Final Choice part 3

Coruscant 29 ABY

The call from Winter brought Wedge to her office at a brisk trot that was in danger of breaking into a flat-out run. He badly wanted to hear the news she’d promised him, but something in her tone made him afraid of what it would be. He arrived slightly breathless, anxiously searching her cool, beautiful face for clues. Winter could appear as cold as her name suggested but Wedge saw nothing but sorrow and sympathy in her blue eyes. He opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t make himself ask the question. Winter reached out and took his hand.

“I’m so sorry, Wedge. Iella is dead.”

Wedge took a deep breath. “You’re sure ?”

Winter nodded, her long white hair swaying with the movement. “It’s quite clear.”

It was what he’d feared, and expected almost. He clung on to her hand, harder than he realized, trying to pull his thoughts together. He and Iella had so nearly missed one another in life; both had made mistakes and hurt one another. Eventually, at the last moment, Wedge had realized just how much she meant to him. He’d taken the risk, as daunting as flying a snubfighter against a deathstar, and declared his love for her. Somehow, by a miracle he’d never ceased to be thankful for, she’d listened, and acknowledged her love for him in return.

The dream was over. Before getting together with Iella, his life had seemed increasingly hollow. Iella had filled his heart and that gap in his life. Now she had been taken from him forever, and Wedge feared the emptiness that lay ahead of him once more. There was just one hope left to cling to.

“My girls,” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” Winter answered.

As he stared at her, Winter led him over to the holoprojector.

Wedge sat in front of it, his heart heavy in his chest, but numb. Winter pulled another chair close to his and sat, putting her left hand on his arm.

“I found a recording of them in a service tunnel half a kilometer from Eclipse Base,” Winter said. “There were some Yuuzhan Vong down there too.”

Fierce bitterness glowed in Wedge’s eyes as he looked at Winter. “Vong !”

“Five warriors,” Winter confirmed. “The girls escaped, but the Vong caught up with Iella.”

Wedge took a deep breath, and turned his face resolutely to the projector. “Show me.”

Winter switched the projector on, manipulating controls with her free hand. The holo showed an empty service corridor, everything starkly functional. Pipes ran along the ceiling and the walls were decorated only by power outlets, droid communication ports, area designators and two, secured doors. Numbers in the lower corner of the image showed that the display was being run at high speed. Winter studied the numbers, then slowed the recording on cue, until it was running at real time.

Iella, Syal and Myri came into view at the edge of the holocam’s field. Iella had a bag in one hand and a datapad in the other and wore a backpack; the girls each had a small backpack. Myri was trailing slightly, being pulled along by her older sister. She glanced back over her shoulder, then speeded up, saying something unrecorded by the vision-only holocam. All three increased their speed, Iella jogging steadily as she checked the screen of her datapad. They passed out of range of the cam but Winter left the scene running. A quick touch of the controls to fast-forward a little, then the recording dropped to normal speed again.

Wedge made a deep, angry sound as five Yuuzhan Vong warriors entered the picture, following his family’s route. The Vong were dressed for battle in vonduun crab armour and moved together like a disciplined unit. Their brisk walk was as fast as Iella and the girls had been jogging. They didn’t look aside or back. The Vong swiftly crossed the holocam’s field and went out of sight.

The scene switched to another view but this time of a dead end. Iella and the girls hurried into shot and stopped short. Iella looked at her datapad, her motion registering surprise. Thrusting the datapad into a pocket, she sprinted a couple of strides to a side door and began examining the lock. The two girls huddled close together, Syal watching their mother while Myri anxiously peered back to the corner they’d just come around. Fear settled heavily in Wedge’s stomach as he watched. It was all he could do not to shout a warning at the old holo-recording.

Iella had tried a key card of some kind on the secured door, but nothing happened. She pried part of the lock panel off but every gesture signalled frustration. Myri called something, moving closer to her big sister. Both girls’ faces were etched with fear but neither gave way to panic. Iella looked about in desperation. She darted to a small air grille set low in the wall and popped off the retaining clips. With unheard words and quick gestures, she urged the girls to squeeze themselves inside, pressing a swift kiss to each one’s face as they went. Their bags were pushed in after them.

Wedge was clutching the arms of his chair as he watched the recording. The air vent was a tight fit for his daughters; there was simply no way Iella could have joined them in hiding. Iella fastened the grille back over the vent, her hands working steadily in spite of the anguish visible on her taut face. With her children out of sight, Iella leapt back to the secured door. She’d barely glanced at the panel before whirling to face the direction she’d come from. A blaster appeared in her hand and shots poured from it. There was a blur of something small heading towards her and Iella staggered.

Pain briefly obscured the anger on her face. More thud bugs were thrown. Iella manged to blast one from the air, but two others struck and tumbled her backwards. Wedge winced, knowing from personal experience how painful the impact of thud bugs was. The Yuuzhan Vong warriors came into view, four instead of five now, but more than enough. The holo blurred and Wedge blinked hard to clear tears from his eyes. Although prone, Iella managed a couple more shots before the armoured warriors closed around her. Their snake-like amphistaffs whipped out, delivering fatal venom with every hit and bite. Iella struggled briefly before paralysis overtook her and she went limp. One of the Vong stamped on her blaster, shattering it. They pulled open the bags, searching for more technology to destroy.

Amphistaff venom could kill an adult human in less than two minutes. Iella was undoubtedly dead by the time the Vong finished their destructive rampage. One of the Vong barked orders and the group formed up again and marched briskly away. When they disappeared from view, Wedge let out a breath he didn’t knew he’d been holding. He reached out to the still figure in the holo, caressing the air where the image was projected.


He let his hand drop and watched numbly as Winter skipped the recording forward a few minutes. She zoomed in on the grille of the air vent as the recording returned to normal pace. Wedge’s heart jumped as he saw fingers clutching the grille, reaching through from the inside. Syal’s face was just visible behind the grille, calling to her mother. Syal pushed futilely at the grille but couldn’t free it. Her head drooped in despair, then she wriggled backwards, out of sight. Winter zoomed out again, so the holo showed Iella’s body still lying as it had been when the Vong left. She let the recording run for a few seconds, then stopped it.

Wedge sucked in a deep breath, gradually returning to his immediate surroudings. He turned to look at Winter, who leaned forward and hugged him. Wedge let himself lean against her, silent tears running down his face and soaking her jacket where his face rested against her shoulder. Gradually, the warm, sympathetic presence soothed the terrible emptiness he felt inside. Wedge sat up again but kept hold of Winter’s hand, unwilling to yet detach himself completely.

“Thank you,” he said huskily.

“I just wish I could have found better news for you,” Winter replied.

Wedge was silent for a few moments. He now knew why his family had never got off-planet. The location of the holocam would tell where Iella had died and he could go there. It was unlikely there would be anything to find, nearly two years later, but at least he could say some kind of farewell there. Wedge glanced at the holoprojector, remembering what he’d seen. He had an answer to Iella’s disappearance, but his duty wasn’t done yet. A thin thread of hope still remained.

“My girls,” he said. “My little stars. I have to find them. They are out there all alone; they must be so frightened.” His voice had dropped to a whisper. “My girls.”

Coruscant 80 ABY

“Iella Antilles must have been a brave woman,” Vesa said thoughtfully.

“Anyone who marries a soldier has to be brave,” Leia answered. “Iella was right in the action herself plenty of times, while she was an active Intelligence agent. I liked her a lot. She and Wedge seemed such a good match.”

“Their girls were good kids,” Han added.

Leia nodded. “I think we might have a holo of them, the whole family. Excuse me.” She stood and headed into another room to look.

Han watched her go and as soon as she was out of the room, he leaned forward.

“Having children – becoming a parent, that is – is something you can’t really prepare yourself for,” he said. “Until you have a child, you can’t believe just how much they’ll mean to you or what you’ll do to protect them. I know what it’s like to have your children go missing. I know how Wedge felt after he saw that holo. You can’t quite get it out of your mind; it’s like something’s squeezing your heart, always.” Han paused and glanced to the room where Leia had gone. He continued speaking urgently. “When Anakin died, Leia felt it through the Force, even though he was on the other side of the galaxy. I didn’t see it, or feel it myself, but from her reaction, I believed he was dead. I couldn’t doubt her. When Jacen went missing, just after, Leia insisted that he was still alive. In my heart I believed her, because she’s Jedi and Jedi can feel things like that. In my head…” Han shrugged. “It seemed impossible he could still be alive; the odds were too great. But when it’s your child, you have to cling to that hope they will beat the odds. I couldn’t tell Leia I thought any different. She needed that hope and so did I. I couldn’t admit out loud that I thought Jacen was dead; it would have killed that last hope. That’s all Wedge had; just hope. He’d been clinging to that hope for nearly two years. That’s all his life was after the war.”

Leia returned as Han finished speaking, carrying another holocube. It was already projecting an image as she handed it to Vesa.

“That was taken at Winter and Tycho’s fifth wedding anniversary, a couple of years before the Vong invaded,” she explained.

The holo had Wedge in the centre, lifting both girls, while Iella stood to one side. The girls had their arms twined round their father’s neck while he carried them with an arm around each. Myri was saying something, Syal and Iella were both laughing and Wedge was smiling broadly as he looked towards his wife. In this holo, his hair was dark, with just a hint of grey, and he looked younger than his years, almost boyish. The family’s happiness at that moment radiated from the still holo.

“That’s a lovely holo,” Vesa said honestly. “Thank you for showing it to me.” He looked up, fixing his red eyes on Leia’s face. “As a researcher, I should not get involved with the subjects I study. I have to be able to write objectively. But I can’t write truthfully about what those beings experienced unless I understand it myself, as best I can. This holo really helps me see General Antilles and his family as people, not just abstracts that something bad happened to. You’ve explained so much to me about how the General thought, what he’d been through, like his parents being killed. And you are speaking from your own personal experience too, using that to interpret General Antilles to me. You’ve helped me understand so much more than I might have otherwise. I’m very grateful.”

“I’m glad we can help,” Leia said quietly. “This sort of suffering should not be forgotten. We need to remember the cost of war.”

Han held out his hand for the holocube. Vesa passed it to him, and Han looked at the holo for a few moments.

“Wedge mutinied on me once,” he said thoughtfully. At Vesa’s gasp, he looked up and half-smiled. “It was when we were hunting for Warlord Zsinj, back when the New Republic really was new. I was a general, in command of a fleet; Wedge was a commander in charge of four fighter squadrons. We didn’t seem to be getting far against Zsinj and I was starting to wonder what in Kessel I was doing, being a general. Wedge knew everyone was getting stressed, so he started a ‘no décor’ evening. No-one wore any insignia, all ranks mingled and played. Only routine duty was done. Everyone else drank, played sabacc, danced, partied, whatever. It lasted a whole day. It did wonders for morale.”

Han set the holocube on the table next to Vesa’s recorder. “I haven’t thought about that day in years. It’s good to remember Wedge like that.”

Leia nodded. “He was serious about being a good officer, but he had a tremendous sense of fun as well. I guess that knowing him as we did, before the war, is what makes it so hard to remember him as he became afterwards.”

“You saw that other holo,” Han said. “The one where you thought he was older than Tycho. All those months of not knowing what had happened to his family slowly crushed the heart out of him. Then eventually there were two blows, right after one another.”

“First he learned that Iella was dead – that hope was gone. A few days later it was Syal,” Leia said. “Two-thirds of his family confirmed dead in such a short time. He’d been waiting and hoping for so long, and then suddenly that hope for Iella and Syal was snatched away from him.”

“I met him not long before he heard about Iella,” Han said. “He was still friendly but distant somehow. It was beyond dedication; it was like his whole purpose was to find his family. There was nothing else left of Wedge. When he knew both Iella and Syal were gone, then most of his purpose, his reason for existing, was gone too.”

“What happened to Syal ?” Vesa asked.

Leia and Han looked at one another, sharing some silent conversation. It was Han who sighed, and began to answer the question.

“The military were still rounding up Vong and opening up new refugee stations across the planet. A few days after Wedge learned how Iella died, some survivors showed up at a new aid station. There were two or three of them, I forget the details. Anyway, part of the routine processing was to ask for names of anyone they knew who had died during the occupation. The group’s leader asked if General Antilles was still alive. Of course he was, then. The woman said she had to see him, to tell him about his daughters. The girls had joined up with this group very soon after the Vong invaded. They stuck together for safety. It was OK for a few months, then Syal died in an accident. Myri was with them until shortly before the Galactic Alliance took Coruscant back. The Vong were panicking then, a major sacrificial ceremony went wrong so they swept through the undercity, looking for their Shamed Ones to sacrifice. The group Myri was with got scattered, trying to avoid the warriors, and the ones who showed up eventually at the refugee station had lost track of Myri and the rest.

Of course, as soon as Wedge was notified of this, he dropped what he was doing and travelled straight to the refugee station.”

Coruscant 29 ABY

Wedge barely registered anything about the room where he met Reda Grahl. He was so focussed on the lean, taut-nerved woman sitting opposite that he almost forgot that Winter was with him, sitting quietly nearby. Reda’s face had the pinched look of long near-starvation and even seated in a Galactic Alliance office, she was still poised ready to jump up and fight or flee at any moment.

“General Antilles…” Reda’s voice faded away as she dropped her gaze. She studied the floor for a few moments before straightening her shoulders and looking Wedge in the face again. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t bring you better news.”

Wedge desparately wanted to hear more about his daughters but the pain he felt already seemed to be stifling him. He wanted to know what it had been like for his girls during the invasion; he needed to know just how Syal had died. He didn’t know just how much more it would hurt to hear about it and whether he could bear it.

“My girls…” Wedge paused, not sure what exactly he wanted to ask.

“We found them the day after their mother died,” Reda said. “There were twelve of us already, with one other child. There was no way we could have left them to fend for themselves but they were no trouble anyway. They cried for their mother, of course, but they weren’t on their own any more. A few days after they joined us, Luce began to break down. He was saying there was no point in us trying to survive; that the New Republic was going to abandon us.

Your girls wouldn’t have it. Syal said, ‘Our daddy’s a general and he won’t leave us here. He’ll come here and bring his fleet.’ Then Myri joined in.”

Reda paused, half smiling at the memory. “Myri told us all that her daddy would bring his friends to look for us – Uncle Corran and Auntie Mirax, Uncle Tycho and Auntie Winter, Uncle Han and Auntie Leia and Uncle Luke and Auntie Mara. We didn’t realize who she meant at first. We knew the girls’ surname was Antilles, but it’s not an uncommon name, so we simply didn’t make the association. Myri went on, saying that Uncle Tycho was a soldier too, and that Corran, Leia, Mara and Luke were Jedi. I was astonished when I realized who she was talking about. Syal could see that, and she brought out her datapad and showed us some holos of her family and those aunts and uncles. I couldn’t believe these girls thought of Princess Leia Organa-Solo as an auntie, and Grand Master Luke Skywalker as an uncle. They didn’t brag about it; it was just a statement of fact that these people knew them and would be able to rescue them.”

Wedge shrugged slightly. “I first met Luke in the briefing room on Yarvin, just before we flew out to face the first Death Star. He barely even knew what the Force was then. I respect and admire him a lot, but I know him as a person, a room-mate. Not an object of awe.”

Reda nodded, her own expression slightly awe-struck as she looked at Wedge. He didn’t notice though, his thoughts still on his daughters.

“Tell me about my girls,” Wedge pleaded. “Were they frightened ? Did they get cold ? How did they manage ?”

Reda gathered her thoughts before speaking. “Everyone loved them; they helped keep our spirits up. They were very willing, always ready to help someone and to do their share of work. Keeping warm wasn’t a problem, especially not after the Vong moved Coruscant’s orbit. It got a lot wetter though. There were days on end when everything seemed damp – clothes, bedding, everything. Syal and Myri hardly ever complained though.

Syal used to say that you’d lived in worse places, like Hoth, when you were fighting the Empire. And if you could do it, then so could they, because they were at war too, against the Vong. She was very proud of being a soldier’s daughter. She said that when she was old enough, she’d be a pilot as well.”

Wedge closed his eyes as the grief rose and threatened to strangle him. While his heart ached, guilt and anger tore at him too. Guilt that he hadn’t been able to save his daughters from their nightmare, that he hadn’t evacuated them before the Vong attacked. Anger that his beautiful, brave girls had been robbed of their lives, and everything they might have done with their lives. Anger that Syal would never fulfil her dreams of soaring among the stars, as he had done. He shivered, then opened his eyes to look straight at Reda.

“Tell me… tell me how Syal died.” His voice was barely more than a whisper.

Reda took a deep breath, looking away at the wall.

“Every few days, we moved camp. We established a territory, with places we could get food, power fuel cells and make secure camps, but we never stayed in any one place for long. We were moving to a place we hadn’t been for a while, and had to cross a walkway. It was covered in some kind of creeper, one of the Vong’s plants. The creeper covered the structure of the walkway, we were pretty much wading through the stuff and got spread out a little.

The creeper had damaged the duracrete but you couldn’t see that for all the leaves. A human and a Bothan were walking ahead of Syal. The walkway took their weight, but they must have weakened it. A chunk of the walkway simply gave way under Syal as she crossed it. If she’d not been carrying a bag in her arms, she might have been able to grab some of the creepers. She did drop the bag, but…” Reda stopped and shook her head. She clasped her hands together tightly as she resumed speaking.

“Syal fell about thirty metres, down to a broad stream running along the road below. We tried to get to her as fast as we could, but we had to go back into the building we’d left, and find our way down the stairwell. It took about fifteen minutes, and when we got to ground level and outside, Syal was lying in the water, exactly where she’d fallen. I think she lost consciousness immediately. She didn’t feel anything after the fall. We couldn’t tell if it was a head injury that actually killed her, or if she’d drowned lying in the stream. I’m certain she didn’t suffer.” Reda’s voice was pleading, wanting Wedge to believe her.

Wedge simply sat and concentrated on breathing. He wanted to close his eyes and shut the galaxy out, but didn’t dare; he was sure he’d see nothing but Syal lying in a stream, water rushing over her face as she died. His imagination kept trying to push the picture into his mind as he struggled to stay in touch with reality. He started at an unexpected touch, before realizing that Winter had put a hand on his arm. The reminder of her quiet, familiar presence pulled him back from the abyss that yawned in front of him. Wedge sucked in a deep breath like a drowning man coming up for air. He managed to focus on Reda’s pinched, care-worn face again.

“Thank you.” His voice was weak. “Thank you for looking after my girls. Thank you for telling me about Syal. I’d…I’d like to talk to you again…later.”

“I understand, General,” Reda said softly. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t do more for your daughters.”

Wedge simply nodded; he couldn’t find the strength to say anything more.

Reda rose; she hesitated a moment then placed her hand briefly on his shoulder.

“Comm me when you want to talk again,” she said, and left the office.

As the door hissed shut behind her, Wedge leaned forward in his chair, covering his face with his hands. Winter pulled him to herself, murmuring sympathetically. Wedge clung to her like a frightened child, shivering spasmodically. She rubbed her hand soothingly against his back. Wedge let out a great groan, as though his galaxy had shattered into an infinity of fragments. He began to sob helplessly, brokenly. Winter continued to hold him, her holographic memory capturing his anguish. In the future, no matter how much she might wish for the memory to fade, she would always have perfect recall of Wedge’s torment as he collapsed under the weight of his grief.

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