Corran Horn glanced up from his datapad. "Everything on the checklist is covered. I think we are ready to go."
Admiral Kre'fey nodded slowly and escorted Corran across the Ralroost's deck. The proximal docking bay had been cleared of starfighter, leaving a decrepit freighter as the sole occupant. "My engineers have assured me that the Lost Hope will be able to make it off the ship. How much longer it will hold together after that they will now say."
"I understand, Admiral. We've all known this was a gamble from the star." Corran sighed and slipped the datapad into a thigh pocket on his flight suit. "If it works, great. If it doesn't, well, make sure others learn from our mistake."
The problem of inserting a scouting team onto an enemy planet was one that had perplexed military strategists for ages. Ships often tried to slip in disguised as space debris, streaking toward a planet like a meteorite, then veering off under power once they were too low to the ground to be tracked. While the lack of an impact would tip the enemy to the fact that something was odd, the scout team could be well away from the area and safely gone to ground by the time investigators tried to puzzle out where they had gone.
With the Yuuzhan Vong, things got a bit more complicated because the New Republic wasn't certain about the technical capabilities of their scanners. The fact that the Yuuzhan Vong used biologically based tools suggested severe limitations, but without actually knowing, there was no way to put together a sure plan to slip in unnoticed. Absent the ability to go in unseen, the New Republic decided to go for the other extreme and make sure the Yuuzhan Vong knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their security had been penetrated.
Corran boarded the Lost Hope and retracted the gantry. He went up front to the bridge and waved at the admiral. He refrained from touching anything in there. Since the Yuuzhan Vong would undoubtedly investigate the crash, the New Republic knew they'd need trace biological matter in the ship to make the enemy believe the crew had not survived insertion into Garqi. Biomatter had been synthesized and sprayed around in all the logical locations, so any inquiry would have plenty of data to sort out in reconstructing the deceased crew of the Lost Hope.
He worked his way back to the main cargo hold and climbed into a much smaller ship, one of the tiny shuttle craft found on luxury liners. All six of the Noghri were jammed in the back and strapped in place. Ganner sat back with them, looking very large and uncomfortable since his feet rested on equipment and his knees were tucked under his chin. Corran slipped past Jacen and took his place in the forward of the two seats in the cockpit. He buckled on his restraining belts, then pulled on a helmet and opened a comm channel to the Ralroost.
"Lost Hope reporting in. Ready to go."
"Copy, Hope. Two minutes to reversion."
Corran initiated the start-up sequence. Both sublight engines came on-line, but the starboard one was producing only 75 percent of its usual power. "Jacen, can you see about bringing Hope's starboard up at least another 10 percent?"
The older Jedi hit a button on his console and reports concerning the Lost Hope vanished, to be replaced by the monitors for Best Chance, the smaller shuttle craft contained within the freighter's hold. Corran brought its engines on-line, and each reported 100 percent output. Repulsorlift coils reported operational. He hit a button that sealed Chance and made it spaceworthy.
"I've got Hope's engines balanced."
"Thanks, Jacen, The charges are set and functional?"
"Yes, ready to go on your command."
"Good, we're perfect." Corran forced himself to smile. The plan was simple enough. The Lost Hope would leave the Ralroost and head down, then suffer a catastrophic engine failure. As it plunged into Garqi's atmosphere, the ship would break apart. Debris would be strewn everywhere, and Best Chance would be able to fly away free. By the time the Yuuzhan Vong collected all of the Hope's parts and figured out something was going on, the survey team would have returned to the New Republic.
The only Hutt spoiling the party was the lack of a hyperdrive on Best Chance. Without it, the only way the party could leave the system would be by rendezvousing with a larger ship, like the Ralroost. The lack of a hyperdrive made emergency extraction very tricky, but Corran knew that if they needed to get off Garqi in a hurry, they'd already be in enough trouble that there was no guarantee they'd ever get a chance to escape into hyperspace.
Corran flicked his comm unit over to address Ganner and the Noghri. "Get set for a wild ride. No guarantees on this one, but with any luck, we'll all get out of it alive."
Jaina's X-wing shot free of the magnetic containment bubble over the Ralroost's belly launch bay. She brought the fighter around on a heading that tucked it into the Rogue Squadron formation above Garqi. Anni Capstan, Jaina's wingmate, designated Rogue Twelve, came up behind her, then Rogue Alpha, a recon X-wing piloted by General Antilles, completed the formation.
Colonel Gavin Darklighter's voice came strong and steady through the comm channel. "Two flight, you're on the snoop; One on my polar, Three below. Lock S-foils in attack position."
Major Alinn Varth followed Gavin's orders with a quick comment. "On me, Three. Tighten it up, Sticks."
Jaina suppressed a smile. Because she was a Jedi and carried a lightsaber, and because she used a flight stick to control the X-wing, her compatriots had given her the call sign Sticks. She took it as a sign of acceptance, which was good, since she was a lot younger than the others in the squadron and didn't have a fraction of their experience. They didn't look down on her for those lacks. However, and had even bragged about her to some of the new recruits.
"As ordered, Nine." She nudged the stick to port, bringing her into proper position in the formation. Jaina glanced back at the R2 unit riding behind her. "Sparky, pipe up if I slip out of formation again."
The droid beeped an acknowledgment.
Colonel Celchu's voice came through the comm channel. "Rogues, Flight Control here. We have ten skips coming up from Garqi. Intercept is plotted, being sent now."
Data scrolled up on Jaina's primary monitor, and Sparky tootled as he assimilated it. The skips--more properly, coral-skippers--were single-pilot fighter craft, similar in purpose to X-wings. But utterly dissimilar in design. Unlike X-wings, which were manufactured, skips were grown, forming a symbiotic union of various creatures that provided a hull, propulsion, navigation, and weapons for the stony ships. The pilot interfaced with the fighter through a hooded device that fed impressions to him and received his orders by reading his brain waves.
Jaina shivered. Her uncle had tried on one of the cognition hoods and experienced the contact with the alien fighter. She'd not been offered the opportunity to do the same, nor would she have taken it. Her experience as a Jedi built in her a dislike for anything trying to pick up stray thoughts, and having her head enclosed in a gelatinous membrane while that was going on was just not something she wanted to think about.
She looked at her monitors as the Lost Hope deployed from the Bothan Assault Cruiser's belly bay. "Nine, I have two skips breaking off to go after Hope."
"I copy, Sticks. You and Twelve are on them."
Anni hit her comm unit's talk switch twice, sending a double click through the channel in acknowledgement of the order. Jaina broke to port and pulled back on her stick, coming around in a tight turn. She inverted, then dived and cut to starboard to make her fist run at the skips.
"I have lead, Twelve." Jaina flicked a thumb over her weapon-selection switch and linked her lasers for quad fire. She nudged the stick around and dropped the aiming reticle over the lead skip's ovoid outline. She hit the fire-control button beneath her middle finger, starting the lasers through a fast cycle that spat out dozens of little red energy darts.
The scarlet bolts flew on target until ten meters from the skip, then they bent inward. The dovin basals that manipulated gravity fields to provide the skip with propulsion like-wise shielded it by creating gravitic anomalies. These little voids sucked the light in the like a black hole.
Jaina kept her fire steady, but let the targeting point shift up and back. To properly shield the skip, the dovin basil had to more the void, taxing its energy much as absorbing the bolts did. Finally a few stray bolts got past, scoring the black rock hull. Jaina then hit the primary trigger and sent a quartet of full-powered laser bolts into the skip.
A void picked one off, but the other three hit the skip's aft hard. Yorik coral bubbled and evaporated in some spots, became fluidly molten in other. In the frigid vacuum of space, the mineral shell hardened almost immediately into an icicle trailing behind the Yuuzhan Vong fighter. The hot stone burned dovin basals and scorched neural tissue that allowed for control of the ship, sending the lead skip into a tight spiral that curled it back down toward Garqi.
The second skip proved to be more evasive. It juked and dove, cutting to port and starboard at random. Shots missed entirely instead of being absorbed by a dovin basal. The pilot had clearly learned that agility in space combat was worth as much or more than shielding. He used his skills as a pilot to avoid the X-wings and to draw ever closer to his target
"Cover me, Sticks."
"Got it, Twelve."
Anni Capstan's X-wing cruised forward and broke hard to port, bringing it in on a slashing attack at the skip's starboard aft quarter. She sprayed laser darts all over the ship, using her etheric rudder to keep the fire on target, and the Yuuzhan Vong pilot finally had to deploy a void to keep her shots off him. She cut loose with a full quad shot, but the void sucked all four of those bolts in, then the skip bounced up above Anni's line of flight
Jaina saw the nose of Anni's fighter come up and wondered for a second why she hadn't fired another burst. It occurred to her that Anni's lasers might be recharging, since she had sprayed a lot of energy around to little effect. The skip boosted forward, pulling away form the X-wing, and Jaina thought Anni would lose him since he could now use the dovin basal that had been shielding him to provide more propulsion.
Then fire blossomed on either side of the X-wing's slender nose.
Throughout the time snubfighters had engaged in combat, a debate had raged over the efficacy of employing proton torpedoes against other starfighters. There was no doubting that the missiles would obliterate a starfighter. The weapons were designed for damaging much larger ships. To use them against a snubfighter was the equivalent of using a vibro-ax to kill an insect--gross overkill
Then again, in combat, can overkill ever be gross?
Jaina couldn't be sure if the Yuuzhan Vong pilot realized that Anni had waited for him to pick up speed before she fired, or if he died assuming she had just gotten lucky. He did try to deploy another void, but it was late in materializing and only slightly altered the course of the second torpedo. The first one flew straight and true, slamming into the skip's belly. It detonated in a burst of argent fire that fed up through the fighter like lightning. The fragmenting coralskipper disintegrated before her eyes, with the second torpedo flying through the heart of the blast and detonating a hundred meters beyond it.
"Great shot, Twelve." Jaina smiled as she looked up at the Lost Hope. She could feel her brother on board. You're safe now, Jacen.
Then a terrible explosion ripped apart the freighter's port side, and the stricken ship started falling toward Garqi.
Hitting Jacen harder than the jolt from the explosion was Jaina's shocked anguish. He'd tried to steel himself for it, having anticipated it, but the grief and sense of loss rolled through the Force all raw and jagged. He wanted to reach out to her, through the Force, and tell her all was well, but he could not.
Instead he pulled himself in, shutting down his presence in the Force. He'd not liked having to deceive his sister about how the Lost Hope would be used to get them onto Garqi, but fooling her had been necessary. No one knew how much the Yuuzhan Vong could read in terms of communications or emotions. Just because we are blind to them through the Force, we've no call to assume they are blind to us, too. Only by having the people on the ship and in the fighters think their freighter was going down could they be sure the emotions and communicants would be genuine.
"Jacen, my screen is showing a faulty linkage at J-14 is broken and has released prematurely. J-13 and J-15 are still holding, but pressure is beyond spec already."
"Sith spit." Corran turned in his chair enough to glance back at Jacen. "Get the secondary charges ready to go. blow them in sequence two on my mark. Be sharp. Can't be worrying about your sister right now."
"Yes, sir." Jacen brought up the pattern diagram of the sequence two explosions. Six of the eight charges glowed green, but two others showed red. The two nearest J-14. "We have a problem, Corran. The charges near J-14 are bad."
Jacen looked past the pilot's head and at the holographic feed occupying the area of Best Chance's forward viewpoint.
The feed came from holocams mounted on the Hope's hull, allowing the pilot to see what things looked like as the doomed freighter hurtled at the planet. The freighter was just beginning to hit the edge of the planet's atmosphere. Little pieces of the hull began to glow from the friction, with scraps of paint ablating off as sparks.
Corran keyed a comlink. "Ganner, look out the starboard viewport. Can you see the two charges there on the stanchion? They're blinking red."
"I see them."
"Can you use the Force to compress the det-chargers to the point of exploding?"
"Never done it before."
"Well, we have to do it now. If you can't get both, just focus on the upper one. On my signal."
"Jacen, get ready. Once his goes, you blow yours."
The freighter bucked as the atmosphere became denser. Corran's hand danced over the command console. He fed power into the repulsorlift coils, which slightly insulated the ship from the tremors wracking the Hope. The Chance shimmied a bit, and stresses mounted on some of the other connectors holding the two ships together, but nothing else released.
The freighter started to turn to port as the jagged hull there began to drag in the atmosphere. Corran fought it and tried to get the ship oriented on a simple flight path, then hit a switch that cut the power on the Hope's engines. The whole craft lurched, then twisted as the atmosphere battered it.
"Everyone stand by. This won't be fun or pretty." Corran hit some switches on his console. "Ganner, blow the charges, now!"
The Force gathered behind Jacen and focused itself on the explosives. The first one blew easily and vanished from Jacen's screen. Without waiting for the second, the young Jedi hit a button on his console, lighting off the other explosives in a rippling sequence that shattered the aft hull.
Corran hit a switch, and the connectors holding Best Chance inside Lost Hope all released. The smaller ship tumbled free of the shell that had had brought it into the atmosphere. Corran made no attempt to direct its flight or stabilize it, he just let it twist like any other piece of debris. As the ship came around, Jacen managed to look through the viewports and catch a glimpse of the Hope's fiery descent to Garqi.
The altimeter built into Jacen's console scrolled off the meters to the planet's surface dizzyingly fast. Six kilometers shrank swiftly to four, then three and two. Jacen recalled a single klick being their margin of safety and sought any sense of anxiety from Corran as the small ship plunged past that barrier.
He got none, which brought a smile to his face. He could easily imagine his father sitting in the pilot's chair, waiting and waiting to bring the ship to full power, pushing safety margins that he considered overly generous. Jacen didn't necessarily think this willingness to undertake risks was part and parcel of being a Corellian as much as it was an artifact of the Rebellion. Pilots then had had to do outrageous things to win the freedom of everyone in the galaxy. For them, prudence gave way to efficacy.
Five hundred and seven meters above Garqi's rain forest--covered surface, Corran boosted full power to the repulsorlift coils. This marginally slowed their descent but didn't prevent the ship from plunging into the trees, shearing off limbs, splintering wood, and scatterin a colorful cloud of birds. The Best Chance crashed down through the upper canopy and through the midlevel before the repulsorlift coils met enough resistance in the planet's mass to bounce the Chance back up.
Corran let the small ship hand there in the air as the purple leaves and gnarled branches strewn over the forward viewport began to shrivel and smolder against the hot hull. "Everyone okay?"
"I'm good." Jacen glanced back at the others as they all reported in unharmed.
The small ship's comm speakers crackled. "This is Flight Command Ralroost recalling all fighters. Evac countdown has commenced."
"Rogue Eleven here. We have a freighter down."
"We're aware of that , Eleven. This hip broke up. No life signs."
Jacen felt a shiver run down this spine. Jaina's X-wing's sensors would be too weak to pick up life signs at this great a range, so she had to believe he was dead. Just for a heartbeat he wanted to open himself up in the Force so she'd know he lived, but he stopped himself.
Corran turned and nodded to him. "I know it's tough, Jacen, but she'll be told the truth once the 'Roost pulls out."
Jacen shook his head. "I don't think I've ever done anything like that to her before--to anyone before."
"It would be great if you never had to do it again, either, but there are times when a little cruelty now saves more a lot later. It's an unfortunate part of growing up." Corran gave him a smile.
"I copy." Jacen hit a button on his console and punched up a specific frequency. "I have a locator beacon on our contact frequency. Heading two-one-nine."
Corran ruddered the ship around on that heading and fed power to the engines. The small ship began to move forward sliding through the forest. The branches scraped along the hull, and furry anthropoids scurried away in terror. The ship moved on, letting the purple world of Garqui swallow it and, hopefully, hide them and their mission from the Yuuzhan Vong.