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Pec Deplisk stared out across the vista, taking in the sights as Yanibar’s sun began peeping over the steep mountain peaks that ringed the Tusloni Basin, where the three-year-old nascent Yanibar settlement was located. The sky was streaked with reds and oranges as the sunbeams chased away the darkness of night. The distant cliffs glinted coppery, with a dazzling light shining off those tall enough to have snowcaps. The jagged outline of the horizon was traced in gold as the sun began shining over Yanibar once more, a promise of another day. A few scattered clouds intercepted them, their edges glowing from the radiance of the morning. He breathed in the morning air, reveling in the tranquility and stillness of the moment. A bird or two chirped in the distance and a gentle breeze rustled the folds of his clothing and brushed across the top of his bare scalp and cranial horns. His tanned and weathered skin tingled as the breeze reached it, but his gray-eyed gaze never wavered. As he looked around slowly, he felt drawn into his surroundings, almost part of the nature surrounding him. A tall and strong Zabrak, he was still young enough to feel captivated by the beauty of the sunrise, but old enough to have a more mature viewpoint instead of just hurrying through it. About twenty-six years of age, Pec enjoyed nothing more than the sunrise, in basking in dawn’s first rays. Standing there for some time, he drank in the picturesque beauty of the scene unfolding before his mind returned him to the doldrums of reality.

Not that what Pec Deplisk did for a living could be considered boring to most people.

Turning, he looked at the seven others standing around him on the rock ledge, similarly attired. Pec no had other true family other than these people-he had never had the time nor desire for one after losing his relatives in the Clone Wars. That had been the start of his adulthood and his introduction to warfare. After the war, he had drifted from planet to planet until he arrived at Yanibar a couple years back and met Hespa, a beautiful local Iridonian girl with dark eyes and long raven-black hair. She’d stolen his heart and gotten him to settle down. She still captivated him with her smile, the touch of her lips against his, and their passionate romance had brought joy to his life, to the point that he was contemplating marrying her. At first, he had worked as a bouncer for a local dive called Selch’s Seafood, but found it boring. When word had discretely been put out for experienced soldiers at some kind of new refuge, Pec had jumped at the chance to go back to soldiering, which somewhat disappointed Hespa. However, that was what he had wanted to do. Besides, it was something he was very, very good at.

“Ready, chief?” Pec addressed a sizable green-skinned Twi’lek standing at the end of their line playing with a fibrarope.
“That’s what it looks like, Sergeant,” replied the Twi’lek, whose name was Sunter Mardan and one of the finest infantry officers that Deplisk had ever met in any way.

Deplisk had been surprised that Mardan had been chosen for command, in that he hadn’t expected to find anyone with more experience than he had in warfare on Yanibar. However, in competitions, Mardan had been proven himself to be a capable officer and Pec had learned that the Twi’lek had been a mercenary, fighting brush wars out in the Outer Rim for years, before giving up on that life. After seeing the man in action, Pec had been fine with taking the second position as sergeant. Skilled in tactics and possessing a gruff concern for his squad, Mardan had more than proven himself in Pec’s eyes as a capable lieutenant. He led from the front and never asked his squad to do anything that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. All in all, a consummate professional. His sole vice, as far as Pec knew, was that he never talked about his past, and Pec was fine with that. It made it easier if anything ever happened to the lieutenant, and Pec suspected that Sunter knew that.

Reaching down, Mardan pulled a helmet from its resting place on his belt loop and slid it over his head, and the rest of the squad followed suit. Pec felt its familiar weight settle down on him as the fully-enclosed headgear linked with the rest of the armor he was wearing, connecting at the neck. Its power systems came online immediately, activating the visor’s standard viewing mode. He could hear his own breathing inside the confines of the helmet, which although fairly new, had still begun to acquire the stale smell of old sweat despite being disinfected after every use. He knew that Feran Slayn, the only female on the squad, had some kind of scent she placed in her helmet. Pec had thought about taking a similar approach, but decided against it. The smell of something else just wouldn’t be natural. Pec snapped his mind back to the present, watching the lieutenant curtly for the signal. It should be coming any minute now. There it was! Mardan gave a brisk flick of his wrist and the whole squad as one threw themselves off the ledge, a two-kilometer high beauty of a cliff. Deplisk watched the approaching ground with odd fascination, watching the scrub brush at the bottom of the cliff rapidly resolve itself into visibly defined shapes. He could have enhanced the image with a simple spoken command to activate the optics system built into his helmet, but his mind was elsewhere-like on the distance to the ground.

“500 meters,” intoned his helmet as Pec panned his rangefinder towards the ground.

Reaching over to the person soaring down next to him, Feran Slayn, he waved to her to get her attention. She nodded and grabbed his arm and belt loosely, trying not to disrupt his fall too much, or smash him against the cliff. The other squad members followed suit, pairing up.

“200 meters,” signaled his helmet.
“Now,” said Mardan unnecessarily; his squad already knew what to do.

With fluid, controlled motions, four of the squad members reached for their belts, grabbing for pitons and the fibraropes connected to them. Pointing them at the cliff face, they fired the darts, which bit deeply into the rock face. They let the fibraropes, made of a carbon composite, play out, slowly arresting their falls, as they turned a free fall into a controlled rappel. Pec found his job easy; though Slayn wasn’t anything much more than dead weight right now while she was dangling from his back, she was light compared to some of the other squad members.

The 100-meter fibrarope was played out in short order, and though the final arrest still had enough force to jerk him around, the fact that it was evenly distributed thanks to the harness on his belt lessened the impact. Before they were completely stopped, Slayn fired her own piton into the cliff face. Hanging in mid-air, Pec and Feran carefully switched places so she could have easier access to her own fibrarope. They continued the descent, rappelling down the side of the cliff face. Pec activated a control on his own line and the piton released, flying back down towards them. He caught it with practiced ease one-handed and fed the rope back into its cylindrical launcher. He and Feran had clipped themselves to each other, allowing him to use both his hands, but his other hand was holding the S-2F blaster rifle. As soon as the cable launcher was returned to his belt, he turned his full focus to the blaster rifle, sweeping his assigned firing arc with his weapon, which interfaced with his helmet to let him see a firing reticule from his visor without actually needing to sight through the scope on the top of his weapon, though in case of helmet failure, the scope was fully functional.

As soon as they were three meters above the ground, the entire squad shifted from rappelling to sliding down quickly, landing in a cloud of dust. They emerged in a tight formation, weapons at the ready, each member covering a different vector with his or her rifle.

“Good job, Cresh Squad,” crackled Pec’s helmet, receiving a communications transmission from Captain Ol’nentra, the commander of one of three infantry companies in the Yanibar Guard. “Exercise terminated. Return to base immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Mardan, closing off the channel. “You heard the man. We’re going back.”
“Wonder why they killed it?” mused Nak Rieves, better known as “Thunder”.

The squad’s heavy weapons specialist, Thunder Rieves was a sizable Human of over one hundred kilos; he had had to lose some weight just to fit into the largest armor size.

“Yeah, I was just getting started,” put in the Rodian Kailendo Tosc, a small wiry individual who competed with Slayn for the title of squad’s lightest individual.

Pec knew that underestimating Tosc because of his size was a grave error, though. He was quick, agile, and his natural hunter’s instincts made him an excellent hand-to-hand combatant, though he was also the squad medic.

“You heard the captain,” replied Mardan. “We have our orders.”
“It better not be because another squad needed the training course,” groused Feran . :“You’d think they had it in for us or something.”
“Keep it down,” growled Mardan, a bit more shortness entering his voice.
“Yes, sir,” replied Feran contritely.

Pec knew that both the lieutenant and Feran were quietly in agreement though, and that Mardan had only silenced her because it was his obligation as an officer. Cresh Squad was considered the black bantha out of not only their company, but of the whole Yanibar Guard. To be fair, there was something of a good reason for that, but it was not an explanation Pec Deplisk cared for. Their sole distinction was that not a single one of its members was capable of touching or actively influencing the energy field known as the Force. In a community where at least half of the people came from some Force tradition-be it Zeison Sha, Matukai, Jal Shey, or Jedi, the inability to use the Force was something of a weakness. Pec didn’t buy that at all, though. It wasn’t that he doubted the Force or its existence-he had seen it in use on many times, but he and the rest of Cresh Squad consistently gave some of other squads with higher numbers of Force-users a good run for their credits. By far, where other squads relied more on training and natural instincts, Cresh Squad had the two most experienced soldiers in the company in himself and Mardan. Years of finely honed lessons in the art of war had been passed on to the other members and Pec knew Mardan would pit his squad against any other unit in simulated combat. They might not win most of the time, but they generally prevented the other team from achieving their objectives, resulting in something of a draw. That, and the fact that many of the Force-users were still overcoming their distrust of armor, was why Cresh Squad had been selected to test the new Kraechar Arms Battlesuit52-A instead of the other more supposedly “elite” squads. And after six weeks of training independently with it, the armor had given them a sizable advantage in three weeks of battlegames, to the point where other squads were now clamoring for the armor. Aurek and Besh Squads were currently in their own training phases, getting accustomed to the suit, but there hadn’t been enough suits to equip the company’s fourth squad, Dorn Squad. The armor took a long to manufacture and was decidedly expensive, the Kraechar Arms representative had said. Pec was fine with that. It was well worth it.

A composite weave of metal fibers and ceramic crystals in a polyfiber base composed the under-layer of the armor, a fairly thick body suit. The 18-piece outer layer was a reinforced alloy-the composition of which was highly classified-that shrugged off all but close-range blaster rifle fire and just about everything else. Rumor had it that it was based off the suits worn by Republic commandos during the Clone Wars. When they were first being shown the armor, the Kraechar Arms representative had fired several blaster pistol shots into the breastplate from twenty meters as a demonstration. They had barely scorched the heavy plating. Now, granted, there were some tradeoffs. The suit was equipped with micro-repulsors to reduce the suit’s weight and allow surprisingly quick movement, but they had been warned of how keenly they would feel its heaviness if a full-powered ion blast managed to overload their suit’s systems. As such, Mardan had worked them through a series of complicated drills without power. That had been hell-no environmental controls, no targeting systems, no radar, no comms, no repulsors, and no rests, moving at full speed in a thirty kilo armored suit. However, as helpful as Pec felt the micro-repulsors were-boosted carry weight and increased mobility and strength aside-he felt there was one perk of the armor that topped them all.

The engineers at Kraechar Arms had managed to somehow cram a personal shielding unit into a ten-kilo backpack, although he had heard they were working on something else. The personal shielding practically deflected any sort of blaster fire except vehicle-mounted cannons. Although it was useless against non-energy weapons, Pec had seen an unarmed, but armored individual take a tight cluster of blaster rifle shots to the chest and keep coming as they were absorbed by the shield. That armored individual then had proceeded to walk up to the shooter, take his gun, and knock him to the ground with the greatest of ease. Pec had been visibly impressed with the shield, to say the least, though his sole niggling complaint was that the generator messed with his balance and was somewhat bulky. True, the shield didn’t last forever, but it was a huge edge and a key reason why Cresh Squad had been so effective in the battlegames.

Pec shrugged his shoulders. Time to get back to work; they were burning daylight. The other four squad members recovered their fibraropes and the whole unit broke into a steady jog as they headed back to base.

Briefing room, D+0, 0900 hours

The squad filed into the briefing room still in their dusty armor, although their helmets were once again strapped to their belts. It was dimly lit and largely empty aside from a podium with a holoprojector. They had been rushed there as fast as possible, without even a chance to return to the armory to replace their gear. Two officers were was standing there, and while Pec recognized the first as Captain Ol’nentra, seeing the second was a bit of a surprise. Standing in the room with board-straight posture was Battalion Commander Lyneb, a colonel in the Yanibar Guard and overall second-in-command behind General Spectre. Quickly, the whole squad snapped to attention upon entering and seeing their distinguished visitor.

“Squad 3-C present and reporting for duty, sir!” sounded off Mardan crisply.
“At ease,” replied Lyneb calmly.

There was a slight rustle as the squad members relaxed somewhat.

“I suppose you’re all wondering why I called you in here,” Lyneb said. “The fact is, we have a situation on our hands. That said, feel free to speak up and ask questions throughout the course of this briefing.”

Pec felt his shoulders tense at the words, and he knew Mardan was experiencing a similar reaction. In military parlance, a “situation” was never a good thing. In fact, it usually was euphemistic for “impending doom” or “you-have-five-minutes-before-the-whole-hostile-force-attacks-you-so-get-ready.”

Lyneb gestured and Captain Ol’netra activated a holoprojector-albeit an older recreational model with fuzzy resolution. Not everything in the Yanibar Guard inventory was brand-new Kraechar Arms make. As a hologram depicting a group of ships entering Yanibar’s orbit and then setting down shimmered into existence, Lyneb folded his hands behind his back, narrating the hologram.

“What you are seeing is what our sensor net picked up approximately six hours ago. A sizable group of vessels entered orbit, and then made for the surface. They set down about an hour ago and their current location is less than twenty kilometers from the rim of the basin.”

Pec suppressed a whistle. That was close. Much too close.

“Furthermore, we’ve learned via discrete sensor scans that these ships are aligned with the Blue Star Pirates. These aren’t nice people to be around, and they’re well equipped. As far as we can tell, they haven’t found us yet, which means that our Force illusion was enough to deter them.”

That was a piece of luck. Although it was beyond him to explain it, somehow the head of the Guard, Jedi Master and Supreme Yanibar Guard Commander Selusda Kraen, had managed to establish a protective illusion around the colony, shielding it from view and sensor scans, at least from orbit. If he hadn’t gone into space for zero-G combat training and seen it for himself, Pec might have dismissed it as wishful thinking or propaganda, but the colony had completely disappeared from the planet. Even an electrotelescope had showed nothing but empty land.

“However, while they haven’t found us yet, there’s no guarantee that they won’t. All they have to do is fly a little too low, and suddenly, there we are.”
“Sir, should we be preparing for a full-scale assault then?” asked Mardan.
“Ordinarily, I’d say yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what General Spectre would do. However-and this goes no farther than this four walls-he’s not here. Neither is SupCom Kraen. They, along with 1 and 2 Company and their support, are off an important mission offworld. We’ve kept it under wraps until now, but basically, we’re undermanned. When forty percent of our fighting force is away, well, we’re vulnerable.”

Pec sat in silent shock. While he had heard that 1 and 2 Company were off on an extended exercise, he hadn’t expected them to be offworld. And with General Spectre and the Supreme Commander gone, that made their situation even more precarious.

“If I may, sir,” inquired Mardan. “Why didn’t Naval Command simply engage them in orbit.”

Lyneb regarded the lieutenant quietly for a minute and then responded.

“That’s a complicated question to answer. For one thing, we didn’t know their intentions, or who they were. For another, we wouldn’t have stood a chance in a straight fight. We’re talking a dozen and a half ships, three of them corvette-class or better. In comparison, we’ve got four Y-wings and three dozen Vulture droids. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“It seems we outnumbered them, sir,” Mardan interjected.
“There’s no point in arguing over it now,” Lyneb cut him off. “I’ve been with working with Intelligence Director Tayrce on how to deal with the threat and we’ve come up with a plan. That’s where you come in.”

Ol’netra stepped forward and flicked a control on the holoprojector. The image flickered and then shaped into a topographical map of the landscape around the colony.

“The pirates’ ships are all grounded right now, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. We could attack them with battle droids-we’ve got a couple thousand of those-but they’d detect us and take off. We can’t engage them until we disable their ships, or else they’ll just destroy anything we throw at them. Kraechar Arms is working on weapons to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, but, as of right now, they just aren’t ready.”
“So where do we come in, sir?” Feran asked.
“We’ve determined that we can set the Vulture droids to attack from a very low altitude. If they fly just low enough through the cliff passes, they can avoid detection. However, we’ll only get one or two runs before the pirates start lifting off, so we have to take their ships down fast. With our limited ordance, we’ve got to hit each target, and we can’t risk any kind of sensor sweep. This close, they’d have to be blind and deaf to not notice something like that.”
“You’ll be spotting targets for the airstrike,” said Ol’netra. “Your mission is to get in close enough to pinpoint key targets-engines, weapons emplacements, whatever, for the starfighters to attack. You were chosen for this job because, well, you’re the best we’ve got available. You’re at the top of the rankings in the battlegames right now, and the systems in your battlesuits are essential to this mission.”

The squad members nodded, taking in the subtle praise.

“Avoid contact,” Lyneb advised. “If the pirates detect a heavily armed force moving in on them, it’s all over. They’ll raise ship, activate deflectors, and start searching, and we can’t risk that.”
“When do we move out, sir?” Mardan asked.
“Right now,” Lyneb replied grimly. “Ordinarily, I’d prefer to run a couple simulations in the holochamber to see how this goes, but we just don’t have the time. The topographical layouts and all intelligence files we have will be uploaded into your helmets; that’s the best we can do.”
“Report to the armory,” Ol’netra ordered. “I know you’ve been training mostly with generic S-2F and S-2C rifles, but you’ll receive equipment by specialization there.”
“Dismissed, and may the Force be with you,” Lyneb said.

The eight members of Cresh Squad came to attention as one. Saluting, they turned and walked out of the briefing room in an orderly fashion. They had been largely silent throughout the briefing, save Mardan and Slayn, and remained that way until they reached the armory.

“Well, never a dull moment,” remarked Rieves as they entered the armory, a spacious room loaded with lockers and racks of weaponry.
“At least we’re finally getting some real job to do,” retorted Slayn, scrappy as usual.
“Less talking, more outfitting,” said Mardan, effectively killing any further conversation.

The other squad members could see he was deep in thought as they exchanged their training powerpacks for live ones and added other pieces of equipment not typically included in training, such as hand grenades.

The 3 Company supply sergeant was there standing by eight equipment packs, one for each of them. Every member of each infantry squad was trained in some sort of specialty, which was reflected in the equipment packs they were supposed to carry. In practice, though, the specialized gear was in short supply and/or comprised of outdated equipment and so it was rarely used. Until Kraechar Arms found a way to churn out more, they were stuck with old equipment.

“Specialist Feran Slayn, Sniper,” called out the supply sergeant, and Feran, the only female sniper in all of the Guard, stepped forward to receive her spotter’s equipment, ammunition bandoleers, and Verpine-make sniper rifle.

Sighting down the barrel approvingly, Faran returned her blaster rifle to a wall rack and accepted the weapon, a powerful rifle that fired magnetically accelerated metal slugs instead of blaster bolts.

“Private Kaileedo Tosc, Medic.”

Tosc stepped forward, retrieving a sturdy medkit and adding it to his gear.

“Private Nak Rieves, Gunner.”

The sizable Rieves stepped forward, swapping out his blaster rifle for a weapon appropriate to his size: a heavy repeating longblaster of Clone Wars vintage that could shred through infantry armor and fire one hundred blaster shots per oversized powerpack. Large, inaccurate, and noisy, it was still an incredibly destructive weapon.

“Sergeant Pec Deplisk, Scout.”

Pec stepped forward and received the advanced spotting and sensor equipment that his position entailed. His area of responsibility overlapped with that of Zoled Nysaal, a Duros male who was also the unit’s electronic specialist, trained in computers and communication techniques. He was also frequently paired with Slayn, serving as her spotter. On a mission such as this, his skills would all be called into play as he strove to avoid hostile contact and spot targets for the droid starfighters.

The sergeant handed him another smaller package as well, one he was unfamiliar with.

“What this?” Pec asked.
“It’s a new combat tool,” the sergeant replied. “Enhanced Tactical Advisor. We call it ETA for short.”
“So, what’s it do?”
“It’s a combat AI, Sarge. It helps synchronize the coordination between you, your battlesuit, and the guys in the command lounge.”
“I see.”
“Just plug into your helmet, at the back. It’ll link with the helmet’s interface and activate when you signal it. You and the lieutenant are the only ones who get ‘em though. They’re, uh, experimental.”
“Wonderful,” replied Pec with obvious sarcasm.

Looking at the device dubiously, he secured to his helmet and got a ping from his wrist computer indicating that it had connected properly to his battlesuit. However, for the moment, he refrained from activating it. Pec Deplisk didn’t need another electronic voice in his head telling him what to do. At least, not yet.

The others received their equipment as well. Arc Leyt, a Zabrak, was the squad’s demolition specialist, carrying a rocket launcher and demolition charges. Last, Oscoe Nhash was the unit’s mechanic, skilled in making all sorts of things work or explode in your face, depending on the situation, and a completely reckless speeder driver.

Pec ran a quick checklist down his pack and the various pieces of gear strapped to or dangling from his battlesuit. An S-2F rifle, S-1 sidearm, vibroblade, concussion and fragmentation detonators, an ordnance launcher attachment for the rifle and their respective ammunitions comprised his weaponry. A hardened wrist computer and this new tactical AI thing gave him electronic capabilities. Two days rations and two 1.5 liter water flasks would give him sustenance for the march. A glowrod, entrenching tool, medpac, and fibrarope, along with his specialized scout gear, made up the rest of his kit.

The rest of the squad similarly checked out their load-outs. When they were ready, Mardan strode to the head of their line and faced them, waiting until he had their complete attention. Clearing his throat, he addressed the squad solemnly.

“Cresh Squad, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s our turn to step up and do our part to defend this colony. It’s our job to complete our mission successfully, because there are a lot of people counting on us to do so. And finally, it’s going to be our pleasure to send those pirates straight to the nine Corellian hells!”

Pec roared his approval with the rest of the squad at hearing their leader’s words. Slipping their helmets on, they marched out of the armory to where a pair of beaten-up Yanibar Guard landspeeders was waiting to take them to the cliff pass where they would exit the Tusloni Basin and approach the pirate encampment.

Cliff Pass 219 “Rakshas Pass”, D+0, 1200 hours

Slipping his helmet off briefly, Pec pulled a water flask off his belt and downed a quick half-liter gulp. In the scorching midday heat of Yanibar’s summer, a long physical march like this demanded that he take in a lot of fluids. The landspeeders had dropped them off near the basin side of the pass, although that was something of a euphemism. Rakshas Pass was little more than a track, barely navigable by half-walking, half-clambering. Their tannish red-armor allowed them to blend in to the rocks fairly well, but its environmental controls weren’t sufficient enough to totally drown out the heat. However, they were almost through it. Replacing the flask on his belt, Pec replaced the helmet and moved on, falling in line as the last member of the squad. It had been a fairly quiet march so far. Everyone remained focused enough to avoid unnecessary chatter. Besides, Rakshas Pass was a fairly challenging exercise in conditioning while wearing full armor.

Glancing at his wrist computer, he figured that now was as good a time as any to get acquainted with the new AI they’d plugged into him. First, though, he turned off his comlink, so the squad wouldn’t hear him. Reaching up to his helmet, he activated the control tentatively. At first, nothing happened and he silently swore under his breath for being so apprehensive about a machine, especially one that didn’t work.

Then, the miniholoprojector on his gauntlet lit up as the image of an armored soldier, equipped in a B52-A battlesuit, dissolved into existence.

“Hello, Sergeant Deplisk,” said the hologram in a chipper male voice, albeit one that would be more chipper if it wasn’t filtered through the battlesuit helmet’s speakers. “How can I be of assistance?”

Deplisk, though his facial expression was concealed by the full helmet, glared down at the projection.

“Why don’t you start by telling me what you do?” he growled.
“My primary function is to help my host complete his missions,” replied the soldier.
“I see,” growled Pec, thinking that parasite was a very good description for this thing indeed. “Could you be a little more specific?”
“I am capable of interfacing with your armor systems. I can alert you to incoming communications. I can slice into hostile computer systems. I can monitor your health via your suit’s biosensors. I can alert you to enemies behind you by using the battlesuit sensors.”
“So you can control the battlesuit? Then why am I in it?”
“I can be as minimal or as active as you want me to be. I was designed with ease of interface in mind, and the more I work with you, the better I’ll be at understanding what you want. I can operate a wide range of your battlesuit’s systems upon receiving a vocal command, instead of you having to do so manually.”

Pec sighed. This was not what he signed up for, having computers talk to him. Why did he and Mardan get stuck with these kriffing AIs? If this was the burden of command, he wanted nothing to do with it. He envied the other six members of the squad, who wouldn’t have to deal with such a thorn in the side.

“If you want to have more ‘ease of interface,’” he said with clear irritation. “Why don’t you try talking a little less? I have enough things to think about without piecing together a fripping thesis in the middle of combat.”
“Done,” replied the AI tersely.
“That’s an improvement,” Pec conceded. “While you’re at it, why don’t you check on the cooling systems? Make it a little easier on me.”
“Done,” the AI replied again, after a moment.

To his surprise, Pec felt a little more cool air circulating through his helmet, and it didn’t feel quite so warm inside anymore.

“Hey, how’d you do that? I asked Oscoe to calibrate this twice before,” he said with some incredulity.
“The manual controls are less efficient. I bypassed them to run more power to the cooling system.”
“Why would the manual controls be less efficient?”
“It is designed that way. The manual controls work within a certain range, but have strict limitations to prevent them from accidentally making the battlesuit very uncomfortable in combat.”
“Interesting,” Pec said, with a little less bite in his voice. “What do you I call you, anyway?”
“My factory designation is ETA-4515A.”
“Stang, that’s far too long,” Pec replied, scrambling up a particularly steep ledge and grunting with exertion. “How about Eta? Does that work?”
“Done. I am Eta.”
“Well, that’s a start,” Pec said. “Now we just gotta loosen you up some.”
“Done. I will acquire your mannerisms as we work together.”

Pec rolled his eyes. A computer that learned from him. Great.

“One last thing for now,” Pec instructed. “Can you appear somewhere else besides my wrist projector? That’s more than a little distracting.”
“Sure thing,” Eta replied laconically, disappearing from view and reappearing as a small avatar in the top-left corner of his helmet’s visor.
“Better,” Pec said, mollified.
“Hey Sarge,” crackled Slayn’s voice through his comlink. “Better catch up; you’re falling behind. You’re not getting too old, are you, sir?”
“It’s your fripping imagination, Slayn,” Pec shot back good-naturedly. “When you can run ten klicks faster than me, then we’ll talk about old.

Closing the comlink, he briefly returned his attention to Eta.

“Look, it’s been fascinating, but for now, I need to focus on what I’m doing, not talking with you.”
“Of course,” Eta said, still in a more laid-back tone reminiscent of his own voice. “Call me if you need me.”

Shaking his head over this latest invention, Pec returned his full attention to the increasingly steep incline ahead of him as he and the rest of Cresh Squad made their way through Rakshas Pass.

Salarnas Gorge, D+0, 2359 hours

The dusky glow of twilight had long given way to the stark black void of a Yanibar night as Pec Deplisk and the rest of Cresh Squad left the Tasloni Basin behind and descended through the gullies, gorges, and foothills surrounding it. Activating their helmets’ thermal mode, the squad kept a vigilant watch on their surroundings. Their auditory sensors picked up the sounds of nightlift-the call of a hunting owl, the mournful howl of a distant voorcat, the chirping of insects. Kraechar Arms had even seen fit to include an olfactory sensor, no doubt for the benefit of species with a keener sense of smell, such as the Shistavanen or Togruta, but Pec left it offline for now, and certainly planned on keeping it that way during battle. War was bad enough without having to smell it too.

Their desert-tone armor creaked softly as they made their way towards the pirate encampment. Since the pirates had left a probe in orbit with sensors set to detect any approaching craft, Cresh Squad couldn’t take advantage of Yanibar’s geosynchronous-orbiting satellites for overhead imagery; they had all been diverted to avoid the rogue probe. Instead, all they had was the older telemetry from earlier. Eta had been mostly quiet, but now, a signal flashed up inside his helmet telling him that they were ten kilometers from the pirate encampment. They had already taken a break earlier for food and a brief rest, and they were all keyed up, ready to go. Pec’s heart started beating a little faster, as it always did on the eve of battle. He’d already re-checked the loads in his blaster at least a couple times already, his other pre-combat foible. There was absolutely no additional chatter now. Any stray transmissions could easily be picked up the pirates, and even if they were encrypted, their sheer existence would betray their presence.

At five klicks out, Lt. Mardan signaled a halt near a shallow cave in the midst of a grove of hard scrub brush and thorn bushes.

“Leave your packs and supplies here,” he said. “We’ll pick them up on our way back, but they’ll hamper us in a fight.”

The squad complied, silently unslinging their supply packs and leaving them in the cave. Mardan placed a signal beacon there that would transmit its location after he remotely activated it, but he wasn’t ready for the squad to move out yet. He pulled off his helmet, unwilling to use the built-in comlink, and signaled for the others to do so. Pec did gladly, letting the cool night breeze wash over his sweat-stained face. It was a nice evening, with few clouds in the sky and with a temperature neither too hot nor cold, a definite rarity on Yanibar. While Pec was comfortable in armor for long periods of time, the helmet did tend to constrict him somewhat, and its artificial glow could strain the eyes if stared at for too long, a design flaw he intended on bringing up with Kraechar Arms.

“We’re almost there,” Mardan whispered as the others nodded in response. “Their landing site is just over that ridge.”
“What’s the plan, sir?” asked Slayn.
“The fighters are set for launch at 0500 hours,” Mardan replied gravely. “We need to have the targets fully picked out by then. That’s just three hours from now, so move quickly, but don’t do anything stupid.”

The squad looked intently at Mardan, waiting for the officer to continue.

“We’ll split into two units,” he said. “Pec, you take Slayn, Leyt, and Tosc, and circle around the south side. I’ll take the others and scout the north flank. It’s our job to call in the thunder and lightning.”
“Copy that, sir,” Pec said automatically.
“Pick your targets with your helmet optics and pass them to your leader,” Mardan instructed. “We’ve got specialized gear that’ll let us send the targets to the starfighters. Do not make contact with the enemy. There’s eight of us, and a few hundred of them with plenty of firepower. If they discover us, it’s all over. Now, move out.”

The eight soldiers donned their helmets once more and fanned out, splitting up into two groups as they ascended the final ridge that lay between them and the camp. Pec took his group around the south of the camp, careful to keep cover between them and any sentries the pirates had set up. With the aid of their thermal vision and helmet optics, they could easily see the encampment, a loose cluster of landed ships dotted with sizable campfires and a few tents or temporary dwellings scattered helter-skelter. The occasional reddish-orange moving blur on the thermals indicated a walking pirate. They’d already detected several sentries near the perimeter and Pec prayed they weren’t as vigilant or as well-equipped as he and his squad were.

The terrain was mostly smoothed out, dotted with rocky outcroppings and hardy desert plants. A few gullies criss-crossed the arid ground, but it was primarily open land. They would have to work carefully to maximize their cover and avoid being seen. Pec checked his chrono again-it was 0249-and the loads on his trusty S-2F, the longer version of the S-2C carbine.

Moving around rocks and through thickets of scrub brush, his four soldiers were careful and stealthy. While full silence was near-impossible in full armor, they did their best. Above all, each one of them was careful to avoid silhouetting themselves against the horizon-that would be a dead giveaway for even the most inexperienced sentry. There was a crescent moon up in the sky, and though it was waning, it still cast enough light to betray them if they weren’t careful. As they had done throughout training, the four moved three at a time, with the first person stopping to cover the others with his weapon, until the others had advanced to the next position. It was not a straight march, but an awkward zigzag of darting from cover to cover, doing anything to avoid line of sight with the enemy. Pec was in his element now, his eyes probing the pirate camp at every opportunity, looking for firing angles, for cover, for the minute tactical opportunities that could mean the difference between life and death for at least him and three others.

Sliding behind a boulder, Pec popped up with rifle at the ready, all senses hyper-alert. He was much less than two klicks out from the pirates now. The boulder was a meter and a half tall block of granite and smoothed down from wind erosion. Surrounded by smaller rocks and scrub brush, it was excellent cover, slightly elevated above the pirate camp and with several gullies between it and the pirate camp to slow down any approaching attackers.

The pirate ships were loosely clustered and spread out before him and he could see distant flickers of light emanating from the campfires. He was more than close enough. Using a pre-arranged system of hand signals, he called the other three to a halt. It was time to do their job.

“Eta, wake up,” he said to the computer.
“Online,” replied the AI.
“Record target locations as I confirm them,” Pec ordered.
“Affirmative.”

Pulling up his advanced optics kit from his scout’s pack, Pec zoomed in on the pirate camp, seeking out targets of opportunity. The largest ship he saw, a Marauder-class corvette was the first thing he tagged with an ultraviolet beam designator, marking its engines and bridge for targeting with torpedoes. Sweeping around the camp, his gaze bounced from starfighter to gunboat, marking each and every target with the designator, assigning priority flags to the most dangerous ones. Crouched right next to him was Slayn, her sniper rifle pointing directly at the nearest sentry. In the event that the hapless sentry noticed them, Slayn would cut him down with a magnetically accelerated 10 X 85 mm slug of tungsten-durasteel alloy traveling at just under sonic speeds to maintain silence.

Pec finished his task in an hour, as Eta dutifully logged each target. The ultraviolet beam designator had certainly gotten a work out, and Pec had added to that data with thermal and electromagnetic imaging, along with weather data. Now, it was time to clean up what he had designated, a rare opportunity sometimes.

“Eta, give me an overhead view of the targets, along with known data on each one.”

The holoimage shimmered into existence, seemingly projected half a meter in front of him despite being fully contained inside the helmet. Carefully, Pec pored over the strengths of each vessel, adding or re-assigning priority flags as necessary. Cutting down the starfighters, the vessels that could be launched quickly, was important, to be sure, but there were other factors. Ships that weren’t combat capable were less of a priority. Larger ships also didn’t have to necessarily take off to cause trouble either. If a corvette got even its shields and weapons online, the mission’s chances of success would drop drastically. The first few crucial split seconds of the engagement were Pec’s and Mardan’s responsibility, the moments when the pirates would be totally caught off guard and vulnerable. The Vultures had to deliver a crippling blow in those seconds, because they were heavily outnumbered here. There were over two hundred pirates, as far as Pec could tell, spread out over at least a square kilometer. Their equipment, while none too new, was still serviceable and would be able to put up a hefty defense against a few dozen droid starfighters if they were ready.

When he was finally satisfied with his analysis, Pec deactivated the holodisplay and settled in for a fairly short wait. He still had a few hours before the fighters arrived. In the mean time, he kept his gaze fixed on the pirate camp, watching for signs of any kind of activity out of the ordinary. With his scout’s binoculars, he could see individual pirates walking to and fro. The resolution was so good that he could see their faces clearly. The pirates, most of them male Humans, seemed to be largely sitting around campfires or enjoying some kind of merriment, unaware of the threat that Pec and the rest of Cresh Squad posed to them. A few were on the ships, but the majority seemed to be enjoying the nice evening, fresh air, and whatever intoxicant-laced festivities were popular among this particular brand of ruffian.

Tarsoldus Plain, D+1, 0400 hours

It had been a boring hour, thus far, which was exactly as Pec liked it. On missions like this, if something became exciting at this point, things had gone terribly wrong. Hardened against complacency by years of soldiering, his vigilance had yet to relax, though he knew the younger Slayn next to him was bored; he was sure her attention had flagged at least once, which was not a good sign in a sniper. Still, the pirates certainly didn’t seem aware of their presence, but he figured he might as well catch Slayn’s attention.

“Slayn,” he said, with his helmet speakers down to minimal volume rather than using a comlink. “Do you see anything?”

There was a brief pause before she replied, no doubt searching the camp hastily to make sure she hadn’t missed anything.

“No, Sergeant.”
“Good,” he replied. “Nice and calm, just the way we like it.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied solemnly.
“What’s the range to the nearest encampment?” he asked.

Pec already knew the answer-his helmet had a rangefinder-but he wanted to make sure Slayn was on top of her game as much as she had been during training.

“1,138 meters, sir,” she replied.
“And the wind velocity?”
“3.48 meters per second, at sixty-one degrees east from north, sir,” she replied.
“Excellent,” he said.
“Sir, may I ask a question?”
“Go ahead.”
“Why are you asking me these things, sir? I’ve never gotten a negative review on my performance reviews. I’ve done this sort of thing hundreds of times in training. What’s the point, sir?”
“Hundreds of time, hmm,” Pec mused. “That was in training, right?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, her tone implying that he was asking a stupid question.
“And how many times have you shot someone with a live round and seen them fly back in a mist of their own blood?”
“Sir?”
“You heard me. How many times have you blown off someone’s head with that rifle of yours?”
“Uh, never, sir.”
“Well, I’ve done it several times, Specialist,” Pec said, the images of past wars and their associated horrors coming to his mind. “It doesn’t get any better after the first time, either. I’m asking you these questions to get you back in the mindset of training, so when you have to pull that trigger, it’s automatic for you and not something new. Your body will remember what to do, even if your mind is numb from realizing you just killed someone in cold blood.”

Though she was wearing a helmet and kept her eyes fixed on the scope of her rifle, Pec could have sworn that she was resisting the urge to stare incredulously at him.

“How long have you been doing this, sir? Soldiering?” she asked, and Pec could hear the mix of horror and awe in her voice.
“You’re a lady sniper, Slayn,” said Pec, not quite answering the question at first. “Don’t see too many of those. Not common at all. I think you’re maybe the third I’ve seen in nine years of combat.”
“I wanted to do something different, sir,” she replied resolutely. “I knew I could do it.”
“Yes, I’ve seen your scores,” Pec replied gruffly. “But can you gun a man down? That’s what I’m more interested in right now.”
“Sir, I-,”
“You’re not required to answer that, Specialist,” he cut her off. “Wait.”
“What is it, sir?”

Pec narrowed his eyes as he noticed some unusual activity near the outskirts of the camp. Locking his electrobinoculars onto the site, he observed several pirates enter a small freighter-turned-gunship near the edge of the encampment. A few minutes later, they emerged, still in a raucous mood as far as he could tell, escorting several other people to a ragged tent pitched near the edge of the encampment. Pec sucked his breath in hard as the scene unfolded before him, his eyes tightening in a grimace.

Glancing to his side, he saw Slayn’s finger tighten on the trigger of her rifle and knew she had seen it too. The others, Tosc and Leyt, hadn’t seemed to notice yet, but Pec’s scout’s gear and Slayn’s scope meant that they got a full view of the pirates’ actions, up close and personal.

The pirates had brought out a series of unfortunate Twi’lek females from the transport and, judging by the bottles in their hands and the way they were acting, had become intoxicated to the point of losing all their inhibitions. Twi’lek women were renowned across the galaxy for their beauty and poise, but Pec was fairly sure the pirates had no intention of restraint. Pec could tell, even from this distance, how terrified the rag-clad Twi’leks were. And they had good reason to be. It was a common understanding among the wiser denizens of the galaxy that blasters and alcohol didn’t mix well. Pec watched in silent tight-lipped horror as the first pirate reached out, laughed wildly and dropped his bottle on the ground after one final swig.

Reaching out, the inebriated man grabbed one of the Twi’leks, who screamed and tried to resist, but had no chance. He then ripped off her garment, leaving her exposed, and proceeded to satisfy his baser instincts. Pec watched the entire violation of the Twi’lek play out, recording the image on his helmet cam, hearing the screams of the woman as she was brutalized. Looking over, he saw Slayn shaking slightly, almost imperceptibly, but he recognized the signs.

“Take off your helmet when you throw up,” he said. “You don’t want to have a face full of vomit.”

He dispassionately continued to watch, while Slayn pulled off her helmet just in time to empty a stream of regurgitated rations down the side of the boulder. He heard her coughing and spitting and his mind flashed back nine years earlier. He had had a similar reaction the first time he’d killed another sentient at age seventeen.

“How can you keep watching that?” she said finally. “It’s kriffing awful.”
“Drink some water, get that taste out of your mouth,” he said slowly, ignoring her lack of protocol.

Some things mattered more than an extraneous “sir” that the brass felt he deserved. Right now, Slayn was being confronted with the horrors of war. Pec continued his viewing for several more minutes, before he finally turned to Slayn. Her brown hair was bedraggled, with some strands coming loose from its previously pinned arrangement. She didn’t look all that good, he had to admit, even for war.

“I know it’s kriffing awful,” he said tightly. “That’s why I’m recording it.”
“Recording it?” she wondered, aghast.
“Why?” he asked for her. “It’s so that when I call in that airstrike, when I look at myself in the mirror and wonder why I stay in a career that makes me kill people, I remember that this is the type of scum I’m wiping off the face of the galaxy. To remind me that this is why I do this job.”
“How can you even bear to look?”
“This is hard for you to understand, but I’ve seen worse. Hell, I’ve done worse, Slayn. And trust me, it’s not over.”
“What do you mean?”
“That Twi’lek. Her suffering isn’t over. She’ll be passed from one man to another, and they’ll have their way with her, one after another. If she’s lucky, she’ll still be alive when they’re finished. Or they might shoot her, which might actually be more merciful. You never know.”

Slayn stared at him in abject shock.

“She’s nothing but a piece of meat to them. A plaything, Slayn. And that’s why I won’t feel any regret about gunning them down, if it comes to that.”
“I see, sir,” she replied ashenly.
“No, you don’t,” Pec answered. “Not yet.”
“What are we going to do, sir?”
“Do?”
“If we call in that flacking airstrike, she and those other slaves will die.”

Pec was silent for a moment. It was an unpleasant realization he had already come to. There were some realities of war that just couldn’t be avoided, and one of them was that you couldn’t save everyone. That only happened in poorly-written holodramas, and Pec knew from his years in the field that it certainly didn’t happen in real life. His orders were in direct conflict with what he knew was the right thing, but Pec was duty-bound to obey.

“I know,” he said quietly.
“So we’re just going to sit here and let them die?” she asked incredulously.
“Keep it down,” Pec said sternly. “Do you see another choice, Specialist? Our orders are to scout out this area and avoid contact until the airstrike arrives.”
“Sir, our orders didn’t include the possibility of civilians,” Slayn protested.

A piercing shriek rang out through the late night. Pec risked a look back through his binocs and instantly regretted it.

“What is it?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.

By now, both Tosc and Leyt were fully alerted by the scream and looked at Pec for direction.

“Hold position,” Pec said, nearly choking on the words. “It’s not our problem.”
“Sir, with all due respect, it is our problem,” Slayn said. “There are innocents being harmed down there.”
“We have our kriffing orders,” Pec replied tight-lipped. “I will not violate those.”
“Then call back to HQ,” she insisted. “Call Lieutenant Mardan. Get them changed.”
“Not going to happen,” Pec growled. “We can’t break comm silence, and there’s nothing we can do anyway. If we go down there and try and save them, we all die. And then they find the refuge. Do you want that to happen?”
“No, sir, but we can’t just sit here and do nothing!”
“On the contrary, Specialist, that’s exactly what we are going to do,” Pec ordered. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but we’ve got no choice. Our orders are clear.”
“What if we do it quietly?” Slayn persisted.

Pec groaned inside. She was not giving up.

“Specialist, shut the kriff up,” he said, his tone brooking no further disagreement.

She clamped her mouth shut after that and Leyt and Tosc wisely kept their own objections to themselves. Pec returned to watching the spectacle unfolding before him. Bile rose in his throat, but he kept it down, inured to the horrors of war as he was. Still, this sight wouldn’t ever leave his mind, and he knew he would be visiting the base counselor after they got back. If they got back. His mind whirled as he calculated angles and possibilities, but he knew it was most likely futile. He sat stolidly for several moments, trying to watch and screen out the injustice before his eyes at the same time. Finally, he could take it no more.

“Eta, continue recording the image at hand, but black out the visor,” he said.
“Copy.”

The AI’s response was thankfully short, and Pec wondered if the machine could comprehend what was transpiring before him. Several minutes later, he heard motion at his side.

“Sir, permission to speak?”

It was Slayn, once again with helmet in place, once again in line with military protocol.

“Go ahead,” Pec grunted.
“Sir, I apologize for my outburst earlier. It was unbecoming.”
“Accepted.”

She stood there quietly for a few minutes.

“Was there something else?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. I think we have to do something, sir.”
“We’ve been through this already, Specialist,” Pec said, adding an edge to his voice.
“Yes, sir. I just have one last question.”
“What’s that?” he replied with disinterest.
“What is the value of those lives down there?”

Pec stopped short for a moment. It was the very question he had been wrestling with. It was against his very being just to stand by and watch innocents suffer, and even more so to condemn to death with his airstrikes, but his hands were tied. The success of their mission and ultimately the safety of the colony depended on them not making contact.

“Slayn, I’m going to be very frank with you. I’m in the same boat you are, and if it was just my life at stake, I’d be down there in a heartbeat, fighting for them, even if it meant I died trying. But there are people depending on us. Lots of people. If we fail, then they suffer the same fate. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir,” she said doggedly. “What if we didn’t get caught?”
“That’s an awfully big if, Specialist,” Pec said cautiously.
“I think it’s workable,” she said. “If we use the gully for cover, we can approach their encampment and take them out quietly.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then what?”
“We bring the Twi’leks back here and wait for the airstrike,” she said.
“And what happens if we get caught?”
“We don’t get caught,” she said archly.
“Specialist, I appreciate what you’re trying to do here,” he said. “I really do. It’s idealistic, noble even. But even if it did work, what about the other slaves? There’s bound to be more of them in this many pirate ships. How are you going to get them out? Are we going to sneak past all of the pirates next to save them?”
“One thing at a time, sir,” she said.

Pec stared at her quietly and knew that underneath her helmet, she was staring back at him, her eyes filled with steely resolve. He knew he wanted to side with her, but nine years of hammered military discipline resisted. The conflict went down to his innermost being, fought between the man he was and the soldier he’d become. And he knew there was only one choice he could make.

“No,” he said. “We cannot make any sort of rescue attempt.”
“Sir-,” she said dejectedly.
“That’s enough, Specialist,” he cut her off sternly. “We’ve got a job to do. Get up.”
“Sir?”
“I agree with you on respect, Slayn,” he said. “We definitely need to get a closer look at that pirate encampment. You will therefore accompany me on an armed reconnaissance mission.”
“Affirmative, sir,” she said, and he knew she was smiling inside her helmet.
“We’ll approach by the gully,” he said. “I want to take a look at those pirate ships over there. I can’t tell if they’re transports or gunships.”
“Copy that, sir.”
“Tosc, be ready to back us up,” Pec ordered. “You and Leyt keep an eye on things here.”
“Yes, sir,” replied the medic.

With that, Pec and Slayn were off. They hadn’t gone two meters from the boulder when they dropped to their bellies and began crawling across the uneven ground through the gravel and scrub towards the campfire. Dropping into the gully, they slowly inched their way along. All of Pec’s senses were on an adrenalin-induced state of hypersensitivity, keen for any sign they had been noticed. It was hand over hand for them, avoiding loose twigs that might snap and betray their presence. Thankfully, it was late enough that the pirates had pulled in all but a few sentries, but the danger of voorcats had caused them to leave enough to be trouble.

“Eta,” Pec said. “Do the pirates have sensors on their perimeter?”
“Yes,” the AI replied. “Infrared sensors designed to detect any sizable life-forms.”
“This armor masks our signature, right?” Pec said.
“Correct. Until you fire or activate your shield, your heat signature resembles that of a rodent.”
“Good to know,” Pec muttered. “That’s exactly what we are. Little rodents scurrying towards a trap.”

By now, he was less than fifty meters from the nearest sentry, but the man had yet to notice the two armored commandos sneaking by him. The painstaking approach continued. Sweat poured down Pec’s head, drenching the padded inside of the helmet, and he could hear his labored breathing. It wasn’t just the distance, but the added pressure and stress were certainly getting to him. But they hadn’t been caught yet.

Meter by meter, they pulled themselves through the gully, towards the campfire of the pirates, towards the risk they were throwing themselves into headlong. Their armor’s creaks and rasps against the rocks were painfully loud to their ears now, but by some divine providence or stroke of luck, the pirates were oblivious to their approach thanks to drunkenness or sheer exhaustion. Pec once again took charge as he and Slayn approached, using his hands to signal their course of action. There were four pirates around the campfire. Apparently having sated their lust for now, they were lounging around, swilling more booze. One of them was waving a blaster around drunkenly. They were laughing noisily, oblivious to everything around them, a factor that gave Pec and his compatriot the element of surprise.

At ten meters away, Pec signaled Slayn to remain where she was. Rising forward, he darted into the faint circle of light given off by the campfire as one of the pirates approached one of the Twi’leks again with a hungry gleam in his eyes. Pec strode up right behind him, grabbed him behind the shoulder and spun him around.

“Wha-huh?” the drunken man wheezed.
“It’s past your bedtime,” Pec growled, smashing the butt of his rifle into the man’s jaw, dropping him to the ground.

The startled pirates around him stared at him blearily for a moment and then began fumbling for blasters. It was too late, though. With practiced ease, Pec clubbed the second one with a brutal one-two combination to the torso and neck with the blaster’s butt. A third took Pec’s vibroblade in his ribs, while the fourth managed to make a drunken cry and clear his blaster of its holster when his chest cavity exploded silently back as a sizable hole was bored through it by a metal slug courtesy of Slayn’s sniper rifle. Pec froze, waiting to see if other pirates came running, but none of them did.

Pec waved Slayn up and ran forward to kneel by the nearest of the three Twi’leks huddled by the fire. He was sure that he cut an intimidating figure in his armor, and wanted to assure them that he meant no harm. He could see the terror in his eyes as he approached.

“Sssh,” he said softly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

They stared at him, tears running down one of their cheeks, though one of them was slumped on her side, motionless.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said cautiously. “Nobody’s going to hurt you anymore.”

Slayn advanced, rifle at the ready, and if she was shaken up about shooting the pirate, she didn’t show it. Probably too keyed up on adrenalin right now.

“I need you to go with Specialist Slayn there,” he said. “She’s not going to hurt you. We’ve got to get you out of here. Quietly.”

They nodded, and slowly, Slayn and Pec led them back to the gully. A little less cautiously, since the four pirates were dealt with, they led them back to the others. Once again, it was a tense crawl through rocks and thornbushes and Pec pitied the Twi’leks, whose rags were being cut to pieces by the terrain. Thankfully, aside from the odd whimper, they didn’t make a sound. However, they did slow them down. Pec and Slayn were fit, well-fed, and equipped with powered armor. The Twi’leks were wearing rags, had been abused, and looked malnourished.

“Sergeant, I would advise you to stop immediately,” Eta said suddenly.

Pec froze.

“Why is that?”
“You have 2.2 meters before the first Twi’lek crosses the infrared sensor mark.
“Kriff,” Pec swore.

Immediately, he called a halt.

“What is it, sir?” Slayn asked.
“If we go any farther, we’ll set off the infrared sensors,” Pec growled.
“We can’t just stay here, sir,” Slayn said. “They’ll see us.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Pec replied. “But if we move, they’ll see us now. We stay here.”
“Let’s at least get Tosc and Leyt down here, sir,” said Slayn.
“Good idea,” Pec replied. “Go back and get them.”

Slayn nodded curtly and moved along the gully quietly back towards the boulder where Tosc and Leyt were waiting. Meanwhile, Pec returned his attention to the bedraggled Twi’leks before him. They had traveled incredibly slowly and Pec was almost glad that he hadn’t had to push them another six hundred meters.

Looking at them, he could see the bruises, the evidence of obvious physical assault and was filled with cold fury at the sight.

“Hold still,” he whispered, trying to reassure them.

No doubt they were confused, wondering what was going on, why armored figures had dragged them off.

“You’re free,” he said, and if they understood nothing else, they got that, bringing a smile to Pec’s face.

It was the first since embarking on this mission. Thankfully, Slayn returned quickly enough, with Tosc and Leyt in tow. Pec checked his chrono. It was 0445.

“Any trouble?” he asked.
“None, Sarge,” Leyt replied softly, cognizant of the sentry a few hundred meters away.
“See what you can do with them, Tosc,” Pec said, indicating the Twi’leks.
“On it, sir,” replied the Rodian medic, breaking out his kit.

Pec looked at the Twi’leks again and noted one of them was particularly glass-eyed, her breathing labored.

“Tosc, this one first,” he said.

Moving as fast as he dared without revealing his presence, he moved forward and cradled her. Her head and lekku rolled back listlessly as he did so, and he roughly opened up her dirty, tattered robes. Unsurprisingly, he saw her body was covered from neck to groin with bruises and contusions.

“How is she?”
“Not good, chief,” Tosc replied after a quick examination. “Lot of internal bleeding.”

Pec glanced at him impassively and Tosc subtly shook his head.

“Tosc, she’s not breathing,” Slayn said.

Tosc moved into action, applying the prescribed cardiopulmonary technique. Pec watched fixatedly as the medic applied pressure to her rib cage over and over again, trying to start the Twi’lek woman breathing again. He sensed the desperation in Tosc’s technique, and knew it was getting close. Finally, just as Pec was about to give up, the Twi’lek coughed up a little blood and gagged slightly, her eyelids fluttering. However, she was breathing again.

“Not much time here, chief,” Tosc said.
“I understand,” Pec replied. “Give her something to ease her passing.”

The medic set to work, and Pec turned his attention to the others.

“Are you okay?” he asked, aware of how ridiculous the question sounded.

Not waiting for a response, he continued on in face of their mute stares.

“We’re trying to help you,” he said. “Are there are other slaves on that ship? On other ships? We can try and help them.”

They stared at him quietly, then one of them spoke up.

“Yes-yes,” she said tearfully. “On that same ship, another six.”
“Okay,” Pec said. “We’ll get them out of there.”
“Here,” the sergeant said, pulling off his water flask. “Have some water. Tosc will be right with you.”

Pec kept their attention on him, imposing his body between them and the dying woman so that they wouldn’t see their fellow prisoner die in front of them. In the back of his head, he could hear her dying. It was the merciful thing to do, he told himself, even as he kept up the facade of encouragement. He heard her dying gasps and knew that when it was his time, he wanted it to be quick and painless. He glanced down at his chrono. It was 0450.

“Slayn,” he said, as Tosc turned to the other two. “You and Leyt.”
“What is it, Sarge?”
“There are more prisoners on one of those ships,” he said. “Six more.”

They looked at him expectantly.

“We have fifteen minutes to get them out of here,” Pec continued.
“What’s the plan, Sarge?” Leyt asked quietly, his voice filled with trust in his sergeant.
“We’re getting them out,” Pec said. “We’ve already come this far, might as well go all the way.”
“Copy that, sir,” Slayn said.
“Tosc, I want you and Leyt to get the prisoners out. Slayn will go with you and cover fire. I’ll be here, watching your flank,” he said. “Now, move out.”

The other three nodded quietly and Pec silently took up his rifle, watching the nearest sentry. Before he left, Leyt unshouldered his rocket launcher, leaving the bulky weapon behind, and the three clambered down the gully stealthily. Most of the activity in the pirate camp had wound down, but it only took one alarm to rouse the whole camp. And that would be a situation.

As the three half-crawled, half-sneaked through the rock and bush-filled gully, Pec checked his blaster load for the thousandth time and turned to the two remaining Twi’leks, who were huddled together and gazing at the lifeless corpse frightfully.

“Listen,” Pec said. “It’s going to get real noisy soon. When I shout, though, you take off running back towards that boulder. Keep your heads down and you’ll be okay.”

They nodded nervously and Pec returned his attention to surveying the pirate base. So far, so good. The three other squad members had managed to get close to the ship, and nobody was in sight.

“Mister?”

A Twi’lek voice interrupted his concentration and he turned.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

He nodded briefly, and that was enough. Fighting back a wave of emotion, he returned his attention down the sights of his blaster rifle, watching the rescue attempt. Tosc and Leyt had boarded the freighter successfully. Slayn was crouched by the ramp, rifle at the ready. Pec checked his chrono. It was 0501. Four agonizing minutes left until the fighters arrived.

“Eta, put up a countdown until 0505 on my helmet. Somewhere discrete. I want to know when our thunder and lightning arrives.”
“Acknowledged,” the AI replied.

A small timer appeared in his HUD and began ticking down.

Suddenly, Pec’s eyes were riveted on a pair of pirates walking toward the campfire where he and Slayn had attacked earlier. Any second now, they would find one of the pirates’ bodies, unless they were falling down drunk. Not likely, he surmised by their gait. Slayn would have to take them out with two perfect shots.

Sighting down his rifle, he bracketed one of them in his scope, waiting to provide backup if need be. His blaster, unlike Slayn’s rifle, was not silenced, and if he fired, the whole camp could hear and see the blast.

Slayn sighted in, aimed, and fired, and Pec watched the shot rip through his target in slow motion, the man thrown back from a head shot. Pec was impassive-the men were not people. They were targets, only fit to be neutralized. He switched targets to other pirate, aware that his new target was drawing his blaster and aiming at Slayn. In his peripheral vision, he saw Slayn squeeze the trigger again, but nothing happened. For a split second, time froze, and Pec knew exactly what had happened. Verpine sniper rifles were notoriously frail and this one had failed Slayn at the worst possible time by jamming, no doubt due to magnetic coils knocked out of alignment. He saw her drop the now-useless weapon and go for her vibroblade, but knew that she would have no chance of using it before the pirate shot her.

Pec applied the 0.8 kilograms of force needed to activate the trigger of his S-2F, watching as the purple lance of energy sizzled through the air to bury itself in the chest of his target. The blast report echoed through the foothills and Pec knew it was over. Even a drunk pirate knew the sound of a blaster.

“Go!” he shouted to the Twi’leks, who jumped, startled, and then scrambled off down the gully.

Swiveling, he turned and blasted the astonished sentry standing a few meters from him, dropping him with a pair of energy bolts. Bending down, he scooped up Leyt’s dropped ordnance launcher and checked its ammo load as pirates began to scramble up towards him. Good, it was loaded. The weapon automatically sync’d up with his helmet, providing him with an aiming reticule. Time to start this party with a bang.

Pec sighted in on the nearest cluster of pirates and fired the launcher, sending a brilliant streak of a missile soaring in to send bodies flying in an explosion that appeared bright orange and read in his thermal vision. With grim satisfaction, he dropped the weapon as blaster bolts began to whine around him. Clearly, not all of the pirates were fully incapacitated.

“Shields up,” he ordered Eta.

A faint shimmer appeared in front of him as his B52-A’s shield activated. Retrieving his blaster rifle, he stood up, assuming a classic standing firing position and began firing. Eta helpfully marked all available targets with red outlines, making Pec’s job that much easier.

“Sarge!” shouted Slayn, breaking comm silence.
“Get out of there! That’s a fripping order!” Pec roared.

The pirates closed in, and Pec flicked a thumb switch on his rifle, kicking it from single shot over to full autofire. The S-2F roared in his hands, pulsing violet streams of death into the onrushing pirates. Those that survived his initial spray slid to cover and returned fire. There was a faint roar in his ears and he knew the fighters were approaching, roaring down the same pass he and the other Cresh Squad members had traveled earlier. It was 0503.

The first streaks of dawn backlit him as his blaster spit fire, mowing down pirates with a deadly accuracy and steady aim that would have impressed General Spectre, were he here. He fired his underslung grenade launcher, knocking three pirates back with the resulting explosion, but they kept coming. Blaster bolts flew around him. Some hit his shield, sparking as they impacted, and Pec knew that the pirates had to be wondering how he survived so many hits. Pec burned down another pair of pirates who foolishly popped up from cover with headshots, but the damage was done. Two round objects went sailing into the air and down into his gully. Grenades.

Leaping out of the all-too advantageous position, Pec sprinted away as fast as he could, dropping another pirate with a blast fired on the run. Fully exposed now, his shield took several more hits as the pirates zeroed in on his location. The grenades blew, knocking him to the ground. He struggled up to one knee, vaguely aware that Eta was trying to say something about shock. Bringing the rifle up to his shoulder, he unleashed three more blasts, toppling a sizable Trandoshan with a concussion rifle. He switched targets, firing again, but his rifle clicked uselessly.

“Kriff it,” Pec swore.

He had depleted all eighty shots in the S-2F’s clip and there was no time to reload. Dropping the useless blaster rifle, he switched to his sidearm. Once again he resumed firing, but the range was long for the pistol and his cover consisted of a small rock pile. Chips of stone exploded around for him as blaster bolts peppered his position. He took one straight in the face and suddenly his shield popped.

“Shield offline,” Eta informed him unnecessarily.

The roaring grew louder in Pec’s ears and he risked a glance up and behind him to see the distant silhouettes of the starfighters getting larger and larger. He knew the pirates could see them too, and he had to keep as many of them occupied as he could. By now, fire was beginning to streak into their camp from two other sides, telling him that the rest of the squad had opened fire as well. Hopefully, the two Twi’leks and other liberated slaves, as well as the rest of the squad, were safely away. However, he knew they were too far away to help him and only he was close enough to do any damage. Pirate ships were beginning to come to life and a few had even started to take off. It was 0504.

“Hang on, sir!” shouted Slayn again, and Mardan probably said something too, but he closed it out of his mind, focusing on the task at hand.

The thunder and lightning was coming, but it was his job to make sure everyone was still around to experience it.

Rising from cover, he ran forward, spraying fire with his pistol wildly. His aim less sure now, he felt the first blaster bolt tug at his left arm as he sprinted forward at the pirates. Amazingly, he avoided a fatal hit as he ran forward fifty meters. Arming a concussion grenade, he lobbed it at the engines of a small starfighter whose pilot had already scrambled into the cockpit and was powering up, and the resulting explosion completely destroyed the small craft.

Even as he returned his attention to blasting away at the pirates, he realized it was too late. A blaster rifle bolt chewed through the side of his right knee in a weak point in the battlesuit, collapsing him to the ground. Another pair took him in the chest, filling his torso with red fire as waves of pain shot through him. He looked down, and while the blasts had failed to melt completely through the battlesuit, they had done so to the point that its inner layer was partially melted, searing his flesh. The wound was bad-not lethal, though. Raising his right arm, he blasted the nearest attacker once, twice, but the pistol clicked to empty as he squeezed the trigger a third time. He was out and the pirates knew it.

A group of them ran up to him, weapons pointed at his face. Pec let the blaster pistol drop out of his right hand as their leader aimed a blaster at his visor.

“Sorry about this, Eta,” he said softly.

Pec opened his left hand to reveal what he had been holding on to: the arming pin of a fragmentation detonator.

“Go to hell,” he said to the pirates, who stared incredulously at the detonator.

In the distance, he heard the whine of full-powered laser cannon fire as the droid starfighters dove to attack.Then there was white fire, and nothing.

Yanibar Guard Headquarters, Aurek Base, D+2, 0700 hours
“Atten-hut!” called the sergeant at arms.

A hundred bodies slapped to attention. A hundred arms snapped to salute. Sunter Mardan stood among them, clad in the gray slacks and white military tunic that, for now, served as the light duty and dress uniform of the Yanibar Guard. He, along with the other members of the Yanibar Guard, were gathered here on the field that served as the reviewing area. He stood rigidly at attention, watching the four casket bearers who slowly advanced. The rays of the morning’s sunrise cast over the field, warming him and the other soldiers gathered here. It promised to be a warm day in the Tusloni Basin.

Off to the side, in an area meant for civilians to observe, several people were gathered. Two of them were Twi’leks, Nashara’bar and Savana’ror, who had been rescued by Cresh Squad following the air attack. Some of the others were other freed slaves. Pec had at least not died in vain. Mardan’s mind flashed back to that battle. Upon seeing the pirates scramble for their ships and Pec open fire on them, he had given the order to commence fire to his four squad members, distracting the pirates just long enough. The droid starfighters had come in fast and low, blazing at away with computerized accuracy at the pirate ships. Mardan had watched them explode in giant orange and red fireballs under a hail of laser cannon and torpedo fire. There had still been at least a hundred pirates on the ground, though, but the sudden arrival of several more ships had changed that. Mardan wasn’t at first sure whose ships they were and had feared that more pirates were returning. However, he had been relieved to learn from his own AI that they were friendly. General Spectre and Supreme Commander Kraen had returned with a sizable continent of the Yanibar Guard, along with a few thousand more people and ships. Mardan had been introduced to countless prospective members of the Yanibar Guard, who belonged to a group known as Freedom’s Sons. Mardan had heard of them before-they had served in the Clone Wars-and was pleased to meet them. Some of them were at the funeral even now, watching from the side with obvious interest. At any rate, their arrival had instantly secured the surrender of the remaining pirates, who were being debriefed and, after receiving memory-fogging ylannock injections, would be shipped offworld to somewhere appropriate. The victory had come at a great price, though, for the Yanibar Guard and for Mardan personally. After all the reports were filed, after the battlefields were deserted, there still remained the losses.

The pallbearers brought their load to the end of the ranks of the precise formation. Moving from his place next to the SupCom and IntDir Tayrce, General Spectre walked up to a speaker’s podium prepared for the occasion as the sergeant-at-arms signaled “at ease.”

“Members of the Yanibar Guard, we are here today to mark the departure of one of our own: Sergeant Pec Deplisk, 3 Company, Cresh Squad. Sergeant Deplisk was as fine a soldier as anyone could ask for. He was loyal, dedicated, and devoted to the defense of this refuge. A veteran of many conflicts, he was a valuable member of the Guard and he will be missed.”

The words were rote, almost recited, but Mardan appreciated them nonetheless. The general was not nearly the speaker that the supreme commander was, but the Twi’lek identified more with General Spectre. He was a fellow infantryman. Mardan felt a stirring in his own soldier’s heart upon hearing Spectre’s words and knew it to be true. He would miss seeing Pec laconically standing by his side in the midst of training; miss his stentorian roar during basic training for new recruits.

“In his final engagement, Sergeant Deplisk risked his own personal wellbeing to save the lives of everyone in this refuge, as well as civilians on the battlefield. He singlehandedly engaged hundreds of hostile personnel and diverted their attention long enough for friendly air support to arrive. Recovered footage from his helmet cam shows the last few minutes of his valiant defense and will be kept for archival purposes. The actions of him and his unit have once again brought safety and security to our refuge and shall not go unnoticed.”

That was a somewhat euphemistic expression. Cresh Squad had been stood down from active duty and three of its members placed on report for insubordination: Tosc, Slayn, and Leyt, pending further review by the higher-ups. Like or not, they had disobeyed the spirit of their orders. Mardan would have done the same thing, and planned on testifying on their behalf. Meanwhile, officially they were assigned to Kraechar Arms, working to develop new weapons and tech based on their experience. Unofficially, they were being punished. In one bit of luck, though, another witness had surprisingly come forth to their aid: Eta, Pec’s ETA. The AI had survived the detonator explosion that killed Pec and had been recovered. Mardan wasn’t sure what would happen to the computer, but he appreciated its willingness to help Pec’s unit.

“The service of Sergeant Deplisk to this refuge will not be forgotten,” General Spectre concluded solemnly. “His spirit of honor and devotion lives on through other members of this Guard and will continue to do so.”

Spectre turned rigidly and marched back to stand motionless beside the Supreme Commander and Intelligence Director. The sergeant-at-arms again intoned commands, more softly this time.

“Raise arms!” came the command.

An eight member honor guard raised arms and the Yanibar Guardsmen again snapped to attention. The blasters fired one synchronous volley of low-powered blasts into the air, then another, then another. The mournful sound of a military hymn sounded from a pair of musicians, and Mardan couldn’t help but see Hespa, Pec’s girlfriend, sobbing quietly in the civilian area, decked out in black. He and the other squad members would visit her afterward, to offer their condolences, as their commanding officers had already done in turn for them. Mardan kept his expression stone-faced, but knew exactly how she felt-Pec’s loss affected him keenly as well. As the hymn played on, Mardan’s mind kept playing flashbacks of memories of Pec and thought of an expression offered up by a Jal Shey philosopher that seemed to fit particularly well to the final actions of his right-hand-Zabrak.

“Greater love has no being but to give up his life for another.”
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