Of the few Shistavanen who ever left Uvena Prime, most were Trackers. Many were hired by the Empire, perhaps out of some inborn instinct to follow authority, to bow to the will of the Alpha, or perhaps simply because the Empire had the deepest pockets and the farthest-reaching territory.
Kerel Shyr did not disdain authority, but the reek of the Imperial war machine repulsed her. On the other hand, she did not disdain credits; a true predator knew that hunger must be sated before all other considerations. Shyr had her ship, hard-worn but hard-won, and therefore her independence - but hunger could not be denied. And so she kept to the Outer Rim, hiring her services out to the local magistrates and the occasional proud Moff but holding herself aloof from their daily scheming and prowling. The Rebellion was nothing but a Core World obsession, a bogeyman in the closet.
For many in the Rim territories, Shyr and others like her were the only bogeymen. Hunters in the night with real teeth, real claws – not imaginary wraiths lurking in hyperspace.
Or so she thought, before Yavin.
Word spread slowly, in hushed whispers, but it spread. Word of a moon-sized weapon that had obliterated Alderaan. Word of a boy from a dusty Rim world who had almost single-handedly destroyed that weapon. Word of a bounty big enough to dazzle the eyes of the most level-headed Hunter.
Soon, the Rim would be flooded with Rebel ships harrying and fleeing the Empire by turns, and with Imperials floundering between star systems like frenzied pups destroying the very tracks they sought.
A wise Hunter, Shyr knew, waited for the prey to come to her.
Newly minted Lieutenant Wedge Antilles knew it was naïve of him to think things would be different after the Battle of Yavin. On one hand, everything had changed. The Emperor's tool of terror had been reduced to slow-spinning debris. The Rebellion had proved its viability as a galactic force to be reckoned with, and new recruits and funds were funneling in every day.
But their survival still depended on luck, equipment that had seen better days before the Clone Wars, and the safety of a quick escape into hyperspace lanes. The temples on Yavin 4 would not be safe for long; the Empire's retribution may have been slow in coming, but the danger grew every day. From the most grizzled generals to the grubbiest mechanics, Alliance personnel cast furtive and ever more frequent looks at the still-empty skies, waiting.
The Rebellion needed a new base, and badly. Everyone knew it; it was the white bantha in every room.
So why did I get stuck holding the thermal detonator?
"You see, kid," Solo was ostentatiously explaining to Luke across the hangar, "the first thing you gotta know about the military – even a ragtag outfit like this one – is not to volunteer for anything. Ever."
Wedge hefted a hydrospanner, contemplating its value as a projectile weapon. Solo's head stuck up temptingly between stacks of crates. It was a simple matter of trajectory... Nah, he might damage something valuable if he missed.
"Watch out for bright ideas." Solo was still talking. News flash, thought Wedge. "Maybe you see a problem and speak up about it. What happens? BOOM." Solo thumped his hand on a particularly resonant panel of the Falcon's hull. "The way the brass sees it, you've just up and volunteered to fix it."
"But–" Luke started to say.
Solo talked over him. "And maybe you get this really good plan for a mission. I mean really good, like someone needs to act now or you'll miss your only chance. Guess what?"
"Boom?" asked Luke wryly.
"Damn straight. You've just volunteered to get it done. See what I mean? It pays to keep your head down and just do what they tell you. Don't get cocky, and don't get any ideas."
Chewbacca's throaty laugh echoed from his perch atop the Falcon. The Wookiee was always fixing something. Wedge had never seen a ship with so many modifications – or that required such frequent maintenance.
"That was different!" protested Solo. "And it was one time."
Chewbacca warbled something.
"Okay, two times. Happy?"
Wedge grinned. It was hard not to like Solo, even in spite of himself. After all, the man was Corellian. He was also right.
Someone clapped Wedge heavily on the shoulder from behind, and he staggered. "About time you learned to leverage those big brains of yours, Wedge." Wes Janson had lost most of the pallor from the illness that had kept him out of the Battle of Yavin. His trademark good humor had taken longer to recover, to the point where Wedge was almost glad to hear one of his friend's terrible puns.
"So I hear you're going to find us a new base, Lieutenant." Wes threw a mocking salute. "Make it drier than this one, would you? The jungle humidity doesn't do great things for my hair. Gave Hobbie pimples, too, poor kid. Oh, and while you're at it, see about something with a seaside view. Nothing too fancy, just some dunes and a nice stretch of uninterrupted water. Maybe some girls. Oh, and–"
Wedge let a toothy smile spread across his face until his cheeks creaked.
Wes stuttered to a halt. "Uh, Wedge? Did that big brain of yours misfire?"
"I just had another idea."
"Doesn't that exceed your quota?"
"Since you have so many exacting criteria," Wedge began, immensely pleased with himself, "I think you should play a greater role in selecting our new base."
"Throw darts at a starmap?"
Wedge refused to admit he'd considered it. Assigning the reconnaissance of specific systems to specific pilots was not a task he relished. What were aides always telling General Dodonna? When in doubt, delegate. "You've just volunteered to coordinate recon. Congratulations, Wes. You've filled your quota and taken a load off my mind all at the same time. Very enterprising. Most efficient. I'll put that on record for your next performance appraisal," Wedge offered magnanimously.
"Thanks a lot. Anything I can ever do for you, just hesitate to ask," retorted Wes.
Solo and Luke walked by, both grinning. "I see what you mean, Han," said Luke, visibly struggling to keep a straight face. "In this fleet, it doesn't pay to be smart."
"Even if you're just a smartass," added Solo. He smirked at Wedge, who saluted cheerily.
Yeah, Solo wasn't so bad once you got to know him.
Over lomin ales, Wedge quizzed Luke about the Outer Rim, hoping for some kernel of information that might inspire another bright idea. Sending pairs of pilots to promising systems, instead of waiting for all the Recon scouts to return from their current missions, had been his only insight to date. Coincidentally, it was also what had landed him in this mess in the first place.
"Sorry," said Luke, grimacing, "but any place I've heard about is going to be pretty well-known. The only world I can tell you anything about is Tatooine, and that's out, after Mos Eisley and all."
Wedge shrugged. "I'll just have to start with the files they gave me, and spend a lot of time with an analyst and an astromech. But I wanted to ask around, too. I figure if people tell me about the same secret hidey-hole, well, it's not so secret. Narrow down the list a little."
Luke sat up straighter. "I can have Artoo cross-reference starcharts for you. If we link both our R2 units, they can analyze data in half the time."
"Great, I'll send my droid to interface with yours. I'm hoping to send a dozen teams out to the holes on the map. The analysts have pinpointed likely worlds, but I think it's a mistake to focus solely on planets." Wedge had been thinking about that for some time – about the patterns the Alliance had allowed themselves to fall into. Patterns that, if an Imperial tactician recognized them, could be fatal weaknesses. If you always juke to port, sooner or later the lasers will beat you there. Predictability got pilots killed. It was no less true on a larger scale.
That didn't mean his plan would be any easier to sell to his superiors. With some notable exceptions, higher ranking officers tended to be tactically conservative. In their world, change was threatening.
But in a dogfight, Wedge knew, it kept you alive.
"The Empire is systematic," he said, practicing his presentation on Luke. "They'll be sending little fleets of scouts and probe droids to the worlds flagged by their system as likely sympathizers, entry points and so on. I want to look at unlikely worlds. Or even better: failed mining colonies, hollowed out asteroids, empty pirates' nests. We need to introduce random elements if we're going to stay ahead of them."
Luke nodded thoughtfully. "I see why they put you in charge."
Wedge winced. "There's no need to be insulting."
"No, I'm serious!" Luke protested. "Only… can we spare the pilots and the ships?"
"We'll have to." Wedge downed his drink, hoping the burn would counteract the cold knot that had settled in his stomach. "It won't take long to trace us here, and Command knows it. Your princess gave me her blessing to make this top priority."
"She's not my princess," muttered Luke.
Wedge grinned, and the knot in his stomach loosened a little. He'd heard Solo say the same thing just a couple hours earlier. He made a mental note to ask Wes about the odds; he was sure the other pilot would know about any betting pools, if he wasn't actually running them.
As much as he liked Luke, Wedge's money was on Solo. Corellians never paid attention to the odds.
"The odds are not in our favor." Ackbar's gravelly voice was solemn. The Mon Calamari commander had personally led an earlier scouting party himself, with nearly disastrous results. "The fleet we can hide in the depths of space, but our ground forces? I fear we will evacuate Yavin only to scatter to the currents, with no eddies in which to rest."
"The more small teams we send out, the greater the odds that we'll find something." Wedge handed over the roster he'd drawn up. He wasn't on it, nor was Luke – their next mission was already planned by the princess herself.
"Snubfighters, small shuttles, reconnaissance craft… it is a good strategy," rumbled Ackbar. He scrolled down the datapad. "Not all of these pilots are trained in combat."
"No, but the ones who aren't are trained in insertion, or have experience trading – or smuggling. I tried to pair pilots for the best combination of skills."
Ackbar nodded, still reading, and then his bulbous eyes widened. "You have Janson with Klivian. Do you think that wise? They both harbor regret over not flying against the Death Star."
"Exactly," said Wedge. "It's a shared experience no one else will understand."
"You think they will be stronger for it."
Ackbar's eyes half-closed in thought. "What of the value of an outside perspective?"
Wedge wrestled with the question a moment before answering. "With all due respect, sir, I think any other wingman would drive Hobbie further inside himself." And Wes would drive any other wingman out of his mind, Wedge finished silently.
Ackbar's mouth gaped in a smile, and Wedge had the uncanny feeling that the Mon Calamari had intuited the remainder of his argument. Either that, or he'd experienced Wes Janson before and had reached the same conclusion.
"Very well. Your roster is approved. May the Force be with them."
Assigning missions to the pilots themselves proved to be every bit as difficult as Wedge had thought, if not for the reasons he'd anticipated. Wedge had worried about being questioned, argued with, resented… but it never occurred to him that he would keep getting sidetracked.
"Hey, Hobbie, we're going to be cockpit buddies!" Wes paused, clearly rerunning through the sentence again, and winced. "Um, that didn't come out quite how it was supposed to."
Hobbie didn't even blink. "My mother warned me not to climb into cockpits with strange men, and you're–"
"– as strange as they come," Wes finished the line in unison with Hobbie. "Guess you already heard."
"That you're strange? The whole galaxy knows that. I think there's an Imperial proclamation to that effect."
"Only one? I'm slipping."
Wedge let their banter run its course. He was relieved to see the two men were in relatively high spirits and already comfortable with each other. As Ackbar had pointed out, the pairing of two pilots with something to prove could go sideways quickly. And two depressed pilots could be a suicidal combination. But Wedge was banking on Wes's protective streak. He didn't know Hobbie that well yet, but the young man had been close to Biggs – from the sounds of it, almost as close as Luke had been – and that was as high a recommendation as anyone could want.
"Well, let's get to it. Did you review your mission parameters?" asked Wedge when the other two pilots finally stopped trading jokes.
Wes shook his head mournfully. "Give the man an ounce of authority and he starts using bureau-babble. Parameters…"
"Don't mind him," Wedge said to Hobbie. "He has trouble with polysyllabic vocabulary. That means long words," he explained, turning to Wes. "So stop me if I confuse you."
Wes grinned appreciatively.
"You'll be taking a short list of locations in the Anoat sector." Wedge motioned to his R2 unit, who obligingly projected a holomap. "Fly around – unobtrusively, if you can – and take notes. Incoming and outgoing traffic, signs of recent occupation, hints of Imperial activity. Logistics: are there any existing structures we could use for a base or hangars? Are they concealed? What kind of material resources does the site have?"
"That sounds like a job for Intelligence," objected Wes. "I didn't sign up for that."
"I've known that for years." Wedge shook his head regretfully. He turned to Hobbie. "It only shows when he opens his mouth, though, and that only happens when he's awake."
Hobbie laughed, and Wes shot him a betrayed look.
Wedge cleared his throat. "Back to business. You'll be taking a pair of Y-wing Longprobes–"
"Long haul, you mean," Hobbie muttered. "Those things have the speed of a wallowing Hutt. And that's not a fighter pilot's job, it's recon!"
Wedge frowned at him, and the younger man subsided. "We don't have enough recon specialists for the job at hand, and you know it, Klivian." Hobbie scowled but said nothing. "Besides, you may not be Recon trained, but you do know tactics. You know what kind of a landing zone we need, what kind of escape routes, what kind of planetary terrain and solar system features can work to our advantage."
"What about our squadrons?" asked Wes seriously. "We're more than shorthanded after Yavin." He swallowed hard, and Wedge had to suppress his own wince at the memory of comrades lost. Of friends he'd failed.
Hobbie looked even more serious than usual. "Who's going to protect the supply convoys?"
"Luke and I will be working on that. We're starting up a new squadron, callsign Rogue." Wedge hesitated. He really wasn't supposed to tell them yet, but... "If all goes well, you'll both be part of it. So get out there, get the job done, and get back safe, okay? This isn't exactly an easy patrol duty. You're going to the holes in the map to find out what's there. It's why you're going in pairs. I'd send half a squadron if I could." Wedge grimaced. "We're recruiting and training around the clock, but we can't wait. We need to find a safe haven."
"It's that bad?" asked Hobbie quietly.
Wes slapped his thighs. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go, Hobbs. I want to make sure Maintenance doesn't load the torpedo tubes with balloons to save weight. The first thing you need to know about Longprobes," he added, draping an arm across Hobbie's shoulders as they walked away, "is not that they're slow. It's that they could be slower. The ion cannon's locked forward – takes all the hard work out of aiming, and gets rid of those pesky heavy hydraulics. Less weight means less mass, less mass means less fuel, and that means–"
"More time listening to you, far from the reaches of civilization?"
Wedge shook his head as he watched the pair leave. Either he was both a brilliant tactician and personnel manager, in which case he had just increased his chances for promotion, more's the pity... or he had just condemned two of his few remaining friends to a long mission with even longer odds of success – or survival.