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Idiot's Array
Part 2

A Tale by Bulldog and Lock
Contributions from: Battledog, and Jalb_k

Vigilant Hangar
POV: Colonel Shen’ryu

Colonel Shen’ryu whistled cheerfully to himself as he waltzed into the hangar bay where his shuttle had been sitting for the past few days. He’d received an alert from his droid assistant that all of the assets he’d brought with him to this ship were all secured and ready to move on to the next phase of the operation that would take him to another ship planning to go into the target system for the assault.

The fact that his recon pilots were overdue and hadn’t reported in didn’t concern him, despite the fact that it would concern a normal being with empathy. He just didn’t care for the two humans, and considered all the assets spent on that mission as expendable. He hadn’t expected them to return, but had been forced to linger just a little longer to give the appearance that he was worried about their being late. However, the longer he lingered, the more insistent the line of questioning from their leadership regarding the mission’s whereabouts were getting. His standard ‘it’s classified per NRI protocols’ defense was beginning to wear thin. And that blasted brute Reynolds is more than likely to take me prisoner sooner rather than later. As if he has the authority to command someone of my rank and strategic acumen!

The hangar bay was not very crowded at this time since the balance of Renegade Wing’s pilots and most non-essential staff were on shore leave while repairs were being undertaken. He relished in the solitude of a partially manned ship. Nobody to get in my way. Nobody to second guess my plans. Nobody to talk down to me… This is much better than the last posting! So much creative freedom!

He almost regretted leaving, but duty called. He took a deep inhalation of air and let it out slowly and contentedly as he stood at the bottom of the shuttle ramp. The main reason he was heading off in such a hurry was that the foodstores of this ship were vented into space after its last engagement, and his favorite tea had been lost to the cold, black vacuum. He knew the next port of call would have what he desired, though.

The sound of frantic boots pounding on decking echoed from the hallway he’d been walking down moments before. The noise startled him from his almost dream-like lingering as his eyes narrowed. The sound was getting louder, meaning whoever it was was getting closer. Whatever this was, it was not something he wanted to be here for.

He walked quickly up the shuttle ramp and slammed the ramp controls. “Droid, get this thing in the air and on the way to our next port of call immediately!” he shouted as he hustled his way up to the cockpit. “Do NOT stop for anyone. I’ll handle the clearance. GO!”

*****************************************

CRS Vigilant Hangar
POV: Jalb

Jalb rounded the last bend to enter the hangar just in time to see Shen’ryu’s shuttle speeding away from the flight line, passing the magcon barrier as he skidded to a halt. “Son of a Sith!” he cursed as he slammed his hand on the wall plating nearby. He pulled his hand back and shook it to alleviate the stinging he now felt from the outburst.

“Sir?”

Jalb whirled around to see a young swabbie holding some welding materials. The Pantoran youth looked startled, but also somewhat awed at being so close to a higher ranking pilot with his legendary career and reputation. “Ensign. Where was that,” he motioned toward the quickly shrinking shuttle, “going in such a hurry?”

The youth shrugged. “I just saw a Bothan run up the ramp and execute the fastest take-off and exit I’ve ever seen. I bet he’ll get chewed out by Cap’n Quelle for that one.”

Jalb clenched his teeth at the slowness of the youth’s reply, but waited patiently nonetheless. “Thanks, carry on,” he said as he bounded back down the hallway he’d just sprinted through. He triggered his commlink as he ran.

“Yes, Chris?” Stryker’s voice replied.

“Colonel, that blasted Bothan has just quite literally peeled out of the ship in his shuttle. He knew I was coming for him. I need his next destination. Now.”

Stryker paused before answering with a question. “Why were you going after him? Are you in the hangar right now?”

“Vince, he’s leaving the ship despite our two pilots being overdue and there being no report or communication to explain it. We don’t even know where they went to mount our own recovery ops if it’s even necessary!”

“Wait one,” Stryker replied calmly.

Jalb stopped and caught his breath while he attempted to calm his heart rate, but he was angry, not exhausted from his last jaunt. He found his usual calming techniques were not working this time, however. He resorted to pacing as he waited for his longtime friend and CO to get back to him.

“Ok Chris,” Stryker started slowly. “I used my skills of persuasion to figure out where he is going. He’s heading for the Sov.”

Jalb nodded excitedly and did a fist pump before realizing that he must look like a complete nutter to any bystanders, so he composed himself. “Those skills of persuasion wouldn’t also be able to figure out the destination of my two overdue pilots, would they?”

“Haven’t been able to find that out, no. Sorry.”

Jalb shook his head in anger. “Thanks for trying. By my estimation, the only combat pilots onboard are half of Skull Squadron and a flight’s worth of Rogues, right?”

“That would be correct according to my records.”

“Thanks. I’m going to pull up the Rogues for a patrol and leave the Skulls behind,” Jalb replied as he started rapidly typing muster orders to Thanatos, Jasted, and Hellcat on his datapad. “You want to stretch your wings, boss?”

“Tolden probably won’t like that,” Stryker said with a heavy hint of sarcasm.

Jalb snorted. “Like I am worried about what that coward will like.”

“Easy, Chris,” Stryker admonished. “Look, I’ll stay behind to run interference on Tolden. Go get that furry bastard to cough up the location of our pilots so we can get them back.”

Jalb started walking toward the ready room as the order acknowledgements from his pilots pinged in quick succession. “Ack. Rogue on the move.”

*************************************

Skoth Base - Mess Hall
POV: Keyleb Spacer

Keyleb Spacer had always been told that his family name was the most generic name anyone had ever heard of. It didn't help that Keyleb didn't really stand out in any way either. His scores were always mediocre at best, but you could also say that they were never less than mediocre either. He wasn't the fastest but he kept up with the pack, and while he was no marksman he could shoot as well as any other buckethead in the galaxy. Keyleb wasn't special, but he also wasn't not special.

He was sort of like the meal on his tray. Bland and colorless, but with plenty of nutritional value.

Skoth wasn't so bad. Sure, there were gigantic spiders. But once you got used to them, for a jungle planet, it wasn't so bad for humans, and there was a certain amount of control in your destiny compared to being stationed on a Star Destroyer. At least if you died here you died fighting. It helped the detachment cope with the sleepless nights. It was a party, they said.

Another all nighter. Keyleb was no different. These things were all easier to accept than the fact that the only thing keeping them from the bugs were these lights.

Though it had been over a year since he had first been stationed here, Keyleb's detachment had yet to rotate or even receive reinforcements. The early days had been brutal but they soon learned from their mistakes and learned to protect themselves. They stopped using the walkers in the forest and they set up floodlights.

A platoon remained after yesterday's losses. Ten men for a crashed Y-Wing and busted, ancient astromech droid, who's memory cores had been severely damaged. The pilots, if they had survived, were out there now, probably being stalked by the spiders, if not eaten already. Keyleb knew that no one would ever ask his opinion, but if he did he would've said it was a waste of manpower. Best to keep the party together.

He felt his hunger fade and pushed the tray away from him. There were only two others in the Mess Hall, two pilots, who generally kept to themselves anyways. In fact, they rarely ever saw the pilots outside of the Mess Hall and their rooms. They didn’t want to risk ending up like most of the storm troopers had.

With a heavy sigh he stood and left, making his way over to the Barracks to get into uniform. His shift would begin soon.

*************************************

Skoth Atmosphere
POV: Tol Barand

“Pilot, what is our ETA for landing?” Barand asked from the copilot’s seat as he looked over a file on his datapad.

“About 5 minutes, sir.”

“That seems like an awfully slow landing, Pilot.”

“I’ve been informed by the tower that the base commander has requested we take it slow so he can set up an honor guard for your arrival, Commodore.”

Barand snorted. “Well, let’s ruin his plans, then. Make your approach as quickly as you deem prudent. I have no intention of having the operations of this base disrupted on my behalf when there is still so much to do.”

“Aye aye, Commodore,” the pilot replied with a grin. He threw the Reaper into a steep dive as the engines screamed.

Barand felt a large amount of butterflies in his stomach as if the floor had dropped out beneath him. His foreknowledge of the maneuver allowed him to keep his composure, though. Back in the cargo hold, Barand’s select trooper guard elicited multiple surprised curses.

After a tense minute in the steep dive, the pilot pulled back on the yoke and leveled the craft out, kicking on the repulsors at the last possible second. Clearly, he was showing off, and enjoying every second of it. It wasn’t every day that an upper-level commander asked a pilot ferrying him dirtside to make it quick.

The compound soon came into view, illuminated by powerful floodlights that kept the monsters that lived in the shadows at bay. He hoped to never encounter one of these monsters the stormtroopers described, but he had to admit part of him was fascinated by them. The other thing of significance that came to view were the two enormous blast doors that concealed the Commodore’s new, secret weapon.

“Very nicely done, Lieutenant…?”

“Issen, sir,” the pilot responded proudly.

“Excellent. Once we are on the ground, please inform Lieutenant Frell that we are a go for phase two. Have her relay that order to Captain Jaevion and Commander Feing immediately.”

“Aye aye, Commodore,” Issen replied. “Touching down in five seconds.”

Barand mentally counted down the time, and was pleasantly surprised when he felt the landing skids touch the deck at the exact time his pilot had predicted. He immediately unbuckled his restraints and walked down the central gangway as his stormtrooper guards all rose from their seats and checked their gear. The trooper closest to the rear hatch slapped the panel to open the ship and lower the ramp.

Barand timed his pace correctly enough to reach the bottom of the ramp just as it touched the landing pad. He was able to continue onto solid ground with breaking stride, which only added to the air of competence he gave off.

Lieutenant Commander Baleon came hustling over with a gaggle of subordinates and other troopers and personnel. “Commodore!” He shouted breathlessly with a wave. “We had hoped to have your honor guard in place before your craft landed.”

Barand smiled politely. “I understand, Baleon. I just felt it prudent to get on the ground quickly so we can begin preparing our killing ground.”

Baleon blanched at the mention of killing, drawing another mental frown from Barand. “I, uh, understand.”

“I also didn’t want to pull key personnel away from their preparations,” Barand replied. “To that end, what is the status of our mine network?”

“It is in place, but it appears that one of our mines maybe was destroyed by an asteroid. We are going to get it replaced within the next standard hour.”

Barand stopped, surprising the retinue, who took another halting step before stopping as well. “A mine went off?”

“We have no evidence that it went off,” Baleon replied slowly.

Barand waited for a moment, but saw his subordinate was not going to reach the proper conclusion and impatiently pushed forward with a brief nostril flare. “Tell me, Lieutenant Commander, have you had any patrols overdue for a report recently?”

Baleon nodded quickly. “Yes, as a matter of fact, we have had one that is outstanding. I was about to send another squad with comm gear to replace their clearly busted comm device.”

Barand lost his patience. “Recall that squad and immediately set base security to condition green.”

A look of confusion crossed Baleon’s face. “Condition… green?”

“Your first squad is lost,” Barand said tersely. “Lieutenant Commander, you are about to be infiltrated.”

Worry creased Baleon’s features as he looked around the perimeter. “Shouldn’t we set things to condition red in that case?”

Barand put a hand on his subordinate’s shoulder. “No, Baleon. We want to allow this team to infiltrate so we can see what they’re after. Please pull your troops inward. I will have my people set the trap.”

“And what shall we do to assist?”

“Just keep your people out of my way, Lieutenant Commander,” Barand said as he strode forward, leaving the crowd of officers in his wake. Mentally, he made a note to remove this incompetent man from his position after the coming battle.

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Meeting Room
POV: General Firth

General Raymus Firth was finishing up a briefing with the Fleet heads on the Sovereignty when his communicator pinged. He tapped the device and responded simply, “Firth.”

“Sir, this is Ensign Hamasaki in Operations. You asked to be notified if anyone enquired after Colonel Shen’ryu or any of the plans in his current brief?”

“I did,” Firth replied, “Continue.”

“Rogue Leader just asked for the Colonel’s location, Sir.”

Firth frowned. “Did you put him through?”

“Ah, no Sir, he asked for his physical location. Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds is on his way to 10 Forward from Flight Ops Starboard 3.”

Firth’s eyebrows rose majestically. “Acknowledged, thank you Ensign, Firth Out.” He fished in his thigh pocket for his data pad and tapped in a quick query then routed a call to his commlink.

“What’s up Boss?” Stryker’s response came over the commlink.

“We may have a situation Vince,” Firth replied in his gravelly voice. “Jalb’s on board and on his way to see Shen’ryu…”

“I knew he was heading to the Sov but…”

Firth nodded and held up a forestalling hand, palm out even though it was audio only. “I don’t know either but presume it to be about our overdue pilots. I’ve been waiting on a back brief from Shen’ryu on that mission status…” He stared into the distance for a moment. “I think I may be able to intercept him and drop two porgs with one stone here, I need you to run interference on Tolden in case that Bothan worm tries to shake that tree for cover.”

The snort of disdain was clear. “That won’t be a problem Sir.”

“Excellent, now I’ll make sure your Squadron Commander doesn’t get himself into trouble… again. Firth out.”

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Lounge
POV: Jalb

Jalb strode with intent. He’d left the remainder of the Rogue Flight that had accompanied him under the command of his XO, Thanatos, to sort out the administration, refuel and resupply etcetera. This allowed him to track down that Bothan boot licker Shen’ryu. He followed the directions on his pad to the Sovereignty's off duty/recreational deck as, although a similar class to the Vigilant, the internal layout was dramatically different outside of the operational areas. He arrived at a large bulkhead with 10 Forward signage in Aurebesh affixed above the access and as he walked up to it a door swooshed sideways and he was presented with an impressive view.

The area was large, at least the width of the ship and a good 25 metres deep. The view he had was straight out huge forward facing transparisteel portals. He probably would have stopped a good while longer, bought a drink and pulled up a stool in front of one of those portals, had he not been on his own mission. He stepped further into the Lobby he thought, as good a name for it as any, and looked around for his quarry. He quickly realised he was going to have to do more than stand around and stepped off towards the front left scanning both ways.

He passed beings of all races sitting around drinking and chatting or watching holos but the Bothans he did see were both female, then he saw the distinctive ear tufts of the Bothan he sought.

Shen’ryu was sitting with his back to the direction Jalb was approaching from and had just poured himself a cup of Tarine tea. He was watching the holo in front of him over the brim of the cup as he brought it to his lips but was startled by a barked “Colonel!” from behind.

Jalb smirked as the spooked Bothan jumped in his seat and spilt tea down his front and into his crotch and after a string of curses while placing his cup down, stood and faced the Rogue OC,

“Force be damned Reynolds! What are you doing here?!?”

“I want to know where my pilots are!” Jalb snarled as he raised his right hand, fingers curled, thumb leading, and took a step towards the Bothan. Shen’ryu raised his hands defensively and flinched back before he caught himself and noticed General Firth striding through the Lounge.

“Raymus, call off your dog if you please.”

“That will be General to you now, Colonel,” Firth replied with steel in his voice, “and you will answer the man’s question, where are Captain Callahan and Lieutenant Clark?”

Shen’ryu looked between the faces confronting him and his ears wilted.

*************************************

Skoth Cave
POV: Bulldog

“Ok, it’s time,” Lock said from the mouth of the cave as a beautiful sunset framed him. He was checking his gear and pocketing some of the materials from his survival kit that he’d be leaving behind to reduce his visibility. The white chest-boxes pilots wore stuck out like a sore thumb on the ground.

“The night time is the right time,” Battledog agreed as he checked his weapon and made sure his satchel of explosive charges were ready to be safely carried through the rough terrain. It wouldn’t do them any good if the jostling of their steps through the root-covered jungle floor ended up setting one of the charges off.

“Those spiders come out at night, mostly,” Dru added grimly as he rubbed some mud on his fatigues. He didn’t add any to his face, as it was already a mottled brown and gray that matched perfectly with the exterior wall materials of the base.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Bulldog replied, rubbing some of the mud onto his face and hands. He opted not to add it to his flight suit, as the dark gray and black material of his Rogue flight suit was already ample camouflage for the coming action.

“It also will affect your heat signature just a little bit,” Dru replied. “I think it affects the hunting senses of the spiders slightly. But don’t quote me on that as I’ve seen those massive schuttas chomp a stormie in half, and those suits of armor are pretty decent at regulating heat.”

“I think the colors have a lot to do with their senses,” Battledog said, rubbing mud on his exposed skin as well. “White stands out pretty well in a jungle.”

“Yeah,” Lock agreed as he rubbed more mud on his orange pants to make them less jarring in the dark. “Just be glad they didn’t have the foresight to camo spray their armor,” he said, looking around at the assembled men. “We ready? Let’s hit it.”

*************************************

Skoth Ridge Overlooking Imperial Base
POV: Battledog

BattleDog looked down on the base through the macro-binoculars. “I want to go on the record: This is a bad idea.” he said.

“Noted,” Lock said, “but you can do it right?”

“Yes… probably,” BattleDog allowed.

“You got those three troopers without too much trouble”, Lock countered.

“I only got a clean shot on the first one. Ideally I would have shot the second one in the spine, I know I missed because his head wasn’t blown off, and I came this close to missing the third completely,” BattleDog said, holding up thumb and forefinger with about a credit-chit’s distance between them.

“So you can’t do it?”

“I didn’t say that. Where I grew up kids would knock the glowbulbs in street lights out with rocks for fun… not that I was one of those kids. Anyway, from here, with the slugthrower? Not a problem, except you’re going to want me to knock out those lights,” BattleDog said, pointing to the far edge of the compound, away from the blast doors and the landing pad. “It’s a bloody-awkward angle, so give me a minute whilst I get set up,” with that he began adjusting the dials on his sniper scope, totally absorbed in the task at hand.

**************************************

Skoth Imperial Base
POV: Keyleb Spacer

In the barracks, Keyleb was the last one left. He looked at himself in the mirror, noting how pale he had become. How the bags under his eyes were dark, how run down he looked. His sandy blonde hair was thinning on top, beginning to reveal the top of his head. With a hefty sigh, Keyleb Spacer placed the helmet on his head and made his way to his post.

As he started to climb the steps to his place on the wall his squad leader came up to him, Sargeant Verish. "Spacer, get back down here," he ordered. "You're on the West wall. We're light on troopers tonight. CO has a special project so it is three per wall. Got that, Spacer?"

"Uh, okay, sir."

"Key-O-Kay," snickered one of the stormtroopers behind Verish. It was Fibim. The other one was called Choober.

"Shut the kark up, Fib," Verish spat. He turned and pushed him into Choober, who in turn pushed him off of himself, sending the unbalanced stormtrooper to the ground. "Get on your feet, Fib, and quick karking around. I want all three of you on Delta Wall. I'll be on Gamma with Herzti and Falquas."

Verish didn't wait for Fibim to get up, heading to his post. Keyleb sighed and helped Fibim up. Together the three of them made their way towards their new post on Delta Wall. Fibim pushed past both Keyleb and Choober, keeping a good six or seven paces away from his squadmates. It took only a few minutes to cross the base and get into position.

As Keyleb stood on the ramparts overlooking the illuminated forest that began no more than thirty feet away from the floodlights. They burned and cleared it as much as they could and dared to risk, but the forest was as tenacious as the beasts within it, and regrew at unreasonable speeds. In fact, everything about this world was dark and freaky somehow. Even with the floodlights on, Keyleb could hear them all night, scampering through the trees, from shadow to shadow--sometimes he could get a glimpse of one--and in all sizes, from the small and treacherous to the large and monstrous. Keyleb wasn’t even sure which he feared more, getting torn to shreds by a pack of the little ones or eaten alive by one of the big ones. He’d seen people go both ways and worse… but at least it wasn’t a starship, right? The ability to fight to the death was a small comfort.

He was lost in thought when it happened. First he heard the three explosions--crush, crush, crush! Followed by each of the enormous fog lights on Delta Wall turning off, starting with the one in front of him, then Choober’s, and finally Fibim’s. Whoompsk, whoompsk, whoompsk! Keyleb stared at the darkness in horror. Warm liquid filled the plate that protected his crotch, and when he took a step back it tilted and spilled down his leg.

The sound was the worse part. The hundreds of legs moving as fast as they could towards the gap in the wall. Someone over the radio was frantically cursing at them, trying to get an explanation but no one answered. Choober started to scream and started firing his blaster rifle into the darkness. The red bolts only made things worse. Not only did they cause a momentary illumination, revealing just how screwed they were, but seeing the bolts impact their objectives and cause minor damages, which added an exclamation point to the hopelessness of the situation that they were in.

“We’re so crinkin kriffed!” yelled Fibim in a panic, jumping off the rampart to the ground below. Because of his panic, he didn’t land well. His foot rolled over itself shattering the ankle nearly completely. The crack was almost as loud as the sounds of the approaching army of spiders.

“Kark it! Somebody answer me!” it was the Sarge.

“Sarge!” he answered.

“Spacer? Kark it, Spacer, what’s karkin happening on Delta!?”

“I don’t know, sir, the lights are out, I can hear them, oh, no… they’re here!” Spacer started firing as well. Other stormtroopers, from Beta and Gamma Walls, reached their position too and began to fire, just in time, too, though it wasn’t worth much.

Choober was unlucky to be the first casualty. His indiscriminate firing had garnered their attention, and drawn by hatred of this burning light he triggered, they attacked him. He threw a grenade before they reached the wall, blowing one of the bigger spiders apart. A few of the smaller ones stopped to feast upon it but the majority continued forward, scaling the walls. With a second thermal detonator in one hand and his blaster in the other, Choober fired wildly into the crowd that was forming below him.

Finally one slipped by him; a smaller one, and it bit into his thigh. Its ferocious, lacerated teeth piercing and cutting through armor, meat, and bone as if it were nothing at all. Choober pressed his thumb into the switch of the detonator, activating the deadman’s switch, but he miscalculated. Two more smaller spiders jumped on him, pushing him backwards as they chewed into his arms. He fell back and down the steps that led down into the base, running into two more stormtroopers that had arrived to help. The thermal detonator exploded, killing two small spiders and two more stormtroopers.

A larger spider had climbed over the wall and was crawling along the ramparts, making it’s way over to Gamma Wall. The three stormtroopers on that Wall were firing as well, retreating back as they did so.

The first one he engaged was one of the big ones--they had it easier getting over walls--and Keyleb fired at it again and again. The beast swung one of it’s massive legs at him. Keyleb jumped out of the way just in time, landing precariously close to the ledge. The giant beast swung its body up onto the rampart and swiveled to face Beta Wall, running right into Keyleb and launching him off the wall onto the ground below.

He landed with a thud and then everything went black.

**************************************

Skoth Base Entrance
POV: Lock

Lock and Battledog made their way down from the vantage point to Bulldog’s location as fast as they could, using torches to keep themselves illuminated and protected from the spiders. The high powered lights shining on the jungle kept the stormtroopers from seeing them. By the time they reached an unusually pale Bulldog, the spiders had all left the vicinity, heading towards the gap in the wall.

“Man, I hate this karking plan,” a jittery Bulldog hissed at them as they approached. He was crouched behind a tree which was being blasted by light from the fog light behind them. They were maybe fifty feet from the entrance. Battledog and Lock crouched down next to him.

Lock smirked, “Why’s that?”

“I hate karking spiders. They were everywhere,” Bulldog explained. “For a moment I thought we were goners. Those freaks were starting to get brave, even with the torches and the glow sticks and these Sithin Schuttas behind us. As soon as those lights went out, though, they all rushed that way. It was a stampede!” Bulldog shuddered and shook his head, doing his best to regain composure. He breathed in and out and then added, “Dru’s already made his move.”

“Good,” replied Lock as he pulled his sunglasses out of his jacket’s front pocket and put them on so he could peek through the foliage. Even with the sunglasses he found himself squinting. He could make out that there were no stormtroopers on the wall, so they hadn’t noticed the hook and rope Dru had used to scale the wall.

“He’s good,” Lock added.

Battledog snorted, “I can’t believe he made it.”

“Really?” Bulldog asked. “Climbing is his thing. It’s pretty much all he ever talks about.”

“I guess I just started to tune him out after a while,” Battledog frowned. “He does talk a lot.”

“Yeah. True.”

“That’s fair.”

“Think he’s in position?” Battledog asked.

“We aren’t,” Bulldog clarified.

Lock sighed heavily. “Let’s move,” he told them. Both got up and together they used what cover they could and then dashed up to the unmanned wall, then quickly made their way over to the entrance. A heartbeat later the door creaked open and Dru’s head popped out.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready as ever,” Lock answered.

As soon as they were in they assessed the situation. It seemed like most, if not all of the base’s stormtroopers were occupied fighting the spiders. They had set up three machine gun turrets that were firing metallic slugs at the spiders, burning them down, but if they didn’t get those bulbs fixed soon they’d be overwhelmed. There was no chance in Corellia’s nine hells that they could last until daybreak, much less an hour.

“Alright, everyone knows what to do. Good luck.”

**************************************

Skoth Delta Wall
POV: Keyleb Spacer

Pain. It was the first thing that registered in his mind. From the last two fingers of his left hand and his right foot. A deep pain. He felt it all in an instant; the piercing of flesh, the pressure on bone until it gave in, cracking and coming loose... the pool of warm blood... the tearing away... the scream that exploded from his throat...

"Off! Off!" he howled. "Get off of me!"

"Hgrrghrr!" a spider monster grunted at it gnawed a piece off of Keyleb. It was eating him alive!

Immediately Keyleb Spacer was awake and thrashing about. "Off! Off!" he screamed, kicking his foot against and smashing his hand against the ground. The first to go was the one that had started eating his foot. Luckily, the armor was a little more resistant there and hadn't actually bitten anything off just yet, but the bones in his foot were definitely broken, and he was bleeding badly. Still he was lucky to have his toes. As for his hand... He managed to kill the spider, leaving a massive green stain as mucous-like goop all over his arm, but the spider had taken the ring and pinky fingers off his left hand.

For a moment he was frozen, just laying where he was. Someone ran over to him and held out a hand to help him up but was immediately pounced upon by one of the larger spiders. It chomped down on the stormtrooper and shook it's monstrous head until the body separated, spilling the victim's legs and lower intestines all over Spacer's head. It swallowed the trooper and looked down at Keyleb.

This was it, he thought to himself as his right arm padded his belt down for something. He'd lost his blaster, he was so dead, all he had was his... flashlight! He pulled it off it's belt and raised it, turning it on and pointing it's high powered beam directly at the spider's face. It took a step back in surprise, hissing at the stormtrooper. Suddenly a new, larger light was turned on, illuminating the entire gap in the wall.

Someone had finally started thinking and turned on the back up light. The spiders were paralyzed by the light, their carapaces began to smoke. Three stormtroopers appeared from the light, each of them holding heavy machine guns. They quickly set them up on their reinforced tripods.

"Aim! Fire!" it was Sarge. Underneath his helmet, through the pain, Keyleb was relieved. It was Sarge. He was going to be alright. Rounds erupted from the rapid fire slugthrowers, tearing the remaining bugs inside the compound to pieces. A piece of carapace flew right at Spacer, hitting him in the face.

Screaming, he ripped off his helmet--it had cut through enough to leave a nasty gash on his forehead, from which blood poured.

"Spacer! Stop karkin' around!" Sarge yelled at the stormtrooper. He grabbed Keyleb by the back of his armor and dragged him behind his machine gun. The other two kept firing as Sarge tended to him.

"Now when did I authorize this facial reconstruction, trooper?" he said, bluntly grabbing Spacer by the jaw to keep his head still so he could examine the wound. "You're going to look a lot prettier from now on," he promised as he turned to a medkit tied to his belt. After unlatching it, Sarge opened it and pulled out a small canister and started to shake it. "Now you listen to me, Spacer. We got to get those lights up. If we don't get those lights up, we may as well be bug food. We will run out of ammunition long before dawn."

He stopped to lean over Spacer and aimed the can at his forehead. As he sprayed, a peach colored foam covered the cut on Spacer's forehead, stopping the bleeding. After applying it to Spacer's hand, he put it away and pulled out a roll of bandages and began wrapping the wounds.

"Now those karkin' beasts got through, somehow, and we are going to find out how. And when we do, someone is going to pay!" Sarge promised. "But first we need to survive, and that means repairing those lights. Everyone else is dead, almost dead, or dying, so I need you to cover my crazy ass, got it?"

"But, Sarge, I--"

"I need your help, son," Sarge said sternly. Even though Spacer was staring into a stormtrooper's mask, he felt like he was looking into Sarge's eyes. Finally, Keyleb nodded.

"Good, kid," Sarge answered and finished wrapping his head. The veteran trooper picked up Keyleb's helmet and yanked out the piece of carapace from the helmet and put it back on Keyleb's head. He smacked it. "For the Empire!"

"For the Empire!"

**************************************

Skoth Airfield
POV: BattleDog

BattleDog managed to make it to the perimeter of the landing pad without incident, noting that the plan to keep the Imps occupied was working perfectly. Looking over the serried ranks of TIE Fighters his heart sank, there was no way he would be able to disable this many without getting caught, not in the time available, and nowhere to place his explosive charges that wouldn’t be seen before the fighters were launched

Looking around for something he could use, BattleDog spied two technicians near the edge of the pad arming concussion missiles, ready to be loaded into the TIEs. Two silenced shots from his slugthrower took care of the techs, pure luck allowed him to drag their bodies into the undergrowth without being spotted. One of the techs was close to BattleDog’s size so he stripped off his fatigues and donned the man’s uniform. Pulling the peaked cap down low to shadow his face he stowed the slug thrower in the grav cart along with a packet of contact fuses for the missiles the techs had been working on.

Fortunately, the pad was almost deserted, most of the guards having been drawn to the disturbance at the other side of the base. That left just two troopers patrolling the perimeter. As casually as he could, BattleDog made his way towards the lift that led up to the service gantries for the TIEs parked around the pad. Stopping at the first fighter BattleDog located the access panel on the pylon connecting the cockpit to the solar collector array “wing”. Opening the panel, he cut and stripped one of the wires in the bundled cable and spliced the electronic fuse for a missile into the connection so that it would be armed when power from the array was fed into the engines.

“That should be ‘interesting’ for your pilot, eh?” BattleDog asked the fighter. He closed the access panel so that the fuse’s sensor was in direct contact with the durasteel. Moving to the next fighter, he repeated the process, then the next, and the next until he ran out of fuses. “Well, that’ll have to do. Now to hotwire a bus, joy of joys.”

Descending back to the floor of the landing pad BattleDog made his way towards the nearest Reaper, it’s landing ramp was already down so he just tried to look bored as he headed inside with his grav cart. Once in the cockpit BattleDog secured his beloved slugthrower and seated himself in the pilot’s chair, bringing the ship’s computer online using battery power he put the system into diagnostic mode as though he was simply servicing the ship.

Once the computer had accepted it was being asked to perform a routine diagnostic he spoofed the monitoring sensors to convince it a reboot was required, then he bypassed the first two layers of security at startup. After a few moments Battledog sat back and rubbed his chin, “Well… that’s not normal,” he said, then he got back to work.

*************************************

Skoth Imperial Base Exterior
POV: Bulldog

Dru and Bulldog skulked around the side of the building closest to the base perimeter. They’d so far been extremely lucky, only having to really hide and hope they weren’t seen twice: once by a roving pair of frantic Stormtrooper guards, and the second time by some officer that appeared to be in a hurry to reach another destination. Each time they’d hugged a wall and gotten as small as they could, which was no small feat for Bulldog as he tried like hell to suck in his rotund belly.

At least he’d been in his Rogue flight gear, and the natural gray of the jumpsuit without the chest box and other electronics and safety gear was a perfect match for the dull gray of the building exterior. Also helping was the fact that Dru’s brown skin coloration was heavily mottled with gray from age, helping him also blend in.

“What do we do if there are people inside?” Dru whispered from nearby.

“There will definitely be people inside,” Bulldog replied matter-of-factly.

A distressed look crossed Dru’s face. “Then why in the hell are we going into this building?”

“We need to download their files, laserbrain,” Bulldog replied, exasperated. “Our mission includes getting that information.”

“Your mission was to scout from orbit!”

Bulldog shrugged as he drew his RSKF-44 from its holster. “New mission.”

Dru made a gesture as if praying to a deity, then took a deep breath. When done, he nodded and drew his sidearm. “Well let’s get inside before someone or something spots us.”

Bulldog nodded back, and gestured that they would break in after a silent three count. He raised three fingers, and slowly lowered them as he counted. As he pulled his last finger down, both men curled their lips in a silent snarl and rushed into the room.

Only to find an empty waiting room and the chair behind the desk still spinning. Both men looked around in disbelief, and then shrugged at each other.

“Guess that last officer really had to be somewhere?” Dru whispered.

“Yeah,” Bulldog agreed. “Which way?”

“You think I would know?”

“Got to be a map somewhere,” Bulldog mumbled as he looked around the walls for a handy directory placard like the one you’d find in almost every civilian building. Surprisingly, he found one near a stairwell. He ran his fingers from top to bottom as he read the departments, finally settling on their destination. “Data services and System Administration, Sub Level One. Bingo.”

The two men froze in place as they heard footsteps from another part of their level. Hoping for the best, they dove into the stairwell. Just as the door closed behind them, Dru looked through the window and saw another door open into the lobby where they’d just been.

Another officer was speaking animatedly into a comm, but the door muffled the speech. He sat at the desk angrily and looked to be pouting.

Bulldog nudged Dru and started slowly heading down the stairs as silently as possible. It was no easy feat on the spartan metal stairwell. Each step echoed like a gunshot in their ears. They reached the next level and stacked up along the wall on either side of the next door. Bulldog gripped the handle, nodded to Dru, and then tried to ease it open unsuccessfully.

“Locked,” Bulldog bit out.

“Now what?”

“We need a rank cylinder,” Bulldog replied, pointing toward the security panel next to the door.

“Where in the Whills are we going to get one?”

Bulldog looked up, and Dru’s heart sank. His shoulders sagged, but he started up the stairs slightly quicker than they had descended knowing now that their stairwell was clear as could be expected. His balance left him for the first time since they’d reached the base, and he paused to steady himself and huffed out a sigh.

“What’s wrong?”

“Concussion probably,” Bulldog breathed. “Stim’s wearing out.”

“Take another!” Dru hissed.

“Do you have one? I don’t.”

Dru shook his head angrily. “Is this going to be a problem? We should abort.”

Bulldog shook his head. “Whatever, we’re here already. I’ll keep it together.”

They stacked up back outside of the lobby door. Bulldog looked through the small window and saw that the disinterested officer was still at the post, spinning his chair around in boredom. He snickered at the thought, but still had no real idea how they’d close the distance without the officer seeing them and sounding an alarm.

“What’s the plan?”

Bulldog pursed his lips and shook his head.

“You want to just rush him?” Dru asked, absolutely aghast.

“It’s the only option, and we need to grab him before the other guy gets back,” Bulldog reasoned. “I’m just going to rush in and grab him. No blasters.”

“I don’t like this.”

“Buddy, I haven’t liked any of the last 2 months.”

“I hate my job, I hate my job, I hate my job,” Dru chanted.

“Join the club!” Bulldog grunted as he shouldered the door open and rushed the spinning officer. He made it to within two steps before the officer even registered that he was there and attempted to stop his spinning chair.

“What?”

Bulldog was upon him and wrapped him into a headlock. “Not a word or I’ll take your head clean off.”

The officer stopped struggling immediately and attempted to nod.

“Good. Now stand up, and walk to the stairwell. If you struggle or attempt to raise an alarm at any time, I’ll blast your guts out. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes sir, crystal,” the officer replied nervously.

“Move, then.”

Zimm appeared in front of the main door Bulldog and Dru had entered the building with his ear next to the door. “Somebody’s coming. Hustle!”

The two men moved quickly across the room and entered the stairwell without incident. The officer halted once he spotted Dru, clearly not used to seeing an alien in this building. With a nudge from Bulldog, he started descending the stairs with his hands raised.

Just then the exterior door in the other room opened, and a muffled voice could be heard confusedly calling out for somebody.

“He’s going to shout…” Zimm’s ghost said nervously from in front of the restrained officer.

Bulldog arched his eyebrow in confusion, but he felt the man in his grasp pull in a deep breath. Bulldog finally understood Zimm’s warning, and he clamped his arm across the man’s throat even harder. He sunk the choke hold deep into the officer’s throat by gripping his other bicep with his choking hand, and the man started to struggle violently as he fought for air.

“You’re killing him!” Dru stage whispered in shock.

Bulldog glared at his corporeal companion, then at the disembodied form of his deceased friend. Both had a mixture of horror and worry across their faces. He continued to sink his choke hold deeper into the officer’s neck, and felt his struggles become feeble after a minute. After another thirty seconds, the body went limp in his hands. He continued to hold the choke to ensure the man wouldn’t cause them any problems later on.

“Cold blooded,” Zimm said somberly.

“Shut up,” Bulldog snapped in a whisper while he hefted the body over his shoulder and began descending the stairs. “He was just Imperial scum.”

Dru followed close behind. “I didn’t say anything?” he asked confusedly.

“Not you,” Bulldog replied once he reached the bottom landing.

“You’re a confusing dude,” the Abednedo replied.

Bulldog shifted the body on his shoulder and retrieved the dead officer’s rank cylinder from his front pocket. He looked again to Dru and nodded his head to make sure his companion was ready. Placing the rank cylinder inside the reader, he heard the lock disengage with a quiet mechanical click. He retrieved the cylinder, thinking they might need it later and hoping it would work on the correct doors.

Dru eased the door open slowly, peering through the crack to see what was on the other side. Seeing nobody, he motioned Bulldog forward as he opened the door all the way. Once Bulldog and the dead officer cleared the threshold, Dru closed the door quietly, and then walked in front with his blaster raised.

Zimm appeared further down the hall and was peering around a blind corner. He looked back urgently and waved for them to hide.

Dru continued on, oblivious to the warning since he couldn’t see Bulldog’s personal poltergeist.

Bulldog tapped him on the shoulder, then dropped the rank cylinder into the door to his right. Once it was unlocked, he quickly entered the room blindly. Dru followed him in, closing the door behind himself. “What?” the humanoid asked nervously.

“Somebody was coming.”

“How did you know that? I didn’t hear anybody!”

Bulldog frowned. He couldn’t exactly tell his companion about the ghost of his friend giving him warnings. He didn’t even know how it worked himself yet. Instead, he stashed the expired officer’s body into the open chair behind the desk. The body slumped forward, the head thudding dully on the desk.

At that moment, footsteps approached the door from the direction they had been heading in the hallway. Both men stacked themselves on either side of the door and tensed up in anticipation.

Zimm’s ghost poked his head completely through the door up to his neck, leaving the rest of his body inside of the room. He held up a hand in warning as the footsteps continued down the hallway toward the stairwell.

Dru let out a sigh of relief. He looked around the room and finally noticed how cluttered it all was. “Whoever uses this office is somewhat of a packrat.” He began rifling through boxes full of dusty artifacts and other antique trinkets. He pulled out a long metal tube and stared at it. “What is this?”

Bulldog looked over and his heart seized. He composed himself quickly though. “That’s a dildo.”

“What is that?”

“Pleasure toy. That button probably turns on the vibration mode.”

Dru dropped it and withdrew his hand as if it were toxic. He wiped it profusely on his jacket as he muttered a curse. He wandered around the room and examined more of the displayed items. “This is an interesting dagger,” he mused.

Bulldog nonchalantly walked over to the discarded item. He looked over his shoulder to see if Dru was paying attention, but the alien was moving farther away as he examined more trinkets lining the walls. He hefted the cylindrical metal device in his hand and examined it thoroughly.

It was extremely cold to the touch, as if it had sat unhandled for years before today. The chrome finish of the metal was only interrupted in a few spots where it was cut away and a red or black ribbing was exposed. A round, black button along with sharp black focusing vanes rounded out the top half of the cylinder. The bottom half of the object had even more of the chrome covered by a rougher black material that had a good coefficient of friction to it. The pommel cap had a ring attached to the bottom.

He knew he was holding an extremely rare item, and he also knew that he was leaving this planet with it no matter the cost. He forced the thing into his right boot, so it would remain hidden in the event of their capture or detainment and they were disarmed.

Taking a cautious step, he felt the lightsaber rub against the inside of his foot awkwardly. It would definitely cause a blister if he kept it in there for any extended amount of time, but the reward in the event of their survival outweighed his immediate discomfort.

Zimm’s warning hand turned into a thumbs up as he pulled his ghostly head back through the door. “Clear.”

“Let’s go,” Bulldog said to Dru. “We’ve got to get to the server farm and link in directly.”

The two men exited the doorway cautiously and continued to the T-junction ahead. They each braced against a different wall and peered down the direction they were facing, giving them a full view between the two of them what they may be facing.

“Which way now?” Dru asked, eliciting a shrug from Bulldog. Clearly guessing, he pointed in the direction he was facing. Dru prepared to turn and move in the indicated direction when he felt Bulldog’s hand on his shoulder. “What?”

“I was wrong, look,” Bulldog said as he pointed toward the ceiling. Bisecting the ceiling paneling was a thick bundle of cables running in the opposite direction from the one he’d originally guessed. “These cables have to lead to the server stacks.”

“Whatever you say,” Dru replied. “The faster we find this farking place the faster we can get this Sithing mission finished.”

Bulldog led the way slowly down the hallway, following the cables along the ceiling with his eyes. He started to feel a blister coming on already, which surprised him. He altered his gait a bit to try and alleviate that rubbing of the contraband item he’d stolen against his inner arch.

“Are you wounded?” Dru asked, pointing at Bulldog’s foot.

“I turned my ankle a bit back there,” Bulldog lied as he continued following their trail of cables. Another blind corner later, and they were facing yet another door with multiple reminders about authorized personnel only. The bundle of cables went through the wall into this room, so he felt like it had to be the right door. He said a mental prayer and dropped the rank cylinder into the reader and hoped his hapless officer victim had clearance for the room they needed to enter.

The lock mechanism chugged, indicating this door was much more substantial than the previous doors they’d entered. Slowly, the doorway opened outward, revealing a door that had to be at least 2 meters of solid durasteel as it continued to open outward.

“What in the world?” Dru asked, eliciting a shrug from Bulldog. “Why is this door so thick?”

“I mean, we have access to their entire mainframe from here, so…”

“Sorry,” Dru replied sheepishly. “Stupid question.”

After the door opened enough to permit them, they slipped inside and got to work with their computer spikes and datapads.

“Download everything!” Bulldog hissed as he fumbled with his own dataspike. It took him three tries through blurry vision to finally get it inserted into the proper port. He leaned heavily on the console as he tried to get his bearings.

*************************************

Imperial Base - Inside Blast Doors
POV: Lock

Inside a maintenance closet, a booted foot kicked through a vent and from it a man came tumbling out, landing unceremoniously with a thud on the ground, breaking more than one mop on his way down.

Lock writhed on the floor, groaning in pain for a few seconds.

After dropping the kids off--first Battledog near the airfield, then Bulldog and Dru near the administrative buildings--Lock made his way towards his own objective. It hadn't taken him long to find what he was looking for in the form of an air vent, or in other words, a way into the rooms hidden behind those enormous blast doors.

It took him a moment, but the Corellian eventually pulled himself up off the ground and limped over to the door of the maintenance closet. Luckily, this was an old fashion door, with knobs and hinges, which was practical because no one wanted to hear the door woosh open every time someone walked by. He cracked it open and peeked inside. An empty science lab. Good.

Confident, he left the closet and decided to take a look around, though his hand remained on the blaster on his hip. Mostly it was a bunch of research into improving power management on the planet and a way of recycling energy by powering the enormous lamps with the excess that the ion cannon put out. Mostly, a bunch of crap that went over Lock's head.

Just as he was deciding to leave something caught his eye. He walked over to a station that had multiple pieces of dried spider carapace. One of them had clear blaster burns on it.

"Trying to design some new armor, are we?" Locked mumbled as he examined the notes. He decided that this was probably worth reporting so he took one of the larger pieces and slipped it under his jacket, which he then zipped up most of the way, concealing the carapace completely. "The spooks will be interested," he said, as if trying to convince himself. "If not, maybe I can shove it up Sith'ryu's furry ass."

As he approached the door, Lock pulled his blaster from it's holster and held it ready. The doors opened automatically. He waited for a moment before popping his white haired head out for an instant, looking both ways, but popping it back in to safety.

He stepped out. There was no one here.

After confirming the exit, he checked two other doors just to make sure he didn't get any nasty surprises later and was pleased to see that they too were empty. One turned out to be a locker room and the other a simple break room. He made sure to open and dump all the kaf he found into the trash bin before moving on.

All that was left was the door at the end of the hall, which he assumed led to the ion cannon. He approached it slowly. The sensor detected him and the doors opened automatically. Lock peeked in. Still empty. Lock frowned. Someone really needed to have a talk with whomever was running this base. Talk about incompetence. Not even one damned guard.

"But that's good for me, I suppose," Lock reminded himself as he stepped through the door and onto the metallic scaffolding.

The scaffolding snaked around the enormous, towering cannon as it made its way towards the ground. The dimensions of the canon itself were extraordinary, but what impressed Lock the most was the cavern. Passing a hand over the smooth rock wall, he knew that it was man-made and that the Imperials had probably carved it into the rockface itself to the perfect proportions of the cannon. There was barely two meters between cannon and rockwall at some points. Even this passage had been considered, informing the pilot that someone had taken great care in selection, designing, and constructing this. Such a shame that Lock had every intention of ruining that hard work.

There was no issue with the descent. The scaffolding creaked and cracked on it's own so the Corellian wasn't too worried about being heard on his way down. It was only when he reached the bottom did he encounter Imperials for the first time since breaking into the base.

Lock crouched down and looked around the corner. Both wore the grey uniforms that belonged to enlisted technicians. One was laying in a chair, his feet propped up on another, his mouth hanging wide open as he slept. The other had his back to Lock but was watching some sort of holo program. Seriously. Who was in command of this base? The old Imperial within him could not believe the condition of this base. Feeling completely confident, he decided he would move in.

Sneaking past the sleeper was easy enough. The second tech he approached blaster barrel first, pressing the cool metal against the back of the man's neck. The Imp jumped in fright and turned to face Lock. "Hands where I can see them!" he ordered. The Imp obeyed and Lock immediately regretted his decision.

"Ohh... oooh, oh baby, like that, ah-Ah! Oooh, Daddy, harder..."

The holoporn played as the two men stared in an uncomfortable silence, Lock's blaster trained on the tech, whose hands were up in the air. The sleeper snored. The tech's pants slipped down, revealing...

"Pants, up, now!" Lock ordered. The tech did as he was told as his captor walked over to the holoplayer and turned it off. Pointing his blaster at the technician's face he asked, "What in Corellia's Nine karking Hells was that?"

"Waitwaitwaitwait! Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" the Imp begged, still buckling his belt. "Please, I-I-I-I only joined to pay off my speeder! I don't care about the Empire or the Emperor or the Rebellion, I just need to pay off some bills!"

Lock pointed at the holoprojector, "Are you serious?"

"Hey, man, I've been on this rock for three months..." he began to explain but was interrupted by the other technician.

He'd begun to seizure, having such a violent fit that he pushed both chairs away and dropped to the floor, jerking as spit foamed from the corner of his lips. He was groaning and grinding his teeth.

"What's wrong with him?"

"I-I don't know! I think he's overdosing!"

"Help him!" Lock told the first Imp.

"What am I supposed to do?" the Imp asked, putting both hands on his head as he watched his co-worker. "Call for help?"

"Kark me, kark this planet," Lock growled.

"You're just going to watch him die? And you judged me for watching... what I was watching?" the Imperial asked. "Seriously? So it's true what they say. All you Rebels say you have such high and noble ideals, but in the end most of you are just psychopaths looking for an excuse to kill."

Lock glared at the man, "I haven't killed you yet, have I?"

The Imp took a step back.

Shaking his head his free hand went to his pack and rummaged through it until he pulled out his medkit. He quickly opened it and pulled out a syringe, "You said he was overdosing, right?"

"Right," the Imp answered cautiously.

"Do you know what drug he was taking?"

"I don't know--some spice. There isn't much to do around here that doesn't end with you being turned into spider poop," the Imp answered, defensively.

Rolling his eyes, Lock stuck the syringe in one of the bottles that came with the med kit and attached a needle. He handed it to the Imp, "Here, this should stabilize him."

At first the tech was suspicious but seeing that his companion's condition was worsening, he quickly snatched the syringe and needle out of Lock's hand and knelt down next to his comrade. He injected the man in the neck and soon enough he calmed down. The Imperial looked over him for a few moments before slowly standing and turning to face Lock. Without being asked, he put his hands up in surrender.

"What now?" he asked, glancing at the barrel of the blaster that the white haired rebel was pointing at him.

Lock used the blaster to motion him towards the control panel. "Now you help me get this cannon offline."

The Imperial looked at the control panel, then to Lock. Calmly, he replied, "Sure."

Turning away from Lock, the Imperial made his way over the controls, followed by the Corellian, who was keeping a close eye on the Imperial. In his opinion, the man had capitulated much too easily. Could it be true that what he'd said before? That he didn't care for the Empire, that he was just here to pay bills?

"So, is that speeder worth it?" asked the pilot, watching as the Imperial pressed a few buttons on the console with his right hand.

"Huh? Oh! My speeder, right..." the man answered, evidently distracted, but something was setting the alarm bells in Lock's mind off. "Well, it gets me around, so... yeah, I guess it is..." The Imperial's left hand suddenly darted under the console and grabbed a blaster. Before the Imp could turn to brandish it at his captor, Lock brought down the butt of his blaster onto the back of the Imperial's head, making his drop like a ragdoll onto the floor.

Immediately, Lock trained his blaster on him and was about to finish the man off when his words rang in the pilot's ears. No, he wasn't a psychopath. He didn't enjoy killing. At least, he didn't think he did... Lock's thumb pressed against a button, switching the settings on his blaster and he fired. A round blue bolt exploded from Lock's gun and hit it's objective, taking the Imp from semi-conscious to completely unconscious, and likely to stay that way for a few hours.

"We could've done this the easy way," Lock told him. "Hope you enjoy the headache, you karkin’ idiot."

After kicking the blaster away from the Imp's hand, he dragged the man over to the other unconscious Imperial. A sly smile came over Lock's face as he grabbed a hand from each man and placed it on the opposite's crotch. Lock snickered and went back to work.

Returning to the console, Lock tried to make heads or tails of it. He could identify various functions, and assumed that if he needed to he could fire it, but that wasn't what he wanted to do. He wanted to cause an overload, a chain reaction, something... He still had two charges, maybe he'd be able to blow the console up... but they would just replace it as soon as they saw it was gone. No, he needed to do something more substantial.

He noticed a wire running from the console to a wall panel and tilted his head, throughtfully. "Hm..." Lock crouched down in front of the cubby once he'd pulled the panel off and was greeted by the side of dozens upon dozens of wires criss-crossing and connecting. Some were labeled, but most were not.

"Welp. Let's Gremlin this," he said as he pulled a small contraption from his pack. He pressed a button and a small knife popped out and went to work.

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Ready Room C
POV: Jalb_k

Thanatos looked up at his OC from the pad he was studying and watched him pace the width of the Ready Room for about the gazillionth time. “Boss, you’re wearing a track in the deck.”

Jalb stopped and looked at his XO. “The CO will sort it, give him some time.” Hellcat and Jasted briefly looked up from their Sabacc game but decided the interaction of their Squadron HQ element was less than interesting and went back to it. Jalb put his hands on his hips and looked up drawing in a deep breath, but let it out with an expletive.

“Kark it! They should be back by now, Tony! The mission profile Shen’ryu finally fessed up to should have been a cakewalk for Lock and Bulldog… They’re at least 24 hours overdue! There should have been an investigative recon, as a minimum, launched by now! This political poodoo is really getting on my nerves, mate, and I’m seriously looking to kick someones ar…” Jalb’s pad chose that moment to ping an incoming message. He took a quick look, tapped twice then waited expectantly as his communicator established a connection.

“Stryker.”

“What do you have for us, Boss? Are we clear to launch?” Jalb asked with some heat.

“At the moment, no…” The retort was instant.

“What the Frack, Vince!”

“Ease up Chris, I’m just the messenger.”

Jalb took a deep breath and looked contrite. “Sorry Boss, I’m just sick of this waiting, waiting for orders, waiting for approval, waiting to do the right thing and constantly being stonewalled by incompetents or politicians.”

“Look, I can’t agree with you, but I won’t disagree with you…” This elicited a snort from Thanatos. “And while I do not have authority to clear you to launch and conduct recon through force in the Skoth System I believe that we have a need to add the Felicrest Sector to our patrol schedule.”

Jalb arched an eyebrow and shared a look with Thanatos. “Rogue acknowledges Sir, routine patrol of the Felicrest Sector will be conducted as part of transit back to the Vigilant for further tasking.”

A chuckle came over the comm. “Good man, Stryker out!” By this stage of the conversation, Jasted and Hellcat had cards put away and were standing, primed to move and clearly just waiting for the word.

Jalb clapped his hands together and rubbed his palms looking at his three pilots. “Ok, you heard the Man. Snap orders, Situation, Vigilant Task Force is stepping up defensive operations and we are to transit from this location to the Vigilant to prepare for further tasking. Mission, Rogue Squadron light is to conduct routine patrol of the Felicrest Sector during transit.” He once again looked at each of his pilots, the look imparting the weight of what they were about to do. “I say again, Mission, Rogue Squadron light is to conduct routine patrol of the Felicrest Sector during transit.” He received nods from Thanatos, Hellcat and Jasted. Jalb returned their nods with a tight smile. “Execution, we launch in…” he glanced at his chrono. “15. Nav will be updated on launch. Admin, Command and Sig, no change to orders on departure from the Vigilant... Questions?”

Whilst Jasted nor Hellcat had questions Thanatos did have a point to raise. “Boss, auxiliaries on all our birds are empty. Vigilant was still waiting on resupply and had only armed the CSP and alert fighters.”

Jalb put his hand to his forehead. “Dammit, I’d forgotten about that… Let’s head out on deck and see what we can get at short notice.”

The four Rogues picked up helmet bags and daypacks and walked out of the service entrance onto the flight deck. It was relatively quiet as Starboard 3 was used for transiting and visiting craft with the bulk of the Sovereignty's defensive fighter cover hangered on flight decks 1 and 2 bilaterally in the additional spaces added during its combat refit months ago. Apart from the 4 X-Wings of Rogue Squadron, there was a single Lambda that had definitely seen better days. However, the most obvious things by far on the deck were two ex-Imperial Telgorn Gamma-Class Assault Shuttles.

That’s odd, Jalb thought to himself. When did they get in and why did the Sov need Drop Troopers? He put it out of his mind as he searched for the deck officer, whom he found at a console near the bulkhead towards the center of the ship.

“Guys, find your astromechs and get pre-flight underway, I’ll go see the swabby over there and see if I can get us tooled up.” As he walked over he pinged Skip and asked if he wouldn’t mind pre-flighting their ship… asked as his ‘droid had picked up a bit of a flutter of late and didn’t respond well to commands. He was going to have to look into the sockets his astromech was plugging into… and perhaps that ‘droid enclave on the Vigilant.

“Excuse me.” He said as he walked up behind the young officer studying the console in front of her. The Fleet uniform sat well on her figure, and as professional as Jalb liked to be he still appreciated fine form… well, all form really, as an aesthetic, but he did prefer some over others. He brought himself back to the conversation and was surprised to be looking at a very beautiful young woman who appeared to be… gushing at him?

“Colonel Reynolds?!” She said breathily and stepped towards him.

“Ah, Lieutenant Colonel, but yes… Reynolds, Lieutenant Commander.” He replied as he stepped back. For all his worldliness Jalb was still unsure of himself around females, particularly ones that held his eyes with smoldering gazes like this.

“Of course, Sir… I knew we had Rogues on board but I didn’t expect to be meeting Rogue Leader himself… Sir.” She stood straighter and adjusted her uniform top, tugging down at the waist to straighten it, which just accentuated her figure, as she was well aware. “Lieutenant Commander Reys… Kyla Reys.” She purred and stepped into Jalb’s personal space again. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Sir?”

Jalb took another step back and chided himself. Get a grip Reynolds! This is just another subordinate, discipline! “Uh, no pleasure, Lieutenant Commander, business…”

Kyla pouted. “Well that’s no fun Sir, although my shift is over soon and I’ll happily fix that lack of pleasure…”

“Lieutenant Commander Reys…” Thanatos laughed as he walked up. “How about you stop hitting on my OC? That’s one notch you aren’t going to get on your bedhead,” he said as he winked at her.

“Well, you Rogues are all sticks in the mud, aren’t you?” she replied with her own wink. “How are you Tony? Long time.”

“It has been Kyla, I’m as well as can be expected… and I see you haven’t changed.” He finished with a smile, then turned to Jalb. “Boss, your astromech is being, as you like to say, a twat again. I’ll finish up here if you want to go sort it out?”

Jalb took a moment in an attempt to regain the reins. “Ok, yes… Thanks XO, I’ll do that.” He looked to Kyla “A ple...uh, nice to meet you Lieutenant Commander.”

“You too Sir, and maybe next time... the pleasure will be mine?” She said huskily.

Thanatos laughed. “You are incorrigible! Go on, Boss, I’ll sort this.”

Jalb nodded and wandered back to the Flight Line, still not sure of what just happened. He spent several minutes getting his head back on straight by getting into the pre-flight rituals, after getting Skip back on-side, and was good to go by the time ammo trailers started rolling out to their flight of four.

Thanatos strolled up and leant his shoulder on the nose of Jalb’s snub. “You know Boss, sometimes I wonder how you actually fathered a child? I mean, how can a man that I’ve seen fly solo into the teeth of an enemy squadron be so affected by a woman that’s interested in them?” He finished with a smirk.

Jalb scrubbed his fingers back through his hair and grimaced at his XO. “I don’t know mate… Maybe because I’m more comfortable taking on a half dozen squints than I am talking to a female? At least I know the Squint’s are definitely trying to kill me?” he finished with a shrug.

“Ha, well, I can relate with that… although that one would definitely not be out to kill you… exhaust you maybe, but not kill…” Jalb took on a quizzical look while he waited for Thanatos to continue his line of thought. “Kyla is what you’d call, a pilot groupie.”

“Ahh, I see.” Jalb said sagely. “This I have encountered, but generally passive and I’ve been able to extricate myself… Lieutenant Commander Reys… she scared me!” He said with a laugh.

“Well, fortunately the scary lady has been able to scare us up some bombs. Only MG5 and ArMeks, but it’s better than nothing.”

Jalb raised an eyebrow. “Concussions and barrage rockets... no torpedoes, no heavy munitions at all?”

Thanatos shook his head. “No, Kyla said there was something big going down and they had two other flight decks full of snubs getting loaded for Bantha but that she hadn’t been briefed in.”

Jalb nodded in acquiescence. “Ok, well, not our problem right now, let’s take what we can get and go find our pilots… I mean, patrol Felicrest.”

Thanatos braced to attention. “Roger roger!”

*************************************

Imperial Base- Craft Landing Area
POV: Bulldog

“Ok, I see a pair of Reapers up ahead on the landing pad,” Dru whispered excitedly as he pointed toward the proposed escape craft.

Bulldog nodded, and almost fell over as his equilibrium disappeared momentarily. Before he could fall forward completely, Dru caught him. Nodding his thanks as he regained his balance, he patted his companion on the shoulder. “Ok, coast is clear. Let’s hit it.”

Dru nodded in agreement and threw Bulldog’s arm around his shoulder. They hurriedly moved from machinery to other crates for cover, stopping periodically to look around for any Imperial eyes. Every time they thought it was clear, they moved to the next area that offered concealment and popped their heads up again.

Bulldog was lagging behind, his concussion beginning to affect him more and more, causing him to be clumsy. He’d used the last of the stims while they were in the data center so he could focus on the proper data to mine, and the effects were wearing off now, at quite possibly the worst time. The concealed artifact in his boot had rubbed part of his foot raw, and he thought he felt a massive blister forming. His gait was as ragged and hobbled as his breath. Dru again supported most of his weight as they struggled onward.

“We’re almost there, ya Sithing black hole!” Dru snapped as he carry-dragged the flagging pilot the rest of the way to the landing skids of the waiting TIE Reaper. They both put their backs to an extended landing skid and breathed in deeply. “Come ON! Just a few more meters into the ship and we can rest.”

“Don’t go that way!” Zimm’s harried call rang out, but Dru was not able to hear the warning, and probably would not have heeded it if he had as his vision tunneled in on their goal..

Bulldog had heard the warning from his friendly apparition, but allowed himself to be dragged along anyway. He stumbled heavily as they reached the boarding ramp, but Dru kept him upright and shouldered more of his weight as they finally made it to the main hold. Dru froze and stood fully upright.

Bulldog looked at the Abednedo in confusion as he tried to figure out what was going on. Following Dru’s gaze, he looked forward and gasped involuntarily.

“Well, welcome to the show,” Tol Barand said icily as he held a blaster to a kneeling Battledog’s head. “So good of you to make it.” He motioned quickly with his blaster before returning the barrel of the gun to within an inch of Battledog’s temple. “Drop them.”

Dru let go of Bulldog’s arm as he tensed.

Bulldog fell toward the cold metal deck of the Reaper, barely catching himself before he smashed his face against the grated plating. He groaned as he pushed himself back up to his knees.

“I meant your blaster, you stupid, nasty beast,” Barand derided with a chuckle.

The jibe was enough for Dru to stiffen like a board. He sneered at the xenophobic Imperial. As quickly as he could manage, he reached for his holstered blaster.

A chorus of blasters rang out at that instant, and at least ten bolts skewered the rebel before he could even touch his gun. Stormtroopers stepped out of the shadows of the crew holding area and moved toward the smoldering corpse and Bulldog’s struggling form.

Bulldog grunted as he tried to focus his mind. He weakly tried to reach for his blaster, but before his shaky hands could grip the worn brylark handle of his blaster, a plasteel-booted foot planted itself firmly in the small of his back and stomped him to the ground. The subsequent crash to the deck knocked all of the air out of his lungs and the fight out of his system. A hand roughly yanked the blaster out of his holster and tossed it to the side.

“Now, Rebel scum,” Barand gloated, “Let’s go see what you have to tell me about the coming attack.”

“Stay down,” Zimm said as his face appeared on the deck in front of Bulldog’s face. “There will be a chance to escape later.”

“How do you know,” Bulldog chuffed as he blinked, responding to his friend, but Zimm’s face had disappeared, being replaced by a grinning Barand kneeling nearby. He recoiled at the closeness of the Imperial leader.

Barand chuckled, assuming the question had been directed toward him. “Why else would two different scouting missions wind up on this backwater world?” He looked at the troopers over his shoulder as he strolled down the ramp. “Bring them along. Incinerate the… other.”

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Flight Deck
POV: Jalb_k

While Thanatos monitored the loading of auxiliary weapons to the Rogue X-Wings, Jalb finalised and submitted their flight plan to Operations then watched as the munitions grav-sleds pulled away. Thanatos looked over the four fighters quickly to visually check all stowage bins and magazines were properly secured then turned and gave a thumbs up to Jalb. Jalb nodded, looked to see that Jasted and Hellcat were watching and gave the mount up signal as he started walking to his bird. Jasted and Hellcat had already inspected their own fighters, not that they distrusted their XO but good drills form good habits, and started up the ladders into their cockpits as soon as they saw Jalb’s signal. The crewman at the base of his cockpit ladder saluted Jalb as he approached, which Jalb returned but stopped with his foot on the bottom rung as his communicator pinged.

“Reynolds.”

“This is Stryker, you’re likely to get a visitor on the flight deck shortly, Colonel Shen’ryu was monitoring Operations, flagged your flight plan and tried to contact Admiral Tolden, more to follow…”

“Send,” Jalb replied.

“Wing HQ has engaged top cover and will be on the way to your location too. Be aware, transit and patrol mission is a wash, new mission briefing incoming…” Jalb’s pad pinged “but, Jalb?”

“Sir.”

“Keep your cool! We’ve got this, do not let Shen’ryu goad you, copy?”

Jalb responded as he was pulling his pad from his thigh pocket. “Acknowledge all, standing by… thanks, Vince.”

“Roger, see you soon, Stryker out.”

Jalb nodded absently as he looked down at the message on his pad, then looked up at the crewman still standing at the ladder base. “Sorry mate, stand down, looks like we have a bit of a hurry up and wait situation.”

“No problem Sir, we won’t be far when you’re ready,” he said with a smile and headed to a console near the snub.

Jalb walked back out in front of the line and turned back to see he had three sets of eyes on him. He pointed at the deck with his right index finger and circled anti clockwise then lifted his hand and tapped the top of his head with his palm slowly and deliberately. The simple movements conveyed the message ‘shut down and come to me’. Although the second one was more familiar to ground troops as a silent field signal the Rogues, and most Renegades, had come to understand the OC’s idiosyncrasies and learnt over time that most of what he did was habit from his earliest training and fighting and usually saved time and energy.

As the Rogues egressed, Jalb read through the new mission parameters in order to brief the other three. Before they could get to him though, he heard the being he was forewarned of by Stryker.

“Ah, Reynolds! Good, I see you received your orders to Stand Down from the Admiral,” Colonel Tabram Shen’ryu boomed so that everyone on the deck would hear.

Jalb turned to face the approaching Bothan, came to attention and saluted smartly. He held the salute waiting for Shen’ryu to acknowledge or respond. However when he merely stopped in front of him and put his hands on his hips, Jalb slowly lowered his hand and looked down at him and simply said, “No, Sir.”

“What!? Nonsense,” Shen’ryu blustered. “Why else would you have your pilots leave their cockpits? I know your patrol route was declined, you duplicitous son of a hutt!” By this time the other three Rogues had arrived. Jasted put his arm out to stop Hellcat advancing, and while Thanatos looked ready to jump at the Colonel as well, he took his cue from Jalb who had not moved.

“That, Sir, was totally uncalled for, inappropriate and disrespectful however,” he looked down at the Bothan with disdain, “not without precedence.” Shen’ryu started to fill his lungs, emboldened by the amount of people now taking notice of the interaction but before he could utter a word Jalb held up his hand. “I beg your pardon, Sir, but I have my orders.” Jalb handed his pad over to Shen’ryu who swiped it from him.

“As you see we have been designated Rogue Flight and assigned OpCon to Task Force Sovereignty. We are to lead Gray Squadron in on the upcoming assault,” Jalb finished with a smug grin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me Sir, I have pilots to brief.”

Shen’ryu bristled. “No, Reynolds, you are not excused! I don’t know how you fabricated this but I can assure you, you won’t be having anything to do with this operation. Anybody even considering sending you people on an Op like this would be an imbecile with no tactical acumen whatsoever!”

“Is that right Colonel!?” General Firth said calmly as he walked around Shen’ryu to stand beside Jalb. “Those orders came from me. You do not leave some of the Republic’s finest on the deck when they can be out doing their job. Four Rogues is a combat multiplier you do not discount, tactically or otherwise. As much as I’d enjoy educating you further, now is not the time. You’re dismissed!” He stepped forward and turned his back on Shen’ryu to face Jalb, Thanatos, Hellcat and Jasted.

“Gentlemen, sorry to have kept you. Jalb, you’ll have to brief enroute as you have about three minutes so I’d suggest you get moving”

Jalb quickly stepped around General Firth and snatched his pad back from Shen’ryu. “I’ll need that,” he said with an amused tone then, with the pad in his left hand, threw a salute at Firth. “We’re on it Sir!”

With that the four pilots turned and ran to their fighters.

*************************************

Skoth Imperial Base
POV: Lock

Lock watched the doomed procession as it approached his concealed position in a blind alcove. It wasn’t his first choice for a hiding spot, having no escape path, but it was the only place he could find quickly that would be near the probable path the Imperials would take. Battledog and Bulldog were being marched off at blasterpoint by a small squad of Stormtroopers, the former bleeding from a broken nose and the latter limping heavily with a hand grasping the other for support. Doing a quick calculation in his mind, he frowned as he concluded that he had a very low probability of getting all of the Imperials before they either blasted the prisoners or himself. If Dru’s not with them, he’s probably dead…

The fog lights were all up, and over by the Wall, on the other side of the compound, he could see most of the base’s personnel dealing with the aftermath of the spider attack.

Behind the troopers and his incarcerated partners were two Imperial officers. One was clearly in charge, dictating orders to the other who was doing his best to appear as if he understood everything he was being asked to do. He had an extremely nervous look to him, making it clear that he wasn’t a very high value target amongst this group.

As the procession passed his concealed position, Lock took a deep breath and made his move. He took a few light but quick strides forward, shoving the junior officer forward into the direction of the troopers and prisoners while snaking his arm around the senior officer’s neck. He put his blaster pistol to the officer’s head. “Stop right there, or he dies!”

The junior officer rolled and skidded along the ground and let out a very startled squeak. The stormtroopers all whirled around and aimed their blaster rifles in Lock’s direction. “Drop it, Rebel Scum!” the lead trooper shouted.

“Drop your weapons or this guy gets a new hole in his head!” Lock responded, pressing the barrel into the officer’s head.

“You’re dead,” the officer said with a chuckle. “You don’t even know how dead you are yet.”

Lock tightened his grip around the officer’s neck. “After you, sweetheart,” he whispered. The troopers were attempting to spread out to get an angle on him. He backed up to keep all of the troopers on the other side of the human shield he had procured.

The junior officer finally found his footing and drew his blaster, but he hadn’t aimed it yet. “We can work something out, Rebel. Let Commodore Barand go and we’ll discuss terms.”

Lock barked out a laugh, but was surprised to feel the officer within his grasp also laughing at the absurdity of the offer. “Do you think he’s that stupid, Baleon? We all know the moment he lets me go that he’ll get burned to a crisp. Isn’t that right, Rebel?”

“Yeah,” Lock replied, before snapping out of the rhythmic speech pattern that Barand had been using to put him at ease. He tightened his grip even more on the officer’s neck. “Tell your troopers to stop moving or I’ll start blasting them, and then you.”

“I believe you will,” Barand replied. “Sergeant, please stop trying to outflank this man. He clearly means business.”

The stormtrooper commander paused, clearly unsure how to proceed in a way that would resolve the situation without casualties. Silently, he motioned for his squad to step back.

“Good,” Barand said. “Now, what can we do to resolve this situation peacefully and in a satisfactory manner for everybody?”

“He’s stalling,” Bulldog grunted, getting smacked in the ribs with a blaster stock for his comment.

“Perceptive, pilot,” Barand mused, with much less mirth in his voice this time.

“If you don’t release the Commodore this instant, I will shoot your friends!” Baleon shouted nervously, starting to wave his blaster toward Battledog and Bulldog.

“Oh no,” Barand mumbled disinterestedly.

“Yeah,” Lock agreed as he leveled his blaster at Baleon and burned him down with a shot to the face. The officer’s cap blew off his head as it snapped back. The body followed soon after, toppling down the ground in a heap. Tensions renewed as the Stormtroopers aimed their weapons again at Lock and the prisoners.

“That was unfortunate,” Barand murmured.

Lock again aimed the hot blaster barrel to Barand’s temple. “Unfortunate for you, maybe. Now release my friends. The next shot is going through your head.”

The tension was palpable to all in the area as they waited for Barand to make a decision. Battledog hacked up some bloody phlegm and spat it on the boot of a stormtrooper. Bulldog leaned heavily into Battledog’s shoulder as he appeared to be zoning out again in a random direction. A nearby stormtrooper was shaking slightly, his armor plates chattering against each other.

“Let them go,” Barand said finally.

The troopers shoved the two prisoners forward, but kept their guns trained on them as well as toward Lock, who was still holding Barand. Bulldog leaned heavily onto Battledog for support as he limped along, passing by Lock and Barand with a nod of thanks.

“Get to that hover skiff,” Lock whispered as they passed. He started slowly backtracking, dragging his human shield along with him. “We’re taking a ride to our Reaper.”

Barand perked up. “Ah, so that’s your grand plan? I suppose I will be going along as your prisoner?”

“That’s the idea,” Lock replied tersely. He hazarded a glance back toward his partners as they started up a small cargo skiff. He looked back and saw the stormtroopers had taken a few extra steps forward. He aimed his blaster at the closest and kneecapped him with an accurate shot to the leg. “Back the krong off! Next shot goes through his braincase!”

“Stay back, troopers. I believe he means it,” Barand said calmly.

The hover skiff came to a rest nearby. Bulldog helped Lock get on while he still held onto Barand. Once the two were onboard, Bulldog slapped the bed of the skiff. “Outbound,” Battledog replied as he kicked the skiff around and made a beeline for the Reaper for their planned exfil.

“So, we’re taking my Reaper, is that the plan?” Barand asked coyly.

“Shut up, Imp,” Bulldog growled.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you choose to fight any longer. You Separatists have no chance of winning against the might of the Empire.”

Bulldog moved to within inches of Barand’s face, his face red with anger. “I fight… because that’s all I have left…”

“Back off, BD,” Lock warned, making sure to stay extra vigilant in the event Barand was attempting to provoke the angry pilot to create an opening to turn the tables. Bulldog shot an angry glare in his direction, but backed off as he’d been told.

“Coming up on the Reaper!” Battledog called from the driver’s seat. It looks like those troopers are trying to follow but they’re too slow.

“There will be more coming from another direction,” Lock replied.

“How perceptive,” Barand purred. “But where oh where could they be?”

Lock smacked him in the back of the head with his blaster barrel. “Tell you what, genius, if they are on that ship waiting for us, I’ll blast your brains out first. If that’s where you told them to wait, I suggest you use whatever coded comms mechanism you have to tell them to leave immediately. Otherwise I’ll blast you first. If they left any surprises like a bomb, you might want to tell them to dismantle that as well, otherwise you’ll be exploding right along with us.”

“I assure you, they would not put a bomb on the ship I’m likely to be abducted on,” Barand said with a tight smile, though his nostrils flared. Imperceptibly to all in the skiff, his hand tapped out a brief message in the hidden comm device built into the hem of his trousers.

Lock noticed the action this time. “Good boy,” he said sarcastically, drawing a sneer from the captured Imperial.

“Troopers leaving the Reaper!” Battledog shouted in alarm.

“Expected that,” Lock replied. “When we pull up, I want you and Bulldog to go in. Bulldog, start pre-flight. Battledog, sweep the ship for any stowaways or bombs. Anything suspicious, throw it out. If we see any hidden troopers, call it out. Anything out of the ordinary, call it out so I can blast this Imp.”

“They won’t have left any surprises for you,” Barand grumbled.

“We don’t believe you,” Bulldog grunted. He looked off to the side again, and while his eyes appeared to focus on nothing in particular, he nodded. “I think there will be a device disabling the startup sequence.”

The skiff came to a rest at the base of the Reaper’s ramp. Battledog helped Bulldog limp up the ramp. As they disappeared from sight, Lock hazarded a glance around. He saw various troopers taking up positions behind nearby cover. He strained his ears to listen for any sign of foul play within the Reaper, and he began to get nervous as the seconds ticked by without any report, good or bad.

A small device came tumbling down the ramp and came to a rest on the tarmac. Lock braced for an explosion, but had the wherewithal to hold Barand tightly to avoid letting their leverage run off.

“Startup signal scrambler,” Bulldog called out. “We’re good to go now!”

“No troopers or bombs in the holds that I can see!” Battledog added. “We’re good!”

“Looks like you’re going for a ride,” Lock whispered. He pulled Barand up the ramp, being sure to keep his gun trained on his hostage.

“The startup software will never work without my code entry,” Barand said confidently. “By the time you figure that out, surely my troopers will have the weaponry in place to shoot us down before we can get too far away. Let’s start discussing your terms of surrender, shall we?”

“Oh, you mean that hack job you had installed?” Battledog replied with disgust. “I disabled that when I was in here before you captured us. The thing will start no problem.” As if to punctuate his point, the Reaper purred to life.

Barand’s nostrils flared. “Then there really is no reason for you to keep me alive, is there?”

“Nope,” Lock replied with a shrug, shoving the man roughly to the ramp. He slid half of the way down before quickly and gracefully regaining his footing. As he rose, a small holdout blaster snapped out of a concealed area in the wrist area of his uniform. He raised his arm to take aim, and Lock was too late to recognize the danger. Lock attempted to bring his blaster in line, but it wouldn’t be fast enough. Time slowed down.

A blaster sounded out.

Lock winced, against his training and will, he shied away from the coming doom. The bolt punched him square in the chest and blew him backwards into the benches of the troop holding area. He attempted to open his eyes, but the heat and pain in his chest was too great to overcome at the moment. He attempted to get his wind back, but was still coming short of breath.

“You forgot to check the hostage for weapons. Rebel training is getting lax,” Barand said with a haughty laugh.

Another blaster shot rang out.

A pained wail echoed throughout the small cargo hold. Lock thought it could be him screaming, but he didn’t feel any searing pain aside from what he was already dealing with. Opening his eyes finally, he was amazed at how the state of things had changed since he’d last had his eyes opened. At the foot of the ramp, Barand was writhing around in pain as he clutched at what was left of his smoking knee. Bulldog was next to Lock with his blaster pistol raised, smoke wafting from both barrels.

“Hmph,” Bulldog sighed, looking at his blaster with a quizzical look on his face. “I need to re-sight this thing. Tried to take his head off.” He kept his eyes on the wounded hostage while he grabbed Lock by the shoulder and pulled him roughly to his feet.

Lock grabbed at his chest frantically as he started to smell the burning fabric of his jacket and flight suit. Beneath the smoldering clothing was the piece of spider carapace he’d found earlier while he was snooping around, none the worse for the wear despite taking a blaster bolt head on.

“Lucky you,” Bulldog said with an exhalation of relief.

Lock palmed the ramp controls and hugged his mission partner. He released the embrace with the non-reciprocating pilot and bounded up into the cockpit and strapped himself in, ripping out the spider carapace armor he’d had under his clothes as he went.

At the foot of the ramp, Barand rolled to the tarmac to avoid being stuck on the ship. “You’ll be dead before you leave the system! YOU HEAR ME, REBEL SCUM? DEAD! Nobody points a blaster at me and survives!”

“We’re taking small arms fire from the troopers,” Battledog reported from a porthole in the main hold. “Nothing big set up yet, but it won’t be long until they set up something with more punch!”

“Boys, we are LEAVING!”

*************************************

Skoth Tarmac
POV: Tol Barand

Barand continued to roll himself clear of the stolen TIE Reaper as it began to lift off on its repulsors. The lower half of his leg was hanging onto the rest of his body by a few stretchy scraps of skin and tendon. Still, he continued to risk the movement to avoid the backblast that was sure to come shortly after those blasted Rebels made good on their escape attempt. He grasped at it with his hands to reduce the amount of torque on the remaining bits holding the joint together.

As he came to a stop on his back, he lay there with his chest heaving. The Reaper lifted its nose skyward and took off in a ballistic launch toward space. The wind from the nearby launch buffeted his body, knocking his cap off and sending it flying across the airfield. He involuntarily let go of his leg and covered his face. His uniform ruffled and threatened to blow over his head. His leg rolled along the ground, with his foot coming to a thudding rest against the thigh of the same leg. Whatever that disgustingly fat rebel had shot him with packed a powerful punch, with two powerful bolts hitting above and below his knee simultaneously. It was a wonder it hadn’t taken his leg clean off.

Multiple sets of booted feet skidded to a stop nearby. Immediately one of the stormtroopers pulled off his helmet and vomited off to the side of the crowd. A couple of others shuddered and retched, but held their composure enough to keep their lunches down. “Sir?”

Barand bit down on the pain, his nostrils flaring. “Are you all BLIND? Launch the fighters!”

A junior officer nearby coughed to clear his throat, and then brought his comlink to his mouth. “All pilots, launch in pursuit of a stolen TIE Reaper!”

“Now get me a medic and a gurney!” Barand bit out through the pain as his adrenaline was starting to wane. “I want that ship blasted out of the air! Call in the taskforce!”

“What should I say, Commodore?” The officer replied nervously.

“By the Emperor!” Barand glared at the timid officer. “Give me your commlink!”

A series of small-scale explosions peppered the air. They were quickly followed by the cacophony of rending durasteel and overstressed engines.

The first 12 TIE fighters that attempted to take off had experienced an eerily similar failure of the connection pylon of the solar panel and cockpit. Without the two solar panels on the ground, the fighters toppled over. The pilots had just started to throttle up, so the fighters all skidded around and crashed into each other, causing even larger explosions.

“Anvil group, you are go for entry! STOP THAT REAPER!”

*************************************

Skoth Atmosphere
POV: Bulldog

“Punch it!” Battledog shouted from his position in the crew hold.

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Lock snapped back as jammed the throttle as far forward as it would go. “We have to get to the other side of the asteroid field before we can enter hyperspace.”

“ELS is set to max engine power,” Bulldog grunted from the copilot’s chair. “Boost is charging.”

“Boost gasp this crate!” Battledog suggested.

Lock snorted. “I barely know how to fly this thing as it is. You want me to do something complex like that?!”

“You want to fly this crate?” Bulldog sniped back over his shoulder at the backseat driver.

“YES!”

Bulldog slapped his face with his palm. For the second time this mission, he’d used his old joke with the wrong crowd.

“Well, you can’t,” Lock replied, smirking at the now inside joke between himself and his copilot.

Battledog cursed. “Then why...?”

“Check the sensors,” Zimm’s ghost said urgently, having appeared right next to Bulldog’s seat.

Bulldog recoiled in shock and let loose a long string of curses.

“What’s wrong?” Lock replied, oblivious to the shimmering apparition right next to his copilot.

Bulldog refocused quickly and took a look at the sensor picture. After examining everything, he thought all was well. “Actually, things look ok.”

“Uh, buddy, we’re in an Imp ship,” Zimm whispered.

“Yeah, and?” Bulldog bit back.

“Who is he talking to?” Battledog asked. “Is he off his nut? Why did we let him be the co-pilot?”

“Shut up!” Lock and Bulldog shouted simultaneously.

“Bro, all the sensor IFF contacts are going to be green on this system,” Zimm clarified.

“Oh, shab,” Bulldog responded, his mouth agape.

“What is it?” Lock replied, hazarding a look at his copilot while he flipped some switches to charge their shields while keeping their boost reserve maxed.

Bulldog re-examined the sensors, the multitude of green dots made his eyes bulge. “So… uh, we’ve got a LOT of inbound fighters. I read this thing wrong the first time.”

“Define ‘a lot’,” Lock replied.

“Well, ‘oh stang oh stang we’re all gonna die’,” he replied. “An entire wing coming after us from ground, a few Impstars to our starboard, and a mess of Ion mines in front of us still.”

“We’re gonna die,” Battledog said resignedly.

“I thought you sabotaged the fighters on the ground?” Lock snapped back.

“You saw how many there were, I’m not a Jedi! I couldn’t get them all.”

“Where did they come from?!” Zimm cursed.

“Who?” Bulldog asked his ethereal friend.

Who who?” Lock replied, fixing his steady gaze on his partner.

“It looks like the Sov just arrived with a decent-sized taskforce.”

“Fantastic!” Battledog cheered. “Head that way!”

“Yeah, it’s great,” Bulldog replied dejectedly, “except that they are going to run right into that minefield.”

“And the ion cannon,” Lock added. “They’ll get shredded.”

“Warn them off!” Battledog yelled.

Bulldog keyed the comm open, and a piercing shriek filled the commandeered Reaper. He covered his ears and wrenched his eyes shut as the sound paralyzed him.

“Shut it off!” Battledog shouted as he likewise covered his ears to no avail.

Lock leaned over and slammed his fist down on the comm button. Their ears still held the echo of the sound that had just assaulted their senses. “Well, we’re being jammed it seems. Next idea?”

“Those fighters from the ground are going to be on top of us in the next few minutes,” Bulldog said nervously as he stared at the sensors.

“This crate have any ordinance?” Battledog’s voice called out.

“Turret mines and... seeker mines it looks like,” Lock replied.

“We can use that,” Zimm said with a grin.

“How?” Bulldog asked.

“Seriously, who is he talking to, and why am I not copilot?!”

Lock flashed another nervous glance in Bulldog’s direction, but pursed his lips and refocused on his flightpath.

Zimm made an obscene gesture in Battledog’s direction. “Wanker!” He shouted to go along with the gesture. With a triumphant smirk, he leveled his eyes back on Bulldog. “We can rewire the targeting sensors to target Imperial IFF signatures.”

Bulldog suddenly threw off his restraints. “Let me try to rewire those to target Imperials!” He ran down the gangway to the auxiliary magazines.

”Need help?” Battledog asked, surprised by the sudden appearance and disappearance of the bulky pilot.

“Go be the co-pilot!” Bulldog called out from the lower deck of the ship, elbow deep into the panels already. “Ok, Zimm. Help me out here,” he quietly asked his ghost friend while he stared at unfamiliar components and tools. He froze, another thought dawning on him. He looked at his translucent friend. “Uh, won’t these things target us as well?”

“Oh. Right.”

************************************

Skoth Asteroid Field
POV: Lock

Something was nagging at Lock for the last few seconds, and it finally clicked. “If BD manages to rewire those auxiliaries, they will also target us…”

“Right, bollocks” Battledog replied. He unbuckled the restraints that he’d just recently adjusted and secured and started fiddling with the panel that likely held the transponder. “I’ll try to swap our IFF tag.”

“Hurry it up,” Lock responded as he hazarded a glance at the sensors. The fighters from the base were just about within maximum firing range. “What’s the status of those mines?”

“Halfway done!” Bulldog shouted from far away. “Two turrets are fixed as well!”

“Watch your fingers near the launch mechanism, Dog!”

“Why?!”

“Yep, not stupid, thanks.” Battledog chirped quietly from underneath the main console.

“Focus on your task!” Lock admonished his new copilot. The one benefit to their current transponder being set to Imperial was that the ion mines did not register their passing. While they wouldn’t trigger for the pursuing TIEs either, if a mine from their magazine were to explode near one, it would hopefully trigger an Ion explosion. He pulled in close to the next mine on his scopes and skimmed the surface of the asteroid. He triggered a mine launch, and then continued his path to put the asteroid behind the Reaper and between the pursuit.

“I can’t seem to get the right connections to bypass this hardware block,” Battledog cursed as he continued to dig into the console’s innards.

Lock heard the comment, but his frantic scanning of their pathing overtook the verbal part of his brain. He spotted another asteroid large enough to slip around and adjusted their course to reach it. Another thought sprung into his mind, and he grinned. He triggered a turret launch directly at the asteroid. It would deploy just as they passed it by and put the asteroid’s bulk between them and the now dangerous turret. To finish the maneuver, he rolled the Reaper violently 90 degrees. The TIEs in pursuit were close enough that the turret began pulsing fire in their direction immediately, hopefully slowing them down and scattering them. Farther back, their first mine detonated, causing a chain reaction with the nearby Ion mine, disabling multiple TIE fighters caught within the blast radius.

Battledog got airtime during the brief maneuver and smashed his head against the bottom of the console. “Keep her steady!”

Bulldog likewise unleashed a loud string of curses from where he was working. “Damn it, Lock! Give me a warning next time!”

Lock snorted. “It’s not like we’re taking a pleasure cruise, guys! They’re almost on top of us!” He triggered another mine. “What’s the status on our auxes?”

“Mines complete! Working on the last few turrets now!”

“Hurry it up!”

“What do you think I’m doing back here?”

“Sithspit! This is hopeless,” Battledog cursed, coming out from under the console. He strapped himself in with bloodied hands. “I don’t know what else I can try to get this thing swapped.”

Lock frowned. “Thanks for giving it a shot.”

Battledog examined the sensors. “We’ve got a bunch of fighters launched from the Sovereignty headed our way.”

“Is the cruiser still continuing on the same course?”

“Looks like.”

“In another minute they’ll be within range of the first few Ion mines and that ion cannon on the planet. They’ll be easy pickings for the Star Destroyers after that,” Lock said, frantically thinking of a way to avert the coming crisis with the few tools he had left at his disposal without comms. He launched another turret toward an asteroid and triggered another mine. Lasers from the turret splashed against their shields before turning to track the trailing TIEs. He was getting sloppy with his timing as the stress continued to mount

“What’s the plan? Those X-Wings are going to be on top of us shortly...”

“What are the IFF tags of those fighters?”

Battledog keyed a sequence into his console. “Looks to be… oh wow. Rogue Squadron X-Wings in the lead, followed by a mix of other squadrons…”

“Well, there’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to outfly them,” Lock replied, deflated.

“You think they’ll realize we’re being pursued and cover us without any comms?”

Lock thought a minute as he pinwheeled around an asteroid that had suddenly cut across their nose. What could only be Bulldog’s body thudded around the aft of the ship. This time he didn’t curse, though. The sudden pull of the G’s of the maneuver throwing him against his restraints jarred the spark of an idea loose from his cluttered brain.

“TIE’s are almost in range, as are the X-Wings!” Battledog shouted urgently. “Whatever you’re doing, get on with it, before we get sandwiched!”

“Hang on tight!” Lock shouted as he attempted the maneuver he’d used days prior in the Rogue sim exercise. He triggered his boost and pulled it into a slewing drift as he turned the ship. It wasn’t quite the ‘Spindizzy’ he’d been able to pull off in the sim with his astromech cutting power to half of his engines, but it was as close a simulacrum as he could manage. He flung out mines and turrets, and attempted to only fire his lasers when he thought he was faced toward the pursuing TIE fighters, letting off the firing stud as the nose came around toward the Rebel forces.

“Holy mating mudscuffers!” Battledog shouted as he was flung and held against his restraints. Bulldog’s body thudded around as the ship continued to whip through the spinning maneuver.

Green lasers hissed against their shields. Alarms started sounding as the shields drained quickly.

“Whatever you’re doing it isn’t working!”

“It was my last resort,” Lock grunted against the gravitational forces crushing his chest. He fought the yoke and pulled out of the spin. Directly in front of him, four Rogue X-Wings charged into them headlong. “This is it!”

“This is NOT how I thought I’d go…”

The pilots braced for their impending doom in their own ways. Lock stared straight ahead, not wanting to cringe away from death as he had moments before with Barand attempting to burn him down. Battledog turned his head and wrenched his eyes shut while he gripped his restraint straps tightly. Bulldog had ragdolled around the auxiliary hold and come to a peaceful rest near the ladder to the main level.

The four X-Wings fired their lasers. Instead of four streams of red energy converging on their cockpit, the lasers narrowly passed by their ship on all sides. Nearby TIE’s erupted under the sudden assault, caught by surprise by the complete bypassing of the Reaper. The turrets and mines Lock had released targeted other TIE fighters but ignored New Republic forces, causing even more disarray. The rest of the rebel fighters flooded past as well, jumping on the shocked Imperial pursuit forces. The TIE’s made a fighting retreat under the sudden onslaught, but it soon deteriorated into an all out rout.

Lock howled a cheer and pumped his fist. “I can’t believe that worked!”

“We’re alive?” Battledog said as he opened his eyes and felt his chest to check and make sure he still existed. “How did that happen?!”

At that moment, the jamming field appeared to falter. The comm crackled. “Reaper Pilot, this is Rogue Leader. Is that you, Spindizzy?”

“Spindizzy?” Battledog asked as his face scrunched in confusion.

“Roger, Lead. Rogue Nine here,” Lock replied, relief flooding through his voice.

“Is Twelve with you?” Jalb asked.

“Affirmative, Lead. As well as one extra person,” Lock replied. “Look, Lead, you have to call off this attack. The Sov is about to run into an Ion minefield, and there is a planetary ion cannon and a few Impstars moving in behind the asteroids.”

“Rog,” Jalb replied. “Continue on toward the Sov. I’ll get this whole Bothan boondoggle sorted.”

*************************************

Skoth Imperial Base Delta Wall
POV: Keyleb Spacer

As dawn began to illuminate Skoth, Keyleb sat on top of the carcass of one of the giant spiders with his head in his hands.

The last two fingers of his left hand were gone, and the pain pulsed from the wound throughout his hand and his entire arm, but still he did not move. His helmet was on the ground, laying in a pool of green ichor, the spider’s blood and guts. Keyleb’s armor was no longer white, it was now a mess of browns, streaks of red and green blood, vomit, and guts. He stank. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to cry. All he could do was sit there, with his hands in his head. Why had this happened to them? Why did he deserve this?

He heard footsteps approaching but he didn’t look up.

“Been looking for ya, son,” Sergeant Varish said.

“Sarge,” Keyleb looked up at the sound of his voice. It was instinct. He looked over the Sergeant, who looked to be in no better condition than himself, but from his poise no one could have ever guessed. Varish had removed his helmet as well, allowing his head and right eye to be bandaged. His thick moustache, usually blonde, today was dark brown from the amount of blood that had soaked into it. It had been a brutal fight for both of them. Deadly for those that had not made it. Keyleb began to stand.

“At ease, son,” Sarge said.

“Sir,” Keyleb eased back down into the position he’d been sitting in.

For a few moments the two were silent. Varish pulled a tin box from his belt and two thick, hand rolled cigars from its interior. After placing one on his lips, he handed the other one over to Keyleb, who looked at the cigar as if he’d just been handed Darth Vader’s lightsaber. Sarge lit his own first and puffed a few times, exhaling perfectly formed “O’s”. Keyleb imitated his sergeant and put the cigar to his lips and lit it, but instead of circles it was just a fit of hacking and coughing and a distinct dizzy feeling.

Varish laughed, “It’s an acquired taste!” he said as he took a few more puffs. Keyleb tried again, this time a little more cautiously. Meanwhile, Varish took a seat next to Keyleb, on the large spider carcass.

He puffed on his cigar, “Want to ‘ear a funny story?”

“Uhm, sure?” Keyleb as still eyeing the cigar, wary of another attempt.

“So, whilst we were out ‘ere partyin’ with the spiders,” Varish said, lightly. “Turns out two of the techs were ‘avin’ a party of their own down at the Cannon’s Comm Station.” He chuckled but it turned into a cough. After a few moments in which Keyleb feared that the Sergeant would choke and die on whatever he was birthing, Varish hacked out some thick, green slime that he spat onto the ground with a pleased grunt. “They found ‘em passed out on the ground watchin’ a hola porno with their ‘ands in each other’s pants, hah! Apparently they were ‘igh on spice, too! One of ‘em nearly overdosed, found ‘im ‘alf dead.”

Keyleb snorted, “Sounds like even the techies get kriffed on Skoth.” He dared to take another puff of his cigar but it had gone out, so he focused on relighting it, slowly this time.

Varish watched over Keyleb with a small smile. “How old are ya, son?”

“Twenty,” Keyleb coughed softly. “Sir.”

“Aye, twenty. I remember when I was twenty. Twenty years ago, or more, now,” Varish seemed nostalgic for a moment, but turned his focus to the younger stormtrooper. “Listen, Spacer, and listen close so this gets through that damn thick skull of yours. You were injured in the line of duty. You’ll get a pin, and then they’ll offer to fix what they broke. Then, they’ll offer you an out. Don’t be a fool, Spacer, and take it. The Empire isn’t what it used to be. It isn’t worth dying for, at least not anymore. I’m too old. Twice too old. I don’t have another life, so don’t be stupid, Spacer, take the out and don’t look back.”

Keyleb stared at Varish, taken aback by his Sergeant’s words. “I… Where would I go?”

Varish stood up, suddenly impatient. He puffed on his cigar several times. Keyleb could see his hands shaking.

“Go home, kid,” Sarge finally replied. “Go home.”

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Hangar
POV: Bulldog

Bulldog awoke with a start. He flailed wildly for a moment before regaining his senses. In front of him, Lock and Battledog had scurried back a few feet to avoid his wild swings. His heart was pounding in his chest, but as his eyes refocused on his surroundings, he began to calm down.

“Easy there, BD,” Lock soothed, moving back in close and putting a hand on his partner’s shoulder.

“Are we dead?”

“Shockingly, no,” Battledog chuckled. “We just touched down on the CRS Sovereignty.”

Bulldog perked up. “The Sov? We save the day?”

“Yeah, my guy,” Lock laughed. “We saved the day.”

Battledog stood and rubbed his head. “They’ll probably try to pin a half-dozen gongs on our chests, each.” He went to pinch his nose, “Ow!”

Bulldog’s head started throbbing, and he felt multiple knots forming in different areas. He groaned. “Ungh, so that’s the good news. What happened to me?”

Lock smiled apologetically. “I, uh, had to try a few maneuvers. You weren’t strapped in apparently.”

Bulldog nodded. “Yeah, that sounds like me.”

A loud knock on the exterior of the landing ramp surprised the three survivors. They all recoiled and whirled around, hands falling to their weapons.

“This is the Sergeant at Arms! Open this tin can up!”

They all relaxed, once again remembering they were safe. Battledog moved aft and palmed the hatch controls.

Lock rose from his combat crouch as well and offered a hand toward Bulldog. “Let’s go answer to the brass.”

Bulldog waved him away. “Give me another minute, will you?”

Lock nodded. “You got it,” he said as he moved to stand next to Battledog as the ramp slowly descended.

Bulldog watched his… squadmate leave with what he felt might be a seed of respect. He shook his head and barked out a laugh. “Nahhhhh.”

“Nahhh what?”

Bulldog’s head followed the voice of his friend, settling on his friend’s ghost sitting in the copilot’s seat with his back to him. He rose unsteadily and used the bulkheads to support his weight as he made his way up to the cockpit. The entire trip took an eternity, but Zimm never turned his head to flash a smile at him or exult in their survival, to which the living pilots owed Zimm a debt of gratitude. He finally reached the pilot’s chair and “What’s wrong, Zimm?”

“You gotta cut me loose, man.”

Bulldog’s heart seized for the second time in the span of a few minutes. “What?”

Zimm refused to face him. “This isn’t… real.”

“What do you mean it isn’t real?”

“I’m not really here. I’m not speaking with you now. I never have.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve spoken with me for the last few days. You’re real. You have to be.”

Zimm shifted even more in his seat to avoid Bulldog’s attempt to look him in the eyes. “No, man, this isn’t real. I’m not a jedi, and you’re DEFINITELY not a Jedi, no matter what that lightsaber in your boot might tell you.”

Bulldog had forgotten his souvenir. Instantly, his foot started hurting where the ancient weapon had been stowed away and rubbed his foot raw. It was definitely bleeding in places, and a massive blister felt like it had formed in other areas as he’d altered his gait to walk with the new treasure. He shook his head clear. “Then what is this?”

“90% stress, 50% concussion, my friend of friends,” Zimm chuckled.

Bulldog laughed. “Check your math.”

“Check YOUR math, I don’t exist. I’m all in your own subconscious. It’s a good thing you didn’t have to plot our hyperjump out of here. We’d have skipped off of the corona of the nearest star.”

“Why won’t you look at me, Jory?”

“I just told you, I’m all in your mind, idiot. You’re doing this, too. Even the deepest part of your brain knows this isn’t right, you bullheaded ronto. You gotta let me go, man.”

It hit Bulldog in the gut. A black hole had formed, and it was threatening to suck his heart and lungs into it. He couldn’t breathe. The confines of the cockpit began to contract around him. He slammed a hand into the side of the cockpit to hold it off, and threw his other arm to the roof. His legs locked, holding the floor in place.

“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Zimm chastised. He finally turned his head to face Bulldog, phantom tears catching the lights like a sunburst on his translucent cheeks. “Here’s the kicker, bro. You have to let go of that baggage. My death wasn’t your fault.”

Tears began to flow down Bulldog’s cheeks as well. The walls switched polarities, now extending far and away from his body. He suddenly felt tiny in a seat meant for a giant. “But I-”

“Not. Your. Fault,” Zimm said as he reached out a pale hand toward him. Where it touched his face, Bulldog felt the warmth of an actual human touch. “I know you know that the odds were better than average that I was going to get caught if I kept running. I made the decision you would have made if our places were reversed. And you know damn well if our places were swapped you’d be saying the same sappy shavit that I’m saying now. Well, you are technically saying it, but you know deep down that it’s exactly what you’d be saying to me.” Zimm paused, then smirked. “See, more proof that I’m a figment of your overstressed brain. I never swore.”

Bulldog barked out a laugh begrudgingly.

“You know you wouldn’t want the guilt of your death eating me alive if things were backwards,” Zimm pressed on earnestly. “So give it up already. Your friends need you focused, or else you’ll be haunted by their ghosts too.”

“Lieutenant?”

Bulldog craned his neck around to see a confused marine standing by at the entrance to the cockpit. He clearly had overheard some or all of the apparently one-sided conversation, but had the good graces to not say as much. “Yes, Private?”

“They are waiting for you.”

“Who?”

“The big shots,” The private replied. He nodded over his shoulder. “Please follow me, sir.”

Bulldog looked back to the copilot’s chair and saw that it was empty. He looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Zimm elsewhere in the Reaper. His face fell when he saw no sign of his ghost companion. After doing one more quick scan, he looked at the security officer and nodded. The two of them walked down the ramp slowly toward the impatiently waiting squad of troopers guarding Lock and Battledog. Halfway down the ramp, Bulldog grasped the security officer’s shoulder for support as his limp became too great to handle. Initially shocked, the trooper recovered quickly when he realized he wasn’t being accosted for anything other than his balance by the wounded and woozy pilot and leaned into the contact to provide more support.

As he reached the rest of the group, a strong feeling tugged at him. He trusted the urge and turned around. At the top of the Reaper’s ramp stood the grinning form of Zimm. He was raised a hand in a roguish wave, and then dissolved.

“Goodbye, friend,” Zimm’s voice echoed.

*********************************

CRS Sovereignty Admiral’s Stateroom
POV: Lock

The procession of Lock, Battledog, and Bulldog limped throughout the bustling hallways of the Mon Calamari Cruiser. This was their first time on the ship that was the ostensible head of their battle group. While the two ships had fought side by side a few times in the last month, there wasn’t much intermingling amongst the ranks lower than the Admirals and Captains of the Vigilant and Sovereignty.

That was where they were deposited by the security officers. Rear Admiral Arithen Vodani’s stateroom was a fairly spartan location, which surprised Lock based on his prior experiences with most of the upper echelon personnel he’d interacted with before. Aside from a fairly fancy conference table, the only decorative motifs around the room were of Alderaanian origin. Lock knew that Admiral Vodani was a refugee of Alderaan, but that was as far as his knowledge went on the woman in charge. He couldn’t help but think of Aru.

The three pilots sat in the chairs they were told to sit in, and waited for the rest of the dog and pony show to commence. A medical team entered and checked them all over while they waited, and an impeccably-dressed Ensign followed and offered the men simple snacks and refreshments. After the new arrivals finished their tasks to their satisfaction, they left. A medic attempted to look at Bulldog’s ankle and dress it with a splint, but the pilot shooed him away with a stern look on his face. The medic shrugged and followed the rest of his team out of the room.

Lock looked over to Battledog, noting the new bandage on his forehead from the gash he’d earned while working on the transponder casing in the Reaper during their escape. Bulldog looked worse for wear, sporting new aerosol insertion marks along his neck and shoulders from local painkillers from his rough and tumble ride in the bowels of the Reaper. At that instant, Bulldog looked over at him and smirked. Briefly.

“How you feeling?” Lock asked, hoping to keep building upon the base of respect he felt they’d started during their ordeal.

Bulldog grunted and nodded, clearly not in the mood to discuss further.

“I can’t feel a thing, boys,” Battledog interjected blissfully as he reclined in his swivel chair and closed his eyes.

“What’s up with that limp?” Lock pressed Bulldog, hoping to get a feel on the true status of his partner.

“I rolled my ankle when I lost my balance during our first trip to the Reaper,” Bulldog replied. “Dru had to… Dru…” His face darkened as he looked down into his lap.

“Yeah, he wasn’t so bad a partner,” Battledog replied.

“Too many good partners gone,” Bulldog said sullenly, looking around the room with a hopeful look on his face. Not finding what he seemed to be searching for, he returned his dour gaze to his lap.

Before anybody could think of anything else to say, the door opened. Lock seemed to be the only one alert enough to notice, and the moment he spotted the rank bars on the first individual entering the room he shot to his feet and threw up a crisp salute. “Officer on DECK!”

Battledog nearly fell out of his chair as he shot to his feet and threw up a salute. Bulldog chuffed as he pushed himself up with the help of the table and saluted sloppily.

“As you were, gentlemen,” Admiral Vodani said graciously as she casually returned the salute and walked toward the head of the table. “Please, sit. From what I gather, you’ve all earned some rest. But first we have to conduct this debriefing, unfortunately.”

Behind her, the Quarren Major that had conducted the Renegade Wing entry interviews onboard the Vigilant walked in. A battle-hardened looking Togruta with ship’s captain rank followed the Major and took the place on the other side of the Admiral at the table. Jalb and Thanatos followed, nodding at their pilots in greeting as they too found their seats.

Lastly, a very wary Colonel Shen’ryu entered the room. His gaze was barely a level below hostile as he eyed the three pilots at the table. As his gaze fell upon Admiral Vodani, it softened to a loyal expression.

After all of the beings were seated, a lengthy silence filled the room. Lock wondered if it was up to him to begin his report, but it wasn’t the way things were done on his home ship so he didn’t know if things were reversed here. There was one more empty chair at the table, so he wasn’t sure if they were waiting for that seat’s occupant to arrive before beginning. Tiring of waiting, he opened his mouth and drew in a breath, but the Quarren Major chose that moment to speak instead.

“Captain, Lieutenants, welcome,” Murg started graciously as he bowed his head. “We have read the preliminary report given to us verbally from your OC, Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds. It appears that you may have single handedly saved this ship and all of the lives on it from a disaster of epic proportions had we continued on with our mission. For that, Admiral Vodani offers her greatest thanks.” The Quarren took a moment to gather his thoughts, and then continued. “We have reviewed all of the information given to us regarding your mission briefing and parameters, and it’s increasingly clear that you have all performed above and beyond the call of duty in the face of overwhelming odds. You are all to be commended, even if it is a busy and delicate time and you may not get official recognition for your actions for some time.”

“While it’s not always fair and just,” Vodani broke in with her soft voice, “sometimes public recognition just isn’t possible immediately after a mission is completed.”

“If I may, Admiral?” Jalb interrupted. Vodani nodded and smiled kindly. “My pilots have the utmost respect for how things have to be, and fully understand the circumstances.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. It was clear to those that knew him that he was barely containing some anger and really working at picking his words to be diplomatic. After another few seconds, he continued. “But in this instance, I believe my pilots were unjustly thrust into this situation by the Colonel intentionally.”

“How dare you insinuate such a thing, Lieutenant Colonel!” Shen’ryu snarled, rising in his chair.

“I’m not finished, Colonel,” Jalb replied icily.

“I don’t have to listen to a junior rank attempting to besmirch my honor!”

Bulldog snorted loudly, and feigned apology to those in attendance. “What honor?” he mumbled under his breath from next to Lock, drawing a smile from the Corellian. Thanatos zeroed in on the two of them and gave them a sharp look.

Jalb smiled darkly. “I think, Colonel, in this case you might.”

The door whooshed open again. All eyes widened as General Firth strode through the room. All in attendance shot to their feet and saluted. Firth had a dark expression on his face, and returned the salutes casually as he stormed toward the open chair. “Colonel Shen’ryu,” he growled. “This is the second time I’ve been involved in a… disagreement between yourself and Renegade Wing.”

“I cannot-”

Firth cut him off with a sharp wave. “You will remain silent. I have had my staff look at the briefing materials provided to me by Colonel Rambo and Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds, and I have also had Major Murg look through the gathered materials for his keen insights on the matter.”

“Those are classified at the highest levels of NRI,” Shen’ryu blurted. He prepared to continue, but was again silenced by a withering glare from all in attendance.

“The conclusions of my staff as well as Major Murg and the command staff of Renegade Wing are all in agreement that your briefings were intentionally flawed, and seemed to be maliciously targeting the pilots seated at this table. The assets provided were intentionally substandard, and the pilots were coerced into taking on the mission by very serious threats from yourself.”

“I will not sit here and take this dressing down based on hearsay!” Shen’ryu growled as he rose to his feet.

“YOU WILL SIT AND BE SILENT OR I WILL HAVE YOU THROWN INTO MY BRIG!” Vodani shouted ferociously as she rose from her chair. Taking a moment to compose herself, she continued. “I trust Major Murg’s insights implicitly, and it is very clear that you took an unhealthy personal interest in harming personnel under my command. Your conduct at this meeting all but seals the fact that you are guilty of the charges being levied.” She looked to Firth almost apologetically, and nodded as she took her seat again.

“Regarding your claim of hearsay, Colonel,” Firth continued at a whisper. “Please direct your attention to the screen.”

Shen’ryu crossed his arms and huffed in a childish fashion.

“You will stand at attention NOW, Colonel, or I will have you thrown in the stocks for the rest of your natural life until a military tribunal can be convened at my discretion, which I assure you will be a long time from now,” Firth said sternly.

Shen’ryu stood at attention, sufficiently cowed. His eyes burned with the fire of a newborn sun, though, and they again focused on Lock and Bulldog.

Murg tapped a button on his datapad, and the screen on the wall came to life.

The POV of the vid was low to the ground. As the camera panned around the room, it was clear the cam operator was in some sort of storage closet. Shen’ryu was seen at the doorway chuckling to himself. “Low probability of success on this one I’d say… Unfortunate for them but-.” The door closed, and the recording ceased.

Shen’ryu looked the Bothan equivalent of pale.

Firth stepped forward again. “It appears that some aftermarket programming on R2-CK10, the astromech assigned to Captain Callahan, managed to subvert your restraining bolt and continued to record unbeknownst to you.” He stepped closer to the disgraced Bothan. “You clearly have exhibited extraordinarily poor conduct in your current role, and it’s clear that you are incompetent at planning any sort of mission when this is coupled with your last command. A copy of this recording was sent to General Cracken, and he has said you are no longer colonel in New Republic Intelligence. If it were up to me, you’d be drummed out of the armed forces completely, Tabram.”

“Sirs,” Shen’ryu started huskily. “The military is all I have…”

“Silence,” Firth replied coldly. “Security will escort you to a shuttle, and you will be going home to answer to your family, who may or may not have also received a copy of this recording. I assume you’ll receive new orders en route.”

Shen’ryu faltered, grasping the chair to keep himself from falling. The door opened, and two security officers stepped in and grasped the Bothan by an arm and led him out of the room.

The lights resumed their normal brightness, and silence again reigned in the room.

“Good riddance,” The Togrutan captain of the Sovereignty mumbled.

“That was a nasty bit of business,” Vodani said calmly, having recovered her composure.

“Indeed,” Firth replied. “I’m not sure how he found his way into NRI after the last censuring I put on his file.”

“Powerful patron,” Murg mused.

Firth arched an eyebrow, clearly shocked that Murg knew some information that he did not. “Interesting. But before we discuss that and other matters,” he turned to face the pilots. “Lieutenants Clark and Stormhand, please report to sickbay and continue receiving treatment for your injuries. Captain Callahan will rejoin you directly.”

Battledog and Bulldog stood, saluting crisply this time. They were clearly reinvigorated by the complete carpet-bombing they’d witnessed just now. The senior officers all returned the salutes as a sign of respect even though only Firth really needed to do so as the ranking official in their chain of command. The two lieutenants ambled slowly out of the room.

“Captain Callahan,” Firth continued once the door was closed. “Please give any other details you believe pertinent to the mission.”

*************************************

CRS Sovereignty Medbay
POV: Bulldog

The pain throughout Bulldog’s body was beginning to return, indicating his recent painkiller injections were wearing off quicker than intended. It was a common problem, because his bulk was more dense than many medical professionals anticipated, leading to under-dosing of anesthetics and painkillers. He shuddered as he vividly remembered the dental surgery he received as an adolescent where he wasn’t knocked out completely and felt the grinding of the dental drill as it removed his superfluous wisdom teeth.

Nearby, Lock was sitting and having his vitals taken and some blood drawn to check for any parasites or contaminants. He was actively avoiding making eye contact with Bulldog, which struck him as odd because his partner had been making an effort to connect with him more and more during and after the mission.

Battledog rolled his neck as he rose from his stretcher. “Well, I’ve got a clean bill of health, lads. I’d best get going.”

“Good working with you,” Lock replied. Bulldog nodded and grunted.

“We’ll see,” Battledog continued. “I hear the Vigilant is getting a batch of X-wings with the new burst cannons, and I was one of the test pilots for those. So, I put in to be the one to help Renegade Wing acclimatise with the new weapons. I might even decide to stick around.”

“Sounds like a terrible plan,” Bulldog snorted.

Battledog shrugged with a small smile. “Maybe, but you guys seem lucky - I could do with some lucky wingmates. Besides, between my broken nose and that fancy flying at least one of you owes me a drink. So I’ll catch you later,” he said as he left the room.

“That dude is crazy,” Bulldog said after a lengthy silence. “Who sees what we just went through and says ‘yeah, I want some of that’ to themselves?”

“Yeah,” Lock agreed with a chuckle, still avoiding Bulldog’s gaze.

At that moment, Jalb entered the room. Both pilots attempted to rise, but Jalb put a hand up to indicate that they should remain as they were. “Well, gents. That was… intense,” he said as he ran his hands through his hair. “Look, uh, can everybody leave the room except for Lieutenant Clark?”

Lock hopped off the gurney he’d been occupying quickly and exited the room without looking in Bulldog’s direction. As he exited, his datapad chirped and he looked intently at the message he’d just received.

“Uh, what’s up, Boss?”

Jalb stepped closer and made sure nobody else was still in the room. Satisfied that nobody was still in the room to eavesdrop, he nodded. “So, do you want to know what else happened in the debriefing after you were asked to leave?”

“No sir,” Bulldog said dismissively.

Jalb arched an eyebrow. “Not even a little bit curious?”

Bulldog looked up at him. “No.”

Jalb barked out a laugh, and then sat in a chair across from the seated pilot to get down to his level. “I think you’ll be interested to know that Captain Callahan suggested you should be up for a promotion.”

Bulldog’s face paled. “No, absolutely not.”

Jalb’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“I don’t want a promotion.”

“You fought hard for your entry into Rogue Squadron though.”

Bulldog shrugged. “Yeah, I wanted to prove to myself that I could fly with the best pilots in the galaxy.”

“You’re a mystery, Andy,” Jalb said as he shook his head. “There are pilots that would do anything for a promotion.”

Bulldog shrugged dismissively.

Jalb waved his hands in defeat. “All right, mate. I’ll hold off on that paperwork if you tell me why you don’t want a promotion.”

Bulldog shot him a borderline hateful glance at the ultimatum. His expression immediately softened into a sadder look. “I… uh…” He started, stumbling over the jumbled emotions flooding throughout his heart and brain. “I just don’t want to be responsible for somebody else’s life.”

Jalb nodded sagely. “I understand. But, you do realize you are responsible for my life, Lock’s life, Thanatos, Hellcat, and any other pilot in the wing…”

Bulldog nodded. “Yeah, I guess I worded that wrong.” He pursed his lips as he scrunched his brain in thought. “I pushed for Rogue membership for my friend, Zimm. I felt like I owed it to him to get here… And it’s my way to honor his memory…”

Jalb patted his emotional pilot on the shoulder comfortingly. “I understand. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re still responsible for the lives of others as a Rogue…”

“I know that!” Bulldog snapped. He took a deep breath and wiped a tear away before it could gain enough mass to run down his cheek. He looked away in shame. “Sorry… I just don’t want to be the one to… order somebody to do something that could get them killed…”

It finally clicked for Jalb. “I get it. Ok, Lieutenant. I’ll lose that paperwork… for now,” he said as he rose to his feet.

Bulldog looked up, relieved. “Thank you, Sir.”

Jalb nodded and shook his head with a chuckle. “Mystery man indeed,” he said with a smirk as he left the room.

Bulldog sank back into his bed and breathed a huge sigh of relief. He’d dodged a blaster bolt he hadn’t even realized he wanted to dodge until it was hurtling toward him. The conflicting emotions flooding through him threatened to overwhelm him. He instantly wanted to find some sort of painkiller to numb his senses to avoid dealing with the torrent of feelings.

Lock burst back into the room with a wild look in his eyes. “Dude…”

Bulldog shot upright. “You!” He said as he jabbed his finger into Lock’s chest. “Don’t you EVER do that to me again, you hear me? EVER!”

Lock was taken aback by the outburst. He genuinely had no idea why Bulldog was lashing out, and it was clear in the confusion all over his face. “What?”

“Don’t you EVER put me up for a promotion or award ever again, or I’ll kronging smash you.”

Realization crossed Lock’s face. Now that he understood the battle, he knew how to deal with it. “Ok, I won’t. Promise. But look,” he said as he held up his datapad. “You need to see this.”

A recording started.

The POV was low to the ground, but it was a crystal clear recording of the confrontation Bulldog and Lock had had with Shen’ryu in the hangar near the Longprobe Y-Wing. It began from the moment Shen’ryu kicked at a prone Bulldog, and carried on throughout the entire confrontation between the Bothan and the two pilots. It even showed Shen’ryu affixing the restraining bolts on Weight and on the owner of the POV view they were seeing.

Once Bulldog saw Weight in the picture, he knew the source of the recording. The video played through the rest of the confrontation, catching the clear threat that Shen’ryu had said he’d stun the two pilots and send them into the mission unconscious if they refused. The screen went dead.

“Where did that come from?” Bulldog asked slowly as he flinched at the memory of that moment in time. “I mean, it had to be your astromech, but how?”

“Seekay’s got some code I added that allowed him to subvert the restraining bolt. It was the main reason I wanted to take him on the mission rather than your droid,” Lock replied.

Bulldog pursed his lips as he digested the current implications of this recording existing. He looked Lock in the eyes. “So, why are we not sending this to Jalb, Firth, and the rest of the big dogs?”

Lock flashed a conspiratorial smile. “Wouldn’t you rather screw with the source directly?”

Bulldog genuinely felt a strong feeling of friendship within himself. He smiled at the pure feeling of respect and comfort that came with the idea of a friend you could trust. He felt overwhelmed to the point of crying happy tears, but tamped down on that by tapping into his endless reservoir of anger to push those feelings down for the time being. “Let’s fry the crinking furball!”

“Tell you what, let’s grab a drink at whatever passes for a lounge on this ship and figure out how we’re going to ruin this guy. First round’s on me.”

*************************************

CRS Vigilant, Hangar and Quarters
POV: Lock

Unlike their fellow Rogues, both Lock and Bulldog had no personal craft with which to return to the Vigilant with. Bulldog decided to stay in the temporary quarters that had been set up for them, but the idea of sleeping in the same room as the Snoring Beast did not tempt him in the slightest. Therefore, after a few drinks with Bulldog, Battledog, and the Rogues, Lock excused himself to the Hangar.

It didn’t take long for him to convince a U-Wing pilot to give him a ride home, though it would cost him a bottle of Whyren’s Reserve he’d been holding onto.

After getting dropped off, Lock went straight for his own quarters. Locking the door behind him, he finally let himself relax. He threw himself onto the bed and rolled over so that he was staring at the ceiling and let out a heavy sigh. He was exhausted, but even in this state he knew he wouldn’t sleep. He sat up, ignoring the protests of his aching body.

Lock looked at the stand next to his bed. He picked up the datastick and examined it, turning it over in his fingers, debating if he should or not. Part of him knew it was a bad idea, that things had ended the way they had for a reason. Sometimes, though, the Galaxy gave you the wrong reasons, the wrong choice, and the wrong time… it was up to oneself to make them right. He couldn’t help but remember what that technician had said on Skoth. How was it that one could do everything right and still end up wrong? How many wrong things had he done because he thought they were right?

She had wanted him to give this life up. He hadn’t felt ready, but things had changed. Before, the War felt like something had to be done. Now the War felt like something had been done, but it had not mattered. Lock thought back to Endor. How they had celebrated what they foolishly thought was the end of the war. No, this war wouldn’t end, not anytime soon. They had to make the best of it, with what they had, taking the risk and hoping for the best…

Before he could change his mind Lock stood up and walked over to the holonet system on his desk and activated it. He plugged in the datastick and selected the comms program. A few more button presses and a hologram formed before him. “Attempting to establish a communications link,” it said.

Lock returned to his bed and waited patiently for what felt like forever. After a couple of minutes, it chimed and Lock stood up. “Unable to connect, user is unavailable. Would you like to leave a message?” the letters on screen said.

For a few seconds he stared and finally nodded. He accepted.

“Hey, Aru, it’s me, Lock. I know it’s been a while, but…”

*************************************

ISD Conviction Bridge
POV: Tol Barand

Barand sat in his hoverchair with one leg supported on a foot rest. A portable bacta container surrounded his recently replaced knee and continued to help the replacement take and tissues regenerate. It was an uncomfortable position, sitting upright with one leg sticking forward in this manner, but it would not do for him to appear relaxed in a reclining fashion while he recovered.

“Lieutenant Frell, report?”

“Nothing has been received yet, Commodore,” Lieutenant Oshi Frell replied from her communications station.

“Captain Jaevion?”

“Commodore?” Jaevion replied from his position at the front of the bridge, gazing out at the asteroid field of Skoth.

“What are the statuses of Anvil and Hammer groups?”

“Forces are in position as per your orders, Commodore.”

Barand nodded thoughtfully, but he couldn’t shake the fact that his subordinates seemed to be treating him as a ‘lesser-than’ after the latest goings on at Skoth. He couldn’t pinpoint any one point of outright disrespect, or else he’d deal with it swiftly to regain full control and respect. Still though, little things were niggling at him. Commands were carried out slightly slower. Requests for information took longer than they used to take.

“Commodore?”

Barand spun his hoverchair around, and his nostrils flared the moment he laid eyes on the doctor standing before him on the bridge catwalk. “Yes, Doctor Piv?”

“I beg you to reconsider your previous decision regarding your recovery from your grievous injury,” the nervous doctor pleaded.

Barand pursed his lips and tamped down on his anger to compose himself. He’d already declined the Doctor’s advice, but if the medical professional was back again to brave his roth, it must be important. “Perhaps you would care to explain it to me again why I cannot continue my recovery here on the Conviction with the men and women on the front lines?”

Piv nodded cautiously. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to have this conversation in your office?”

“Doctor, if you cared about my privacy you would have sent me a message or reached me on my commlink. No, I think our people deserve to hear what I’m fighting through to make sure we win this war.”

“Very well,” Piv replied, clearly shaken by the insinuation that he’d intentionally made this conversation public. “As you know, your portable bacta tank reports your vitals and other important blood chemistry to our medical computers… and I just received an alert that is very troubling.”

“Go on, Doctor,” Barand said with an impatient wave as he skimmed a message on his datapad.

“Well, there’s no easy way to say this, but the Bacta shipment we recently took on from Captain Del’s stockpile has apparently been tainted in the intervening time from where it left our storage facility for the convoy and then ended up with his private stockpiles, curiously.”

Barand’s stomach dropped and he felt the beginnings of a cold sweat forming in his lower back and upper lip. “I see,” he said in a calm, measured tone as he wrestled with the rising panic within himself. “What are the side effects of such a… ‘taint’?”

The Doctor started ticking reasons off on his fingers. “Blood poisoning, gangrene, a possible allergy to future bacta use, and ultimately… death.”

Barand nodded calmly, keenly aware that all eyes were on him. It wouldn’t do to show weakness in the face of such dire news. “I see, and aside from removing this device from my knee, what else can we do? And why wasn’t this batch of bacta tested before use?”

The Doctor leaned in closer and whispered. “I told you at the time we had you in medbay that it hadn’t been tested yet, but you wouldn’t have it. You made it clear saving your leg was the utmost priority, Commodore.”

Barand attempted to think back to that interaction, but he had been too overwhelmed with the pain and shock that he probably could have sold the Conviction for 1 credit if somebody had put that to paper and put it in front of him. He sighed heavily. “Very well, and why does my moving to Makem-Ka become vital? Why can’t we continue with a new treatment vector on this ship?”

“Sir,” Piv began, blanching at the words he was about to say. “If we don’t go immediately, you will lose the lower half of your leg outright, and likely lose the upper half of the leg as well due to the blood poisoning we’ve detected. It has to be now, Commodore.”

Barand’s vision swam. Still, he held it together long enough to stop his voice from breaking while he issued his next commands. “Captain Jaevion and Commander Feing will continue to carry out my taskforce orders. Lieutenant Frell, please have Lieutenant Issen prep his Reaper to take me to Makem-Ka on the double.”

“Commodore,” Frell responded urgently yet emotionally. “Lieutenant Issen was killed during the pursuit of the escaping rebels. The comm jammer he was running made him a priority target for the reinforcements…”

“Another injustice these rebels will die for, Oshi. I give you my word,” Barand said sincerely with a hardened edge. “In the meantime, I have a special project for you to undertake. Please walk with me while we travel to the hangar. Captain Jaevion- have your fastest Reaper pilot prep a ship immediately.”

“Aye, Commodore,” Jaevion replied as he pulled out his commlink.

Frell quickly climbed out of her bridge pit and walked alongside Barand’s hover chair as he moved calmly toward the turbolifts. “Sir?”

Barand motioned for the Doctor to go on ahead to prepare for the trip, and waited until he was out of earshot before looking up into Frell’s eyes. “I trust you, Oshi. I need you to accomplish three goals during my recovery. You are to speak to nobody about these goals aside from the first if pressed by your superior officers.”

“Understood, Commodore.”

“First, I want you to take a look at the images from the base on Skoth and identify the rebel that took me hostage and the fat rebel that shot out my knee. You will have access to all of our databases and any intelligence resources you require, first to be cleared by Commander Feing.”

“Understood.”

“Second, I want you to investigate where that Bacta got tainted during its travels. It was perfectly fine when it left our storehouse, meaning it was tainted between the time the convoy was supposed to leave with it and the time it arrived back here. My credits are on it being tainted AFTER the change in command in that sector.”

Oshi’s eyes widened at the suspicion. Still, she recovered quickly and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Lastly, I need you to keep your eyes and ears open in my absence for any sort of dissension within the ranks. I haven’t replaced my former intelligence position on the ship, and it is a mistake I am paying for now. You are now that person. The wreckage we recently found on Skoth was of a two-seater scout Y-Wing. There were four saboteurs on the base. Unless they sat on each other’s laps for their trip, there were two missions sent here. I believe there might be a leak somewhere, and I need it identified and dealt with.”

Oshi nodded, but it was clear she was very nervous about the information she was being told.

“Please keep me apprised on all of your new tasks,” Barand said as he stopped and saluted her from his chair.

She stopped and returned the salute. “I won’t let you down, Commodore.”

“I know you won’t, Oshi,” Barand said as he closed the doors of the turbolift, leaving her outside while he continued toward the hangar. For the first time in a very long time, he was feeling very nervous about his current standing within the galaxy. He would have to reach out to one of his sleeper agents to tip the scales of the next engagement in his favor.

“Nobody points a blaster at me and lives,” he growled as he thought of ways to make his sleeper agent work toward finding his assailants and putting them into a no-win scenario.