A Heart Full of Stars
Gillian F. Taylor
Tycho Celchu strode through the arrival hall of the spaceport, holding his head high to peer this way and that through the milling crowds. He was almost at the gate he wanted, but Wedge wasn't the easiest person to pick out in a crowd. Wedge's face was easy enough to remember, the trick was finding one shortish, slender human male in a mass of other beings. Tycho spotted the kit bag first; a soft cylindrical bag with the Rebel Alliance symbol on the ends. Wedge was carrying it on his shoulder, unintentionally making it easier for Tycho to find him.
Easing his way through the mob of new arrivals and their welcoming friends, Tycho approached Wedge with a smile.
"Hey, Wedge. Good to see you again."
Wedge Antilles smiled back and dropped his bag, pulling Tycho in for a quick hug. "And you," he replied. "Everything go all right while I was away?"
"Wedge, relax. You're still on leave until tomorrow. How was Lantaar? As good as it looked in the promo?"
"It was beautiful." Wedge picked up his kit bag, and they began making their way to the exit. "The planet was only opened up for settlement about five years ago, and it's been handled carefully, so it's pretty much unspoilt. The island where I was staying is a new development; it's only been open a matter of weeks. Lovely, warm green seas, little trails through the forest and fresh air. As unlike Coruscant as you can imagine."
"What did you do?" Tycho asked, dodging a pair of arguing Rodians who seemed unable to decide which way they were going.
"I went diving and took a few walks to admire the scenery. But mostly I just lay on a sun-lounger and slept."
"Yeah, it looks like you saw plenty of sun," Tycho remarked. Wedge's skin tanned fairly easily, but he'd never seen his friend looking so brown. It had taken some persuading, not just to get Wedge to take two week's leave at once, but to go somewhere remote, where he couldn't easily be called up in an emergency. It was worth it though, Tycho thought. Wedge looks refreshed, stronger. "So, a pretty well perfect holiday then?"
"Not quite," Wedge admitted. "A couple of days after I got there, I came down with an infection of some kind. Nothing too serious; headaches and a bit of a temperature mostly. It cleared up in a couple of days though. It just meant I spent the time sleeping in bed in my room, rather than sleeping on a lounger on the beach. Other than that, everything was fine."
"Good. If Winter and I ever get leave at the same time, maybe we'll go to Lantaar then." Tycho reached the exit at last, the tinted transparisteel doors sliding open for him.
"I'll think you'll like ..." Wedge broke off his sentence as he stumbled suddenly.
Tycho shot out a hand and grabbed Wedge's arm. The bag slipped from Wedge's shoulder, but he caught his balance.
"Are you all right?" Tycho asked, letting go.
Wedge nodded. "Must have caught my toe." He hitched the kit bag back into place and smiled reassuringly. "So, where did you leave the speeder?"
"Not too far." Tycho smiled, a rare hint of mischief in his blue eyes. "I decided to use the privileges of rank, that is your rank, Commander Antilles, and parked the speeder in Zone B."
"You may have taken it upon yourself to use the advantages of my rank, Captain Celchu," Wedge said, mock-sternly. "But as it means I don't have to walk so far, I approve."
"How did you get that image of being so moral and incorruptible?" Tycho asked.
* * * * *
The next morning, Wedge woke to the sound of his chrono's alarm beeping. He opened an eye to squint at the time displayed, then indulged himself in a leisurely yawn and stretch. It had felt good to get back in his own bed last night. He was used to sleeping almost anywhere he could rest his head, but this bed in his quarters on Coruscant, had come to feel like his bed now. Wedge rolled on to his stomach, burying his face in his pillow for a few last moments of relaxed sleepiness. Then he sighed, pushed the light covers back and turned, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed to stand up.
Rubbing a hand through his sleep-dishevelled hair, Wedge aimed for the bathroom. As he tried to step forward with his left foot, he stumbled and very nearly fell flat. Wedge caught his balance and stopped in place, jolted awake by the sudden adrenaline rush. Cautiously, he stood upright, and after a few moments, he tried to walk again. This time his legs obeyed him and the fear subsided a little. Once in the bathroom, Wedge looked at himself in the mirror above the sink.
It hasn't stopped. It might be getting worse.
The stumble yesterday that Tycho had seen, that had been the fourth such moment in two days. It was as if his legs somehow weren't getting the messages that his brain sent them. He would be walking normally, and then one foot would hesitate, twist, and throw his balance off. Yesterday morning, he'd found the same clumsiness in his hands. It had passed off soon, and he'd dismissed the problem from his mind.
If it carries on, I'll see someone about it.
Wedge turned away from the mirror and headed for the shower.
* * * * *
The morning sped by in a backlog of messages and reports. Wedge was too busy to worry about the difficulty he'd had first thing with the fasteners on his clothes. His hands obeyed him now, manipulating keypad, stylus, flimsi and datachips without trouble. Now and again he paused, absently wriggling his fingers to try and ease a recurring tingling sensation, but his attention was on his work. Lunch was a mug of caf, a sandwich and a doughy cake, eaten as his desk as he tried to catch up as much as possible before the afternoon meeting.
The meeting was a planning session, chaired by Admiral Ackbar. Wedge arrived in good time, and was greeted first by Princess Leia. She greeted him as affectionately as always, with a little kiss on the cheek.
"It's good to see you again, Wedge," she said warmly. "How are you?"
"Oh, fine," he answered automatically, smiling back at her.
"Where was it you went?" Leia asked, walking beside him as they moved to the table.
"Lantaar," he told her. "It's lovely. You and Han should try to fit in a visit."
Leia smiled ruefully. "I can't imagine when we'll find the time. You were lucky you managed to get leave when you did."
Wedge pulled out a chair for her. "It sounds as though this is going to be a long meeting. I wish I'd had more for lunch."
Leia sat, adjusting the folds of her white dress. "There'll be plenty of caf," she reassured him.
"I wouldn't show up if there wasn't," he said. "None of us would, Commander Antilles." Admiral Ackbar's voice came from behind him.
Wedge exchanged greetings with the Mon Calamari, and spoke with enthusiasm about the diving he'd enjoyed on his holiday. The meeting room was filling up rapidly, so Wedge moved around to his proper place at the table. He was actually the lowest-ranked officer in the room, apart from various aides, but Rogue Squadron's unique position gave him an unusually high-profile role for a squadron commander.
Of course, if I'd lost the bet over Wraith Squadron, I'd be a general now, and sitting higher up the table. But I'm happy here, knowing I've still got the freedom to fly my X-wing.
As Wedge had feared, it was a long meeting. The main topic was the renewed activity by the Empire, specifically, by the Chimera. The Star Destroyer had recently appeared, having apparently spent the last five years or so in the Unknown Regions. There was plenty of debate over who was commanding it, and what they were up to. About the only point that was generally agreed was that it meant trouble for the New Republic. Also on the agenda was the New Republic's shortage of cargo vessels and experienced cargo pilots. Wedge's eyebrows went up when he heard the amount that a good cargo pilot could earn. He tuned out of an argument between Admiral Ackbar and a general from Supply, and passed a few minutes daydreaming about resigning his commission, buying a ship and taking up his old life as a freighter captain again.
At least I'd be out flying, not sitting in a meeting listening to this.
Wedge almost smiled, but quickly recovered, keeping his expression suitably sober. He caught Leia's eye, and saw a sparkle there that told him she'd noticed his lack of attention. Wedge coloured slightly, wondering if anyone else had noticed him daydreaming. Leia knocked on the table, to bring attention her way.
"Gentlebeings," she said clearly. "This debate is getting nowhere. I suggest the subject be adjourned until the next meeting, when hopefully, we will have more ideas to work with."
Wedge picked up his glass of water, not thinking too much about what he was doing. He got the glass about four inches above the table before it slipped from clumsy fingers. It landed on the table with a bang, thankfully still upright, though some of the water slopped out.
It's happening again!
The shock held Wedge motionless for a few moments. Abruptly, he realized that others at the table was staring at him, and his face warmed with embarrassment. He hastily shifted his datapad away from the small puddle, pushing it without trying to lift it. An aide appeared with a cloth and efficiently mopped up the water. Wedge muttered apologies to the people sitting either side of him, and tried to appear calm. Admiral Ackbar was speaking now, tactfully ignoring the minor upset, and diverting attention to himself. Leia shot a quick glance at Wedge, puzzled by his behaviour. Wedge forced a smile that probably didn't fool her for a second, and steeled himself to endure the rest of the meeting.
* * * * *
When the meeting finished, Wedge escaped back to the privacy of his office, and buried himself in more work. He was reviewing personnel assessment records when Tycho entered.
"You don't have to catch up on all your files today," Tycho remarked, standing on the other side of Wedge's desk. "It's time to go home, Wedge."
"Then go home," Wedge answered, more tersely than he intended. He grimaced, put his stylus down and flexed his tingling fingers. "Sorry, Tych." The apology was genuine. "I'm feeling a little out of sorts."
Tycho's face softened a little in sympathy. "It's a bit of a change to be back here after a couple of weeks enjoying yourself."
Wedge nodded, accepting the excuse. Now that his concentration had been broken, he realized he had a mild headache. "I'll go home soon," he promised. "Have an early night. I'll see you at the sims tomorrow."
Tycho nodded. "Janson's been taking bets on who'll be the first to get virtually vaped. Current favourite is Inyri."
Wedge found himself smiling. "She'll hate that. So she'll either try too hard and wipe out big style, or else she'll get the highest score."
"I never really thought of Janson's gambling ring as a motivational tool before," Tycho remarked. "I'll see you tomorrow then." He lifted a hand in farewell, and walked out.
Wedge leaned back in his chair, the smile fading. He flexed his fingers, trying to shake the tingling feeling that plagued him. He hoped tomorrow would be better than today.
* * * * *
Wedge settled himself into the cockpit of the simulator, adjusting the set of the pedals to the right length and giving the control stick an experimental tug. His spirits were buoyant as he flipped switches, bringing the machine to life. It had been nearly four weeks since he'd flown his X-wing, and even flying a simulator was better than datawork. Screens around the cockpit canopy lit up, displaying the interior of a frigate hangar, and the other X-wings of Rogue Squadron around him. Wedge took a light hold of his control stick, and prepared to start the sim.
I wasn't so bad this morning, he told himself. Just a couple of little stumbles and I didn't pick the spoon up first try. No worse than yesterday, and I'm fine now. Maybe I'm starting to get over it.
Voices came over his helmet speaker, the rest of Rogue Squadron checking in. Wedge gave the order and they lifted off, floating out of the hangar on repulsors. He half-smiled to himself, pleased by the steadiness of his hands on the controls and the smooth way his X-wing glided across the hangar and into space. There were times when it seemed like the X-wing was merely an extension of his own body, that a thought was enough to control it. When Wedge wanted to dive, bank or roll, it happened almost without conscious effort on his part. It was the time when he felt most alive.
This sim was based on a recent attack by the Chimera on a minor starship repair base in the Outer Rim. Wedge didn't know many details of the attack, which was deliberate. Ackbar wanted to see how well Rogue Squadron would have performed if they'd been the ones to come up against the Chimera. As Wedge led Rogue Squadron out to defend the base, he gave an order to his astromech.
"Gate, I want you to keep an eye on that Star Destroyer. I want to know as soon as possible if it launches any more ships, lowers its shields, shows any change in its current status, or basically does anything beside sit there and take pot-shots at us."
The droid beeped in affirmation, and added a confident whistle that made Wedge smile.
The Chimera had deployed two full squadrons of TIEs, the second group following the first one so closely it was hard to get a clear sensor signal from them. Wedge studied his scopes as the X-wings and TIEs sped towards each other. That was neat flying on the part of the TIE pilots, and there had to be a reason for it. Why was the second squadron concealing itself like that? Wedge suddenly keyed his comm.
"Rogues, look out for the second wave of TIEs. They may be Interceptors, planning to pull an A-wing slash."
"Got you, Lead." Replies came back over the comm.
Wedge quad-linked his lasers, put more power to his forward shields and picked himself a target at the forefront of the oncoming TIEs. The eyeballs were just coming into range; a sensible pilot would get closer before taking a shot. Wedge saw his targeting sight flash green, and triggered a blast. Laser fire shredded the port wing of the TIE, causing it to spiral sideways. The nearest TIEs scattered to avoid it, breaking up the tight formation. Wedge switched to dual-fire, glancing at his scopes.
"You called it right, Lead." That was Janson's voice. "Squints ahead."
The surprise was lost, but the Interceptors all accelerated, closing on the X-wings at astonishing speeds. Laser fire filled space, lighting Wedge's cockpit. He started to weave his X-wing about, pouring laser fire at an Interceptor that seemed determined to ram him. Green laser bolts hissed past, splashing off his shields and making his X-wing shudder. Wedge caught the squint in his sights, fired, and got a glimpse of its cockpit exploding in flames as it shot overhead. There was no time to relax though, the wave of eyeballs was almost on them, already firing.
A pair came swooping down at him, trying to catch him between them. Wedge assessed the angles in a split-second, remembering that the Interceptors would be turning and heading back to the fight, and made his decision. He pulled back on the stick and stamped hard on the left pedal of the etheric rudder. Or tried to. He hit the pedal, but the control stick was suddenly heavy in his uncooperative hand. The X-wing slewed round inelegantly but the nose didn't come up. Instead of presenting the TIEs with the narrow head-on profile, they were bearing down on him from above. Wedge cursed, in near-panic, and tried to make his hands grip the stick properly. Too slowly, he pulled the X-wing up. His unexpected move had confused the TIE pilots, buying him a few precious moments. Now their fire was bracketing him, getting closer.
Wedge wanted to fire back, to distract them, maybe get a lucky hit, as Tycho looped around to help out. But he couldn't operate his fingers properly, couldn't press the trigger. Gate squealed just as the cockpit screens lit up in bright white. The simulator stopped moving and the screens dimmed to black. It was over. Wedge sat still for a few moments, then fumbled for the canopy release button. It took a couple of attempts to hit it squarely. As the canopy lifted, Wedge unhooked himself from the simulator, yanking out cables with clumsy fingers. He scrambled out of the cockpit, and half-climbed, half-fell down the short ladder to the floor. Wrenching off his helmet and gloves, he sank down, his back against the simulator and his knees up against his chest. Wedge sat there, breathing shakily, his heart pounding.
No, no, no, no! The word became a howl in his mind. This isn't happening to me. It can't. I can fly; I can walk; I can use a datapad. There's nothing wrong with me! My hands ... my ...
Wedge wrapped his arms around his legs, hugging himself, his head bowed. He swallowed awkwardly, fighting back the despair. His body shook as he struggled to control himself. As the first storm of emotion eased, he raised his head, blinking back tears, and lifted his right hand. It looked the same as ever, a slender hand with short fingers and neatly-trimmed nails. The back was marked with faint scars that showed white against his tan; souvenir of a shattered transparisteel window during Rogue Squadron's covert mission to help liberate Coruscant. Wedge flexed his fingers, bending and straightening each one in turn.
Something's damaging my co-ordination, affecting the nerves. If I don't have precise control, I can't fly an X-wing. If it keeps getting worse, I may not be able to fly anything.
The thought stabbed at him like a vibroblade to the guts.
I'd rather die in my X-wing than be ground-bound at a desk for the rest of my life.
Wedge's more responsible half vetoed that idea. It wasn't fair to his squadron to lead them into combat, knowing he might lose control at any time. He could end up flying into his own wingmate, or firing at a friendly. Others could get killed trying to help him when he got into trouble.
Wedge took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind. As he calmed down, he started to think again. The sensible thing was to go to medbay and let the em-dee droids find out what was wrong with him. Most likely, the sooner he got a diagnosis and treatment, the better his recovery would be.
If it's treatable. It has to be. The nerve-splicers can do remarkable things. But they can't truly cure a degenerative condition, just slow down the decline.
Wedge shivered. He dreaded the thought of losing his health and his independence; to lose the joy of flying too left nothing but a bleak future.
The sound of another simulator hissing open broke into his thoughts. Wedge wiped a hand across his eyes, and pulled himself to his feet. He gathered up his things, bracing himself to face whichever one of his pilots had lost their life in the sim. It was Pedna Scotian, the pale haired Chav woman who had joined Rogue Squadron while he'd been flying with the Wraiths. She looked at him somewhat curiously, with her dark, lidless eyes.
"I thought it was a fault in the software when my sensors said you were the first one to get vaped, Commander," she said.
Wedge managed a strained smile. "I suddenly got cramp in my hand and lost control." The lie came out unintentionally. "Too much time working at a datapad, I guess."
Scotian grinned. "You can always say you did it to spoil Janson's retirement fund. He was offering five hundred to one against you being first out, and I think Gavin took him up on it."
Wedge's laugh was almost genuine. "I might just do that, thanks."
* * * * *
Once he'd told Scotian he'd had cramp, Wedge had to repeat the lie to the other members of Rogue Squadron as they finished the simulation. Corran seemed to sense the untruth, and gave his commanding officer a hard look, but he didn't say anything. Luckily for Wedge, discussion of the sim, and Janson's voluble dismay over losing his bet with Gavin occupied most of the squadron's attention. He left the sim room, excusing himself with the need to assess the exercise just done.
Before long, Wedge was back in his office, with Tycho. The two of them ran and reran the data from the sim exercise, assessing the results. Wedge felt a jolt of apprehension every time he saw the holo of his X-wing slewing about and sitting there, all but motionless until the TIEs' lasers blew it apart. It was a minor consolation to see how smoothly Tycho had taken over the role of leader, and how well the Rogues had flown under his command. They worked for nearly two hours before Tycho leaned back in his chair, stretched, and suggested lunch in the officers mess.
Wedge was on the point of agreeing, when he remembered the glass of water slipping from his hand the day before.
"I'd rather have something sent in here," he said. "But don't let that stop you if you'd rather go get a proper meal."
Tycho shrugged. "I'm okay with eating here. I can get a proper meal this evening."
Wedge nodded. "We'll do that then."
Fortunately, his hands caused no problems while eating lunch. Wedge managed to keep up a veneer of light conversation, although his thoughts kept wandering to the subject of when, and how, he was going to tell Tycho the truth.
When I know what the truth is. When I've been to medbay and they've confirmed that something is wrong. Oh, stars; what if I have to tell Tycho that he will be Rogue Leader permanently? He'll do the job fine, but what will I do?
I can't say anything to him today. I need a little longer to come to terms with this. Maybe I will be better tomorrow, or at least, not any worse. There's no point worrying him unnecessarily It's not that bad; it can't be anything serious.
When lunch break was over, Wedge threw himself into his work again. He pushed himself and Tycho hard, running endless extrapolations from the data. For a while, he almost succeeded in forgetting the worry that nagged at the back of his mind. As the afternoon drew on, he found he was losing his ability to concentrate. The holo projections blurred, and he had to blink hard to get them back in focus. Eventually, the stylus he was using to point at parts of the image slipped from his fingers and clattered to the desk.
"Wedge," Tycho spoke carefully. "I think you need to take a break. You're not feeling good, are you?"
Wedge slumped back in his chair. Tycho wasn't one for showing emotions openly, but Wedge knew him well enough to read the concern in his blue eyes.
"You're right," he admitted. "I'm tired, and I don't ... I just don't feel good."
"I think we've got just about all we can from this." Tycho indicated the holo hovering above the desk. "You go on back to your quarters, and I'll start putting together a report for Admiral Ackbar."
Wedge nodded slowly. "Thanks, Tycho. Would you mind if I sent this over to your office for you to work on? I'd like to check over my messages before I leave."
Tycho rose and picked up his datapad. "Don't answer anything today if it needs a reply of more than two sentences. Go home and rest."
"Yes, boss." Wedge managed a smile.
When Tycho had left, he slowly punched in the code to send the holos to Tycho's office. Wedge thought about looking at his messages, and decided he ought to, in case there was something that Tycho had also been copied in to, and might ask him about in the morning. A quick glance showed him there was nothing of note, and he powered down the computer. Wedge slipped his own datapad into a pocket of his day uniform, placed his hands on the desk and slowly stood up. His first few steps towards the door were graceless, his right foot trailing as he moved.
I couldn't let Tycho see this. Oh, thank the Force, my leg's moving properly again!
When he stepped into the corridor, Wedge was moving evenly, though without his usual easy stride. He headed straight for the elevators, longing for the privacy of his apartment, and dreading a long night alone with his thoughts.
* * * * *
The next morning, Wedge was still clumsy and unsteady. Twice he sat down at his apartment terminal, intending to call Tycho and report himself as sick. Twice he baulked at the task. If he reported sick, he would have to go to medbay, and learn the truth about what was affecting him. Some part of Wedge knew he was being illogical, but fear of being told that he would never fly again, of having his worst fears confirmed, was overwhelming. It was difficult to concentrate, to think straight and make sensible decisions. He showered, dressed and fixed breakfast almost without knowing what he was doing.
Somehow, Wedge made it to his office without stumbling, at least not when there was anyone to see. Concentrating on the task of simply walking, he didn't notice the puzzled looks from the people he encountered. More than one member of Starfighter Command was left wondering whether Commander Antilles was severely hungover, or even still drunk. He was clearly unsteady on his feet. Once in his office, Wedge struggled to make sense of his work. Tycho had sent him a draft of the report on the Chimera sim. It took a couple of attempts to hit the right button to open the file. Wedge tried to study it, but the words didn't make sense: he found himself reading the same paragraph over again. A knock on his office door jolted him from his daze. He blinked a couple of times, and rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
"Come ... come in."
The door opened to admit Princess Leia. "Sorry to interrupt you, Wedge."
As she approached, he automatically tried to stand up. He lurched ungracefully from his chair and saved himself from falling by clutching his desk.
He blinked dizzily, his vision doubling. "Leia." The word slurred in his mouth. He didn't know what he wanted to say. He tried hard to focus on Leia, who was angling to come around his desk, her hands reaching out to him. Wedge tried to move towards her but he had no control over his body. He overbalanced and fell, hitting the edge of the desk on his way down. The fall didn't hurt much, but it seemed to drain the last of his strength. Wedge didn't try to move; he just let his eyes close.
As soon as she entered his office, Leia knew there was something wrong with Wedge. She could feel it in his Force presence, and see it in his dazed expression. When he struggled even to stand upright, she stopped speaking and looked at him in alarm. Wedge hung on to his desk, leaning his weight on it.
He blinked, his eyes not fully focussed, and mumbled her name.
Leia hurried towards him, wondering what was wrong. She suddenly recalled that moment in the meeting, two days ago, when he'd dropped his glass. She'd felt a flash of fear from him then; not annoyance, or embarrassment. His first reaction had been fear. Was this trouble what he'd been afraid of?
As she rounded the edge of the desk, Wedge tried to move towards her. She grabbed for him, but couldn't reach him to stop his fall. He landed almost at her feet, crumpled on the floor of his office. Leia knelt beside him, one hand on his chest, the other feeling for the pulse in his throat. She felt a small wave of relief at finding he was breathing steadily. There wasn't much room behind the desk, but Leia managed to pull him over into the recovery position. His eyes half-opened, but he didn't respond when she called his name. Leia squeezed his limp hand, then stood and reached across his desk to the comm unit, hitting the emergency channel.
"This is Leia Organa Solo. I need a med unit in Commander Antilles' office. Commander Antilles has collapsed."
She waited for the acknowledgement, then hit the number-one pre-set on the comm.
"Captain Celchu here," came the familiar, Alderaanian-accented voice.
"Tycho, it's Leia. You'd better come to Wedge's office right away."
"What's ... ? Never mind, I'm on my way." He broke off abruptly.
Leia knelt down again, and gently stroked Wedge's fine, dark hair.
"The medics are coming, Wedge, they'll look after you," she said softly. "You're going to be fine. We'll take care of you."
He lay motionless, limp, apparently unaware of her presence. Leia kept talking, and stroking his hair as she watched him breathe, alert for any change in his condition. It was the best she could do for him right now.
* * * * *
Tycho and Winter were already in the waiting room of the hospital when Leia arrived, hours later. In spite of her worry over Wedge, Leia was struck by how well the two looked together, both noble in their bearing.
"Any change?" Leia asked, trying to read Tycho's expression.
He shook his head. "We don't know. We've been promised some information in the next few minutes."
Those few minutes seemed to pass very slowly. Leia was pacing up and down, wishing she could emulate Winter's outward show of patience, when a nurse summoned them to the specialist's office. Doctor Nanow Ludon was an Ithorian, who had left the herd-cities of his native planet to practise the art of healing. He greeted Leia and her companions with the calm dignity common to his kind.
"My specialism is neurology," he explained, his voice coming through his two mouths in stereo. "The symptoms that you, Councillor Organa, and Captain Celchu described when Commander Antilles was admitted this morning, indicated a deterioration in the Commander's neurological abilities. Our tests have shown that the root of the cause lies in a virus, which has attacked his nervous system." Ludon touched a button on the holoprojector on his desk. An image of a ghostly human form appeared, intricate yellow lines spreading through it from head to toe. "The yellow lines indicate the extent of the virus in Commander Antilles' body," Ludon explained. "The motor system is the most affected, hence the lack of co-ordination, but you can see that the virus is also present in the spine and the brain."
Leia heard Tycho's sharp intake of breath, and from the corner of her eye, glimpsed Winter putting her hand over his.
"What is this virus, what's it doing to him?" Leia asked.
Doctor Ludon blinked slowly. "Test indicate that the virus is interfering with the function of the nerve cells, probably by damaging the myelin sheath which acts as an insulator. We are still analysing tissue samples."
Tycho leaned forward in his chair. "Can you cure it?"
"At the moment, we don't know."
Leia's heart ached at the statement; she felt similar flashes of pain from Winter and Tycho. Ludon continued speaking.
"The virus is not recorded in our databanks. I assume from the history you have given us, that Commander Antilles was infected during his visit to Lantaar. We are attempting to contact medical establishments there, to see if they have any record of this virus. We have administered a wide-spectrum anti-viral drug, in the hope that it will at least slow the progress of the illness. The laboratory is working to develop a specific response to this virus."
"How long will that take?" Leia asked, narrowly beating Tycho to the question.
"We cannot tell at this time," Ludon answered. "We can refer to similar viruses, but essentially, we are treading fresh ground here. I wish I could give you better news," he added.
Leia looked across at Tycho, seeing his taut expression. She took a deep breath and forced herself to ask.
"What will happen if you can't find a cure? Or if the wide-spectrum drug doesn't slow the disease sufficiently?"
It was almost impossible for her to read expression on the Ithorian's long, curved face, but his prominent, round eyes blinked slowly.
"The most likely prognosis is that Commander Antilles' nervous system would continue to degenerate. Brain function will be impaired. The autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing and the heart, will eventually fail, and he will die."
It was Tycho who broke the silence.
"That's the worst-case situation." His voice was rough, and he paused to clear his throat. "It may not come to that."
Doctor Ludon nodded, his long head swaying up and down. "We are working hard to find a cure."
"Thank you," Leia said. "I know you'll do your best."
* * * * *
Over the next three days, Leia visited the med centre as often as she could. It seemed that no matter what hour of the day or night she went, there would always be another visitor or two at Wedge's bedside. The Rogues were there most often. Wes Janson struggled to raise a smile of greeting for Leia; Hobbie looked more mournful than ever. The Wraiths visited too; the Devaronian pilot left lucky charms on the monitoring equipment. The support personnel of both squadrons found their way to Wedge's room, leaving a faint smell of machine lubricant in the sterile air. Han returned from a trip on New Republic business, and went to see his friend. He came away looking shaken and sad. Leia found Mirax Terrik at Wedge's bedside, her eyes reddened with unshed tears. Another time, she encountered a very nondescript man, whom she eventually recalled as Judder Page, a commando. Most often, she saw Tycho.
Sometimes he was there with a datapad in hand, but Leia felt he couldn't be getting much work done. Admiral Ackbar wasn't pressing him too hard though. Ackbar came to the hospital himself, visited Wedge, and spent some time talking with Doctor Ludon. Wedge remained unaware of what was happening around him. The broad-spectrum anti-virus had slowed the progression of the disease but didn't stop it. The only good news was the response from a research institute on Lantaar. They knew of the virus, and had been researching its effect on native animal species. They didn't know how its biochemistry worked in a human host, but they shared the information they had.
* * * * *
Iella Wissiri was glad to get back to her own quarters after a month away on a mission. The message from Tycho she found waiting on her comm unit was enough to make her grab the coat she'd just taken off, and head straight back out again, her unpacked travel bag still sitting on the floor of the living room. She hurried to the base med centre, cursing slow traffic, slow pedestrians and slow elevators. Once on the right floor, she strode along the corridor, anxiously scanning the room numbers until she found the one she wanted.
Tycho looked up as she entered, surprised and pleased to see her. He stood, moving away from the bed to let her come close.
"How is he?" Iella asked. She was looking at Wedge, but she'd glimpsed a brightness in Tycho's face she hadn't expected.
"They think they've engineered a specific anti-virus for Wedge." Hope underscored his voice. "It works in the computers and on tissue samples, but there wasn't time to test it on more complex organisms. They had to try it on Wedge before ... before the nerve damage became irreversible."
"They've given it to him?" Iella perched on the chair drawn close beside the bed, leaning over Wedge.
"The first dose was ... five hours ago now."
Iella looked down at Wedge's face, surprised to see how tanned his skin was. In spite of the colour, he looked fragile in the bland med centre bed, a sensor pad on his forehead and another just visible on his chest. There was a drip in his left arm, harshly reminding her of his helplessness. This wasn't the Wedge she was used to seeing, the warm, steady man who had been such a strength to her after Diric's death. Now he was the one in need. Iella lifted her hand and brushed the back of her fingers against his cheek.
A faint tremor ran through his body, barely visible. Iella looked up at Tycho, saw the intent expression in his eyes. She turned back to Wedge, and gently stroked his face again. The response was a little stronger; his eyelids fluttered, the dark lashes trembling. Forgetting Tycho, Iella leaned right over Wedge and softly touched her lips against his. His lips were warm and yielding, then she felt a soft response. It was just the lightest pressure against her own mouth but it was a definite reaction. Iella lifted her head and watched Wedge struggle towards consciousness.
She slid her fingers into his dark hair, caressing him as his eyelids fluttered and the slackness of coma left his muscles. He turned his head slightly, pressing his cheek against her arm, and made a soft, incoherent sound.
"Wedge. It's Iella here with you, Wedge." Her hand kept moving in his hair.
He made a stronger sound and his eyes half-opened. Iella smiled at him, then tore herself away long enough to look at Tycho. He was standing on the other side of the bed, watching anxiously. Wedge moved his head again. As Iella looked down, she found herself looking into his rich brown eyes. He blinked, focussing on her, and she saw the light of recognition dawn on his face.
"Wedge." Iella said his name joyfully.
He tried to smile, tried to say her name. Iella bent her head over his and kissed him again. This time his lips pressed firmly against hers.
* * * * *
This is how I feared it would be.
Five days after regaining consciousness, Wedge was frustrated, angry and scared. He was sitting up in bed, helped into position by nurses, and propped against shape-moulding pillows that held him in place. The drink bottle he was clutching in both hands started to slide as he lost his grip. Iella leaned over and rescued it, casually placing the bottle on the bedside cabinet without a second thought. Wedge let his hands drop and turned his face away from her.
I'm as helpless as a baby, and I don't know if it'll ever get better.
He felt Iella's hand against his hair, soothing away the misery.
"You're doing good, Wedge," she said straightforwardly. "Doctor Ludon was pleased with this morning's scans, remember?"
Wedge couldn't remember. His short-term memory was fried like a droid's after an ion blast.
"The nerve-splicers will start work tomorrow," she went on. "They say the prognosis is good. You will get better, Wedge."
"When?" he asked. "How much bet'er?" The last word was slurred. That was something else he hated: not even being able to speak clearly. He had difficulty with vision too, sometimes seeing double as eyes and brain failed to work in conjunction.
"It will happen," Iella said firmly. "You brought about the liberation of Coruscant; you got Isard off Thyferra, didn't you? You're a Rogue and a Corellian, Wedge Antilles, not a quitter. You can fight back from this."
Wedge closed his eyes.
I was healthy when I did those things, not a cripple. And I had others to help.
Iella moved her hand again, stroking from his hair down to the back of his neck. That touch seemed to be the only good thing in his world at the moment, reassuring him that she was still there.
I have friends who want to help me now.
Wedge opened his eyes and turned back to look at Iella. He reached out and captured her hand with his own. "Thank you. Keep remindin' me of tha'."
She smiled, her eyes warm. "I won't need to remind you too often. You've always been a fighter, Wedge."
He squeezed her hand, harder than he intended, and released it.
I have to trust the medics to mend me, just as I trust my wingman to be with me when I fly. And I swear that I will fly again.
* * * * *
Day followed day, and operation followed operation. Wedge bore with it as patiently as he could, hungry for every new sign of improvement. His daytimes were occupied with physical therapy. Swimming, weight-training and exercises to regain muscle strength and keep up his cardio fitness. Therapy to improve co-ordination, everything from learning to walk again, to manipulation of fine objects like a stylus. Speech, vision and memory all improved and he began to feel like a sentient creature again.
Night-times, Wedge would move his repulsor-chair over to the wide window of his med centre room. From there, he could look out over one of Coruscant's broad avenues. Streams of traffic glided past on many levels, both above and below him. When it was dark, Wedge could gaze upwards, ignoring the illuminated windows of the buildings opposite, and pretend that the lights of the passing speeders were stars.
It was almost impossible to see the real stars from anywhere on Coruscant; there was too much light pollution from the planet-wide city. Wedge ached to be out between the stars again, to be free to fly among them and to enjoy the beauty of a planet seen from space. He could close his eyes and see those pictures again. Corellia, seen from the shuttle that took him to farm school so many years ago. The turquoise jewel of Endor's moon, nestled against the diamond-sprinkled black velvet of space. Wedge's right hand twitched as he remembered his time floating in space there.
I would have died out there if not for Luke. But I survived, the medics repaired my hand and I flew among the stars again. Two miracles might seem impossible, but I'm a Rogue, aren't I?
His hands clenched into fists as the frustration surged through him again.
I won't be dependent on others for the rest of my life. I will get back into space. But first I have to learn to walk again. Three weeks so far, and I can barely walk the length of this room. I hate this repulsor-chair; I hate the look on my friends' faces when they visit, trying not to show their pity when I drop things. And ... I hate feeling sorry for myself.
A knock at the door jolted Wedge from his thoughts. He spun the chair around as he called for the visitor to come in. The door slid aside and Wes Janson bounced in, followed by Hobbie, Myn Donos and Inyri Forge. Wes produced a bottle of whiskey from his pocket and waved it in the air.
"Brought you some military-grade spirit-raiser," he announced cheerfully. "Myn's got the sabacc cards, Inyri's brought the snacks and Hobbie's got you that holo, ‘Party Girls in Zero-G', you said you wanted."
Wedge burst out laughing, the black mood lifting for a while at least.
* * * * *
It was very difficult to ignore the fact that he was being watched as he paced on the treadmill. The more Wedge tried to forget about Doctor Ludon's presence, the more self-conscious he became. The sensor-suit he was wearing didn't help either. The sensors built into the hooded suit reported every movement of his body, feeding the data into a computer. When the data flow was analysed, the neurologist would have a complete record of the way his body was responding to the demands made of it. Every delayed reaction, shift in gait or minor muscle twitch would be picked up. Wedge was supposed to be walking at a normal, steady pace, but the knowledge of being studied made it hard for him to relax.
As Wedge again tried to shunt his thoughts elsewhere, his left foot suddenly dragged. He staggered, catching the hand rails on either side of the treadmill. The belt stopped moving, allowing him to pull himself upright again.
Sithspit! I can't even walk for two minutes without falling over.
"I'd like you to walk a little further if you could, Commander," Doctor Ludon asked, his stereo voices as calm as ever.
Wedge tried to channel his frustration into determination, and nodded. The machine started again, slowly at first, and he made himself keep putting one foot in front of the other. His legs seemed heavier than before, and he knew that he was moving unevenly. Wedge half-closed his eyes, and imagined he was walking across a large hangar to his X-wing.
"Thank you, Commander, that's enough."
Wedge lurched ungracefully to a stop, snatched from his day-dream.
"If you would lie on the bed, please."
The few paces from the bed to the treadmill seemed more like a mile. Awkwardly, Wedge hitched himself onto the examination bed and lay down. He only had a few moments to relax. Doctor Ludon started a round of what Wedge thought of as ‘push-me pull-you' tests. First he had to pull against the doctor's grip, then try to push the Ithorian's hand away. He had to try lifting each leg in turn, resisting downward pressure, and then do the opposite. Wedge had never tried his strength against an Ithorian's before his illness, and had little idea of how strong the species tended to be in comparison to humans. Right now, he felt remarkably feeble. Doctor Ludon finished his examination by running the end of a stylus up the sole of each of Wedge's feet in turn. Wedge's right foot jerked sharply, but his left foot barely twitched.
"That will be all for today, Commander Antilles," Doctor Ludon said. "You may take your time over leaving. The call button is there is you need assistance." He indicated a red button with one of his long fingers.
"Thank you," Wedge answered automatically, as the Ithorian doctor left the examination room. He let his head drop back onto the small pillow and relaxed. I could just lie here for a while, at least until I feel stronger. I could get someone to help me out of this ridiculous suit and into my own clothes. Thank the stars that Wes is never going to see me wearing this thing. Wedge sighed deeply. I can't give in. I have to push myself as hard as I can. I've got to keep fighting.
He levered himself up so he was sitting on the edge of the bed, and carefully lowered himself to the floor. By the time he'd got out of the sensor-suit and into his tan jump-suit, he ready to collapse into his repulsor-chair. The simple joystick control built into the arm of the chair was easy to operate even when his fingers were tired and unco-operative. Wedge steered the chair carefully through the doorway, trying to keep his path as smooth as possible, and headed for the bank of turbolifts.
A few minutes later, he had reached the corridor his room was on, when he heard a familiar voice called. Wedge spun the repulsor-chair, and saw Tycho jogging to catch up with him. Tycho smiled as he approached, pleasure at seeing his friend making him less reserved than he usually was in public.
"Been doing your physio?" he asked.
Wedge shook his head. "Assessment with Doctor Ludon." He turned the chair again and continued towards his room, Tycho walking alongside.
"What did he say?"
"He didn't really, beyond things appearing satisfactory so far." Wedge couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Tycho didn't seem to notice, striding along easily at the repulsor-chair's speed. "Doctors often understate things," he remarked. "They're very cautious about not raising patients' expectations too high. Anyway, I can't stop long, I just wanted to pick up that holojournal I loaned you last week. There's an article in it I wanted to show Winter this evening."
"You're seeing her tonight?" Wedge asked.
Tycho nodded, his crystal blue eyes brightening at the thought. "I managed to get a table at that Chandrilan sea-food restaurant on the Grand Plaza ..."
Wedge barely heard the rest of what Tycho said about the restaurant. The mention of Winter had made him think of Iella, who was back at her regular desk job with Intelligence. She was too busy to see him as often now and in many ways, Wedge desperately missed her calm support.
I wish I was taking Iella out to a restaurant tonight. What wouldn't I give to be able to walk into a restaurant as casually as Tycho's walking beside me now. He hardly even knows he walking; he takes it so much for granted, even with me here in this sithspawned repulsor-chair. What's the point in me thinking about Iella? She needs deserves a proper partner, not someone who needs looking after. I couldn't ask that of her. I want her to be around for me, but it's not fair to take advantage of her kindness.
Wedge pushed those thoughts aside as they reached his room. It only took a minute for him to find the holojournal and return it to Tycho, who left with a cheery wave. Alone again, Wedge looked around his med centre room. The monitoring equipment had gone, replaced by a holoviewer. The holodrama disks his friends had brought for him, the ‘get well' holocards, his datapad, the inevitable toy ewok and Elassar's good luck charms helped disguise the room's institutional nature. What stood out to Wedge's eyes were the two red emergency call buttons, one beside the bed and the other near the door. More discreet was the white button to call a nurse, if he needed help with anything like getting dressed.
I want to live somewhere that doesn't have help buttons. I want to walk into a restaurant with Iella.
Wedge abruptly powered down the chair. Placing his hands firmly on the arms, he pushed himself to his feet. He ached from the morning's physiotherapy, but he gritted his teeth and made himself walk. There was nothing graceful about his movement as he forced himself to make the five paces to reach the small table. There he picked up a small electronic toy, and turned to face the bed. Wedge swayed, caught his balance, and walked unsteadily to the bed. His left foot trailed, but he kept going, muscles singing with pain as he fought to keep upright, to keep moving. He turned and sat heavily on the bed.
Made it! Good.
Wedge sat still for a couple of minutes, letting the aches die down. When he felt a measure of energy returning, he shifted the toy into his lap and switched it on. It was a straightforward screen and keyboard game. The screen would display a line of symbols, letters or colours; the player had to match the line by hitting the right keys. The game kept track of scores at differing difficulty levels, and made a rude electronic honk if a player hit the wrong key.
The first line was displayed, and Wedge stabbed at the keyboard. The game chimed, and then honked a succession of notes. Wedge scowled at it. The second try he made more slowly, and got a marginally better score. After two more passable tries, the game speeded up a little. Wedge's clumsy fingers mashed keys almost at random, earning a series of derisive honks.
"Son of a Sith ..."
Wedge tried again, hit three keys at once and got three maddening honks to tell him of his failure.
He grabbed the game and tried to throw it at the repulsor-chair. It slipped from his weak grasp and clattered to the floor just three feet away. Wedge slumped back onto the bed, rolling over to bury his face against the sturdy covers. Misery washed though him, robbing him of his anger.
I just want to walk normally again. I want to fly like I could before. I want my life back.
He gave way to the misery, tears soaking into the bedcover. Half-coherent thoughts circled in his head like mynocks: thoughts of Iella, of just putting a blaster to his head and pulling the trigger, of Tycho jogging easily along the corridor. The terrifying exhilaration of flying through the second Death Star, pitting his nerve and his reflexes against the unforgiving maze of superstructure. A longing for the peace of oblivion and an end to this struggle to master his damaged body. Wedge cried until the mental and physical exhaustion overtook him and he fell into a restless sleep.
Leia saw him there, half-curled on his bed, when she put her head round his door. She started to withdraw then stopped, and instead tried to reach out to him through the Force. His sense was muted by sleep, but Leia could feel his distress all the same. Moving quietly, she slipped across the room to the bed. She stepped around the electronic game, noticing that it lay upside-down on the floor. That alone was uncharacteristic of Wedge, who was normally a tidy person. She looked down at him as he slept, and her heart ached for him. Tear streaks on his face, and the still-damp bedcover told her how just how bad that distress was.
"Oh, Wedge," she said softly.
He looked so young to her as he slept, almost as young as when he'd flown against the first Death Star, nine years ago. It was his strong personality, and the eyes that had seen so many friends die, that often made him look older than his true age.
"I wish I knew how to help you," Leia whispered. I also wish I knew whether Luke has got my messages about you. I know he'd help if he could, but I don't know where he is right now.
Wedge stirred a little, then blinked and woke. His eyes widened as he saw her looking down at him. "Leia!" He tried to sit up and almost lost his balance.
Leia took hold of his arm, and was startled by the flash of anger she felt from him. "I'm sorry," she said, letting go and waiting as he struggled to right himself. "I shouldn't have come in when I saw you were asleep. But I felt that something was wrong."
"Of course something's wrong," he answered bitterly. "I'm half-crippled; I need people just to help me sit up."
The words were angry, but Leia felt the desperation that suffused his Force sense.
He's so scared!
"It won't be forever," she replied. "You are getting better, Wedge. It's not going to happen at once, but it will happen."
"I've been trying," he pleaded. The anger faded and he began to slump. "I keep pushing myself, keep fighting. And I ache, and I start to stumble and I seem to be going backwards again." His voice began to shake.
Leia sat and folded her arms around him, drawing his head against her shoulder. She rubbed one hand soothingly up and down his back and felt him relax just a little. Wedge suddenly put his arms around her and clung to her, trembling now and again.
"Maybe you've been trying too hard," Leia said, keeping up the gentle rubbing. "You've been severely ill, Wedge. You've got to come to terms with that. You're not going to be fully recovered in days, or even weeks. You have to let your body recover at its own pace."
He shivered, and held on to her a little more tightly. "I hate being this way." His voice was muffled against her shoulder.
"Sshh, I know, I know." Leia rested her cheek against his soft hair. "I think you should see a counsellor. They can help you accept what's happened, and teach you how to cope. You can tell them exactly how you feel, without worrying about being a burden to them."
Wedge was silent for a few moments, then she felt him shake a little. As he lifted his head, she realized that he'd laughed.
"You know Runt Ekwesh, the Thakwaash pilot in Wraith Squadron?" he asked.
"I know a little about him." Leia answered, puzzled.
Wedge managed a weak smile. "He confused the Sith out of everyone at first. Thakwaash naturally develop multiple minds, to suit different tasks. Maybe that's what I need to do. I don't need the mind I use as Rogue Leader, or my pilot mind at the moment. I need a more patient mind. A one-day-at-a-time mind."
"I think that's the right idea," Leia said warmly. "If you can find the mind you need, you'll learn to cope. I have faith in you, Wedge."
Her heart lifted as she saw a flame of hope kindle in his eyes.
"I will do it," he swore. "If I can't find the right mind on my own, I'll talk to someone. I have to stop fighting this illness and try to accept what's happened."
"There is no try, only do," Leia quoted.
Wedge chuckled. "Yoda taught Luke a lot about being a Jedi, but I'm not convinced of the wisdom of anyone who chose to live in a swamp."
Leia kissed him lightly on the cheek and let go of him. Her human instinct and her undeveloped Jedi talent both reassured her that Wedge taken the first small step towards healing in mind as well as body.
* * * * *
Wedge's friends kept him updated with news about the Empire's renewed activities. He stayed on Coruscant as Rogue Squadron flew missions without him, and breathed long sighs of relief when they all came back safely. There was a feeling of war in the air again and Wedge wanted to be ready to play his part. Outwardly, he resigned himself to the knowledge that his future role might be as a general on Ackbar's advisory staff. He knew he had the skills to be useful there, where intelligence was more important than reflexes, but in his heart, he longed to be fighting from the cockpit of an X-wing, not from a desk. Wedge schooled himself to patience as the weeks passed, and his body slowly healed.
* * * * *
Wedge couldn't remember the last time he'd been so nervous at flying a sim. He checked the displays and said: "Rogue Lead. All green and ready to fly."
The routine check-ins of the rest of Rogue Squadron only needed part of his attention. As he waited for them to finish, Wedge concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths and calming his mind. He could have opted for a smaller-scale sim, or to let Tycho command the squadron. Some part of him, most likely the Corellian part, resented the idea of giving up command. Besides, the demands of performing as Rogue Leader should keep him too busy to worry about what might go wrong.
I nearly beat Tycho at slingball last night and we were always evenly matched at that. Physically I'm almost 100% of what I used to be. I've got this far much faster than Doctor Ludon thought I would. I have to hope believe that flying and commanding won't stretch me too far.
The cockpit screens were lit up with the white of hyperspace. Wedge looked around at the familiar displays and controls, reaching out to brush his fingers over them as he might caress a lover's body. Just being here, even in a sim cockpit, felt good. Gate warbled at him, warning of immanent reversion to realspace. Wedge settled his fingers on the lever and watched the chrono count down the seconds.
When the count reached zero, he pulled back the lever and watched the white dissolve into black space, sprinkled with stars. Wedge's heart leapt joyfully at the sight. He grinned, eyes fixed on that miraculous view, and fought down the urge to move the control stick, to send his X-wing rolling and dancing through space. Voices over the comm broke through the dream and brought his attention back to the present.
"Nice to know someone in High Command's got a sense of humour."
"Cut the chatter, Five," Wedge admonished. Even telling Janson to be quiet had a comforting feeling of normality.
He could now see the Empress-class space station revolving to his left, with the grey, cloud-covered planet some distance beyond. The system's yellow star was off to his right, relative down from Rogue Squadron's present position. Red dots appeared on his scopes, enemy fighters launching from the station. Mostly hidden behind the station was a ship; the cylindrical hammer-head bow and massive engine block made it easy to identify as a Corellian Corvette.
"Sensors show a full squad of TIEs approaching," Tycho announced calmly. "The corvette tags as Constrictor."
The Constrictor had been one of Warlord Zsinj's fleet; Wraith Squadron had captured it early in their part of the campaign against the warlord. Wedge automatically began calculating distances and speeds. Their mission was to capture the space station, and to do so before a convoy of freighters arrived insystem.
"Rogue Squadron; we make one run at the TIEs. Take any you can but we're not stopping to play with them. We're going after the Constrictor; we should get one clear run at it. After that, Three flight can keep the TIEs busy, while One and Two continue to pound the corvette."
"We hear you, boss." The acknowledgements came over the comm from his squadron. Wedge noted that they sounded confident. Pushing more power to his thrusters, he flew towards the fight.
The first run against the TIEs barely slowed the X-wings. When the range narrowed to one klick, Wedge picked his target and quad-linked his lasers for maximum punch. Both squads of starfighters began jinking about as the distance between them narrowed. Wedge studied his target, his experienced eye picking out the pattern in his enemy's movements. The eyeballs began shooting at half a klick, green light occasionally hissing off Wedge's forward shields as his X-wing danced to his command. Wedge half-smiled to himself, knowing his ship's capabilities even better than its designers, and how to use them to the fullest. The shieldless TIE had to keep moving around, making it harder for its pilot to achieve a solid hit, especially at this range. Wedge could afford to keep his fighter relatively stable, the shields easily absorbing the few laser bolts that came close.
As the starships grew closer, Wedge centred his sights more accurately on the TIE. He watched it bobbing and weaving, predicted where it was going to be next, and tightened his thumb on the trigger. Four red laser bolts lanced out, converging on the TIE's round cockpit. The fighter burst into a ball of red and yellow flame, the solar panels spiralling away. Wedge swooped his X-wing up over the expanding fireball and headed for the station beyond.
"Nice shooting, Lead." That was Tycho's voice.
Wedge glanced at his scope; only five of the dozen eyeballs remained. "Thanks, Two. That felt good."
‘Good' was an understatement. Wedge wanted to whoop with unrestrained joy. Body and mind had worked in perfect unison. He felt whole again, ready to take on the rest of the sim by himself. Grinning, Wedge barrel-rolled his X-wing and watched the stars spin around his cockpit.
This is where I belong!
* * * * *
Two days later, Wedge was summoned to Admiral Ackbar's office. As he entered, the cool, moist atmosphere brought back many memories: his heartbeat increased a little as he remembered those meetings and briefings. So many decisions taken and orders received in offices that felt like this, no matter where in the galaxy they were. Ackbar greeted him with the wide-mouthed Mon Cal version of a human smile.
"It is good to see you here again, Commander," he said in his gravelly voice. "You seem to be looking well."
"I feel well," Wedge answered, settling into a flowingly curved chair.
"No after-effects from the Yag'Dhul sim?"
Wedge shook his head. "Only a slight hangover from celebrating its success," he admitted. The rest of the sim had gone as well as the opening strike against the TIEs. Once a barrage of proton torps had crippled the Constrictor, the remaining TIEs had been left with no way out of the system and had surrendered. Clever use of shared targeting data and a few well-placed torpedoes had persuaded the space station to follow suit.
"It was a well-mounted attack," Ackbar said. "In all respects, it was exactly what we would expect from Rogue Squadron."
Wedge would never have called himself an expert on Mon Calamari body language and expression, but he had worked closely with Ackbar for years. Something in the admiral's tone made him catch his breath slightly.
"Starfighter Command were pleased with the results of the sim, but more importantly, so were the Medical Review Board," Ackbar continued. "I have great pleasure in informing you, Commander Antilles, that the Medical Review Board has passed you as fit for full combat service." He leaned over the desk to offer a flipper-like hand.
Wedge shook the admiral's hand, feeling a huge grin spread over his face. "Thank you, sir. You couldn't have given me any better news."
"I believe that it's good news for the whole of the New Republic," Ackbar replied. "The galaxy needs men like you, Commander, especially now, with the Empire increasing its activity once again."
"I'm delighted to be able to do my part again."
Ackbar turned his head, one eye swivelling to study Wedge. "I don't want to know how much of that delight is simply from your longing to get back into your X-wing. Go now, and break the good news to your squadron."
Wedge bounced to his feet and saluted before leaving. Once out in the corridor, he pulled his comlink from his pocket and chose one of the pre-set numbers. He stopped by a window as he waited for an answer. The view was uninspiring, buildings and speeders, but it didn't matter to Wedge. A familiar voice answered the comlink and he spoke.
"Iella, it's Wedge. Are you free for dinner tonight? I've got some news ..."
As he talked, he looked out of the window and upwards. There, beyond the grey sky, were the stars, still waiting for him. Soon, he would be up there again, dancing his X-wing through the freedom of space. The last knot of uncertainty lifted from his heart, leaving nothing but his love of the stars.
Disclaimer: All content is made up, and no profit or lucre is expected, solicited, advocated or paid. This is all just for fun. Any comments, please e-mail the author or WOOKIEEhut directly. Flames will be ignored. Characters and situations are based on those which are the property of LucasFilms Ltd., Bantam Publishing, Random House, etc. and their respective original owners, publishers, agents, and developers. The rest is this story's author's own fault. This story may not be posted anywhere without the author's knowledge, consent, and permission. This story is presented by Wookieehut.com.