Sunday, November 18, 2007

Chapter Eleven

Scarp knelt by his fallen brother, one hand cradling Pel’s head, his other hand gripping the bars of the wookiee cage for support as the ship roiled first one way and then the other. One of the captives, a light gray, his fur clumped in red patches around his legs, hooted softly. Scarp looked up into the mighty creature’s blue eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t speak shyriiwook, my friend, but I understand your concern,” he turned his attention back to Pel, feeling a growing lump on the back of his head, “but my brother needs attention. We will return to release you shortly.” With that Scarp hoisted his limp brother over his shoulder, as easily as a child would gather up her doll, and carried him out of the holding cell.

The cramped flight deck of The Matted Pelt was stuffed beyond its capacity, and Calz’s troopers found themselves weaving through battle droids and an angry twi’lek to maintain their stations.
Lig watched, absorbing everything, as the clones went to work. Virus and Rev were already on their way to the med-bay with Rece, Carud fluttered over the nav-console like a geonosian scatter-gnat, and Peko and Digger monitored the scanners. To their credit, the two droid bouncers squeezed themselves into gaps between the panel housings and tried to look inconspicuous, but the same couldn’t be said for Preela. The green-skinned captain was beside herself with fury and it took all of Saach’s strength to hold her in place against the back of an unoccupied bucket seat.
“My ship!” she screamed at no one in particular, wriggling against Saach’s bonds.
Calz strode past her to join Peko and Digger, tilting his head at her slightly as he passed, “Our gunship was still stowed in the Rancor, Preela, you’re not the only one to lose their ride.”
“That ship was my life, you son of a solution, and now I’m an accomplice. The Republic will hunt me down.”
“You can have this one when we’re done with it, now pipe down before I make you.”
“Try to make me you damn tuber! I’ll…” Preela didn’t finish her sentence as, for the second time in an hour, a blow to the back of the head subdued her. Calz nodded to the tusken.
“Thanks. Get her out of here would you?”
Wordlessly, the tusken female dragged her captain off the flight deck, and the clone sergeant looked directly at Lig and the other two younglings. “Am I going to have any more trouble?”
Lig shook her head, and Soolad blinked his big eyes. Jan’storr met his gaze, and spoke with more maturity than Lig had ever heard from her before. “Do your job, Sarge, you won’t get any interference from us.”
Calz almost grinned, and then joined his men, clasping a hand over each of their shoulders.

Lig twisted her head, which was a challenge against the confines of the straps holding her down, and looked at Jan’storr. She probed with her mind, but was met by nothing but a gray haze. Since when had Jan’storr learned to block her thoughts?
“Jan’storr?” she began, but a terse look from the nautolan severed the line of communication between them. Somewhat shaken, Lig turned her attention back to the troopers, and could at least still detect their emotions. She didn’t like what she felt.

“Run that by me again?” Calz peered at the screens that Peko and Digger were poring over.
“Six plasma-tips, incoming,” answered Peko, “and a full wing of ARCs.”
Digger frantically punched up his data. “The ARCs are in attack formation ‘Nexu Claw’, ETA three minutes, the missiles are… are going to miss us by several marks. Whoever the gunner is on that destroyer is a lousy shot.”
“They’re not for us!” Calz yelled, turning to his pilot, “Smoke, put some space between us and Maltor!”
“Way ahead of you, boss,” answered Carud, coolly, “we’ll be out of blast range in a couple of seconds, but getting this hyperdrive up to speed ain’t a walk on Naboo. Those fighters are going to be on us before we can jump.”
“Then we’ll have to hold them off until you can.” Calz was already walking to the back of the deck as he spoke. “Peko, what are we packing?”
Peko brought up the ship schematics and a quick glance told him everything. “This can’s built for trouble, we’ve got four blister turrets, one dorsal, one front and one on each pec-plate. We got a comp-beam mounted in the rear and enough rockets to start our own war. Everything’s charged, and ready for some serious aggravation.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Calz flicked on the ship’s comms and swiftly barked out his orders,” I want every trooper who isn’t unconscious or flying this wreck to get to a turret, and maintain com-link contact – we’ve got blue flies!” The sergeant then stormed out of the cabin, closely followed by Peko and Digger. Carud craned his head back and addressed the younglings, “Sit tight, little jedi, we’ll ride this one out.”
Lig looked over at Peko’s abandoned station and watched, as a mass of glowing red dots on one circular screen grew larger and larger.

The ugnaught Glak turned away from the Drop’s sensors, his beady eyes as wide as they would stretch. “Maltor! We got incomings!”
Maltor struggled with an array of creaking levers as he snapped back at his second in command, “Tell ‘em were closed for the evening! I got more pressing problems!”
“They ain’t ships…”
“Deal with ‘em, Glak! Can’t you see I’m trying to get my station upright?”
Glak squealed a short resignation, and then reached for a bottle of zabraki brandy, “Always wanted to try this stuff…” he snuffled. He popped the cork and drained the amber liquid in one.
Maltor grunted angrily, “That stuff costs five thousand a case! That’s coming outta your…” his high-pitched whine broke off when he finally noticed Glak’s sensor readings. A series of digits sped towards a row of zeros. Behind him, a trandoshan stirred. Maltor suddenly recalled one perfect day, lounging in the mud baths on the high beach of Umgul, and then his world turned to light and heat.

Delnan Jja’s observation window threw up its automatic filters as the refueling station blossomed in a blinding flash, it’s fiery petals stretching out momentarily and then disappearing in the vacuum. A million tiny pieces of metal twinkled in the light, and then were gone, drifting on their own paths to new destinations. Jja watched, impassively, and then spoke into his com-link. “Status report, Commander.”
“Our fighters have engaged the renegades, sir.”
“Good. Bring us about. I wish to witness their demise for myself.” Jja flexed his neck, cracking the small bones at the base of his skull, and smiled as he returned to his desk.

Scarp felt his brother’s forehead, and could sense the shades of his injury lifting. Beside him, Saach tended to Preela, sponging cool gel onto the crown of her captain’s lekku. On the far table Rece lay still, his breathing slow, his vital signs fluctuating. Virus and Rev had left moments earlier, pulled out by the sergeant, and now the trooper needed care. Scarp reached out with his mind, to the only other healer he knew.

The flight deck of the Matted Pelt was strangely quiet now. Carud worked silently, twisting the controls as if he were trying to pry them loose while simultaneously prepping the rocket launchers. The two droids had decided to stay in their alcove, and both had folded down to crash positions. Lig, Soolad and Jan’storr sat quietly gripping the edges of their seats. Suddenly Lig snapped her head to the side, “Master Hed’n needs me.” She popped the release on her straps and jumped down to the deck, scurrying to the exit.
“I’m not staying here!” proclaimed Soolad, undoing his own restraints and chasing after her. Jan’storr watched him leave, and then turned her attention back to the screens. If the blue shape in the middle of the display was their ship, and the red dots were the ARC-170 fighters, then they were surrounded.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Chapter Ten

“Peko! You wanna tell me how much time we’ve got?” The sergeant’s voice blasted out of the comlink as Peko desperately made multiple calculations using the Pelt’s scanners. The controls were positioned for the wide-spaced claws of the ship’s previous owners, and he had to use two hands instead of one for even the most simple button configurations. He grimaced and shouted back, “’bout ninety seconds, Sarge!”
“Stay there,” answered his sergeant, “we’ll be with you in thirty!” The line cut to static.
Digger trotted onto the flight deck, followed by Scarp, Pel and the younglings. “Sarge does know there’s a piece of moon rock coming at us?”
“He knows,” Peko reached over to transfer the rock’s image to the central view screen, “we ready to fly, Smoke?” ‘Smoke’ Carud busied himself with a final systems check, nothing in his disposition suggesting their doomed situation. “One hundred percent.”
“What can we do?” boomed Scarp, his face dark as thunder. Digger slapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “Unless you folks can turn it around, we hold tight, wait for the Sarge and then race the rock.”

The body language of the jedi and their younglings was the polar opposite of the three troopers. Where Scarp and Pel paced, and the three children held each other, wide-eyed and frightened, the three troopers were the picture of calm inevitability. Digger looked at his brothers and, despite their outward appearance, he could detect stiffness in their movements.
Some said clone troopers were bred to die. Some said it, but not the clones.

Calz and his gang of brawlers watched as the lounge emptied in the flash of an eye. The ithorians, the dugs, the shadowy humanoids, all ran to separate doors leading from the central area, back to the docking arms that held their sanctuaries in place. Maltor was wailing now, a high-pitched squeal that threatened to burst every eardrum in the room, until Preela slapped him to his senses. “Quit screaming, hog,” she yelled over the noise of the alarms, “get us out of the way of that rock!”
Glak scurried forward, screeching as loudly as his companion. “It takes five minutes to get the thrusters up to strength, this ain’t no skipray you can dance around in, lady!”
“We have one minute,” barked Calz, turning to his men, “even if we did get our ships, the blast from this station would take us out before we had flown a meter. Suggestions.”
Rev looked at the ugnaughts, “Armaments?”
“Nothing powerful enough to stop a projectile of that size,” wailed Maltor.
“Damage limitation?” The suggestion had come from Virus, and Calz smiled. Trust a medic to come up with that thought. “How do we limit the damage, Virus? This station is unshielded.” “Put something in the way, Sarge.” Calz inhaled sharply through his teeth and turned to Glak. “How long to power up the rotational thrusters?” The ugnaught caught on quickly, and made his way to a control panel behind the circular bar, “They’re powered up already, Maltor likes to rotate to keep the sun out of his office window.”
“Give them full power, put something between us and the rock!” shouted the clone sergeant, springing over the bar counter to watch the monitors with the stumpy aliens. He looked at Preela and Saach, “Go with Virus and Rev, get to the Pelt and ready yourselves.” He looked at Rece, “Rece, contact the ithorians, tell them to get off their tug.”
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Preela began. Calz looked at Saach, who promptly scooped her twi’lek captain up and carried her, screaming obscenities, towards the Pelt’s docking arm. “I’m glad one of you has got some sense,” muttered Calz as he watched Virus and Rev run after them.

“You feel that?” Soolad was frantic now, and squeaking with every shudder and bounce from the trandoshan ship.
Carud tilted his head back, “They’re turning the station, putting it between us and the rock,” he glanced at a monitor and then added, “all the same, it’s gonna hit big. I suggest you strap yourselves down, tight.”
“We’re on it,” answered Pel, as he and Scarp planted the children into the oversized bucket seats of the slavers, pulling the restraining straps tightly across them. Jan’storr sullenly looked at the thick, leathery straps as Scarp tightened them across her lap. “Why don’t we just blast off?” “Quiet, youngling,” hissed Scarp, but Peko had heard her.
“No one is left behind, especially not the Sarge,” said the scout trooper, no anger in his voice, but firmly enough for his point to be well taken.
Digger suddenly looked to the rear of the cabin. “We need to warn the wookiees.”
“They’re not off ship yet?” moaned Peko, “what the hell have you been doing back there?”
“If you’d ever tried to fusion cut a trando cage, you’d know why, Peko. Without the codes they’re stuck in there for more time than we’ve got.”
“I’ll tell them,” shouted Pel, jogging to the rear door, “how long have I got?”
Carud looked at his display, then answered grimly, “’bout twelve seconds.”

Calz shouted into his comlink while Maltor and his crew scurried around his feet like headless nunas. “What do you mean, they won’t leave?”
Rece’s voice blasted back, equally agitated, “Captain Kal said no self-respecting tug captain ever abandons his haul!”
“He’s dead then.” Calz uttered this statement matter-of-factly, his soldier’s experience telling him when to give up on a lost cause, especially when time was pressing. He knew that Rece was in the tug’s docking arm; he couldn’t make it to the Pelt without passing through the lounge first. “Get back in here, Rece. Find something to hang onto!”
“See you in a few seconds, Sarge!”

Suddenly a commotion in the doorway behind him forced Calz to look away from the monitors, all of which showed a steadily growing hunk of moon rock. His faced dropped as the two security droids barreled in, followed by Preela, Saach, Rev and Virus.
“What in the name of Mustafar’s – “ he began to shout.
“Sorry, Sarge,” yelled Virus, skidding to halt and flinging himself under a card table, wrapping his arms and legs around the central support strut, “but we got a third of the way along the arm, and realized we weren’t going to make it,” he looked at Preela who was being subdued by the tusken female beneath a couch, “plus, she’s pretty persuasive.”

Calz watched, fuming, as Rev flung himself under another table and the two droids folded up into compact, shockproof cubes. A tug at his pant leg made him look down, and he saw Maltor, Glak and three other ugnaughts twisting themselves into the liquor hoses. Glak was the one with his hand on Calz’s pants. “You better strap in, trooper!”
Calz took a last look at the monitors, which showed nothing but white craters and dust, and flung himself to the ground, covering his head with his arms.

From his forward cabin hanging beneath the bridge of The Dogged, Delnan Jja watched as the seismically hurled moon shard neared the end of its grim journey. “Why haven’t they abandoned the station, Camm?”
“They know that would be pointless, sir,” replied the clone commander behind him, “they’re trying to ride it out.”
“Ride it out?” spat Jja, incredulation raising his voice a full octave, “they’ve rolled over and died!”
“They’re definitely rolling, sir,” murmured Camm, “that tug wasn’t there before.”
Jja’s huge, crimson eyes grew even wider as he watched the ice hauler rotate into view, just as the rock hit.

Captain Kal and his loyal ithorian crew were killed instantly as the moon rock slammed into the flank of the Wind in the Leaves, crumpling the colossal ship like a paper cone. The force of the impact rammed the tug back onto its docking arm, which folded up in a shower of plasteel and metal, gouging into the side of the station. As the ithorian ship ruptured from within, a series of massive explosions tore through what was left of its hull, destroying several ships on either side including the Sulking Rancor and the ugnaughts’ shuttles, and spinning their twisted carcasses off into space.
The remnants of the moon rock continued on their slow path, striking the lower stabilizers of the station and tilting it almost horizontally. The remaining, unscathed ships resting on the opposite side from the impact threatened to tear from their docking arms, but then several fire balls reached the tug’s cargo, vaporizing the ice crystals instantly, and expelling huge jets of scalding steam away from the station, which slowly righted Maltor’s Drop like a super balancing thruster. As the initial impact dissipated through the body of the station the shockwaves vibrated the ancient structure, causing one of the solar panels to break loose and float away with the rest of the debris. It spun languidly, reflecting the carnage below like a cheap holo-vid screen.

On the flight deck of the Matted Pelt, violet emergency lights winked on and off as the engines whined and sections of the hull creaked alarmingly. Peko shook his head, trying to dislodge the dull ache that had settled there after he had been thrown to the floor. He looked up and saw Carud checking his instruments as if nothing had happened. The pilot cocked his head back as Peko rose, and spoke calmly and slowly.
“Hey, Peko. Tell the Sarge that now would be a good time to leave.”
Peko let fly with a short laugh, and thumbed on his comlink. “Sarge.” There was no reply. “Sarge?” he repeated more urgently, watching as the huge jedi and his younglings unruffled their robes. Scarp suddenly snapped his head to the rear of the cabin. “Pel’s in trouble!” he roared, and he took off in the same breath. Peko turned to the younglings who were looking at each other anxiously.
“Stay there!” he barked, before returning to the comlink, “Sarge!”

Sergeant Calz slowly unwound from the tangled mess of hoses and pipes that held him secure beneath the bar counter and looked at the chaos around him. The ugnaughts were already on their feet, grunting and squealing as they cursed their luck and trying to bring the fueling station back under their control. Both Maltor and Glak were hanging from the thruster controls, working simultaneously to minimize the threat of leakage. Calz stood and peered over at Virus and Rev, who both signed that they were ok. He then turned his attention to the booth couches where Saach was slowly unraveling, dragging a stunned Preela up by her lekku.
Calz looked to the rear of the lounge and was shocked to see that the entire back rotunda had been caved in by the impact, as if a krayt dragon had been ramming the walls from the other side. He searched for the door that led to the tug’s docking arm and saw that it was folded in two, ready to collapse at any second. His thoughts turned to Rece and he ran over to the stressed metal, ignoring the ominous groans as the structure continued to buckle.

Before he had reached the collapsing wall, he saw the armored legs of his trooper sticking out from behind a pile of loose stools, and ploughed into the wreckage, pulling Rece clear. The clone looked the worse for wear, his eyelids fluttered and blood seeped from his left ear, pooling in the shallows where his chest plate met his neck. Calz pressed two fingers to Rece’s neck and felt for a pulse; it was slow, but steady. Slinging the injured man over his shoulder, he jogged to the opposite side of the lounge, collecting his entourage along the way.
“Want me to take a look at him?” volunteered Virus as he saw Rece’s limp form.
“Back on the Pelt,” answered Calz. He turned to his strong man, “Rev, scoop up any other survivors and bring them along, we’re leaving.”
“What about them?” Rev nodded his head toward the still sleeping trandoshans who were now tangled in a scaly knot under the bar.
“They can stay there, we don’t need slavers on board.”

Saach was already at the docking bay door. She opened a side panel and twisted the manual opening lever, all the time holding tightly onto Preela. The twi’lek was starting to come around, and she groggily looked up as her first mate carried through towards the Pelt.
“We going back to the Rancor?”

As the tusken disappeared into the darkened hallway, the two battle droids straightened themselves out and looked around. Bolts assessed the situation quickly.
“In what?” answered Slim, surveying the destruction before him, listening to the sound of ships surrounding the station as they blew apart or tore free from the structure.
“In their ship,” replied Bolts, heading after Saach and Preela, “it’s every droid for himself.”

Calz watched the two droids take off after Saach and Preela and shook his head, then turned to Virus. “Give me hand with Rece.”
As Virus ducked under Rece’s other arm and began helping Calz carry him to the docking arm, the sergeant turned back to Rev, “Don’t be long.”
“I don’t intend to,” growled Rev as he scoured the remaining booths. Nothing else seemed to be moving in the lounge save the frantic ugnaughts. He trotted over to them and leant over the bar. “Time to go, boys.”
“Save yourself, bonehead,” shouted Maltor as he struggled with a writhing lead that shot sparks all over the ale-stained floor, “we didn’t salvage this station just to see a rock finish her off! The galaxy needs us!”
Rev shrugged, content that he had made an effort, and ran after his departing sergeant as the ugnaughts continued their struggle to bring the station back under control.

Rev caught up with the others as they neared the end of the docking arm. He could see Digger helping Saach and Preela through the airlock hatch, and then grinned as Digger balked at the sight of Slim and Bolts.
“Stand down, they’re with us now!” yelled Calz as he and Virus dragged the ailing Rece onto the slaver ship. Digger grimaced as the droids stepped through, followed by Rev, who patted him on the shoulder and laughed, “It’s been a funny old day, eh Digger?”

The airlock door slammed shut and hissed as the seals took effect, and then seconds later the Matted Pelt peeled away from the arm of the crippled fueling station.

Delnan Jja scowled as he watched the trandoshan craft spiral away from the catastrophic mess that had once been Maltor’s Drop.
“Commander Camm.”
“Yes, sir?” came the reliable voice from behind him.
“Launch the 170’s, blow them out of the air.”
“Yes, sir.”
“And destroy that station.”
“Are you suddenly deaf, trooper? I want a full spread of missiles - target the main fuel tanks, they are now collaborators and will be punished.”
The lack of a response made Jja spin on his heels to glare at his commander.
“You have your orders!”
Commander Camm looked at him for one second longer, his true feelings barely masked by the helmet he wore, then he snapped off a sharp salute, “Yes, sir!”
He wheeled around and marched from the cabin.
Jja watched him leave, a sneer splitting his face.
When all this was over, some examples would have to be made.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter Nine

Carud eased back on the light speed controls in tandem with Saach, and acknowledged the tusken’s timing with a curt nod. The mysterious nomad returned the gesture, and craned over to flick several switches that would send coolant pumping around the Rancor’s tired engines.

Preela stood next to Calz and gazed out of the view port as the stars assumed their regular configurations, and gasped when she saw the station ahead. Calz cocked an eyebrow and spoke, keeping his eyes on the vista before him. “Problem?”
Preela shook her head and sucked air loudly between her teeth. “That Maltor’s a stubborn little hog. I’ve told him a thousand times to cast off and find a safer place to lurk, but no, he has to sit at the intersection of twelve trade lanes.”
“Sounds like good business savvy to me,” piped in Rece from the rear of the cabin.
“Sure,” spat Preela, “if you don’t mind being moored next to a moon that could collapse at any second.”
Rece moved to the front of the deck, along with Digger and Peko, and all three clones gazed at the crumbling satellite looming just beyond the fueling station. As they watched, several small plumes rose from its surface, catching the light of two rose-hued suns, and shimmering rock particles spun off into the inky gloom.
“I see your point,” replied Rece, and he grimaced as he returned to his chair. Digger stepped to one side until he was directly behind his sergeant and the twi’lek. “How long do we need to be here?”
Calz smiled. “As long as it takes for you and Smoke to find a decent ship, load her up, and get her prepped.”
“We can be pretty quick,” answered Digger, returning the smile ruefully.
Calz turned to Peko. “Trooper, get back to your screen, tell me what you can see.”
“Yes, sir.”

Peko sat down at a bank of yellowing monitors and watched a collection of blue gray images as they flickered on the tiny screens. He punched a row of buttons and the image sizes increased. “I’m patching this through to the forward monitor, take a look, Sarge.”
As Calz and the others turned to look, an image appeared on a flat screen above Carud’s pilot seat. The image was holographic, but not fully three dimensional, reminding Calz of the relief sculptures he had once seen when Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had sent his squad off with a morale-boosting holo-vid. Palpatine; once his leader - now the enemy.
For as long as he pondered his leader’s command, Calz thought he would never fully understand the rationale behind Order 66.

The holo-relief showed Maltor’s Drop rotating slowly, the edges of the image refreshing every second. The fueling station certainly lacked any aesthetic design. Essentially a long rusty cylinder, with a smaller cylinder jutting from the bottom in the same direction, the station carried a compliment of top mounted solar panels and a collection of docking arms spread out around the smaller cylinder’s base like the splayed legs of a squashed spider. Safety lights winked on and off at both ends, and a central band of cabin lights near the docking arms suggested the location of the ‘lounge’. One could only assume that the remaining nine tenths of the shape was full of fuel. Vine-like fueling hoses snaked along the arms, and as the image rotated, several ships could be plainly seen.

“Pretty,” offered Peko.
“Pretty dangerous,” added Calz. He turned to Preela. “Know any of these ships?” The twi’lek captain studied the image closely as it shimmered and turned, then stabbed her finger at two small craft.
“These are Maltor’s shuttles, no good for you, too small, no light speed capabilities.”
The rear door hissed as it slid open, and the Hed’n brothers entered the deck, followed by Virus and Rev. The cabin was starting to feel a lot smaller, especially when Scarp squeezed himself closer to the monitor.
“We have an alternate transport?” he asked.
“Not yet,” answered Calz, barely acknowledging his presence.
Preela gestured to a large ship that was coming into view. “That’s Kal Morr’s tug. Light speed capabilities, big enough for your boys.”
“Armaments?” asked Calz.
“None as far as I know. He’s probably got a couple of cannons hidden on that fat old nose, but that’s about it. Nobody attacks an ice hauler these days.”
“Ice hauler?” said Pel.
“Yeah. He probably picked up the chunks in the Dewback Ring, off Nelmax VI. He’ll be delivering them to Kiffex, to replenish the central reservoir.”
“Back to where we just came from,” mused Scarp.
“It’s too big,” cut in Calz, “we need something with more maneuverability, something like this,” he stabbed his finger at the next ship to appear as the station rotated.

The newer ship was a third of the size of the ice tug, sleek like a smoothed off wedge, and studded with blaster-housing blisters. Black, tapered stripes decorated its entire hull, and the nose cone sported an elaborate grille, which looked like a row of steely fangs.
“Lop off my lekku!” exclaimed Preela, “The Pelt!”
Beside Carud, Saach pushed back her seat and slammed her wrapped fists on the console.
Scarp looked at the tusken, then at his brother. Judging by Pel’s face, he too had felt the force tremor during Saach’s reaction.
Calz peered more closely at the ship as it stuttered across the holo-image, then at Preela.
“Want to tell me about it?”
Preela screwed her face up in disgust as she studied the vessel. “It’s The Matted Pelt, a slaver ship. We’ve run into them before, trandoshan scum, scuppered my last ship, and stripped my cargo. We’ve got a score to settle.”
Saach already had her weapon in her hands, and was turning it over and over, catching the console lights on its prongs.
“Perfect,” grinned Calz, “Smoke, you can fly that thing?”
“Sure, if it’s got engines and a chair, its mine.”
Calz rested his hand on Preela’s arm, noting how she responded by drawing herself imperceptibly closer. “Captain, what’s the crew compliment?”
“Six, I think. Two crew, four hunters.”
Calz turned to face Peko. “Scan that ship.”
Peko ran his hands over the instruments and studied the readouts. “No cold-blooded readings, Sarge, several warm ones though.”
“So,” murmured Calz, “the lizards are in the lounge getting tanked up, and their captives are still on board.” He stepped back from the screen and walked over to Rev, giving the stocky trooper a friendly rap on the chin. “Fighting fit, Rev?”
Rev smiled, and the muscles in his neck popped out like tree bark, “Ready to cause a distraction, Sarge.”
Calz smiled and turned to the rest of the company. “Ok, here’s how it goes down. We dock, Digger and Smoke secure the Pelt, the Jedi and their kids will help with the transfer of supplies. Peko, stay here and monitor the area, I don’t want Jja sneaking up on us, the rest of us will go have a quiet drink.”
“I could use a quiet drink!” whined Peko, glumly.
“You’ll get one later,” replied his sergeant, “all set? Smoke, take us in.”

Delnan Jja sat calmly behind his desk and stared at the half dozen troopers before him.
“Commander Camm, I trust our presence here remains undetected?”
The commander nodded. “The atmospherics from the moon decay are still masking our signature, other than a direct visual, the Rancor would have no way of detecting us.”
“Excellent,” smirked the gray skinned alien, “I have three simple requests. I want a spread of proton torpedoes aimed at the moon’s fault line, I want a seismic charge launched at the same location on my command, and I want a wing of ARC-170s prepped and ready for launch.”
“Yes, sir.”
The commander whirled around and led his group out to carry out their orders as Jja watched them leave, his smile ever widening.

The Sulking Rancor rotated in tandem with each languid turn of the station, its underbelly firmly clamped to one of the docking arms. The teams had already split up, Carud and Digger making their way across the annex connector to The Matted Pelt, the Jedi and their wards using their powers to move crates and barrels with ease under Peko’s guidance, and Preela and Saach leading Calz and his remaining squad into the outer ring of the social quarters. As Preela’s group stepped through a third airlock, an elderly ugnaught scurried up, waving his arms furiously.
“Check your weapons!” he barked in crude basic.
“Keep your apron on, Glak,” retorted Preela, smiling, “we’re just here for a drink.”
Glak peered at the twi’lek, then held a pair of looking glasses to his face. “Captain Preela? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I’ve been busy.”
Glak shifted his gaze away from Preela and gave the troopers the once over. “Busy with a bunch of clones?”
“Just buying them a drink.”
The ugnaught snorted and watched them as they tossed their blasters and vibro-blades into a tray on the counter.
“You know Tassk and his boys are in here, don’t you?”
Preela smiled. “Oh, really?”
“There gonna be trouble?”
“I won’t lie to you Glak, yes, I anticipate a great deal of trouble.”
The ugnaught snuffled with glee and rubbed his hands together, “Excellent! Wagers have been a bit thin on the ground lately. Excuse me.”
Glak scurried off to a side door and slipped through, cackling all the way.

As Calz placed his weapons in the tray, he couldn’t help noticing several wicked-looking blades of trandoshan design nestled against the far wall. “Rev, are you fully disarmed?”
“If you don’t count vibro-knuckles, sure, Sarge.”
Calz slapped the stocky trooper on the back and gestured with his other hand to Preela, “Lead on, Captain.”

Preela stepped up to the main door and pressed her hand to the entry pad. The door slid open, and two battle droids stepped out, brandishing stun batons. Instantly the clones fell back, adopting defensive stances and Rev launched himself at the weapon tray.
“Hold it!” yelled Preela, putting herself between the droids and the clones, “they’re just the bouncers!”
One of the droids jerked its curved head to look at Rev, and then spoke in the grating, warbling tone of the machines, “What’s his problem?”
Preela reached out and put her hand on the droid’s outstretched hand, lowering the baton, “Take it easy, Slim, these boys are just a bit edgy is all,” she turned to Calz and his men and her lekku twitched against their restraints as she spoke, “stand down, Sarge. This here is Slim, the ugly one there,” she pointed at Slim’s rustier partner, “is Bolts. Maltor salvaged them a couple of years back, reprogrammed them. Now they answer to him.”
“We don’t answer to no-one, lady,” piped in Bolts, lowering his own baton, “we do this for fun.”
“Hell of a reprogramming job,” murmured Rece, “what vocab-chip did they use, gamorrean?”
“Watch your mouth, wetboy,” replied Slim, “or we’ll be showing you the back door, and there ain’t no airlock connected to that one.”
“Easy lads,” laughed Preela, “I’m sure the trooper didn’t mean it. Say sorry, Rece.”
Rece spluttered and turned red. “Apologize to a droid? Sarge?”
“Just do it,” replied Calz, “we’re pressed for time.”
“Sorry,” Rece spat, his eyes planted on the floor.
“No problem, wetboy, have a nice drink,” laughed Bolts, stepping aside so that the party could pass into the lounge. Calz noted each of his men stiffen as they passed between the battle droids, there was a lot of tension in the air, and there was only one way to release the pressure.

As Calz’s eyes adjusted to the gloom he took in the layout of the lounge. The room was circular, with a central rotunda from which drinks were served, fuel was bartered over and the station’s controls were monitored, all by a team of lethargic ugnaughts. Scattered around this central area were a selection of chairs, cushions and tables, all adaptable for any species, and mostly occupied. Closest to the rotunda, a group of dugs drank noisily from metal bowls, smacking their lips as they plundered the rubbery worms writhing at the bottom of their drinks. A trio of ithorians sat facing each other at another table, hooting softly and snacking on long, violet beans. Other humanoids lurked in the deeper recesses of the chamber, and along one edge of the bar, five trandoshans cradled their drinks, speaking to no one and hissing with each breath. Preela strode past the ithorians, tapping one on the shoulder. “Ice hauling paying for ya, Kal?”
The huge hammer-headed tug captain shrugged and hurumphed.
“I hear you,” Preela smiled, her grin quickly vanishing when she saw the trandoshans, “Tassk.”
At the sound of his name, the central lizard of the slaver group turned his crimson head and stared at her, his eyes narrowing as he recognized her. “The sssulking captain! You bring me more sssuppliesss?”
“Stow it, lizard,” snarled Preela, “you’ll be paying me for that ale soon enough.”
Tassk turned fully in his chair and eyed the clones standing next to her. He cast one wary eye over at Saach, and then back to Preela. As he spoke, the rest of his group slowly rotated on their stools until they all faced her.
“Bringing sssoldiersss to the Drop, wormhead?”
Rece stepped forward, his blood still boiling. “Show the lady some respect, slaver!”
Tassk held out his claws in mock surrender, “Peaccce my friend. We all work for the sssame ssside now.”
“What are you talking about?” growled Calz, stepping closer, and noting that Rev had moved to the side of the bar.
“Why, the Galactic Empire of courssse,” smirked Tassk, rising to his scaly feet and lowering his gaze to meet the sergeant’s, “Corussscant isss paying extremely well for wookieesss thessse daysss.”
“Too bad we cannot ssskin them anymore,” added an orange plated lizard to his left, “but they are worth more to usss in one piece.”

Suddenly a rotund ugnaught scuttled over to the face-off and planted himself squarely in the center. Preela grinned when she saw him. “Hello, Maltor.”
The ugnaught looked at her, angrily, “You wanna tell me why Glak is going around collecting bets?”
“What are the odds?” replied Preela.
“Two to one against.”
“Againssst what?” hissed Tassk, and it was at that moment that Rev decided to charge.

Marev, formally CT – 03471, barreled into the two closest trandoshans with his head tucked down and his considerable shoulders thrust forward. Before they knew what hit them, the two slavers were thrown from their stools and hit the floor hard. Tassk turned, his claws raised to fend off the rampaging clone, but Calz was upon him, knocking both of the trandoshan’s arms back down with his left arm before swinging his right fist to land squarely in Tassk’s face. At the same time, Preela had dropped to the floor, sweeping her legs around in a low slice to knock the slaver leader off his feet while Rece targeted the orange lizard, hitting him hard and fast in the gut to force him to double over, then connecting with the lizard’s snout with his own forehead. The sickening crunch and sudden limpness of ‘orange’ drew a cheer from the humans in the shadows, and Galk grumbled as he began to make his payments.
The fifth trandoshan had thus far managed to avoid contact, and wrenched his bar stool from its moorings to brandish as a club.
“No weapons!” yelled Slim and Bolts in unison as they began to edge towards the melee with their stun batons raised.
The lizard looked at them for a split second, and that was enough time for Saach to leap at him, an impossibly high leap Calz would recall later, bouncing off his shoulder to land on the bar behind him. The lizard swung the stool wildly, shattering bottles and bowls, but missing the tusken by a mile. Saach spun around, one leg out-stretched, and connected with his face, then followed up with a flurry of punches that left the lizard unconscious before he hit the floor.

Virus watched, ready to assist should anyone need it, but his expertise was not required, at least not by his own party. Tassk was down and dazed, and kept that way by Preela’s boot, and Rev was sitting atop the two slavers he had subdued by introducing them to each other, headfirst.
Calz grinned as he pulled Rev up by the forearm. “Looks like you’re feeling better!”
“Top of the world, Sarge,” smiled Rev.

Maltor emerged from behind the bar. He had flung himself over it with an agility that defied his girth.
“That’s it! Clear out, the lot of you!”
“C’mon Maltor,” Preela began.
“Don’t bat those eyelashes at me, greenie,” moaned the ugnaught, “Tassk is going to give me hell when he wakes up.”
“I don’t think so,” replied the twi’lek, “trandoshan pride will send them crawling home without any fuss.”
Calz held his comlink to his mouth and spoke quickly, “Smoke?”
“Prepped and ready, Sarge, the pilot's laying here next to me. Digger found some wookiees in the back, he’s trying to free them as we speak.”
Calz frowned, “Peko, status.”
“Almost there, Sarge. You should see how much these kids can lift!”
“Everything of value on the Pelt is now on the Rancor?”
“You got it, Sarge.”
“Ok, finish it up. We’re leaving,” he turned to the twi’lek, “This is where we say goodbye, Preela.”
Preela reached up and hooked her hand around the back of his neck, drawing him down and kissing him firmly on the lips. “I’ll find you later, Sergeant Calz.”
She gestured to Saach, who gracefully leaped down from the bar, respectfully nodding at Calz as she joined her captain.
Calz returned the gesture, and then turned to Maltor. “I’m going to be leaving some wookiees with you, make sure they are well looked after, and kept away from this scum.”
“Wookiees aren’t cheap to feed, clone.”
Calz drew closer to the ugnaught, “I’m sure you’ll manage,” he said calmly.
The ugnaught swallowed and nodded, and then busied himself with tidying the bar top.

As Calz and his men walked back towards the airlock, the two battle droids parted, their batons holstered.
“Slick moves, wetboy,” rasped Bolts.
Rece looked at it with disdain, “Slicker than you, rusty.”
Preela sat on a stool and watched them go, a twinge of regret tugging at her. Saach seemed to notice this, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll find him, Saach,” Preela whispered.

Suddenly a blaring siren rocked the chamber and Maltor scrambled over to a comm panel.”Report!”
Static filled the air, then an ugnaught voice yelled out, dripping with panic. “The moon! Look at the moon!”
Calz and the Ashes stood in the doorway as Maltor activated a huge observation screen above the bar. It flickered into life, showing first the dorsal tip of the Sulking Rancor, then beyond it a sight that chilled his blood.

A ring of debris ebbed away from the moon’s surface as the remnants of several explosions died down. Suddenly he saw a flash, then a thin, white tail, and a yellow green plasma cloud, indicative of a large seismic charge. A piece of the moon the size of the fueling station took the brunt of the explosion, and steadily grew in size as it plummeted towards them. As one, every face in the lounge turned away from the screen and looked at each other, before Glak’s gravelly voice cut through the silence with the word that was on everyone’s mind.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chapter Eight

Been Urfalla ran down the gleaming white corridor as fast as his little legs could manage, wrapped as they were in his permanently worn, thermal suit. A staggered row of tiny windows, dispersed at twenty-meter intervals above his head height, did nothing to illuminate his path. Instead, his route was highlighted by a string of hastily welded luma-cables, which threw a green glow into the corridor, giving it the appearance of a sickly artery. He paused as he passed a tiny escape hatch, peering through three layers of plexi-glass at the miserable landscape outside. The planet was dead. The barren ground was studded with tiny humps like the protruding seeds of a klef root, and he could just make out the blue glow of the major’s excavation team, flickering from behind one of the larger mounds. Been wished he could be out there, joining the group in their discoveries, but he had more pressing tasks.

Been skidded to a stop at the end of the hallway and jumped slightly to reach the door mechanism, hanging onto it as it slowly lowered, and the door slid open with a shudder. He stepped into the sparse quarters and the door closed behind him.
Been waited for his mother’s reply, but when it was not forthcoming he made his way to the back of the room and passed through a foil curtain. Rudimentary bunks were bolted to three of the small room’s walls, all deserted bar one, and it was here that Been’s mother slumbered, deeply.
“Mum!” he repeated, a little more loudly.
Jula Urfalla stirred, then coughed, and then threw back her thick blanket to reveal her own thermal suit. She stared at the bulkhead ceiling for a moment, and then spoke quietly, without averting her eyes from the white metal and rivets two meters from her face.
“Been, I’m tired, this had better be…”
“It’s waking up!”
Jula turned her head to look at her agitated child.
“What do you mean, ‘It’s waking up’?”
Been hopped back and forth on each foot, his movements equal measures of excitement and cold.
“The thing Major Braxan found,” Been spluttered, “it’s moving! Dr. Solamonn said I should fetch you.”

Dr. Jula Urfalla swung around and dropped from the bunk. She reached onto the lower bed and pulled out her data pad, switching it on, and nearly dropping it when an alarm signal blasted out from its tiny speakers. She stroked a gloved finger over the screen and an endless stream of words written in the graceful, circular text of the Naboo, chattered horizontally across its face, supported by graphs and life-sign readings. She frowned and pocketed the pad, swigged from a cup of dusty liquid that had been sitting on one of the two storage lockers, and then stood open-mouthed in front of her wall mounted travel refresher as it sprayed a cleansing mist over her face and into her mouth, before blasting her dry with a shot of air.
“Come on,” she said to Been, pushing aside the curtain and grabbing her kit belt as they made their way to the cabin door, “tell me the rest of the news on the way. Have you heard from your father yet?”
“Nope, nothing,” murmured Been as he jogged to keep up with his mother who was striding to the other end of The Good Intention at a rate far faster than any eight-year-old boy could maintain.

Several hours had passed and The Sulking Rancor continued to shudder and hum under the strain of sustained hyperspeed. Lig squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to block out the grating rattle of bulkhead plates and ill-fitting bolts all around her, but it was useless, and she opened her eyes as she stretched her arms above her head, yawning away the last remnants of an unsatisfactory meditation.
“Stay seated, padawan,” said a soft voice behind her, “we need to talk.”
Lig craned her neck around to see Pel kneeling, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling slowly.
To her left, Master Scarp was in the same position, and before her Soolad and Janst’orr were attempting to meditate, with the same degree of success as she. The room that their group had chosen for their meditation chamber was the engineer’s office, deep in the belly of the ship, and right next door to the engine housing. Lig suspected the brothers had chosen this location for its remoteness from the front cabins, and the sound from the machinery all around them that would mask their discussions. Lig felt uneasy about this subterfuge. Sergeant Calz and his men were with them now, even the Twi’lek captain and her Tusken first mate seemed to have accepted them, and yet there was still a thin veil of tension onboard.

Lig waited patiently as, one by one, the others drew themselves from their meditative slumbers and stretched themselves awake. Scarp passed around a canteen of a sweet, fresh liquid, and they each drank from it, welcoming the refreshing blast in their mouths, dispelling what Master Pel jokingly referred to as ‘meditation breath’. Janst’orr unclipped her training saber and swung it around her head, limbering up with some basic training moves, the blade still housed in its casing. Soolad wandered the office, pushing small boxes and tools around the floor with a flick from his outstretched fingers. Lig watched them both for a moment, and then settled back on her haunches as the brothers rose to gather some crates and lockers to use for seating. Pel pulled a bag of dried fruit from his belt and placed it on a central crate, then looked at the younglings.
“Padawans, come join us.”
The young force users needed no second encouragement, and soon all five were seated in a tight ring with the bag of food between them. Soolad tore into a strip of Kashyyyki melon as Scarp began to speak.

“Younglings, these are dire times. You recall how Master Pel brought news from the miner’s city of something called Order 66? Since then I have spoken at length with Sergeant Calz and Captain Preela, and they have shed more light on this terrible event. According to the holonet, the Jedi Council attempted a coup of the Republic, and subsequently an order was given for our execution…”
“Why would the council want to take over the Republic?!” blurted out Soolad, showering Pel’s knees with melon seed.
“It didn’t,” replied Scarp gently, “the story is a fabrication, to justify the murder of the Jedi Order by Chancellor Palpatine.”
“But-” began Soolad.
“I know, padawan, there are so many questions, suffice to say the Republic has since been dissolved and reformed into a Galactic Empire, with Palpatine at its head.”
“No longer Supreme Chancellor,” Pel shook his head sadly, “now he is Emperor, another way to say dictator.”
“Why do they want to kill us?” Janst’orr looked at Scarp with her large, amphibious eyes, terror in her tiny voice.
“The Empire fears us, fears what we represent; everyone that we once fought alongside is now our enemy,” Scarp sighed as the younglings leaned in to listen, “our clone brothers who trained with us in the temple grounds, who fought next to my brother and I on Sullust, Rangtor IV and the Bith fields, are merely following the orders of their superiors. That is what they were bred to do, they are soldiers, and obey their commands. Sergeant Calz and his men thought a little differently. They could see what was wrong with the order, and deliberately disobeyed their commanders. Now they are fugitives, along with us. We are brothers once again.”
“I don’t think they all like us, Master Scarp,” said Lig, quietly.
“True, young one, it will take some time for them all to trust us, but for now, we are one group, and we will help these men find the man they seek.”
“Dr. Solamonn?”
“Yes, Lig. These brave soldiers have every right to a normal life, and if this mysterious doctor can grant them this chance, then I have vowed to help them achieve it.”
“As have I,” added Pel.
“But what about the green lady?” spluttered Soolad, swallowing the last of the dried melon flesh.
“Captain Preela has agreed to take us all as far as Maltor’s Drop, a fueling station on the outer rim, and then the Sergeant and his men will find a new vessel to, um, charter.”
“You mean steal,” smirked Janst’orr.
“A matter of semantics, Janst’orr,” replied Scarp, “they are our brothers now, and we will aid them in any way we can, although let me stress, we will not be abandoning the code. Continue with your training younglings, use Master Pel and myself to further your understanding of the Jedi way, the order must be rebuilt, and you are its future.”
Scarp gazed at the faces of his wards, and stopped when he saw a far away look in Lig’s eyes.
“You are troubled, Lig.”
“Yes, Master Scarp. It is the other one, the Tusken female, I think she is-“
“A force user,” interrupted Pel, “yes, Lig, that was very perceptive of you. You are honing your senses quite nicely.”
“A force user?” blathered Soolad, his eyes wide, “you know her?”
“No,” replied Scarp, “Master Pel and I both detected her when we first boarded, since then she has been careful to block her thoughts.”
“I sense none of the dark side in her though,” added Pel, “she has her own reasons for her anonymity. When she is ready, she will reveal herself to us, until that time, treat her with respect, and no probing.”
“Yes, Master.” chorused the three younglings, and the group settled down for the rest of the flight, comforted by the proximity of each other’s auras, and Pel’s dried fruit.

There once was a time, many moons ago, when Maltor’s Drop had been called GH-1571, a shining jewel in Incom Corp.’s crown; the first in a line of refueling stations commissioned by the Republic to sustain their ships on the ever-expanding trade routes between the core worlds and the outer rim. After many years of faithful service, the station, along with other obsolete machinations, had been unceremoniously tugged out towards the edge of known space, and abandoned to its fate, and there it floated in loose orbit around a slowly disintegrating moon, its rusting hull and stripped innards preserved forever in the vacuum of space. And there it would have remained, had not an enterprising band of Ugnaught salvage dealers, led by Maltor Glab and all of them ready for retirement, stumbled across it, repaired its neglected thrusters, and decided to turn it into their personal rest home.

It wasn’t long before spacers in the area discovered that there was a perfectly good refueling station in the area. Maltor and his boys realized they were lounging around in a nice little earner, and so it was that Maltor’s Drop sprang back to life three decades ago, and became the preferred resting station for deep spacers, runners and ne’er-do-wells. Slug-like miners from the third moon of Belkadan supplied the station with highly potent fuel in return for calcium, and though many investigations took place, no one was really able to explain how the Ugnaughts got their hands on such rich calcium deposits. Seeking alliances with no one, Maltor ran his station impartially, welcoming all on board, provided their pockets seemed adequately laden down.

Delnan Jja observed the light from Belkadan’s dying sun bouncing off the dorsal panels of the fueling station, sending waves of crimson to wash over pieces of moon rock that drifted close by and bounced off the station’s shields. He turned from the viewer and flicked on his sleeve comm.
“Camm, maintain this position. I wish to remain invisible.”
“As you wish, sir,” the small mic replied.
Jja sat back in his chair and watched the tiny moon between his ship and the station through the window in his cabin. Small puffs of moon dust denoted further fractures, and another lump, the size of his own vessel, broke away from the ailing satellite. Several ideas formed in his dark mind, each one more perverse than the first, and he itched to implement at least one of them.
“Come on, Calz,” he murmured to himself, “it’s time to play.”

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chapter Seven

With Rece remaining on deck to assist Carud with anything the pilot desired, the remaining Ashes and Jedi followed Virus back to the rear port storage locker where they found Stal waiting by the locked door, his thumb nervously tapping the pommel of his broad saber, Lig sitting across the corridor from him, watching him pace.
Calz took center stage. “What’s going on?”
Stal motioned to Lig for her to stand, and rumbled, “Tell the sergeant what you saw, youngling.”
“I saw two people, one is a green lady and she is angry. The other one is covered; I can’t sense anything from her – if it is a her…”
“Angry green lady?” Calz sighed and rubbed the top of his graying head.
“And she’s got a gun,” added Lig, helpfully.
“Great,” grumbled Calz, turning to his left, “I thought you said you got rid of her, Peko.”
“I did too, Sarge,” replied the scout, “I guess it’s her ship, she’d know how to sneak on.”
“You know her?” growled Stal, stepping back as if ready to plunge his twin blades through the blast door, preparing to cut a neat entrance for them.
“Indeed,” answered Calz, putting himself between Stal and the door and tapping on it with the back of his gauntlet. “Preela, that you in there?”

A sound like a plasteel crate being scraped across metal grilles set their teeth on edge, and then a husky, female voice echoed out from behind the door. “Get off my ship, you thieving shaak worriers!”
“What’s a shaak worrier?” asked Soolad.
Pel glanced at his brother. “I think I’ll take the children to the bridge, Stal.”
“Good idea.”

Stal still hadn’t sheathed his saber. He turned to Calz. “I’m sensing two life forms in there, but I can’t read the second one’s mood…”
The female voice barked out once again. “You still there you slug sucking dug?”
Stal almost smiled, “...but the owner of that voice is pretty easy to read.”
Calz turned his attention back to the door. “Preela, c’mon, I just want to talk.”
“Come on in, Sarge. I got something here wants to talk to you, loud and quick, like. Or don’t you wanna come in alone? Need your boyfriends with ya?”
Virus attempted to stifle a laugh, but gave in and let it out when he saw Digger’s indignant face.
“Easy, Digger, she’s just trying to wind us up.”

“Buncha thath’gorrs,” came the hidden voice, “get a lady drunk and steal her access codes would ya?”
“There’s a lady on this ship?” countered Calz, smirking as he listened to barrels of Sullustan ale being kicked around the room.
“Come in here and say that again, you dewback saddle scraping!”
“OK, she’s riled enough,” whispered Calz to Stal, “if you would be so kind, Master Hed’n.”

Stal nodded and slung his saber onto his back. Then he stood to one side of the door and waved his hand as if shooing away a glip fly. The door slid open wide enough to fit a fist through and he reached out with his other hand to grab the small blaster that came flying through the gap. He left the door slightly ajar as he handed the blaster to Calz.
The voice burst out of the room, much clearer now, but still gravelly and low, “You got a Jedi out there? First you steal my ship, then you kidnap me and my crew, and now you bring a Jedi on board? You want the whole Republic on our tail?”
“It’s already on our tail, Preela; I thought you said you liked the idea of a renegade trooper.”
“For one night! Not to go on the run with!”
“Can we come in?”
“No, we’re coming out. And tell your Jedi to put his light stick away; we don’t want a mess out there.”
“I am unarmed, madam.” Stal said through the crack.
“Unarmed?” a raucous laugh reverberated out of the room, “a Jedi is never unarmed! However, since I’ve been called a lot of things, but never ‘madam’, I’ll come out, just for you.”
Stal and the clones stepped back as the door slid fully open, and a figure emerged.

Judging by her green skin, this was Preela. Stal looked at the woman who had cursed at them all so heartily, wondering if he would ever meet an unattractive twi’lek. Preela was obviously advanced in years; the crinkles around her eyes, the deep laugh lines and slightly blemished lekku all suggested a woman in her late-fifties, but she was still devastatingly attractive, and knew it.

She wore short black pants that barely reached her knees which were protected by frayed pads. Her boots reached two thirds of the way up her calves, and looked to be made of a shimmering brown hide that Stal couldn’t identify. Her top was a tight bodice, laced to keep the years in check, pushing her ample bosom higher than seemed polite. A wide utility belt hung around her hips, and the pouches were full of tools, scraps of metal and wires. An empty holster sat on her left thigh and she wore fingerless engineer’s gloves. Her lekku were scooped and strung together with a scarlet braid, twisted together at the end. Stal realized she hadn’t seen a member of her own species for quite some time, otherwise those head tails would be free and ready to communicate.

She took her time to scan Stal’s massive form as she stepped out into the corridor.
“My, you’re a big one.”
Calz shook his head, chuckling softly as Stal stepped back, uncharacteristically flustered. It even seemed as if some color had returned to those pale cheeks of his.
“Hello again, Preela.”
Preela strode up until she was fully in Calz’s face. She raised her hand and stroked his cheek, before slapping him lightly.
“I’m a sucker for you clones, it’s your eyes. So innocent.”
“We’ve all got those eyes, ma’am,” butted in Virus, trying his luck.
Preela dismissed him with a flick of her wrist. “Maybe, but you’re all boys, the Sarge here is a man.” She kissed Calz softly on the lips and then began to make her way to the bridge. Now it was the sergeant’s turn to look flustered.

Suddenly a second figure emerged from the storage room. It was clad from head to foot in gray and brown wraps, two large bandoliers criss-crossed its chest and a long, segmented mask hid its features. In one hand it carried a gaderffii stick which had three times its normal compliment of pointy heads. The men moved as one, instinctively reaching for their weapons.

“Put ‘em away, lads,” Preela’s voice floated down the corridor, “her name’s Saach, she’s Tusken and she doesn’t talk.”
The group of men watched the female desert nomad, so far from her home, as she trailed behind the twi’lek.
“Oh, and don’t try to take her gaderffii stick away from her. That’s your only warning.”

Calz took a moment to inspect the damage inside the storage room; predictably there was none. No self respecting smuggler would damage their own goods. He then pointed at Virus and Digger, whirling his fingers around to indicate that he wanted a thorough search of the rest of the ship, and then invited Stal to join him as he trotted after the dual crew of the Sulking Rancor.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Chapter Six

The Dogged, a Venator-class Star Destroyer of the Republic, slinked furtively into the shadow of Kiffex’s solitary moon, effectively shutting off the reflective glare from its fresh paint job and plexi-steel manifolds. The sleek ship held a perpendicular orbit around the crimson planet, twin brother of Kiffu, and pointed toward the swirling orb like a Trandoshan fentoss blade ready to plunge deep, while a cluster of V-Wings in perfect Bamore formation swept its length and peeled off to skirt around the pock-marked satellite.

Delnan Jja watched the blue ribbons of the V-wings’ thrusters vaporize in the pitch vacuum, then brushed his fingertips across his desk controls to lower the porthole shades. His yellow eyes narrowed as the shades lowered, and he rubbed the top of his bulbous, clean-shaven head with one gnarled and sinewy blue-green hand.
He was a Duros; lean, taut, and ready to unwind.

Jja had been a mercenary for as long as he could recall, one of the few, immoral killers handpicked by Jango Fett to train ‘tubers’. The gig had been particularly cushy; toughening up the newly birthed whelps and handing them over to the other, more disciplined mercs for final combat training.

The job had also been simple, lucrative, and deathly dull.

What had taken him by surprise though, was the Republic’s reluctance to let him slip away after the final clone in his batch had been sent off to die. Fett had made it quite clear that his hired ‘help’ was to disappear into the darkest recesses once the job was done, but Fett’s death seemed to void the contract in the eyes of the top brass secreted in the higher offices of Coruscant, and Jja had been offered a raise, plus command of The Dogged. For the life of him, Jja could not fathom why anyone would put him in charge of a skeleton crew of two thousand, and the same number again of troopers, but he wasn’t stupid enough to turn the commission down. Deciding to play their games for a while, he would see where the solar winds blew him.

The door to his office chimed a warning, and slid open as Commander Camm strode in and stood to attention before Jja. Delnan Jja sized up the clone before him, admiring the fire in his eyes. Camm had been one of his boys.
“General Jja, we have the report from Kiffu.”
Jja pressed a button on the underside of his desk, and a transparent box elevated out from the center of the desk’s polished stone surface. Inside the box was a carpet of dried grass, a hollow log and a small water dish. Beside the dish, huddled together, was a group of tiny mammals, their huge black eyes peering out from behind mahogany fur, their whiskers vibrating through either curiosity or fear, their six spindly legs flailing in the air as they tried to cling to each other as if to make one, large fur ball.
Jja looked up at his commander and saw that Camm was staring at the tiny creatures.
“ They’re called Meekrits, Camm, and call me Delnan, I’m even less your superior here than I was on Kamino.”
“I’ll try, sir… Delnan.”
Jja pointed to a covered container on the shelf beside the clone commander.
“Bring that here would you?”
“But, the report, sir?”
“It can wait.”
The clone reached over and grabbed the container from the shelf, placing it next to the box of Meekrits. Jja lifted the silken shroud and revealed a scaly monstrosity.

The creature that lay coiled within its prison looked initially like a common serpent, but as it undulated and writhed in its confines, a pair of multi-jointed arms flicked out from beneath its viridian belly and clawed at the top hatch. The creature’s face was blunt and malevolent, and when it hissed its displeasure, Camm could see thousands of tiny needles in its jutting maw.
“Fierfek indeed, Camm. This is a Hoon Snake, the last thing you ever want to find in your sleeping sac.”
Jja flipped open the box and Camm spontaneously took a step back as his old teacher reached in and grabbed the serpent firmly by the area that approximated a neck. The Hoon Snake coiled and scratched at Jja with both limbs, but the man gripped it tightly and held it over the case of Meekrits, nodding at the box as he spoke quickly to the clone.
“Open that box for me would you?”
Camm hesitated for less than a second, then leaned over and flipped off the clasp, lifting the top of the furry mammals’ box. In a flash, Jja dropped in the Hoon Snake and slammed the lid shut, reattaching the clasp and sitting back with a smile.
Commander Camm watched in fascination as the Hoon Snake spiraled its body, forming a pyramid with a limb on either side, with its fearsome head angled directly at the cowering Meekrits. The tiny mammals seemed to freeze with shock, their fur laying flat and their eyes narrowing to slits. A brief cacophony of squeaks issued from behind their whiskers, then suddenly one of the little creatures broke away from the huddled group and skirted around the perimeter of the box to within reach of the serpent. The Hoon needed no other invitation, and sprang at the lone Meekrit, clasping it firmly between its limbs and ramming it headfirst into its mouth. The four exposed feet of the snake’s meal pedaled helplessly in the air as the struggling mammal was slowly pushed down into the Hoon’s gullet, massaged along by powerful throat muscles, and held in place by rows of teeth. As it transpired, this was to be the Hoon’s last, attempted meal. Had the serpent not been born into captivity, it might have received life lessons from its clutch mother, one of the most important being never turn your scaly back on a group of Meekrits.

With a piercing screech, the remaining Meekrits leapt at the Hoon, their fuzzy faces peeling back to reveal wide slits filled to the brim with razor sharp incisors. They swarmed over the struggling snake, biting and ripping at it with wild abandon, reducing the Hoon’s midsection to bone and cartilage within seconds, stripping the overwhelmed Hoon down its skeleton in under a minute, devouring every piece of it, including its victim. When the horrific spectacle had concluded, some of the Meekrits returned to the water bowl, while others paused to lick the transparent box walls clean.

Jja snorted and pressed the button, sending the box back down to the depths from whence it came. Commander Camm simply stared as he watched it descend, trying to digest what he had just witnessed.
“Extraordinary creatures, wouldn’t you say, Camm?”
Yes, yes, sir,” Camm stammered.
Jja pushed himself back in his overstuffed chair and looked into Camm’s face. “Remind you of anyone?”
“The Meekrits, identical, every one of them. How do they choose which of their clan makes the sacrifice?”
“Sacrifice, sir?”
“Come now, Camm. Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize such a classic maneuver. One of the group gives his life so that the others might emerge alive and victorious. How do you suppose that decision is made?”
Camm wasn’t convinced he enjoyed the analogy being offered, but he bit his tongue.
“I’ll tell you,” continued Jja, “that little fellow gave himself for the welfare of the others. He wasn’t the only one in the litter to think of sacrificing himself, he was just the first to act upon it.”
Camm nodded curtly. “I understand the motives, sir.”
Jja smiled, his sickly executioner’s smile. “You boys are strong, we trained you to be warriors, but your brotherhood also makes you vulnerable, and this is what we shall exploit to bring our renegade tubers to justice.”
“I understand, sir. Now, about the report…”
“It says that Calz and the others got away, that they are now, even as I waste time with my pets, blasting out of Kiffu’s orbit, and that we need to salvage Nineteen’s team and continue pursuit.”
“Sir, I…”
“I don’t need some suit scratching items on a flimsi-sheet to know what is going on, Commander. Rest assured, I have everything in hand. I want our stranded police team picked up, debriefed, and punished for their failure, then I want this vessel pointed in the direction of Maltor’s Drop, I expect to be there first thing in the morning.”
“Yes, sir!” Commander Camm saluted General Jja, and wheeled around to stride briskly out of the office. He had no desire to stay in his old teacher’s presence for one more second.

A swirling vortex of light and color washed over the forward loading arms and cockpit of The Sulking Rancor as the bulky and decidedly ugly freighter plummeted at light speed towards its first port of call. Standing next to Carud in the pilot’s chair, Pel watched, mesmerized by the beauty of it all, then tore his eyes reluctantly away from the viewing window and joined the discussion at the rear of the bridge. Sergeant Calz held center stage; to one side of him stood Digger, Peko and Rece; on the other side stood Scarp, Soolad and Janst’orr. Unwilling to choose a team, Pel stood next to Peko and listened in as Calz spoke low and firm.
“I’ve got no explanation for it, Digger. You’re right of course, there should have been a welcoming committee when we broke atmos.”
Scarp looked at Rece as he spoke, but the trooper refused to meet his gaze. “So it’s possible that the RMP’s didn’t get a message out in time.”
“I’d like to think so,” replied Calz, “but that’s highly unlikely. Peko, what do we know about oh-oh-nineteen?”
Peko tapped his data pad and the screen bathed his face in blue light, which was absorbed quickly by his gray, armored shoulders. “From what I can tell, Sarge, he’s captain of a standard squad of ten blues. Their LAAT needs a base ship, so we can assume there was a Venator in the vicinity, and the only destroyer carrying a compliment of RMPs in the Azurbani System is The Dogged.”
“Delnan Jja.” Calz almost spat the name.
“You know him?” Pel asked.
“Yes,” Calz turned to the jedi with a grimace, “miserable piece of filth. More cunning than an Acklay.” He strode over to the navigation panel and made a cursory check of their coordinates.
“This is why the Republic is putting our old trainers in charge, they know how we think. They taught us how to think.”
Scarp leaned back upon a small mushroom shaped table that buckled slightly under his girth. “So, you will have to stop thinking like a clone.”
“You think I don’t know that? However, if we are to reach a fair distance into the unknown regions, we have to refuel at Maltor’s Drop. He knows what we’re after.”
“And what are we after?” The tiny voice came from far below the men, and they all peered down to look into the huge eyes of Soolad, who was being poked in the ribs by Janst’orr’s elbow.
“Did nobody brief these children?” Calz asked, looking at the Hed’n brothers.
Pel cocked an eyebrow. “They must learn patience… however, now is as good a time as any to let them know of our intentions.” He dropped to the metal deck of the bridge, resting his back against a large bronze colored pipe and bringing himself down to the younglings’ level. Scarp straightened and started for the exit. “I’ll go and find Lig.”
“Look in the med bay,” said Pel, who then turned his attention back to the Bith and Nautolan before him. “Younglings, Sergeant Calz and his men here believe that our best chance for survival is to enter unknown space.”
“But we don’t know what’s out there!” protested Soolad.
“That’s why it’s called unknown space, you nerf,” whispered Janst’orr.
Pel threw her a briefly disapproving glance, then continued. “Sergeant Calz has shown me holo-records of an exploration colony, they call themselves The Far Flung Citadel. They blasted out of Naboo two standard years ago, fearing for the state of the Galaxy during this current turmoil, and dreaming of a new life of harmony on an untouched world.”
“Did you ever hear of Outbound Flight?” interjected Calz.
“Learned about them from Master Nu,” replied Janst’orr.
“Same deal,” said Calz, “bunch of idealists looking for their own slice of paradise.”
“Three ships took off from Theed,” continued Pel, “The Reborn, The Observer and the Good Intention. These ships were packed full of citizens from all races, not just the Naboo, ready to start afresh. Specialists from all walks of life made up the numbers, civil servants, military personnel, families, scientists…”
“And one scientist in particular,” interrupted Digger, “a cloner.”
“A human cloner,” added Peko, “not a stinkin’ Kaminoan.”
Pel drew closer to the children. “Sergeant Calz believes that this man may hold the secret to longevity, he may be able to give them back the rest of their lives.”
Soolad and Janst’orr gazed up at the clones standing around them, knowing that they were looking into the grizzled, battle scarred visages of men who had barely entered their teens, yet looked ready for retirement.
Soolad looked hard at Calz. “And this man, he can fix you?”
Calz knelt down and placed a hand on the little Bith’s shoulder. “That’s what we think. So that’s who we are going to find, a human cloner by the name of Doctor Rayl Solamonn.”

At once, the hatchway frame was filled by the outline of Virus. He looked breathless, as if he had run from one end of the ship to the other.
“Sarge,” he managed between breaths.
Calz stood and instinctively reached for his side arm. “What is it?”
Virus swallowed and looked at the entire group as he spoke. “It’s Lig. She found somebody. Down in the supply room, two females... I think.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Chapter Five

Cap sat on the edge of his crippled LAAT and watched the skyline above Miner’s Rest as the last remnants of the impromptu dust storm died down. His eyes were fixed, waiting for the bright blue flash of atmosphere thrusters that would surely signify his quarry was escaping. Behind him, his men stood, waiting, wondering what their next order would be.
’32 yelled out from his seat in the cockpit; he hadn’t moved since their enforced landing.
“Captain! Transmission from Command.”
The words broke Cap’s mesmeric stare and he slid out to plant both feet on the orange dirt.
“Patch it.”
His helmet link burst into life and he listened to the orders as they were concisely and tersely relayed to him, nodding his head almost imperceptibly as he listened. Twenty seconds later he turned to his squad; his face was expressionless.
“Break out the swoops, we’ve been told to delay them.”
As Cap’s men hustled to follow his order, he contemplated the order that he had withheld. High Command had ordered that any Jedi they found was to be taken alive. As he watched the rear of the gunship open like the giant maw of an Aihwa and then spew its contents onto the ground, he then considered what High Command hadn’t said.

They had told him to take the Jedi alive, but not the Ashes.

“Smoke. You want to explain to me why we’re still on the ground?”
Calz paced to the front of the cruiser and sat in the navigator seat next to his pilot. Carud casually depressed several buttons on the immense console as he answered.
“Well, Sarge. I’m ready to go, but nobody notified the port authorities.” He nodded at something outside the view screen. “If those docking clamps remain in place we’ll be sitting here watching the rest of this death trap break orbit without us.”
Calz peered out of the window. He growled out of the corner of his mouth.
Peko, why are we still clamped in this pit?”
The scout trooper hopped up onto the rusting plateau of the flight deck and joined his sergeant, following his gaze.
“They were deactivated, Sarge, I swear.”
“Well, they appear to be reactivated.” Calz muttered something unsavory involving Banthas and Hutts, and then spun around to face the rest of the group. “Rece, get out there and slice those controls for good!”
“On it, sir!”
As Rece made his way to the central ramp, Scarp suddenly rose and followed him out.
“I’ll watch his back,” he murmured as he followed the trooper into the heart of the ship.
“You do that,” said Calz quietly, turning his attention back to the view screen, and the twenty tons of plasti-steel that held their getaway craft in place.

Digger stood alone at the back of the flight cabin, watching his sergeant seethe, looking for something to keep himself busy with. The flight deck appeared to be cobbled together just like the rest of the ship, something he had noticed as they passed through dim corridors from the storage bay to the bow, and he scanned the cabin, trying to identify where each piece of the puzzle was from. It was pretty obvious that this monstrosity was the offspring of the Corellian Engineering Corporation but, like some secretly birthed abomination, it had been hidden from public view for many years. A precursor to the YT-class freighters CEC built their name upon, this ship had been refitted so many times that it now resembled an abstract sculpture. The seats were definitely Corellian, their Dire-cat hide coverings frayed and nearing retirement. The panel configurations were uniquely Corellian also, but that was where the familiarity ended. Digger could see Nubian support struts hastily welded to the bare inner fuselage, their superior strength disguised by the slenderness of their design. The thick pipelines that ran overhead supplying life support to the cabin reminded him of the interior of a Neimoidian sheathipede class shuttle, and upon closer inspection he could see several delicately engraved connector rings; the unmistakably ostentatious signature of their previous owners. Other close inspections revealed Rendili StarDrive-built quad turret controls and a shielding system that looked so practical, so non-aesthetically pleasing, that it could only have been dreamed up by the calculating minds of Cygnus Spaceworks. Digger marveled at the manner in which these spare parts had been introduced to each other, and now considered themselves part of one big, happy family.
He wanted to meet the ship’s engineer, and shake his hand.

Lig sat cross-legged on the floor of the cramped med room as Virus hoisted Rev onto one of the two beds, brushing aside various tubes and drip lines that hung from the blistered ceiling like grapple vines. Soolad and Janstorr had stayed with Master Pel in the storage bay, now a temporary docking bay for the Ashes’ damaged gunship. They had said they wanted to help him reconfigure the crates and barrels, to make more room. Lig couldn’t help wondering if they were vying for master Pel’s attention, each youngling hoping he would devote his time to them, as Master Scarp did with Lig.
She watched as Virus plugged a thick cable into Rev’s suit, just below the neckline. The cable was made up of two smaller tubes, twisted together like an artificial umbilical, and as Virus tightened the seal he highlighted each tube to his inquisitive aide.
“This dark line is the VS link, it connects to the vital signs monitor up here,” he tapped on a thin screen nestled among the raised plasti-steel blisters on the ceiling that displayed a multitude of digits and colored lines. One of the lines expanded and shrunk with the rhythm of Rev’s heart.
“This clear line is the drip; giving him a steady dose of dream juice. I don’t want him wandering this ship when he should be healing.”
“But, Virus, he’s already healed.”
“I’m sure he feels right to you, Lig, but you don’t know Rev. He’s always first in, last out… who knows what other injuries he hasn’t told me about.”
Lig looked at the man sleeping peacefully on the bed.
“Why is he always first in? Does he want to die?”
Virus smiled and patted Rev’s chest plate the way a hunter rewards his hound, “No. He doesn’t want any of us to die.”
Virus began to investigate the storage units that were fixed to the walls all around him at chest height. As he slid back panel after panel he pulled out a variety of different tubes, boxes and pouches, each one displaying its contents through clear plastic or glass.
“This is quite an eclectic collection,” he mumbled to himself, turning a small vial of Dathomir Fire around in his hand, watching the salve undulate and glow scarlet in reaction to his movement, “quite the collection. Say, Lig, you ever…?” He looked up, but the youngling was gone.
“Great.” Virus flung the pulsating salve back into the cabinet and, giving Rev one last look, stepped out of the med room to look for his new best friend.

“I still say I could’ve sliced it faster…” Rece grumbled as he and Scarp strolled out of the dock authority control room. Behind them through the open doorway, four controllers lay unconscious and tape bound under a wide-spanning desk, and at the rear of the room the central control system for all twenty-two of Miner’s Rest’s docking bays sat forlornly on the floor in a dozen pieces, looking like a giant executive puzzle toy. The edges of the plasti-steel housing for the controls still glowed from the not-so-tender touch of Scarp’s broad saber.
“I do not doubt your abilities, trooper,” answered Scarp, pausing and raising his face to the sky, “we merely required a fast solution.” His face darkened and he took a step out into the expanse that separated them from their docking bay entrance. He and Rece were standing at the far Northern edge of a huge, barren courtyard. Along both the east and west walls were a multitude of metal doors, all of them sealed, all of them leading to their respective docking bays. The Ashes’ newly acquired freighter waited for them behind the far southeast corner door, but Scarp’s senses told him that they wouldn’t reach it in time. Even as he sent a thought to Pel, urging him to ignore the force signs that he was no doubt feeling and to stay with the younglings, Scarp turned his solid face to the large archway in the middle of the south wall, the exit to the center of town.
“Stay behind me,” he said quietly as he swung his saber from its scabbard and ignited it.
“What’s the…?” Rece’s words were silenced by a volley of blaster bolts that peppered the wall behind them; all but the ones that were on target, which Scarp blocked with ease, sending them back into the arched entrance. There was the muffled sound of an impact and fingers of smoke looped into the courtyard, followed by a damaged swoop, the leader of three.

The RMP swoops were bulkier than the normal, sleek Republic speeders. Their larger saddles held two police troopers, one piloting the bike and the other raised slightly behind him, operating the various weapons of suppression, or execution. On either side of the swoop, like giant saddlebags, containment pods connected to the main frame skimmed the ground. Each pod was a big enough transpari-tube for an average-sized human to comfortably fit in, or for anything larger to have a miserable ride.

The three swoops drove halfway into the courtyard and fanned out. Rece could see the captain was operating the cannons on the smoking, lead swoop. He swung his DC-15 up and braced it against his shoulder. Through his scope he could see the faces of the men who had come for him, faces just like his own, troopers he had probably served with before Order 66. His finger glanced against the trigger of his rifle, but he knew that he couldn’t use it; despite their circumstances he could not regard these men, his brothers, as the enemy.
“I won’t make you attack them,” Scarp whispered, sensing Rece’s turmoil, “instruct Sergeant Calz to take off.”
Rece nodded and spoke into his internal comm.

“Put down your weapon, Jedi.” Cap’s amplified voice was calm, “you, and the other traitors, are all under arrest.” The three swoops held their arrowhead formation, bouncing gently with the hum of their repulsors.
Scarp didn’t appear to shout, but his voice still boomed across the space. “You and your men will back down and let us return to our ship.”
For a moment, Scarp thought his coercion had worked. There was a second’s silence before the RMP captain suddenly balled his right hand into a fist and pulled it down. Upon his command the two swoops on either side of him peeled off, rushing towards Scarp and Rece, undercarriage blasters blazing red bolts of energy. Scarp twirled his massive saber with blinding speed, blocking every blast that threatened to take down both himself and Rece, and while the Force guided his hands, his eyes watched the lead swoop slowly creep toward their position.

“Take off?” Calz’s tone was incredulous. “Who the hell does he think he is? That’s one of my boys out there.” He touched his hand to his ear-mounted com-link and barked into it. “Digger, Peko, get out there and bring those two back in.” Then he turned to Carud who was watching the docking clamps fall away from the dull, gray nose of the ship, “Fire this crate up, Smoke. I want to be in the air the minute Rece’s boot hits the ramp.”
“You got it, Sarge.”
Calz watched a whisper of smoke curling over the wall, coming from the central courtyard, and listened to the sounds of Digger and Peko as their boots thundered through the ship toward the exit ramp.

Rece stood frozen, his finger poised on the trigger, knowing he wouldn’t fire, watching in disbelief as Scarp Hed’n ended the confrontation in a little under eleven seconds.
For Scarp, the time seemed much slower.
In mid-rotation he had taken his left hand from the hilt of his saber, and continued to swing it with his right. This required more exertion, but his Force-fueled muscles were more than capable of handling the strain. As he subconsciously connected with each and every laser bolt, sending them flying out into the sky above the courtyard, he focused on the pilot of the swoop attacking from the left. A twitch of his hand and he felt the police trooper’s neck twist and saw his helmet fall to his chest. As the trooper went limp he slid from the saddle, catching in the space between the running plate and the containment pod, hitting the ground and becoming an organic rudder, his armor digging into the dirt and turning the swoop a full ninety degrees sending it hurtling towards the other machine approaching Scarp’s right.

While the pilot of the second swoop adjusted direction to avoid the collision, Scarp turned his attention to the leader who had crossed a third of the distance between them. Time slowed even more and the sounds of blaster fire, screaming swoop thrusters, scraping armor, all receded into the background. Now he could hear the shallow breaths of the man beside him, the sound of Rece’s fingertip brushing the trigger. Scarp could hear the click of a weapon being activated; he watched as the RMP Captain squeezed the trigger on the immobilizer cannon, observed his helmet as it glanced up to confirm the aim, and then he saw the foam begin to spurt from the cannon mouth, already thickening in the air. Scarp had already guessed that a terrible fate awaited any Jedi, but he also knew that his clone compatriots would be considered expendable; so he was to be taken alive then.

Even as the left swoop clipped the nose of the right swoop, sending both vehicles spinning into the west wall, spitting blue armored bodies into the air to land with wet thumps among the exploding wreckage; even as the lead swoop advanced ever closer, the foam jet almost bridging the gap between Jedi, clone and police, Scarp was flying through the air, leaping from a standing position as if he had been launched by a Gungan catapult, the broad saber leaving red and blue streaks behind him, his outstretched palm facing the foam. The sticky stream suddenly halted in mid-air as if it had slammed into a window, then peeled back in a funneled wave and flew over the head of the pilot towards the Captain. Cap barely had time enough to raise his hands in alarm before the foam hit him, solidifying upon contact and cementing him to his own cannon which was clogged and spluttering its last. The RMP Captain could only watch as Scarp landed with both feet on the nose of the swoop and deftly decapitated the pilot, switching off the blades before the pilot’s helmeted head could bounce on the ground. Scarp reached in and flicked off the swoop systems and the machine slid to a halt in front of Rece, who was still pointing his unfired weapon at Cap.
Scarp leaned in and removed Cap’s helmet, dashing it against the side of the main frame and tossing the pieces to the floor.
“This is your only warning. You will call off your pursuit.”
Cap wanted to spit the Jedi’s words back in his face, wanted to tell him how the RMP would never give up the hunt, wanted to tell him that he would now be brought to justice as a murderer, but the foam that had crept up his chest had sealed his lips, and he could only snort angrily through one exposed nostril.

Scarp leaped down from the swoop and joined Rece who was walking in stunned silence towards the door to their bay, his rifle hanging at his side. As Scarp reached him, the door flew open and Digger and Peko burst into the courtyard, rifles ready. One look at the carnage told them they were a few seconds late.
“C’mon,” said Peko, turning and trotting back up the service tunnel, “Sarge is waiting.”
Digger took one last look, and then followed Peko as Rece stepped through into the gloom.
Scarp stepped in and placed one giant hand on his shoulder. “Rece…”
Rece violently shrugged Scarp’s hand off and his walk became a trot as he saw the loading ramp beckon at the end of the tunnel.
“Don’t touch me, Jedi,” he hissed, and he followed his brothers onto the ship.
Scarp paused, stunned. Then slowly approached the ramp. Around him the air shimmered and cooked as eight rows of thrusters fired up; the air smelled of burning meat, sweat and carbon, and as the ramp elevated with Scarp the stench lingered, before the sweet smell of the internal air supply rushed over him.