Hard Time: Part 2
By Bulldog, with a contribution by Silence
The entire walk back through the brig, Bulldog felt like a dead man walking. He was on constant alert, making sure he had all of his senses focused on Toothless, who maintained his position behind him. Each squeak of a boot sent alarm bells off in Bulldog's head, causing him to look back immediately to defend against a blow.
Each time, it was a false alarm. Each time, Toothless grinned. He knew he was waging mental warfare against the prisoner, and appeared to be hoping he could draw Bulldog into some sort of physical altercation to allow for a physical response.
The entire thing made no sense to Bulldog's scrambled mind, however. The evidence of the video had shown that he must have imagined the entire sordid scenario, so why was he still getting goosebumps from his danger-sense that he'd honed throughout years of combat? His situational awareness was good enough to keep him alive in a cockpit against all odds, so why was it failing him now by sending false warnings?
Could he have really made it all up in a dream? Wouldn't he have stopped hurling himself against his door after the first time would have certainly woken him up from his nightmare? Confusion filtered throughout his senses, dulling the wariness he felt about the whole situation. Worry for his personal safety changed to worry for his sanity as they continued their shuffling walk.
"Muth have been one helluva dream, eh?" Toothless asked in a mocking tone.
Something about the way the guard was mocking him sent Bulldog's danger sense tingling again. Each step down this hallway made his feet feel heavier, as if he were returning to the scene of a crime he'd committed. The feeling of confusion, uncertainty, and dread mingled into a growing miasma of darkness that he felt compelled to run away from.
"Lefth thurn," Toothless ordered from behind.
Bulldog stumbled to a stop. He looked over and gestured with his free arm. "The cell is to the right."
Toothless grinned. "Thime for you tho geth tho work."
Bulldog gestured toward his shoulder with his chin. "Doc said he was putting me on light duty until this healed. You want me to dig with one arm?"
The guard gave him a shove in the direction he'd indicated. "If ith were up tho me, you'd be digging thath dith with your mouth. You geth no breakth for thelf-inflicthed inthuries here, prithoner."
Bulldog spent the rest of the walk in a dream-like state as he attempted to sort through the fog. What really scared him about the entire thing was that if he couldn't trust his senses, then he was definitely cracking up during this stint in the brig. For the first time in a very long time, he felt like he might just have gotten himself into a hole that was too deep for him to find his way out.
The squeaking of a door on its hinges broke him from his reverie. The bright sunlight of the midday Toseng sun assaulted his senses as he was shoved into the work area none too gently by Toothless.
Bulldog attempted to shield his eyes with his good arm, seeing two shovels near the door stuck upright in the dirt. He grabbed the worn handle of his shove and yanked it out and took a few steps toward where he'd been working last, and then stopped. Most of the work was done, and they'd likely only be digging for another day or so. But that wasn't what caused him to stop dead in his tracks. Something seemed off, and he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
With his eyes now adjusted to the bright sunlight, he noticed that he only saw Stegg digging. He turned back around, scanning the perimeter of the area much more closely. After a much more thorough look, his eyes again fell upon the lone untouched shovel. A chill ran up and down his spine.
"Where's Romeo?" Stegg called out angrily, stomping toward him in the loose dirt. He held the shovel against his shoulder as he quickly closed the distance. "What have your friends done with him?"
Bulldog turned to face the massive Imperial, first reacting to the aggressive posture and approach by gripping his shovel more tightly and bringing it up across his body. "What do you mean 'where's Romeo'? He's not here?"
Stegg stopped a few paces away, just out of striking range for either man. "Cute, Reb," he growled, before bringing his other arm up to the shovel's handle. "As if you and your friends weren't scuffling in his cell last night."
Bulldog's eyes widened and his mouth slowly opened. His mind began to race, placing the pieces of the puzzle back into place after he'd mentally put them away due to the evidence he'd been shown. Each flash of memory came back painfully quickly. Each dull sound of flesh hitting flesh made him flinch. Each slamming of his shoulder into the door radiated pain down his arm as he dropped his shovel. His throat suddenly felt raw again as each cry for help he'd shouted came to his lips once again.
It had been real. All of it.
"I'm gonna kill you if anything happened to him!" Stegg shouted, a vein poking its way across his forehead.
The door opened, and the guards rushed out to separate them, pulling Bulldog back inside. He didn't struggle against them as his mind was reeling.
Bulldog found himself roughly deposited back into his cell by Captain Wrant and the Houk. He didn't even attempt to break his own fall, and his head smacked against the side of his bed with a loud crack.
"That wasn't necessary, Captain," the Houk grumbled unhappily. "He wasn't even struggling."
"Quiet, Corporal," Wrant said as he knelt down to check on Bulldog's now bleeding head. He stanched the flow with a bandage, and then secured it to the wound with a flexible gauze wrap all the way around the prisoner's head. Satisfied with his work, he stood up and faced his subordinate. "How could I have known he was out on his feet? He walked his way into the work area from the clinic just fine according to the Sergeant."
"I'm going to have to log that."
Wrant spun on his heel quickly and took two steps closer to the massive alien. Regardless of the differences in their sizes, the Houk was cowed as he shied away. "Leave it to me. Patrol this hallway until you are relieved by Private Smelzer in an hour."
The door closed, leaving a dazed Bulldog to his own thoughts. His mind was effectively scrambled earlier, and it was almost as if it had just shut itself down like a droid attempting to avoid permanent memory damage.
He continued to lay on his back on the floor, staring blankly up at the plain ceiling, when the sound of somebody wheezing finally broke through the fugue state he'd been in. He rolled over to his side, facing the shared wall with Romeo's cell. He ripped off the bandage and wrap from his head, which had been muffling the sound.
The wheezing got worse on the other side of the wall, clearly mixed with pain and more coughing.
Bulldog's eyes widened. "Romeo!"
There was no response from the other side of the wall aside from more coughing and wheezing.
He stumbled to his feet, woozy due to the blow to his head moments ago. Leaning heavily against his own door, he took in a deep breath. As he tried to shout for help, the words caught in his raw throat. He worked saliva around his mouth and swallowed painfully as he attempted to lubricate his windpipe.
After a few moments, he felt a little better. He took another deep breath. "WE—kaff— NEED A MED—kaff—IC— kaff kaff— HERE!"
"What's that?" The Houk replied as his thundering footsteps rushed toward the cell door. "Who's injured?"
"The guy next door!"
The hallway was silent as the Houk seemed to be listening intently for any indication he wasn't being lied to.
Another fit of coughing from Romeo's cell filled the air, jarring the guard into action. The sound of a cell door groaning open slowly broke the silence. "Gods..."
Relief flooded through Bulldog, and he suddenly felt light-headed. He guided himself back to his cot with a steadying hand on the wall. He listened as the guard called for a medical team on his comlink, and made it his bunk just as the team came sprinting down the hallway.
"I do not know. Another prisoner alerted me to a possible medical emergency, and upon visual confirmation I called it in."
"He's in bad shape. We need to move him. Give us a hand, please."
The sounds of activity next door quickly faded as the medical team and guard carried Romeo away.
Bulldog allowed himself to relax, and laid himself down on his unhurt side. Just as he was about to drift off to sleep, his cell door swung open. Backlit by the light from the hallway was the bald frame of Toothless, with a crazed look in his eyes.
"Thouldn'th have done thath," he hissed, as he stepped into the room slowly. The baton raised up slowly. It hung up there for a while, as if the guard was savoring the pain he was about to inflict, as if the building suspense was a drug to the tyrannical guard.
For the longest time, they remained there, Bulldog laying on his cot watching the baton, and Toothless towering over him. It almost seemed like the blow would never come, as if the guard would snap out of his sadist trance and walk about out of the room.
And then the baton came crashing down.
Bulldog brought his arm up to protect his head, but he'd misread the trajectory. The baton slammed into his unprotected ribs. Just once, but with enough force that he was sure one of his ribs had cracked. He doubled over and brought his arm back down to cradle the injury, grunting in pain.
Toothless raised the baton again and brought it back down, but stopped it an inch away from Bulldog's head. A feral smile spread across his lips as he relished in the torment of the moment.
As the baton hung millimeters away from his eyeball, Bulldog stayed perfectly still. He knew any sort of movement or sound on his part would bring upon more blows, or worse. If that baton got pushed into his eye socket, he'd lose all manner of depth perception and be grounded for the rest of his life.
After what seemed like an eternity, the baton was pulled away. Toothless stood straight up and took a step back. "Nighthy nighth," he said in a sing-song voice as he exited the cell and closed the door.
Bulldog let out the breath he'd been holding, and groaned as his newly injured rib shifted with the movement.
It had been days since Bulldog had seen the outside of his cell. His rib was still sore, and he had difficulty breathing properly. He wasn't sure as he'd never experienced it before personally, but the wetness in his lungs felt like the onset of pneumonia. Unfortunately, he was afraid to call out for help due to the pain as well as the possibility of another beating being visited upon him.
The meals that had been delivered to him were of the bland variety, and even the act of eating caused him pain. He was in the middle of picking his nutriloaf into small pieces that he could leave in his mouth to dissolve in his saliva when he heard the door of Romeo's cell open. He put his tray down and put his ear up to the wall.
There was a thud, and then a mean-spirited chuckle belonging to the third human of the guard crew. A few more scuffling steps later, and the door shut again.
Bulldog followed the footfalls of the retreating guard as he walked back down the hall, making sure he was far enough out of earshot before he tried to talk to Romeo again. He continued to listen until he heard the far door of the wing close, and then waited another painstakingly slow minute to ensure they were alone.
Before he could take in a breath to greet his friend, he heard the nonsensical rambling coming out of the cell. The cadence of the speech was all over the place, and the volume rose and fell at random intervals. Words were out of place or missing, creating a jumbled salad of non sequiturs and garrulous statements that made absolutely no sense
The maundering wordplay continued for a while, but after a while it slowly petered out. Bulldog took that moment to try and communicate with his friend. "Hey, Romeo?"
The digressive speech resumed, louder than before. None of the bits and pieces that Bulldog picked up made any sort of sense, and nothing really repeated enough to be some sort of code or nervous tick that he could decipher to find the real meaning.
He opened his mouth to try again, but thought better of it. Clearly Romeo was under some serious mental distress, and he didn't want to prolong the state by trying to chat him up. He moved back to his own cot and laid his head down, his mind troubled at the state of his neighbor's mental wellbeing.
He coughed again, and then winced as the pain radiated throughout his chest again. He felt like he had some phlegm deep in his chest that he needed to work out, but the pain it would cause stopped him from even trying.
He just settled back into as comfortable a position as he could manage, and breathed as shallow as he could manage without aggravating the congestion enough to cause another fit of coughing. In the other room, Romeo continued to rant.
"Hang in there buddy," Bulldog whispered, but he wasn't sure if the words were for himself or for his neighbor.
After a few days and some medication added to his tray by one of the guards, his lungs seemed to clear up enough that he didn't have any more coughing fits. His rib, however, was painful as ever at all times, and would likely remain so for a month or longer as it took its sweet time healing.
As he sat on the refresher in his cell wishing for some sort of datapad or other reading material to pass the time, his cell door opened. He'd long gotten over protecting his modesty at this point, so he just continued to sit there until he was told what to do by his visitor.
It was the Houk guard, the only one of the Wrant's crew of four that was somewhat pleasant. The moment he stepped in and saw that Bulldog was relieving himself, he apologized quietly and stepped back out into the hallway. "Captain says you are to resume working out in the yard."
Bulldog shook his head and chuckled, immediately regretting the reflexive laugh of disbelief as pain radiated from his rib. He initiated the automated cleanup procedure, which was one of the few luxuries the brig had. He reasoned it was likely because they didn't want any of the inmates to have access to any paper that could be used for any manner of chicanery or sabotage. Either way, it was one of the nicest parts of his stay in the new wing of the brig complex.
"Are you almost finished, Captain?"
It was the first time Bulldog had been addressed by his rank since he'd been under the... care and watchful eye of Wrant and his crew. A little piece of his humanity seemed to return, though he wasn't sure it amounted to much after all he'd been through. As he felt the cleaning streams of water doing their job, quickly followed by the quick dry blowout, he nodded. "Yeah, one sec."
After another moment, he walked out of the cell door slowly. "Thanks," he said quietly to the waiting guard.
The Houk perked up. "For what?"
Bulldog smirked. "For treating me like a... forgive the expression, human being."
The Houk's chest heaved with a good-natured chuckle. After a moment, he gestured with his meaty forearm and free hand for Bulldog to begin walking.
Bulldog accepted the direction and walked easily and without fear. This was only the second time he'd been escorted by the hulking alien, but the first time he'd been so scared of both the alien's size and the anticipation of what the massive guard could do to him if he was as mean-spirited as the other guards. "What's your name, Corporal?"
The guard didn't respond for a long time, and only the thudding of his steps carried throughout the hallway. After they rounded a corner and saw another empty hallway, the Houk's rumbling voice broke up the monotony of their trip.
"Drog. Hugog Drog."
Bulldog smiled and hazarded a glance over his shoulder, and saw what he assumed was a grin in the alien's face. "Well, Corporal Drog, I hope your crew likes feedback, because I've got tons of it."
"They're not my crew," Drog replied matter-of-factly.
Bulldog arched an eyebrow as a wave of confusion swept over him. "Huh? The Captain made it sound like you all transferred over from Traitor's Remorse together."
Drog was about to reply, but voices of the other guards from farther off stopped him. Up ahead, Wrant and the rarely seen fourth member of the guard crew were standing by the doorway. Both clean-shaven men, bald as cue balls, broke off their conversation as Bulldog and Drog approached.
"Finally got this loafer moving, did you Corporal?" Wrant said with a glint in his eye that seemed more dangerous than usual. He had a cheshire grin that sent chills down Bulldog's spine.
"As ordered, Captain," Drog replied tiredly. "Shall I get his neighbor now as well?"
Something in the way Wrant's face twitched made Bulldog's blood run cold. He looked away, breaking eye contact briefly. "No. He's still on Medical's list for no physical exertion for another couple of days."
Bulldog snorted. He'd been hearing the nonsensical rambling going on in Romeo's cell ever since he'd been returned after his vicious beating at the hands of Toothless. "How kind of you," he mumbled underneath his breath.
Anger flashed across Wrant's features. It was the dangerous kind of anger that led to perilous situations for Bulldog and the rest of the prisoners. His jaw clenched as he appeared to fight back the first words that had come to his lips. After working through his anger slightly, he visibly calmed himself. "We're almost finished here anyway. We can let the little namby-pamby Imp rest while we wrap things up."
"Where would you like me to go then, Captain?" Drog asked tiredly.
Wrant whispered a few words to the other guard, and after getting an affirmative nod, he turned back to face Bulldog and the Houk. "Walk with me a bit, Corporal. Sergeant Spitler will be along shortly to keep watch with Private Smelzer."
"His name is Spitler?" Bulldog snickered in spite of himself. "Isn't that ironic?" He looked at the Private, and feeling safe with the one straight guard of the bunch nearby, he decided to push his luck. "Does that mean your last name is fairly literal as well, Private?"
Smelzer straightened up and took two steps forward. "I oughta knock—"
Wrant's massive arm shot out and placed itself across the chest of the angered guard. "Easy, Private," he said, giving Bulldog an appraising eye. "This prisoner is just in high spirits is all. Nothing a little hard labor won't work out."
"Yeah," Smelzer replied a little too eagerly, a murderous glint in his eyes. He relaxed and took two steps back to his original position.
"Excellent," Wrant said with forced cheer. "Corporal, walk with me." Both he and Drog headed back the way Bulldog had come, leaving him alone with the angry Private.
Smelzer opened the door to the work area, and then stepped back. "Watch your back," he hissed happily as Bulldog passed him and stepped outside, delivering a sharp elbow to his ribs as they passed each other. A sinister chuckle escaped the Guard's lips as he closed the door while Bulldog was left wincing and rubbing his side.
No sooner did the door close did Bulldog hear the pounding of footsteps from his side. He turned his head just in time to see Stegg rushing him with murderous intent written all over his face and posture. The shovel was raised high in preparation to strike.
Bulldog yelped in surprise as he rolled to the side just as Stegg came rushing past. He felt the wind of the swinging shovel on the back of his neck as he continued to roll away. Just as he was about to get up, the pain in his side caused him to stumble forward to his hands and knees. He cried out in pain as his body betrayed him, but the adrenaline had kicked in and his pain was already subsiding. He forced himself back up, and then the injured side of his chest exploded with more pain as the dull side of Stegg's shovel slammed into it.
He rolled away with the force of the blow, cradling the extra cracked ribs as best he could. Looking around frantically, he saw his unused shovel nearby. He awkwardly squirmed along the loose dirt until his left hand wrapped itself around the worn wooden handle. His rational mind wondered why the guard wasn't breaking this up, as it had commenced the moment the door had closed behind him and the assault wasn't quiet. The rest of his thoughts were focused on keeping himself alive, though.
"Oh no you don't!" Stegg snarled, rushing closer with the shovel raised high. He brought it crashing down with killing on his mind.
Bulldog's eyes widened as he saw the coming blow through the dirt and stinging tears of pain in his eyes. He yanked the shovel out of the ground and cried out in pain as he brought his right arm up to grip the other side of the handle to hold it in a cross-body grip. His newly injured ribs screamed louder than the previously hurt one.
The shovels clashed against each other with such ferocity that both men were surprised that neither of the wooden handles broke. The vibration of the blow ran up and down both shovels and through Bulldog's hands and arms, causing the pain in his side to spike. He growled through the pain, but before he could recover himself, the massive Imperial had hooked his shovel underneath Bulldogs and levered it out of his hands.
Bulldog watched in slow motion as it lazily tumbled through the air over Stegg's heaving shoulders. He continued to watch it as it flipped end over end, ultimately embedding itself into the dirt near the doorway. He couldn't take his eyes off of the miraculously standing shovel, knowing that the man straddling him with his feet planted on both sides of his body would have his own shovel raised in preparation to drive the sharp end into his head or neck, ending his life.
He continued to watch the shovel as it quivered in place, waiting for the blow to come. Only when the shovel stopped moving did he look up at the man that was about to kill him.
Stegg's face was a red mess of bulging veins to match the massive musculature of his body. His biceps threatened to rip the sleeves of his tunic, and his white-knuckled grip looked like it might just smash the handle into a bunch of kindling in his hands. His lips were locked in a gnashing snarl and his eyebrows were furrowed into a heinous glare.
Bulldog saw the man's eyes widen and his body tense, and knew the blow was coming. He wanted to look away, but couldn't bring himself to do so.
Just as the shovel began to drive downward toward his eyes, the report of multiple blaster shots broke through the area.
Stegg was skewered by enough bolts in the back to set the front of his chest alight from the inside. His eyes rolled back in his head as he fell forward, the only sound emanating from him was the sound of his bodily fluids boiling off due to the intense heat.
The shovel fell from his hands and embedded itself in the dirt inches away from Bulldog's head. His chest heaved as he tried to make sense of the last seconds, unable to comprehend that he wasn't dead, and shocked that the shovel hadn't finished the job despite the fact that the hulking Imperial berserker had been killed on his feet.
Footsteps rushed into the area. "Clear!"
"Clear," Smelzer replied, standing over Bulldog with a frenzied look in his eye. His smoking carbine was pointed near, but not at, his face.
Bulldog eased himself away from the smoldering remains, the smell of burnt flesh causing his nose to wrinkle in disgust. He looked at the body of Stegg, and then the two guards with smoking blaster rifles, and then back at the corpse again. "You guys used lethal force?"
"You're welcome, thcumthucker," Toothless replied, checking Stegg's corpse for vitals they all knew wouldn't be there.
"Why didn't you just stun him though?" Bulldog asked, his mind still attempting to process the fact that a man had just been murdered. Sure, the man was attempting to kill him, but he'd been murdered eagerly nonetheless by the guards charged with watching them.
Both guards exchanged a look and a few head shakes and nods as they debated their next course of action silently. A subtle gesture of Smelzer's blaster toward Bulldog drew a sharp head shake from Toothless, whose eyes had taken on a darkened hue. After a muttered curse, the carbine was holstered and two rough hands ripped Bulldog off the ground by the shoulders.
"Let's go, meatball."
"Your thell, obviouthly."
Bulldog sighed with relief, taking the first few steps toward the door. An icy chuckle from both of the guards brought him up short of the door, however, as the icy fist of fear suddenly gripped his heart.
"Move it, meat."
Bulldog found himself once again on the floor of his cell, skidding to a halt near his cot after Smelzer hit him with a shove and trip combo he hadn't experienced in a while. As the guard closed the door, laughing hysterically, Bulldog found himself mentally kicking himself for not expecting the maneuver.
The anger at not expecting the mean-spirited action was quickly superseded by the amount of pain his now-surely extra broken ribs were sending throughout the right side of his body. He involuntarily coughed to clear his lungs and instantly regretted it as even more pain exploded throughout his chest. The rest of his senses were overcome with pain, his vision whiting out while his ears buzzed.
He must have passed out, because when he finally came to, he could see the light of the day had left his small window and given way to dark. As he continued to lay on his back, he attempted to rebuild his memory of the day, wincing at the remembered blow from Stegg's shovel and flinching at the man's subsequent demise.
Romeo chose that moment to begin his raving monologue, his voice rising with each word. It still made no sense to anybody else but him, as if he was speaking a newly discovered language belonging to a long lost civilization.
Bulldog slowly rolled to his uninjured side, grunting through the pain. As he began to work himself up to his knees, the muffled sound of a door opening stopped him in the middle of his shifting. He listened intently as Romeo's voice rose in pitch and quavered with fear.
"Shut up, ya loony!" Smelzer's muffled voice cursed. The meaty sound of fist meeting flesh resounded, accompanied by pained cries from Romeo.
"Take it... kaf... easy on him!" Bulldog shouted, coughing with the exertion and almost blacking himself out with the pain in his side.
"N—n—noooooo!" Romeo cried out.
The cries were squelched into a wet choking sound and a rustling noise. Scuffling was heard through the walls.
"That's it," Smelzer cooed. "Go to sleep..."
Bulldog's eyes widened as his brain slowly put together the sounds from the next cell over and drew the correct conclusion. He immediately shot to his feet, all semblance of pain from his earlier injuries were temporarily forgotten. He ran back to the doorway and slammed his injured shoulder into it again. He staggered back as the pain returned with the collision, and the air was once again forced from his lungs. He attempted to scream for help, but he found it extremely hard to draw in a breath through the pain.
The choking sound next door intensified, as did the thrashing of limbs.
The sound of his fellow inmate being murdered forced him to focus all of his will into forcing the pain into a small corner of his brain. He pulled all of the air he could into his lungs, feeling the pressure pushing his cracked ribs outward to the point of them feeling as if they would breach the skin. Come hell or high water, he was going to yell loud enough to be heard across the facility.
"WE NEED A MEDIC!" He shouted as loud as he could muster. He let the last syllable ring out until all of the air left his lungs and he deflated like a balloon. He fell backward on his butt as all of the strength left his body. He wanted to scream for more help, but the pain was too great for him to overcome. All he could do was cry at the futility of all of the options available to him. He couldn't get the door open to stop what was happening next door. He couldn't get enough air into his lungs to call out for more help. He couldn't even find the will to rise to his feet again. A fit of sobs wracked his body, causing even more pain to reverberate throughout his nervous system.
For the first time since he was a child being picked on in school on Rendilli, he felt completely helpless and useless in equal measure. He hated himself in that instant, but the hate was not enough to overcome the utter lack of energy left in his body. He had no will to fight.
The sounds of struggle ended next door, and Smelzer's self-satisfied chuckle was met with a grunt of greeting from another being. A muffled conversation commenced, and more laughing ended the exchange.
"Your sacrifice will be honored, brother," Smelzer said solemnly.
"Leth'th go theal with the thithead."
"Cap thaid tho thie up all loothe endth thonighth."
Bulldog heard the words and understood their meaning and the sadistic man that had said them, but he still couldn't muster enough of a reaction within himself to do anything. He'd just completely given up, and as he sat there on the floor of the cell he was prepared to accept his fate.
The door creaked open loudly, and both guards were silhouetted from the light in the hallway behind them. They took two steps inside, stopping just short of kicking range.
Bulldog didn't even look up, almost catatonic.
Smelzer laughed darkly, placing his booted foot against Bulldog's shoulder and pushing him to his back roughly. He maintained the contact, planting his booted foot on Bulldog's pectoral muscle on his wounded side.
The pressure caused his ribs to scream, but no sign of it reached Bulldog's face.
"What are you two doing?"
"Back off, Corporal," Toothless warned as both men turned to face the interrupting guard.
"This one was making all manner of racket, but the moment we opened the door he quieted down real quick," Smelzer explained.
Bulldog finally snapped out of his stupor and raised his head. Both troopers inside of his cell were tense, and both of them had their batons gripped surreptitiously.
"And what of the other one?" Drog asked, not breaking eye contact as he edged his way toward the next cell where Romeo was.
Both Toothless and Smelzer edged toward the door, giving each other a quick nod as they readied their weapons.
Outside, Drog let out a loud curse as his eyes fell upon what was left of Romeo. The other guards chose that moment to strike. The sounds of a loud scuffle carried on throughout the hallway as blows rained down.
It was an indiscernible cacophony of combat as far as Bulldog could tell, but he dared not get up to look.
The fighting ended almost as suddenly as it had begun, and then it was quiet once again. But who won?
"Thupid thon of a thuttha!"
"What do we do now, Sarge?"
"How are we gonna hide this?!"
Smelzer paced in front of Bulldog's cell, wringing his hands. "How do we hide this?"
Toothless came closer and shook Smelzer by the shoulders. "Geth a hold of yourthef, Private!"
"We can't hide this!" Smelzer snapped back. "This wasn't a part of the plan!"
Toothless poked Smelzer in the chest. "He wathn'th one of uth!"
"But how do we hide this?"
Toothless smacked a palm on his forehead. "Thell me you didn'th reporth on thath thoothing yeth!"
Smelzer looked around sheepishly, apparently he had put off something he'd been told to do by a superior and he was worried that it was about to be his ass.
"You didn'th, righth?"
"Thank the godth! Tho we drag him outh there and make ith look like the other idioth goth the drop on him!"
Smelzer smiled. "Genius!" It was then that they both remembered Bulldog, and looked in his direction. "What about this one?"
"We'll come back for him," Toothless replied. "Thith needth tho be done now. Help me!" He ordered as he stooped over and grabbed a meaty forearm of the lifeless Houk guard.
Smelzer shot Bulldog one more look, lingering just long enough to make the him feel like he might die due to the guard disobeying the order, but another snapped curse from Toothless pulled him out of his thoughts. He rushed forward and caught Bulldog on the cheek with the toe of his steel-toed boots. "Scream all you want, Rebel scum. Nobody gonna hear you now." He slammed the door loudly, and then the sounds of the two guards struggling with the weight of Drog's corpse. "We'll be back to finish the job later!"
Bulldog's vision swam and his cheek immediately started bleeding. The upper teeth on the left side of his face felt like they'd been loosened with the blow, and the vain part of his mind worried that he'd be missing half of his upper teeth. If he survived, that is...
"Docthor the foothage afther we thtage thith one," Toothless ordered.
"We have to hurry!" Smelzer replied. "Don't have much time to slice the system!"
"We'd go fasther if you thtopped thalking!"
"Commander's gonna be pissed if we don't pull this off correctly," Smelzer's voice grunted in reply.
"Hell, I beth he'll pin a medal on uth for improvithing well enough tho eliminathe a filthy alien," Toothless replied, his voice quieter as they made slow progress carrying their burden down the hall.
Bulldog continued to lay on his back, feeling completely helpless and worthless in equal measure. No amount of self-loathing could snap him out of the feeling of inevitability he was currently facing. He just continued to look up at the ceiling, waiting for the two guards to finish their staging to cover up the two murders out in the yard, and puzzled over their plans for how they would stage Romeo and himself to appear blameless.
Footsteps rounded the corner, first opening Romeo's door. A low chuckle filled the air, and then a voice boomed as it spoke aloud. "This is Captain Wrant. I have a 10-56 in Cell Block D, Cell 3. I have attempted to render aid, but I don't think it was successful!"
The reply on the radio was obscured by the sound of Bulldog's door opening. He didn't move out of abject fear of what was about to happen. He held his breath out of reflex.
Wrant brought his comlink up to his mouth again after a cursory glance inside the room. "You've got to be kidding me! Possible 10-45D in Cell Block D, Cell 2! Attempting to render aid!" He chuckled darkly as he secured the comlink to his belt, but made no movement inside the cell. "Looks like it was the end of the road for you, you doshing flyboy..."
Bulldog couldn't hold his breath any longer, exhaling loudly to clear his lungs and then inhaling twice as loud to fill them again. He moaned in pain as the movement sent jolts of pain from his ribs throughout his torso. The side of his face was leaking blook, and his reflexive wince made the flow worsen.
"What?!" Wrant said, stumbling back slightly in shock. After gathering his wits, he rolled his neck. "Those two idiots! They didn't finish the job. No matter," he said, stepping closer as he cracked his knuckles.
Just then, the sound of frantic voices and footfalls filled the hallway.
Wran't cursed quietly, and stepped back out into the hallway and jerked his thumb in Bulldog's direction. "This one's still alive. I saw him on the floor and mistakenly called it in."
"Spast!" the voice of the Abyssin medic cursed from outside. "How in the nine hells of Corellia did this one get the materials to hang himself?!"
"I'm not sure," Wrant replied, his voice thick with feigned sorrow. "I'll have to review the footage from the past few days to see."
"And where were your guards?" The Abyssin pushed on. "Surely one of them would have heard this man choking to death!"
Wrant frowned. "I am going to find out, doc. Believe you me."
Bulldog found the will to rise to his feet, slowly. He took two steps forward until he could see out into the hallway. As he reached the threshold, he saw the blue face of Romeo frozen terror-rictus staring back at him from the hoversled the medical team and brought with them. A second stretcher team was behind them, awaiting orders now that they apparently weren't needed.
"Perhaps we should examine the Captain, just in case," the med tech said offhandedly. "If you found him motionless on the ground..."
"There's no need for that I'd think," Wrant replied quickly. His eyes widened as he looked up and saw Bulldog at the doorway, and then he smirked. "See? He's up and moving again."
The stretcher bearers moved and pulled a sheet over Romeo's face, and it broke the dam in Bulldog's mind. He cleared his throat, almost buckling at the knees as the pain flared again. Gripping the doorjamb, he maintained his balance long enough to speak. "The guards strangled him, and they were going to kill me next!" He shouted hoarsely.
Wrant's nostrils flared as he gripped his baton. "That's enough out of you, inmate! Back in your cell!"
"I demand to see Major Shen'ryu immediately," Bulldog squeaked out through his raw throat.
"Demand?" Wrant mocked angrily. "I think we have a failure to know one's place. If you don't back away from the door, I'll help you do it."
The Abyssin rose to his full height after having been knelt over the dead Imperial corpse. He was an equal match in size of the tyrannical guard, and he knew it. He took one moment to size up the beaten Bulldog, and then his one eye narrowed as he looked back at the Captain. "I am taking this one in for examination. If you try to stop me, there will be hell to pay," he growled.
Wrant nodded, but his jaw clenched as he did so. "Very well," he said as he produced a pair of stun cuffs and held them out.
The medic waved them away. "This one is even weaker than yourself, Captain. If I cannot handle him, then I'm older than I thought."
"Then perhaps I shall escort you all," Wrant offered, his mind clearly running through different scenarios as he spoke.
Everybody was silent for a long moment as the standoff continued in the hallway. The Abyssin looked prepared for anything, and Wrant was clearly not going to back down easily and take the hit to his authority in front of all these people.
The medic broke the tense standoff. "Trevagg, would you kindly help the prisoner onto your stretcher and transport him to my medbay?"
Bulldog allowed himself to be led gingerly by the arm by one of the aides, a brown-furred Gotal. He was surprised by the gentle nature with which the aide helped maneuver him from standing to the stretcher without causing any undue pain. "Thanks," he croaked.
"Don't mention it," the Gotal replied. "As long as you don't try to kill me with your tongue..." he said under his breath to himself, trailing off.
Wrant pursed his lips, but there wasn't anything he could think to do to stop the Abyssin from having his way... at least not with this many witnesses. After another thoughtful moment, he nodded. "Please keep me appraised of his health and any information you glean from the deceased prisoner. I'm going to find out where my guard was that should have been posted here."
"You do that, Captain," the doc mumbled as he continued to watch the guard stalk down the hallway and round the corner. He appeared to shrink within himself slightly the moment Wrant was out of sight. He shook his head slightly, and then turned around. "Ok people, let's go," he said quietly, still glancing over his shoulder periodically as they progressed through the hallways.
"He was going to kill me before you got there," Bulldog whispered.
"He won't get the chance again."
"I hope you have an army, doc," Bulldog chuckled, wincing again.
"I think I have a few shocktroopers that still owe me a favor," the Abyssin said with a wry grin as he brought his comlink to his lips. "Hey Sher, can you find the big guy and make it to the brig medbay on the double? I mean quickly. Thanks."
As they continued their travels, everybody was on edge and clearly worried about the guard team coming back to give them trouble. It seemed to quicken their pace, making the trip take even less time than it had taken them to rush from the medbay to the cell block after the emergency call.
Bulldog lifted his head as they cleared the doorway, and was shocked to see the biggest alien he'd ever seen standing off to the side. The gold-skinned behemoth dwarfed even Drog's size, and the E-web blaster he carried easily in his hands looked like a child's toy.
"Mobile power!" A high-pitched voice called out from the doorway.
Bulldog turned his head quickly, wincing at the movement. The owner of the voice was a small Anzellan perched on the shoulder of an equally tough-looking Advozse female. The larger of the two carried a mean-looking weapon with two massive barrels. "Holy stang," he said after processing both the speed and size the troopers possessed in arriving so quickly.
"Whatchu need, Jimdar?" The golden alien whispered, which was still forceful enough to ruffle Bulldog's tunic.
The Doctor smiled. "Just need you two to make sure we aren't interrupted by anybody, unless it happens to be a Bothan Major."
The Dowutin nodded. "It will be done," he said as he took up a position outside of the doorway.
The other odd-pairing of aliens also wordlessly moved, taking up a position inside the room with a view out of the only window. The smaller of the two hopped off of the larger one's shoulder perch and began fiddling with a nearby terminal. "Need protocol?" The Anzellan shouted as she began tapping keys.
"Now," The medic said as he turned his attention to Bulldog. "By my estimation, you have some broken ribs. I'll need to put you in the tank for a bit."
Bulldog panicked at the thought of being so helpless. His eyes widened and fear spread across his features.
"Relax," the tech said gently. "It would take an army to get past Lil Tree, Vim, and Sher. You will be perfectly safe. I promise."
Bulldog looked once more at the forces the doctor had arrayed on such short notice, and then looked back up to the doc and nodded. He didn't even feel the needle as it punctured the meat of his bicep, and his vision blacked out before he saw the doc pull it away.
Bulldog heard muffled conversation amidst the swirling of fluid rushing around his body. For a moment, he'd forgotten where he was and panicked, jerking back to full consciousness as he opened his eyes and saw the world tinted blue. His mouth was covered, and he reflexively reached to free himself.
"I demand to speak to him now!"
Bulldog focused in the direction of the voice, and saw a blue-ish brown blob in front of him. The bacta made it difficult for him to see things clearly, but he thought he recognized the voice.
"The Captain is still a few days away from a full bacta-aided recovery, Major. He had many internal injuries, including multiple broken ribs from the guards."
Bulldog panicked at the idea of helplessly bobbing in the bacta tank for a longer period of time, so he waved his hands and gave a thumbs up in the vague direction of the blobs that were speaking.
"It would seem he is conscious. Pull him out."
"I suppose we can put him back under after the conversation, Major."
Bulldog felt himself being pulled up by the straps affixed to his waste. Suddenly worried about his modesty, he reflexively brough both hands down to cover his sensitive areas, but was relieved to feel a pair of skin-tight shorts covering his private parts. As his head crested the surface, the sounds of the room became crystal clear.
"Blue Milk! Beverage of the everyman!"
Major Shen'ryu looked over his shoulder at the diminutive Anzellan still tapping away at the computer terminal she'd settled into when Bulldog first went under. "What is that private blathering about?"
"She communicates through commercial punchlines and advertisement slogans, Major," the doctor explained.
Shen'ryu shook his head. "Well, tell her to keep it down."
Bulldog allowed an assistant to take off the rebreather mask and wrapped himself hurriedly in the proffered robe. After nodding his thanks, he turned gingerly to face Shen'ryu. His ribs still felt tender, but a deep breath to test the pain showed it greatly diminished. "Gotta love bacta," he said aloud.
"Captain Clark," Shen'ryu started. "I was told you asked for me?"
"How long was I out?" Bulldog asked the doctor, ignoring the question from the Major.
"Two days, Captain."
Bulldog arched an eyebrow. "And she's been at that terminal the entire time? Doing what?"
"I'm not sure, actually," the doctor frowned. "Sher did take a few breaks for meals and to try and... appropriate some smaller pieces of technology."
"Reach out and touch someone!" Sher said, holding up some piece of cobbled-together technology.
Shen'ryu's fur rippled with annoyance at being ignored. "Captain, focus. What did you need to speak to me about?"
Bulldog looked the impatient officer straight in the eyes. All manner of meekness and fear he'd felt from the guards was gone, as he'd gone toe to toe with Shen'ryu many times before and trusted himself to navigate his meanstreak safely. "Well, Major, your hand-picked guard crew murdered the other two prisoners, as well as the only nonhuman guard."
Shen'ryu seemed taken aback. He looked around the room for confirmation, but didn't seem to find any from the others in attendance. "And what proof do you have? The reports I've seen list one as a suicide by hanging in his cell, and the other assaulted and killed a guard before being gunned down by the other guards."
Bulldog snorted. "I find it hard to believe that you would accept such a... neat and tidy report of things when it involves 3 fatalities in your base's brig facility."
Shen'ryu crossed his arms. "Captain Wrant filed the report himself a day ago and briefed me in person. He also filed a complaint with the personnel in this medbay." He looked back to the Abyssin medic. "He claims you threatened him and brought in 'outside muscle' to hinder his ability to control the situation."
The doctor rolled his eye. "Of course he said that, Major. That man is off the rails. I have medical evidence of abuse from two of the prisoners that will back up this man's claims."
"When it fits, you feel it!" Sher crowed, pointing at the computer she had been working on.
Shen'ryu waved a dismissive hand. "Somebody shut that Private up!"
Bulldog couldn't believe he was being so blatantly dismissed. "Tell me how a prisoner could get the materials to hang themselves in this place? EVERYTHING was meticulously cleared, and nothing could have been fashioned into a noose. There has to be video of the guards entering Romeo's cell the night of his murder. I heard both of them in there!"
Shen'ryu raised a hand. "Calm down, Captain. I have viewed all vidfeeds of your hallway around the timeframe of the suicide, and there is nothing that shows two guards entering the cell."
Bulldog's jaw hung open. It was playing out the same way it had previously, where there was no recording evidence to back up what he'd known in his heart that had happened. "...There's... No... They did something!"
"Come see the showgirls of Ord Mantell!"
Shen'ryu whirled around to face Sher. "Private, one more word out of you and I'll have you on latrine duty for a week!"
Vim moved closer to her partner and put a calming hand on Sher's shoulder. She clearly didn't relish in the idea of doing latrine duty that Sher was about to earn them both. The Anzellan shrugged off the hand and pointed at the screen of the terminal again. She began fiddling with two more pieces of what appeared to be medical implements.
"Now, Captain, I can sympathize with your situation. You were under a load of stress, and your mind was clearly playing tricks on you," Shen'ryu said, his face taking on a false mask of sympathy. "But I've seen nothing in any of the reports from Captain Wrant or his guards, nor any video evidence of any wrongdoing to corroborate your accusations. Now, if there's nothing else, you will be remanded to your cell the moment the medic here deems you medically recovered."
"Let your fingers do the walking!" Sher crowed.
"That's it, Private!" Shen'ryu pointed at Vim. "Private... Bomdon? Take your partner out of this room and report to the latrines on the double!"
Vim's shoulders sagged as she began to follow the order, picking up Sher and perching her back on her shoulder. Sher struggled against it, but she just wasn't strong enough to resist. As they began to make their way out of the wing, Sher managed to finish whatever task she was working on in her hands, and pointed the improvised tool at the main viewscreen. After pushing two buttons, the screen split into two sides.
On the left, it showed Toothless walking in another part of the wing with what appeared to be a rope of some kind looped around his shoulder. He linked up with the other human guard, and the two continued walking. On the right, it showed the hallway that held the prisoners, and when the guards should have appeared on that camera, they didn't. It was as if they'd turned the corner and just disappeared off the face of Toseng.
Shen'ryu was enraptured. "What is this?"
Sher tapped another command on her makeshift remote. "It keeps going, and going, and going..."
The feed stayed in split-screen mode, but this time it showed the timestamp of the empty hallway on the left, and on the right it showed Toothless and Smelzer arriving in the wing, rope in hand. They entered Romeo's cell, and while they were out of sight of the camera, the sounds of a scuffle followed by strangled struggling. All the while, the guards were laughing.
Next, they opened Bulldog's cell, but the interruption by Drog appeared. Bulldog flinched as he saw first hand how the two human guards managed to ambush and overpower the friendly Houk. He winced at each blow that rained down until the guard lay twitching on the floor.
"This... this cannot be real," Shen'ryu said, but the quiet tone of his voice said that he didn't believe his own claim.
Anger crested within Bulldog, and he couldn't stop the words before they passed his lips. "For all I know, you orchestrated this entire thing."
Shen'ryu recoiled as if he'd been struck. "What? What an absurd claim to make!"
The exchange between the guards as they gathered up Drog's corpse to stage his death outside came across the screen.
"Commander's gonna be pissed if we don't pull this off correctly," Smelzer's voice grunted in reply.
"Hell, I beth he'll pin a medal on uth for improvithing well enough tho eliminathe the filthy alien," Toothless replied.
"Commander?" Shen'ryu puzzled. "Who are they talking about? There are no commanders on this base.
The comment hadn't struck Bulldog when he'd heard it at first either, but now he also was interested in who the guards were referring to. "You think they meant to say 'Colonel'?"
Shen'ryu shook his head adamantly. "Colonel Kurlun? Not a chance," he said as he pulled his comlink from his belt. "Captain Wrant, this is Major Shen'ryu. I need to see you at once."
"Understood, Major," Wrant's voice replied. "Where are you?"
"The brig medbay."
"On my way," Wrant grunted.
The beings in the medbay waited a while, nobody saying anything. Shen'ryu appeared to be keenly interested in nothing specific on the far wall, likely a ploy to avoid eye contact with anybody else. As the minutes ticked by slowly, Shen'ryu shifted his weight and looked at his chrono. "He should have been here by now," he grumbled, pulling his comlink to his mouth. "Captain, what's the hold up? I need you in the medbay on the double."
"Eat shab, hairball," Wrant's haughty voice replied.
Shen'ryu's mouth hung agape at the disrespectful dismissal. He was stunned and completely at a loss for words.
"I'm sure you've figured it out by now," Wrant continued to gloat. "There will be more of us coming, and you can't stop us all."
"Sorosuub, let's go places!" Sher chirped, pulling up the dossier information for Captain Wrant, Private Smelzer, and Sergeant Spitler in sequence on the screen. Different parts of the dossiers were highlighted to show where records had been neatly sliced to falsify data, including their identities and the previous posting at Traitor's Remorse. Simultaneously on the other screen, the list of New Republic personnel that had been stationed at Traitor's Remorse scrolled slowly across the screen in alphabetical order. None of the guards' names appeared on that list.
"Faked," Bulldog said, equally stunned as Shen'ryu. His anger spiked again, and he pointed a finger at the Bothan's chest. "Just how incompetent are your personnel screeners?"
Shen'ryu had recovered his senses and brought his comlink back to his lips. He swallowed hard as he seemed to be attempting to calm himself down. "Sergeant Halcyon, this is Major Shen'ryu."
"Halcyon here, Major."
"I need a priority search for three Imperial operatives in New Republic prison guard uniforms, extremely dangerous. I'll send you the images on your datapad. They are loose somewhere on the base, likely trying to escape."
Shen'ryu plugged his datapad into the computer terminal to download the data Sher had dug up, and then tapped a few commands to send the message. He looked paler than Bulldog had ever seen the Bothan. His face was a mixture of worry and disbelief.
Sher had begun to fiddle with the monitor, putting on some sort of grid view of the base on the screen. "We try harder!" She said as she continued to rapidly tap away at the terminal. The view continued to change as it focused in on one corner of the base. A few more rapid taps and a live vid feed appeared. Sure enough the three imposter guards were cutting their way through the perimeter fence nearest the most-populated portion of the shantytown surrounding the fence. Clearly their plan was to melt into the crowded populace to enact their escape.
"Sergeant, suspects sighted in the southwest corner of the base!" Shen'ryu shouted into his comlink.
"Copy. Almost there."
Suddenly the three men perked up, just as Wrant managed to cut the last link in the deactivated electro barrer. Toothless and Smelzer drew their blasters and started firing at somebody off screen.
Return fire was immediate and accurate, skewering the two where they stood. During the exchange, Wrant had managed to slip through the fence and managed to melt into the crowd of refugees.
"Do not let him get away!" Shen'ryu ordered. "I want that man alive for questioning."
Sergeant Halcyon and his troopers attempted to give chase through the gap in the fence, but it was clear from the view they had that Wrant had had too much of a head start.
"Flight control, this is Major Shen'ryu. Scramble a flight of A-wings to search for a fleeing infiltrator over the southwest sector of the refugee settlement!"
"Understood, Major," came the reply from Shen'ryu's comlink.
He swapped channels and brought it to his lips again. "Captain Kruk, I need you to mobilize an entire company into the shanty town on the southwest sector. Looking for a fleeing Imperial operative attempting to mix in with the crowd."
"On it, Major."
Shen'ryu sagged in on himself a little bit after he re-secured his comlink. He couldn't meet the eyes of anybody else in the room, though shame was clearly visible in his body language. He spun on his heel and stormed out of the med clinic.
"With officers like him, who needs enemies," the doctor sighed.
"Yeah," Bulldog replied angrily. The comment struck a chord in him, and Romeo's voice carried through in his mind: "You sure you were on the right side, Reb?"
"One thing I can't understand is this," one of the other techs said from nearby. "Why were they willing to kill some of their own people in captivity?"
"Where's the nerf-steak?" Sher asked, scratching her head.
The doc spoke up. "Clearly the play was to show us murdering Imperial prisoners to scare others away from surrendering or defecting."
"And to make us look bad to the undecided planets out there," Bulldog added sadly, his mind still on the man that had been murdered viciously in the cell next to him. For Romeo's death to be carried out at the hands of his own side, it solidified his feeling that he was indeed on the right side of this fight, even if his side had incompetent blowhards like Major Shen'ryu in charge.
If only Romeo had been allowed to live, perhaps he would have been able to see the light and have a change of heart.
"Well, Captain, you've got 6 or so weeks left on your sentence," the doctor said. "We can get those ribs healed in another few days in the tank, or they should heal up on their own in your cell if you're careful. Which would you prefer?"
Bulldog looked at the tank, and having only ever been in one once in his life just now, he shuddered at the thought of getting back into one ever again. He made a mental note to be more careful in the future to avoid the necessity. "I'll go back to my original cell now, if you don't mind."