Gillian F. Taylor
Wedge Antilles looked at his reflection in his mirror and scowled. He'd worn the black uniform of a TIE pilot before, when flying with Wraith Squadron, and he hadn't liked it much then. He liked it even less now. Intellectually, he understood why it was necessary; he and the survivors of Rogue Squadron were learning to fly TIE Defenders, so they needed to wear the flightsuits specifically designed for those fighters. In any case, they would be posing as Imperials in a few weeks when they flew to Ciutric to join Prince-Admiral Krennel's forces.
This is the uniform worn by Isard's pilots, and I hate to look like someone who would willingly serve her. I hate to see Rogue Squadron looking like Imperials. Every time I see myself in this black flightsuit, it reminds me that everything from our clothes to our lives depends on Isard's whim.
The only thing that seemed right about his flightsuit was its colour: black, for mourning, for the Rogues lost at Distna. Lyyr, Slee, Asyr and…and Wes. Wedge swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. Enough time had passed for the first shock to wear off, but he couldn't allow himself time to mourn properly for Wes. Later, he could find time to sit privately with Hobbie and Tycho, and they would remember old stories, and laugh and cry a little, and raise a glass in memory of Wes Janson. Now though, the living needed him. Turning his back on the mirror, Wedge headed for the simulation chamber.
They were flying sims of the mission against Krennel now, the Rogues simming against Colonel Vessery's men. Wedge was satisfied with the way training was going: his pilots had adapted to the TIE Defenders well and consistently outflew the Imps. He could never shake off his unease that Isard hadn't revealed the full truth to him though, that he and his men were bait in a trap that Isard was setting to catch out her clone. But the more they practised, the better chance they had of escaping the trap themselves, and the sim work kept his pilots occupied.
Wedge shoved his Defender's yoke forwards, sending it into a dive towards the capital city of Ciutric. Buildings started to grow larger in his viewports, then the screens abruptly turned black. The simulator stopped moving and the sound of the twin engines died away. As Wedge reached for the comlink, Isard's voice came through his helmet speakers.
"Red Squadron will report to me in Briefing Room 21A immediately."
The words were curt, angry. Wedge suppressed a shiver and keyed the comlink to squadron frequency.
"Better do as she says," he ordered. "Let's not keep her waiting."
A couple of minutes later, Rogue Squadron were assembled in the briefing room. The other pilots looked at Wedge questioningly, but he had no more idea than they as to why Isard had interrupted the training session.
"Something may have happened to change the schedule," he suggested.
"Isard didn't sound pleased, whatever it is," Hobbie remarked unhappily.
Tycho offered no comment, but Wedge knew him well enough to know how uneasy he was. He had been quieter and more reserved than usual since finding out that they were here as Isard's unwilling collaborators. Isard's manipulations had nearly cost him his reputation and his life. Of all of them, Tycho found it hardest to meet Isard face to face.
The door of the briefing room opened and Ysanne Isard entered, followed by two armed security guards. Her mis-matched eyes glittered as she gazed at the assembled pilots. White-haired though she was now, she was as intimidating as anyone Wedge had ever met. Fury crackled from her, as hot as her scarlet eye.
"Your plan failed," she snapped. She stared directly at Wedge, who had to fight the urge to step back from her.
The other Rogues shifted restlessly, glancing at one another to ask what plan she was referring to.
"This squadron has tried to betray me." Isard gestured to one of the security men, who stepped forward.
He was holding some chunks of heat-scorched metal, barely recognizable as part of the shell of an astromech droid. The metal was blackened in places, but there was enough green and white paint showing for the pilots to recognize it.
Whistler! Wedge suppressed a start.
Corran gave a sudden exclamation then fell silent.
"My security caught two astromech droids belonging to this squadron outside this base. They were forced to destroy this one in order to prevent it from escaping." Isard spoke ruthlessly. "The other was a red and white R5 unit. It managed to purge its memory banks before security could get hold of it."
Wedge was glad that Isard wasn't looking at him as she spoke.
That must have been Gate. He blanked himself to protect me and Rogue Squadron. He had known that Corran had been in contact with his droid, and that Whistler would try to get news of the squadron's survival and position to the New Republic. Wedge hadn't known when or how Whistler would make his attempt, nor that his own droid, Gate, would go with him. Both droids had paid the price for their loyalty.
Wedge suddenly became aware that Isard had turned her attention on him.
"You agreed to co-operate with me, General Antilles," she said. "I look upon this as a betrayal."
He managed to look straight into her mismatched eyes. "I didn't know that the droids had left this base," he replied truthfully. "I gave them no orders."
The cold eye and the burning one stared back at him. Wedge managed to keep his gaze locked on hers as her eyes scoured him. At long last, Isard blinked and broke contact.
"I believe you may be telling the truth, General," she said, her voice dropping. "But those droids were a part of this squadron. They could have compromised the security of this mission against Krennel and my clone. You realize how serious a matter that is, don't you ?"
Wedge nodded. "Yes."
"I cannot allow such blatant defiance to go unchecked. If the New Republic found evidence of a traitor, they would take action, would they not, General Antilles?"
"They would," Wedge admitted, resisting the temptation to glance at Tycho. "But they would be take steps to ensure that they had the right person before administering punishment."
"Investigation and trial takes time, and that is a luxury we do not have right now," Isard responded. She paused, then seemed to make her mind up about something. "General Antilles, you will accompany me to my office."
There was a faint stir of movement among the pilots and a stifled protest from someone. Wedge wasn't too happy about being singled out for her attention, especially under the circumstances, but merely nodded. With a quick look at Tycho, he followed Isard as she left.
* * * * *
A few minutes later they were alone in her splendid office. The beauty of the wood fittings was lost on Wedge, whose attention was solely on Ysanne Isard. She moved around behind her desk and studied him as he stood before her. Her anger had cooled into something more calculating, and her blue eye seemed to be burning colder than ever. She stayed silent, and Wedge found his mind racing through the unpleasant possibilities she might have in store for him. Her hot/cold intensity scared him more than any other being he had ever encountered.
It's just as well we never came to face to face while I was chasing her from Coruscant and Thyferra. I might have been less daring with those eyes haunting my sleep.
He almost started when she spoke.
"I don't know which member of your squadron sent those droids out, but I haven't time for an investigation to establish who is responsible," Isard said. "Therefore I am going to hold the entire squadron collectively responsible."
"I am their commanding officer," Wedge answered. "The ultimate responsibility is mine."
Isard smiled slowly, a cruel smile that chilled him. "Yes, the ultimate responsibility will be yours, General. You are responsible for your pilots' lives, are you not?"
"I am." The sense of dread that had been sitting heavily in Wedge's stomach got worse.
"I need to show that this act of treachery has been punished, and to ensure that this mission is not put at risk again." Isard paused. "One of your pilots will take the blame for the whole squadron. Choose one of your pilots, General. Name one to be brought here, and you will execute them yourself."
"You will name and execute one person, or I will have two of them shot. Choose one life, or I shall choose two. Their lives are your responsibility."
Wedge stared at her, numb with despair. Both her eyes glittered as she watched him, triumph mocking him. She'd do it. If I refuse her, she will have two of my pilots killed. Their lives are nothing to her except a means of achieving something she wants. I have to choose one to die, in order to save the life of another. His head spun as he struggled to think coherently about Isard's demands. Names flashed through his mind, rejecting choices. Not Tycho! Never Tycho! Hobbie; he's been there with me for so long. Not Corran; how could I ever look Mirax in the face again? No, none of them. I have no grounds to choose one of them to die in place of the others.
"If I do this, if I name one, you will not harm any of the others?" Wedge asked, delaying the moment when he had to make a choice.
"I have kept my word to you so far, have I not?" Isard responded. "It is Rogue Squadron who broke the promise of co-operation."
Which was true, but Wedge felt no shame about that. One life or two. One life or two. If I thought I could kill you here and now, Isard, I'd do it, but I'm unarmed, and I'm sure you've got a blaster to hand. My death might satisfy your bloodlust, but I can't depend on it. I have a duty to all of my pilots, no matter how much it hurts me. If I could give my life to be certain of saving them all, I'd do it. Getting myself killed, and abandoning them to Isard's whims, is abandoning my duty to them. She's trapped me. I have to sacrifice one, to stand a chance of saving the rest. This is the cruellest decision I've ever had to make. I can't. I must. One life or two.
He reached slowly into a pocket and brought out his datapad. In a few moments, he had a list of his pilots' names displayed on the screen. Wedge studied the list in a curiously detached way, the letters no more than symbols. With a few keystrokes, he set the datapad to select one name at random. He hesitated over pressing the last button, feeling that to choose the name was to commit himself to this dreadful course of action. He could feel Isard watching him, waiting for him to yield to her will.
I choose one to die, or she will kill two.
Wedge closed his eyes and pressed the last key. His mouth had gone dry and his hands were trembling. He forced himself to look at the screen.
Wedge just stared at the words for a few moments. Then the truth sank in.
Not Gavin! Not another Darklighter on my conscience! Biggs…I'm sorry. He's so young still. I can't ...
For a moment, Wedge wanted to cancel the name on the screen and tell the datapad to select another name. There was no point. He could make excuses for all of them. All of them had chosen to risk their lives when they joined Rogue Squadron, and none of them deserved to die like this.
"Well, General?" Isard's voice was sharp. "Have you made your selection?"
He looked up at her, and forced himself to speak. "Captain Darklighter."
Isard nodded once, and spoke into the comm unit built into her desk. "Send one man in here now, and have two men bring Captain Darklighter to my office."
With the name spoken, a numb detachment settled over Wedge. He heard the door behind him open and a security guard enter. Isard gestured for the man to stand to one side, but Wedge ignored the newcomer. He was looking at Isard, seeing the cruelty in her smile as she looked at him, without feeling its impact. She produced a small blaster pistol from a drawer in her desk, and gave it to him. As she stood beside him, Wedge caught a faint trace of her spicy, unsweet perfume. Leatherwood, he remembered irrelevantly.
"Wait near the door," Isard ordered.
Wedge obeyed, the hand holding the blaster pistol by his side. Isard returned to her place behind her desk, waiting with outward patience. Wedge never knew how long it took for Gavin and his escort to arrive. Time made no sense to him as he waited, the blaster pistol heavy in his hand. Then the wood-panelled door slid open again and Gavin entered at a brisk walk, two guards just behind him. Gavin glanced swiftly around as he entered. He spotted Wedge and his brown eyes lit up, relief warming his face. That look jolted through the numbness that had cut Wedge off from what was happening. Gavin moved a couple of paces further forward and halted. He stood at attention, focussing on Ysanne Isard. The guards stopped behind and to either side of him.
"Captain Darklighter," Isard said. "You look younger than I had realized. How long have you been a member of Rogue Squadron?"
"Four years," Gavin answered.
Wedge quietly moved a little closer to him. Maybe it's a test. Maybe there's no charge in this pistol.
"Are you proud to have been a member of Rogue Squadron?" Isard asked, her tone as mild as a politician making small talk with an honoured guest.
Gavin drew himself up even straighter. "To be a member of Rogue Squadron is the highest achievement that any pilot could aim for."
Isard's smile was as cold as her blue eye. "And you are all so touchingly loyal to one another, willing to die for one another even."
Wedge took another silent step closer. Then why did she bring in an armed guard before she gave me this blaster? Is it set to stun?
"We are," Gavin answered, looking steadily at Isard. "It's a loyalty that can't be bought or forged through fear, only created by men like General Antilles. Your pilots will never serve you with their hearts and souls."
Fury flashed in Isard's mismatched eyes. She glanced past Gavin, delivering her silent order to Wedge.
Gavin tensed, starting to turn his head as Wedge brought the blaster up. Wedge was almost close enough to touch Gavin: too close to miss. He pointed the blaster at Gavin's head and fired. Gavin rocked under the impact, then his long body crumpled to the floor. He lay still, brown eyes open and empty, a look of surprise frozen on his face. The only mark on his body was the blackened blaster mark on the back of his head.
Wedge tore his gaze away, and looked at Isard. The blaster was still in his hand. He burned with the urge to fire it into her face, to send her body spilling backwards. There was a good chance he could get a shot off before the guards blasted him. He saw the whole scene for a moment: Isard slumped over her desk; his own body on the floor next to Gavin's. Death for Isard; oblivion for himself. The vision cleared and Wedge was looking again at the real Isard. There was a bright anticipation in her face. She knew exactly what he was thinking, and was waiting eagerly to see what he would do.
There's some kind of trick, or trap. Maybe the pistol only had one shot. She wouldn't give me the chance to kill her so easily; she knows I don't care about the guards right now. I won't play that game. I have my duty to the rest of my pilots. Gavin died for their sake. I have to do everything I can to keep them alive.
Wedge took a deep breath and lowered the blaster pistol.
"I have done as you ordered," he said.
Isard nodded slowly. "I expect you will see that Rogue Squadron obey my orders from now on."
Wedge looked down at Gavin's body again. So young! He retreated into formality and duty, drawing on his years of military discipline to maintain self-control.
"Madam Director, I ask that Captain Darklighter's body be treated with respect, and that Rogue Squadron be allowed to hold a memorial service in his honour."
Isard tilted her head to one side as she considered the request. "Very well," she said. "I think that the lesson on the price of disloyalty has been made clear. I see no point in increasing resentment towards me by denying your request. Now you may leave, General, and tell your squadron that Captain Darklighter was executed as a result of the unit's treacherous actions."
Wedge nodded once, turned his back on Isard, and left her office and the body of the friend he'd just killed.
He'd been walking for a couple of minutes before his mind started working again. Wedge realized he was still carrying the blaster pistol that Isard had given him. The Rogues had surrendered their own blaster pistols to Isard's security shortly after arriving at this base. The other pilots would be curious about why he had one now. Wedge turned and made his way to the quarters he'd been allocated.
Isard put up a good outward show of having the Rogues as allies. Their accommodation was separate from that of her own people, but was of the same standard. Wedge had been given a small suite; an office-sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom. He turned his eyes away from the door to Gavin's quarters as he passed it, and keyed open his own door.
Inside, Wedge dropped the blaster pistol onto the desk and headed into the bathroom. He avoided looking into the mirror, and leaned over the basin. Slowly, Wedge turned on the cold water and put his hand into the stream, splashing water onto his face. He paused, water dripping from his chin, then grabbed the edges of the basin, and vomited into it. He clung to the basin, his stomach heaving again and again until he was exhausted. At length, Wedge lifted his head and saw his white, strained face in the mirror. Moving like an old man, he filled a glass with water and rinsed his mouth, rinsing and spitting in an attempt to remove the sour taste. He rubbed a damp cloth over his sweaty face, cleaned his teeth properly, and combed his fingers through his hair. Wedge wanted nothing more than to fall onto his bed and curl up there. He couldn't indulge himself though. There was too much to do, and the hardest thing had to be tackled first. Wedge breathed slowly and deeply a few times, then went to find the remains of his squadron.
* * * * *
His reappearance in the briefing room brought a rush of questions as the pilots crowded around him.
"What did Isard want?"
"Is she going to punish us for what the droids did?"
"Is the mission against Krennel still going ahead?"
Tycho put his hand on Wedge's shoulder and gave him a searching look. "Are you all right, Wedge?"
"I'm all right," Wedge answered, dropping his eyes from Tycho's gaze. "I'm not hurt." He paused, looking round at his pilots.
They fell uneasily silent, waiting to hear what else he had to say. Wedge noticed that they clustered together, ready to brace one another against whatever news he was going to deliver. Bringing news of a death was nothing new to Wedge. He'd delivered the news in person, by holo and in letters. It never got easier with time, and he was glad about that, because it showed that he still cared. This was different. This time, he was the killer.
"Gavin ... " Wedge paused and swallowed. "Gavin is dead." He felt icy cold and sweaty at the same time. He heard sounds of shock from the others but they seemed to be coming from a distance. "Isard ordered his execution as punishment to us for trying to send the droids out."
"You're sure he's dead?" Corran interrupted.
Wedge nodded. "I saw ... I witnessed it. It was very quick." He felt sick but he forced himself to keep talking. I have to tell them about Gavin. I have to tell them about the memorial service. I have to help them through this. "He didn't know it was going to happen. Just one shot. He didn't know. He ... I ..." Wedge's vision turned grey and he swayed suddenly.
He was dimly aware of hands catching him, lowering him to the floor to sit with his head down between his knees. Someone was speaking directly to him, sympathetic. Other, more distant voices, were angry, upset. Wedge couldn't summon the strength to keep struggling any longer. He let go of his duty, and passed out.
The memorial service took place the next morning, in a briefing room that had been emptied of furniture. Wedge, like the other Rogues, was wearing his New Republic flightsuit for the occasion. Tycho had offered to oversee the arrangements, and Wedge had agreed. He felt like a hypocrite, attending a service for the man he'd killed, but he knew he had to be there. As he approached the briefing room, he was surprised to see Colonel Vessery standing outside. The colonel saluted, and Wedge returned the gesture.
"Please excuse my presence, General Antilles," Vessery said. "I just came to show my respects."
Wedge started to snap a harsh reply, but stopped himself. Colonel Vessery was loyal to Isard, but his sincerity showed in his face.
Vessery picked an invisible piece of lint off the sleeve of his uniform. "I appreciate that this is difficult for you. I only knew Captain Darklighter for a matter of weeks, but he was a good pilot and he seemed to be a decent man. I'm sorry that he was ... that he's dead."
Wedge spoke softly. "Thank you, Colonel. Do you wish to join us?" He gestured at the door of the briefing room.
Vessery shook his head. "No. You don't want an outsider watching you at this time. This is a private farewell."
Wedge nodded stiffly. "Your courtesy is appreciated."
They exchanged salutes again, and Colonel Vessery left. Wedge took a deep breath, then entered the briefing room.
A plain, closed casket lay on a repulsorlift bier at one side of the room. Gavin's flight helmet sat on the centre of the casket. The other seven Rogues were gathered together facing the casket. Tears shimmered in Inyri's eyes, Nrin's facial tentacles drooped listlessly, Ooryl was resting a three-fingered hand on Corran's shoulder. All of the Rogues looked at Wedge as he walked towards them, and as he looked at them, he saw the same faith in all their faces. His step faltered for a moment.
I don't deserve your trust. I'm the one that killed Gavin. I pulled the trigger that sent a blaster bolt through his head. I went wrong somewhere. I urged action against a Pulsar Station that never existed. Four good people died there at Distna, and the rest of us ended up in Isard's grasp. I chose to co-operate with her, and I gave Corran the go-ahead to send Whistler for help. And that's why Gavin died. I've failed you all so badly and yet you still trust me.
And because they trusted him to find some way out of this disaster, Wedge had to go on being their leader. He had to stand in front of them and speak about the man he'd murdered. As he took a deep breath to begin his speech, Wedge almost blurted out the truth. He choked down the words, and started again. It was the most difficult speech he'd ever made.
When the memorial service was done, two of Isard's men came and removed the casket, taking it for cremation. Most of the Rogues headed for the small lounge area they used, to talk and share memories. Corran carried Gavin's helmet with him, handling it as carefully as a new-born baby. Wedge lingered in the briefing room, until Tycho was the only other person present.
"Are you coming to join us?" Tycho asked quietly.
Wedge shook his head. "No. I'd rather be alone."
Tycho came across and put his hand on Wedge's shoulder. "I know it's hard to accept Gavin's death. He didn't die in combat, like Wes. It wasn't for anything worthwhile or honourable. I don't know why Isard chose him, of all of us. But it's Isard's fault that he's dead, not yours."
Wedge shuddered at the words. He looked despairingly at Tycho, but couldn't bring himself to say anything. Tycho frowned, openly concerned.
"Don't blame yourself too harshly, Wedge. And don't cut yourself off from us. You've always been strong for your friends, and we're here for you as well. Anytime you need to talk, I'll listen. If not me, go to Hobbie, Corran, anyone."
Wedge suddenly remembered something from three years ago, just after the conquest of Coruscant. It had seemed that Mirax had been killed in an ambush on a bacta convoy. Gavin had come to him in his office and had talked to him about her death. The young pilot had tried to help him cope with his grief. The memory stabbed at Wedge's heart. He pulled himself away from Tycho's hand.
"Maybe. I don't know. Thanks."
He didn't look at Tycho, and he didn't look back as he fled from the room.
* * * * *
Once back in his own quarters, Wedge couldn't settle. He wandered aimlessly about, churned up by grief, guilt and shame. His eye fell on the blaster pistol, lying where he'd abandoned it on his desk the day before. Slowly, he picked it up and checked the charge. The power pack was almost full. Wedge slipped his finger inside the trigger guard, pressing lightly against the trigger until it resisted the pressure. His breathing grew heavy and ragged as he stared down at the gun in his hands. A single shot was enough to kill.
I can't face them. They expect me to lead them; they all trust me. Gavin trusted me. Isard didn't give me a choice. If I didn't kill him, she would have had two of them killed. I did it to protect a life. One of those pilots who is trusting me to get them out of here alive, because that's my duty.
One shot; I just have to turn the blaster like this. Rest the muzzle here, under my chin. One shot and it's over. Peace, oblivion, nothingness. Leave this pain behind and escape into death.
Wedge closed his eyes, acutely aware of the cold touch of the blaster muzzle against his skin.
I'd be leaving my pilots behind with Isard. Running away from my duty to them. I brought them here: Tycho, Hobbie, Nrin, Corran, Ooryl, Inyri, Myn. I killed Gavin for their sake. If I abandon them now, his death is wasted. He did his duty, he gave his life for his friends. I have to do my duty. I have to try and keep them alive.
I can't tell the truth. They need to keep on trusting me. A pilot who doesn't trust his wingmate is a dead pilot. I must be General Antilles, with ice water flowing in his veins. It's my duty.
Wedge slowly lowered the blaster, turning the muzzle away from himself and relaxing the pressure on the trigger. With a trembling hand, he dropped the blaster pistol back on the desk. He walked steadily to the bedroom and began stripping off his orange flightsuit. He needed to wear the black TIE pilot outfit for the next sim session.
Rogue Squadron kept working on the approaching mission against Krennel. They flew more sims, discussed the results, made them more difficult and developed the identities they would be using to join Krennel's forces. Wedge pushed them hard, but pushed himself harder. When he wasn't working with his pilots, he was in the gym, occupying himself with exercise. On the few occasions he joined the others in the lounge, he never stayed for long. He sat slightly apart and spoke about little that wasn't related to the mission.
He was sitting by himself in the dining facility, when Tycho joined him, putting his tray of food down opposite Wedge's place.
"What are you doing in here?" Tycho asked.
Wedge frowned. "Eating."
Tycho shook his head. "I was watching you while I was queuing for food. You've been sitting there for nearly five minutes and you've only had about two mouthfuls."
Wedge stirred the bowl of red noodles and meat chips with his fork. The dish was almost as full as when he'd sat down. "I'm not very hungry."
"You haven't eaten a proper meal in days," Tycho told him. "You're not sleeping well, either, are you?"
Wedge's first instinct was to deny that anything was wrong. One look at Tycho's face told him that he wouldn't be believed. "Do I look so bad?" he asked.
"You do," Tycho said bluntly. He leaned across the table. "You're neglecting your duty, General Antilles."
The accusation stabbed at Wedge's conscience. His eyes glowed as he glared across the table at his friend. "Explain that!"
Tycho's blue eyes were just as intense. "You're neglecting yourself physically, Wedge. You're not eating and you're not sleeping; you're running on nothing but stubbornness and pain. It can't last and the cracks are already showing. You're making mistakes in the sims, getting vaped too soon and too often. It's obvious to everyone in the squadron and it's affecting their confidence."
Wedge knew all too well how low morale could affect a squadron. He looked at his friend, and wondered again if he dare tell Tycho the truth about Gavin's death. He'd built up a wall around himself, unable to confide the secret that gnawed at his guts, but it was getting harder to cope with the burden. Thoughts of what he could have done differently haunted him. In the dark of the night, he sometimes thought of the blaster pistol on his desk. That was when he clung most desperately to thoughts of his duty to the survivors of Rogue Squadron. Fears circled him like a flock of hawk-bats. Fear that the other Rogues would discover his secret; fear that he would lose the will to keep fighting, and turn that blaster on himself.
When Wedge spoke, his voice was soft.
"I'm sorry, Tycho. I don't want to let you down again. I've made one mistake after another, and it's landed us all here, in this mess."
"You didn't do it all on your own, you know," Tycho said. "No one in Intelligence knew there was even one Isard out there until recently, let alone two of them. We've got a good chance of wiping out at least one of them soon."
Wedge grimaced. "That's the only thing that makes this worthwhile."
"So you've got to be fit to take part, and lead us in combat. Eat your lunch, Wedge, and be grateful it's not something you cooked yourself."
In spite of everything, Wedge felt himself smile just a little. He dipped his fork into the bowl, twirled up a portion of noodles, and obediently ate. Tycho started on his own meal.
"I'm going to sit here and watch you eat every mouthful of that bowl," he said, cutting up a slab of nerfsteak. "Then I'm going to force you to eat dessert."
Wedge swallowed. "You can't force me, I outrank you."
"I'm older than you and I'm bigger than you."
"You're nine months older than me, and barely five centimetres taller."
"Still counts. Eat some more, General."
"You flew well today, General Antilles," Colonel Vessery said, smiling.
"Thank you." Wedge joined him at the front of the room for the post-sim briefing session. "Your squadron didn't make it easy for us."
"I probably shouldn't admit it, but we've been learning a lot from you and your pilots."
Wedge accepted a mug of caf and a grain bar from Ooryl. He bit into the bar and chewed the brown stuff dutifully. His appetite hadn't improved much, but he made the effort to eat regularly, aware that his pilots were discreetly watching him. Soon after his conversation with Tycho, he'd paid a visit to the base's medbay. He didn't like to rely on drugs, but that first night of sound sleep had convinced him that he needed the help they gave. Mind and body got a few hours rest each night, and the weight of his guilt sat a little less heavily on his shoulders.
Colonel Vessery signalled for the lights to be dimmed, and the pilots settled down to watch the replay of the morning's sim. This gave all the pilots the chance to see how the whole battle had panned out. Wedge's flight had started with an attack on the planet's shield generators, before heading to the spaceport to capture a freighter to transport the Lusankya prisoners off-planet. The second flight had attacked the prison, preparing the way for Colonel Vessery's men to escort in the commandos who would make the actual ground assault.
Wedge made a few notes on his datapad as he studied the replay, but most of his attention was on his pilots as they watched the screens. He saw Myn smile as he watched himself score a kill against a difficult target, and saw Inyri lean over to whisper something to him. The Rogues were sitting together, but in their black flightsuits were hard to distinguish from the Imperial pilots surrounding them. The two groups mingled easily and worked well together in combat. Wedge knew that his own sim results had improved in the last two days, and the rest of the Rogues had responded. He was pleased, knowing that their chances of survival were that much better, but the change in morale brought its own worries.
I'm beginning to feel the way Pash Cracken did when he joined Rogue Squadron for the Coruscant campaign. I've taught my people to rely on one another, and to think for themselves rather than follow my orders blindly, but I'm becoming a legend, rather than a commander. They've seen it time and time again. They've followed me into danger, and most of the time I've brought most of them back out with me. They expect me to be the Rogue Leader who conquered Coruscant and liberated Thyferra, all the time. General Wedge Antilles, sole survivor of two Death Star runs. I'm something more than human to them.
Even Tycho and Hobbie, who know just how human I am, rely on me being there for them. I'm Rogue Leader, and they know it will work out somehow so long as I'm in charge. All duty and responsibility ends with me. My superiors are usually light-years away, and give me orders more flexible than a Twi'lek dancing girl. They tell me what they need Rogue Squadron to do, and leave the details to me. Because I'm Wedge Antilles, Rogue Leader, and they know I'll make it work somehow, and bring most of my pilots back with me.
They all have so much faith in me. I know they can survive without me, but they don't, yet. My pilots would be like a bunch of orphaned children until they adjust to my absence. It wouldn't take long, but if it happened at a time like now, that time could be fatal.
Pash was right to take a break from his command, and let them find their own way for a while. If I survive this, I may do the same. It's getting very hard to be Wedge Antilles, Rogue Leader, all the time.
Wedge's reflections were interrupted by the end of the sim replay, and the lights coming up again. With an effort, he shook off his unhappy thoughts, and joined in the discussion of the sim. A few minutes into the analysis, Ysanne Isard entered the briefing room. She gestured for the pilots to remain seated, and approached Wedge and Colonel Vessery at the front of the room. Both stood to attention, but Wedge couldn't bring himself to salute her.
Isard's eyes narrowed, but she chose to overlook the omission. "I watched the datafeed from this morning's sims. It seems that you are all thoroughly prepared for the mission against Prince-Admiral Krennel."
"We're ready to go," Wedge answered. He stood with his hands clasped together at the small of his back.
Isard smiled; she seemed genuinely pleased, but Wedge found himself tensing up.
"That's good, General," she said. "Because you and your squadron will be leaving for Ciutric tomorrow morning."
Wedge relaxed marginally. At last! Our chance to escape your grasp, and do some good. "We look forward to ending Krennel's reign over the Ciutric Hegemony."
"That's something that we both look forward to," Isard said. "I would like to see you in my office, first thing tomorrow morning, General."
Wedge's face tightened at the thought of returning to her office again. He nodded stiffly, unwilling to speak.
Isard looked about the room, apparently relaxed. "I am pleased that this collaboration has worked so far. It bodes well for the future. I feared that there might be more trouble from your pilots," she added, turning back to Wedge. "It appears that your execution of Captain Darklighter served its purpose."
Wedge barely heard the gasps and exclamations of the pilots. He stared numbly at Isard, too shaken to see the malice that glittered in her eyes. She affected a look of surprise.
"Didn't you tell your men that it was you, General Antilles, who held the blaster to Darklighter's head?" Her hot/cold glance swept across the shocked group of pilots. "I didn't think you were the type of officer to keep secrets from his men." She turned her attention to Wedge again, and produced a smile as cold as her icy blue eye. "I have business to attend to, and I'm sure you do also. I expect to see you tomorrow, General."
Vessery saluted as Isard turned and left. Wedge was too stunned to move, hardly aware of what was happening around him. He started as Vessery touched him on the shoulder, and managed to focus on the other man's face.
"General?" Vessery spoke softly. "We'll leave you and your men alone here." He gestured for his pilots to follow him out.
Wedge slowly raised his head, steeling himself to meet the eyes of his friends. They had no need to ask if Isard had told the truth, it was written on Wedge's face. He expected a barrage of questions, but at first there was nothing but silence, as they waited for him to speak. Wedge swallowed, coughed, and found his voice.
"Isard told me that she held the squadron collectively responsible for the droids' escape attempt. I said that the squadron was my responsibility, and she chose to make me responsible for the punishment. She ordered me to pick one pilot and execute them. Or she would have two of you killed." He paused, and swallowed again. Hobbie was nodding slightly; he understood that Isard's threat was real. Inyri's fists were clenched tightly.
"I used my datapad to select a name at random," Wedge continued, his voice falling to a whisper. "I had to choose between taking one life myself, or letting her take two. I ... I killed Gavin."
There was a brief silence.
"Why didn't you tell us before?" Inyri almost screamed the words. Myn put his hand on her arm, but she shook him off. "Why didn't you tell us the truth?"
"Because I needed you to trust me," Wedge answered, pleading. "We have to work together if we're going to complete this mission. How could I expect you to trust me if you knew what I'd done?"
"You didn't trust us," Inyri accused. "You didn't trust us to understand why you did it."
"We know that keeping your pilots alive is the duty you hold on to closest," Nrin added. His facial tentacles writhed as he spoke. "We know you would never harm one of your pilots unless it was to prevent a greater harm being done."
Wedge felt as though something had shattered inside him. His legs buckled and he sat down abruptly on the floor. He no longer knew what to say or think. Tycho was the first to leap from his seat and lean over his commander.
"Wedge! Are you all right?"
"I ... I will be." Wedge was shaking. He let Tycho and Hobbie help him into a chair.
"You don't have to worry about that secret any more," Tycho said. "That's what was eating you up before, wasn't it? Not just that Gavin died, but your part in it."
Corran spoke. "I thought Isard had a grudge against me, but I never realized how much she must hate you, Wedge."
Wedge looked up at him, puzzled.
"The way she was looking at you when she told us about Gavin. I've never felt anything so cruel," Corran explained, his eyes narrowing at the memory.
"Isard knows that the surest way of hurting you is through your pilots," Tycho added. "Making you kill one of them yourself: you'd rather kill yourself."
Wedge thought of the blaster that she'd let him take away from her office. That had been deliberate on her part. She'd sat back and watched him suffer, waiting to see if he'd snap, and put the blaster to his own head. He'd been manipulated, pushed to the limits of mental endurance, and had come close to breaking. Anger began to burn away the pain he'd carried through the last weeks. It sickened him to think that Gavin's death had been no more than a blow aimed against himself.
"The New Republic can't make a deal with a creature like Isard," Wedge said softly. "Even if she's helped them bring down Krennel. I'll fight her every step of the way. Whatever it is she wants, we'll stop her. Power is the only thing Isard cares about. We'll see that she never has the power to hurt anyone again."
"We're with you all the way." Tycho spoke for all of them.
When Wedge returned to his quarters later that day, he saw that the blaster pistol had gone.
Has she realized I'm not going to use it on myself, or is she hoping that I want to use it, and will be disappointed that it's gone? He remembered that he was supposed to go to her office early the next morning, and smiled. Most likely she doesn't want to take the risk that I'll use it on her regardless of what happens afterwards.
Wedge was packing his few personal items into his travelling bag when there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find Colonel Vessery outside.
"Colonel, come in."
Vessery followed him inside, taking a small device from his pocket. He pressed a couple of switches on top of the black unit and put it on the low table before sitting down. Wedge recognized it as a bug-scrambler; so long as they stayed within about a meter of the unit, no bugs hidden in his quarters would be able to pick up their conversation. Vessery looked at Wedge, saw that he understood what the scrambler was, then fell to picking imaginary particles of lint from his sleeve.
"I spoke to your XO a little while ago," he said. "Colonel Celchu explained to me about Captain Darklighter's death."
Wedge wasn't sure how to respond, so he just nodded. Vessery continued slowly, testing each word before he spoke.
"I thought it harsh, to execute one of your pilots as an example to the whole squadron, but war can demand harsh measures sometimes. I had no idea that Isard had made you pull the trigger." Vessery stopped picking at his sleeve and looked up. "Now I know that Captain Darklighter's execution was just Isard's revenge on you and Rogue Squadron for defeating her at Thyferra. She could have let you die at Distna, or had you all executed on arrival here, but she chose to make you suffer as much as possible." He paused. "I find such ... cruelty ... disturbing."
"Isard has a long history of cruelty," Wedge responded. "The lives of others are tools she uses to achieve her own ends." He leaned forward in his seat. "No one knows how many millions of beings died on Coruscant because of the Krytos virus. Quarren, Major Nrin Vakil's species, just liquefied, they turned into fetid puddles of flesh. It was worse for Gamorreans." Even now, the memory of what he'd seen during the plague made Wedge feel faintly nauseous.
"Isard ordered that virus created to cause dissension and an economic crisis in the New Republic," he continued. "Millions of civilians, adults and children, died appalling deaths through her orders. Then when she escaped in the Lusankya, it came up from under Coruscant's surface. The buildings it was buried under were destroyed, reduced to rubble; the engines vapourized entire city blocks. Over three million civilians died just so Isard could escape with her ship. Three million lives destroyed in minutes."
Vessery looked grim. "I heard about those things, though some time afterwards of course."
"I was there. I saw those things myself, which is why I knew there was no way I could leave her in command of Thyferra, and bacta production. To hurt our efforts to dislodge her, Isard destroyed a colony of ten thousand people on Halanit. In fact, Captain Darklighter was there when her ships launched the attack. To force my hand, she started rounding up the Vratix that make bacta. She intended to have them killed in tens of thousands." Wedge shook his head. "Iceheart isn't the right name for her. Ice is cold, but it isn't evil."
Vessery sighed. "I joined the Imperial Navy to defend the Empire and its citizens. I thought I'd be hunting down criminals and terrorists, those rebels who threatened the galactic peace," he added with a half-smile, as he looked at Wedge. "I didn't join up to serve a power-hungry schemer with the conscience of a rancor. Isard seemed to be the last legitimate heir to the Emperor's throne, so I turned a blind eye to the stories I heard about her. I can't do that any longer."
Wedge felt a sudden burst of excitement. "What do you intend to do?"
"I'm changing my allegiance; to you. I want to help you and your men escape whatever she has planned for you. She's enjoyed toying with you, but I'm sure she'd rather see you dead than give you a real chance of escaping her clutches."
Wedge leaned back and thought. With Vessery's squadrons of TIE Defenders on their side, there wasn't a lot to prevent Rogue Squadron from escaping from this planet. They could fly straight back to Coruscant and summon a fleet to deal with Isard. Which still left Krennel and the clone Isard.
"I'd like to finish this mission to Ciutric," Wedge said at last. "This started as a mission to free the Lusankya prisoners, as well as to bring down Krennel. Rogue Squadron has a personal stake in both objectives. That is what Lyyr, Slee, Asyr, Janson and Gavin gave their lives trying to do. I'd like to finish this mission to honour them."
Vessery nodded. "You have our full support." He offered his hand to Wedge.
They shook hands, then Vessery glanced at the bug-scrambler.
"I'd better not stay too long. You have a meeting with Isard in the morning before you leave for Ciutric, don't you?"
Wedge grimaced. "Yes."
Vessery produced a holdout blaster from his pocket and offered it. "You might need this."
Wedge accepted the small gun. "Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate everything you've done for us."
Vessery rose. "I hope that if I were ever tested as hard as you've been, that I would do as well."
"I'll always wonder if I could have done better," Wedge answered.
"That's what makes you the man you are," Vessery told him. He switched off the scrambler and pocketed it. "Good luck for tomorrow, General Antilles."
"And you, Colonel."
Early the next morning, Wedge presented himself at Ysanne Isard's expensive office. He walked across the floor where Gavin had died, and stood before Isard's desk. He spared no attention for the exquisite wood inlays that covered the room and all the surfaces like a skin. His eyes were on those of the woman on the other side of the desk. Isard studied him thoughtfully, stroking the side of her jaw.
"You look better than I had expected, General. I'm beginning to suspect that the rumours that you have ice-water for blood are true."
Wedge didn't answer. Isard continued to study him, frowning a little.
"Still as defiant as when you arrived here," she remarked. "You have been my most persistent, and troublesome enemy. I would never have believed that a mere pilot could cause me so much annoyance." She paused, but Wedge remained silent.
Isard stood, anger sparking in her mismatched eyes. Wedge was no longer afraid of her. His lack of reaction was infuriating her, and while it made her dangerous, it also made her careless. He turned his head to keep watching her as she came round the desk, but showed no outward emotion. Isard halted, a few feet away from him. There was no one else in the office, no one to see what happened between them. This was her territory. The last time he'd been here, she forced him to do something that went against every instinct, every principle he valued. The power had been in her hands, and she'd used it to inflict as much pain as she could.
"What a pity that you and I never formed a true alliance," Isard said. "We could have achieved much together."
Wedge spoke at last. "You love power too much to share it. And I've never wanted power."
She laughed, mocking him. "So says General Antilles, friend of Admirals, Councillors and Jedi. Even a creature like Borsk Fey'lya has to be wary of how he treads around you. You say you don't want power, but you have it."
"If I do, then it's to use for the benefit of others. You only use power to serve yourself, Isard, which is a waste because you're nothing but a shrivelled husk of spite and evil. And that's why Vessery and his men have abandoned you."
Her eyes widened with shock, and Wedge used the momentary advantage to attack.
The holdout blaster was in the pocket of his black flightsuit, but Wedge ignored it. He'd used a blaster to kill Gavin in this room; he didn't want to give Isard the dignity of the same kind of death. Impulsively, he flung himself against her, locking his hands on her throat as his weight pushed her back against the desk. She was taller than him, and almost the same weight, but it made little difference when pinned against the desk. Flailing at his face with her right arm, Isard jerked her left arm straight, sliding her holdout blaster down her sleeve and into her left hand.
Wedge had been expecting her to have a holdout weapon, and wasn't distracted by the wild right-handed attacks she made. Keeping one hand on her throat, he grabbed her left wrist before she could aim the blaster at him, and smashed her wrist viciously against the edge of the desk. Isard shuddered, unable to make a sound with his hand cutting off her air. She brought her left leg up sharply, trying to slam her knee into his groin, and swung her arm in a circle in an effort to break his grip. Wedge twisted his hips, trapping her leg between his legs and the desk. He hung on grimly, and used the momentum of her arm movement to slam her wrist against the edge of the desk again. This time the blaster slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor.
Adrenaline-inspired fury drove Wedge on. The analytical part of his mind knew that this woman was responsible for the deaths of many millions of beings. He had no doubt that if she regained power, she would be responsible for many more. But those were mere numbers. As he kept up his fierce grip on her throat, Wedge thought of Gavin, Asyr and Janson. He remembered Iella weeping for Diric. He gave in to the anger, wanting only to know that Ysanne Isard was dead.
Isard was getting frantic, her struggles less co-ordinated, as Wedge's stranglehold continued. She threw her body about, white hair spilling across the desk as the blood vessels of her face became congested. Wedge was far stronger than she was, and in a better position to use that strength. He pinned her down mercilessly, ignoring the blows she rained on his head and shoulder with her free hand. She made a last-ditch effort, aiming for his eyes with her fingernails. Wedge twisted his face away, squeezing her throat still harder. As her lips turned blue, Isard scratched feebly at his hand and wrist. Isard's hand dropped back to the desk as her strength faded.
Her movements weakened until she lay motionless in his grasp. The fire and ice had faded from her odd-coloured eyes only moments before they closed. Wedge continued to lean his weight against her, pouring his fury and pain into the grip on her throat. Only when the storm of his feelings had been exhausted, did he release his hold.
He straightened up slowly, flexing his aching fingers. Ysanne Isard lay sprawled across her expensive desk like a broken, scarlet-bodied insect.
"You were powerless to stop me in the end," Wedge said aloud. "You'll never hurt anyone again." You can rest easy, Gavin. I can't give you back your life, or restore the millions of others she destroyed, but it's over. No more deaths to mark to Ysanne Isard's account. I just wish I could have stopped her sooner. He turned away, and walked slowly to the door. Colonel Vessery was waiting outside. He looked anxiously at Wedge, then peered past him into the office. His eyes widened, then he hurried past and went to look at the body for himself. Wedge leaned against the wall, drained of energy. A minute later, Vessery was back, hustling him into the corridor and locking the office door behind them.
"We should get out of here before her staff start wondering why she's not issuing any orders, and send security to investigate," Vessery said.
"She is dead, isn't she?" Wedge asked.
Vessery nodded. "Very. It wasn't pretty or quick by the look of it. There's many people would say that was the least she deserved."
Wedge finally felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. He shook his head, as if banishing negative thoughts, then reached into a pocket on the sleeve of his flightsuit and produced a datadisk.
"Here are the messages I recorded to get you safely into the New Republic." He spoke briskly as he handed the disk to Vessery. "They vouch for you and your men. No doubt General Cracken will give you a thorough grilling, but I hope my word will count for something. At least you will be bringing them good news about one of the Isards we've been fighting."
Colonel Vessery raised his hand in a salute. "Thank you, General, and good luck at Ciutric."
Wedge returned the salute. "And to you, Colonel. I hope to see you there in a week."
They separated: Vessery to join his men in their voyage to Coruscant and a new life; Wedge, to join the rest of the Rogues and complete their mission to bring down Krennel and Isard's clone.
Out in space, just before they started their six-hour hyperspace jump to Ciutric, Wedge told them how he'd killed Isard.
The door buzzer interrupted Wedge's thoughts, bringing him back to the reality of his quarters on Coruscant. The campaign against Krennel and Isard's clone had been a success, and the Lusankya's prisoners had been freed. Rogue Squadron had paid a heavy price for this success, though the news of Wes Janson's survival made the losses a little easier to bear. The squadron was currently off active duty, until it could be resupplied and the numbers brought up to full.
Putting down the blaster pistol he was holding, Wedge went to answer the door.
"Iella!" He moved back to let her in.
She enveloped him in a warm hug. "I'm sorry I couldn't get to see you before," she said. "I only got back on-planet this morning, and I wanted to read your report on what happened before I came to see you."
Wedge returned the hug, enjoying the comfort offered by close contact with another human being. Iella started to relax her hold, but Wedge kept his arms around her and she leaned against him again. She stayed there, letting her warmth seep into his body until he finally relaxed.
"You needed that," she said softly, her mouth close to his ear.
Wedge nodded. "Thank you."
Iella pulled back a little way so she could see his face. Her brown eyes scanned him intently, reading the pain and uncertainty that still haunted him.
"I wish I could have been there with you," she said at last.
Wedge shook his head. "No. You would have been another tool for Isard to use, another way of hurting me."
Iella gently brushed her hand against his cheek. "I'm here now, anyway."
Wedge smiled at that, and finally released his hold.
As she moved to sit down, Iella saw the blaster pistol he'd put on the low table. Wedge was tidy by nature, and never usually left weapons lying about. Iella frowned, and looked anxiously at him as he settled himself onto the sofa beside her.
"Don't worry." He looked her straight in the face. "I'm not planning on using it on myself."
She let out a short sigh of relief. "Then why is it lying around?" She reached out and touched the grip. "It's warm; you were holding it when I pressed the buzzer."
"It's hard to explain," Wedge said. He paused before continuing. "I was thinking of what Isard made me do, and what I could have done differently. I could have tried to shoot her before the guards brought Gavin in. There was only one guard in the room with us then. I might have got him too, and even if he killed me, with Isard dead, my pilots could have escaped in the confusion."
"If the alarm was raised and Rogue Squadron tried to escape, which they wouldn't without knowing what had happened to you, Vessery would have gone after them without waiting for direct orders from Isard," Iella told him. "Too many 'ifs', Wedge. Maybe you could have saved Gavin, if you'd done something different, but you don't know what that something different is. You'll never know. And if you'd done something different, you might have made it worse."
"I know," Wedge admitted. "I try to just accept what's happened, but it's such a struggle." Some nights I still need pills to help me sleep, and even when I'm awake, the nightmares still slip into my mind.
"You'll win, Wedge. You're strong and you're stubborn." Iella smiled. "You're too stubborn to let Isard get the better of you. If you let this break you, you're giving her what she wanted."
Wedge nodded, drawing courage from her words. "Isard should never have picked on a Corellian. We don't listen to the odds, so we never know when we're beaten."
Iella leaned over and kissed his cheek. "That's the Wedge Antilles I know. You'll be back tearing up the skies with Rogue Squadron soon."
Wedge shook his head, his pleasure dimming a little. "I've been thinking a lot about that. Admiral Ackbar's offered me an assignment with Fleet Command, and I'm going to take him up on it."
Wedge took a deep breath. "I guess the part that's easiest to explain, is that I need time away from Rogue Squadron. None of them blame me for Gavin's death, I know that, but I need time to come to terms with what I did. It's still hard for me to look any of them in the eyes.
The rest of it, is how they looked up to me when we were on Isard's base. After Gavin's death, I wasn't eating or sleeping, I made mistakes in the sims and its effect on the rest of Rogue Squadron was out of proportion. I know how good they are. I know that Tycho can be a very good Rogue Leader, but he's never had the chance to prove it. I'm casting a very long shadow over them, and it's time they moved into the light."
Iella took a few moments to digest what he'd told her, then she smiled. "The galaxy won't be the same without you in an X-wing," she said. "But I think maybe you're right. Better to move forward than keep looking back."
Especially as when I look back, I see a blaster in my hand, and Gavin dead at my feet. With an effort, Wedge banished the black thought. Something must have shown on his face, for Iella put her hand over his. She didn't speak, but the gesture anchored him back to the present. And the future. I have a future, even if the pain of what I did never quite goes away. Someday I may forgive myself for that bargain I made with Isard. I chose to end one life myself, rather than let her take two lives. I took her life in the end, worthless as it was. She'll never hurt anyone or take another life again. I think Gavin would forgive me, knowing why I killed him. One, day, when my time finally runs out and I join him in death, I'll know for sure.
Looking at Iella, Wedge suddenly realized that he hoped it would be a long time before he met Gavin again. He wanted years and years before his time ran out. Years in which to heal, and live, and love.
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