Final Choice part 2

Coruscant 80 ABY

“Wedge dedicated himself to the Rebellion,” Leia said. “When I first met him, on Yarvin, he seemed just another hot-shot pilot. Lots of people under-estimated him.”

“Like Palpatine,” Han put in. Leia ignored him.

“Wedge was brilliant as a tactician, and a leader,” Leia continued. “He didn’t care for politics, he always said he was just a soldier, but he was smart. He learned, and became shrewd at politics but it was to protect himself and his pilots from politicians. He hated to see soldiers, any soldiers, being used as political pawns.”

“The politicians didn’t like him either,” Han interrupted. “Wedge wouldn’t co-operate with their games. He didn’t respect them and he didn’t care much if they knew about it. He once told me one of his biggest regrets was not being there to see it when Booster Terrik tossed Borsk Fey’lya into a bulkhead, headbutted him on the snout and then threw him off the Errant Venture. I’d like to have seen that myself,” he added thoughtfully.

Vesa Lin’s eyes were wide. “I never heard about that.”

“I’m sure Fey’lya never told anyone,” Han said, grinning.

“Getting back to Wedge,” Leia said pointedly. “What he achieved at Borleias was…” She spread her hands as she searched for the right words. “It was a military triumph but it was more than that. Coruscant had fallen, the New Republic was falling apart; it was the darkest hour of the war. Then Wedge struck back. He won Borleias back from the Vong, he tricked them and he destroyed a worldship. He bought us the time to recover and start fighting back. He gave us hope.”

“I’m surprised he wasn’t made an admiral,” Vesa said.

“He should have been,” Han said. “I bet the war would have been six months shorter if Wedge had been put in charge after Borleias.”

“Maybe.” Leia shrugged. “But there was no leadership in the New Republic at that point and Wedge wasn’t the kind to put himself forward and grab power. He didn’t care about promotions or status. He never did really, but after his family went missing, the only thing he cared about was defeating the Vong. When the war ended, he wasn’t the person he’d been before.” She stood up suddenly, as graceful as a far younger woman, and crossed the room to some shelves.

Han looked at Vesa. “Wedge never heard from his family after Coruscant. All that time, he never knew what had happened to them. It just ate him up from the inside.”

Leia returned, holding a small holocube unit. She had switched it on, and cycled through the pictures stored on it until she found the one she wanted. Handing it to Vesa, she seated herself again, holding Han’s hand. Vesa studied the holo being projected. It showed two human males, both in early middle-age and wearing the uniforms of New Republic generals. One was slightly the taller, with light-coloured hair, and his arm over the shoulders of the other, darker-haired man in a friendly embrace.

“General Antilles, and General Celchu ?” Vesa said, glancing up to seek confirmation.

Leia nodded. “That was taken not long before the end of the war.”

Vesa looked at the holo again. “I thought that the generals were approximately the same age, but General Antilles is older than General Celchu.”

“Actually, your first thought was correct.” Leia looked sadly at the holo. “Tycho was just a few months older than Wedge.”

In the holo, Wedge’s dark hair was liberally scattered through with grey. His shoulders were slumped and his face lean and pinched, lacking in any softness. Although his mouth was open in a smile, his dark eyes were haunted by old sorrows. Leia took the holocube back and held it to gaze more closely at the image, her own eyes sad.

“What did General Antilles do after the war ?” Vesa asked quietly.

Han reached over and abruptly switched off the holocube, making the picture vanish.

“He did what he’d been wanting to do for a year and a half.” Han’s voice was gruff. “He went to Coruscant.”

Coruscant 29 ABY

Wedge had flown through this part of Coruscant more times than he could remember, and he’d never seen less traffic in the air. For all that, his skimmer was travelling just over half the speed he would normally fly. His slower progress was mainly because he wanted time to look about at this new, strange Coruscant as he passed through it. It was also because he barely recognized what he saw, and he had almost got himself lost once or twice.

When he’d last been on the surface of Coruscant, it had been the heart of the New Republic, a gleaming city-planet of towering skyscrapers and immense public buildings. Vehicles of all kinds and sizes had thronged the wide canyons formed by the buildings, layer upon layer of traffic. There had been an endless glow of lights: windows, signals, traffic, advertisements. The night sky of Cosucant held no stars; the glow of the lights from the planet obscured them, something that Wedge had faintly resented. He’d been happy living on Coruscant, but he’d also missed the natural, open spaces of Corellia, where he’d attended school. The only plants on Coruscant were in pots, or in carefully ordered parks.

This new Coruscant was another place altogether. Great swathes of the buildings had been devastated in the fighting, by bombardment or by vast chunks of debris falling from orbit. Some still seemed intact, but others were broken off, leaving great shards of skyscrapers pointing to the sky. Wedge had seen parts of Coruscant damaged like this before, after the Emperor had somehow returned in a cloned body and attacked the planet, all of nineteen years ago now. This time, there was more than just the devastation of war.

The Vuuzhan Vong had shaped the planet to suit themselves, and their beliefs. They had even altered its orbit, making the planet warmer and more humid. What had once been paved streets were now often rivers, or had muddy paths winding along them. And everywhere there was vegetation. The Vong had created their own organic buildings from yorik coral that were sometimes hard to distinguish from the mass of plants that covered the city in a living carpet. Groves of alien trees sprouted everywhere, leaves rippling in the breeze. Creepers and vines climbed the skyscrapers, smothering viewports. The air was heavy with the scent of living things in a way that reminded Wedge of Yarvin 4. But here and there, the jungle revealed once-familiar landmarks that sharply reminded him of how Coruscant had been before the Vong took it.

In spite of his caution, Wedge still nearly missed recognizing the block where he’d lived. To his relief, it was still mostly intact; the upper twenty or so storeys were gone, but his apartment was a few levels below the missing chunk. Slowing the skimmer further, Wedge circled the tower, looking for his long-abandoned home. His heart felt like a dull weight as he looked at it, picking out the shape of the viewports beneath a mottled reddish vine. Further round, the entrance to the communal speeder hangar for his floor was also obscured by a curtain of foliage. The skimmer Wedge was flying was miliary-issue. A quick check of the scanners confirmed an open space behind the vines, and a few blasts of the light laser guns burned away enough vegetation for him to fly inside. He circled the almost-empty hangar cautiously. The few vehicles left seemed largely intact. The Vong had swept through many buildings, breaking and destroying the machines they believed to be blasphemous abominations, but they clearly hadn’t been here. A couple of larger speeders had been partially stripped of components, suggesting that Coruscanti survivors hiding from the Vong had been searching for equipment. A full circuit of the hangar failed to reveal the Antilles family speeder. It had been too well-secured for casual theft, so Wedge was certain that Iella had used it for the first stage of her attempt to escape Coruscant.

Setting his skimmer down near the internal exit, Wedge checked his blaster before picking up a backpack and glowrod, and leaving the vehicle. He moved quietly, the glowrod in his left hand and his right hand close to the blaster on his hip. As on most of Coruscant now, there was no power supply here, and so no lighting in internal rooms and corridors. Wedge didn’t think it was likely he’d run into any stray Vong, or refugee gangs who could be almost as dangerous, but he wasn’t willing to take any chances. He was on edge, his heart thudding heavily in his chest, as he made his way along the once-familiar route.

Wedge drew a sharp breath as he turned a corner and his apartment door came into view. The corridor was dusty and dirty, with some kind of lichen patching the walls, but essentially it was the same as when he’d last said goodbye to his family, and gone to join his fleet. He started running without meaning to, fetching up outside the door, his nerves twanging with anxiety. Wedge began pressing his code into the lock, before remembering that there was no power. Cursing, he stood the glow rod on the floor and slipped off his backpack, extracting equipment. He quickly coupled a temporary power unit to the door controls, and entered his code again. The door slid open with a soft hiss, and Wedge could see his home at last.

The dim interior reminded him to pick up the glowrod and backpack. Wedge stepped over the threshold and paused, shining the light about.

“Hello ?”

He couldn’t help it; the urge to call to his family, in this familiar place, was too strong to resist, even though he knew the odds of any of them being here was infinitely small. Wedge listened anxiously, but there was nothing but silence. He moved forward into the hallway, again moving quietly as though in enemy territory, not his own home.

The glowrod illuminated the open door of the closet on his right. Inside, Wedge saw the usual clutter of coats, shoes and bags, waiting undisturbed. There was his shabby old brown jacket, that he knew Iella wanted him to get rid of, but would never tell him so. Beside it was a long, cream coat of Iella’s, that suited her slender grace so well. Hanging lower down were the girls’ various coats, with Myri’s favourite rainbow-patterned coat fallen to the floor underneath the others. Wedge’s legs suddenly buckled and he sat down on the carpet, never taking his eyes from his daughters’ coats. Breathing suddenly seemed to become difficult. It was the size of the coats that stood out to him: they were so small. Once, child sized clothing had been a part of his everyday life. Now, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen children’s clothing. He could hardly remember the last time he’d seen a child. Wedge’s heart ached, not only for his own children, but for all the lost and frightened children who were victims of this war.

Eventually he managed to gather some self-control and got back on his feet. He turned first into the living areas. There was some natural light in here, but it was dim and reddish from filtering through the vines that covered the viewports. Just inside the plexiglass, the containers of hanging plants that Iella had nurtured now held nothing more than drooping, dead leaves. Other than the dead plants and the dust, the kitchen and living area were as he remembered them. A few toys were scattered here and there, and one of Iella’s light tunics was draped over the back of the sofa. An empty glass stood on the dining table with the wrapper from a sweet bar nearby.

Those insignificant personal reminders nearly undermined Wedge again. He snatched a deep breath, holding back a sob, but couldn’t stop the tears from stinging his eyes. The empty wrapper told him that Syal had been sitting there; it was from her favourite treat. He’d bought a pack of the sweet, chewy bars last time he’d been on Coruscant, and had hidden it in one of the top cupboards in the kitchen. The hologame card on the sofa was Myri’s. It was a girl’s fashion and beauty sim, and Myri had loved to create outrageous models with multi-coloured hair and tiny lights embedded in their clothes. Wedge wiped his hand across his eyes and breathed in and out slowly, trying to calm himself.

He was here for a reason. Not to mourn his family, but to look for them. He needed to find clues to where they had gone, or tried to go. They were missing people and he was investigating them. Wedge tried to force his grief to the back of his mind. It was something he’d done a lot and the pressures of war had made him good at it. Now however, there was no one depending on him, no one waiting for an order or for him to do his duty. Wedge struggled to clear his mind and think impersonally. He wouldn’t have to do everything in the search, he knew his friends would help him. This first trip though, he’d chosen to undertake alone. He couldn’t share this first return to the once-happy home he’d shared with his family with anyone, not even Tycho or Mirax. But this was the best place to start the search and he had to concentrate on what he needed to do now.

For a few moments, Wedge simply stood still, overwhelmed by the painful familiarity of his empty home. His family should have been here to greet him but their secure lives had been snatched away from them, forcing them into danger and uncertaincy. Anger filled Wedge at the unfairness of it all. He’d spent nearly all his adult life fighting to protect others and secure a peaceful future. He’d fulfilled his duty to the New Republic and to citizens escaping from Coruscant by staying in space to command Fleet Group Three during the battle for Coruscant. His actions had saved thousands upon thousands of lives, but he’d failed in his duty to those three individuals whose lives meant more to him than any others, including his own.

He hadn’t been able to save his family then, but now it was his duty to find out what had happened to them. Once again, Wedge shouldered the burden of duty; he became an officer with a task. His mind cleared and he knew where to start.

Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of Iella’s personal datapad, but the family’s datanet terminal was on its desk in the corner of the room. Using a different power pack from his kit, Wedge got the terminal running again. He checked for messages first, anything Iella might have written before leaving the apartment, and the last messages received by the terminal. There was nothing to help. Wedge checked the datanet use on the day Coruscant had fallen. Money had been transferred to off-world banks. Iella had looked up information on Skipray Blast Boats and technical specs for their family speeder. Wedge thought about those for a few moments, then shut the terminal down again. With the tools he’d brought, it was a simple matter to remove the memory units so they could be taken for detailed analysis elsewhere.

Wedge prowled round the living room and kitchen. He found more signs that the apartment had been left in a hurry – bins left unemptied and dirty cups – but there was nothing to indicate where the occupants had gone. Frustrated, Wedge moved onto the bedroom he’d shared with Iella. The door of Iella’s closet was open and he looked inside. The first thing that struck him was the smell. Iella’s clothes usually smelt fresh and very slightly spicy from the scented sachets she hung among them. The closet now smelt stale and slightly mouldy. It made Wedge both depressed and angry.

He backed away and instead headed for an inconspicuous panel on the footboard of the wide bed. Pressing at the correct point popped open a small flap; underneath was a number pad. When Wedge entered the code, there was a quiet click and the rest of the panel opened up to reveal a space built into the bed base. From the safe, Wedge withdrew the box where Iella had stored her valuables. The lid of the darrwood box was partially open and a quick look showed him that several items were missing. Wedge set the box on the floor and checked more thoroughly. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to what had been taken, but all the jewelery in the box was good quality and would have had value on any planet in the galaxy, regardless of the currency in use.

Delicately, Wedge picked out one of the remaining rings and held it up. It looked odd in the reddish light from the vine covered viewport, but his memory supplied the correct colours. The ring had been his tenth wedding anniversery gift to Iella; a gold band with two offset Chandrilan sapphires, one stone for each of their blue-eyed daughters. He gazed at the ring for a few moments, then fastened it securely into a pocket. The rest of the jewelery went back into the box, and was returned to the safe.

The next room was Myri’s, cluttered as always with toys and the amazing kinds of stuff that small girls seemed to accumulate. A drawer had been left open, with pink-and-blue-striped sleeves dangling from the lip. Wedge shone the glow rod around, but the only thing that looked worth investigating was his daughter’s datapad. It was an unsophisticated model, colourful and designed for children. Wedge recalled how thrilled Myri had been to get a datapad of her own for her seventh lifeday present, and how relieved Syal had been that she would no longer have her little sister begging to use hers. Shrugging his backpack further onto his shoulder, Wedge picked up the datapad in his free hand and switched it on. A picture blinked, indicating an unread message. He hastily opened it, only to find it was a quick note from himself, sent during a snatched moment from the battle above the planet. His daughter had never seen the last message of love he’d sent her.

Wedge swallowed, and hastily switched off the datapad. Stowing it in the backpack, he turned and left the room. Syal’s bedroom was much neater, though the bed was unmade. Wedge stood in the doorway, his emotions now strung up to a high pitch. Any sudden noise would have made him jump violently, but the apartment remained mournfully silent. All he could hear was his own, ragged breathing. Trying to blank his feelings from his mind, Wedge slowly entered the room. He forced himself to search methodically, starting in one corner and working his way around. It didn’t help that he didn’t know what he was looking for. Frustrated, he finally even lifted the crumpled bedcover, and froze.

It was just a toy ewok, the fur worn thin on the paws and muzzle, that had been hidden under the cover. It had been inevitable that Wes would give Wedge’s first child a toy ewok. Syal had adored Kettch and had insisted on taking it everywhere with her for years. Even at the age of ten she’d still taken him on vacation. She’d never been separated from her toy for more than a few hours but somehow Kettch had been left behind as the family fled. Dropping the backpack, Wedge picked up the toy with a trembling hand.

For a long minute he just stared at it, his heart awash with so many emotions that he couldn’t tell exactly what he was feeling any more. A low moan escaped him and he folded forwards onto the bed. Wedge grabbed the pillow and hugged it to himself. The sensation of holding something, even a pillow, in his arms, was too much. Something broke deep inside him. He howled in pain and the tears finally started. Curled up on his daughter’s long-abandoned bed, Wedge buried his face in her pillow and wept helplessly.

Coruscant 80 ABY

Leia handed a glass of sunfruit juice to Vesa and sat down again. She sipped from her own glass, letting the liquid soothe her throat, before she continued speaking.

“Wedge wanted to resign his commision after the war, but Corsucant was under military control; civilians weren’t allowed on planet. He called in a few favours and got himself assigned groundside. Admiral Kre’fey gave him a role with refugee relief work but that was just a way of giving Wedge more resources for finding his family. Squads of commandos were doing building-to-building searches to round up Vuuhzan Vong who hadn’t surrendered, and then medical stations and refugee centres were set up.” Leia gestured with her free hand. “There were still millions of people living on Coruscant, hiding from the Vong. Most of the survivors had teamed up with others for mutual protection and to share skills; others somehow survived on their own. They all had to be checked and ID’d and given food and shelter. There were still people turning up months afterwards, barely alive most of them, and not all sane.”

“General Antilles was hoping his family would be identified at one of the refugee stations ?” Vesa asked.

Leia nodded. “Wedge couldn’t just sit and wait though. He wanted to track where they’d gone after leaving their home. It would give him an idea of where to start looking if they didn’t show up at a refugee station – if they’d been killed.”

“Winter came to help him; she’s General Celchu’s wife,” Han added for Vesa’s benefit. “She was an intelligence agent during the rebellion, like Iella. Winter knew the family pretty well, so she knew how Iella would think. When she got access to Iella’s datanet traffic, she put together the pieces to work out what Iella’s plan had been. Wedge had an X-wing he kept at a small military base, about two klicks from Eastport. In the days before the battle, Iella tracked down some of Rogue Squadron’s old support staff. She made contact with a Bith who’d left the squad the same time Tycho retired, and who could fly small ships. The plan was for them to meet at this military docking facility and to take a Skipray Blastboat stored there that belonged to a captain who was away with Kre’fey’s fleet. When I say ‘take’, I mean ‘steal’,” Han added, smiling lop-sidedly. “The blastboat’s owner was off-planet, so he didn’t need it. Iella might not have been able to fly it, but she was Corellian enough to get her hands on a ship when she needed one.”

“Did she get off planet then ?” Vesa asked.

Leia shook her head. “Once Winter knew where Iella was going, and when she travelled, she tried to track the Antilles through security recordings. The Vong smashed a lot of equipment on Coruscant, but there were still hundreds of hours of footage covering the route from the Antilles place to Eclipse Base, the military dock. It took Winter days to piece the whole thing together.” Leia paused, and sighed. “Iella and the girls left in their speeder, but there was a no fly zone for three kilometers around Eastport. They had to leave the speeder and walk. The streets and skyways were packed with tens of thousands of beings all trying to get to Eastport and find a way off the planet. There was fighting in orbit by then, the planetary shields were breached and debris was coming through. There was even some Vong already on the ground, mostly in disguise.” Leia shuddered, remembering it all. She took a deep breath and continued. “Iella needed to stay clear of the crowds, and get herself and the girls over to Eclipse Base. She went down into the service tunnels. If you can find your way around, you can pretty much get from anywhere to anywhere else on Coruscant using just the service tunnels. They mostly have security systems and holocams to stop people using them illegally. Iella knew how to get through security systems though, and without setting off too many alarms and automated defences. She didn’t leave many traces for Winter to find on the security records.”

“She did it though,” Han said. “Wedge helped but it wasn’t really his field. He drove himself all the time, doing whatever Winter asked. All the grunt work of scanning the hours of holotapes she picked out because they might have filmed Iella and the girls for a few seconds. When they did find a glimpse of Wedge’s family, it lifted him, but it tortured him too. It was Winter who found the last recording. She said afterwards that the whole search for Wedge’s family had been one of the toughest things she’d ever done. Watching that holo herself was hard, but even worse was knowing that she was going to be the one to let Wedge see it.”

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