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She was beautiful and fragile and he could not count the number of times he had told her he loved her. But he had come here knowing he had to hurt her very badly.
Her name was Qwi Xux. She was not human; her blue skin, a shade lighter than her eyes, and her glistening brown hair, downy in its softness, were those of the humanoids of the planet Omwat. She was dressed for the occasion in a white evening gown whose flowing lines complemented her willowy form.
They sat at a table in a balcony café three kilometers above the surface of the planet Coruscant, the world that was a city without end. Just beyond the balcony rail was a vista made up of skyscrapers extending to the horizon, an orange sky threatening rain, and the sun setting beyond one of the more distant thunderheads. Breezes drifting across the two of them smelled of rain to come. At this early-evening hour, he and Qwi were the only diners on the balcony, and he was grateful for the privacy.
Qwi looked up from her entree of factory-bred Coruscant game fowl, her soft smile fading from her lips. "Wedge, there is something I must say."
Wedge Antilles, general of the New Republic, perhaps still the most famous pilot of the old Rebel Alliance, breathed a sigh of silent thanks. Qwi's conversational distraction would give him at least a few more moments before he had to arm his bad news and fire it off at her. "What is it?"
Her gaze fixed on him, she took a deep breath and held it until he was sure she would begin to turn even more blue. He recognized her expression: a reluctance to injure. He gestured, not impatiently, for her to go ahead.
"Wedge," she said, her words all in a rush, "I think our time together is done."
"I don't know how to say it so that it doesn't seem cruel." She gave him a helpless shrug. "I think we must go our separate ways."
He remained silent, trying to restructure what she'd said into something he understood.
It wasn't that her words were confusing. But they were the words he was supposed to be saying. How they'd defected from his mind to hers was a complete mystery to him.
He tried to remember what he'd thought she would say when he spoke those words to her. All he could manage was "Why?" At least his tone was neutral, no accusation in it.
"Because I think we have no future together." Her gaze scanned his face as if looking for new cuts or bruises. "Wedge, we are good together. You bring me happiness. I think I do the same for you. But whenever I try to turn my mind from where we are to where we will be someday, I see no home, no family, no celebration days special to us. Just two careers whose bearers keep intersecting out of need. I think of what we feel for one another and every time it seems 'affection' is the proper word, not 'love.'"
Wedge sat transfixed. Yes, those were his thoughts, much as he had been marshaling them all day long. "If not love, Qwi, what do you think this relationship meant to us?"
"For me, it was need. When I left the Maw facility where I designed weapons for the Empire, when I was made to understand what sort of work I had been doing, I was left with nothing. I looked for something to tractor me toward safety, toward comfort, and that tractor beam was you." She dropped her gaze from his. "When Kyp Durron used his Force powers to destroy my memory, to ensure I could never engineer another Death Star or Sun-crusher, I became nothing, and was more in need of my tractor beam than ever."
She met his gaze again. "For you, it was a simulator run."
"Please, hear me out." Distressed, she turned away from him to stare at the cloud-mottled sky and the distant sunset. "When we met, I think your heart told you that it was time for you to love. And you did, you loved me." Her voice became a whisper. "I understand now that humans, in their adolescent years, fall in love long before they understand what it means. These loves do not usually endure. They are learning experiences. I think perhaps that you, shoved from your childhood home straight into a world of starfighters and lasers and death, missed having those learning loves. But the need for them stayed with you.
"Wedge, I was the wrong one for you. Whatever your intent, whatever your seriousness, I think that all you have felt for me has been a simulator run for some later time, for some other woman. One with whom you can share a future." Her words became raspy. She turned her attention back to Wedge, and he could see tears forming in her eyes. "I wish I could have been her."
Wedge sagged back against his chair. At last her words had become her own again.
"And I am at fault," she continued. "I have--oh, this is hard to say."
"Go ahead, Qwi. I'm not angry. I'm not going to make this harder for you."
She flashed a brief smile. "No, you wouldn't. Wedge, when we came together I was a different woman. Then, when I lost my memory, I became someone else, the woman I am now, and you were there--brave and modest and admired, my protector in a universe that was unfamiliar to me--and after I realized this, I could not bring myself to make you understand . . ."
"Tell me." Unconsciously, he leaned over to take her hand.
"Wedge, I feel as though I inherited you. From a friend who passed away. You were her choice. I do not know if you would have been mine. I never had the chance to find out."
He stared at her for a long moment. Then a laugh escaped him. "Let me get this straight. I look on you as a comfortable old simulator, and you look on me as an inheritance that doesn't match the rest of your furniture."
She started to look stricken, then she laughed in return. She clapped her free hand over her mouth and nodded.
"Qwi, one of the things I truly admire is courage. It took courage for you to say what you've said to me. And it would be irresponsible, even cruel, of me if I didn't admit that I came here tonight to break up with you."
She put her hand down. Her expression was not surprised. Instead, it was a little wondering, a little amused. "Why?"
"Well, I don't think I have your eloquence on this matter. I don't think I've thought it through the way you have. But one reason is the same. The future. I keep looking toward it and I don't see you there. Sometimes I don't see me there."
She nodded. "Until just now I had a little fear that I was wrong. That I might be making a mistake. Now I can be sure I was not. Thank you for telling me. It would have been so easy for you not to have."
"No, it wouldn't."
"Well . . . maybe it wouldn't for Wedge Antilles. For many men, it would have been." She turned a smile upon him, a smile made up, he thought, of pride in him. "What will you do now?"
"I've been thinking a lot about that. I've been looking at the two sides of my life. My career and my personal life. Except for the fact that I'm not flying nearly as much as I want to, I have no complaints about my career." That wasn't entirely true, and hadn't been ever since he'd been convinced to accept the rank of general, but he tried not to burden her with frustrations he was convinced arose from his own selfishness. "I'm doing important work and being recognized for it. But my personal life ..." He shook his head as though reacting to the death of a friend. "Qwi, you were the last part of my personal life. Now there's nothing there. A vacuum purer than anything in space. So I think, in a few weeks, I'm going to take a leave of absence. Travel a bit, try to sneak a visit into Corellia, not think about my work. I'll just try to find out if there is anything to me except career."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
"Keep your visual sensors turned up, then."
He laughed. "What about you?"
"I have friends. I have work. I am acquiring hobbies. Remember, the new Qwi is less than two years old. In that way, I'm still a little girl experiencing the universe for the first time." She looked apologetic. "So I will learn, and work, and see who it is I am becoming."
"I hope you'll still consider me a friend," he said.
"Meaning you can still call on me. Send me messages. Send me lifeday presents."
She laughed. "Greedy."
"Thank you, Qwi."
"Thank you, Wedge."
From the Paperback edition.