The Echo Project - part 5

Tycho looked around at the others seated at the large table in the meeting room. There was an air of restlessness as they waited to share what they’d uncovered in their search for Wedge. Iella sat with Mirax on one side and Winter on the other. She looked tired, but every move was crisp and decisive and her eyes were bright. Wes, Hobbie and Corran were also present, along with Whistler, Corran’s astromech.

Tycho gestured towards Iella and asked her to speak first.

“Winter and I have been searching for the origin of the clone,” Iella said. “We were specifically looking for links between the Promezia Corporation, and the Imperial Remnant. To narrow things down a little, we concentrated on the period five to seven years ago when the clone must have been grown from Wedge’s cells.”

She paused for a moment, her lips tightening in a subtle sign of distress. Tycho looked at her and suddenly realized that she was thinking of the clone, remembering him not just as a echo of Wedge, but a person who had too-briefly existed in his own right. A being who’d never even had a name of his own.

Taking a deep breath, Iella continued. “We looked principally at sales and shipments of biotech materials related to clone technology. We had to dig deep but we eventually discovered a possible link. The business deals were hidden through many layers of subsidiary companies and holdings and the like. However, we learned that Moff Blackmore had sold the right kind of biotech equipment to Promezia Corp within the key period.”

Iella stopped speaking and looked over at Winter, who continued with their findings.

“Moff Blackmore first came to power as a member of the Imperial Intelligence Bureau,” Winter explained. “In the chaos following the return and fall of the Emperor, he seized the opportunity to take a more political role, and got himself appointed a moff. He worked with Thrawn, and it’s likely that he acquired some access to, or knowledge of, cloning technology at that time. In any case, given his former position within Imp Intell, he would have had access to data on many prominent members of the New Republic, including Wedge. It’s likely he’d have had the contacts to get cells for cloning, and information on Wedge’s military record, background and other details needed for priming the clone to pass as the original.”

“That would make sense,” Tycho said. “Whoever trained that clone did a thorough job and would have needed a lot of intelligence on Wedge’s life.”

Iella nodded. “I keep wondering how I could have missed it though; that he wasn’t Wedge. The clone couldn’t know everything. I must have said something like ‘do you remember our first anniversary, when we went out to that Ithorian restaurant ?’ ”

“He’d have said ‘of course, dear’,” Wes said. “Then told you how beautiful you looked that night, kissed you, and distracted you with a question in return. It’s what men always do when women ask them about things they can’t remember and are supposed to. You wouldn’t have noticed anything different,” he added as the others laughed, including Iella.

She shook her head at him, but she was smiling.

Tycho looked over at Wes, inwardly grateful for the way he’d eased the tension, though he was careful not to let that show on his face.

“Well we’ve uncovered a link between a moff with intel on Wedge and possible access to cloning tech, and the Promezia Corp,” Tycho said. “Did you do as well in your job, Wes ?”

Wes sat upright in his chair, looking indignant.

“We did too,” he asserted. “Even though it meant slogging through thousands of data files and following up fake data trails and pulling it all togther.”

Whistler interrupted him with a rude noise.

“Whistler did most of the hard work,” Corran pointed out. “You’d still be up to your eyebrows in data cards if it weren’t for him.”

“So’d you,” Wes retorted. “And anyway, Whistler can’t shoot a blaster as well as I can.”

“Wes: business,” Tycho reminded him.

Wes glanced across the table at Iella, and subsided, his face becoming businesslike.

“Hobbie, Corran and I were studying Benzalko, the planet that the clone named before he died. Promezia Corp own several facilities there, most quite openly. However, we traced two other places that are registered to other companies, but if you dig deep enough, the ownership goes back to Promezia.”

“They’ve gone to some trouble to obscure ownership,” Corran said. “Company A leases the facility from Company B, which is a subsidiary of C, which is owned by D, which belongs to Group E which is a division of Corporation F, which is Promezia Corp. Fortunately we used Whistler to help in tracking ownership of suspect companies back in CorSec, and he still has the specialist programming installed back then.”

Whistler beeped and rocked gently as though indicating agreement.

Tycho nodded. “Good work. So what are the places that Promezia don’t want anyone to know they own ?”

“One is a drug-processing company,” Corran answered. “I imagine that the local law enforcement agencies might find something of interest there, given Promezia’s efforts to conceal their involvement, but I don’t think we will. The other facility looks a lot more promising though.”

“It’s supposedly a bio-tech facility,” Wes interrupted, looking straight at Tycho. “It’s on the very outskirts of Visalux, a medium-sized city of no particular significance, though it does have a class three spaceport. Moulante Bio Inc doesn’t have any record of actually producing any new tech: no patents, no published research, nothing. It seems to be a fancy tax loss mechanism for the parent company.”

“It sounds like the kind of place we’re looking for,” Tycho said, glancing across at Winter.

“There’s more,” Corran added. “There seems to have been more activity than usual at Moulante Bio during the last couple of months. Groups arriving at the spaceport, travelling to the facility, and leaving again about three to four weeks later.”

Tycho frowned. “More activity ? Surely not if they’re holding Wedge there.”

“He’s training pilots for them !” Mirax said suddenly. “It has to be Wedge; he’s alive !”

Everyone turned to look at her, all asking questions.

“How do you know it’s Wedge ?” Iella asked, staring intently at the other woman.

Mirax’s face was radiant as she explained. “I told Booster what we knew, and he took the Errant Venture­ to the edge of the Corporate Sector, a couple of systems away from Benzalko. Some of the local mercenaries, pirates and corporate military groups have visited the Venture for R & R and Booster’s staff have been alert for anything that might be about Wedge. Three days ago, they had a group of hotshot TIE pilots working for Zuo Corp come aboard. One of their pilots started bragging about great they were, and that they were the elite who’d been spent for special training on Benzalko. As soon as he mentioned Benzalko, the alert went up and Booster got talking to this pilot, helping him celebrate his own ego. The pilot got the best drink, and a little something extra in it to encourage him to keep talking.”

Mirax paused and grinned, reaching out to touch Iella’s arm.

“This is the best bit. The pilot said they’d had advanced combat training, but it wasn’t like any training he’d had before. They never met their instructor. He was the best fighter pilot that the hotshot had ever seen and the rest of his squadron agreed with him on that. Not one of them succeeded in vaping him even once in more than three weeks of training. The training was all done in sims, and the instructor’s sim was in a different room to the rest of the squad. They were ordered not to use names, only call signs, and to only speak to the instructor about the sim and piloting, and nothing else. The only contact between instructor and the squad was by voice. And the pilot said it was the voice of a human male with a Corellian accent !”

Tycho felt almost giddy with relief, as Wes let out a whoop of delight.

“When did Booster tell you this ?” he asked Mirax.

“Yesterday,” she replied. “But we assumed this had taken place at some known training facility on Benzalko. It just didn’t seem possible that they were holding Wedge prisoner at an ordinary training facility. Even if they managed to keep him out of sight, there would have been rumours of a prisoner. I was going to suggest we looked into it anyway.”

“But Promezia Corp have this non-productive facility at Visalux,” said Iella. She paused and swallowed. “Groups of people have been coming and going in the last couple of months since Wedge’s disappearance, and someone who sounds like Wedge and flies like Wedge has been training groups of pilots over roughly the same periods of time.”

“And if it’s all sim work, the base won’t actually need a hangar for a squadron of TIEs,” Hobbie pointed out.

“Which means there won’t be any real TIEs there to bother us when we go get Wedge and then pound the place and the people who own it into dust,” Wes said.

Tycho took a deep breath. “I think we’ve got enough here to take to Ackbar and Cracken.” He looked again at Winter, who nodded.

“If you send me the relevent data,” she said to Wes and Mirax. “I’ll put it together in a report for them, to make everything clear.”

“Thank you,” Tycho said. “Good work all of you, and thank Booster for me, Mirax.”

She nodded once. “Booster loves Wedge; he’d move the Maw Cluster to help him.”

“He loves Wedge like a son, whereas I’m just the son-in-law,” Corran said, giving Mirax a jaundiced look. She just nodded agreement.

“I’ll make a start on plans for going to Benzalko and finding out if Wedge is at that bio-tech plant. And for getting him out if he is,” Tycho said. “Once Ackbar’s read your report, Winter, I can follow up with some strategy to show him.”

“Count the Skate as one of your assets,” Mirax told him. “I’m coming along.”

Tycho doubted whether he could stop her even if he wanted to, but the Pulsar Skate would be a useful vessel to have along, and Mirax was an excellent pilot.

“I’d better stay here on Coruscant, with Syal,” Iella said reluctantly.

Tycho understood how she felt. She wanted to come with them and take an active role in freeing her husband, and to know what was happening when it was happening, not hours or days later. On the other hand, there was no guarantee that they would find Wedge and bring him back alive. It was wiser for Iella to remain safely on Coruscant, ensuring that Syal would have at least one parent living.

“I’ll go to Benzalko too,” said Winter.

Tycho nodded, glad to know that her Intelligence skills would be available on the mission. There was a positive feeling among the Rogues and friends for the first time in days. There was an abstract sorrow in him for the man who had died; a man he had believed was his old friend and who had indeed been a friend. Yet stronger still was the new hope of finding Wedge himself, and bringing him back. And that hope was driving them all on.

As the sim module’s holo screens faded to black, Wedge whipped off his helmet and gloves and released his harness. Moments later he was prising up the floor panel and reaching inside for his completed weapon. Wedge hefted the cobbled-together collection of components, and checked whether anything had come loose. He’d taken the ion pulse generator unit from a droid restraining bolt and adjusted the frequency to affect organic matter. A micro capacitor had been added to the power pack from the restraining bolt, giving him a stun weapon he thought would be good for several shots, though only at short range. Unless it blew up in his hand first.

Wedge slipped the gun into a pocket of his flight suit, and brought out a small piece of foam insulation he’d previously detached from the wiring. He pushed the panel back into place and turned to his pilot’s chair. Using the fork handle, he scooped out a little more sticky sealant from the depths of the chair’s mountings. Lifting his hair away from the back of his neck with his left hand, Wedge smeared sealant over the protruding end of the neuroshock implant . Changing hands, he used clean fingers to press the small piece of foam into the sealant, sticking it over the implant. He then smoothed his hair back into place.

Wedge preferred to wear his hair at collar length, which was about as long as military regs would allow for a human male in Space Command. In the weeks that he’d been held here, he’d never been offered the chance of a hair cut. His thick hair now brushed against his shoulders, concealing the back of his neck. The hair didn’t prevent a signal getting through to the implant, but it concealed the visible part of the neuroshock unit, and now the foam patch that he hoped would block a radio signal intended to activate the unit. Wiping his sticky fingers on his flight suit, Wedge tucked gloves into helmet and stood up, releasing the hatch overhead.

He climbed out, handed his helmet and gloves to a silent guard, and waited while they were sealed away in a locker. Then they began the walk back towards his quarters. Wedge sauntered along between the guards, his hands in his pockets as they usually were. It was an effort for him to maintain his casual pose when adrenaline was flooding his system, but Wedge managed to keep his tone light as he chatted.

“Are you doing anything special this weekend ?” he asked generally. He had no idea whether it was the weekend or the middle of the week, but it didn’t matter. The guards didn’t reply anyway. “Are there any good bars or cantinas around here ?” he went on. “I can recommend a good family bar on Chandrila, but if you want something more for the lads, I’d recommend Saxo’s, down on Axxila Way on Coruscant. They have a mid-week floor show and they hire the best Twi’lek dancers you’ll see anywhere but Ryloth itself.” The guards didn’t respond vocally but Wedge had the satisfaction of seeing the neck of the guard in front of him flush red, and the man’s shoulders tighten. He talked a little more, then fell silent, as usual, in the routine he’d carefully developed over the last month or so. At a point almost halfway back to his rooms, there was a door labelled as a storage room, just before a junction with another main corridor. As they approached, Wedge found himself starting to breathe more rapidly, and forced himself into a show of calm. His mind was working as clearly as ever and he timed his move exactly as he’d planned.

Just before they reached the store room, Wedge spun, whipping the improvised stunner from his pocket. The guard behind was too startled by this change in routine to react before Wedge fired. There was an electronic snap and crackle from his gun. Wedge saw the guard jerk, and start to buckle, then he was spinning back to face the other guard. The front guard was turning to see what was happening behind. He was bringing the remote around, then remembered that it wasn’t a pistol, and didn’t need to be aimed at the target. Wedge saw him thumb the button, and his back tensed in anticipation of pain even as he was turning. Nothing happened though: the insulation did its work in blocking the signal.

The guard’s eyes widened: confused, he pressed the button again instead of dodging or trying a hand to hand attack. Wedge brought his stun gun into line and fired from just a couple of paces away. The guard jolted as the ion pulse hit him, and collapsed. Wedge took a deep breath, then turned to examine the first guard he’d shot. The man was unconcious but breathing steadily. Wedge crushed the remote under his boot heel, then turned to the second man. He was also unconcious. Wedge crushed his remote too, then took his security cards. The first one he tried opened the storage room and Wedge quickly dragged both men inside, tucking the broken remotes into their pockets first to leave no trace out in the corridor.

Moving quickly, he stripped trousers and tunic from the smaller of the two guards and donned them in place of his flightsuit. They were somewhat too large for him, but deft use of tape from a shelf in the storeroom made for a passable fit. His boots weren’t quite the same as the ones the guards wore, but they were close enough, and both guards had larger feet than Wedge so he couldn’t swap. He pocketed all the various cards he could find on both unconscious men, plus comlinks and a palm-sized datapad that one of them had had in a pocket. Wedge had no idea how long they would stay unconcious, so bound their wrists and ankles with more tape. A swift glance around the shelves got him a slim case with small tools, which went into a pocket along with the roll of tape.

Back in the corridor, Wedge looked both ways along the cross corridor at the junction. He had absolutely no idea of the layout of this building, or even of what floor he was on. Deciding randomly to go left, he began a cautious jog along that branch of the corridor. Wedge’s instinct was to try and keep out of sight, staying to the smaller corridors. He knew he was more likely to get lost or end up in a dead end though, if he did that. A main corridor was more likely to lead him to an exit or hangar. The stunner was back in his pocket, as a weapon in his hand was likely to draw unwanted attention.

This corridor ended in a T-junction. Wedge changed to a brisk walk as he approached. As he reached the junction, he spotted a sign showing the way to an emergency exit. and turned in that direction. The doors along the corridor were closed, but signage suggested a mix of offices and laboratories. Wedge had walked about fifty metres when a door opened and a pair of human technicians came out. They gave Wedge a curious glance, which he returned with a cool, military stare. They turned away and walked off, chatting about something to do with accelerated cell growth, as Wedge passed them.

He kept going, wondering how long it would be before the alarm was given. Were his guards supposed to check in once they’d returned him to his cell ? Did they check in immediately, by comlink, or did they return to their office ? The second option meant he had longer before anyone realized his guards were overdue. Wedge broke into a jog for a few paces, filled with the urge to hurry, then forced himself to slow. A brisk walk drew attention less than running.

A golden-furred female Bothan appeared from a side corridor, guiding a repulsor trolly laden with lab equipment. She glanced at Wedge with large violet eyes, but was only checking whether he’d be in her way as she manouvered the trolly into the main corridor. She pushed the floating trolly along at an unhurried walk, humming to herself, as Wedge walked briskly past and left her behind. He was relieved to see another sign for the emergency exit, and turned left through a pair of heavy doors into a stairwell. He had to be on the top floor, as there were no stairs going up, so he peered down into the grey, durasteel and permacrete stairwell. To Wedge’s delight, there were only two floors below this one. He’d begun to fear that he was many storeys up and that the alarm would be raised before he was even halfway out. There was no one else in the stairwell, so he jogged down at some speed.

At the bottom, he slowed and exited the stairwell at a more relaxed pace. Altough he still had no idea where he needed to go, Wedge turned confidently in the direction he’d been going before, and walked on briskly. This corridor was busier; a man in civilian clothes, talking into a comlink, was walking ahead of Wedge in the same direction. Two young women, chattering away, walked past him in the opposite direction. They gave him a curious look, and one smiled unexectedly. In spite of his tension, Wedge almost smiled back at her but managed to keep his military pose. He marched away from them and felt a flash of paranoia as they giggled.

Wedge walked another hundred meters, pleased when the man ahead soon turned off into a side corridor. The relief lasted less than a minute. A door just ahead opened, and to Wedge’s dismay, a guard in officer’s uniform entered the corridor. The officer glanced about, spotted Wedge, and frowned.

“You !” the officer barked. “You’re a disgrace to your uniform.”

Wedge halted, stiffening into a straight-backed military pose, and saluted. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

The officer stared at him. “When did you last get a haircut ?”

Wedge managed to avoid wincing. He’d been so grateful for his hair being long enough to conceal the patch covering the implant that he’d forgotten that his shaggy appearance was inappropriate for a guard. The poor fit of his uniform didn’t help his overall appearance either. No wonder the people he’d passed had given him curious looks.

“I don’t remember, sir,” he replied, inconspicuously moving his hand closer to his pocket.

“Well, it looks like it,” the officer snapped. “When were you assigned here ? I don’t remember seeing you here before.” He stared hard into Wedge’s face, frowning. “I have seen you before, though, haven’t I ?”

Wedge had hold of his stunner now. “I don’t believe so, sir,” he answered, trying round his vowels slightly to suggest an Agamari accent instead of his Corellian tones. “I’ve only just arrived on base.”

The officer shook his head and took a step backwards, looking Wedge up and down. “I know you from somewhere else – holos…”

As a belated look of recognition dawned on his face, Wedge drew the stunner and fired. There was a louder crack than before, and a jolt of pain shot up Wedge’s arm. He yelped, the smoking stunner dropping from limp fingers. The officer collapsed like a deflated balloon, crumpling to the floor. Wedge bent and snatched up the officer’s blaster with his left hand before glanced back along the corridor. Miraculously, there was no one else around. Stepping over to the door the officer had come out of, Wedge pressed the pad clumsily with his tingling right hand. He lunged through as the door opened, blaster at the ready. The office was empty and silent. Tucking the blaster into his waistband, Wedge hauled the unconscious officer inside and locked the door.

Standing upright, Wedge took a deep breath and allowed himself a moment to calm down. Something about the light in the room made him blink, and looking about, he realized that for the first time in months, he was seeing natural daylight. He hurried across to the window, then suddenly remembered caution and approached it from one side, where he would be less visible to anyone looking in. He looked first at the sky, which was blue with a greenish tinge. He could have watched the clouds float overhead for hours, but only allowed himself half a minute.

More important right now was to study his surroundings. This window looked into a large courtyard at the heart of a three storey building. From what he could see, it didn’t look military and there were no Imperial motifs anywhere. The courtyard itself was a pleasant garden area with paths winding between trees, and benches positioned at regular intervals. Wedge could see a burly green-skinned Twilek male on one of the benches, eating a snack, with his face turned towards the sun.

Tearing himself away from the window, Wedge powered up the terminal on the desk. While that was coming online, he took the holster and belt from the unconscious officer and strapped it on. The weight of the blaster against his side was reassuring. He took all the ID, security and cred cards he could find, and the officer’s comlink too. Wedge did a quick search on the computer and quickly found a map of this building. He was surprised see the name Moulante Bio Inc but the schematic he found included various labs. Wedge studied the map, searching for a hangar or garage. He found two garages quickly, but it took him longer to establish roughly where he was at the moment. An area on the top floor was blank. From its relationship to the sim room, Wedge guessed that the blank space showed his own, presumably classified, quarters. He traced his route though the building, down the stairwell, and established roughly where he was now. He pulled out the small datapad he’d taken from one of his guards, and downloaded the map onto it.

He didn’t bother to shut down the terminal as he left the office, though he did take a moment to lock the door behind himself. Turning back in the direction he’d come, Wedge set off at a fast walk. He had just reached a junction when one of the comlinks beeped. Wedge fished them from his pockets and saw the call was on the officer’s comlink. Still walking, he switched it on to hear the message.

“Grade One alert,” said a recorded message. “Pilot One has escaped guards and is loose in the building. He must not leave this base. Refer to file NR511P1 for description and holos. This is a Grade One alert.”

Wedge cursed under his breath and broke into a jog. He passed a man pushing a trolley laden with boxes of office supplies, who just glanced at him. Down the next corridor was a smartly dressed woman busily talking into her comlink, who barely noticed him as he ran past. If he’d remembered his directions correctly, he wasn’t far from a garage now. Wedge wondered if they were broadcasting the signal to activate the neuroshock implant How many people had the remote units ? It was difficult to forget the fear he might suddenly feel that agony searing its way down his spine and up into his head. He hoped fervently that the patch he’d stuck over the sensor’s input would continue to block the signal. If it failed, he’d never see Iella and Syal again.

Wedge almost bit his tongue when all three comlinks he carried sounded at once. His right hand was working properly again now, after taking backlash from the overloaded stun pistol he’d cobbled together, so Wedge could grab the first comlink that came to hand and thumb it on.

“Attention all units. A dangerous criminal is loose on the base, wearing a guard’s uniform. Identification holos are being transmitted to squadron leaders’ datapads now. He must not leave this base. Capture or kill: repeat; capture or kill.”

Wedge let out a hiss of frustration: they must have found the two guards he’d stunned first and left in the storecupboard. Switching the comlink to his left hand, he drew his blaster with his right and kept running. Turning into the last short corridor, he saw armed guards positioned either side of the door to the garage. The one on the left began to raise his blaster, while the other turned to slap a large red button on the wall by the door.

Still running, Wedge fired. His shot hit the left guard in the shoulder, rocking him back and disrupting his hurried aim. The guard’s shot went wild, passing a couple of feet over Wedge’s head. Sirens began wailing as Wedge fired again: this shot hit the guard in the chest, throwing him against the wall to slide down in a cumpled heap. Wedge didn’t spare the time to watch. The second guard had started drawing his blaster after hitting the alert button. Wedge jinked sideways as he fired his own blaster. The guard fired from his hip, a micro-second after Wedge’s shot. His blaster bolt missed Wedge’s head by centimeters, cutting through the space where he’d been a moment before. Wedge’s bolt hit the guard almost between the eyes. The man dropped as though he’d been switched off, the blaster sliding from his fingers to clatter on the floor. It was a lucky shot, as Wedge had been aiming for the general torso area: he couldn’t help thinking that if Janson had made that kill, the shot between the eyes would have been deliberate, even at a run.

There was no time to think about his friends. He was on his own and the odds against him were increasing every moment. Without a glance for the guards he’d just killed, Wedge got out the cards he’d taken from the officer. Picking the one that looked like an access card, he swiped it through the doorpad. To Wedge’s relief, the light turned green and the door slid open. Sirens continued to wail as he entered the vehicle garage. He glimpsed mechanics running to another personnel door on the other side of the garage, but there was no one in the immediate area. Dismissing the two cargo lifters and the enclosed personnel skimmer, he headed towards the speeders parked near the outer exit. Both were civilian models, one utilitarian, one more sporty and open-topped. Wedge leaned over the side of the faster model, studying the controls, then straightened and headed for the keypad of the exit. He tried the officer’s swipcard again but it didn’t work this time. Muttering a curse, Wedge had to holster his blaster and get out the small toolkit he’d stolen from the storeroom. He swiftly pulled off the keypad cover and began pulling and replacing wires. He found the lead to the door’s power unit and fed it into the keypad’s smaller power cell. Standing at arm’s length, he touched the door’s internal test button. Too much power fed in and overloaded the keypad’s circuitry causing it to explode. It was a crude method of defeating a basic lock, but Wedge had no time and no need to conceal his presence. The doors began sliding open as he sprinted back to the speeder he’d chosen.

He vaulted in, opened the toolkit again and bent to bypass the security on the ignition. Again, he made no effort at a neat job. Seconds ticked away as he pulled wires and rearranged them. His first press on the starter had no effect. Swallowing curses, Wedge tried again. He reversed two wires and slammed his palm against the ignition button. This time the engines fired and the dashboard lit up. Leaving his hotwired mess as it was, Wedge sat up and took hold of the controls. A blaster bolt scorched past his right ear and left a hole in the windscreen.

A glance at the rearview sensor screen showed him a half squadron of guards, running towards him from the second personnel entrance. More blaster bolts came flying in his direction, a few impacting the dashboard and windscreen. Wedge ducked down in his seat and fired up the repulsorlift. The speeder rose towards the ceiling, raising Wedge above the guards’ line of sight. Blaster shots continued to hammer into the floor of the speeder. As Wedge began to sit up, pressing the accelerator, he heard the rumble of the outer doors closing. Someone had overridden the damaged lock and was trying to stop him from escaping.

The speeder raced towards the narrowing gap between the heavy garage doors. Wedge took one hand from the yoke, using that and his free foot to brace himself in his seat. He changed course slightly, aiming for the centre of the diminishing gap, and rolled the speeder up on one side. Hanging on grimly, the speeder at almost 45 degrees, Wedge accelerated. He slipped the speeder between the moving doors with barely half a meter clearance on each side, and shot out into the open.

A road curved away to his right, following the front of the building and down to the main gate. Wedge ignored it; he levelled the speeder and aimed across a permacreted space between the main building and what he guessed to be a vehicle maintenance facility. The buildings were surrounded by a grassy area which was enclosed by a five meter security fence. Wedge pulled back on the yoke, finding out the speeder’s maximum altitude. As he’d feared, it rose to just five meters, which was common for civilian vehicles on many planets. Wedge headed directly for one of the support posts, losing a little height.

He flew at the fence at almost full speed. To anyone watching on the security cameras, it looked as though he intended to smash directly through the fence. Wedge knew better: at this speed, the high-tensile durasteel wire would slice into the speeder and probably through his own body as well. Less than two speeder-lengths from the fence, Wedge yanked the nose of the speeder up. The underside of the speeder, where the repulsor coils were, was presented to the post supporting the fence. The repulsor field hit the post near the top and bounced the speeder a little higher. It headed up at a 45 degree angle, just clearing the top of the fence. Wedge brought the nose down again; the speeder dropped in a sharp curve until it was back to five meters above the ground, and sped on.

With that obstacle out of the way, Wedge could take a moment to assess his situation. He switched on the nav system and managed to one-handedly fasten the three point safety harness. The base – or Moulante Bio Inc – was set in gentle rolling farmland. Wedge could see crop fields and pastures, bordered with high hedges and copses of broadleaved trees. The nav screen showed him a city, labelled as Visalux, some fifteen miles away, currently out of sight on the other side of low hills. To Wedge’s delight, he saw there was a spaceport. That was his destination, but he wanted to ditch this speeder and pick up another one as soon as possible. There was a small town about four kilometers away to the south-east; not quite the direction he needed for the city.

Wedge turned the speeder in that direction. The nav screen showed him a road, but he didn’t intend to be that easy to find. He dropped lower, barely two meters above the ground. A yellowy-orange cereal crop swayed as he flew over it, leaving a temporary wake behind him. Wedge could see a wandering line of trees about half a klick ahead. The line marked the path of a small river that flowed through the town he wanted to visit. Wedge turned slightly and aimed for it.

He didn’t need any terrain-following software for the speeder; Wedge had done this kind of thing many times before. One of the favourite sports at farm school had been their mock hunts, ridden on thaks or slopewings. One player would ride out first to lay the trail; 20 minutes later, the others would set out in pursuit. Wedge had played as both hunter and hunted, and had become an expert in finding the best way across country, and doing so while remaining out of sight as much as possible. Keeping the speeder at about hedge height, he quickly left the base behind him.

The Pulsar Skate swooped gracefully down through the atmosphere of Benzalko, Mirax handling the controls of the light freight ship as confidently as Tycho flew his X-wing. He was in the co-pilot’s seat, with Winter, Wes and Hobbie further back in the cockpit. Heikki and Corran were also on this part of the mission, which would gather intelligence on the ground and try to pinpoint a way of accessing Moulante Bio Inc. Gavin was in command of the rest of the squadron, their X-wings currently in geostationary orbit on the far side of the planet’s solitary moon.

Tycho frowned at his nav screen and turned to look at Mirax. “You’re not following the flight plan ATC gave us.”

“If we swing a little wider on our approach we can get a visual on the bio-tech facility,” Mirax explained. “I’d like to get a look at it from the air.”

Tycho could see the point in that but expressed caution. “Stick as close to the flight path as you can. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”

Mirax simply gave him a withering look, then concentrated on flying her ship again.

“Winter, you and Iella found that this Moff Blackmore sold possible cloning tech to the Promezia Corp,” Hobbie said. “And he had data on Wedge for training the clone, but I don’t understand what the moff gets out of the deal. It’s the Corp that have Wedge.”

“Credits,” Wes answered promptly. “I bet they paid a fancy price for the cloning tech.”

“Information too,” Tycho put in. “Wedge’s knowledge of the New Republic military will be of far more interest to Moff Blackmore than to the Promezia Corp.”

“So if the Moff had the cloning tech, why not just kidnap Wedge himself, instead of involving outsiders ?” Hobbie asked.

“Moff Blackmore and Admiral Pellaeon don’t get on too well,” Tycho answered. “The Moff probably doesn’t want Pellaeon to know that he has cloning technology; I bet he’d rather keep that up his sleeve. Plus, from what I know of Pellaeon, this kind of plot isn’t to his taste.”

“But Admiral Pellaeon’s head of the Imperial Remnant’s military. What’s the use of Moff Blackmore getting military secrets from Wedge if the head of his own military doesn’t know about them ?” Wes asked.

“I’m guessing here, but the Moffs have their own sector fleets,” Tycho said. “It’s possible that Blackmore, and maybe an ally or two, will launch some offensive of their own, based on what they’ve learned from Wedge. If they can score a victory against the New Republic, Pellaeon will find it very hard not to back them on further attacks. It would weaken his position with some of the other Moffs too. Blackmore could seize some power from him.”

“Wedge could have trained some of Blackmore’s elite pilots,” Mirax suggested. “As part of the payment for the cloning tech.”

“Cracken must be going frantic,” Wes remarked, looking slightly pleased at the idea. “He must be worrying that it wasn’t just Wedge who was cloned.”

“Unless the General Cracken running Intel right now is also a clone,” Hobbie said.

Winter shook her head. “Senior staff from all throughout the military are being called in for ‘medical assessments’. Routine blood samples from their medicals are being tested for anomalies in the telomeres that would indicate a clone. Cracken volunteered to be the first to have the test done.”

“It took Promezia Corp five years to train up their Wedge clone,” Tycho said. “That’s a long-term investment with no guarantee of results. The Corp may not have the resources to develop and train another clone. Moff Blackmore may have increased his odds by selling the tech to another corp.”

“Iella’s looking into that,” Winter said. “Now we’ve uncovered the companies the Moff used to sell to Promezia, we’ve got a start on finding similar deals he may have made.”

“Well, that’s Intel’s problem,” Wes asserted. “Our priority is getting Wedge back, then maybe teaching these mynocks a lesson with some proton torps, so they don’t think of trying again.”

Tycho was about to say that the waiting X-wings were for back up only, no matter that he privately agreed with Wes’s suggestion, but Mirax spoke first.

“There’s Promezia Corp.” She pointed towards the cockpit’s viewport.

Tycho glanced out, at the rural landscape below, then magnified the sensor image on screen, sending it out to the monitors at the other cockpit stations. They all looked at the flat-roofed building and the vehicles moving around in front of it.

“No obvious defences apart from that security fence,” Wes said.

“Those are personnel carriers,” Hobbie remarked, indicating the vehicles assembling in front of the bio-tech facility. “Heavy-duty ones, too.”

Tycho pushed the magnification to maximum. “You’re right. Those are security carriers – see the sensor equipment on the roofs ? Something’s got them busy.” A small knot of tension formed deep in his guts.

Winter was already searching through comm channels, her expression intent as she listened to the different broadcasts through her earpiece. Mirax reluctantly circled away from Moulante Bio Inc, bringing herself back on the proper flight path for a landing at Visalux.

“Corran ?” Tycho used his headset to talk to the pilot back in the crew lounge. “Can you sense Wedge down there ?”

“No.” There was frustration in Corran’s tone. “There’s feelings of worry, frustration and hostility clustered together. If Wedge is there, I can’t pick him out among all those strong feelings. There’s a definite disturbance down there.”

“I can guess who’s caused it,” Winter said, smiling slightly. She put a channel on all-ship audio.

“is armed and dangerous. Last seen piloting a red SoroSub 1-90 Starskimmer; probable destination is Visalux Spaceport. This is a Priority One Alert. Pilot One must, repeat must, be detained or killed.” Winter switched the audio off again.

“Pilot One has to be Wedge,” Wes exclaimed. “And if he’s escaped, he’s already done half our job for us.”

“Did you miss the ‘detained or killed’ part ?” Hobbie asked. “They’re already on the ground and after him.”

“Wedge is hard to catch,” Tycho said sturdily, watching Mirax as she increased the speed of the Skate to the spaceport.

“And he’s dangerous, even when he’s not armed,” Mirax said, not taking her eyes from the controls.

“We’re Rogues, and Wedge is a Rogue,” Tycho said. “We’ll find him first.”

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