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The thin meniscus of the bubbling amber wine gently bobbed up and down as the glasses clinked. The room was filled with cheers and the din of light, casual conversation, punctuated here and there by laughter. The bridge of the Star Destroyer Impenetrable, usually a sober place filled with stern-eyed men in khaki uniforms and military decorum, was for once, a place of festivity. Small cloth-draped tables had been set up in corners of the bridge, festooned with the Imperial crest and laden with more crystal glasses of wine. It was a time of celebration throughout the entire ship, and although a small contingent of officers was still maintaining a keen vigilance on the surrounding areas from an auxillary bridge, the mood was light. The crowd of Humans, a mix of Imperial officers resplendent in dress uniforms and a number of female companions, filled the bridge. Shining bare silky-soft shoulders and brightly colored long dresses, combined with the sopranos and altos of female voices, contrasted neatly with the gunmetal-gray finish and martial look of the currently deserted crew stations, sights and sounds rare to the ship’s bridge. From the viewport, the tannish-green glowing horizon of Brentaal IV sliced through the black star-speckled backdrop of space as the Imperial warship hung in orbit, providing a stunning vista of space for the guests and celebrants.

The occasion was of celebration-following a brief ceremony, the Empire had seen fit to promote the ship’s captain, Commodore Iostain Tacnell, a dashing, dark-haired man with a distinguished appearance and just a hint of gray around his temples, to the rank of Rear Admiral. Although typically a strict military man, the former commodore had outdone himself in terms of the size of his celebration, setting up a virtually ship-wide gala, as one last farewell to the officers and crewers that had helped him rise to such a prestigious position. Their service at scattered actions across the galaxy, particularly his role in suppressing the Dubrillion Insurrection, had greatly helped to further his career. Furthermore, his first officer, Lieutenant Cas Niblim had also been promoted, leading to an occasion that called for a party of significant magnitude. All across the Impenetrable, celebrations of less extravagance, but equal cheer, were being held, except in restricted areas vital to the operation of the ship. The Empire, aside from some pesky nuisances who made feeble attempts at organized resistance, was secure, and Rear Admiral Tacnell had made the decision for his crew to enjoy themselves before he departed to his new post.

The centerpiece of the festivities was a demonstration of the might of the Empire, a form of stellar pyrotechnics that would occur by having the Impenetrable turn its ponderous turbolaser batteries onto an old Gallofree transport owned by the Imperial Navy and typically used as escort practice by TIE starfighter squadrons. Now, it was in position less than ten kilometers away from the Star Destroyer, within easy viewing distance, and with an occasional news skiff flying around it, recording some footage for later broadcast through the HoloNet. The aged hulk had already been towed into position and now, having gotten the attention of the guests on the bridge, Rear Admiral Tacnell hopped up onto a console, his spotless uniform and shining black boots clearly visible from his elevated position as he activated the ship’s intercom.

“My dear guests, let me extend my thanks for your attendance, and I sincerely hope you are enjoying yourself thus far. The party is by no means over, and I hope you will stick around for all of it. Now, as you may know, this is a fully-operational warship of the Imperial Navy. The Impenetrable is an Imperial-class Star Destroyer, and the weapons on this ship are capable of reducing an entire planet’s surface to molten rock in a matter of hours.”

Tacnell smiled briefly as the magnitude of his words sank into the clearly impressed civilian dignitaries and guests from Brentaal on the bridge.

“For your entertainment, today, we will have a demonstration of the sheer power embodied by this ship, power that belongs to the Empire. However, against the recommendations of some of my more zealous gunnery officers, we will not be blasting any planetary surfaces.”

There were clear sighs and expressions of relief among some of the more naïve guests who had not picked up on Tacnell’s facetiousness.

“Instead, we will be targeting that ship over there,” Tacnell said, indicating behind him and out the viewport to the Gallofree transport. “It’s a ninety-meter long cargo vessel that’s well, outlived its usefulness. However, its final mission will be to provide a bit of a light show for all of you. That said, return to your conversations and your drinks, but I encourage you to keep an eye on the viewport. You won’t want to miss this.”

Satisfied with his theatrics, Tacnell pulled a comlink out of his belt with a flourish, thumbing the device on.

“Weapons, are you ready?”
“Yes, sir, target is locked on, primary turbolaser batteries on standby.”
“Acknowledged,” Tacnell replied. “Prepare to fire on my mark.”

Lifting the comlink dramatically-and unnecessarily-to his lips, Tacnell audibly counted down slowly, building the suspense with each slowly uttered number that echoed through the suddenly silenced bridge.

“Three . . . two . . . one . . . fire!” he said, reveling in the rapt attention he received.

The deck faintly lurched as the sizable batteries of the Star Destroyer fired on the transport, sending sizable pulses of glowing green energy bolts hurtling through space to impact on the old transport. The first salvo tore through the ship’s structure in a short-lived cloud of fiery gases and flying metal shards. The lasers bit deep into the ship, tearing a gash through its decks. A subsequent volley exacerbated the damage, burning through even more of the fragile bulkheads in the ship, until it reached the center, which had been carefully rigged to explode and filled with certain show-enhancing packages. As the turbolasers seared the center of the ship, the heat-sensitive pyrotechnics packages detonated, along with several strategically-placed shaped charges. The end result was that the transport exploded in a multi-colored flash of light as tiny pyrotechnic fireballs shot out from the ruptured ships, along with flying metal shards, sparkling and glowing heat.

The guests oohed and aahed appreciatively, and a smattering of light applause made its way around the bridge. Rear Admiral Tacnell bowed theatrically, replaced his comlink on his belt, and accepted a congratulatory glass of wine from one of his officers. He was in mid-gulp when his comlink chirped at him. Scowling, he pulled the device from his belt and stepped aside to one corner, so as to be able to hear over the rekindled din of conversation.

“Tacnell here. What is it?” he asked shortly.
“This is the auxillary bridge,” came the voice out of the comlink. “We’re receiving a distress call from one of the news ships. They say they were hit by debris and have some injuries onboard.”
“Weren’t they warned away from the explosion?” Tacnell asked irritably.
“Yes, sir. They apparently weren’t far enough away” came the reply.

The rear admiral sighed, the heaving of his chest enough to cause the medals on his uniform to gently clink together in time with his exhalation.

Civilians,” he muttered, then spoke up and into the comlink. “Very well, patch them through to my station.”
“Aye, sir.”

Tacnell made his way back over to his command console and activated the communications controls. A miniature hologram appeared on the panel, showing a distressed-looking woman. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, and was certainly attractive. She was wearing business dress, as befitting a journalist, but her long, slightly curled dark auburn hair was disheveled and her dark eyes were filled with worry.

“This is Jemma Askalot, TriNebulon News! Our ship was damaged in the explosion and some of the crew are injured. I’m not sure if we’re still in control of the ship-we keep turning and spinning. Please assist!” the woman said, her Basic colored with a cultured accent but filled with worry, a distinction Tacnell detected even with the transmission crackling with static from its low quality.

No doubt, their transmitter had been damaged as well.

“This is Rear Admiral Tacnell, of the Star Destroyer Impenetrable. Hold course-Help is on the way,” Tacnell said, trying to encourage the distraught woman.
“Acknowledged, and thank you,” she answered.

Tacnell snapped the holoprojector off and picked up the comlink again.

“Aux bridge, this is Tacnell. Dispatch a shuttle with a medical and engineering team to assist the civilians,” he said crisply.
“Aye, sir. We’ll launch it as soon as possible.”
“Good,” Tacnell said. “Tacnell out.”

De-activating the device, he slipped the comlink back into his belt and returned his focus to the party, putting the matter of the civilians out of his mind as he rejoined the celebration. However, he was unintentionally overlooking one key detail-there were no civilians onboard that news ship.

Onboard the shuttle, Dex Naresco sat on a hard bench restlessly, fidgeting with a pack around his waist. He was just shorter than average height for a human, with short, spiky red hair. Typically smaller than the most of the others he usually worked with, his current attire helped disguise that fact.

Naresco was clad from neck to toe in a sophisticated black battlesuit, festooned with equipment packs, energy mags, belts, grenades, and other assorted items he would need. His right hand was wrapped around the guard of a S-2F blaster rifle, complete with underslung grenade launcher, which he held loosely as he waited. A member of the elite fighting force known as the Yanibar Guard, Naresco had been in the service for two years, joining shortly after his family arrived on Yanibar as refugees from fighting on his homeworld. He shook his head briefly to clear his mind from the memory; those months had been harrowing, and the pain from losing loved ones to the Empire still burned in him years later. He had poured his desire for revenge into military training and electronics, and despite his relatively small size and introspective nature, had been selected for membership in Cresh Squad, one of the Yanibar Guard’s special operations units. His selection was largely due to his familiarity with computer systems and electronic signals-while he had been trained in the use of weapons and tactics and professed to be a more than competent shooter, his real gift was in his knack for deciphering computer systems and signals.

Although the Guard saw only limited action offworld due to Yanibar’s isolationist stance, Naresco had been on a number of worlds incognito, as the special operations squads were not bound by the same rules of engagement as most of the rest of the Guard. As such, he had been on six missions across the galaxy with the squad so far, but this was only his third mission wearing a battlesuit, as most times they had to be more discreet. Still, he had trained in the armor and was comfortable in it, though he, alone out of the squad members, disliked the fully enclosed helmet and wore it as little as possible.

Seated around him and across from him were six other members of the squad-their leader, a taciturn Duros named Captain Beblos, was up in the cockpit of the shuttle, doing a good job of simulating out-of-control flight. They had already donned their helmets, and the gray and black masks covered their faces, rendering them expressionless as they waited, the two glowing red lights of their optics sets standing out in stark contrast to the dark colors of the battlesuits. Naresco checked the chrono on his left gauntlet. It was getting close. For now, he sat and waited, trying not to stare at the four people at the stern of the news ship, a temptation he had to resist all mission. Normally, the special ops squads worked independently or possibly with an Intel agent or two. Being close-knit units, their team dynamics allowed them to work well together and less efficiently when tossed in with others. However, in all the simulations they had run before this mission, the four at the stern had more than proved themselves capable. That wasn’t what drew Naresco’s attention, though. It was who they were.

“Oh, come on. ‘Jemma Askalot?’,” said one of them, a fairly tall dark-haired man also clad in a Kraechar Arms Battlesuit52-A identical to Naresco’s. “Couldn’t you have come up with something a little better?”
“I’m sure I could have,” replied the woman, who was still in her business suit attire, as befitting a journalist. “But remember, real life is ridiculous, and a name that outrageous couldn’t possibly be made up, in the minds of Imperial officers.”
“Hiding something in plain sight,” affirmed the third man, who had previously stood quietly.

He too wore a battlesuit up to the neck, having similarly refrained from putting his helmet on, and Naresco stared at the tanned, weathered face of the man they usually referred to as “General Kraen, sir!” in the unlikely event they saw him around Paklis Base. Rumored to have served in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Clone Wars, his reputation was legendary in the Guard, particularly in the special ops. As if it wasn’t blindingly obvious already, the mission had to be of utmost importance for the likes of the commander of Yanibar’s ground forces to come along. That his companions were also along spoke volumes about just how critical this operation was.

For one, the startlingly attractive woman posing as a journalist was none other than the Director of Yanibar Intelligence, Milya Tayrce Kraen. The first man in the battlesuit was Sarth Kraen, the head of Kraechar Arms, which had invented most of the gear Naresco depended on and used regularly. Finally, the last figure, who alone besides the Director did not wear a battlesuit, was the Supreme Commander of the entire Yanibar Guard, Selusda Kraen. Instead of a B52-A, SupCom Kraen wore civilian clothes, currently emblazoned with the TriNebulon News logo, as befitting a holocam operator or pilot.

At any rate, for figures of such import to be accompanying Cresh Squad, Naresco figured that nothing smaller than the fate of the galaxy as a whole had to be at stake. Then again, it wasn’t every day that the Guard infiltrated an Imperial Star Destroyer. Even with most of the ship’s crew on leave on the planet’s surface, even a Star Destroyer with a skeleton complement had more than enough security to make all twelve of them very, very dead if they were caught. Which was exactly the entire operational plan revolved around not getting caught.

His helmet comlink crackled as Captain Beblos activated his own device.

“The Imperial shuttle will dock in approximately ten minutes. Cresh Squad, go silent.”

The other squad members immediately stood, weapons held at port arms, as they moved to near the docking hatch on the little news skiff, and Naresco joined them, pulling his helmet on. At a silent hand signal from Beblos, who had come aft to join them, they all engaged the active camouflage systems that were concealed in their suit’s backpacks. There was a faint shimmer evident to Naresco as the camo field activated, but otherwise, everything looked just as it had a minute ago through his helmet optics, aside from a glowing blue icon on his HUD telling him that he was camouflaged, along with a timer counting down how much time he had left. Beside him, General Kraen and Sarth had also engaged their own camouflage systems and the ten invisible warriors stood there quietly, weapons at the ready, visible to the others only by glowing computer-generated dots superimposed on their images by their helmets.

Several agonizingly long minutes later, the hull began creaking and lurching slightly as the Imperial ship slowed their tumbling with a small tractor beam, and Naresco felt the skiff vibrate as the shuttle latched on to their ship. The airlock hissed and eventually opened to reveal an Imperial officer, followed by two lower-ranked crewers, both of whom were carrying sizable kits. A medic and an engineer, Naresco figured. Waiting to greet them was the director, who once again was perfectly in character, playing the role of a distressed journalist, while gushing gratitude to the Empire for their aid.

Naresco didn’t catch everything that was said between them, but he saw the General’s dot slip quietly past the boarding party and into the Imperial craft to neutralize the pilots, just as they had planned. The Imperial medic had just managed to get “Jemma” to sit down to take a look at her allegedly bruised shoulder while the Imperial engineer was heading forward to the cockpit to realign something or other when Naresco saw the signal, a subtle brush of the Director’s hand against her ear, a two fingered salute that meant Go!

As soon as she signaled ready, Naresco saw the director and Selu spring into action-for their part, Cresh Squad was merely there as back-up for the moment. Milya’s hand moved like lightning and Naresco watched the medic collapse nerveless on the ground from an Echani hand jab to the throat while Selu simply whacked the officer and engineer on the back of the head with the butt of his lightsaber as they pored over the cockpit displays. A few mind-muddling ylannock sedative injections to keep them quiet, and the three Imperials were down for several hours. Naresco watched the General’s dot return from the Imperial shuttle.

“It’s clear,” the General said through their helmet comms, and that was the signal for Cresh Squad, Spectre, and Sarth to disengage their cloaks, if only to conserve power for later.

The squad shimmered back into view and Naresco stood there quietly, in awe of the casual speed and efficiency he had just seen displayed in the complete takedown of the Imperial shuttle’s crew. True, he had seen it done a dozen times in simulation, but the martial prowess of the four “guests” astounded him anew every time. The fact that it was the actual mission only intensified the feeling.

“Let’s trade this piece of junk in for a new ride,” Spectre said wryly.

Leaving the Imperials securely restrained in the cargo hold of the now-stabilized skiff, the eight members of Cresh Squad and the other four boarded the Imperial shuttle; though the general made sure to deposit the two unconscious pilots back aboard the new skiff first. However, they were not left unspoiled, as Selu confiscated the uniform of one of them.

“Costume change,” he remarked, trading out the civilian attire for the crisp Imperial uniform.

There was a brief chuckle all around as the Imperial shuttle detached and headed back towards the Impenetrable. Once they were away, all of Cresh Squad activated their cloaking fields. If the Imperials were to scan the shuttle, it would not do for them to detect the eight extra people on board when it had originally carried a crew of only five. The plan was relatively simple in concept-the sheer audacity of it was the key point. Nobody in the Empire could possibly expect them to brazenly hijack a shuttle only to fly it back to its home.

Naresco silently watched as the shuttle approached the massive Imperial warship, via the faint glimpses he got out of the forward viewport. The shuttle flew smoothly towards the hangar under the control of Spectre and Sarth, but Naresco couldn’t help but feel the weight of overwhelming dread as the shuttle slowed to a stop and set down. As the white metal of the Star Destroyer’s bulk filled the viewport, he couldn’t shake the idea that the tiny shuttle had just been figuratively swallowed by some giant beast of war. A bit late for that thought, he snorted inwardly. It wasn’t as if there was a way out now.

As the shuttle came to a rest on the shiny deck of the hangar, Naresco checked his S-2F for the hundredth time as the ramp lowered and Selu descended, Milya out. There were several other Imperials waiting there, and Naresco didn’t catch all of his conversation with them, but he knew it was essentially the same as what had been said over the comm to the Impenetrable during the flight over here: The medic and engineer were still aboard the news skiff, but would signal in about an hour when they were finished. The two pilots were still onboard, tinkering with the tractor beam relay, but he, posing as the Imperial officer, had promised to show the pretty journalist around the Star Destroyer. As expected, the atmosphere was light and friendly, the welcoming party gracious to the director, and at no point did Naresco pick up any hint of suspicion. The Imperials parted to let the Milya and Selu through, unaware that as the shuttle’s ramp hissed up behind them, they had just let another ten uninvited guests onto the Impenetrable.

As they filed through the brightly-lit, stark-white corridors of the Star Destroyer, Naresco kept a vigilant alert out for trouble. Staying to the edges of the walking areas, the camouflaged operators of Cresh Squad were careful to avoid bumping into any passing Imperials. The sonic dampers in their armor silenced the sounds of their movement, but if they were to run into an Imperial, it would all be over. He fought the urge to keep his rifle up and pointed at all the passers-by, because although he knew that he was invisible to their eyes, even to the stormtroopers unless they were really paying attention, the instincts to blast the nearest enemy were hard to repress; they had been ingrained in his mind during his training and years of service.

It was almost surreal-walking casually ahead of them, maintaining their casual air of an officer showing a journalist around the ship and possibly flirting with her a little, were Selu and Milya. Behind them, in silent double lines, were the eight members of Cresh Squad, Spectre and Sarth. Strict radio silence was maintained, since although the Imperials didn’t appear to be on alert, stray comm signals would tip them off immediately. However, as they descended further into the ship, Naresco noticed far fewer Imperials than there should have been. The standard crew complement on an Imperial Star Destroyer was over 30,000, but it didn’t seem that crowded even for a skeleton crew. Perhaps more of the crew was on shore leave than expected, or perhaps Intel was wrong about crew sizes. As much as he wouldn’t care to admit that sentiment to Milya, there had been times where the squad hadn’t received accurate data from the Intel “spooks.”

Coming up on yet another intersection in the dizzying maze of corridors, Naresco saw their target: a series of lift tube shafts that bisected the core of the ship. Sizable personnel lifts, they were used to ferry personnel from the hangar bays, engine rooms, and crew quarters on the lower decks of the ship to the command tower. Selu and Milya waited for a few minutes to get one of their own, and took their time getting into the lift car-a delay contrived by having Milya lose her shoe, but in reality done to allow all ten of them into the crowded compartment that would transport them-ostensibly to the top of the Star Destroyer to meet the Imperial higher-ups there.

However, that was not their intended destination. A quick push of the button sent them not to the bridge, but down to the core of the Star Destroyer, deep inside the ship, a darker area operated only by techs that were few and far in between. The corridors were not nearly so wide here, nor as brightly lit. The infiltrators exited the lift tube in ghostly silence and quickly slipped off to a side corridor that led to an obscure power relay conduit that was rarely checked and, more importantly, not monitored by the massive system of Imperial holocams. Once afforded some privacy, Selu and Milya made yet another costume change for something a bit more appropriate to the next stage of the mission.

Milya slipped out of the journalist disguise to reveal the combat jumpsuit underneath and Naresco’s eyes were temporarily drawn to her. Then he caught Selu’s subtle but pointed look in his direction and remembered that his superiors were Force-sensitive and could read his emotions. His face reddened behind his helmet and he immediately looked away, suddenly abashed, before his years of discipline clamped down and he was once again the consummate professional soldier.

He had to be; things were about to get noisy. Selu had attired himself in an archaic battle armor that vaguely recalled a Mandalorian influence with its T-visor, while Milya was content with adding an equipment vest and comlink bead inside her ear to complete her outfit. She took the lead now, but gone was the chatty journalist, replaced with the quiet feline smoothness of a professional spy. First Milya and then Selu shimmered out of view, courtesy of Selu’s Force powers, and though Naresco had seen him do it before, he still found it weird that the Force afforded the man the same ability as the prized camopacks on his B52-A. Shaking his head clear of distractions, Naresco returned his focus: The mission. There was nothing else now but the mission and his mind cleared, just as it always did before battle.

They advanced quietly, weapons at the ready, and finally reached their target. Naresco inhaled sharply. Against all the odds, they had pulled it off: arrived at their objective completely undetected in the Yanibar Guard’s most audacious raid yet.

The dull gray doors to the main computer monitoring station on the Impenetrable slowly slid open as an invisible figure triggered the activation command telekinetically. There were several Imperials standing in the room, including two stormtroopers. Naresco brought his rifle up to his chest, bracketing a stormtrooper on his sights. His helmet was even now sending his targeting solutions to Captain Beblos, whose tactical AI ensured that no Imperial was left untargeted. Just like in the sims. The tall Imperial officer standing at the central desk station, bent over a console, turned and looked at the suddenly open door, and his jaw dropped slightly, puzzled as to why the door had suddenly opened to reveal a strikingly attractive woman dressed for battle, the pistol in her right arm already sweeping up towards his chest.

His hand reflexively went for the service blaster pistol at his side, but he was not used to using it, nor prepared to fight. The two stormtroopers turned to open fire, their carbines tracking towards the woman, when an imposing figure in ancient-looking armor materialized out of nowhere beside one of them, a sizzling green bar of energy slicing through one of them from hip to shoulder as Selu launched his assault. A flick of his fingers sent another Imperial crewer flying back to hit the wall of the room with a bone-crunching thud, while Milya’s pistol whirr-chirped twice, sending two metal slugs hurtling at subsonic velocities into the officer’s chest. Behind her, Cresh Squad deactivated its cloak and opened up, purple bolts and metal slugs flying from their weapons to drop the Imperials. Naresco’s finger tightened twice, the bolts from his rifle burying themselves in the chest of the other white-armored stormtrooper. The man collapsed without even firing off a shot, his rifle slipping from nerveless fingers to clatter on the ground. The rest of the squad let loose a flurry of bolts that smashed into the holocams and monitoring stations that hung over the round room and its banks of consoles.

“Clear!” barked Captain Beblos, his voice echoing across their comm network.
“Clear!” sounded off Cresh Eight, the squad medic and a long-time veteran named Leskins from a side corridor.

He’d been in the squad for about five years, which was a long time for Cresh Squad. Most people tended to transfer out after a few years of service with a big salary bonus and few shiny, but highly classified medals to show for it.

“Good. Seal the doors,” Selu answered, retracting the brilliant green lightsaber blade back into its hilt. “Have your squad search the nearby causeways. Make sure there aren’t any others around here to sound the alarm.”
“On it, sir,” Beblos replied, signaling to the others.

Selu turned to his brother, Sarth, who was poring over one of the recently vacated Imperial consoles.

“Is it still intact?” he asked.

Sarth nodded.

“It is. I just have to run through the procedures for taking out the memory cores.”
“Get on it, then. It’s only a matter of time before they realize that something’s wrong with the computer room, and I’d like to be out of here by then.”
“I’m working, I’m working,” Sarth muttered.
“I’ve tapped into their surveillance systems,” Milya reported. “I’ve set them a nice little dummy program based on the last few minutes of activity. If nobody’s paying attention, they won’t catch our little assault just yet.”

Selu nodded. So far, things were going perfectly according to plan. The Empire was as of yet unaware to their presence and they successfully had gained access to the Impenetrable’s computer core. The only tricky part would be exfiltration, but even that was manageable. All they had to do was get back to the hangar the same way they came, setting off a little diversion in the hangar in order to draw attention from their sudden launch.

Several agonizingly long minutes passed by, and Cresh Squad maintained a stony silent vigilance at the doors to the Star Destroyer’s computer nodes. Sarth worked quietly at the computer core, entering in protocols to commence detachment of the core, all the while bypassing numerous layers of security. His eyes danced over the screens while his fingers flew across various inputs. Naresco watched him quietly, silently observing as he worked. His job was to stand there and provide assistance as needed, though while he was a more than adequate slicer, this type of delicate work was not what he had trained to do. Not only that, but Sarth Kraen had an extremely good memory, Naresco had been told, and had practically memorized the detachment routine on the second time he’d seen it. It would have taken him a couple months to learn something that convoluted, he reflected ruefully.

“Just a little longer,” Sarth said. “I’ve almost got it out, running the finalization routines now.”
“Copy,” Selu replied tersely. “I want us out of here soon. You’d think it would be easier to pull the core out of a Star Destroyer.”
“Well, it normally takes a couple of hours and some flag-level command codes,” Milya quipped. “I think that ten minutes isn’t too much to ask.”
“If you say so,” Selu replied, attempting to inject a lighter tone in order to mask the strain in his voice.
“There’s just one catch,” Sarth said.

Selu stole a quick look at Spectre.

“What’s that?” he asked.
“This is almost certain to set off-,” he said.

Suddenly, he was cut off by a wailing alarm emanating from the computer console warning of computer security breach.

“An alarm,” Sarth finished lamely.
“Stang!” Selu swore. “Are you still in their system, Milya?”
“Of course,” she replied.
“Conjure up some false leads for them,” he said. “Send them running anywhere but here. Looks like we’re not going to get to do this the easy way.”
“On it,” she affirmed.
“How long until you’re done?” he asked Sarth.
“Just a few more minutes,” Sarth said. “I’ve already locked them out of the system, so unless there’s a secret back door in here that I don’t know about, this won’t take much longer.”
“Let’s hope we have that long,” Selu replied grimly. “Cresh Squad, set up a perimeter. I think we’re going to have company.”

Naresco complied with the order, kneeling behind a console for cover, his rifle aimed at the main entrance. If the Imperial response team was sloppy enough, the squad could deal with them quickly enough and buy time for the group to disappear into the countless corridors in the underbelly of the Star Destroyer. They waited, long tense moments. Captain Beblos informed them that a squad of stormtroopers was on its way down, and Naresco didn’t doubt him for a moment.

Bridge, Star Destroyer Impenetrable
“What?” hissed Commodore Tacnell into the comlink.
“That’s right, sir,” came the reply from the auxiliary bridge. “Apparently there’s a security breach around the primary core. We can’t reach any of the personnel stationed there either.”
“Any chance that this is a mistake?” he said.
“Not much, sir. Odds are pretty low.”
“Send a squad of stormtroopers to investigate,” he said. “And put the crews on alert to a possible sabotage effort. Also, cancel leave for another fifty stormtroopers. I want more security up here as soon as possible. Use the shuttles to bring them back if you have to.”
“Aye, sir,”

Tacnell swore under his breath. With any luck, this wasn’t some sort of Rebel sabotage squad or hostile alien attempting to attack his ship during a moment of vulnerability. Unfortunately, most of his crew complement was down on the surface, enjoying some well-earned shore leave. There were fewer than three hundred stormtroopers on the whole ship, and that certainly wasn’t enough for all possible contingencies. However, he had to be prepared for the worst, though. For the moment, he would just wait for the report from the stormtroopers.

“Is something wrong, Commodore?” asked one of his guests, a female secretary of some planetary official-young, blonde, good-looking.
“No, not at all,” he said, shaking his head amiably. “Just a misunderstanding with another officer elsewhere on the ship.”
Forcing a smile, he returned to mingling with his guests. For now, he would savor this moment and hope for the best. Short of going down to the main computer operations center himself, there was little else he felt he could do without alarming his dignitaries. And in light of his boasts about Imperial power, putting the ship on full lockdown and suddenly canceling his own party would look quite bad. Some of the people on the Impenetrable were journalists. If he allowed this to become a poor public relations showing, even if the threat of sabotage turned out to be false, his career would be marred by this incident. So, because appearances had to be maintained, he sacrificed some measure of security. It was not a compromise that sat well with him, but Commodore Tacnell didn’t see any better choice.
Main Computer Operations Center, Star Destroyer Impenetrable

The moment the white-armored men came into view, the eight commandos and Spectre let loose with a furious hail of fire, knocking five of them down almost instantly. The others, covered by the bodies of their comrades lasted a few seconds longer, until Captain Beblos fired a grenade from his underslung ordnance launcher. However, Selu was annoyed.

“That took far too long,” he said. “It’s possible that they got off a call for help. There’ll be more of them on the way, and in much larger groups, attacking from multiple directions.”
“There wasn’t much more we could do, sir,” Beblos said, eyeing the smoking armored shells containing the bodies of the stormtroopers, lying there in dimly lit metal corridor. “There’s no way we could hit all of them when they were stacked up like that.”
“Then we’ll have to change tactics,” Selu replied. “I’m going out there a few meters. I’ll lie cloaked until the next group attacks, then I’ll hit them in the rear while you attack from the front.”
“What if we hit you, sir?” Beblos protested.
“You won’t,” he replied confidently. “Just go easy on the explosives.”

With that, he sauntered out into the corridor, fading from view.

“Is that a good idea?” Naresco asked his commander on a private channel.
“Possibly,” Beblos said slowly. “But I hate it when he does things like that. He’s the Supreme Commander, for the Force’s sake. We can’t stand to lose him.”

Naresco nodded in agreement with his commander, but there was nothing they could do at the moment. It wasn’t their place to argue with their superior officer, however much they might disagree with his decisions. He took up his position behind the console again, blaster at the ready. He still had plenty of energy in the power pack according to his helmet display and his armor integrity still showed full. Judging by the typically limitless numbers of personnel the Empire employed, he doubted it would remain that way for long. Time was running out.

Once again, Beblos’ Enhanced Tactical Advisor and enhanced sensors gave them advance warning of the next group of Imperials. The results were much more forbidding: at least three dozen individuals approaching, probably with heavy equipment. The first group came around the corner alert for an ambush, firing as they came. Cresh Squad remained ducked out of sight as the red bolts splattered and sparked around them. Ordinarily, they would have stood and blasted back at the stormtroopers, risking the glancing hits, but they were operating without shields and with such little support that they could not afford casualties at all.

Then, in unison, they brought their S-2F rifles, S-2C carbines, S-3A autorifle, and S-5X sniper rifle to bear, blazing away at the stormtroopers. Red and purple blasts flew back and forth down the corridor, but these stormtroopers were not the Empire’s best, apparently. Naresco rolled up, let loose a pair of blasts in their direction and rolled back down as three red bolts sizzled past where his head had been a minute before. He popped up from behind the console again, gloved finger ready to squeeze the trigger, when he saw the dancing green flashes of Selu’s lightsabers tearing through the Imperial ranks. He slackened off his fire to avoid any accidentally friendly fire, but kept his weapon at the ready.

Selu’s blades hummed as he whipped through the stormtroopers, stabbing and slashing as he went. The few blaster bolts that were directed his way were batted away with contemptuous ease and he knew that he’d cut down about a dozen stormtroopers in less than twenty seconds. There were eight left in this group, one part of his mind peripherally reflected as he scythed his short-bladed shoto through the abdomen of one of his faceless armored opponents. With a flick of his wrist, he launched the shoto end-over-end at another three stormtroopers, the green blade carving instantly fatal incisions through their chest cavities. He deflected another blaster bolt back at the faceplate of his would-be shooter and prepared to attack his last three opponents when something hit him like a ton of durasteel travelling close to the speed of light.

Selu cried out and his control over the Force, so effortless and smooth a millisecond before, was completely blown away. The shoto’s midair flight was halted as his mind lost his grip on it, and the weapon clattered to the ground. All thoughts of battle were driven from his mind as he collapsed to the ground, clutching at his head. He hadn’t been hit, he knew that. There was no way one of the stormtroopers, so easily detected and anticipated through the Force, could have hit them, and there were no other Force-sensitives on the Impenetrable other than himself and his companions.

No, this felt like being on Emberlene again as the fission he had brought there exploded, killing countless people. It was like the death of the Jedi Order all over again. There were millions of voices crying out in his head, and then suddenly, they were silenced. His vision swam, but he knew the source of his mental agony was a disturbance in the Force, a metaphysical rippling of the dark side through space. Something awful had happened.

Then he looked up and saw a stormtrooper looming over him, the muzzle of his black E-11 blaster rifle pointed squarely at his face. Selu tried weakly to gather back his command of the Force to send the stormtrooper flying, but to no avail. For the moment at least, that power remained inaccessible to him. He might regain its use in a few minutes, but that would be far too late. He was helpless.

Captain Beblos saw his supreme commander fall and knew he had to take action. Roaring to get the attention of the stormtroopers, he burst from cover out into plain sight, his rifle firing on full auto, sending streams of purple fire out into them. Naresco and the others followed suit, blasting Selu’s would-be attacker and the other stormtroopers with a furious hail of blaster fire.

“Cover me,” Beblos shouted. “Eight, help me get him back here.”
“I’ll get him,” said Milya, her voice filled with concern, as her own pistol knocked one of the stormtroopers down, but Naresco could see that whatever had hit Selu was affecting her, too; she looked like she was ready to fall over.
“No, ma’am!” Beblos replied brusquely. “We’ll handle this. I need some fire!”
“SUPPRESSING FIRE!” bellowed the squad gunner, letting loose with the full power of his S-3 autorifle.

Dozens of energy bolts issued from his gun, driving the remaining stormtroopers back behind cover. Naresco joined in too, raking the end of the corridor with enough blasterfire to make any stormtroopers think twice about taking any opportunistic shots at the squad leader and Leskins while they brought Selu back.

“Check six!” growled the squad’s second-in-command, a Shistavanen lieutenant named Vloor and another long-time veteran.

His warning came just in time, as a half-dozen white-armored stormtroopers, having moved up through one of the accessways, attacked from the rear. Vloor, standing at the rear of the room, was hit twice and fell to the ground, but kept firing. The squad, caught by surprise, turned to open fire, quickly dropping the stormtroopers. Naresco turned and let loose a quick snap shot that caused his target to fold over clutching his midsection, but there were too many. Seizing the moment, he pulled the secondary trigger on his S-2F rifle. The weapon bucked and spat forward a grenade from the underslung launcher into the ranks of the stormtroopers. The resulting detonation flattened the rest of them.

“Seal the rear doors again!” Beblos ordered from his position up front, but he had problems of his own.

With the squad’s attention turned to their rear, his covering fire had slacked off, leaving him exposed to fire. He could already hear the clatter of their armor.

Naresco waited for Sarth to trigger the rear doors closed, but no response came, and more stormtroopers came pouring through the stern, forcing the squad to split its firepower. He turned and peppered them with purple blaster bolts, but his power pack was running dangerously low.

“Damn, reloading,” called the gunner, and the temporary loss of his autorifle cost the squad a lot of their close-in firepower.

The stormtroopers noticed the conspicuous drop in blasterfire and pressed their advantage from both sides, sending brilliant red blasts flying through the control center.

“Seal the kriffing doors!” Beblos shouted. “Six!”

The officer, crouched low with rifle at the ready, kept a sharp watch for stormtroopers while Leskins dragged the catatonic Selu back to the computer control center, but when they burst around the corner, there were too many for him. He planted two bolts into the helmet of one and was swinging his S-2F to hit the next when the stormtrooper shot him in right arm and pectoral with a quick blaster burst. Grunting against the pain, Beblos pulled his S-5XS sidearm and sent a metal slug hurtling into the trooper’s vulnerable neck.

Six!”

Naresco heard Captain Beblos yell his callsign and realized that the doors weren’t being shut. Naresco looked over his shoulder and saw that Sarth was lying equally catatonic on the cold metal deck, or had been hit. Whatever the case, Naresco was clearly needed at the computer console. Rising from behind cover into a vicious crossfire of blaster bolts, he let loose a few more shots before diving over to the computer station.

He quickly set to, pulling up various menus on the screen. The door override routine proved to be thankfully simple to decipher, and he was rewarded at hearing the rear doors hiss and seal shut. One of the squad members tossed in a high-yield incendiary grenade into the rear corridor after the stormtroopers and Naresco could see the burning flames and at least one writhing stormtrooper, covered in sheets of flame as a result. For now, that entrance was sealed off.

Bridge, Star Destroyer Impenetrable

Alarm klaxons wailed across the bridge. There was no way to cover it anymore-the ship was being threatened by a serious attack on the computer operations center. Several squads of stormtroopers had already fallen in the narrow accessways that led to the computer core. Tacnell tried to maintain his composure even as black-uniformed naval troopers escorted the distraught civilian dignitaries to safe locations, assuring them that he had everything under control. Truth be told, he didn’t. The grainy holoimages he’d received from the stormtroopers down there had shown armored figures blasting away with purple-colored energy bolts that were unlike anything he’d ever seen.

The festive atmosphere was gone for the bridge now, and though most of the officers manning the station were not very experienced in their posts, the Star Destroyer was on full battle alert. Tacnell had mentally calculated his stormtrooper reserves and knew that if he sent all of them down there, they’d be mowed down. The accessways to the computer core center had been designed to be defensible from within; the possibility of a foe penetrating that far and taking it over was considered so remote that it was barely covered in command courses at the naval academy.

“How much longer until we receive reinforcements from the surface?” Tacnell asked Niblim.

The first officer, hunched over a communication console, frowned at the screen, and then turned to reply.

“We’re having difficulties bringing all our troops back, sir,” he said. “They’re dispersed across the planet. However, the planetary governor has graciously offered to send a hundred stormtroopers from his own garrison to assist. He says that it’s the least he can do for your efforts at Dubrillion.”

Tacnell smiled.

“Excellent,” he said. “Remind to invite the governor for a glass of Alderaanian wine when this is all over. How soon will they be here?”
“They’re lifting off now, sir,” Niblim answered. “Four Lambda shuttles. They’ll be here in ten to twenty minutes.”
“We’ll just have to keep our intruders pinned down until then,” Tacnell replied. “And Niblim, I want to know exactly how they got in here, who they are, and what they’re after.”
“Aye, sir,” the first officer said dutifully.
“Admiral!” shouted one of the young officers manning one of the duty stations.

Tacnell caught onto the frantic tone in the man’s voice.

“What is it, Ensign?” he asked.
“The main computer is going offline,” he said. “I can’t get it to respond.”
“What?!” Tacnell said, aghast.
“They’ve locked us out, sir. I can’t even access it. Looks to me like they’re trying to extract the core.”
“Absolutely unacceptable,” Tacnell replied sternly, his moment of incredulity past.

He thumbed on his comlink.

“Stormtrooper commander, be advised. The saboteurs are attempting to capture or destroy the main computer core. Redouble your assault immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” came the reply, the helmet speakers on the stormtrooper giving the man’s voice a flat, filtered quality.

Tacnell stared out the transparisteel viewport, calculations running through his mind. The computer core of the Star Destroyer controlled so much, and contained so much highly sensitive data. Its loss was utterly unacceptable and would certainly ruin his career. Tacnell didn’t know how the saboteurs planned on getting out with it, but since they had slipped onto the Impenetrable with such apparent ease, it was clear that they had to be treated as highly dangerous and stopped at all costs.

Main Computer Operations Center, Star Destroyer Impenetrable

The squad returned its full attention to main entrance, covering the retreat of Leskins, Selu, and Beblos. In the face of renewed opposition and the reappearance of the autorifle, the Imperials withdrew temporarily, no doubt to regroup and return in force. Remaining behind were blast-marked walls, scorch marks, and a small collection of white-armored carcasses. The sound of blaster fire slowed to a brief stutter, then stopped, giving the squad a quick chance to assess the situation.

Things did not look good, Naresco realized. All four of their “guests” were mysteriously catatonic or barely standing, and both Vloor and Beblos were injured. Then another casualty marker winked into existence on his helmet, revealing that Sergeant Leskins had also been hit.

“Six,” Beblos said weakly to Naresco. “Finish the job. Get the core out.”
“Sir, we should just scrub this-,” Naresco protested.
“Do it,” Beblos cut him off. “And Six?”
“Sir?”
“You’re in charge of the squad for now. Two, Eight, and me aren’t fit to fight right now-we’re not fit to lead. Barely walking. It’s all you.”

Naresco’s stomach sank as he realized that he, as a corporal, was fourth in line for command of Cresh Squad. In the most unlikely of all scenarios, he was to take command of the squad. However, years of training and discipline kicked in, banishing his fear and anxiety temporarily. People were depending on him and lives were at stake. That was enough.

“Aye, sir,” he said.

Sizing up his command, he realized that quick action was needed before the Imperials returned.

“Status?” he asked on a squad frequency.

Though their helmets would display casualty information for the rest of the squad, he preferred to have everyone manually sound off. Things like battle fatigue were not detectable on sensors and, sometimes equipment did malfunction. Thankfully, nobody reported any further injuries, though they did seem to be running low on energy for their blasters. With that matter settled, Naresco turned his mind to thoughts of their defense and immediate next moves.

“Two, Three, Five,” he said. “Cover the main door. Four, see to the injured. Raid Eight’s pack if you need to. We need them fit to move out. Seven, apprise me of our ammo situation. I’m going to finish getting this core out and then we’re getting the kriff out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” they replied, and set to work.

Momentarily relieved of the burdens of command, he returned his attention to the glowing red screen of the computer monitors and realized that his challenge was almost as daunting as commanding the squad. True, Sarth Kraen had managed to penetrate all their layers of security and gain access to the computer core’s command codes, but he had yet to finish implementing all of them in order to open up the vaults that would release the valuable computer core.

He tentatively began entering commands, watching lines of output across the screen in front of him. His progress was much slower than Sarth’s, since although he had watched Sarth slice into Imperial systems before, he was not nearly as proficient. His code lacked the finesse that had characterized Sarth’s efforts, but it seemingly began accomplishing the same results by brute force. Although disgusted with the inelegance of his work, Naresco was glad that he could remember how to code with this much complexity given that his mind was still racing with adrenaline from the lightfight. However, this was going to take some time and Naresco knew it would not be long until the Imperials returned.

“Six,” Naresco heard Four’s voice come through his comm system, routed through a private channel.
“Here,” he replied, his eyes never departing from the screen. “What’s the status of our injured?”
“One is pretty banged up, hit at least three times. He’ll probably make it. Same with Two; he’s weak but can walk. They’re both on painkillers and I’ve done what I can for them.”
“What about the others?”
“Hard to say, sir. Selu was muttering something about a disturbance in the Force. The medisensors show that they’re not hurt, just really weak all of a sudden. They’re conscious, but not really coherent.”
“Great,” Naresco said. “Keep me apprised.”
“Will do.”

Naresco turned back to his slicing, but knew that he have to buy some time. Realizing that he didn’t have a brilliant scheme to solve that problem, he swallowed any last shreds of pride and opened the squad channel.

“I can get this computer core out,” he said, inwardly trying to reassure himself that he in fact, could do so. “But I need some time. Does anyone have any ideas?”

He was surprised to hear the hoarseness of his own voice as he spoke. Combat fatigue was beginning to set in, but he had no time for that. Instead, he waited for a response.

“Sir, we could plant some mines at the corridor. It’d give us a little bit longer,” Three, the demolitions expert, spoke up tentatively.
“Do it,” Naresco said, recognizing the idea’s merit. “Five, cover Three.”
“Aye, sir.”
“Thanks for your help,” he said, then returned to pounding away at the computer core’s irritatingly stubborn processes.

It took another five minutes before he was done slicing away at it and during those times, the Imperials tried two more attacks, both in force. However, the two mines laid at the end of the corridor crippled their first attack by cutting down their attack force, and the second wave was demoralized and hindered by all the stormtrooper bodies in the way. The other defenders handily polished them off after a lengthy duel, but Naresco knew that fatigue was beginning to mount and ammunition supplies were beginning to run low. They had traveled fairly light, expecting the Force-sensitives to do a lot of the fighting, and even then, the plan had called for them to avoid contact where possible. This was turning into a full-fledged battle.

Finally, though, the stubborn Imperial computer security yielded to his code-slicing, and the thick doors and safeguards protecting the core were deactivated. There it was, a meter long cylinder about half a meter in diameter weighing nearly fifty kilos, ripe for the taking. Of course, whoever took it would be unable to fire their weapon and would have to protect the core as best they could. Now Naresco had to decide whose services the squad would have to do without.

Infantry squads in the Yanibar Guard had eight members, each cross-trained in a different skill subset. As such, each squad had a commander, scout, sniper, medic, demolitions expert, gunner, slicer, and mechanic/pilot. The commander and scout were already injured, meaning that out of the remaining six, one of them would have to carry the core. He winced. There was no good solution to this, but there was no way around it. One of them had to carry the core, or this mission was in vain. He thought about it, and made his choice.

“Four,” Naresco said, addressing the unit sniper. “When we move out, I want you to take the core.”

The sniper’s rifle, while silent and deadly, was already low on ammo and fired slowly compared to their blasters. Furthermore, it would be of lesser use in the tight corridors of the Star Destroyer where the ranges were such that they could use their S-5XS sidearms if they need to engage quietly.

“Yes, sir,” replied Four.

Then the Imperials attacked again. The first few charged around the corner at full tilt, spraying blaster rifle fire at the squad. The Yanibar Guardsmen returned fire, dropping another pair of stormtroopers in the initial volley. The loud ringing of blasters being fired once again filled the corridor and purple and red bolts were once again exchanged, but suddenly, the survivors of the initial charge flattened themselves against the walls of the corridor, still blazing away. Behind them came a pair of men armed with PLX-2 missile launchers, no doubt armed with lethal high-explosive warheads. The Empire had finally brought in the big guns. Too late, Naresco shifted his aim towards the new threat, when suddenly, there was a pair of whirr-chirps at his side and the two missilemen were down.

Naresco turned to see Selusda Kraen once more standing at his side, with Milya’s and Naresco’s own S-5XS in each hand.

“Thanks for the assist, sir. Glad to see you back. You’re in charge of this now.”
“Not yet,” Selu replied, shaking his head. “I’m not 100% yet, and my head still hurts like crazy. Keep the lead for now, and I’ll just keep myself on my feet.”

Somewhat disappointed, Naresco nodded curtly, then redoubled his fire at the Imperials, who, upon seeing the loss of their missilemen, retreated as their casualties began to mount once more.

“Do they ever run out of those guys?” Four wondered aloud, staring at the pile of faceless corpses.
“No,” said Spectre, slowly standing to his feet. “A large number of stormtroopers are cloned. Spit out like products at a factory.”
“That’s the Empire for you-all heart,” the sniper remarked sarcastically.

For his part, though, Naresco was relieved to see the other Force-sensitives begin to recover. He had feared that even more squad members would be required to carry them. However, he knew they were not at full fighting trim, and neither were Lieutenant Vloor or Captain Beblos. And while they had finally gotten to the core, they still had to get off the Impenetrable with it. The weight of the decisions he had to make bore down on him, and he devoutly wished that someone else were in charge right at this moment. However, everyone in the chain of command above him had been injured and was unable to command right now, so it had fallen to him. The fact that they had never trained in this particular scenario did little to hearten him. He was going to have to improvise.

Naresco took a few deep breaths to calm his heaving chest, the air filled with the sour smell of sweat from his helmet. Despite the efficient environmental systems in his Battlesuit52-A, it couldn’t completely remove that stench, so the soldiers took care to clean them out after every use. Naresco was soaked with sweat and his thinking had definitely been fogged by the adrenaline coursing through his system. It was definitely not the best time to be making serious decisions, yet here he was, confronted with choices of enormous magnitude. He supposed that was how great people were recognized, for being able to make hard decisions under pressure. For some reason, though, he couldn’t think of himself as particularly great.

He crunched the variables in his mind, solving simultaneous systems of equations, transposing numbers into real-world scenarios. It was a talent of his and one in which he had scored highly in during secondary school. The primary objective of the team right now was to get off the Impenetrable with the computer core intact. Ranked just below that was the survival of all the members of the team. Knowing that time was short, Naresco shortened his calculation process as much as he could, but a plan quickly coalesced in his mind, though it was one that would require him to be on top of his game in the slicing department.

“All right, I have a plan. We’re going to use the rear accessways,” he said to others looking expectantly at him. “We need to get to the escape pods.”
“The escape pods?” Four said. “Won’t the Imperials just blast us if we use those?”
“Maybe,” Naresco replied. “But for one, they’ve got to figure out how to coordinate their fire without a main computer powering their sensor arrays or targeting systems. Two, I plan on setting off a few diversions.”
“What kind of diversions?” asked Three.
“Your kind of diversions,” Naresco replied. “The kind that explode.”
“Let’s get out of here then,” Three replied. “The sooner we get moving, the sooner I can blow things up.”
“Copy that,” Naresco said. “I’ll take point. Five, you’re with me. Keep the wounded and the core in the middle in case we have to fight, and Three, bring up the rear. Leave some mines behind to stall the next Imperial wave.”
“Understood.”

The squad fell into line with their typical military precision, and the four Force users gave no complaint. Apparently, they were still recovering from whatever had hit them earlier. Naresco took up the lead, his S-2F at the ready. However, before they ducked into the rear passageways, Naresco made sure to unseal the rear doors and left behind a discreetly bland datapad that resembled a standard Imperial issue model plugged into the central computer mainframe. Though the Empire lacked their main core, there would remain enough backup computing power to execute a few basic commands, such as the ship’s communication network, and Naresco could use his comlink to send commands to the datapad and into the Star Destroyer.

Naresco pushed through, his senses and suit’s sensors alert for any possible ambush or trap. Twice, they encountered groups of Imperial crewers, and only the alertness of Cresh Squad, as well as their steady aim, allowed them to avoid taking any more casualties than a few blaster grazes on their armor. The Imperials might not be able to track them with the ship’s internal sensors without the computer core, but the whole ship was certainly alerted to their presence now. Naresco was glad that most of the crew appeared to be on shore leave, or else they would have been completely swamped with stormtroopers by now.

Their progress was fairly brisk, but checked by understandable caution. Naresco kept them moving as fast they could go with injured and cargo, but the cramped, dimly lit maintenance accessways they were traveling through inhibited their progress. Light filtered through glowpanels or not at all, and Naresco was grateful that his helmet’s optics set automatically adjusted for the low-light conditions. Their boots clanked softly on the dull scuffed metal grating beneath their feet as the dozen intruders advanced.

“Are we there yet?” asked Five from his position at Naresco’s shoulder.
“Almost,” answered Naresco, consulting the blueprints he had downloaded from the ship’s computer.

Rounding yet another accessway, they finally reached a row of escape pod hatches recessed into the wall and marked by glowing indicators. Naresco breathed a huge sigh of relief. Against all odds, they had managed to reach the escape pods, and without leaving anyone or the precious core behind. They were almost through.

Naturally, the escape pod hatches were sealed and locked down, but Naresco pulled an override stick from his pack and slid it into the receptacle on each of the hatch locks. The stick, a complicated bundle of circuits and malicious programming, whirred and blinked a few times, and then all the hatch locks slid open.

“This is your plan?” Five asked skeptically. “We just fire off the escape pods and get blasted into atoms by angry Imp gunners?”
“Well, not exactly,” Naresco said, somewhat disappointed at the lack of confidence.

His plan had sounded a lot better in his mind when he had first come up with it, but it was clear the others didn’t approve. To be fair, he hadn’t fully explained it yet, though.

“Then let’s hear it,” said General Kraen, speaking up for the first time in awhile.
“There’s three things we can do,” Naresco said. “The first is to fire all the escape pods. Without the computer core, the Imperials will have a hard time figuring out which ones contain life-forms, especially if we use our suit’s camouflage until we’re safely out of range and can be picked up.”
“That’s better,” Five said. “What else do you have?”
“Second, we activate the news skiff-give the Empire something else to think about,” Naresco continued. “And lastly, we call for a missile strike. The Imperials can’t raise and lower shields effectively without the computer to coordinate for them.”
“Sounds good to me,” Selu put in. “Let’s get it done.”
“Yes, sir,” Naresco said. “We’ll need to take two escape pods, since we won’t all fit in one. If everyone will get inside now, I’ll enter the necessary commands to set off our diversions.”

The squad and Force-sensitives complied, piling into the pods. Naresco found a nearby computer terminal and slid his override stick into that access port as well. Using the Star Destroyer’s limited computer signal, he sliced into their communications network to monitor their transmissions, and then pulsed off a single command to his datapad in the operations center. From there, the signal went to the hangar bay and into the news skiff, or more specifically, the explosives packages that Three had placed in the skiff near the fuel tanks prior to their debarkation.

The ship exploded violently, the explosions setting off the stored fuel and chain reacting. Oxygen from the hangar bay atmosphere was sucked in to feed the raging fire and when the main fuel tanks were breached, they detonated spectacularly, consuming the hangar bay in a sizable fireball. Little did Naresco nor any of the other members of Cresh Squad know this, but the news skiff blew up just as four Lambda shuttles, filled with stormtroopers, were settling into the hangar. The explosion consumed all four shuttles and tore a sizable chunk out of the Star Destroyer’s belly-not enough to doom the whole ship, but the entire bay was virtually nonexistent after the detonation.

Naresco then routed a transmission through the Star Destroyer’s own communications array, broadcasting a simple unencrypted transmission of the ship’s own coordinates. He could tell some Imperial slicer was trying to generate firewalls to block him from accessing the computers anymore, to enclose him in a protective wall of code, but Naresco bypassed him with casual ease, slipping by his clumsy efforts with tunneler and miner programs and returning fire with malicious attacks on his computer system. The firewalls collapsed and Naresco pressed his edge, sending in code to have the computers lock the Imperials out of their own auxiliary systems. In a moment of particular vindictiveness, he sent in a nasty code that rearranged all the characters on the Imperial slicer’s screen to display the insignia of the Rebel Alliance. Naresco relished in unleashing the fury of his virtual war on the Empire, there was one last thing he wanted to do-and that was reprogram one of the escape pods to fly an automated course. He’d already gotten the other part of his plan from Three earlier, and though it wasn’t part of the original mission, he had set his mind upon it as soon as he volunteered for this assignment. A cruel smile developed on his lips as he worked, the rage he had so carefully contained throughout the mission now coursing through his system in anticipation of what was to come, at the fate he now controlled with his fingertips. He was transformed into a creature of fury, like none of his friends, save for only a few family members, had seen before.

However, his plan proved trickier than he had originally thought. For one, the escape pods had only crude flight controls, and so he had to import control telemetry from an automated starfighter ferrying program and adapt it to work with the pod. There were also the persistent Imperial slicers that kept continually attempting to lock him out. Though he kept worming around their efforts, it took time, and he winced as he realized they had pinpointed his position. From their comm channels, he could tell that the stormtroopers were already on their way. Still, having come this far, he would not be deterred from carrying out his plan. Hard code scrolled past him, and he absorbed it all, his fingers flying across the input commands.

“Six, what’s the delay?” Sarth Kraen asked, moving up to stand beside him.
“Just working on one last thing,” Naresco said, his eyes remaining focused on the screen.
“You know you don’t have to reprogram the escape pods with specific flight paths,” Sarth remarked, glancing at Naresco’s code. “Selu just told me that he can probably cloak both the escape pods with the Force, so we can just get in and go.”
“Great,” Naresco replied, not paying much attention.
“We’re waiting for you,” Sarth said pointedly.

Naresco risked a glance up and saw that only General Kraen, Three, and Sarth had yet to enter the escape pods and they were clearly waiting for him.

“Almost done,” he mumbled.
“Naresco,” Sarth said gently, but firmly. “It’s not that important. Let’s go.”

The man laid a gloved hand on Naresco’s arm, but the code-slicer shook it off, filled with a sudden anger.

“Yes, it is!” he said, with a sharpness that surprised even himself. “This is my one shot.”
“One shot?” Sarth replied quizzically. “One shot at what?”
“Tacnell,” Naresco ground out the name through clenched teeth. “This is my shot at Tacnell.”
“Tacnell? The Imperial admiral?” Sarth inquired. “He’s not important, Six. What are you talking about?”
“The hell he’s not important!” Naresco roared, finally turning away from his code to glare at Sarth.
“What the kriff are you talking about, soldier?” General Kraen demanded, striding forward to stand beside Sarth and confront Naresco.

Naresco hesitated.

“I gave you an order,” the general said icily. “Answer the question.”
“I’m from Dubrillion,” Naresco admitted. “I’m surprised you didn’t see that on my personnel file.”

Sarth inhaled slightly.

“The Dubrillion Insurrection,” he said softly.
“That’s right,” Naresco shot back, seething with rage. “The Dubrillion Insurrection. A foolhardy attempt by a few hundred Rebels to seize control of the world from the Empire, and doomed to fail. The Imperial response was to send Captain Iostain Tacnell with orders to punish the world. Well, he did alright. Punished it so hard that my sister was gunned down by stormtroopers for no reason at all. Punished it so hard that we had to flee, and only the arrival of the evacuation transport to Yanibar saved us. Punished it so hard that all my friends died from the bombing runs. So don’t tell me he’s not kriffing important!
“What are you going to do?” Sarth asked quietly.
“I borrowed some explosives from Three,” Naresco answered. “I’m going to program this escape pod to fly right into the bridge and blow him to hell.”
“There’s no time for that,” General Kraen said firmly. “This is not part of the mission.”
“I don’t care,” Naresco said, vaguely aware that he did in fact care very much.
“So, all those oaths you swore were meaningless? Are you a traitor, a liar, or just faithless?” the general demanded.
“I-I don’t know,” Naresco said, suddenly unsure. “The Guard is my life, but . . .”
“But what?” snapped the general.
“But I hate Tacnell so much,” Naresco snarled. “I want him to die horribly for what he did.”
“Then you have two choices,” Spectre replied. “Stay here, carry out your revenge, and die at the hands of the Empire, or let go and live to fight another day.”
“Tacnell will see justice,” Sarth put in.
“Why can’t I see that through now?” Naresco repied.
“Because the stormtroopers are here,” the general answered, dropping to one knee.

As if to punctuate his words, there was the distinct whine of a blaster and a red bolt whizzed past Naresco’s helmet. Three and the general returned fire, knocking down the first three stormtroopers, but the fourth and fifth managed to find cover and spray blaster bolts in their direction. Naresco pounded furiously away at the console, trying to implement the final bits of code, ignoring Sarth’s tugging on his shoulder to pull him into the escape pod. Spectre and Three stuttered their fire, the purple bolts flashing down the accessway to bury themselves in white-armored targets, but more stormtroopers came.

“Jam their comms!” Spectre ordered, and Naresco implemented the command without even thinking.
“There’s no more time!” Sarth shouted. “We have to go!”
“I’m so close!” Naresco said, almost pleading. “Just a little longer.”
“Watch the det!” Three warned.

Naresco turned to see a silvery fragmentation detonator arc through the air to land on the deck in between Sarth, him, and Three. The demolitions man did not hesitate, though, and pounced on the grenade, smothering it with his body. The resulting explosion knocked Three into the air, but was considerably muffled, even though razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel still went flying.

“Get him out of here!” Spectre yelled to Sarth, and Sarth ceased firing and began dragging Three into the escape pod while Spectre switched to full autofire and laid down heavy suppression fire to cover Sarth.
“Six!” Spectre yelled at Naresco. “We’re getting the kriff out of here. If you’re coming, get in the pod right kriffing now!”

Naresco ducked behind the console, firing his pistol at the stormtroopers while still keying in code with another hand. He glanced at Spectre, who was preparing to duck into the pod and launch as soon as Sarth and Three were inside the escape pod, and then back at the console. Hatred for Tacnell welled up within him, but he couldn’t take it any longer. He knew that his loyalties were to the Yanibar Guard. Mission first, they had drilled into him, and his mission right now was to get into the escape pod. With a last longing look at the console, he rose and began firing his own rifle as Spectre dove into the escape pod. He strafed across the corridor, laying down a hail of purple blaster bolts, and fired off his underslung launcher, knocking down two more stormtroopers, before darting into the escape pod hatch. With more than a little regret, he put a pair of purple bolts into the console he had been working on, incinerating both it and his override stick, and sealed the hatch, keying the launch command that was then broadcast to all the escape pods on the Star Destroyer via the datapad in the operations center.

The escape pod launched, and Naresco saw that his pod contained the general, Sarth, Three, Selu, and Milya. Selu had taken off his helmet and closed his eyes in concentration, no doubt trying to fold a cloaking shield around their two escape pods. Through the viewports of the pod, Naresco could see green turbolaser bolts flashing around them, and watched several other escape pods disintegrate in brilliant green explosions. Somehow, Selu wove a complicated path through the overlapping fields of fire, perhaps using the Force to guide the pod as it soared through the black void of space. Naresco kept tensing up as the bolts sailed by, waiting for one of them to impact on the pod and atomize them. The pod rocked from near misses, but still Selu sat there, deep in concentration, exerting all his effort towards protecting their pods. Naresco had no idea if the other pod was even still out there. Selu’s skin took on a faint glow, and Naresco wondered if he was okay.

However, eventually the triangular dagger of the Impenetrable receded into the backdrop of Brentaal IV and the verdant turbolaser fire slackened off. Naresco again breathed easier as the two pods floated out into deep space. Selu finally let out a deep breath and opened his eyes again, sweat pouring down his face.

“Are you okay?” Sarth asked.
“I will be,” Selu answered heavily, after a short pause. “That was . . . tiring.”
“Did we both make it?” Three asked weakly.
“Yes,” Selu said, reassuring the injured man. “Both pods and the core are intact. You’ll be home soon-just rest for now.”
“What were you doing, sir?” Naresco asked Selu.
“I was cloaking the two pods, trying to push them around to avoid fire, and messing with the minds of the Imperial gunners-all at the same time,” Selu answered. “It’s not something I try every day, and especially not after whatever that disturbance was.”
“A disturbance, sir?” Naresco inquired, puzzled. “Was that was caused all four of you to collapse in the ops center?”
“Yes,” Selu said. “There was a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of people were instantly killed.”

Naresco shivered. It conjured up images of Dubrillion, of the Ghorman Massacre, all over again.

“And that caused you to pass out?” Naresco asked, forgetting the honorific.
“Well, it might not have,” Selu said. “But we were drawing heavily on the Force for strength, so the effects of the disturbance were magnified by our heightened connection to it for power.”

Naresco shook his head. His mind was spinning with trying to sort out his emotions and the incomprehensible mechanics of the Force that Selu had tried to explain to him. He supposed it was better not to worry much about these things, and they confused him at any rate. Then suddenly he looked down at Three, lying there on the escape pod floor, and a wave of guilt washed over him. If he hadn’t been so stubborn in trying to pull off his plan, Three would not have been hurt. Even now, his status symbol on Naresco’s heads-up display registered him as “critical.”

“How is he, ma’am?” he asked Milya, who was kneeling besides Three with her hand on his neck.
“He’s badly injured,” she replied sadly. “There are a lot of internal injuries. I’ve placed him in a hibernation trance, sort of like suspended animation, to try and keep him alive until we’re recovered.”
“Is he going to make it, ma’am?” Naresco asked, concern filling his voice.

Milya sighed.

“I don’t know. The armor did a good job of absorbing the blast, but he’s only barely alive.”

Her response was enough to shut Naresco up and he sat quietly in the escape pod after that, quietly reflecting on his own actions and their consequences. Part of him was glad to just rest after the exhausting heat of battle, to let the adrenaline work its way out of his system, but part of him did not want to face the emotions and ramifications of his actions that were associated with this mission. Thankfully, the others seemed just as exhausted or battleworn, and it was a silent half-hour of drifting in space before his comlink crackled to life on a fleet frequency.

“This is Captain Jup’ti’lyi of the gunship Serra Keto. We have you on our sensors and will pick you up in five.”

Smiles broke out across the escape pod, except for the still-contemplative Naresco. Rescue had finally come. As the escape pods had drifted towards the outer edges of the system, they had finally been found by their extraction force, which had originally been planned to pick them up from the news skiff.

Ten minutes later, the black-toned eighty-meter Ataru-class gunship, escorted by a dozen long-range Valkyrie bombers, had docked with the two escape pods and pulled the twelve infiltrators and the core inside. The two pods had been rigged to explode and jettisoned. Once inside the gunship, Three had been hustled off for medical attention, while the others checked their weapons in at the armory and went to find a large spread of food that had been prepared for them. For his part, though, Naresco simply deposited his S-2F in the locker marked for him, left his uncomfortable helmet there as well, and went forward to the ship’s fore observation port.

Thankfully, it was deserted, and he found one of the chairs in the room and sat there quietly, staring at the starfield, his mind deep in thought about what he had almost done, and how responsible he was for Three’s injuries. The debt he owed Iostain Tacnell still wasn’t paid either, but it was of secondary importance. He hadn’t been there for more than a couple minutes when he realized that someone else was in the room also. He looked over his shoulder to see Milya standing beside him, still in her blackened and dirty combat jumpsuit.

He immediately stood and came to attention automatically. If nothing else, Intelligence types made him slightly uneasy, and the fact that this was the director of Yanibar Guard Intelligence and Selusda Kraen’s wife did not help, particularly in his current state of mind.

“At ease,” she said as she took a seat as well, her tone casually neutral.
“Can I do something for you, ma’am, or were you just enjoying the view?” he asked finally.
“A little bit of both,” she replied. “Tell me something, Naresco. If you had been able to fire off that escape pod of yours and killed Tacnell, would it have been worth Three’s life?”

Naresco hung his head.

“No, ma’am.”
“Are you sure.”
“Yes, I am,” he said resolutely. “I don’t know what came over me, but at the time, I just wanted Tacnell to suffer.”

She smiled faintly at him.

“It’s called revenge,” she answered. “I know, because I used to feel the same way. I lost my family at a young age too, and then was raised by their murderers. I hated them for so long, wanted to kill them all. Make them hurt.”

The quiet anger in her voice surprised him. He’d always thought of her as infinitely cool and professional. If nothing else, though, this mission had opened his eyes to how Human the top echelons of the Yanibar Guard were, once one looked past their powers and ranks.

“What did you do?” he asked eventually.
“I came to a point in my life where I realized that I could either dedicate my life to destroying those who had hurt me, and probably die in the process, or I could let go and find something to live for instead. I realized I couldn’t keep going on, though-the revenge was eating me up inside. So, I let it go. It wasn’t easy, but I let it go.”
“I see,” Naresco said.

They sat there quietly for several more moments, before Naresco managed to work up the courage to ask the question that had been plaguing his mind.

“How’s Three?” he asked.
“I talked to the ship’s surgeon, and he said it’d be close for a few days, but he’d pull through,” Milya said. “He won’t be able to return to the service, though. He’ll be decorated handsomely, and then he’ll get a medical discharge and retirement pay.”

Naresco nodded gratefully, glad that his buddy would make it. It felt like a sizable burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Now, he only had one other question.

“Are you and the Supreme Commander going to drum me out of the Guard?” he asked.
“No,” Milya said. “Why would we?”
“Well, I disobeyed-,” he started.
“No, you didn’t,” she interrupted. “Nobody ever ordered you into the escape pod, and you were still acting commander of the team at the time.”

Naresco stopped, confused.

“It’ll be up to Captain Beblos whether or not you remain in Cresh Squad, but aside from making an incredibly poor tactical choice, you committed no breach of the Guard’s protocols. And you did get us out of an incredibly bad situation in the ops center. So don’t be too hard on yourself.”

“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Naresco stammered, trying to process what she was saying. “Thank you, ma’am.” He had been sure his career in the Guard was over, or that he would be doomed to some miserable position.

“Don’t mention it,” she said simply. “After all, it was you who figured out all that hard code when we went down.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged.
“Now, if you’re up to it, I have something to show you,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Follow me to the bridge,” she replied.

Naresco complied, following her up through the gunship’s tight corridors to the bridge. The Ataru-class had always seemed rather cramped to him, and after the narrow accessways on the Impenetrable, he did not want to be trapped in any more confined spaces for awhile. Thankfully, they would only be on the ship for a few days before they reached Yanibar.

He stepped into the crowded and dimly lit bridge after Milya, to find Selu inside already, talking with Captain Jup’ti’lyi in hushed tones.

“What is it?” Milya asked her husband.
“Perhaps we should step aside,” Selu said darkly, motioning to the captain to join them in a relatively secluded corner of the crowded, noisy bridge.
“Selu, what’s wrong?” Milya inquired, having already heard and deciphered the timbre of his voice into the undertones of anger, shock, and incredible sadness.
“Intel’s learned something,” Captain Jup’ti’lyi rasped. “I just had it forwarded to me on a secure line. The Empire, they’ve done something absolutely horrible-if it’s true.”
“I trust my agents,” Milya said, defending her agency. “Just tell me what it is already.”
“The captain informs me of what just came through on the holonets,” Selu answered grimly. “I think I know what the source of that Force disturbance was.”
“What was it?” she asked worriedly.
“Alderaan,” Selu said. “It’s been completely destroyed.”
“Impossible,” Milya said, her face suddenly pale. “The Empire?”
“The official newsnets say that it was the Rebels who did it, so by that we figure it was the Empire,” Captain Jup’ti’lyi, an older Ho’Din, answered.
“That’s exactly what it felt like,” Selu affirmed ashenly. “A planet being destroyed.”

Milya nodded slowly.

“Why, though? Why Alderaan? It’s probably the most pacifistic planet in all of the Core.”
“I don’t know,” Selu said. “But it’s gone, and we need to be ready for anything. Have all Guard units set on full alert. I want Intel to look into possible causes, and I want to know exactly how they did it, and then how to stop it. Whoever did it, they had to use a weapon of incredible power.”
“I’ll send out a coded directive once we’re out of here,” Milya agreed. “What about the Force, Selu? Could one of the Sith have done it?”
“I don’t know,” Selu said slowly. “Far be it from me to underestimate the power of the Force, but it seems like an extreme use of power. If they were capable of such an action, they could have done so more efficiently, such as wiping out the whole population and saving the planet. It didn’t feel like a dark side power, though.”

Selu and Milya were silent for a moment, heads quietly bowed as they reflected on the atrocity they had mentally born witness to. Millions of lives, most of them undoubtedly innocent, had been snuffed out in an instant, and their deaths reverberated through the planes of the Force. A hint of a tear sprang to Milya’s eyes, and Selu knew that she was silently grieving, in that incredibly private way she did everything, for the loss of those lives. He knew that his own reaction was probably etched in his facial features; he’d always been less proficient in concealing his emotions than her, but even now, the true depths of his feelings could only be felt by a Force-sensitive who knew him well. He felt the mental touch of Sarth and Spectre in addition to his connection with Milya, as well as even Cassi’s from across the galaxy, and that reassured him somewhat, allowed him to go on.

“There will be a memorial when we get back,” he said at last.
“We’ll discuss it when we do get back,” Milya answered resolutely. “For now, I’ve brought Corporal Naresco for that last piece of business.”
“Yes,” Selu said, finally tearing his mind away from the shock of Alderaan’s destruction and walking back to turn towards Naresco for the first time.

Naresco felt the weight of the Supreme Commander’s gaze on him and wonder if his mind was being probed. He couldn’t tell for sure.

“As a parting gift for the Empire, I’ve authorized Captain Jup’ti’lyi to make a single Nighthawk missile strike on the Impenetrable,” Selu said. “With a dozen bombers and the Serra Keto, that’s enough missiles to penetrate the shields and do significant damage to the Star Destroyer. However, we need the coordinates to the ship. Do you have them?”

Naresco thought about it, then affirmed.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I have the datapad’s coordinates from when I was in the ship-it’s still linked to my wrist computer and powered through the Star Destroyer’s own comm signal. All we have to do is then extrapolate the positions of the targets relative to that point.”
“Very well,” Selu said, leading him to a targeting console. “If you’ll just enter in the coordinates of the ship’s hangar into the firing solution, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Naresco looked at the screen and he knew Tacnell would be on the bridge. It would be a simple matter to tell the missiles to aim there. Nighthawk missiles were stealthy, powerful, and precise. The Imperial officer would still be blown to hell. He could still have his revenge. However, that was not what his orders were, and Naresco knew it. The Guard had asked him to do a specific task and that was what he was bound to do, regardless of his own personal opinions. With just a hint of regret, he performed the mental calculation and aimed the missiles at the Impenetrable’s hangar. Revenge just wasn’t worth it.

“Done, sir,” he answered.

Selu checked the coordinates.

“Good work,” he said. “Those seem right. Now, would you please change the firing solutions to the ship’s bridge.”

Naresco started in surprise, turning to stare at Selu, who merely gave him a small smile. Had the Supreme Commander known the firing solution all along and was merely testing him? Somehow Naresco didn’t think he would get an answer to that question. However, he did was he was told, reprogramming the missiles. The computer chirped at him once he was done, asking him to confirm the new coordinates. At a nod from Selu, he did so.

“Would you like to press the button?” Selu asked.

Unable to speak for sheer happiness, Naresco nodded. The naval officer at the station pointed him to the right control, and Naresco looked at it for just a second before pressing the button. The gunship shuddered faintly as six Nighthawk missiles lurched from their firing tubes, inbound towards the Impenetrable along with two dozen more from the Valkyries.

“Thank you, sir,” he told Selu.
“No, thank you,” Selu said.
“For what?” Naresco asked.
“For letting go of your revenge. For letting the people of Dubrillion have their justice.”

With that last statement, Selu clapped him on the shoulder.

“Enjoy the view,” he said.

Naresco turned to watch through the bridge’s forward viewport, waiting for the invisible Nighthawks to reach their target. One minute passed, then two. Suddenly, the Impenetrable was engulfed in explosions as the missiles overloaded the hazy blue field of its deflectors. Naresco was rewarded to see the control tower and bridge take a direct hit, sending fire and metal fragments flying from the ship, and he knew Tacnell was gone. The Impenetrable as a whole had survived, but had been severely damaged.

Then, the Serra Keto and its escorts turned and made the jump back to hyperspace, bound for Yanibar. Naresco turned away from the viewport, saluted Selu and Milya, and then, at last, turned towards his quarters, feeling like a new man. Justice had been seen, lives had been saved, and the mission had been accomplished.

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