The Echo Project - part 6

Wedge cruised into the outskirts of Viralux in a dark brown, hard top landspeeder. During his brief visit to the small town where he’d swapped speeders, he’d also raided an old fashioned washing line, and had replaced his over-sized black guard’s tunic with a loose-fitting cream shirt. He had the officer’s comlink clipped to the open neck of the shirt and was listening to the messages being sent back and forth by the Moulante Bio Inc security force.

“Local forces have been alerted to the presence of an escaped and dangerous criminal. They are monitoring approaches to the spaceport and major thoroughfares…”

Before entering the city, Wedge had planned several routes to the spaceport, assuming that the major access routes would be watched. Following his nav screen, he turned off the ring road that circled traffic around the city centre, and headed through an area of industrial estates and retail zones. The traffic was lighter here, but not so scarce as to make his presence unsusual. He flew at just a little over the speed limit, not daring to go faster. Likewise, he stopped at the junction lights, even through the traffic crossing was light.

As a high-sided cargo skiff left the crossing, Wedge could see the traffic waiting at the lights on the other side to him. First in the queue was a Visalux Police speeder. His heart jumped, but he resisted the temptation to stamp on the accelerator. The local police were on the lookout for him, but this landspeeder hadn’t been mentioned in any of the descriptions he’d listened in to on his stolen comlink. Stealing a glance at the police speeder, his heart sank as he saw one of the policemen scanning the surrounding vehicles with a vis-magnifier. Wedge looked down and moved one hand as though adjusting something on his control panel. Looking up through his long fringe, he saw the magnifiers settling on his speeder, and the officer studying his face. Wedge didn’t dare duck out of sight, as he needed to see the actions of the policemen. His breathing slowed as he concentrated, and his fingers tightened on the steering yoke. The policeman adjusted the setting of the vis-mag, and Wedge suddenly recalled that a police model would have recognition software that searched for a match in various databases. He saw the policeman stiffen and say something urgent to the driver as he lifted a hand to point at Wedge’s speeder.

Wedge sat up and stamped on the accelerator in one move, without waiting for the lights to change. He crossed the path of an open-topped skimmer, causing the driver to swerve, and zipped across the junction at an angle towards the police speeder. The police vehicle had just got under way, beginning a U-turn to bring it in the direction that Wedge was heading. The move was also bringing it across his path. Wedge simply flew over the police speeder, so low that that the underside of his own speeder scraped antennae and sensor dishes from the roof of the police skimmer. His repulsors pressed the police speeder into the ground, hampering its efforts to turn, while his speeder was bounced off the end of the police vehicle, accelerating him forwards.

Wedge raced his speeder along, cutting through the other traffic, going around or over with equal abandon. His comlink wasn’t set to pick up the local law enforcement’s frequencies, so he had no idea what units might be responding to any calls being sent out by the speeder chasing him with all sirens howling. Wedge wished he had Gate to scan frequencies for him, but there was no friendly astromech in the speeder.

The police speeder was dropping back but surely others would be on their way to the party. Wedge hauled his speeder into an abrupt turn at a junction, using the forecourt of a speeder repair shop as part of the roadway. Straightening up, he headed towards a sprawling shopping mall a couple of blocks away. Wedge half-smiled as he raced along, relishing the challenge of controlling his speeder on its wild flight through the traffic. This was no sim; this was the adrenaline rush of the real thing. The speeder was heavy and clunky compared with his X-wing, far less manouvrable, but he had the feel of it now. He skimmed over and between other moving vehicles with the narrowest of margins, leaving a trail of chaos behind him as other drivers belatedly swerved or braked.

The police speeder that had identified him was dropping back, its driver neither as skilled nor as desparate as Wedge. Up ahead through, Wedge saw the flashing lights of more police vehicles approaching. He swerved the speeder off the road and over a low fence into the plaza out front of the mall. Pedestrians scattered in panic as he raced across the open area, though he was flying high enough to clear even a tall Wookiee. Those he did fly over were knocked to the ground by the pulse of the repulsorlift, but the brief impact wasn’t enough to actually hurt anyone. The approaching police speeders had turned in his direction. Wedge didn’t waste time watching them; he swooped down into the underground speeder park.

Wedge had to deccelerate sharply, though he still turned onto the first level at about twice the recommended speed. The speeder park was divided by graceful plastcrete columns into access roads lined with parking bays. This level only had the main entrance/exit strip and a single road on the far side of the columns. To the left was the ramp leading down into the lower and larger levels of the speeder park. By some kind of miracle of the Force, Wedge spotted a vacant space on the other side of the first level. He whipped the speeder around to the other side of the columns and to the free space. He didn’t slow until he was almost alongside it. Standing on the brakes, he pulled the yoke across so the rear of the speeder swung around in the direction of the space. When the rear of the speeder was aligned with the gap, Wedge hit reverse and backed into the space, all in one smooth move. He powered down the repulsors but didn’t turn the engines off altogether. Slipping from the seat, he crouched in the footwell, watching the entrance to the speeder park on his speeder’s rear view sensor screen.

Only a few seconds passed before three police speeders appeared in the entrance. Wedge’s speeder was mostly obscured from the entrance by the bulky hardtop speeder parked in the bay on the other side of the columns. The policemen in the leading speeder looked about and saw nothing moving and nothing obviously out of place in the small entrance level. Wedge’s pulse thudded in his ears as he watched the policeman consulting with the others via comlink. After long seconds, the police speeders headed for the ramp and disappeared into the lower levels, assuming he’d just fled as far as possible. One speeder went down the up ramp, to intercept him if he were coming out that way.

Wedge waited until all the police speeders were out of sight, then counted to ten. When he reached ten, he was back in the driver’s seat and accelerating back round to the exit. The barrier looked flimsy but Wedge knew better than to try ramming through it. That would only set off alarms and and an ion trap further along the exit tunnel. The security system had automatically scanned his speeder when he entered. It scanned him again as he approached the exit and issued a charge based on the length of his stay – in this case, it was for the minimum of one hour, though he’d only been inside for maybe five minutes. Wedge swiped one of the credcards he’d acquired through the machine’s slot, and the barrier rose. He shot out as soon as possible: almost too soon, as he heard the barrier scrape the roof of the speeder. He burst from the tunnel back into daylight and away, leaving the police speeders in the depths of the speeder park.

The Pulsar Skate was coming in for a fast but controlled landing. Tycho’s attention wasn’t on either Mirax’s deft handling of her ship, or the blocky towers and dull industrial units that made up the view of Visalux generally visible through the front viewport. Instead, he was listening to the reports that Winter was picking up via the ship’s sophisticated comms system and relaying throughout the Skate. They’d learned that Wedge had switched from the speeder he’d first taken, and that he’d been spotted and chased.

“Suspect last seen at the speeder park of Valleyrest shopping mall, at the junction of Broadwood Ave and Junhansi Street.”

Tycho keyed the street names into the ship’s computer, which searched the citymaps he’d just downloaded from the local networks. A streetmap flashed up on his screen, with a white cross blinking at the centre.

“Found it,” Tycho said. He touched the display, widening the visible area to include the spaceport. “It’s just a couple of klicks from here. I’m sending the maps to everyone’s datapads and the nav in the repulsorvan.”

Rather than hiring locally, the Rogues had brought their own repulsorvan in the Skate’s hold. It was equipped with specialist comm equipment, other security equipment, much of it in hidden compartments, and medical emergency support equipment. The Pulsar Skate itself had a decent basic medbay, though Tycho sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be needed.

“Landing in ten,” Mirax announced.

“Unit 62. I think I saw him heading east on Meggaron Street. In pursuit.”

Tycho hastily entered the street name and the road was highlighted on the map.

“He’s aiming indirectly for the spaceport,” Tycho announced. “Winter, can you get me locations of police units ?”

She was already busy with her sophisticated datapad, which was linked to the ship’s own computer. “I need to slice into their systems; high levels of security. It’ll take a couple of minutes.”

The Skate settled on the duracrete of the landing bay, the whine of the repulsors dying down as Mirax closed down systems. Tycho turned in his seat.

“Hobbie. Tell Gavin to stand by; we’re likely to want them sooner than we thought.”

“Got that,” Hobbie answered, opening a secure channel to the distant X-wings.

“Repulsorvan is free from magclamps,” Corran reported in from the hold. “We’ll be ready to go when you get here.”

“Good,” Tycho answered. He turned back to the co-pilot’s board in front of him and helped Mirax with the post-flight checks. He wanted to get out and in search of Wedge as quickly as possible, but it was likely they’d have to make a rapid departure from Benzalko, and it was important that their transport offworld should be ready and in prime condition. Whistler had come with them, and the astromech would be ready to start prepping the ship for departure when signalled.

“Got it !” Winter said triumphantly. She made another entry on her datapad and new images appeared on the map displayed on Tycho’s datapad. “Transponders on the local police speeders.”

Tycho looked at the map and whistled at the number of icons. “They’re serious about catching Wedge again.”

“Or killing him,” Mirax said, unbuckling her seat harness and standing up.

“The local police forces don’t know who it is they’re chasing,” Winter reminded them. “The ones out there in speeders have only been told it’s a dangerous criminal who’s attacked the Moulante Bio Lab.” She unplugged her datapad from the ship’s computer.

“They probably won’t be expecting Wedge to have back up,” Tycho said, following the two women as they left the Pulsar Skate’s cockpit.

“Wedge isn’t expecting back up,” Mirax said. “We need to go find him now.”

Tycho nodded once. “We’ll find him.”

Wedge got almost a kilometre closer to the spaceport before the police caught up with him again. He heard the sirens first, his heartrate quickening in response to the sound. Abandoning caution, he accelerated, weaving his way through the light traffic. Two police speeders came swooping out ahead from his right, both larger and faster than the civilian model that Wedge had stolen. He veered sharply to the left, cutting across traffic to head down a sideroad. At once he saw that he’d been herded into an ambush.

Two more of the larger speeders were set across the narrow road, nose to nose, floating in the mid-range of his vehicle’s altitude range. Blaster rifle shots began hammering at the front of Wedge’s speeder. He ducked as holes appeared in the front viewscreen, blaster bolts zipping through his cab. Wedge pushed the throttle to maximum, flying scant inches above the ground and aiming straight for the leftmost speeder. More bolts thudded into the front of the valiant speeder, its repulsor engines whining as Wedge flew it at a speed the manufacturers had only tried on a test track.

There was, technically, just enough room for Wedge to slide under one of the police vehicles, if he didn’t mind scraping the roof of his speeder. He hoped that word of his daring flying had got about to the policemen he was facing now. As Wedge came hurtling onward without slowing, the vehicle he was aiming at began to lose height. Wedge kept low, as though hoping to go underneath. Wedge could see the pilot looking at him anxiously, and grinned like a maniac. The police pilot looked terrified, in spite of the fire hammering Wedge’s speeder, but dropped his vehicle lower still. They seemed to be on a collision course, which the heavier, semi-armoured police speeder would weather better. Wedge’s hurtling speeder closed the distance in a flash.

At the last possible micro-second, Wedge swerved centrally and hauled up the nose of his speeder. Its underside crashed against the front of the police speeder, throwing Wedge back hard in his seat. The back of his head thumped against the head rest and he nearly bit his tongue. The hard jolt caused no immediate trouble though, and he kept full control of the speeder. What he didn’t know was that the impact against the headrest had loosened the patch of insulating foam he’d stuck on the back of his neck. In the urgency of his flight, Wedge had forgotten about the nuero-shock implant.

He was halfway over the front of the lower speeder before the pilot even started to react, and by then the police speeder was being pushed down by Wedge’s repulsors. Wedge shot over the blockade, tilting his speeder slightly to present the underside to the higher police speeder. Blasterfire hammered into his speeder, one shot entering through the side window and missing his head by centimetres. The inside of the speeder had the familiar tang of blaster gasses as well as the smell of burnt fabric and plastic.

Wedge kept the battered speeder straight as he raced along the narrow street. A glance at the rear-view screen showed the police vehicles turning, and inadvertently blocking those that had chased him into the ambush. A cold grin showed on his face, but a moment later his expression was sober as he cocked his head to listen. Nothing showed wrong yet on the displays, but the note of the engines had changed. The difference was subtle, but Wedge had lived around engines almost as long as he could remember and had developed a keen ear. He frowned and looked anxiously at the nav screen.

He shot out of the far end of the narrow street and turned hard right, the police speeders in pursuit. Wedge stayed ahead of them, following a twisty course where his lack of speed didn’t matter so much. They were in a largely industrial quarter, cut through by some multilane highways. Wedge gained a little time by taking a shortcut over a used speeder lot and tilting his speeder up to slide between two advertising holoboards. Once out of their sight, he headed back to the main road he’d been on a minute earlier. He knew they’d follow but the important thing was to be out of sight for a couple of minutes.

Half a klick along, the main road crossed another at a circular junction. When Wedge had whipped around it before, he’d noted that the centre of the large roundabout was a hole. Below ground were the pedestrian walkways that crossed the junction, keeping them separate from the traffic. Now, as Wedge entered the junction, he decelerated sharply. Instead of turning to circle the centre of the roundabout, he aimed straight for the hole. As the speeder hopped over the low canopy that edged the hole in the ground, Wedge briefly turned off the repulsors. The speeder dropped like a Hutt off a sailbarge, vanishing below ground level.

He fell almost seven meters before turning the repulsors on again. The speeder bobbed and swayed as he got it under control again, two meters off the floor. The open area beneath the hole, that the pedestrian walkways led into, was little more that plain duracrete, with just a couple of benches and a duracrete container planted with some withered flowers as decoration. A drunk, clutching a bottle of cheap Twi’lek whiskey, stared at the speeder as Wedge consulted his nav screen and listened to the wail of police sirens approaching.

Wedge held his breath, gazing upwards at the circle of sky overhead, as the sirens drew nearer. Their piercing howl got louder, even down in the underpass, then diminished again. Wedge breathed out and started forwards. Even though this was an industrial area with relatively light foot traffic, the pedestrian walkways leading to the underpass were comfortably wide enough for his speeder. As he rounded the last part of the curve and saw daylight ahead, Wedge began to accelerate again. The speeder bucked and dropped half a meter before flying on. Wedge bit down a curse, hearing the ragged sound of the battered repulsors.

Leaving the underpass, he swung onto the main road, to the surprise of an oncoming cargo skiff that sounded its horn at him. Wedge lifted a hand by way of apology, and turned off almost immediately. Now he was heading into a maze of smaller roads that made up a series of near-desolate industrial estates. He couldn’t travel as fast as on the main highways but there were no traffic holocams here which might identify him. In any case, the speeder’s repulsor engine was beginning to fail. No doubt one or more of the many shots that had hit as he charged the barricade had penetrated the body and damaged something.

Thinking of the blaster fire he’d taken, Wedge realized for the first time that the blaster marks and holes in his viewports made his speeder conspicuous. Up ahead, a family speeder was pulling out of the parking zone of a carpet warehouse. Wedge turned into the nearest side road before they could notice him and zig-zagged around another couple of corners. He urgently needed to find another vehicle but this new area seemed even more run-down than the last. A few businesses seemed to be running, scattered here and there among units that were boarded up or covered in graffiti. The only unattended vehicle Wedge saw was a truck emblazoned with the name of a plumbing supplies company.

Shaking his head, he tried to circle around and head back to the more prosperous area. The speeder began to shudder and this time Wedge cursed aloud. Trying to save time, he turned into a alley between two low-roofed units, and found his way barred by a chainlink fence. It was only three meters, but Wedge didn’t dare take his dying speeder even that high. By some miracle of the force, there was a shabby, two-seat speeder parked on the other side of the fence. Judging by the rubbish that had gathered against it, it hadn’t moved in a while but that didn’t mean it couldn’t move. Wedge braked and threw his speeder into reserve. The repulsor engine whined up to a painful note and then died.

Wedge braced himself for the short drop to the ground. He threw open the door and scrambled out, running to the fence. Fortunately it wasn’t charged and was safe to climb. Even better, there was a pile of plastiboard boxes and other debris piled up on the other side. Wedge struggled up the fence; he could barely get the toes of his boots into the small mesh links. He slipped a couple of times, hanging on by his hands until he managed to get another foothold and start upwards again. As he reached the top, it occurred to him that Page or any of his commandos would have been over, down and sprinting away by now.

Gritting his teeth, Wedge hauled himself precariously over the top of the swaying fence. He got one good toehold, but as he changed the grip of his hands on top of the fence, his other foot slipped. He dropped, and this time his grip wasn’t good enough to hold his weight. Wedge fell backwards, landing on top of the boxes and rubbish. The pile was thick enough to break his fall, though it collapsed beneath him as he gasped for breath. He slid to the ground amongst the boxes and as he scraped over one, a corner pulled the loosened foam from the back of his neck.

Wedge felt it starting to peel away but before he could do anything, pain seared through the length of his spine and into his brain. He gave a gasp, his body arching into a spasm. He was rigid with agony as he finally tumbled to the ground among the boxes and debris. Brown eyes stared fixedly at the clear sky as his body struggled to breathe through the racking pain. Wedge couldn’t move, couldn’t think. He lay helplessly on the floor of the alley, twitching and gasping, overwhelmed by the agony that tore up his nervous system.

There was a tense silence in the repulsorvan as Wes drove along one of the multi-lane highways towards the area Wedge had last been reported. Tycho was also in the front and on his other side was Winter, listening intently to the earpiece of the portable comm unit she held in her lap. She blew out her breath sharply.

“He’s got past the blockade !” she exclaimed. “His speeder’s taken hits but the patrolmen don’t think he’s hurt.”

There were brief whoops from the other passengers and Wes thumped the dashboard with the flat of his hand.

“I said they wouldn’t stop Wedge that easily !” he cried, grinning.

Tycho waved for him to shut up as Winter continued reporting.

“Four units in pursuit. He’s turned off into the Brightside Industrial Zone.”

The red blips of the police speeders showed on the nav display Tycho was watching. He tapped the Rogues’ current position on the map and the cluster of police units. A route between the two lit up on the screen in response.

“I’m on it.” Wes glanced at the nav and changed lanes neatly.

A minute or so later Winter reported. “They’ve lost him. They’re sure he turned out onto Saville Street but they’ve lost sight of him.”

Tycho studied the cluster of police icons. The four had spread out, but others were showing on the nav map too. They were concentrated between Wedge’s last recorded position and the spaceport, working up and down the main highways in pairs.

“They’re searching,” he concluded.

“It’s Saville Street we’re on now,” Wes pointed out, his eyes eagerly scanning the moving traffic.

“Corran ?” Tycho asked.

The Jedi Rogue was in the back of the repulsorvan with the rest.

“I’m trying,” Corran answered. Already opened to the force, he seemed abstracted as he searched for Wedge’s presence among the many life forms he could sense in the area. “There. I think…Wedge…found him !” His green eyes widened.

“Where is he ?”

“Is he OK ?”

“How far ?”

Corran shook his head at the deluge of questions. “Wedge is OK; frustrated, I think,” he answered, his eyes still unfocussed. “He’s…” Corran pointed across the inside of the van with his right hand.

Hobbie turned the datapad he was holding and studied the map on the screen.

“That looks like another industrial estate. If we turn left we’ll come at it from the opposite direction from where they last saw Wedge,” he called toward the cab at the front.

A pair of police speeders passed them heading in the other direction, sirens and lights working.

“Hah, you missed him,” Wes said with satisfaction.

“Take this next turning to the left,” Tycho directed. “That must be the edge of the industrial estate ahead.”

“Miserable looking place,” Wes remarked, slowing for the turn.

It was indeed: a mass of mostly-empty, decaying units, that sprawled for over a kilometer in each direction. The place was a maze of narrow roads, alleys and accessways. Wes turned off the outer road onto the first main access road..

“How on Hoth are we going to find him ?” he asked.

“Corran ?” Hobbie asked.

“He’s not really moving,” Corran answered, pointing ahead and to the left. “He’s…”

Corran jerked back in his seat, banging his head on the side of the van, and screamed in pain.

“What is it ?”

“Corran !” Mirax grabbed her husband’s arm. “Corran ! Break contact. Drop out of the force.” She shook him hard.

Corran gulped, shaking his head. He focussed on Mirax’s face, his own face suddenly pale.

“Pain,” he whispered hoarsely. “Pain.” He was breathing heavily.

“Where the kriff is Wedge ?” yelled Wes, increasing speed.

Corran clung to Mirax’s shoulders, staring into her eyes as he tentatively reached out to the force again. He grimaced, but said: “Left.”

He managed to direct them further into the maze of buildings, his breathing getting rougher and his face paler, until he was trembling with shock. Mirax bit her lip, torn between her desire to find Wedge and her longing to stop the pain her husband was feeling. When she saw Corran’s eyes start to roll upwards as he swayed towards her, she shook him again.

“Corran. Break the contact. We need you functioning.”

He stared blankly at her, unable to respond. She gave him a stinging slap across the cheek and shouted.

“Corran !”

The Jedi blinked at her, then gasped, his eyes clearing. Mirqx slid one arm around his shoulders and cupped his cheek with her other hand.

“Are you alright, love ?”

Corran nodded. “Yes, yes. But Wedge…” He shuddered.

“Ssshh, yes. Do you know where he is ?” Mirax was doing her best to sound calm. The others in the repulsorvan stayed quiet, not wanting to disturb Corran’s fragile concentration.

“We’re close,” Corran answered. “I don’t know exactly where.” His voice became urgent. “He was getting weaker.”

Tycho gestured to Wes, who halted the slow-moving van.

“We’ll split into pairs and search on foot,” he ordered. “Heikki, stay near the repulsorvan so you’re central. Don’t forget there’s local law out there searching for Wedge too.”

The Rogues and their allies scrambled from the van, heading off to search the side roads and alleys in the area around. Tycho and Winter ran towards a unit that had once been a lighting store. Tycho called Wedge’s name, hearing Wes and Mirax calling too as they searched in different directions. Winter was holding her datapad in front of herself as she jogged, her white hair rippling with the speed of her movement. She was studying the movements of the police speeders as they searched for Wedge nearer the spaceport. They rounded the far side of the shabby unit and looked anxiously into the alley that ran behind it and the adjoining unit.

Parked halfway along was a battered brown speeder with blaster marks and holes in the windows. Tycho and Winter both sprinted towards it, calling Wedge’s name. Tycho skidded to a halt alongside and glanced in, seeing immediately that it was empty.

“Sith,” he muttered. “Where is he ?”

“Tycho !”

Winter was already climbing the fence, her movements quick and neat. Tycho saw the abandoned speeder on the far side, and the scattered pile of plasticard boxes and other debris. At first all he heard was the metallic noises of the fence as Winter swung herself over the top, then he heard the raw, uneven gasps for breath. Lunging toward the fence, Tycho saw Wedge lying amid the trash, his taut body jerking feebly. As Winter dropped the last metre or so, Tycho snatched out his comlink.

“Heikki – we’ve found him. Around the back of the Glo-So-Good lighting store – no, the one next to it. The alley at the back is divided by a fence. You’ll have to come round behind the other building. Get here quick.” He barely waited for the acknowledgement before shoving the comlink back into his pocket and following Winter over the fence.

She was shaking her head as she examined Wedge.

“I can’t find any injuries,” she said, pressing her fingertips against his throat. “His pulse is far too fast.”

Tycho’s stomach twisted as he looked at his friend. Wedge’s face was a greyish-white, his lips faintly blue from lack of oxygen. The near constant convulsions of pain were stopping him from breathing properly. His eyes were open but Tycho couldn’t tell if he were conscious or not.

“A poison ?” he asked, putting his hand on Wedge’s upper arm in an attempt to comfort, and feeling the muscles to be rigid under the loose shirt sleeve.

“Possible,” Winter answered. “But so many have such specific antidotes and I doubt if the medbay on the Skate is sophisticated enough to do the kind of analysis we need.”

“We’ll think of something,” Tycho vowed. “Even if we have to search the rest of this miserable planet for a cryocapsule to put him in until we can get him back to Coruscant.”

He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and saw Mirax and Corran sprinting along the alley towards them. Mirax dropped to her knees as soon as she reached them, anxiously calling Wedge’s name. Corran stood nearby, frowning as he watched. He was still pale, and Tycho wondered whether he was still feeling Wedge’s pain even without making an effort.

“He’s fading,” Corran said bitterly.

“Don’t die, Wedge,” Mirax pleaded, stroking his long hair. “Iella and Syal are waiting for you. They want you to come home.” As she caressed him, she passed her hand over the back of his neck.

Wedge abruptly went limp, his eyes closing. Tycho gasped, and heard the others do the same. Wedge took a deep, rasping breath, then as Mirax moved her hand, his back arched and he became rigid again.

“No, Wedge !” she cried, moving her hand back to cradle his head again.

Once more Wedge went limp.

“What…?” Tycho said.

“I can feel something,” Mirax said, moving her hand cautiously on the back of his neck. “There’s something sticking out; some kind of implant like a data jack.”

Winter let out a hiss of disapproval. “A neuro-shock implant. It activates by a remote signal and acts directly on the nervous system. It’s illegal in the New Republic.”

“What can we do about it ?” Tycho asked.

Winter was already rummaging in one of her jacket pockets. “Roll him into the recovery position.”

Mirax and Tycho did as she asked, with Mirax doing her best to keep her hand steady against the back of Wedge’s neck. Winter tore the wrapping from a small bacta patch. Mirax held Wedge’s hair out of the way with her free hand so Winter could stick the patch over the implant as quickly as possible. Wedge twitched and stiffened as Mirax removed her protecting hand, then slumped limply again when the patch went on and blocked the signal to the implant.

“That’s got it,” Mirax said fiercely.

Winter was bent over Wedge too, her slender fingers pressed against his neck.

“No pulse,” she said simply. The tortured breathing had stopped too.

As Mirax and Winter briskly rolled Wedge onto his back and started resusitation, Tycho turned to look along the alley.

“Where’s the kriff is…?”

Heikki came into sight around the corner at that moment, Wes and Hobbie with him, towing the float palette from the van. He saw the two women working on Wedge and increased his speed. A few moments later he was lifting his box of equipment from the float and listening to Winter’s explanation as she performed heart compressions, keeping perfect time with Mirax’s artificial respiration as she spoke.

“Shock and exhaustion,” Heikki muttered, pressing a dose of Anti-Shok into Wedge’s neck. “Too much stress on the body from muscle contractions and pain, and not enough oxygen taken in. It’s drained his strength.”

He threw the container into the rest of the trash and passed a scanner to Tycho.

“When I’m ready, hold that over his chest here.” He waved his hand over Winters’ as she pressed on Wedge’s ribcage.

With a few, practised moves, Heikki set up the resus unit, holding the long, charged needles delicately.

“OK, Winter.”

On her cue, she pulled open the loose shirt to expose Wedge’s chest. Tycho held the scanner over his heart area, with the screen angled toward Heikki. The medic-pilot carefully inserted the needles into Wedge’s chest. When he’d got them positioned with the tips just piercing the sinoatrial node of the heart, he pressed the trigger buttons. Tycho could see the scanner screen at an angle, and saw the image of the heart twitch, though Wedge did not appear to react in any way. There was a stronger double contraction followed by a pause that seemed far too long.

Tycho was reminded of those dreadul moments on the shuttle, when Wedge – the clone of Wedge – had died in his arms. Now, as then, he was helpless to do anything as his friend wavered between life and death. He felt his hands trembling at the memory of losing Wedge once before, and he had to make an powerful effort to hold the scanner still.

Tycho was waiting anxiously for Heikki to trigger the needles again, when Wedge’s heart beat a second time and then settled to a rapid rhythm.

Heikki carefully withdrew the needles and returned them to their self-sterilizing compartment in the resus unit. As Mirax paused between breaths, Wedge’s chest heaved. Tycho grinned as Wedge began breathing again. It was shallow and rapid but the weak gasping was better than silence. Heikki took the scanner from Tycho and swiftly ran it over Wedge’s body.

“No injuries,” he reported. “But he’s very weak. I need to get him back to the Skate.”

“You’ve given him a chance,” Mirax said gratefully. “That’s all Wedge ever needed.”

Tycho, Corran and Wes lifted Wedge carefully onto the floater. Mirax carefully tucked a thermsheet over him while Heikki fixed an oxgen mask to Wedge’s face.

“Now, straight back to the Skate,” Wes said as they headed back to the truck.

Winter shook her head. “Not directly back. I need to do some work before we reach spaceport security.”

“The Chenga plan ?” Tycho asked.

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