Last Flight of the Liberator
The crew of the captured Star Destroyer 'Liberator' arrive at Imperial Center to unimaginable carnage, as Luke calls on the memory of his father to save his friends in this prequel to 'Dark Empire I'.
General Lando Calrissian, commanding officer, ISD Liberator (human male)
General Wedge Antilles, acting commander of air group, ISD Liberator (human male)
Commander (ret’d) Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, mission advisor, ISD Liberator (human male)
R2-D2, astromech droid (male programming)
M-3PO, military analytic droid (male programming)
Vimran Trell, Intelligence Officer, ISD Liberator (human male)
Tokkat, gunnery officer, ISD Liberator (Ewok male)
Wunka, assistant gunnery officer, ISD Liberator (Ewok male)
10 ABY – Imperial Center, high orbit
“Well that’s not supposed to be there.” General Calrissian’s eyes widened in horror as his Star Destroyer reverted to real-space, the swirling blue of hyperspace replaced by the mighty bulk of an Imperial battlecruiser. “Broadcast our Imperial transponders, let’s see if we can trick them into…”
“Sir!” a cry came from the crew pit, “They’re firing!”
There was no time for delay. “Shields to double-front!”
Within moments the bow of the Liberator was aflame, the first streaks of turbolaser fire burning into the hull before the bridge crew could possibly have reacted. “They couldn’t have got a firing solution that quickly,” Calrissian bellowed, cursing his luck.
“We must have been betrayed,” said Vimran Trell, the mission’s intelligence officer, rushing to the forward viewport to assess the situation, struggling to balance as the grav-plating buckled.
“No.” The voice came from behind. Impassive, calm, his face betraying no emotion, was Luke Skywalker, dressed in the black robe of a Jedi Master. “They weren’t firing at us.” His faithful astromech beeped in agreement.
Calrissian turned to the crew pit behind him. “Get me a situation report!”
Behind him, the two Ewok gunnery officers, veterans of their world’s battle for freedom, since trained in the waging of war with technology they couldn’t have imagined growing up on Endor, chirruped in their own strangely familiar language. Then came their words, translated by the M-3PO unit: “Master Tokkat has identified two small Star Destroyers directly abaft. Procursator class. They are being engaged by the Allegiance-class warship ahead.”
“And we’re jumped right into the middle of it.” Lando grimaced. For three weeks the Liberator had been jumping into Imperial systems in the core to stir up trouble between the warring factions. “I guess our plan worked too well.” He turned to the crew pit. “Helm,” Calrissian said, kneeling down to the flight control section at once, “Move us out of their firing arc, get us out of here!” Where once the galactic capital had been marked by brilliant concentric rings of lights from the unfathomably vast cityscape, now it was dark, with only the light of fires the size of whole cities, and flashes from heavy turbolaser blasts visible from high orbit amid the blackness.
“We can’t sir, they have us pinned down. We can’t ascend,” the Lieutenant replied. Lando looked at the tactical display. “By the Force…” the entire system was full of Imperial ships, all firing on each other. It looked like two vast armadas had collided, perhaps days ago, and now pell-mell duels between individual ships and the fragments of task forces were taking place: all the way from Coruscant to the Stentat gas giant and the outlying planetoids. He looked from the display to the transparisteel windows: there was debris everywhere. It was so dense that as the Liberator moved its bow was forcing its way through wrecked starship hulks. And as he squinted further, he could see hull panelling, abandoned starfighters, and the wreckage of whole starship’s falling into the atmosphere and burning, or else careening into the surface… killing untold millions.
Luke grimaced, reading his friend’s thoughts without the need for the Force to help him. “Millions of people are suffering, dying. In orbit, and on the planet surface…”
“General Calrissian, that Allegiance – I’ve ID-ed it as Hammerhand…”
“Vice-Admiral Gossik’s flagship, a loyalist ship,” Trell muttered to himself, trailing off…
“… it’s moving to continue firing on us….”
“They must have ID-ed us. Seen through the fake transponder…” Trell’s face turned white. Years of preparation, retrofitting and refitting in the Hast Shipyards, building up target profiles, reams of raw intelligence, the telemetry from thousands of probe droids… all so this ship could undertake its mission. Now for naught. The Empire had seen through it.
“Helm, more speed!”
The Liberator barged its way past two entangled Nebulon-B hulls, their central spars locked together in what looked like a boarding action gone wrong. Both combatants were falling to their death together, a deadly dance to the planet’s surface. Looking along the hull of his ship, Lando could see countless small impacts as mechanical parts smashed into the Star Destroyer’s mighty bulk and bounced off its hull, while larger fragments pierced the ship.
“Lando, look,” Luke said, his gloved synthetic hand pointing ahead. An impenetrable cloud of debris, perhaps a dozen wrecked warships, and the burning hull of a Torpedo Sphere, a ripple of explosions surrounding it as ordnance from its magazine spiralled out of the wreckage and ignited. And the Liberator was heading right for it.
“Then there’s no choice. We have to fight our way out. Helm, bring us about, bearing on the Hammerhand.” Calrissian ran across the bridge to his old friend, Wedge Antilles, the starfighter ace turned General, the man he’d killed a Death Star with, unwillingly confined to the command deck of the captured Star Destroyer directing flight operations while his heart was with his pilots.
Antilles was overseeing a row of console operators directing the air wing. He looked up as Lando approached. “Wedge, there’s no choice. The game’s up.”
“Alright: launch them now. Everything that can fly!”
“And target the Hammerhand!” Lando cried. He looked back out of the viewport to see a cloud of E-wings and A-wings careening out into the upper ionosphere of the galactic capital. They were followed by slower Y-wings, each burning as they climbed from the thickening air around them as their mothership battled with gravity.
The grav plating couldn’t compensate fully as the Liberator completed its turn, and as the main engines burnt hard to climb back towards the Hammerhand crew and equipment slid across the deck. “Hold on!”
Lando dived down into the crew pit and put a hand on the furry shoulder of the chief gunner. “Tokkat, bring everything we have to bear on the Hammerhand.”
“Chee chirrup!” the Ewok replied.
“Firing now!” the M-3PO said, unnecessarily; for by the time he had translated their words to Basic, the Liberator shook with her own energy. Turbolasers, ion cannons and modified proton torpedoes shot up at her nemesis.
“We’ve got three squadrons on their way out, three left in the hangar,” Wedge shouted back across the bridge, hectic now with the din of battle, and the desperate attempt to keep the ship in the fight.
“Wedge, can the fighters cut a path through for us?” Lando asked.
“They’ll make a good go of it.” He spoke with equipoise as he directed the flight wing, but to Lando there was no masking the frustration his friend felt not to be in the cockpit with the pilots now swirling up out of Coruscant’s orbit to engage the behemoth blocking the escape of their mothership.
Trell, his eyes white and his expression stricken, had the wherewithal to whisper: “General… now that we’ve launched our fighters, they’ll know without doubt we’re an Alliance ship… we’ll be totally surrounded.”
“Let’s just hope they’re too busy fighting each other.” Lando clenched his teeth. For the three weeks the Liberator had been jumping into Imperial systems causing havoc they’d been incredibly successful: between Trell’s intelligence networks and operatives among the Mutineers and Loyalists, Luke’s Force sensitivity, and Wedge’s skill as a starfighter tactician, they’d inflicted billions of credits worth of damage on the Empire, for the loss of just a few support craft – and stoke the fires of the Imperial Civil War with M-3PO’s suite of fake transponders. But now… “It’s our first bad hand,” the General whispered. He looked around at the bridge, full of the cacophony of battle: alarms, signals from the fighter wing, and mounting damage reports. “Tokkat, Wunka… divert reserve battery power to weapons. Bring everything you can to bear on that battlecruiser! Let’s give our fighters some gun support.”
“Cheep cheep!” the happy warriors replied, inputting the orders at once, as helm brought the ship to close, as best they could against the pull of the planet’s gravity.
The Liberator’s hull glowed green as turbolaser fire rippled out of the wounded warship, streaking up into the hull of the Allegiance. Its shields buckled under the withering assault, and as the fighters closed Lando squinted to see with his own eyes and not the tactical display as the craft threw scores of proton torpedoes at the Imperial ship. It erupted in flame, and then it answered.
“General, it looks like those Mutineer ships are bugging out.”
“Damn,” Lando whispered. Only Luke could hear him. “We needed them to fight each other…”
The bridge trembled almost the moment Lando saw the Allegiance’s reply. The front half of the Liberator buckled, hull plating disintegrated as the shields melted away, and then jets of pressurised air blasting out the damage sections.
“We can’t take much of this Lando,” Luke said quietly.
“Status of that Imp ship?” Lando demanded.
The Ewoks replied, and M-3PO explained: “Moderate damage to their ventral quadrant. But they’ve turned to protect the vulnerable section.”
“Lando, that ship is twice our weight. We’re outclassed. Even with the fighters.” Luke knew there was only one way out, and he closed his eyes, drawing on the Force to steady and prepare himself, sensing something none of the others could bear to contemplate.
“Lando, Imperial fighters are doubling back from their engagement with the Mutineers. We have four squadrons of Howlrunners moving to intercept our flight wing. And I’m picking up more signals on long-range telemetry. A9s and Skiprays by the looks of it. At least three more squadrons. Possibly more.”
Trell shook his head. “We can’t fight our way out of this, can we?”
“Sir, that last barrage has cut primary engine control. And we’ve lost our manoeuvring thrusters,” the helm officer shouted. The Allegiance poured on yet more fire, and the Liberator suddenly lurched 100 degrees; it’s bow, previously pointing out to space and the Hammerhand, spun with impossible speed until they were level with the upper atmosphere, and then falling through it.
Calrissian clenched his teeth as the mighty Liberator plunged forwards and down, the ruined planetscape of Imperial Center filling the viewport as they descended. “Get secondary power lines to respond; level us off, level us off!”
“No,” Luke interjected. “We took too much damage when we dropped out of lightspeed. Lando, the ship is falling too fast.”
And it was. The Liberator, prized capture from the Battle of Endor, faithful servant of the cause of freedom and the Rebellion ever since, was now in freefall. And there could only be one possible result.
The whole viewport was engulfed in flames as the Liberator accelerated in her unpowered descent.
“Evacuate! All non-essential hands, abandon ship! Everyone but the core operations, get to the shuttles!” There was an abrupt, sudden silence. “You heard me!” Lando declared, “Get out of here! Wedge, redirect the flight wing to escort. Once the shuttles are full, launch, and have the fighters get them to a jump point. Helm, began working-up a nav solution to get them back to Pinnacle Base. If anyone gets through, report our last known position…”
The bridge emptied, until only ten or so were left. The two Ewoks and their M-3PO were attempting to divert weapons power to the engines – a fruitless effort as they cursed in terms the M-3PO decided not to render into Basic.
“Get out of here Trell, there’s nothing more you can do,” Lando said to the Intelligence Officer.
“I served on this ship under the Empire, I helped bring it to the New Republic, General. With all due respect, I’m not leaving her now!”
“Lando,” Wedge said, “We’re falling too fast. We can’t possibly evacuate in time…”
“The Hammerhand has broken off its pursuit,” the military droid supplied. “It is unable to pursue us.”
“Yes,” Luke said, “we can.” He closed his eyes and opened himself fully to the Force. The life force of the trillions of beings sheltering in the rubble of the planet’s surface, the Imperials above, the desperate struggle of the Alliance pilots, the fear of the crew racing to the hangar… it all filled his senses. He cleared it all from his mind and focused on the Liberator herself. He saw her from outside, her hull burning red, charred hull and bursting with fire. Hurtling to the surface. The immense old warship… 1,600 meters long… “It matters not.”
He held the ship in his hand, and drawing on all of his strength, he slowed it. But it wasn’t to the lesson of Master Yoda that he clung to, nor those of Ben Kenobi. Instead, it was the memory of a badly-degraded holofilm, shot thirty years ago, recovered from an old archive, of the hulk of a mighty Separatist warship, plunging through the atmosphere of Coruscant after another great battle, with his father at the helm.
Luke stood over the flight console and closed his eyes. He could perceive without seeing. “Hear me father.”
He felt the ship turn in his hands, with no greater strain than that first pebble he had lifted in the Dagobah swamp. He struggled for a moment to slow it, straining against the power of gravity. But the Force was with him. The ship lurched as it decelerated, Artoo beeping in celebration. Lando and Wedge looked on, powerless to act or help, uncomprehending before the mighty depths of the Force. But they trusted their friend.
“Our velocity has decreased to 500 kliks per hour,” the M-3PO declared.
“I haven’t finished…” Luke strained. He held the ship even tighter, now a charred black shape where once it had been pristine, hull plating ruptured and the mighty craft beyond repair. “Stay with me, father.”
The ship struggled again as the force of gravity battled with the ultimate power of the Force, the unnatural deceleration buckling the hull even further. The ruined, desolate cityscape was clearly visible now, the toppled towers and deep, mile-long gashes cut into the cityscape.
“350,” the droid said.
“We’re launching evac shuttles,” Wedge said.
“Get them to bug out and report our position. Tell Alliance High Command we’ll be on the surface… one way or the other.”
The ship rattled as it plunged towards the surface, its lower hull sheared away by the atmosphere.
Luke concentrated his mind, bending reality itself to his will.
“Impact in ten seconds,” the M-3PO said, not without emotion.
The ship splintered as Luke stilled it with the power of the Force.
“How can that…” the droid started. “…50, and declining. I cannot computer how…”
“By the Force…” Lando said.
The cityscape was unrecognisable, to men who’d all lived on Coruscant until recently. Mile-deep incisions had been cut into the upper levels, and mounds of debris and collapsed megascrapers had laid a new planet surface. It was there that the Liberator was to have her final rest.
“Now,” Luke said, his eyes still closed, his face utterly impassive and calm.
With one final heave the Liberator collapsed onto the ground, every bone in her body broken, her central spars breaking through the outer hull, and secondary explosions along her hull as fuel reserves, oxygen tanks and propellant exploded all along her bow.
The remaining bridge crew fell to the ground. And Luke’s final act was to throw out his arm and repel a storm of shattered transparisteel hurtling into the compartment.
“Is everyone alright?” Wedge replied.
The astonished chirruping of the Ewoks spoke for them all.
“The shuttles? Can we get a read?”
“No,” Wedge replied. “The consoles are dead.”
Luke spoke then: “No more than half escaped. I’m sorry Lando.”
“Imperial forces will be converging on our position. According to my analysis before we crashed, the entire planet is essentially one urban battle site,” the M-3PO warbled.
“We’d better get out of here,” Wedge said quietly.
Lando looked around the ruined command centre of his ship. “Thank you.” He lowered his head in mournful silence. “Alright, let’s go.”
Calrissian, Antilles, Skywalker, followed by the two droids, the last of the crewers, the Ewoks and finally intelligence officer Trell, set off, unholstering their blasters as they went.
“M-3PO, see if you can raise any other comm signals. Any remaining survivors onboard to grab whatever gear they can carry and prepare for incoming,” Lando said, moving to a run, the rest of the party picking up the pace after him. “We’re going to have to hold out until the Alliance can send reinforcements.”
As they ran through the wreckage a smattering of crewers and Alliance soldiers joined them, until a few dozen reached the forward hangar bay and began rappelling down into the forbidding ruins below. Luke lowered the droids with the Force, and then simply leapt, unaided, to the surface.
They stood in stunned silence, looking into the distance, where the shadowy outlines of mighty Imperial war machines clashed among the ruins of Coruscant. “Let’s set up some defensive positions,” Lando said. “We don’t have long.”
Continued in ‘Dark Empire I’.
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