Project Echo: Part 14
Rating: PG
Gillian F. Taylor

Tycho arrived at the briefing the next day with Winter and Iella. Iella's face was strained, her body language taut, but she was beautiful in spite of it. They took places at the long, oval conference table in the Starfighter Command meeting room. Admiral Ackbar was at one end of the table, and the humidity of the room had been slightly raised to accommodate him. Already seated around the table were General Cracken, General Bel Iblis, a bald, stocky man that Tycho didn't know and the Chief of State, Leia Organa Solo. Leia gave Iella a look of warm sympathy as they settled down.

Admiral Ackbar started by telling them that the meeting was a matter affecting New Republic security, and therefore subject to a high level of security. After calling Cracken to tell him of their suspicions, Tycho had spoken to no other Rogues about the possibility that the dead man was not the Wedge they knew. It had been hard not to call, Wes and Hobbie especially, but he'd understood the necessity for silence.

General Cracken then introduced the bald man as Dr Jetern, one of the New Republic's top forensic pathologists. Tycho gripped Winter's hand under the table as the thick-necked, stocky doctor began to speak. Dr Jetern looked around the table and said without preamble.

"The body I have examined is not that of General Wedge Antilles. The deceased is a clone of the General."

Tycho gave a sharp sigh of relief, as did others around the table. Iella closed her eyes for a moment, before opening them again and fixing her gaze on the doctor as he continued to speak.

"The original autopsy was treated as a routine matter, as there were witnesses to the death of the clone. The first examiner confirmed that death was due to severe blood loss following a blaster wound to the heart. She did a standard check of the major organs, which showed nothing suspicious, and ran blood toxin tests which were clear. As cause of death was confirmed, and the identity of the deceased was not, at that time, in question, no further examination was made."

Dr Jetern glanced around the table, as though expecting someone to question him. There was silence, so he continued.

"I subsequently examined the body with the express intention of determining identity. I did a detailed body scan, and compared the results with General Antilles' medical records." He tapped something into his datapad and a holo appeared in the centre of the table, turning slowly so that everyone could view it.

The holo was two images, side by side, of a human ribcage. Tycho felt it was rather eerie, but the plainness of the images kept it clinical, rather than personal. He glanced sideways at Iella, who was watching the images with a horrified fascination.

"The image on the left is from General Antilles' medical records," Dr Jetern explained. "The right is from the body of the clone. Ten years ago, General Antilles fractured two ribs on the left side of his chest. As bacta treatment was not available to him at the time, the bones had to knit naturally. You can see the healed fractures on the scan."

A touch on the doctor's datapad, and the left holo zoomed in to show a close up of the slight lumpiness in the bone at the point of fracture.

"The scan from the body of the dead man shows no such damage," Dr Jetern continued, as that holo enlarged also, to show the undamaged bones. "Furthermore, the right hand of the clone shows no sign of the surgical repair work done to the bones and tendons of General Antilles' right hand after it was injured at Endor."

The holos changed to pictures of the internal structures of hands, that were slightly more detailed than Tycho really liked. Some of the tendons of one hand seemed more opaque than the rest, and Tycho realized that those had to be artificial tendons used to repair the damaged hand. The hand in the other holo had only natural tendons.

"Once I had confirmed that the body was not that of General Antilles, I undertook further investigation."

Tycho saw the doctor's eyes light up, and correctly anticipated a lecture.

"As you know, telomeres are repetitive strings of information at the end of each chromosome," Dr Jetern told them. "Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres lose some of their information. They become shorter. When cells are taken from an adult to be cloned, they will already have lost a proportion of their telomeres. The clone develops with cells that are the same age as the progenitor was when the cells were taken. So if General Antilles were 30 when the sample cells were taken, his clone would have cells with 30 year old telomeres while it was still in an embryonic stage of development. This is the reason why standard clones have shorter lifespans than their originators. A clone fresh out of a tank may be only a week old by conventional measurements, but at a cellular level, he could be sixty years old already, if that's how old his originator was."

General Cracken caught the doctor's eye, and spoke up.

"Can you tell how old the clone was? When was he created?"

Dr Jetern nodded firmly. "Analysis of the clone's telomeres, taken from several kinds of tissue, indicated that the clone was approximately five years old."

Tycho felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the clone-Wedge. The clone, who had been so like Wedge that Tycho hadn't seen the substitution, had only had five years of life. It seemed cruelly short.

General Cracken thanked Dr Jetern for his work and gave him permission to leave. Dr Jetern nodded and strode briskly out of the meeting room with the air of a man with something important to do.

"So this clone-substitution plot has spent some five years in development," General Bel Iblis remarked. "It must have cost a lot in time, money and resources. General Antilles is a valuable member of the New Republic military, but I wonder why anyone would choose to clone him, specifically."

Tycho wondered for a moment if the older Corellian was slightly jealous that he apparently hadn't been considered important enough to clone. He noticed Iella frowning and shooting a dark look at Bel Iblis, but she kept her thoughts to herself.

Cracken answered. "As Dr Jetern has explained, cells used for cloning reflect the age of the donor." He looked around the table, his gaze lingering slightly longer on Bel Iblis. "So from the scientific point of view, General Antilles is one of our younger generals, and therefore a good candidate for the cloning process. From the intelligence side, he has been a member of the New Republic military from before the battle of Yarvin, is a trusted officer and has worked closely with Admiral Ackbar for many years. He is also a personal friend of both our Chief of State, Leia Organa-Solo, and of her brother, the Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. All of which makes him a valuable source of information on the military and resources of the New Republic."

"But why go to the trouble of creating a clone and training him to pass as the real Wedge?" Leia asked. "Whoever did it clearly has the ability to kidnap him off Coruscant, so why not just do that?"

"Two reasons," Cracken said. "The first is that it gave them a chance to put their own operative in a very sensitive position within the New Republic military. Our initial analysis of the General's computer, datapad and holonet connection indicate that the clone was sending information out to someone, presumably the people who created and trained him. We need more time to discover exactly what information was leaked, but it looks as though it includes data on our patrols out near the Corporate Sector, which would have enabled the pirates to time their attacks to coincide with the unescorted fleets."

"You mean the Echo Project ships weren't listening in and collecting the data?" Tycho asked, sitting upright. "There was no Echo technology was there? It was all a fake." General Cracken looked, very briefly, abashed. "We now believe that to be the case," he replied stiffly. "I suspect that the information about the Echo project was planted for us by the clone himself."

Tycho felt a surge of irritation, remembering how he'd felt that the mission was based too much on assumption, and not enough on hard evidence.

"It would seem that the Echo ship project was a scheme to reduce or eliminate Rogue Squadron by getting them to fly the sabotaged ships," Bel Iblis said. "Presumably the clone had a way of disabling the bomb, so his ship would be unaffected. He could return to us with a story of a miraculous escape, or return to his commanders."

"But he didn't go though with it," Tycho protested. "Wedge - the clone Wedge - changed his mind at the last moment. I saw him make the decision. He told us it was a trap, showed us the bombs hardwired in, then he led us through the base to the hangar with the shuttle. He died helping us get away."

Admiral Ackbar rolled one of his large amber eyes to look more directly at Tycho. "It would seem that the clone inherited more than just his physical body from General Antilles."

There was a brief silence, as those who'd known Wedge reflected on this.

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