Read an Excerpt
The Corellian Queen was a legend: the greatest luxury liner ever to ply the spaceways, an interstellar pleasure palace forever beyond the grasp of all but the galaxy’s super-elite—beings whose wealth transcended description. Rumor had it that for the price of a single cocktail in one of the Queen’s least- exclusive dining clubs, one might buy a starship; for the price of a meal, one could buy not only the starship, but the port in which it docked, and the factory that had built it. A being could not simply pay for a berth on the Corellian Queen; mere wealth would never suffice. To embark upon the ultimate journey into hedonistic excess, one first had to demonstrate that one’s breeding and manners were as exquisite as would be the pain of paying one’s bar bill. All of which made the Corellian Queen one of the most irresistible terrorist targets ever: who better to terrorize than the elite of the Elite, the Powers among the powerful, the greatest of the Great?
And so when some presumably unscrupulous routing clerk in the vast midreaches of the Nebula Line corporation quietly offered for sale, to select parties from Kindlabethia to Nar Shaddaa, a hint as to the route of the Corellian Queen’s upcoming cruise, it attracted considerable interest.
Two pertinent facts remained concealed, however, from the winning bidder. The first pertinent fact was that this presumably unscrupulous routing clerk was neither unscrupulous nor, in fact, a routing clerk, but was a skilled and resourceful agent of the intelligence service of the New Republic. The second pertinent fact was that the Corellian Queen was not cruising at all that season, having been replaced by a breakaway disposable shell built to conceal a substantial fraction of a star fighter wing, led by—as was customary in such operations—the crack pilots of Rogue Squadron.
It was approximately the moment that R4-G7 squalled a proximity alarm through his X-wing’s sensor panel and his HUD lit up with image codes for six TIE Defenders on his tail that Lieutenant
Derek “Hobbie” Klivian, late of the Alliance to Restore Freedom to the Galaxy, currently of the New Republic, began to suspect that
Commander Antilles’s brilliant ambush had never been brilliant at all, not even a little, and he said so. In no uncertain terms. Stripped of its blistering profanity, his comment was “Wedge? This plan was
stupid. You hear me? Stupid, stupid, stuYOW—!”
The yow was a product of multiple cannon hits that disintegrated his right dorsal cannon and most of the extended wing it had been attached to. This kicked his fighter into a tumble that he fought with both hands on the yoke and both feet kicking attitude jets and almost had under control until the pair of the Defenders closest on his tail blossomed into expanding spheres of flame and debris fragments.
The twin shock fronts overtook him at exactly the wrong instant and sent him flipping end- over- end straight at another Defender formation streaking toward him head- on. Then tail- on, then head- on again, and so forth.
His ship’s comlink crackled as Wedge Antilles’s fighter flashed past him close enough that he could see the grin on the commander’s face. “That’s ‘stupid plan, sir,’ Lieutenant.”
“I suppose you think that’s funny.”
“Well, if he doesn’t,” put in Hobbie’s wingman, “I sure do.”
“When I want your opinion, Janson, I’ll dust your ship and scan for it in the wreckage.” The skewed whirl of stars around his cockpit gave his stomach a yank that threatened to make the slab of smoked terrafin loin he’d had for breakfast violently reemerge. Struggling grimly with the controls, he managed to angle his ship’s whirl just a hair, which let him twitch his ship’s nose toward the four pursuing marauders as he spun. Red fire lashed from his three surviving cannons, and the Defenders’ formation split open like an overripe snekfruit.
Hobbie only dusted one with the cannons, but the pair of proximity- fused flechette torpedoes he had thoughtfully triggered at the same time flared in diverging arcs to intercept the enemy fighters;
these torpedo arcs terminated in spectacular explosions that cracked the three remaining Defenders like rotten snuffle eggs.
“Now, that was satisfying,” he said, still fighting his controls to stabilize the crippled X-wing. “Eyeball soufflé!”
“Better watch it, Hobbie—keep that up, and somebody might start to think you can fly that thing.”
“Are you in this fight, Janson? Or are you just gonna hang back and smirk while I do all the heavy lifting?”
“Haven’t decided yet.” Wes Janson’s X-wing came out of nowhere,
streaking in a tight bank across Hobbie’s subjective vertical. “Maybe
I can lend a hand. Or, say, a couple torps.”
Two brilliant blue stars leapt from Janson’s torpedo tubes and streaked for the oncoming TIEs.
“Uh, Wes?” Hobbie said, flinching. “Those weren’t the flechette torps, were they?”
“Sure. What else?”
“Have you noticed that I’m currently having just a little trouble
“What do you mean?” Janson asked as though honestly puzzled.
Then, after a second spent watching Hobbie’s ship tumbling helplessly directly toward his torpedoes’ targets, he said, “Oh. Uh . . .sorry?”
The flechette torpedoes carried by Rogue Squadron had been designed and built specifically for this operation, and they had one primary purpose: to take out TIE Defenders.
The TIE Defender was the Empire’s premier space- superiority fighter. It was faster and more maneuverable than the Incom T-65
(better known as the X-wing); faster even than the heavily modified and updated 65Bs of Rogue Squadron. The Defender was also more heavily armed, packing twin ion cannons to supplement its lasers, as well as dual- use launch tubes that could fire either proton torpedoes or concussion missiles. The shields generated by its twin Novaldex deflector generators were nearly as powerful as those found on capital ships. However, the Defenders were not equipped with particle shields, depending instead on their titanium- reinforced hull to absorb the impact of material objects.
Each proton torpedo shell had been loaded with thousands of tiny jagged bits of durasteel, packed around a core of conventional explosive.
On detonation, these tiny bits of durasteel became an expanding sphere of shrapnel; though traveling with respectable velocity of their own, they were most effective when set off in the path of oncoming
Defenders, because impact energy, after all, is determined by
relative velocity. At star fighter combat speeds, flying into a cloud of durasteel pellets could transform one’s ship from a star fighter into a very, very expensive cheese grater.
The four medial fighters of the oncoming Defender formation hit the flechette cloud and just . . . shredded. The lateral wingers managed to bank off an instant before they would have been overtaken by two sequential detonations, as the explosion of one Defender’s power core triggered the other three’s cores an eyeblink later, so that the unfortunate Lieutenant Klivian was now tumbling directly toward a miniature plasma nebula that blazed with enough hard radiation to cook him like a bantha steak on an obsidian fry- rock at double noon on Tatooine.
“You’re not gonna make it, Hobbie,” Janson called. “Punch out.”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Hobbie snarled under his breath, still struggling grimly with the X-wing’s controls. The fighter’s tumble began to slow. “I’ve got it, Wes!”
“No, you don’t! Punch out, Hobbie—PUNCH OUT!”
“I’ve got it—I’m gonna make it! I’m gonna—” He was interrupted by the final flip of his X- wing, which brought his nose into line with the sight of the leading edge of the spherical debris field expanding toward him at a respectable fraction of lightspeed, and Hobbie Klivian,
acknowledged master of both profanity and obscenity, human and otherwise, not to mention casual vulgarities from a dozen species and hundreds of star systems, found he had nothing to say except, “Aw, nuts.”
He stood the X- wing on its tail, sublights blasting for a tangent,
but he had learned long ago that of all the Rogues, he was the one who should know better than to trust his luck. He reached for the eject trigger.
Just as his hand found the trigger, the ship jounced and clanged as if he had his head trapped inside a Wookiee dinner gong at nightmeal.
The metaphorical Wookiee cook must have been hungry, too,
because the clanging went on and on and kept getting louder, and the eject still, mysteriously, didn’t seem to be working at all. This mystery was solved, however, by the brief shriek of atmosphere through a ragged fist- sized hole in the X- wing’s canopy. This hole was ragged because, Hobbie discovered, the fragment that had made this opening had been slowed by punching through the X- wing’s titanium- alloy ventral armor. Not to mention the X- wing’s control panel, where it had not only ripped away the entire eject trigger assembly,
but had vaporized Hobbie’s left hand.
He glared at his vacant wrist with more annoyance than shock or panic; instead of blood or cauterized flesh, his wrist jetted only sparks and smoke from overheated servomotors. He hadn’t had a real left arm since sometime before Yavin.
Of more concern was the continuing shriek of escaping atmosphere,
because he discovered that it was coming from his environment suit’s nitroxy generator.
He thought, Oh, this sucks. After everything he had survived in the
Galactic Civil War, he was about to be killed by a minor equipment malfunction. He amended his previous thought: This really sucks.
He didn’t bother to say it out loud, because there wasn’t enough air in his cockpit to carry the sound.
There being no other useful thing he could do with his severed left wrist, he jammed it into the hole in his canopy. His suit’s autoseal plastered itself to the jagged edges, but the nitroxy generator didn’t seem mollified; in fact, it was starting to feel like he had an unshielded fusion core strapped to his spine.
Oh, yeah, he thought. The other hole.
He palmed the cockpit harness’s snap release, twisted, and stretched out his left leg, feeling downward with the toe of his boot.
He found a hole—and the rising pressure sucked the entire boot right out the bottom of his fighter before the autoseal engaged to close that hole, too. He felt another impact or two down there, but he couldn’t really tell if something might have ripped his foot off.
It had been a few years since he’d had his original left leg.
With the cockpit sealed, his nitroxy unit gradually calmed down,
filling the space with a breathable atmosphere that smelled only faintly of scorched hair, and he began to think he might live through this after all. His only problem now was that he was deharnessed and stretched sideways in an extraordinarily uncomfortable twist that left him unable to even turn his head enough to see where he was going.
“Arfour,” he said quietly, “can you please get us back to the PRP?”
His current position did let him see, however, his astromech’s response to the task of navigating toward the primary rendezvous point, which was a spit of gap sparks and a halo of sporadic electrical discharge from what was left of its turret dome. Which was slightly less than half.
He sighed. “Okay, ejection failure. And astromech damage. Crippled here,” he said into his comm. “Awaiting manual pickup.”
“Little busy right now, Hobbie. We’ll get to you after we dust these
“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere. Except, y’know, thataway.
Slowly. Real slowly.”
He spent the rest of the battle hoping for a bit of help from the
Force when Wedge sent out the pickup detail. Please, he prayed silently, please let it be Tycho. Or Nin, or Standro. Anyone but Janson.
He continued this plea as a sort of meditation, kind of the way
Luke would talk about this stuff: he closed his eyes and visualized
Wedge himself showing up to tow his X- wing back to the jump point. After a while, he found this image unconvincing—somehow he was never that lucky—and so he cycled through the other
Rogues, and when those began to bore him, he decided it’d be Luke himself. Or Leia. Or, say, Wynssa Starflare, who always managed to look absolutely stellar as the strong, independent damsel- sometimesin-
distress in those pre- war Imperial holodramas, because, y’know,
as long as he was imagining something that was never gonna happen,
he might as well make it entertaining.
It turned out to be entertaining enough that he managed to pass the balance of the battle drifting off to sleep with a smile on his face.
This smile lasted right up to the point where a particularly brilliant flash stabbed through his eyelids and he awoke, glumly certain that whatever had exploded right next to his ship was finally about to snuff him. But then there came another flash, and another, and with a painful twist of his body he was able to see Wes Janson’s fighter cruising alongside, only meters away. He was also able to see the handheld imager Janson had pressed against his cockpit’s canopy,
with which Janson continued to snap picture after picture.
Hobbie closed his eyes again. He would have preferred the explosion.
“Just had to get a few shots.” Janson’s grin was positively wicked.
“You look like some kind of weird cross between a star fighter pilot and a Bat -
Hobbie shook his head exhaustedly; dealing with Janson’s pathetic excuse for a sense of humor always made him tired. “Wes, I don’t even know what that is.”
“Sure you do, Hobbie. A star fighter pilot is a guy who flies an X- wing without getting blown up. Check the Basic Dictionary. Though I can understand how you’d get confused.”
“No, I mean the—” Hobbie bit his lip hard enough that he tasted blood. “Um, Wes?”
“Have I told you today how much I really, really hate you?”
“Oh, sure—your lips say ‘I hate you,’ but your eyes say—”
“That someday I’ll murder you in your sleep?”
Janson chuckled. “More or less.”
“It’s all over, huh?”
“This part is. Most of ’em got away.”
“How many’d we lose?”
“Just Eight and Eleven. But Avan and Feylis ejected clean. Nothing a couple weeks in a bacta tank won’t cure. And then there’s my Batravian gumplucker wingman . . .”
“You’re the wingman, knucklehead. Maybe I should say, wingnut.”
Hobbie sighed again. “I guess Wedge is happy, anyway. Everything’s proceeding according to plan . . .”
“I HATE when you say that.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“Don’t know. It just . . . gives me the whingeing jimmies. Let me get this tow cable attached, and you might as well sleep; it’s a long cruise to the
“Suits me just fine,” Hobbie said, closing his eyes again. “I have this dream I really want to get back to . . .”
“Good job, Wedge.” General Lando Calrissian, commander of
Special Operations for the New Republic, nodded grave approval toward the flickering bluish holoform of Wedge Antilles that hovered a centimeter above his console. “No casualties?”
“Nothing serious, General. Hobbie—Lieutenant Klivian—needs another left hand . . .”
Lando smiled. “How many does that make, all told?”
“I’ve lost count. How’s it going on your end?”
“Good and less than good.” Lando punched up his readout of the tracking report. “Looks like our marauders are based in the Taspan system.”
Wedge’s brilliant plan had become brilliant entirely by necessity;
the usual method of locating a hidden marauder base—subjecting a captured pilot or two to a neural probe—had turned out to be much more difficult than anyone could have anticipated. Shadowspawn seemed very determined to maintain his privacy; through dozens of raids over nearly two months, many deep inside Republic territory and costing thousands of civilian lives, not one of Shadowspawn’s marauders had ever been taken alive.
This was more than a simple refusal to surrender, though the marauders had shown a distressing tendency, when they found themselves in imminent danger, to shout out words to the effect of For
Shadowspawn and the Empire! Forward the Restoration! and blow themselves up. Forensic engineers examining wreckage of destroyed TIE
Defenders hypothesized that the star fighters were equipped with some unexplained type of deadman interlock, which would destroy the ship—and obliterate the pilot—even if the pilot merely lost consciousness.
The brilliant part of Wedge’s brilliant plan had been to conceal hundreds of thousands of miniature solid- state transponders among the flechettes inside Rogue Squadron’s custom- made torpedoes, before giving the marauders a fairly decent pasting and letting the rest escape. Unlike ordinary tracking devices, these transponders gave off no signal of their own—thus requiring no power supply, and rendering them effectively undetectable. These transponders were entirely inert until triggered by a very specific subspace signal, which they then echoed in a very specific way. And since the only transponders of this very specific type in the entire galaxy were loaded in
Rogue Squadron’s torpedo tubes, drifting at the ambush point in deep space along the Corellian Run, and lodged in various parts of the armored hulls of a certain group of TIE Defenders, locating the system to which said Defenders had fled was actually not complicated at all.
Wedge’s holoform took on a vaguely puzzled look. “Taspan.
Sounds familiar, but I can’t place it . . .”
“The Inner Rim, off the Hydian Way.”
“That would be the less- than- good part.”
“Yeah. No straight lanes in or out—and most of the legs run through systems still held by Imperials.”
“Almost makes you wish for one of Palpatine’s old planet- killers.”
“Almost.” Lando’s smile had faded, and he didn’t sound like he was joking. “The Empire had a weapons facility on Taspan II—it’s where they tested their various designs of gravity- well projectors—”
“That’s it!” The image snapped its fingers silently, the sound eliminated by the holoprojector’s noise filter. “The Big Crush!”
Lando nodded. “The Big Crush.”
“I heard there was nothing left at Taspan but an asteroid field, like the
Graveyard of Alderaan.”
“There’s an inner planet—Taspan I is a minor resort world called
Mindor. Not well known, but really beautiful; my parents had a summer house there when I was a kid.”
“Any progress on this Shadowspawn character himself ?”
“We’ve only managed to determine that no one by that name was ever registered as an Imperial official. Clearly an assumed identity.”
“The guy’s got to be some kind of nutjob.”
“I doubt it. His choice of base is positively inspired; the debris from the Big Crush hasn’t had time to settle into stable orbits.”
“So it is like the Graveyard of Alderaan.”
“It’s worse, Wedge. A lot worse.”
Wedge’s image appeared to be giving a low whistle; the holoprojector’s noise filter screened it out. “Sounds ugly. How are we supposed to get at them?”
“You’re not.” Lando took a deep breath before continuing. “This is exactly the type of situation for which we developed the Rapid Response
Wedge’s image gave a slow, understanding nod. “Hit ’em with our
Big Stick, then. Slap ’em good and run like hell.”
“It’s the best shot we’ve got.”
“You’re probably right; you usually are. But it’ll sting, to not be there.”
“Right enough. But we have other problems—and the RRTF is in very capable hands.”
“Got that right.” Wedge suddenly grinned. “Speaking of those capable hands, pass along my regards to General Skywalker, will you?”
“I will do that, Wedge. I will indeed.”