A group of pilots were gathered in the pilots’ mess area in Echo Base when Luke wandered in from the medical area, still disoriented from his bacta dip. He grabbed himself a mug of caf before heading over to join them.
Wes Janson grinned at him. “Here comes our illustrious commander, looking like he’s seen better days.”
Hobbie snorted. “You’d’ve seen better days if you got on the wrong side of a wampa, Wes.”
Wedge and Tycho laughed. “Wrestling with a wampa might improve your chances with the ladies, Wes,” Tycho said.
“There’s nothing wrong with my chances with the ladies,” Wes replied, looking hurt.
“There wouldn’t be, if you’d grow up a bit,” Wedge said, leaning back. “I mean, I can’t think of any ladies who’d want to go out with a five year old.”
“The only place any lady is likely to take you is to the nearest daycare centre, Wes,” Tycho said, running his hands through his hair.
“Eight, not five, Wedge. And I could have a lot of fun in a daycare centre. You know they’ve got ball pools these days.”
“It’d be more fun watching you wrestle a wampa,” Hobbie said. “And then we could watch you getting a bacta bath.”
Wes reached over and ruffled Hobbie’s hair. “Just because you’ve never had to suffer the indignities of a bacta dip, Hobbie.”
Hobbie batted his hand away. “I’ve been lucky.”
“I’ll say. I haven’t managed to scrounge enough paint to redecorate your X-wing yet,” Wes answered, grinning.
Luke buried his own grin in his mug. “How are you planning on doing it, Wes?”
“Well, I thought I’d grab a couple of tins of paint and a brush…. Oh, you meant, what colours. I was thinking maybe day-glo yellow, with purple stars.”
Luke tried not to choke on his caf.
Wes shook his head. “Swallow, then laugh. It works better that way.”
“Well, a day-glo yellow X-wing would certainly be different from the usual grey,” Tycho said.
“Maybe too different. Maybe I should do my own X-wing.”
“You’d do yours blue on one side and orange on the other, with pink go-faster stripes.”
“Not a bad idea, Wedge. I’ll probably have to requisition some orange paint, though.”
In the distance, the base’s alarms started to sound. The five pilots made a dash for the exit.
“You never even managed to finish your caf, Luke,” Wedge said, as they made their way towards the hangar.
“It was cold anyway. You just can’t get anything to stay hot for more than two minutes on this planet.”
“I think I’m going to put in for two years on Tatooine, as soon as we get off this ice ball,”
Hobbie said, dodging X-wings and techs as the group made its way to the middle of the hangar where other pilots were already beginning to assemble.
Princess Leia finished speaking with Major Devlin before coming over to the group. She sighed, looking around her. “Is everyone here?” She didn’t wait for an answer but went straight into the briefing. “Right, your X-wings will be outside the north entrance, so you can take off with as little delay as possible. All troop carriers will assemble at the north entrance. The heavy transport ships will leave as soon as they’re loaded. Only two fighter escorts per ship. The energy shield can only be opened for a short time, so you’ll have to stay very close to your transports.”
Hobbie couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Two fighters against a Star Destroyer?”
Leia nodded. “The ion cannon will fire several shots to make sure that any enemy ships will be out of your path. When you’ve gotten past the energy shield, proceed directly to the rendezvous point. Understood?”
There was a chorus of assents from the assembled pilots. Hobbie understood all right. Not only was it two snubfighters against a Star Destroyer, but they could get taken out by their own ion cannon, and left to drift helplessly in space, waiting for the Imps to come and pick them up. “Great.”
“Good luck,” Leia concluded. The smile she was wearing didn’t do anything to hide to tension on her face.
Hobbie shook his head. “Yeah, Princess, we’re gonna need it.”
Major Devlin interrupted his thoughts. “OK, everybody to your stations. Let’s go!”
The crowd of pilots broke up, everybody running to their speeders. Hobbie looked for Wes, who gave him two thumbs up before climbing into the gunner’s seat of Wedge’s speeder. Hobbie’s was parked next to Wedge’s and he scrambled into the seat, pulling his helmet on as he did so. He began the start-up sequence even before his gunner bounced into the rear-facing gunner’s seat behind him.
Rogue Group’s speeders exited the hangar at speed, dropping immediately into formation.
Hobbie’s helmet com crackled. “Imperial walkers on the north ridge.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Hobbie said, following Luke’s speeder up and over the ridge.
He hadn’t had much to do with AT-AT walkers before the mutiny on the Rand Ecliptic, which had led to his joining the Rebellion, but everyone he knew had praised them to the skies. Of course, they’d forgotten one key thing: they were slow and incredibly top-heavy. Get one down and it’d never get up again. “The trick is getting them down,” Hobbie said quietly.
“Huh?” said his gunner, Kesin Ommis.
Hobbie shook his head. “Just thinking.”
“I hope it was happy thoughts, Hobbie.”
Hobbie snorted. “Don’t forget who you’re talking to.”
The walkers were almost in range now, great clumsy machines clumping across the snowscape with only one thing in mind: the destruction of Echo Base.
Hobbie took his speeder around the leading walker. Hot light spat from the speeder’s blaster but the brute machine wasn’t even scorched. He came around for another pass; wary of the walker’s own lasers which spat back angrily.
His comlink woke up again. Luke’s voice this time: “Hobbie, you still with me?”
“Yeah, Luke, as usual,” he replied, trying to keep up with the headache-inducing corkscrew Luke was putting his own speeder into.
They passed Wedge and Janson. Janson managed to give them a cocky wave as they sped past.
There was a gasp from Kesin, behind him. “Who’d be crazy enough to go under one of those things?”
“Sounds like Tycho. He’s always up for some fancy flying.”
More comlink crackle. Luke again. “That armour’s too strong for blasters.”
Hey, thanks for noticing, Lead!
“Rogue Group, use your harpoons and tow cables. Go for the legs; it might be our only chance of stopping them.”
“You heard that, Kesin?”
“We’re going for the leader.”
“OK, whatever you say. You’re the one driving this thing!”
Hobbie brought the speeder around and aimed for the leading walker. It spat laser fire at him. Something went; he could smell smoke. He tried to pull the speeder up. Too far and that kriffing walker was to close. The portside wing clipped the walker’s armoured side.
He heard metal shear off and felt a cold blast of air. He grabbed for the comlink switch as the speeder flipped over. “Rogue Four going down!” he managed to get out before the speeder dived into a snow drift.
I bet we never even hurt it, was Hobbie’s last conscious though as his head hit the control panel and everything went black
Wedge was concentrating on flying his speeder, following Luke and trailing 200 metres of tow-cable around the legs of a walker without hitting anything. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a speeder flip over in midair. His comlink crackled – “Rogue Four going down!” – but he couldn’t give it any attention.
Janson’s voice brought him back to the job at hand. “Cable out! Let her go!”
“Detach cable,” Wedge said, looking up at the massive bulk of the walker towering over them as it tried to take another step against the entangling tow cable. It staggered and slowly crumpled to the ground like a wounded animal. Wedge let out a cheer. “That got him!”
Tycho flew his speeder in close and gave it a lethal dose of blaster fire in the vulnerable back of the neck. He banked around as it blew up, throwing durasteel across the snowfield.
“Where’d Hobbie go?” Wedge asked.
“Down there, I think,” Janson answered. “Starboard side.”
Wedge looked out onto a snowdrift. “Wes! Now’s not the time!”
“Under the snow, boss! Where’d you think I meant?”
More comlink crackle, Tycho this time. “Zev’s down and Luke’s hitching a ride back to base!”
Wedge peered out and saw a figure in flightsuit orange dangling under an AT-AT.
There was amusement in Janson’s voice. “He’s just hanging around…Oh, no he’s not!”
Luke dropped to the ground and moments later an explosion went off deep in the walker’s belly. It paused then began to sag sideways before falling in a rush of tearing metal.
“If I’d known that’s all it took, I’d have stayed in bed, back in the warm.”
“Wes! We have to get Hobbie and Kesin back to base.”
Janson twisted around to look at Wedge. “How’d you plan on doing that, boss?”
No answer. Janson twisted further round but Wedge was keying his comlink. “Tycho, can you fit a passenger in there?”
There was a pause. “I don’t know whether my gunner would be too impressed, Wedge!”
“Well, drop him back at base and get back here quickly. Hobbie’s down. And bring a shovel with you!”
“On my way!” Tycho’s speeder turned and headed back towards Echo Base, neatly dodging the remaining walkers.
Wedge landed his speeder as close as he could to the drift covering Hobbie’s wrecked vehicle.
The cockpit hatch rose and both Rogues scrambled out.
“Shavit!” Janson gasped. “Why did he want to dig a snow cave out here? There’s a perfectly good one back there!” He jerked his thumb in the direction Tycho’s speeder had taken.
Wedge glared at him. “Shut up and dig.”
The two began digging, but it was like digging in dry sand. As fast as they scooped it away, more snow slid down.
“This is no use,” Wedge said after ten minutes.
Janson glanced at their own speeder. “What about using the blasters?”
“To blow them up? Great idea!”
“No, Wedge.” Janson spoke with exaggerated patience. “We reduce their power and use them to melt the snow.”
“It might work, if it doesn’t refreeze into ice.”
“It’s worth a shot, though.”
“Wes, shut up with the bad puns and get that thing pointed this way.”
Barely two minutes later, the uppermost surface of the speeder came into view. “It would land belly up,” Wedge grumbled. He waved to attract Janson’s attention. “Can you go down the side of the speeder with that blaster? There’s no way I can get to them from here.”
“Sure thing, boss!”
Wedge looked up as Tycho’s speeder swooped over the snowy ground. It hovered by Wedge’s speeder and Tycho was out almost before it had settled to the ground.
“We have to get them out now, the Imps are almost into the base!”
“Wes, get a move on with that thing!”
Slowly a trench appeared in the snow beside the wrecked speeder. As soon as Hobbie’s cockpit canopy came into view, Wedge held up a hand before diving down into the snow, fumbling for his vibroblade. He would have to cut the transparisteel canopy open; there was no way he could raise it with the whole weight of the speeder crushing it to ground.
As soon as he was beside the canopy, he peered inside. Hobbie was upside down, hanging from his restraining harness. His eyes were closed and there was blood on his forehead.
“Sithspit, Hobbie. If you’re going to crash, you could do it in a more convenient place. Especially for your first time!”
The transparisteel had a spiderweb of cracks running across it. There was no time for finesse, so Wedge put his back against the snowy wall of the trench and kicked at the canopy as hard as he could. It took two strokes before it buckled and a third one caved it in. A shard of metal caught Hobbie’s cheek and started it bleeding.
“At least I know you’re alive, Derek Klivian,” Wedge said grimly. “Dead men don’t bleed.”
He reached in through the canopy and powered up his vibroblade to begin cutting through the restraints. As the last strap parted, Wedge caught the unconscious Rogue and dragged him out by brute force. Moments later, Tycho had Kesin Ommis out as well.
The three conscious Rogues looked at each other. Janson managed to crack a grin. “Someone’s screwed up their maths here,” he said. “Three of us, two of them and two speeder with a total of four seats.”
“Hobbie’s the smaller of the two,” Tycho said. “If we put Kesin in my speeder, could you possibly squeeze Hobbie in with you, Janson?”
“We don’t have much choice,” Wedge added.
“OK, just do it quick, before those Imps come looking for us!”
“We have to get them back to base before the last transport lifts off,” Tycho said. “I don’t have a bacta tank in my X-wing!”
Ten minutes later, Kesin Ommis sat slumped in the gunner’s seat of Tycho’s speeder and he sped off to try to hold the last remaining transport.
Wedge carefully manoeuvred his speeder off the ground. It was not designed to carry three and he had no wish to have the vehicle ground itself before reaching the base.
“Could you hurry it up a little? My legs have gone dead already!” Janson said, shifting under Hobbie’s dead weight. They had pulled his helmet off and it was yet another thing for Janson to hold. “Blow it,” he said and passed it over his shoulder to Wedge. “If I’ve got Hobbie, you might as well have his helmet.”
“All right, already,” Wedge said, taking it with bad grace and putting it in his lap.
The speeder finally came in sight of what was left of Echo Base. A shuttle had landed near the hangar entrance and stormtroopers were pouring out. There was fierce fighting going to keep them away from the last transport and the vulnerable X-wings.
Janson couldn’t reach his fire controls with Hobbie on his lap so Wedge dodged the fire as much as he could and brought the speeder in beside the transport’s loading ramp. He popped the canopy and scrambled out to haul Hobbie off Janson.
“When they said we’ll make close friends in the Rebellion, I didn’t think they meant that close,” Janson said, climbing out of the speeder to take Hobbie’s legs. They dragged the pilot over to the transport, where there were two medtechs waiting for them.
“Good work, sir,” one said, taking over from Wedge.
“You take good care of him, now,” Janson said. “I didn’t have him in my lap just to lose him now.”
“We’ll get him into a bacta tank right away,” the other medtech said.
Wedge and Janson sprinted across to their X-wings as the transport’s hatch sealed.
“What’s the betting that’s the last time Hobbie will see the inside of a bacta tank, Wedge?”
Wedge grinned as he climbed into the cockpit of his X-wing. “First and last time? No chance, Wes. There’s a first time for everything.”