Here There Be Dragons
FRG Black Hawk
Queequeg Black Cloud "Savage" sat back in his pilot's chair as the engines came online with a subtle hum. He began the startup sequence with his new co-pilot paying special attention to the minor differences given the ship type. The control board was familiar enough to the modified gunships he was used to flying with his old pirate crew that he was able to look moderately competent in front of the new crew he'd been hired on with. He figured he'd be watched pretty carefully on this mission given his background, but he expected nothing less really.
He'd been holed up in what he was told was a standard issue personnel cabin for days. He suspected it was an old broom closet before they decided to bolt a bedframe to the wall, but considering his circumstances he couldn't complain. After all, most pirates got sent directly to the brig when they got picked up by the New Republic. So he was quietly relieved when he was told by his, admittedly polite, captors that they needed a pilot to navigate a small force through the Unknown Regions. He agreed to the terms and payment and soon found himself whisked away to the hangar to familiarize himself with the U-wings there.
"Don't forget to power up the auxiliary stabilizers," his gruff co-pilot muttered next to him. Brelvi Vacker was an old hand and Savage could tell that the one eyed twi'lek man could fly the ship by himself if need be. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but he suspected his new employers had chosen the old timer in case he himself turned out to be as untrustworthy as his background suggested. Granted, Brelvi had a bit of a peripheral vision issue so maybe he couldn't fly by himself after all.
"Next thing you'll tell me I'm expected to follow some sort of safety protocol," Savage said back. He knew he probably shouldn't poke fun at the old timer on their first mission together, but he couldn't help himself.
"What? You telling me you never followed standard operating..." Brelvi trailed off as he looked over Savage with his good eye.
"Damn pirate," he finished half to himself.
Savage could tell they were going to get along fine.
A series of toots and whistles came from the control board as the R4 Unit mounted aft notified them that the commando unit had arrived. His co-pilot let down the ramp and as they came aboard he got his first good look at his passengers as they began stowing their equipment with the help of the two human door gunners, Rylepi and Axefern. He hadn't spoken with them yet, but there would be plenty of time for pleasantries once they entered hyperspace.
"You're clear for liftoff Mayhem Three," came the controller's voice over the comms.
"Copy that, Control," Savage responded in what he hoped was proper protocol. They had been somewhat lax on that particular department when he'd been on the other side of the law. Granted, he supposed he still was on the other side of the law, depending on whether one considered The Empire to be a legitimate government.
The U-wing rose up from the hangar floor and glided gently out the shield barrier into the void. The controls guided easily in his hands as the engine gave its subtle thrum, and before he knew it he was surrounded by stars again.
He was on the edge of Wild Space. He was home again.
Edge of Bakura Sector
"Alright R4, we've gone as far as sublight engines need to take us. We'll be following the Shiritoku Spur so I need hyperspace coordinates for G'hro. Then plot a course out to Kammia, and then finally to B'Knos," Savage relayed to the astromech as he brought in the U-wing's S-foils for the hyperspace jump.
There was a barble of beeps that came back in response, and Savage waited until the shipboard computer translated it for him on his screen.
"I realize the last one isn't in your database. We'll just have to visually compare it to the star charts once we arrive at Kammia and we'll be able to judge the distance for the jump from there."
"Coordinates locked, ready for transition," Brelvi stated as R-4 fed him the relevant data.
"Prepare for jump to lightspeed in 3, 2, 1..." Savage gave over the shipboard intercom before engaging the hyperspace lever. The stars streaked into lines and there was a lurch of pseudomotion as they left the Bakura System behind.
"How is it you know this part of space?" Brelvi asked as they unbuckled themselves from their pilots' chairs.
"Oh, I hunted out here once, maybe twice," Savage said as casually as he could.
Brelvi gave him a sideways glance as they spun their chairs aft to face the crew compartment, but was polite enough not to ask what Savage had been hunting. If the look he was getting from the commando squad leader was anything to go by, however, she would not be as polite. He found her glaring at him as she stood from her seat. He had expected some level of posturing, and it seemed she would not disappoint.
"Where's your helmet, pilot?" Sergeant Naomi "Zero" Cantar demanded. She was the leader of the small four man insertion squad. And given her almost aristocratic bearing, Savage could see why.
"They didn't have any that would fit my horns," Savage explained as he stood himself with the hint of a grin. He was tall for a Devaronian, especially with his horns. As he stood they nearly brushed the lights on the ceiling, and he knew full well how the shadows would play on his features in that light. He was familiar with this sort of social posturing, no doubt the commando Sergeant wanted to make it clear who was more dangerous. While he understood he would technically be under the command of the commando, he wasn't just going to not play along with the bravado. He figured they'd get along better if he gave her a hard time.
"Fall in for mission briefing," Zero said with a scowl as she turned towards her compatriots.
"This is Corporal Cargen "Darkness" Brell, Senior Private Rak "Manners" Sivart, and Private "Womp Rat" Chordu." Zero said as she gestured to a menacing looking male Sullustian, a female Shistavanen, and a Jawa respectively. Savage was a little off-put by the Jawa if he was being honest with himself.
"And this is our pilot Queequeg Black Cloud, otherwise known as 'Savage'." Zero introduced him with a flippant gesture over her shoulder in his general direction. She began with the mission briefing. All he had been told when offered the job was where they needed to be taken, the rest of the details were new to him.
Not long ago, a Wild Space trader had bartered some information with a New Republic diplomat off the trading planet of Terminus. He had brought holo images of an Imperial Star Destroyer deep within the Unknown Regions, apparently drifting listlessly through space. Command was able to verify that an ISD was indeed missing through their information network, and that the Imperial Remnants had yet to locate it. The ISD Emperor's Wrath had been found, and Command wanted its logs. They had long known Imperial Remnant forces held secret bases in the Unknown Regions, and this ship's data logs may be the key to pinpointing their locations.The problem was all they had for a location was that it was apparently drifting through the Stratos Distribution; a long corridor of ice asteroids, dust, and crystalline cometary fronds deep within the Unknown Regions.
"And that's where our pilot comes in. Savage here is from the Unknown Regions and has frequented the area in his... past business dealings. Command has agreed to instate his citizenship in the New Republic as well as waive any warrants he may have for his arrest in return for his navigation through this part of space," Zero continued. They were all looking at him, and he supposed they were waiting for him to explain his knowledge of the area.
Womp Rat chittered something in Jawa-ese before Savage could speak, and Darkness translated, "He wants to know who has his warrants. Us or the Empire?"
"Alleged warrants," Savage clarified with a fake smile. "All my business out here was perfectly legitimate until proven otherwise. Now as to how to get to the Strathos Distribution, I told your superiors I could get us there in roughly a week depending on where in it our Star Destroyer is located."
"I take it that means this meteor corridor is rather large?" Manners asked. Of all the commandos, Savage was perhaps most intimidated by the tall Shistavanen with her predatory canine features. Which he felt was odd considering she was supposed to be the medic.
"Oh yah, it goes on for lightyears and lightyears. I've only been there once, and we didn't take the time to scout it out much. No one ever stays there long— it's more of a waypoint than anything. People use it to navigate through that area of space, and even then most try to avoid it."
"Why is that?" Manners asked again.
"You hear strange stories about the corridor. There are things living in there. Things best left the darkness of the void..." Savage answered darkly.
"Well I suppose you are a pilot after all if you're that superstitious," Zero chuckled. "How long until we reach the end of this series of jumps?"
"The rest of the day perhaps. It depends how long it takes to calculate the jump to B'Knos, and once we're there it might take us a while to find a way through the Galactic Barrier," Savage responded.
"You heard the man. Get settled in. It's going to be a long trip. Any questions?" Zero asked.
Womp Rat jabbered something in Jawa-ese again, and after a moment Darkness relayed, "He wants to know if you're a pirate."
Savage kept his face neutral. Frankly, he could not fathom why anyone would allow a Jawa on a commando force. They were little agents of chaos, every single one of them. Well, maybe he could put together the reasons for including one after all.
"Any real questions? No? Good get some rest," Zero stated with a stern look at her commando.
Savage just laughed and went back to his pilot's chair. He noticed that old man Brelvi was giving him the side eye again though. Oh well, they had a long trip. Despite his cavalier attitude, he did have his reservations about the Strathos Distribution. Ghost stories had a way of sticking in his mind. His old crewmates used to joke it was because he grew up with fireside stories out in the untamed wilderness of his homeworld. There was one thing they never failed to understand though. Those who ignored the stories and went into the dark parts of the forest his elders warned them about never returned, and Savage didn't see why space should be any different than the foreboding forests of his past.
"So where's the planet supposed to be?" Brelvi asked gruffly as they stared out into the void. As they drew closer, asteroids began to appear on the long range scanners, but there was no planet to be seen.
"Never said there was one. B'Knos is a mining colony. Or was, I should say. Got raided by the Ssi-ruuk a while back. No survivors," Savage responded as he watched his sensors on the screen. It hadn't taken them too long to calculate the jump to the isolated pocket of space from Kammia. Turned out someone had put out hyperspace buoys, probably the late miners, since Savage had last come through the area. He thought it best not to mention that his old ship had made off with a nice haul of precious metals and disappeared past the galactic barrier the last time he'd been here. Thankfully, no one asked.
"You brought us to a damn ghost colony," Brelvi replied. And for the first time Savage noticed the old Twi'lek was a little apprehensive. Maybe he was superstitious too.
Zero walked up to the cockpit to look out the transparisteel with them at the passing meteorites. She leaned over in between their pilot's chairs and Savage caught a glimpse of a concealed vibroblade tucked inside her right sleeve.
"Deploying S-foils. Power up the deflector shields if you don't mind," Savage said to his copilot.
Brelvi replied with a grunt and soon enough they were coasting along the asteroid belt. Zero raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He wasn't expecting trouble after all, just good practice to have the shields up in case of micrometeors. Still, he could sense the tension in the cabin. It mounted as they drew closer to the old mining colony and blips began to appear on the radar.
"What's that?" Darkness asked, pointing at the screen. Savage hadn't heard the Sullustian walk up behind him.
"Dead equipment, if I had to guess. We're coming up on the colony now," Savage replied.
"I had heard the colony was taken out by the Grysk," Brelvi stated, and Savage gave him a look. "What? Bakura system isn't that far away from Endor, where I served. I hear things." But regardless of who was to blame, the colony was clearly dead. The U-wing coasted by the old remains of the Colony where it jutted out of a group of asteroids the miners had rigged together with durasteel and determination.
Savage could see blasted out transparisteel windows in the colony. He was glad for the random bits of machinery he had to navigate the ship through, or he may have stared too long into those cavernous holes. Dark holes that may have things staring back at him, dead things. In the crew cabin the door gunners gripped their repeating ion blasters, though no target presented itself. Of the group, only Darkness seemed to be at peace.
"Give me some light over there." Zero asked, and Brelvi lit up a spotlight on the dead mining colony as they coasted by.
"Sure looks like they put up a fight," Darkness said as the spotlight illuminated the scorch marks on the structures.
"Any reason we had to come by this colony?" Zero asked as she looked over at Savage, who was busy studying the star charts.
"R-4, see that pulsar there, 30 degrees starboard of B'Knos?" Savage said without answering Zero. There was an answering confirmation beep from the console. "Set us a micro jump directly in between that star and the red dwarf to the right of it. According to the long range scanners, the system's oort cloud is roughly out there."
Savage nodded at another confirmation on his console. "Thats where we'll be navigating the Galactic barrier. Last I was here, I used the colony as a waypoint. I don't care to deviate much from that. Call it superstition if you want," he replied as he punched in the coordinates for the micro jump.
"Hyperdrive ready," Brelvi reported.
"Grab ahold of something, ladies and gentlebeings," Savage warned as he guided the U-wing past the last bits of wreckage as the colony passed under them and folded in the S-foils. With a lurch of pseudomotion they were light hours away, coasting in the icy expanse of the oort cloud. The ice and the stars sparkled outside the viewports in the cockpit. It was beautiful out there in the void. He could feel some of the tension release from flying through the dead colony, now far out of sight behind them.
"Now what?" Zero asked as she stared out into the void.
"Now we wait to be ferried across the barrier," Savage responded cryptically.
Somewhere in Hyperspace
He was woken up by beeping and warbling from the R-4 unit. It was roughly the middle of the night cycle and it took him a second to get his bearings. Right, he had told R-4 to notify him when it noticed anything on the sensors. He brought the engine power up and began heading towards the cluster of contact points on the scanners. It wasn't long before Brelvi stirred beside him.
"That the ferry?" Brelvi asked groggily as he gestured at the scanner.
"Sure looks like it," Savage said as he maneuvered the U-wing towards the cluster of contact points out in the distance.
Ice and dust twinkled in the starlight as the U-wing made its approach. The cluster on his scanner was on the move and Savage was careful to approach gently so as not to frighten them. They were very far out in space after all, and only going farther out. It wasn't long before dark shapes began to become discernible against the starlit backdrop of the oort cloud. Large shapes, much larger than their U-wing, and trailing massive tentacles.
"You're frakking with me," Zero said from directly behind them.
It took a fair bit of concentration to keep himself from jumping. He hadn't even heard her wake up. Out in the darkness, the creatures were becoming more discernible. Massive bulbous heads with huge eyes stared out at the U-wing, though not menacingly. They were larger than the starship and had multiple fins, and trailed four large tentacles behind them. The space whales were majestic in the starlight and made way for the U-wing as it came up beside their pod.
"These are purrgil, and they're our ticket through the Galactic barrier. Don't worry they're harmless. Go ahead and get a hyperspace buoy ready, Brelvi. We'll need it for the way back," Savage said as he coaxed the controls into a gentle glide so as not to frighten the pod.
"You said you were taking us to a ferry, not going on some sort of kriffing safari," Zero said flatly.
"I said we'd be ferried, I didn't say how. Only other option is to micro-jump your way system to system and hope to the Force you don't come across an unmapped black hole. It would take us weeks to get through to more easily navigable sectors out here, and that's assuming our hyperdrive motivator doesn't give out under the strain," Savage explained. "These purrgil live here, they know the way through, all we have to do is match course and follow them when they jump."
He could hear some murmuring from the crew compartment, and Brelvi was giving him the side eye again—quite impressive really considering he only had one eye. Zero was visibly mulling things over in her head as she stared out at the majestic beasts flying alongside them. One of the purrgil rolled lazily on its side as it flew next to them and a massive eye regarded the occupants inside the cockpit. "You're mad," Zero whispered finally.
"Well thank goodness for that or we'd never get through to the other side," Savage replied with a grin as he heard, what he could only describe as, maniacal Jawa laughter from the crew compartment. Well, at least one of the crew was on his side. It was then that the purrgil began to glow. "Better drop that buoy Brelvi, they're about to jump."
There was a mechanical whirring from underneath his boots and the confirmation beeps from the R-4 stating that the buoy was in place. Savage began fiddling with a few of the controls in front him.
"Wait... what are you doing?" Brelvi asked with rising apprehension in his voice.
"Just disabling a few of the safety protocols that say I need jump coordinates," Savage stated matter-of-factly. This was followed by more maniacal laughter from the crew compartment. Maybe the little Jawa was growing on him, Savage thought to himself.
He carefully eased the U-wing into the middle of the pod of purrgil as the glow began to build. R-4 gave out a low whine as massive tentacles passed by the transparisteel windows. He began to power up the hyperdrive. Any moment now, timing was critical. He locked on to the lead bull of the pod and lined up the ship, letting the onboard computer and R-4 do the rest to align the craft perfectly. He could sense the crew collectively holding their breath, despite the fact that he told them the purrgil were harmless creatures. He rested his hand on the hyperspace lever and began to ease it forward ever so gently.
"Prepare to jump," Brelvi stated for the crew and passengers as he made some sort of hand gesture over his forehead that Savage could only assume was religious in nature.
There was a bright light as the lead bull created a simu-tunnel and jumped forward into hyperspace with a violent thrashing of his posterior tentacles. As the rest of the pod followed suit, Savage jammed the throttle forward. With a lurch of pseudomotion they were in the simu-tunnel with the rest of the pod all around them, without coordinates and without a predetermined end point. For better or for worse, they were shooting the Galactic Barrier.
Somewhere in Hyperspace
The shadows of the great spaceborn beasts played against the sides of the hyper tunnel as Savage had been glued to the controls for hours and hours, his hand resting gently on the hyperspace throttle. They had to come out of hyperspace exactly when the purrgil did. A second too late and they ran the risk of coming out directly in front of a gravity well, or worse.
The cabin slowly became infused with the smell of freshly brewed caf as the night cycle ended and the commandos and crew that had gone back to sleep after their entrance into hyperspace slowly began to re-acquaint themselves with their circadian rhythm.
"We have caf?" Brelvi asked from his co-pilot's chair before Savage could voice the same question. Brelvi was definitely a veteran spacer Savage decided, not moments before he'd been snoring to himself. Savage himself had stayed awake through the night cycle piloting.
Womp Rat jabbered in Jawa-ese from back in the crew compartment in response. Savage couldn't see or understand the little sand snake, but he could tell there was gleam in one of those eyes from the way he spoke.
"He says that he borrowed a machine from the officer's lounge in the Black Hawk. Figured they could just commandeer one from a private or something,"
"Officially as your sergeant, I must say I disapprove," Zero began, a small smile forming at the edges of her mouth. "Unofficially, as long as it is returned when we dock I don't see any reason this needs to be reported."
The door gunners leaned in and filled their mugs, and Ryelpi was even kind enough to bring Savage a mug considering he wasn't able to leave the controls while in hyperspace. Brelvi gave him a nod and unbuckled himself to go fill his own as he wasn't needed at the moment.
"Have you ever done this before?" Zero asked.
Savage couldn't see her, but he knew she was talking to him. "I've never been the one to pilot, but I've been along for the ride. The trick is exiting hyperspace with the pod." Savage felt he probably shouldn't mention the fact that individual purrgil occasionally have been known to ram into ships in hyperspace. These looked friendly though, as far as he could tell in his admittedly un-expert opinion.
"Is this how you navigated this area the last time you were here?" Zero continued.
"It was, although I didn't have much say in the matter. We were being chased at the time by an Imperial patrol. They thought they had us cornered here at the end of Wild Space, and at the time I thought we were too. The chakkars had an Interdictor Cruiser keeping us from jumping back towards other hyperspace routes, and it looked like we were in for a fight."
As the savage flying their U-wing began to tell his story, mugs began to be held still, and steam began to gently rise. The commandos looked out past the transparisteel at the ghostly shadows of the purrgil pod about them. Tentacles churned lazily in the hyperspace tunnel as Savage told his old pirate tale.
"But, the helmsman was a mad son of a schutta," Savage continued. "You see, he had grown up a fisherman on Mon Cala, and he knew how to follow the birds out to good fishing holes. So when he saw the purrgil, he gunned straight for them. They bolted of course, but he managed to jump the ship in their simu-tunnel and we escaped the Imps into the Unknown Regions." He took a break as he sipped his caf with his free hand.
"The captain was livid of course, but she couldn't exactly beat him senseless while he was glued to the helm. She knew he had to follow the pod to a safe hyperspace exit. So that's what we did. We were in for well over two days, but our helmsman refused to leave so the bridge crew took turns keeping him awake." Savage took another sip from his caf.
"It was he that explained to me you had to drop out with the pod. Otherwise you ran the risk of coming out in front of a black hole, or getting pulled out by a gravity well and sent careening into atmosphere. I'd been assigned watch to make sure he stayed awake, because he didn't trust anyone else to the task of following the purrgil other than himself."
"We all had strange dreams that night. You can't help it when you look out the port windows and see yourself surrounded by these beasts. At the time I didn't know they were docile creatures. Some of the crew went mad. Fights broke out of course, and ol' Nefrey was gutted in the engine room by a vibroknife. We never did find out who did it, but the story was he was trying to disable the engines to drop us out into realspace. He couldn't take the pressure of not knowing where we'd come out. We bought the story because it was easier that way." He paused, reflecting on that particular voyage and all that occurred.
"When we finally dropped out into the open void, we were lost. We didn't have star charts for the area, and no one on the crew, save myself, had been to the Unknown Regions before. We had to plot a series of micro jumps to the nearest star and hope we could find some hint of civilization. We ended up going through a dead system of all things."
"We cruised from planet to planet looking for signs of life, but found nothing. It was at the end of the second day of going through the dead system under sublight engines when we realized we were being hunted. We hadn't noticed it at first because we'd been only looking for ships, and for some reason that thing didn't give off a lifesign reading."
"What was following you?" Manners asked as she leaned on the crew cabin wall sipping her caf.
"We never did find out. It wasn't a ship though, that's for certain. It stayed just at the edge of our sensor range, and the captain didn't want to risk scrambling any fighters to investigate it. We dove through an asteroid ring around one of the gas giants in the system, but it followed us right through. I had the night watch on the bridge that night as well. We tried giving it the slip by ducking behind one of the moons near the ring, on the shadowed side of the planet, and it worked for a little while. But right about the time we were beginning to congratulate ourselves it came back on the sensors."
"That was another tense night, and not one I ever hope to repeat. It took us another half day, but after we passed the last planet with no life sign and jumped our way out to the next system we never caught a sensor return on it again..." Savage trailed off and was silent for a moment.
"Thankfully the odds are we'll pop out somewhere else entirely from the last time I was here. No telling where these purrgil are off to," he said in a more chipper tone as he finished his story.
"Did your captain end up doing it?" Zero asked.
"Beat the helmsman senseless."
"Oh definitely. Broke both his knees with the butt of her blaster rifle the moment we broke back into realspace. Said that he didn't need to stand in order to pilot. Di'kut."
"Can't say I don't have similar sentime..." Zero began to say but was suddenly interrupted by the unanticipated transition back into realspace.
Savage had been watching the pod while they talked, and despite the fact that he was mid-sip the pod's shadows winked out from his peripheral and he slammed the hyperspace lever backwards. Caf flew everywhere about the ship and there was general swearing, cursing, and statements as to the nature of his mother. Through it all, and ignoring the burning sensation coming from his lap, Savage was scanning the star charts as R-4 analyzed them and sent the data to his screen. Brelvi recovered quicker than the rest and was strapping himself into the co-pilot's chair with the remnants of his caf still in hand.
"Where in the Force are we?" Zero asked, rather pragmatically under the circumstances. It was a few moments before Savage replied. The purrgil flew lazily on into the distant stars leaving them behind to their sentient troubles. Before them lay a massive red nebula with twelve stars winking through the gaseous clouds.
"You want the good news or the bad news?" Savage asked, looking up at the blood red nebula before them. Zero just stared at him. "The good news is I'm pretty sure we can locate the Strathos Distribution from the other side of this Nebula. The bad news is, this is definitely the Perann Nebula."
"Meaning what exactly?" Zero asked as she wiped caf from her combat uniform.
"Well, for starters we're going to have to go through it with sublight engines," Savage began to explain. Zero glanced at Brelvi who returned her gaze.
"He's correct, ma'am. Can't translate through hyperspace past all that gas and dust. Only way through is to fly through or go around, and going around is less than safe in these parts," Brelvi added for the benefit of the sergeant.
Zero considered the information as she looked out at the nebula in the vast distance before addressing Savage again. "And, the rest?" She asked.
"I've heard stories..." Savage began with some reluctance knowing they already thought him to be superstitious. "There are some who say sorcerers live in these parts. Sorcerers who delve into things best left untouched."
"Do these sorcerers have a name?"
"The Sorcerers of Rhand, so I'm told."
"Do they have any allegiance?"
"None, but their own."
"Steady on pilot," Zero finished and turned back to the crew compartment.
Savage took a deep breath and exchanged a look with his co-pilot, Brelvi. He could tell the old Twi'lek was concerned about this as well. Still, there was nothing else for it so he deployed the S-foils, dropped a hyperspace buoy, and made for the Perann Nebula. He fed power to the sublight engines, praying to the forest gods of his homeworld that no one spotted them before they flew through the accursed place. The twelve stars of the Nihil Retreat winked at them as the U-wing flew onwards—laughing perhaps at the foolhardiness of the semi-lost rebel crew who thought to steal Imperial intelligence from a ship the unknown regions had already embraced as its own within its cold clutches.
The Perann Nebula
Savage was woken up by a series of distressed beeps and whistles coming from the control panel. That damn droid must be having some sort of panic attack! He tried to return to sleep but the muffled voices of the crew slowly brought him back to awareness. He had left the piloting to Brelvi and had laid down at the back of the crew compartment to get some shut eye after his extended stay in the pilot's chair following the purrgil. From the grogginess, though, he doubted he got more than a few hours of sleep. Just what the frakk is that droid on about anyway?
Looking around the crew compartment as he got up he could see the door gunners were on edge, and the commandos were huddled behind the cockpit looking at something out the transparisteel. He nudged his way through and plopped into the pilot's chair to see what all the fuss was about.
"We're being followed," Brevli stated matter-of-factly.
Savage took a look at the sensor display and could see what looked like the signature of a smaller ship trailing them at a distance. Too far for them to engage if they turned around, but close enough to keep an eye on them.
"It just launched off that 5th planet there behind us," Brelvi continued.
"Probably tailing us until reinforcements can corner us. Or waiting to hem us in for an ambush further down the nebula," Zero added ominously.
Savage considered for a moment. He only knew the Strathos Distribution was somewhere near the nebula, but he wasn't sure exactly on what side of the nebula it was so one direction was as good as any other. He gave a quick glance at the star chart from the nebula that R-4 had brought up.
"Let's see how they respond," Savage said as he slowed the sublight engines a bit to lose some speed. The unidentified ship on the sensors matched speed with them.
"Still no attempt at hailing us," Brelvi noted with some suspicion.
"I'd say we should hail them, but there's no telling if we speak the same language," Zero said as she thought the issue over.
Savage was still of a mind to test their new tail, and gently placed the U-wing on a course for a planet on the far side of the nebula that passed three other planets. After a few seconds the tailing ship matched course with them.
"If it's an ambush, maybe we'll get lucky and they'll begin to move their forces out to one of those planets this course takes us past," Savage explained in answer to the questioning look Zero gave him. "We'll give them a few minutes to think that's our destination, and then we can cut at a seventy degree angle straight below us and make a run for it. It looks like there's a pocket that'll be directly below us where the nebula ends a bit shallower. Plus, there's only a single planet we'll have to pass by going that way that something else could launch off of. It'll be our quickest way out of this Force-forsaken place." Savage gestured at the map as he explained. He was the pilot, but he knew Zero had the last say on matters.
"Will you still be able to locate the Strathos Distribution from there?" She asked after some consideration.
"Should. This course would still take us on the far end of the Nebula from where we entered. At worst we can micro-jump out into the distance a bit if we get chased out and navigate from there," Savage explained.
"Let's strap ourselves in then," Zero agreed as she made her way back to the crew compartment. Savage and Brelvi buckled themselves in and watched the sensor display of the ship behind them.
The next few minutes drew out. Savage wanted to give whoever his pursuers were just enough time to misplace their ambushing forces, but not so much time that he blundered into their trap of his own accord. It was a dangerous game, and he had to judge it based on instinct alone.
The U-wing drew slowly closer to their planned trajectory towards the shallow pocket in the nebula wall. The gaseous red miasma drifted past lazily in the distance obscuring the danger lurking there out past his scanner's reach. He knew nebulas like this could hide all sorts of surprises from his sensors. There was nothing that said his pursuers only had one ambush set around the planets here. They could be hiding literally anywhere in this blood red mist they found himself in.
"You've played this game before?" Brelvi asked as his eyes searched the billowing red mists in the distance.
Savage knew Brelvie was only asking to keep his mind off the stress of the situation, but he gave him an answer anyway. "From the other side of things, yes. The easiest prey are the ones that cut and run immediately without any aim as to where they're running. It's the calm ones that leave you guessing."
"You think they're pirates?"
"Hard to say— could be slavers. Could be some cultists waiting to take us back to the crazed sorcerers out in these parts." His hands rested gently on the throttle ready to gun the engines once they reached their trajectory. Almost there, they were almost there. "Once I gun it, I want you to bring up our deflector shields and warm up the guns."
"You don't even have to ask," came Brelvi's response.
They reached the point for their course change. Savage rammed the throttle and rolled the U-wing down off their portside towards their new exit point. The S-foils seemed to cut through the miasma as they gained speed on their pursuer.
Not a moment too soon it seemed, as an alarmed warble came from R-4. Savage looked at his sensors as the weapons and shields came online.
"We've got a ship breaking out of hiding farther along on our old trajectory. Corvette by the look of it," Brelvi stated for everyone's benefit. "Must have been hiding in some gas or crystal pocket our sensors couldn't reach."
Savage blessed whatever technician had installed Quadex Propulsion Engines on their U-wing. It made for less handling when you needed a tight maneuver, but it sure as frakk came in handy for dead sprints like this one. In his experience you only needed fancy maneuvering once you were already cornered anyway. He looked at the sensors which now had both ships on display. Their original pursuer was accelerating, but they were leaving them behind in the nebular dust. It looked like they would leave this new ship in their wake as well.
"Anything on their transponder?" Zero shouted from the crew cabin where she was strapped in with the rest of the commandos.
"Nothing, but that shouldn't come as a surprise out here," Brelvi answered over his shoulder. "They look to be hailing us though."
"Might as well see what they have to say, but don't decrease speed," Zero ordered.
Brelvi opened the communications as Savage piloted and the cockpit was immediately inundated with a guttural language Savage had never heard before. It was nearly chanting in its cadence, and he felt a deep sense of dread fall over him. He knew within himself that this was the end. The pursuers would take them, he would be a slave again, this was the end of all things.
As Savage watched, Brelvi began decreasing speed. There was no point to running anymore anyway. The chanting continued over the communication relay, Savage could see rust inexplicably corroding away at the edges of the speakers. Since when did rust form so fast? Then suddenly the chanting was overridden by panicked beeping and whistling from the R-4 unit, no doubt wondering why they were decelerating when they clearly had the lead.
Come to think of it, Savage thought to himself, why the frakk were they decelerating? He looked beside him at his co-pilot and saw that Brelvi had accepted his fate, his face a mask of dread. Suddenly, it dawned on Savage to cut to communications. He slammed his fist into the controls and the chanting cadence cut off mid otherworldly sentence. The spell was broken, and Savage immediately gunned the engines again.
"What in the Force was that?" Darkness moaned from the crew cab.
"Damn sorcery is what it is," Savage muttered half to himself as he looked at his controls trying to regain his mental clarity. Sure enough there was still rust around the speaker grills— he hadn't imagined it. He looked over at the sensor screen. The Corvette was directly behind them now, though thankfully no longer gaining. It was, however, launching two fighters in pursuit.
"Brelvi," Savage called as he focused on the trajectories of the fighters. He couldn't tell yet if they would overtake them.
"Huh, what? Son of a schutta..." Brelvi muttered as he came back to himself and saw what Savage was seeing. "They've got fighters."
"You think if we drop a mine next time we go through one of these ice crystal pockets their sensors will be able to pick it up in time?" Savage asked the old timer. After all, Savage was really more experienced with the chasing aspect of all this than the being chased part.
"Worth a try," Brelvi said with the first grin Savage had seen on his face. "Priming one now."
Savage veered off their chosen escape vector to angle towards a large billowing nexus cloud away from the pursuing fighters. Hopefully they would think he was panicking, or at the very least that he was simply trying to lose them in a sensory deadzone in the nebular clouds. "When we enter I'm going to corkscrew to give a wider dispersal. I want three mines dropped on my mark," he told his co-pilot who nodded in return.
The seconds ticked by as he watched the blood red nebular clouds grow larger in his vision, and suddenly they were engulfed by the obscuring mists. Red vapors obscured the transparisteel in maddening whirls as they were whipped into a frenzy by the U-wing blasting through at full throttle.
"Mark!" Savage barked as he threw the U-wing into a wide corkscrew roll, the Quadex Propulsion Engines not exactly having been made for tight maneuvers. He heard three mechanical thunks reverberate through the hull of the ship as the Czerka seeker mines were released. With any luck their sensors wouldn't be up to par and they'd come through the miasma engines blazing.
He glanced at his sensors while they flew. Sure enough the pursuing contact points were going in and out on his specs. There was definitely some interference going on within these bloody mists. He briefly wondered what could be out in front of them that they might not see until it was too late. Oh well, life is a gamble.
A few seconds later the two unidentified fighters entered into the clouds behind him and a bright explosion lit up the nebula in their wake. R-4 whistled appreciatively at the spectacle as their rear view cameras confirmed the explosion, and Brelvi gave out a whoop along with the gunners. "That's one down," the co-pilot reported with a grin.
The other fighter was still on their tail though, which told Savage they still had a lock. So their sensors at least gave them some data. Enough to hunt them with, at any rate. He wondered what sort of sensor package the corvette had, and whether it was simply feeding the data to its fighter.
"We'll stay on this vector until the Corvette enters the nebula cloud, then we'll veer off back towards our initial escape route. With any luck we may give them the slip," Savage explained, both for his co-pilot and his understandably nervous crew and passengers.
"I don't suppose you can use the mine trick again?" Zero asked deadpan.
Savage chuckled. "At the very least the other two mines might slow down that beast following us. R-4, give me an estimated time of arrival into the nebula cloud for that corvette based on its last known velocity. And, while you're at it, run the numbers for how long it's going to take for this fighter to get within weapons range of us."
R-4 whistled back a response. The Corvette was no longer on his sensors. Savage figured he still had some time, but he was cutting it close with the fighter that was gaining on him. It was a gamble on whether the fighter had him on its own scopes or if the fighter would be flying blind once the corvette could no longer send it sensor data. The blood red mists continued to batter ineffectually on the transparisteel obscuring all that lay before them. He got his data from R-4 and stayed on course for the allotted time before veering off towards their initial escape route.
After what seemed like a short eternity they were back out in the open, and much closer to passing the last planet in the nebula. Savage looked at the estimate R-4 gave him for the fighter to catch up to them. If the ruse had worked, they should have a few minutes head start before the fighter overtook their previous position and the pursuers would know they had given them the slip. More than enough time.
"Looks like we lost them for the moment. Another few minutes and we'll overtake this last planet and be out of this damn nebula," Savage said after waiting a bit to make sure the corvette and fighter didn't burst from behind them.
Brelvi shared a look with him from his co-pilot's chair. Savage could tell he was thinking the same thing. It had been a little too easy to give the slip. Best to keep flying like a scorched mynock and not take anything for granted.
The last planet began to pass them by nestled between two gargantuan nebular clouds. There was a sensor ping.
"Another corvette coming in fast slingshotting from the blindside of that Force-forsaken rock!" Brelvi shouted despite being seated right next to Savage. The comms chimed again, but he wasn't about to fall for that same trick twice.
R-4 whistled and beeped in an alarmed fashion, but immediately began giving estimated time for the ship to overtake their course. Savage could tell from a glance it wasn't good. They were going to have to fight it out, and they'd be punching above their weight.
"Prepare for evasive maneuvers," Savage stated as the corvette raced closer. The damn thing was going at a breakneck speed.
The seconds ticked by as Savage hauled on the control to veer off course away from the corvette to buy them precious seconds. They were almost there, he could see the wall of the nebula in the distance. He diverted power from the lasers leaving their power reserves on standby— he doubted he'd need many shots anyway— and it gave the engines a bit of an extra boost. Enough to buy them ten seconds perhaps before they were overtaken.
The pursuing ship got within weapons range, and began raining turbolaser shots at the fleeing U-wing. Savage rolled to the right, buying them a few more seconds. Before they could target lock again, he reduced speed and cut down and angled back to the left before gunning the engines again. Turbo laser spat behind him as the gunners tried to keep up as the U-wing presented more of a side-on profile to them. Then, without warning the U-wing began to slow. The corvette had a tractor beam.
"We're caught in a tractor beam, we can't shake them," Brelvi reported, this time with admirable restraint. Savage heard clattering noises from the crew compartment that he could only assume were weapons being made ready for boarding. He looked at his sensors. The other corvette and fighter were on the far edge of his long range sensors after having finally realized that he had given them the slip.
"Ready two of the concussion missiles and fire at my command," Savage said without pausing to explain his plan. He could tell Brelvi thought he was crazy considering the corvette had them in its sights, and not the other way around, but he complied.
Savage bypassed the cutoffs on the acceleration compensator and prayed silently to the gods of his unknown forest world that this would work. The engines strained at full power against the tractor beam as the corvette loomed closer for its prey.
"Now!" He commanded. The concussion missiles flew out just as Savage reverse-triggered the acceleration compensator at full power, and the U-wing came to a very abrupt stop. He slammed against his safety restraints as a painfully keening screech came from somewhere in the U-wing. He knew everyone else was feeling the full brunt of the mad maneuver as well, but suddenly he had engine power again. As the U-wing came to a full stop, and the concussion missiles flew out in tandem. The corvette's onboard computer for the tractor beam was fooled into following the missiles. They were temporarily out of the beam.
Savage brought the engines back up half power as he angled directly towards the corvette and began firing at the belly of the beast. It had slowed down to take its prize, and the enemy gunners couldn't react in time. He raked the forward shields as he passed by, but at the last second a shot made it through and struck the engine housing.
Savage didn't waste time assessing the damage though as brought the engines back to full and blazed past underneath the corvette before it could get another tractor lock. He gave a brief glance at the sensors, but he could tell they would make it out at this rate.
Another few minutes of white knuckle flying and the U-wing burst through the edge of the Perann Nebula. R-4 quickly began scanning the surroundings to give them a star chart so they could locate the Strathos Distribution. The droid was able to discern the dim light from the long corridor out beyond the nebula and they plotted coordinates to bring them roughly in the center of what they could see and made for a micro-jump to cover the relatively few lightyears between them and the distribution.
Only to be wrenched out of hyperspace almost immediately. Force be damned, but he knew that screeching sound hadn't been good.
"That stunt you pulled fried the hyperdrive motivators," Brelvi said from the back of the U-wing halfway inside the engine compartment. It turned out that he was a halfway decent starship mechanic. Something he had picked up in his long career as a spacer.
Womp Rat jibbered something unintelligible in Jawa as Manners asked, "Do we have any replacement parts on the ship?"
"None of these no. They generally don't go out, reverse triggering the acceleration compensator looks to have caused some sort of surge to go through them," Brelvi responded as he pulled his way out of the cramped engine compartment. "The good news is, everything else is fine and running."
Savage surveyed the starcharts R-4 had fed to him about their surroundings. They had come out of hyperspace well short of their intended target, the middle of the long corridor of ice and dust, but they had at least made it to the outer edge before the hyperdrive gave out.
Thankfully, food wasn't an issue. They had enough to last them just shy of two weeks. They had until then to figure out a way to repair the hyperdrive. In the meantime Savage had been steadily guiding them in towards the corridor under sublight engines.
"We might be able to find some on the Emperor's Wrath," Zero ventured as she looked at her commandos. "Nothing has changed about the mission. We still have to find the Star Destroyer. We've made it this far. The only difference now is that if we don't find it we aren't going home."
There was a silence in the cabin as her words set in. Failure was no longer an option, and everyone knew it. She continued, "We're too far out to be rescued, the New Republic doesn't have a presence out here. Even if they did, those hunters out there would be on us the moment we put out a distress signal. What we can do is explore the Strathos Distribution until we find what we're looking for. A fully equipped Star Destroyer is bound to have compatible parts in one of its service bays. We're not lost yet."
"Aye, well we're certainly off the edge of the map now," Brelvi said as he got back into the co-pilot's seat having stored the tools.
The plan was simple. They would fly down the center of the corridor and scan as they go. Even given the great distance the Strathos Distribution covered they had plenty of food and fuel to make the crossing. They would sleep in shifts manning the controls and scanners. With any luck, they'd come across the Star Destroyer with time to spare.
Savage guided the U-wing into the outer edge. Massive ice meteors drifted by the ship as it coasted in. Spirals of stellar dust drifted in the wake of the U-wing, never before having been disturbed by a ship's passage.
They traversed the outer edge, maneuvering past chunks of ice and rock many times larger than the ship itself. Thankfully, the scanners worked much better here than they had in the Perann Nebula where the shifting nebular clouds had obscured the readings. They were mapping as they went searching for any anomaly that might betray the presence of their quarry. It wasn't long before they began receiving strange returns on the scanners.
As they began drawing closer to the center of the corridor they noticed crystalline fronds trailing behind some of the larger meteors. The farther in they went it appeared they were among a forest of the crystal structures. They gave off strange readings on the scanners, but R-4 was able to filter out the noise to better identify any starship signatures.
They flew for some time within the crystal forests, coasting in between the fragile fronds until they finally reached a vast opening within the fields of ice meteors. There was a flash of light in the distance deep within the crystal forest of cometary fronds.
"What was that over there? It's not showing up on the sensors," Zero asked from behind them while looking down on their sensor panels.
"Lightning-jack probably," Savage replied as he flew. "Never seen one up close. Some sort of predator out here."
"There are things that live out here?" Manners asked incredulously from the crew compartment.
"Sure. I saw a Stillsail when I first came through this area. Massive thing, kilometers across it was. I don't think it was intelligent though," Savage replied.
There was another flash in the distance. The light reflected through the crystalline structures that floated about them on all sides. Savage caught a look Brelvi gave him from his one good eye. He couldn't blame the old spacer for being nervous. He wasn't sure himself if he'd rather be completely alone out here or not.
Once they found the semi clear pathway at the center of the corridor of ice meteors within the distribution Savage had R-4 begin monitoring sensors for anything metallic. The long survey had begun.
They flew along the empty expanse of ice, crystal, and dust for a full day according to the shipboard time. The flashes from the Lightning-jacks fading away in the abysmal distance behind them. It was the beginning of Savage's turn back on the controls when R-4 alerted them to an anomaly.
"What is it?" Zero asked as she walked up to the cockpit to see what R-4 had pinged on the sensors.
"Hard to say. It's not metallic—whatever it is—and it's not ice or crystal like everything else out here," Brelvi said as he studied the sensor returns. "Whatever it is, it's big."
"Star Destroyer big?" Zero asked.
"Roughly," Brelvi responded.
Savage turned away from the sensor display and looked over at the commando sergeant. "No telling what's out here."
Zero considered his words, but the mission took priority. After all there might be something still active on the Emperor's Wrath that could be messing with their sensors. "Let's check it out," she decided.
The massive object on their long range scanners was farther up ahead through a particularly dense section of the corridor. Leaving behind the crystalline frond forest, they weaved their way through increasingly larger chunks of ice. It looked like they were beginning to follow a decent sized spur branching off of the main corridor of the Strathos Distribution. The long range scanners couldn't see how far the spur extended, but that was hardly surprising to Savage. The searchlights played off the meteors before them as they made their way cautiously through the ice and dust.
"Looks like it's just up ahead," Savage said as they navigated over a particularly large ice meteor. The U-wing skimmed over its surface as they came into what appeared to be a large clearing within the ice meteor field. At least, according to the sensors.
As they flew over the asteroid and Savage pulled back the throttle, their transparisteel viewport was dominated by the surface of the object as their searchlights played across its surface.
"What the frakk is that?" Brelvi asked from the co-pilot seat as he tried to make sense of what they were all looking at.
The surface of the object was black and pock-marked, but looked almost rubbery. It certainly wasn't metal, or rock for that matter. Savage turned the U-wing so the searchlight splashed out across more of the surface. The light stretched away for some distance before revealing the open void beyond. There were multiple large lumps all across it in some sort of pattern that his mind was refusing to grasp. Something gnawed at his unconscious about it, but he couldn't place his finger on it.
Behind the pilots the commandos gathered to look over the tops of the pilots chairs at the object in front of them, the side of which took up the entire viewport. Savage wasn't the only one who was suddenly on edge looking at the surface of the object. At the back of the group of commandos, Manners' fur stood on end as her instincts tipped her off to something her surface thoughts had yet to grasp.
"We need to go," she said simply.
Savage was inclined to agree with her. He checked the sensor readings of the object trying to figure out what it was that was bothering him about it.
"Whatever those bulges are, they look almost evenly spaced," Zero observed from behind them.
Looking at the sensors, Savage realized that something was detaching itself from the object farther behind their ship behind what they could see from their vantage point. No, not detaching. It was moving... Suddenly Savage understood what he was looking at and he instantly killed the U-wing lights, both inside and out.
"Who gave you the order to go dark?" Zero demanded of Savage. But, Savage wasn't listening. He had a white knuckle grip on the controls as he ever so gently angled them away from the thing before them towards another larger ice meteor close by. Brelvi gave him a curious look out of his good eye, but didn't re-engage any of the lights.
"It's alive. That thing is alive. Look at the sensors, it's moving. Those big bulbous things? Those are eyes, and we were damn close to opening them with our spotlight," Savage said, his voice tightly under control. Behind them what appeared to be a tentacle of some sort lazily drifting away from the main body of the thing off their prow.
Brelvi looked down at the sensors and suddenly was just as stricken. "Summa-verminoth," he breathed just barely over a whisper as though he was afraid to awaken the creature from its slumber.
"You know what this thing is?" Zero asked Brelvi.
"Only heard stories. They're the apex predator of the stars. I served with a pilot who said he saw one once lurking in the Kessel Run. Said it ate ships out there that wandered out of the safety corridors," Brelvi replied in a dark tone.
Savage carefully angled the U-wing away from the creature towards the dubious protection of the large ice meteor nearby. He was careful not to angle so far away as to let the light from the engines fall on the still closed eyes of the beast. Inside the ship, the occupants stood nearly frozen in place within the darkness. The muted lights from the cockpit instrument panels serving as the only illumination.
Savage felt the thrum under his boots as Brelvi brought the weapons back online, and felt a jolt of fear shoot through him that the beast would hear it before he remembered they were in deep void. Best to keep the weapons ready just in case... The seconds stretched painfully as the U-wing crawled towards its hiding spot, but Savage dared not shoot off too fast and leave an engine flare in his wake.
After what seemed like a small eternity, he was able to bring the ship into an locked orbit on the far side of the ice meteor within its micro gravity. Only once they were hidden and safe from any of those multiple eyes on the surface of that thing did he allow his hands to ease his white knuckle grip on the controls.
"Sarge?" Savage asked Zero without his eyes leaving the sensors. Now that he could no longer see the beast the sensors were his only way of monitoring it, and his mind refused to believe they were safe yet despite the creature's slumber.
Zero looked down at the sensor data that R-4 had compiled for them. The creature was absolutely massive. Now that it was beginning to unfurl she could see it was easily the length of a Star Destroyer, and it had multiple tentacles. Each one capable of rending their ship to pieces in a single stroke. The image of dozens of closed eyes replayed through her mind as she gazed at the sensor display trying to decide what to do next. Then, she noticed something different on the display.
On the very edge of the far range scanners, far out in the distance beyond the clearing in the ice meteor field the creature resided in, and past what looked to be another crystalline forest there was a metallic reading.
"We go towards that," Zero ordered as she pointed out the reading on the sensors. R-4 hadn't alerted them to it. No doubt it was just as scared as they were about waking the beast slumbering just on the other side of their tentative hiding place.
Savage studied the sensor display before them, the glow of which cast his red features into a ghastly visage."I think I can get us around this clearing jumping from rock to rock, but it's going to take a while. I want to keep side-on to that thing as much as I can to hide our engine flare," he said after some thought.
Brelvi studied the route as Savage highlighted it on their displays and nodded in agreement. "I'm fine with it taking a while so long as we don't wake that thing up."
Zero nodded in agreement as well, and they were off.
The U-wing flitted from ice meteor to ice meteor along the edge of the vast clearing within the asteroid field that the creature had made for itself. The only trace left behind being the barest whirls of dust as the S-foils cut through the void.
Inside the U-wing, the crew waited in the darkness—the only light being what the instrument panels gave off in the cockpit. They conversed in low voices wary of the creature that was steadily being left at their backs in the distance. It was a comfort to them all when they reached the far end of the clearing and the shipboard lights were restored.
"Give me a plot line between the new object and that creature if you would, and let me know if I fly outside of it," Savage asked his co-pilot as he brought the U-wing behind the cover of a decently sized ice meteor. He hoped it would be large enough to obscure their engine flare should the beast open one of its many eyes in their direction.
All he had to do was fly in a straight line. The problem was there were a few meteors in the way between him and their new target destination, as well as more than a few crystal fronds.
"Bring the SAR tractor beam online as well. We're going to have to move some of these rocks."
It was tight, but he was able to guide the U-wing just offline of the few of the ice meteors in their way and give them the slightest pull with their Incom light tractor beam before maneuvering past. Soon they were back within the crystalline frond forest giving them an extra bit of concealment.
Once or twice Brelvi would warn him that he was getting to the edge of the narrow plot line they were allowing themselves, but Savage was pretty sure he'd managed it without exposing themselves to the beast now far behind them. Privately he wondered how much light was refracted through the crystalline forest, but he kept the thought to himself.
Slowly, but surely, the metallic object grew on their sensors. It did indeed look to be about the right size for a Star Destroyer.
"Five minutes until we reach her," Brelvi called out for the commandos, who immediately began getting on their void gear.
Even as they were practically on top of the object, they couldn't make out its features in the gloom as they still weren't allowing themselves the spotlight. All they could see was a vaguely less dark outline on the greater darkness behind, due to little starlight making it through the Strathos Distribution to aid them.
"Fly underneath it and give me some light on the far side," Zero said as she watched their sensor displays in front of the pilots.
Savage flew the U-wing underneath and looped around as the crew collectively held their breath and made sure one last time that his search lights would be hidden before he brought them on.
The search lights lit up the void, revealing the unmistakable features of a Star Destroyer. The Emperor's Wrath had been found.
The Emperor's Wrath
"Get me come caf while you're up will yah?" Brelvi asked Savage without taking his good eye off the sensors.
Savage grunted a reply as he left the cockpit to stretch his legs. The commandos had entered the ship about an hour earlier and Savage, as well as his co-pilot and gunners, had been left doing the hard part: waiting.
Brelvi kept an eye for any movement on the far range scanners as Savage poured them some caf that their door gunner, Axefern, had brewed. The beast was now just outside of sensor range but they still had their plot line on the sensors to remind them of where it slumbered—as though anyone needed reminding that it was out there.
Once they had been able to bring their lights on the Star Destroyer, it had become pretty clear what had befell it. The hull looked peeled back in places where something huge had grabbed ahold of it and pulled it back to get at the crew within. All the sensor dishes, antennas, and most of the gun emplacements had been sheared off as well. A few still drifted about in the ship's micro gravity.
The one thing from the dead ship that wasn't floating in its orbit were bodies. Savage could only assume what happened to all of those, and he hoped that Force-cursed beast slept deeply on its full stomach.
There were a few holes in the hull here and there as well. It looked like they had put up a good fight against the beast, but had ultimately succumbed. On a quick scan it looked like all escape pods had been jettisoned, but none were to be found. The ship was the only metallic object on their scopes. There was no telling if the escape pods had made it out of the Strathos Distribution intact... or unswallowed.
If even a Star Destroyer couldn't take that thing, he'd really hate to see what it would do to their U-wing. He tried to keep the darker thoughts at bay, but he made a few contingency plans in his head just in case.
As Savage handed his co-pilot a cup of caf and sat back down in the pilot's chair, there was a ping from the sensor display. For a second his slightly sleep deprived brain wondered if he'd sat on something, but R-4 was soon whistling and beeping at them from the instrument panel through the rusted speaker grill.
"We've got movers out there. Three of ‘em," Brelvi reported with evident tension.
Savage opened up comms with Zero who was still inside the ship with her commandos. "We've got company out here. Three movers coming this way through the asteroid field."
"Copy that," came Zero's response. "We're almost through here, what's the ETA?"
Brelvi already had the numbers up from R-4 on an estimated arrival for Savage to look at. "Roughly 30 minutes out if they keep up their speed. They're coming through a little fast for my liking."
He didn't have to say it, he knew Zero understood why their speed was worrying him. He trusted the commandos could get out of the Star Destroyer in time, but he didn't trust that the ships wouldn't wake up the beast.
"We're on our way out. Kill your passive systems, and get me a positive ID on them when you have one." Zero told him.
Brelvi cut power to their nonessentials as well as the spotlights while Savage leaned back in his seat to talk to the gunners. "Be ready back there boys, this could get bumpy."
He heard shutters fall back as the magcons came online on the gun ports. There was soft clattering as Ryelpi and Axefern readied their weapons for whatever might come next. The guns would do precious little against the incoming ships, but the big repeaters might do something against, say, giant tentacles.
After a few minutes watching the ships approach on sensors R-4 was able to match the drive signatures. Sure enough it was their friends from the Perann Nebula.
"Great, just what we needed. Some Force-damned sorcerers come to join the hunt," Savage muttered to himself as he studied the incoming drive signatures that R-4 sent his display. "Looks like our friends from the nebula sarge," he .
"Copy that, we'll be there in ten," Zero responded.
The ships' signatures started going in and out as they entered into the crystalline frond forest in the distance. That answered one question at least, the forest does in fact mess with their sensors. Savage could use that.
He spent the next ten minutes plotting a course through the nearby crystalline frond forest with Brelvi that would hopefully conceal them from their pursuers, as well as the slumbering beast. They planned a curving course that would take them around the far side of its clearing and back the way they came.
The minutes dragged on as the ships navigated their way through the crystalline forest. Their sensor returns drawing closer and closer as they waited for the commando team. The footfalls, when he heard them, were a relief to his ears.
"Get what we came for?" Brelvi asked as he began the uncoupling sequence to get the U-wing off the hull of the Star Destroyer and into better concealment.
"We were able to pull all the files from the shipboard computer. We'll still have to crack the encryption, but this is still a treasure trove of information," Zero responded as she continued to shed her void gear.
Brelvi gave her a look with his good eye as the soft thunk of the ship decoupling reverberated through the hull.
"No luck on the hyperdrive motivators. Looks like every ship in the hangar is missing in there, and whatever parts there were in the maintenance bay got pulled out with the air when the magcons went down," Zero finished deadpan.
"You mean they could be floating around here somewhere?" Brelvi asked hopefully.
"It's possible. We'll have to come back and check after we give these ships the slip."
"Sounds like as good a plan as any," Savage said as he brought the U-wing out and into the concealing ice meteors. He was careful to keep the bulk of the Star Destroyer in between him and the incoming ships, as well as the beast.
He maneuvered the ship carefully and set them on a slow drift towards the crystalline forest. They wouldn't quite be within its embrace by the time the pursuers reached the Star Destroyer, but he was betting that if they did manage to pick up the U-wing on their sensors it would look like just another slowly drifting chunk of ice.
Brelvi raised an eyebrow at Savage. The one under his eyepatch Savage noted and chuckled to himself inwardly. "Another trick you picked up?"
"Sometimes it's best to hide in plain sight," Savage responded. He'd never used their passive sensor cloaking package before and wasn't completely comfortable with relying on it alone to evade their pursuers.
They were on the edge of the crystalline forest when the three ships reached the Star Destroyer. Savage winced as he could see light reflect off the hull and surrounding clutter as the ships inspected the wrecked hulk. They definitely hadn't seen the beast then. That or they were insane. He gave even odds on the two options.
Zero was back with them in the cockpit monitoring the sensors over their shoulders as Womp Rat chittered to himself in Jawaese over whatever piece of equipment he no doubt had acquired from the Star Destroyer for himself.
One of the ships docked alongside the Star Destroyer while the other two took up a patrol pattern. The larger ship patrolling close by and the smaller patrolling farther out. Which was fine with him, because the U-wing was steadily putting distance between them.
He glanced at his long range scanners ahead of them once they were fully in the concealment of the crystalline forest and his blood ran cold.
"It's gone," Savage said as he once again reached for the cockpit lights.
"Don't tell me what I think you're about to tell me," Zero said as Brelvi let out a soft curse from his co-pilots seat. He'd seen it too.
"There's nothing on the scanners in that clearing." Savage said as he killed the shipboard lights and draped them in darkness once again. The instrument panel's soft glow cast his horned visage into something that perhaps was not pleasant for his crew mates given the tense situation.
"Wherever it is, it's on the move. Our friends must have woken it up," Savage said as he searched the immediate area for a good hiding spot. Luckily they were concealed within the crystalline fronds.
"It'll be moving towards that Star Destroyer I'll bet," Brelvi muttered.
Savage wondered how long this beast had been out here. This sumna-verminoth, picking off salvage crews that came for a prize. It must be good eating for the chakaar.
He retracted the S-foils and was able to anchor the U-wing in between a cluster of cometary fronds sprouting off a large ice meteor and waited. It wasn't long before he was able to spot the beast on the long range scanners.
"There it is, the damn thing is hunting them," Savage said as he pointed at the sensor display.
"I don't see anything," Zero replied over his shoulder.
"Look at all these meteorites that are being moved out of the way. If you look closely you can see the wake it's creating behind it. Doesn't look like our friends have noticed yet based on their patrol pattern," Brelvi explained for her benefit.
"Good eye. I wonder why we can't see it though," Zero pondered aloud, not seeming to notice the frown Brelvi gave her.
"Force knows with this thing. Could be while it's sleeping it doesn't hide itself in the same way. Could also be interference from the crystal forest it's going through," Savage said contemplatively.
They could do little other than watch. The wake was taking a curved approach at the edge of the crystalline forest on the port side of the Star Destroyer. Savage noted that the outer patrol ship would intersect the beast just as it came around on its loop. This creature was smart.
The sensor ping for the patrol ship suddenly disappeared off their display. The beast had gotten its first meal of the day. The other two ships suddenly went into a frenzy as they realized what was upon them. Savage noted that the larger ship almost immediately undocked itself from the Star Destroyer and made a run for it heedless of anyone it might have still onboard the wrecked ship.
Laser flashes lit up the void in the distance as the crystalline fronds refracted the light. It looked like the beast was giving chase to the two ships. They suddenly veered off, no doubt trying to lose the creature and began heading straight for the U-wing's hiding spot.
"Frakk, frakk, frakk. Hide or run sarge?" Savage asked somewhat strained. He wasn't too keen on what was about to happen next.
Thankfully Zero took no time at all to respond. "Run."
Savage didn't have to be told twice. He launched the ship off the ice meteor they had been anchored to as Brelvi deployed the S-foils and brought up shields. Savage gunned the engines in a dead run. Long standing pirate tradition, that, he thought to himself.
The two surviving ships from the Perann Nebula must have spotted them as they left concealment because they angled towards them almost instantly. No doubt hoping to distract the beast chasing them with a different morsel.
It was taking Savage too long to gain speed from their complete stop earlier. By the time he reached a comfortable speed going through these rocks they'd be almost behind him.
An uncomfortable thought occurred to him then. While they had to dodge past all these ice meteors the beast could just charge right though, and he didn't know how fast that thing could move.
"Buckle in everyone, this may get dicey." Savage brought the shipboard lights back on for their benefit and began bringing the U-wing to a dangerously high speed within the crystalline forest.
The ship jinked this way and that as he dodged the crystalline fronds and meteors alike. He was going about as fast as he could, which wasn't necessarily the same as saying the fastest he was comfortable with. He'd left behind that speed a little earlier.
They knew immediately when the pursuers caught up to them because some ranged laser fire blasted off to port and shattered a crystal frond into millions of shards. A quick look at his sensors showed the wake of the beast not far behind the ships that were now just on his tail.
"Brelvi, you think you can toss some of these smaller meteors at them with the light tractor beam?" Savage asked as he rolled the ship by another crystal frond, the inertial compensators not quite taking all the pull out of the maneuver.
"I can damn well try," He said and immediately set to work trying to shift the drifting courses of the meteors passing by them in an attempt to throw their pursuers.
"Sonofschutta," Ryelpi muttered from his gun port in response to a near-miss with an ice meteor.
As Savage pulled up the U-wing to fly over an ice meteor he caught a quick glimpse above him out the transparisteel of a massive tentacle wrapping around one of the pursuing ships. That made one less pursuer at least, he figured.
He didn't have much time to rejoice however as he immediately had to go evasive as he heard a target lock. He barely avoided two laser bolts which shot past and blasted a chunk out of a passing ice meteor.
He had to go evasive again and roll hard to starboard as an ice meteor was hurled past the U-wing by the beast. It looked like the creature was using the ship it caught as some sort of battering ram to make its way through the crystal forest.
The roll forced him to duck under another meteor which caused him to lose just enough speed that the other pursuing ship came almost alongside them.
"Frakk it, light them up," Savage growled.
Laser fire lit up the space between the two ships as Axefern cut loose with his M-45 repeating ion blaster.
The shots battered against the other ship's shields as the two ships split apart and came back together again in a panicked dance while they dodged meteors and crystal fronds.
Suddenly Ryelpi opened fire as well from the port side. Savage caught a brief glimpse of one of the beast's tentacles pulling back from the blaster bolts, as if stung.
"Hard right!" Brelvi shouted suddenly. Savage pulled on the controls before he even looked at the sensors to see what his co-pilot was warning him about. A large ice meteor came flying by through the space they had just been in, and crashed into another farther up ahead.
Savage was forced to dip below a large piece of ice shrapnel that came careening their way. The ship shuddered as the smaller chunks of ice crashed into their shields. Luckily the other ship had to go evasive as well so neither ship had gained the lead on each other. Only the beast had.
More blaster bolts flew out behind them as the beast reached for them once more. Savage heard muttered cursing as the commandos hung on for dear life to their restraints at his wild maneuvering.
Brelvi set the turret to auto and laser bolts began shooting out whenever an opening presented itself at the last remaining pursuing ship that was now running nearly alongside them through the crystalline forest.
"Drop a mine on that frakking thing!" Savage ordered. He heard the mine release almost immediately from the U-wing.
The result was far quicker than he'd hoped for. The beast immediately grabbed at the mine mistaking it for food and the explosion battered the rear shields rocking the ship. The beast howled soundlessly into the void as the end of its tentacle was blown apart.
"Incoming," Brelvi stated, and Savage threw the ship into a barrel roll.
The beast hurled the second ship it had been using as a battering ram at them. The ship flew past, crumpled nearly past recognition and slammed into an ice meteor. Savage was able to dodge the ice chunks that came careening out, but inadvertently crashed through a crystalline frond which sent the U-wing spinning.
The shields held as he brought the ship about, and for the briefest, most terrifying second of his life the beast took up the whole viewport. It felt as though the Sumna-Verminoth in all its glory locked eyes with him before Savage gunned the engine and ran directly towards the other ship.
He ducked the ship below a reaching tentacle as both door gunners opened fire on the beast as opportunity provided and Savage himself began firing on the fleeing ship before him that now had a side profile to him.
Their shields ate the first few blasts, but it forced them to go evasive and lose the lead they had on him. Now both ships were directly in front of the beast and were evading wildly.
Lasers blasts from the auto-turret lit up the void as did blaster bolts from the door gunners. Tentacles flailed wildly looking for purchase on either ship. What looked to be a point defense turret opened up on the other ship as well firing at the grasping tentacles. Savage had to do something, the situation was quickly becoming untenable.
A quick look at the sensors told him they were about to come out of the crystal forest into the ice meteor clearing. He hadn't realized the beast had herded them this way.
"Arm the concussion missiles for me and prepare to target the last two mines with the auto turret on my mark," Savage said without explanation, all his attention going to evading the beast. He heard Brelvi grunt in return.
Just before they reached the edge of the clearing, Savage let loose with a missile targeting a massive ice meteor more or less in the path of him and the other ship. The moment the meteor exploded he dropped the U-wing directly downwards in a descending spiral and released the last two mines behind him.
"Mark!" He couldn't help but shout. He had a brief glance at the sensor display as he pulled the ship back up from its spiral, sure enough the beast wouldn't be fooled twice by the mines.
Guided by his co-pilot, the auto-turret shot both mines before the pursuing beast could evade the blast. The twin blasts destroyed the surrounding crystal fronds sending millions or shards though the meteor field, and looked to injure the beast.
"Cease fire!" Savage shouted again at the door gunners. He wanted a clean getaway as he did his best to evade the chunks of meteorites raining around the ship from the blast.
They were battered about as the shields absorbed the impacts from the ice chunks, but they were now flying in the exact opposite direction of the way they had been going. The other ship was now sprinting into the clearing while they headed back into the crystal frond forest as fast as Savage dared to gun the engines.
Just as he'd hoped the beast gave chase to the easier prey. The explosions from the mines had caused it to go high while Savage had gone low. It had not only given Savage just enough time to turn around but had made the easier target a clear choice for the beast as the other ship had been slowed down by the meteor Savage had blasted apart directly in front of them with a concussion missile.
"Find me the ship that thing threw at us," Zero called from the crew compartment, inexplicably putting her void gear back on.
"Are you crazy!? We're just now getting away from that thing," Savage called back without looking. He was still flying at breakneck speeds.
"Have you forgotten we need a hyperdrive motivator?"
Frakk. Well she had him there. An icon lit up on his display where Brelvi had already located the ship. It wasn't too far away from them, relatively speaking. The question was whether it was far enough away from that monster. Savage hoped for the first time that those sorcerers on the other ship had some tricks up their sleeve to evade that beast for a little while longer.
He still had to dodge the wildly careening ice meteors that had been left behind the wake of their chase, but considering what he'd just been flying through it was relatively easy. He'd only had to curse once as the ship shuddered from the deflector shields knocking away a moderately sized piece of crystal frond.
"Something tells me they don't have a functioning airlock," Savage said as he brought the U-wing alongside the ship. A glance at his long range sensors confirmed that the beast was still chasing the other ship across the vast clearing. The ship was able to pick up some speed, but surprisingly, so did the beast. They were both going in the opposite direction for the moment though, and that's what mattered.
"Not to worry, we have a Jawa," Manners spoke up from the crew compartment followed by more mad Jawa laughter. The little guy really had grown on him, Savage thought to himself.
The gunners crowded the cockpit as Savage dropped the ramp for the commando team. They stepped through the magcons and drifted out towards the battered and abused ship. Savage could see a bright light flare as Womp Rat cut off a jagged edge of hull that was protruding out of an otherwise serviceably ragged entry point. The commandos disappeared inside what was left of the ship. They'd have to hope to the Force that anything was left in one piece in that thing.
All eyes were glued to the sensors watching the beast chase the last surviving ship of their pursuers to the edge of its clearing in the ice meteors. Without the commanding officer in the U-wing anymore Savage decided it was time for a drink.
He reached under the instrument board, back up under the shaft for his controls, and pried off his magnetic flask. No one said anything as he unscrewed the lid, but he heard a faint metal chink as Brelvi produced shot glasses from some unknown location and motioned over the door gunners.
"We're in luck boys. Their hyperdrive itself is frakked, but overall the engine compartment survived the pummeling. Looks like we can pry off two good motivators here and be back in no time flat," Zero's voice came over the comms.
"I'll drink to that," Savage said off comms and poured a round for all four of them packed into the crew compartment. He knew he still had some flying to do, and they weren't out of it yet, but he figured they could all use it.
By the time the commandos were back in the U-wing they had managed a second round and stashed both the bottle and shot glasses back in their hiding spots. If Zero noticed anything once they opened the cockpit back up she didn't say anything, and Savage began the long journey out of the Strathos Distribution. The long range sensors kept track of the beast as it chased its prey until they had gone far enough to lose their signatures.
Savage didn't quite feel safe yet, but it was close enough.
The Unknown Regions
They decided to fly perpendicular to the spur off the corridor they were in and get outside of the distribution entirely so they could micro-jump to the end of it and navigate back towards the Perann Nebula with another micro-jump. They stayed on the outside edge this time now that they had their bearings.
Savage didn't think the inhabitants would risk chasing them a second time, but it was best to be safe. After a full day of flying under sublight engines, they were able to reach the hyperspace buoy they had left and plotted a course to jump back to Wild Space.
It was only upon entering hyperspace that Savage finally allowed himself to relax. It had been a long couple of days but they were finally heading back to safety, and he was heading towards a payday. Muscles in his shoulders he didn't even know he was tensing released as he turned around his pilot's chair to stretch his legs.
"You know you ought to consider staying on," Brelvi said from his co-pilot's seat.
"Not many pilots I know that could have gotten us out of a situation like that. Sure there's plenty of fancy flyers in Renegade Wing, and most are better than you I'd say, but there were a few tricks you pulled there that I think could make you useful. You have a different point of view coming at these sorts of situations than most," he said, fixing Savage with a sideways look out of his one good eye.
Savage had been considering it certainly. After he had lost being a part of his last crew he hadn't had much of a plan. This whole mission had simply sounded like a good idea at the time. Although if he knew what he had been signing up for he may never have actually come out here into the Unknown Regions. At the very least he would have asked for more pay.
"You know I just might. These U-wings are pretty fun to fly after all," Savage responded as he unbuckled himself to go grab a cup of caf from the crew compartment. He just might at that.