Wedge looked at his reflection in the refresher-room mirror. His dress uniform was pristine, the simple white jacket set off by his array of medals. Wedge brushed his hand across the decorations, bitterness showing in his dark eyes. With an effort, he forced a neutral expression onto his face, and returned to the court room.
The military court had already been through the background of the mission, and the reasons for this court-martial. Wedge knew the numbers by heart: he could never forget them. 315 people had died in the school that Rogue Squadron had destroyed, 280 of them children. Another 453 people had died in the rioting that had followed.
The government of Lleyan had been fighting insurgents who wanted to take control and return the planet to Imperial command. The Lleyani had asked the New Republic for help, so Rogue Squadron had been sent. Intelligence from Lleyan had pin-pointed military targets in the rebel-held city of Gaudaron, and Wedge had planned a way to destroy them.
“The city had substantial shields that we needed to take out before the attack runs could commence,” Wedge told the court. He addressed the head of the court, Admiral Ackbar, forcing himself to look straight at a being he admired greatly as he told his shameful tale. “Captain Celchu and myself went in first. We approached the planet through space controlled by the Lleyan government, then flew in terrain-following mode over the mountains to avoid detection by the rebels in Gaudaron. The city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, and we used a narrow pass to reach Gaudaron without being picked up on their sensors. We were into the air space above the city before they had time to react and raise their shields. Captain Celchu and I destroyed the shield generators, then the rest of the squadron could approach more directly.”
“The other members of the squadron then bombed targets that you had designated for them ?” Ackbar asked.
Wedge could give no other answer than the truth. “Yes.”
“One of those targets was a school. A non-military target,” General Madine said, staring across the courtroom at Wedge. Madine, Admiral Ackbar and General Cracken were presiding over the court-martial. “Why did you authorize an attack on a civilian target ?”
Wedge was merely repeating what he had already written in his report, which the other men had read, but it had to be said for the court. “According to the Intelligence information I received, that building was a factory being used as a refuge by terrorist forces.”
General Cracken glanced down at his datapad. “Copies of the intelligence file sent to you, and the copy found in your personal datapad after the event, do not list that building as a target.”
“It was in the intelligence report I saw when I planned the mission,” Wedge repeated helplessly.
“Then how do you account for the fact that it does not appear as a target in any known copies of the report, including the one on your own datapad ?”
Wedge shook his head slowly. “I can’t.” His composure cracked suddenly. “Why would I deliberately order anyone to target a school ?” he pleaded.
The three senior officers all looked uncomfortable. Wedge had worked closely with both Ackbar and Cracken, and even General Madine knew him as an honourable soldier. None of them believed that Wedge would deliberately order an attack on a civilian target, yet it seemed that such a thing had happened. The court martial eventually drew on to the conclusion that Wedge had expected from the beginning. Admiral Ackbar gravely announced that Commander Wedge Antilles was henceforth dismissed from service with the New Republic Armed Forces.
Wedge resisted the urge to bow his head, instead fighting to keep his feelings from showing as he faced the court. Inside, he felt sick and angry, unsure if he wanted to throw up or shoot something. Keeping his head high, he walked from the courtroom to face the barrage of holocameras and microphones that awaited him.
Back in his quarters, the last remnants of his pride deserted him. Wedge made a half-hearted attempt at packing some of his belongings. Having been dismissed from the service, he was no longer entitled to military accommodation and would have to leave the rooms he’d had since the New Republic had conquered Coruscant two years earlier: a victory he’d played a major role in. Abandoning his packing, Wedge dropped onto his sofa and gave himself up to his misery.
Somehow, much as he needed to, he couldn’t cry. Wedge thumped the arm of the sofa repeatedly, trying to relieve his feelings. At length, he jumped off the sofa and strode across the room. Snatching up a bottle of whiskey, he rapidly unscrewed the top and drank directly from the bottle. When he finally lowered it, he looked thoughtfully at the new level for a minute. Then he deliberately took another long slug, screwed the cap on again, and put the bottle down.
The chime of his doorbell made him jump. Wedge automatically moved to the door, then hesitated. A muffled voice came from the other side.
“Wedge ? It’s us, Wes and Hobbie.”
Wedge dithered for a moment, then hit the door release, knowing that if he tried to ignore them now, they’d only be back later.
Janson and Hobbie entered, greeting him with hugs. When Hobbie released him, Wedge staggered back a pace, the whiskey beginning to make itself felt. Janson steadied him.
“C’mon, sit down.”
Wedge ended up on the sofa, seated between his friends. Hobbie glanced around at the half-packed belongings.
“Are you leaving tonight ?” he asked.
Wedge shook his head, and started it spinning in a way that made him grateful he was sitting down. “In the morning.”
“Where are you going ?”
“Booster,” Wedge replied. “He already commed me and said there’d always be a place for me on the Errant Venture. And if I don’t want to stay there, the Venture’s a good place for a pilot to find work. Freighters, smuggling, mercenaries; there’s always work for a good pilot, no references required.”
“You can’t just give up like that, Wedge, and spend the rest of your life flying rusty freight buckets around the galaxy,” Janson protested. “Can’t you appeal against the court’s decision ? You’ve risked your life for them for what, ten years ? How much does the New Republic owe you ? Sithspawn, Wedge, you’re the most decorated pilot in the fleet, the Conqueror of Coruscant. And now they’re dismissing you without your pension, benefits, anything. Ackbar knows you; he knows you’d rather cut your own arm off than order an attack on a civilian target !”
It was Hobbie who answered.
“They do know Wedge. If they believed he’d ordered the attack on the school deliberately, he’d be in prison now, facing the death sentence.”
Janson looked at Wedge, appalled. Wedge nodded agreement to Hobbie’s words.
“Then why ?” Janson asked plaintively. “Why dismiss him from the service and ruin his reputation ?”
“Because they needed someone to blame for the deaths on Lleyan,” Hobbie said, his expression genuinely dour.
Wedge spoke up. “Seven hundred and sixty eight people died on Lleyan. Hundreds more were injured. Homes and businesses were destroyed in the rioting. Billions across the galaxy are blaming the New Republic. The Empire is using the Lleyan Massacre as a propaganda tool. The New Republic had to find someone to blame. I’m the logical target.”
“But it’s not fair !”
“Warfare is rarely fair,” Wedge replied. He leaned against the back of the sofa, letting his eyes close. “I gave the order,” he added softly. “I killed those children.” Tears leaked from beneath his eyelids and slid down his face.
“It wasn’t you who fired the torpedoes into the school, it was Asyr,” Janson reminded him. “You never even saw the building.”
“She was following my orders, acting on the information I’d given her,” Wedge replied, his voice husky. “It was my error, and nothing can change that.” His face contorted briefly in anguish before he got it under control again.
Hobbie put his hand on Wedge’s arm. “No matter what happened at Lleyan, we’re your friends, Wedge. We’ll listen any time you want to talk.”
“Going to stay with Booster is probably the best thing for you right now, but don’t disappear. Keep in touch, please,” Janson added, as serious as Wedge had ever heard him.
Wedge nodded. “Thanks for your support. It means a lot. “ He let out a long sigh, making the effort to control his feelings. Opening his eyes again, he looked at his friends. “So, how’s the squadron shaking down ?”
Janson grinned. “Tycho’s not the only one who’s got an extra pip on his uniform.” He nodded at Hobbie. “I never saw anyone look so gloomy at getting a promotion.”
Wedge turned to Hobbie, who, like Janson, was in civilian clothes. “Congratulations, Captain Klivian. I take it you’re now Rogue Squadron’s second in command ?”
Hobbie looked miserable. “One pip in exchange for a whole lot more datawork. I told Tycho he should have chosen Wes, but he just laughed at me.”
Wedge smiled at that, for what seemed like the first time in days. “I’m going to miss you two. But I won’t miss Lt. Kettch.”
Janson grinned and saluted him. “Yub, yub, Commander.”
On his other side, Hobbie did the same. “Yub, yub, Commander.”
Tears sparkled in Wedge’s eyes as he smiled. “Yub, yub.”
As well as the public spaces, the casinos, bars and shopping outlets, the Errant Venture also had small lounges, where deals could be made more privately. Booster Terrik stood just outside the doorway to one of these lounges, listening to the two men talking inside.
“We don’t have nice, fleet-issued X-wings, we fly Uglies. Can you handle one of them ?”
“I can fly anything.” It wasn’t a boast, just a simple statement of fact.
The first speaker made a sound of mild disbelief. “If I take you, you won’t be the commander, Commander. You’ll obey my orders at all times.”
“I understand.” The words were flat and dull.
“You’ll swear an oath to it.”
“Then I guess we’ve got a deal, Antilles.”
Booster acted before the speaker finished his sentence. His long stride carried him into the small lounge and up to the table before the men sitting there could shake hands. Booster seized the taller man by the collar of his fancy tunic and hauled him to his feet.
“Juhani, take yourself and your miserable band of mynock-fodder pirates off the Venture right now, and don’t come back in a hurry.”
As Wedge started to rise, Booster glared at him. “You, sit.” Wedge subsided back into his chair.
“Sithspawn, Terrik, what’s this got to do with you ?” Juhani demanded.
Juhani wasn’t a small man, but Booster shook him effortlessly.
“Wedge isn’t going to join your worthless band of trigger-happy scum while I’m alive and breathing,” Booster growled. “I know why you’re always after new pilots. You give them lousy ships to fly and expect them to do too much. How many have you lost this year ? Seven, eight ?”
Juhani scowled, but didn’t make the futile effort of trying to break free from Booster’s grip. “I thought Antilles here is supposed to be the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy.”
“He is, but that won’t keep him alive more than a year in the waste-of-materials you call starfighters.”
Juhani looked across at Wedge. “Are you going to let Terrik make your decisions for you ?”
Wedge stared at the whiskey bottle on the table and didn’t answer. Booster shoved the pirate towards the door of the lounge.
“Get off my ship and stay away from Wedge Antilles.”
Juhani straightened his tunic and departed, scowling.
Booster dropped into the seat opposite Wedge and poured himself a shot of the whiskey. He didn’t offer Wedge any; once Wedge started drinking, he was likely to continue until he was unconscious. Now Wedge avoided the bars and casinos, salvaging some pride by staying sober as often as he could.
“If you want to commit suicide, Wedge, just put your blaster to your head and pull the trigger. It’s more honest.”
Wedge responded with a look of utter despair that tore at the older man’s heart. Booster rose and moved to stand behind Wedge, placing his big hands on Wedge’s shoulders. He squeezed gently, trying to soothe the tense muscles under his hands.
“You’ll get through this, Wedge.” His voice dropped to a bass rumble. “You’re strong.”
Wedge just sighed sadly, letting his head droop forwards.
“You’ve been through tough times before and survived,” Booster said, shifting his grip so his thumbs were working on the top of Wedge’s spine. “Remember how black things seemed after Jag and Zena died ? You pulled through then and you’ll do it again.”
“I didn’t cause their deaths,” Wedge said quietly. “I put my grief into finding those who were responsible and killing them. This is different. Seven hundred and sixty eight people died on Lleyan and it was ultimately my fault. I screwed up on one target, and hundreds of people died.”
Booster couldn’t speak at first, choked up by the abject misery in Wedge’s voice. His hands kept moving, kneading and massaging in a silent attempt to bring comfort to the young man he loved as a son. He’d known Wedge from the day he was born, but had never seen him so broken as he was now. It wasn’t the loss of prestige or career that had shattered Wedge, it was the belief that he had failed in his duty. That Wedge had even considered joining Juhani’s pirates told Booster how worthless Wedge felt himself to be. It wasn’t just a slow way of committing suicide; for Wedge, it was the act of a man who had lost all honour.
There was silence for a minute, as Booster tried to push aside his fears for Wedge’s future and concentrated on trying to find the words to help him. One of the last things Wedge had said popped into his mind.
“You said you made a mistake when you allocated the school as a target,” Booster said. “How did that happen ?”
“I don’t know,” Wedge said tiredly. “I swear it was in the intelligence file I had when I was planning the mission. But it wasn’t there later. I must have mis-read something.”
“That’s not like you, Wedge, you’re careful,” Booster said. “I think that school was listed as a target in the file you used.”
Wedge raised his head. “But it wasn’t in the original file, and it wasn’t there later,” he repeated.
“Then somebody tampered with your copy,” Booster said firmly.
Wedge turned in his seat, looking up at the older man in surprise.
“You’ve been too busy blaming yourself for making a mistake, to ask how come you made it in the first place,” Booster said. “Those nerf-brains who court-martialled you should have asked that question.”
As Booster looked down at Wedge, he finally saw hope in his eyes, and it was as welcome as rain on Tatooine.
“Thanks for letting me stay here,” Wedge said to Mirax and Corran. He was in the living room of their apartment on Coruscant, a few days after his conversation with Booster.
Mirax hugged him tightly. “You’re family, Wedge. We couldn’t turn you away.”
Wedge smiled, comforted by both her words and the hug. The door buzzer sounded, saving him from the need to articulate his thanks. Whistler beeped and chirped, rolling towards the door. He opened it to reveal Iella Wessiri, who smiled in delight when she saw Mirax and Corran’s visitor.
Mirax stepped aside as Iella hurried across to Wedge and also enveloped him in a hug. Wedge held onto her a little longer than he had Mirax, revelling in the closeness. Reluctantly, he released her, stepping back a pace so they could look at one another.
“You’ve lost weight,” Iella said, her brown eyes concerned.
“Haven’t had much appetite,” he replied.
Iella frowned slightly, and changed the subject. “It’s good to see you; you didn’t tell me Wedge was back on planet,” she added, addressing the latter part of her remark to Corran.
“That was my call,” Wedge told her. “I don’t want to draw attention to myself so I came here under a false identity.”
Mirax chuckled. “You should have seen the wig he was wearing. Blond and curly really doesn’t suit him.”
Iella looked stunned at the image. Wedge took the opportunity to pull her down onto the sofa beside himself. Corran and Mirax seated themselves too. Mirax picked a yellowfruit from the bowl on the low table and juggled it from hand to hand before biting into it.
“I came back to Coruscant because I needed your help,” Wedge said, looking at his three friends in turn. “You’ve got skills and access that I don’t have. I need you to help me find the person who set me up to order the attack on the Gaudaron school.”
“You think it was a set-up ?” Corran asked, leaning forward.
“Booster thought of it first,” Wedge told them. “The data identifying the school as a target was on the file when I used it to plan the raid. It wasn’t there when the file was sent to me, and it wasn’t there afterwards. The logical explanation is that someone tampered with the file.”
Corran shook his head. “We were on an isolated base. The only people there were Rogue Squadron and its support crew.”
“There’s been traitors in Rogue Squadron before,” Wedge reminded him. “And not just Erisi. Way back before you joined the squadron, Corran, before Endor even, one of our crew chiefs was bribed to reprogram Wes’s astromech so it took control of his X-wing and tried to vape Luke.”
“I remember that being discussed after Tal’dira tried to kill you,” Corran said, his voice tinged with regret at being forced to kill the brainwashed Twi’lek.
“So we have possible motivations of politics, credits and brainwashing,” Iella said, making notes on her datapad. “All the usual suspects.”
“Apart from sex,” Mirax added.
“If someone thought that getting me court-martialled would improve their sex life, then their fantasies are way stranger than I can imagine,” Wedge said.
Mirax was on the point of answering when Iella interrupted.
“Staying on topic,” she said firmly. “We’re going to have to do a lot of data slicing. I‘ll have to get into personal accounts and records to look for anomalies, and just getting into the files without authorization is going to take time. If you took your suspicions to General Cracken, I’m sure he’d listen.”
Wedge shook his head stubbornly. “Don’t forget it was an Intel file that was used to set me up. It could have been someone in Intel behind it all. If we can’t find any suspects in Rogue Squadron I’ll consider it, but when someone set me up to order those deaths they made it very personal.”
“My authorizations won’t be valid any more,” he continued. “But I can give you some useful codes and passwords. Tycho may have changed some or all of them, of course, but you might as well have them.”
“You don’t want us to tell Tycho about this ?” Corran asked. “It would be easier if we could get authorization from him to access files.”
“He’s got plenty of other things to worry about right now, I bet,” Wedge said “And we don’t want even a whisper of this to get out, or whoever tampered with that file will be off quicker than a Bothan spotting a chance to stab a rival in the back.”
Iella nodded. “Everyone in the squadron has to be a suspect until proven otherwise. No one but us must know about this.”
Wedge almost protested that statement: there was no way he could consider Tycho, Wes or Hobbie to be behind this. But Iella was right. The fewer people who knew about their investigation, the better. He picked up his datapad and held it out to her.
“It’s my service datapad; I managed to keep hold of it. It still has the copy of the Intel file I viewed.”
Iella smiled as she took the datapad from him. “At the very least we should be able to prove that the file was tampered with, even if we can’t find out who did it.”
“With that much, you can appeal the court-martial and get those nek-brains to admit they were wrong to throw you to the rancors to save their own slimy hides,” Mirax said hotly.
Wedge smiled at her, then grimaced. “Just think how much datawork there’d be, with Tycho and Hobbie being reassigned back to their previous roles.” He looked at Corran. “How’s Rogue Squadron doing ?”
“Your dismissal hit everyone pretty hard,” Corran said, weighing his words. He met Wedge’s gaze. “It’s been a real shock to think that you’re gone permanently, not just off with the Wraiths. Tycho’s keeping us all busy, encouraging the squadron to move forward, reminding us that Rogue Squadron is an elite unit, and that the unit is the main thing, not the individual members.”
“He’s right,” Wedge said. His head agreed thoroughly with Tycho’s words, and it was good to know that the unit he’d helped to found and build could continue without him. At the same time, his heart ached to be with the comrades he’d shaped into that elite unit, out where his skills could do the most good for the galaxy.
Something of his feelings must have shown because Iella put her hand lightly on his arm.
“We’ll help you through this, Wedge. You’ll get justice.”
“It’s not just about me,” he said. “It’s for all those who died on Lleyan.”
If they could just prove that someone had tampered with the datafile, and that he hadn’t made a terrible mistake, Wedge would be able to forgive himself. But even then, he’d never forget the results of the order he’d given.
Time passed slowly for Wedge. He didn’t want to leave the apartment for fear of being recognised and attracting the attention of sludgenews journalists. They’d been there at the court-martial, following him with repulsor-mounted holocams, and thrusting microphones at him for quotes. Wedge had never liked media attention, even when it was for good reasons. Right now, it would be unbearable.
For the first couple of days, there was little for him to do other than watch the holoviewer or pace restlessly. Then Corran brought back the first of the personnel files that he and Iella had managed to copy. With Whistler’s help. Wedge began sifting through the mass of material, searching for anything that seemed out of place. The next night there were more files, plus Iella with some encouraging news.
“The Lleyan intelligence file on your datapad was definitely tampered with,” she said, smiling. “Our suspect is an amateur so far as data-slicing is concerned; they only did the most basic deletions to substitute the data. Once I started going back through the layers, I found the alterations almost at once.”
“Maybe they were working in a hurry,” Mirax said. “They may not have had much time to access Wedge’s datapad.”
“Or they weren’t expecting the file to be checked, so they didn’t bother doing a fancy job,” Wedge suggested.
Iella shook her head to that idea. “A real slicer would have made a more sophisticated job of it: professional pride.”
Corran spoke to Wedge. “The file tampering is sufficient evidence to take to High Command. They’ll have to clear your name.”
Wedge shook his head. “Not yet, Corran.” He leaned back on the sofa, gazing up at the ceiling, before continuing. “Someone used me to cause the deaths of hundreds of people on Lleyan; hundreds of people. I don’t know whether they were the intended victims, and I was the fall-guy, or if they were sacrificed in order to bring me down. Either way, someone made me responsible, in part, for those deaths, and I take that very personally.” He lifted his head and looked at his friends; pain and determination shone in his eyes. “This isn’t just about clearing my name, it’s about putting right the wrong that someone tricked me into doing.”
“We’ll keep digging,” Iella promised. “We know for sure there’s a suspect now. They can’t hide from us for ever.”
“Whoever it is thought he was only taking on one Corellian,” Mirax said, with a broad grin. “He’s got four after him now.”
“That’s odds even a Corellian might pay attention to,” Corran added.
Wedge was suddenly almost overwhelmed by the sense of how much the loyalty of his friends meant to him. For the first time he started to think about what he’d asked them to do for him. Corran and Iella had broken the law for him, by illegally accessing files, and could also lose their careers if caught. Mirax was a willing accessory, and could lose her trading licence or face imprisonment. Yet none of them had once spoken a word about the risks they were taking for his sake.
“I…I can’t thank you enough,” Wedge said, his voice a little husky. “I’d never be able to solve this on my own, and I appreciate your friendship more than I can say.”
“You’d never let a friend down.” Corran spoke for all three of them. “How could we do any less for you ?”
Slowly, a fragile sense of hope began to grow in Wedge’s heart.
Three days later, the smiles were gone. As soon as Corran and Iella had arrived at the apartment that evening, Wedge had known that something was seriously wrong. Iella enveloped him in a long hug, squeezing him as though trying to transfer some of her own strength into him. When she finally released him, he saw something strange in her face, like sympathy, though he couldn’t imagine for what. Corran was trying to hide his feelings behind an expressionless mask, but that alone sent warning signals to Wedge’s reflexes. Mirax had been subdued when she’d arrived back a few minutes earlier, and Wedge could guess why now. Corran must have commed her to break the news in advance. He was the only one who didn’t know.
Once again they sat in what had become their accustomed places in the living room, Iella on the sofa beside Wedge, and Corran and Mirax in the chairs opposite. Mirax glanced towards the kitchenette, as though she wanted to delay the moment by offering drinks, but she was too direct to do such a thing. Wedge could see Corran summoning the courage to open the conversation, and spoke first.
“You’ve found out who altered the Lleyan file,” he said. “Just tell me.”
Corran took a deep breath and hesitated; he was having trouble looking Wedge in the eyes. Iella spoke up.
Wedge turned sharply to look at her. His brain seemed to be having trouble processing the data she’d given him.
“Tycho ?” he repeated.
Iella nodded, that look of sympathy clear in her brown eyes. “It was Tycho Celchu who altered your copy of the Lleyan file.”
Wedge frowned, and looked across at Corran and Mirax. They wore similar expressions to Iella: sympathy, worry, anger. Wedge opened his mouth to speak, shut it, then tried again.
“Tycho ? Tycho altered the file so I’d choose a school as a target ? No ! No, not Tycho !” He paused, fighting down panic. “How do you know it was Tycho ? Have you got proof ?”
Corran leaned forward and dropped a couple of data cards on the low table. “We worked out how long it was between you getting the Lleyan file from Intel, and you reading it and planning the attack. At that point, you and Tycho should have been the only people who even knew about that file. Only about five people would have been able to get at your datapad in that time span, and Tycho had the best opportunity.”
Wedge had both hands curled into tight fists. “Why would you suspect him ? He’s my XO, my wingman, my best friend !” The last word came out as a desperate cry.
Iella took up the conversation. “At first we only considered him simply because he had the best opportunity. We thought we’d be eliminating him.”
“I went to speak to him,” Corran said. “I asked if he’d heard anything from you recently and what he thought about why you’d made such a mistake at Lleyan. Tycho said it had been a dreadful misjudgement on your part. He said he couldn’t imagine how you’d made such a mistake. But he was lying, Wedge. I could sense it, feel it through the Force.”
“When Corran told me that, I started to look more closely at Tycho’s files,” Iella said. “I found this.” She handed a datapad to Wedge.
He took it and stared at the screen. The file opened was a list of buildings, with notes appended. After a few moments, it sunk in that these were civilian buildings in Gaudaron - libraries, schools, hospitals, sports arenas. Partway down the list he saw a set of co-ordinates that were burned into his memory. They were the position of a school, with the age-range and numbers of pupils listed in the description. The note linked to the description simply read ‘looks like a factory - perfect’.
Wedge gasped as he read it, colour draining from his face. He let Iella take the datapad from his numb hand, barely aware of the words being spoken to him.
“I’m so sorry, Wedge. I wish we didn’t have to tell you this.”
“Wedge, Wedge - are you all right ?”
“He’s going to faint.”
“I’ll kill that kriffing Celchu myself !”
He jerked back to reality. Iella had her arm around his shoulders, supporting him as he shivered uncontrollably. Corran and Mirax were leaning over the low table; Mirax had her hand on his knee. Wedge let out a great groan, the only sound that could express his pain, and let Iella pull him against herself. He clung to her, letting her stroke his hair and whisper soothing noises, until the shivering died away.
“Wedge. Drink this.”
He looked up to see Mirax offering him a glass of whiskey. Wedge stared at the glass with hungry eyes, but then bit down on his lip as he shook his head.
“Not now,” he said, his voice rough. “I daren’t.”
Mirax’s eyes widened as she understood, then she withdrew the glass. “Caf, then.”
Iella released Wedge as he sat upright again. He took slow, deep breaths, trying to calm himself.
“Why…” He looked across at Corran. “Why would Tycho…betray…me ?” Pain stabbed at Wedge’s heart as he spoke that blunt, ugly word.
Corran looked embarrassed. “I think he wanted to be Rogue Leader.”
“He’d betray me just for that ?” Wedge asked, bewildered. He shook his head.
“You’ve had that role a long time, Wedge,” Corran said. “It’s completely a part of who you are, so much so that you maybe don’t realize how big a deal it might seem to someone else. Tycho trained at the Academy to be a leader, remember ? Since he’s got command of Rogue Squadron, he’s been determined to show what kind of a leader he can be.”
“If he wanted a command, he could have said so,” Wedge protested. “I wanted him in Rogue Squadron, but I’d have recommended him for a command of his own if I’d known he’d wanted one. Admiral Ackbar would have agreed.”
“He wants to be Rogue Leader,” Corran repeated. “To lead the best; to be the best.”
Mirax pushed a cup of caf into Wedge’s hands, and sat down opposite him. “It’s a bizarre kind of compliment really,” she said. “Tycho’s risked all this because he wants to show that he can do what you can do.”
Wedge lifted the mug and sipped absently. Something in him kept wanting to deny the evidence before him. He didn’t want to believe that it was Tycho who had tricked him into choosing a school as a target. That Tycho had been willing for innocent people, children, to die, in order to disgrace a friend and win a promotion. But it was true.
Even the warmth of the caf couldn’t dispel the cold bleakness in Wedge’s soul. He closed his eyes, and let the tears slide down his face as he wept silently for everything he had lost.
Winter had wanted to visit this restaurant for some time, but this, somehow, didn’t seem like the right occasion. She watched as Tycho poured the pale blue, sparkling Chandrilan wine into her glass, then filled his own. He was smiling and confident, a different kind of self-assurance to that she was used to seeing. The formal, deep blue tunic he wore set off both his hair, making it seem fairer, and his brilliant blue eyes. He was so handsome, in that elegant way she loved, but the confidence seemed disturbingly close to arrogance right now.
Tycho lifted his glass, saluting her with it.
“I knew you wanted to come here,” he said. “So tonight I thought we’d celebrate in style. After all, I’m now commander of the galaxy’s most elite starfighter squadron. Cheers.”
Winter raised her glass too, but could not bring herself to repeat the toast. She was proud of Tycho’s achievements, but couldn’t help thinking that it was wrong to celebrate his promotion, when it was a result of his friend’s misfortune. After sampling the light, refreshing wine, she called up the holomenu and studied the choices, half-listening to Tycho as he talked. He was telling her about his plans for Rogue Squadron, and his intentions of installing a strong sense of discipline.
“Janson may have been able to get away with playing pranks on Wedge, but that’s not my style of leadership. He’ll have to grow up at last, and stop pretending to…”
Winter looked up as Tycho’s words trailed away, then turned to see what he was staring at.
Wedge was approaching, striding between the tables towards theirs, a flustered waiter trailing him. He wore casual civilian clothing, including the brown jacket he’d had for years, had a blaster holstered at his side, and seemed to be holding something small in his left hand. Though his clothing was incongruous in the setting of this smart restaurant, it was his eyes that caught Winter’s attention. Wedge was looking at Tycho, his face cold, and at odds with the pain that haunted his dark eyes.
Wedge halted abruptly at their table, facing Tycho, his posture upright and military, just as Winter had always known him. The waiter came up close, sputtering indignantly.
“Sir, sir ! You have no right to barge in here, disturbing…”
Wedge drew his blaster in a smooth move, pointing it squarely at the waiter’s chest though he never took his eyes from Tycho’s face.
“I have many deaths on my conscience already. Right now, I don’t care whether you live or die. If you care, go away.”
Winter was shocked to realize that she believed what he said. The waiter believed him too, and melted away. The nearest diners discreetly abandoned their meals, slipping away from the confrontation. Wedge lowered the blaster pistol but didn’t return it to its holster.
“You did a good job, Tycho,” he said bitterly. “You got what you wanted. But you weren’t quite good enough. I know what you did.”
Tycho put his head on one side as he looked back at Wedge. “What are you talking about ?”
Wedge’s eyes glowed with fury. “Can’t you be honest with me any more, even now ? Don’t bother pretending, Tycho. I know you altered the data on the Lleyan target file.”
Winter stifled a gasp, clutching at the tablecloth. Tycho stared coolly at Wedge, aloof and apparently undisturbed by the accusation.
“Your bitterness is making you delusional,” he said. “You can’t face up to your error any more, so you need someone else to blame it on.”
Every muscle in Wedge’s body tensed, but somehow he managed to hang on to his temper.
“Oh, it wasn’t me who first thought you’d done it, Tycho. You were the last person I’d have thought of. You were my friend.” He took a deep breath. “It was Corran and Iella who found you out.” Wedge tossed a datachip onto the table. “You’re no slicer. The evidence is clear enough that even I was convinced that my best friend had betrayed me.”
Winter’s skin prickled at the palpable fury that radiated from Wedge, in stark contrast to Tycho’s eerie coldness. She clenched her jaw, trying to control both the nausea in her stomach, and the urge to scream.
“Why did you do it, Tycho ?” There was a desperate plea in Wedge’s voice. “If you wanted a command, I’d have arranged one for you.”
Tycho’s composure finally cracked. “I don’t want to be given a command because you organized it for me,” he hissed. “I want to be recognized as being as good as you are. I’m the one who graduated from the Imperial Military Academy. I trained for years to become an officer. Yet I always ended up following you, Wedge Antilles, graduate of a farm school.”
Wedge’s face paled, making his dark eyes seem more intense than ever.
“You were always there, blocking me,” Tycho went on. “I had Rogue Squadron while you were away with the Wraiths, and I did a fine job, I know I did. I helped you build that squadron, after all. Then you came back and took them away from me. Ackbar kept trying to promote you but you wouldn’t go. I should have been made a commander after the Zsinj campaign, but you turned down your promotions, so I never had the chance of one.”
There was silence for a few moments before Wedge spoke.
“Why did you have to do it that way ? Why didn’t you just kill me somehow if you wanted me gone ? You had more opportunity than anyone else. You could have arranged an accident easily enough. I’d be dead, you’d have Rogue Squadron; no one else would have been hurt.”
Tycho looked down at the table for a moment before meeting Wedge’s gaze again.
“You didn’t have the guts to do it yourself, did you ?” Wedge said contemptuously. “You didn’t have the guts to kill me directly. So you stabbed me in the back and left it for the court-martial to get rid of me for you.”
“So now it’s my turn for the court-martial,” Tycho replied, schooling his face into dignified immobility. “You can clear yourself and take back Rogue Squadron while I count the days to my execution.”
“No,” Wedge said, the haunted look coming back into his eyes. “You wanted my command, Tycho, but you went too far. You caused the deaths of seven hundred and sixty eight people on Lleyan. You gave me false data and made me responsible for ordering those deaths.” He paused a moment. “Justice for them is my responsibility, no one else’s.”
Tycho swallowed once, but nothing else shook his appearance of icy calm. When he spoke, his voice was firm.
“If you shoot me now, you’ll be committing murder. You’ll spend the rest of your life in jail.”
Wedge shook his head slowly. “My life is already over,” he replied starkly. “You’ve made living too painful, Tycho.”
His hand moved. Winter saw the flash of the blaster bolt before she heard the gun fire. Her heart jolted with shock, then again as Tycho crumpled forward over the table. Winter gave an involuntary cry on seeing the hole burnt though Tycho’s forehead. She looked up at Wedge, who gazed at her with anguished eyes.
“I’m sorry you had to see this,” he said softly.
He moved his hand again, raising the blaster to his head.
Winter closed her eyes, but she couldn’t close her ears to the single shot, or to the sound of Wedge’s body falling to the floor. When she opened her eyes again, he was sprawled inelegantly on the luxurious carpet, with his head just a couple of feet away from her chair. As she looked at his face, Winter saw that the pain that had haunted his eyes was gone; they were empty, already faintly glazed with death. She moaned and buried her head in her arms, futilely trying to block out the pictures her holographic memory would never let her forget.
The memory of two men, one dark and one fair. A friendship betrayed beyond redemption. Two more lives to be added to the total of those who died on Lleyan.
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