Project Echo: Part 16
Rating: PG
Gillian F. Taylor

The squadron of TIE fighters zigzagged through the ironwood forest.They flew just below the reddish-green forest canopy, barely 100m above the ground. Wedge twisted onto a path that ran straight and clear for two seconds and used the time to glance at his scanners. The rest of Spitfire Squadron were all behind him in acceptably close formation, though Three and Six both indicated minor damage from getting too close to the trees. Wedge grinned, as he curved his fighter gracefully around a tree in his path and entered a clearing.

"Spitfires, follow me," he ordered.

Reaching the open space, he pulled his eyeball into a steep climb and accelerated up into the clear sky. He went a hundred feet clear of the trees before barrel-rolling the nimble TIE for the fun of it and swooping back to just above tree-height. The forest filled the wide canyon below, enclosed by towering yellow-white cliffs that opened into side canyons here and there. As he pulled out of his dive, Wedge encountered the cross-wind from one of those canyons. He'd been expecting it, and expertly controlled the TIE as the gusting wind caught its large solar arrays. His course deviated by no more than a couple of centimetres in spite of the sideways force of the wind.

The rest of Spitfire Squadron were less successful. Wedge's grin got wider as he watched the other eyeballs encounter the cross-wind and get blown off course to varying degrees. They straightened themselves up efficiently enough afterwards.

"Five, Eight — good responses there. Seven, I thought you'd gone to take a look at something on the other side of the canyon," Wedge told them.

"Sorry, Lead." The response was genuine but brief.

Wedge thought wistfully of the kind of reply he'd have got from one of the Rogues or Wraiths. This was the third anonymous squadron of pilots he'd polished up here and it was clear that they were under strict orders to keep communications to a minimum. Wedge disliked the restriction, not least because it made it very hard for him to build the sense of teamship that he believed was vital for any squadron. He didn't know any of them by name, only by unit number and they only addressed him as Lead, One or Sir.

Of course, strictly speaking, it was a good thing, as these pilots were all obviously working for whoever was holding him captive. Wedge didn't want his enemies to have top — notch pilots, but they were still pilots, and it went against the grain not to do as good a job as he could. The sim training sessions gave him something to do, and to think about. And as it was the only thing his captors had demanded of him after the interrogators had finished with him, Wedge suspected the training was the only reason they still kept him alive.

"Why did the cross — winds affect the TIEs so much?" he asked the Spitfires.

Eight answered first. "The large flat solar arrays catch the wind like a sail."

"Correct. It's not a problem in space, but you'll be finding that the TIE is slightly less agile in atmosphere and you need to be aware of wind direction. How did I know to compensate for the cross — wind before it hit me?"

"You've done this sim before?" Eleven suggested.

Wedge ignored him and waited for another answer.

"You guessed there would be a cross — wind coming from the side canyon," Five said.

"Almost right, Five," Wedge answered. "But I didn't guess, I knew. And not because I've done the sim before. How did I know about that cross — wind?"

There was a pause before Nine spoke, somewhat hesitantly. "Was it the movement of the trees?"

Wedge smiled. "That's right; good thinking. Planetary terrain isn't just something to fly over. You can learn to read it like you read your scopes. Look for movement in large bodies of water, and in trees to find out what the wind's doing. Dust or sand on a dry planet can also help. You already know about using the sun to your advantage in combat; well, it's even more important on a planet where you've got horizons. And clouds can be put to use as well."

Through his viewport, Wedge spotted another side canyon. It was narrow and winding and the sim designers had shaped it to provide a challenging gamut of updrafts, downdrafts, crosswinds and general turbulance. Wedge expected to lose at least two of the squadron in there, blown into the walls or even each other. For himself, it was pure fun: the joy of flying at its best, even if he'd rather be flying it for real and not in a sim. And not under these circumstances. But while he was flying the canyon, he could temporarily forget all the things that hurt, and haunted his dreams.

"Spitfires, follow me," Wedge ordered, and accelerated for the canyon.

They emerged with only eight TIEs still intact, including Wedge's. Spitfire Seven had been caught in turbulance and thrown against the wall of the canyon. More spectacularly, Three had succeeded in wiping out both himself, and Four and Five in one big explosion.

"Well done, Three," Wedge said dryly, struggling to keep the amusement from his voice. He knew from previous sessions that his pilots stayed hooked into the comm systems after being vaped in the sims. "That's going to be a useful case study for future classes."

"Yes, s"

The rueful voice was cut off abruptly as the sim ended. The holoscreens went black and the hum of the motors powered down.

Wedge's casual behaviour dropped away in a moment. He snatched off helmet and gloves in a practised move, releasing his harness with one hand while putting down the helmet with the other. A moment later, he was on the floor of the TIE, prising up a panel with a thin piece of plastic. Wedge retrieved a partly — assembled collection of items and began work immediately. The only tools he had were his own fingers and the handle of a fork. Frowning in concetration, he adjusted the output of a droid restraining bolt attached to a handle made from a bracket scavenged from within the TIE. Satisfied, he added a short piece of durasteel tubing for a barrel, fixing it with a scrape of sticky sealant scooped from his chair mountings with the fork handle. Then it was as quickly packed away inside the bodywork of the TIE sim machine.

He pushed the panel back in place and used his booted foot to press it back down firmly as he stood up. Helmet and gloves were back in his hands as the hatch opened above. Wedge climbed out and handed over his helmet to one of the two guards who were waiting in the small room where his simulator was kept. After every training session, Wedge had approximately two minutes unobserved within the simulator. Day after day, he'd gradually accumulated the bits and pieces of an improvised weapon. Flying the TIE and improvising an unlikely weapon reminded him of his time with the Wraiths, but the memories had to be kept for other times. The two — minute window was barely enough to achieve anything, but Wedge persisted, and his work was close to paying off.

* * * * *

The helmet was sealed into a locker and the two guards escorted Wedge from the room. The simulator he used was in a small, bare room, some three minutes walk from his cell. Wedge guessed it was close to the room where the other sims were; he thought that if the sim module could have been placed closer to his own room then it would have been. The route took them from a side corridor into a main one, with doors into other rooms and side exits, then into a another side corridor that lead to the sealed area where he lived. Although there were normal signs of life along the corridors, holoboards and the like, Wedge had never seen anyone besides the guards escorting him, and assumed that the corridors were cleared especially for his journeys.

"Is it a nice day out?" he asked the guards. After living for weeks in a wholly artificial, enclosed environment, Wedge had no idea whether it was actually night or day on the planet outside. He was certain that they weren't in space, but the base could be on a barren moon for all he knew. He could even still be somewhere in the underworld levels of Coruscant.

Neither of the guards answered; they never did, and Wedge didn't expect them to. He asked frivolous questions simply because it irritated the guards, who no doubt thought he should be more abject and cowed. Cheerful questions from a prisoner about a new haircut didn't fit into their scheme of things. They walked stoically on, one guard ahead of Wedge and the other a couple of paces behind. They didn't wear blasters, though Wedge guessed that guards picked for this important duty would be good at unarmed combat. Certainly better than he was himself. He knew a few tricks but he'd never had the time to learn properly.

It was something else that kept him walking meekly at their pace, unbound but unable to escape. Wedge's fingers twitched at the knowledge, and he had to suppress the urge to rub the back of his neck. He had no memory of his capture. He remembered that he'd been walking home from his new office. The next memory after that was of waking in a plain cell, groggy and disorientated. While he'd been unconscious, his captors had implanted a remotely activated neuroshock unit in the back of his neck, feeding directly into his spinal cord. His guards carried remotes to activate the unit on a moment's notice. It acted directly on his nervous system, overloading the electrical signals it carried.

The nature of the implant had been graphically illustrated to him on that first day here. A half — second shock had been enough to make his legs buckle and leave him in a heap on the floor, gasping for breath as jolts of pain spasmed up and down his back. Wedge had recovered fully in a few minutes but it had felt like being hit by a brief bolt of the Emperor's force lightning that Luke had told him about. The guards just had to touch a button on their remotes and he would be helpless. So he walked obediently between his guards, back to his cell.

It was the most well — appointed cell that Wedge had ever been held in. There was a small living room, equipped with a comfortable chair, a couple of pieces of gym equipment, a holoplayer with a selection of dramas and movies to choose from, and an isolated computer with games and puzzles. There was a separate, small bedroom with bed and closet space, and a tiny bathroom facility. He'd been given basic toiletries and some changes of clothes that fitted well and were the same as he wore at home. A close look suggested that although immaculate, the clothes had been worn before. There was no windows, but a sealed holoviewer on one wall of the living room showed an image of rolling countryside that looked a lot like northern Corellia, giving the illusion of a window overlooking a lovely view. Only the locked outer door spoilt the pretence that this was no different to the typical military quarters that he had lived in before.

Wedge estimated that he'd been a prisoner for about three or four months. He didn't know who had taken him prisoner, though the most likely assumption was the Imperial Remnant. He hadn't seen any Imperial uniforms here other than his TIE pilot's outfit. This base had more of a civilian than military feel to it, but Wedge knew that the Imperial Intelligence Bureau maintained non — standard facilities as it suited their purpose.

He'd had a death mark from the Empire for some seventeen years now, and knew that capture meant execution. Wedge had also known that Iella, Tycho, Mirax and his other friends would have been searching for him from the time he'd gone missing. The first couple of weeks of his capture were now a merciful blur. He'd been interrogated, deprived of sleep, given drugs that made him babble or caused spasms of pain if he lied. He'd fought the interrogation for as long as he could, using his anger to strengthen himself. Every day he could hold out was another day for his friends to find him. It was another day of life, delaying the day of death that would come when they'd finished with him. They'd broken him in the end of course.

He recalled lying on the hard bunk of the plain cell he'd had then, fighting down the sobs of pain while he waited for them to come for him. With the interrogations over, he would be quietly executed and Iella would probably never know for certain what had happened to him. When they'd come, two guards had held him down while a medic delivered the injection. He'd sunk rapidly into unconsciousness, knowing that he was dying. Wedge had hardly been able to believe it when he'd woken again, in the bedroom of this little apartment. Even now, several weeks on, Wedge felt he'd been given a second chance at life after surviving what he had believed to be his execution.

Back in his quarters, Wedge stripped off the TIE uniform, showered and changed into civvies. When he was done, his midday meal had arrived. It was nourishing, unremarkable food, that Wedge had soon recognized as canteen food. It was a style which seemed to be similar on ships and bases across the galaxy, regardless of whether the canteen was military or civilian, New Republic or Empire. Wedge ate it without great appetite, and was at least grateful that he had citros snow cake for dessert. When he was done, a guard came in and took the dishes away in silence. Wedge was left to fill the rest of the day with his own occupations and thoughts.

He had a routine now: planning the next day's training, exercise, playing a mix of long — term and shorter strategy games, watching the next holopic available in his small library and planning the details of his escape. It all kept his mind busy until lights out and Wedge applied himself to his routine with military self — discipline. He liked to exercise a second time, finishing half an hour before bed, hoping that physical tiredness would help him get to sleep more quickly. When he was in bed, the day's distractions no longer occupying him, he couldn't block out the thoughts of home and family any longer.

The dull ache of misery he carried through the day swelled into a feeling of loss and anger that came closer to breaking him than any other aspect of his captivity. He missed the physical presence of his wife and daughter: he missed Syal's laughter and the sweet smell of her tender skin. He missed Iella's smile and the sensation of her body nestled against his in their bed. Wedge wanted to know what they were doing and how they were. Syal was growing, changing, learning to speak, and he was missing it all. He wanted to hold Iella's hand, and gaze into her eyes and hear her voice.

And as he missed them, he knew that they would be missing him too. Did Iella think he was dead? And Syal was too young now to remember him when she grew up. She'd only know her father from holos and stories told by people who'd known him, and he wouldn't be there to guide and shelter her through her life. Wedge had understood that as a serving soldier, he could be killed and his family would be left without him. This was different, at least to him. If he were dead, he wouldn't be suffering the misery of not knowing what was happening to his family. That was a pain reserved for the living.

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