An Unknown Quantity
by Catriona Campbell Boyle
The computer generated image of the Death Star disintegrated in a burst of light. Commander Wedge Antilles blinked, frowned, and lifted his eyes to regard the bland white ceiling as General Madine stepped forward and took over the briefing from Admiral Ackbar. Wedge tried to listen, tried to pay attention as the General outlined the ground assault for those assembled. However, Madine's voice was lost to Wedge - he knew the plan of operation backward, had been over the attack patterns countless times and, as the leader of Red Flight, he had been directly involved in the laying out of his squads role in the whole affair.
Red Flight. Red Leader.
It should have been a fulfilling moment. He had been called to the command staff. Greeted warmly as he stood to attention before the Admiral, the General and Mon Mothma; the Princess Leia had sat to one side, regarding him with a soft smile and hooded eyes. He had half expected a dressing down, a scathing reprimand and demands to know what the hell he had been doing, or not doing, while the pilots of Rogue Squad were massacred around him. Instead they had been understanding, almost compassionate, and they had offered him the position of Red Leader.
It should have been a fulfilling moment. He had accepted, been welcomed by the other flight leaders and found himself thrust into the middle of planning an attack on a second Death Star. It was a crazy moment, mad scurrying thoughts had scampered through his mind like excited rodents, noses twitching, bodies poised and bristling to flee at the first scent of danger, the first sign of impending sanity. Red Leader. Another Death Star.
The reality had hit him later when he had reached his quarters.
And with reality came empty realisation. He had achieved his goal, stepped up the promotional ladder, but was left numbed and disheartened as he slipped his feet into the cooled shoes of dead men.; Dave lost at Yavin. Narra, the last to hold the title of Red Leader before Hoth, before the squad was broken in two and handed the call signs of 'Renegade' and 'Rogue'. The first was lost to a man above Derra IV, the latter took heavy losses on Hoth and was eventually wiped out when ambushed near the red gas cloud in the Hasthaal system. He had been the only survivor, the only one who escaped...
...the only one allowed to escape...
He dismissed the thought, cast it aside as he had done countless other times since the event. And, like those other times, he knew it would resurface to tease him with harrowing images, echoing screams of terrorised men, and a disturbing impression that he had known the lead TIE pilot, had recognised the skill, the manoeuvres, the feeling of familiarity, and then when the TIE had danced around his ship it...
No, he would not think this way, he would not remember the death of his old squad, would not recount the battle and the unsettled feelings it had left him with like some grainy residue. No, he had to focus his thoughts and energies to the coming attack, to this other Death Star.
He drew his attention back to the briefing, glanced around at those assembled, unable to halt the comparison between this meeting and the one which had taken place on Yavin IV. This was almost leisurely in its urgency. Carefully planned, the execution plotted in precise, meticulous fashion. The other, the one from three years ago, had been thrown together in haste, in panic, and no-one really knew what it was they were up against. Then they had to skim the surface, nick the skin and aim at the weakest fontanelle of the Empire's infant battle station. Now, they were to fly into its very heart.
The ancient stone of the Massassi base had been replaced by metal, by the gleaming interior of the Mon Calamari ship; the heat and humidity of the jungle beyond was now the freezing vacuum of deep space. The old faces were gone, many Yavin veterans dead, or scattered about the Alliance. And of course, he was the only original fighter pilot left, the only one who had any true idea of what it was they were about to attempt, the ferociousness they were calmly plotting to enter.
Antilles' wandering gaze turned to regard the Corellian pilot sitting beside a quiet grave-faced Princess Leia, and he smiled to himself with guilt tinged chiding. Perhaps his thoughts were not exactly correct, nor entirely fair to three others within the room. The pilot, the Princess and the Wookiee. They knew, they understood at least some of his feelings, had been there on Yavin when the events took place. The Corellian had returned as the battle was drawing to a close, the rebels down to having a single X-Wing in the trench. Their last shot, their last hope. Solo had saved Skywalker's ass, had given him cover in the final moments and allowed the newcomer to the Rebellion extra seconds with which to make his shot.
Yavin was saved. The Alliance given renewed life and new heroes. And so, here they were again - full circle. Except, one of the heroes was missing, dead, leaving a hollow, telling gap for those who had come to know him and call him 'friend'. It had been difficult taking over Rogue Flight, and he'd told himself it was only temporary, until Luke showed up again from wherever he'd lost himself.
Then the Millennium Falcon had returned with the Princess and Chewbacca, and a stranger called Calrissian. They said Solo was in the hands of a Bounty Hunter, said Luke had turned up on Bespin, said they had no idea what had happened to him. And so they had waited for news. Wedge took lead of Rogue, run them through their paces as they waited their commander's return.
Then the Imperial broadcast had come through live. The headline of the day telling how Skywalker had been captured weeks before, how he'd confessed his crimes, how he'd divulged important information. Then Luke had been dragged out and shot before their eyes, and Wedge, in that instant, became Luke's successor and Rogue Flight's permanent commander.
The Alliance had waited for the repercussions, had expected Imperial Forces to flood down upon supporters. They had evacuated bases Luke had known of, they had moved the growing Fleet from the rendezvous point, doubled the security around prominent Alliance figures, changed access codes.
Nothing happened. And those who had known Luke closely had smiled to themselves with sadness, with pride and with the knowledge of Luke's courage and loyalty. The Imperials had lied, and Luke's memory was untarnished.
The Imperials had lied. If they had lied about Luke's so called confession, if they had lied about his information, then, perhaps they had lied about...
Wedge took in a light breath, let it out and turned away from the group and caught the eye of the Princess. He was unsettled by his thoughts, unsettled by Leia's sudden attention, unsettled by the battle of Hasthaal and his escape from the massacre. Dammit, they let him go.....
No. He let you go.
She was still looking at him. her gaze strong and inquisitive, and Wedge broke contact, shifted on his feet, squirmed, not understanding why he was suddenly eager for the briefing to end so he could get out of this room, out of this abruptly suffocating atmosphere.
"The advance parties depart at thirteen hundred hours," Madine was saying. "Final preparations for the fleet's departure also begins then. Thank you for your attention."
The audience began to break up. Each member heading off for their own department, their own duties. Wedge turned on his heel, about to head for the nearest exit, as Mon Mothma stepped forward again.
"Will the team and squad leaders please remain for a moment." It was an order given as a request.
Wedge reluctantly turned back as the majority of Alliance personnel left the room. He seated himself and stared with blank anxiousness at the hologram generator. They would not have been asked to remain if something had not gone wrong, or had the potential to go wrong. He could feel the tension in the air tighten and he risked a glance at the Princess, She was still with her group, but her eyes were turned forward, dark with her own worries. The Corellian had shifted closer to her. The Wookiee, standing, towered over them. Gold Leader, Lando Calrissian, stood slightly to the side watching Mon Mothma with intense interest. Others, including Green Leader, Blue Leader and Grey Leader, were scattered loosely about the seating area.
"We have come across some curious information," she told them calmly, but Wedge thought he could detect the stress within the tones of her voice. "The Empire recently held a medal ceremony, congratulating the commander of the TIE squad which attacked Rogue Flight in the Hasthaal system."
Wedge started at this. He leaned forward, eyes narrowing as he listened, anticipating the disclosure of his antagonist's name.
"In reality the event was staged to introduce this person to the Galaxy, to heighten the fear of the populace." She nodded towards Madine who activated the viewing screens behind the stately woman. A hazy image appeared, a muted commentators voice rose from the speakers.
"We intercepted this broadcast before it could reach the fleet," Mon Mothma continued and then explained. "We wished to share the knowledge with you first, before disclosing it."
The pictures grew brighter, sharpened, and those within the briefing instantly recognised Dark Vader's bulk. The Dark Lord was standing with other Imperial dignitaries upon a raised dais. Troops and pilots lined both sides of a huge hanger bay. TIE fighters and bombers hung from the ceiling, seeming to loom over the occasion with malignant intent. And, a lone black garbed and helmeted figure strode confidently through the corridor of soldiers towards the men on the dais.
It was, Wedge mused without humour, like a dark parody of the medal ceremony on Yavin IV. And then he caught what the commentator was saying.
"....waiting silently as the victorious Commander, Sohn Vader, the Younger Lord Vader, comes forward to receive the Imperial Medal of Honour. This is an auspicious start to...."
Any more was drowned out by a sudden chorus of disbelieving voices from the assembled rebels.
"What the hell...."
"What did he say?!"
Wedge found himself looking alternately between the screen, where Sohn Vader was now mounting the steps of the dais, and the Princess Leia, who was sitting quietly, her pale features looking sadly resigned as she watched the events from the broadcast. Her hand shifted from her lap and found Solo's; the Corellian's fingers closed tightly around her own.
Madine froze the image of the man on the first close up shot. the picture wobbled a little, but held. There was little to see apart from a black half mask and an exposed mouth and chin. "This," the General said indicating the picture, " according to our sources is the son of Darth Vader. We are led to believe that, like his father, he is trained in the Dark Jedi Arts."
Jedi, thought Wedge. Like Luke.
"We can only speculate on why this is the first we have heard of him. We know nothing about him apart from his name, and that he led the TIE fighters who attacked Rogue Squadron. He is an unknown quantity and quite possibly a very dangerous enemy with the potential to surpass even his father's achievements." Madine's words were bitter, biting with enmity.
"There are rumours among Imperial quarters that he is being groomed to become a future Emperor," Mon Mothma added, stressing the importance of the title.
Emperor. Wedge looked at the frozen image, trying to see a fledgling galactic ruler behind the Vader facade. But, all he saw was a naked chin...
...the winter sunlight flashed against the visor of the helmet and Wedge blinked, pulled his own visor down to protect his eyes from the glare. He looked back at his friend who was leaning leisurely against the yellow ladder resting against his X-Wing. Skywalker's chin strap was undone and hung loosely, swaying as Luke turned his head.
"So what do think, Wedge?"
"I think it's damned cold, Luke," Antilles responded with a smile.
Luke ignored him. "Do you think I should ask her?"
"What have you got to lose?" Wedge enquired, as he rubbed his gloved hands together trying to create a greater warmth through friction.
"My dignity for one thing," Luke told him grimly. "I don't think she's even noticed me." He turned to face Wedge, his visor dark against the sunlight, his eyes hidden. "So, what do you think?" He scratched at the dimple in his chin.
"Go for it," Wedge advised him with an encouraging grin.
...a naked chin with a cleft.
No. It was a ridiculous thought. An impossible consideration. It couldn't be. It was an error from an active imagination. And yet....
It made sense. Harrowing sense. It explained the events over Hasthaal, when he was allowed to return alive and unscathed from a massacre. It explained why an Imperial Commander had him in his sights and missed, why when another TIE had targeted him it abruptly peeled away from him. Why he was not followed like his remaining men and destroyed?
"Wedge, what are you thinking?"
The meeting had concluded, the officers were leaving the room and Leia Organa stood at his side with an odd, quizzical look on her face.
Wedge took another look at the screen. "Nothing much," he replied, quietly. "I was just wondering who he really is." And he realised his mistake. He was implying another identity for the man.
"Yes, he is an enigma, isn't he?"
And so was the Princess.
"I should be going," he said quickly. Not wishing to get into this conversation. Not wishing his suspicions to be aired. This was all wrong.
"Of course," Leia agreed. She seemed relieved, seemed to back away towards the waiting Corellian with procrastinate ease. "May the Force be with you, Wedge."
He was about to answer, about to wish her the same, but the words that came out were not the words he had been thinking. "Your Highness? I...." And then he realised what he was doing and stopped.
"What is it, Commander?"
They had reverted to their given titles, their barriers had gone up, each suddenly unsure and suspicious of the other, of what was about to be said. Wedge looked behind the Princess and found Solo watching him. The pilot's face was grim, dark, and there seemed to be a warning there. However, the room was now empty bar themselves and Wedge suddenly needed to share what was on his mind. It seemed important, it seemed the thoughts and ideas were crowding in, pushing against one another looking for the exit which would expose them to others for analysis.
But what to say. How to say it.
He sat down, staring at the screen, staring at the man shown there. A man he knew, or thought he had known. He felt Solo's stare, the Princess's wary gaze.
"At Hasthaal," he heard himself say, and was surprised to find that his voice sounded weary. "We were out numbered. I mean three to one at least."
"I know about this, Wedge."
First names again. She was telling him to shut up, to pipe down, telling him to keep his insane thoughts to himself. Because she had known before him. But still he pressed on. "Yeah," he acknowledged, as Solo quietly moved in behind the princess, "so how did I get out, huh? It wasn't skill, it wasn't luck. I..." He gestured to the picture. "He..let me go."
"You don't know that Wedge." Solo this time, adding his voice to Leia's.
"No, I guess I don't really. It's a feeling, more than anything - but he could have had me. I was in his sights more than once, I know it!" He was getting angry, getting frustrated by his inability to just say it and get it over with. "He came in from the front and broke left, seemed to loop right around me. I did the same, it was natural, it was something we..." He hesitated at that, still looking at the picture.
"We?" the Princess prompted. And Wedge turned back to her, grateful for her understanding. It needed to be said and he might as well be the one to blurt it out.
"We used to clown around during routine patrols and practice. We had this one stunt we used to pull. Commander Narra never let up about it. Called us irresponsible lunatics, gave us hell, and saw to that the techs did the same that one time we busted one of the foils on my ship. Chief tech's still on about it." He knew he was blabbering, gibbering like an idiot, putting the moment off for as long as possible as though by so he could delay it indefinitely.
But inevitably he could talk no more, except to utter that which he had set out to say. "That pilot flew our stunt," he finally told them," that pilot...Sohn Vader. He flies like Luke."
"What are you saying, Antilles?"
Wedge looked to the speaker, stared Solo in the eyes. Saw the danger, the warning, the grief. What was he saying? What was he suggesting? "I don't know, General," he confessed quietly. "I only know what I saw. What I feel. And, he flies like Luke. I know how crazy that sounds...I...."
"Luke's dead," Solo reminded him slowly emphasising the final word for the pilot. "Vader had him trapped, and then Vader had him killed."
"Han..." the Princess had turned, placed a palm against Solo's chest.
The Corellian shift his gaze from Wedge to Leia.
"We both know, Han. she told him simply. "We both saw and we've tried to ignore it. Pretending we're blind to the obvious. We know him too well. I...well, I felt it from the beginning." She looked to the stilled picture, wishing she could see more of Sohn Vader's face, wishing she could see Luke there, recalling the emotions she had experienced when she had visited the farm on Tatooine searching for something of her friend...
...my brother...he's my brother...
...there had been nothing of him there, no presence, no echo which she could have said belonged to him. There had only been the dull feeling, working in the background of her mind, that Luke was not dead.
Solo dropped his eyes, nodded in mute agreement - after all he had worked it out for himself as soon as Leia had told him of Luke's fate. He had realised Vader had worked too hard to capture Luke alive, had been too obsessed with Luke's existence to reward himself with a corpse. Han had been the quickest to see it, but the slowest to want to acknowledge it.
But there was more happening here. Something which he and Leia were skirting around, something wrong, something frightful, something which caused bitter gall to burn in the back of his throat. He lifted his eyes back to Leia, not to say anything, just to see if she was as aware as he of what was happening.
But Leia turned away, turned toward the waiting and confused pilot. She wanted to keep the topic on Luke, wanted to keep attention away from those other considerations. "Over Hasthaal...did he fire on you?"
"And he missed." Not a question. A statement of fact.
"And this manoeuvre, this stunt. Was that ever used as an attack pattern?"
"No, never. We..."
And Leia smiled. It was a smile seemingly out of context and, at first, Wedge was perplexed by its meaning. Her eyes seemed to take on new hues of emotion, seemed to burn from sudden inner understanding. Then he considered the path of her questions, and was struck by what the princess was attempting to show them, attempting to show herself.
"He missed me," he told them, sounding incredulous. "He meant to miss me, and he gave himself away....why?"
Solo turned from them, turned away from their words, from their hope and looked at the image on the screen. He gestured at it. "You're saying that's still Luke?" He demanded, sounding angry, sounding torn. The image of Luke as he had last seen him on Hoth too strong in his mind to shake off, too clear to equate with the person they claimed to be the son of Darth Vader....
...the son of Darth Vader! Leia can't you see what that means for you? He's your brother...
"What ever has happened...that's not Luke...Not any more."
"No," Leia agreed softly, taking his arm. Giving silent communication along with her spoken words. "No, that's not Luke. But, he's there Han. I know he's still there."
...and I know what it all means for me. Luke's my brother. Vader could be my father. I know. And it abhors me to know...
And Han could do nothing more than nod, consenting to her words.
Antilles was staring at the couple, feeling cut off, shut out. Something more was happening here, but he didn't understand what. The princess...she sounded so strange, so absolutely sure - and Solo was accepting what she said. But, Luke...it was all pure conjecture. What they were saying, what they were discussing was impossible. Wedge was confused, his thoughts and feelings reeling around inside, prancing away from his attempts to understand exactly what was going on. There was an undercurrent, another meaning to their conversation and Wedge was not party to it.
Sohn Vader. Luke Skywalker. Was it possible they were one and the same? If they were, what did it mean? Had Skywalker been a facade? Was the Vader the true person? Or was it the other way around; Skywalker pretending to be a Vader? If that was the truth then what the hell was Luke playing at? How had he gotten himself into such a situation?
A ruse? By whom? By the Empire upon the Rebels? Using the likeness of Skywalker to undermine the confidence of his previous friends?
The truth? Simply because such an errant position could be nothing else?
He blinked, brought his attention forward, outward. Cleared his thoughts to the side for a moment. "Your Highness?"
"Leave this to us."
At first he wasn't sure what she was saying, what she was asking. He glanced to the Corellian beside her and saw solid determination. "But what if..."
"Let us deal with command, Wedge. That's our.....my responsibility. But only afterwards, after its over. Nothing is to be said until then. One way or another. Either way, it won't matter then."
"He's a pilot," he stated, forcing words over his lips. "In battle, there's a chance we'll..."
"Either way, Wedge."
And he silently nodded his understanding and assent.
The Princess appeared satisfied, relieved. "Thank you, Commander."
And then he was alone in the briefing room. Alone with the silence and the flickering light from the stilled picture frame. He smiled without humour, someone must have forgotten to turn it off. He sat down, wiped his hands over his face, rubbed at his eyes and looked up.
The mask and helmet stared back. Wedge didn't know what had happened, could guess numerous times and never touch on the facts of the events. All he knew was true, all he felt was true was that Luke had been caught, Luke's execution had been faked and Luke now wore the garb of the Imperial Elite. Whether this Sohn Vader was the real face of Luke Skywalker was only further speculation.
There were other truths; over Hasthaal Skywalker had spared his life,
had remembered him, had remembered their friendship. And, sitting here
now, on the eve of battle, Wedge didn't know if he could extend to Luke
the same liberty should they meet again above Endor.
To be continued....
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