The Echo Project - part 4

Time passed in a daze. Tycho automatically fulfilled his obligations as the Rogues’ commanding officer as the Redemption returned to Coruscant. The shuttle had got clear of Galdo with backup from the rest of Rogue Squadron in their X-wings, summoned from their waiting position by Ghazal. Shuttle and X-wings then made the short jump to rendezvous with the carrier. Tycho had debriefed the Rogues, breaking the news of Wedge’s death to those who’d not been part of the infiltration team. Worse than seeing the grief on Wes and Hobbie’s faces was making the holonet call to Iella on Coruscant.

Tycho could have composed a message and sent that, as was more usual, but he had to do Iella the courtesy of telling her himself, and being there to answer her questions immediately. His own numbness helped to insulate him as the light died from her face when he delivered the news.

“It happened so fast,” Tycho repeated, his conversation disjointed. “Wedge didn’t suffer much. He saved us. We couldn’t do anything for him. It was a fluke; the blaster bolt went right through his heart. He died so quickly.”

“Thank you,” Iella said softly. “I know you’d have done anything possible to save him.” She paused, and cleared her throat. “Please don’t blame yourself, Tycho. He knew the risks he was taking when he went into combat, and we both accepted them. At least I’ll be able to say goodbye to him. He’s not missing in action.” She shook her head, her long hair swaying with the movement. “Thank you.”

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered in return.

“I know.” Iella made a slight smile of thanks, and cut the connection.

Tycho closed his eyes and the tears finally began to flow.

Tycho entered the memorial hall with his arm linked tightly in Winter’s. She was in a simple black jacket and dress that looked stunning with her white hair. Tycho wore his dress uniform out of respect to the friend they were saying farewell to. The funeral was the next day, for family and friends only, but Wedge’s casket was in the little memorial room so those that loved him could see him one last time, and pay their respects in private. A public memorial service was scheduled for a couple of weeks’ time, to celebrate the life of the New Republic’s greatest starfighter pilot. The politicians had effectively taken charge of it and Tycho felt it was going to be a publicity event for them. Wedge’s courage, honour and virtues would be celebrated on behalf of the New Republic, and Tycho had been told, not invited, to make a speech.

But that was in the future. Right now he was in the peaceful room, decorated only by two holos of Wedge; one formal, showing him in his general’s uniform; the other a family holiday snapshot of him smiling, Iella at his side and an infant Syal in his arms as they stood on a beach on Chandrila. Still holding Winter’s arm tightly, Tycho approached the open casket and looked into it. The edges of the simple casket glowed faintly blue as they emitted the conservator field that kept a body fresh until the actual funeral.

Wedge had been laid out in his dress uniform, the crisp white of the jacket contrasting with his dark hair. He wore a red sash embroidered with representations of the many medals and honours he’d been awarded in almost twenty years of service. The actual medals had been kept by Iella for Syal when she grew up. Tycho studied Wedge’s face. It was expressionless and somehow empty, without even the life he had had when sleeping. It was like looking at a mask, and yet unmistakably also the real Wedge. Tycho found the duality disconcerting, and looked away.

He didn’t want to linger here. He’d needed to come, to see the formality of Wedge’s death. That bare minute or so on the shuttle had happened too fast; his mind hadn’t truly made the transition to believing that Wedge was dead. Seeing him in his coffin, laid out in the rituals of death, Tycho could begin to adjust to the reality. He let out a long, soft sigh.

“Tycho. Look at his right hand.”

Tycho blinked and turned to look at Winter. The urgent tone of her voice puzzled him more than the words.

“Look,” she insisted.

Tycho did as she asked. Wedge’s hands were together on his chest and looked perfectly normal to Tycho.

“What am I not seeing ?” he asked.

“A scar, from when Rogue Squadron were sent to liberate Coruscant from Ysard,” Winter said, her voice carefully controlled. “Wedge, Pash, Iella, Mirax and I were in a safe apartment when Corran inadvertently sent a speeder bike crashing through the window, remember ? Wedge got shards of transparisteel embedded in his hand. I found some rhyll to kill any infection, but as we were undercover, there was no bacta available. He had to let the wounds heal naturally, and it left a scar.”

Tycho’s eyes widened. “I remember now. It wasn’t a big scar and I think it faded over the years. I stopped noticing it, anyway.”

He looked again and saw that the back of Wedge’s right hand was smooth and unblemished.

“He could have had it surgically repaired at some point,” he said cautiously.

“Wedge wasn’t that vain,” Winter replied, a little absently.

Tycho saw the slightly distant look in her eyes and knew she was looking back at the images of Wedge recorded by her astonishing holographic memory.

“I last saw him at the party to mark his return to Rogue Squadron. He had the scar then.” Winter said confidently.

“Iella would know if he’s had it removed,” Tycho pointed out.

“He also had a small scar on his outer left elbow,” Winter said.

Tycho nodded, remembering. “He got it at school on Corellia, falling off a slope-wing he’d been told not to ride.”

Winter looked into the casket. “We need to know if this man’s got that scar or not.”

Without waiting for Tycho to reply, she reached into the casket and gently picked up Wedge’s left arm. Tenderly pushing up the jacket sleeve, she revealed a bare elbow that had no scar. After restoring the sleeve, she replaced the arm as it had been.

Tycho stared at the body in the casket. “That’s…it must be Wedge. I flew with him; talked to him. And look at him; you couldn’t get that close a match with surgery, surely ?” He paused, trying to order his disjointed thinking. “An almost perfect replica but without those little scars we know that Wedge had…so if it’s not Wedge then… a clone ?” he suggested suddenly.

Winter nodded. “I think that’s right. A perfect replica in genotype, but just missing the tiny details accumulated through life that alter the phenotype. Neither injury was treated by military facilities so I doubt either of those scars are listed in Wedge’s medical records.”

“I can barely see the scar on his hand in that holo,” Tycho said, looking at the family picture. “It could easily be a flaw in the recording, or a smear of sand from the beach.” He looked again at the body in the casket and shook his head. “But I worked with him, fought with him. He…there was something a little different about him. But until a few moments ago I’d have sworn on the remains of Alderaan that this was the Wedge Antilles I’ve known for seventeen years.”

“We need to call General Cracken and let him know what we’ve seen,” Winter said briskly. “Detailed analysis will tell if this is a clone or not.”

A new thought hit Tycho like an ion bolt. He turned sharply to face Winter.

“If this is a clone, where’s the real Wedge ?”

Tycho arrived at the briefing the next day with Winter and Iella. Iella’s face was strained, her body language taut, but she was beautiful in spite of it. They took places at the long, oval conference table in the Starfighter Command meeting room. Admiral Ackbar was at one end of the table, and the humidity of the room had been slightly raised to accommodate him. Already seated around the table were General Cracken, General Bel Iblis, a bald, stocky man that Tycho didn’t know and the Chief of State, Leia Organa Solo. Leia gave Iella a look of warm sympathy as they settled down.

Admiral Ackbar started by telling them that the meeting was a matter affecting New Republic security, and therefore subject to a high level of security. After calling Cracken to tell him of their suspicions, Tycho had spoken to no other Rogues about the possibility that the dead man was not the Wedge they knew. It had been hard not to call, Wes and Hobbie especially, but he’d understood the necessity for silence.

General Cracken then introduced the bald man as Dr Jetern, one of the New Republic’s top forensic pathologists. Tycho gripped Winter’s hand under the table as the thick-necked, stocky doctor began to speak. Dr Jetern looked around the table and said without preamble.

“The body I have examined is not that of General Wedge Antilles. The deceased is a clone of the General.”

Tycho gave a sharp sigh of relief, as did others around the table. Iella closed her eyes for a moment, before opening them again and fixing her gaze on the doctor as he continued to speak.

“The original autopsy was treated as a routine matter, as there were witnesses to the death of the clone. The first examiner confirmed that death was due to severe blood loss following a blaster wound to the heart. She did a standard check of the major organs, which showed nothing suspicious, and ran blood toxin tests which were clear. As cause of death was confirmed, and the identity of the deceased was not, at that time, in question, no further examination was made.”

Dr Jetern glanced around the table, as though expecting someone to question him. There was silence, so he continued.

“I subsequently examined the body with the express intention of determining identity. I did a detailed body scan, and compared the results with General Antilles’ medical records.” He tapped something into his datapad and a holo appeared in the centre of the table, turning slowly so that everyone could view it.

The holo was two images, side by side, of a human ribcage. Tycho felt it was rather eerie, but the plainness of the images kept it clinical, rather than personal. He glanced sideways at Iella, who was watching the images with a horrified fascination.

“The image on the left is from General Antilles’ medical records,” Dr Jetern explained. “The right is from the body of the clone. Ten years ago, General Antilles fractured two ribs on the left side of his chest. As bacta treatment was not available to him at the time, the bones had to knit naturally. You can see the healed fractures on the scan.”

A touch on the doctor’s datapad, and the left holo zoomed in to show a close up of the slight lumpiness in the bone at the point of fracture.

“The scan from the body of the dead man shows no such damage,” Dr Jetern continued, as that holo enlarged also, to show the undamaged bones. “Furthermore, the right hand of the clone shows no sign of the surgical repair work done to the bones and tendons of General Antilles’ right hand after it was injured at Endor.”

The holos changed to pictures of the internal structures of hands, that were slightly more detailed than Tycho really liked. Some of the tendons of one hand seemed more opaque than the rest, and Tycho realized that those had to be artificial tendons used to repair the damaged hand. The hand in the other holo had only natural tendons.

“Once I had confirmed that the body was not that of General Antilles, I undertook further investigation.”

Tycho saw the doctor’s eyes light up, and correctly anticipated a lecture.

“As you know, telomeres are repetitive strings of information at the end of each chromosome,” Dr Jetern told them. “Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres lose some of their information. They become shorter. When cells are taken from an adult to be cloned, they will already have lost a proportion of their telomeres. The clone develops with cells that are the same age as the progenitor was when the cells were taken. So if General Antilles were 30 when the sample cells were taken, his clone would have cells with 30 year old telomeres while it was still in an embryonic stage of development. This is the reason why standard clones have shorter lifespans than their originators. A clone fresh out of a tank may be only a week old by conventional measurements, but at a cellular level, he could be sixty years old already, if that’s how old his originator was.”

General Cracken caught the doctor’s eye, and spoke up.

“Can you tell how old the clone was ? When was he created ?”

Dr Jetern nodded firmly. “Analysis of the clone’s telomeres, taken from several kinds of tissue, indicated that the clone was approximately five years old.”

Tycho felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the clone-Wedge. The clone, who had been so like Wedge that Tycho hadn’t seen the substitution, had only had five years of life. It seemed cruelly short.

General Cracken thanked Dr Jetern for his work and gave him permission to leave. Dr Jetern nodded and strode briskly out of the meeting room with the air of a man with something important to do.

“So this clone-substitution plot has spent some five years in development,” General Bel Iblis remarked. “It must have cost a lot in time, money and resources. General Antilles is a valuable member of the New Republic military, but I wonder why anyone would choose to clone him, specifically.”

Tycho wondered for a moment if the older Corellian was slightly jealous that he apparently hadn’t been considered important enough to clone. He noticed Iella frowning and shooting a dark look at Bel Iblis, but she kept her thoughts to herself.

Cracken answered. “As Dr Jetern has explained, cells used for cloning reflect the age of the donor.” He looked around the table, his gaze lingering slightly longer on Bel Iblis. “So from the scientific point of view, General Antilles is one of our younger generals, and therefore a good candidate for the cloning process. From the intelligence side, he has been a member of the New Republic military from before the battle of Yarvin, is a trusted officer and has worked closely with Admiral Ackbar for many years. He is also a personal friend of both our Chief of State, Leia Organa-Solo, and of her brother, the Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. All of which makes him a valuable source of information on the military and resources of the New Republic.”

“But why go to the trouble of creating a clone and training him to pass as the real Wedge ?” Leia asked. “Whoever did it clearly has the ability to kidnap him off Coruscant, so why not just do that ?”

“Two reasons,” Cracken said. “The first is that it gave them a chance to put their own operative in a very sensitive position within the New Republic military. Our initial analysis of the General’s computer, datapad and holonet connection indicate that the clone was sending information out to someone, presumably the people who created and trained him. We need more time to discover exactly what information was leaked, but it looks as though it includes data on our patrols out near the Corporate Sector, which would have enabled the pirates to time their attacks to coincide with the unescorted fleets.”

“You mean the Echo Project ships weren’t listening in and collecting the data ?” Tycho asked, sitting upright. “There was no Echo technology was there ? It was all a fake.”

General Cracken looked, very briefly, abashed. “We now believe that to be the case,” he replied stiffly. “I suspect that the information about the Echo project was planted for us by the clone himself.”

Tycho felt a surge of irritation, remembering how he’d felt that the mission was based too much on assumption, and not enough on hard evidence.

“It would seem that the Echo ship project was a scheme to reduce or eliminate Rogue Squadron by getting them to fly the sabotaged ships,” Bel Iblis said. “Presumably the clone had a way of disabling the bomb, so his ship would be unaffected. He could return to us with a story of a miraculous escape, or return to his commanders.”

“But he didn’t go though with it,” Tycho protested. “Wedge – the clone Wedge – changed his mind at the last moment. I saw him make the decision. He told us it was a trap, showed us the bombs hardwired in, then he led us through the base to the hangar with the shuttle. He died helping us get away.”

Admiral Ackbar rolled one of his large amber eyes to look more directly at Tycho. “It would seem that the clone inherited more than just his physical body from General Antilles.”

There was a brief silence, as those who’d known Wedge reflected on this.

The quiet was broken by Leia.

“You said there were two reason for substituting with the clone ?” she said gently to Cracken.

The Intelligence director nodded. “The other advantage that the clone makers gain is time. Time to interrogate General Antilles at their leisure and gain as much information from him as possible. And time to act on that information.

If General Antilles had simply vanished, standard military procedure would have necessitated changing codes, passwords and other sensitive information that he was privy to, on the assumption that he would be forced to give up that information under interrogation. It would have been done as soon as we were certain that he was missing. From what Colonel Celchu and Iella Antilles have told us, it seems that the clone was among us for approximately three months. The clone’s presence concealed the fact of General Antilles’ absence and so security measures were not taken during those three months.” Cracken paused, the heavy muscles of his jaw and neck tightening as he made the admission. “That has been rectified now,” he finished.

Iella spoke up for the first time. “We now know that the dead man is a clone, but where is Wedge – my Wedge ?” Her pain showed in her eyes, but not in her voice.

“The use of the Promezia Corporation base as the location for the Echo ship trap suggests their involvement,” Admiral Ackbar said.

“But why would they want New Republic military secrets ?” Bel Iblis asked, turning to look at Cracken.

“They may not have acted alone,” Cracken replied. “The cloning technology is likely to have come from the Imperial Remnant.”

“The technology, maybe,” Bel Iblis said. “But this plot isn’t Gilad Pelleon’s style. He’s a straightforward soldier; he doesn’t care for dirty intelligence work.”

Cracken looked a little surly at that remark. “It could have been done behind Admiral Pelleon’s back. Some of the Moffs don’t like the power he has.”

“Well, whether or not the Imps are involved,” Bel Iblis said brusquely, still looking at Cracken. “It’s three months since they took Antilles. That’s more than enough time to get all they can from him. And once they’ve got all his information, he’s useless to them. He was probably executed weeks ago.”

A brief cry escaped from Iella. She snapped her mouth shut and sat with her hands clenched and her face rigid as she fought for control. Tycho felt a surge of anger at the general’s tactlessness, which faded only slightly when Bel Iblis bowed his head briefly and apologized to Iella for upsetting her. Iella couldn’t bring herself to answer verbally, her lips pressed tightly together, but she acknowledged the apology with a brief nod of her head. Leia reached over and touched her gently on the arm.

“That may not be the case,” she said reassuringly. “We’ll do all we can to find out what’s happened to him.”

“Thank you,” Iella answered, a little hoarsely.

“We’ll start looking into the Promezia Corporation,” Cracken said, backing Leia’s promise. “They seem the most likely suspects in General Antilles’ disappearance. Someone grew that clone and spent five years training it to act as General Antilles. There may some kind of data trail; goods supplied to a remote base perhaps.”

A faint memory came to Tycho, a nagging feeling of something that might be important.

“They did an excellent job of conditioning the clone to behave like General Antilles,” Admiral Ackbar commented. “I spoke to him several times and never suspected that this wasn’t the Wedge I’d worked with before.”

“Preconceptions,” said Cracken. “We had no reason to suspect he was not the original Antilles, so we assumed that he was. There may have been some changes in behaviour, and undoubtedly gaps in the clone’s knowledge of Antilles personal life,” he looked over at Iella. “But the clone surely had the potential to be as bright and adaptable as Antilles, and would have covered for himself.”

“He did,” Iella said. She shook her head. “I think he grew to be more like Wedge in other ways too. I noticed that just after he’d returned to Rogue Squadron, Wedge seemed a little awkward with Syal in the evenings. He knew how to do things like change her nappy, but he didn't play with her much. I thought he was tired, with all the work of changing his post and getting the squad working together again. But after a few weeks, he seemed back to normal. He played with her and… and he said that being her daddy was the most important thing in the galaxy. Wedge - the clone - said he’d never imagined what it was like to have a family like this.”

“Because he’d never had a family,” said Leia sadly. “The clone must have spent most of his life in some kind of high-security facility, isolated, while his creators secretly developed him as their tool and conditioned him to follow their plans.”

“Which backfired,” Tycho said. “Because we thought he was Wedge and treated him like a person, not a tool. He spoke about how much he enjoyed being part of a team like Rogue Squadron, and how we looked out for one another in battle.” He paused and swallowed. “We were probably the first friends he ever had. And when it came to the moment of betraying us, he couldn’t.” The nagging memory finally popped into Tycho’s mind. “When he was dying, he put the last of his strength into saying one word – it was important to him, but it didn’t mean anything to me at the time.”

Cracken glowered across the table at him. “You didn’t mention this in your report.”

“I forgot,” Tycho said frankly. “Wedge was dying right in front of me; that’s what I remembered.”

“What did he say ?” Iella asked intently.

Tycho frowned as he thought. “Ben..something. Bens…bens…Benzalko !” he said triumphantly.

There was a slight stir around the table as those present tried to recall any meaning. It was Winter, unsurprisingly, who spoke up.

“Benzalko is a planet in the Corporate Sector.” She hesitated for a moment, consulting her holographic memory. “The Promezia Corporation have major holdings there.”

“Then that’s it !” Iella exclaimed. “The clone couldn’t bring himself to betray the Rogues in the end; he helped them instead. The last thing he could do to help was to tell you where Wedge is.” Her eyes were bright as she looked at Tycho.

“The clone may not have been referring to the place where General Antilles was taken,” Cracken said carefully. “Benzalko may just be home to the facility where he was created, or he may simply have been indicating the location he knew of for the Promezia Corp.”

Iella shook her head vigorously, and Tycho backed her up.

“The clone knew how important Wedge is to us. He experienced it all: the love of his – Wedge’s - family, the respect and affection of his colleagues. The clone told us how moved he was by it. And he spent his life training to think and act like Wedge, to become Wedge and he did. That’s why he saved us and died for us,” Tycho said passionately. “Wedge would have tried to give us the information we needed to find someone we loved. That’s what the clone did.”

“I think you’re right,” Leia said. She looked across the table to Cracken. “I think Benzalko is the first place we should look for Wedge.”

General Cracken nodded, then looked across at Iella. “We’ll start the search for General Antilles there, but please remember that what General Bel Iblis said is very probably true. Your husband may no longer be alive,” he said with unaccustomed gentleness.

Iella let out a slow, controlled breath. “I understand that,” she said, holding herself as though for a formal briefing. “The most important thing for me is to find out what has happened to him, alive or dead. It will be easier to cope if I know.”

Cracken inclined his head. “I understand.”

Admiral Ackbar took charge of the meeting again. “Our knowledge that it was a clone of Wedge who was killed will be kept secret until further notice. If the Promezia Corp know that we’ve discovered their plot they will be submerge their path into deep waters and be harder to follow. And if they have General Antilles alive still, they may simply kill him rather than try to keep him hidden.”

Leia nodded. “I think the clone should have a private funeral, just as we planned for Wedge,” she suggested, looking at Iella. “He deserves it in his own right. But we’ll find an excuse to delay the memorial service. If we find that Wedge is dead, then unfortunately, it will go ahead.”

Iella nodded. “That seems right to me. Thank you.”

“Rogue Squadron would like to have a role in finding Wedge,” Tycho said, looking at Cracken. “The squadron has taken a major blow in losing Wedge. And in effect, we’ve lost him twice over: the real Wedge is missing, and the clone we believed to be Wedge was killed. Looking for Wedge – finding out what happened to him, would give us the feeling of fighting back.”

“Finding General Antilles is a job for Intelligence,” Cracken objected.

“The Wraiths aren’t available, and if he’s being held somewhere alive you may need military firepower to get him out. And we’ve proven ourselves in working closely with Intel before,” Tycho said, finding it hard not to actively plead for something he wanted so much.

“I can help with preliminary work,” Iella said. “I shan’t leave Syal, but there’s a lot I can do here on Coruscant.”

“I’ll help too, if I may,” volunteered Winter, looking at Leia, who nodded.

Tycho turned to Admiral Ackbar, trying to read the Mon Calamari’s expression. Ackbar raised one flippered hand in Cracken’s direction. “This combination has been successful before,” he said. “I’m willing to authorize Rogue Squadron to take part in the search for General Antilles.”

“Very well, Colonel Celchu,” Cracken said. “You get your way.”

Tycho looked at Iella. She smiled at him, more positive and more hopeful than he’d seen her since he’d broken the news to her from the Redemption. He smiled too; there was no guarantee that Wedge was still alive, but they had a hope now, that they hadn’t had two days ago.

“We’ll find out what happened to him,” he promised Iella.

She nodded. “I know.”

The squadron of TIE fighters zigzagged through the ironwood forest.They flew just below the reddish-green forest canopy, barely 100m above the ground. Wedge twisted onto a path that ran straight and clear for two seconds and used the time to glance at his scanners. The rest of Spitfire Squadron were all behind him in acceptably close formation, though Three and Six both indicated minor damage from getting too close to the trees. Wedge grinned, as he curved his fighter gracefully around a tree in his path and entered a clearing.

“Spitfires, follow me,” he ordered.

Reaching the open space, he pulled his eyeball into a steep climb and accelerated up into the clear sky. He went a hundred feet clear of the trees before barrel-rolling the nimble TIE for the fun of it and swooping back to just above tree-height. The forest filled the wide canyon below, enclosed by towering yellow-white cliffs that opened into side canyons here and there. As he pulled out of his dive, Wedge encountered the cross-wind from one of those canyons. He’d been expecting it, and expertly controlled the TIE as the gusting wind caught its large solar arrays. His course deviated by no more than a couple of centimetres in spite of the sideways force of the wind.

The rest of Spitfire Squadron were less successful. Wedge’s grin got wider as he watched the other eyeballs encounter the cross-wind and get blown off course to varying degrees. They straightened themselves up efficiently enough afterwards.

“Five, Eight – good responses there. Seven, I thought you’d gone to take a look at something on the other side of the canyon,” Wedge told them.

“Sorry, Lead.” The response was genuine but brief.

Wedge thought wistfully of the kind of reply he’d have got from one of the Rogues or Wraiths. This was the third anonymous squadron of pilots he’d polished up here and it was clear that they were under strict orders to keep communications to a minimum. Wedge disliked the restriction, not least because it made it very hard for him to build the sense of teamship that he believed was vital for any squadron. He didn’t know any of them by name, only by unit number and they only addressed him as Lead, One or Sir.

Of course, strictly speaking, it was a good thing, as these pilots were all obviously working for whoever was holding him captive. Wedge didn’t want his enemies to have top-notch pilots, but they were still pilots, and it went against the grain not to do as good a job as he could. The sim training sessions gave him something to do, and to think about. And as it was the only thing his captors had demanded of him after the interrogators had finished with him, Wedge suspected the training was the only reason they still kept him alive.

“Why did the cross-winds affect the TIEs so much ?” he asked the Spitfires.

Eight answered first. “The large flat solar arrays catch the wind like a sail.”

“Correct. It’s not a problem in space, but you’ll be finding that the TIE is slightly less agile in atmosphere and you need to be aware of wind direction. How did I know to compensate for the cross-wind before it hit me ?”

“You’ve done this sim before ?” Eleven suggested.

Wedge ignored him and waited for another answer.

“You guessed there would be a cross-wind coming from the side canyon,” Five said.

“Almost right, Five,” Wedge answered. “But I didn’t guess, I knew. And not because I’ve done the sim before. How did I know about that cross-wind ?”

There was a pause before Nine spoke, somewhat hesitantly. “Was it the movement of the trees ?”

Wedge smiled. “That’s right; good thinking. Planetary terrain isn’t just something to fly over. You can learn to read it like you read your scopes. Look for movement in large bodies of water, and in trees to find out what the wind’s doing. Dust or sand on a dry planet can also help. You already know about using the sun to your advantage in combat; well, it’s even more important on a planet where you’ve got horizons. And clouds can be put to use as well.”

Through his viewport, Wedge spotted another side canyon. It was narrow and winding and the sim designers had shaped it to provide a challenging gamut of updrafts, downdrafts, crosswinds and general turbulance. Wedge expected to lose at least two of the squadron in there, blown into the walls or even each other. For himself, it was pure fun: the joy of flying at its best, even if he’d rather be flying it for real and not in a sim. And not under these circumstances. But while he was flying the canyon, he could temporarily forget all the things that hurt, and haunted his dreams.

“Spitfires, follow me,” Wedge ordered, and accelerated for the canyon.

They emerged with only eight TIEs still intact, including Wedge’s. Spitfire Seven had been caught in turbulance and thrown against the wall of the canyon. More spectacularly, Three had succeeded in wiping out both himself, and Four and Five in one big explosion.

“Well done, Three,” Wedge said dryly, struggling to keep the amusement from his voice. He knew from previous sessions that his pilots stayed hooked into the comm systems after being vaped in the sims. “That’s going to be a useful case study for future classes.”

“Yes, s…”

The rueful voice was cut off abruptly as the sim ended. The holoscreens went black and the hum of the motors powered down.

Wedge’s casual behaviour dropped away in a moment. He snatched off helmet and gloves in a practised move, releasing his harness with one hand while putting down the helmet with the other. A moment later, he was on the floor of the TIE, prising up a panel with a thin piece of plastic. Wedge retrieved a partly-assembled collection of items and began work immediately. The only tools he had were his own fingers and the handle of a fork. Frowning in concetration, he adjusted the output of a droid restraining bolt attached to a handle made from a bracket scavenged from within the TIE. Satisfied, he added a short piece of durasteel tubing for a barrel, fixing it with a scrape of sticky sealant scooped from his chair mountings with the fork handle. Then it was as quickly packed away inside the bodywork of the TIE sim machine.

He pushed the panel back in place and used his booted foot to press it back down firmly as he stood up. Helmet and gloves were back in his hands as the hatch opened above. Wedge climbed out and handed over his helmet to one of the two guards who were waiting in the small room where his simulator was kept. After every training session, Wedge had approximately two minutes unobserved within the simulator. Day after day, he’d gradually accumulated the bits and pieces of an improvised weapon. Flying the TIE and improvising an unlikely weapon reminded him of his time with the Wraiths, but the memories had to be kept for other times. The two-minute window was barely enough to achieve anything, but Wedge persisted, and his work was close to paying off.

The helmet was sealed into a locker and the two guards escorted Wedge from the room. The simulator he used was in a small, bare room, some three minutes walk from his cell. Wedge guessed it was close to the room where the other sims were; he thought that if the sim module could have been placed closer to his own room then it would have been. The route took them from a side corridor into a main one, with doors into other rooms and side exits, then into a another side corridor that lead to the sealed area where he lived. Although there were normal signs of life along the corridors, holoboards and the like, Wedge had never seen anyone besides the guards escorting him, and assumed that the corridors were cleared especially for his journeys.

“Is it a nice day out ?” he asked the guards. After living for weeks in a wholly artificial, enclosed environment, Wedge had no idea whether it was actually night or day on the planet outside. He was certain that they weren’t in space, but the base could be on a barren moon for all he knew. He could even still be somewhere in the underworld levels of Coruscant.

Neither of the guards answered; they never did, and Wedge didn’t expect them to. He asked frivolous questions simply because it irritated the guards, who no doubt thought he should be more abject and cowed. Cheerful questions from a prisoner about a new haircut didn’t fit into their scheme of things. They walked stoically on, one guard ahead of Wedge and the other a couple of paces behind. They didn’t wear blasters, though Wedge guessed that guards picked for this important duty would be good at unarmed combat. Certainly better than he was himself. He knew a few tricks but he’d never had the time to learn properly.

It was something else that kept him walking meekly at their pace, unbound but unable to escape. Wedge’s fingers twitched at the knowledge, and he had to suppress the urge to rub the back of his neck. He had no memory of his capture. He remembered that he’d been walking home from his new office. The next memory after that was of waking in a plain cell, groggy and disorientated. While he’d been unconscious, his captors had implanted a remotely activated neuroshock unit in the back of his neck, feeding directly into his spinal cord. His guards carried remotes to activate the unit on a moment’s notice. It acted directly on his nervous system, overloading the electrical signals it carried.

The nature of the implant had been graphically illustrated to him on that first day here. A half-second shock had been enough to make his legs buckle and leave him in a heap on the floor, gasping for breath as jolts of pain spasmed up and down his back. Wedge had recovered fully in a few minutes but it had felt like being hit by a brief bolt of the Emperor’s force lightning that Luke had told him about. The guards just had to touch a button on their remotes and he would be helpless. So he walked obediently between his guards, back to his cell.

It was the most well-appointed cell that Wedge had ever been held in. There was a small living room, equipped with a comfortable chair, a couple of pieces of gym equipment, a holoplayer with a selection of dramas and movies to choose from, and an isolated computer with games and puzzles. There was a separate, small bedroom with bed and closet space, and a tiny bathroom facility. He’d been given basic toiletries and some changes of clothes that fitted well and were the same as he wore at home. A close look suggested that although immaculate, the clothes had been worn before. There was no windows, but a sealed holoviewer on one wall of the living room showed an image of rolling countryside that looked a lot like northern Corellia, giving the illusion of a window overlooking a lovely view. Only the locked outer door spoilt the pretence that this was no different to the typical military quarters that he had lived in before.

Wedge estimated that he’d been a prisoner for about three or four months. He didn’t know who had taken him prisoner, though the most likely assumption was the Imperial Remnant. He hadn’t seen any Imperial uniforms here other than his TIE pilot’s outfit. This base had more of a civilian than military feel to it, but Wedge knew that the Imperial Intelligence Bureau maintained non-standard facilities as it suited their purpose.

He’d had a death mark from the Empire for some seventeen years now, and knew that capture meant execution. Wedge had also known that Iella, Tycho, Mirax and his other friends would have been searching for him from the time he’d gone missing. The first couple of weeks of his capture were now a merciful blur. He’d been interrogated, deprived of sleep, given drugs that made him babble or caused spasms of pain if he lied. He’d fought the interrogation for as long as he could, using his anger to strengthen himself. Every day he could hold out was another day for his friends to find him. It was another day of life, delaying the day of death that would come when they’d finished with him. They’d broken him in the end of course.

He recalled lying on the hard bunk of the plain cell he’d had then, fighting down the sobs of pain while he waited for them to come for him. With the interrogations over, he would be quietly executed and Iella would probably never know for certain what had happened to him. When they’d come, two guards had held him down while a medic delivered the injection. He’d sunk rapidly into unconsciousness, knowing that he was dying. Wedge had hardly been able to believe it when he’d woken again, in the bedroom of this little apartment. Even now, several weeks on, Wedge felt he’d been given a second chance at life after surviving what he had believed to be his execution.

Back in his quarters, Wedge stripped off the TIE uniform, showered and changed into civvies. When he was done, his midday meal had arrived. It was nourishing, unremarkable food, that Wedge had soon recognized as canteen food. It was a style which seemed to be similar on ships and bases across the galaxy, regardless of whether the canteen was military or civilian, New Republic or Empire. Wedge ate it without great appetite, and was at least grateful that he had citros snow cake for dessert. When he was done, a guard came in and took the dishes away in silence. Wedge was left to fill the rest of the day with his own occupations and thoughts.

He had a routine now: planning the next day’s training, exercise, playing a mix of long-term and shorter strategy games, watching the next holopic available in his small library and planning the details of his escape. It all kept his mind busy until lights out and Wedge applied himself to his routine with military self-discipline. He liked to exercise a second time, finishing half an hour before bed, hoping that physical tiredness would help him get to sleep more quickly. When he was in bed, the day’s distractions no longer occupying him, he couldn’t block out the thoughts of home and family any longer.

The dull ache of misery he carried through the day swelled into a feeling of loss and anger that came closer to breaking him than any other aspect of his captivity. He missed the physical presence of his wife and daughter: he missed Syal’s laughter and the sweet smell of her tender skin. He missed Iella’s smile and the sensation of her body nestled against his in their bed. Wedge wanted to know what they were doing and how they were. Syal was growing, changing, learning to speak, and he was missing it all. He wanted to hold Iella’s hand, and gaze into her eyes and hear her voice.

And as he missed them, he knew that they would be missing him too. Did Iella think he was dead ? And Syal was too young now to remember him when she grew up. She’d only know her father from holos and stories told by people who’d known him, and he wouldn’t be there to guide and shelter her through her life. Wedge had understood that as a serving soldier, he could be killed and his family would be left without him. This was different, at least to him. If he were dead, he wouldn’t be suffering the misery of not knowing what was happening to his family. That was a pain reserved for the living.

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