Blood Ransom

"Blood Ransom"

Part 1

"Roger shuttle Kappa 5, you are clear for docking. Starboard side, landing bay 7," the Flight Deck technician heard the acknowledgment and typed the key sequence on his control pad that would begin the docking operation. As he cleared his console he was hailed by a flight of three TRNs that were delivering supplies to the massive cruiser. "What a busy morning this is starting out to be!" he remarked to no one in particular.

"Been like that all night," replied a gravelly voice belonging to the Flight Deck Officer of the Watch, a tall Calamarian. "Mostly personnel transfers coming aboard... new Corsairs, some Buccaneers, a passel of support and administrative ratings. You should have been here towards the end of last shift." The tech nodded without turning around and began to give docking instructions to the incoming transports.

"Look alive there!" Sergeant Major Tuttle Dundee was standing on the flight deck and directing the unloading of a transport. "Move it lads! Ach, you'd never make in ground assault. Get yer backs into it!" The last of the heavy kegs was finally loaded on a hover sled and the two deck crewmen stopped to mop their brows. "All right, all right," the sergeant chided. "Break time's over. Git that load down to stores." He popped a datacard off his pad and tossed it to one of the hands. "Here's the inventory. Now, away with you!" Relieved to get away from the hard driving Quartermaster of the Mon Calamari Star Cruiser Liberty, they quickly engaged the sled's repulsor lifts and took off.

Just then the PA system came to life, "Attention, attention, shuttle docking in starboard bay 7. Clear the bay!" Dundee hurriedly removed himself to the control booth and watched as the Lambda class T-4a shuttle approached the magnetic shield of the landing bay and folded its wings like a butterfly coming to rest. It slipped through the access port and came to a halt on the landing grid with a low clang that Dundee felt through the deck plates of the giant warship.

When the green light flashed above the door he was back into the bay and down the stairs to the flight deck in a sprightly manner that belied his age. Dundee had been long retired from the Army of the Old Republic and had managed to stay out of politics for many years. But in the aftermath of the siege of the Bliss system he had joined up with the Rebels to do what he could to stop the Empire's reign of terror.

The shuttle was extending its ramp as Dundee called up the crew roster on his datapad to see who was coming in on this flight. He watched as the first of the new crewmen made their uncertain way down the gangplank. "Over here, lads, over here. Step lively!" he said as he looked them over. Some appeared a bit apprehensive, some excited, all looked eager to start their assignments on the ship which the legendary Rogue Squadron called home.

Dundee checked his pad. "Flight Officer Cintron! Flight Officer Englander! Flight Officer Hines! Flight Officer McKenzie!" he called. Four young men stepped forward, three humans and a Twi'lek, with flight bags carried over their shoulders. "You're for Corsair Squadron then," Dundee said, looking up from his datapad and waving at an approaching hover sled. The sergeant snapped off a salute at the driver of the sled and shouted, "Good morning Lieutenant!" Then to the new Corsair recruits, "That lads, is Lieutenant Vince 'Stryker' Rambo, Corsair Squadron's Executive Officer. He'll get you briefed and show you to your quarters." The sled came to a stop. Stryker checked Dundee's roster and waved to the new recruits to hop aboard.

The new Corsairs were loaded up and away in seconds. There were now four left standing at the foot of the shuttle ramp, three males and a female. All humans. Dundee again checked his datapad, "Flight Officers Rollins, Emerson, and Hasegawa, Captain Lee, the Commanding Officer of Buccaneer Squadron, left word that if he was not here to greet you personally that I was to send you down to meet him in the Lounge." He shook his head at this breech of ship's etiquette and then indicated a rather squat, boxish droid standing near the blast doors. "That lads, is a droid that answers to the name Erratic. He'll show you the way to the Lounge and yer new commander. Now off you go." The three new Buccaneer pilots exchanged dubious looks and, picking up their flight bags, headed off to follow the droid.

The female, an auburn haired beauty with a penetrating gaze stopped and asked Dundee, "Sergeant-Major, my astromech droid will be coming in on the cargo transport. Where can I collect him?"

Dundee smiled at the new Buccaneer pilot and checked his datapad. "Ah, lassie, your droid will be processed within the hour and I'll see that you're notified when he's cleared for duty. You can pick him up on the main flight deck, port side."

The new recruit gave Dundee a smile in return that made the Quartermaster wish he were twenty years younger and then trotted off after the other Buccaneer pilots.

The last figure from the shuttle was a slightly built, ferret-faced man that appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Dundee looked him over. "And you laddie, you must be Private Teeves. Come with me." Dundee quickly strode out of the hanger with the new recruit trailing after him.

The young man grinned and hurried to keep up. "Right you are, gunny. Private Thomas Teeves, Mess Mate First Class. Maybe not as flashy as the flyboys I came in with, but I make a mean Mutandan porf and, hey, we all gotta eat."

Dundee was not impressed. "Sergeant-Major to you, Private Teeves!" They took a shortcut through a maintenance corridor and came out at the turbo-lifts. Teeves tried several times to engage the older man in conversation but was continually met with single syllable responses as Dundee kept his nose glued to his datapad. After a few more twists and turns they came though a hatchway and into a bustling galley. The scene was one of controlled bedlam with cooks and ratings scurrying about preparing meals for the various races that made up the crew of the Liberty.

The Sergeant-Major scanned the people hurrying about and called out, "Rooster! Over here lass!" A humanoid female came over, wiping her hands on her apron. She was an attractive member of the Lumi race. In place of hair, she had dozens of electrically charged "receptors" that grew out of her head like a great crest. They seemed to move of their own accord and changed color depending on her mood. As she approached Dundee they flickered and began to shine with a pinkish tint, indicating she was happy to see the Liberty's Quartermaster.

"Rooster, meet Mess Mate Thomas Teeves. He just shipped aboard. Teeves, meet Private Lumi 'Rooster' Rus'ti. Rooster here will show you the ropes and get you your duty assignment and show you where the crew quarters are. Rooster, take charge of young Teeves here, I'm off to check the storage vault in the Lounge. Mixer thinks that damn Banshee has been at the liquor again." With that Dundee was out the hatch and gone.

The pink glow of her receptors faded and they became clear with the barest white flashes at the tips. "Ah, I'm pleased to meet you Private Teeves. We're a bit short handed so I'll show you where you can store your gear and then you can lend me a hand with getting lunch prepared for the starboard officers' watch." They shook hands a bit awkwardly, as the Lumi was still unsure on the correct procedure required by this purely human custom.

Teeves stored his kit bag in a nearby locker and Rooster gave him a quick tour of the galley. He stopped by the kitchen duty station and asked a number of questions about the computer system there. "So is the kitchen database accessible to other ship's departments?" he asked. "This does not look like the usual terminal for a galley station."

Rooster grinned. "You bet. I also work tending tables in the Liberty's Lounge and as such I help out with supply requisitions for this kitchen, the main officers' mess, and the Lounge. So I got Dundee to swap out the normal shake-and-bake terminal you'd find in a galley with this one. It's a full smart terminal with access to the ship's main computer data core. That way I can do menu prep for the galleys and still access the current inventory data in the Lounge computer, half a ship away. If you had the codes, you could do almost anything from here."

The new mess mate ran his hand over the entry pad of the computer terminal. "Imagine that," he said softly.

"Blood Ransom"

Part 2

Lieutenant Vince "Stryker" Rambo was standing at the podium in the briefing room, waiting for the last of the Corsair pilots to sit down. He still felt a bit strange standing there as just a short time ago he was sitting out there in the audience, listening to briefings. Now, as the newly promoted Executive Officer of the squadron, he was conducting them.

"Gentlemen," he began, "and you too Parody," he added. The group laughed good-naturedly at the jest and seemed to relax a little. Stryker thought how different this group was from the green recruits that had gone out together on their first flight. Half his Corsairs were now blooded in combat and considered seasoned veterans. He paired each of his new pilots with one that had seen action, for some real on-the-job-training. "Just bring 'em back alive," he had told each flight leader.

He flipped a small switch and a hologram appeared in the middle of the room. "Corsairs, this is the area we will be flying recon through in approximately 12 hours. The Maruutsu system. We have a large territory to cover so you'll be split up into two-ship flights, and each flight will hyper in using different coordinates. You'll be out of comm contact most of the time so keep your eyes open. The area is pretty desolate with debris fields as indicated on the display." He paused to let each flight leader confer with his wingman on the area they'd been assigned. This was a pretty routine sweep but it did cover an enormous amount of territory and his pilots would be vulnerable out in the vast stretches of space. Alliance Intel had heard rumors that the Empire was setting up surveillance satellites somewhere in this system for some deep-space base of operations. Corsair's job was to find out if anything was out there or not.

Meanwhile, across the ship: the small kitchen was nearly empty as the last of the cleanup was nearly done. Privates Rooster and Teeves were overseeing the last of the make ready for the duty crew that would be coming on in a few hours to prep the next meal. "Well, Tom, how do you like the Liberty so far? It's been what... three weeks now, since you shipped aboard?" Rooster was not sure she liked the new mess hand, but they worked together every day and he did do his share of the work and then some. Talking helped pass the time and she still had a few minutes to finish on her shift before she had to be over in the Lounge waiting tables.

"Not bad Rooster, not bad. Still, I wish the Chief would let me make up some of my special porf recipe. You'd like it." Teeves casually took a peak at his wrist chronometer. "Say, Rooster, you said you were working a double shift, so if you want to take off for the Lounge I'll finish up here. Once I have the last of the droids hooked up for recharge I'll lock up."

Rooster was the senior mess hand on clean-up detail that day, and she usually locked up after a shift. But there was no real requirement that she had to do it personally. "That's great. It'll give me a chance to change before I have to be down in the Lounge." Her receptors edged towards amber. "Just shut down the dishwasher and see that the ovens are programmed with the proper pre-heat settings for the next shift." With that she left and headed towards the crew quarters.

As soon as Rooster had closed the hatch, Teeves locked up as he had promised. But he remained in the kitchen. He shut down the service droids and checked the programming for the next shift. Once satisfied that all was as it should be he went over to the computer terminal that Rooster had shown him on his first day aboard. "Now darling," he said, "time for you and me to get better acquainted. Yes indeedy." He took a small slicer kit out from under his shirt and laid it out on a serving tray. Next he removed a short cable he had wrapped around his waist and fitted the end connector into the terminal droid access port.

He check his chronometer every few minutes, conscience of the precious few hours he had to work undisturbed before the next shift was due in. Typing in brief bursts every time he got past a new security lock he slowly made progress getting nearer and nearer the information he was after. Sweat was beading on his forehead as he cautiously worked his way across the data system, careful not to trip any alarms. Finally he found the information he wanted from the TacOps computer and copied it to the local station. He then dumped the data to a small hand-held datapad. He ejected the datacard and inserted it carefully into a larger case that he had spent the last few weeks wiring together in his cabin from parts he stole from the kitchen equipment and service droids.

Once activated, the case would remain completely dormant for a preset time and then would begin to broadcast a beacon on a special frequency making it easy for his friends to find but impossible for anyone else to even notice. He set the timer and then shoved the case deep into the trash chute. Time was running out and he had to hurry. Setting the compactor cycle he disconnected the monitor relays and then manually cranked the ejection lever and jettisoned the trash. The ejection chutes were normally monitored to ensure that the cruiser did not betray its course by leaving a trail of trash along its route. But with the monitors sabotaged, the small debris from a single kitchen would go unnoticed. He reconnected the relays and cleaned up any evidence of his having worked at the terminal or the trash chute. Teeves left the kitchen minutes ahead of the next work shift's arrival.

Teeves went directly to his cabin and changed into the deck uniform of a maintenance technician. He then slipped out, unseen, and headed for the flight deck. He stopped only to pick up a small package that he had hidden behind some storage containers in one of the machine shops. This was another product of his after-hours efforts when no one else was about. The flight deck was busy and he managed to blend in and make his way to a line of A-Wings that were being prepped for action. An insect-like Verpine was just pulling away in a hover sled from the ship he was looking for. Teeves smiled.

Later, back in his cabin, the nefarious mess hand threw himself onto his bunk, exhausted. "Whew," he said to himself. "Sometimes I amaze even me. Hmm, the Maruutsu system..."


"Blood Ransom"

Part 3

Two single-seat fighters cruised through the deep blackness of space in the Maruutsu system. The snub fighters were commonly called A-Wings because of the similarity of their outline to that letter. The simple name belied the sophisticated array of instruments and weapons the craft had at their disposal.

Electro studied the sensor readings once again as they continued their patrol. It had been routine up to now. They hadn't sighted anything of interest. Which, of course, was a good thing. Most things of interest had a tendency to shoot at them. "Corsair Leader to Corsair 6, you see anything Hyl?"

Rafael Costa Guerra, commonly known by his nickname "Hyl," was flying on his squadron leader's wing for this patrol. "No sir, screens are clear. We'll be at the final jump point in a couple minutes."

"Roger that. I'll be happy to get back aboard. These extended recon flights can be rough on the posterior." A little grunt could be heard over the comm.

Hyl shook his head. "Was that Kerbe?"

Electro laughed and acknowledged. "Yes, I think she was trying to tell me she gets a bit stir crazy too. She normally runs around like a maniac, as I'm sure you've noticed."

Hyl was momentarily distressed. He wasn't quite sure what to say. His commanding officer always seemed just a bit intimidating. "Oh, not all sir, she's a model of military decorum. Really."

"Maybe for the Jawa military, but not for any I've actually seen." Electro grinned as Kerbe let out two sharp noises, reminding him that she could hear him. "OK, time to get back to work. I'm sure you've had the hyperspace solution programmed five or six times by now. We'll jump on the numbers."

"Roger."

In their respective cockpits the two pilots reset their instruments and fed the proper coordinates to the hyperspace system that would tell it how to navigate back to the Liberty. "All set?"

"Ready when you are sir."

"Very well, on my mark. Three, two, one, engage."

Hyl's A-Wing sped away and at the same moment a sharp explosion occurred aboard Electro's craft. His ship was rocked by the blast and was spinning erratically, out of control. Smoke filled the cockpit.

Flight Officer Guerra's A-Wing emerged from hyperspace precisely on the coordinates set for it. The Liberty was only a few kilometers away. He looked to where Electro would normally be but his squadron leader had not yet reverted from hyperspace. "That's odd," he thought to himself. "One of our hyperspace drives must be out of calibration."

Hyl began to scan his sensors for Electro's A-Wing. He immediately recognized the standard picket ships around the Liberty. A flight of Y-Wings from Buccaneer was flying perimeter defense and a small transport was on final approach. But no sign of Electro.

"Well, this is most peculiar. Where is he?" Hyl thought to himself. Reaching down he changed his communications frequency from the ship to ship used in combat to the broad band.

"This is Flight 1 of Corsair Squadron, Corsair 6 reporting. Liberty, please acknowledge."

"Liberty Flight control, we acknowledge Corsair 6."

"Liberty flight control, do you have Captain Schock's A-Wing on your scanners. He did not exit hyperspace with me."

A short pause and the flight control officer responded. "Negative. We read only your A-Wing on scans."

"He should have jumped with me. He gave the command to engage our hyperspace motivators, but now he isn't here." Hyl was becoming worried now.

"Hold on, I'll try to contact Captain Schock on long range comm."

Hyl nervously continued scanning the area as he flew in a holding pattern. "I don't like this, not at all."

It seemed like hours before the Liberty once again made contact. "Liberty flight control to Corsair 6. We have been unable to contact Captain Schock on his emergency frequency."

"That's not good," Hyl paused considering what he should do now. "Liberty? I think I want to declare an emergency situation."

"Affirmative Corsair 6, we concur. Liberty is launching search and rescue shuttle and Corsair flight 2. Please squirt last known position of Captain Schock and enter the landing pattern."

"The data is coming though now. Request permission to join S&R operation, I am Corsair Leader's wingman on this trip."

"Very well, request granted."

Deep in the Maruutsu system a battered, unmarked transport closed on a disabled A-Wing.


"Blood Ransom"

Part 4

"That's Electro's A-Wing all right. But it seems to be disabled." Vince "Stryker" Rambo, Corsair XO led a flight of three A-Wings and the Liberty's Search and Rescue shuttle on a mission to recover his commanding officer. "Standard close escort patrol Corsairs. Lifeboat, you set to dock?"

"Roger Lieutenant. We are on course. Docking in two minutes. I don't see any movement in the cockpit though."

Hyl's A-Wing broke from formation and buzzed inverted over the canopy of the stricken craft. "No movement?, I didn't see a pilot. Hard to miss someone in an A-Wing."

"Corsair 6, get back into formation. Something's not right here. He can't eject, so where is he?"

"Picked up by another of our ships maybe?" asked Wedge, Corsair 2.

The lambda class shuttle used by the Liberty as a search and rescue craft glided gracefully over the craft designated Corsair 1. It's wings settled around the outside of the relatively small fighter as it moved its bottom hatch above the cockpit. A technician at the sensor suite scanned the craft extensively, recording everything. "We've got a heat signature in the cockpit. Vacuum protocol!"

"Look sharp boys! No air leaks now, the canopy has to be intact or we'd read everything cold." The five Alliance specialists each went to work. Two were already suited and waited at the hatch for word to proceed.

"Extending field around the cockpit... OK, open the hatch." An artificial bubble of magnetic force had been created around the stricken fighter. It used the same principle as those used in the docking bays of the giant Mon Calamari Cruisers. It kept atmosphere and some heat from escaping into the vacuum of space.

The hatch swished open and a small puff of air escaped into the bubble. Corporal Timsa Rik carefully stepped down the lowered ladder and then attaching her magnetic tether she located the emergency hatch release. "It's been used already."

Stryker had been monitoring the communications aboard the shuttle. "That means someone was here before us. How'd they get here so fast?"

"I'm popping the hatch." The A-Wings extensive canopy popped open with a clang. Corporal Rik slowly lifted the hatch until it just touched the belly of the shuttle. This gave her just enough room to get into the cockpit. "Well, no pilot, that's confirmed. Looks like some blood on the floor, but not enough that he's have been killed from it."

"Where's Kerbe?" Hyl ventured.

"Kerbe?" Corporal Rik was confused.

Stryker broke in this time. "Yeah, she's a small quadruped. She usually rides behind Electro's seat, where the ejection hardware goes. There's a release lever on the left side of the seat. Pull that and the seat pops forward so she can get in and out."

"Checking... found it." There was a long pause.

"Well?" Hyl could barely contain his concern.

"Not good. She's injured, blood is hers. Hold on please."

Stryker shook his head. This wasn't what they had expected, not in the least. Electro would not have let anyone friendly leave Kerbe behind. At least not if he was conscious. "This is Corsair 12 to Liberty, we need a recovery vehicle for Electro's A-Wing and it looks like we're going to need to run an investigation as well. Kerbe is injured, prepare medical for incoming wounded."

Electro awoke slowly. His first coherent thought was that his head hurt, one humdinger of a splitting headache. His second thought was, "I must have been out drinking with Raven."

Then he realized he was having trouble moving. He could just lift his head and wriggle his body, but he could not seem to move his arms and legs. The effort made him nauseous and his head began to spin. His eyelids opened, more of an effort than he would have thought.

He lay on his back, that much was clear, on a bed of some sort it seemed. The room was dimly lit by recessed indirect lights. It was an efficient room, nothing adorned the walls so far as he could see. He twisted his head as far to the side as he could and then he knew why he had trouble moving. His arms and legs were bound and he was in a gravity restraining field. His weight would seem to be much higher than normal. It was an efficient and simple restraining device when combined with cruder restraints.

"What is going on? I don't remember being captured. Last thing I remember was an explosion when I tried to enter hyperspace. I must have been picked up by the Empire."

And then a single clear thought came to him. "Kerbe?" He could not feel her presence as he normally would. He concentrated all his efforts at contacting her. He had not been without her visible or invisible presence in a very long time. It felt wrong, and a bit frightening.

As he concentrated his weight returned to normal. Opening his eyes he saw a face looking down at him. Upside down as it was, it was unmistakable: an elfin face with short blond hair.

"Lee Lo!"


"Blood Ransom"

Part Five

"Admiral!"

Above the usual loud roar of the Liberty's bridge chatter, Admiral Ra'kaat picked out one singular voice calling for him. He finished overlooking the ship's current status on the main data display attached to the side of his command chair, then swung the entire chair around to view the approaching figure.

The tech that came trotting towards him was alternating his gaze between the datapad in his hand and the floor in front of him. Ra'kaat read the sergeant's insignia on his technician's uniform, and waited until he was at the chair's side before he spoke. "What is it, sergeant?"

"Sir, the technical team has completed its preliminary combing of Captain Schock's A-Wing. They haven't discovered exactly what caused the explosion, but they do know that it emanated from within the ship."

"The explosion came from within the fighter?"

"Yes sir. We think that it was a microcharge set near the auxiliary power cells. It also killed the shield generator, severed the weapon command circuitry, and fried the hyperdrive motivator. Captain Schock was preparing to enter hyperspace at the time of the explosion, so his craft wasn't moving. He would've had limited maneuvering and sublight power, but that's if he survived the explosion."

"Explain. You think he's dead?"

"It's a possibility, sir. He couldn't eject and the quadruped Kerbe was found injured in her compartment. More than likely, he survived the explosion, his seat seemed to have suffered the brunt of that but... well, sir, that's what we don't know. Like I said, this was just a preliminary examination. The flight recorder was scrapped by something, perhaps a heavy ion barrage. We'll know more later."

"Right. Keep on it." The tech snapped a smart salute, then turned and trotted away. Ra'kaat swung his command chair around and stared out of the fore view port. The stars illuminated the dark blanket that enshrouded the heavens, and Ra'kaat lost himself among them. Electro was out there, somewhere. Now, all they had to do was find him...

Ra'kaat was broken from his meditation with another cry of his name. This time, it came from the Mon Calamari communications tech. The Admiral swung his chair again. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

"Sir," the Mon Cal slurped over his shoulder. "We're receiving a broad-band transmission."

"Main speakers." With the command, a burst of static quieted the bridge. This was quickly replaced by silence, then the bridge was filled with a series of squawks and hisses. "What is that?" Ra'kaat bellowed, his patience wearing thin.

"Sorry, sir," the tech called. "It's scrambled. It's a repeating code, however; I'm triangulating its position now."

"Double-time, Lieutenant." The Admiral keyed a switch on his armrest. "Ra'kaat to Deck Officer. Scramble the sprint Corsairs and get two more flights ready." After an affirmative reply from the deck officer, Ra'kaat returned his attention to the comm tech. "Do you have it yet?"

"Another few... got it. Signal is coming from a position five kilometers portside. Small signal. Whatever it is, it isn't a ship."

"Relay that information to the Corsairs. Instructions: recon-in-force. Secure the area. Ready a shuttle--put a troop squad on it. I want that thing recovered."

"Yes sir. Corsair sprints approaching now. Patching bridge comm over to tacnet."

Activity on the bridge stopped as the crew listened intently to the pair of pilot's comm chatter. "Parody, can you see it yet?"

"Negative, Fireball. There's nothing out here. We're a klick away from the site--maybe the guys at home misjudged-whoa!"

"Evade, Parody!"

The Admiral turned to another aide, this one monitoring a scanning board. "What's happening?"

The aide wiped sweat from his eyes. "Uh, small explosion, sir. Nothing ship-sized; whatever it was, it was smaller than a probe droid. Maybe a comm sat."

Halfway through Ra'kaat's spin back, the comm tech confirmed the Admiral's hunch. "The signal's gone, sir. I've sent it to encryption; they're working on it now."

Ra'kaat nodded, then issued a few more orders: "Recall the sprint flight. Send the shuttle, without the troops, to scavenge for wreckage. I want to know what that was. I also want another flight on sprint; no, make that two, another Corsair and one Rogue. I don't want anything sneaking up on us. And double the near-system patrols."

The Admiral slumped down in his chair as his orders were carried out. Under his breath he muttered a warrior's tried-and-true phrase: "I have a bad feeling about this."

The blue light from the Liberty's medical bay bathed the area in an eerie glow that matched Lieutenant Adam "Guardian" Burns' mood. The part-time medic sighed, rubbing his temples, as he hovered over the single occupied surgical table. Kerbe's limp form had been gingerly placed in the center of the table, and Guardian was stumped.

"Run 'em again, Cutter," he called over to the Liberty's modified 2-1B medical droid. "Check everything-brain wave, internals, cell replenishment, everything." Cutter's slow drawl replied an affirmative, and the automaton began to again manipulate the various sensors and other medical paraphernalia, scanning the small, limp body.

Guardian bowed his head, trying to concentrate. He hadn't slept since Kerbe came in, and the exhaustion was beginning to show. He jerked as a hand came down on his shoulder, then relaxed again as he realized he simply hadn't heard Stryker come in. "What's up, Vince?" he asked, his voice muted.

"Not a whole lot on the outside, Adam. What've you got here?" Lieutenant Vince "Stryker" Rambo crossed to the other side of the medbed, gazing intently at Kerbe.

Guardian sighed. "I wish I knew. We've done everything we can--bacta, exploratory scans, everything. Her wounds are healed, and we're not getting anything that should be permanent internal, but... I can't get her to wake up. Granted, I'm not a veterinarian, and I've crashed every library file on this ship to find something to help, but I'm at the end of my rope here. I'm tired, too, which doesn't help. The Admiral wants this kept ultra-hush-hush, so us flyboys are the only ones allowed in here."

Stryker nodded, then flipped on the shipboard com. "Corsair Exec to Deck Officer."

"Deck Officer here, Stryker. Go ahead."

"Skip, where's Mynock?"

"He's running sprints right now, Stryker." Mon Calamari Cruisers, especially when on supportless voyages into possibly hostile country, always kept a pair of fighters prepped and ready for launch at a moment's notice. The pilots were held in a ready room where they could reach their ship and be launched to put up a first-wave screen in thirty seconds. The run from the ready room to the fighters was drilled to be an all-out sprint, as anything slower could result in the attackers getting a hazard-free attack run on the Cruiser. On the Liberty, since the A-wing had been designed as an interceptor, Corsair Squadron invariably drew the usual sprint duty. "What'dya need him for?"

"Have him report to the medical bay as soon as he's finished there, will you? Corsair Exec out." With that, Stryker turned back to Guardian. "Mynock's one of our new guys. He's a full surgeon, too, so maybe he knows a few tricks you don't."

Guardian nodded slowly. "Yeah, I've got a new one, too. Greywolf. Problem is, he's running replacement on one of the patrols and won't be back for a while. Thanks, Vince."

Stryker grinned. "Anytime, buddy. Anything else I might be able to do?"

"A cup of coffee would taste real good right now. Cutter, can you hold down the fort?"

The droid nodded, not looking up from its scanners, and Guardian removed the medical smock he was wearing and tossed it on one of the counters. "I'll be back in a few."

The pair of pilots ducked out of the medical bay, nodded to the naval trooper standing sentinel in front of the door, and began a slow trek to the lounge. They hadn't made it four steps down the hallway when an announcement rang over the ship's address system: "Starfighter Command personnel report to the command briefing room. Starfighter Command report to the command briefing room."

Stryker and Guardian looked at the address speaker, then to each other. "Great," Adam sighed. "There goes that coffee."

Captain Jim "Raven" Lee was the last of the command personnel to duck into the briefing room. He quickly slipped into the seat next to his XO, Guardian, and handed his junior officer a cup of coffee. "You're a lifesaver," Guardian whispered, sucking the steaming liquid down. Raven just grinned, taking a sip of his own coffee. The Buccaneer commander risked a quick glance around the briefing room. Electro's chair was empty, but Stryker was at his spot, as was Commander Peter "Rogue Leader" Simmons and his XO, Lieutenant Commander Bill "Jedi" Morrison. A few more people were scattered about. One Raven recognized as C'our Denran, chief of the Liberty's Intelligence unit. Most of the others wore sergeant stripes on their uniforms, and seemed to be technical personnel.

The muted conversations taking place in the briefing room died as Admiral Ra'kaat entered, followed by a Mon Cal aide. The Admiral strode to the front of the room, his shoulders bowed forward under some kind of invisible weight. Guardian shot Raven an inquisitive look, to which Lee just shrugged. Both pilots returned their attention to the Admiral as he spoke.

"All of you in this briefing room know that Captain Christian "Electro" Schock is missing. For now, the official report is this: Captain Schock is listed as MIA, whereabouts unknown. All personnel that do not need to know of this incident have been told nothing. Exceptions are the piloting staff, and the higher-ups in medical. By now you've surmised that the official line is not the truth. As much as I wish it were, it seems that someone has vested a personal interest in Captain Schock. Two hours ago, we received an encrypted message from a small source within this system. We dispatched a pair of A-wings to locate the sender; they closed to within half a kilometer of its position and it self-destructed. Intelligence has decrypted the transmission, and its contents are to be held in the utmost secrecy."

Ra'kaat touched a button on his briefing podium, and the lights dimmed. A holoprojector lowered from the ceiling, and in a burst of green light an image appeared. "Greetings, Admiral, and anyone else present," the attractive female in the hologram said. "I assure you, this is no trick. My name is unimportant, although I'm sure that your Raven can tell you who I am. It's what I have that will interest you more. Captain Schock is a... guest of mine. His, and your, interference in my Runners operation cost me a fortune. I want it back. This will be an exchange, pure and simple: you give me two-and-a-half million credits, and I'll return your hero. Don't think about it too long, gentlemen. I'll be in touch." With that, the hologram exploded into a myriad of green flakes. Ra'kaat reactivated the lights.

"Since Rogue Squadron is gearing up to strike at the Imperial weapons depot in the neighboring Syrtin system, its involvement will be kept at a minimum." Ra'kaat nodded at the Rogue officers. "Gentlemen, I'm taking your flight off of sprint status. You need to focus on your mission." Then, the Admiral addressed Guardian. "Lieutenant Burns, how is Kerbe?"

Guardian sighed. "I wish I could tell you, sir."

"Keep working. Use whoever you see fit." Guardian nodded. "Captain Lee, Lieutenant Rambo, I need to speak with the pair of you. The rest, dismissed." Raven and Stryker remained seated as the others shuffled out of the room. As soon as they were alone, Ra'kaat continued. "I've contacted General Cracken. He's sending a Special Operations man out to us. He should be arriving within twenty-four hours. The three of you will work on a plan to get Captain Schock back. Any questions?"


"Blood Ransom"

Part Six

"So, Kreys, how is our guest?" Lee Lo's voice was cool and even. Its casual tone made Iretis Kreys sweat. As chief of Lo's medical personnel, he had been hired to erase any wounds that their mark had suffered during the kidnapping. When he'd been hired, he hadn't know much about Lee Lo, except that she paid well. Once he'd been in, he started hearing things. Because of what he'd heard, Iretis Kreys was worried.

"Ah, Miss Lo, he's...well, it's strange." Lo's eyebrow peaked, and Kreys licked his lips and continued. "He's not responding to the bacta. We've managed to close his wounds, but our equipment hasn't picked up even the smallest indication that his body is regenerating the lost cell tissue. He's not even scarring. He's running a temperature and complains constantly of being cold, only broken by hot shivers. I don't think he realizes where he is, or what has happened to him. He can't keep any food down, so we've had to hook up an IV and feed him through that. But there's no trace of sickness in him. All the blood samples we've taken have come back clean. My people are stumped."

"Perhaps your people are incompetent." Lo's voice dripped scorn.

"No!" Kreys disagreed vehemently. "My people are the best. There's simply no reason for this behavior. He's sick, and we don't know why. If I had access to his medical records, perhaps I would understand what was wrong with him."

"I understand, Kreys," Lo tossed over her shoulder as she turned toward the command center. "Keep watch over Mister Schock. Let me know the moment anything changes."

The Lambda-class shuttle gently touched down in the Liberty's main hangar bay. Unlike most Rebel shuttles, this one didn't have the Alliance sigil painted brightly on the broad-back stabilizer fin. The shuttle's loading ramp eased down from underneath the cockpit with a hiss and a cloud of white gas, and a lone figure with a travel bag slung over his shoulder debarked. The man's cool grey eyes scanned the area quickly, then he strode quickly out of the bay. He wore a single black jumpsuit with a captain's insignia, and a blaster pistol rode on his hip. He was a special operations field agent of Alliance Intelligence, referred to as a "spook" by the other military branches of the Alliance. He stepped into the first turbolift he came to, and punched the deck button for the bridge.

There was one other person in the lift, Corsair's Rafael "Hyl" Costa Guerra. Hyl was currently buried into a data readout, and didn't even notice the newcomer. The short ride passed without a word spoken between the men. The lift slowed and stopped. The spook grabbed his travel bag and started to exit the lift, but had to stop as Hyl marched forward, still not looking up from the datapad. The black-clad man shook his head, then stepped out onto the bridge.

He drifted forward onto the bridge until he was stopped by a security officer. "Can I help you, sir?"

The man nodded. "Yes, I'm Captain Kyle Murrian, Special Ops. Where's the Admiral?"

The officer nodded toward the back of the bridge. "In the command briefing room, sir."

"Thanks." Murrian turned, hefted his bag, and moved quickly back to the room marked "Briefing" in four languages. He entered without knocking, dropping his travel bag on the floor outside the room.

There were four people in the briefing room; all of them looked up at his entrance. The spook nodded a greeting. "I'm Captain Kyle Murrian. Cracken sent me."

Admiral Ra'kaat stood from his place at the table. "Thank you for coming, Captain. I'm Ra'kaat." The admiral nodded around the room as he made introductions. "Captain Jim Lee, Buccaneer CO. Lieutenant Vince Rambo, Corsair XO. Flight Officer Rafael Costa Guerra, Corsair Six. Now, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have a ship to run." A half-hearted salute to Murrian, and the admiral was gone.

Raven offered a chair. "Take a seat, call me Raven. It's easier." Murrian dropped into the chair, and Raven handed the spook a datapad. "Here's what we have so far. Transcription of the ransom demand, technical specs on the A-Wing he was flying, readout of the missing." Murrian gave all the files a once-over, then nodded.

"I'm going to need a liaison. I'm also going to want to know what I have to work with."

Stryker looked up at Hyl. "You're getting into intelligence, aren't you?" Hyl nodded slowly, and the XO kept going. "Fine then. Stick with the Captain here. Pick up some tricks, and do whatever he asks." Stryker then turned his attention back to the spook. "So, what's next?"

"Well, the explosion was planted, that's pretty obvious. Let's start there. They've got a mole onboard, and that's the key. Now..." Murrian closed his eyes, thinking. "...let's start with everyone who's new on the ship, say, four months time. Then, anyone with access to the hangar, and anyone who could get their hands on a patrol schedule."

"Patrol schedule? Hangar access?" Hyl's voice sounded incredulous. "What's this all about?"

"Easy," Murrian answered. "There was someone waiting for Captain Schock on the other side. They knew where he'd be, more than when he was out. And the bomb was internal, someone planted it. So that's where we start."

The spook opened his eyes. "So, if that's the last question, let's find your friend."


"Blood Ransom"

Part Seven

Lee Lo paced back and forth in the control room of her Tresarc pirate base. Her brow was locked into a permanent furrow, and underneath her beautiful visage her jaw was clamped shut. Everything was going according to plan, true enough. However, that Electro was this sick was not part of her plan.

Her medics were still stumped, and nothing they were doing was helping. If anything, he was getting worse. He'd gone into a coma several hours ago, and they hadn't be able to revive him. He still broke into shivers every so often, although his temperature constantly broke a hundred degrees. However, there was nothing she could do but continue her plan.

She stepped in front of the holorecorder, the remote in her hand. A blank wall was behind her, just in case, and she sighed, steadied herself, and pressed the "record" button. "Hello again, Admiral," she breathed effortlessly, "I told you I'd be in touch. Now, about our deal. You will have one of your people, Private Lumi Rus'ti, take a black briefcase full of the money to the Spacer's Inn in Joronan City, Joronan, Utren System. She will go alone, and once she's there, she will be contacted by one of my agents on the whereabouts of Captain Schock. This transfer will take place in four days' time, so you have plenty of time to finish your current mission. Take care, Admiral." With that, Lee switched off the recorder and turned to one of her aides. "Send the package to Teeves. However, add a personal message... make sure he's ready for another data pull. We might need to make a contingency plan."

"A contingency plan, ma'am?"

"Yes. Our medical people are ineffective. We need someone who knows Schock's medical history. I believe that one of their pilots is also a medic. As much as I'd rather not, we may need to create another vacancy on their flight roster."

Flight Officer Eloy "Mynock" Cintron shook his head. "It's no use. There's nothing like her anywhere in the records." He turned away from the screen and looked across the medical table at Guardian. "I have no idea even where to begin."

Flight Officer David "Greywolf" Rollins sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Sorry, guys, my specialty is prosthetics. I can't help you too much."

Guardian threw his hands up in disgust. "Dammit, Electro, I told you this would happen." He turned and walked over to another table, and stretched out. He sighed and leaned back, relaxing and closing his eyes. After a moment, he felt uneasy and opened his eyes, only to look directly into a pair of large green-black eyes and a mouth lined with double rows of curved, razor sharp teeth. "What the...?"

The face contorted into a grin and smiled at Guardian, who leapt up off the table and at least four feet away. "GOD...!!" Guardian started. Greywolf and Mynock both spun at Adam's outburst. "What?"

"Rory, what are you doing?" Guardian screamed at Rogue Squadron's talisman who was hanging upside down from the ceiling.

"Helllloo, Guardiannn," the Banshee hissed. "How'ssssss Kerbeeee?"

Guardian turned away from the reptile, trying to keep from screaming again. "I don't know," he muttered between clenched teeth. "I haven't known, and I still don't know."

Greywolf leaned over to Mynock. "What the hell is that?"

Eloy shrugged. "I have no idea. Perhaps we should call security?"

Guardian caught the comment and nodded over his shoulder. "Gentlemen, this is Rory. Rory, this is Mynock and Greywolf." The Banshee snorted and jumped down to the floor. Guardian closed his eyes, remembering the speech Raven had given him the first time Adam had ever seen Rory. "Um... guys, Rory is a Banshee. Don't feed the Banshee. Don't loan the Banshee money. Don't tease the Banshee. And don't ever, ever, wager with the Banshee."

"Oh," Mynock said trying to take the odd scene in. "Okay." Greywolf just stared at Guardian and the strange scaly creature.

Rory rose up on his hind legs and walked to the side of the medbed and craned his non-existent neck into an 'S' curve and managed to look down at Kerbe. "What'sssss wrong withhh herrrrrr?"

"Get out of here, will you?" Guardian tapped the Banshee lightly on the snout. "We're trying to work."

"Be nnnnnice, Adamm," Rory growled. "You mightttt notttt gettttt thattttt hand backk."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure." Guardian kicked the door open and held it with his boot. "C'mon, you lug. We need to save your little friend." Rory slithered out, and Guardian sighed. "Well, that was fun."

"Did he really mean what he said about your hand?" Greywolf asked, his eyebrow raising.

"Yep."

"So why weren't you more careful?" Mynock finished.

"Well, I wouldn't recommend either of you touch Rory uninvited. But I've spent a lot of hours talking to him, trying to figure out what exactly he is, and I don't think he's really as tough as he makes out. Against pirates, yeah, and stormies, but with those he accepts as 'acquaintances of his h'spok' by which I think he means 'friends', I don't think so. 'Sides, I owe him money so I felt pretty safe. Now, back to the real problem. Any ideas?"

Both junior officers sighed. Greywolf looked around nervously, trying to figure out how the reptile got into the medbay in the first place. "Yes, I do have an idea." Mynock stepped to the comm unit and keyed it for the Lounge. "Medical to Mess."

"Rooster here. What do y'all need?"

"Roo, this is Mynock. Could you send a load of coffee and a few cups our way? We might be here a while."

"Sure, I..." their conversation was interrupted by the all hands channel. "Scramble alert! All Corsair and Buccaneer pilots to report to the flight deck immediately. Launch sprint."


"Blood Ransom"

Part Eight

He slipped back out of unconsciousness, out of the black that surrounded him. His head ached. A dull, throbbing pain at the base of his skull. It hurt his head to breathe, to think, but he did anyway.

He rolled over, pushing himself up to his knees, trying to remember. His hand brushed over his left forearm, where he kept his holdout in a concealed holster. It wasn't there. His eyes were open, but it didn't help. He still couldn't see. He wiped green crust from his eyes and shook his head, trying to remember more.

There had been a scramble alert. Buccaneer and Corsair were launching. Down at the flight bay, he had been briefed. Local distress beacon, pirate attack on a freighter, the freighter had taken casualties and needed help. Corsair had already launched four fighters--Fireball, Parody, Hyl, and one of the new guys. Buccaneer had scrambled Groznik and Arakyd just in case, but they were waiting for him to get there, to help out onboard. Something about the rescue shuttles being down. He launched, regardless, no wingman, little sleep. When he got there, the Corsairs had driven the pirates off, and were maintaining a patrol. Groz and Arakyd were heading back to the Liberty. He had simply pulled next to the freighter, grabbed his medical kit, and went on board.

There was a man at the airlock, who led him into the cargo bay. From the looks of it, one of the gun wells had exploded, wounding one of the crew. He knelt next to the wounded man, and turned the body over, but...

That's where it ended. He remembered a tingling sensation register in his back as he moved to the fallen man's side, and then nothing. He coughed, reflexively, clearing his throat, and was rewarded by a piercing light erupting in front of him. "God..." he managed to mutter before the sound caught in his throat. He lifted an arm to try to shield his eyes from the bright light, and didn't see the body of the man who grabbed his collar and pitched him through the light.

He landed face-down in a room full of dazzling whiteness. His eyes adjusted slowly, and he looked up, right into a pair of bantha-skin boots. He followed the form up, pushing his body up on his arms and straining his neck back. The person standing in front of him was the same woman who he'd seen in the holo messages sent to the Liberty. The one Raven had called "Lee Lo."

"Can I help you?" Guardian spat weakly.

The lithe form gestured to the two thugs behind and to the side of him. "Sarcasm will not be tolerated. You have been brought here to do a job. Successful completion of this job will result in your return to the Liberty. Fail, and you will be killed. Do you understand?"

"Name," Guardian whispered, "Adam Burns. Rank: Lieutenant, Buccaneer Squadron Executive Officer. File Numb..."

One of the goons stepped forward and brought his boot rather forcefully into Guardian's face, flipping the pilot onto his back He then brought the heel of his boot down into the pit of Guardian's stomach. Burns doubled, folding up and around the leg. He clamped down on the man's foot with his right hand, and jabbed upward with his left. His fist connected with the man's groin, doubling him over with a gasp. Guardian grabbed the man's weapon and pitched him forward, using the momentum from the throw to roll over and come to his knees. He trained his weapon on Lee Lo, but held his fire; the other three guards all brought their guns up at him. Lo just stood there, her cold eyes watching him intently.

"So, Mr. Burns, are you going to kill me?"

Guardian's eyes flicked over everyone in the room, then returned to meet Lo's glare. "No. Your goons haven't shot me yet, which means you need me alive. I really don't feel like throwing my life away, so..." He let go of the grip of the blaster, letting the weapon spin up toward the ceiling. One of the armed thugs snatched the blaster away, and Guardian raised his hands. A pair of the guards grabbed his arms and bent them behind his back; Guardian winced with the new pain, but said nothing.

Lee Lo turned and marched down a side corridor. Guardian followed, but not of his own will--the thugs shoved him down the hallway like they were escorting a prisoner to the Burning chamber. Lo opened a side doorway, not unlike the one they'd pulled Adam out of, then stepped inside. Guardian followed, but stopped halfway through the doorway.

This room was highly unlike the one he'd first found himself in. It was dominated by a large cluster of medical scanners and other medical equipment, all hovering over a central table. Electro lay on the table, laid out in his flightsuit. Adam saw several bulges that would've been bandages or bacta packs on Electro's person, and quickly ran a trained eye over the scanners. Chris was alive, but just barely.

Lee Lo turned to Guardian. "Well, Lieutenant Burns, here is your job. Save Captain Schock's life." Lo's goons shoved Guardian fully into the room, then Lo quickly moved to the door behind him. She stopped as Adam grabbed her arm; out of the corner of his eye, Guardian saw the guards raise their weapons.

"I'm going to need my medical kit--the black case that I had on the freighter." With that, Adam let her arm go. Lee nodded, then stepped out and the door sealed behind her. Guardian turned to Electro's inert form. "Well," he sighed. "I'll see what I can do."

Raven leaned forward over his third shot of scotch. He held his head in his hands, and couldn't decide if he should down it or pitch it across the lounge. He barely moved as Roo dropped her elbows down on the bar in front of him. "What's up, boss?"

"Guardian's gone."

Roo's receptors all faded into a dull white. "What?"

"Guardian's gone. We got a distress call from some freighter. Corsair chased these pirate Y's off, then Guardian went aboard to help. Next thing Groz knew, the freighter was hypering out."

Roo half-turned, her jaw moving but no sound coming out. After a few moments, she found her voice. "Do you think it's the same people who grabbed Electro?"

Raven shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. I don't understand why, though."

"Why Guardian? What'd Adam ever do to anyone? He wasn't even here during that whole Runners thing."

"I don't know, Roo," Raven said, his voice raising slightly. "I just..." He trailed off, realizing something. "Roo, how did you know that Electro got grabbed?"

The Lumi shrugged. "I heard one of the crew talking about it."

"So, how'd they find out it was the same people from the Runner's scheme?"

"I don't know. Why?"

Raven tossed back the shot and grabbed Rooster's arm and began to march her out of the lounge. "Easy. Nobody who knew was supposed to say anything. So either we have a leak, or maybe the traitor on board slipped up and we can trace him. Now come on, I've got someone I need you to meet."


"Blood Ransom"

Part Nine

Rooster had been able to recount for Kyle Murrian every person she had spoken with and what each person had said regarding Electro's disappearance. "You have remarkable recall, private," he said.

"It's a talent most Lumi's have," returned Rooster. "But is this really important? Will it help find Captain Schock?"

Kyle Murrian conferred with Raven, Hyl, and Stryker for a few moments and left the three Liberty pilots intently pouring over a computer display and turned back to face the uneasy Rooster. "I think so private. I think so."

Hyl pointed at the screen. "Here!" he exclaimed. "Came aboard a month ago. Teeves is his name. But how did he get the flight information?"

Raven pressed a button on the commlink on the conference table. "Get me Lieutenant Schenk," he said to the duty officer in Operations. Then to Hyl, "Hang on, I think I know how we can find out."

The commlink came to life, "Schenk here."

"Eddie, this is Jim. Listen dude, how can I determine if a slicer might have been doing some unauthorized computer access? We think that someone on the Liberty illegally tapped into the Tac Ops files."

Eddie "Storm" Schenk, in addition to being the best fighter pilot in Rogue, had a computer warfare rating of seven. "Tough one Raven, if the bloke tapping in is any good at it. He'll have avoided the normal safeguards or we'd already have heard about the tap. Hmm, any idea where he could have entered the system? Did he use a ship's terminal? If he sliced into the optics he'd of run the risk of triggering any of a dozen safeguards. Easier to use a terminal."

Raven looked at Hyl who turned back to his datapad. There followed some discussion of the various places that Teeves might have broken into. Stryker was arguing that security was too tight for anyone to have gotten physically onto the Operations deck when Rooster, who had been trying to get the assembled pilots attention, emitted a ear-piercing whistle. Everyone fell silent and turned to stare at her.

"Ah, what about the terminal in the galley on C deck? It's a smart terminal and tied into the main computer core." She looked at the pilots a bit apprehensively.

The investigators, with Rooster in tow, hurriedly made their way to the galley in question and there they met up with Storm. He sat down at the station and plugged an analyzer into the auxiliary data port. "Most slicers are very careful about leaving tracks in the systems they break into, but are sometimes careless at their entry point when they think it's secure."

Storm's fingers flew across the keypad and it wasn't long before he nodded and grimly announced, "Here it is. This station was used to access the central core just before Electro went missing. See here," he indicated a file that was displayed on the analyzer screen. "He dumped the Op log that had the details of Corsair's recon flight to the local terminal here. Once he read it he then deleted the file. Looks like he's been reading the daily Tac Ops postings several times since as well. I think you've found your man."

"We know who we want, but we haven't found him yet," said Kyle Murrian. He flipped on his hand-held commlink and issued orders to security to pick up Teeves.

Raven looked thoughtful. "Kyle, if Teeves is this clever he won't be easy to surprise. I suggest you have Ra'kaat seal the ship. Hyl, get down to the flight deck and get all departures canceled. I'm going down to the Lounge."

There was an awkward moment with everyone but Storm looking somewhat uncomfortable with Raven's last announcement. Raven regarded his comrades and gave a sly wink to Storm. "To have a word with Rory, who is playing in a Sabacc game at the moment. If anyone can find a single person on a large starship, it's a Banshee."

The Lounge was near pitch dark and Raven worked his way carefully over to the Sabacc tables. Rory was sitting at an empty table and was intently watching Mixer at the bar as he poured drinks. "Game break up early?" he asked as he sat down. He placed the bag he was carrying next to the chair.

The Banshee cocked his head and regarded Raven with one eye, the other staying on the bartender. "Yessss. I sssseem to have run out of credits. Have you found Electro yyyet?"

"No, but that's what I came to talk to you about."

"You musssst find him soooon. Kerbeeee needsss Electro." The gator turned both eyes back towards the bar. "I have said thissss to Mynockkkk, but he doesss not understand."

Raven scratched the side of his face. "How do you know Kerbe needs Electro. Is that why she is sick? Because they have been separated? Can you talk to her?"

"Noooo. Ssshe does not talk to me. But I hear her. Ssshe speakssss only you do not hear. Her need iss great. Soooon she will die. Find Electro or he will die as well." Then without hardly a pause he asked, "Do you think Mixer will extend you any more credit on your bar tab?"

Taking a deep breath, Raven reminded himself for the millionth time that his alien friend's thought processes were very different from any creature he had ever encountered and could not be judged by human standards. "Rory, there's a human on board who knows where Electro is. His name is Teeves and he's somewhere on the ship."

"Teevesssss? I do not know hisss ssssmell," replied the Banshee. But Raven noticed he again had one hundred percent of the reptile's attention.

"Here," said Raven. He pulled a pair of work coveralls from the kit bag he was carrying. "I got these from his quarters. We need to find him fast and find out where his friends have taken Electro. They, have, ah" Raven knew that Rory did not understand the concept of 'capture' or 'incarceration' so he did not know how to explain what Lee Lo had done. Then he thought of a concept that the Banshee understood very well. "You see, Teeves and his friends have 'stolen' Electro from us and from Kerbe."

Rory was now very interested. "They will eat Electro? He is their enemy? A matter of honor perhapssss""

Raven knew he was finally getting his point across. "No, they will not eat him. The want to trade him for credits. They are wagering with us but it is without honor. And they are killing Kerbe and perhaps Electro for that matter. Look, there's a Special Operations officer in charge and he's searching the ship, looking for this man even as we speak. But the cruiser is a big place with lots of places to hide. Can you find Teeves, and can you find him right away?"

Both of the massive foreclaws of the reptile sank effortless into the top of the marble Sabacc table as Rory sniffed the garment. The scales of the Banshee took on a deeper green coloring and began to go black around the edges, a sign that he was very angry indeed. Raven knew that Rory was very touchy on the matter of what he called 'honor' and that he had definitely touched a nerve. The problem was you never knew quite what to expect from a Banshee with a sore nerve. Raven stared slack-jawed as Rory's eyes suddenly rolled back into his skull. The massive jaws parted and deep thrumming sound began to emanate from the Banshee. "Geez! No! No! Damn-it! Not again!" shouted Raven as he knocked his chair over backwards and scrambled away from the Sabacc table as if he were trying to get away from the edge of the gates to hell.

Teeves shoved the last of the equipment he had stashed in the machine shop into his carryall. "Time to go," he said to himself. His black box had picked up an increase in commlink traffic and his sixth sense told him he had worn out his welcome on the Liberty. But he was not overly worried, as he had prepared for this eventuality shortly after he first arrived. By monitoring the security frequency he confirmed that a search was underway. And he figured he was the target of that search.

Trying to go to his quarters was out of the question so he slipped into the stolen overalls of a maintenance technician that he had stashed here with his tools. Working his way to the repair facilities of the Liberty, where a number of starfighters were being refitted with new motivators, he cautiously climbed up the ladder to the pressure-maintenance hatch leading up to the next deck. There was one tech at the other end of the bay, working on a partially disassembled X-Wing. Teeves slowly tried to work open the hatch but the release seemed to be stuck. He heard the sounds of the blast doors opening at the far end of the bay and guessed that the search was closing in on him. Slipping a pry bar into his hand he tried the release lever again and it sprang open. The bar slipped from his grip and fell to the deck below with a loud clang.

Corporal Mike Hawkyard heard the noise and looked up just as a party of security officers entered. The senior officer checked Mike's ID and description against his datapad. "Have you seen anyone pass through here?" the officer asked.

"No, but I heard something over there," Mike said and pointed towards the ladder in the far corner of the bay.

A security rating found the pry bar on the floor and looked up the ladder. Climbing up to the hatchway he called down, "Looks like it's been opened recently."

"Damn! That leads to the shuttle bay." The officer in charge counted off two of his search party. "You and you, up the ladder and secure it from that side. The rest of us will get to the mid-ships turbolifts and go up that way." With that the security detail split up and moved off at a run. Mike shrugged and went back to work on the X-Wing.

Two decks down and going in the opposite direction, Teeves had to resist stopping to pat himself on the back. He was leading the search teams on a merry chase. "Easy as stealing candy from a babe," he said. He was monitoring the security channel and knew the chase was centering on the shuttle deck. "Too obvious! What a bunch of shmoes!" He was now near the aft end of the Calamari warship, just forward of the massive engines. He needed a speedy exit from the Liberty and here he had prepared an escape pod for just such a contingency. He slipped into the seldom-used part of the ship, being careful to avoid any surveillance cameras. The pod was just as he had left it weeks ago. He checked the hair thin wire he had placed near the top of the lock. If the pod had been opened the wire would be broken but it was still in once piece. "Better and better," he said to himself.

He had rerouted the sensors and remote computer controls for this pod and had modified the ejection sequence. He could release the pod without the event registering on the bridge and instead of an explosive ejection the pod could be eased slowly away from the cruiser. "By now they're searching all the shuttles and real soon some bright boy will figure out that they can better secure the ship by taking it into hyperspace. And just before they do I'll slip away and they'll never know I'm gone. Man, I am good!"

He entered the pod and resealed the lock behind him. Just to make sure he scrambled the door entry sequence and then searched the small pod from one end to the other. With satisfaction he sat down in the pilot's chair and relaxed. From his bag he took a small box and set it on the console, this would warn him just before the Liberty made a jump to hyperspace. He would then disengage the pod and drift away from the rapidly accelerating cruiser.

He stretched and closed his eyes. "Life is good!" he said just as a strange sensation seemed to pass through him and his ears popped as though the pressure had changed inside the pod.

The last thing in the galaxy he expected was a response to his statement but that's just what he got. "Dependsssss on how long you haaave to live it, nooooooo?" A voice that sounded a lot like a leaky steam pipe said.

Teeves spun around and sitting in the acceleration chair next to his was a huge, green, scaly reptile with a preponderance of teeth, and some rather nasty looking claws. Shock and bewilderment passed over his face and Teeves wondered if he was hallucinating. Not that it really mattered he thought as he slipped his hand into his carry-all and gripped a vibro-blade in his right hand. Rory slipped out of the chair and hooked one claw in Teeves overalls and pulled him very close so that they were almost nose to nose. "Nowwww, tell me, where issssss Electroooo?"

In the medical bay a torn and broken body was floating in a bacta tank. The left leg was missing just below the hip and there were massive chunks of flesh missing from the right shoulder and lower left abdomen. The right arm ended at the elbow. Mynock had worked for two hours just to stabilize him enough to get him in the bacta. He pictured Guardian tapping the creature he called 'Rory' on the snout and shuddered.

In a nearby conference room Kyle Murrian was listening to Raven talk to the creature described to him only as a 'Banshee'. The creature was very difficult to understand, as his Basic seemed to consist mostly of slurs and hisses.

Finally, Raven stood up. "Kyle, Rory has the coordinates of where they're holding Electro and Guardian. Seems Chris got hurt when they snatched him and they needed Guardian to try to patch him up. But Rory thinks it's paramount that we get Kerbe and Electro reunited soon or they'll both die."

Stryker looked puzzled, "Kerbe? What's Kerbe got to do with it?"

"I don't know but Rory thinks it's important. Very important. Kerbe and Rory are pretty close and if Rory says it's a good idea I'd go along with it. After all, he not only found Teeves he managed to, ah, debrief him pretty thoroughly."

Kyle snorted. "That's one way to put it. What exactly does the Banshee say is the connection between Kerbe and Captain Schock?"

"Well," Raven said. "He didn't say exactly."

"He doesn't know?"

"Look Kyle, Rory didn't say. That does not necessarily mean he doesn't know. He's a sentient being but his is a different kind of intelligence than ours. He is under the impression that he knows what he's doing and he is trying to help us as best he can. If you think you can get more out of him, be my guest."

Kyle looked at the massive Banshee, the creature seemed to be twice the size it was when it had first entered the room. Then he thought of what was left of Teeves, floating in the bacta tank down the hall. "No, I don't think that will be necessary. Hyl, tell Mynock to get Kerbe ready to travel. We're going after Schock and Burns." He issued orders to have two assault transports prepared and to have the commando teams standing by for briefing. Then he turned back to Raven. "Captain, do you think the, ah, Banshee would accompany the attack force?"

Raven shrugged and didn't say a word. But Rory rose up into a sitting position and curled his massive head down so he was looking eye to eye with the Special Operations officer. Twin rows of curved teeth seemed to extend from the massive jaws as the creature's mouth opened. "Yesssssss Kyle Murrrrrian, I will go withhhhh youuu. Together we will eat these people who would killll Kerbeeee."


"Blood Ransom"

Part Ten

"Hey, buddy, you feeling better?"

Guardian wiped a damp cloth across Electro's forehead. The cool water felt good against Chris' face, and he opened his mouth to try to lap some into his dry throat. The rag disappeared from his skin, and the lip of a cup was brought to his mouth. Guardian tipped the cup and let a trickle of water into his mouth. "Swallow that, and keep it down. I don't know if they're bugging us, but the equipment I've got running should screen us if we're quiet. How do you feel?"

Without opening his eyes, Electro rolled his head side-to-side. "Not so good, huh? All right. Now, I've given you some stimulants and I adjusted the instruments to keep up the illusion that you're still unconscious. So no sudden movements or they'll know you're okay, and once that happens, I'm dead.

Electro mouthed the word "What?"

"Simple, boss. You're the one that they're demanding ransom for. I'm just here to keep you alive. I haven't been with the Liberty long enough to make too much of a difference, and no one would really pay all that much for a new XO anyway, so once my usefulness is up, I'm expendable. I figure they'll either kill me outright or keep me to assure a clean getaway, then fry me."

Electro shook his head back and forth weakly. "You can't prove that," Guardian whispered. "Now just rest. You're conscious, but you haven't had anything to eat in a long time. Save your strength."

"Rescue," Electro mouthed.

"Right. I don't know if the guys are coming for us, but if they are, we want you as a trump card. The bad guys might come to move us, and you could jump 'em, or something. I won't be too much help." Guardian winced and touched his black eye. "Thanks to a friend's boot, it's not all that easy to see."

Electro shook his head, then slowly, agonizingly slowly, reached a hand out to Guardian's shoulder. He squeezed gently, then dropped his hand again as his head lolled to the side. "Yeah, pal, we'll get out of here. Now sleep."

Guardian shook his head. "I don't know if I dare pump him full of any more stimulants, and he's still weak as a kitten," he thought grimly to himself.

Lee Lo threw the comm relay away, annoyed. For three hours she'd tried to raise Teeves, with no luck. There were two possibilities: the first, he was having to lay low, and the second, the one she actually suspected, he'd been caught. She turned and called for her medic.

Kreys hurried over. Ever since they'd captured the second pilot, he hadn't needed to be near their guest's side to make sure he didn't die. Check-ins every three hours were necessary, however, to monitor any changes. "How is he?" Lo queried, knowing full well that Kreys had just finished one such check.

"He looks better, but there's no change on the monitors." Kreys shook his head. "The surveillance bug hasn't picked up anything either, but I warned you that his equipment would interfere."

"Can we move him?"

Kreys was taken back for a moment. "Move him? Where?"

"I can't raise Teeves. They may be on to us. We might have to relocate, in a hurry. See to it."

Kreys shrugged and nodded. "I wouldn't recommend it, but you're the boss." The medic tossed a salute and left the command center. Lee Lo watched him leave, then picked the comm link back up. Time to try again.


"Blood Ransom"

Part Eleven

The assault transport had seen better days. Much better. It had been appropriated by the Alliance after an Imperial raid on a backwater world had left it crash landed in rocky terrain. The rebel technicians had once again made it serviceable, if only barely, and now it served the cause of freedom like the armed men aboard her.

The transport was fully laden as it made its way slowly through the atmosphere of Neba II. The rear of the cramped compartment was dominated by a stretcher that held the still form of a small furred quadruped and a drip bottle that nourished her. Forward of that, two rows of armed commandos sat, talking quietly, making final checks of their equipment and weaponry before the assault that was only minutes away. On the flight deck of the transport, in reality only a space set apart by an airtight bulkhead which contained room for a pilot, copilot and gunner, sat two long time comrades in arms and one genetically engineered Banshee.

"Rory will you please stop moving around so much, the cabin is too small." Raven eyed the Banshee in some annoyance, it had been a long trip and Rory's increasingly frequent movement in the cramped space was starting to grate on his nerves.

Rory continued his activity, only a passing glance giving evidence that he had even heard Raven's comment.

Stryker grinned at Raven's failed attempt to discipline his friend and chimed in with his own comment. "Rory, I told you you should have gone to the bathroom before we left." His comment elicited a short hiss from Rory and a pained half smile from Raven.

Raven returned his attention to his pilot's console and activated the communications system. "Hammer to Tong, beginning final decent."

Moments later a voice barely recognizable as Kyle Murrian responded. "Tong to Hammer, acknowledged and confirmed. We have entered the pattern."

Lee Lo and her band of outlaws were hiding out on a small, under populated planet in the outer rim. Ironically it was the kind of place the Alliance often used for temporary bases. The planet had nothing to recommend it to the Empire, little in the way of industry or important natural resources. Only a few hearty pioneers who'd rather be left alone eked out a difficult existence here. Raven and Stryker had both requested to fly the assault transports in. They weren't really ground fighters of course, though in a pinch both could fire a blaster well enough. Still, their loyalty to their friends made up in zeal what they lacked in experience. Indeed, virtually every pilot aboard the Liberty had volunteered for the mission.

They were now only a few short minutes from touchdown.

Kreys dozed in front of the console. It was boring work watching the sensors. Work for a droid or menial, beneath him as a highly trained medical man. But, since the arrival of the second pilot from the Liberty he'd been judged to be "extraneous" and spent most of his working hours sitting in front of these screens that never registered a thing. His chin rested on his chest, arms folded in front of him, and snored lightly.

Lee walked past the small room that housed the sensor equipment and noticed the sleeping figure. Annoyed she retraced her steps and entered the room. Out of habit she checked the sensors and then stopped. "Not good." Two small ships were closing rapidly on their position.

She slapped Kreys across the head with the back of her hand. "Idiot, you should have warned use before now!"

Kreys, now awake, struggled to make sense of the situation. What came into focus before him was the realization of the critical mistake he'd made. His eyes went wide.

"Get down to the room with Captain Schock and prepare him for immediate evacuation. He'll go out on the shuttle," she paused and then continued, her voice as cold as ice, "and don't make any more mistakes, Kreys."

He nodded and ran from the room.

Lee stabbed furiously at a large yellow button on the console. Klaxons roared with displeasure throughout the base.

Stryker pointed out the window of the assault transport as it hurtled from the sky. "There, do you see it?"

"Yeah, I think that's it. Adjusting course and engaging braking thrusters." The transport began to slow its decent. The second transport piloted by Kyle Murrian hurtled past them at high speed.

"Our friend is in a bit of a rush." As Raven worked the controls bolts of bright red death lanced from near their landing target, just missing them. "I think Teeves left a few details out of his description of the base, Rory," he commented dryly.

"Noooo matterrrr," the Banshee hissed and craned his neck to see out the side window.

The lasers began to track the other transport, leaving Raven free to navigate. "Murrian is taking a lot of hits, his shields are getting pretty weak," Stryker noted with some alarm. "I don't think he's.... yeah, there, oh damn..."

The two pilots watched as the transport spun over and a few moments later plowed into the side of a small hill not 200 meters from the target.

"Hold on everyone, we're going in hot!" Raven shouted over the intercom.

Raven struggled with the controls, the assault transport wasn't very maneuverable in the atmosphere, and the gunnery skills of the defending outlaws were unnervingly good. Shots spanged off of the ships shields at irregular intervals. "Stryker, can you see the landing zone?"

"Aim about 10 degrees right, eight degrees down... but I suggest you just get us turf side in one piece."

That comment went unanswered as two more laser bolts struck the transport.

Kreys ran to the holding area, pulling out a blaster as he did so. He punched in his security code and, after checking to see where the two prisoners were on the monitors, entered the room. He pointed the weapon at Guardian and then advanced on the defenseless pilot.

The Hammer landed with a sickening lurch, its passengers thrown forward with the impact. Rory, his claws reflexively sunk into the deck plating, was the only one immediately able to take action. With speed that belied his size he opened the emergency hatch and darted from the transport.

"Welcome to scenic Neba," Raven commented dryly as he righted himself. He was about to tell the troops in the rear that it was safe to exit when he saw the first of them moving cautiously away from the downed ship toward what looked to be the entrance to the pirate base.

"Well 'doctor' its time to move our patient," Kreys addressed Guardian with a sneer. "But, I don't think I need you anymore. In fact, I think you're quite a liability. I'm not needed when you are here, so it's time for you to go."

Kreys moved menacingly forward and Guardian slowly backed away from the table upon which Electro lay prone. Kreys advanced until he stood with his back to Electro, very near the examining table, between it and Guardian.

"Hold on now, Kreys. No reason to gun me down. I'm happy to just stay here, really..."

Behind Kreys an arm moved ever so slowly and took firm grip of a hypodermic needle.

"... you can just tell Lo that you did me in, she'll never be the wiser."

With great effort Electro sat upright, in deathly silence, the strain showing clearly on his face.

"No, not worth the risk. I've no more time..."

With a sudden movement Electro stabbed the needle into the back of Kreys neck and in doing so fell on top of the man as the blaster went off.

Rory twisted through the ventilation shaft and found his way to the laser turret that had harassed the landing. Bursting inside he dispatched the still firing gunner in a haze of blood and bone. Never pausing he wrenched opened the normal access hatch and dropped quietly into the base below.

Hanging from the ceiling he saw three of the outlaws were hurrying away from him down the corridor, weapons at the ready. "There are troops at the main entrance, the blast doors will hold them until we get to the shuttle," one of them shouted to his fellows. Rory paused momentarily, then dropped to the floor. Deciding he seemed to flow across the floor in the direction from which they'd come.

As he turned a corner a straggler nearly ran into him. He reared up in some surprise as a blaster bolt dcorched a number of scales on his tough hide. In a fluid motion almost too fast to follow the Banshee's foreclaws sunk deep into the left arm and chest of the outlaw and then he threw the man aside as he continued on his way to the blast doors at the entrance, leaving a growing pool of blood behind him.

Lee strapped herself calmly into the seat of the speeder bike and adjusted her helmet. Without a glance back she kick started the machine and sped off down the dimly lit corridor. Pressing a button on the control stick opened an iris valve just in time for her to fly through at top speed. It closed neatly behind her. "At least I'll live to fight another day," she thought grimly to herself.

Guardian stared at the two bodies heaped in front of him for a moment, and then, cautiously he moved to see if Electro was all right. He picked the man up, and set him back on the table and turned to Kreys. He was obviously dead upon cursory examination, the needle still sticking out from the base of his neck.

"He dead?" croaked Electro.

"It sure looks that way. How are you feeling?" Guardian responded.

"I think I'm going to make it. In fact, I feel better by the... Kerbe!"

Guardian quickly looked around the room, but the little life partner was nowhere to be seen. The only door to the room remained closed. "Huh?" he ventured.

Electro smiled, "she's somewhere nearby, I can feel it."

"If you say so," Guardian was concerned that the strain of Electro's attack on Kreys coupled with the high dosage of stimulants may have caused serious damage to his friend. "Now's not the time for that worry, we've got to get out while we can," he thought to himself.

"Electro, can you walk, we have to leave now. Here I'll help you."

"No, I think I can make it." Electro stood and turned to the door. As he did so two Alliance commandos opened the door. "Good to see you two!" he said as he fell into Guardians arms.

Mynock picked himself off the floor of the transport and looked at his small charge. Her intravenous had been knocked loose and as he bent over her to reattach it he saw her move. "Kerbe?" he asked incredulous.

Tentatively the tip of her tailed lifted and then sank back onto the cot but her eyes were open. "That's amazing!" he wondered to himself.

The confusion of the initial attack had subsided. The assault team had satisfied themselves that there were no more of the outlaws at large. Only three had been taken alive when the commando team stormed the shuttle in the pirate hangar bay. The rest were in various stages of mutilation. Raven knew who was responsible for that, but Rory hadn't said a word about it.

Rory now stood guard over Kerbe. Mynock had entrusted Kerbe to his care after Raven had carried her to a reunion with Electro. The two of them were blissfully asleep in the small outlaw base and the Banshee was not letting anyone disturb them. Guardian assured him they were both out of danger. But, he could offer no explanation for either Electro's or Kerbe's seemingly miraculous recovery. Mynock had gone to assist in the first aid work where the first transport had gone down.

Outside, under a clear night sky, Raven looked up to see the shape of the Liberty's search and rescue ship landing to recover the wounded. "What's the status of the crew on board the Tong?" Guardian asked as he joined Raven on the grassy slope next to the Hammer.

Raven frowned at his friend's question. "Not good. Murrian survived, but there were a lot of casualties when it crashed."

Guardian surveyed the casualty list his commanding officer handed him, "Seven dead and fifteen wounded. We paid this ransom in blood."

The End