Project Echo: Part 23
Rating: PG
Gillian F. Taylor

Wedge got almost a kilometre closer to the spaceport before the police caught up with him again. He heard the sirens first, his heartrate quickening in response to the sound. Abandoning caution, he accelerated, weaving his way through the light traffic. Two police speeders came swooping out ahead from his right, both larger and faster than the civilian model that Wedge had stolen. He veered sharply to the left, cutting across traffic to head down a sideroad. At once he saw that he'd been herded into an ambush.

Two more of the larger speeders were set across the narrow road, nose to nose, floating in the mid-range of his vehicle's altitude range. Blaster rifle shots began hammering at the front of Wedge's speeder. He ducked as holes appeared in the front viewscreen, blaster bolts zipping through his cab. Wedge pushed the throttle to maximum, flying scant inches above the ground and aiming straight for the leftmost speeder. More bolts thudded into the front of the valiant speeder, its repulsor engines whining as Wedge flew it at a speed the manufacturers had only tried on a test track.

There was, technically, just enough room for Wedge to slide under one of the police vehicles, if he didn't mind scraping the roof of his speeder. He hoped that word of his daring flying had got about to the policemen he was facing now. As Wedge came hurtling onward without slowing, the vehicle he was aiming at began to lose height. Wedge kept low, as though hoping to go underneath. Wedge could see the pilot looking at him anxiously, and grinned like a maniac. The police pilot looked terrified, in spite of the fire hammering Wedge's speeder, but dropped his vehicle lower still. They seemed to be on a collision course, which the heavier, semi-armoured police speeder would weather better. Wedge's hurtling speeder closed the distance in a flash.

At the last possible micro-second, Wedge swerved centrally and hauled up the nose of his speeder. Its underside crashed against the front of the police speeder, throwing Wedge back hard in his seat. The back of his head thumped against the head rest and he nearly bit his tongue. The hard jolt caused no immediate trouble though, and he kept full control of the speeder. What he didn't know was that the impact against the headrest had loosened the patch of insulating foam he'd stuck over the end of the implant in the back of his neck.

He was halfway over the front of the lower speeder before the pilot even started to react, and by then the police speeder was being pushed down by Wedge's repulsors. Wedge shot over the blockade, tilting his speeder slightly to present the underside to the higher police speeder. Blasterfire hammered into his speeder, one shot entering through the side window and missing his head by centimetres. The inside of the speeder had the familiar tang of blaster gasses as well as the smell of burnt fabric and plastic.

Wedge kept the battered speeder straight as he raced along the narrow street. A glance at the rear-view screen showed the police vehicles turning, and inadvertently blocking those that had chased him into the ambush. A cold grin showed on his face, but a moment later his expression was sober as he cocked his head to listen. Nothing showed wrong yet on the displays, but the note of the engines had changed. The difference was subtle, but Wedge had lived around engines almost as long as he could remember and had developed a keen ear. He frowned and looked anxiously at the nav screen.

He shot out of the far end of the narrow street and turned hard right, the police speeders in pursuit. Wedge stayed ahead of them, following a twisty course where his lack of speed didn't matter so much. They were in a largely industrial quarter, cut through by some multilane highways. Wedge gained a little time by taking a shortcut over a used speeder lot and tilting his speeder up to slide between two advertising holoboards. Once out of their sight, he headed back to the main road he'd been on a minute earlier. He knew they'd follow but the important thing was to be out of sight for a couple of minutes.

Half a klick along, the main road crossed another at a circular junction. When Wedge had whipped around it before, he'd noted that the centre of the large roundabout was a hole. Below ground were the pedestrian walkways that crossed the junction, keeping them separate from the traffic. Now, as Wedge entered the junction, he decelerated sharply. Instead of turning to circle the centre of the roundabout, he aimed straight for the hole. As the speeder hopped over the low canopy that edged the hole in the ground, Wedge briefly turned off the repulsors. The speeder dropped like a Hutt off a sailbarge, vanishing below ground level.

He fell almost seven meters before turning the repulsors on again. The speeder bobbed and swayed as he got it under control again, two meters off the floor. The open area beneath the hole, that the pedestrian walkways led into, was little more that plain duracrete, with just a couple of benches and a duracrete container planted with some withered flowers as decoration. A drunk, clutching a bottle of cheap Twi'lek whiskey, stared at the speeder as Wedge consulted his nav screen and listened to the wail of police sirens approaching.

Wedge held his breath, gazing upwards at the circle of sky overhead, as the sirens drew nearer. Their piercing howl got louder, even down in the underpass, then diminished again. Wedge breathed out and started forwards. Even though this was an industrial area with relatively light foot traffic, the pedestrian walkways leading to the underpass were comfortably wide enough for his speeder. As he rounded the last part of the curve and saw daylight ahead, Wedge began to accelerate again. The speeder bucked and dropped half a meter before flying on. Wedge bit down a curse, hearing the ragged sound of the battered repulsors.

Leaving the underpass, he swung onto the main road, to the surprise of an oncoming cargo skiff that sounded its horn at him. Wedge lifted a hand by way of apology, and turned off almost immediately. Now he was heading into a maze of smaller roads that made up a series of near-desolate industrial estates. He couldn't travel as fast as on the main highways but there were no traffic holocams here which might identify him. In any case, the speeder's repulsor engine was beginning to fail. No doubt one or more of the many shots that had hit as he charged the barricade had penetrated the body and damaged something.

Thinking of the blaster fire he'd taken, Wedge realized for the first time that the blaster marks and holes in his viewports made his speeder conspicuous. Up ahead, a family speeder was pulling out of the parking zone of a carpet warehouse. Wedge turned into the nearest side road before they could notice him and zig-zagged around another couple of corners. He urgently needed to find another vehicle but this new area seemed even more run-down than the last. A few businesses seemed to be running, scattered here and there among units that were boarded up or covered in graffiti. The only unattended vehicle Wedge saw was a truck emblazoned with the name of a plumbing supplies company.

Shaking his head, he tried to circle around and head back to the more prosperous area. The speeder began to shudder and this time Wedge cursed aloud. Trying to save time, he turned into a alley between two low-roofed units, and found his way barred by a chainlink fence. It was only three meters, but Wedge didn't dare take his dying speeder even that high. By some miracle of the force, there was a shabby, two-seat speeder parked on the other side of the fence. Judging by the rubbish that had gathered against it, it hadn't moved in a while but that didn't mean it couldn't move. Wedge braked and threw his speeder into reserve. The repulsor engine whined up to a painful note and then died.

Wedge braced himself for the short drop to the ground. He threw open the door and scrambled out, running to the fence. Fortunately it wasn't charged and was safe to climb. Even better, there was a pile of plastiboard boxes and other debris piled up on the other side. Wedge struggled up the fence; he could barely get the toes of his boots into the small mesh links. He slipped a couple of times, hanging on by his hands until he managed to get another foothold and start upwards again. As he reached the top, it occurred to him that Page or any of his commandos would have been over, down and sprinting away by now.

Gritting his teeth, Wedge hauled himself precariously over the top of the swaying fence. He got one good toehold, but as he changed the grip of his hands on top of the fence, his other foot slipped. He dropped, and this time his grip wasn't good enough to hold his weight. Wedge fell backwards, landing on top of the boxes and rubbish. The pile was thick enough to break his fall, though it collapsed beneath him as he gasped for breath. He slid to the ground amongst the boxes and as he scraped over one, a corner pulled the loosened foam from the back of his neck.

Wedge felt it starting to peel away but before he could do anything, pain seared through the length of his spine and into his brain. He gave a gasp, his body arching into a spasm. He was rigid with agony as he finally tumbled to the ground among the boxes and debris. Brown eyes stared fixedly at the clear sky as his body struggled to breathe through the racking pain. Wedge couldn't move, couldn't think. He lay helplessly on the floor of the alley, twitching and gasping, overwhelmed by the agony that tore up his nervous system.



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