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Chapter 23

Ranval stared at the port side hatch that Ranz had attached his vessel to. His operatives had returned yesterday, well after the rest of the Krath warriors had been dealt with. With the remaining six commandos that Selias had sent with Ranz back with them, Ranval felt more assured. Their jobs had been necessary, but the more guns they had defending Dynatha and the others the better he felt.

Ranz had brought good and bad news. Lree’s unit, Red Knife, had successfully launched their attack on Mandalore’s headquarters on Ordo. Using recruited mercenaries and Mandalorians who held a grudge against Clan Ordo, Ranval intended to slow the rapidly advancing Mandalorians under the so-called Preserver from reclaiming their ancestral homeworld. A reborn Mandalorian faction would mean disaster for the recovering Galactic Republic, so he would do whatever was necessary to ensure that they remained splintered.

Of course, he also had an ulterior motive for attacking the Mandalorians. After one of his agents had infiltrated Republic Intelligence and secured a great deal of recent classified material, he discovered two interesting facts. One, a former Dark Jedi named Verita had fled from Jedi custody and joined the Mandalorian clans as an adviser of sorts. Two, that same rogue Jedi had in her possession a ‘Jedi artifact’ that Republic Army officers had recovered during a battle on Wayland at the tail end of the Jedi Civil War. Ranval had tasked Lree’s team with killing the Dark Jedi and securing the artifact. They had failed in the former task, but they did have the artifact. It would be some time before he had it himself, but for now he was content to wait.

Ranz’s other news was… distressing. It seemed that their Green Shield unit had not reported in for two days now, missing six of their scheduled check-ins. Ranval tried contacting them on emergency channels with no success. He had no way of knowing what happened without sending someone to investigate, but all of his other agents were assigned to tasks that could not be left unmanaged. He hoped that nothing had happened to them, but he suspected the worst.

A red light lit up on his control board and the comm automatically activated. “Hey, boss. You’re requested down in the conference room,” Selias told him.

Ranval immediately got up and headed aft. Delvin and Celes had sensed Dynatha and the others were in danger and returned as quickly as they could. By the time they got back, Ranval’s team and the other Jedi had already dealt with the survivors. Celes and Dynatha wanted to leave this world and continue their training elsewhere, but Northeus insisted that they would remain here for the time being.

Ranz stood outside the conference room in his Rally Master armor from the Mandalorian Wars. The armor had obviously been personalized, and it had more scars than any working set of armor Ranval had ever seen. Ranz was a capable soldier and able to get by just fine with old equipment and materiel. Which was good, because Ranval had stores of Mandalorian Wars tech but nothing newer.

“At ease, Ranz. You can go back to your rounds,” Ranval said as he approached.

“Very well.” He stood at attention for several seconds longer. “Permission to speak, Director?”

“You don’t have to ask. What is it?”

“I don’t trust these Jedi,” Ranz said. “Too suspicious for my taste.”

“I’m a Jedi too, you know.”

“Well, yes. But you don’t use their laser swords or prance about with your hands waving around like a salt-starved Arconan.”

“They’re necessary for the mission.”

“Maybe. I’d say we’d do just as well.”

“Against the Sith? You and the others have done good work until now, Ranz. But let’s not push our luck.”

“With respect, my kind dealt with Jedi-folk before, sir. We killed them and their Republic allies in droves before the Mandalorian Wars ended. I think we can handle their power-hungry counterparts just as well.”

“We’ll see.”

“Why are we even here? We can train anywhere in the galaxy, and we’re staying here?” Celes shouted as Ranval entered the conference room. “This is ridiculous, Northeus. The dark side hasn’t even left this place entirely.”

“And we still don’t know what to do with the Krath prisoner,” Delvin pointed out.

“I’d say kill him and get it over with,” Tserne piped up from his seat. “No point keeping him alive.”

“He could have useful information,” Dynatha offered.

“Nothing worth our time,” Celes countered.

“We’re staying here,” Northeus said. “This place is secluded and safe. The Sith have broken off contact with the Krath, which means no one knows we’re here. The Force is strong here, and it is the only safe Jedi training ground we’ll find in this region of the galaxy.”

“We could just return to Telos in that case!” Celes moaned. “It’s not that far. A few days at most.”

“Northeus, why are we staying here?” Ranval asked. “I know there’s another reason that you’re not telling us. What is it?”

The older Jedi ignored him. “Tserne, are you well enough to train?”

“I think so,” Tserne replied, carefully rotating his arm. “You and Dynatha healed most of it. I think I can fix the prosthetics given a few days.”

“Understood. Then you and Dynatha will train together. Delvin and Celes, you will come with me to the mountains in the south for meditation. We will remain there for four days, and then I must return to see to Dynatha’s training. Ranval, train Dynatha while I’m gone.”

Ranval nodded, but he was still irked about the older Jedi brushing him off. “And the prisoner?”

“Keep him fed and in good health. We’ll decide his fate before we leave this place.”

*** ***

Falmas had sensed the destruction of the Krath from her CX-133 Chaos starfighter several hundred kilometers away. She had been searching for food with the other Krath pilots, and she was the only one who had sensed the Xatara’s death. While she couldn’t say she was sad about it, she did realize that the Sith’s operations on Truuine were in danger. She urged the Krath hunting with her to use what little fuel they had to try and reach Darth Preux’s fortress on Khar Delba while she went to investigate the situation.

Landing well outside the range of the praxeum’s anti-air guns, Falmas trekked for several hours on foot until she finally reached the base of the plateau. After a quick climb, she noticed that a Starscape-class luxury yacht was berthed inside their hangar—no doubt a Jedi ship that had arrived sometime after she had departed. Without the dark side invigoration from the old Krath leader’s spirit, her ability to use the Force was severely diminished. She would have to be cautious. Falmas navigated her way through large shipping crates and damaged fuel cells on her way to the other side of the hangar. Once she was certain she wouldn’t be seen, she slipped into the main door that led from the hangar into the praxeum itself.

The courtyard was as empty and quiet as she remembered it. She was relieved that she hadn’t run headlong into a pack of Jedi trainees or a new Jedi Council. That meant there was still a chance to salvage this mess. Using the shadows and her diminished presence in the Force to her advantage, Falmas began scouting out her surroundings to determine exactly where the Jedi arrivals were hiding.

It took a few hours of patient search, but she finally managed to determine where her adversaries were. Three Humans and a droid were staying in what was once called the guest suite, oblivious to her presence. Several armored guards patrolled the paths around the praxeum, but they were predictable and easy to avoid. Finally, and much to her surprise, she sensed Boergo Alejis in the banquet hall. What was he doing in there? She had assumed that the Jedi had slaughtered everyone here, but it seemed that they had been merciful enough to take prisoners. How fortuitous.

She needed to speak with him. She debated killing the guard posted outside versus sneaking in through one of the windows on a higher floor. Although she relished the idea of killing a Jedi minion, she also knew that his allies would realize his absence sooner than later and disrupt her meeting with Boergo. With practiced grace and skill, Falmas navigated her way onto the roof of the banquet hall and in through one of the windows at the opposite end of the building.

She stopped short of climbing down to the ground floor when she realized Boergo was talking with someone. As far as she could tell, he seemed to have been defeated and captured by the Jedi; both of his hands had been chained to the massive stone table in the center of the room and he had been stripped of his armor and weapons. He was talking with an older man with a flowing white beard. He didn’t wear Jedi apparel, but he carried a lightsaber on his person and the Force flowed through him like one. He was dangerous; Falmas figured it would be safer to wait for him to leave than engage him.

“You know what these are, don’t you?” the old man asked, extending four gemstones to Boergo.

The captive craned his neck to get a better look. “I do. My grandfather spoke about them,” Boergo said. “They’ve been called reservoirs. By drawing on the Force in the surrounding area, they can increase a warrior’s connection to the Force or strengthen a lightsaber’s blade.”

“Have you ever used one?”

“My… my sister and I were trained to use them, but after we killed our parents-”

“Do you suppose their effect could be reversed?” the old Jedi wondered aloud.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“Would it be possible to reverse the flow of energy? Could the Force power from the user be returned to the environment?”

Boergo shrugged. “It’s possible, I suppose. The gemstones themselves aren’t natural; I’m sure there’s some sort of Force technique that can do what you’re suggesting. But why would you even bother with such a useless thing?”

The ancient Jedi returned the gems to his satchel. Looking around, he nearly spotted Falmas from her vantage point in the rafters, but she managed to reposition herself so she was out of view. His gaze lingered where she was for longer than she would have liked, but he didn’t seem to notice her.

“Ah, Northeus?”

“What is it?”

“Do you think… you aren’t going to kill me, are you?”

“Continue helping me, and I’ll see to it that you’re merely imprisoned or allowed to remain in exile here.”

That exchange ignited a fire inside Falmas. Had Boergo betrayed them? He was a prisoner, but perhaps he had initially planned to betray the Krath and join the Jedi. And for what? She couldn’t say. That very line of thought was anathema; loyalty to Darth Preux—and Nafyan by extension—was her only purpose in life. She hated Boergo for even considering turning his back on them, and her hatred consumed any desire for answers that she had. The longer she waited for the Jedi to leave, the more rage bubbled up from within her.

Once the Jedi called Northeus departed, she deftly swung down from the rafters without a sound. Withdrawing her lightsaber, the female Sith approached Boergo from behind until they were only separated than two meters.

“Boergo,” she whispered fiercely.

The man recognized the voice immediately, breaking out of his meditation and rolling away from her in alarm. She closed the gap between them so that once he was on his feet he was no further away from her than he was before.

“F-Falmas?” Boergo gasped. “What… what are you doing here?”

“I ought to be asking you that, Boergo,” Falmas hissed. “What happened to the Krath?”

“Well… I had been trying to deal with one of the Jedi interlopers, but my sister moved in and ruined the whole plan before we were ready. Yes… it was all Xatara’s fault! She attacked and alerted them to our plans, giving the Jedi a chance to counterattack and defeat us.”

“And yet you’re the only one alive. Why is that, Boergo?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they don’t kill their prisoners. I didn’t actually fight them. I was unconscious for the engagement, you see-”

“Let me stop you right there,” Falmas said, her voice carrying hints of coquettish teasing. “You see, when you decided against fighting the Jedi, you became a dead man to me. Such a shame, too. I hate it when attractive men die. There aren’t enough of them in the galaxy. But these type of things are just so hard with you, aren’t they Boergo?”

“No! What? I have no intention of helping them,” Boergo stammered. He was trying to separate himself from her, but he ended up backing into a table. “All of my loyal followers and concubines were killed by the Jedi. I would die before I let them succeed. If I had a chance to free myself, I would have contacted the Sith and tell them where we were hiding and surrender the vessel to you.”

“You’re so cute when you’re lying,” Falmas cooed. With nowhere for him to go, she stepped close enough to the Krath noble that their faces were nearly touching. “Your little games might fool the Jedi, but I think one of them has caught your fancy. Made you weak.”

“I… don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play dumb,” Falmas said, entangling her legs in his and sliding her hand behind his neck. “You’re selfish. That’s okay; I can respect that. Every Sith wants something…” she whispered. “They want something so badly they would kill everyone, even their most trusted ally, to get it. Even I have that special something. Unfortunately for you, Boergo, you aren’t a Sith.”

“Lady Falmas, please… I am utterly loyal to the Sith cause…” he begged, squirming to keep her hands away from his body. “I swear to you that my sister ruined everything. Don’t punish me for her mistakes! Had she gone along with the plan, we would have defeated the Jedi and left. All my servants would still be alive. Give me a chance to make up for that. I beg you!”

“You talk a lot for a dead man.”

“Please… Falmas… I don’t… let me try again…”

“Shhh…”

Falmas placed one of her hands on his chest and another behind his head. Without warning, she kissed him fiercely. The surviving Krath kissed her back after his initial shock wore off, and he relaxed as her hands began traveling across his chest and arms in frenzied passion. She pushed him backwards so he landed on the table, and she was right there with him, on top of him in an intimate embrace. And then, as Boergo reached his hand around to stroke her back, he realized that something cold was pressed against his chest. By then it was too late.

Her red lightsaber hissed as it pierced his abdomen and the stone table behind him. With a bit of a sigh, she pulled herself off him. While she was fixing her hair, she took a moment to relish the terrified expression on his face. It would be eternally locked in that baleful state, a solemn reminder to traitors and the Jedi they tried to help. Killing him outright meant that she would have missed these little things; there was nothing more satisfying than seeing a man’s face after he died. In her experience, it spoke volumes about who they were in life.

“Stop right there, servant of darkness!” One of the Jedi, the Miraluka, was at the entrance to the banquet hall with the guard.

“You’re too late, Jedi!” Falmas sneered. “He’s dead, and you will join him soon enough!”

Falmas threw her lightsaber at Ranval. The Miraluka ducked under it and called upon the Force to push the massive stone table into the Sith warrior. As it skidded across the floor toward her, she gingerly jumped up onto it and then ran across it lengthwise toward her opponent. Once she reached the end, she performed a front flip and landed right in front of her opponent, intending to grab her lightsaber as it returned and impale him with it. Her acrobatics closed the distance between them, but she failed to account for Ranval’s defenses. He planted a boot against her chest as she repositioned herself to catch her returning weapon. The kick knocked the wind out of her, and she clenched her chest in pain as she reeled back. She was in no position to grab her lightsaber, allowing Ranval to snatch it in his cybernetic hands.

Falmas took a deep breath and tried to steady herself, but Ranval full-body tackled her the moment he seized her weapon. There was a twenty-five kilogram difference between them, and she was swept off her feet with no chance to brace herself. Blinking back tears, she found herself on the ground: her ears were ringing from the collision and there was a stinging pain in the back of her head along with the warm sensation of blood staining her hair red.

Despite her injuries, she wasn’t willing to yield just yet. She was a Sith. She placed her hands next to her head to push herself back onto her feet, but Ranval was standing beside her prone form and planted a foot into her gut to keep her on the ground. He applied enough pressure to make her retch and forget any ideas of standing. Once he was certain she wasn’t going to recover, he made her watch as he lifted her lightsaber telekinetically, carefully disassembled it in midair, and then shattered the red synthetic crystal within that powered its blade. He reassembled it as quickly as he had taken it apart, making it nothing more than a useless metal cylinder.

“Do what you will to me… I’m not afraid of you…” Falmas spat as Ranval sat down beside her. “I will resist you to the end, Jedi.”

Ranval nodded in agreement. He sensed her stubborn determination and didn’t have time to waste trying to break her spirit. He was far too busy to play inquisitor, and it wouldn’t sit well with him even if he did. Although he had defeated her, he knew she was still a threat. Given enough time to recover and the means, she would threaten them all. Knowing that, he considered killing her, but the idea made him uneasy, especially after making such a show of disarming her and rendering her helpless.

“You killed one of our prisoners. What would the Sith do if I had taken a prisoner of yours and set them free?” he wondered aloud.

“We’d kill you. We’d track you down to the farthest corner of the galaxy and kill the prisoner so you’d know your efforts were futile. Then we would kill you for opposing us.”

“So I should kill you to mete out justice, then?”

She didn’t say anything, but her glare told him she was willing to die for her cause. Perhaps it would have been better for her to die here, on this uninhabited world where no one could know her fate, than to face the wrath of her superiors later. The Sith were not known for their tolerance for failure. When he thought of her fate that way, he couldn’t help but feel pity for her.

Ranval smiled at her. “But then we’d be down two prisoners, wouldn’t we? No, I think I’m going to keep you alive as compensation for the prisoner you murdered.”

“Then do it. You’ll gain nothing but misery. I will fight you at every turn, making sure you and your friends’ lives are filled with hardships until I am free. And once I am free-”

“You’re pretty bold for someone who can’t even stand.”

“Kriff you. You’ll regret not killing me.”

“I don’t think so. Killing you would be a favor to you. The Sith would like nothing more than to make an example out of weaklings like you.”

“Weakling? Hah!”

“And I’m sure you have many enemies who would love to see you be put to shame and humiliated,” Ranval continued. “It’s the way of the dark side. If I killed you now, you would die nobly. Disgraced in battle, perhaps, but the Sith wouldn’t know of all of your failures. All of your secrets.”

“You’re talking nonsense,” Falmas sneered. “You’ve gone mad, claiming things that aren’t true.”

“Oh?” Ranval positioned himself so that he was directly above her face, staring down into her fierce eyes. “Are you saying that you have nothing to keep from your master? Nothing you’d be worried about him discovering while he interrogates you for your failures?”

Her face could have been carved from granite. “No. I am duty-bound to him. I would never think such traitorous thoughts.”

“I said nothing about treachery,” Ranval pointed out. “But perhaps we’ve both said too much. At the very least, know this: you must bear the humiliation of losing to a Jedi who cannot see, has no hands, and cannot even use a lightsaber in battle. You fought your best—I know you did—and you were defeated effortlessly.”

“You’ll regret this. When your friends are bloodied corpses at my feet and I separate your legs from your body with my new lightsaber, you’ll curse yourself for letting me live.”

“Perhaps. But for now, I’ll just settle for regretting not knocking you out earlier.”

Ranval smacked her upside the head as hard as he could with one of his metal hands, causing her to black out. Scooping her up, Ranval moved her outside the banquet hall into the snow and signaled for Selias and Ranz to come help him. They would detain this Sith woman in their brig. It wasn’t ideal, but he wasn’t about to let her wander around freely either. Although he wasn’t scared of her or her threats, he knew that her masters were powerful indeed, and he only hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.


Chapter 24

Thertos did his best not to look down as he and the rest of Besh Company advanced through the sewer systems beneath Emross, Gamandar’s capital. The pipes that snaked beneath the city were scarcely large enough for him to stand in, but he was thankful that he was not so tall that he had to crouch in the putrid, knee-deep blackwater like some of the taller species in their company. There were no glowpanels in this place, so Thertos followed the others by way of his rifle’s mounted light and the sound of the other soldiers’ oxygen masks as took in stale air from their packs instead of the foul air around them.

The column of light from his rifle jittered around as his arms trembled. As much as he tried, he couldn’t get his nerves under control. He felt nauseous from their firefight above ground, and his head was pounding from the heat. His ears weren’t ringing anymore, but the report of blasters, artillery fire, and screams of the dying lingered in the back of his mind. Even the shadows of his fellow soldiers made him jump.

It had been one giant mess from the beginning. The Ministry of Defense sent the 25th Fleet from its headquarters on Telos to Gamandar with only a handful of ships to 'evaluate' the situation. Republic Intelligence reported that the planet posed no military threat to the Galactic Republic and overwhelming force was not necessary.

As part of the army unit that arrived with the fleet, he and the others had arrived on Gamandar without incident, working together with a loyalist faction that seized the fifth largest city on the planet. No sooner had they built a forward operations base nearby, though, that they learned just how wrong their intelligence had been. While the battalion Thertos was in moved to attack this planet’s commercial hub, their naval forces in orbit were suddenly attacked by what must have been the Gamandar Navy. The attack crippled both Hammerhead-class cruisers sent to quell the insurrection, forcing Coruscant to send more ships and soldiers to deal with the situation.

The reinforcements had arrived several days ago, improving the situation somewhat. Thertos and the his company had been assigned to Firebase Corellia, located in the foothills just to the north of the rebel capital. Republic mechanized support on site and starfighters overhead had kept their position secure. Even as the situation slowly deteriorated elsewhere around the planet, theirs had been protected. They had been so assured of their safety that the sudden onslaught by Gamandar rebels and offworld mercenaries several hours ago caught them completely off-guard.

Thertos had been tasked with droid maintenance and logistics. He had not planned on seeing any fighting himself, but the rebels had been relentless. Their offensive threatened the command center of Firebase Corellia, and every soldier and droid was mobilized to stop the attack. Due to a feint that led most of their non-infantry support into the hills, they had been hopelessly outmanned and outgunned. Sergeant Major Toredo declared the situation untenable, convinced their captain to order the destruction of the entire base, and then led the surviving members of the company into the sewers.

Sergeant Major Toredo had told them that if they could navigate to the opposite side of the capital, they would be able to link up with Cresh Company in the swamps to the southeast. Thertos didn’t want to gamble on their odds of making it through this place. They had lost nearly eighty soldiers in the fighting back at their base, and twenty more died sealing the sewers to hinder pursuit. Those men and women had lived alongside him, trained with him, and had become closer than he had thought possible. To watch so many of them die and be so helpless to prevent it… he did everything in his power to keep himself walking, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“I reckon we’re just below the central marketplace,” Osar whispered to him from nearby. His voice was reserved, with no mirth or humor at all. Thertos knew he was holding something—anger, confusion, or sadness, or something else.

“How far do you think we have to go?” Thertos managed to ask.

“Another eight kilometers?” Osar mused. “If we keep up this pace, we could be out in a little over a Coruscant hour.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to do that, Osar,” Thertos said. “At least, I won’t.”

“You’ll be fine,” the Krish soldier said, more as reassurance for himself. “Just keep up the pace and try not to think about it.”

“Concerned observation: Master, it seems the fireteams in front of us are stopping. What should we do?”

Thertos glanced back at the droids tailing him. The majority of their war droids had been destroyed trying to hold the firebase, leaving only a few protocol and maintenance droids to make the escape. Thertos had wanted to leave them behind and trigger their self-destruct, but his superior had ordered him to preserve as many as he could, especially the H5-series of protocol droids. He had managed to recover two of the five assigned to their company before evacuating the base.

Thertos hadn’t heard much about the H5-series until he had been given access to military documentation upon enlistment. Apparently, these droids had been the workhorse of the Republic military for decades, coming into prominence after the Jedi Civil War under a different, classified designation. Their original chasses had been discarded—scuttlebutt said the design spooked someone in brass—and replaced with a hulking frame that defended their invaluable central processors. Indeed, although the droids themselves were poor at etiquette and protocol, they were masterful at tactical analysis and rapid battlefield computations. As far as he knew, new models hadn’t been built since the Jedi Civil War ended, so they were particularly valuable.

Despite their utility, the H5-series were the most talkative droids Thertos had ever come across. The droids prattled so loudly that Thertos scarcely noticed his comlink buzzing as Osar moved ahead. Doing his best to ignore the automata behind him, he switched over to the company’s frequency to figure out what was going on.

“This is Captain Uriv,” a hoarse voice came in from his helmet’s comm. “We’ve got two dead hostiles up here. Requesting all platoons to converge at coordinates 21, 445, 10.”

Thertos marched forward with the rest of his platoon, occasionally stopping midstride to scan his surroundings for hidden obstacles or traps. It didn’t take his unit long to reach where Captain Uriv and Sergeant Major Toredo were positioned, surrounded by the surviving soldiers of Besh Company’s first platoon. Each platoon had been separated by nearly fifteen meters during their march; Thertos found himself squeezed between the shoulders of five other soldiers as the entire company tried to pack into the few meters around their commanding officer.

“What do you think, Sergeant Major? What are we looking at?” Captain Uriv asked. The captain outranked him by virtue of his commission, but Sergeant Major Toredo had decades of military experience where the captain had only graduated from Carida Academy five years ago. More often than not, the captain ceded to his expertise.

“Offworlders,” Toredo grumbled. “Mercenaries, no doubt. No obvious signs of battle. No outstanding injuries, either.”

“So they didn’t die fighting?” the captain pressed.

“It doesn’t look that way.” Toredo waved his hand into the crowd. “Bring me one of the medical droids! We need to see what’s going on here. Captain, I’d suggest fanning our unit out. There’s still a chance we’re being followed.”

“Aye. Third and fourth platoons: advance and hold position ten meters ahead. First, second, sixth platoons: go back about twenty meters and alert us to any pursuers. Fifth platoon, stay with us.”

The other infantrybeings scattered around Thertos and headed for their positions in front of and behind him. The warrant officer who served as his immediate superior picked one of the medical droids and brought it to investigate the two bodies. With nothing else to do, Thertos directed the rest of the droids and led them further in the sewers with the rest of third platoon.

“I still think it’s a trap,” Brentaal Four, their heavy weapons specialist, muttered as Thertos approached. “How could two of them just die down here without fighting… something?”

“That’s hardly the only possibility. What if there’s something living down here?” the squad’s medic asked. “Or they could have been infected by some manner of bacteria, or ran out of supplies getting lost.”

“There’s a cheerful thought,” Osar quipped.

“Enough chatter,” the platoon leader ordered. “If anyone’s coming this way, I want all of you to let me know, and you can’t do that if you’re all gossiping like Twi’lek barmaids.”

And so they waited. Time was inconceivable in the dark sewers, but Thertos felt that he had been standing in silence for nearly an hour. Osar began whispering to the heavy weapons operator while their lieutenant wasn’t looking, making bets on how long it would take for the captain and sergeant major to determine the facts surrounding the mysterious corpses. Considering that their canned air was limited, Thertos very much hoped for sooner than later.

“This is First Platoon Leader,” a voice chirped in Thertos’s helmet comlink. “Broadcasting company-wide. We’ve got contacts. I repeat, contacts approaching from the north.”

“How many?” Captain Uriv asked, again on the company frequency.

“Two dozen, tops. Seem to be mercenary forces. No heavy armor, no droids. Closing in fast, though.”

“Engage. Keep me posted on my private comm,” the captain ordered.

“Aye, sir.”

“Did anyone else hear beeping during the captain’s talk?” Osar asked.

“Private Hije, I told you to shut it,” the lieutenant growled.

“I heard it too,” one of their riflemen muttered. “But I thought it was the medical droids.”

“Medical droids don’t beep like that,” the medic noted.

Thertos hadn’t heard anything. Ignoring the lieutenant’s call for quiet and his own droids chirping at him, he glanced down at his blaster rifle’s energy reading. Twenty percent charge. He had wasted a lot more ammunition than he thought. He turned to ask Osar for a spare pak, but an explosion from behind them made him forgot all about it.

A stream of light poured in from above the captain and sergeant major, revealing what must have been the streets above them. Before Thertos could even comprehend the situation, frag and sonic grenades were thrown from above and landed near the corpses. The Republic soldiers directly beneath the created hole ran away as quickly as they could, but the explosions were powerful enough to catch most of them in the blast. Fragmented metal from the pipes, putrid water, and chunks of flesh from the dead and dying splattered everywhere.

The sonic booms deafened Thertos even though he was quite far from the blast site. He tried to adjust his helmet’s aural modulator to silence any further explosions, but he was disoriented and it took him several tries to make the right adjustments. Soldiers around him were heading toward the breach, searching for injured while the others stayed behind to provide cover fire. More grenades made their attempts futile. After the explosions from the grenades died down, rockets streamed inside, killing even more in massive fireballs that boiled away water and melted metal.

Osar had gotten farther than most of the other soldiers who had moved in to help, and he was dragging Sergeant Major Toredo toward Thertos and the others as quickly as he could. Their heavy weapons operators did their best to provide support for him and the others pulling back with wounded, but their assailants were positioned around the hole above them in such a way that fire was practically impossible from below.

“They’ve got… reinforcements…” the lieutenant leading first platoon shouted on an open comm. “Too many… where’s Captain Uriv? Where’s the sergeant major?”

“Unknown. Fall back toward our position. How many are left?” Thertos’s lieutenant replied.

“Down to about thirty,” came the reply. “How did they arrive so quickly?”

“Lieutenant, can you link up with us?”

“Negative… no one to provide fire support. Too many wounded.”

“Damn.” Thertos’s lieutenant hit the sewer wall with his armored fist. “Press forward! Keep the enemy from firing down at us while the other platoons retreat!”

“There’s no way,” Thertos stammered. “We can’t even shoot back at those gunmen up there without exposing ourselves to the line-of-fire-”

“Did I ask for your opinion, Private Velle? Move!”

Thertos tried to move. He wanted to follow orders. He wanted to help his friends and comrades. But his blood ran cold at the thought of walking into that column of light where he would be completely exposed to the enemy. If he advanced, he knew he would die.

His lieutenant was already moving with the rest of his squad. Thertos could just barely see the remains of first, second, and sixth platoons retreating to meet them—visible by the lights on their rifles. Rockets and grenades both streamed inside to meet the converging soldiers, and the fulminations that followed razed the earth and metal around them and atomized any soldier unfortunate enough to be within the blasts. After taking massive casualties, the retreating platoons on opposite side of the breach slowed down, only to find out that the mercenaries who had been attacking them earlier were now within melee range. They were pinned down and there was no way for them to escape.

Thertos gritted his teeth. Damn his weakness! He needed to be out there, helping the others. He needed to do something. If he just stood here, he would watch the others die and live a coward. The private clenched down on his blaster rifle’s grip and hand guard until his knuckles were white. If he had to die here, he would do it fighting.

Move!

Realizing that the situation was untenable, the lieutenant ordered an immediate retreat. He declared that there was nothing they could do to save the others and that their lives would be sacrificed so the remainder of his squads could retreat with Toredo and the other injured soldiers already saved. Their enemy seemed to suspect his maneuver, though, and mercenaries and local rebels through rappelled down the hole where they had been firing from.

Their enemies landed between Thertos’s retreating platoon and the remainder of Besh Company, caught in vicious close-range melee on the other side of the breach. Normally, positioning forces between two enemy units was tactical suicide. Since the Republic’s forces were running away from them, they had nothing to worry about. Their orange blaster fire filled the sewers, striking at the backs of Republic soldiers and then again in the front when some of the survivors tried to return fire. The remainders of first, second, and sixth platoons had no way to defend themselves, already engaged in melee, and died in droves without even getting a chance to fight back.

Osar reached Thertos first. “Let’s go, Thertos! We can’t do anything here!” The Krish started to pass him, only to realize that Thertos was immobile, staring into the light streaming into the sewers with listless eyes. “Thertos!”

A blaster bolt struck Thertos square in the chest. His shield absorbed the hit, but the impact was enough to toss him onto his back. The attack jolted his entire body into action; adrenaline coursed through his veins and every fiber of his being told him that if he didn’t do something immediately, he wasn’t going to make it. His body instinctively reached for the blaster rifle that had slipped out of his hands and he sprung to his feet. Osar had already fled with Toredo on his back and the remaining members of his squad were nearly upon him; the rebels would close in nearly as quickly.

“Retreat, Private! There’s nothing more we can do here!” his lieutenant barked.

“Belay that! Stand and fight!”

Due to tunnel vision and the ringing in his ears, Thertos hadn’t realized that there were shouts of battle from above ground. Severed limbs and bisected bodies were being flung down into the sewers from the breach, causing some of the rebels to hold their position or retreat to cover their allies up above. By the time the lieutenant and the others in third platoon reached him, Thertos saw who was causing all the commotion; a young man, about his age, dropped into the sewers. Was he a hostile? Thertos’s rattled brain couldn’t immediately tell, but he recognized on some level that the man had been fighting the rebels.

“Fight! There’s nowhere to go! They have you exactly where they want you! This is your only chance!”

Rebel soldiers and mercenaries fired at the young man with their blaster rifles. The red-haired Human startled the Republic soldiers and their enemies by activating a short metal hilt that had been attached to his belt. The innocuous handle revealed a beam of pure energy, shaped somewhat like a dull blade but glowing with radiant blue light. His weapon deflected every bolt of energy sent his way, deflecting them back toward his attackers.

A Jedi Knight.

Thertos both heard and felt the words the Jedi spoke. He knew that what he was saying was true. If they fled, they would be hunted down and killed one-by-one. They couldn’t surrender; the rebels showed no mercy to their foes. Perhaps, with this Jedi warrior beside them, they could turn the tide of the battle. Yes. With his help, if they all stood together, they had a chance of winning.

The terror and psychological trauma crippling his mind was pushed away. Every bit of doubt and hysteria left him in a single moment, leaving him with an intense will to see this battle end. Despite everything within him that told him it was hopeless, he clung to the Jedi Knight’s words of hope. Leveling his blaster rifle, Thertos took aim and fired at the nearest enemies. Every shot hit and felled its target. His allies joined him, positioning themselves in a scattered formation and firing extensive volleys at the rebels.

Thertos didn’t know how, but their fire seemed more accurate and deadly than before. Rebel fighters and their mercenary allies couldn’t defend themselves against the renewed Republic onslaught and the Jedi Knight sweeping through their ranks like a frenzied Cathar on the hunt. Thertos’s rifle ran out of power before the attack had ended, but he managed to switch to his pistol and kill a few more before the last of them were defeated by the Jedi weapon.

And just like that, it was over. Thertos heaved a sigh and then sat down to relieve the pain in his legs. A few blaster shots were heard in the distance, but it seemed the enemy had retreated for good. With the battle concluded, the other soldiers began moving around him, searching for wounded or tending to the dying. Before the lieutenant could get very far, the Jedi approached him, lightsaber still active.

“Are you the ranking officer here, Lieutenant?”

“We haven’t heard from Captain Uriv since the attack began, so I suppose so, sir,” he replied.

The Jedi nodded. “I’m sorry. I wished I had arrived sooner.”

“You did everything you could, Master Jedi. It’s only thanks to you that we’re still alive, anyway.”

“You all performed admirably and you should be proud of what you did. I wish I could give you time to wind down and rest—you certainly deserve it—but this area is not safe. I can sense the rebels that survived will meet with allies coming from the north… from the firebase that fell earlier today. And we are currently in their capital, after all.”

“What would you have us do, Master Jedi?” the lieutenant asked. “We’ve only two squads of soldiers left of the company we had this morning. Would you have us fight our way out?”

“No. There’s an armored scout unit less than a kilometer from here. The agents and soldiers with it are planting explosives around critical infrastructure that should give us the advantage for our final push. They’ll be leaving the capital shortly; I will take you to them.”

The lieutenant nodded wearily. “Let me consult with my adjutant and figure out how to deal with the wounded.”

“Of course. But please don’t take too long.”

The lieutenant saluted and walked off. The Jedi eyed him suspiciously as he left, but he didn’t say anything. Noticing Thertos on the ground nearby, he offered his hand to the weary soldier. Thertos didn’t even notice it at first, fighting back the mental fatigue and psychological trauma that had returned after the battle ended, but something forced his eyes to notice the Jedi standing over him.

“Ah… I’m sorry. I…” Thertos accepted his hand and rose. “Thank you. For everything you did.”

“Don’t mention it. I was only doing my duty.”

Now that they were standing next to each other, Thertos realized just how young this Jedi was. He had thought they were about the same age, but the youthful face and comparatively slender frame told Thertos that the Jedi hadn’t even left puberty yet. Awe, confusion, and envy sprung up at once within the young soldier, quite unsure how to act in the presence of a noble warrior who was nevertheless younger than him.

“My name’s Harin,” the Jedi introduced himself, extending a hand to the older male.

He shook Harin’s hand. “Um… Private Velle. Besh Company, 3rd Infantry Platoon, Brentaal Squad.”

“Oh, come on. You’ve got to have a name. Don’t give me this military stuff. I’ve been told that I’m technically a major in your command structure, but you don’t have to be all officious around me. It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry. Thertos. Thertos Velle.”

“You don’t look so good, Thertos,” Harin pointed out. “Can you make the trip?”

“I think. I have to. There are others more injured than me who need assistance.”

Harin gave him a pitying look. “If you say so. But stay close to me, okay? Don’t push yourself until we get back to friendly territory.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right.” Harin turned toward the rest of the soldiers and shouted for the lieutenant. “We need to go now! If we don’t leave now, we’re not going to have another chance! Move it, soldiers!”

*** ***

Ixi gripped the railing beside him as the Hammerhead cruiser Reconciliation trembled around him. Stationed on the bridge at the ship’s bow, he was safe from this wave of starfighters, but the sensor operators quickly pointed out the damage that had been done to the lower decks, including engineering. If it was as bad as the last attack on their engines, that meant that their sublights probably weren’t working anymore.

Red emergency lights had been blinking for several standard time parts, messing with his vision and making him generally irritable. Complaints from the crew only exacerbated his ire, especially since most of them were directed at him. He almost wished he was on the ground with Harin and his master; at least their his skills would be appreciated.

Admittedly, the situation in orbit was a mess that had little to do with him. When it left the Republic, Gamandar officially had no naval forces to speak of. Somehow, in the few months since they had declared independence, they had amassed at least six heavy freighters that were converted into vehicles of war, two light cruisers from the Jedi Civil War, and a multitude of starfighters typically seen beyond Republic space. In the battle with the Republic’s initial force, the enemy had crippled both Hammerheads and destroyed three Foray escorts. The reinforcements that arrived from Telos were doing little better.

To the surprise of the Republic Intelligence liaison assigned to the Reconciliation, the enemy’s larger ships were nearly as heavily armored as the Republic’s cruisers. They had purposely aimed for their anti-starfighter guns first. Without their pinpoint guns and light turrets, the Republic ships were vulnerable to the rebel fighters while their own starfighters were mostly providing aerial support for the Republic Army groundside. Never facing any Republic battle group for long, the Gamandar seemed ready to win this war by whittling down the individual strength of their enemies’ ships and counting on the Republic to be slow to send aid while the Senate deliberated.

Ixi was officially placed under the direct command of Rear Admiral Rueni, the commanding officer in space and flag officer of the Reconciliation. Ixi could fight, but his skills paled in comparison to both Harin and his master; he had decided to assist the Republic ships with precognition to try and undermine their hit-and-run tactics. His foresight was fairly good for a fledgling Jedi Knight, but it hadn’t been tested under fire and the stress of battle. More often than not, his warnings came mere seconds before an attack began; useful for a Jedi defending himself from blaster fire, useless for a capital ship that needed time to prepare itself against a salvo of torpedoes.

Rear Admiral Rueni stood at the forward viewport, scanning the space around them for hostiles. “Status report,” he growled.

“Decks nine and ten were breached during the run, sir. They’re too large to fix without drydock. Only a few casualties, but we lost a lot of cargo. Three of our engines are dead as well. The best we can do is point ourselves in a direction and let inertia do the rest,” announced the engineer on deck.

The admiral nodded and closed his eyes to think. Ixi could sense the frustration rippling through the crew and did his best to avoid the gaze of the other officers. He had tried to offer his advice in such a situation before only to be publicly humiliated in front of the bridge crew. He was not in the mood to repeat that situation.

“Get me the Diligent Watcher and Bravery,” he ordered, referring to the two Foray-class blockade runners assigned to his ship. “I want them to cover us while we link up with the rest of the fleet.”

“On it, sir,” the communications officer chirped from her position at his left.

“Any reports from the others? Were they attacked as well?” the admiral questioned the junior comm officer.

“Not as far as I can tell, sir.”

“This makes no sense. Why would they waste their time crippling just our ship? If they had an opportunity to deal with several ships at once, it would be foolish not to take it.”

“Perhaps they were wary of attacking the others while they were in relative proximity to each other?” his executive officer noted.

“Perhaps.” The way the rear admiral furrowed his brow suggested he was not happy with the explanation. “Keep the active sensors going. I think they’re up to something.”

“If I may, sir,” Ixi said at long last.

“What is it, Master Jedi?” Admiral Rueni asked, not hiding his weariness or his lack of respect for the title.

“I believe we ought to allow Diligent Watcher and Bravery to remain with Kuat’s Pride.”

“And why’s that?”

“They’ll be traveling from the eastern hemisphere on their way toward us. We don’t have any Hammerheads in orbit between them and us, and Pride needs to remain in its hyperbolic orbit to deal with enemies on the ground. If we allow our blockade runners to come our way, they’ll be vulnerable to attack.”

“We’d see them before then,” Admiral Rueni drawled.

“But we wouldn’t be able to reach them,” Ixi countered.

“We’ll meet them halfway then,” the Admiral snapped. “Helmsman! Bring us around. We’re headed toward Gamandar’s prime meridian.”

“Turning now, sir.”

“It won’t work. We’re too far away and moving without sublights.”

“Let me worry about that, Master Jedi. Please return to your post and alert me if anything particularly dangerous is seconds away from hitting us.”

Ixi wanted to snap at the admiral, but he held his tongue. No emotion, only peace, as the Jedi Code dictated. He had spent a few days with Master Raffaan before their departure at the Council’s insistence, learning to mind his speech as more befitting a Jedi Knight. He truly wanted to treat the Republic officers with respect, but it was difficult when they showed him none in return.

Bravery reporting in, sir. They’ve got contacts,” the junior comm officer announced.

“From where? And how many?” the rear admiral asked.

“They came in on a vector that would lead us away from the planet—most likely they have an asteroid base or station nearby.”

“That we’ve been unable to locate,” muttered Ixi.

“Two light cruisers, six heavy freighters, and several… six starfighter squadrons,” the junior officer reported.

“They’ve mobilized their entire fleet,” their helmsman gasped.

“How long until we’re in range?” the admiral asked.

“Ten minutes, sir.”

“They don’t have ten minutes,” Ixi pointed out.

“I know!” the admiral growled. “Get me Kuat’s Pride. The soldiers on the ground can wait; we’re not going to be able-”

“Sir, report coming in from the captain of the Pride… more ships coming in from hyperspace.”

“Who is it?”

“… Enemy ships, sir. They appear to be… Hutt vessels. Six Oorica-class freighters and one Erethos-class heavy cruiser. They’re launching fighters and firing their guns at the Pride.”

“Hutts? Damn corpulent scum! What are they doing here? Why are they attacking us?”

Kuat’s Pride won’t be able to help us now, Admiral, and the other Hammerheads with us are in the same situation we are,” Ixi explained. “Our hyperdrive is nearly repaired. If we linger for five more minutes-”

“Are you suggesting we retreat?” the rear admiral asked, his anger at a fever pitch. “Leave our fellows to die at the hands of rebels and greedy Hutts? Abandon our soldiers on the ground to death or lives of servitude on purse worlds? You go too far, Jedi!”

“We can’t win, Admiral! There’s nothing more we can do.”

“We can sure as hell try.”

“This is madness. We’re all going to die.”

“Then let’s be sure to take some of them with us,” he said. “Helmsman, keep us as steady as you can. Chief gunner, ready the heavy turbolasers. Fire as soon as we are in range.”

Ixi didn’t know what to do. He understood why the admiral was acting this way, but he also knew that his course of action was irrational and dangerous. He wanted to convince him that this plan was a waste of resources and lives, but the admiral obviously wasn’t in a listening mood. He recognized that, on some level, he would have to step in and force the admiral to step down. But could he do that? Was it in his authority as a Jedi Knight to seize command of a Republic military vessel? By Republic military doctrine, he was to be treated as a lieutenant commander in space, and they didn’t command anything larger than cargo transports.

And how would the crew react? If he tried to stop Admiral Rueni and they opposed him, then what good would that do? To be responsible for the lives of so many weighed heavily on his spirit. With limited foresight, he recognized that the Force couldn’t help him make a decision here, but his doubts kept him from action.

“The Bravery is at the edge of our long-range sensors,” a sensor office reported. “They’re being assailed by starfighters. Its shields are either down or too low to read from this distance. No sight of the Diligent Watcher.”

“Destroyed?” Ixi asked.

“Out of range,” the admiral countered, more to reassure his men than anything. “Maintain present course.”

Kuat’s Pride is requesting immediate assistance. Hutt turbolasers and starfighters are ravaging her support ships.”

“Send the Oathkeeper to assist.”

“Sir, the Oathkeeper doesn’t have working sublights.”

“Send its Foray contingent, then!”

“Those ships are tethered to Oathkeeper and the only thing keeping her from drifting off aimlessly, sir.”

“Then tell them to shift the Oathkeeper toward the enemy and send them on their way!”

Diligent Watcher reporting in. Her captain requests aid. Shields are down and the hull has been compromised.”

Bravery’s central computer has gone offline. Short range sensors offline.”

The reports kept coming in, each one more distraught than the last. They were coming in so quickly that Ixi lost track of it all. A few seconds after the sensor operator reported the destruction of the Bravery, the Reconciliation finally managed to get an enemy in targeting range. At the admiral’s behest, the Hammerhread fired its three dual-turbolasers at the nearest heavy freighter. The freighter’s shielding rippled from the impacts and the resulting explosion destroyed several of the unshielded starfighters that were flying nearby. A direct hit, but altogether ineffective.

“I want a damage report on that heavy freighter,” Admiral Rueni ordered.

“Shield estimate at forty percent,” came the reply.

“Divert any remaining power from engines to weapons. Raise shields. Fire at will.”

The enemy wasn’t foolish enough to allow the heavy cruiser to fire at them while they picked off the remaining weakened blockade runner. Leaving one of their light cruisers and two heavy freighters to deal with the Diligent Watcher, the remaining four and all their starfighters moved to intercept the Reconciliation. The Republic flagship’s heavy dual-turbolasers and their dorsal turbolaser cannon struck the same target as before, but its fore shields had been bolstered and didn’t falter.

Ixi braced himself as the sensor operator alerted them to incoming fighters. Although most of their heavy guns were working, they were utterly helpless against the lithe one-man fighters unless one happened to fly into their turbolasers’ path right before they fired. Fortunately, the enemy squadron’s laser fire failed to penetrate their shields, preventing any lasting damage to the hull. A second wave launched proton torpedoes, but those too faltered against their shielding. Ixi heaved a deep sigh. That had been close.

Several medium turbolaser shots from their incoming foes impacted against their shields. The Reconciliation replied with a turbolaser barrage of its own, releasing a cannonade with all seven of its forward guns. The barrage crippled the same heavy freighter’s shields and exploded against its bridge, effectively crippling the vessel despite the fact its engines and guns were still operational.

“The three surviving heavy freighters are still heading toward us, but that light cruiser is veering toward the planet,” the chief gunner announced.

“It intends to get behind us,” Ixi realized, silently thanking the Force for its warning. “It knows we have fewer guns facing aft and our damaged engines make maneuvering difficult.”

“Damn. Give us some engine power. Keep us ready to pivot as necessary.”

More turbolaser fire struck at the Hammerhead’s elongated prow. The admiral ordered to shift power away from the aft shields to protect the bridge. The rebel starfighters around them seemed to have anticipated this, and they launched another round of proton torpedoes at the '’reconciliation’s’' weakened aft shields. This time, the torpedoes managed to bypass the weak deflector shielding and strike deep into the ship’s hull.

“Sir… we’ve lost our last sublight,” the helmsman announced. “I can’t control her anymore.”

“Use the ventral stabilizers,” the admiral ordered. “Keep us facing the enemy.”

“Trying, sir.”

The light cruiser launched nearly a dozen proton torpedoes of its own. Their sensors detected them, but there was little they could do. Typically electronic countermeasures or their pinpoint turrets would have dealt with them, but both systems had been disabled in previous engagements. The torpedoes exploded around the center of the ship, causing the Republic cruiser to belch fire and radiation into space.

“Breach on decks three through seven!” shouted the executive officer. “Secondary core damaged and leaking. Primary guns offline. Shields at a quarter strength. Fires reported on every deck except one and ten. Overall hull integrity critical.”

“This is it, then,” the rear admiral mused. He turned toward the engineer on deck. “Ready the core.”

“Sir?”

“Redirect all power from weapons into the hyperdrive. I want that thing overloaded in three minutes.”

“But… that will be like setting off an atmospheric compression bomb in orbit! You’ll devastate the whole planet!” Ixi shouted.

“So be it. I will not let the rebels take this planet. Helmsman, point us right at the light cruiser and get as close as you can.”

“Incoming fire from the heavy freighters.”

The Reconciliation sluggishly turned away from the rapidly approaching freighters toward the light cruiser that had nearly drifted onto its starboard side. Only a few of their light turbolasers were still working, and those that did were facing aft. They couldn’t do anything but charge at the enemy and hope for the best.

“Sir, I implore you to reconsider! This is no way for an admiral of your stature to behave!” Ixi said. “Surrender and you could save thousands of lives!”

“The Gamandar will not take prisoners, and even if they did, I would not be subject to them! I’d rather us die ramming into their ships!”

“I will not let you destroy this ship without the consent of the crew!” Ixi shouted.

The admiral chuckled. “Are you afraid, Jedi? Isn’t this the noble death that all your kind strive for? Would you deny me and my crew a chance to die in battle because you are scared to face the great unknown with us?”

“That’s not it at all! This is foolhardy!”

“This is courage. I will not stand down in the face of adversity. My crew agrees with me.”

“Because they’re too scared to stand against you!”

“You’d mistake their dedication for cowardice?” The rear admiral waved toward the security officers on deck. “Remove our Jedi guest from the bridge. Let his Force provide him comfort in his final moments… somewhere else.”

Ixi withdrew his lightsaber and activated its yellow blade. “I won’t let you do this! You’re sending us to our deaths for nothing!”

“Sir, we’ve been trained to fight and subdue Jedi,” the marine lieutenant informed him. “Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

“I won’t. You’ll have to kill me.”

The marine glanced over at the admiral. “Sir?”

Rear Admiral Rueni simply nodded.

“I see. I’m sorry, Master Jedi, but orders are orders.”

“This is a wide-range transmission to all operating Republic vessels. All ships, cease firing at once and prepare your shields—if they’re still operational. I repeat, do not fire.”

“Who was that?” the admiral asked.

“Sir, it was-”

“-coming in from hyperspace!”

“Where?”

Before anyone could respond, a massive ship reverted from hyperspace in between the three freighters and Admiral Rueni’s flagship. The vessel wasn’t as long as the Reconciliation, but it was quite taller and wider, evidently taking its shape from older military designs. Its white hull was striped with a subdued red and gold coloration that demonstrated its allegiance to the Galactic Republic. Bristling with weapons and possessing a hangar with enough space to hold twice the contingent any Hammerhead cruiser could, just by looking at it Ixi knew that the ship by itself could engage both sides and come out victorious.

“What ship is that?” gaped the helmsman.

“Our computers report it as Palatine-class,” the executive officer reported.

“The flagship of the Republic Navy,” Rear Admiral Rueni realized.

“This is Admiral Rel Marathos of the 2nd Fleet and flag officer of the Palatine broadcasting to Gamandar’s forces and the Hutt ships with them,” a gravelly voice came in from the ship’s comm. “The Galactic Senate has decided that your actions are a threat to the citizens of the Galactic Republic inhabiting nearby star systems. By the will of the Senate, power down your ships and surrender immediately.”

The rebels hadn’t attacked since the arrival of the Palatine. Apparently, they had received the admiral’s message, but they had no interest in complying. The light cruiser, positioned between the Palatine and the planet itself, opened fire with its medium turbolasers. The bolts of energy dissipated against the larger ship’s deflector shields. The crew of the Reconciliation stared in awe as the new ship’s heavy turbolaser, positioned just below the bridge at the ship’s fore, fired three consecutive bursts in retaliation. The first two hits disabled the rebel ship’s shielding; the third ripped cleanly through its hull armor and then out through the other side, causing chain explosions that crippled the ship entirely.

While their light cruiser engaged the Palatine, the three heavy freighters tried to navigate their way around it and fire upon the practically destroyed Reconciliation. But Admiral Marathos’s ship dealt with the light cruiser quicker than they anticipated; the Palatine’s medium dual-turbolasers launched pairs of green lances as they tried to make their way around its port aftward. At the same time, more than fifty starfighters emerged from the depths of the Republic flagship’s hangar, firing their laser cannons at the enemy starfighters coming around to attack the Reconciliation again.

Ixi watched in stunned silence as the battle raged around them. Rear Admiral Rueni bellowed orders at his helmsman and the chief engineer, ordering them to get the ship away from the fighting as best as they could. Ixi said nothing as the crew scampered around him. He was surprised just how quickly the battle had turned in their favor. The allied starfighters outnumbered the rebel forces by nearly three times, and two of their four larger ships had been destroyed. The last freighter, its shields disabled and weapon systems disabled, began to limp away from the engagement.

“Receiving a report from Kuat’s Pride,” a junior sensor officer announced. “The Hutt ships are retreating. Her captain says they only lost one of their support ships, and they’re reporting that, based on their estimates, they’re still combat-ready.”

“Any news regarding ours? What of the Bravery or Diligent Watcher?” Rear Admiral Rueni asked, wiping his face with a handkerchief.

“… Admiral Marathos’s battle group dealt with the other rebel ships, but it was too late. They were both lost with all hands, sir. I’m sorry.”

The rear admiral nodded grimly. “I see.” He paused for a moment and continued, “There were many brave men and women on that ship. They served under my command, and I will take responsibility for what has transpired here. They will be mourned, but we must wait until the battle is over.”

“Rear Admiral Rueni,” Admiral Marathos spoke up from the fleet’s channel, “are you well? How is the Reconciliation?”

“Barely kicking, Admiral. We’re basically a floating metal husk at this point.”

“Understood. I’ll place an order for some hyperspace tugs to bring you back to Ord Mantell.”

“Much appreciated,” the rear admiral said, although by his expression, Ixi couldn’t tell how sincere he was.

Being appointed to the Admiralty was as much a political position as it was a military one, and Ixi wouldn’t have been surprised if Rear Admiral Rueni was irked about being upstaged by a prominent senior during his first military venture. After losing his support craft, being defeated by an outnumbered opponent, and making a general debacle of things in orbit, Ixi figured the rear admiral was going to spend a long time in his current appointment—if he was even that lucky. He couldn’t help but be relieved at that.

“Do you have any army or marine troops willing to head down to the planet?” Admiral Marathos asked. “Our shuttles will escort them as necessary.”

“I’ll take you up on that invitation, Admiral Marathos,” Ixi chimed in. “I think my Jedi abilities will be better suited down below.”

“Besides our Jedi guest, I’ll send my marine platoon for support. Beyond that, I have nothing else to give.”

“Understood. Rear Admiral Rueni, I’ve informed Commodore Molir to leave half of his starfighters in orbit to defend you and the others currently vulnerable to rebel attacks, but the rest of his ship will head groundside to provide aerial support. Is that acceptable to you?” the admiral asked.

“Indeed, Admiral. But what do you intend to do?”

“We’re going to go and find this elusive rebel base and deal with it,” Admiral Marathos said. “My battle group will remain in orbit with you while they deploy their troops, and I will leave one Hammerhead and four Forays with you thereafter.

The rear admiral frowned. “I see. Best of luck to you then, Admiral. You’re going to need it.”

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