The X-wing slewed sideways as it plummeted through the atmosphere. Wedge Antilles hung on grimly to the control yoke as he tried to straighten the starfighter with the etheric rudder. He felt a response from the shuddering fighter, though the electronics screeched and a new rash of red warning lights lit up the cockpit.
“I know, I know,” Wedge muttered.
He felt the yoke pull to port and down, but as he tried to correct, the X-wing flung itself into a barrelling spin. Sky and ground flashed past the cockpit in turn, too fast for Wedge’s brain to make sense of. He closed his eyes, hoping to cut down on the dizziness by reducing sensory information. It helped a little, but not much.
“Tion, for pity’s sake…” Wedge clamped his mouth shut and swallowed hard before his stomach emptied itself. Ignoring the taste of vomit in his mouth, he spoke to his astromech, R2 T1, again. “Drop power…to starboard engines.”
What with the noise the damaged X-wing was making, and the fogginess clouding his senses, Wedge couldn’t hear if there was a response from his astromech. He pulled back on the yoke anyway, trying to lift the fighter’s nose. A few moments later, he realized that the sound of the starboard engines was changing. Even with his eyes closed, Wedge could feel the spin slowing. He juggled with the yoke and the rudder, determinedly wrestling his ship back to level flight. Even when he finally succeeded and opened his eyes again, he could do no more than hang onto the yoke and pray the ship would stay still long enough for the dizziness to pass.
Tion evened out the engine power, but the droid was whistling with increasing desperation. Wedge forced himself to focus on his displays.
I’m gonna crash !
The X-wing had been spinning longer than he’d realized. His sensors told him that the ground was less than 500 metres away, and getting rapidly closer. A brief glance through the canopy showed him rolling ground, largely covered in a dark-green and reddish tapestry of trees. Wedge started to reach for the eject button, then hesitated. If he punched out, the ship would hit the ground in an uncontrolled crash. The subspace radio, his survival gear, everything would be destroyed. If Janson followed orders, and completed the escort mission that had been ambushed above this nameless planet, Wedge would be stranded here for at least two standard days.
Wedge made his decision in a split second, and reached for the throttle instead. He figured the odds of landing his X-wing in reasonable shape had to be better than his chance of surviving two or three days in a wilderness, with no equipment to speak of. The planet was uninhabited; there was nowhere to go for help, and no way of knowing what was safe to eat, and what was poisonous. Wedge chopped back on the thrust to his engines and pulled back on the yoke to bring the starfighter’s nose up.
The X-wing shuddered all over, jostling Wedge in his seat. Tion squealed as the port stabilizer exploded. The fighter banked abruptly to port. Wedge pulled on the yoke and applied rudder, desperate to keep the ship level. As it heeled back again, the lower port s-foil tore off, crashing into the upper foil as it went. Power fed back through the ship’s systems, frying circuit boards, fusing wiring and filling the cockpit with smoke and the stench of burnt electronics. The X-wing tumbled randomly, spinning and swapping ends. The acceleration compensator failed, leaving Wedge unable to do anything more than cling to the yoke, in an attempt to brace himself as he was jerked this way and that. His helmet banged off the side of the canopy. He lost his grip on the yoke, and then the X-wing hit the first tree.
Unconscious; how long was I unconscious ? Aaaahh ! Sithspawn, that hurts ! Everything hurts. Even breathing hurts. My stomach; I feel kind of sick. Something’s pressing on my leg. Try moving it ...
Agony tore through Wedge’s right leg, forcing a scream that doubled the pain in his chest. He blacked out again for a few moments, gradually recovering as the pain began to ease a little. Wedge stayed still, hardly daring to breathe even, until his vision cleared and he could start to think again. Shifting his head cautiously, he looked about.
The X-wing had come to rest among a grove of the trees he’d seen from the air. There wasn’t much left of the fighter now; all that remained of the s-foils was the stub of the lower starboard wing. The nose of the X-wing had been torn off and what was left from the cockpit forwards was crumpled and twisted. The damage extended up into the footwell of the cockpit. The lower part of Wedge’s right leg was pinned between distorted bodywork and part of the torpedo launch system. Judging by the bolt of agony he’d got from trying move his leg, one or both of the bones had been broken.
That’s not my only problem.
The pain in his chest meant broken ribs. Discomfort in his belly suggested other injuries, probably from being thrown violently against the control yoke as the fighter crashed. A faint, metallic taste of blood in his mouth told him he was bleeding internally.
Wedge took off his gloves and removed his helmet. He raised his hand to run it through his flattened hair, and winced as the movement pulled on his broken ribs. When the pain subsided enough for him to start breathing again, Wedge pressed the button to open the cockpit canopy. Somewhat to his surprise, the cracked transparisteel canopy opened, letting in a flood of warm, fresh air that smelt of leaf mould and life. Wedge leaned forward far enough to put his helmet and gloves on top of his shattered targeting displays, then lay back in his pilot’s couch, tilting his head back to look up at the trees and sky.
The peace was broken by a series of mechanical tweets and whistles from behind the cockpit.
“Tion ?” Wedge was surprised at the pleasure he felt in knowing that the droid was still with him. “I’m glad you’re here.”
The astromech chirped, then made a questioning sound. With the X-wing’s display boards broken, Wedge had no way of knowing exactly what the droid was saying.
“Tion, beep once for yes, and twice for no. Did you pick up anything from Janson or the others as we were going down ?”
Might as well go straight for the main news. “Did the Winged Bantha get clear ?”
“How about Janson and the others ?”
“Did you pick up reports that any of them had been hit ?”
Wedge closed his eyes and relaxed a little. He and three other members of Rogue Squadron had been sent to this out-of-the-way system to rendezvous with a freighter called the Winged Bantha. The freighter was carrying a cargo of supplies for an Alliance-sponsored refugee planet in the Monclova system. Some of the people there were family of Rebel Alliance members, many were refugees who had fled from Tubac after the Empire had bombarded it as punishment for declaring its independence after the destruction of Alderaan. The location of Monclova was a closely-guarded secret. Freighters taking supplies there were escorted through a series of hyperspace jumps, using co-ordinates supplied by their escorts and which deleted themselves after each jump was made.
When the Winged Bantha had arrived in this system to meet the X-wings waiting for it, an Imperial Strike Cruiser had appeared from the far side of the planet and pounced. Wedge and his three fellow pilots had engaged the cruiser’s TIE fighters, buying time for the slow freighter to circle the planet and start its run to hyperspace. When the TIES had been vaped, Wedge had led the Rogues in a bold run against the Strike Cruiser. Their proton torpedoes had knocked out a couple of the cruiser’s turbolaser turrets, leaving a blind spot that they could attack with their lasers. The cruiser had been forced to abandon its pursuit of the freighter to defend itself against the X-wings. The fighting hadn’t been entirely in favour of the Rogues though. A hit from the cruiser’s guns had damaged Wedge’s ship, knocking out the hyperdrive motivators.
Without the motivators, Wedge couldn’t make the jump to hyperspace. He’d handed command of the mission to Janson, and elected to take his chance on getting groundside, to wait on the planet till help came. But the X-wing had been more damaged than he’d thought, and the landing had become a crash.
And now I’m trapped here, trapped in my X-wing. Even if I could get my leg free, I couldn’t do much about these injuries. It’ll take Janson twelve hours to escort the Winged Bantha to Monclova, and there’s no Holonet connection there. No way of letting base know what’s happened to me and they don’t know I’m hurt anyway.
The Rogues can’t leave Monclova until the cargo’s unloaded and then they have to take the Bantha to its drop-off point. Even if they leave without stopping on the planet for a proper rest, that’s going to be another twenty hours. Then it’s another four hours back to base, time to report in and ready a rescue shuttle. Another five hours or so for the shuttle to get out here, and then however long it takes them to find one small starfighter when there’s a whole planet to search.
They can’t get here in less than forty hours.
I don’t know if I’m going to live that long.
Wedge’s breath caught for a moment as he acknowledged that truth. He opened his eyes and gazed up at the sky and the purple-red leaves that rustled and danced overhead. It did nothing to disperse the cold, bleak feeling that had settled in the pit of his stomach. Every time he’d got into an X-wing he’d accepted that he might die there. For three years now, he’d been risking his life by flying and fighting. He’d seen plenty of other pilots die, Rebels and Imperials. Allegiance made no difference when a laser beam vapourized your body, or a torpedo ripped you apart faster than you could think. Most pilots were dead before they knew what was happening to them.
I’m going to die slowly, from blood loss and shock. There’s nothing I can do about it. This is it.
Misery flooded through him, tears stinging his eyes. He must have made some kind of sound because Tion started chirping gently, the notes rising in a question. Wedge sniffed inelegantly, wiping his hand over his eyes and blinking hard.
“I’ve lost the gamble this time, Tion,” Wedge said to the droid. “I beat the odds for three years, made it to lieutenant, and second in command of Rogue Squadron.” He paused, half-smiling for a moment, then closed his eyes again. “And in a few hours, a day at most, I’ll be just another dead rebel.”
I’m twenty-one. I should be looking forward to the rest of my life, not mourning the fact that it’s over.
“Why did I do it ? Why did I join the Rebellion ?” Wedge wasn’t sure what he was thinking and what he was speaking aloud to his droid. “I kind of drifted into it; running arms for them at first, for money. They saw I could fly a ship, and offered me somewhere to go, something to care about. So I chose to risk my life for ‘the Cause’, and now I’m going to die for it. Have I been as stupid as some people would say; is the Rebellion worth dying for ?”
Tion whistled sharply and emitted a rapid series of beeps. Wedge began to turn, to look back at the droid lodged in its socket behind him. Pain ripped through his chest, jerking him and setting off further bolts of pain from his belly and his leg. Wedge moaned, clenching his hands into fists as he waited for the burst of pain to pass. It eased off slowly and he gradually relaxed back into his seat. He felt sick, light-headed and thoroughly miserable.
Wedge stayed still for a few minutes, gathering mental and physical strength. At length, he carefully turned his head enough to see a panel down by the side of his seat. He fumbled with the catch, his fingers clumsy, and popped the lid open. The fluid bottle seemed heavier than he remembered, but the first taste of the enhanced juice was wonderful. It cleared the mixed taste of bile and blood from his mouth and refreshed him. He hadn’t realized how dry he’d got.
I’m losing blood, fluid levels are dropping. That’s when shock really sets in. The medic who taught us emergency aid would be proud of how much I’ve remembered. Right now though, I think I’d rather not know too much about what’s happening to me. Ignorance might not be bliss, but it’s got to be better than ticking off a mental checklist of the stages of dying from your injuries.
Wedge drank a little more, then put the bottle back to one side. Gritting his teeth, he reached forward, fighting the stabbing pain from his broken ribs, and managed to extract the medpac from its compartment in the base of his seat. Once it was on his lap, he took a minute to recover before opening the kit and searching for the painkillers. He found the tabs he was looking for, but a red hypo caught his attention. It was a dose of anti-shok, intended to slow down the onset of shock and give the patient a better chance of reaching a medical facility alive. Using it on himself seemed pretty pointless; it would slow his deterioration but it couldn’t keep him alive for as long as it would take for a rescue shuttle to reach him.
It might stop me feeling so bad. And I’ll have done all I can.
Wedge cracked the seal on the hypo and pressed it against the inside of his left wrist. He followed the dose with a couple of painkillers, washed down with more juice, then tilted his head back again to rest and to gaze at the sky.
The light was different now, turning more golden as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Wedge looked at the trees reaching skywards over his head, watching the way the lobed leaves rippled in the fresh breeze. A small dark avian with flashes of red on its wings swooped onto a nearby branch and piped a song. Wedge’s thoughts began to drift and he gradually slipped into something between unconsciousness and sleep.
It was fully dark when he woke, shivering, weak and sick. The pain in his belly was worse than before. As he lifted his head and groaned softly, Tion chirped and whistled anxiously.
“I’m so cold, Tion,” Wedge said quietly. He licked dry lips. “I know it’s my time to die now, but does it have to be so miserable and painful ? Why should I have to suffer when something like the Death Star goes in one quick bang ?” He fell silent, sorting through memories and thoughts.
Tion chirped, asking a question. Wedge didn’t reply immediately. He was thinking of the Alderaanians he knew. There had been a steady flow of them joining the Rebellion following the destruction of their planet, all of them carrying a burden of grief that Wedge understood only too well. All of them had lost friends, family, loved ones, when the Death Star had destroyed their home world. There were thousands upon thousands of Alderaanians scattered across the galaxy, each one of them trying to find some way of repairing a life that had been damaged by the Empire.
Wedge knew about that grief, knew about the guilt that survivors carried. He’d watched as the burning fuel depot that had once been his home had exploded with his parents inside. The warm security of his childhood had been shattered and the path of his life irrevocably altered. The new path had led to joining the Rebellion and taking part in the destruction of the Death Star.
“If we hadn’t destroyed the Death Star, how many other planets might have been destroyed by now ?” Wedge mused. “How many more people would be grieving because their families had been wiped out ? The Death Star wasn’t just about destroying planets, it was about inflicting pain and grief on people. So blowing up the Death Star wasn’t just about saving the Rebellion, or planets, it was to stop other people going through what I did when my parents were killed.” He paused, and swallowed. “Mom and Dad stayed on the depot to detach it from the rest of the station, so that when it blew, no one else would be hurt. They died to protect other people. I guess I joined the Rebellion to protect other people too. Like the refugees on Monclova. The freighter got away from the ambush; the Monclovans will get their supplies” His voice was weak, and raspy with dryness, but he spoke the last sentence with pride.
Tion whistled softly: agreeing, maybe, or sympathetic. Wedge didn’t know. He lay in his pilot’s seat, half-listening to the rustling of the leaves above and the small noises of nocturnal wildlife going about its business. The air smelt good, carrying the unique scents of this planet’s plants and animals to him. Wedge’s body was weak, exhausted from its burden of pain, but his mind was peaceful at last. He truly understood why he'd risked his life by fighting with the Rebellion, and he was satisfied that he’d used his life well.
Only twenty-one years of life, but I’ve given that many and more to others. Mostly beings I don’t know, and who would never know of me, even if I lived to be one hundred and twenty-one. But they are out there, I know it. I think Mom and Dad will be proud.
Wedge closed his eyes, bringing up memories of his childhood. He relived those times of warmth and security until his thoughts grew hazy and he drifted into unconsciousness. When Tion noted his lack of movement, and began to beep anxiously, there was no response.
I can taste bacta.
Wedge opened his eyes, blinking until his vision adjusted to the bright artificial light coming from panels in the ceiling. Electronic equipment hummed quietly, somewhere close to the bed he was lying in. He felt rather groggy and there was something rigid fixed to the lower part of his right leg, but there didn’t seem to be any real pain. A hand touched his left arm. Wedge turned his head to see a Mon Calamari medic standing beside the bed, offering him a drink.
“Welcome back, Lieutenant Antilles,” the medic said, opening his mouth in a Mon Cal smile.
The medic slipped a broad, flat hand behind Wedge’s shoulders and helped him to sit up enough to take a drink. Wedge swallowed a few mouthfuls of refreshing juice, but was glad to lie down again.
“How bad was I hurt ?” Wedge asked. “I didn’t think anyone would find me in time. Did Janson complete his mission ?”
The Mon Calamari pressed a sensor against Wedge’s forehead before he answered. “Flight Officers Janson and illa Samono returned to base approximately two hours ago. I believe that their mission was successful. As Janson was preparing to leave the system where you were shot down, his astromech received a brief message from your droid, to the effect that your ship was badly damaged and about to crash land. When he came out of hyperspace after the initial jump, Officer Janson sent Zev back to this base to get help for you, while he and his wingman continued with the mission.
Your condition was critical when the rescue shuttle found you, but the crash team managed to stabilize you for the journey back here. It would have been preferable to leave you in the bacta for longer, but our resources are very limited, and you are strong enough now to manage without continuous immersion.”
Wedge couldn’t help smiling. Janson hadn’t exactly followed his orders to escort the freighter in the way that Wedge had intended. But if Janson had done like I intended him to, and hadn’t split his group, I’d be dead. How can I reprimand him for not obeying orders properly when he did it to save my life ?
The Mon Calamari completed his checks and removed the sensor from Wedge’s face.
“Captain Skywalker and the other members of your squadron have been eager for details of your recovery,” he said. “If you wish, you may have two visitors for a few minutes only. After that you must rest.”
“I’d like to see them,” Wedge said, cheered by the thought of seeing his friends.
As the medic left the screened cubicle, Wedge stretched cautiously, feeling his muscles move and the blood tingling in his fingers and toes. He smiled; it was the feeling of being alive, and it felt good.
Wedge paused a short distance away from his X-wing, as far as he could get in the busy and crowded hangar and still have a good view of his ship. It gleamed white under the bright work lights, as new as the orange flightsuit he wore, and the helmet he carried under his arm. Rogue Squadron had spent the last three weeks speculating on which would happen first: Wedge being passed as fit for duty or supplies finding him another X-wing to fly. Supply had confounded everyone by delivering a new X-wing a full week before its pilot had been given the all-clear. Wedge just gazed at the X-wing as the techs bustled around it, prepping it for flight.
A hand on his shoulder made him start. Wedge looked round to see Luke Skywalker standing beside him, also dressed ready to fly.
“Are you all right ?” Luke asked, his blue eyes concerned.
Wedge guessed what he meant, and looked back at the sleek starfighter.
“I’m looking forward to flying again,” he answered truthfully. “Before, I believed that I was willing to die for the Rebellion. In a way, I did die on that planet, Luke; I had no hope I’d ever wake up again. But I worked out that I’d died so that other people wouldn’t; that I’d saved some families from grief and suffering. So now I know that if I die fighting for the Rebellion, it will have been worth it.”
Luke squeezed his shoulder and let go. “That’s good, Wedge. Now how about we go make some people’s life better by giving some Imps a bad time ?”
Wedge grinned. “I’m in.”
He left Luke and jogged towards his X-wing, eager to be back in the fight.
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