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Chapter 6

Major Daltes Ghoaad took a bite into his kavasa fruit, causing some of its sweet juices to run down his hand and stain his fingers a darker shade of blue than his skin. The major was a Chagrian, so he couldn’t taste food like most sentient species, making dining tedious. Fortunately, there were some choice foods that he enjoyed because of their texture, including this variety of the kavasa fruit. Throwing the half-eaten fruit up and catching it in his palm, Major Ghoaad listened to the comm chatter between his pilots. He and the rest of his team were scattered across the back of their Kneebhawk-class trooper carrier, anxiously waiting for their mission to begin.

Until about two days ago, he and his recon commandos—Tython Squad, named after mythical Jedi homeworld—had been stationed on Columus performing forest combat drills and zero-g simulations. Then, without warning, he had received an order directly from the Ministry of Defense demanding that he and his team relocate to the Iggron system, where he was to await further instructions. So he and his team had lingered on a Republic mining station that orbited Iggron IV, a gas giant at the edge of the system with more moons than there were planets in the system.

The actual mission debriefing he had received proved even more confusing than the initial deployment orders. He and the remainder of Tython Squad had been told to await a signal from a deep-cover operative that would appear on a specified Republic frequency. Once it was received, they would head for Iggron III, the only inhabitable world in the system, and assist the operative in rescuing hostages on the world’s famous high-altitude train. The details had been sparse and the major hadn’t liked the orders, both because of the lack of detailed information and since such missions were typically handled by the Republic Office of Criminal Investigations. When he had inquired if, perhaps, he and his unit were the wrong beings for the job, he found his mission verified by Brigadier Ducian Eto from the Ministry of Defense.

He and the rest of his team had never met the operative they were going to be working in conjunction with, and they had communicated with him—or her—through clandestine subspace radio messages and datapad exchanges through couriers. While he had no idea if the operative was a fellow army soldier or a Sector Ranger requesting assistance from them, he hoped that whoever it was could hold their own until his unit arrived.

They had received their signal about two hours ago, and their ship was loaded with an assortment of armor, shielding, and nonlethal weaponry to deal with whatever awaited them on Iggron III. Major Ghoaad took another large bite out of the fruit and then threw it into a receptacle beside his seat. He could tell the rest of his squad was just as on edge as he was. He had been appointed to Tython Squad about a year ago, and many of his soldiers had more mission experience than he did. While technically prepared and trained for black operations, Major Ghoaad despised the thought of them.

“What do you think, Major?” his executive officer asked. “How are we going to slip by orbital security?”

“I guess that’s up to our pilots. How are we doing on time?”

“ETA ten minutes, Tython Leader,” the pilot replied. “If we approach the planet behind its moon and arrive on the planet’s dark side, I think we can just avoid their sensor net.”

“These Kneebhawks aren’t exactly the most graceful things around. You sure that’s going to work?” Tython’s sniper asked.

“Have a little faith, Tython. We’ve been flying these things since before most of you were born. We'll get you in and out safely. Do the same for those civilians, yeah?”

“Here’s hoping what information we have is good, then,” Major Ghoaad muttered grimly.

*** ***

The intercontinental suborbital train on Iggron III was a transport once famous among scientists and civilians alike. It had been renowned not for its size, which was admittedly impressive, and not for its speed, with a hypersonic velocity of nearly seven thousand kilometers per hour. Built by some spacefaring architects prior to the rise of the Republic and the Jedi, the train traveled on railing that mysteriously suspended itself so high above the ground that the train stations themselves were effectively skyhooks. But its age was also not its defining factor.

What made it impressive was the series of portals dispersed throughout the track that effectively acted as inertial dampers. At the instant the train passed through one of these gates, it could either accelerate to many times the speed of sound or else drop back down to practically zero in a heartbeat. The gates, contrary to physical expectations, negated any harmful inertial effects and reactions to rapid acceleration; the passengers were no more aware of their travel time or the sudden changes in speed than they would be in a hovercar traveling at constant velocity.

This strange technology had awed early space pilots. Coupled with Force-imbued hyperdrives from their forebearers, those pioneers had tasked physicists and engineers to build something similar for hyperspace travel. After centuries of research, modeling, and study, inertial compensators for starships were reverse-engineered from the accelerator-gates of Iggron III. Now, some thirty thousand years later, the planet itself was almost backwater, a Core World famous only for its archaic technology and small weapons industry, but even that was looking to be purchased by larger firms based further from the galactic core like Merr-Sonn Munitions and Quellegh Industrial.

Even though the height of its popularity had ended millennia ago, the pre-Republic train continued to dominate life on Iggron III, and it was still the most popular method of traveling the planet—especially for the wealthy and the powerful. There was no official attempt at segregation to prevent poorer folk from using the service, although the ticket cost alone was enough to keep most lower-class citizens away. Of course, the Iggron Transportation Bureau was not above employing them as attendants, mechanics, and security agents.

Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel had disguised himself as one of the train’s seasonal mechanics several days ago, allowing him to board and depart the train at any stop without drawing attention to himself. It had been a terrible choice for a disguise. He had never been very good at dealing with machines, and he had hardly picked up anything from the senior mechanics; he was a soldier, not a droid operator. Whenever his superiors weren’t around, he would use the precompiled injection module he received from Republic Intelligence to alter the serving droids' programming so they would attack specific targets at an appointed time with their multiple arms and emergency utility fusion cutter.

He had been sabotaging most of the train’s systems over the past few days. As of this morning, every droid, all the doors, the glowpanels, the emergency controls, and the trash chutes could all be controlled from a short-range signal monitor that looked like a simple datapad. At the press of a holographic button, the entire train would be under his control.

He had befriended several attendants during his time aboard Iggron III’s train, and he had used their access to the train’s passenger manifests to find out who was on board. As expected, the majority of passengers were either wealthy business types or rich offworlders; a few working-class beings boarded the train every so often, but they typically didn’t ride very long. Ever since he had gained access, he tediously perused the list every day until he was certain that his enemies were not on the train.

Of course, the enemies he was searching for wouldn’t exactly give their real names and occupations when they turned in their tickets, but he did know who they were searching for. When the name Iea Keradyle came up on the list of passengers, he immediately signaled for his army reinforcements and got to work preparing for the inevitable. This operation was not condoned through official channels, so he had to work furtively and carefully. Involving the Republic’s Judicial Department would take too long, the Jedi were still suspicious and not to be trusted, and Iggron III’s natives were notoriously against the Republic interfering with their affairs. Rajes’s superior, Brigadier Eto, had picked up on this lead less than a week ago, and time was of utmost importance to ensure everything went according to plan.

Positive that his associates were all on their breaks and no one would be watching him, Rajes made his way into the nearest refresher. He locked the door behind him and began the tedious process of removing his disguise. The wig and polyplast flesh were easy enough to remove, and he replaced his mongrel’s apparel for a light button-down shirt with a businessman’s brown coat and trousers. Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel heaved a sigh of relief. It was one thing to be dedicated to his work; it was another entirely to volunteer to conceal his natural beauty for the sake of a mission. With youthful features and charming smile, Rajes fawned over himself while staring at his reflection in the mirror as he styled his short, platinum blond hair. Such beauty could not be tarnished by age or hidden in a disguise, and for that he would forever be grateful.

Satisfied with his appearance, Rajes discarded his costume in its entirety and left the refresher behind. He reveled in the sudden change of the passengers' perception of him. As a servicebeing, no one aboard the train bothered to look at him as he went about his work. Now, many males cast envious stares at him when their female companions gave his handsome features a second glance as he passed their seats.

He lauded himself more and more as they continued to ogle him. On some other day, he would have picked out the most beautiful female on the train and treated her to his company. Today, he simply kept a running tally of those who did and did not follow his every movement. He had already seen the boarding list for today, and he suspected that a few of the more jittery passengers were, in fact, spies for the enemy he was hunting. Memorizing their features wasn’t hard, but there were far more suspicious individuals on board than he suspected.

Finally, he found who he was looking for. A woman about ten years younger than he: some other species who could not differentiate humanoids would have thought her a Human. However, her pointed ears, blood-red eyes, and long, slender digits were in no way baseline. Her long hair had been placed an elaborate updo unlike anything Rajes had ever seen, and she wore a long gray dress that would have cost Rajes nine months' wages. Unlike the other passengers, she was sitting alone and positioned rather close to the foremost exit on this car. Strange, yet fortuitous.

“The Force is unfair, I think,” Rajes said, “to give a woman both wealth and beauty like yours.”

The younger woman glanced up at the datapad she was reading. “I’m sorry, were you speaking to me, stranger?” she asked, her voice containing the slightest hint of an accent foreign to him.

“There is not a single female of any species more beautiful than you on this train, so I must be.”

She sighed. “What do you want?”

“Your name, and if it pleases you, your company.”

“My company is yours,” she said, her face betraying no emotion, “but my name will have to wait. I have no time to waste on pleasantries.”

Rajes smiled coolly at her and took the seat at her right. She returned to her datapad, indifferent to his presence. While she was distracted with her own work, he glanced around to ensure that none of those skittish passengers were watching him. Satisfied that they were not, he checked his chrono and then checked his signal monitor to ensure that the Republic forces he sent for were on their way.

“I don’t suppose you will grant me your name now?” he asked off-handedly.

“In polite company, shouldn’t the man introduce himself first?”

“Ah, quite right. Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel, at your service,” he said, reaching for her hand.

“Republic Army? That explains your roguish demeanor and tactlessness.”

“Roguish? Tactless?” Rajes laid a hand on his chest and sighed theatrically. “You wound me with your words. I assure you, I am every bit as honorable and cultured as any man you will ever meet.”

“Mister Thonnel, why don’t you just drop the charade?” the woman asked, her tone becoming rather harsh.

Rajes’s eyes widened, but only for a second. Did she know about the upcoming attack? He hadn’t been expecting such perceptiveness. “I’m sorry; I can’t say I know what you are referring-”

“Listen. Do you think you’re the first man who has come to sweep me off my feet? Do you think you’re the first man with charming words and bold gestures to ask to be with me? There were many who wanted me when my father ran Iggron Corporation, and now that ownership has passed to me, the number of male sentients badgering me with lovesick hearts and suave promises seems to have increased at an exponential rate. I’ve been around the spacelanes a few times, Mister Thonnel, and the game is wearing thin.”

Rajes returned her durasteel glare with a soft, almost understanding look. He feigned a look of outright dejection at her forthrightness, but inside he breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, he thought she had been tipped off somehow. Admittedly, the Republic Army was interested in her company and its weapon-manufacturing capabilities, but that was not why he was here. Not today. His agenda was dedicated to making sure she survived today’s events so, in the worst case scenario, she could continue rebuffing advances and producing weapons as she had been.

In the end, all he could do was raise his hands in defeat. “You caught me. I’m a scoundrel and a philanderer. But I swear to you I am not only interested in your company, Miss Keradyle; I’m interested in you as well.”

“Of course you are,” his companion scoffed. She pointed at her datapad. “You can play with your toys, but I have stocks to review. If you don’t mind?”

“I would hope you had more respect for technology, Miss Keradyle. With this, I can both send encrypted messages to my colleagues across this system and monitor local… shall we say, local objects of note. It’s a wonderful little thing, but it is no toy.”

She didn’t respond and simply pointed at her datapad again. Rajes nodded his head slowly, as if he had been defeated. He again turned his attention elsewhere, watching a particularly meek-looking Human glance over at Miss Keradyle. Once the man had positively identified her, he took his briefcase and headed for the nearest refresher. The soldier figured that man was one of the spies working for his enemies and briefly considered accosting him. In the end, Rajes supposed it didn’t matter. There were more such spies anyway, and the attack would happen regardless.

The dining attendants were beginning to roll out their massive trays of food, filling the car with the aroma of sweet pastries and blended juices, and most of the passengers began to call out to them for their breakfast orders. None of the attendants would recognize Rajes without his disguise, leaving him free to search for potential danger. Based on the timetable and schedules he had seen, they were going to make their stop soon. That would be a dangerous moment. If his enemies arrived during a stop, it would be difficult to remove them from the train or protect the passengers in all the confusion.

“This is the driver speaking,” an announcement boomed from the train’s intercomm. “There seems to be some sort of obstacle coming up. We’re going to have to slow down without assistance from the gates. Please stand by.”

The resulting decrease in speed was slow enough that no one was brutally torn apart by inertial forces, but it wasn’t pretty either. Passengers were thrown from their seats onto other passengers and into the carpeted aisles. The dining team’s trays were overturned, spilling pitchers of caf, shattering jars of jellies, and throwing an assortment of baked goods all over the car. Iea Keradyle was thrown sideways, falling into Rajes’s arms as her datapad flew across the car into a puddle of spilled caf.

There was a screeching sound as the train came to a complete stop, and then the engine’s rumbling ceased completely. Passengers began to murmur to themselves, and a few of them were in such a rage that they began convincing themselves aloud that they would complain to the driver for this insulting and unexpected stunt. From the corner of his eye, he watched the nervous Human from earlier emerge from the refresher. He was joined by several other passengers, and the entire skittish company made their way further back.

“I’ve never heard of an obstacle in the track that wasn’t dealt with by the local authorities before the train could reach it. What’s going on?” Iea wondered aloud, not necessarily to Rajes.

“Stay with me,” Rajes said, his voice and demeanor suddenly deathly serious. “Put your hat back on, and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

Before she could ask for an explanation, the side door to the car was blown open, flying into the center aisle in a crumpled metal heap. A Tsyklen mercenary leapt through the breach. The hairless sentient had taut grayish skin with large, bulbous eyes, and his alien appearance startled the many xenophobic patrons of the train. Carrying a blaster carbine in his hands, equipped with heavy armor, and coupled with a shimmering blue personal energy shield, he looked ready to take on all of the train’s passengers by himself.

He started shouting something in Huttese, and then in trader’s parlance, and finally in Galactic Basic. “No one moves! This train now owned to Ncrall Redwing! You all remain in seats until his excellence boards the train and deal with you.”

The passengers, terrified and in a situation unlike anything they had ever experienced, did as they were told. Some of them whispered something about local police forces, the status of the train’s crew, and whether or not this qualified as a hostage situation. Satisfied with his work, the Tsyklen stomped through the aisle with his carbine held over his shoulder, occasionally stopping to further intimidate anyone bold enough to meet his gaze.

“What do we do?” Iea whispered.

Rajes shook his head. “An amateur mistake. Stay quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

She was about to point out that he should follow that same advice, but their enemy’s quick approach caused her words to trail off. The Tsyklen turned his head away as he passed them by, allowing Rajes to stretch out his legs and nearly causing the warrior to stumble over himself. Rajes used that moment to snatch one of the warrior’s extra power paks from the back of his utility belt. Iea’s eyes widened when she realized that the guard didn’t even notice Rajes’s pickpocketing.

As Rajes slipped the power pak away, several more mercenaries poured in through the breach, weapons at the ready. More Tsyklens were in their midst, along with Grans, Humans, Klatooinians, and Cyborreans. Once the first few came in, they just kept coming until there were about a score of them. The influx of aliens terrified the wealthy patrons, and many were screaming and sobbing hysterically as the entire group of criminals revealed themselves.

In the midst of the mercenaries, a single Night-soarer could be seen. Unlike most of his kind, his skin was a hue of red not unlike Iea’s eyes, and the membranous wings attached to his underarms were the same color. With pointed ears, sharp teeth, and a prominent forehead, he appeared very much like the gargoyles seen on some older architecture on Coruscant.

They were here to capture Iea Keradyle. They knew how she looked, so it wouldn’t take very long for them to shuffle through the crowd of passengers and find her. Once they captured her, the rest of them were just useful hostages to keep the authorities away. Until his reinforcements arrived, Rajes had to make sure that the pirate captain was suitably distracted.

“No one’s moved?” the Night-soarer asked.

“Not one, Captain,” the Tsyklen replied.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Rajes spoke up, alarming the pirates and the other passengers. “Whatever you want from us, it’s not going to work. The police will be here soon, and-”

The butt of a blaster rifle to the side of the head cut him off. There was a collective gasp from the passengers around him as he lurched forward and fell out of his seat.

“Pick him up.”

Two muscled arms pulled Rajes upright, positioning him face-to-face with Ncrall Redwing, one of the most successfully pirates in the Core Worlds. The shorter humanoid sneered at him, revealing every one of his fierce needle-like teeth. With his wings tucked in and his thin arms behind his back, he leaned in until his crimson features filled the entirety of Rajes’s vision.

“My spies didn’t tell me there were any heroes on board this train. Who did you say you were, again?” the pirate growled.

“Oro Malthesinores,” Rajes replied curtly. “Galactic Emperor.”

The pirate let out something akin to a cackle. “Cute. Hit him again.”

Rajes felt another rifle crash into the back of his head, and then into his face. There was a loud crunching sound from his nose, and then he tasted the bitter tang of blood dribbling into his mouth. The pirate leader seized the soldier’s battered face with one of his hands, gripped his cheeks as hard as he was able with his jagged nails, and pulled his head upward until they were facing each other again.

“Who are you?” Ncrall shouted.

“Jon Antilles,” Rajes replied.

The pirate seemed not to recognize the stereotypical Human pseudonym. “Where are you from, Antilles?”

“Corellia.”

“What’s a nerf herder like you doing so far from your home, Antilles?”

“As if I'd answer to a second-rate pirate like you.”

This time Ncrall struck him. It wasn’t as painful as the rifles had been, but it still stung. The pirate’s nails nearly raked at his eyes, passing just underneath and causing them to water. He deserved that, but Rajes couldn’t help but spit at him in retaliation. The spittle struck the pirate’s outer garment, but he ignored it.

“You’re bold but stupid. I can respect that, to some degree. After all, everyone else in this place is just stupid. What’s the difference between you and them, Antilles? You got a death wish? Something to protect? A mission to complete?”

No sense in letting the pirate know the truth; he would be on his guard if he knew Rajes was a soldier. “Former CorSec,” Rajes answered.

“Ah. Glorified security guard, then. Interesting. Well, like I said, I can respect that. But I’ve wasted enough time here with you.” He turned to the two mercenaries keeping Rajes standing. “That one’s trouble. Leave a scorched hole between his eyes.”

The pirate captain may have thought he was done wasting time, but Rajes’s allies still hadn’t arrived. He had to keep stalling. “Better to be a glorified security guard than a pirate with no fame, no ship, and no wealth, I think.”

The winged pirate grabbed a knife from one of his bodyguard and slashed Rajes in the chest. This time the passengers nearby screamed, and he thought he saw Iea cover her face in terror before Ncrall’s knee met his groin. Dazed, he had no way to resist Ncrall’s bodyguards and didn’t even object to them slamming his face into the back of a vacated seat. By the time they stopped, his lips were swollen and cut, his nose was fractured in several places, and his forehead had a sickening gash that caused the passenger nearest to him to become ill.

“Anyone else want to run their mouth today?” Ncrall asked. When there was no response, he simply shrugged. “No one here to save you, Antilles. And now to make an example of you…”

“Wait! Please!” Rajes blubbered. “All that nonsense was just bravado! Don’t… my wife… my dear wife died and left me millions of credits! If you let me live, I'll give them to you. You can have them, and all you could want from my estate. Just please don’t hurt me!”

The Night-soarer sneered. For a brief moment, Rajes thought like he was going to plunge the knife right into his skull, but the pirate captain restrained himself. With a contorted face, the criminal considered the pros and cons of leaving this battered Human alive. His desire for credits almost spared Rajes, but in the end he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

“I’m afraid not, Antilles. Give my regards to the dead for me.”

“You are looking for me, aren’t you?” Iea asked, removing herself from the crowd. “Leave him alone.”

Ncrall tilted his head and regarded the woman standing before him. “How interesting. I had thought you had gone off to hide, Miss Keradyle, but you’ve been here the whole time. I had heard rumors of your beauty, but I never imagined you could be so alluring.”

“Did you really attack this train just to capture me?” she demanded.

“You own enough military-grade weaponry and armaments to supply a planetary militia. What do you think? Surrender your stores to us.”

Iea’s lips pursed. “You will let them all go? Even Mister Antilles?”

“But of course,” Ncrall purred. “You have my word.”

“You can have your weapons if you abandon this train,” she said. “Take me back to my company, and I will let you into our storehouses.”

Ncrall cackled again. “I didn’t think it would be so easy. You Core-folk are really too soft for your own-”

“Your excellence,” one of the Klatooinian mercenaries interrupted him, whispering just loud enough for Rajes to hear. “Countless pardons, but our scouts say a Republic ship has been spotted in orbit.”

“What? How was their response so swift?” Ncrall growled.

“What do we do, Captain?” a female Human mercenary asked.

“Take these hostages and spread them out throughout the cars with the others. I want mercenaries watching over them, guarding the emergency controls, and monitoring all exits. Make sure to put some of our own into the groups of hostages. I'll head to the lead car with our prize.”

A large Cyborrean seized Iea and threw her over his shoulder, and she didn’t bother fighting him. Marching toward the front of the train with Ncrall and several other mercenaries in tow, the criminal contingent disappeared behind a set of sliding doors before Rajes could protest one way or another. No one resisted the remaining mercenaries. Soon, there were only five other civilians left in the train car Rajes was in, along with three mercenaries.

“I suppose we ought to be ready to fool those Republic types?” one of the mercenaries asked.

“Yeah. Let’s get these poor schuttas ready.”

Rajes was thrown to the ground along with the other remaining hostages. Dazed as he was, he managed to flick a button on his signal monitor to start one its timers while the guards were dealing with the others. One of the mercenaries placed himself amongst the hostages while the mercenaries took one of the civilians—a rather plump Twi'lek who was sweating and babbling nonsense—and placed him in their own ranks. Before Rajes could observe anymore, a denym sack was placed over the hostages' heads, making it impossible to see and very hard to breathe. He felt the mercenaries tie his hands behind his back with some sort of cord, and he was positioned on his knees so it was also difficult to move.

Ten years ago, Rajes wouldn’t have minded acting as a hostage in a dangerous situation such as this one. Sometimes he volunteered for these types of missions. Now, his knees were hurting and they hadn’t even been in place for ten minutes. He missed commando operations, but not this much. A few of the other passengers were in pain like him and complained aloud, but they were quickly silenced by a few swats from a blaster rifle.

“Here’s the deal,” the lead mercenary growled. “No noise and no crying. If you do, you'll be shot. If any of you do anything suspicious, you'll be shot. If you try to move-”

“Why don’t you fight me fairly?” Rajes spoke up, still slurring from the injuries. “Scared that an unarmed civilian might beat you senseless?”

The nearest guard jabbed him in the back with the handle of his vibroblade. “Just for that, you get to go in back, to where all the fighting’s gonna be. That woman wants you alive, but she said nothing about crossfire from Republic troops. Your credits are nice, but there are enough here where one of you don’t matter much.”

Rajes felt a pair of strong arms lift him up and carry him away from the pool of hostages in the middle car. He cursed to himself. Where were those reinforcements?

*** ***

“Touching down in three… two… one. We’re here, Major. Make it count.”

Their Kneebhawk carrier soared over the runaway train until it was just over the rearmost car. The entirety of Tython Squad listened intently as their ship clamped onto the top of the train and a series of specialized fusion cutters began to bore through the durasteel plating. Unlike most Kneebhawks, their ship’s aft egress ramp had been replaced with a ventral segment that opened up for low-altitude drops and rappelling.

“Senors picking up two life signs directly below us, Major!” his communications operator shouted.

“Deploy flashers and sonics, then adhesives. We don’t know if they’re civilians or not.”

The hole was created in less than thirty seconds, and their ship’s opening gave them a slot for their grenades. Blaster fire came up from the train car to meet them, but their shields were more than sufficient. Two flash grenades and a sonic grenade were enough to cripple their two opponents, and an adhesive grenade pinned them to the floor. Once the major was sure that that there was no one left, he signaled for the first fireteam—Aurek—to descend with him.

He and his team worked quickly to secure the rearmost car; they placed a magfield over the hole they had created to get in and their slicer attempted to access the train controls from the console at the back of the car. While they were busy, Major Ghoaad signaled for the Kneebhawk to continue on its way. It would drop Fireteam Besh in the middle of the train, where half of them would travel toward the driver’s car while the other half would link up with Fireteam Aurek on their way forward. Dividing such a small team was usually tantamount to operational suicide, but Major Ghoaad figured that they would be able to rescue as many hostages as possible this way.

They wasted no time advancing. The door to the next car was locked, forcing them to disable the computerized locks and manually override the open-close mechanism. Each car was interconnected by a fibrous tube that contorted to follow the train’s movement, keeping them from experiencing the supersonic turbulence around the train as it raced across the tracks. Once the door was open, the major stepped into the car and found himself face-to-face with a pair of mercenary soldiers standing over a captive. Their hostage was on his knees, bound, and his face was covered so he had no idea what was going on.

“Don’t move. We'll shoot!” one of the mercenaries shouted.

The train screeched to a halt before the two parties could react. Without assistance from the gates, their stop wasn’t deadly but painful all the same. At the same moment, the lights went out all around them and there were several explosions in the distance. The two mercenaries tripped and fell on top of the captive, and the major’s fireteam was thrown into nearby seats. The major recovered first, throwing one of his flash grenades into the terrorists' midst. The resulting explosion stunned the two mercenaries, giving the rest of his fireteam a chance to fire their blasters—set to stun for the time being—and cripple the two criminals.

Major Ghoaad had no idea why the train had stopped. Perhaps Fireteam Besh might have found the emergency brakes, but he was worried that the criminals were going to try something desperate. Making sure his team was okay, he signaled for his medic to check on the lone hostage while he contacted the rest of his squad.

“Besh Lead, how are things looking?” the major asked via comlink.

“Pretty well, all things considered,” the voice of his XO replied. “We’re sprinting up and down the cars faster than a Neimoidian at a repossession auction. Sonics and adhesives are doing the trick; no casualties so far. It seems a few of the service droids started acting up, and they’ve been plaguing the hostage-takers.”

“Just the mercenaries?”

“Yeah. I think someone sabotaged them. They’re not particularly effective combatants, but they’re good distractions.”

“We’re two cars in, but we'll try to pick up the pace. Major Ghoaad out.”

“Sir, the hostage looks fine. Superficial bruises, mostly. But you'll probably want to deal with him yourself,” their medic chimed in, replacing her field medpac.

Major Ghoaad glanced at the man who had been a hostage minutes before. He was wearing professional attire, looked nearly fifty but had a face of a Human twenty years younger, and was quite bruised from some sort of previous beating. The Human’s bright eyes seemed to reveal that he knew quite a bit about this situation, and Major Ghoaad couldn’t help but be nonplussed by this man’s appearance. There was no way he was a mere hostage.

“Hello, civilian. I’m Major Daltes Ghoaad from the Republic Army. You don’t have to worry anymore. We’re here to rescue you.”

“Effective as ever, if a bit tardy, Major,” the older male said. “I expected you a few minutes sooner, but we still have time. I can’t blame you for the fact our Kneebhawks just don’t fly very fast in suborbital conditions.”

The major blinked and found himself even more confused than before. “I’m sorry?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel, 26th Battalion. I’m going to be taking over operations from here on out.”

Every member of Tython Squad stared at the erstwhile hostage like he was a raving lunatic. Of course, they had all heard of Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel; everyone who served in the Second Core Brigade was familiar with him and his penchant for the unconventional. However, there were few who actually saw him work, and even fewer who got to work with him. The fact that he was their mysterious commanding officer for this entire operation was not exactly a relief.

“Now listen here, Thonnel-”

“I'd much prefer Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel. Really, Light Colonel Thonnel or Colonel Thonnel will do nicely if the former is too hard for you to remember, Major.”

The Chagrian bit his lip to prevent himself from shouting. He knew that this situation had been turned on its head the moment the lieutenant colonel got involved, but he hated just how quickly things were happening. “I should have known you were involved. Only you would have the audacity to work around the Senate and use military resources for something as crazy as this,” he said.

“Don’t you have hostages to save?”

“Us? What about you? Where are you going?”

“I'll go and stop the leader of these mercenaries. If we don’t rescue the hostages and defeat him simultaneously, he'll just have time to flee. We were lucky to find out he was after this train; if we lose him now, we might not have another chance.”

“I don’t like it, but we'll do what you command us to. You’re the boss,” Major Ghoaad said. “Stay safe, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“And you as well, Major.”

Once Tython Squad had advanced to the next car, Rajes Thonnel located the entrance to the maintenance shaft. The tunnel was about a meter and a half wide and just as tall, replete with all sorts of loose and damaged machinery, lit with only emergency red lighting, and filled with a foul odor. The lieutenant colonel knew that this was the only way for him to realistically confront Ncrall before the pirate could mount an adequate defense, but he loathed the idea of doing it.

Taking a blaster rifle from one of the incapacitated mercenaries and sliding into the tunnel, Rajes carefully positioned himself so he ended up on his hands and knees. Once he was in place, the soldier nudged forward as quickly as he was able. He passed from one train car to the next, and then to the one after that. In this third car, he could hear the sound of boots stomping, grenades exploding, and blasters firing. Major Ghoaad’s team was making good time. Rajes continued onward, silently hoping that fighting wouldn’t tear through the floor overhead and expose him. Fortunately, he was spared from experiencing the fighting in that car and he pressed onward.

During the course of his crawling, he considered his past engagements against Ncrall and his crew. Ten years ago, when Rajes had been first assigned to take him down, Ncrall was a nobody. Now, he was chief among all the pirates in the galaxy; only Ncrall was bold enough to actively engage in piracy in the Core Worlds. It sickened him to watch his enemy ascend the ranks of villainy, and it was an even more loathsome feeling to know that he had been responsible for it.

Rajes had led a commando team against Ncrall and his pirate base some years ago, only to discover that the pirate had slaves and hostages to fight for him in such a situation. Despite being coerced, they fought to the end; a lot of beings—slaves and his own soldiers—had died who shouldn’t have. And, to drive the vibroblade deeper, Ncrall had escaped, leaving his base and most of his riches behind to save himself.

That failure had led Rajes to hunt Ncrall throughout the galaxy. Small successes had been good for a time—he had captured the Night-soarer’s ship, imprisoned his crew, and ended his slaving network—but the thoughts of dead comrades and helpless slaves seemed to demand more. Now, ten years, some fifty missions, and nearly a hundred worlds later, Rajes Thonnel was finally going to see the end of Ncrall Redwing.

He continued his trek through the four leading cars. Covered in dirt from the shaft and drenched in sweat, Rajes scanned the car above him to ensure there were no enemies nearby before painfully repositioning himself so he was on his back. He punched at the grating just above him, sending it flying off the exit and revealing the soft hue of emergency lights overhead. Clumsily pulling himself back to the main level of the train, Rajes hit the door panel to enter the final causeway between himself and the lead car.

To his surprise, some of Major Ghoaad’s commandos were already at the entrance of the lead car, but they seemed to be having trouble opening the door itself. They noticed him walk in immediately and pointed all their blasters directly at his chest. It took a bit of convincing—and a quick comm message from their superior—to assure them he was on their side. They were still suspicious of him, but they allowed him to approach.

“The door’s sturdy enough to resist a bit of blaster fire, and this seems to be some kind of specialized lock,” one of three commandos said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. New model, I guess? What do you think, Lieutenant Colonel?”

“Hold on. This should do the trick.”

Pulling the signal monitor from his coat, he flipped to the frequency that controlled the train’s door locks. There was a soft click from within the metal door, and it swung open as easily as any of the other doors on the train. They looked at him in awe, but Rajes quickly directed their attention into the forward car. The driver and his stocky assistant were both dead, as were the guards assigned to them. At the farthest end of the room, Ncrall Redwing stood with a blaster pistol against Iea Keradyle’s throat, and he positioned himself so he was practically concealed behind her body. The pirate and the soldiers raised their blasters to defend themselves as soon as they saw each other.

“Ah, Mister Antilles. I must admit, I didn’t expected to see you again. I also didn’t expect to see you with a trio of soldiers. But no matter how many soldiers you brought with you, it isn’t enough. We will end our unfortunate acquaintance very soon; for the time being, if you do not drop your weapons, I will kill her.”

The commandos beside him wavered, but Rajes motioned for them to steel their resolve. “If you kill her, you'll never get to the weapons she’s manufactured. End her life, and you just wasted millions of credits on a failed hostage situation.”

The pirate gritted his sharp teeth and acknowledged that point, but he wasn’t ready to give up. “You are familiar with these garbage capsules?” he asked, pointing to a chute located on the wall beside him. “They are automatically launched into landfills on the surface below at timed intervals. Since living things were never meant to go inside, there’s no sort of landing gear, shielding, or complex navigation systems. What do you think, Antilles? Should I throw her inside?”

“You wouldn’t.”

“She may survive, or she may not. The Force will decide.”

“If you discard her, you'll die,” Rajes noted without hiding his delight in the idea.

“I think we can come to an understanding,” Ncrall said. “Let me off the train safely, and you can have your hostage.”

“No deal,” Rajes countered. “Surrender yourself, or it'll be the end of you and your criminal empire.”

Ncrall appeared to consider the option for a moment. Then in a single motion, Ncrall threw Iea forward and leapt into the capsule himself. Only one of the commandos was in a position to fire at the their target without shooting her, and he only managed to score a shot at the pirate’s leg. Rajes dropped his blaster and reached for the signal monitor to stop the chute’s launch protocol, but it was too late. The tiny globular capsule attached to the chute shot off the train and headed for the surface. The soldiers rushed for the windows of the train, suddenly aware that they were on a public transport with no weapons of any kind to shoot him down. One of the commandos tried to signal for their Kneebhawk for assistance, but the tiny capsule had already disappeared into the aerial traffic several hundred kilometers below.

Late as ever, Major Ghoaad and the rest of his commandos breached the last door that separated them from the driver’s car. Assured that this area was safe, the commandos shared reports and sent a quick message to the Kneebhawk so that their carrier could pick up the rescued civilians while they prepared to enlist local police forces and engineers to get the train back to the nearest depot. Rajes was so dejected at the thought of losing to Ncrall again that he didn’t join the rest of the soldiers; he stared for a long time where his adversary had been mere minutes ago, as though wishful thinking would bring him back up so he could face justice.

“He probably didn’t survive the fall,” Major Ghoaad said, approaching his disheartened superior officer.

“I’m sure he did,” Rajes grumbled. “He’s got wings, remember? He probably busted that thing open after getting low enough and soared away to freedom.”

“I'll contact the local government to see if some of their peace officers can help search for the capsule.”

“Thank you, Major. The rest of the mission is yours now. Carry on as you see fit.”

The major saluted and returned to his team. They made their way back toward the rear cars to tend to the wounded civilians and captured mercenaries, leaving Rajes alone with Iea. The young businesswoman was clearly rattled by the whole experience, but she hadn’t complained to the commandos and assured their medic that she had not been harmed during her time with the pirates. She was hesitant to talk to Rajes in his current state, especially since she had her own suspicions about these events.

“Excuse me, Mister Thonnel.”

“What is it?”

“You saved my life,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t do anything. I just did what anyone would have done in that situation.”

“And I don’t believe that for a minute. You knew all along they were going to attempt to capture me, didn’t you?” She was still angry and exhausted, but she tried not to let it show. “Why didn’t you tell me beforehand?”

“We had no other options. If you had left the train or hidden somewhere on board, he would have hunted you down. Besides, only the best actors can put up effective facades in a life or death situation. If you had betrayed even the hint of suspicion, Ncrall would likely have picked you out of the crowd.”

“And yet he still captured me.”

“That was your doing,” Rajes retorted.

She shook her head. “Because you tried to woo me with your heroics. I was bait in your little scheme.”

“Bait is an ugly word,” the soldier pointed out. “I prefer actress.”

“We both got lucky that it was not a tragedy, then.” She was silent for a moment, deliberating with herself. “You may have put me in danger, but you also got me out of it. So before you accuse me of ungrateful, I think I have something you might want to listen to.”

“What is that?”

“A recording chip I snatched from the pirate captain. I believe you can insert it into a datapad to play it back.”

Rajes stared at her. “You stole that from him?”

She smiled. “You aren’t the only one who can be an effective thief when the situation calls for it.”

The lieutenant colonel stood eying the young woman before him with both shock and admiration. He hadn’t expected her to be so resourceful, but he was delighted all the same. Anything Ncrall had on his person must have been important. He slipped the small chip into his datapad and adjusted the volume to allow both of them to hear its contents.

“Emergency code: nAv3R,” a mysterious voice said, distorted and distant as though it was also a recording.

“What is it?” a new voice, this one crisp and deep, spoke after a stillness.

“My master wants to know when we’re to be paid,” the first asked.

“Tell Ncrall he will be paid when he finishes his work,” the second voice, harsher now, replied. “You have yet to attack the train like I requested. Our saboteurs are growing impatient.”

“Maybe we'd be more motivated if you paid us some credits!”

“Complete the tasks allotted to you, and you will be compensated.”

“Wait-!” There was a pause, and then the first voice continued. “Damn old man. Figures he’s the emperor of the galaxy just because he can spend a few million credits. He thinks he can keep his secrets… well, he’s in for a surprise. Could you trace that message?”

“Somewhat, sir,” a new, lighter voice intoned. “Based on our sensor data, the comm itself must have originated somewhere in the frontier. In an area that was once called Sith space, I think.”

“Sith space? I think Captain Redwing should know about this.”

“Aye.”

“Try to narrow the source so I can give him some conclusive data. We will be rich, by Xendor’s ghost, or we'll receive our payment in blood.”

It took Rajes a moment to realize what he had just listened to. “They were communicating with Oro Malthesinores.”

“Oro Malthesinores?” Iea’s eyes widened. “The famous general and former senator?”

“The same. I should have known he was behind this. It only makes sense. There was no way Ncrall could have become as powerful as he did without a powerful backer.”

“What about the Hutts? Wouldn’t they be more than willing to back up a criminal like him?” she pointed out.

“Perhaps, or else he was only occasionally their client,” Rajes reasoned. “No, his primary supporters were and always have been the Sith, it seems.”

“Sith?” Iea repeated nervously. “Revan and the Jedi wiped them out after the civil war, no?”

Rajes realized that he was beginning to speculate and reveal potentially classified information, so he smiled at her and brushed off her inquiries. “Ah… or I could be mistaken. What do I know? I’ve been out of the loop for a while, hunting Ncrall so doggedly. Come, Miss Keradyle. I ought to see you safely back to the soldiers. I have no doubt there will be police there to escort you back to your office.”

“Hold on, Mister Thonnel.” She took Rajes’s datapad and entered something onto it. “With this code, you can reach me via my personal comlink. Let me know if the Republic is ever in need of a surplus of arms.”

Rajes smiled. All in a day’s work. “I appreciate that, Miss Keradyle. It shouldn’t be necessary, but the Republic thanks you all the same.”


Chapter 7

Thertos Velle followed in the wake of an entire company of rowdy soldiers as they had entered the Affable Anx. In an unprecedented act of mercy on the part of his superiors, he and his fellow soldiers were allowed a few days of shore leave on the sprawling Citadel Station in orbit over Telos IV. Basic training had exhausted all of them, and he was glad to be away from the watchful eyes of the Republic Army, even if only for a few days. Then again, leaving an entire company of new soldiers alone for even a few hours was asking for trouble; with that in mind, Thertos himself would have much preferred if his superiors had not chosen his homeworld as the site of their shore leave.

As the other young men and women in his company spread across the small eatery and began hollering orders at the two serving droids, Thertos picked out a barstool and paid for an order of drinks. Although there was a time of theatrics and merriment, Thertos wanted nothing more than to relax and hopefully not run into anyone he knew. Opening his regulation military pack, Thertos scooped out a datapad he had been neglecting and perused its contents. This one was an academic paper discussing the principle flaws in the sensory systems matrix of S6-series security/maintenance droids and proposed replacements to the current design. Thertos frowned. Theoretically, the fixes to the visual sensor package and collision detection client would work, but they were too expensive to implement on a large scale.

An older soldier sprawled out on the counter next to him and began babbling at him in a drunken stupor. Thertos did his best to play along, and the soldier eventually went back to his table to get even more inebriated. All around him, the soldiers of Besh Company were singing, laughing, roughhousing, and drinking their cares away. The cantinas weren’t even open yet and most of his comrades were already drunk beyond belief. He was embarrassed for them, but he also kind of pleased that no one noticed one of their own had his nose buried in a datapad.

A female soldier about Thertos’s age threw an entire condiment dispenser at one of the overhead glowpanels, causing a furor of commotion from the usual patrons. One of them was sure to send for the manager. In the meanwhile, Thertos continued to drink his beer as it was brought out by the serving droids, but it was obvious that the two simple-minded automata were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of demanding customers.

“Excuse me, sir,” one of the droids intoned, carrying three trays filled with alcohol and small edibles in its four hands.

“Yes?” Thertos asked as it slid by him to serve a table filled with shouting soldiers.

“Would you be Thertos Velle?”

“I am. Why?”

“One Osar Hije informed us that you will be covering his bill. I'll be back to receive your payment momentarily.”

Thertos was about to object, but the droid had already gone to fetch more food and drinks. Osar Hije was one of his friends from his squad. Unfortunately, the Krish male was also scatter-brained and had a fondness for pranks. This time, he went too far. Asking him to cover his tab—if the escalating chaos around him was any indication, it would be enormous—went beyond joking and into inconsiderate.

“Hey, where’s Osar?” Thertos asked a soldier sitting in a nearby booth.

“He met some Twi'lek dancer who worked at the cantina a few buildings over and wanted to attend a private showing before they opened, if you follow,” the older man replied. “He was babbling and stumbling around like one of those Arcona who just discovered salt.”

Thertos sighed. “Do you remember which cantina she worked at?”

“Dancing and Desire, I think?”

Thertos thanked him and left the eatery. In his youth, he had traveled to this sector of the entertainment module on a dare, and his near-eidetic memory served him well. Fighting through the mass of sentients around him, Thertos crossed several busy thoroughfares on his way toward what would be considered the red-light district of Citadel Station. Noticeably, the crowds got thinner and thinner as he headed for his destination; he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

It took about five minutes before he could see his destination. The nightclub appeared raunchy enough, with several holographic humanoid dancers—hardly wearing anything at all—gyrating around its roof. The lettering identifying it flashed between white and bright pink, and the building itself was painted with colors bright enough to be seen even at night.

Ignoring the tasteless establishment and the disapproving stares from passers-by, Thertos walked up to the nightclub and tried to enter through the front door. Much to his surprise, it was locked. Osar and his companion must have gotten in somehow, Thertos figured. He knocked a few times; when that proved fruitless, Thertos wandered around the building in search of another entrance.

He had just turned the corner into the club’s back alley when a Twi'lek, wearing a long overcoat to cover up her otherwise diaphanous dancer’s garb, crashed into him. The two were equally stunned by the collision, but the Twi'lek regained her wits quicker and tried to flee. Thertos, acting on impulse, grabbed at her arm.

“Where’s Osar?” Thertos shouted.

The Twi'lek stared wide-eyed for a moment—whether from shock or confusion, he couldn’t say. Then, without warning, she started shouting obscenities and warnings in Huttese. “Let me go, filthy Human mongrel! I'll scream if you don’t let me go! You ingrate! You creep! You festering wound on a rycrit’s backside!”

“Answer me!” Thertos replied in Huttese. “Where is Osar?”

The young woman was taken aback by the Human’s ability to speak the language. “I… uh… who?”

“He’s a male. Krish. Probably about nineteen years of age. Red hair. Muscular.”

“Back there,” the Twi'lek whimpered, pointing at the back door she had just fled from. “Please let me go. It was just a job. He wouldn’t take no for an answer…”

That comment made Thertos angry. He nodded and allowed the Twi'lek dancer to flee as quickly as she was able. He dared not imagine how much trouble his friend was in, but if he had done anything to hurt that woman, he would make sure his actions were reported. His friendship with Osar did not mean he had to cover up any wrongdoing.

Once the dancer was gone, Thertos headed into the back door. He found himself in a lobby with nearly twenty doors in it, leading to dressing rooms, storage units, and private dancing chambers. The lighting had been dimmed so shadows hid the corners of the room, and there were still discarded clothes and overturned decorations from yesterday evening’s activities. The room smelled of cheap perfume and bitter spice that made his nostrils itch; he suspected that no one was supposed to be in here for quite some time.

For a moment, he was worried that he would have to search each room for his companion; however, the sounds of struggle directed his attention to a nearby dressing room. That could have been Osar. But who was he fighting with? Suddenly realizing he had no idea what was going on, Thertos cautiously headed for the source of the noise.

Swinging the door open, Thertos permitted himself into what must have been the dressing room of the dancer he had run into earlier. On the ground in front of a large glass mirror, amidst a pile of salacious clothing and shattered perfume containers, were Osar and some other sentient. Thertos had never seen Osar’s adversary, but the red-skinned male who had Osar pinned against the floor was more muscular and quite larger than either of them. The Krish was struggling in vain to push his contender off of him, and Thertos noticed that he was being strangled by a thin wire in the red-skinned combatant’s hands.

Without even realizing what was going on, Thertos shouted, “Hey! Let him go!”

Osar turned his head upward and noticed his comrade’s arrival, but the larger male seemed either not to notice or not to care. Thertos reached for his vibroblade, only to realize that he had left both that and his blaster back on their ship. He knew that Osar was going to die if he didn’t do something, so he grabbed a bottle of eyeliner from the vanity mirror beside him and threw it at the two fighters. The transparent bottle shattered against Osar’s red-skinned adversary, splashing dark gel onto his shoulder and causing him to look up in confusion. Thertos rushed forward and kicked the unknown assailant as soon as he saw his face, freeing Osar from his grasp.

“Are you all right?” Thertos knelt down and asked his companion.

The Krish rubbed a bruise on his ridged forehead. “I… I think I'll manage.”

“What happened? What did you do?”

“It’s not my fault, Thertos! It was-”

Their opponent was quicker to recover than Thertos expected. Lifting a chair positioned against a set of mirrors, the larger male smashed the seat’s metal back into Thertos’s head. The hit sent the Human to the ground; before Osar could stand up and protect his friend, their adversary pushed him over and continued strangling him.

Thertos feebly attempted to get back up. This time, Osar’s attacker knew better than to ignore the young soldier, and he backhanded Thertos with one hand while tightening the cord around Osar’s neck with the other. Thertos’s vision was blurry and weak due to the repeated blows to the head, but he could hear Osar choking become louder and more pained as the asphyxiation took its course. He tried to stand and help his friend again, but an open-palmed strike to the throat put an end to that plan.

He had accepted death as inevitable when a howl rang in his ears. Their opponent muttered a curse, and then he heard the sound of a brief fight—Osar was no longer choking, so it must not have involved him—and a loud thud.

“Are you all right, pup?”

Realizing he was no longer in danger, Thertos glanced up and saw a Shistavanen standing between him and Osar where the red-skinned combatant had been mere seconds before. The bipedal canine towered over him, easily two meters tall, with shaggy fur that was more gray than black. He wore hardly any clothes beyond a simple vest and a bandoleer with power paks thrown around his shoulder. With terribly sharp teeth and an unpleasant visage, he was the last sentient most beings would have wanted to see in a dark alley, but Thertos couldn’t have been happier to see him now.

“Uncle Fetcher! Where did you come from?”

“Really nice dump you decided to wander into,” Fetcher opined, apparently ignoring him. “What would your mother say if she saw you in here?”

Thertos reddened at the thought. “She would be equally disgusted by my perversion and bemused by my stupidity,” he figured.

“Well, you’re lucky I was here to save you from the latter,” Fetcher replied.

“How’s Osar? Is he okay?”

Fetcher glanced behind him. A Nazzar female was kneeling over Osar with a medpac cradled in her arms. Her equine face was unreadable to Thertos, and she kept checking the other soldier’s pulse—probably not a good sign. After injecting some sort of medical concoction into the unresponsive soldier, she leaned in close and pressed one of her floppy ears against his chest. Satisfied, she closed the medpac and stood up; at full height, she was nearly as tall as Fetcher.

“Well?” the Shistavanen asked.

“He'll be fine, Captain,” the Nazzar replied. “His neck is cut and his larynx bruised, but he should be conscious in a minute or two. He’s healthy enough to travel, that’s for sure. A trip to the medcenter should spare him from any lasting damage.”

“You’re sure?” Fetcher asked.

“Am I ever wrong?”

Fetcher shrugged. “Thertos, I don’t believe you’ve met Zalee? She’s the newest member of my crew.”

“A pleasure,” the soldier said.

“Nonsense. The pleasure is mine, young Human. Captain Fetcher speaks very highly of you and your family. Zalee Forol is at your service.”

“T-that’s all well and good,” Osar spoke up, his voice a bit hoarse. “But I’m still here, and I feel terrible.”

“What were you doing, Osar?” Thertos growled. “You wandered off like a drunken fool, and you ended up like this. What were you even doing here? Who was that? If you did anything to hurt that Twi'lek back there, I'll contact the military police, so help me-”

“No, you have it all wrong!” Osar replied, indignant. “She invited me to a private showing back at the diner. I didn’t see the harm, so long as I returned before you all headed to the hotels for the night. But as soon as I walked in here, she slammed the door shut behind me and I was attacked by that red-skinned fellow!”

“Her mate, perhaps?” Fetcher wondered aloud.

Osar shook his head. “She screamed and ran away as soon as I was trapped. I think she was forced to bring me here.”

“Nevertheless, you have to be more careful. What would have happened if I didn’t come to rescue you?” Thertos asked.

“You didn’t exactly do the rescuing,” Osar pointed out. Thertos gave him a glare that assured him he wasn’t interested in the details of their predicament, forcing him to add, “On the other hand, you’re right. I honestly don’t know what came over me. The drinks were too strong for me, I think. But I'll make it up to you as soon as I’m better, I promise you.”

“Zalee, take Osar back to the army’s suite,” Fetcher ordered. “It’s not safe for him to be traveling alone, and he needs professional medical attention.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Thertos, were you planning on seeing your parents while you were here?” the Shistavanen asked.

“I made arrangements, but I didn’t know the best time.”

“How about now, then? I’m on my way over to their residence, and my ride’s got room for two.”

Thertos thought about it for a moment, and he didn’t see the harm. “Osar, will you let them know where I’m headed?”

“Sure thing.”

“All right. Let’s get going, then,” Fetcher said.

The four parted ways outside the raunchy cantina. Once Fetcher and Thertos were ready to leave, the Shistavanen sealed the roof of his hoverspeeder and they were on their way. While he was settling his bag in the storage area behind them, Thertos couldn’t help but notice the ten large plasteel cylinders already there.

“That’s quite a lot of cargo,” the young soldier pointed out.

“Equipment for moisture vaporators,” Fetcher explained. “Rhommamool desperately needs them, but Czerka isn’t willing to negotiate the price.”

“How much are you expecting to make selling them?”

“Not too much. Maybe a few thousand credits, tops. It’s almost charity work.”

“But you'll be helping a lot of poor miners out there living comfortably,” Thertos said. “Mom always said stuff like that matters more than credits.”

“Sounds like something she would say.” Fetcher scratched his chin. “But then, I think she'd have more to say about your choice of friends.”

“Oh, come on. Osar is a good friend. A bit reckless, yeah-”

“A bit? Thertos, he nearly got you killed today.”

“He’s been nothing but kind to me since I joined the army. We’ve been watching each other’s backs since day one. What was I supposed to do? Ignore the fact he ran off and let him die?”

“I didn’t say that. However, if I wasn’t there, you and he would both be dead right now.”

“I know. Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful.”

“Lucky is more like it.”

“Who was that guy, anyway?” Thertos asked. “You know, the assailant.”

“Don’t know. But he’s dead now.”

“You killed him?”

Fetcher’s dark eyes drifted over to Thertos. “He wasn’t expecting the hit. His neck snapped on contact with the wall.”

Thertos shivered. Fetcher was getting old, but it was easy to forget just how powerful his species was. Shistavanens had a natural predilection toward hunting and combat, and Fetcher’s decades on the spacelanes had honed him into a warrior who could have given some of Thertos’s commanding officers a run for their credits. Honestly, he wasn’t sure whether his nonchalance toward killing or his physical strength was more intimidating.

“How’s the training going?” Fetcher spoke up.

“Good. We finished basic a few weeks back. Based on my aptitude tests and performance, they’re thinking of putting me in a support role.”

“Couldn’t hit the practice droids well enough with those clumsy military blasters, huh?”

Thertos frowned. “No. They just think my knowledge of droid interfaces and experience repairing ships would make me better suited for a non-combat role.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” Fetcher took a turn away from the main flow of traffic. “Did they fit you with their upgrades yet?”

“What?”

“I heard somewhere that something like eighty percent of Republic soldiers receive cybernetics. The whole deal: mental defense packages, aural amplifiers, immuno-booster, built-in muscle stimulants, war chip. They basically ensure you are half-machine by the time they’re done.”

“I didn’t even know that,” Thertos admitted.

“Well, I hear only higher-ranking officers and ship commanders are required to have them these days, but back during the Jedi Civil War even grunts were fitted with some form of cybernetic enhancement.”

Thertos murmured a response and was quiet for the rest of the drive. When he signed up for the Republic Army, he knew the risks and exactly what was required of him. The thought of going into battle didn’t scare him, nor did the increased risk of grievous injury or death. But for whatever reason, the idea of getting cybernetic implants made him uneasy. Why hadn’t he been told about this before? He couldn’t explain it, but knowing so much about droids made him less willing to go through a procedure to become more like one.

“Well, here we are,” Fetcher said. “Your home sweet home.”

The Velle family home was situated in a comparatively empty section of Citadel Station, mostly reserved for industrial buildings like warehouses and factories. The building itself wasn’t exactly impressive: a single-floored home built from some reddish-brown cheap but sturdy metal, it had only a few windows and a single entrance in and out. It had no yard to speak of, although there was a vacated alley nearby where they moored his father’s old Herkalon-class transport; the old ship had been sitting there for the better part of twenty years, and he could see the damaged components and rust it boasted from here.

“Why do I get the feeling you’re more excited to be here than me?” Thertos asked as he recovered his belongings.

Fetcher chuckled softly. “Could be that I departed on good terms?”

That was an understatement. The last time he had been here, he had told his parents his plan to join the Republic Army. He couldn’t think of any other time his mother had shouted as much as she did that day. His father was not thrilled with the idea but far more reserved in his distaste. His mother had explicitly told him that she would not see him again unless he had been discharged from the military—honorably or not.

Undaunted by the chance of being physically removed from his own home, Thertos followed Fetcher inside. Childhood memories rushed forth as he walked into the main room. From the food stains in the gray carpeting to the chemical stains on the metal cabinets, he recognized his handiwork immediately. He remembered the mundane pots near the back wall, filled with new plants every few months, and he smiled when he saw the model-sized ships near the windows. He could smell the acidic blend of fruits being used to create some sort of concoction in the kitchen, and he believed he could hear someone singing along with the subspace radio.

“Fetcher. I wasn’t expecting you.”

The old lupine’s and the young Human’s eyes drifted to the large couch at the center of the room. Sprawled out on the sofa with her feet resting on a caf table and her arm dangling from one end was his mother, Ralina Venli Velle. While her figure was still relatively lithe and she didn’t quite look her age, she had gained some weight since the end of her spacefaring days. Her skin had a bit of a bronze color to it and her silky dark hair, cut at the shoulder and terribly unkempt, had not even started graying. On the other hand, her blue eyes had developed something of permanent dark bags beneath them, giving her a haggard appearance despite otherwise appearing quite youthful.

“I was in the galactic neighborhood and thought I'd drop by,” Fetcher replied. “I brought someone I thought you'd might want to see.”

Ralina’s tired eyes drifted from the cup of stim tea she had been drinking to her two guests. Upon eying Thertos, she tried to hide her surprise by taking a quick drink, which also helped stifle what Thertos suspected would only be an inappropriate greeting.

“Mother,” Thertos said.

“They kick you out yet?” Ralina asked wearily.

“I received top marks in my engineering drills and above-average marks in combat aptitude tests. So, to answer your question: no.”

“Then I have nothing more to say to you.” Ralina stood up, despite Fetcher’s protests, and retreated to a back room.

“There’s a surprise,” Thertos noted sarcastically. “She’s always so happy to see me, isn’t she?”

“I'll go talk with her. Go ahead and put your stuff down; I'll have this settled in a minute.”

“Who is that I hear?” another female’s voice rang out, this one from the kitchen. “Is that… my dear Fetchy?”

Fetcher groaned and shook his head in disgust. Thertos laughed despite himself, earning him a very dark glare from the large Shistavanen. Before either of them could discuss the matter, a Devaronian female a few years younger than Ralina emerged from the kitchen. The white fur on her arms and on her head was beginning to thin, but it showed no traces of the dye that had once unnaturally colored her hair. Her coveralls were dirtied with food residue and burnt at the edges, and her brow was covered in sweat; nonetheless, she had a cheerful expression on her face, and she only became more elated when she saw their two guests.

“Fetchy! Thertos! I can’t believe it; you’re both here!”

“Hello to you, Manda,” Fetcher rumbled through grated teeth.

The Devaronian leaped through the air with all the finesse of a trained aerobatic and caught Fetcher in a warm embrace. “You old dog, where have you been hiding? Why don’t you ever visit me? Do you still have that jacket I made for you?”

“Why don’t you join me, if you miss me so much?” Fetcher asked teasingly. “The Hound’s Sapphire still has room for someone like you.”

“Nonsense. I have no business doing all that smuggli-” Realizing her mistake, she fiddled with one of her long, pointed ears innocently. “Err… it’s too dangerous for me to fly around with you, Fetcher. You’re a terrible pilot after all, and I'd be scared you'd fly us both to our deaths in some uncharted black hole!”

“Insulting my piloting? You’ve gone too far. I have to talk with Ralina, but I’m afraid I must depart from you all the same,” Fetcher announced.

“So mean, Fetchy. So mean.” Manda turned her attention from her old crewmate to Thertos, who had watched their conversation while trying to stifle his laughter. “And you! I don’t know what they did, but you look like an entirely different person! At the risk of sounding strange, I can see more of your father in you every day.”

Thertos smiled. “You never sound strange, Aunt Manda. I don’t know why you'd even worry like that.”

“Oh? Are you learning wit from those dim-witted mudtrotters?” Manda asked. “I must say I’m shocked.”

“I am one of those dim-witted mudtrotters,” Thertos noted, mildly indignant.

“Say, do they have you do culinary preparation for punishment?” she asked, ignoring their previous train of thought. “You know, like in those holodramas?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Excellent! Come help me in the kitchen; with Ralina’s injury and Lucius’s busy schedule, it takes forever to cook around here. I forget sometimes what it’s like to have two sets of hands.”

While Manda dragged Thertos into the kitchen, Fetcher entered what used to be Thertos’s room. After he had left, Ralina had removed his things—probably placed them in the basement along with some of her unwanted items—and converted his room into a fitness room. Ralina had injured her back while helping her husband work at his work several years ago; she couldn’t utilize the weight-training facilities, combat dummies, or agility course to their fullest, but she could perform simple therapeutic stretches and practice with her blaster. When he walked in, he found her shooting the heads off several damaged droids that had been set up as targets.

“How’s the injury?” Fetcher spoke up.

Ralina ignored him and kept shooting.

“Don’t be like that. Why do you treat him like he just ran off with a-”

“What happened to his face?” Ralina asked.

Fetcher paused, taken back by the concern in her voice. “The army requires recruits to shave their heads, and I can only imagine what months of basic training will do to your childhood features.”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Fetcher. His right ear is bleeding, and there’s a smaller cut on his cheek. What happened?”

“Oh, that.” The massive lupine shrugged. “He had a scuffle just before we came to visit you. I stepped in when I saw things weren’t going in his favor.”

“Just like his father. Stubborn to a fault,” Ralina mumbled.

“That’s Lucius’s doing?” Fetcher retorted.

Ralina sighed. “What do you want from me, Fetcher?”

“I want you to speak with your son again, quite frankly.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Of course it is!”

“It isn’t,” Ralina grumbled. “Why does he have to go and follow our footsteps? If he decided to serve on a ship somewhere, at least I could rest easy. I spent years thinking I lost Lucius, scouring the spacelanes for what could have very well have been a ghost. And now Thertos wants me to feel like that all over again in a more dangerous branch of the military! Every time he comes to visit, I’m terrified that it’s the last time I'll see him.”

“Don’t you have any faith in your son? You and your husband are both survivors, Ralina. What makes you think Thertos is any different?”

“He’s too soft!” Ralina snapped. “He’s a thinker. An inventor. He’s no soldier. Just a child with a desire for justice matched only by his stubbornness.”

“The Republic usually does a good job of making soldiers out of civilians. It worked for you, didn’t it, Captain?”

“Maybe.”

Fetcher didn’t know how to change her mind. Instead, he reached into the knapsack at his side and removed a small holoprojector and handed it to his former captain. Ralina accepted the device with a puzzled expression and immediately turned it on. The holographic image staring back at them was familiar to her in an odd way. Despite the bad quality of the hologram, she could make out his blue eyes, dark hair styled into a short ponytail, and soft facial features not unlike her own. His dark brown robes were an uncommon sight in the galaxy, but they were familiar to her.

“Fetcher… where did you get this?”

“It’s a long story. The crew and I came across some old Republic military logs by happenstance. One of the reports described a top secret mission carried out by a Jedi agent to defeat the last Sith aboard an imperial flagship or something. It was incredibly thorough: mission outline, crew manifest, supplies on board, starting point and destination…”

“So what part does this man have to play in this?” Ralina pressed.

“We informed the families of the deceased about the fate of that crew to put their minds to rest. After making our rounds, we discovered that no one knew who this man was. The Jedi’s name was the only one redacted from the report, and with no one left unaccounted for, I think it’s safe to say that he and this man are one and the same.”

“Fine. But who is he?”

“He’s your brother, Ralina. He’s Marcellan Q'endel.”

Ralina tried to stifle a gasp. It was odd; as soon as she saw his holographic visage, she thought they were related in some way, but she didn’t suspect they would be siblings. Years ago, when she was still the captain of the Hound’s Sapphire and directing smuggling runs along the frontier, she had been told that she had a brother and he had been Force-sensitive. She knew nothing about him, and she never bothered pursuing any leads. If Fetcher’s information was true, and she was related to this Marcellan Q'endel, did that mean she had been adopted by the Venli family? She was unwilling to believe that her entire childhood had been based around deception and half-truths, but she wasn’t sure what to believe instead.

“Military logs by happenstance, huh?” Ralina finally spoke, pushing the confusing thoughts from her mind, “So you were raiding Republic archives?”

“Well, not exactly raiding.” Fetcher raised his pawed hands innocently. “An older woman on Jaguada was quite insistent that I discover the fate of her daughter. She paid very well.”

“Jaguada is in Sith space.”

“So it is.”

“I thought we agreed that the Hound’s Sapphire and her crew would never aid the Sith,” Ralina noted, a hint of anger in her voice.

Fetcher shook his head. “There are no more Sith, Ralina. The people living out there are officially Republic citizens.”

“Somehow, I don’t think they’re welcoming our governance with open arms.”

“Can you blame them? The Core World types aren’t all that eager to stimulate reconstruction efforts, and more than a few planets have been under martial law since Revan disappeared. Besides, all these people wanted was closure. Wouldn’t you want the same thing if you were in that situation?”

Ralina knew immediately she had walked into that one. If she were living out in Sith space and her son had fought in its military against the Republic, she would want to know if he died during his mission. She couldn’t deny them that, even if she still held a grudge against the people who had separated her from her husband for all those years.

“You’re right,” Ralina admitted after silently regretting the words. “Now can I go talk with my son and convince him to do something stupid so I don’t have to feel like that?”

“After you,” Fetcher insisted.

The two returned to the main room to find Ralina’s husband, Lucius, had returned home. His height wasn’t apparent as he sat on the couch where Ralina had been, and it would have been more impressive if he hadn’t gained even more weight than his wife during his time on Telos. Even so, his green eyes were as keen as a hawk-bat’s, and Thertos once remarked that his face resembled the stoic, dignified appearance of the ancient Republic fleet admirals he had seen in school, and nothing could take that away from the former spacer.

Lucius, Manda, and Thertos were caught up in a heated discussion, and they didn’t even notice Fetcher and Ralina enter the room.

“Good to see you, Lucius. How goes the business?” Fetcher introduced himself as Ralina pulled her husband close for a kiss.

“Fetcher?” Lucius’s grim demeanor lit up for a moment. “You know how it is. Everyone’s ships need repairing these days. What brings you around?”

“Business, mostly. What are you all talking about?”

“The Jedi are leaving Telos for some sort of sanctuary world,” Thertos explained, stumbling over his words and clearly seething. “Dad wants to join them.”

“What?” Ralina looked as angry as her son. “Did your assistant drop a hydrospanner on your head, Lucius? Why would you even consider that?”

“The Jedi ships are old and in poor condition; they think that their ships will make the trip to whatever world they’re going to, but they won’t last for much longer without proper maintenance. They offered to contract my company to either repair or replace their ships.”

“But they’re Jedi,” Manda stressed. “Did they show you any credits up front? I don’t like it, Lucius. Sneaky and deceptive, the whole lot of them!”

Lucius crossed his arms and frowned. “First of all, they did offer a twenty thousand credit down payment. Second, you all act as if we’re going to be living with the Jedi the whole time. There’s already a settlement there of non-Jedi, and we'd be staying in their midst, not in some Jedi temple.”

“Telos is our home, Dad. Why would we just leave?” Thertos asked.

“In case you forgot, your mother and I aren’t exactly on good terms with the Republic in the first place,” Lucius pointed out. “And those bounty hunters after us for killing Mercium aren’t exactly just going to stop coming. We'd be much safer with the Jedi than here, where security is second-rate at best.”

“I don’t like it, Lucius. I just don’t,” Ralina replied.

“It’s not ideal. But with the credits they’ve offered us, we can work for them for a few months and then embark elsewhere on our own. This is the only way I see of us getting the freedom we deserve.”

Fetcher had been listening quietly, not quite sure whose side to take, when his chrono went off. As much as he wanted to support either Lucius or Ralina in their argument, he had spent enough time here and knew that he was needed back on his ship. “I’m afraid that means it’s time for me to go,” Fetcher announced.

“Oh, come on, Fetchy! You just got here,” Manda bemoaned.

“She’s right. Please stay for dinner, Fetcher. We'd all appreciate it,” Lucius said.

“Sorry. I'd really love to, you know I would, but I’m on a tight schedule. Perhaps next time?”

“We'll hold you to it,” Ralina noted.

“Take care, all,” Fetcher said. “Keep safe, Thertos.”

After the Velle family wished safety and fair spacelanes to Fetcher, he left their home behind. He realized as he jumped into his speeder that if they did follow the Jedi to some secret world, he would have no way of finding them. For a second, he considered going back in and asking Lucius for the details, but decided against it. He was running late as it was, and his crew was likely quite antsy and ready to leave Telos.

As much as he teased Manda, he had to admit her cooking was excellent. It would be a shame not to sit down and enjoy one of her meals again.

*** ***

Citadel Station was the most lively of all the Republic’s reconstruction sites, and that meant that goods always needed to be shipped to and from the planet. With so many businessbeings at work, it was easier to become lost in the crowd than at most spaceports, and it was even harder for the undermanned legal authorities to quash illegal transactions. For the time being, Telos Security tended to ignore the less savory spacers because they helped the economy. It was a short-term solution, but Fetcher didn’t mind. Citadel Station was one of his favorite ports, and it would be a shame to have to take his smuggling business elsewhere.

Ralina had made Fetcher and Manda swear never to tell Thertos about the fact that they had been—and in Fetcher’s case, was—involved in smuggling. Whether it was out of shame or a desire to shield the dutiful young man from his family’s most blatant lawlessness, he wasn’t entirely sure. He hated lying to the young man, but at the same time he felt obliged to honor Ralina’s request. With all the other trouble the family was in, Fetcher wouldn’t dare compound its issues with unnecessary dangers.

Sliding into hangar bay thirty-eight in Citadel Station’s so-called polar spaceport, Fetcher was relieved to see the Hound’s Sapphire berthed safely and preparing for launch. Only a few globular security droids were floating around outside, looking as inconspicuous as their cumbersome cleaning counterparts hovering a meter off the ground. Droids didn’t bother him. Machines could be tampered with; sentients had to be paid off, and credits were too valuable to waste on spaceport lackeys.

Linking up his personal speeder with the rear loading module of the Hound’s Sapphire, Fetcher pulled himself out as the car was automatically loaded into the cargo bay of the spaceworthy vessel. Walking under the elongated aft section of the Lethisk-class armed freighter toward its narrow forward section, Fetcher couldn’t help but notice the carbon scoring and worn blue paint on the ship’s underbelly. It was long overdue for a complete exterior refurbishing, he mused.

From the boarding ramp near the squat neck section connecting the two segments of the ship, Fetcher immediately headed for the bridge. The ship had been designed to fly with three crewers; Fetcher had made some modifications over the years to prevent pointless multitasking. While not visually impressive, the bridge was utilitarian and quite suitable for Fetcher’s needs. At the center of the bridge, on a slightly elevated platform, was a captain’s chair that resembled those provided to flag officers on military vessels. Toward the port were the communication center and sensor monitors, starboard of the chair were the gun controls, and just in front of the forward viewport was the navigation desk.

His crew was already waiting for him. Zalee had positioned herself at the gun controls, running through some algorithms in her head to ensure that they were calibrated correctly. Posh Sees, their Gran pilot, had been smuggling about half as long as Fetcher had been, and he was pretty damn good at what he did. He shot blasters on par with the best smuggling captains, fought with the tenacity of a Wookiee, and in Fetcher’s eyes, only Ralina matched him in the pilot seat of a vessel. The old Shistavanen had once worried that Posh would go out and start his own smuggling ventures with his impressive skill set, but the Gran never even suggested leaving. Whether he lacked conviction or was solely devoted to this ship and its crew, Fetcher wasn’t quite sure.

And, of course, at the sensors was Oryan Tempaar. The man had joined the crew shortly before Ralina left the captain’s chair, coming into their fold by way of some old friends. He had been scarred in some sort of violent altercation on Taris decades ago, leaving him covered in cybernetic parts. Metal plates had been molded into his body, and there were cables snaking in and out of his metal cranium and neck. These uplink cables synchronized his pseudo-droid brain with the ship’s artificial intelligence, Jon. Without a substantial power source, Oryan’s droid components would begin to shut themselves down, meaning he never left the ship. He had spent so much time inside the Hound’s Sapphire, Fetcher wasn’t sure if he was still Oryan, if he had become part of Jon’s sentience, or if he was someone else altogether.

“Nice of you to drop in, Captain,” Posh called from the helm. “Everything work out okay?”

“Yeah. The military gear is being loaded in with my speeder; the port scanners couldn’t penetrate the mutonium alloy.”

“I told you those shipping crates would be a good investment, Captain,” Zalee pointed out.

“You’re never wrong,” Fetcher agreed. “How was Thertos’s friend?”

“He’s safe with the military and has received proper medical care.”

“Excellent. Jon, did we receive permission to leave yet?”

The cyborg, who responded to both Oryan and Jon, was evidently unsure of his answer. “There is a bit of an issue in that regard, Captain Fetarollias.”

“What exactly would that be?”

“We seem to have been randomly selected for a Telos Security Force inspection,” the cyborg continued. “Their search will be very thorough: military-grade weapon detector, thermo-scanner, advanced lifeform detection module…”

“You keep listing off those scanners, you might make me physically ill,” Posh grumbled.

“So what you’re saying is, we’re stuck here until the TSF catches us?” Zalee asked.

“Indeed.” Oryan wrung his hands together worriedly. “Captain?”

“Posh, get those sublights on,” Fetcher ordered. “Jon, keep monitoring TSF channel to see if they get wise to us. I don’t think we'll be coming back here anytime soon, but I don’t want them getting a positive ID on this ship. Zalee, prime weapons.”

The crew had no idea what Fetcher was thinking, but they all complied without hesitation. The Hound’s Sapphire’s engines roared as they came to life, and the ship lifted itself just above the ground. Once its landing gear was withdrawn, the ship twisted around so that its bow was facing away from the entrance and it was effectively upside down. Once they were certain that the ceiling hatch meant for depature wasn’t going to open without physical encouragement, Fetcher ordered Zalee to blast a hole into the roof with the anti-starfighter turret mounted on their ventral side. Chunks of duracrete rained down upon the ship and a few bounced dangerously close to their viewport, but the ship’s shielding held. Alarms began to shrill in the distance as the smugglers flipped their ship skyward and escaped the spaceport.

“Another totally lawful departure, eh, Captain?” Posh chortled.

“Two unmarked picket ships coming in from the southwest,” Oryan reported.

“Ignore them. Give us some altitude and speed, Posh,” the captain demanded.

Unfortunately for Telos Security, the Hound’s Sapphire, like many smugglers' craft, had been extensively modified so they could escape these very situations. Reaching atmospheric speeds that no peacekeeping gunship on the market could match, the lithe freighter raced away from the polar regions of Telos IV on its way toward the equator. Flying above the space station between the lowest orbital traffic and above the tallest skyscrapers, the smugglers easily escaped the TSF. By the time the Hound’s Sapphire broke away from Citadel Station and joined the mass of outbound ships, their pursuers weren’t even on their sensors anymore.

Posh heaved a sigh of relief. “Well, that was fun. Where are we headed?”

Fetcher keyed in a destination on the navicomputer built into his captain’s chair. “We'll drop off our supplies at Rhommamool and then head to the meeting place on Taloraan.”

The crew chimed in their acknowledgment and prepared for hyperspace. Fetcher settled into his seat, watching the space around them and the ships passing them by either on their way to or from Citadel Station. In such a large crowd, there was no way to differentiate their ship from any of the hundreds of similar freighters. The smugglers had settled in for a quiet jump to hyperspace when Oryan alerted them to an incoming transmission.

“Who is it?” Fetcher growled.

“Its transmitting its identification as the Galactic Republic ship Reconciliation, a Hammerhead-class cruiser,” Oryan replied.

“Kriff,” Fetcher swore. “Go ahead and patch them in.”

They were greeted by some static on an open channel. “Hello,” a voice with a slight lisp spoke up. “Please transmit your ship’s identification to our vessel immediately.”

“May I ask why?” Fetcher replied.

“There was an incident at the polar spaceport involving a ship of a similar class and design as yours. We’ve received the information the ship provided on landing from the dockmaster there, and the TSF is enlisting our help in tracking down the perpetrator. If you don’t mind?”

Fetcher grumbled and signaled for Oryan to comply with their request. On one hand, Fetcher always provided false credentials whenever he landed in an official Republic spaceport like those on Citadel Station, and he could provide more to these naval authorities. On the other hand, these type of situations almost never ended well. “Very well. Sending them now.”

Once they had transmitted their relevant—and totally fabricated—information, Fetcher and his crew were ordered to power down their engines. With no interest in angering the commanding officer of a Republic warship, the smugglers complied.

“They’re going to engage us,” Zalee said after Oryan had closed the channel.

“They have no proof,” Fetcher noted in kind, “just a rough description of a hostile ship and misleading information. They might demand to see our flight records to determine where we were docked, but those are just as easy to fabricate.”

“Unless they compare them to the TSF’s docking manifests,” Oryan pointed out.

“Hello,” a new voice spoke into the channel. This one was grim and deep, quite in contrast to the low-ranking officer they had been speaking to. “This is Rear Admiral Holbes Rueni of the Reconciliation. May I ask to whom I am speaking?”

“Captain Timor Fhox of the Flighty Fighter. Why are we being detained, Admiral?” Fetcher asked.

“Like my lieutenant told you before, a ship left the polar spaceport of Citadel Station in an unscheduled and rather abrasive manner. We have reason to suspect that was your ship.”

“Such as?” Fetcher was in no mood to play games with any flag officer in the Republic military, and he motioned for Posh to prepare for immediate departure.

“The aesthetics and its classification are quite similar. What’s more, according to our scanners, your ship’s size-to-mass ratio is far greater than our records indicate a ship of your class should be. Are you transporting cargo?”

“Afraid not. We unloaded all our moisture vaporators back on Telos. Fetcher hit a switch on his armrest and muted the channel. “How long do we have to wait for our jump?” he asked his crew.

“The computer needs thirty-five seconds,” Posh reported, turning on their sublight engines again. “We still headed to Rhommamool?”

“No. If they can determine our escape vector and approximate travel distance, they'd just follow us right to our destination. Make a micro-jump to the edge of this system, and we'll go from there.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“And interpose that bulk carrier between us and them. Fly casual,” Fetcher encouraged. Once he was through, he flipped his end of the comm back on. “You were saying, Admiral?”

“We’ve determined that we have reasonable cause to search your vessel, Captain Fhox. Please lower your shields and turn off your engines, and prepare to be boarded.”

“This is illegal,” Fetcher replied, angrier than he actually was. “This is unlawful and beyond the scope of your authority. I will report to the Bureau of Ships and Services about this gross violation of my rights as a spacer.”

“You will understand that the individuals we’re searching for escaped a scheduled inspection, and as such might be engaged in suspicious activity. Please deactivate your engines; we’re activating our tractor beam now. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Fetcher looked at Posh, who gave him a slight nod. With a toothy smile, he said, “No, Admiral Rueni. I’m afraid I must apologize.”

“What for?”

“For embarrassing you like this.”

Fetcher waved his hand in confirmation, and Posh pulled the hyperspace lever. Just as the Reconciliation navigated around the bulk carrier and achieved its lock on the smuggler’s freighter, the Hound’s Sapphire disappeared in a flicker of pseudomotion, leaving the massive warship staring at the empty space over Citadel Station.

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