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Part 1
By Bulldog, with contributions from Jalb and Wildcard

...Immediately following the events of Magnificent 9...

Toseng Cave Entrance

"Blue, get yourself back into the cave," Bulldog ordered as he slipped her arm off his shoulder.

"What?" she asked, her face scrunched up in confusion. Bearcat likewise was confused as he continued to hold Blue's other arm up for support.

"Just do it!" Bulldog shouted, trotting carefully down the craggy hillscape while being mindful of any possible rocks that could sprain his ankle. "Z, come on! We need to get the fighters out of that village before they're spotted!" he yelled as he picked up his pace with the more even ground at the base of the outcropping.

Bearcat's light footfalls soon caught up, bringing the lithe Cathar jogging side by side with him with ease. "Vherrre arrre ve taking them?"

Bulldog cocked his head back toward the cave, but he wasn't sure if it was clear due to his jogging motion. "Back in the caves," he huffed out breathlessly.

Bearcat nodded, and then his eyes scanned upward again. The Imperial Star Destroyer had continued to travel in the atmosphere toward the capital city, and it sounded like fighters were making ground strikes with far off thumping of ordinance exploding. While they were happy the sounds of battle weren't nearby, it was likely the New Republic base being blasted to rubble. Both pilots secretly hoped their friends were airborne and not caught on the ground.

The Zabraks greeted them at the edge of the village with worried eyes. Tarla ran toward them, and then quickly turned around to jog with the two pilots as they ran down the main street toward the last two parked New Republic fighters: Bearcat's X-wing and Blue's B-wing. "What is happening?" Tarla asked in a worried tone.

"The Empire has come back, and it looks like they might have kicked the New Republic out," Bulldog huffed, really laboring to keep his breathing even with the exertion of their brisk jog from the cave. He pointed at the fighters with a bouncing arm. "We need to hide these before they get spotted and the Imps come here looking for blood. Keep everybody close to the village for a while until we figure out what they're going to do!"

Tarla ran alongside the two Buccaneers in silence for a few paces before pointing at Bulldog's New Republic skimmer he'd arrived in. "What about that speeder?"

Bearcat cursed. "Should have brrrought Blue vith us."

Bulldog shook his head as he gulped down more oxygen. "There was no time to carry her. Recon flights could be headed here any second."

"What do we do with the skimmer?" Tarla asked again as she kept pace.

Bulldog thought for a moment as they closed in with the three craft. "Bring it back to the caves immediately, please!" he shouted as he tossed her the ignition keyfob. The female Zabrak deftly caught the key with one hand and angled her run in the direction of the military skimmer. Bearcat angled in the opposite direction as he shouted for his astromech to start his X-wing up immediately.

Bulldog grimaced at the reminder that the B-wing he was going to start wasn't his Y-wing and didn't have an astromech. He felt a hole in his chest as he worried about Weight, and he said a silent prayer that his astromech was safe as he clumsily clambered up the S-Foil to get into the cockpit. He hoped Weight, and the rest of the Wing, made it off the planet in one piece.

He flopped into the cockpit couch and fumbled through the startup sequence. It had been forever since he'd piloted the odd bomber craft as he surprisingly preferred the venerable Y-wing, which was a rare point of view amongst the pilots of today. He just didn't care for the strange target profile, lack of ability to look behind himself, and lack of an astromech companion to keep him company and act as an extra set of eyes.

After a moment of flustered switch flipping, the craft thrummed to life. He waved at Bearcat, who was now hovering his X-wing on its repulsorlift coils. Once the other pilot acknowledged him, he brought a finger to his lips, hoping Bearcat would understand that he wanted to maintain comm silence. It wouldn't do this village any good if they hid the fighters but had their comm channels detected and triggered a visit.

Bulldog's computer indicated that the craft was ready, so he activated the repulsors and felt the ship lift off. He grabbed the yoke and felt immediately uncomfortable with the different controls from his preferred stick and throttle. Taking a moment to run through his frantic mind to remember how to fly one of these properly, he gripped both handles of the yoke and just stared at everything. What seemed to make sense to his vague recollection was that he controlled his pitch and roll with the yoke, and the foot pedals were rudder control, but having to push the entire assembly forward or pull backward to control the throttle seemed impossible without accidentally pitching the craft into a dive or pulling into a climb. He felt a newfound respect for any pilot that could competently pilot one of these confusingly designed craft. Mouthing a mixture of curses and a prayer, he got the ship moving and barely avoided a crash by accidentally rolling rather than turning out of the way of a building that was higher than the rest. Only by the will of the Force did his roll manage to avoid the structure, and all the while his orientation didn't change due to the gyroscopic mounting of the cockpit to the rest of the ship.

After an uneventful but nerve-wracking flight from the village to the caves, he slowed down and kicked his repulsors back on so he could skim the surface and fly into the cave. With the S-foils closed, he had enough vertical clearance to bring the craft deep into the main cave. Unfortunately, he did not have much room on either side due to the length of the main blade on the opposite end of his cockpit. He nodded a greeting at Blue as he approached her while she was resting on a crate of some sort near a wall.

Once his collision alert sensor started to sound, he figured that was far enough to drive the snub fighter into the cave. He hadn't kept track of how far he'd traveled, but he hoped it was far enough to mask them from sensor detection from any errant patrols. He set the ship down on its landing skids and powered it down, levering himself out of the cockpit as soon as it was open.

As the gravel crunched beneath his feet during his landing, he turned around and bounced off of the chest of the resident Besalisk enforcer they'd worked with to end the gang threat moments ago. He fell to his backside and skidded to a stop, scuffing up his palms as they dug into the small rocks that covered the floor of the cavern. "What's up Rorrax?" he asked warily as he tried to gauge the mood of the massive four-armed alien.

Rorrax Ux towered over the human on the ground, crossing one pair of arms across his belly while the upper pair of arms were prepared for anything. A newly acquired blaster was now perched on his hip in an ill-fitting holster. His massive, frowning face looked down at Bulldog as the bass of his voice seemed to cause vibrations throughout the cave. "I thought you were leaving us alone?"

"Change of plans, big guy," Bulldog grunted, slowly getting to his feet. He was careful to avoid making any sudden movements, and he kept his hands in plain sight.

"I don't understand," Rorrax rumbled, scratching his head with a free hand.

Blue managed to limp over at that moment. "The Imperials have returned to the planet," she said calmly and slowly. "It looks like our forces had to retreat, and we're stranded here for the time being."

Rorrax nodded in understanding, but then he stepped back to regard the two pilots carefully. "And ... you would like to stay ... here? Why couldn't you just take off and join your compatriots in space?"

"We have two ships for three pilots, and there is very little chance two ships would make it away without at least one being destroyed," Bulldog said, ticking the reasons off on his fingers as he spoke.

Just then Bearcat joined the conference, having parked his X-wing behind the B-wing and powering it down. His astromech slowly rolled over, gravel crunching under his wheels. "Fighters secured, and the skimmer should be here momentarily, Captain. I don't..." he trailed off as he immediately picked up on the tension in the cave, his hand subtly drifting to his hip.

Bulldog nodded in acknowledgment, but kept his eyes on Rorrax. He smiled guiltily and spread his arms at his hips in a sort of apologetic shrug. "Look, we don't like it either, but we can't go anywhere else and we couldn't stay in the village. The fighters would be discovered there and the entire village would pay the price."

Rorrax bristled. "So you decided to bring the risk to where all that remains of my clan resides?"

Blue winced, but she limped forward and put a calming hand on one of his arms. "Believe me, if there was another option, we would not be here bringing undeserved risk to you and your family."

Her sincerity finally broke the stalemate as Rorrax's mood shifted to one of sympathy. He nodded sagely. "As somebody that has experienced being the last of a group, we understand your feelings and plight. You can stay here while you figure out your next move. It's the least we can do for what you did to free us from our own oppressors."


Toseng City Outskirts

Yam "Sidda" Siddala, formerly a correspondent for Queen of the Core Network and now once-again a freelancer, crept through the ruins of the outer edges of the capital city quietly. Her request to be embedded with Renegade Wing had been granted a month ago, but when the shab hit the fan she had been out on a public relations piece interviewing the locals about New Republic recovery efforts on their planet. She watched with trepidation as the New Republic ships all lifted off from the base in a disorganized fashion, knowing that she'd suddenly been stranded behind enemy lines. The Imperial Star Destroyer cutting through the clouds over the city emphasized that last thought with an emphatic exclamation point.

Always one to think quickly on her feet, she had secured an upper level apartment under one of her old pseudonyms and immediately set herself up for whatever opportunity arose to help the New Republic learn what was really going on with the planet they'd just been forced to abandon. One such opportunity had presented itself almost immediately, but now she was regretting her decision.

The reason for her cautious movement was just up ahead: a squad of Stormtroopers was on a patrol, looking for something and ready for anything based on their alert status. Their constant awareness had hampered her ability to keep them in frame for fear of being spotted by their rearguard constantly sweeping the direction they'd come from. More than once she had to dive out of sight at the first hint of the last trooper in line's helmet turning back.

Using her flex-cable cam attachment, she snaked the fiber-optic camera around the rubble to get a look at her quarry. Half of the squad was looking back in her direction, making hand motions toward her position. The icy grip of fear gripped her heart as she realized she was likely about to be discovered, and knowing the xenophobic nature of Imperials, she would not be likely to experience any sort of due process out here where prying eyes were nonexistent.

"Check it out, Private," the squad leader said aloud. It was the first time any of the troopers had used their exterior speakers, having likely been working on their closed-circuit comms within their helmets up until this point to remain as silent as possible. "Third Squad's last known position was right around here."

The rear trooper began making his way cautiously toward Sidda, accompanied by another white-clad trooper as backup. They carefully picked their way through the rubble as they inexorably closed the distance to her hiding place.

Sidda didn't dare move the camera, as any movement would likely give away her position. All she could do was wait. Even with her Blurrg-1120 holdout blaster, she wouldn't likely survive the engagement after ambushing the two troopers closing on her position.

Movement in the background of her digital readout drew her attention. Out of the rubble, a crimson-skinned woman in a soiled outfit and matted purple hair emerged. Within a second she drew even with the foremost stormtrooper and slammed a blade underneath the lip of his helmet. With her other hand, she threw a dagger with such force that it doubled a second stormtrooper over as it struck and penetrated his weaker abdominal armor. She held her first victim upright, using his corpse as a shield from the blasterfire of the next-closest trooper, and rapidly closed the distance until she was able to bat his blaster out of the way and stab him in the same manner as her first victim so fast that Sidda could barely see that she had withdrawn her knife and thrust it into a new target.

The entire exchange had lasted seconds, and just as quickly as the mystery warrior had appeared, she once again concealed herself within the ample rubble.

"What the hell?" A trooper cried out, noticing the 3 downed troopers as he turned back around.

"What was that!"

"Eyes outward, men!" the Squad Leader shouted. "Back to back, now!"

As the troopers attempted to back into a tighter knot, another got yanked down behind a large wall with a panicked shriek. Blood shot into the air in his wake, quickly followed by his helmeted head—sans body.

"There! Fire!"

The remaining stormtroopers began raining all manner of fire down on the wall. It was ineffectual, but it seemed to Sidda that they felt that doing something dumb was better than doing nothing at all as they were picked apart. A thermal imploder was lobbed over the wall, erupting moments later in a shower of rubble and fire.

Sidda couldn't stop watching the scene, as all around the area the stormtroopers were being torn apart from a seemingly invisible attacker. It was as if only Sidda had seen the assailant during that first skirmish, and the rest of the panicked squad was firing at whatever invisible beast had torn their comrades asunder.

From another wall, the crazed Zeltron rushed the formation and surprised another two troopers from their flank, their attention focused on the resting place of her previous victim. With expert precision, she dismantled them just as quickly and viciously as the first three troopers she'd dispatched.

The Squad Leader swung his blaster around at the new angle of attack, but it was too late. His head pitched back as her blade embedded itself into the eye socket of his helmet. His body remained upright long enough for her to retrieve her weapon once again. She stood there, looking over the dead man's shoulder as his legs refused to buckle.

The woman fixed a crazed glare upon the last two troopers, the ones that had been just about to discover Sidda's hiding place. She pointed her bloody dagger directly at them in turn, her haunting visage bathed in the blood of their comrades.

For a moment, her eyes locked onto Sidda's camera, sending a shiver down her spine.

"Stun her!"

The woman dove to the side, and the first two blue stun rings slammed into the now-falling corpse of their squad leader. The next salvo also missed as the Zeltron sprung a different direction as she closed the distance. Each evasion managed to bring her meters closer to meting out more justice.


The troopers stepped away from each other to increase their angle of attack, and it worked. One shot missed, but the second stun ring slammed squarely into the crazed woman's chest, sending her skidding forward along the duracrete due to her momentum. Her blood-slicked weapon fell from her hand, skittering off into the rubble.

One trooper holstered his blaster and reached into his utility belt, pulling out a pair of stun cuffs after a moment. "I'll secure her, you call it in."

"Sith that! Let's just end her!"

The other trooper thought for a moment, and then shrugged. He put the cuffs back into his belt and drew his blaster. "Fair enough."

Both troopers raised their blasters as they took a few steps closer to ensure a clean kill.

Sidda chose that moment to quietly rise from her position and aimed her blaster at the back of the first trooper. She took careful aim, and then depressed the trigger slowly, remembering her shooting lessons with both Shadow and Zippy over the last month. Her aim was true, slamming the first target directly between the shoulder blades. As the corpse tumbled forward, she shifted her aim to the second trooper, who was swinging his own weapon back around. It was a race to the death.

Sidda was faster. Her second shot slammed into the trooper's gun, overloading the tibanna gas canister. A small explosion engulfed the man's hands and forearms. Her second shot struck him in the chest, putting him out of his shocked misery.

"Holy shab," she huffed as her adrenaline-fueled focus finally wore off. She repeated the words repeatedly as her heart rate slowly fell back to a relatively normal rate. She stood there, her feet rooted in place as her brain continued to process the event.

The smoke from her blaster wafted across her nose, causing her to fully come back to her senses. Keeping the weapon out, she cautiously approached the prone form of the woman that had nearly taken the entire squad out with nothing but a few blades. If the Zeltron was conscious, there was no telling what she would do to Sidda. She cursed the model of her chosen weapon for not having a stun setting, because she didn't think she wanted to have to kill the woman if she were to become aggressive once again, but would if it came down to it.

She gave a cautious nudge to the woman's ribs with her toe, dancing back to avoid retribution. After a few moments observing the even-breathing, she was satisfied that her savior was fully unconscious. She holstered her blaster and cut her camera. She sat on a nearby piece of rubble and thought about her options. She pulled out her display and rewound her footage from the beginning, starting it again in slow motion.

As the Zeltron first appeared, she was still a blur of motion. Even slowed down in the footage, her attacks were surprisingly fast. The entire encounter lasted minutes in real time, and slowed down, it was still hard to catch the movements of her savior during the engagement. However, the moment her eyes had focused momentarily on Sidda's camera, a strange thought crossed her mind.

She banished the thought as quickly as it had arrived, and then began to think about what she was going to do about the footage. On the one hand, she probably should just bunker it for later release. That was the safest option for herself. However...

Chopping the stunning end off and removing the last two troopers from the final frame, ending the clip on the chilling look directly into the camera...

"Yep, that's more like it," Sidda said, congratulating herself. The psychological warfare a clip like this would wage upon the occupying forces far outstripped her personal safety in the hierarchy of importance. Having the Imperials worried about a monster in the city dismantling their squads would make them step more lightly, giving her more room to operate. If she wasn't discovered, that is. Her equipment back at the apartment was surely capable of keeping her location hidden ... probably.

She let the vid file compile as she mentally debated a title for the clip. Nothing attention-grabbing came to mind, unfortunately. She was becoming frustrated with herself for her mind not thinking clearly in a journalistic sense, giving herself no quarter for the fact that she'd just almost been captured and likely killed. She reviewed the clip once again, and through the piercing gaze of the Zeltron on the screen, the strange feeling returned. "No way ... Can't be."

Curiosity got the better of her, and she carefully rolled the crazed woman over, getting a good look at her grimy and blood-splattered face as she carefully brushed some of the matted violet hair out of the way. Recognition flashed quickly through her mind.

"What are you doing here, Captain?" she asked herself aloud.

Sidda's eyes widened as she spotted another weapon. She quickly secured the last dagger her savior had secured to her boot, if only to remove the danger in case her stunned companion awoke early. As she patted down the rest of the filthy uniform, her hand touched a sooty patch on the now-supine woman's shoulder. Spitting on her hand, she attempted to clean the grime away as best she could. All that was visible were the letters S, P, T, E. Sidda puzzled for a moment, and then her eyes widened as she remembered what unit this woman belonged to.

She hurriedly pulled out her datapad and typed a title for her video: The SPECTRE of Toseng.

Satisfied with her creative flair, she mentally patted herself on the back. "Still got it," she said through a smirk. Once the upload was finished, she resecured her datapad and looked back down at her filthy companion.

"Now, what am I going to do about you?"


Toseng Caves

After spending the rest of the evening securing the perimeter and catching a few minutes of shut eye, Bulldog roused again with a gentle shake from Blue. He nodded to let her know he was awake, and then called Bearcat and Rorrax over to have a little meeting. Rorrax's wife joined in, and nobody seemed to mind.

Bulldog waited for the small gathering to settle into seats before clearing his throat to begin. "Ok, so we're stuck here for the foreseeable future. While two of us might make it out with the snubs, there's a chance one or both pilots would get caught. I'm not willing to take that risk unless we're forced to do so."

Bearcat nodded sagely, but a look of confusion washed across his face. "Then vhat do ve do?"

"We lay low and wait for our friends to come back," Bulldog said matter-of-factly.

"Vhat?!" Bearcat replied, aghast at the thought of inaction in the face of the enemy. "You can't be serrrious!"

Bulldog leaned back and put his hands behind his head to relax. "I can, and I am, Loot."

Blue remained silent with an impassive face. It seemed that she was undecided and currently neutral in the proceedings.

"Ve need to do SOMETHING!"

"What?" Bulldog retorted sarcastically. "You want to saddle up with our two fighters and take on the entire Empire by yourselves? An entire wing or more of fighters, plus at least an Impstar lobbing turbolasers at you while you're dodging upwards of 50 sets of TIE lasers. Not to mention any ground emplacements they've set up since they took over..."

Bearcat stood up and kicked the loose gravel in frustration, sending the minuscule rocks tumbling and echoing off into the darkness. "Ve can do small things. Ve can take out squads of trrroops. Stop them frrrom harrrming innocents!"

Blue finally flinched at that last point, but still chose not to voice her opinion.

Bulldog sat up as frustration rose within him. "We don't know that they are doing anything to the population!"

Bearcat scoffed, and the sound stung Bulldog's heart. "Captain, you know betterrr than that."

Blue leaned forward. "I ... actually think Z is right, Captain. You know the Imps as well as I do. If they aren't doing anything to harm the civilians yet, they'll surely start to oppress and imprison different groups soon. People with unchecked authority and strength will always abuse it and cause harm. It's only a matter of time."

Bearcat gesticulated and nodded emphatically in agreement, but otherwise remained silent aside from his rapid breathing that bordered on hyperventilation.

Bulldog opened his mouth to refute Blue's point, but the words refused to come out. Instantly he was pulled back in time to his past and an unintended evening of drunken love and brawling. That night he'd drawn the ire of the crooked local security officer, fallen into inebriated love with a local girl, and then been swiftly stunned and taken off planet by his father to avoid the consequences of his wild night.

Zossa's face flashed through his mind, and his heart felt as if a massive hand was squeezing it with the strength of a wampa. Her coquettish habit of biting her lip when she was being bashful had won him over that night, and despite the alcohol or the beating that followed, he'd never forgotten that look and the poor woman that got killed after he ran away.

He hadn't pulled the trigger, nor had he even done any physical damage to the security thug in the bar that night. But his defiance and the fight he showed had apparently been enough for the crew to need to act and save face, lest the other locals get any ideas about pushing back. And when his father stunned him unconscious and skipped town, the crew had to crack down in any way they could. No matter how many times Bulldog relived the past, he never could manipulate the Force enough to change what had happened and who was killed in the aftermath.

All eyes were on him, waiting expectantly for a definitive answer. Rorrax was calm, almost disinterested save for how their actions would disrupt his family and their home. Blue likewise appeared calm externally, but there was clearly a ton of formulating and thinking going on behind her eyes. Bearcat on the other hand was a dervish of action, unable to sit still while he waited for his leader to see things the way he did.

"Still no," Bulldog sighed, though it pained him to say it. Blue and Bearcat both stepped forward and prepared to argue their point, but one of the resident Besalisk children came thudding forth, shout-whispering a warning in urgent tones.

"Imperials!" Rorrax warned.

"Where?" Bulldog replied, shooting to his feet and pulling his blaster out of its holster.

"The village. A shuttle just landed in the town square."

"We HAVE to help them, Captain!" Blue pleaded.

"Ve just saved them!" Bearcat hissed. "Ve must do so again!"

Bulldog silenced them with a curt wave. "Will you two shut up! Go to your fighters and prepare to dust off, but keep the ships powered down until I say!"

"Where are you going?!" Blue asked. Bearcat was already halfway to his X-wing before coming back to carry his still-injured friend to her B-wing.

"I'm going to the entrance to see if they decide to come here," Bulldog replied as he took off at a trot. "If they don't come this way, we'll go to the village and see what happened after they leave."

"What if they start killing people?" Blue asked as she bounced on Bearcat's shoulder as he carried her like a sack of tubers.

"If I see blaster fire, you two will fire up the ships and give them something else to worry about while I take the skimmer!"

"Rrroger that," Bearcat replied, almost throwing Blue up to her cockpit as he attempted to assist her.

Bulldog cursed as he pumped his legs harder, and then immediately apologized to any supreme beings that may exist and have taken offense to his curse. He prayed to all things holy that the Imperials wouldn't come sniffing around their cave. He even made promises to clean up his language and drink less, which would have told anybody privy to his internal monologue how serious things were if he was willing to promise something like that.

He rounded the final bend and started slowing his pace as he neared the mouth of the cave. Peering out cautiously, nothing seemed amiss outside the immediate area. He hurriedly ran toward the outcropping that faced the village, putting himself behind a rock so only his head stuck out above the solid protection from gunfire and sensors.

Far away, a shuttle had indeed landed in the village they'd just fought for and defended from a gang of murderous thugs. Now he was waiting to see if he had to saddle up to once again defend them from a different gang coming to lean on them.


Toseng Caves

"They left an hourrr ago, Captain!" Bearcat growled. "Ve need to go see vhat they did!"

Bulldog nodded in agreement, but held up a finger in the universal wait signal. "We need to wait a little bit later in the night before we go skulking around the village in case they posted guards or left a squad behind."

Rorrax came plodding back at that instant and joined the meeting.

"Where have you been?" Bulldog asked suspiciously, realizing he'd lost track of the massive alien once they'd started observing the Imperials.

"I went to see what was going on at the village," he responded matter-of-factly.

"You ... What?" Blue asked, looking around at everybody else in total confusion and seeing it reflected on their faces.

"How?" Bulldog asked. "I was at the mouth of the cave the entire time. You didn't come past me."

A toothy grin spread across Rorrax's face. "There ARE other ways in and out of here, Captain."

Bulldog stared at the Besalisk, completely dumbfounded. Once it was clear Rorrax wasn't going to elaborate, he put his hands up with his palms facing himself in the universal ‘well?' gesture.

"The village is devoid of Imperials," Rorrax elaborated.

"Did you discoverrr anything else?" Bearcat hissed, clearly frustrated by their inactivity.

"Ask her," Rorrax grumbled, jabbing two of his thumbs over his shoulder. Behind him, Tarla appeared from the shadows.

"Tarla!" Bulldog blurted out, half in anger and half in shock. "Where did you come from?!"

"There are more than one way in and out of this place," Tarla said, as if speaking to a small child.

"Is everybody ok?" Blue asked hurriedly. "What did the Imps do? Did they take anybody?"

Tarla motioned for her to calm down with both hands. "Everybody is fine, though they roughed a few of our elders up. They were very interested in the damage from last night's battle, but ultimately seemed to place very little importance on our village in general once we showed them the corpses of our oppressors."

Relief mixed with suspicion flooded through Bulldog. Telling the Zabraks that there wasn't anything interesting to keep them there was exactly the thing he'd do to flush out some prey hidden nearby. But at the same time, not many of the rank and file Imperials appeared to have an overabundance of intelligence. He needed to know more, but there was only one way to get that information.

"Recon," Bulldog finally said succinctly.

"Recon, Captain?" Blue asked.

Bulldog nodded. "We need to figure out what the Imps are doing, and figure out what we can do to slow them down until our friends come back."

"Stealth," Bearcat nodded thoughtfully.

"Sabotage," Blue added with a nervous smile. "Captain, what changed your mind?"

Bulldog nodded toward Tarla. "The fact that they roughed up some of the elders of the village for no reason means they're going to start doing worse things for less provocation."

Rorrax grumbled as he shifted in his seat, but otherwise held his tongue as he crossed his upper arms and leaned back.

Bearcat raised his hand slightly, waiting for Bulldog to acknowledge him. Seeing permission, he spoke barely above a whisper. "Assassination?"

Blue gasped slightly at the mention of the generally negative action, but Bulldog leaned back with a noncommittal shrug. "Maybe, if the target is worth it."

"Captain, you can't!" Blue protested.

Bulldog held up a finger. "If we manage to get a clean shot at Tol Barand—if this is his doing—I'm taking that shot."

"Do we even know it's him though?"

"We'll find out," Bulldog replied firmly. He was about to speak again, but the sound of gravel scuffing across the ground drew his attention. His hand fell to his blaster and he tensed as he attempted to identify the target.

Moments later, Torsten appeared from around the bend, walking slowly but not with any sort of suspicious intent that could be identified. While he seemed to be oblivious to the alarm bells his sudden appearance may have rang, he did pick up on the tension and slowed his pace. "Everything ok?"

Bulldog relaxed as he nodded and waved her over, shifting his chair and dragging a crate into the circle to give the wiry-but-enthusiastic Zabrak somewhere to sit. "We're just trying to figure out our next move. We figure we need to do some recon to see what we're up against."

Tarla put her hand reassuringly on her son's shoulder when he neared. "Perhaps we can scout it out on your behalf, Captain?"

Bulldog balked immediately, as did all in attendance except Rorrax. Before anybody could voice any sort of disagreement, Tarla pushed on.

"We're common here and less likely to draw any sort of suspicion. Any of my village could go anywhere on the planet freely without any undue attention."

Bulldog pursed his lips and thought for a long while. "Look, I'm not sure what things were like for your people before we got here. I know that most Imperials won't hesitate to really hassle nonhumans, though. There's a better than average chance that this group that just took the planet will follow the same pattern of xenophobia that we've seen everywhere else. If they were willing to throw their weight around in your village just now for the heck of it, it'll only get worse."

Tarla nodded sagely, but then gestured toward Blue, Bearcat, Rorrax, and his wife. "Well, Captain, then that leaves just you as somebody that will be able to move about relatively freely in the city, then."

Bulldog sighed and held his breath out for a moment. "Well, that's not exactly true. While I'm not that well-known, if the group of Imps that I think are here are the ones in charge, then their leader knows my face intimately."

"How is that, Captain?" Blue asked, staring intently at Bulldog with shock-widened eyes.

Bulldog smirked. "I, uh ... blew his knee apart with my blaster," he said as he patted his holstered RSKF-44.

Bearcat whistled in admiration, nodding approvingly as he did so. Blue, however, was not smiling. "So, we're back to them," she said as she gestured toward Tarla and her son, "doing all of the scouting for us."

"We can do it, Captain. No problem," Torsten replied enthusiastically.

Bulldog shook his head. He clearly didn't like the idea of putting others in danger, but he relented finally and nodded once. "Ok. But there are a few conditions."

"Name them," Tarla replied confidently.

"One, if you feel like something is too dangerous, don't push the issue."

Tarla nodded easily. "Of course."

"Two, I ONLY want you to get the information I ask for. If you think there's an opportunity, don't take it without talking to me first. When you push your luck, you often get busted."

"Easy," Torsten nodded.

Bulldog paused, looking intently at the two Zabraks that were volunteering to help them. They appeared eager, but they also had a look about them that showed they understood risk. They'd been dealing with the gang that had been terrorizing them before the unofficial mission to deal with them, so they knew how to live with danger. While he was still full of apprehension, he felt his internal resistance breaking away. "Ok, finally," he started, pausing momentarily to gather his thoughts, "I am going to give you a list of three things to look for. Once those things are identified and scouted, I don't want any of your people taking any sort of action that could bring undue risk to the village. It's too close to this cave," he explained as he waved a hand toward Rorrax. "I don't want to bring any heat down on your home and theirs."

Tarla and Torsten looked at each other. It was clear they didn't like the last stipulation that they not participate in anything that might bring any retaliation down upon their village, as it felt like they were being relegated to the second string of the lineup. Still, they both seemed to come to a silent agreement, turning their heads back to Bulldog and nodding solemnly in agreement.

"Captain," Blue protested, but was cut off by a curt wave.

"It's done," he said quietly. "Here's what I want. Mainly, I need to know where the garrisons are, guard locations, patrol paths and timings, and any prisoner cells if they exist."

"We'll get right on it, Captain," Tarla replied, rising to her feet. "I'll be back in two days with the information you seek."


Toseng City Slums

Carrying the Zeltronian berserker back from the scene of the ambush had been taxing. Sidda wasn't out of shape by any means, but she wasn't used to carrying the dead weight of another being for distance any longer than the door of a club to a waiting hover taxi.

As they neared the outskirts of inhabited civilization, Sidda knew she couldn't go much deeper into the city without being discovered. The allegiances of the citizenry varied enough that somebody would likely report such a sighting if they saw it, so she needed to find a safe place to drop the stunned woman that would be secluded and out of sight. Looking around, she saw a squat structure that looked to be secure enough despite being black with ample fire damage from the first battle.

The door was solid despite the outward appearances, giving Sidda a bit of confidence for her choice of temporary safe haven. Giving it one more heave with her unencumbered shoulder, it finally gave way enough for her to slip inside with her unconscious companion. The interior matched the exterior, with ample fire damage covering what appeared to be a small waiting room. There was no signage that survived whatever blaze had hit this place, so Sidda had no idea what this building used to be before it became a hollowed-out wreck.

Pushing through a door at the back of the lobby, she found herself looking at a medical table of some kind. Stirrups at the end of the table hung in melted stalactites at the end of one side of the table, and suddenly Sidda knew what this place probably used to be. "Good to know even backwaters like this have womens' health facilities," she mumbled wryly to herself, before frowning and mentally changing have to had.

Stepping into the room, she gently laid her companion on the heat-warped table. Sidda immediately began flexing her neck and rolling her shoulders in relief, finally having deposited her burden. She hurriedly looked through the cupboards for anything she could use to keep the woman sedated, but the contents of each cupboard had been ruined by whatever blaze had consumed this place.

"Stang," she muttered angrily, sitting on one of the counters as she began thinking about what to do next. She couldn't just leave the woman alone, as she'd likely wake up in a confused state. A cold shudder ran along the length of her spine as she thought of what this Spectre might do to nearby civilians in her fugue state. She had to call somebody else because she knew that her currently unconscious companion would likely tear her to shreds when she woke, but each person she thought about contacting was likely long gone during the New Republic exodus.

A thought struck her, and her eyes widened. "Please please please," she repeated as she ran through the comm contacts on her datapad, finding the one she was looking for. Sidda waited a moment to compose herself, and then pressed the call button. Each ring that went unanswered increased her feeling of trepidation. If this contact didn't pan out, there was nothing else she could think of that would ensure the Spectre wouldn't arise and go on a civilian killing spree.

The ringing ended, and a high-pitched voice broke the silence immediately. "We said 'no' interviews a month ago, and the answer is definitely 'no' right now, Reporter."

"Essie, wait," Sidda protested.

"In case you haven't noticed, you and your friends left the planet in a real hurry. Without us," the voice of the sassy Chadra Fan nurse from the downed CRV Anti-Venom responded.

Sidda could hear the sneer in the tone of Essian Fith's words. While she was hurt by the tone of the response, her chest exploded with hope at the confirmation that help was still on the surface of the planet. "Essie—"

"Stop calling me that!"

"I need your help!"

"Perhaps you didn't hear my previous response, Newsschutta," Essian replied icily. "You and your Renegade friends left us behind. Even if I wanted to—which I don't—we can't help you unless you're on the planet the New Republic just abandoned."

Sidda smiled. "Exactly."

There was a pause, long enough for Sidda to look at her datapad to see if she'd been hung up on. "Essie?!"

"Are you saying you're here too?"


"You're probably in a better spot than us then, I'm afraid," Essian replied, her tone softening. "We're being watched."

"Surely you can slip out of there, Essie. Or that barvy Captain of yours. Or Doc Pheven—"

"Pheven is dead. The Imperials killed him. And Kardia is definitely on house-arrest onboard the ship."

Sidda pressed on. "Then it has to be you, Essie. I need—"

"Perhaps you didn't hear that we're locked down."

Anger welled up, raising the pitch and volume of her voice. "Essie, I've got a patient I can't care for, and if you don't do it, a lot of people will die!"

After a long pause, a high pitched sigh came through. "Give me the report then, Yam."

Relief cascaded through Sidda's chest. "Thank the Whills!" She responded, and then explained everything she could about her charge's condition, identity, and their hidden location.

"I'll bring some more sedatives. Stay with her until I arrive," Essian responded after taking everything in. "I'll figure out how to give the Imperials the slip. Be there soon."

Tears of gratitude and relief sprung from Sidda's violet eyes, and her tchun twitched. "Thank you, Essie—"

"Call me that one more time and I won't come."


Toseng Caves

It was a long two days to wait, and almost every hour on the hour Bulldog had to restrain Bearcat in some way to keep the rash Cathar from rushing out of the cave to do recon on his own. Blue also helped in this regard, attempting to keep Bearcat distracted by asking him to help her rehabilitate her sprained ankle.

Still, that didn't stop Bulldog's own mind from wandering. It didn't help that he wanted to do the exact same thing as Bearcat, but he had to tamp down on that desire out of sheer force of will rather than any menial distraction. As he sat just inside the cave and gazed out at the craggy plains below, movement from his peripheral vision made his heart leap into his throat. His hand reflexively fell to the worn Bylark handle of his blaster, but he relaxed just as quickly as he'd been alarmed as the familiar outlines of Torsten and Tarla became clearer.

They continued forward, oblivious to the alarm they'd caused by their casual appearance, waving pleasantly as they neared. "Captain," Tarla greeted.

Bulldog nodded in return. "News?"

Torsten smiled, baring his sharp teeth. "Lots of it."

Bulldog motioned them inside, and fell in step beside the mother and son as they walked slowly down the mouth of the cave. "What do you have for me?"

"The prisoner camp is located in a small subsection of the governor's estate grounds," Tarla began in a measured tone. "Looks to be very well fortified, with sturdy walls and the damaged wall sections have been patched hastily-but-well. The villa is still in shambles, however."

Bulldog nodded, filing away the disappointing news nonetheless. "Go on."

"The garrison is also housed nearby. There would be no possible rescue operation that could get prisoners out without incurring the wrath of that garrison."

Bulldog pursed his lips. "More disappointing news. Please tell me something good."

Torsten thrust out a piece of flimsiplast eagerly. "Here's a map of their patrol routes!"

Bulldog snatched the document eagerly and examined it. The map was rudimentary, but what it lacked for in terrain and other building locations it gained in detailed routes and numbers along with the timings of the patrols. He nodded in admiration at the piece of information, smiling and patting Torsten on the shoulder. "Nice work, kid."

Tarla smiled at her son approvingly as she squeezed his shoulder. "Those patrols are not kind to the civilians, though humans seem to be hassled less than nonhumans," she said as she punctuated the last statement with a spitting gesture. Her face hardened as she looked to Torsten, and then Bulldog. "I don't think we'll be able to get back in for any more scouting runs. We got stopped by almost every trooper we came across, and I'm fairly certain the last one put us on some sort of watch-list."

Worry flashed across Bulldog's face. "What kind of watch-list? Did they follow you?" He looked back over the two Zabrak's shoulders to see if there were Imperial troopers lurking in the shadows behind them.

Tarla put her hands out in a placating gesture. "No, no, nothing like that. We told them we were looking for help with a bandit problem, and we were summarily dismissed as being too unimportant to help and told to figure it out for ourselves."

"I could get back in, no problem, Captain!" Torsten declared enthusiastically.

"You'll do no such thing," Tarla admonished gently yet sternly.

Bulldog nodded in agreement. "Listen to your mom, kid. You only get one of them."

A look of confusion flitted across Torsten's face before he started snickering. Tarla joined in.

"What's so funny?"

"You must not know much about our societal structure, Captain," Tarla said between giggles. "All women help raise the younger generation. Torsten has an entire village-worth of mothers should something happen to me."

Bulldog nodded, forcing the jealousy rising within him to subside. "Must be nice. I lost my mother when I was young."

Tarla fixed him with a sympathetic look, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Consider yourself adopted as of this instant, Captain."

Tears threatened to appear as Bulldog felt the moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes. The genuine nature with which Tarla had just offered something that seemed pedestrian to her still meant volumes to the oft-alone youth that still resided at the center of his being.

He attempted to respond, but the words caught in his throat as a single tear tumbled from the corner of his eye. Quickly it was swiped away, but it left a clean patch on his otherwise dirty face.


Toseng City Streets

The next day, Bulldog was putting on his best casual face as he strode through the relatively tense walkways of the city. Nobody seemed to have their eyes off the pavement in front of themselves, so he relaxed slightly more as the populace appeared to be one less threat he'd have to worry about identifying him.

He'd decided to go on his own scouting run as the intelligence Tarla and Torsten had gathered was rudimentary through no fault of their own. While the general information was very useful, he needed to lay a more trained eye on the goings on of the city and the occupying force to formulate any sort of plan.

He quickly fell into old habits from his life before the Rebellion, where blending in with a crowd was useful if you weren't completely comfortable with your surroundings. While the skill had arguably been useful as a rebel pilot, he almost always had backup he could rely upon to cover his back. Now, though, he was dangerously exposed. One small mistake would end up with him being rounded up with the rest of the prisoners, and the location of his compatriots would surely be tortured out of him.

As he approached a guard shack, he noted that the area beyond was heavily controlled and people were being thoroughly checked in before they were allowed past the shack. He stepped into a nearby shop and absentmindedly perused the knick knacks on the display ledge that were visible to the street from the large storefront windows. He fiddled with some sort of action figure that was missing an arm and the hand of the remaining arm was smashed beyond recognition. He brought the toy to his eye level as he looked outside, hoping the action to any outside observer would just look like some sort of collector examining a battered thrift shop find.

Thankfully, the shop's storefront had a commanding view of the area beyond the security cordon. The Imperial Star Destroyer was no longer hovering over the capital city, which was a welcome sight. However, TIE fighters appeared to be patrolling the skies with a fair amount of regularity. He sighed inwardly, as those fighters would make any approach through the sky suicidal more than likely.

A bit of good news drew his attention toward the rough location of the prison camp. One turret had been hastily fabricated and was not concealed or armored. It was located at one corner of the compound, and the beginnings of the other 3 turret sites appeared to be in the very early stages of construction. If they somehow found an opening and a solid plan to break that prison open, the sooner they did it the better.

A familiar voice from behind him startled him. "Can I help you, Captain?"

Bulldog's heart nearly leapt out of his chest. His hand clenched down on the toy he'd been absentmindedly holding while his other hand reached for his blaster, only for him to remember that he'd left it behind in case he was stopped by a patrol. He slowly turned his head as sweat began to bead at his brow, only to relax instantly when he saw a young woman in a dirty store uniform looking at him with inquisitive eyes. Upon closer examination, recognition dawned upon him like a ton of bricks. "Emala? What are you doing here!"

The Mirialan woman who a month ago had been obsessed with The Ascendant sect of the Sith order and Junior in equal measures stood behind the counter. Arrayed around her were rarer antiquities and tomes, so it was fairly clear where her bookish nature came from. "I'm surprised you remember me," she said with a nervous giggle. "Considering how drunk you all were the last time we crossed paths. My brother still doesn't quite know what happened that night..."

Bulldog smirked nervously, still unsure if she was friend or foe in this instance. They'd been forced to play 'Ditch the Clinger' after Junior had inadvertently accepted Emala's unique marriage proposal, and it had resulted in the accidental kidnapping of one of her brothers while they attempted to hide Junior. While they'd all parted on amicable terms a few weeks ago during the night of drunken debauchery for himself, Frosty, Ant, and Junior, he still didn't quite know her well enough to trust her. "That was a wild night indeed, Emala. I didn't know you worked here."

Emala gave the shop a small wave of her strangely-gloved hand. "Family business. Suits my interests well," she said pleasantly. Her eyes lit up a little. "Where's Reynolds? If you're still here, is he?"

Bulldog's hackles were beginning to rise. Did he tell her that he honestly didn't know, or lie and say that he was off planet with the rest of the Renegades? Either answer could result in her displeasure, which could in turn result in his capture.

"He's gone, isn't he?" Emala whispered, breaking the silence.

Bulldog nodded. He looked around the room for any sort of weapon he could use if the woman proved to be more scorned than she appeared to be that fateful night.

She nodded slowly. "I see..." A tear rolled down her cheek. She swiped it away angrily, and then spat out a series of Mirialan curses.

"I'm sorry, Emala."

"Those blasted Imperials!" She snarled, pointing a gloved finger at the villa.

Cautious relief flooded through Bulldog's chest. It appeared that her anger was directed at the Imperials for returning, rather than Renegade Wing for leaving. Perhaps she wouldn't be an enemy after all.

"What have you got in your hands there?" Emala asked. Before Bulldog had a chance to respond, her mysteriously gloved hand rose. With a unique gesture, the damaged rebel pilot figurine leapt out of his hands and flew threw the air into hers.

Bulldog's jaw hung open at the display. He'd heard of feats of the Force similar in nature, though he'd never witnessed it first hand. He was equal measures awed and cowed by the display.

Emala giggled as she turned the figurine over in her hands. Holding up the hand for him to see, she wiggled her fingers. "It's called a 'Calling Glove'," she explained, and then hurriedly added, "No, I'm not using the Force."

"What a curious piece of technology," Bulldog said as he found himself walking closer to get a better look at the device. "Is that for sale?"

A smirk crossed Emala's lips as she coquettishly pulled her hand away. "Not on your life, Captain." She grabbed a bag and her portable credit reader, and examined the action figure in his hand. She chuckled. "Not many people interested in rebel pilot action figures these days"

Bulldog smiled and nodded. "Well, I knew a guy that looked like this one. From my hometown. Need it to complete my set," he lied.

Emala nodded haltingly, as if what he'd said was something dangerous. She examined the figure's face closely. "I see. I wasn't aware you hailed from Macquarie..."

Bulldog caught the shift in moods, and then another thought struck him. "You haven't once asked why I'm still on the planet, Emala."

She smiled dangerously, but it softened to a more conspiratorial look. "Isn't it obvious? You were left behind, and now you're snooping around for information about that prison across the street from my shop."

Bulldog's jaw fell to the floor for the second time in a short span.

"That makes me think you believe some of your people are in that prison," Emala continued. "Possibly ... Junior?"

Bulldog once again felt uneasy. She clearly wasn't the outer-rim bumpkin she had acted like during their night out, and he was instantly wary of her motives. His eyes darted about once again to find some sort of weapon to incapacitate her should it come down to it. Unfortunately, all of the wares seemed to be antiques of unknown design, purpose, and origin. None of them appeared to have the heft required to knock somebody out.

"Relax, Captain. If I wanted to turn you in, I'd have made this exchange as short as possible to get you out of my shop so I could call over to their command post—also in the remains of the villa—to turn you in," Emala explained, her face a mask of open honesty. "As it stands, though, there is about to be a patrol walking by. I don't want you to walk right into their open arms."

Bulldog was stunned. His brain was screaming for him to get the Sith out of the shop and run for the hills. He didn't have a good read on Emala, and uncertainty like that got people killed. On the other hand, his gut was giving him a good vibe. While he never claimed to have access to the Force, his gut rarely led him astray—unless alcohol was involved.

Adding to the building dread was the fact that not only was the villa being used as a prison, but it also held the commanders of the Imperial ground forces. That meant he was dangerously close to being near somebody that might be able to identify him. If Tol Barand happened to be on the planet currently, he was as good as dead where he stood the moment he stepped outside of the shop.

Emala broke the silence, drawing his attention back to her. "How would you like to pay, flyboy?" she asked.

The innocent question snapped him out of his paralysis of thought. "Actually, I've got some local chits here so I'd prefer to do that instead of a digital transfer."

"Of course," she replied, holding her non-gloved palm out expectantly. "Don't imagine you'd want a record of your purchase on the nets in case those Imperials have anybody looking for you that way."

Bulldog numbly fished through his pockets and pulled out the one credit chit of local currency he had and laid it gently into her palm. Emala's instincts were dead on once again, and he was once again questioning if she were using the Force to read his mind and using the fancy glove as a cover for her powers.

"Relax, Captain," she soothed. "I'm only dragging this process out long enough for them—" she paused, nodding with her head toward the street, "—to pass by."

Outside, a squad of Stormtroopers sauntered by slowly, looking at the items for display as well as Bulldog and the clerk. One stopped and peered in closer, causing Bulldog's heart to stop once more. Again, by reflex, his hand slid slowly down to his hip only to remember that his blaster was not holstered securely on his hip. He gave his best casual smile and wave before turning his head back to the Emala, but keeping it canted just enough that the trooper was in his peripheral vision.

"How?" Bulldog asked, awed once again.

"Patrols like clockwork scaring away my foot traffic," she responded with a sly smile, clearly enjoying the fact that the man believed she was a witch or Force user of some manner. "I told you, it's not the Force." She began writing something down hurriedly on a scrap of paper.

Bulldog was unconvinced by her explanation, and perplexed by whatever she was doing behind the counter with the paper. "Uh..."

Emala laughed genuinely, but again her mood shifted quickly to something more dark. She suddenly gripped his shoulder tightly with her gloved hand. "If he's in there, don't leave without him." She held out her hand, credit chits of his change displayed for him to see. It also held the scribbled note she had been writing a moment ago. "Give this to him whenever you bust him out."

Bulldog pocketed the note and change and placed his action figure into the bag she'd offered. "Thank you kindly, ma'am. I appreciate you helping me complete my set," he casually said over his shoulder as he walked out of the store at a leisurely pace. He wanted to run to get away from the mysteriously dangerous Mirialan, but it would only draw attention to himself. He looked in all directions as casually as possible to get the lay of the land and spot any patrols, but the only troopers he saw not at the guard post were the ones in the squad that had walked by during his purchase. They were about two blocks up and continuing away from him. Unfortunately, that was the direction he had to travel. Sucking in a deep breath, he began walking at a measured pace to keep the patrol the same distance ahead of him.

He hazarded a glance around, attempting to make it casual. As his gaze reached about 8 o'clock from the direction he was moving, he saw another gaggle of Imperial personnel. They were clad in black, harassing a being he couldn't see clearly. All manner of shoving and poking were going on. Had Emala decided to turn him in after all? As the mass of bodies continued to move around, a gap appeared.

Bulldog's breath was sucked out of his lungs. The face he saw through the gap of bodies made a chill run down his spine to the point that he stumbled over his feet, only managing to catch himself with the help of a nearby wall.

Captain Wrant, if that was his real name, was standing back and observing the harassment with an approving look. The man had been an infiltrator, posing as a guard with two of his cronies at the New Republic brig during Bulldog's latest stint. The crew had been sadistic, meting out beatings at will. They'd managed to murder two other prisoners as well as another guard before attempting their escape. Out of the three, only Wrant had managed to get off the base alive. And now here he was, continuing to torment those with less power than himself.

Bulldog turned his head back forward, hoping that his stumble hadn't brought any unwanted attention to himself. The squad of stormtroopers was still two blocks ahead, so he kept his pace the same to avoid catching up to them by sheer force of will. His mind was screaming at him to run away, but through supreme effort he kept his pace and posture casual as he continued to put distance between himself and yet another enemy that could identify him on this planet.

All went well for two more blocks, and he began to feel a bit more calm until he spotted movement out of his peripheral vision down an alleyway. Turning his head and stopping, his heart seized yet again in such a short period of time. Bulldog's eyes widened.

Looking out of the door at the end of the alley was Frosty. The moment he realized he'd been spotted, he pulled his head back inside and slammed the door closed.

Bulldog found himself jogging down the alley as he tried to catch up to his friend. A million questions flooded through his mind, mingled in with feelings of relief and equal measures of worry. Was his friend also stranded here? How well was he situated? What is he doing so close to the main imperial base?

These questions kept repeating in his mind as he charged the door, only slowing down enough to open it with a twist of the knob rather than bursting through it with his shoulder. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness, but the first thing that hit his senses was the level of dust in the room. He immediately sneezed violently, and felt another coming on as his eyes watered from the involuntary allergy response. "The hell are you doing here? That's a terrible disguise!" he blurted out between sneezing fits.

Rough hands gripped him from either side. "That's far enough!"

Bulldog didn't recognize the voices, and his fight or flight instinct kicked in immediately. He grunted with exertion as he pulled his trapped arms closer to his body, swinging his captors into each other with enough force to break their grips as they attempted to avoid serious injury. He rushed forward to gain distance, but was grappled again by a pair of strong hands on each of his shoulders with enough force to make his collarbone groan in protest. Before he could do anything other than register the grip, he felt a hard smack to the side of his head that filled his vision with stars.

As he fell to the ground, more hands got a hold of him and secured him properly. The cold end of a blaster barrel was jammed underneath his neck, ceasing all struggle as he attempted to clear his vision.

"Move again and you'll go into the afterlife without a face!"

"J-J-Jack?" Bulldog blurted out, looking again at the individual he'd first seen in the doorway. "What did you do to your hair?"

"Hold up, Sig," the bald man said, holding up a hand to forestall his associates from taking any hasty action. He knelt down and got closer to the downed pilot. "What did you call me?"

Bulldog's vision finally cleared, and he finally was able to regard the bald man before him. He finally realized his mistake, and bit back a curse as he realized he was likely now going to end up dead at the hands of a mercenary crew. "I, uh ... thought you were my friend Jack," he said evenly as he regarded the man who bore an uncanny resemblance to his pilot friend. "But you can't be him with that scar. It's too real to be a disguise."

The female enforcer snorted. "Looks like this guy knows your brother, Guts."

The bald man stared daggers at his associate, shutting her up without a word. He looked back and calmly regarded Bulldog. "How do you know Jack?"

"We're friends. He never mentioned a brother though."

Guts snorted. "Must not be great friends, then."

Bulldog shrugged as much as he was able despite being held down.

"What's your unit, then?"

Bulldog took a minute to weigh his options. If he played things close to his chest, he'd likely end up dead and discarded in a ditch somewhere. Sighing slowly, he decided truth was his only course of action with any sort of future. "Buccaneer Squadron, Renegade Wing. Your ... brother ... was a Corsair, and he was my friend."

Guts seemed unconvinced. He stood back up and rubbed his hand across his bald head, and ran his fingers along the scar that ran up from his right eyebrow and carried on to somewhere on the back of his head. "Huh, maybe you did know him. Though, I'd say I look a lot better than that ugly gray hair we were born with."

Bulldog snorted at the clear deception and smirked. "Red."


"Jack McCauley has red hair."

Guts grinned knowingly. "Ok, help him up Keyleb," he said as he motioned for his associates to allow Bulldog to his feet. "Had to be sure, ya know?

"Hey, no hard feelings, huh?" The female asked as she patted Bulldog on the shoulder. "The name's Sigilien. You ok?"

Bulldog nodded. "Yeah, I'm ok. He just hit me in the face with his head," he replied sarcastically as he rubbed the smarting side of his face.

Guts and his crew all laughed heartily at the joke, and motioned for him to follow them deeper into their makeshift hideout. As they entered the next room, the dust content was thankfully much lower. It was still a dingy apartment building that had apparently been abandoned recently, but things were still cleaner than the entryway. They sat at a large table and all poured themselves a drink from an unmarked bottle. They offered a cup to Bulldog as they looked up at him expectantly. "What are you doing here, flyboy?" Guts asked finally.

Bulldog took a long draught of the mystery liquor, wincing as the bite from the higher proof was bigger than he'd expected. His reaction drew some more laughs. After he took a moment to compose himself and fend off the heartburn that was threatening him. "I ended up stranded here. Wasn't at the base when the Imp counterattack happened."

Guts snorted. "Where the hell were you then?"

Bulldog paused, unsure how much he trusted this man yet.

It was noticed, however. Guts adjusted his posture as he laid his blaster out on the table. "Speak plainly. I haven't decided not to kill you yet, pilot."

Bulldog nodded, taking a smaller sip of his drink. "I was not on an active roster due to ... discipline problems. I was out in the back country trying to help the villagers with a gang problem."

A look of realization flashed across Sigilien's face. It was mirrored by Guts, but less so.

Bulldog tensed. Had those thugs been friends of theirs? "I guess I'm dead if those were friends of yours," he said with fatalistic resolve. He knew his life was out of his own hands here, so truth might as well carry him to whatever fate was laid out for him.

Guts scoffed. "Those sleemos? They tried to recruit us, but the pay wasn't high enough for us to punch down on the little guy."

Bulldog arched an eyebrow. "Had they offered more money?"

"You'd probably not have survived," Guts replied matter-of-factly.

Bulldog nodded. "I see. Well, where does that leave us, then?"

Guts blew out a sigh as he downed his drink and poured himself another. "Well, friend of my brother's, I'd like to say you're the only New Republic person we know of on the planet, but there's a whole mess of them in that prison camp, and another small group hidden away with their thumbs up their shebs."

Bulldog perked up at the news. It was exactly the intelligence he was looking for, even though news of there being New Republic prisoners was a huge downer. "How many prisoners? Who else is out there?" He was worried for a moment that Bearcat or Blue had reached out and made contact with these people, but that was irrational as they knew better than to do something like that. Didn't they?

Guts shook his head. "Look, nothing's for free here. I want your name, rank, and what you are planning to do here. Now."

Bulldog pursed his lips. He briefly thought about bending the truth, but caught himself before he spoke. The truth had carried him this far, hadn't it? He nodded slowly, and spoke in a measured tone. "I am Captain Clark of Buccaneer Squadron. I have no official plan or orders, but I was doing recon just now trying to figure out a way to wreak some havoc and possibly break those prisoners out."

Guts snorted. "Prison break without a ship? Seems like a nonstarter."

Bulldog nodded and smirked. "Fair, but I hadn't exactly thought things through yet."

Guts paused as he took another long draught. He exhaled loudly and pursed his lips before speaking. "Just so happens, we have a ship. And I have a vested interest in getting those prisoners freed in case my brother is stuck there." He paused, and regarded Bulldog with a steely glare. "Is he there?"

Bulldog shook his head. "I don't know—truly. I was out of the loop when this whole thing went down. I don't know who made it and who got left behind aside from me. He had helped me out at that village, but went back to base just before this mess started."

Guts nodded, seemingly accepting the veracity of that answer.

Bulldog leaned forward and pressed his luck. "You mentioned another group stranded here. Who are they?"

Silligen snorted. "That puffed up Bothan and his staff? They're worthless. We stopped talking to them after it was clear that Bothan felt as if he was in charge of us and was ordering us to retrieve them for evacuation."

"Bothan?" Bulldog asked as his stomach felt like a black hole had formed. He sincerely hoped his gut was wrong, but he asked anyway. "Does he have a name?"

"Shen'ryu," Guts grunted as he shook his head. "Worthless."

Bulldog put his hands on his head in disbelief. "How in the hell did that slimy karking schutta avoid capture?"

Guts shrugged. "Heard his U-wing pilot got spooked by the Imperials and went to ground. The frequent patrols have kept them grounded to the point where the pilot disabled all controls to stop the Bothan from attempting to steal the ship and get them all killed."

A sharp laugh escaped Bulldog's chest. He knew of only one U-wing pilot that was likely to do something like that to a superior officer. "Say, do you happen to have their contact information? I'd like to reach out and try to plan something more constructive toward our goals."

"Listen, Pilot," Guts said as he rose to his feet. "If my brother isn't in that prison, we aren't doing a thing to break those prisoners out. You get that loud and clear. I'll need cock-solid proof he's there before we lift a finger to help."

"I'll figure out a way to confirm that for you," Bulldog said as he put his hands up in a placating gesture. "But I want assurances that you'll be willing to take those prisoners off the planet if the price is right, even if Jack isn't among them."

The three smugglers scoffed at that and laughed heartily. Guts fought through fits of laughter with tears streaming down his face to respond. "You couldn't afford that price! I know what they pay you fools—no way you've got enough for us."

Bulldog pulled out his datapad and displayed his account balance for all to see as he took a long draught of his drink.

The laughter immediately ceased as the three smugglers' jaws dropped. Keyleb ran a three-fingered hand through his hair, and Sigilien comically pushed her bottom jaw up with one hand to close her mouth. Guts squinted long and hard at the figures on the bottom line.

Bulldog withdrew the datapad and secured it back in his pocket. "Now, get me a way to contact you as well as that other group of New Republic personnel you mentioned, and I'll get back to you with a plan."


Toseng City Apartment

Sidda was deep into her work of chopping up her footage from all around the city. Scenes of Imperials beating up civilians—more nonhumans than humans—and put it all together into a compilation. Plenty of Imperial overreach was going on all over the city, and while she hadn't witnessed all of it, there was enough on this compilation to rile up the free masses of the galaxy at large.

Her studio apartment was filled with various pieces of machinery, including an editing bay for her raw footage, as well as the most important piece of tech in the entire place, her holo transmitter. This machine was able to simultaneously send out her videos while also completely cartwheeling her location throughout all corners of the galaxy. There was virtually no chance of discovery through digital methods, and it would take a trained eye of an actual holonet technician to recognize what the device even was if they were to walk into her apartment.

To the untrained eye, it just looked like a special holonet terminal that was able to pull in all channels across the galaxy. That in and of itself might raise some inspecting eyebrows, but her cover identity had plenty of credits to explain a device like that. As a successful remote day trader, her identity had plenty of reason and means to own the many devices all over her apartment.

As she watched the latest clip she'd recorded of a massive Imperial clad in black roughing up some Zabraki locals, a figure walking in the background caught her eye. She paused the recording and zoomed in. Her eyes widened. The face belonged to one of the Renegades she'd met in passing during her time on the New Republic base. While a normal person might have forgotten the brief interaction, Sidda had a nearly photographic memory for names and faces.

The man's presence on the planet in plainclothes sparked a whole new line of questions in her mind. Were the Renegades back on the planet already in a covert capacity? Or was this another New Republic pilot that was left behind, much like the Spectre of Toseng she'd witnessed firsthand? There had been no sign of any sort of resistance on the Imperial channels aside from the swirling rumor mill around the latter individual's handiwork, so Sidda was completely perplexed. She took a sip of her gin, hissing as the dry spirit burned its way down her throat.

"What are you doing here, Captain Clark?"


Toseng Caves

Bulldog returned to the cave the next evening with a pep in his step. He'd taken a long, circuitous path back to avoid leading any suspicious Imperials back to their hideout.

Bearcat was in his face instantly with a snarl. "Vherrre have you been?!"

Blue was farther off, still a little hobbled by her injury but still moving better than she had been. "Is that the Captain?"

"Hey Cho," Bulldog called out as he waved with one hand, and put a hand gently on Bearcat's shoulder with his other as he continued to walk toward the wounded Buccaneer. "We've got a lot to discuss, but first some news."

Blue settled herself onto an empty crate, while Bearcat stood nearby. The former seemed to be the supreme incarnation of patience while the later kept tapping his foot and fidgeting with his scar. Both waited for Bulldog to speak despite their varying levels of calm.

"So," Bulldog began slowly. "It sounds like some of our friends were grounded and are now pinned down by the air patrols criss-crossing the planet."

"Who?" both pilots asked in unison, looking at each other as they finished speaking.

Bulldog held out his hands to forestall their questions. "I don't know. I've got a lead on their comms, so I'm going to reach out to them if you both agree that it's a good idea."

Bearcat nodded emphatically. "Of courrrse!" Blue similarly nodded in agreement.

Bulldog nodded himself. "Ok, so we're in agreement there. Next," he said, sticking up two fingers, "I've made contact with a smuggler crew that has a ship with a large enough capacity to pull out any New Republic prisoners out of that camp."

Both Blue and Bearcat seemed less enthusiastic about this news. Blue broke the silence after visibly debating on her words. "How do we know we can trust smugglers?"

The tone with which she'd said the word ‘smugglers' seemed to put a sour taste in Bearcat's mouth as well. The massive Cathar visibly recoiled from the mention of non-New Republic personnel being included in any future plans, let alone arguably the most important part of a prison-break and planetary escape.

Bulldog nodded in agreement with their concerns. "I get it, I do. I wouldn't even think to include any outsiders in a sensitive operation like this if I didn't have a very good feeling about them."

"Feeling?" Bearcat scoffed. "Ve'rrre trrrusting gut feelings vith ourrr lives?"

"The Force?" Blue asked hopefully, arching an inquisitive eyebrow.

Bulldog shook his head. "Sadly, I'm about as in tune with the Force as I am in tune with the females of my species. No, I know the identity of the leader of the crew, and I believe he wouldn't farkle us."


"He's Frosty's brother."


Bulldog pinched the bridge of his nose. "He was literally one of the pilots that helped us fight the thugs that resided here. Sarcastic redhead? Ringing any bells?"

Both Blue and Bearcat puzzled over it for a moment, and then their eyes widened with recognition. "Oh, THAT'S Frosty?"

Bulldog snorted. "Yeah. Good guy to know if you ever need anything. Great black market connections, obviously."

Both rookie pilots seemed satisfied with the state of the smugglers in play, or at the very least did a better job of hiding their true feelings than they had earlier in the conversation. Blue's brow was still furrowed, deep in thought. Bearcat's eyes were narrowed, but they didn't seem to be focused on anything in their immediate area.

"Now, I'm going to reach out to the other group of our guys and see who it might be," Bulldog said as he pulled out his commlink, but kept his eye on the other two in the event either had had a change of heart from their earlier endorsement of that course of action. "See if we can't formulate some kind of plan to disrupt Imperial operations in some way that will annoy them and hamper any plans."

"Won't that cause them to start looking for us?" Blue asked worriedly.

"There's bound to be some sort of search going on already judging from the frequent aerial patrols around the other group's supposed area," Bulldog replied matter-of-factly. "As far as I see it, us doing a bit of fighting on the ground of our choosing will ease the burden on any other groups in hiding."

"Herrre Herre," Bearcat rumbled enthusiastically.

"What about the villagers?" Blue asked in a more hushed tone.

"What about us?" Tarla's voice said from the shadows, causing Bulldog and Blue to nearly fall out of their seats and Bearcat to hiss in anger as he tensed to lash out. After the three Renegades regained their composure, albeit with heightened heart rates, Tarla continued. "You have helped us greatly. We will help you in this endeavor."

"This could get bloody real quick, Tarla," Bulldog cautioned.

"Are you saying we're afraid of a fight?" Torsten countered from next to his mother.

Bulldog held up his hands in mock surrender as a gesture to calm the intemperate youth down. "No, that's not it at all. We signed up for this type of danger, whereas you and your village did not."

Blue stepped forward and put a hand on Torsten's shoulder. "It was not a slight against your spirit."

Torsten relaxed at her touch, and Tarla smirked. "Well," she began, "it looks like you have some planning to do, and we have some training to do with the blasters we've appropriated from our previous oppressors."

"I'll help vith that," Bearcat said as he rose to his feet. "I may not be the best shot, but I'm betterrr than nothing."

"I too could use some practice," Blue said, standing next to her friend.

Heavy steps crunched the gravel within the cave. After a moment, Rorrax's hulking form was revealed in the dim light. He hiked his two right-hands back over his shoulder. "The gang had a target range built deeper in the caves to conceal the sounds better. I suggest it be used again for this purpose to avoid being spotted by any wandering eyes."

"I'll go grab some volunteers," Tarla said cheerfully as she began to leave.

"Guess I'll go try to make contact while you get them going," Bulldog said with a lazy salute. He took a few steps toward the exit of the cave and then abruptly turned around as a thought struck him. "Oh, hey, I don't much care if they can hit the broad side of a barn with their shots. But I DO care that they understand cover and concealment, and avoid giving up too much of themselves as targets in a light fight. Please make that your first priority."

"Roger, Cap," Blue responded with a lazy salute of her own.


Toseng Desert Wasteland

Bulldog gingerly made his way down the craggy slope of the hill and went in the opposite direction of the village. He didn't want to make any calls, encrypted or otherwise, anywhere near their base of operations or the village in case the Imperials managed to triangulate the signal.

After walking an hour, he settled down in a dell or sorts to conceal himself slightly and sat down. Even at the slower than normal pace he walked, he felt like he was far enough away from any landmarks that might draw the ire of any eavesdropping Imperials. Taking one last careful minute to scan his surroundings visually, he pulled out his datapad and keyed in the address Guts had given him.

"Pirate XL to any listening Starbursts, I say again, Pirate XL to any listening Starbursts. Over."

He poked his head up again and checked his surroundings, chuckling at his own paranoia. Even IF his signal had been intercepted, there was a one in a million chance that anybody in an Imperial uniform was close enough to him to pounce the moment after he broadcast. He looked down at his datapad and waited another minute, and then repeated his message.

He waited another minute without a response, and then rebroadcast his open hail. He hoped the use of the codename 'Pirate XL' would be easy enough for any stranded Renegades to figure out that it was the largest Buccaneer pilot reaching out for contact. And while he couldn't outright say 'New Republic Personnel', he hoped the blatantly obvious reference to the ghastly New Republic sigil would be enough to grab the attention of any stranded friendly forces. He attempted his greeting once again, receiving no response.

He began to feel antsy. He didn't want to stay in the same location constantly broadcasting at the same interval in the event he'd been detected. While he was fairly certain the Imperials would try to answer the hail and trick him into revealing his location, he didn't want to bet his life on their blatant ineptitude. A patrol could very well be on its way to his relative location as he waited rather impatiently to make contact with the friendly forces he was told were out there on this channel.

He sprung to his feet at the sound of scuffing in the sandy plain nearby. Immediately his hand was holding his heavy blaster and it was aimed in the relative direction of the noise. He strained his eyes into the dark to see what or who was approaching his broadcasting location. Despite his best efforts, the only thing he heard aside from the wind was the thundering of his heart in his chest loud in his own temples.

He lowered himself down slightly and attempted to wait a little longer to see what had made the noise, keeping his blaster at the ready. Just as he was about to give up and chalk up the sound to his imagination, the scuffing happened again, closer to his divot in the ground. He again shot to his feet and took aim, this time nearly jumping backward with fright as he came face to face with two large eyes less than a meter from his face, coupled with two large ears sticking straight up into the night sky. His finger clenched as he began to pull the trigger, but his rational brain got the better of his nervous reactions and he eased up, noting that he was face to face with some sort of desert herbivore.

The moment the animal caught sight of him, it froze momentarily as the fight or flight reflex was put on pause for the momentary freeze reflex many prey animals experienced. Scientists suggested that this freeze period slowed time to a crawl, allowing an animal to assess their surroundings and possible threats at 1.5x the time it would normally take to process information, giving them more "real time" to escape or fight back.

The rabbit-analog chose flight, finally, and bounded off into the night-covered plains. Its long hops carried it in an erratic pattern away from him until it disappeared past his already short field of vision.

Bulldog sighed and let out an involuntary chuckle at his nerves, beginning to holster his blaster when a chirp from his datapad nearly caused him to blast his own leg off. Cursing angrily, he finished securing his weapon and then keyed the datapad's broadcast button, and repeated his hailing message once again.

Immediately after he'd finished, a familiar voice responded to him in hushed tones. "I can't believe somebody else is still here, Big Boy! Joker, over."

Bulldog smirked as he easily deciphered the false moniker to go along with Foo's hushed voice. "Sorry to hear that you're stuck here too, Joker. What's your situation? Over."

"Stuck, hidden, babysitting an angry furry poofritter and his staff. Had to lock out the controls to stop that madman from attempting to take off with all those screamers wandering through the skies. You know, living the life. Over."

Bulldog winced at Foo's confirmation that Major Shen'ryu was indeed with him on the planet. He'd hoped something had been lost in translation between Guts and him, but alas it had not. "I see. Don't give me your location over the air in case we've got any extra ears. What I need from you is any intel you can give me on the bad guys. Over."

Foo paused for a long while, making Bulldog panic that he'd been discovered during their discussion. After another agonizing minute, Foo's voice returned. "Sorry, XL, the devil himself wandered over to have another ... discussion about making a break for it. Almost had to pull my blaster this time. It's getting ... less than ideal over here. Over."

"I hear you, Joker. Can you give me anything, any sort of soft target I can hit to cause a little mayhem on the ground? Over."

"Mayhem? You got a plan? Over."

"Not yet. But if there's some sort of activity nearby, maybe we can hit it and draw the heat off of your group for a while. Got any jarheads in your company? Over."

Foo snorted loudly. "I wish. Got saddled with his personal staffers. Not a one of them carries a weapon. That's why I've been able to maintain ... order ... over here. Over."

"A target, anything. Over."

"There seems to be some sort of convoy off in the distance, minimal protection running on a regular schedule. I'd have taken it out in the bird if I thought the TIEs wouldn't catch me before I could get back into my hidey-hole. Over."

Bulldog smiled. A convoy, ripe for the picking. "Roger on that target, Joker. Send over the coordinates and timing on my disconnect with encryption Razor Alpha Four. I'll reach out again when it's done. Pirate XL, out."


Toseng City Apartment

Sidda put down the comm and shook her head. It had been child's play for her to intercept and crack the comm channel encryption between the two Renegade Wing elements. While it was true that she had an advantage in that manner, considering her equipment had interacted with New Republic comm channels recently and had a head start with that style of encryption.

Still, it was silly of the two men to have that conversation. Their target was easy to spot, and would bring down all manner of Imperial response the moment they intercepted and decrypted it. "Amateurs," she scoffed.

By the luck of the Force, she had managed to be monitoring that frequency at the outset of that conversation, and then immediately set up a cartwheel for the comms to filter it through her heightened encryption modules. While it didn't affect their A to B conversation quality, so much comm garbage was filtered into the background that any future decryption of the discussion would only hear unintelligible snippets. Sidda hoped that any other listeners would dismiss it as an extrasolar malfunctioning comm relay sending a signal to Toseng and dismiss it outright.

She pondered for a moment after setting up the connection, for the conversation, taking a sip of gin to steady her thoughts. After nodding her head from side to side during the silent debate, she nodded once in finality when she came to a decision. She sliced a bit of code and embedded it in the two Renegades' comm devices to reroute future conversations directly to her setup.

While it was a risk that would point directly toward her if discovered, she didn't want to rely upon the will of the Force for her to be monitoring the proper comm frequency again at the right moment to work her digital magic once again to protect these fools. There was just too much of a chance that she'd miss something, and the two amateur saboteurs would be caught before they could enact their future plans.

To avoid discovery down the road, she'd need to install a portable relay somewhere else in the city that would draw initial attention. But tonight, she just didn't have the time or energy. It was late, and she'd been working all day gathering and editing more footage to put on the amateur site she'd created to house all of her footage.

The previous day, she'd created the vid site to accept wartime video submissions from others on other planets to make it less obvious that the site was being hosted by her own server based on Toseng. If the Imperials discovered the site, they would have multiple suspected planets that the site creator could be on, and likely have to spread their investigative resources around to look for the owner all over the galaxy. Same with the New Republic, if they were of the same mind as the Imperials that they'd rather not see these types of videos on the holonet.

After one day of operation it had received hundreds of other videos from different theaters of war across the galaxy, showing atrocities—mostly Imperial, but a few perpetrated by New Republic forces as well. It seemed that people all over the galactic plane were just waiting for somebody to come up with the idea of a centralized place to post videos of their first-hand wartime experiences. There were even a few videos of first hand point-of-view shots of fighting from frontline troopers.

Sidda didn't even want to think about the trouble those troopers would be in if their commanders discovered their lax infosec by posting their fight videos directly to her site, but she was thankful for all the extra noise on the site to distract investigative eyes away from her own actions on Toseng. Still, despite all that extra video of other planets, her Spectre of Toseng video clip was still the highest-rated video on the site from user votes.

The voting feature had been a suggestion from an early commenter, and one that Sidda had nearly knocked herself out cold with a lekku twitch for not thinking of herself. By putting it in the utterly democratic hands of the viewers, it would take a load off of her having to sort the videos for authenticity. If something was clearly a deepfake or hack job, the viewers at home would downvote it to oblivion. The end result was a completely unabashed and unbiased view of war. The only bit of work she had to do on her end to maintain the true vote count was to create a very strict account setting to stop vote-bot programs from unnaturally spamming votes in either direction.

Taking one last look at the top 3 videos, the Spectre of Toseng was still in first place by a wide margin. The second-place video was a POV view of somebody flying into the second Death Star, a clip that Sidda found riveting and set her wondering how somebody unaffiliated with the New Republic had come across the impossible flight cam footage. It had to be somebody within the New Republic Starfighter command staff that had leaked that video. The final top three clip was a compilation of Operation Cinder footage, showing the destructive nature of the Emperor's 'Final Solution'.

Signing off for the night, Sidda downed the rest of her gin in one gulp. As she laid her head down on her pillow, she began to think about how she would get out to the ambush site ahead of time to set up some concealed film equipment. She was unsure if she should show the entire ambush, or if she should just show the aftermath and chalk it up to the growing legend of the Spectre of Toseng.

There were other acts of anti-Imperial terrorism sparking up across Toseng City. Each of them were attributed to the Spectre of Toseng, making even the Imperials start to fear the still-sedated woman in the bombed out womens' clinic she'd left her in under the care of Essian Fith. It was impossible that it was the original Spectre, as she knew Essie would have contacted her if she'd run out of sedatives or "misplaced" the patient altogether. That meant it was a full-blown movement forming under the guise of the myth she'd created, and the Imperials were on edge.

Sidda smiled. "You still got it, old girl," she said drowsily to herself.


Toseng Wildlands

The waiting was the worst part of any warfare that Bulldog had experienced. The sheer seconds of terror were what he thrived on, but the long periods of waiting for things to happen really irked him. The idea of giving himself away to reflex and instinct to find his way through a skirmish was a welcome one, as almost anybody would attest that going through a fight with a fully-active brain was only something a truly psychotic person would do. There was no way he'd be able to go through the kill-or-be-killed moments if he was forced to confront the fact that he was snuffing out another life with his ship. The hesitation would undoubtedly cost him his life.

Now though, dug into an embankment to the side of a clearly well-trod vehicle path, he had nothing to do but think. The feeling of complete and utter exposure terrified him, as he was used to entering the fray ensconced in a hull and shielded fighter craft that gave him second and third chances to survive if his instincts or luck gave out at a crucial moment. He couldn't stop thinking about how one slip up would be the end of him, as a blaster bolt was strong enough to skewer him without the benefit of shields to absorb the hit and maneuver away. The concepts of ground and air battle may be the same, but the number of chances to survive a mistake was way lower in the former.

A low rumble off in the distance finally managed to break his mind away from the crippling fear of self doubt, as it was once again time to do some killing. He poked his head up over the embankment and saw a plume of dust off on the horizon signifying their target was indeed inbound. He then looked to the other side of the road and saw most of the Zabrak villagers almost standing completely upright as they all looked on in awe.

"Get down!" Bulldog shouted, confident that the convoy was too far off to hear the carry of his voice over their own engines. His warning had the desired effect, as all of the untrained villagers ducked down again. "Wait until I start blasting before you do, then unleash hell!"

Bearcat crawled over to him, staying low enough to avoid his head popping up over the embankment. "Is this going to vorrrk?"

"Get back to the end of the line and make sure it works," Bulldog replied curtly. "If the trap doesn't get triggered, this won't work at all!"

Bearcat nodded and then rushed back to the 'front' of the line of ambushers, ready to hit the front vehicle's drivers once they hit the desired mark.

Bulldog spared one more glance to make sure his subordinate managed to get into the proper position, and then turned his attention back toward the convoy. It had made considerable progress since his last check, indicating it was moving at a very high speed and that the drivers were clearly comfortable with the terrain of the route. That boded well, as they likely wouldn't slow down and spot his ragtag ambush force until they were forced to stop in the ground of his choosing.

He got down to stay out of sight and looked around once more at his surroundings, trying not to second-guess himself or his plan. Either way things panned out, they would all know in the next few seconds as the lead vehicle tore past his position with a loud roar of its engine and the rumbling crunch of its massive tires on the dry ground.

A loud crash followed by the screech of rending metal pierced the air, indicating the first vehicle had indeed run into their roadblock consisting of a concealed tank pit they'd hastily dug upon their arrival to the location hours ago. The thundering continued as the vehicles, moving too fast to react, rear-ended each other with violent force.

Just as he was about to poke his head up to survey the carnage he'd overheard, a massive wheel crested the embankment just above his head. Yelping out of reflex, he threw himself back to avoid the surprising development. Unfortunately, he'd fallen straight back rather than to the side, and he clenched his eyes shut as he cursed himself for doing exactly what he'd laughed at every action holo villain did in the movies before they were crushed: evade in a straight line.

After a moment of feeling distinctly not crushed under the massive wheels of the vehicle, he squinted his eyes open just enough to see the wheel sitting on the crest of his embankment, with the nose of the vehicle covering him in a deep shadow. He recovered his senses quickly and scrambled to his feet, hazarding a glance over the embankment while still concealed by the vehicle's shadow. He cheered briefly as he'd guessed the size of the convoy correctly and positioned himself at the tail end of the line of crashed vehicles, some having driven up onto the rear of the one in front, others spun completely to the side and skewered by the two massive loading forks of the ones behind.

He immediately clambered up the side of the open driver's compartment of the T8 Loadmaster and blasted the driver and his navigator before either had a chance to register what was happening. Almost simultaneously, a barrage of fire rained down upon the rest of the vehicles in the convoy from both sides of the road. It wasn't accurate, but the amount of blaster bolts sizzling through the air toward the crashed convoy caught all of the drivers in exposed cockpits, and those in enclosed vehicles were unable to extricate their vehicles or themselves to safety.

The fire slacked off momentarily once the lack of living targets out in the open became apparent, but the Imperial troopers housed within the few troop-carrying vehicles chose that exact moment to break out of their enclosed holds and started returning fire wildly, unable to find any targets just yet.

Still, a loud cry from one of the ambushers was heard, followed by a loud lamentation from their peers as the Imperials scored a lucky hit. Unfortunately, the sound of the cry drew their attention and focused their fire in that area, and a second Zabrak was hit in the chest as they'd risen to see their already struck comrade rolling down the embankment into the road. Their lifeless body ragdolled down the slope as well, jerking with more blaster impacts from the jumpy Imperials.

More blaster bolts from the flanks fell down upon the stormtroopers, covering them in fire from all angles and removing any semblance of a safe area to hunker down. Bulldog spared one glance at the back of his vehicle, noting that it was an open-bed full of tarped cargo, so he quickly dismounted and set about the job of weaving through the wreckage to hit the few troopers that had managed to find a safe haven from both sides of the road.

As he neared the heart of the convoy, a blaster bolt from a friendly ambusher on the side of the road nearly melted his face. He looked back angrily at the source, and saw it was Torsten. He waved angrily to make sure the youth didn't send another bolt in his direction, and then continued forward. Just as he was about to weave behind a large wheel, a Stormtrooper appeared at a dead run, his head looking back over his shoulder. Bulldog quick-fired, his blaster bolt slamming into the trooper's helmet and flipping him backwards through the air. Another trooper appeared behind the first, but his blaster was ready and already moving to aim at Bulldog's chest.

A blast singed his ear as it passed near his head with seemingly millimeters to spare and struck the stormtrooper in the unprotected abdomen, causing the trooper to drop his E-11 and double over with his hands on his ruined stomach.

Bulldog eased the man's suffering with a blast to the exposed neck and continued forward after waving his thanks back to Torsten, who grinned widely in response. As he entered the high undercarriage of the lone HCVw A9 turbo tank of the convoy, he heard snippets of orders and target call-outs from the last few remaining troopers trying to figure a way out of the ambush. Farther down, he heard two troopers arguing with a comrade that had apparently thrown down his blaster in surrender as he ranted something about "the Spectre of Toseng" being here to rip them to shreds.

He shrugged, having no idea what the Spectre of Toseng was, but he obliged in ending the man's life by shooting him from his new concealed position beside the tire of the vehicle. The last few survivors didn't notice the source of the blast, and continued to suss out a plan of escape. Two troopers decided to chance it and rushed out between the small gap between the first set of the wheels and the second, only to be cut down before they made it five steps away from the vehicle, being the only two bright-white targets in the otherwise brown and green landscape. Before any more had the gumption to make a break for it, Bulldog eased himself from behind the tire and started blasting. At nearly point-blank range, his RSKF-44 made short work of the remaining troopers before any had a chance to turn and return fire.

Fire continued to rain down upon the convoy, pinging against the durasteel panels of the crashed vehicles and kicking up dirt near the now dead Imperials. He waited a moment more to give any living Imperials a chance to announce themselves and escape or surrender, and then holstered his blaster and cupped his hands to his mouth. "CEASE FIRE!"

The shot volume slackened, but it still took about 15 seconds before the last shot rang out. Bulldog couldn't fault them for the slow response to his order, as it was the second time many of them had even been involved in a fight and their blood was still pumping wildly through their veins.

Eventually, the first few Zabraks cautiously made their way down the embankment, waving their guns back and forth more wildly than Bulldog would have liked. Still, he announced himself loudly before stepping out to avoid being shot by a nervous ally.

"Check the vehicles for survivors or any useful supplies!" He stage-whispered before stepping out of his own position. He quickly made his way to the front of the convoy and saw the nearly flipped lead vehicle standing almost completely vertical, with the two heavy-duty load forks from the second vehicle skewering it and holding it upright. A quick look at the driver component showed one Imperial hanging lifelessly half-in-half-out of the broken windscreen, and the driver had been completely thrown through the shattered windshield on their side and lay lifeless in the ditch with their head at an unnatural angle.

Bearcat clambered up the side of the vertical vehicle, noting that it was an enclosed vehicle likely carrying troops as the other enclosed trucks had been. Once he crested the top, he wrenched the doors open and aimed his blaster, ready to kill anybody still moving. Instead, he immediately slammed the door and wretched loudly. After he regained his composure, he shook his head at Bulldog while he sat on the edge of the compartment and breathed in heavily.

Blue and a few Zabrak volunteers scaled the wheels of the Juggernaut vehicle and peered inside, calling out that it was empty as well.

"Looks like this was a success?" Tarla said breathlessly as she approached from behind him, jumping the pit with graceful agility and turning to face him.

Bulldog nodded, finally coming down from the adrenaline-infused bloodlust he'd experienced during the fray. He nodded back toward the large Juggernaut vehicle and shook his head. "Why they didn't hunker down in that thing and just call the cavalry is beyond me."

Tarla grinned. "Perhaps, Captain, they weren't prepared for the thought of an armed resistance from 'alien scum'?"

Bulldog barked out a laugh. As he turned back to face her, a blaster report sounded from down the road. Tarla lunged forward in a folded fashion, as if punched by a massive giant in the small of her back. Her lifeless corpse bowled into him, taking him off his feet and obscuring his vision.

From down the road, a small detachment of stormtroopers rushed forth, blasters blazing. Bolts continued to kick up blood-slicked mud from nearby, as well as jerk Tarla's corpse as they found purchase in the dead Zabrak's back.


"Rrreinforrrcements!" Bearcat hissed from his position at the top of the lead vehicle. He gripped the edge with a clawed hand and lowered himself behind cover. Rather than climb down, however, he leaned from side to side as he blasted away with his customized WESTAR-34, slamming into one trooper's chest and dropping him.

Bulldog's eyes widened as the number of stormtrooper reinforcements continued to grow, and their thundering steps grew louder in his ears as they neared. Tarla's smoking corpse was no longer a target, but she had his blaster trapped in its holster.

The report of heavy repeating blasters drowned out his hearing, and a hail of massive blaster bolts fell upon the Imperial reinforcements. Troopers were pitched back into comrades, or completely immolated where they stood if struck by one of the larger weapons. After a moment, the second phase of the battle was ended as the remains of the reinforcements were completely scattered into nearly unrecognizable smoldering bits of armor and flesh.

Bulldog gently eased Tarla's smoking corpse off of his chest and gingerly laid her down to the ground, face up. He closed her lifeless eyes with one hand and held it there a moment as he fought the anger and sadness welling up from within him.

Then Torsten was there, wailing over his mother's body. He held her hands in his as he discarded his blaster into the nearby pit that had begun the engagement, tears streaming down his face and bubbles of snot coming loose upon his mother's chest.

Bulldog shook his head sadly, but knew there was work still to be done. He helped Bearcat down from his perch, noting the blood on his hand that had been digging into the edge of the vehicle as he suspended himself up there for cover. "Go out there and see if there are any more reinforcements headed our way!"

"Rrroger, Captain," Bearcat said as he bounded off over the ditch, gingerly stepping to avoid any of the egregious piles of burning remains.

Bulldog grabbed a nearby Zabrak by the lapel of his raggedy tunic. "Look for anything explosive in any of the vehicles, and rig it to blow inside the Juggernaut. Tell Blue to turn those guns on the rest of the vehicles and turn everything else into slag, then set the tank to blow too. Leave nothing usable behind."

The Zabrak nodded, glancing once more at Tarla's smoking corpse. With another insistent shake from Bulldog, the man shuffled away to organize a search of the cargo for something they could use to scuttle the main threat that had turned out to be their salvation.

Some of the surviving Zabraks had approached to pay their respects to their fallen leader, bowing their heads in prayer. They stayed a respectful distance back, allowing the youth to mourn his mother in relative peace.

"We need to pick up our fallen," Bulldog said quietly, but with enough force that it wasn't something up for debate. The Zabraks around him reacted with a mixture of disgust and disbelief.

"No!" Torsten cried angrily, fixing a steely glare on Bulldog. "She and Balkeer and Seeruk must be buried where they fell. It's our custom!"

Bulldog saw all of the Zabraks nodding in agreement. He paused for a moment, thinking of the best way to be diplomatic about this religious custom, but came up empty and decided to be blunt. "If we leave them, even if we bury them well, the Imperials will find them when they do a thorough sweep of this area. Your mother, your friends, will lead them right back to your village, and there'll be nobody left alive to bury us all where we fall."

This got the nearby Zabraks to pause, as they all seemed to look in the direction of their far-off home with real worry in their eyes. They all looked back to Bulldog with clear distaste in their eyes, but it looked to be overshadowed by the fear of retribution falling upon their loved ones.

Torsten was not convinced, however. "If we move them, their spirits will never be able to cross the veil! They'll be damned to roam the universe for all eternity!" He spat in Bulldog's direction. "We cannot listen to this takask wallask ti dan!"

Bulldog held his hands in front of him in a conciliatory gesture. "They can't know any of you were involved!"

"Young one," one of the elder Zabraks said as they stepped forward. "This Ouc speaks the truth." He moved to put a reassuring hand on Torsten's shoulder. "Your mother, and my friends, would not want their deaths and our following the rites of burial to be the reason the rest of us perish."

The youth shook the hand violently, and scrabbled to grab his discarded blaster. Bulldog was faster, managing to close the distance and kick the blaster farther away. Before Torsten could react, Bulldog smacked him across the side of his face with the hilt of his blaster.

Stunned, the youth lay on his back and cradled his smarting face, looking back up to Bulldog with real venom and malice. His eyes were narrowed, and his mouth was locked in a snarl. He got his feet under him in clear preparation to spring forward. Before he could lunge, a blue stunbolt washed over him, knocking him back in a cloud of dust and incapacitating him fully.

Bulldog spun back around with his blaster ready out of reflex, but relaxed the moment he saw the elder Zabrak holding his blaster on the motionless youth. He holstered his weapon and nodded in thanks.

"Let us carry our fallen so their infinite exile falls upon our heads, not yours."

Bulldog shook his head. "It is my fault they died, and my fault your burial customs cannot be followed. Their eternal damnation should fall upon my head."

The Zabrak slung his blaster and shook his head adamantly. "No, the responsibility for their deaths falls upon their," he jerked a thumb back toward the Imperial corpses," heads. Let us be the ones to shoulder this responsibility."

Before Bulldog could think of another argument, Tarla and Torsten were picked up gingerly by nearby Zabraks, and shortly after the other two fallen allies were picked up with similar care.

They cleared the area, and Blue went to work with the guns of the Juggernaut, methodically destroying the other vehicles. After that task was done, she and Bearcat rushed out of the tank and stopped a safe distance away. All stopped to look at the Juggernaut, and still flinched when the explosive device went off despite their preparation and expectation of the conflagration.

Bulldog surveyed the smoking scene one last time, nodding at the thoroughness of their ambush. The pride of a job well done was quickly squashed as his gaze fell upon the sullen Zabrak allies as they all broke their cardinal burial rule in moving their fallen friends from where they died.

Because of a plan he'd created, and a fight he'd pulled them into.


CRS Vigilant Pilot Bunk

Bakk "Wildcard" J'ruce sat on the edge of his bunk on the CRS Vigilant, trying to comprehend what he was seeing. Moments prior, a contact of his had sent him a holonet link on an encrypted channel, adding the following words: You need to see this.

Needless to say, he was worried as to what he might find, and the result far exceeded those anxieties. The site was barebones in terms of design, but contained rows upon rows of video footage; there were hundreds of uploads already. In the first post, Wildcard watched from a high apartment balcony as stormtrooper squads kettled rioting crowds. The few who managed to slip past the line were beaten mercilessly and dragged off, eliciting gasps from those behind the camera in the safety of their home.

Another entry showed a low-down view from a refugee waiting in line at a security checkpoint. At the head of the crowd was a Twi'lek being questioned angrily by the security officer in charge. Spittle flew like shrapnel as he screamed, demanding to know why the man had dared to pack a toothbrush, which could so easily be fashioned into a shiv. Deeming this a clear and justifiable cause for arrest, the man was taken under each arm by two troopers, and dragged out of sight. This caused the crowd to erupt into chaos. Hordes of angry, sick, and injured refugees charged forward with what little strength remained. The video cut off as the crack of blasterfire began.

Wildcard was sickened. In some ways, the footage reminded him of Kessel. Swathes of beaten-down people doing their best to oppose oppression the only way that seemed to work: violence. After all, pain was the only way some people learned. Somebody out there understood this better than anyone, clearly. Several videos showed massacred Imperial checkpoints; stormtrooper corpses piled together to indicate to refugees that they had found even a small area that did not belong to the Empire. The attacks had one thing in common, besides their brutal nature: they were all being attributed to somebody named 'The Spectre of Toseng'. He opened yet another, disgusted yet still compelled to know exactly what was going on.

The scene began as a camera panned across an absolute bloodbath of epic proportions compared to other videos. A convoy of blown-out husks that used to be a Juggernaut and several heavy cargo lifters filled the scene, with ample bodies of stormtroopers littered about the area. There was nary a non-Imperial corpse to be found on the screen.

"Here at the site of yet another Imperial bloodbath at the hands of the elusive Spectre of Toseng," a woman's voice said behind the camera, a quiet sadness in her artificially distorted tone as she told the galaxy about the devastation of her home. "These attacks hold a certain military precision we haven't seen in other uprisings across the planet, causing many to wonder if an organised rebellion may be at work here. Whoever they are, we can only hope they restore freedom to the people of Toseng."

The camera panned off in the distance, and then once again hurried to show the devastation throughout the wreckage of the scene. "Looks like I need to sign off for now before the Imperials arrive. May the Force be with us all."

To be continued...