam, anything; just let us know."
Tycho, Wes, Hobbie, and Tarrin sat at a table in the pilots' lounge drinking caf. They had just returned from a four hour perimeter patrol and were continuing the discussion that had occupied them the whole time. Where and how had Wedge managed to pick up a case of Bilbringi Fever and why hadn't any of the rest of them caught it? Not that any of them really wanted to be going through what Wedge was suffering.
"I just don't understand it," Tarrin was saying. "Among the four of us, there was practically no time that Wedge was out of sight for any length of time."
"Yeah. Varth didn't even give us a minute to catch our breath even after we saved his tail when we first got there," Wes said shaking his head. "He had us had us doing sims the next day without even a 'thank you'."
"Mm hmm, and going along on raids two days after that," Hobbie added. "There sure wasn't much down time when we weren't trying to catch up on sleep."
Wes noticed that Hobbie seemed to be only half-interested in the conversation and was actually probably thinking of something -- or someone else. He smothered a smile as he guessed who it was.
Tycho had been staring into his cup and only half listening, but looked up suddenly. "No. That's what we were doing, but not Wedge. Don't you remember? Several times he was coming back to the base from somewhere just as we were finishing breakfast and trying to wake up enough to do the sims."
Wes looked at him with a start. "Yeah, I do remember that. I remember being disgusted that he was always so wide awake and nailed those sims every time. And, he started those early morning walks of his just a day or two after we got there."
"But where the blazes did he go? We never did get a straight answer from him when we asked." Tarrin shook his head.
"He said he was just out walking to clear his head," Tycho mused. "He always had his comlink with him, and he was never late for Varth's briefings."
"Well, the only way we'll ever know how he managed to get exposed is if he tells us," Wes said as he stood up from the table to stretch. "Speaking of which, isn't 'Eenie's report about due?"
As if on cue, Tycho's comlink beeped. He pressed the transmit button. "Celchu."
Ily'eene's voice crackled. "Hello, Tycho. Are the boys all there?"
"Four of us are. We'll pass on what you tell us to the rest. Go ahead."
"It's only been a couple of days, so there hasn't been what you could call a lot of progress. He's still running a fairly high temp; it's spiked again a few times, but not as high as the first one, which is good. It seems as if he's fighting to wake up periodically, but I'm able to calm him down so he settles back to sleep. That is the best thing for him because the medication can work the most effectively when he's calm. It will actually be rougher on him later when he is really conscious and has to deal with the headaches."
"He hasn't said anything, has he, 'Eenie? We still haven't been able to figure out how he was exposed in the first place."
"No, he hasn't spoken, but he sure tries every time he starts to surface. It's too early for that, though. The effort seems to agitate him so I have to calm him down again. Try not to worry, boys. We'll figure it out."
"Thanks, 'Eenie. You'll call again later?"
"You know I will. Hobbie?"
"Just so you know; Nia comes to spell me when she can. She's sitting with Wedge now, while I talk to you guys."
"Thanks, 'Eenie." Hobbie said staring at the table rather than meeting the eyes of his friends.
"Okay, boys. I'll talk to you later. Out."
Hobbie stood up without looking at his companions. "I'll go tell the rest of the guys about 'Eenie's report." and headed out of the lounge.
Tarrin was about to follow, but Wes held him back. "Let him go, Tarrin."
Nia looked up as Ily'eene came in. "He's starting to get restless again and his temperature is creeping up. Did you talk to them?"
"Yes. And I told them that you're helping as much as you can too."
"Oh, Ily'eene! You shouldn't have done that." Nia reddened. "I'm just doing my job."
Ily'eene smiled at her discomfiture. "You're doing considerably more than just your job. The staff here are really great, but you also have huge amount of compassion and not just for the patients. My guess is that when you lose someone it really tears you up, doesn't it?"
"Well, we won't lose Wedge and a lot of the credit will belong to you. There's no reason why Wedge's friends shouldn't know that. Now, you're supposed to be going off duty, aren't you? Go on then. I'll see you tomorrow."
Nia was just going back to her quarters after having eaten a late dinner alone. Her roommate, another nurse, was working the night shift. She came around the corner of the corridor and was startled when she saw Hobbie leaning against the wall next to her door, "Derek! You're not supposed to be here."
"I know. I won't stay long, but I wanted to see you. Just for a few minutes."
Nia had not heard from Derek while he and the rest of the squadron had been away from the fleet on assignment at Atrivis, nor had she expected to, but she had thought of him and worried for his safety every single day. Somehow, he was not just another former patient to her. She had only seen him briefly along with the rest of his squadron the night Captain Antilles had been brought to the Medcenter, but they had all been agitated and concerned about his condition. She had spent a good part of that night running interference for Doctor Telsan, who had finally called the Princess in to get the pressure off her. She had certainly never expected to find Derek waiting for her outside her door.
He lowered his eyes for a moment then looked back up at her. "I never did thank you properly for looking after me. These are for you." He handed her a paper wrapped bundle that he'd been holding at his side. It was a bouquet of paper flowers.
Nia was stunned. She looked closely at the bouquet. "You made these yourself?"
"They're beautiful. No one has ever done anything like this for me before."
"They're nothing. Only real roses would do you justice." He looked at her sidelong as he leaned against the corridor wall with his hands behind his back. "I also want to thank you for what you're doing for Wedge ... and I'm really sorry about pestering you when all of us were here before."
Nia smiled at him shyly. "You really care about him. All of you do. I could tell that from the way you talked about him when you were stuck here. You're lucky to have a friend and commander like him."
"Not half as lucky as he is and I was to have a nurse like you." He pushed himself away from the wall. "I'd better go." He leaned down and kissed her. "Good night, Nia."
She watched him until he disappeared around the corner. Then she hugged the bouquet of paper flowers to herself and went into her cabin.
Ily'eene had been dozing in the chair in the corner of Wedge's room, but roused with a start when the door opened to admit a gowned and masked Leia.
"How is he?"
"He was quiet for quite a while, but his fever has started creeping up. Not dramatically, yet, but I think we're heading for another spike. Nia sat with him while I went to the nurses' lounge to report to the boys a couple of hours ago."
"She's a sweet girl," Leia said. "And she's got it bad for Hobbie." The mask hid her smile, but not the twinkle in her eyes.
Ily'eene smiled too. "I'd noticed that, even though she's trying so hard not to show it. There is just something about those Rogues..." She turned to glance at Wedge, before she continued, "They said that they still hadn't figured out how Wedge had gotten exposed."
Leia had gone over to stroke Wedge's forehead, but looked back up at 'Eenie, "We've just gotten some interesting information from Atrivis. It seems that Commander Varth has come down with Bilbringi Fever as well."
"Yes. He was off base for some reason, but Varth apparently recognized the symptoms and ordered the base medical staff to meet him at the entrance to the base gowned and masked and get him into isolation immediately. He said something about a civilian village before he lost consciousness, but no one could make any sense of it. The rest of the base hasn't been exposed. Unfortunately, Wedge and Varth are the only ones who can tell us how they were exposed, but not until they come out of this."
Ily'eene shook her head slowly. "That is so strange. How could the two of them be the only ones from the base to be exposed? I had gotten a couple of personal messages from Wedge, subject to Alliance security of course, but they never hinted that Wedge had gotten chummy enough with Varth to spend time with him off duty. In fact, he made a point of painting Varth as a real martinet. What in the name of the Force could connect the two of them and a hidden village of civilians?"
"We'll just have to wait for Wedge to clear up the mystery then," Leia said.
Just then Wedge gasped and began thrashing around in the bed.
Leia put her hand on his forehead. "The fever's spiking again."
"I'll get Doctor Telsan," 'Eenie said, suiting action to words and running for the door.
Leia continued to stroke Wedge's forehead and whispered soothingly to him.
Blackness faded to dull gray and shooting pain pushed Wedge back toward awareness. The children!... Where are they? ... got to get to them ... Commander Varth? ... "Commander Varth?!" ... No ... no ... Not at Atrivis anymore ... Varth will take care of them ... "... promised him I would ..." My head ... ooh it hurts ... can't see... "Can't see!"
Leia looked at Doctor Telsan and 'Eenie anxiously.
"He's trying to regain consciousness and everything that has happened to him recently is jumbled up in his head. Recovered patients tell us that this stage is the most frightening, Telsan said as he injected more medication into the IV line. "This is when it is most critical to keep him calm. The medication will kick in almost immediately to bring the temperature down."
"Thank you, Doctor. I think we can do our part now," 'Eenie said. "I'm sorry I dragged you back here just as you were going off duty. I should have called someone else."
"That's all right, Ms. Milam; he's my patient. Doctors get proprietary about their patients, especially if a crisis occurs and we aren't around to deal with it. Remember, I'm only a comlink call away." Then he turned and left the room.
Leia looked up at Ily'eene. "He's settled down again. Have you been able to get enough rest?"
"I'm fine, Leia," she said. "Nia has been really good about making sure I do get to rest. In fact, Doctor Telsan has had her supervisor arrange it so that she's practically a private duty nurse for Wedge when she's on shift."
"All right, then. I'd better go as well, but I'm only a comlink call away too."
"I know. I'll see you tomorrow." She turned back to the bed and softly began humming a lullaby.
Gray haze and voices swirled around in Wedge's head with the lightning bolts of pain ... "diverting as much as I food and supplies as I can to the refugees here without shorting our people" ... "have to do it unofficially" ... "really need ... no other way ... so close they're collateral targets" ... "I'll help ... won't let on to the others" ... Varth'll keep helping ... long as he can ... maybe Leia can figure ... Oooh, my head ... Bilbringi Fever?! ... No! The fleet ... No! ... hurts ... Mom?! "Mom?!"
All his life, whenever he'd been scared or hurt, Wedge's mother had been his comfort. She'd made the hurt go away or eased the fear ... until she'd been torn away from him. Even then, though, he'd heard her gentle voice singing to him to ease his pain. Now, he was hearing it again ... "Don't be frightened, my sweet boy."
Hurts, Mom ...
"I know Dear One. You're very ill. I wish I could be with you to take care of you like I did when you were little. All I can do is be with you in your dreams, but there are others who love you. They're caring for you, for me ..."
Then Wedge heard his mother's voice singing the lullaby that had always comforted him. His mother's voice slowly faded, but the lullaby did not. It was 'Eenie's voice he heard as he slipped back into sleep.
Wes was laying in his bunk reading when Hobbie returned to the quarters they shared. "I was wondering when you were going to get back. Did you see her?"
"See who?" Hobbie said, surprised.
Wes swung his feet off the bunk to sit up. "Come on, Hob. It's me. You snuck over to the Redemption to see Nia, didn't you?"
Hobbie took off his jacket and plopped himself on his own bunk. "Am I that transparent?"
Though the two of them had the most infamous reputations in the squadron for merciless teasing and practical jokes, between themselves in private, as they were now, they did not tease. Wes was well aware of how Hobbie felt about Nia, whether Hobbie realized it or not. "If I didn't know you as well as I do, I'd say you've been as casual talking about Nia as you have the other girls you've been interested in. I do know you, though. You've fallen in love with her and she has with you. You did before we shipped out to Atrivis."
Hobbie flopped over onto his stomach on the bunk. "No! I can't! The middle of a rebellion is no time or place to fall in love." He groaned and shook his head trying to deny it. "I could get killed any time we go out on a mission, and she's no safer here with the fleet."
Wes dragged the desk chair over and sat clapping Hobbie on the shoulder. "Hobbie, Hobbie. You're such an idiot sometimes. That is exactly why you should take whatever chances you get. Regretting 'might-have-beens' is no way to live."
Hobbie didn't answer so Wes went on. "I envy you, you know."
That got his attention. "Envy me? Why?"
"Nia. No, I don't mean that I want her. I envy what you have with her, or could have if you weren't so thick-headed." His expression was uncharacteristically solemn. "I've never been in love; not the way you are," he said as Hobbie glanced up at him, surprised.
"You? You're blithering about a different girl every time I turn around."
"Sure. And I'm enjoying myself and so are they, but it isn't the same as finding one special person. You've found yours; don't live to regret denying your feelings for her."
Hobbie sat up to face his friend. "But we've hardly spent any time together ... none since I was discharged from the Medcenter four months ago."
Wes just shook his head. "And I suppose she came all the way over here the day we left for Atrivis because she sees all of her former patients off when they go on long term assignments? You two clicked when you were in the Medcenter. In fact, I'm willing to bet that she spent most of her off-duty time with you." He looked at Hobbie speculatively.
Who was non-plussed for a few moments as his memory ranged back in time. A startled expression popped up on his face. "She did. But we never ... I never even kissed her until tonight."
Wes grinned. "That doesn't surprise me. Neither of you are the type for quick and shallow relationships. When you fall, you fall hard -- even if you don't realize it."
"The others would never believe it if I told them about this conversation," Hobbie said with a half-smile on his face.
Wes gave him a mock glower. "But you're not going to, are you?" Then he grinned, "I have my reputation to think of."
Hobbie returned his grin and then laughed "Like I said ... they'd never believe it."
Nia slipped into Wedge's dimly lit room and heard Ily'eene softly sing a lullaby as she stroked Wedge's forehead. She stood at the door in silence until 'Eenie stopped singing.
"That was beautiful," she whispered as she crossed the room.
Ily'eene smiled. "It's a Corellian lullaby. Wedge's fever spiked again last night, but Doctor Telsan hadn't gone off duty yet and gave him the medication to take it down. Wedge called out a few times before he settled down; nothing that made any sense, but he called out for his mother. She's been dead for several years, but it reminded me of something Wedge had told me. He said that she used to sing that lullaby to him when he was little. I thought it might help and it did. He's sleeping pretty soundly now; let's go to the lounge. I need some caf."
They stripped off their gowns and masks and dumped them in the bin outside the door. Ily'eene glanced at Nia then took a closer look as they walked. "There is a shine in your eyes and a glow on your face that can't possibly be from just a good night's sleep."
Nia stopped, startled. "What do you mean?"
"Something happened after you left here last night. Tell me."
"I can't. He'll get in trouble."
Ily'eene pulled her into the lounge, which she noted gratefully was empty. "Hobbie ... I mean ... Derek?"
Nia nodded apprehensively. "Princess Leia forbade them from coming here without her permission. Derek was waiting for me outside my quarters." She sank onto a couch.
'Eenie smiled and sat next to her. "She did that to keep them from all hanging around the Medcenter and getting in everyone's way. I don't think she's going to have him court martialled for coming to visit you."
Nia smiled, relieved, and pulled something out of her pocket. It was a paper flower that had a passing resemblance to a rose; she held it out to 'Eenie. "He brought me a bouquet of these. He said they were a 'thank you' for taking care of him when he was injured and helping taking care of Captain Antilles now."
Ily'eene had a hard time restraining her smile. "I'd say it was more than just a 'thank you'."
Another nurse stuck her head around the door just then. "Ms. Milam, Captain Antilles is stirring and Doctor Telsan is almost finished with his rounds. He'll be coming to examine the Captain as soon as he's done."
Ily'eene pulled Nia to her feet. "Come on, Nia. Let's go look after our patient."
"Now that he's at the stage where he can break through enough to speak," Doctor Telsan was saying to Ily'eene, "his recovery will move along more quickly. The fever will remain low-grade and disappear shortly, but the headaches will be extremely uncomfortable for several more days. He is no longer contagious, but I would like to continue the restriction on visitors." He glanced up at Ily'eene, who nodded her agreement.
"I understand. I think I can hold his friends at bay a while longer."
"Good. I'll look in on him again later."
"Thank you, Doctor."
Nia had stood quietly while the doctor had examined Wedge, but moved up next to Ily'eene when he left. "Would you like me to stay here while you call his friends?"
Four Rogues sat or sprawled over various pieces of furniture in a corner of the pilots' lounge aboard Home One. "Hey, Hobbie," Tarrin said, "How about giving that nurse friend of yours a call to see if there's any news? 'Eenie's call is overdue."
Hobbie looked up startled, but before he could say anything, Wes did. "Leave him alone, Tarrin. The Princess will pin our ears back if we bother anyone at the Medcenter."
Tycho's comlink beeped just as Wes finished his sentence. "'Eenie? Is that you?"
"It's me. Sorry I'm late calling. The doctor just got through looking Wedge over."
"So, how is he doing?"
"Better, but he's not out of the woods yet. The fever has broken so there won't be any more spikes, but he hasn't regained consciousness yet. That will probably happen sometime later today or tomorrow."
"When can we come see him?"
"You can't yet. I'm sorry. Even after he regains consciousness, the doctor says the headaches are going to be really bad for a few more days. He has to stay quiet and sleep as much as possible to ease through that stage. After that, visitors should be okay, but not all of you at once. Remember, Princess Leia is the one who will give you the 'okay' to come, but not till the doc gives it to her."
"Thanks, 'Eenie. When he comes to, tell him we're pulling for him."
"I will. Out."
Blackness faded to gray and pain entered Wedge's awareness again. His head throbbed, but there were none of the shooting bolts of agony. He struggled to pierce the gray finally able to exert some conscious control over himself as he felt his eyes squeeze tightly closed. He moaned at the effort ... "Oooh, my head ... Where am I? ... What hap... What ... happened?" He was surprised to hear Ily'eene's voice answer him.
She heard Wedge and jumped up from the chair. She reached to stroke his face and forehead. "Wedge, you're in the Medcenter aboard the Redemption. You've been very ill, but you're going to be fine. You came back from Atrivis with a case of Bilbringi Fever. You collapsed in Admiral Ackbar's office and were brought straight here."
Wedge opened his eyes to narrow slits, but even the dim light in the room was painful.
" 'Eenie? What hap ... Bilbringi Fev ...?!" He struggled to sit up, but Ily'eene held him down. "Others ... fleet ...safe?"
"Yes, Wedge, the other Rogues are fine. No one else here got it. We got a report from Atrivis a couple of days ago that Commander Varth came down with it too, but no one else did. So Atrivis is safe too."
Wedge forced his eyes open in spite of the pain and locked his gaze on her. "No 'Eenie, Atrivis isn't safe. I've got to speak to Princess Leia. Please? Call her. Please?"
Ily'eene could not calm him until she agreed to bring Leia. First she called Nia, who came into the room at a run. "Stay with him for a minute while I get the Princess. He won't calm down till he speaks to her." She ran out of the room without waiting for Nia's reply.
Leia was sitting at the desk in her quarters looking at the latest intelligence reports on Boba Fett's whereabouts and they were none too encouraging. She was startled by the urgent ringing of the buzzer at her door. "Open."
The door slid open and Ily'eene all but fell into the room. "Wedge is awake. He won't calm down until he's talked to you."
Leia stood and followed her immediately and Ily'eene told her what had happened when Wedge woke up. "I told him where he was and what had happened to him. When I mentioned that Commander Varth had come down with the Fever, he became very upset. I told him that no one else at Atrivis had come down with it, but he wouldn't settle down. He insisted that the base was not safe and begged me to get you."
They had reached Wedge's room and went in to find Doctor Telsan and Nia trying to hold him down as Wedge struggled mightily to sit up.
Leia ran to him. "I'm here, Wedge. What is it?"
As soon as he saw her, relief made him sag back into the bed, but the urgency of what he had to say gave him the strength to grab Leia's hand and squeeze it hard. "Leia! The base isn't safe. Civilians near the base. That's where the Bilbringi is ... has to be." He closed his eyes to gather his strength, then opened them speaking as urgently as before. "There is a village not far from the Atrivis base. Commander Varth was taking food and supplies from the base to the village. I helped him. No one else on base knew. They were barely surviving and had no way to get off-planet before Varth started to help them. Someone in the village must have had the Bilbringi Fever, but it hadn't broken out before we left so I didn't know I'd been exposed." He took a deep breath to gather a last burst of strength, "Leia, you've got to send help! If Varth got sick after me ... it'll get loose on the base and kill them all! ... the village too!" His effort to get the vital information out had exhausted Wedge and caused shooting pain in his head again, but he fought to stay conscious.
Leia was more and more appalled as Wedge spoke, but kept it out of her expression. "I understand, Wedge. Of course we'll send whatever help we can. You've done your duty warning us. I'll take it from here. Now you need to rest and get your strength back. Ily'eene will stay here with you, but I think the doctor wants to give you a sedative. Sleep now. I'll come see you tomorrow."
Doctor Telsan had already added the sedative to Wedge's IV line and it knocked him out almost immediately. Leia ushered them away from the bed, but they did not leave the room since it afforded them privacy. She looked at the doctor. "I'm going straight from here to Admiral Ackbar's office to arrange for a relief ship to take a medical team and supplies to Atrivis. Can you organize the medical team here to be ready to leave as soon as possible?"
Telsan's face wore an expression of grim determination. "Yes, Your Highness. I'd better go too. Captain Antilles is on the mend so I can turn his care over to another doctor. Since my two areas of specialization are infectious diseases and emergency medicine, I'll be more useful there at Atrivis. Come along, Ms. Ponsed. We've got work to do." and Telsan left the room with Nia in tow.
Leia turned to Ily'eene, who had not said a word. "Ily'eene, I do have to go right away to get the relief ship arranged. Don't bother to call the boys about this. I'll tell them myself. I'm going to suggest to Admiral Ackbar that he assign them as escort for the relief mission. They'll probably need to stay on station to cover for the pilots who might be down with the Fever. Then they can escort the ship for the relocation."
Ily'eene nodded, "That sounds like a good idea. It will give them something important to do and keep them from worrying about Wedge." She smiled wryly. "And it will give Nia and Hobbie a chance to spend time together when they're off duty."
Leia raised an eyebrow. "Do you know something I don't?"
Ily'eene's smile widened. "Hobbie snuck over here last night. Not to the Medcenter, though; he stayed far clear of here. He was waiting for Nia outside her quarters and gave her a bouquet of paper roses he'd made himself. She showed me one she had in her pocket. She was worried sick, though, that you'd have him thrown in the brig or court-martialled or something for sneaking over here. I think she's going to volunteer to go along on the relief mission -- and not just because she is a terrific nurse."
Leia chuckled. "You have to love those rascals; flouting rules to suit themselves -- especially in the name of love. Speaking of flouting rules, I can't wait to hear the whole story of how Varth and Wedge, of all people, justified diverting Alliance supplies." She reached for the door to pull it open. "I really have to go. Tell Wedge I'll be back to see him tomorrow."
Leia strode into Admiral Ackbar's outer office. "Lieutenant, I need to see the Admiral right away."
"Your Highness," the Lieutenant said scrambling to his feet, "The Admiral just asked me to track you down. There's an emergency situation..."
She cut him off, "...at Atrivis. I know." She continued toward the inner office and entered when the door swished open.
"Your Highness," Ackbar said in surprise. "I just asked Sirlul to find you. There's a problem ..."
"...at Atrivis. I know."
She sat in the chair he directed her to. "Wedge regained consciousness a little while ago. He would not calm down until he told me that the Bilbringi Fever could get loose there. I take it that that is what has happened?"
"Yes. We just received a communication a short time ago from Atrivis. Several of the pilots and other base personnel have come down with it. They don't have enough personnel to provide the intensive care that even a few patients require. I was going to ask you to have the Medcenter detach and supply a medical relief team."
"I'm afraid, Admiral, that the situation is far more serious than that. There are civilians involved. There is a small village not far from the base. That is most likely where the Bilbringi virus came from, and Wedge and Commander Varth were both unwitting carriers. On top of that, our activities in that sector cut those people off from civilian trade and supply ships. If we can contain the epidemic, we must figure out a way to relocate the civilians to one of our safe planets. I came here to ask you to authorize a ship large enough to accommodate the relocation to carry the relief team to Atrivis."
Ackbar sat silently for a moment as he considered the new information Leia had provided, then said, "Of course, we must do whatever we can to help the villagers. They did not ask to be in the middle of our war with the Empire. I think that the Resolute should be able to handle the job."
Leia leaned forward in her chair. "There is something else, Admiral."
"What would you think of sending Rogue Squadron back to Atrivis as escort for the Resolute?"
"They just got back to the fleet... Ah, yes. They know the sector and there are pilots at Atrivis down with the Fever. The Rogues could provide security for the relief mission by being on station there until their own pilots are back on their feet."
"Exactly. And they can provide escort for the relocation when that happens."
"You have an uncanny ability to grasp the military as well as political and civil implications in these sorts of situations. I am most impressed."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"Mr. Celchu has done an excellent job commanding the Rogues in Wedge's absence. I believe everything will work out satisfactorily. I will see about new orders for the Resolute; we should have everything ready for them to leave by this time tomorrow."
"Thank you, Admiral. I'll take care of briefing the Rogues. They'll want to know the latest on Wedge before they go, so I can tell them that too."
"Attention! Rogue Squadron report to Briefing Room One. Repeat. Rogue Squadron report to Briefing Room One." The PA system carried the announcement clearly, but the Rogues scattered throughout the ship in their quarters, rec rooms or mess halls were confused. They weren't scheduled for a patrol and Tycho hadn't said anything at the last squadron meeting.
Tycho was as confused as the rest of the Rogues as he scrambled throw on some clothes and get to the briefing room. They all arrived simultaneously and shouted questions at him. "I have no idea what's going on. I didn't call the briefing, but I want to find out who did. Come on." The door swished open and Princess Leia stood waiting for them.
"Come in, boys, and have a seat. You have a mission." She waited until they had seated themselves. They did, then looked at her expectantly. "You're going back to Atrivis."
"We just got back from there."
"Oh, no ..."
"We can't go without Wedge..."
"You're going because of Wedge." That silenced them. "Or rather, because of some information Wedge has just been able to give us."
"Then he's regained consciousness?"
"He did. In fact, apparently as soon as he realized what had happened to him, he insisted that Ily'eene get me so he could give me this information. He's asleep now, but he stayed awake long enough to drop something of a bombshell, which is why you have to go back to Atrivis."
Tycho held up his hand, "What happened at Atrivis, Your Highness? We only left there six days ago."
"Bilbringi Fever has apparently gotten loose at the base. Several of the base personnel including pilots and Commander Varth have come down with it. It is just sheer luck that none of you came down with it as well." She paused to emphasize that fact.
"You will be providing escort for the Resolute, which is carrying the medical team and their supplies. You'll also be staying on station there to provide fighter protection for the relief team and the base since we don't know how many pilots are out of commission."
Then Hobbie raised his hand. "Your Highness, isn't the Resolute kind of big just to ferry a medical relief team to Atrivis?"
"Normally, that would be true, but there is another part to this mission I haven't told you about yet. The information up to this point came through regular communication channels, albeit with emergency flags attached. What Wedge told us is that there is a civilian village hidden somewhere not that far from the base. That is most likely where the Bilbringi Fever came from. You're going to help locate that village. Assuming that the medical team can stem the epidemic in the village and at the base, the Resolute will evacuate the villagers to one of our safe planets. We will not leave them there to be collateral targets in a likely war zone."
"How in the name of the Force did Wedge know about some village? We were only there for three months and never saw one near the base. And what was he doing there besides being exposed to Bilbringi Fever?" Tarrin mused.
"That isn't entirely clear at this point," Leia said. "It probably won't be until after you leave or maybe not even until you get back. Right now, that isn't important. What is important is that you have an extended mission to prepare for. You'll be gone for at least three weeks."
Groans greeted that unwelcome announcement.
"Look at it this way," Leia said. "Wedge will be completely recovered by the time you get back. Make him proud of you."
It was late evening by the time Nia returned to her quarters. She and Doctor Telsan had been on the run ever since they'd left Captain Antilles' room. They had organized different teams to gather and load the supplies and equipment for the relief mission. Telsan then went off to select the nurses, doctors, and medtechs who would go along, but not before Nia had volunteered to go and Telsan had gratefully accepted her offer.
She had gone into the tiny refresher to splash cold water on her face to keep herself awake long enough to pack her own things. Coming out of the 'fresher, she saw a handwritten note from her roommate laying on the desk and picked it up.
Nia, some pilot from Home One is trying to reach you. He didn't want to leave a message with me, but he called three times before I had to go on duty. I don't envy you your trip to Atrivis and what you'll have to do there. I'll see you before you go. J.
She had just finished reading the note, her heart beating faster, when there was a knock on the door. She ran to open it and found Hobbie standing there.
He looked as if he was trying to avoid being seen, but was relieved to see her. "Nia. You're here. I've been trying to reach you."
"I know. My roommate left me a note saying that, but that you wouldn't leave a message. Come in here," she said, taking his hand and pulling him into her room. "You shouldn't be here this time of night."
"I had to see you. The squadron is leaving on a mission. We're going to be gone for at least three weeks, but I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye."
"You're going to Atrivis as escort for the medical relief ship."
"How did you know?"
"I was in the room when Captain Antilles told the Princess everything. I'm going too. I volunteered."
"It's going to be really dangerous, Nia." Hobbie dropped down onto her bunk and drew her down beside him.
"And what you do isn't?" she said her intense green eyes meeting his sober dark blue ones. "I have to go. Those poor people are suffering, and it's what I'm trained to do."
Hobbie pulled her into a fierce hug. "I'd die if anything happened to you."
"Then you'll just have to make sure nothing does," Nia said feeling more self-assured now that she had an idea of how he felt about her. She rested her cheek against his chest and put her arms around him. "I know I'll be safe if you're there with me."
Hobbie tipped her face up toward his and kissed her, gently at first, then more intensely as she kissed him back. Finally, he broke the kiss. "If I don't get out of here right now, I won't leave."
She held his hand as they walked to her door. "I'll see you at Atrivis," he told her then kissed her once more and left.
As tired as she was, Nia practically floated back into her room. And she still had to get packed.
Wes was stuffing clothes and other necessities into his dufflebag when Hobbie came into the room and plopped himself onto his bunk without a word.
Wes turned to him and asked, "Did you get a chance to say goodbye to Nia?"
"I was going to, but she's going too. She volunteered to be part of the medical team," Hobbie said looking dazed.
"That's great, Hob! You'll surely have a chance to spend some time with her. We won't always be on duty and neither will she."
"It's bloody dangerous, though, Wes!" Hobbie exploded. "We're going into a war zone and she has to deal with a stupid plague."
"Of course, it's dangerous. The whole Rebellion is dangerous. A lot of us probably won't live through it." He sat down next to his friend. "Look, Hob. Every day you have together is a gift. Don't waste it."
Once Wedge had regained consciousness, Doctor Telsan made it a point to order Ily'eene to get a proper night's rest. She had done that , but had still woken up early and returned to Wedge's room to find Nia there before her.
"Aren't you supposed to be leaving on a relief mission, young lady?" she whispered with a smile.
Nia turned to look at her. "There's still some time before I have to get to the Resolute. I thought I'd just check on Captain Antilles before I go."
"And you'll be able to tell Hobbie how he's doing?"
Wedge heard Ily'eene's voice and woke with a start. " 'Eenie?" He started to sit up, but the pain in his head made him think better of it. "'Eenie? I have to talk to Leia."
Ily'eene came over to him and brushed his hair out of his face, "No, Wedge. It's all right. You told her everything yesterday."
He sagged back into the bed. "She's sending a relief mission?" he asked, still anxious.
"Yes. They'll be leaving in a few hours. Nia, here, is going with them," she said gesturing toward her. "She has also looked after you a good part of the last few days. You have her to thank that you've actually recovered more quickly than you otherwise might have."
Nia blushed and dipped her head but said nothing.
"Thank you, Nia," Wedge said. He looked more closely at her face frowning in concentration. "You looked after Hobbie too, didn't you?"
Her blush deepened. "Yes, Captain."
"Then we've both been very fortunate. Thank you for both of us."
"Hobbie has already thanked her, Wedge." Ily'eene had restrained her smile, but the twinkle in her eyes told him what she didn't say aloud. Changing the subject she asked, "Would you like Nia to give the boys any messages? Admiral Ackbar is having them fly escort. And then they'll be staying on station there for a few weeks."
He looked up at her. "Pilots are down with it too?"
Ily'eene nodded, her expression serious again.
Wedge looked back at Nia. "Just tell them to be careful. Damn! Why did I have to get laid up like this?"
Ily'eene gave him a mirthless smile. "A lot of people would like to know the answer to that question. As a matter of fact, Leia will be here to ask you about it very soon, I should think."
"Excuse me, Captain. Ily'eene. I should probably be going now. I'm glad you're feeling better, Sir."
"Thanks, Nia, and do tell them to be careful."
"You be careful, too, Nia." Ily'eene said coming around Wedge's bed to give her a hug. "We'll see you when you get back."
"Hobbie's a lucky son-of-a-gun to have a girl like her," Wedge said to Ily'eene after Nia had left the room.
Wedge had begun to wince in pain from a pounding headache and Ily'eene had gone to find a nurse or doctor. She found Doctor Telsan, who had also returned to the Medcenter to check on Wedge one last time before he left. Telsan had given him the headache medication, but had also slipped him a sedative at Ily'eene's suggestion. Despite orders to rest or sleep as much as possible, Wedge had been trying to stay awake, which was not helping him. The sedative knocked him out for a few hours, but he woke at the sound of a knock on his door.
Leia stepped around the partially open door. "Are you awake? I've brought you a visitor."
The door opened wider and Tycho followed Leia in, a relieved smile appearing on his face. "Hey, Boss. You scared the daylights out of us. How are you feeling?"
Wedge returned his smile. "My head did feel like about a dozen Deathstars had exploded inside it, but it's getting better. How are the guys?"
"They're fine, but we were all worried sick about you. I can't stay long. The Princess brought me over here so you could tell me where to find that hidden village of yours so we can help them."
Wedge grimaced. "Quite a mess we made of things, Varth and I." He shook his head and immediately regretted it.
Leia came over and patted his hand. "Wedge, you had no idea you'd been exposed. You can't blame yourself for the outbreak of the Fever at Atrivis. Now, tell Tycho where that village is so they can get going and help them."
Wedge closed his eyes for a minute. He opened them and looked intently at Tycho. "You know the beach over the rise on the west side of the base?"
"Go along the beach to the north for a little more than a kilometer. Around the headland there is a long narrow valley that comes all the way to the ocean from the mountains. There's a small river in the valley. Follow the river upstream about five kilometers. The village is tucked under the trees there."
Tycho stared at Wedge. "How in the name of the Force did you manage to go back and forth to the village and never miss Varth's morning briefings? And how come we never spotted them? Varth drilled us mercilessly on aerial reconnaissance."
Leia glanced over at him. "That isn't important now, Tycho."
"He always knew where I was and when I was due back," Wedge said with a small smile that Tycho could not decipher. "And Varth's flight plans always kept us clear of the valley. They're afraid so they will probably hide if they see you coming. Varth worked out a recognition signal with them. How loud can you whistle?"
"Pretty loud and so can Wes."
"The signal is not a wolf whistle, Tycho," Wedge said grinning. "The signal is three long whistles a break and three short whistles, then repeat it."
Tycho shook his head slowly. "You are going to tell us the rest of this story when we get back, aren't you?"
Wedge smiled. "You'll probably have it all figured out by then. Damn! I wish I was going with you."
Tycho grinned at his outburst. "We would feel better if you were coming, but we'll muddle along without you. Oh. Wes did tell me to tell you to 'get your backside out of that bed before you forget how to fly'."
"He'll regret that crack when he has to do the sims I work up while you're gone."
Tycho laughed. "Well, I'd better get going."
"Just be careful and bring them all back in one piece."
Tycho turned to leave, but turned back when Wedge called to him. "Tycho, make sure you tell Commander Varth that the villagers are going to be rescued."
"I will, Wedge."
Wedge stared at the door for a couple of minutes after Tycho left, and Leia watched him quietly until he turned to look up at her.
"Now, about those supplies you and Varth diverted... Would you like to tell me the whole story?"
"I'm really sorry, Leia. I had every intention of coming to talk to you as soon as we got back."
She held his hand and patted it gently. "I'm not angry, Wedge. I just want to know what happened."
He took a deep breath. "You know when we left here three months ago that we had to go to Atrivis, even though the base was already supposed to be evacuated because our tech people were walking into a trap?"
"The security breach. Yes, I remember."
"When we got there, Varth's squadrons were still there. There were dogfights going on both in space and in the atmosphere. It was particularly furious over that valley. It took quite a while, but between Varth's squadrons and the Rogues, we killed every single ship that had assaulted the base. During the fight, I caught a glimpse of something in that valley, but I couldn't figure out what it was."
Leia watched Wedge's face as he remembered.
"When we landed, Varth's sole comment was that our dogfights were sloppy and not fuel-efficient. Then he stalked off to his office. The few Imperial pilots that survived and ejected from their fighters were rounded up by the base's ground security. When they were interrogated, it was clear that the commander of the raid had not informed his superiors of the location of the base. He had wanted sole credit for capturing Atrivis. When that was reported back to the fleet here, as you know, it was decided to keep the base intact because we needed it in that sector."
Wedge paused to look up at Leia. She smiled and gestured for him to continue.
We got ourselves settled in, but that valley was bothering me. I got up very early the next morning and walked up the beach and up the valley, just as I described it to Tycho. I saw an Alliance cargo speeder stopped a couple of hundred meters ahead of me and then I noticed little huts, tucked under the trees. They were very well camouflaged, and I never did figure out what it was that I had spotted. I walked up to the village and saw Commander Varth unloading what looked like crates of food and other supplies. They had Alliance markings on them. There were a few adults helping him with the crates, but the children... Oh, Leia. If you could have seen their faces..." Wedge closed his eyes, but the faces still haunted him.
"There were about thirty or forty children, maybe more, standing around and absolutely silent. It was really eerie. They were obviously malnourished, but they were shell-shocked too. It was obvious now why Varth had stayed. He was protecting that village, even though the rest of his squadrons didn't realize it. Commander Varth didn't say anything to me as I came up. I just started helping unload the speeder. When we were finished, Varth told one of the adults that he would be back in a few days. Then he waved for me to get into the speeder and we headed back toward the base the way I'd come.
He didn't say a word until the village was out of sight; then he asked me if I'd followed him. I told him that I hadn't and explained about seeing something from the air. He didn't say anything for another few minutes, but then he told me that what he was doing with the supplies was not on the books at the base and no one else knew about it. Then he said that he had intended to tell me about the village because at the end of our assignment, he wanted me to ask you for help to relocate them because, even though they were hidden, they weren't really safe. Five children had been killed by falling debris from the battle the day before. He didn't want to risk saying anything about them, even in an encrypted transmission. He'd thought they would be safer away from the base until their evacuation could be arranged, but of course, that hadn't turned out to be the case. I promised him that I would ask you and offered to help take the supplies every few days while I was there. He let me out of the speeder just around the headland, and I walked back to the base to preserve the illusion that I had just been out for a walk to clear my head."
He looked up at Leia and saw that she was holding back tears. "It must have been on my last trip to the village with Varth a couple days before we left that I was exposed to the Bilbringi Fever. It hadn't broken out on anyone yet, so they didn't mention anything. I wouldn't have risked bringing it back to the fleet if I'd known."
Leia had bowed her head. "Of course not, Wedge." She shook her head. "I had no idea it was as serious as that." Then she raised her eyes to look at him. "I'm glad we're sending help now. I just hope it's not too late. You and Commander Varth did the right thing giving those poor people the food and supplies, and neither of you will get into trouble because of it. The Alliance means nothing if we don't help people when they need it."
Nia finally had the opportunity to sit and relax for a few minutes before the Resolute and her escort left the fleet on their relief mission. The morning had been spent rushing through loading and double checking their supplies and equipment, but she had caught herself numerous times daydreaming despite the swirl of activity around her. Derek was occupying more and more of her thoughts. She smiled as she thought of him and the message she'd found on her computer that morning.
Nia, there's an observation lounge on deck three of the Resolute on the port side. I'll be flying there. Derek.
She got up to look out the transparisteel viewport and spotted his ship. Five slashes, she thought. That's him. She knew he couldn't really see her, but she was certain that he knew she was there and smiled when she saw his ship waggle its S-foils. She realized that she wouldn't be able to see his ship once they entered hyperspace, but it was enough for her to know where he would be.
Wes glanced out of his cockpit and saw Hobbie's X-wing moving in a non-standard maneuver for escort formation flying. He grinned and flipped a switch opening a private comm channel. "Hey, Hob. Don't you think you might want to be just a little more discrete than that?"
Hobbie's voice crackled back in his helmet speaker. "Shut up, Wes. I was just waving."
"Yeah. And the whole fleet saw it."
Tycho reflexively scanned his cockpit instruments as the alarm signaled re-entry to normal space. The flight back to Atrivis had gone without incident and he had had plenty of time to think. As hard as he'd tried, though, he had not been able to figure out the connection between Wedge, Varth, and the village.
His thoughts were interrupted when Wes's voice crackled from his helmet speaker, "Didn't we just leave this garden spot of the galaxy?"
Another signal came through, "Resolute to Rogue Two."
"Rogue Two. Go ahead."
"We've established contact with the Atrivis base. They sound anxious for us to get down there. The three shuttles are loaded and ready to go."
"Copy that, Resolute. We'll pick them up out here and deliver them to the base. Rogue Two, out."
He flipped over to the squadron's frequency, "Tarrin, you're with me. We'll take the first shuttle in. Hobbie, you take the second and get our ground expedition organized to leave immediately. Wes, you take the third and check out the status of the pilots. The rest of you, once we're on the ground, find out what the operational status of the base is. I'll catch up to you in the Ops Center."
"Got it, Tych."
"See you dirtside, Tycho."
He saw the first shuttle emerge from the landing bay of the Resolute and he and Tarrin took up their flanking positions on either side of it.
"Rogue Two to Tiger Moth."
"Just follow us and we'll get you safely down."
"Copy that, Rogue Two."
The shuttles and their escorts landed at the base and the passengers wasted no time disembarking and beginning to unload their supplies.
Tycho called over to Tarrin as he was climbing down out of his fighter. "You go on over to the Ops Center. I have to go find Commander Varth."
"Right, Tych. See you later."
Tycho went straight to the base infirmary and got directions to the isolation ward. As he walked toward the nurses' station, he could see that the ward was full past its capacity and that the staff were exhausted. He saw a doctor leaning against the counter scribbling something on a patient's chart.
"Excuse me, Doctor Vanz." he said reading the name tag on his jacket. "My name is Tycho Celchu. I'm with Rogue Squadron. We just escorted the medical relief ship here..."
The doctor sagged against the counter, "Oh, Thank the Force!" Relief washed over his face. "I didn't think we'd hold up till you got here."
"The shuttles are unloading personnel and supplies now. They'll be here shortly. I'm sorry Sir, but I need to speak with Commander Varth. Is he conscious?"
Vanz swallowed and visibly took himself in hand. "Commander Varth is my patient. He only just regained consciousness half an hour ago, but he is very distressed about something. We can't get him to calm down, which is causing him to be in a lot of pain."
"I think I can probably settle him down, if I can talk to him."
The doctor looked surprised. "Very well. I'll take you to him. He's not contagious anymore, but you should probably put a gown on over that flightsuit."
"Commander Varth? It's Tycho Celchu, Sir."
Tycho gently shook Varth's arm to wake him, although he did not seem to be deeply asleep. His eyes flew open. "Mr...Celchu? You're...back?"
"Yes, Sir. We're sorry we're late. Wedge came down with the Bilbringi Fever just when we got back to the fleet, but he told the Princess about the village as soon as he regained consciousness. We came as quickly as we could, and we'll be on our way to rescue them shortly. We've brought a full medical team to take care of them and the people here at the base."
Varth was concentrating very hard to try to comprehend Tycho's words. "Antilles?... Did he ... tell you ... recog ... recognition signal?"
"Yes, Sir. I know the recognition signal. We'll find them and bring them back here."
Varth closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. "Thank you ... Mr. Celchu."
"I'll report back to you when we've brought them back, Sir."
The doctor followed Tycho out of Varth's room completely confused. "What was that all about, Mr. Celchu?"
"There's a hidden village of civilians a few miles from here. That is where Captain Antilles and Commander Varth were exposed to the Bilbringi Fever. I have to go out and find them and bring them back to the base. We've got to save them before it's too late. I'll tell you more when I get back."
He turned and walked away quickly leaving the doctor in overwhelmed silence.
Tycho jogged over to the Ops. Center and found the rest of the Rogues waiting for him. "Wedge told me to tell Varth that we were going to rescue the villagers," he said by way of explanation. "What is the operational status of the base?"
"Not so hot, Tych," Wes answered. "Only half of the pilots are fit to fly and the ones that are are exhausted from pulling round the clock watches over their friends at the infirmary."
Tycho shook his head. "Do you think they can hold out another few hours?"
"If they can last just a little longer, we'll have them stand down as soon as we get those villagers back here. Hobbie, how's the unloading going?"
"Just about done, Tycho. Our speeder bikes are ready and the medical transports are loaded and ready to go."
"Good. Tarrin, go find whoever's in charge of the pilot's and tell them we'll be back in a few hours. Then meet us at the speeder bikes. Let's go."
Tycho stopped to change out of his flightsuit, then met the others and the medical team who would go with them. "Doctor Telsan, are you ready?" he called as he spotted Telsan and Hobbie's girl, Nia Ponsed, in the first transport.
"Ready, Mr. Celchu."
He climbed aboard the speeder bike. "Let's move. This way."
They followed the beach as Wedge's instructions had indicated and turned up the valley. It only took them twenty minutes to reach the village. The convoy stopped and Tycho blew the recognition signal, but no one came forward. He whistled it again, but still got no response.
He climbed off the bike, the others following suit, and stepped forward a couple of paces. "Don't be afraid," he called. "Commander Varth and Captain Antilles sent us to help you."
Nothing happened for a minute. Then two. Then Nia pointed and called out. "There! It's one of the children!" A little girl, about five years old and clutching a doll in her hand, had stepped out of one of the huts under the trees. She was blonde haired and blue eyed and pretty despite her disheveled appearance
Nia jumped out of the transport and ran toward her. Hobbie called out, "Nia! Wait!" and ran after her. Then more children came out of the huts followed by a few adults. The nurses and medtechs that had come in the transports began piling out. Some of them set to organizing a triage station and others going to retrieve one or another of the villagers.
Tycho turned to the other Rogues. "Go search the huts to make sure we find everyone. I'll see if I can find out how many there are."
Doctor Telsan had come up next to Tycho and the two of them went over to the closest adult who had come out.
The man was only a few years older than Tycho, but looked almost twice his age. He had tears streaming down his face and his voice broke as he spoke to them. "Thank the Force, you've come! Commander Varth promised he would find a way to get us out of here." He stopped to try to pull himself together. "Just after the last time he was here with Captain Antilles a fever broke out here. We used up the medicine they brought ... So fast ... It spread so fast. There weren't enough of us to take care of the sick ones. We couldn't get the fever down ... They ... they ..." he started to sob.
Telsan took him by the arm and led the man to a log to sit down, Tycho following them. "What is your name?" Telsan asked him.
"Vandek. Vandek Peers."
Tycho crouched down in front of him. "We're here to help, Mr. Peers. But we need your help too. We need to know how many of you there are. How many people live here, Mr. Peers?"
Peers' bleak expression was devastating, but Tycho tightly reined in his own emotions. "A week ago there were almost a hundred and fifty of us ... Now ...? I don't know. Maybe half ..."
Tycho patted the man's arm. "We'll do everything we can to help." He stood up and helped Doctor Telsan to get Peers on his feet.
Telsan started to walk him toward one of the transports, but he turned back, "What happened to Commander Varth?"
"Commander Varth came down with the Fever too. And so did Captain Antilles." Tycho told him.
Peers staggered against Telsan. "Oh, no! ... They took it back to the base from here!"
Telsan swung himself around to face Peers. "You are not to blame for that! You had no way of knowing."
Tycho also stepped over and stood in front of him until his presence registered. "We've brought enough people to take care of you and the base. Do you understand? It will be all right."
Peers said nothing, but after a few moments, Telsan nodded and Tycho moved off.
Nia stopped a couple of meters short of the little girl she had run toward. She crouched down and stepped toward her slowly. "Hello, Sweetheart. You're very frightened, aren't you?" Nia heard Hobbie stop behind her, but he stayed quiet letting her gain the little girl's confidence. She held a hand out to the child. "My name is Nia," she said taking another step closer. She looked over her shoulder at Hobbie, who said nothing, but took a step closer as well. "This is my friend Derek. We've come here to help you."
Hobbie crouched down beside Nia to put himself down at the little girl's eye-level.
Nia held out both her arms.
"Mommy's sick," the little girl said and burst into tears.
Nia gathered her into her arms and began rocking her, talking softly to soothe her. After a couple of minutes, she looked up at Hobbie who had gone into the hut to look for the little girl's mother.
"She's burning up," he said to Nia, then looked up to call and wave a couple of medtechs over with a gurney. "She keeps calling out for Sela." He nodded at the little girl. "Ask her if her name is Sela."
Nia stroked the top of her head. "Sweetheart, is your name Sela?"
The girl nodded still sobbing with her face buri ed in Nia's shoulder.
"Sela, Sweetheart. I need to go and take care of your mommy. Will you stay here with Derek?" At the little girl's nod, she stood up and handed Sela over to Hobbie. She put both of her little arms around him and buried her face in his neck.
Nia gave Hobbie's arm a grateful squeeze and turned to go into the hut.
Wes and Tarrin had made a survey of the south side of the little village going in and out of several of the huts. In many of them, they found that it was already too late. After the first one, they had each tied neckerchiefs around their faces to filter the air somewhat.
Wes saw a little boy, maybe eight years old, standing in the doorway of the next hut they came to. He stopped short and Tarrin nearly bumped into him from behind. Squatting down he asked, "Are your mom and dad in there?"
The boy nodded.
"Are they sick?"
"Can I come and look?"
Another nod. He stood and walked slowly up to the boy. He grabbed Wes's hand and pulled him into the hut. Wes followed the boy and Tarrin came in behind him. Both the mother and father were stretched out on the bed and both were thrashing and calling out. Wes turned back to Tarrin. "Tell them we need two gurneys in here now."
Tarrin ran out to find the medtechs and gurneys. Wes bent down closer to the boy, who had not let go of his hand. "It's going to be okay. We've brought doctors and nurses and medicine. Your folks are going to be okay."
The boy stared up at him for a moment then started pulling him out of his parents' room and into another one. In another bed, three younger boys were huddled together.
"Sithspit!" he spat out before he could stop himself. He took a deep breath. "Are these your brothers?"
The boy nodded again. He heard Tarrin directing the medtechs back to the parents' room. "Tarrin! Get in here."
They carried the boys out of the little house and sat them on a rough wooden bench next to the door. The medtechs followed them out and pushed the gurneys straight to the transports. The two younger boys started whimpering when they saw their parents being taken away.
Wes and Tarrin were at a loss for what to do for the boys, then inspiration struck. Wes squatted down in front of them and asked, "Are you hungry?" All four pairs of eyes widened and four little dark heads bobbed up and down. "Come on, Tarrin. Let's get these guys something to eat."
Four hours later, Tycho led the transports back to the Atrivis base. He had left four of the Rogues behind for burial duty. The survivors would need to go back to their little hidden village to pick up their meager belongings before they were relocated, and Tycho felt he could not leave that heartbreaking task to them.
They had called ahead to tell the rest of the relief team what to set up for. The young children had apparently not been suseptible to the Bilbringi Fever, but many older children were just as vulnerable as the adults. If the parents had succumbed to the disease, the children who had not survived had starved because they were too young to look for or cook food for themselves. Still, a good number of children had survived and were immediately taken to the gymnasium, which had been transformed into an oversized children's ward and dormitory. The relief team checked the children over, administering whatever medical care was needed, and after the children had been cleaned up and fed, they were bedded down for the night.
The toll on the adult population had been much higher, which meant that many of the rescued children were now orphans. The adults were taken to the infirmary, which had received an influx of fresh personnel and supplies. The adult refugees were examined and placed into appropriate medical care, and there was now the hope that most of them would survive the plague that had ravaged them.
Tycho called the Rogues over as they dismounted from their speederbikes. "I know I'll be having nightmares about this for a long time." He shuddered, then took himself in hand. "I know you're pretty tired, but we need to let those pilots who are still on their feet stand down and get some sleep."
Haggard faces nodded back at him. "We'll be fine for a few hours, if we get some caf into us," Wes said.
"You guys go and relieve them then. I'll catch up to you in the Ops Center. I have to report to Commander Varth."
Arms waved in acknowledgement as they went their separate ways.
Haunting images scattered with pictures of supply crates with Alliance markings on them swirled through Tycho's mind as he retraced his way to the isolation ward of the infirmary. Another piece of the mystery had fallen into place. Wedge and Varth were secretly taking food and supplies from here to the village Tycho thought as he walked. He shook his head slowly as he tried to make it all fit together into some understandable whole.
He found himself in front of the door to Commander Varth's room, and steeled himself to deliver the report he had promised. He pushed the door open to find the doctor he had spoken to earlier pleading with Varth to permit him to administer a sedative.
"Commander, if you don't let me do this you'll push yourself back into a coma from the stress of the headaches!"
"No, Doctor. I've got to wait for Celchu's report on the village," Varth ground out through gritted teeth.
Tycho hurried over to him. "I'm back, Sir. We've brought them back. They're going to be all right."
Varth gripped Tycho's arm with surprising strength. "You found them?"
Tycho swallowed hard and lowered his eyes, then looked back at Varth. "There were fifty seven dead when we got there, Sir. Thirty eight adults and nineteen children. But we brought back ninety; thirty two adults and fifty eight children. They're all going to be taken care of."
Anguish that had nothing to do with Fever-induced headaches crossed Varth's face as he sank back into the bed. "Thank you... Mr. Celchu," he said closing his eyes.
The doctor injected the sedative into the IV line and stared at it for a moment before turning to Tycho and gesturing for him to leave the room.
Outside the door, Tycho turned to the doctor before he had a chance to question him. "He refused to let you give him the sedative till I got back, didn't he?"
"Captain Antilles did the same thing until he was certain that the relief mission would be sent."
The doctor pursed his lips together for a moment. "Now can you tell me what this is all about?"
Tycho gave him a tired smile. "Doctor, you're exhausted. The relief team is in place. Why don't you get a good night's sleep? I'm sure it will all make a whole lot more sense to both of us in the morning."
"Very well, Mr. Celchu. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
The first night after the villagers had been rescued, the children had been too exhausted to do anything besides numbly fall into the cots in the makeshift dormitory in the gymnasium while nurses and medtechs watched over them in shifts as they slept. When they woke the next morning, they were disoriented and frightened to find themselves in strange surroundings. They cried for their parents and the relief team tried to learn their names in order to try to match them up with the adults who were being cared for in the infirmary. Eventually, they calmed down enough to eat again, although most of them still looked around apprehensively trying to establish a safe zone in their own minds.
Tycho had worked out a duty roster integrating the Rogues with the Atrivis pilots who had managed to avoid becoming ill so that all of them could have almost adequate down time. The Rogues filled in their Atrivis counterparts with as much of the story as they could, but there were still gaps. During the course of the day, the pilots and other off duty personnel found themselves drawn to the gym to look in on the children who had been rescued. At first, they just sat with the children trying to get them to talk, but as the children realized that they were safe, they showed the resiliance that children always seemed to have.
Tycho smiled as he walked past the gym on his way to the infirmary. He saw Tarrin and Wes playing catch with the four little brothers they had found. And Hobbie was sitting cross-legged in a grassy patch listening intently to the little girl who was talking to him as she made a daisy chain necklace for the doll sitting in her lap.
Nia had not slept since she had returned to the base with the rescued villagers. She had gone straight to the infirmary with Dr. Telsan to help settle the new patients and relieve the exhausted staff. It had been a long night and not without several crises. A number of the patients had had fever spikes, but the relief team had been able to cope. She sat at the nurses' station, sheer grit and determination keeping her awake to make the notations on the charts in front of her.
She looked up with a start when Tycho came up to the desk. "Hello, Nia."
"Mr. Celchu," she said recovering herself.
Tycho laughed. "Please, Nia. Not so formal. Call me Tycho."
"All right, Tycho," she said shyly. "How may I help you?"
"I was wondering if I could see Commander Varth."
"Doctor Telsan and Doctor Vanz are with him now. He's been asking for you."
"Thanks, Nia." He went to Varth's room and found the two doctors examining Varth, who impatiently batted their hands away when he saw Tycho come in.
Tycho could tell from looking at him that he was still suffering from the intense headaches that went with the Bilbringi Fever, but was determined to bring himself back up to speed on the status of his command. "Mr. Celchu, Doctor Telsan has told me about your rescue efforts yesterday. Thank you."
Varth had never been anything other than brusque in his dealings with the Rogues during their previous posting to Atrivis, so Tycho was taken slightly aback at his small concession to politeness.
"Now, tell me. What is the operational status of the base?" The return to his normal demeanor told Tycho that Varth would not let this illness keep him down a moment longer than absolutely necessary.
"Well, Sir. Half of your pilots and over a third of the rest of the personnel are down with Bilbringi Fever and the rest were pretty exhausted from helping to care for them till we got here yesterday. I've integrated the Rogues and other support personnel with your people so that we can adequately cover the patrol rotation and base operations with enough down time for all of us to get almost enough rest. Things will start getting back to normal very soon."
Varth quirked a half smile. "Normal, Mr. Celchu? We're in the middle of a rebellion."
Tycho barely kept his jaw from dropping. Irony? He's sicker than I thought. No one has ever heard him make anything like a humorous remark. "That's true, Sir."
"Well done, Mr. Celchu. Carry on," Varth said in dismissal.
He turned to go with Dr. Telsan following, but heard Doctor Vanz, saying, "Now will you let me give you this sedative? You will never get out of here if you don't cooperate."
"You filled Dr. Vanz in on the whole story, I take it?" Tycho said to Telsan as they walked back toward the nurses' station.
"Yes, I... Ms. Ponsed! What are you still doing here?"
Telsan's outburst startled Nia. "I was just..."
"Leave those. Someone else can finish them." He had walked around behind the nurses' station and lifted her out of the chair by her elbows. "What does it take to get you to leave? A military escort?"
"Mr. Celchu, please escort her from the premises. If you show up here before tomorrow morning, I'll have Mr. Celchu lock you up in whatever passes for a brig around here. Do you understand?"
Tycho laughed. "Come on, Nia. I think he means it."
They had just walked out of the main entrance of the infirmary when Tycho saw Hobbie coming up the steps. "Great! Just the person I wanted to see! Nia's been here all night, Hob. Doctor Telsan ordered her to get some sleep. Why don't you show her to wherever they've got the rest of the relief staff housed? See you later."
Hobbie grinned at Tycho's cheerful tone, but his expression became one of concern as he looked back at Nia. "You look exhausted," he said taking her hand.
"I'll be all right. I guess I do need some sleep, though."
"Come on, then. Let's see if they remembered to assign you a room." They began walking across an open grassy area toward the dormitory quadrangle. "I came to tell you that I looked in on Sela a little while ago."
"Oh, Derek. That was so sweet of you."
Hobbie smiled self-consciously. "It wasn't just me. The other guys and a bunch of the rest of the relief team have kind of drifted by to see how the kids were doing." He looked in the direction of the gymnasium where the children were housed. "They're amazing. They are still really scared and they stop and look around like they're looking for their parents, which they probably are, but..." He stopped temporarily at a loss for words.
"Wes and Tarrin coaxed those four little brothers they found outside to play catch and the other kids are making up their own games. I've never seen anything like it," he said.
"How is Sela?" Nia asked. "Her mother regained consciousness early this morning and the only thing she wanted to know was where Sela was."
Hobbie smiled. "She'll be happy to hear that. She kept asking me 'Is Nia taking care of my mommy?' I told her that you were." Hobbie gave Nia's hand a gentle squeeze. "I'm glad you didn't make a liar out of me."
They had arrived at building where the relief team were being quartered. "You get some sleep now." He brushed her forehead with a kiss. "Sweet dreams, Nia. I'll see you later."
Tycho had spent the last four hours sitting in the Operations Center writing a report of the rescue operation, the operational status of the base, and an overview of the medical relief mission up to the present time. It had taken so long because stark images from the last twenty four hours kept appearing in his mind. He tried to keep the report objective and factual, but he hadn't been able to do it. There was no adequate way to describe the situation they had found on their arrival at the base and at the village without using extremely graphic language. He felt guilty painting such a grim picture, but it was the truth. He pressed the save key on the terminal and leaned back in his chair to stretch the kink out of his back.
He heard a door open behind him and then Wes Janson's voice. "Oh, so this is where you've been holed up."
"I was writing the report I have to send back to the fleet. The Princess asked to be updated as soon as possible."
Janson shuddered as he dragged a chair over to sit next to Tycho. "I'm glad I didn't have to write it."
"I wish I didn't have to. I'm going over to the infirmary to show it to Varth before it gets encrypted and sent. You wanna walk over with me?"
Janson shuddered again. "I'll walk over with you, but I'll let you deal with Varth."
Tycho stood and pulled the datacard out of the desktop terminal. "Coward! So, are you thinking of Little League Zone Ball coaching as a post-Rebellion occupation?"
"Ha! Give those little guys a few years to get their growth and they'll whip the pants off the Carida Academy team."
Commander Varth handed the datapad back to Tycho when he finished reading the report. A taut silence held for a moment. "I had no idea it was as bad as that, Mr. Celchu. I know that must have been a very difficult report for you to have to write."
Tycho kept silent not knowing what else to do.
"Sithspit!" Varth exploded. "I should never have waited to request the Princess's help to relocate them!"
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place and Tycho's jaw dropped. "Wedge was supposed to ask the Princess for help to relocate the villagers as soon as we got back to the fleet?"
Varth nodded grimly. "They were just a small settlement of farmers and miners in a larger valley further up in the mountains. Only a few civilian trade and supply ships knew where they were, but they were cut off when our conflict with the Empire moved into this sector.
They came to that valley to hide better, but accidentally found themselves close to the front lines of the battle. I came upon them by accident when I was out for a walk to clear my head, just as Captain Antilles told you he had been. It was only a week or so before your squadron arrived the first time. When the leader of the little group, a man named Peers, told me about their situation, I promised him that I would find a way to get them out. I told him that it would take some time and that they would probably be safer away from the base until I could make the arrangements. In the meantime, I promised to bring them supplies and food every few days."
He saw Tycho staring at him and cocked an eye at him. "You have an exceptional commander in Captain Antilles. He told me the day he discovered me out there with the supplies that he had seen something from his cockpit that prompted him to investigate. Even the two of us together never determined what he had seen. He immediately offered to help, and I saw to it that our extracurricular activities were never discovered. The Bilbringi Fever was just plain rotten luck."
"You have no idea Sir, how we racked our brains trying to figure all of this out," Tycho said shaking his head.
"Hand me that datapad again, Mr. Celchu." Varth said smiling mirthlessly. "I might as well add my personal report before you send it. That way they'll have the whole story if they choose to bring me up on charges."
Nia had managed to get a few hours sleep, but the dreams had not been pleasant. She got cleaned up and decided to walk around the base to orient herself. Eventually, she found herself near the gymnasium that was serving as the children's dormitory. She looked around and noticed that what Derek had told her was true. The children were behaving like children anywhere in the galaxy. They were playing tag or catch or hopscotch and the adults with them seemed to be really enjoying themselves as well.
Looking around again, she spotted Derek sitting on the grass next to Sela. She stood watching them for several minutes before she approached them.
Sela saw her first and scrambled to her feet. "Is my mommy better?" she asked anxiously.
"She will be Sweetheart," Nia told her as she knelt to give the little girl a hug. "She was very sick so it will take some time."
"Can I see her?"
"Not yet. But I promise I'll take you to her myself as soon as she's well enough."
Hobbie climbed to his feet brushing himself off. "Sela and I were just going to go and get some dinner. Would you like to join us, Nia?"
"I'd love to." The three of them walked hand in hand to the mess hall prompting several smiles as they went.
Sela was yawning over her plate by the time they finished dinner. "I think it's time for Princess Sela to be going to bed," Hobbie said picking her up and carrying her from the mess hall. He paused only long enough to give Tarrin a dirty look when he heard him mutter something about 'robbing the cradle', but Tarrin was carrying one of his little foundlings as well.
Sela had put her head on Hobbie's shoulder as they walked back to the gymnasium, but she roused enough to ask him, "Would you tell me a bedtime story, Derek?"
Hobbie's eyes widened in panic, but he could hardly refuse. "Sure, Sela. You go get ready for bed, and I'll tell you a story."
They came back a few minutes later, and Nia tucked Sela into the cot. Then Hobbie sat down at the end of the bed, "What kind of stories do you like, Sela?"
"I like stories about princesses."
"You like stories about princesses? Hmm, let me see ... All right. This is a true story. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named Leia. She lived in a beautiful land called Alderaan. Her people were very happy, but she knew that there were other people who lived in other lands ruled by an evil wizard. He had a giant fire-breathing dragon that he would send out to frighten them or hurt them. The princess and some of her friends snuck into one of the lands ruled by the evil wizard to find a magic spell that would destroy his dragon. They found the spell, but the wizard saw them and chased them. He captured the princess and imprisoned her, but she was able to send a message out of the wizard's land ..."
He went on to describe how the princess had sent the message to a good wizard asking him to help her, but it had gotten lost. Then the message was found by a knight who took it to the good wizard. The good wizard gave the knight a magic sword and asked him to help him save the princess. Then there was a pirate and his partner who took the knight and the good wizard to the evil wizard's land and helped to rescue the princess. And there was a duel between the good and the bad wizard that let the knight, the princess and the pirate escape from the evil wizard's land with the magic spell. There was a huge battle between the evil wizard's soldiers and the princess's friends. Finally, only the knight was left to cast the spell to destroy the fire-breathing dragon ...
"Then the pirate came back and frightened the evil wizard and his soldiers away. The knight cast the magic spell and the giant fire-breathing dragon disappeared in an enormous puff of smoke. The princess and her friends were so happy that the knight had destroyed the dragon. There was a huge celebration, and the princess gave the knight and the pirate big, shiny medals to show how much she and her friends appreciated their help. The End."
Sela had fallen asleep as he'd told the story, but he'd continued because the other children had gathered around him completely enraptured by the tale. The spell was broken as the adults, who had also listened, carried or led the children off to their own beds.
Hobbie looked up, smiled and shrugged when he saw Wes, Tarrin, and Tycho staring at him and shaking their heads. Finally, they also turned and led their charges away. "A giant fire-breathing dragon," Tarrin said still shaking his head. "I wondered what that thing looked like."
Nia looked up from Sela to Hobbie. "That was a wonderful story, Derek. It wasn't only the children who were spellbound."
"Well, she did say she wanted to hear a story about a princess," Hobbie said with another shrug and smile. "I liked to read about pirates and monsters when I was a kid." He looked down at the sleeping little girl for a moment, then back at Nia. "But there are some monsters out there that no one, child or adult, should ever have to face."
He stood up and took Nia's hand. "Come on. Let's let her sleep."
Wes, Tycho, and Tarrin walked back to the Ops. Center in the gathering twilight. "That was some story," Tarrin was saying. "I never knew he had that in him."
"Inspiration nearby, I'd say," Wes said with a knowing smile.
"He's getting serious about her, isn't he?" Tycho asked.
"About who? Nia?"
"You're so dense, Tarrin," Wes said with some asperity. "Yes, Nia. Just lay off him, okay?"
Wedge had finally been discharged from the Medcenter three days after the relief mission had left for Atrivis. He still had occasional headaches, but boredom plagued him more. On his return to Home One, Admiral Ackbar had tried to engage his attention by including him in long-range mission planning sessions, but Wedge found that he couldn't concentrate. His thoughts were thousands of lightyears away with his squadron and the rescue mission at Atrivis.
He sat slouched in a chair in a conference room oblivious to the fact that everyone else except Admiral Ackbar had left. Finally, the silence attracted his attention and he sat up with a start.
"Your heart isn't really in this, is it Captain?" Ackbar said swivelling both of his large eyes in Wedge's direction.
"I'm sorry, Sir. My mind was elsewhere," he said guiltily.
Ackbar nodded. "I thought that might be the case. Here. This might interest you," he said sliding a datapad across the table to him.
It was Tycho's initial report with Varth's appended to it. Wedge read the entire thing in silence, then looked back up at the Admiral. "No wonder Varth was so anxious to help them!" Wedge said his eyes wide in reaction to the surprising revelations in the report. He had relived his part in the events when he had written his own report reiterating what he had told Leia in the Medcenter. Now he knew the entire story from beginning to end. "The Alliance's fight moving into the Atrivis sector cut those poor people off from their own supply and trade connections. We were partly responsible for leaving them stranded!"
"Princess Leia came to the same conclusion you did and so did the rest of the Provisional Council," Ackbar said. "Under the circumstances, she said she wished to go to Atrivis and offer the survivors the Council's deepest regrets personally and to oversee their resettlement herself."
Wedge's eyes narrowed. "That's too dangerous, isn't it?"
"She was most insistent. Your friend, Ms. Milam, has been involved at this end from the beginning. She has volunteered to fly the Princess there herself."
Wedge laughed. "In my ship? I'm going to have to talk to her about that." He cocked an eye at the Admiral. "I don't suppose I could talk you into letting me fly escort for them?"
Amusement glinted in the Mon Calamari's large amber eyes, "I wrote your new orders this morning."
"You know me too well, Admiral."
"Uh oh. Here comes trouble."
Tycho glanced up from the datapad he'd been using to revise the patrol roster and then off in the direction Wes was looking. Commander Varth was heading down the corridor toward them in the Operations Center.
"I thought he was still laid up because of the headaches," Wes muttered.
"You don't think he'd let a little thing like a headache keep him down?" Tycho asked in an undertone and pulled himself upright just as Varth came through the door.
"Mr. Celchu. Mr. Janson," Varth said, his normally brusque voice still slightly edged with pain. "What's our operational status?"
"Improving, Sir. The techs have gone over all of the ships, yours and ours, and they're all ready to go. The first of your pilots who came down with the Bilbringi Fever came back on duty this morning."
Varth nodded. "I spoke with Doctor Vanz and Doctor Telsan before I came over here. They said that the rest of them should be fit for duty in the next couple of days and that the refugees will be ready to move a few days after that." He paused and looked at them for a moment. "They also told me that had the relief team arrived only one day later, things would have turned out far worse; especially for the refugees. Thank you for your efforts."
Wes and Tycho looked at each other in surprise. This wasn't the Varth they were used to. "We did what needed to be done Sir," Tycho said.
Varth turned to Wes and studied him as if looking for faults. Wes looked down at himself wondering if Varth was going to discipline him for not having his uniform up to specs. He looked back at Tycho frowning, "Discipline has gone to hell around here, Mr. Celchu."
Tycho started to apologize, but Varth cut him off. "Under the circumstances, I suppose that couldn't be helped. However, this base will return to military operational protocols immediately. Is that understood?"
That was more like the old Varth. "Yes, Sir."
"Several young men were outside looking for you." He tossed a ball that had been hidden in his hand at Wes, who barely caught it. "Dismissed."
Then he turned back to Tycho. "Now, Mr. Celchu. Let me see the revised duty roster."
Most of the relief team as well as the regular personnel at the Atrivis base, adopted or found themselves adopted by the refugee children while their parents recovered from the Bilbringi Fever. They tended to spend their free time with the kids because that precious time allowed them to forget the horrors of war, if only for a little while.
Tarrin and Wes were often to be found with their four little brothers. They liked to take the boys down to the beach near the base to swim, and were frequently joined by other relief workers or base personnel and their young friends. Little Sela had permanently attached herself to Hobbie or Nia, or preferably both. Their preferred activities were long walks along the beach to collect seashells. Evenings would see the different groups converging back on the base for dinner with the children's ringing laughter putting smiles on the faces of their older friends.
Another ritual that had developed, came about because Sela had fallen asleep before Hobbie had finished his story the first night he'd told it. She had asked him to tell it again so she could find out what happened to the beautiful princess and the pirate and the knight. Hobbie sat on Sela's cot and told the story again, and the other children had come to listen just as enchanted as they had been the first time they heard it. Each night, the children asked him to tell them the story of The Princess and the Giant Fire-Breathing Dragon, and each night the adult audience grew. Even Commander Varth had been seen standing in the door listening. Sometimes the children asked questions about the knight or the pirate or the evil wizard. But always, they wanted to go back and hear how the two heroes rescued the Princess, and how she and her friends destroyed the giant fire-breathing dragon.
Nia and Hobbie had just left the makeshift dorm after the children had been settled in for the night. They walked hand in hand with no particular destination in mind. "I can't get over how they always want me to tell them the same story," Hobbie was saying.
"They're drawn into the adventure because they care about the princess and the heroes, but they aren't frightened because they know in the special way children do that evil wizards and fire-breathing dragons aren't real."
"I wish that were true, Nia. I really wish that were true."
Hobbie's mood darkened and they both remained silent for a couple of minutes as they walked.
"This Rebellion against the Empire is swallowing up so many lives. Is it worth it?"
She stopped, forcing him to stop and turn to face her. "It is always worth it to oppose the evil and tyranny that inflict suffering on living beings, Derek."
"I know that, Nia. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that, but the cost in lives is getting so high."
She lowered her eyes, "But it is the price that has to be paid to end the suffering." Then she looked back up into his. "Derek, my whole life is dedicated to saving lives. It makes me sick in my heart every time I see someone die, whether it's from an illness or some horrific injury. But the hardest thing of all is to see someone die as a result of war. War is fighting by choice."
Hobbie looked into her beautiful green eyes expecting to, and afraid, to see revulsion. "You must hate it that I'm a warrior and choose to fight and kill."
"No, Derek." She lifted her hand to caress his face. "I hate that it is necessary. The Empire exerts its power by inflicting suffering and by fighting to preserve its right to do so. You and every other warrior in the Alliance fight to deny the Empire that right and stop them. That you question the cost in lives shows how much you value those lives. How can I hate that?"
He kissed the palm of her hand. "I've never met anyone like you, Nia. How did I ever get so lucky?"
"I'm the lucky one," she said putting her arms around him.
He reciprocated and gave her a lingering kiss. Finally, reluctantly, he pulled himself away. "As much as I would love to stay here with you, I have an early morning patrol to fly. I'd better get you back to your dorm."
She smiled up at him as they started walking. "I'm a big girl, Derek, but I've got an early morning too. I'm taking Sela to see her mother tomorrow."
A pleased smile blossomed on Hobbie's face. "She's better? That's great! Sela will be so excited." Then, belatedly, he registered what else she'd said. And actually felt himself start to blush. "I know you're a big girl, Nia. Believe me, I know. But I don't want to ruin anything."
They had reached the entrance to her dorm. "I'll come and find you tomorrow when I get back." He kissed her softly. "Good night, Sweetheart."
Wes had not intended to follow Hobbie and Nia when they left the kids in the gymnasium, but there were only so many ways to get back to the Ops Center. He stayed far enough back that they wouldn't notice him. Although, given the way they were looking into each others' eyes, he thought they would probably be oblivious to bombs exploding around them. He shook his head slowly smiling to himself. I'm glad Hobbie paid attention to what I said to him back at the fleet.
Sitting inside the cockpit of a small Correllian YT class stock light freighter evoked a number of emotions in Leia that she did not really wish to be dealing with. Wedge's ship, the Zena's Pride, was similar in size and design to Han's Millenium Falcon, but there the resemblance ended. The Pride was not the most current design available, but she had been well taken care of . She had served the Alliance with her present commander with distinction while her owner, looking on now from nearby, had given his own distinguished service elsewhere.
By comparison, the Falcon was held together with spit, spacetape, and an inordinate amount of luck. Leia stared out of the cockpit and wondered where in the galaxy Luke, Lando, Chewie and the Falcon could be and whether or not they had made any progress in tracking down Boba Fett and Han.
Wedge listened with half an ear to Ily'eene running her final pre-flight checklist on the open channel between his fighter and his freighter, quirking a smile at that thought as he did his own pre-flight.
"Okay, that's it. Let's get this bucket moving."
"Hey! You call my ship a bucket again, and I'll tell Sneaky to lock you in the hold and fly her himself," Wedge said with mock indignation.
A highly indignant and decidedly mutinous sounding electronic squeal immediately assailed his ears from his helmet speakers.
"Oops! I forgot the comm channel was open. Sorry, Wedge; I didn't mean it."
"I'll forgive you this time, 'Eenie. But don't let it happen again." He looked over at the ship and waved at the two women in the cockpit. "If you ladies are ready... 'Eenie, change that second coordinate in the nav data to bring us out at the edge of the system, okay?"
Leia frowned, puzzled. "What's Scout Mode, 'Eenie?"
Ily'eene made the adjustment in the nav data as she explained, "When Wedge and I used to go on supply runs way back, we worked out a procedure for approaching questionable systems. Coming out of hyperspace in the outer system would let us escape more quickly if any problem turned up in the system scan."
Leia nodded, "Wedge is nothing if not cautious."
"Here we go."
And the stars appeared to spin around them before disappearing in a white flash.
Commander Varth sat at his desk reading the daily reports on base operations that Tycho Celchu had written during his illness. Celchu had done an outstanding job leading the relief team in retrieving the plague ravaged refugees from their village. He had also seamlessly integrated the Rogues with his own personnel to handle base operations and run patrols during the crisis.
When Admiral Ackbar had contacted him four months ago and asked him to take on the task of putting Rogue Squadron through advanced combat training as part of a broader plan to make them into a flying "special forces" unit, he had expressed his doubts. He'd thought he would be stuck with a group of immature, glory-seeking hot-shots who thought they knew everything. When he found out that Wedge Antilles had been placed in command after being given two promotions within a matter of days, he was certain that all he would be able to do would be to nursemaid them through the three month training period. And hopefully keep them from getting themselves killed until they were not his responsibility anymore.
He had been immediately proven wrong. Security had been breached at the fleet because a pilot who had a grudge against the Rogues had transmitted a message in an old Imperial code that the Rogues were on their way to Atrivis, and that this base was here for the taking. He had been forced to order the evacuation of the base, but two Imp assault shuttles arrived cutting off their escape. In a way, he was relieved because he did not want to leave the refugees only he knew about behind. Since their escape was cut off, he furiously defended the valley where the refugees were hidden, but the tide was beginning to turn against them.
Out of the blue, Rogue Squadron had appeared and began pounding the assault ships and fighters, turning the tide of the battle back in their favor. With the reinforcements, the defenders had been able to kill every ship in the attack. Back on the ground, he had determined that the Imp commander had not informed his superiors of his plan to attack the base he had learned about from the traitor's transmission. He had wanted sole credit for capturing a previously unknown Rebel base. The base was secure again, and after consulting with the Rebel leadership, it was decided to keep the base here because they needed it in this sector. The Rogues also stayed on to receive their training as originally planned.
Varth shook his head as he remembered that training. He recalled more than one occasion when they managed to surprise him with an unorthodox tactic that worked. Even Tarrin, the pilot he had previously kicked out of his command for crashing a trainer, had managed to surprise him. Antilles had pulled him from piloting a transport and made a surprisingly good fighter pilot out of him.
They were a bunch of young hot-shots, but they absorbed everything he taught them and created their own innovations. They also had a great deal of respect for their commander. Wedge Antilles was actually younger than some of the men he commanded, but they trusted him. That was one of the things that had surprised him the most. He had intended to concentrate on teaching them to function as a team, which meant trusting each other without question, even in the most intense battle situations. Somehow, instinctively, they already understood that.
Varth listened with half an ear to the comm traffic between the Rogues on their squadron frequency. He had been very impressed with Wedge Antilles' piloting and leadership skills during the squadron's earlier assignment here at Atrivis, but now he was taking the opportunity to learn how the squadron functioned without their commander. Aside from an excessive amount of unnecessary chatter and not following communications protocols, they seemed to be operating with no decrease in efficiency.
Today's patrols were supposed to be the last comprised of the merged Atrivis squadrons and the Rogues, but Commander Varth had decided to send the Rogues up as a unit while he prepared his own units to resume their original rotation schedule. Tycho had assigned Hobbie and his Flight to be far-spotters. Those four ships would be flying the farthest away from Atrivis itself in order to sound early warning of any attack. Tycho's Flight, one short, was flying close cover for the Resolute, and Wes's Flight took mid-range.
Tarrin, as Rogue Three, was in Tycho's Flight. Four months earlier when Wedge had asked him to join the Rogues as one of the replacements for the pilots lost at Hoth, he had been ecstatic. That had quickly changed to terror when he learned that they were going to Atrivis for advanced combat training with Commander Varth. When he had first joined the alliance, he had been assigned to Atrivis. He had done well enough in his initial training and on the flight simulators, but he had crashed a trainer and Varth had immediately had him transferred to Hoth saying that he would never be a fighter pilot.
Wedge and the other Rogues had befriended him there on Hoth and he'd sat in on their simulator exercises numerous times, performing very creditably. That was why he had been the first replacement pilot recruited after Hoth. The thought of going back to Atrivis and facing Varth again had terrified him, but Wedge had not only taught him a lot, he had also offered moral support. "You're a very good pilot, Tarrin. And you're going to prove it to Varth," he'd told him. And truth be told, he knew he had managed to surprise the old buzzard; although Varth still intimidated the hell out of him.
"Tych, is Varth the toughest commander you've ever had?" he asked over his comm system.
Zaac, another one of the newer Rogues, snorted. "Varth has to be toughest commander there is. He chewed you up and spit you out, Tarrin."
Hobbie shook his head and smiled ruefully remembering someone else who was at least Varth's equal. "Tarrin, you haven't seen tough till you've been through Imp pilot training under Major Soontir Fel."
Major Fel had been his and Tycho's and Biggs Darklighter's flight instructor at the academy on Prefsbelt IV. He was in command of the Empire's 181st fighter squadron, and they had been responsible for the destruction of the supply convoy from Derra IV. It was a daunting prospect to contemplate someday having to go up against the man who had trained him and Tycho, knowing that they had never been able to shoot him down.
Tycho flicked the switch on his comm unit. "That's right, Tarrin. Varth has taught us a lot about team work, tactics, and improvisation on the fly, but Fel is is relentless. He is a master at situational awareness, but once you are in his sights, you are dead."
"Even you, Tych?" Wes chimed in. "Aside from Wedge, you are probably the hottest pilot we've got -- although I hate to admit it."
"Even me, Wes."
Zaac was not convinced. "Who do you think would win in a one-on-one between Fel and Varth?"
Varth was about to reprimand them for the direction their conversation had taken as well as for not following communication protocols when Rogue Five's voice became all business and announced trouble.
Suddenly, Hobbie's long-range sensors detected the emergence of two large ships from hyperspace. Instantly, Hobbie raised his shields and flicked the switch on his comm unit. "Rogue Five to Rogue Two. Incoming. Call the scramble now!" He flicked the switch again, "Two Flight, back to home turf." He tightened his grip on the controls and brought his ship around in a tight turn back toward Atrivis. His wingman was tucked in tight on his left and the other wingpair were right behind them. A glance at his sensors showed a swarm of smaller blips emerging from the larger ships. "Fighters launching, Rogue Two. Coming on fast."
"Copy, Rogue Five." Tycho flipped the switch on his comm unit to the base frequency. "Rogue Two to Ace Command. Scramble now! Incoming."
Sirens started screaming all over the base. There was nothing sloppy about the response to the alarm. Non-combatants ran to the bunkers and support crews prepped the fighters for immediate launch and the pilots ran to their fighters.
Varth ordered a team of maintenance and support personnel to board the shuttle Tiger Moth and get up to the Resolute where the fighters would hopefully more easily be able to get refueled quickly in battle should that be necessary. Then he ran for his own fighter and prepared to take his squadrons up to augment the Rogues. Up on repulsorlifts before the others had initiated their abbreviated checklists, Varth was klicks in front of his squadrons, feeding scouting data back to them for the coming battle.
Sneaky's calculations for the hyperspace jump were spot-on, and they found themselves near the sun, with Atrivis on the other side. Even with the electromagnetic interference of the star, Leia had no trouble reading the anomalous energy levels originating from the planet.
The comlink crackled with more static than usual, even for Alliance communications. "You reading it?" hailed Wedge.
"Loud and clear Lead," returned Ily'eene. "Something's putting out a lot of power for it to leak this far."
"Copy that," replied Wedge. "I read an Imp Star Deuce and ... Sithspit! An Interdictor!"
Leia's face was grim. "They're trawling for prisoners; no one'll get out of there."
Ily'eene scowled. "It's the Howler and the Witherer. Nice names."
"Also smaller readings, probably fighters," continued Wedge. "We need a plan."
"According to Han, the simplest way to panic an Imperial crew is to remove their semblance of security," mused Leia. "I guess that means shields. That could cause them to run."
"Those are on top," replied Wedge through the static. "It'll be tough, but if you cover me, I can get close enough ..."
Ily'eene interrupted, "You will not! I know you know what you're doing, but I have the bigger guns here! And I know Leia is a pretty good gunner."
"Besides," spoke Leia, "you don't have enough torpedoes to use the shield collapsing trick Varth had outlined, or at least you can't fire them fast enough. So we'll both have to shoot. Besides, we'll still have the Howler -- Interdictors aren't as well armed, but if it runs, it could drag the fleet with it."
Wedge closed his eyes as he felt a surge in his head. He hoped he wasn't having a relapse of the fever. But he knew Ily'eene and Leia spoke sense -- a single snubfighter couldn't handle the percussions required to break through the shields to access the generators. "Okay," agreed Wedge, "We'll just have to cover for each other. No one knows we're coming. We only have surprise on our side."
Ily'eene noted the energy from the freighter's shields was dropping, realized the heat of the sun was burning it away. An idea came to her. "Wedge, can we drop in on them from in front of this star? I mean, relative to where they all are. No one would pick us up on visual until we were almost on top of them."
"Yes!" exclaimed Wedge, "Sun high!"
"Sun who?" asked Leia, convinced that Wedge was getting too excited. She quickly prayed that the fever hadn't relapsed.
"Han did it at Yavin; it gave him enough time to drop down on Vader and get a clean shot at his wingmen before they even knew he was there!" explained Wedge, "It's a bit complex, but you use the high-density of gravity wells to define a path of least resistance between them -- a locus of points that represent where the pull of one thing exactly equals the opposite pull from another object. It's really dangerous -- you can't steer, or the gravity balances will be disturbed and you can fly right into a planet or sun! You just have to jump into the gravity trough and let it drag you along. If you're careful and follow your gut, it's pretty spectacular."
Leia gasped audibly. Had Han really created such a clever and dangerous maneuver? Her respect for her abducted beau grew trememdously, and she could feel the surge of emotion that came whenever she allowed herself to worry about him.
"Wedge, slow down," admonished Ily'eene. "I'll feed your R2 the solution now."
Wedge ordered his R2 to display the coordinates relative to the strongest centers of gravity ahead of him. Basically, it called for Wedge to do a hyperspace jump to land directly within the Interdictor. The pull of the sun and of Atrivis would basically juke his flightpath more toward the star destroyer, placing it directly behind it by only half a klick. He should appear only in detector sweeps; no one would notice in the thick of battle, and visuals would have him between the two ships directly in line with the sun, relative to the Witherer.
From there it was a simple matter of hammering the shield with torpedoes to drain the shield energy nearest to the generators. Since that's where the shield originated, it would be the toughest point to breach, but a weakening, even a flicker, would be enough to let Wedge slip in and get some shots at the generators. Yeah, thought Wedge, gritting his teeth as they prepared for the hyperspace jump. Simple. Like watching Mom and Dad do what was right and dying for their efforts. Do you see me, Mom? Dad? Your boy is going to do what's right, too.
On Ily'eene's mark, both ships aimed directly for the gut of the Interdictor.
"Two on my tail," hollered Hobbie into his comlink. "Closing fast. I'm too far out!"
"Hobs, head toward Witherer, and loop port," Janson yelled back. "I'm trying to catch you!"
Hobbie complied immediately, trusting his squadmate implicitly. He couldn't help but smile grimly, Varth's point made its way into us. It's about trust. He pulled back on his stick and juked away from the laser shots of the nearest of the TIEs. They were not quite in range, but no use being cocky, especially since his wingmen were otherwise occupied.
Varth drew a sharp breath as he heard Janson's tactic. "There are --"
Wes Janson picked off a TIE harassing Tarrin, "You're clean!"
Varth shut off his comm unit, startled that Janson had seen the ship closing in on Tarrin.
"Instant ace, Wes, but let's blow this party first," crackled Tycho Celchu over the squadron frequency. "Where's Zaac?"
"Got him going head to head, no! Zaac!" Wes watched a blue dot disappear from his screen. Another friendly, shot down.
"Wes, your shields--"
"Shut up, Tarrin! Tell everyone, why don't you! I need the speed to get to Hobbie!" Wes immediately regretted his testiness, but he couldn't have Tarrin announcing he was flying without shields. But it's the only way to get more speed out of this thing, he chided himself. Hobbie, Nia will be devastated if something happens to you up here. And don't make me admit I would be too. Just hang on!
One of the TIEs nicked a foil of Hobbie's X-Wing. Hobbie shunted his shields and tried to recall anything Commander Varth might have told them during their training at Atrivis. A moving target, one unpredictably so, will survive longer than one which can be evenly tracked. And Hobbie threw his ship into an erratic spin, and watched the lethal bolts go by him. He even got to pick off another TIE he accidentally ran into as he looped past the bridge of Witherer.
Wes watched his friend fly like a crazy man, avoiding tractor beams as he neared the star destroyer, apparently sidestepping his pursuers like a choreographed routine. But he could see it was only a matter of time before the Imperial starfighters got close enough to get a good shot at the running X-wing, and Wes broke out into a fresh sweat.
Varth likewise saw that there was nothing to be said to Janson, though he wanted to give some helpful advice. The pilot was doing everything Varth would have done to save his squadmate.
Suddenly, the Alliance pilots he heard a new voice over the crackling of a transmission. "Hobbie, I'm your wing!"
That sounded like... Ily'eene? Janson hoped he wasn't coming down with Bilbringi Fever. Or maybe he already had it and she was standing vigil, talking to him to help bring down the fever? Why did the sun look like it was eclipsing?
The sun did darken, then brightened again as a Corellian stock light freighter came into his visual field, having swooped down on the passing TIEs and picked them off with two quick shots, hulling the first and snapping the wing off the second. Then it headed up the ship, hugging it close to avoid the ship's guns, destroying emplacements with clean, focussed shots as it went. Whoever is manning that pistol is one hot gunner, thought Wes admiringly, but he quickly grew alarmed. It looked to Wes like it was doing a suicide run through the bridge!
A brilliant explosion lit the sky, and Wes saw the shield generator of Witherer spark, then shatter. From his point of view, he could see the men in the bridge viewport run around in panic. The freighter and a lone X-wing launched additional torpedoes, and the men in the viewport suddenly looked like they were swimming, floating through the air of the bridge. That gunner must have shot out the artificial gravity generators and compensators' power cells. That is amazing!
Wes realized the freighter didn't go through the viewport, but had performed a hard turn to starboard, corkscrewing around the rising turrets to avoid fire. They'd been targeting the shield generators all along.
Varth joined the freighter and its escort as it made its run at the shield generators, adding the force of his reserve torpedoes. The sheer daring of this maneuver didn't conceal its provenance -- a combination of Han Solo's legendary maneuver at the Death Star, and his own instructions concerning how to take down a destroyer's shields. Nonetheless, it was bold and clever and Varth was in awe of this young commander and his even younger charges.
As the shields collapsed, all Alliance fighters received a broadcast that sounded suspiciously like the voice of Wedge Antilles. "All fighters withdraw from the Deuce and Interdictor. Repeat. Move away from those ships!"
Hearing their squadron leader's voice, all pilots followed without question or hesitation. Wedge admired them. I guess Varth's drills got through to all of us.
Tycho marveled at how well Wedge had called it. No sooner had the rebel ships cleared when Witherer made a run to escape the system; Howler's gravity well suddenly went to zero, and it too, started to run. "Let them go," ordered Tycho. "No pursuit." It would buy them enough time to evacuate the planet and destroy anything remaining on the ground before more Imperial ships returned.
Then Varth's voice crackled over their comm systems. "Return to base. Await immediate orders for evac."
Once the Howler and the Witherer had left, everyone could hear the collective sigh of relief over their comm systems.
Wes was the first one to speak. "Not that we aren't glad to see you Wedge, 'Eenie -- but what the hell are you doing here? And who's the hot-shot on the Pride's main guns? That was some very impressive shooting."
"Why thank you, Wes. Coming from a True Gunner, I take that as a compliment."
Wes was glad that no one could see his face because he felt it turn bright red as soon as he recognized Princess Leia's voice.
Wedge suppressed a chuckle that the rest of the squadron didn't. "We came because Lady Hot-shot wanted to supervise the relocation of the refugees personally. We didn't know we were going to have to save your hides first."
As a prime target for the Imps, Leia's name and title were never supposed to be used in an open tranmission so she had numerous codenames. She smiled when she heard Wedge's new one. "'Lady Hot-shot'. I like it."
Now it was Wedge's turn to blush. He had not intended to be disrespectful, but he knew that she really didn't mind.
The Rogues and their surprise auxilliary made their approach to the base with the usual post-battle chatter going on between the ships. "I can't believe we never spotted you on our sensors, Wedge," Wes was saying. "How the blazes did you get into position to make those first two shots?"
Wedge's voice crackled over the comm systems. "I couldn't very well let you think I'd forgotten how to fly while I was laid up."
"Ouch! Sorry, Wedge."
"It's called 'Sun High', Wes. You weren't there to see it, but that's what Han Solo did at Yavin. When Luke ordered me out of the Trench, I was in the right spot to see how he pulled it off. I knew there would come a time when it would come in handy, and this seemed to be it."
"You got that right! There was no way I could catch those two TIEs that were on Hobbie's tail. If you and Lady Hot-shot hadn't made those shots, he'd be toast."
"Yeah. Thanks, Wedge. I ... Oh no! Nia!"
Hobbie's anguished cry focussed everyone's attention immediately. Smoke was billowing from an impact crater which encompassed what had been the isolation wing of the base infirmary.
"Go, Hobbie! Go! Don't wait for us!" Wedge shouted. "Get down there and find her!"
Not even waiting for Wedge to let him go, Hobbie screamed his fighter over the expanse of the base to the hangar area to land on the closest piece of ground he could find. He ripped off his helmet, flak vest, and survival pack and threw himself out of the cockpit before the ground crew could run over with a ladder.
Terror for Nia's safety lent him speed as he raced toward the burning hospital building. And guilt assailed him with each jarring step. She had told him that she would feel safe if he was there with her, but he had not been able to keep her safe. He could not imagine how he would be able to live with himself if his beautiful, gentle Nia were taken from him like this.
Closer to the scene of devastation, other running figures and shouting voices converged. He started screaming her name and felt hands grab his arms. He tried to tear himself free.
"She's not there! She's not there!" someone was shouting at him.
He looked around wildly to see who was trying to stop him from reaching her, however he might find her.
Doctor Telsan had somehow managed to keep his grip on Hobbie's arms and forced him to focus on what he said. "She's not there, Derek! She's not there! The last of the Fever patients were discharged this morning before the raid. The wing was shut down. There was no one there!"
"Where is she?!" Only minutely less terrified, his voice was a strangled cry.
"All of the civilians are in a bunker near the gymnasium. She was with a little girl and her mother..."
Hobbie ripped himself free and ran for all he was worth toward the gymnasium. The 'all-clear' had sounded and people had begun emerging from the bunker next to the gym. He scanned the faces as he forced his way through the crowd, fear still squeezing his chest almost to the point of agony.
Finally, he caught a glimpse of red hair far back in the crowd still coming from the shelter. He slowed only slightly so that he would not knock people down as he struggled against the human tide to reach her. "Nia!" he called, "Nia!"
Nia heard him, stretched up to try to see over the crowd, and spotted him. "Derek!"
They finally reached each other. "Nia! You're safe!" he said crushing her to himself as if his life depended on never letting her go.
Tears streamed down her face. "Derek! Derek! I was so afraid for you."
He loosened his hold on her only enough to be able to bend down and kiss her. "Nia! When I saw the hospital burning, I thought I'd lost you."
At last, they had reassured each other enough that other concerns were able to reassert themselves.
"Are Sela and her mother safe?" Hobbie asked only slightly less frightened for the little girl he had befriended.
Nia turned around to look for them. "Yes, they ..."
Just then another little voice screamed his name. "Derek!" Sela tore her hand loose from the blonde-haired woman he barely recognized as the same one he'd found at the refugees' village. She ran toward him and slammed into his legs hard enough to make him stagger. "Derek! Are they gone? Did you chase them away?" she asked, still very frightened.
He disentangled her from his legs, picked her up and hugged her tightly. "Yes we did, Sweetheart. We chased them away."
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. "We were so scared, but we knew you would chase them away!"
Sela noticed that her mother had caught up to them. "Mommy! This is my friend, Derek. He and his friends chased the evil wizard's soldiers away."
Nia was still wiping her own tears away, but managed to perform formal introductions. "Dareen Milson, this is Derek Klivian. He is one of the pilots who escorted our medical relief ship and will be escorting your group for the resettlement."
Sela's mother smiled gratefully at him. "I can't thank you enough, Derek, for looking after my Sela."
"She is a very brave young lady, Mistress Milson," Hobbie said returning her smile.
Word had reached the rest of the Rogues that the isolation wing of the hospital had been deserted so they were reasonably sure that Nia was safe, but none of them begrudged Hobbie the need to confirm that for himself. They had landed in good order along the flight line outside the X-Wing hangar and waited for Ily'eene and Leia to emerge from their ship.
Commander Varth had landed his squadrons and made his way over to meet the Princess and her informal honor guard. She came down the boarding ramp of the Pride looking as regal as she ever did, and not at all like she had just become a Gunner Ace.
"Your Highness." Varth greeted her, not entirely without apprehension.
"Commander Varth." Leia said, recognizing his discomfiture. "You cannot fight for the Alliance cause and not live by its ideals. You chose to disregard a lesser good: blindly following rules, for a greater one: providing humanitarian aid. You have nothing to be ashamed of." She smiled at him. "I'd like to meet the people who inspired this generosity."
Varth was taken aback, but recovered himself quickly. "Of course. This way, Your Highness," he said and led the group toward the quadrangle.
Wedge and Ily'eene lagged behind Varth and Leia as Wes, Tycho, and Tarrin began talking to them at a furious pace. Leia glanced back at them and noticed that their eyes had become as huge as saucers, but she was unable to hear what had inspired that reaction.
She approached the crowd gathering on the grassy common and began greeting the base personnel and relief team, who recognized her, and the refugees and children who did not.
Leia saw Nia and Hobbie, carrying a blonde little girl, coming toward her followed by a large group of children. She smiled at them and asked, "And who is this pretty young lady?"
Hobbie greeted her, "Your Highness." Then he looked at Sela. "Sela, do you remember the story I told you?"
Hobbie glanced back at Leia. "This is Princess Leia. She's the Princess in the story."
Sela and all of the other children stared at her in awe.
The other Rogues, Ily'eene and Commander Varth had gathered around and saw Leia look around in confusion.
Then Sela asked her in an awestruck whisper, "Did you and your friends really destroy the giant fire-breathing dragon?"
Leia looked blankly at Hobbie, who nodded soberly. Then she looked at the others gathered around her, many of whom had found and happily picked up their own young friends. All of them, including Wedge and Ily'eene and even Commander Varth, nodded just as soberly, but with the tiniest hint of smiles on their faces. Well, I'll find out what this is all about later she thought. "Yes, Sela. We really did."
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