Toseng New Republic Brig
Contributions from: Foo, Dragon and Silence, Loth Cat, and Shadow
Captain Andy "Bulldog" Clark stumbled out of the brig into the bright midday Toseng sun. He shielded his eyes as the full, unfiltered light assaulted his eyes for the first time in a week. His muscles were unaccustomed to walking since he hadn't had much room to do much walking in his cell in the past few weeks, so they were already aching with exertion as his legs re-learned how to walk farther than the distance from his cot to the refresher. His broken ribs still smarted, but the pain had subsided in the last week to where he almost forgot a few had been cracked by an overzealous guard a month ago.
The base had changed in the intervening weeks he'd been locked away. It seemed like the number of personnel had quadrupled since he'd last been outside of the brig complex, and on top of that there seemed to be quite a sizable refugee settlement butted up against two of the walls of the base fences.
"Guards can't be happy with that many people so close to the wire," he said to himself with a whistle.
"They aren't, Captain," a familiar voice said from nearby.
Bulldog snapped his head to the side and almost toppled over as his equilibrium rebelled. He steadied himself with an arm against the wall of the brig building as he squinted at the source of the voice. "Major!"
"That's 'Lieutenant Colonel' to you now," Chris "Animal" Stephen said with a lopsided grin as he took a few steps to close the distance between them. "And I'm not the only one. Bearcat got his butter bars too."
"Look at that, I go away for a bit and you guys get promotions," Bulldog joked.
Animal spread his hands out and did a celebratory twirl. He shook Bulldog's hand and patted him on the shoulder, then took a step back and made an exaggerated show of sizing him up. "Looks like you lost weight in there, Cap. Did you go on a hunger strike?"
Bulldog snorted and weakly slapped Animal's shoulder. "They fed me just fine. Not much room to go walking around or working out while you're in the can, though."
"More motivation to stay out of trouble from now on I'd say," Animal replied, his smile lessening as the cause of his friend's detainment flashed back into his mind.
Bulldog caught the sudden shift in moods, and a hot wave of shame washed over his body. He hadn't expected people to forgive and forget, but he had fooled himself into thinking it wouldn't be thrown back into his face as quickly as two steps out of the building. He grimaced as he attempted to figure out the next move in rehabilitating his image. He also wondered just how much of his brig time that his commander was privy to, slightly hoping that the sudden shift was related more to what Bulldog had been through in the slammer rather than what had landed him there. "So, what's the news?"
"Walk with me, Captain," Animal said as he started slowly walking away. Seeing his friend stumbling after him, he continued. "We've got refugees flooding in and overwhelming our relief efforts, which you can see just outside the fences. We've stamped out most of the unit-sized Imperial holdouts, but there are still lots of guerilla elements that are active, as well as the local gangs and crime syndicates making life hell for ma and pa civilian. Ground security forces have their hands full on all fronts. For once, I'm thankful I'm a fighter jockey and able to fly over this stuff rather than walk through it."
Bulldog nodded as he took it all in. "Different phase of war, being peacekeepers instead of guerillas ourselves."
"You got that part right, Captain. The Colonel's got us running all kinds of recon and cover sorties for his raiding teams, but so far we haven't had much action ourselves. The new girl got to drop some proton bombs on a SAM site the other day though."
Bulldog's heart seized at the mention of Blue. "Casualties?"
Animal shook his head. "We're good. Ninx took some hull damage from that missile position, but it's nothing the Ugnaughts can't fix."
They came to the airfield with the parked fighters, now with some newly constructed hangars built into the ground. Groundcrew were shuttling the fighters into the new hangars as quickly as they could.
"Can't wait to get back into my own cockpit," Bulldog said as he looked around for his Y-wing.
Animal stopped and turned to face him, a dour look on his face. "You're still grounded, Captain. Suspended, actually."
Bulldog's eyes shot wide open. "Suspended? What does that even mean?"
"Well, you can't fly, obviously," Animal said, ticking points off on his fingers. "You also aren't officially on any duty rosters. You can't get into a cockpit, and have no duties to carry out. You're essentially on paid administrative leave as far as I can tell. The only reason you don't have any guards following you is that the ground forces are stretched to their breaking point as it is."
Bulldog looked around and confirmed that there were no military personnel following him or keeping tabs on him. "For how long?"
Animal shrugged. "Got me, Cap. If I had to guess, Shen'ryu is going to slow-roll any charges just to show Jalb he's still got some iota of control over him. I have to say, though, if Jalb does decide to go over his head to Starfighter Command with the accurate report of what happened, you can expect a possible Court Martial or even a transfer to another unit. For now, though, you just exist," he said with a sympathetic look.
Either Animal was keeping the death of the Imperial prisoners close to his chest, or he truly didn't know about it. However, Bulldog's shoulders sank with the news of a possible transfer. He'd come to grips with that possibility during his weeks in a cell, but hearing it out loud from a friend and superior still stung mightily. "Ok, so what can I do?"
Animal shrugged again. "Well, you're not allowed to do anything official," he said as he resumed walking back toward the Buccaneer Squadron billet building. "I had to replace you as my XO regardless of the outcome. You understand, right?"
Bulldog felt even more deflated, which surprised him. He'd rebelled at every turn to avoid promotions and leadership, but now that it was clear that he had been replaced, he was saddened as if he'd lost something vital to his being. Just as suddenly as the sadness had hit him, a feeling of elation overcame him as soon as he realized he wouldn't have the responsibility to be a leader any longer. He no longer held lives in his hands and had control over who lived and died. He felt... free.
"You good?" Animal asked, looking at him searchingly.
"Yeah, I understand, Boss," Bulldog replied flatly, before recovering himself enough to smile. "No hard feelings."
Animal seemed unconvinced, but nodded and smiled tightly as he gestured to the Buccaneer hooch. "Well, here we are. Not much has changed here at least aside from Foo getting a promotion and your old position. Your droid might be looking for you though, but I can't tell if he misses you or if he plans to zap you with that nasty arc-welder of his."
"Weight," Bulldog said wistfully, looking around to see if his black and red astromech was lurking about. "Maybe I'll go find him at the droid pool now to see what's up."
Animal smirked. "Don't want to come in and face the music just yet?"
Before Bulldog could respond, the door swung open. Recently promoted 2nd Lt. Zynnadi "Bearcat" and his closest friend Flight Officer Cho "Blue" Shuun exited the building, deep in conversation filled with giggles and good-natured growls. Once the large Cathar and the diminutive Pantoran saw the two officers, they snapped to attention and threw up smart salutes. "Lieutenant Colonel, Captain!"
Animal waved them away with a casual salute. "As you were, you two. Where are you heading?"
Bearcat and Blue looked at each other before responding. Blue stepped forward. "Truthfully, we were planning to go sightseeing in the capital city."
"Sounds less than fun with all that's going on outside these walls, flight officers," Animal replied dubiously. "We can't afford to lose you two to some random act of violence or radical guerilla elements and there aren't any ground troops that can provide security for your excursion."
Bulldog recognized the deflated mannerisms his two remaining recruits were showing at the denial. On the one hand, Animal's reasoning was completely sound. If the situation outside the walls was that tenuous, two New Republic pilots would be a prime target for assassination or kidnap for ransom. On the other hand, he knew what it was like for a pilot that needed to get out and see their surroundings on their feet rather than through the cockpit viewport. He stepped forward. "Boss, an idea."
Animal turned to face him, a look of suspicion on his face. "Speak, Captain."
Bulldog put on his most persuasive tone. "Perhaps, seeing as how I am unable to have any official duties, I could go along in plainclothes as their security. I've got experience outside of the military with crowded places. And being out of uniform, which I can't officially wear currently anyway, would be a great way to keep an eye on them without drawing attention to myself."
Animal pursed his lips and brought his hand to his chin as he mulled it over. Bearcat and Blue looked at their OC with hope. Animal looked back and forth between the two newer pilots, and then leveled a finger at Bulldog with a stern look on his face. "Ok. Two rules: The Captain is in charge... unofficially... of course, and if anything is amiss, you return to base immediately."
The Cathar flashed his fangs in happiness. A toothy grin took over Blue's face. They nodded in agreement eagerly. "Agreed!"
Bulldog smiled at their joy, feeling a spark of the same feeling welling up within his chest. "Give me a few minutes to get myself together. Meet me at the motor pool and requisition a skimmer."
"Captain!" Bearcat said, nodding impatiently. He and Blue spun on their heels and took off toward the motor pool at a trot. Blue patted Bearcat on the shoulder as they went.
"Thank the moon goddess!" Blue shouted joyously as she looked to the sky and pointed, a customary Pantoran religious custom. She didn't break stride as she did the rote gesture.
"Kids," Animal scoffed gently as he shook his head. He looked back at Bulldog with a serious expression. "I'm serious, Clark. No funny business, and no risks. I can't even begin to imagine the pain and suffering I'd be in for at the hands of Shen'ryu or Reynolds."
Bulldog feigned innocence as he gestured to himself with mock disbelief. "Me? Take risks?"
"I'm not kidding!"
"You've got the wrong guy, Ell-Tee-Cee. That was the guy that went into the brig weeks ago. I'm a new man."
At that moment, a loud blast of angry-sounding binary drew their attention from nearby. Skidding around the corner was a black and red astromech, its arc-welder deployed and sparking madly.
Animal shoved Bulldog away from the door, using the bulkier pilot's mass to propel himself into the door to the Buccaneer hooch.
Toseng City Streets
"Isn't this place wonderful?"
"It's... something," Bearcat responded as he examined their current surroundings with less awe and wonder than his friend. Wreckage from the battle was still easily visible despite the intense civilian and New Republic effort to clean up and rebuild. The governor's villa was being repaired, but the repairs on the wall were being undertaken ahead of the repairs to the partially destroyed governor's villa.
"We're in the Court District I believe, right?" Blue asked, puzzled as she looked at the woefully outdated map that predated the recent catastrophe that had consumed the capital city recently. "Certainly seems like this place is less orderly and controlled than you'd expect the area around the courthouse to be. Aren't there any law enforcement offices or outposts nearby?"
Bearcat craned his neck around to scan the area for any security buildings she may have missed when he realized there was quite an empty bubble of space around the two of them in the otherwise relatively crowded city streets. He and Blue had been getting a wide berth by all pedestrians on the streets, human and Zabrak alike. Once again he noticed the stares of both wonder and xenophobia on the faces openly staring back at him. He sighed sadly at the simmering hostility and unfounded fear behind those eyes, but he also understood their fear. Cathar was a very insular and isolated society by design after the one-sided war with the Mandalorian barbarians of the past.
He winced as the word 'barbarian' crossed his mind, realizing he was still not quite as over the history as he'd believed he was a few weeks ago after first arriving at Toseng. The ensuing skirmishes had shown him that not all Mandalorians were savage, murdering slavers, as Gnoizic and Loth-Cat had shown him another side.
He looked down at the diminutive blue humanoid next to him. Even Blue had proven that not all Pantorans were morally bereft slave brokers. His expectations of some of his colleagues based solely on their race or culture had been spectacularly proven untrue, for the better. However, as he'd just noticed, he still had some mental work to do to fully internalize the lesson. That part would be the hardest part to break down, as it was a built-in defense mechanism of the Cathar race to assume the worst and prepare for that eventuality as if it were certain. They had been shocked into complacency before, and it had almost led to their complete enslavement and genocide. Litters were now raised with the expectation of the worst possible thing to happen, only to be pleasantly surprised when things worked out as they should, or better than they should.
"I wonder if the courthouse and security station are in the same building? Hey, where are you? Reality, paging Z!"
Blue's question jarred Bearcat back to reality, and he suddenly realized they had traveled many blocks since he'd started his internal dialogue. He blinked his eyes rapidly and they focused on Blue, standing a few paces behind him with her hands on her hips. "What?"
She let out an exasperated sigh and made a gesture of frustration. "You're drifting, Z!" She took a few steps to come to his side again. "You heard the Lieutenant Colonel. We need to be careful, and that includes knowing where the nearest security station is located at all times!"
Bearcat bowed his head in apology. "I am sorrry, Cho. I vas just thinking about how these people, human and humanoid alike, arrre giving the two of us a verrry vide berrrth. Then it got me thinking about some... things."
Blue looked around, and her eyes widened as she realized that he was right and that she hadn't noticed anything amiss until now. "Well, you remember what the Captain said, right?"
Bearcat nodded as he quietly recited the words their disgraced Captain had given them before they exited the skimmer at the parking garage. "If somebody is starrring at you, they arrren't the thrrreat you need to vorrry about. It's the ones that arrre looking at you sidevays or sneaking glances that you need to vatch out forrr."
Blue nodded, glancing around herself. "Speaking of the Captain... Where is he?"
The moment they'd exited the skimmer, Bulldog imparted the wisdom Bearcat had just recited and then immediately faded away into the river of people on the footpaths. They'd assumed he was following them at a discrete distance, but they couldn't see his face in the crowd now that they were actually looking for him.
Bearcat did, however, spot somebody near a newsstand that was stealing furtive glances in their direction as they mimed looking through the various publications for sale. They appeared to be a frail Zabrak male, but Bearcat couldn't tell if it was an adolescent or just a very thin adult. He was still learning how to identify different growth stages in other races, and on races without facial hair it was extremely difficult for him with his limited experience off his homeworld. He leaned in close to Blue. "Ve arrre being vatched."
"Of course we're being watched. Everybody is staring at us."
Bearcat shook his head subtly as he feigned looking at Blue's map with her. "No. Somebody is vatching us like the Captain said ve should be varrry of. Don't look around."
Blue tensed, but she displayed enough discipline to avoid suddenly panicking and looking around. "What do we do? Where's the Captain?"
As if summoned, Bulldog strolled casually by them with the flow of civilian foot traffic and subtly waved for them to follow him equally as subtly. As he reached an alley between the courthouse and the neighboring building, he quickly disappeared into it.
Bearcat and Blue began moving again, following the path their Captain had, and found him half-hidden around a dumpster beckoning for them to hurry. They quickened their pace until they were pulled around the edge of the dumpster and into a small space between another dumpster slightly down the wall. Bulldog crouched down, and they followed suit and waited expectantly for him to tell them what to do.
"There was somebody watching the two of you gawking at the buildings like a bunch of tourists," Bulldog whispered.
"A small Zabrrrak," Bearcat purred, eliciting a slight look of surprise on Bulldog's face.
"Yes. I don't know if he's got accomplices or if he's just a scout, but we need to cut this trip short and get somewhere safe before the other shoe drops."
The crashing of a door slamming outward against the exterior wall from deeper in the alley made them all flinch. Bulldog held up a finger to forestall any action on their part and then peered around the edge of the dumpster to see what was going on.
Deeper into the alley in the shadows caused by the overhang of the courthouse roof, two humans were dragging a terrified Zabrak female between the two of them. A third man closed the door behind them and then started splitting his attention between the door they'd just exited and the mouth of the alley.
"Please!" the female screamed.
"Keep that wench quiet!" the man near the door snapped.
"I'll do anything! Please don't hurt me!"
"You shouldn't have come here looking for help!" The sound of flesh slapping flesh echoed down the alley, followed by a yelp of pain.
"I came to report those bloodthirsty four-arms, not you guys!"
"Likely story, lass." More sounds of a beating followed. "Hock doesn't care either way!"
Bulldog drew his hefty blaster pistol from the holster concealed behind his back under his light nerf-hide jacket and held it up. He looked back to his charges and paused as they seemed unsure what to do. He scowled and nodded his head back in the direction of the unfolding situation.
Bearcat snapped out of his stupor quickly and drew his WESTAR-34. The custom wooden grip cut from the wood of his clan's ancestral tree wrapped around the originally cold chrome handle of the weapon made famous by arguably the most famous Mandalorian. The weapon was born from irony, being wielded by a race once dominated and decimated by the Mandalorians that made the model famous. He planned to make the weapon famous in the hands of a Cathar when he decided to leave in the ultimate gesture of defiance toward the few Mandalorians still sprinkled throughout the galaxy.
The look of it was a similar match to his XO's RSKF-44. The wooden grip on Bulldog's weapon looked like the same wood grain of his, though the heft at the top of his XO's weapon was greater while his barrel was slimmer and longer. He raised it and nodded toward his XO.
Blue, however, seemed almost petrified of the idea of fighting outside of a cockpit. She shivered as if she experienced a sudden chill. She fumbled with the SE-14 still clasped in her holster, suddenly unable to make her fingers work properly to draw the weapon. She managed to get the button-clasp undone, but couldn't make her hand draw the weapon.
Bearcat put a calming hand on her shoulder and smiled tightly. Her eyes met his, still wild with fear, her brows wet with sweat brought on by nerves. Another piercing shriek from the woman caused her to jolt wildly, but she didn't make a sound. "It's ok," he mouthed silently, as he withdrew his hand and looked back at Bulldog, shaking his head slightly.
Bulldog nodded and grimaced. He pointed toward the closest goon and then nodded to Bearcat to indicate that was his assigned target. Then he held up a finger to indicate that he should wait until the right moment to strike. He then bowed his head briefly and mouthed a few words of silent prayer before slowly rising and concealing the pistol behind his back as he affected a leisurely stroll toward the unfolding situation.
The Cathar nodded grimly to himself and narrowed his eyes as he looked down the alley, noticing that the deeper Bulldog went, the darker it got. His target was oblivious to the approaching Renegade, staring deeper into the dark to see what his associates were doing to the whimpering Zabrak woman. He raised his blaster and took careful aim, using the lip of the dumpster to steady his aim.
Bulldog made it to within a few steps of the goon at the door. He secured the blaster in the back of his belt to hide it from sight, then began stumbling loudly and moaning like a drunk. The goon immediately whirled around and leveled his blaster at the seemingly drunk interloper, but relaxed as he assessed that this was a drunk wandering down the wrong alley looking for a place to bed down rather than somebody coming to disrupt their plans.
"You there, stop!"
"Huwah?" Bulldog slurred, shying away from the nearby thug in an exaggerated yet uncoordinated and slow fashion, sloppily raising his hands. He leaned against the wall, still keeping his front toward the three men. His languid motions put the nearby goon at ease.
"Yer a waster, yaweebasta!" The massive goon guffawed as he lowered his blaster to the ground and grabbed his stomach with the other as he doubled over in laughter.
"He's no help to you, lass. He can't even stand!" A second goon said as he walked out of the darkness. He looked back over his shoulder. "Hold her tight and shut that squealer up!"
The door goon also closed in with his partner as they approached Bulldog, their blasters lowered as they appeared comfortably safe with his inebriated condition. "Let's see what this rummy has in his pockets, neh?"
"Unnnnngh no," Bulldog slurred as he lolled his head against the wall. He waved a languid hand through the air to push them away.
The goons laughed harder as they continued the approach. The new arrival reached Bulldog first and pushed his back flush against the wall to hold him up. He holstered his blaster and shot his other hand into Bulldog's jacket pocket, shuffling to the next as he tried to find some loot.
Bulldog's head lolled to the side again, but was looking right into Bearcat's eyes. His slack features instantly sharpened. Bearcat saw his XO nod subtly and sharply, and then his free hand reached behind his back. A split-second later, he pulled out his blaster and buried the barrel deep into the handsy henchman's belly, pulling the trigger the moment the two made contact.
The loud blaster report echoed off the walls, startling all of the people within. Bearcat flinched, and growled at himself in anger. He'd know what was coming and when, yet the loud echoing of the blaster's report was still jarring enough to force the smallest part of him to shy away slightly.
The hesitation had almost cost his XO his life, as the nearby goon had shaken off the shock quickly and was reaching for his blaster. Bearcat's eyes focused, and his natural night vision kicked in to help him draw a bead on his target. The WESTAR-34 in his hand became a part of him as his supreme focus took over. A fly buzzed through his line of vision as it attempted to reach some delicious morsel of garbage in the dumpster he was using to steady his aim. Blue whimpered in slow motion behind him, still attempting to come to grips with combat outside of the cockpit. The goon's hand slid ever so slowly toward his holstered blaster, a fingertip touching the grip, then started sliding down as it lurched closer and closer to finding purchase in the trigger guard.
Bearcat depressed the trigger of his blaster until he was riding the familiar edge where one more iota of pressure would send a bolt of deadly energy forth. The goon had just gotten his entire hand around his blaster and he was now lifting it slowly out. Bulldog appeared to be ignoring the close threat in what Bearcat assumed was supreme trust that he would be adequately protected, instead was in the beginning moments of throwing the smoldering corpse he'd just blasted the guts out of at the target down the alley.
Bearcat released his breath and held it out, then gently squeezed the trigger. His blaster whined in only the way a blaster of his make and model could. As soon as he'd triggered the weapon's discharge, time sped back up. The red lance of energy scythed through the darkened space, slamming directly into the upper back of the thug attempting to draw down on his XO. The powerful bolt from the blaster made famous by Jango Fett did not disappoint, as it pitched the target forward head first into the grimy pavement. The arm twitched at its side, the hand still gripping the blaster and the hole in his upper back smoked mightily.
Deeper in the darkness, the corpse Bulldog had thrown slammed into both the terrified woman as well as the thug that had been beating her, sending them all sprawling in different directions. Before the goon could recover himself and take aim, he was silenced by a double-blast from Bulldog's heavy blaster pistol. The bolts walked up his body, first hitting the flesh just under the rib cage, then the next hitting the man in the neck.
The mixture of pain and shock was seared into Bearcat's memory as he approached and saw the man writhing around on the ground as he clutched at his throat. He looked pleadingly into the hardened eyes of Bulldog and Bearcat as they stood there and watched him slowly choke to death.
Blue came skidding to a halt near the man and attempted to render aid. "Don't just stand there!"
"Leave him," Bulldog ordered her coldly.
Blue looked over her shoulder at the two men disbelievingly. "Either we're the good guys and we don't just summarily execute people, or we're just as bad as the Imps!"
Bearcat felt something stirring within himself, as if the words Blue had used were some sort of magic spell that compelled him into motion. His eyes softened as her compassion for the scummiest person bled off on him as well. He started rooting around his pockets for his personal medkit.
"I said to leave him," Bulldog hissed again.
"Skrog you, sir!" Blue replied, finding her medkit and starting to open it up. The man on the ground had released his ruined neck and started to grip her body urgently with bloodied hands. Blue looked back into his panicked eyes. "It's ok, sir, we're going to save you."
The man nodded, but still coughed up enough blood to splatter Blue in the face, forcing her to recoil and squint through the new genetic material that painted her aqua face with flecks of crimson spittle.
"He's not worth the effort," Bulldog replied, clearly not happy at Blue for not obeying his command to let the man die. He moved deeper into the alley to approach the cowering woman. "He deserved every bit of what he got."
Bearcat found his medkit and opened it up after holstering his blaster, handing his bacta bandage to Blue. He watched as the man's frantic hands grabbed her all over, smearing bloody handprints all over her clothes. Pity welled up deep inside of himself, and he felt some type of remorse for his actions that led to this outcome. Criminal or not, it wasn't up to them to levy death sentences, especially if they weren't actually official law enforcement on this planet.
"Sir, I need you to relax your hands," Blue whispered as she applied a bacta bandage to his ruined neck. "I'm doing my best to get you patched up so the authorities can sort things out!"
The criminal's eyes widened after that comment, but Bearcat chalked it up to the man becoming more scared as his life slowly ebbed away from both of his wounds. However, just as quickly as he'd dismissed the man as too wounded and scared to do anything, the man's hands shot forward in two different directions. The first gripped Blue's neck and started to squeeze with all its might, immediately choking out a gag and hiss from the Pantoran pilot. The second gripped the hilt of her blaster and attempted to wrangle it out of the holster awkwardly.
Bearcat's adrenaline spiked once more, forcing time to slow down to a crawl again. His mental calculus instantly knew that he wouldn't have time to pull his recently holstered blaster to burn the man down before he could shoot Blue. Blue's eyes were wide as saucers as soon as she realized what was about to happen, and veins started to appear at her temples as she strained to break the wounded man's death grip restricting her oxygen flow. His claws appeared by reflex, shooting out of their retractable locations at his fingertips. He bared his fangs as he put his body into motion, falling toward the wounded man with one hand reaching for his mangled chest and the other attempting to stop the hand from pulling Blue's blaster free.
Time sped up as he fell to purpose. His first hand's claws plunged deep into the man's chest above where his heart should be located. Three of his claws were blunted aside by the man's rib-cage, but two of them slid neatly between the gaps and punctured deep into his heart. His other clawed fingers skewered the man's hand and pinned it to the pavement, stopping the last-ditch grab for Blue's blaster.
Blue fell to the side and gasped for air as the goon released her throat. She let loose a series of dry, raspy coughs as she rubbed her neck with both hands.
The thug screamed wordlessly as he looked deeply into Bearcat's eyes as the Cathar withdrew his clawed hands in a spray of blood. He then closed his mouth and nodded once, before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he stopped breathing altogether.
Bearcat scooted away from the man and rubbed his face before realizing he had more blood on his hands than what had been sprayed onto his face from his sudden dismount. He rubbed his hands clean on his pants absentmindedly for a moment, lost in thought.
"Why did you do that?" Blue asked hoarsely, with betrayal in her eyes
Toseng City Alley
Bulldog glanced back in time to see Bearcat straddling the goon's body with his claws dug deep into him in two different places while Blue was just now regaining her senses, rubbing her neck vigorously. Seeing things in order over there, he again focused his attention on the previously victimized female Zabrak. "Ma'am? Are you alright?"
A quiet whimper answered him.
He took another cautious step forward, but it was a little too dark for him to see much deeper into the alley. He held out a hand. "We're here to help. Are you hurt?"
"Why did you do that?"
Bulldog turned his neck and saw a horrified Blue confronting Bearcat. "He just saved your life, Shuun."
"I could have talked him down!" Blue spat.
"Hard to talk somebody down when they've wrapped their hands around your throat."
"We're not the law here! Who are we to dispense death sentences?"
Bulldog snorted. "We give out death sentences every time we get into the cockpit and shoot down an Imp."
"That's different, and you know it is!"
"Is it?" Bulldog asked as he arched an eyebrow sardonically.
"The rules of war—"
"Rules of war?" Bulldog chortled. "No such thing!" Bearcat nodded absentmindedly in agreement. "These guys were going to kill this woman for possibly reporting them to the authorities. No matter how you slice it, they're bad guys. No better than the Imps that backed and executed Operation Cinder. Your compassion and second chances are wasted on men like them. This one almost killed you with his second chance."
"We don't get to decide—"
Bulldog held up a hand to forestall any further discussion. He cocked his head back to deeper down the alley and saw the Zabrak begin to approach timidly. His heart fell as he saw the mess of bruises and cuts that covered almost every inch of real estate on her face. He looked back to Blue and nodded curtly toward the battered woman to make sure she got a long, hard look at what her second chances were being offered for. "Are you ok?" he asked. The sound of his voice caused her to recoil in fear, bringing her arms up to her face reflexively. The action sent shockwaves of rage at the now slain men pulsing through his system, but he didn't move or show it externally save for grinding his teeth slightly.
Blue, upon seeing the woman's face, softened her angry scowl and immediately shot to her feet and cautiously approached her. "Ma'am, are you hurt?"
The Zabrak looked at the blood-splattered Pantoran and smiled weekly, showing some broken teeth. She nodded, and then attempted to respond only for her voice to get caught in her throat. She forcefully cleared her throat and spat up a wad of bloody phlegm to the side with a few bits of broken tooth. Her throat clear, she finally responded. "Y—yes, I am ok."
"What was that about?" Bulldog asked, again eliciting a recoil reaction from the woman. He seethed even more at the actions of the goons and her subconscious grouping of him with those types of people.
"I came here on behalf of Dusttown— where I live— to get help from this gang that has been..." She trailed off as she looked between all of them nervously, then all around to see if anybody else was listening before continuing. "This Takask wallask ti dan," she spat the phrase in her native Zabraki as she angrily kicked the cooling corpse of the man Bearcat had shot,"has been terrorizing my people in our village because he can. The security forces from all groups have shown very little interest in settling disputes out on the far range."
Bulldog nodded as she spoke and explained the hopeless situation and recounted a few of the atrocities committed by the gang against her people. They kidnapped people that never returned, sometimes just outright murdered people in their homes. They also had a few Besilisk enforcers amongst their crew, which added to more shock and awe effect when the gang came looking for increasingly demanding tribute. The mention of the massive four-armed aliens drew a look of surprise from Blue. Truth be told, he was shocked as well, considering they'd been told during their planetary orientation briefing that the species had been thoroughly cleansed off the face of the planet.
"We have but one weapon to fight back with, an old busted blaster" she said shakily, almost in tears. "They take people from the village to work in their camp, and they never return. They took my husband last night! We need help," she sobbed, allowing Blue to hug her and comfort her.
A hail of blaster bolts rained down in their direction from the mouth of the alley. None of them were anywhere remotely close to hitting them, but instinct and reflex trumped all others when the blaster bolts began flying. Even a lucky shot from a terrible gunner had the ability to end your life, so you never stood your ground out in the open if you could help it.
Bulldog drew his blaster and took aim as his heartbeat quickened with the shock of being ambushed. Bearcat likewise was staring down the sites of his long blaster and prepared to fire, baring his fangs as he gently began to squeeze the trigger.
"WAIT!" The woman screamed in panic.
"Get away from my ma!" a youthful voice shouted as the owner of the blaster charged forward, still firing wildly.
The bolts landed nowhere near any of them, until the last one the newcomer fired gently singed the clothing on Bulldog's left arm. He fell backwards as he prepared to feel the pain of a thousand suns focused in the one spot where the blast had landed, but he felt nothing. He expected to find the limb gone and the lack of feeling being related to shock.
He felt a mild burning against his skin, which was the first indication of any sort of feeling in the arm. He wrenched his eyes open and looked down, seeing the arm of his jacket gently burning in one spot where the blaster bolt had landed, but it failed to pierce the relatively flimsy nerf-hide the jacket was made from.
"You good, Captain?" Bearcat asked from nearby, continuing to aim carefully.
"I'm fine!" Bulldog huffed out as he patted out the small fire on his arm and flexed his hand open and closed multiple times as a wave of relief flooded through him. A hit like that from any blaster he'd ever experienced should have penetrated the material of his jacket sleeve and caused grievous damage.
"I've got the shot! Can I shoot?" Bearcat growled.
"Stop!" Blue shrieked.
"No!" the battered woman howled in fear.
"Get away from her!" The newcomer shouted, still charging and firing wildly.
"Everybody stand the hell down!" Bulldog roared above the frantic cacophony. He stood up with his blaster ready, but not aimed at anything specific. His roar had frozen everybody in place, even the charging Zabrak youth with the blaster shooting underpowered bolts. "Let's all talk one at a time to figure out what's going on, yeah?" He gestured his still smoking arm toward the youth. "That's your mother, right?" The youth nodded in reply, still holding his blaster up toward them. Bulldog looked back at the woman. "That's your son charging in with a training blaster toy, right?"
"OK, bad idea. Anybody else would have burnt him down the moment he started firing," Bulldog said as he pointed to his sleeve and showed it to all in the alley. "Even a direct hit to an eye or other soft target might not do any lasting damage. And, again, catch the wrong person with the wrong temper... I've seen people killed for less."
The youth finally lowered the blaster, eyes widening once the realization that he was using a toy incapable of killing anybody.
"I know you," Bearcat said as something dawned upon him. "You vere the vun vatching us frrrom the newsstand. Vhy?"
The youth nodded guiltily and cast his eyes down. "I was worried the gang called in some offworlders to deal with my ma when she left the courthouse."
Bulldog nodded in understanding, but was still troubled. He stepped forward and held out a hand expectantly. The youth looked distressed, but handed the weapon over after glancing at his mother for permission. Bulldog holstered his pistol and turned the offered weapon over in his hands. "Did you know this was a training blaster that used battery power rather than gas cartridges?"
"Who put you up to this?
"Nobody," the youth said, shaking his head rapidly.
"You decided to grab a toy and protect your mom?"
"We didn't know it was a toy!"
"Instead of just a dead mom, the rest of your clan would be burying you too, kid."
"Lay off, Captain," Blue interjected sharply. "He was defending his family with whatever he could get his hands on. An admirable goal." Bearcat nodded sagely in agreement.
Bulldog was about to continue berating the foolhardy youth, but Blue's words cut through his being and stopped him. He swallowed the chiding he was about to deliver, and instead handed the toy back and patted the kid on the shoulder with a smirk. He looked back at the woman. "Well, you'd best be getting back home I'd say, before their friends come looking for them," he said as he waved at the dead thugs dismissively. He looked at Blue, then Bearcat. "And we need to get out of here before anybody comes sniffing around."
Bearcat merely nodded, falling into place next to Bulldog as the two began walking toward the mouth of the alley. He continued to lick his hands to wipe the blood from his facial fur with middling success. They both stopped once they realized Blue hadn't started following them, and looked back questioningly.
"Shuun?" Bulldog asked in exasperation as he waved for her to follow.
Blue looked between them as well as the frightened woman they'd just saved. She took a few halting steps away from her as she began to follow, but then dug in her heels and stopped completely. "Captain, you can't leave them like this."
Bulldog snorted. "The Sith I can't. Watch me."
"This is a death sentence!"
The words stung Bulldog. The last thing he wanted was innocent blood on his hands, especially after what he'd just done in the bar several weeks ago and all the trouble he'd caused. Still, though, his hands were tied. He had zero authority to initiate a show of force to protect these villagers. He stood motionless as he ran through every scenario that came to mind, until one that satisfied his authority and the goal of protecting the civilians popped into his head. He snapped a finger. "I've got it. We'll request for your people to be evacuated to the base."
Immediately both Zabraks vehemently shook their heads from side to side. "We cannot leave our ancestral home!"
Bulldog arched an eyebrow. "We're a long ways away from Iridonia here."
The woman stepped forward. "Toseng is the only planet any of us alive have ever called home. Iridonia is just a far off planet as far as we're concerned. We won't leave."
"Even if you'll die? If these thugs' frrriends come back to take rrrevenge?" Bearcat asked, shocked.
Bulldog pursed his lips in annoyance. "Ma'am, what's your name? And your son's name?"
"I am Tarla, and my son is Torsten," she said as she moved next to her son and rubbed his shoulder.
Bulldog nodded. "Tarla, you are signing your death warrants by refusing to be evacuated."
Tarla's jaw set. "We aren't leaving our homes. If you were only going to leave us to die, you might as well have not gotten involved here and now."
"Believe me, I wish that very thing," Bulldog replied dryly.
"Captain, we can't leave them," Blue pleaded.
Bulldog pursed his lips and thought more about the situation. On the one hand, these people were likely already dead regardless of the actions they'd taken just now. On the other hand, this was just the type of mission that people joined the Rebellion to undertake. "We have zero authorization for a mission like the one you're asking for, Flight Officer. I'm already in the dog house as it is, pun not intended. Even if I wanted to do this, I doubt I'd have the cache with any commanders to get things done officially!"
Everybody was silent for a while as they digested what had just been said and pictured their own horrific versions of the future that would come to pass. Unbeknownst to them, all of the predictions were relatively the same outcome, give or take a few gory details.
"They need our help, Captain," Blue whispered, her quiet voice shattering the contemplative silence.
Bulldog cut through the dueling ideologies and conflicting orders and emotions swirling through his mind. He was already on his way out more than likely, so any hole he dug for himself couldn't get much deeper. He looked at his two subordinates. They would soon be outside of his chain of command once he was transferred or Court Martialed, and he didn't want to bring them down with him. While he might not be able to redeem his standing with the wing, he could redeem himself in his own mind by doing one right and just thing.
He nodded sharply to himself and pulled out his datapad and pulled up a planetary map. "Skrog it. Show me where your village is."
Toseng City - Alliance Skimmer
The three Buccaneers had walked most of the way through the town and flown halfway back to the airfield when Blue finally broke the silence. "When are we leaving for Dusttown?"
"I am leaving almost immediately after I gather some things. You two are going back to the barracks and keeping your mouths shut. You both also need to clean all the blood off of your clothes and faces. Do it in the nearest fresher at the skimmer pool so you don't walk through the base covered in blood."
Confusion washed over Blue's features. "Sir?"
"You're staying on the base."
Both Blue and Bearcat protested loudly, talking over each other as they attempted to lay out their cases. Blue attempted a treatise on why they couldn't turn a blind eye and had to come along to see this through. Bearcat was attempting to argue that Bulldog couldn't leave and jeopardize his career any further, now more than ever. Neither ceded ground to the other while they were attempting to get their points across.
"Stow it, pilots," Bulldog barked, swerving the skimmer he was piloting as he lost control slightly as he looked back at the two of them. "I tanked my career already. I'm not letting you guys ruin yours!"
Bearcat and Blue again attempted to talk over each other, but Bearcat ceded ground this time to let his more eloquent friend lay out her case. "Captain, we're involved in this now. We've shed blood to defend these people already. You can't protect us from repercussions, and you know it!"
Bearcat was taciturn. The thought that Blue might be pitching her career down the garbage chute gripped him to his core. He'd left home to make a name for himself and become one of the most famous Cathar in the history of his race, and doing something that would end that goal prematurely gave him serious pause. He knew the right and just thing was the one Bulldog and Blue were pushing to do, but the selfish glory-hunting part of his brain screamed internally at their decision.
Bulldog's jaw set. "Forget it."
"Not happening, Captain," Blue persisted. "They are essentially chattel!"
The mention of slaves slapped Bearcat across the face. Instantly his objections to their choice to go to the aid of the village vanished. The history of his people being sold into bondage after they'd been conquered flashed across his vision. He wouldn't wish any modicum of that outcome on anybody. All thoughts of personal glory and career jeopardy melted away, replaced with a cold determination to join Bulldog and Blue to see this through.
"She's rrright, Captain," Bearcat purred. "I cannot stand by vhen slaverrry is happening."
Bulldog began cursing loudly. After he'd cursed himself out of breath, he took a few calming breaths and then looked back at the two precocious pilots. He zeroed in on Blue first, looking deeply into her eyes. "Shuun, you realize that you might have to kill somebody on this run with your blaster, right?" Then he looked at Bearcat. "And you— this might be a career-ending decision. Kiss Rogue membership goodbye if you do this. That nice new Loot bar will be gone too."
Blue and Bearcat looked at each other, but their features hardened into a steely resolve. They looked back at their executive officer and nodded.
Bulldog sighed, clearly unhappy that his last ditch attempt to dissuade them was unsuccessful. His shoulders slumped in defeat as he looked forward and concentrated on driving the skimmer through the base perimeter back to the motor pool. After powering down the speeder, he turned in his chair and looked both of them squarely in the eye. "Fine. Meet me at your starfighters in an hour. I'll get us cleared for takeoff on a scouting sortie with base control."
"Deal," Blue replied determinedly.
Bearcat nodded sharply. "Let's do this thing."
Toseng Airbase - Buccaneer Barracks
The three Buccaneers filtered into the squadron billet building quietly, each dealing with the actions to come in their own way. Neither of the rookies had much of a poker face, and it was clear that they had something heavy in their minds.
"You guys good?" Ant asked, being the first to notice the group. Wolvinator and Foo also looked up from their Sabacc game to scrutinize the new arrivals.
Blue froze like a fleetabeast caught in the headlights of a cargo hauler. Her mouth hung open as her brain froze, her eyes darting about wildly. Bearcat likewise locked up, his shoulders tensing and his claws slowly appeared as his fight or flight reflexes kicked in.
Bulldog cursed inwardly at the lack of composure the rookies were displaying. Realizing neither of them had the gift of casual lying, he shouldered his way past them and walked to his bunk. "They witnessed a mugging today, and there was nothing they could do to stop it."
"Oh," Gnoizic replied, joining the conversation from his cot halfway down the room. "Must have been pretty bad if they're shaken up this much."
Bulldog nodded as he absentmindedly pulled out another change of clothes, covertly grabbing his go bag and mixing it in the pile of clothes he'd withdrawn. "Yeah, it was pretty bad. Blood all over, felt pretty helpless," he said disinterestedly as he looked back to Ant and nodded for him to come over.
"That's terrible," Loth-Cat said from the Buccaneer's makeshift entertainment center. Their face was a mask of horror.
The rest of the group resumed their conversations, confident in having reached the bottom of what was distressing Bearcat and Blue. Ant ambled over with an expectant look on his face. "What's up?"
Bulldog leaned in close, but was sure to keep an easygoing smirk on his face. "I need it," he whispered in a mock-conspiratorial fashion, leaning back with a bigger smirk as he looked into Ant's eyes.
Ant was confused for a moment until the meaning of Bulldog's comment finally slammed into place. He looked at his XO as if to say: are you sure?.
Bulldog nodded and chuckled. He leaned back in close. "I let it slip to those two that I had one. They were absolutely destroyed by what they saw in the city and it was all I could think of to get their minds off the whole thing. Keep it on the DL though, since I don't want word getting out about it."
Ant nodded and shrugged. "Wizard, give me a minute."
Bulldog breathed a silent sigh of relief that his ruse had worked. Ant walked toward his bunk and stealthily dug through his footlocker until laying hands on the object Bulldog had requested. Making one furtive look around to see if anybody was watching, he pocketed the metallic object and then ambled back over to Bulldog and covertly deposited it in the pile of clothes on Bulldog's bunk.
"Got any good booze, Cap?" Ant asked a little too loudly, tensing up when he realized he might have drawn attention to himself. It didn't draw any strange looks though, so he relaxed.
Bulldog snorted and chuckled. "Same spot it always is, unless you reprobates drank it all while I was taking a vacation." He leaned in close to Ant after making sure nobody was looking at them. "Thanks, man. I told them to meet me in a few minutes near the hangar so I could show it off real quick. I'll get it back to you afterward."
"No problem, boss," Ant replied cheerily, then walked to Bulldog's locker and helped himself to a bottle of mid-tier bourbon. He took the bottle back to the Sabacc table, drawing cheers of joy from Foo and Wolvinator.
Bulldog smiled wanly as he looked at the group of relaxed pilots in their element. Memories and strong feelings flooded through him and threatened to overwhelm his composure to the point of tears forming in the corners of his eyes. He swiped them away quickly and grabbed up the pile of things on his cot and hurriedly exited the barracks.
He immediately went behind the building where there would be fewer eyes on him. He threw all of the clothes into the bag and paid extra attention to the lightsaber Ant had been hiding and just retrieved for him. He ensured that it was wrapped completely within a spare heavy jacket, and put it into the middle of the bag, surrounding it with equally disheveled clothes to hide it. Upon cursory inspection, it would appear that he'd just sloppily thrown the clothes in a bag with little regard for neatness.
Satisfied with his packing job, he threw the strap over his shoulder and felt the bag resting against the small of his back. As he walked toward his next destination, it bounced against him with a familiar and relaxing cadence. The steady repetition relaxed some of the nerves related to his plans. Nodding in greeting to the multiple personnel he passed, he continued to hold his carefree gait to allay any possible suspicion toward a recent detainee carrying a go-bag.
The Rogue Squadron billet lay up ahead. According to the duty roster, the entire squadron was on a brief rotation out of the system, meaning nobody would be in the building. He knocked anyway, and then opened the door slowly while he called out in the event the cleaning staff was currently working.
Hearing no response, he pushed the rest of the way in and found the room bereft of personnel. He closed the door slowly, and once it was closed he moved quickly toward Lock's bunk. He thanked the deities he never believed in out of habit when he found the pilot's footlocker under the cot, unlocked. He pulled it out and gently opened the lid, seeing a similar slightly sloppy arrangement from his own footlocker. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how things were stowed away, which made his task a little bit harder because he had to be delicate to not disrupt the layout of items.
Bulldog started moving things to the side and feeling around blindly with both hands, not wanting to pull anything out that he'd have to put away, because the similarity between his footlocker and Lock's probably meant that the Rogue pilot had a decent mental picture of how things should be and would recognize the tampering instantly. His fingers found the soft yet hard edges of what he thought he was searching for. Another involuntary shiver ran down his spine as the memory of where this object had come from flashed through his mind.
He shook the memories from his mind and jammed the item into his bag. Now that he was fully packed, he slammed the lid of Lock's footlocker closed and shoved it back under the Rogue's cot. He exited the building and affected the leisurely gait he'd had before entering the barracks as he ambled toward his next destination. He thought about whistling, but decided it might be a little too suspicious as he wasn't generally the whistling type.
Toseng Airfield - Buccaneer Squadron Hangar
"Where is he? He should have been here by now..." Blue trailed off.
Bearcat grumbled and kicked a loose rock out of the hangar. He thrust his hands into his pockets in frustration and started pacing.
"Uh, can I help you pilots?" Colwyn Pall asked disinterestedly as she put her smoking blowtorch away. The Ugnaught Y-wing maintenance chief was frequently attached to Buccaneer Squadron as they tended to fly the aging wishbone-shaped ships the most these days as more pilots started skewing toward the B-wing or X-wing for strikes. That being said, there was no greater expert in the task force when it came to those ships, so her sass and attitude was always borne with the utmost patience.
"No, ma'am," Bearcat replied quickly. Blue clammed up and was again no help in their deception.
The diminutive Ugnaught looked at them suspiciously. She turned to face them fully while she rubbed the grease off of her hands with an already filthy towel. All around her, the Ugnaught crew that serviced the Y-wings started filtering in to stand beside her. "Ok, then do you mind telling me what you need? The duty roster doesn't have any sorties listed for the next several cycles." She paused, and then leveled an accusatory finger in their direction and scowled. "And if you were put up to checking on Ninx's bird, let that meddling Mando child know that their ship will be fixed right at the time I estimated it would be fixed!"
Bearcat was stunned at the ferocity of the mechanic chief, but also nodded sharply as he attempted to take the escape route she'd offered in exasperation. "Yes, ma'am. Captain Clarrrk mentioned that ve should come by to meet him herrre to learn how to inspect otherrr fighterrrs."
Colwyn nodded, but cocked her porcine head to the side as an odd thought struck her. "I haven't seen nor heard from the grounded Captain at all today..." She looked to her crew and grunted a question in their native language. A few snorts came in reply. She turned her head back and addressed them with a little more edge to her voice. "And we don't appreciate surprise inspections. When we say the ships will be repaired, they will be repaired at or just under our estimated time. Run along and tell Flight Officer Ninx that they will have to continue to fly the Captain's Y-wing until we can lock down the parts we need to repair theirs."
"Yes, ma'am," Bearcat nodded, cowed. He was taken aback by her directness. Being an X-wing pilot, he had only observed her from afar and never really interacted with her directly. He was now glad of that fact after this exchange.
Colwyn made a shooing gesture with her greasy hands, which was mirrored by her clanmates.
Blue tugged on Bearcat's arm and shocked his legs back into motion, allowing himself to be tugged away while his brain continued to work through the current situation. Captain Clark was not here, had not been here, had not left in his or any other ship, and did not call ahead to warn of any pending sorties as he'd said he would.
After they'd made it a safe distance away from the building, Blue stopped and turned to face him with her hands on her hips. "I don't get it. Where is he? Do you think he got picked up by security for something?"
Bearcat stood as he scanned their surroundings carefully, as if he'd find Bulldog nearby peeking his head out from behind a building. He attempted to sniff out his executive officer, but the number of personnel on the base mingled with the very odiferous refugee camps just outside the fences made it all but impossible to catch one molecule of a scent that helped their search. He shrugged and shook his head.
"What if..." Blue trailed off as she started walking toward the other squadron hangars.
Bearcat watched her go without following, wondering what she was doing. "Vhat?"
Blue shrugged. "I'm not giving up. Maybe he saw those Ugnaughts around his ship and decided to commandeer another."
Bearcat was not sure Bulldog would steal somebody else's ship. The human may be a loose cannon at times, but he didn't seem to be the thieving sort. "I am unsurrre he vould do that," he replied uneasily as he reluctantly followed Blue's lead on the now completely random search. On a hunch, he pulled out his datapad and tapped away at a brief message while he followed his partner in crime.
Blue led them through the Rogue hangar, finding it mostly empty as the entire squadron was in orbit for a rotation. Similarly Mercy's hangar was mostly empty aside from a few of the RWSS ships that were taking up some of the extra space and a gathering of a few different maintenance crews that all openly stared at them as they crossed the nearly empty space. Spectre's hangar was half full, with some fighters still on the ground and others out conducting a flight elsewhere on the planet. Clearly worried, she nodded toward the Corsair hangar. "One last place to check. Captain flew one of these wedge-rockets at Endor from what I heard."
Bearcat nodded absentmindedly as he followed along. He was awaiting a reply to the message he'd sent before they'd started hunting the hangar complexes blindly, but he saw he hadn't received it yet. A strong wind wafted the scent of a human closer than he'd seen when they left the Spectre hangar. He whirled his head around and examined the general direction of the odor with laser sharp focus. Aside from a few thick shrubs and tall grass features that hadn't been trimmed by the grounds crew in a while, he saw nobody there. It was possible somebody was hiding in the blatant hiding spot, but the scent was not a match for their target so he decided to stare for another few tense beats just to let whoever was in there know he knew they were there, and then moved off in the direction of the Corsair Squadron hangar after Blue.
As they neared the hangar, a din of muffled sounds greeted their ears. Blue looked back and shrugged with uncertainty as she reached for the door handle. After waiting a beat to get her nerve, she swung the door open and strode in. They had entered to find a chaotic scene. Techs were running around in all directions as they carried out their occupational tasks.
"There are ships missing. Do you think he stole one of these?"
Bearcat examined the activity of the techs for a few beats before shaking his head. "This is the norrrmal rrroutine forrr prrreparrration of crrraft rrreturrrn." He visibly winced as he'd realized that sentence in basic might very well have been the most rolled r's he'd had to say in quick succession. Still though, he was confident in his assessment of the flurry of activity they were seeing.
To confirm his suspicion, the whine of six orange-painted A-wings drew their attention to the horizon. Even at the third of max throttle the speedy ships were flying, the whine of their engines was still tremendous. Both Blue and Bearcat covered their ears as the ships got closer and the whine grew in volume and pitch. The nearby ground crew seemed to chuckle at the two pilots without ear protection.
The A-wings touched down gently in perfect formation after taxiing a short distance across the ground on their repulsorlifts. The pilots got out in short order, shouting jokes at each other based on something that must have occurred during their flight. The only pilot that appeared subdued was the droid OC of the squadron, Lt. Col 9-LOM— known as "Syntax".
Bearcat paid the Corsair pilots half of his attention while he attempted to look at his datapad, having felt like he'd heard a message alert during the cacophony of sounds from the A-wing landing procedure. He intently examined the contents of the message, but was interrupted before he'd finished it fully by a nudge from Blue, who had stood at attention and threw up a salute. Bearcat's reflexes kicked in, and he too saluted at attention. Unfortunately, he saluted with the hand that held his datapad, which bounced off of his forehead and clattered to the ground in front of his feet.
He hissed in pain at his smarting forehead, but didn't dare to bend over to retrieve his datapad. Syntax stood before them, examining them with the unsettling stillness only a droid could display. A small crowd fell into loose formation behind Syntax; Freak, Frosty, Dragon, Silence, and Knight had stopped in their tracks and started snickering, having seen Bearcat just salute his datapad off of his forehead with enough force to knock out a human.
"Flight Officer Shuun, 2nd Lieutenant Zynnadi," Syntax's vocabulator relayed slowly, adding almost a suspicious intonation to his greeting. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?"
Blue, true to form, clammed up once again. Her eyes widened while she held her salute, her mouth frozen shut.
Bearcat sighed inwardly and vowed to never again do any sort of clandestine operation with her as a partner in the future. He took a moment to pause and gather his thoughts as to what he could possibly say to allay any sort of suspicion, but he was drawing a blank as well. None of Benjan Dawkins' A-wing crew were likely to give them an excuse that would be believable.
Their silence spoke volumes to those in attendance. The rest of the Corsairs became suspicious and examined the two Buccaneers more closely. Silence in particular already seemed to be looking around the hangar to find their objective. Knight's cybernetic eye aperture contracted as he focused more on Bearcat and Blue. Frosty and Dragon stopped their quiet sidebar and also seemed to pick up on the now tense atmosphere. Only Freak seemed to be oblivious to the standoff's import.
Syntax bent forward at the waist and reached for Bearcat's datapad. It had landed face-up on the stained duracrete floor and the display hadn't entered sleep-mode yet. As the Corsair Squadron OC grasped the device in his hands and began to straighten up, his ocular receptors scanned the message, causing him to stop rising momentarily as his databanks processed the information he'd just seen. To confirm the truth of it, he wirelessly accessed the base mainframe for confirmation.
"Explain," he said flatly, finishing rising to his full height and returning their salutes.
Blue stalled. "Begging the Lieutenant Colonel's pardon?"
Syntax made a 'cut it out' gesture with the hand that held the datapad. "Why did your search for Captain Clark bring you to this location? This message says he signed a skimmer out from the motor pool an hour ago with a plan to go back to the city, however the tracker on that particular skimmer is showing as currently offline."
The mention of the recently disgraced Buccaneer Captain and his now invisible skimmer drew a varied response from all beings present. Silence's eyes flashed a little anger. Dragon stole a meaningful glance in Silence's direction. Frosty cast his eyes at his feet. Knight's cybernetic eye aperture focused even more to almost a pinpoint of red light. Freak looked around, understanding the mood but having no real feeling on the matter. Blue looked stricken, and Bearcat quivered visibly with rage at the news of Bulldog leaving without them.
Bearcat cleared his throat, but still didn't quite know what to say. "The Captain vas going to take us out forrr a visit to the city." Blue shook herself out of her stupor and nodded in agreement.
Syntax canted his head for a few seconds, and then straightened back up. "Cut the subterfuge. The mainframe shows that you all went and returned already, and now his skimmer is running dark without you two onboard. I will ask one more time before I call the MP's to take you two to a holding cell to get to the bottom of this. Why are you searching for Captain Clark? Where did you three plan to go?"
Bearcat frowned as his heart fell. He knew Blue would have no explanation judging from her track record in deceit. He blew out the breath he was holding and hurriedly explained the entire plan as it had been agreed to before the three Buccaneers had split up. All in attendance nodded and grumbled at different parts, clearly troubled by different aspects of the story and the plan.
Syntax listened impassively through it all, giving no sign of the droid's thoughts on the matter. After Bearcat had finished, silence reigned supreme for several cycles. Suddenly, the Corsair commander broke the silence with an unexpected response.
"Warrant Officer Dawkins, please have these fighters refueled for immediate take off," he said loudly toward the ground crew that had been busy running through post-flight checks.
Dawkins merely shrugged, and relayed the orders to his personnel. Instantly, the mechanics reversed their jobs and began the process of getting the ships ready to fly again.
Syntax then lowered the volume of his vocabulator to address the beings involved in this conversation. "All of you, go back to your bunks and arm yourselves."
"Sir?" Freak asked, being the first to react to the new order.
"We are going to bring the Captain back and handle this within the wing," Syntax replied flatly. "My probability circuits have calculated us going out as the best chance to reduce loss of life and disciplinary measures from the base command staff that may also bleed over onto the rest of the unit. The rest of our Command Staff is currently indisposed or off planet and unable to be contacted. Lastly, ground forces personnel are too busy to mount an operation for the next several duty shifts."
"Won't the flight controller wonder why we're taking off again after returning just a moment ago?" Frosty asked, drawing a few worried looks from the others in attendance.
"No. We will request a training flight to take off immediately. It has also been marked as approved by my authority."
Dragon was the first to nod in admiration at the sneakiness his leader just displayed, and then looked around and clapped his hands together loudly one time. "You heard the word. Let's go!"
"What about these two?" Frosty asked, gesturing toward the two Buccaneers while the others moved off at a trot toward their barracks.
"They will be remaining on the base in their barracks until we return," Syntax replied. "Under guard if necessary," he added ominously.
Before Bearcat and Blue could object, another voice broached the subject on their behalf. "Sir, the Captain might be more likely to come back quietly if these two come along," Silence said thoughtfully. "That way he'll know he didn't get them into trouble and he won't feel like he's got nothing left to lose by attempting to remain AWOL."
Syntax paused for a few seconds. His head was serenely still as he ran the idea through his probability circuits and calculated the possible outcomes. "A bargaining chip in our favor. Agreed." The droid looked at the two Buccaneers. "You two will go to your barracks and make similar preparations that I just ordered my pilots to undertake."
Dragon had lingered nearby, and held up a finger as a thought struck him. "How, uh, are we going to get him back if he refuses to do so willingly? Are we going to lash him to the front of my A-wing like a hunting trophy?"
"Excellent point, Captain Arcfire. I will inform Captain Davis to come along with a U-wing and one other person to drive the skimmer the Captain took if necessary." His eyes dimmed again for a few seconds before resuming speaking. "I have contacted your ground crews to prep your fighters for takeoff immediately. Go get your things and get in the air in 10 minutes or you're staying behind. But first, where was his destination?"
"A village called 'Dusttown'," Blue responded quickly.
"Scanning," Syntax droned. "Our maps have no such place listed. Where is it?"
"He had the map when Tarla pointed it out!" Blue responded, a mask of horror running across her face as she realized they had no idea where to go.
"Northvest I believe..." Bearcat trailed off, racking his brain in an attempt to refocus the hazy memory he had of the exchange in the alley.
"We will have to grid search it then," Syntax replied. "Any delay in finding him may make it too late to save him, or put our lives at risk. We must hurry."
Bearcat and Blue were stunned into immobility by the implication that they may not reach Bulldog in time. A rough hand gripped their shoulders and pulled them away. "You heard him, get moving!" Dragon said as he turned and ran off to his barracks. The Buccaneers finally shook out of their stupor and ran off at a rapid pace to get their things.
The same scent of a human Bearcat had smelled near the Spectre hangar was once again nearby. Bearcat sent one pointed glance in the direction of the smell, but did not break his stride as he ran off.
Ten minutes later with a confused Foo and determined Loth-Cat riding shotgun in the U-wing, the Buccaneers lifted their craft off and joined the Corsair A-wing formation heading off. Once the fighters had cleared the horizon, a lone X-wing took off from the Spectre hangar and followed the same heading.
He could feel it just behind his right eye, the recurring tick of annoyance. It wasn't the fact that he had to drop everything he was doing. Nor the rush to get through preflight inspection. That was normal, routine even. A pilot in the New Republic was never really off duty and Captain Corell "Foo" Davis knew that, and that it would most likely happen again. It was the fact that he and his U-wing were basically being used as a taxi service that got under his skin.
He started to move up the rampart towards the empty bay of his ship when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A figure jogged hurriedly towards the craft, satchel slung over their shoulder, across the cluttered flight deck. It finally formulated in Foo's mind to be Loth-Cat. He turned to greet the new arrival with a wave. "Sorry for the short notice, but it seems our illustrious ex-XO has gotten into a spot of trouble."
They slowed and came to a stop at the bottom of the rampart, leaning forwards with their hands in their knees and taking a deep breath, clearing their lungs. "Again...." they breathed, adding to Foo's statement.
Both cocked a smile at the comment. "Again," Foo replied with a nod.
"So what did he do this time?" Loth-Cat asked, righting themselves, shoulders heaving one last time as they caught their breath.
Foo chuckled and waved them into the bay. He turned and walked into the bay himself and made his way over and up the stunted ladder that led to the cockpit. "Well, this time he decided to go to some dustball of village in a military skimmer..." Grunting at the top of the ladder as he threw himself over the top, knees tucked as he landed. "And make trouble with the locals."
Loth-Cat tossed the satchel they had been carrying into the corner of the hold before climbing the ladder. They grasped Foo's offered hand and allowed themselves to be pulled up the final step. "Oh, so it's Taungsday then," they quipped as they took the empty seat next to Foo's pilot chair.
Foo grunted in agreement as he levered himself around the armrest and settled into his pilot seat. "Yep. Not even a full cycle out of the brig and he's already trying to land himself back in the clink. They gonna drum him out for sure if this goes bad."
Loth-Cat looked over and watched as Foo simultaneously strapped himself in with his left hand while going through startup with his right. The engines thrummed to life, sending a slight shudder throughout the vessel. Foo was already on the repulsorlifts and throttle, lifting and advancing the U-wing forward. Loth-Cat hurriedly strapped in, not expecting the abrupt takeoff. "Shouldn't we clear with control?" they asked in slight concern.
"Already done, compliments of the droid in charge of Corsair," Foo responded as he flicked the landing gear switch.
The take off was quick but smooth. Which left Loth-Cat all the more unprepared for what happened beyond the base airspace. Foo slapped the throttle to the firewall and both were shoved heavily into the back of their seats. Wide eyed, Loth-Cat yelped under the pressure. "What in Corellia's nine hells did you feed this thing!?"
Foo cackled in delight and finally felt the annoying tick over his eye dissipate. The pressure on their chests finally released as they reached maximum velocity. "Oh you know, little bit of love, little bit of rhydonium. The usual."
Loth-Cat stared for a moment, mouth agape. "Where did you even get rhydonium from?"
Foo grinned. "Can't tell you, top secret and all that."
Loth-Cat sighed, realizing they probably weren't going to get a straight answer out of Foo.
Toseng Dusttown Village
Bulldog had spent the lengthy flight to the remote village gathering his thoughts and disabling the standard NR tracking device attached to all military skimmers. He'd resigned himself to the almost assured fate of either a Court Martial or transfer, but hoped that his actions here would result in the former as he now had no wish to continue fighting with a whole new unit. Starting back from zero and having no trust in the people around him was a whole new level of anxiety he just didn't want to deal with at this stage in his life and career.
But, if he was being honest with himself, he was just tired of fighting, leading, and having people depend upon him doing the right thing every second of every day. Having added responsibility for the lives and careers of others made him more anxious than he'd ever been in his life before now. His time in the cell on Toseng gave him that time of no responsibility to really realize how nice it was to be alone once again, as he had been as a youth.
Reminiscing back to those carefree days made him chuckle as he remembered the things he thought mattered that really didn't, or how something not going his way felt like the end of the world in school. Relationships with people that drifted into and out of his personal orbit flitted through the fog of age, bringing more laughs, smiles, and frowns at the mundane details he'd apparently clung to throughout everything he'd been through with the Rebellion since Hoth.
The irony of his thoughts of shirking duty and responsibility being counter to his current personal mission wasn't lost on him. But this felt different, and inspired him to be what the people of the village needed. He didn't feel that same inspiration with his friends in Renegade Wing right now, which was an even bigger can of worms he didn't want to examine right now or else it might lock him up when he needed a clear mind to do the work he'd be doing soon.
A chirp from the navigation device jarred him back to the cockpit of the enclosed skimmer. Looking at the screen, he saw that he was five minutes away from the supposedly embattled village he'd recently sworn to defend. He ran through a mental checklist in his head as he racked his brain to make sure he was fully prepared to deal with the tyrannical regulators by himself, no matter the odds. His hand fell to his holstered RSKF-44, gently rubbing the worn Brylark woodgrain of the grip as he continued to think through his mental checklist.
He unbuckled the restraints as an urgent thought occurred to him and he ran into the main hold where his bag was located.
While they were flying above the surface, Loth-cat took the liberty to look outside through the window. They didn't realize but they had a dumb, big smile on their face, with their mind someplace else, or with someone else.
Of course Foo noticed this and immediately felt the urge to ask, "hey kid, what's the joke?"
Loth-Cat was pulled down from the clouds they were watching, and confused, replied, "Huh? oh it's nothing, I wasn't... I mean I was just... it's nothing."
"You know you were smiling like a fool just now, right?" Foo asked with a sarcastic tone.
"Whaaat? No way, must be the sun, I was staring at it. Bad move. My face does that when I stare at... the sun," Loth-cat's improvised answer couldn't even convince themselves.
Foo started to laugh for himself, finding amusing how the wannabe mando tried so poorly to hide their emotions. "So I'm assuming it has nothing to do with that new Pantoran recruit right? What 's her name? I know they call her Blue, but blast! What was her name?" Foo really knew how to get on Loth-cat's nerves. "Was it Chu, Chow—"
"Cho" Loth-cat quickly interrupted. They felt their cheeks warm up, indicating an involuntary blush.
Foo burst into laughter like he'd just won a contest. "A-ha! I knew it! Aww you're blushing! Aren't you adorable? Our little mando-cat is in love."
"Cut it out, man!" Loth-cat said with a nervous laughter, trying to hide their embarrassed, red face.
"Alright alright," said Foo, having accomplished his goal. "So, is she your girlfriend?" He asked.
Loth-cat grinned. "Can't tell you, top secret and all that," they said, quoting Foo from their conversation earlier.
"Alright, I see how it is!" said Foo, pleasantly surprised as the young pilot was using his own dissuasion techniques against him. Suddenly his face took on a serious mask and his tone matched. "Look kid, I can't say I know you like a sibling, but for what I know about you, I do know she would be lucky to have you."
Loth-cat looked at Foo, with a tender smile on their face. "Thank you Foo, that really means a lot." Now Loth-Cat wasn't just thinking about Blue, they were happy, for both of them. Because of their lonely nature, they don't spend as much time sharing with others like the rest, not because they don't want to, but because they find it so hard. That's why Blue meant so much to them— and to Loth-Cat, the approval of a wingmate was equal to the approval of a parent.
Toseng Dusttown Village
Bulldog walked slowly down the ramp of the parked skimmer and squinted his eyes through the dust his arrival had disturbed into the air. Eddies in the wind current spun dust devils in multiple directions, and some sort of bristling clump of bramble tumbled across his path with the steady crosswind as it continued off into the sparse vegetation nearby.
Through the dust, he saw the squat village in front of him. The buildings were relatively spread out so there was no contiguous defensible wall or structure that could be used as any sort of rampart to fend off an attack. Instead, single-storey buildings were spread apart and laid out haphazardly around a massive central gathering area and the lone building with more than one level. The gaps in all directions left no easy way to lay out a defense.
Beyond the village, the craggy, weathered mountains drew his eye. Visible from this distance with the naked eye were multiple cave entrances that appeared to be intentionally created rather than naturally occurring. He pursed his lips as he grimly thought that if he were a criminal gang leader that those abandoned mining tunnels would be exactly the place he'd use as a base of operations. He knew instantly that he'd have to eventually go into those caves to end this thing and wondered if he should just go directly there to force the issue.
For the first time since he'd left, he wished he hadn't come alone. He would need somebody to help cover the multiple approaches and blind entries into the village proper, and trusting villagers he didn't know to do it properly was not something he was confident in. He would need somebody to watch his back in the caves. He needed... somebody capable.
A crowd had begun to tentatively form as he slowly approached. It was a shabby showing of bedraggled Zabraks in mismatched clothing with holes and patches of any color without regard for color matching. They openly gawked in Bulldog's direction as he approached, but none approached him or attempted to hail him.
As Bulldog approached the gathering, he scanned each downtrodden face for the two Zabraks he'd encountered earlier in the day in the alley. Unfortunately, he didn't find Tarla or Torsten amongst the gathering. He started running the possibilities of what could have happened to them through his mind. He continued for a few paces until he noticed the crowd slowly retreating from him as he continued to walk forward, keeping a rough distance of about 10 meters between themselves and him. He stopped walking, and the crowd stopped with him. Nobody spoke, and an awkward, heavy silence filled the space.
Bulldog's patience ran thin, but he forced himself to keep a kind intonation to his voice. "Ok. I'm here to help."
The Zabraks in attendance recoiled at the sound of his voice, some wincing and urgently motioning for him to lower his voice. Others appeared to be miming blatant confusion or flat out ignorance at the basic Bulldog had used. A snatch of Zabraki broke out amongst a few of the individuals.
Confusion flitted across Bulldog's face as he was becoming increasingly unsure if he was in the right village. He did a quick little scan of the village while he turned in a full circle. In almost every doorway or window he could see Zabrak faces of all ages and genders looking back at him in a mixture of wonder and worry. There appeared to be no signage anywhere that said 'Dusttown' or any other name, but he did catch a few scrawled signs in Zabraki that he didn't understand.
Just before he finished the full circuit, he noticed another figure that didn't seem to fit in with the surroundings. A human in a typical spacer's outfit was sitting in the shade of an overhang in a rickety wooden chair. His face was bathed in the shadow cast by a wide-brimmed hat, but the true menace that sent a shiver down Bulldog's spine was the large blade the man was spinning in his fingerless gloved hand.
Bulldog did his best to suppress the nervous reaction his body had triggered by reflex, but he wasn't sure if he was completely successful. He turned to face the man full and waited for the other stranger to make the first move. To speed the certain confrontation up, he affected an aura of calm and disinterest.
For once, his patience held out longer than somebody else's, and the mysterious human stood from his chair and slowly approached him. He wore a beat up synth-leather duster that billowed in the gentle breeze as he walked, giving an air of mystique to him. His boots had some sort of metallic spur attached despite no live animal mounts being visible anywhere, causing a slight tinkling sound with each step.
Bulldog took in a deep breath and held it as the stranger approached. He made sure to keep his eyes on the man's hands and where they were in relation to his holstered blaster. He tensed up with each step as the natural motion of the approaching stranger brought his hand close to his blaster as his arms swung with his stride. Bulldog's heartbeat sped up and slowed down with each step as that hand drew close to the holstered gun.
The man came to a stop about 10 paces away from Bulldog and raised his eyes to finally examine the Renegade pilot. After a moment of intense scrutiny, his features softened. The crow's feet at the corners of his eyes relaxed and smile lines became visible through the scraggly 5 o'clock shadow as the man smirked confidently. A lit cigar leaked wisps of smoke from the corner of his mouth. He crossed his arms in front of himself as he appeared to be completely unworried. "You're here to help?" he scoffed as he brought one hand up to hold the cigar.
Bulldog nodded, scratching an itch in his beard. His foreboding wariness at the first sight of the man was all but confirmed to be the correct feeling. He knew this man was an enforcer of some type that the gang had left behind to keep the villagers in line. His pulse quickened again as his brain chose to be rash rather than cunning. "I'm here to finish the job I started in a dark alley earlier today when I smoked three of your buddies."
The enforcer tensed and anger flashed through his features. The smirk on his mouth slowly morphed into a scowl, and his softened brows now angled down in anger. He took an angry pull on the cigar, and then blew the cloud into Bulldog's direction. He nodded briefly to himself as he shifted his stance once more to shield his holstered gun from Bulldog's sight. "We found our people. That was you?"
Bulldog noticed the new positioning of his opponent in the standoff and frowned inwardly. He didn't fancy himself much of a quickdraw specialist, so currently having even less chance to catch the first movements of his opponent didn't bode well for his chances. His blaster was already on the hefty side as far as blaster pistols went, and the lengthy barrel meant it required more time to clear the holster before he could aim. The mental calculus he'd just ran through told him he needed to find a way to get a better line of sight on the man's gun hand to get as much warning as possible while also trying to find a way to possibly distract the man so he could have an advantage.
"I asked you a question." Another angry puff of smoke.
Throughout all of the scenarios and stratagems Bulldog thought of, none seemed to play out the way he had hoped. Whether that was due to his generally pessimistic disposition or actually an accurate representation of his current chances, he didn't know. He sidestepped, but attempted to mask the tactical move as he smiled and rolled his shoulders and nodded. "Ye—"
He was blasted off of his feet and backwards, his arms flailing through the air. After what seemed like an eternity without his feet touching the ground, he landed on his back in a skidding thud. Dust billowed up around him as he lay there looking skyward in disbelief. The disturbed and airborne dust stung his eyes. He couldn't wipe them clear with his hands for some reason, so he rapidly blinked his eyes while tears began to form involuntarily.
Finally the dust settled a bit more, allowing him to see the wispy clouds in the sky. He lifted his head and glanced down to see a smoldering hole in the chest of his jacket, right above where his heart was located. Through the smoke and dust, his opponent stood and blew the smoke away that was emanating from the barrel of his recently fired blaster.
The pressure in Bulldog's chest felt as if he'd been kicked by a spooked orbak. It was more compression than he'd ever felt in the cockpit of a fighter; even more than when he'd been forced to fly his A-wing without a functioning inertial compensator. Pain radiated throughout his chest from the point of impact, but he couldn't find the will and coordination to make his limbs function. He attempted to breathe, but he couldn't pull any air into his lungs.
Movement from the fringes of the clearing drew his attention as he glanced frantically around through fear-widened eyes. In almost every doorway and space between the buildings, humans appeared and started cheering enthusiastically. Shouts of congratulations and compliments on the marksmanship on display ruled the common area of Dusttown. The downtrodden Zabraks that had remained in attendance appeared even more cowed than they had before.
Bulldog's head fell back to the ground as the effort to hold it up became too much for him.