"This your first trip out to Home?"
Rex struggled out of near-sleep. His head was still throbbing from the previous night's excesses. Lights swam before his eyes in scintillating patterns and his stomach lurched sickeningly. The chirpy voice of the young Y-wing pilot made him feel worse.
"Urghhll'mfh," was the best answer the Corellian could manage.
"Hey, sorry Commander. I didn't know you were sleeping."
"No, sir. I'm just a plain-old pilot."
"Not you, me. I'm a Lieutenant, not a Commander."
"Oh, sorry, sir. Guess my orders must've been wrong. The data had you down as a Commander. Just a mistake, I guess."
Rex slouched down into the gunner's seat, his dark mood reaching Vader-black. The hangover was a result of efforts at self-consolation over a demotion and severe reprimand. That had been the result of a night's drinking after a pig of a mission on Iyuta. Brawling in the mess hall, striking a senior officer, destruction of said officer's personal effects, discharging a blaster within the mess hall, obstructing two junior officers in the pursuit of their duties, striking two junior officers.
"Yeah. Just a mistake," Rex grumbled. He sought sleep again, but the pilot was merciless.
"Hey, we're coming up on Home real soon. You wanna strap yourself in? I'll give you the tour!"
About to protest, the urgent bleeping of the comms panel in front of him brought Rex up short. He keyed in his personal code and tried to focus his eyes on the pitifully small screen.
~Rex, report on arrival to briefing room on Level 4.~
"Right," muttered Rex, slipping his arms through the seat webbing. Once in, he flipped the comms panel off. Patting his pockets, he found his flask. It was an old, leather bound, flat metal flask and it carried the only first aid Rex ever cared for; Corellian whiskey. As he swirled the gently burning liquid around his mouth, Rex studied the pitted leather covering on the flask, taking comfort from the familiarity.
Outside the cockpit the swirling blues of hyperspace coalesced into streaks of light. These in turn became the brilliant pinpoints of the stars. Ahead of the Y-wing, a scattering of gently floating asteroids seemed to blend into the dark red-brown band of the thicker asteroid field stretching beyond.
Idly, Rex flicked on the Y-wing's gunnery computer, using the targeting system to pick up any other space traffic. He quickly detected the couple of perimeter patrols, X-wings mostly, but he recognised the long, blade shaped hull of a B-wing. Unfortunately, the Y-wing pilot saw what his passenger was looking at.
"Hey, you seen those babies! Oh man, I tell you! What I wouldn't give to fly one of those. I mean, if we'd had them at Yavin 4...." The pilot seemed to stumble in his quest for the right superlatives. "Well, if we'd had them at Yavin 4, things would've been different."
"What, you mean we'd have lost?"
"Oh, no Commander, sorry, Lieutenant sir, that's not what I meant at all. Sorry, I just... well, you know, I kinda...."
"Yes, I know what you mean."
"It's a fine ship, the B-wing. I'd love a shot at flying one."
Rex smiled grimly, glad the pilot couldn't see him. Glad also that the pilot didn't know the details of recent history.
"There's Home, sir. Ain't it amazing!"
Rex looked over, trying to see past the pilot's enthusiastically bobbing head. In the distance, looming closer by the second was the ugliest collection of metal Rex had ever seen.
At one time, the Corellian presumed, Home had been two craft, both originally following the lines of the standard Rebel transport freighter. Now, one sat on top of the other. Where the cargo modules of the uppermost ship had been, the freighter moulded (far from seamlessly) into the lower of the two, its bow overlapping the point where the other's main reactor cowl had begun. Both ships retained their main engines, but the secondary engines of the lower transport were covered. Of the traditional deflector shield generator of either ship there was no sign. Instead, Rex noted the 'bubbles' of Mon Calamari designed deflectors running the length of each ship's lateral line, mingling with sensor arrays that had not been standard issue to any freighter. To complete the picture, a massive ion cannon sat on the crown of the lower freighter, just in front of the bow of the upper ship.
"That'll be Home then," Rex said quietly.
"Yes sir. Ain't she great?! That ion cannon works too."
"Really! Well, there you go." Rex truly hated the pilot. Unfortunately, his sarcasm was wasted.
"Yup, but they only use it in emergencies. Drains the power right down."
"Yes sir, it is that. Hold on, I'll give you a closer look."
"No, that's all right! I...."
Rex's protestations faded as the pilot gunned the engines, hurling the fighter in close to the surface of home. Approaching from the stern, the Y-wing blurred along the back of the lower craft. Rex ducked his head down and tried not to look at the metal plated 'scenery' that flashed by.
"I'll just take us in now. Hold on sir."
Opening his eyes, Rex registered that they had passed across the bow of Home. The cargo module array had been removed and replaced with a docking area. It included a landing bay large enough to accommodate a small Corellian freighter or a threesome of fighters, and a variety of docking tubes.
Suddenly, the Y-wing flipped over. The artificial gravity generators in the small craft added to Rex's nausea. Frantically he fumbled for the manual override, but the young pilot was quicker. The fighter performed a quick half-loop and headed in for the landing bay. Rex groaned as his stomach turned a half-loop into a full one, with a barrel-roll added to the display.
"Are you all right, sir?"
As the Y-wing swung into the landing bay, which came complete with its own gravity, the pilot got his answer.
Rex was relived to find the Level 4 briefing room empty. In deference to his headache he left the main lights off. Dumping his kitbag by the circular table at the center of the room, Rex made his way across to the door leading to the 'head,' a leftover from the area's previous incarnation as the main bridge of the lower of the two freighters that made up Home.
Once inside, he stripped off his padded shirt, dropping it to the floor. When the small sink was filled with cold water, Rex dipped his head in, allowing his long dark hair to soak also. Straightening up, Rex let the freezing water run down his back, the cold cutting through his hangover. He splashed more water over himself, adding a little soap from the wall dispenser.
He rinsed himself down, then flicked on the light and looked around for a towel. He found only a hand-dryer bolted to the wall. Cursing his luck, Rex pushed his hair back and stomped out.
All heads turned at the sound of Rex's flowery Corellian curse, and he stopped in his tracks.
"Make yourself at home, Rex," General Crix Madine said, but there was no humour there.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, General. It was a long journey."
"Just sit down. And put a shirt on!"
His face burning with embarrassment, Rex sat down at the table and quickly ducked down to his bag. He fumbled out a shirt. Partially shielded by the table, Rex pulled the shirt on over his head and sat up.
Madine was scowling at Rex, but there was a trace of a smile tugging at the corners of the General's mouth. Rex took a moment to glance around the table.
Apart from himself and the general, there were three others at the table. Directly across from Rex was a tall, heavily moustachioed man. He wore a dark blue waistcoat over a cream shirt. The triple-layer of flounces spilled over the blue. A deep purple cloak was draped over his right shoulder. To this garish figure's left was a blonde Wookie. She watched Rex with barely concealed contempt. The haft of a vibro-axe could be seen over her right shoulder. Her red tunic had wide dark leather shoulder pads, and twin bandoleers crossed her chest.
On Rex's right, a thin man smiled in idiot fashion, showing mismatched, tombstone teeth. His many-pocketed, dark green flight suit was dotted with burns, stains and a couple of rips.
"Huh, hello Rex. How are you?"
"Good to see you, Fixer."
Madine cleared his throat, calling off the reunion. He indicated the Wookie and the fop.
"Commander, this is Chormox and Cornelius. They will be providing transport for you and Deans on this mission."
" 'Commander' is it? I thought..."
"You've been transferred to my unit now, Commander," Madine emphasising the rank. "Besides, conditional on your accepting my orders, Alliance Command is willing to let this most recent incident pass, but only this one more time."
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate that."
"Don't thank me yet, Rex," Madine warned, switching on the holo-projector in the centre of the table. "You haven't heard what the mission is."
Rex sat back, watching the projected image, fighting back the urge to grin. Madine was a legend on Corellia - the defected Imperial officer and crack commando unit leader who joined the Rebellion. There were some Corellians who criticised Madine, quoting disloyalty and insubordination, but those were the words of Imperial sympathisers and spineless lackeys; Rex had no time for them.
Crix Madine was the innovative leader and strategist the Rebellion had prayed for. The commando unit he formed within the Rebellion had come to be unofficially known as 'Madine's Madmen' because of the unconventional nature of many of the missions. But the Madmen had more operational freedom than most, and it had long been a desire of Rex's to be called up.
The holoprojector hummed gently as Madine brought up a swirling image of the Galaxy. A sector lit up, and the star map zoomed in on it. Tapping his command stick against his palm, Madine indicated the projection.
"This is Imperial Sector DB-00. As you can see, it's in one of the more obscure areas of the Imperial Outlands. Asteroid and meteor activity in the system is very high, making it difficult to navigate, and none of the planets seemed to offer the Imperials anything they couldn't get elsewhere at a lesser risk.
"However, our agents have informed us of a dramatic increase in Imperial activity in the area, centred on this planet in particular."
The projector whirred and hummed, focusing in through the sector map, bringing up one star system, then one planet within that system.
"DB-24. As you can see, it is a jungle planet with one major continent covering about a third of the surface. The rest is either ocean or volcanic island."
A gentle snoring led Rex to glance over at Cornelius. The man was slumped in his chair, apparently asleep. Chormox was watching the holo-display intently, but reached back and tugged on one side of the man's droopy moustache. Cornelius awoke with a start.
Madine noted the 'exchange' with a disapproving look, before calling up a more detailed, gently revolving map of the planet.
"Older survey reports show DB-24 as having no particular agricultural or economical interest. It has yet to develop any form of even basic sentient culture. There are no minerals of any real value to the Empire either on the planet or in the unpredictable asteroid clusters. Despite this, there is now a fully equipped Imperial installation operating there."
Once again, Madine pressed a button on the projector. The hologram of the planet seemed to sink into the table. The view altered as the surface came into sharp relief. A section brightened and was homed in on. The now stationary image showed a large hill, topped with a communications array. The hill was surrounded by a wide swathe of burnt and flattened land. To the northeast a smaller hill had a scorched pathway leading to what looked like a cave mouth, and to the northwest, in a direct line with the massive blast doors at the entrance to the base, was a square area slashed out of the surrounding jungle. It showed signs of having been used as a landing area.
Southeast of the main hill was another cleared area. Curiously, there seemed to be no functional reason for this one. Madine used his command stick to point to the devastated jungle areas.
"The Imperials have carried out a standard defoliation exercise, and we can assume the perimeter is patrolled, with markers posted. Their main points of interest seem to be a crater to the east and a hill to the northeast. There appears to be a cave opening in the hill; natural, not man made. We cannot ascertain whether this is a mine working or some form of test site."
Fixer stood up a little and pointed to the area Madine had indicated as the crater.
"Uh, the trees here seem to be, well... younger than the others. A little thinned out. In a line going towards the crater."
Fixer sat down again, nervous and a little embarrassed at having spoken out. However, the Wookie nodded, growling something in her native tongue. Cornelius stirred himself to translate.
"Chormy agrees with you, Mr Deans."
"Huh, yes I, uh, I know. I speak Wookie quite, uh, quite well. That is, I uh, I understand her. She says that the difference is a matter of only one or two centuries. It's an old, uh, wound in the jungle. Umm."
Fixer seemed to grow even more embarrassed at this. He sat forward in his chair, studying the holo-projection intently. Madine nodded.
"Yes, we noticed that. What interests us more is a communication we intercepted two days ago, and this one we intercepted today."
Madine handed over two data pads, one to Fixer and one to Chormox. Rex leaned over to read the display.
~Imperial Communication - DB-24/06281.3~
~...We have ascertained that the space vehicle in question is indeed of a design that has never been encountered within Imperial Space. We are continuing our analysis.~
~Imperial Communication - DB-24/06296.0~
~...Evidence leads us to believe that the surviving crew of the destroyed alien craft took refuge in a nearby cave system. We will study the caves in two days time.~
Madine deactivated the holo-projector. He took a step away from the table and regarded the four team members.
"If the Imperials have discovered a new species, or if they gain access to new technology, we need to know about it. But this is not just an information gathering expedition." A wicked smile played across the General's lips. "Let's see what we can do to disrupt the Imperial operations on DB-24."
"General, how are we getting to DB-24? Presuming we don't want the Imps to know we're there, that is." Rex's question was answered with a laugh from Cornelius.
"You'll like this, Rex. You get to try something all new and approved," Cornelius said, his smile far too wide for comfort.
"Cornelius," Madine rumbled, the warning self-evident. The General turned back to Rex. "You'll be using the new HDS agent insertion device," Madine said matter-of-factly.
"HDS?" Rex wasn't happy simply because Cornelius was. "What is HDS?"
"That's the, uh, Hard Delivery System, Rex," Fixer said. "It's, uh, it's new."
"Oh. Great. What is it?"
Cornelius' laughter broke through again. Rex bumped the man one step further up his 'Most Disliked Individuals' list. The brightly garbed captain was on his way to giving Vader a run for his money, in Rex's estimation.
"They put you in a big box and then shoot you at the planet. Or rather, I get to shoot you at the planet!"
"Yeah, right. What's it actually do, General?"
Madine looked a little uneasy for a moment, and Rex's hopes melted away.
"Actually, Cornelius has pretty much summed it up. The HDS delivery tube is a one-way trip. It is designed to simulate a meteor hit, while using a repulsorlift field to cushion the occupant."
"Let's get this straight. You're going to... No, let me get this." Rex pointed at Cornelius. "He is going to shoot me at DB-24 and I am going to crash into it?!"
Fixer added his credit's worth, clearly hoping that details would win his friend over to the idea.
"It's, uh, it's all right Rex. We won't actually hit the surface. The tube carries a, uh, a shaped charge which it fires off into the ground ahead of the tube to create the, uh, the, uh, the crater. We'll be safe. I, uh, well, that is, uh..."
"Fixer, don't tell me this." Rex was sinking fast.
"Yes, I, uh, I designed the HDS," Fixer confessed, his face full of pride at his achievement. "All the, uh, the simulations were fine. They, uh, they worked."
Rex threw up his hands and sat heavily back in his seat.
"Great, just great," he muttered. He pushed his head hard into his hands. After a moment, he looked up at General Madine.
"When do we leave?" Rex said simply. Fixer grinned.
"The retro fitting on Cornelius' ship will be complete in one hour. You leave then. You'll be about a day in hyperspace and as little time in the HDS tubes as possible."
"How do we get off the planet?"
"I'll be just within communications range, Rex," Cornelius said, serious now. Madine nodded.
"Fixer will have a single frequency, tight band communicator. Once you are ready to go, just make the call. Once Cornelius is on his way, just broadcast every hour until he finds you."
"How long will you take to reach us?" Rex asked.
"Assuming I get the signal first time, Chormy and I will get to you within three to four hours."
Fixer laid a hand on Rex's shoulder, his grin showing that the gangly tech was clearly looking forward to testing out his new toy.
"It'll be a piece of cake Rex, a, uh, a piece of cake."
"Everyone, dismissed. And may the Force be with you." As the team stood to leave, Madine spoke quietly.
"Rex, I would like a word."
The others, deep in conversation about the retrofitting of Cornelius' ship, didn't even notice when Rex didn't leave with them.
"Commander, I requested you. I personally asked for your carcass to be shipped to Home."
"Thank you, sir, I..."
"As I said before, don't thank me yet."
Madine walked a little away from Rex, clearly trying to find the best way to put across his message.
"Understand something, Commander. I know who you are, what you are capable of. Good and bad. You are a first class field operative, but you are lazy, undisciplined and confrontational. Your last psyche-evaluation pegged you as a borderline xenophobe. The Alliance doesn't need or want you."
"Shut up." Madine stepped up and stood face-to-face with Rex. "Understand something, Commander. This posting is your last chance. We will keep you busy. I will keep you busy. The Alliance may not need you, but the Rebellion does, and I will personally give you every Sith-spawned, Hutt-loving, one-way mission I can find until I finally kill you."
Rex smiled. Madine nodded, and he also smiled.
Rex stepped back and snapped a very smart salute. He was happy for the first time in a month.
"Yes, sir, General!"
Rex picked up his bag and headed for the door.
Rex grinned and left. Madine slumped into a chair and put his feet up on the table. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a flat metal flask, unstopped it and, toasting where Rex had been, Crix Madine took a long pull of fine Corellian whiskey.
"May the Force be with us all," he muttered with feeling.
"I have such a bad feeling about this."
Rex was lying in what he presumed would be his coffin. In the cramped darkness below his feet, his mission equipment, including his precious heavy blaster pistol, felt too securely stored. The narrow re-entry tube was reasonably padded, and Rex had checked the cushioning repulsorlift generator about five times. He had checked the vital cooling systems more often even than that, but he would never be entirely happy.
Fixer's voice crackled over the comm channel.
"Are you, uh, all set, Rex?"
"No, but let's do this anyway."
"Cornelius here. We're coming up on DB-24 in a few moments, get ready."
"Fixer?" Rex asked, noting a detail about the capsule that had escaped his notice previously. "What's this switch beside my right shoulder?"
"Uh, that's the destruct, uh, key switch. Don't, uh, don't mess with that."
Rex shrank back from the innocuous looking switch.
"Why isn't there a safety cover on it?! What if I get shaken against it during the re-entry?!"
"Oh. I, uh, I hadn't considered that. When we get, um, back from this I'll have to, uh, modify the designs."
Before Rex could protest further, there was a muffled clang from outside the tube, and Rex felt it picked up and moved to launch position. Cornelius spoke again.
"We're out of hyperspace. No unexpected Imperial traffic. I'm about to disengage external power and communications. You'll be off in less than a minute. Good luck, boys."
"Just keep monitoring the com channels, Cornelius. Be there when we call," Rex cautioned.
"No, Rex, there's no need to thank us for the lift, it was our pleasure. Happy landings," Cornelius laughed. Chormox's comment was cut off as the lines from the ship disengaged.
After a heart-stopping pause, the internal power on the HDS tube came on-line, a small monitor screen in front of Rex indicating that all was well. From outside, Rex dimly heard the warning klaxon in the ship's hold sounding as the loading bay swung open. An indicator on the monitor flashed as the small engines fixed to the tube lit up. There was a brief lurch as the capsule left the ship, then the relative comfort of zero-gravity.
The vibration of the engine was almost reassuring, but there was no sound. Rex hit a button near the monitor, and the display changed in one corner to show the proximity of Fixer's capsule. It was relatively constant. Rex jumped as a computer voice spoke in his ear.
"Thirty seconds to atmosphere. Cooling system on-line. Repulsorlift to standby. External sensors to standby. Twenty seconds."
Once again, Rex eyed the auto-destruct key switch nervously. He considered cupping his hand over it, but rejected the notion.
"Five seconds to atmosphere, four, three, two, one, zero."
A whisper of sound from outside the capsule rose to a muffled roar. The tube began to be buffeted and rattled around. Although the cooling system was working, the temperature went up sharply and Rex began to sweat profusely.
"Well Fixer, one thing's for sure," Rex muttered, checking the proximity of his friend's capsule. "We're both going to be a whole lot smellier."
"Five seconds to engine separation," announced the computer. In the rattling of re-entry, Rex almost missed the 'clunk' of the engine unit disengaging. It would burn up safely behind the HDS tube, just another part of just another two meteorites above DB-24.
A low hum filled the tube, and the roar outside lessened slightly. The computer announced that the repulsorlift was engaged.
"One minute to charge separation." There was an all too short pause, and then the computer spoke again. "One minute to surface contact."
Rex tried to find a way to brace himself, acutely aware of the deadly switch. He was still trying a variety of contortions in his cramped confines when he was hit with a spine jarring impact. Simultaneously, there was a blast of noise. As the hum of the repulsorlift engine became an active whine, it was drowned out with what Rex would later describe as the noise and feeling of being inside a fatal explosion.
Then there was silence. Rex lay and just breathed. The monitor showed that all systems were functional. The computer interrupted the peace.
"Charge separation and detonation successful. Landing successful. All systems shutting down," it said, and the monitor went dark.
The HDS had worked. He was on DB-24.
Rex wondered why he actually felt disappointed. Then he remembered Fixer, and he could imagine how insufferable the man would be now that the idea had worked. Rex decided to mention that earplugs would be a good thing for future HDS journeys.
Steeling himself for whatever awaited outside, Rex keyed the door release and pushed.
Water rushed in, leaving Rex choking and spluttering. Belatedly, he snapped his mouth and eyes closed and fought back the need to cough. He thrashed upwards for a moment, then realised he could hear himself splashing about. Tentatively, he opened one eye and saw that he was sitting up, shoulder-deep in muddy water.
"Great. Just great. Thanks Fixer," Rex grumbled, unfairly. Looking around him, Rex saw that he had come down near the shore of a small lake. The blast of his capsule's arrival had showered the surrounding vegetation in mud. Holding his breath, Rex went under, head first, and quickly dug out his pack of equipment. Keeping it clear of the water, he stripped the pack of its water proofing, stuffing the wrap back into the HDS tube.
Shouldering the pack, Rex tried to gauge the best route through the water and mud to the safety of the tree line. Satisfied, he reached into the water and flicked the switch. Quickly, he slipped off the capsule, intent on making full use of the three minute countdown before the capsule was broken up by the self-destruct charges.
It took him two of those minutes to reach the trees. When the capsule went up, it did so remarkably quietly, and with little extra mud spray. Rex resolved to ask Fixer later for more details on the type of explosive used. Firstly, though, he had to find him.
Rex dug into his pack, fishing out a metal tube about the size of one of the legendary Jedi lightsabers. Keying on the locator, Rex panned around a full 360 degrees, allowing the device to get a strong reading on where Fixer's locator was. A beeping told him to stop, and a display told him that Fixer had come down just over four hundred meters due east.
The heavy, moist air settled over him like a suffocating blanket. The jungle surrounded him with alien sights and sounds. Down and out on DB-24, Rex set off to find his friend.
The locator's beeping grew faster, more insistent, drawing Rex on. It led him to a boggy clearing, covered in mud and devastated vegetation. A crater, rapidly filling with water that was thick with mud, contained the HDS tube Fixer had come down in. As Rex was about to head towards the closed tube his locator read-out flashed red. Rex paused to look at it and, as he did so, the tube glowed orange and quietly exploded.
Rex was showered in mud and spattered with burning hot droplets of almost liquid metal. He stifled a pained cry and danced around, scrabbling hot metal off exposed skin. All the time he desperately scanned the clearing for signs of Fixer. Worries of whether or not the man had survived vanished when the gangly technician's head pocked up from some bushes nearby. Deans was grinning at the crater, his face showing the delight he felt at his experiment having worked. He hadn't even noticed Rex.
Taking advantage of this, Rex faded back into the undergrowth. Quietly he sneaked over towards Fixer's position, his mind full of vengeance for the undignified mud bath. Fixer was making notes on a data pad, muttering design modifications and self-praise as he did so. Rex worked his way around behind the man, drawing his blaster as he edged closer.
Once behind Fixer's bush, on the clearing side, he cupped his hand over his mouth and, doing his best stormtrooper impression, Rex stood up and jammed his pistol into the back of Fixer's neck.
"Drop the data pad and stand up. Slowly. Don't turn around." Rex made a clicking sound at the beginning and end of his statement.
"Uh, uh, uh, yes, uh sir! Don't shoot."
"You Rebel scum. Letting your friend walk into that clearing. Don't you realise he could have been killed?!"
"Uh, yes, sir. Uh, sorry, uh, erm? Rex? Is that, um, you?"
Rex dropped the pretence, choosing instead to rap Fixer none too gently on the back of the head with the barrel of the blaster.
"Ow! What was that, uh, for?"
"I nearly did get killed, you idiot. I was following the locator."
"Oh, I left mine in the HDS, uh, capsule. Sorry."
"Yeah, right. Grab your stuff. We'd better get going."
Rex reached into his pack for a data pad. This one had a lead coming out of the top, which Rex plugged into his locator. As he switched on the data pad, Fixer finished gathering his stuff and stood beside his friend. The pad lit up to show a map of the surrounding area. The two Rebels had their position marked as being northwest of the Imperial base.
"We're about two hours trek from the base. I figure we head for the hill with the cave first. From up here," Rex said, pointing to the rise directly above the cave mouth, "we should get a perfect view of the entrance." Fixer nodded in agreement.
"Huh, how long before it gets dark?"
"About three hours, I think." He looked up at the sky, through the trees. "Have a listen to the Imps while I fix this thing."
Rex called up the co-ordinates of their planned vantage point, which were fed into the locator. An Imperial satellite in geo-stationary orbit provided an unwitting navigation point. The locator beeped its readiness. Rex scrutinised the map for the hundredth time, looking for anything he might have missed. Satisfied, he unplugged the locator, purged the pad's memory and stuffed it back in his pack.
Fixer, in the meantime, had pulled out a small receiver and, with an earpiece in place, was monitoring Imperial radio traffic. Rex let him listen for a moment. Fixer reached into a pocket. He brought out a similar earpiece, but one with a dangling wire antenna.
"Here, uh, try this. It should pick up what I'm, uh, hearing."
Rex flicked off a bit of oily fluff from the earpiece, grimacing slightly. He stuck the device in his ear and did indeed hear the Imperial signals. Rex tapped the preoccupied Deans on the shoulder and pointed into the trees.
"We had better walk and listen. There's a lot of ground to cover before nightfall."
"Sure thing, uh, Rex. There's also a, urm, speederbike patrol on its way."
"How far off?" Rex asked urgently, picking up the pace a little. He unplugged and pocketed the receiver so he could better listen for the engines of the approaching patrol.
"Uh, they sounded like they were some, uh, distance away. They seem to be a bit bored."
"My heart bleeds for them," Rex muttered. In the distance, he dimly picked up an approaching whine of high performance Aratech repulsorlifts.
"We'd better get to cover."
Rex quickly made for a patch of thick undergrowth, where a fallen tree had become heavily overgrown with bushes and saplings. He turned back to Fixer, who was standing in the open, listening for the incoming bikes. Rex sighed, wondering if Kan 'Fixer' Deans would ever join the rest of the galaxy in the real world. He remembered Deans' other nickname.
"Hey, Target Deans! Come on!" Rex hissed. Grabbing Fixer, who looked a little hurt at the use of his least favourite nickname, he dragged the tech into thicker undergrowth. The two lay as close to the trunk as possible, on the opposite side from the direction the scouts were coming. After only a few seconds, even Fixer could hear the speederbikes, despite the fact that he was still listening to the comms chatter. Moments later, the bikes roared overhead.
Leaving Fixer where he was, Rex slipped off his pack, drew his blaster, and crawled a little towards the scouts. Peering through a thick-stalked fern, Rex saw that the bikes were sitting there, hovering about six feet off the ground. One biker scout was leaning on his handlebars, clearly bored. The other dug into a pouch at his belt, pulling out a ration bar. In a major breach of Imperial operational practice, the scout flipped back his faceplate and pulled down the breathing filter. He sat side saddle on his bike, munching the rations and chatting to his fellow scout.
Rex couldn't make out the conversation. He was considering using the grubby earpiece Fixer had given him when the other scout unmasked and, taking the proffered ration bar, finished it off in two bites. Rex noted that both scouts were far younger than he had expected; probably on their first posting, Rex mused.
For an agonising couple of minutes, the biker scouts chatted idly. A communication must have come through as, suddenly, both stopped talking and gazed at nothing for a moment. Then they replaced their protective headgear, gunned their engines and raced off, back the way they came.
Rex stood and made his way back to Fixer, who was sitting with his back against the fallen tree, listening intently to Imperials.
"Time to go, Fixer." Rex picked up his pack. Fixer didn't move to get up, so Rex kicked him, almost gently. Fixer, looking serious, tapped his earpiece.
"This is important, I, uh, think. You'd, uh, better listen."
"What's up?" Rex asked, fumbling his own listening device into place.
"They called the bikes, um, back. It's the only patrol, and they are, ah, needed back at the base. Listen."
Fixer remotely raised the volume on Rex's device, allowing his partner to listen in.
~Patrol inbound. ETA four minutes.~
~Acknowledged, patrol. Expedition will depart once you get back. Better hurry. The techs are getting anxious. So is Captain Rikjaard.~
~Are we supposed to help baby-sit this lot?~
~Negative. You're to remain on duty at the base. Just you two, me and a couple of guards.~
~Gee, will the excitement never begin?~
~Just get back to base.~
~Yeah, yeah. ETA three minutes.~
The chatter more or less stopped there, with just the occasional request for assistance with heavy equipment. Rex pulled out and switched off the receiver, returning it to his pocket.
"Sounds like they're heading for the, um, the caves."
Rex nodded, helping Fixer up off the ground. "What interests me is the name of the captain - Captain Rikjaard...." Rex stood for a moment. Fixer was none the wiser.
"It, uh, doesn't mean anything to me, uh, Rex. Who was he?"
The two Rebels headed off towards the base, Rex leading the way, talking quietly as he went.
"If it's the same one," Rex cautioned, "Rikjaard was the golden boy of one of the big families from the Tapani sector. He was the second son, not due to inherit the family business, so he was expected to go into the military. Usually he would have taken a commission in the planetary guard, all ceremony and safe from any action."
"So, uh, what happened?"
"Well, his family wanted to get closer to the Empire, so Rikjaard went to the Academy. The holonets covered his every move. Both the Imps and the family courted the publicity. The boy got his commission, got a good posting, even saw a little action in counter-insurgency. Trouble is, he had a conscience. As far as anyone can tell, he refused an order during a riot control op."
Fixer nodded, understanding the situation. "Oh, I, uh, see. Normally he would have just disappeared or something, but all the, uh, the publicity--"
"...Made it difficult," Rex finished. "Things were hushed up pretty heavy-handidly. I was working on setting up a cell in the sector. That boy was the best recruiting tool I ever had. The official story was that he was posted to vital research in the Outer Rim Territories."
"Um, meaning that he was shuffled off where he could do no, uh, further harm."
"Right. His family lost a lot of face on that deal. Mind you, so did the Imps."
"So, how does that affect us, uh, here?" Fixer asked. Rex smiled.
"Well, judging by what we've seen and heard so far, and assuming this is the same Captain Rikjaard, then this may be a wild gundark hunt. I can't imagine that a disgraced flunky and a bunch of brand-new Academy graduates would be trusted with anything really important."
"Uh, I see your point, um, Rex, but that doesn't change the validity of the, um, mission."
Rex made a sour face. "Yeah. Right, well. I guess we'll just wait and see. Thing is, if golden boy has stumbled on something important, or if he finds something in the caves, then we have a problem."
"How, uh, how come?"
Rex stopped, looking straight at his friend. "Look. If it's important, then the big guns will arrive pretty sharpish, golden boy will be sent off to a different dead-end world, and you and I, my friend, become permanent residents of DB-24."
"Right. Like you said. Oh." Rex checked their position on the locator. "We'd better get a move on. The way I see it, we need to get inside the base before the good Captain gets back."
"Any, uh, any ideas how, Rex?" Fixer asked. Rex turned and grinned wolfishly.
"Don't ask me," he said, putting the locator back in his pack. Rex looked into the jungle, towards the hill and towards where the sun would be setting in less than three hours. He sighed. "Nope, I'm making this up as I go."
Rex set off. Fixer hung back a little, adjusting his pack.
"Oh. Um, great," he muttered under his breath. He had to jog to catch up to Rex.
Once under the thick canopy of the jungle proper, the ground became clearer, their passage easier. Everywhere even a single ray of sunlight managed to penetrate the canopy, saplings grew up and low bushes, ferns and shrubs struggled for survival. Thick vines twisted around massive trunks, looping from branch to branch, using the trees as support to reach the nourishing light. The humidity was stifling, the air heavy.
Fixer had a technology addict's fear of nature. To him, the sights, sounds and smells of unbridled life verged on the terrifying. He stuck as close to Rex as possible. Occasionally, things were half glimpsed, moving way up in the trees, or ducking out of site behind a suitable bush. As his imagination filled the jungle with all manner of vicious beast, Fixer kept one hand on the butt of his blaster.
Since the Imperials had left their base and entered the cave system, comms traffic had been light. At one point, as the signal from the Captain began to break up, Rikjaard had stated that everything was proceeding slowly but steadily, and that communications would resume when they left the caves. Since then there had been nothing but quiet static.
The two Rebels made better time than even Rex had hoped. The gathering darkness as the sun began to set, mixed with the tech's fear and suspicion of the jungle, had helped keep Fixer in line. Rex was used to 'Target' Deans wandering off to look at some piece of equipment, or to study some terminal or other technological distraction regardless of the mission situation.
About an hour and a half after leaving Fixer's HDS touchdown site they reached the edge of the jungle, right beside the dark mound of the hill. Behind it, the orange disk of the sun, partly covered by distant clouds, was touching the horizon. Crouching beside a tree at the jungle's perimeter, obscured by the thicker ground vegetation that ran clear to the hill, Rex finished scanning the area with his macro-binoculars.
"Nothing there," he said, deactivating the binoculars and slipping them into the case at his belt. "Still, we'd better be as quiet as possible." He looked at Fixer, who was glancing nervously at the jungle behind him. "You set, or do you want to wait here, all alone, in the dark, while I scout ahead?" Rex asked, grinning.
Fixer scowled at him and, crouching low, set off for the hillside, leaving a quietly chuckling Rex to follow.
Suddenly, Fixer yelped in surprise and fear, clutching his ear. He immediately squatted right down into the cover of the undergrowth. Rex dropped down beside him, scanning their surroundings with his blaster drawn.
"What's up?!" he hissed, almost angry. Fixer was listening to the signals his earpiece was feeding him, a look of slack-jawed amazement on his face.
"You'd, uh, you'd better listen to this," he said. Rex was already reaching for his own receiver. "The Imperials have run into some heavy opposition. They're, um, falling back."
Before he even got the receiver into his ear, Rex could hear the babble of shouted, panicked voices, mixed with prolonged bursts of heavy static. In the confusion of sound, all Rex and Fixer could determine was that something had attacked the Imperials, they had taken an undetermined but heavy degree of casualties, and they were falling back to the base in a disorganised rout.
Listening to Captain Rikjaard, Rex was impressed by the man's calm under fire; coolly issuing orders for suppressive fire, asking for his stormtroopers to sound off, demanding that the base be ready for casualties and that the guards prepare to provide covering fire. All of this was done to the sound of sporadic blaster fire and the shouts, and even screams, of the other Imperials. Rex shivered.
"Right," he said, determinedly. "Come on. We need to get up there. We need to see what the stang is going on in there." He stood up, pulling Deans up with him and pushing him towards the slope. "Move, Fixer, come on!"
"Are you, um, sure this is a good idea?" Fixer gasped, jogging to keep up. Rex's expression was grim.
"I said we needed to get up there," he growled. "I didn't say that it was a good idea."
"Oh. Um, good," Fixer gasped out as he ran up the hill alongside the Corellian. "And here I was thinking we were in, um, trouble."
~Sir, watch the tunnel to your left, watch the ...Sir, I...~
~Covering fire! Give him...~
~Captain, we can't find the techs. There's no...~
The communication was interrupted by a scream of pain and terror. A burst of merciful static obscured the sickening noises and a victorious screech that could not have been produced by any Imperial.
~Forget the others, they're gone. Fall back. Stay close and fall back. Trooper?~
~Still here, sir.~
~You two move ahead a few meters, wait till we reach you then move on a few more.~
~Should we provide covering...LOOK OUT!~
Frantic blaster fire and more static. After a moment, Captain Rikjaard's voice was back. He sounded more frantic, but still very much in command.
~Just watch our point, trooper! We'll handle the rear guard. Move! Wait, give me those grenades. Right, go. And watch yourselves.~
~Give me your grenade. Now give us covering fire. And watch the roof.~
~Yes, sir, only I'm not so good with...~
~I didn't ask for your data file, Telvan, just your grenade.~
A moment's silence.
~Right, that's it.~
~Sir, they're coming. There's ... There's hundreds of them.~
More blaster fire, more shouts. Rikjaard, fought to control the panic.
~Get back, fast! You, man, don't run! Don't ... Damn you! Pick him up, help him. Here give me your arm, hold on to me.~
Even over the noise of shooting and screaming, screeching and dying, Rex and Fixer heard the explosion of the grenades. It echoed from the mouth of the cave and across the comlink.
Rex took off the receiver, stowing it for later.
"Keep listening," he said to Fixer. The man was ashen faced. Rex knew how he felt.
He popped the cover on his macro-binoculars and thumbed on the night time image enhancement. He and Fixer were crouched at the top of the opening of the cave. Rex looked out towards the base. He could see that the huge blast doors were slightly open, and there were two stormtroopers using the contours of the rock face to provide partial cover as they waited to assist their commander.
Right on cue, Rex heard blaster fire from the cave mouth and saw a dim flash of the ruby laser bolts. Rex scrambled back from the edge, slinging the macros around his neck. He crouched down beside Fixer, who was stuffing the receiver back into his pack. Rex had his heavy pistol out, so Fixer nervously drew his own, lighter blaster.
Both rebels could now hear clearly the shots and shouts of the Imperials. A white armoured figure suddenly appeared down on the ground, barely visible in the gathering darkness. The stormtrooper sprinted away from the hill, then stopped and turned. As he crouched to fire, the trooper was once more obscured from view by the rim of the cave mouth.
"Right," Rex said, with more determination than he felt. "Right, here's the plan. We wait until they are all heading for the base, then we use the comlink and pretend that..."
"REX!!!" Fixer shouted a warning.
Still crouched, Rex spun to face the direction of the Imperial base. Off balance, he flopped onto his rear, staring stupidly at the monstrous thing that was dragging itself over the edge of the hill.
The head was immense. Huge mandibles clacked together, dripping ichor beneath the insect's single, massive eye. The jewel-like multitude of facets glinted in the dying rays of the sun as the beast swung its head slowly from side to side. It drew itself up a little to swing a triple-jointed leg up over the rim of the cave mouth. Three claws flexed briefly before it slammed them down into the very stone itself. With this new purchase achieved, the creature drew more of its body and two more legs over the edge.
Rex let out a shuddering breath. Instantly the beast lowered its head, hissing loudly and malevolently. Fixer let out a shriek and scuttled backwards, his blaster firing off into the air. With a scrape and rattle of its carapace, the beast pulled itself fully onto the ledge. With terrible clarity, Rex saw that the head and front two legs were joined to a six-legged thorax. Each leg carried three claws. The thing raised itself up and screeched deafeningly, before crashing back down towards Fixer.
Rex dived to one side, firing as he went. Two of his three shots punched into the creature, scorching holes through the carapace. The putrid stench was incredible, and a thick, yellow liquid oozed and dripped from the wounds. The thing screamed again, its head swinging around towards Rex. Before it could lunge, Fixer recovered his senses and fired. One blaster bolt skipped off the armoured head, but the second crisped one half of the eye.
Bellowing in pain, the creature drew up and back. Rolling away from a thrashing forearm, Rex fired repeatedly into the exposed abdomen. Some shots glanced off, but the majority drilled home, spilling yellow juices across the rock. Fixer joined in as Rex stood. Methodically, the two men pumped shot after shot into the massive insect. At the very edge of the drop down to the ground at the cave mouth, the beast tried to rally. It lunged out at Rex and Fixer, but the effort split the carapace in several places.
One leg burst free of the abdomen, and the creature wavered. Rex took aim and shot through the joint of another leg. The brief howl as the thing fell was cut off as it hit the ground with an audible crunch.
Rex and Fixer slumped down onto the ground. Dimly, Rex perceived that the rear guard action of the Imperials was nearing the base. Intense blaster fire lit up the occasional fast moving, insect form.
That's funny, thought Rex. Those things look smaller from up here.
"What..." Fixer hesitated, his breathing fast and shallow. "What was that... that thing?"
The severed leg, lying in a thick, spreading pool of stinking fluid, twitched. Rex shot it off the edge.
"I have no idea. None."
Rex stood. Extending a hand, he helped Fixer to his feet.
"We'd better head for that base. I don't want to be outside if..."
Rex's voice faded to nothing as both he and Fixer heard the scraping of movement. It didn't come from the cave below. This time it came from the hilltop behind them. The two turned and looked up the slope.
Against the red-flecked sky, two giant, insect-like creatures rose up to their full height. As they screeched their challenge, the two rebels were already running.
"Did you see, uh them?" Fixer asked, as he and Rex bounded down the slope. "The, huh, smaller ones?"
Eyes fixed on the edge of the jungle, Rex just nodded. And ran.
"Right", he gasped. "Here's the plan."
~...coming in! I repeat, we're coming in! Hold the doors. We're...~
In the doorway of the base, all eyes turned to the captain. He gently laid down the injured stormtrooper he had half carried all through the frantic scramble back from the terror of the caves. Rikjaard caught up the trooper's blaster rifle and headed for the blast doors, which had begun to close.
"Hold the doors! Open them just a little more. That's it!" He turned to the two remaining stormtroopers, one of whom had a vicious looking gash through his chest plate, one that had somehow missed the man inside.
"You two, come with me. You and you," he said pointing to the biker scouts, "cover us once we're inside again. Move!" With that, he rushed outside, the stormtroopers following.
Once beyond the blast doors, Rikjaard stationed one trooper, the one with the damaged armour, right beside the door. He led the other one on further, pointing him to a position against the rock of the hill. Captain Rikjaard then walked a little way into the open. He went down on one knee, bringing up the blaster rifle, covering the approach to the base.
All three listened.
~We can see the doors! They're... they're following us!~
Calmly, Rikjaard spoke into his comlink.
"Keep coming. We are ready to give covering fire." He turned to his men. "Check your targets. And remember, there's no such thing as friendly fire."
The sound of running feet could be heard. Suddenly, another sound could be made out. A horrible, alien chittering, along with the scratch-scrape of insect carapace. Grimly, Rikjaard sighted into the darkness.
"Here they come!"
As he shouted that, an alien screech split the night. It came not from in front, but from the side. Rikjaard whipped round to face the threat, nearly crying out despite himself. Standing up from the shattered and bloody remains of the trooper stationed by the rock, a vaguely man-sized horror unfolded four arms and hissed its now familiar challenge.
Instinctively, Rikjaard started firing, but the creature leapt at him. The first two shots went wild, but the third struck dead centre, blasting through the thorax and dropping the animal. The officer turned back to cover the approach of his surviving men, only to see two people tear past him. From behind, the stormtrooper at the blast doors was laying down a methodical pattern of fire. Rikjaard stood up and began to walk backwards as fast as he felt he could safely manage, pumping shots into the darkness.
The destructive light illuminated the oncoming insects. Rikjaard picked up his pace, firing as quickly as he could, not waiting to see if he hit anything. From his right, fresh blaster fire burned through the dark. Dimly, the Imperial captain was aware that these were blasts of green laser energy. Then he tripped and fell. He landed badly, the breath going out of him in a crippling rush.
For a heart-stopping moment, Rikjaard lay gasping for breath, looking at one of the approaching killers bathed in the glow of the lights from inside the base. In the slow motion view that terror brings, he saw it gather to spring. Suddenly, the thing exploded as green and red blasts ripped it to shreds. He felt a hand grab his uniform's collar, and he was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and pushed through the doors.
Rikjaard stumbled into the safety of the base, half falling to the metal plated ground. He scrabbled at his holster for his hold-out blaster. Drawing it, he turned to the doors and began to shoot. One of the massive, almost beetle-like things had reached the base alive. Several of its smaller cousins were smoking ruins, scattered outside and inside the blast doors.
"Close the blast doors! Close the blast doors!" he yelled. He was surprised to see a tall, thin man in a camouflaged jump suit and carrying a bulky pack slip-slide across to the control panel. The man slapped the illuminated button. It went from green to red and the doors began to rumble closed.
Rikjaard glanced back to the slowly shrinking opening. The giant insect had thrust its four front limbs up against the thick sides of the door. As it strained against them, the huge head swung into the base, its mandibles snapping and clacking horribly. The bulk of the beast filled the remaining space in the doorway. All shooting had ceased, as everyone stood transfixed by the struggle before them.
The closing mechanism began to grind and squeal in protest. The doors slowed their advance and finally, impossibly, they stopped. The thing in the doorway let loose a screeching bellow of triumph. Rikjaard, along with everyone else, brought his gun up. Then a second camouflaged man stepped forward, stopping just outside the reach of the terrible jaws. In his right hand, Captain Rikjaard saw the man had a huge, very illegal blaster pistol. In his left was a silver sphere.
The man rolled the silver ball under the beast. The creature looked down at the man and screeched at him.
"E chu ta!" spat the man, stepping back and blowing most of the head off the beast with one shot.
Freed of the restraint, the blast doors were almost closed when the thermal detonator exploded. Pieces of carapace and a shower of stinking yellow and grey innards sprayed into the base. The rasping cries of the dying creatures beyond were silenced by the crunching thud of the doors. Then, there was silence.
It was over. For the moment.
Realisation came in different stages for all of the survivors.
Fixer, still standing by the controls for the blast doors, his breathing the loudest in the hanger bay, had always know the moment would come. He watched Rex.
Rex, who had dodged left to avoid the detonator blast, was standing oblivious to his surroundings, staring at the dripping mass of dead alien that slid and oozed down the door. Insect splatter stained his right leg, and he was smiling in a way that scared Deans.
Telvan, the base's last surviving tech, was backed up against some equipment crates near a partly assembled AT-ST. He was shaking badly. The blaster rifle in his white knuckled grip was pointed at the crisped remains of one of the man-sized aliens that had rushed at him. Telvan's finger continued to twitch the trigger, but the energy pack was exhausted.
The two biker scouts, one with his helmet off, were standing to the far right of the blast doors, in the doorway leading to the machine workshop. The two young men were watching their captain. They had their weapons trained on the huge metal doors.
Hiding in the space between the doorframe and the wall, the base communications officer, Kamel, was furthest from the action. He had heard what had transpired, seen the chaos in the base's entrance. Now there were two armed rebels in the base. The corridor Kamel was in was at the farthest point from the blast doors, directly opposite them, and it led further into the base. Hands sweating, the young officer waited. For something.
Just behind and to the left of Captain Rikjaard, the only surviving stormtrooper, now helmetless, surreptitiously checked the reading on his rifle's energy clip. Empty. He quietly, carefully slipped his left hand to his utility belt. A fresh clip dropped into his hand. Eyes fixed on the rebel who had killed the creature, the trooper shifted his grip on the rifle.
Oblivious to the fact that his uniform was heavily spattered in grey and yellow juices, Rikjaard's eyes flicked back and forward between the two rebels; at least, that's what he assumed the men were. His blaster was still in his hand, but he barely noticed. The captain was trying to guess who would react first. He knew it had to be him, but he was at a loss as to what to do next.
The wounded stormtrooper that Rikjaard had dragged back groaned loudly, reaching out to his captain.
The catalytic moment.
Rex turned at the sound of trooper armour scraping on the ground. His eyes locked with Rikjaard's.
Fixer saw the stormtrooper pop an empty clip and slap in a fresh one. Two blasters came up, one covering Rex, one covering the stormtrooper.
"Don't move, rebel!"
"Huh, hold it!" Fixer called out, trying to sound impressive, feeling only fear.
Kamel leapt from cover when he saw Fixer bring up his weapon. He advanced slowly, gun held double handed to try and suppress the shake.
"Drop your weapons!"
Kamel couldn't decide which man to cover. The blaster kept swinging between Rex and Fixer.
The scouts shifted their aim from the door to Fixer, without a word being uttered. Fixer saw this and, mirroring Kamel, alternated his vague aim between the communications officer and the scouts.
One scout shifted to cover Rex.
Telvan, hearing Fixer's voice, awoke from his nightmare. He saw what was happening, felt the tension. Too many blasters. He saw the injured trooper, his blood beginning to show on the deck plates. He dropped to his knees, the blaster clattering to the ground. Sobbing, Telvan began to rock back and forwards.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no..." he whispered over and over to himself. The stormtrooper trying to cover Rex glanced over.
"Telvan! Pull it together! We need you!" The trooper turned back to Rex and Fixer Deans. "Drop your weapons!"
"Do it!" shouted Kamel. When neither rebel looked like obeying, and when he saw Fixer covering him, Kamel edged closer to outright panic.
"Captain! Captain Rikjaard?! What do we do? Captain!?" There was a touch of hysteria in his voice as he came to a halt beside his commanding officer.
The energy sparking between Rex and Rikjaard was almost visible. Rex still had his slightly maniacal grin. Rikjaard's stare was equally intense, his face an unreadable mask. It was up to them, and they knew it. Their next actions, their next words, would decide whether the men in that hanger lived or died. Whether they themselves lived or died.
Rex's grin broadened.
Kamel shifted his aim to Rex. Fixer glanced at the scouts, but chose not to move.
Rikjaard smiled. Fixer shivered at the smile. It reminded him of Rex.
"Your call, Brak Rikjaard," Rex said, softly. He holstered his blaster, but the grin remained.
The tension went out of the room in a rush. The stormtrooper stepped forward, his rifle still trained on Rex.
"Put your hands..." He was cut off abruptly as Rikjaard stood up quickly and interposed himself between Rex and the trooper.
"Stow it, trooper!" he snapped. He turned a steely gaze on the rest of his men. "All of you! Holster your weapons. Now!" The commanding tone was such that even Fixer obeyed. The captain turned to Rex.
"Thank you for your assistance. Is your man there medically trained?" he said, indicating Fixer.
"A little," Rex answered. Rikjaard turned to Deans.
"Very well, could you assist Kamel there in taking this man," he motioned to the injured stormtrooper, "to our infirmary. You will find med packs, an Em-Dee droid and a bacta tank there." Rikjaard turned to Kamel, who was looking a little confused.
"After everything has been done to make this man comfortable, bring..." Rikjaard turned to Fixer, his eyebrow raised questioningly.
"Uh, Deans, sir. Kan Deans, um. Yuh."
"Bring Kan Deans to my office."
"But sir, I...he's a...I mean..."
"Use a repulsorlift sled to get the trooper to the med centre. Quickly."
"Yes sir, Captain." Order was restored for Kamel. His familiar world reformed around him.
Fixer glanced at Rex, who nodded, and then he rushed to the injured trooper. While Kamel went for the cargo sled, Fixer fumbled out a med pack and began to work on the patient. Captain Rikjaard continued to issue orders.
"You two," he shouted at the scouts. "Check the external security monitors. I need to know what's out there." The scouts snapped salutes and went to work. Rikjaard turned to the stormtrooper, who was still eyeing Rex suspiciously.
"You. Help Telvan to the infirmary. Then, check the blast doors for damage. I don't want anything coming through there. And get the droids to clean up this mess," he said, looking distastefully at the crumpled insect corpses.
The trooper saluted and, with a last glare at Rex, went to help Telvan. Rex and Rikjaard watched the technician being led away. He was still shaking and sobbing.
"Um, Captain Rikjaard?" Fixer said, his eyes darting around the room nervously.
"Yes, Deans?" Rikjaard said patiently.
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing I, um, can do for him. He's dead."
Kamel's hand flickered a little towards his blaster, but Rikjaard walked over, crouching down beside the body. Rex noticed that he put himself between Kamel and Fixer. Rikjaard made a show of checking the med pack's readouts. Then he put a hand on Fixer's shoulder.
"Thank you for trying," he said. "I know you did the best you could."
Rikjaard stood, turning to Kamel, who was standing with the cargo sled hovering beside him.
"Help Deans to get our man to the med lab. We'll keep him there until relief comes."
"Yes, sir," Kamel said, in control again.
As Fixer and Kamel left with their grim burden Rex reached into a pocket and produced his flask. Unstopping it, he proffered it to Rikjaard who took a long swig. Grimacing slightly, he passed the flask back. Rex wiped the neck absently and swallowed down some of the burning liquid. He returned the flask to his pocket.
Now alone in the hanger, the two men surveyed the battle site. As they did, there was a scratching sound from beyond the blast doors. The scratching became more insistent, then stopped. A moment later, a muffled pounding began on the doors, accompanied by more scratching and lighter thumps.
"We had better go to my office."
As they left, the frantic, pointless assault on the doors continued. Two treadwell droids, cleaning appendages extended, began their work, oblivious to the noise.
The hanger bay had been at least as big as the one Rex had arrived in when he first reached Home, if not bigger. The domed space was carved out of the rock of the hill, but only the back of it, with the large corridor leading further into the base, was clad in metal. Once beyond the thick doors between the hangar and the rest of the base the corridors were of familiar Imperial design.
The corridor Rikjaard led Rex through first swiftly reached a crossroads. The rebel commando in Rex noted that straight ahead was the power plant, while storage rooms and some crew quarters were located further along the right hand branch. Rikjaard took the left hand turn. The two passed through a heavy door that opened at their approach and sealed behind them. The passageways beyond were narrower.
Reaching another junction, the left turn leading to the med centre, the two men went right and soon passed a door marked as the communications centre. Rex glanced past the open airlock-style doors and caught a glimpse of the two scouts at work before Rikjaard led him past junior officers' quarters and into the base commander's more spacious office and living area.
"You must excuse me for a moment," Rikjaard said, walking towards a connecting door in his quarters. "I simply must change." He paused at the doorway, waving his hand towards a dark wooden stand near a long, wide desk. "Help yourself to the Mrlsst brandy. I find it more palatable than your Correllian whiskey."
As Rikjaard closed the door behind him, Rex looked about the office. It was not cluttered, but it clearly showed the financial position of its occupant. For one thing, the walls were panelled with a dark, heavily grained wood. Lighting was subdued and decorative. There was even a carpet. Behind the desk, the wall was dominated by a beautiful painting of a group of islands, presumably from the viewpoint of a skiff passenger just off shore.
Rex padded over to the stand. From a dark green cut glass decanter he poured two generous glasses of a deep blue liqueur. Although there was a metal chair directly in front of the desk (a stark contrast to the deep red, heavily padded leather chair behind it), Rex chose to sprawl on a wide sofa. He sipped his brandy.
A moment or two later, Rikjaard re-emerged from his private room, clad once again in the crisp, pressed uniform of an Imperial army captain, complete with cap. He collected his glass and, with an audible sigh, sat back in the chair behind the desk. Swirling the Mrlsst brandy in its glass, Rikjaard watched Rex, evaluating the man.
"I assume it was you who pulled me back into the base earlier." It was a statement, not a question. Rex nodded. Rikjaard smiled, raising his glass in a toast that Rex returned. "Thank you."
"No problem." The measured silence returned.
"I also assume that your mission here was to observe, infiltrate, and disrupt or destroy our operation here on DB-24."
"Yes," Rex said, matter-of-factly. "General Madine was very clear that we were not to allow the Empire access to any new technology." Rex leaned forward. "Which leads me to wonder if General Madine and the folks at Intel should be worried?"
"General Madine." There was a gentle tone of surprise in Rikjaard's voice. "General Crix Madine, who is clearly not dead as reports led me to believe, has nothing to worry about. Nor does the Rebellion's clearly effective intelligence department." A dark shadow of memory passed across Rikjaard's face. "We discovered nothing, either in the old crater or in the caves. Well," he said with a whisper, "nothing we were ready for."
"Right. So," Rex said, lounging back into the plush cushions. "What now?" Rikjaard saw again the beginnings of that dangerous smile. "Do we surrender to you, and to the invincible might of the Imperial forces?" Rikjaard raised a hand to halt Rex in his train of thought.
"Surely, we should surrender to you, and the deadly preparedness of the rebellious infiltrator?" Rikjaard opened his arms to encompass the entirety of the base and the rocky hill. "No doubt, you have us completely surrounded."
Rex, his smile broadening, toasted Rikjaard again. "Oh yes. Crack troops," he said, and swallowed the last of the brandy. Rikjaard returned the toast.
"Here's to crack troops," he said with a smile. "Wherever they may be." Rikjaard stood and fetched the decanter. "More? It may be the last we see for a while."
Rex nodded, and the glass was filled. The Imperial paused for a moment and studied the decanter, turning it in his hands to catch the light.
"Sullustan. Hand carved volcanic glass," he said, quietly. "A gift on the announcement of my first posting." Rex said nothing. Rikjaard filled his glass, replaced the decanter, and moved to stand beside his desk, his face turned towards the painting behind it.
"Reena?" Rex asked, swirling his drink absentmindedly.
"Yes. My home, though there's a library there now. Just off the beach. Ugly building, apparently. A Mecetti design." Rikjaard glanced at Rex. "Were you ever there?"
"Yup. I was setting up a cell around the main university campus." Rex fixed Rikjaard with a hard, studied look. "Right around the time of the Soun-Giju..." Rex paused, looking for the right word. "Incident."
The Reenian gave Rex a dark look. He seemed about to speak when a quiet, yet insistent beep came from the comm panel set into the desk. The officer put down his glass and keyed the panel to receive.
~Sir, could you come to the communications room?~ There was a note of panic in the scout's voice that made Rex gulp down the last of the Mrlsst liqueur. ~There's something going on that you should see.~
"We're on our way. Rikjaard out."
The two men left the office at a brisk pace. Rikjaard didn't finish his drink.
As Rex and Rikjaard rounded the corner near the communications centre, Fixer and his single stormtrooper escort just about collided with them. Rex noticed that the trooper had recovered his helmet, and retained his blaster rifle. Rikjaard simply pointed towards the open doors to his destination and carried on. Fixer and the stormtrooper stopped.
"What's, uh, what's happening?"
"Something's going on outside," Rex replied, watching the stormtrooper. The expressionless mask stared back. "We'd better see what it is."
Rex headed for the door, following the direction Rikjaard had taken. Immediately, the stormtrooper stepped in his way. The barrel of the blaster rifle jabbed Rex painfully in the ribs.
~That area is restricted, rebel.~ The filtered voice carried more than a little challenge. Rex bristled, stepping forward.
"He's been, uh, like that ever since he got the, um, the hat back." grumbled Fixer. Rex grabbed the front of the rifle and pushed it away. His face was millimetres from the trooper's.
"If he doesn't get out of my way, he'll be wearing that helmet up his..."
"Trooper!" Rikjaard's commanding voice echoed down the corridor. "Let them through. They have my permission."
Rex noticed a touch of condescension in the captain's voice.
The trooper stepped back smartly. Rex stepped right up with him, still face to face. Fixer squeezed past and scuttled up the short corridor to the communications room. Rex smiled at the stormtrooper.
"You see? My Rebel friend and my Rebel self have his Imperial permission. Right?"
Rex stepped back, only this time the stormtrooper followed, his rifle swinging up.
Rex looked down at the rifle. Rex looked up at the stormtrooper. Rex grinned. The stormtrooper stepped back, the rifle wavering a little.
"I'm glad we understand each other," Rex said, and walked off.
The banks of equipment filled the room so completely that, despite its size, space was at a premium. As Rex arrived, one of the scouts collected his helmet and gloves and headed out, closing the door behind him. Now, the only illumination came from the lights and monitors.
The other biker scout was seated before a console around which stood Fixer Deans, Kamel and Brak Rikjaard. Rex squeezed in between them. Glancing at the screens, he saw that they showed a variety of external views of the base. In the darkness outside, occasional flashes of movement could be made out.
"What are we looking for?" Rex asked. The scout pointed at one of the pictures.
"I saw one of the creatures, the smaller type, carrying what looked like...there! There it is again!"
Rikjaard laid a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Calm down. Now focus in and show us what you saw."
"Yes sir. Sorry." The scout fumbled at the controls for a moment. Kamel eventually got irritated at the delay.
"Here, get out of the way and let me do it." The scout gratefully vacated the chair for Kamel, and went to stand behind his captain and Rex.
The communications officer manipulated a few controls, and the picture cleared to show the scene just outside the main blast doors. The remains of the huge insect Rex had killed, along with the bodies and bits of other, smaller creatures, had been pushed to one side. There were no more of the giant insects, but everyone present could now see clearly the smaller version.
They were essentially eight-limbed insects. Four legs and four arms. The bulbous thorax carried no legs of its own, though it could rest on the longer upper section of the rear set of legs. The rest of the body, legs and arms had numerous thick bristles growing from the armoured carapace. The feet carried triple claws, the hands carried four multi-jointed fingers, each of which bore a wicked looking talon.
Unlike their larger cousins, these beasts had two eyes set in bulbous nodules at either side of the head. The eyes were not faceted. Rather, they had lateral, slitted pupils. Small pincers flanked the mouth.
Fixer spotted what the scout had been trying to point out.
"That, uh that one is carrying something."
All eyes strained to see one creature amongst the dozen or so that milled about the entrance. Suddenly, the insects moved away from the blast doors, and one stepped forward. It was carrying a large box.
"That looks like scanning equipment," the scout said quietly. "Some of the stuff the techs took into the caves."
"What's it doing with it?" Rikjaard muttered.
The insect dropped the box right at the doors. It stepped back and seemed to be waiting. Others of its kind shuffled forwards, also waiting.
"What are they waiting for?" Rex wondered out loud.
After about a minute, one of the creatures rushed forward and started grabbing things out of the box and smashing them against the blast doors. The others swiftly joined in, and the frenzied attack on the door began again.
Rikjaard, Rex and Fixer straightened up, looking at each other with bewildered expressions.
"What was that all about?" Rikjaard asked.
Kamel suddenly swore loudly, jerking back in his seat. "Look sir!" he cried, his voice loud in the confined space. "Look at that one!"
All eyes turned again to the monitor screen, only this time it was easy to spot the reason for the consternation.
One of the huge aliens was at the doors. The others fell back, clearing a path for the behemoth. It began to pound on the doors with its massive claws. The smaller creatures seemed almost to be dancing around it. To further accentuate the grotesque scene, the huge beast was draped in armour.
"Well, um, Captain Rikjaard," Fixer began, eyes never straying from the screen. "You can declare, ah, at least part of your mission a, um, success." Rikjaard gave Deans a puzzled look.
"I don't..." Rikjaard began, but his voice tailed off into silence. He looked back at the screen, shocked realisation in his eyes.
"Those, ah, those are the survivors of whatever, um, crashed here. At least, their, uh, descendants."
Rex straightened up, patting Rikjaard on the back.
"Congratulations, Captain," he said. "Now you can all go home."
"We, uh, we saw one of those big ones dig its claws into the, um, the rock when it was trying to, ah, to attack us."
Fixer, Rex and Rikjaard had adjourned to the corridor just outside the communications room, leaving Kamel and the scout to keep an eye on things outside. Everyone was fairly shaken by what they had just witnessed, and it was clear that some decision had to be made as to what to do next.
"Right. If they start tunnelling into the base, we will have a tough time holding them off." Rikjaard nodded his agreement to Rex's statement.
"I can have a cruiser here within a matter of days. I can assure you that you will be well treated. We can say that you're traders who got stranded, or..."
"We may not have days!" Rex interrupted. "Besides, with all due respect to your promise of being well treated by his Highness' Imperial forces, I don't think I want to risk that! Our ship..."
"If your ship is somewhere on the surface, you have to assume..." Rikjaard began.
"It's not," Rex snapped. "It's three hours away. Maximum. And we can guarantee you will be treated well."
"My men will not surrender to the Rebellion!" Rikjaard protested. "I will not ask them to do that."
"I'm not asking you to!" Rex growled, growing frustrated with this conversation. "All we all want to do, and feel free to correct me if I am wrong, is get off this blasted planet quickly and in one piece. If it'll help get us moving, I give you my word that we will drop you and your men off in a shuttle or an escape pod and you can go wherever you like."
Rikjaard seemed as unconvinced by this as Rex had been with the Imperial offer. "As long as there is an option to--"
A massive shower of sparks and a shout of alarm from the communications room cut off the captain abruptly. The shout became a scream, which was silenced abruptly. As Rex and Rikjaard turned towards the room, they saw the flickering light of flames cast onto the now blank and dark banks of computers and equipment in the room. The fire alarm began to blare its warning.
Something hissed, and then, as Rex and Rikjaard went for their blasters, the body of the scout was hurled into the corridor. It clattered off the wall, leaving a wet stain, and crumpled to the ground. The Rebel commander and the Imperial captain fired in unison as the attacking insect leapt through the open door. It was blasted back into the room and lay, twitching for a moment, across an equally dead console.
Rikjaard had begun to edge forward when a scratching thump sounded from the ceiling above, audible even over the alarm. Rex looked up, seeing a massive dent appear in the metal above him. Simultaneously, a second creature launched itself out at Rikjaard, who fired twice. The momentum of the dead beast crashing into him sprawled the officer into Rex and they both fell.
Rikjaard was trying to kick the corpse of the second creature off his legs when a huge clawed hand hammered through the roof towards the two men. This time, Rex fired first. He was aiming not at the claw, but through the tear in the metal. Rikjaard concentrated on the arm as it thrashed about the corridor a few feet above them.
Both men hit their targets, and from beyond the corridor, an echoing screech of pain and frustration seemed to shake the walls. The arm began to withdraw, but Rikjaard kept firing, one bolt snapping a claw near the joint. With another echoing bellow, the shattered arm vanished.
Rex was already up, digging into a large pouch at his belt. Rikjaard struggled to his feet, his blaster trained on the communications room.
"Come on, man! Let's go!" he shouted, trying to push Rex down the corridor to where Fixer was frantically trying to call up reinforcements on his communicator, struggling to be heard over the blaring alarm. Angrily, Rex twisted out of Rikjaard's grip, a grenade in his hand.
"Get down!" he snarled, pushing Rikjaard behind him. Then, keying the grenade to live, he jumped up and threw it through the great rip in the ceiling. He landed and immediately dived down the corridor.
Behind Rex Rikjaard saw a flicker of movement at the damaged ceiling. Rex's grenade went off, the sound of the explosion deafening in the corridor, the concussion shaking the walls. If there was a screeching of dying insects, no one heard it over the ringing in their ears.
Shakily picking themselves up from the ground, Rex, Rikjaard and Fixer trained their weapons on the smoke filled corridor. As the fans of the base's ventilation system kicked into high gear a dripping sound could be heard.
Rex and Rikjaard edged forward, their blasters sweeping the corridor. Their view cleared. The alarm cut off. Fixer called after the two men.
"Wait! There's, uh, back-up on the way!"
Turning and angrily shushing Fixer, Rikjaard and Rex turned back to creeping up the corridor. The dripping sound came from the thick liquid oozing through the tear in the roof. As the two men approached the growing pool of ichor, the lights in the corridor flickered and died. Something heavy shifted above them, and there was a screeching and scraping down the metal of the walls.
Something swished through the air past Rex and he heard Rikjaard cry out. He dived to one side, firing two shots into the roof as he did so. Then the red emergency lights snapped on.
Rex and Rikjaard were both lying on the ground. The Imperial was frantically struggling under the weight of the shattered claw and severed arm of the creature that had smashed the hole in the metal ceiling. To Rex's right, at the end of the corridor, Fixer was joined by the last of the scouts, the stormtrooper, and by Telvan. The first two rushed to assist their commander. Rex, crouched with his back to the wall, sidestepped his way to the door of the communications room. He shuddered as he passed the body of the unfortunate biker scout. The man's chest had been punched through. It was a messy and very unpleasant sight.
The stormtrooper crept up to join Rex, who slid up the wall to stand ready. Rex looked across the space of the doorframe to the stormtrooper. His right hand holding his blaster, Rex held up his left hand, showing four fingers. He lowered one and silently mouthed 'three'.
Rex and the stormtrooper leapt through the doorway into a room otherwise empty of life. Rex heard the trooper gasp and he turned. Some papers still burned in a corner, and a smashed console sparked. These shed light on the great tear in the wall of the corner of the communications room. The hole was big enough for one of the smaller insects to pass through with ease. Beyond it was darkness.
Of Kamel, there was no sign.
"I was told that the technicians had burned this installation into the solid rock of the hill." Rikjaard's voice was cold, calm and very angry.
"It seems that they lied a little," Rex said, playing the light of his glow rod across the roof of the cavern.
Rex, the captain, the stormtrooper and the scout hadn't risked going far from the hole in the wall of the communications array. They had gone far enough to see that Rex's grenade had killed two insects other than the one that had beaten the holes in the exposed metal of the base.
Rikjaard had climbed the shattered body of the massive alien to stand on top of the corridor where he and Rex had been fighting for their lives minutes before. From this vantage point, he could see that large sections of the base had intruded into a natural cavern. One he hadn't been told about.
From where he was, he could see the roof of the infirmary, the isolation laboratory and even his own quarters. He shivered at the thought of what might have happened. While he was asleep. If the creatures had broken through there. Rex's voice broke through that nasty train of thought.
"We'd better get inside. I don't want to be out here if any more of those things turn up."
"Agreed," Rikjaard called back. As he made for the edge of the roof he turned his glow rod on the cables that had led into the communications room. Now, they swung free, ripped out as the creatures tore their way into his base. As they had through his men. As they would do again, unless he got them away from this terrible place.
Rikjaard made his decision.
"We'd better head for the main hangar," he said to Rex once he was on the ground again. The scout walked up to them. He pointed to the struts that held up the floor of the base, providing a level plane of support on the uneven floor of the cavern.
"There's places under there where you can virtually stand upright, sir," the young man said, clearly rattled. Rikjaard nodded, a confident smile on his face.
"You'd better step lightly then, hadn't you?" he said. The scout nervously returned the smile. "Go through the base and close and lock all the doors. Just make sure there's no-one there before you seal the rooms." The scout nodded and headed off.
Rikjaard turned to the stormtrooper. "Get everyone back into the hanger. Set up the E-web cannon. Get Telvan working on assembling that AT-ST."
"Fixer can help with that," Rex added. "Just be sure and ask nicely."
The trooper snapped a salute to his captain, cast a masked but obviously glaring look at Rex, and climbed back through into the base.
Rex looked around the cavern one more time, noting the cables swinging uselessly from the distant roof.
"Fixer's got a transmitter that'll contact our ride outta here."
Rikjaard looked Rex straight in the eye.
"You guarantee my men will be treated well?"
"I do. I give you my word, as a member of the Alliance."
"And as a Corellian?"
"Especially as a Corellian."
Rikjaard sighed. "Have your man make the call."
As soon as Fixer had made contact with Cornelius and the Aurora, Rex grabbed the transmitter.
"Cornelius? Call us when you are within half an hour of arrival."
~Sure thing, Rex. I assume you'll give me the landing co-ordinates then.~
"No. I'll give you them now. I want you to come in right at the entrance to the base."
There was a pause while Cornelius absorbed this information. Rex couldn't help but grin, imagining what must be going through the flamboyant pilot's mind.
~Rex, is this a secure channel?~
"Yes," Rex answered simply. He wasn't going to miss the opportunity to wind up Cornelius.
~If you're in trouble, just answer 'yes'. As if I've asked you whether your equipment is secure.~
"No, Cornelius," Rex said. "My equipment is woefully inadequate for this Sith-spawned mission. When you come in, whatever you do, don't set down. The place is crawling with some very hostile locals."
~Can't you negotiate with them?~
"They're bugs, Cornelius. Big bugs. Fast, nasty, aggressive bugs and they can jump, dig through rock and punch through half-inch deck plating the way Chormy can with paper."
~What about the Imps?~
"I was just coming to that..."
Rex told the bemused pilot the details of the agreement he had come to with Rikjaard, about the casualties that had been taken by the Imperials, and more about the creatures just outside the base.
~So how are you all going to get out to us?~
"We're working on that. Call us on this frequency half an hour before you're due and I'll let you know then. Any chance you can get your proton launchers up and running?"
~Not without going back to Home again. All we've got is a spare HDS tube which...~
Cornelius was drowned out by Chormox butting in with some enthusiastic and loud speech.
"What was that? I didn't copy," Rex asked, one ear somewhat numbed.
~Chormy has an idea. We'll get to you as quickly as we can. Rex?~
~How high can these things jump?~
"Just stay ten meters up when you get here."
~Good luck, Rex. Cornelius out.~
Rex handed the transmitter back to Fixer. He looked across to where Telvan was working on the AT-ST. The Imperial tech was busy making adjustments to the neck ring. Hanging from a winch track, the head of the walker was swinging gently.
"Uh, Telvan thinks we can have it ready to within, um, within two, uh, two hours."
"What about the other weapons?" Rex asked, pointing to the empty ports on either 'cheek' of the head assembly. Fixer pointed over at the machine shop.
"The scout and Mot are working on them now."
"The, um, the stormtrooper. Mot Terrik."
"First name terms already," Rex said, eyebrows raised in mock-surprise. "I'm impressed that you guys are getting on so well."
"We're not." Fixer said, his voice level dropping as he glanced back nervously at where the two Imperials were working. "I don't think he, uh, likes us."
"Whatever gave you that idea, Fixer?" Rex said, his voice a sarcastic stage whisper. "Was it perhaps the white armour? Or was it the blaster he keeps waving at us?"
"I'm serious, Rex" Fixer whined. "I think he could, um, give us trouble."
"Right. Well, you just let me worry about Mot Terrik," Rex said, adding one more unwelcome problem to the growing list. "You worry about helping Telvan get that AT-ST together in the next two hours."
"Sure, uh, sure thing, Rex" Fixer said, his face brightening at the thought of the very technical work ahead. "I'll get right on, um, on it."
Fixer sloped off, digging a variety of tools out of his well-stuffed pockets. He passed by one of the treadwell droids, which was working on something through an access panel in the deck plates. Rex groaned as the droid's work distracted Deans. The tech stopped to watch the droid.
"Fixer!" Rex called. Deans looked up at Rex, as though noticing him for the first time. His puzzled expression changed to one of realisation and embarrassment when he saw Rex's reprimanding glare. He headed for the AT-ST again. Rex watched him to make sure he got there.
"Your friend gets distracted easily, doesn't he?" said a voice by Rex's ear. The rebel tried to hide his shock, turning to find Rikjaard was now right behind him. "I'm sorry, did I startle you?" the officer said, with a slight mocking smile.
"Well, I wasn't in 'infiltrator' mode," Rex grumbled. He pointed to the machine shop where Terrik could be seen working on the concussion grenade launcher assembly for the AT-ST.
"What's his problem?" Rex asked.
"Who, trooper Terrik?" Rex nodded. "His problems?" Captain Rikjaard smiled. "Ahh. You mean apart from the fact that our mission here is a shambles, we've been successfully infiltrated by just two rebels, we're surrounded by hostile forces who wiped out over a dozen troops under my command, and we are about to effectively surrender?"
"Right," Rex nodded, seeing Rikjaard's point. "Apart from all of that."
"Terrik was stationed on Tatooine during the Skywalker..." Rikjaard exaggerated his search for the obvious phrase. "...Incident. His superiors didn't take it too well when he allowed the freighter carrying the fugitives to escape, and his excuse that one of his own men shot him was never proven. This posting was his punishment." Despite the explanation, Rex wasn't letting up.
"Yeah, well my heart bleeds for him. I just don't want him getting 'Imperial' on us when we're trying to get off this rock."
"On the contrary, my dear Commander," Rikjaard interjected, his face hard. "Imperial is exactly what you want him to be. You need him to be strong. You need him to be disciplined. You need him to hit what he shoots at. More than anything else, you need him to absolutely obey the commands of his senior officer. Like a good Imperial. Because right now, I'm the only thing stopping him blowing a hole in you and your friend."
The two officers stood glaring at each other. Rex gave way first, frowning and scratching at his stubbled chin.
"Right," he admitted. "You're right. That's what we all need."
"Yes, we could all do with a little of Terrik's determination and innate stubbornness." Rikjaard rubbed at the stiff muscles in his neck. "We could also all use a little sleep and relaxation."
"Good idea," Rex grinned, pulling out his flask of portable R&R. "You want some?" he asked after a gulp of the whiskey. Rikjaard didn't look sure. "It could be the last we see for a while."
Rikjaard shook his head. Rex shrugged, and, with one last gulp, emptied the flask. He gazed at it ruefully. Rikjaard smiled, clapping the Corellian on the shoulder.
"Come on, man. Cheer up," he said, his enthusiasm a little brittle. "We're almost out of it."
"Yeah," Rex grumbled. "Right." He reluctantly pocketed the flask. Rikjaard pointed towards the workshop.
"We had better go and see how my men are doing in there. Tell me, can you fly a speeder bike?"
"Good. I think when we walk out of here, two bikes laying down covering fire would be better than one, don't you agree?" Rex nodded, looking across at the captain as they headed for the workshop. He chuckled. Rikjaard raised a questioning eyebrow.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"You remind me of a General I know," Rex replied. "Same damn one who sent me here."
"Believe it or not," Rikjaard said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I take that as a compliment of the highest order."
Fixer and Telvan were manoeuvring the head of the AT-ST into position when an indicator began to flash on a console near the doors to the violated sections of the base.
Deans, with his obsession for all things technical, was the first to notice. He was about to ask Telvan what it meant when the lights in the hangar went out. A moment later, the power to all the consoles in the area also died. Everyone had grown so used to the noise that it was only in the terrible, seeming-eternity of silent absolute darkness that every one of the survivors noticed that the attacks on the main blast doors had stopped.
Rex, Fixer and Mot had glow rods out and lit almost simultaneously. Rex, Mot and Rikjaard also drew their weapons. Everyone stood, rooted to the spot. Two of the beams of light flashed to the doors to the base. Rex, remembering the creature he had met on the hill, played his light across the naked rock of the hangar.
Gant, the biker scout, with the night vision faculties built into his helmet, had moved to the E-web blaster that was set up in the middle of the hangar. He seemed unsure whether to target the doors or everywhere Rex was illuminating.
Everyone held their breath, waiting for the emergency generator to kick in. Everyone waited to be bathed in the surreal red glow of the emergency lighting. They waited.
After a minute or so, Rikjaard spoke, his voice calm and controlled.
"Telvan, Fixer set up some sort of lighting. Quickly and quietly please."
Rex headed for the doors to the base. He listened for any sound, but heard nothing. Remembering some equipment he had brought with him, he made his way back to his pack, passing Mot, who was at the main console with Rikjaard trying to coax some life out of it. As Rex returned, he saw that the trooper had activated the console's own reserve batteries and was studying the monitors and readouts.
~Nothing, sir. No power at all. The reserves may not have engaged.~
Rex dumped his pack by the door, quickly rummaging around for what he needed. As he did so, light spilled out from the workshop and he heard one of the speeder bikes start up. Glancing back, he saw Fixer walking an idling bike out to the door to the hangar. The bike's portable spotlight shone in his direction. Captain Rikjaard headed for the workshop.
Finding what he was after, Rex fixed a sensor to the doors and activated it. He plugged in a lead and attached a small magnetic transmitter beside the sensor. Next, Rex took a receiver pack, extended the antenna and unclipped the earpiece. Listening for a moment, Rex grunted in satisfaction. He turned to Mot, who had been watching with interest.
"You got a wide band receiver in that helmet?" Rex asked. "One of the newer models?"
"Yes. Why?" Mot was suspicious. Rex drew out a metal pen and began to gently, almost silently, tap the door.
"Tune it until you can hear this clearly" Rex ordered. He pointed to the set-up on the door. "We had to replace all of this surveillance stuff when we discovered that your new helmet comms gear could pick it up by accident. I've been meaning to change this lot." He smiled sardonically at the stormtrooper. "Lucky for us, I didn't."
Mot was adjusting something under the right side of his helmet. He stopped for a moment, fiddled again, and then nodded.
"Got it. I assume I will now hear if something approaches the door."
"That's the idea."
"A good one too," Rikjaard said. He was carrying a small power generator that he laid down beside the console. "Fixer has had another. He feels that if we push power from the console here into the power grid, we may be able to isolate the exact location of the problem."
Mot grunted. "I would imagine it took him a lot longer to say that than you did, sir," Mot said, and walked off to help Telvan set up some lighting stands. Rex and Rikjaard watched him go. Rikjaard looked at Rex, a slight frown crossing his face.
"Was it just me, or did he...." Rikjaard let the sentence trail off. Rex shook his head.
"It's terrible what pressure'll do to a man." He looked at the captain, who was fixing the leads from the power generator to the console. "You know that the problem's at the main power plant. Don't you?"
"Yes." Rikjaard sighed as he straightened up. "Yes, I know. But, I need to know for sure before we decide what to do next." Rikjaard pointed to the solid mass of the blast doors that led to the jungles of DB-24. "In about one hour we are all going through those doors. We don't have enough of these," he tapped the small generator with his foot, "to power the mechanism." Rex understood.
"Which means that we need to get the power back on line, right." Suddenly Rex felt very tired. He slumped to sit on the floor, his back against the console.
"That's not our only option, of course," Rikjaard said, grim faced. "The blast doors have a manual winding mechanism. It's set in the small maintenance tunnel which leads off the workshop."
"Which would mean that one of us would have to stay behind long enough to work it," Rex murmured.
"Exactly." Rikjaard sat down beside Rex. The two men watched lights come on around the hangar. "Don't suppose you would be up for a little dance?" Rikjaard asked lightly.
"Been a while." Rex said quietly. "Don't know if I remember how."
Both men drew their blasters and began checking them. Rex noticed that Rikjaard now carried a stromtrooper's rifle.
"Don't worry." Rikjaard said, climbing to his feet with a quiet groan. He looked down at Rex, and held out his free hand to help him up. "I've heard it all comes back to you quickly enough."
"Right." Rex accepted the hand up. "I heard that too."
They finished work on the AT-ST first, using a manual winch to lower the head onto the legs. Fixer, Telvan and Gant worked hard and fast. The light cannon and the concussion grenade launcher were fixed into their respective positions, and Telvan was left to make the connections and the systems checks.
Rex meanwhile rigged a generator to allow the door out of the hangar into the base to open and close as before. This meant that Gant could man the E-web, which had been moved closer to the door. Fixer was coming along on Rikjaard's little dance - the readouts that the tech had coaxed out of the console in the hangar confirmed the broken connections were in the main power plant. Rikjaard, Rex and Mot were there basically to cover Fixer while he conducted the repairs. Mot had holstered his standard blaster, and was carrying a light repeating blaster rifle.
At one point, Rex had wished out loud for a couple of thermal detonators, only to have Mot drop a couple in his lap.
~I prefer concussion grenades~, the stormtooper said, patting his utility belt. Rex simply nodded his thanks and, after a quick check of the trigger locks, pocketed the deadly silver spheres.
Fixer joined his three escorts at the door. The gangly man was weighed down with various loops of cable and two shoulder bags carrying tools and power connectors. He didn't have a weapon, which Rex found strangely reassuring. Fixer was the only one of the four who seemed reasonably enthusiastic about what was being attempted.
"How long do you think it will take you to rig something up?" Rex asked. Fixer grinned back at him.
"I, uh, I won't really know until, um, until I see what's wrong. When we, ah, get there."
Rikjaard looked back into the floodlit hangar. Gant signalled his readiness with a wave. Up on the AT-ST, Telvan was too busy to even look over. Rikjaard sighed.
"All right everyone. Here goes nothing." Rex and Rikjaard both went down on one knee. Slightly behind them and still standing, Mot levelled the long rifle at the door.
"Mr. Deans. If you please."
Fixer tapped the door control and shrunk back. When nothing leapt out, when the corridor showed itself to be dark and empty, there was a collective sigh of relief. Quickly, Fixer picked up a small lighting stand and moved it over. Switching it on, he cast the light along the wall. Now those in the hangar could see clear to the entrance to the power plant, the door to which was firmly closed. About half way down the corridor, the left and right branches loomed darkly.
"Fixer, stay here until we reach the junction," Rex said quietly.
"Uh, yeah, um, sure. Whatever. Um."
The heavily armed threesome moved forward slowly, Rex with the wall to his right covered to his left, Rikjaard the opposite. Mot stepped tall and proud down the middle of the corridor. Behind them, Fixer scurried across the opening to set up a second light shining down the other wall. Training the lights directly into the corridor would perhaps fatally dazzle the team on their way back from the power plant.
As they neared the junction, and in accordance with their plan, Rex dropped to the ground and began to crawl along. Rikjaard stayed upright. Both had glow rods. When they reached a point where they could see about two thirds of the darkness of the corridors beyond the junctions, Rikjaard and Rex stopped. Mot readied himself, bracing himself for the kick of the rifle should he need to fire.
His blaster in one hand, glow rod in the other, Rex glanced up at Rikjaard. The captain nodded. Rex snapped on his light, instantly followed by Rikjaard.
Both corridors were clear, right up to the closed and sealed doors.
Rex let out a shuddering breath and scrambled to his feet. Rikjaard waved Fixer forward. The tech quickly ran up. He placed two lights, essentially bigger versions of the hand held glow rods, so that the side corridors were lit. At Rex's suggestion, Fixer trained the surprisingly strong beams directly on the doors.
Now all that remained was to reach the generator room. With Mot covering the corridor now behind them (Gant had been told only to fire if something threatened to enter the hangar itself), the others stood with Fixer at the doors to their goal. Fixer had the surveillance device Rex had used previously, and he quickly attached it. Before he had a chance to use the receiver, Mot spoke out.
~I can hear a hissing noise~, he said without turning around. Rex and Rikjaard looked to Fixer for confirmation. Fixer nodded.
"Um, it sounds like it could be a coolant leak," he said.
Immediately, Rikjaard crossed to a panel on Rex's side of the corridor. Almost without thinking, Rex swapped sides. Rikjaard popped the panel open and threw breath masks to Rex and Fixer. Mot swept his rifle barrel from side to side as his companions quickly pulled on their masks and engaged the communicators.
~It's going to, um, be pretty smoky in there~, Fixer warned. ~The, ah, bonus is that there are likely to be, ah, to be emergency lights working.~
~I'll take point~, Mot said, stepping forward. He tapped his helmet. ~This'll let me see if there's anything moving.~
~Fixer~, Rex said, opening the access panel near the door. ~Get that power cell hooked up.~
As Fixer went to work, running leads from a large power cell to the door, Rikjaard took up a position to cover the corridor. Noting this, Rex covered the door to the power plant. Fixer paused with his hand over the door control, which now showed a dim red glow.
~Um, there will be enough power to open the, er, doors, but that's it. I, uh, won't be able to close them again if, um, well. If.~
~We understand~, Mot growled. ~Just open the door.~
Fixer slapped the panel and drew as far back into the corner as he could. The door ground open and, immediately, thick white smoke, tinged with the red glow of the emergency lighting, seemed to fall into the corridor from the room beyond. Now everyone could hear the hissing of the escaping coolant.
Mot gathered himself and jumped into the room. Rex saw him dodge to the right before the stormtrooper vanished into the thick smoke. There were a tense few seconds before the trooper's voice crackled over the comlink.
~It's clear. There are aliens here, but they're all dead. The coolant has killed them.~
It had been cold enough outside the generator room. Now, with clouds of the coolant gas billowing around them, everyone began to shiver in the freezing cold. Everyone except Mot, who was snug in his temperature controlled body glove and armour. He had been correct about the creatures.
As some of the smoke cleared into the corridor, Rex could see at least three of the aliens lying on the ground. Looking around, Rex saw that the room was quite small. The generators were behind the walls, and those walls were lined with banks of monitors. It was of little comfort to Rex and the others that these monitors were all working - there were too many flashing warning signs.
Fixer was already at work, running checks at the main console that sat near the door. Rikjaard was standing guard there, watching the corridor. Mot was looking about the room. He pointed to a section of the roof where the majority of the coolant was spilling from. Rex moved closer, straining to see through the billowing gas.
~That's where they came in~, Mot said. ~Right where the main cables and coolant pipes feed into the control room.~ Rex nodded.
~Same place they picked back in the communications centre. Clever little petchuki.~
As Rex stepped closer to where the torn and sliced cables were dangling, something crunched underfoot. He looked down, waving the smoke away with his free hand. As the billowing cloud parted briefly, Rex saw that he was standing in the blackened and burnt body of one of the insects, presumably crisped by the power in the cables it had cut. He jump-stumbled back to the sound of Mot's derisory laughter. Rex scowled at the trooper, but the man had returned to watching the slash in the roof. The muzzle of his rifle never wavered.
Rex went over to Fixer, who was feverishly working, his hands flying over the console's controls.
~How goes it?~, Rex asked, trying to make sense of what Deans was up to.
~Um, quiet just now, Rex~, Fixer said, without looking up. ~I'm trying to re-route the coolant.~
Fixer continued to work for a moment. Suddenly, he leapt up from his seat, grabbed a tool bag and headed for where the coolant was pouring from a severed pipe.
~Rex, come over here, um, will you.~ Rex holstered his blaster and went over to where Fixer was pulling on a pair of gloves.
~What's up? What do you need me to do?~ Fixer finished with the gloves. He grabbed one end of a piece of pipe and looked at Rex.
~This is the back-up coolant that's leaking, um, everywhere.~ Fixer dug into his pack and passed Rex a canister with a spray nozzle and trigger mechanism on one end. ~When I plug, um, this pipe into the leaking one, I need you to seal the gap with that stuff. Just don't get any on my hands or I'll, ah, be stuck, um, here.~
Before Rex could answer, Fixer grabbed the gushing coolant pipe and stuffed the other into it. It was a bad fit, and coolant rushed over Fixer's hand. Rex pumped the sealant, a sort of metallic foam, out onto the pipe join. He quickly moved around Fixer, who dodged his hands out of the way. Rex finished the job, and now the coolant was jetting out of the other end of a smaller pipe. Something occurred to Rex.
~Why didn't you connect up that end first?~, he demanded. Fixer, who had his frozen hands tucked under his arms stopped jumping about in pain for a moment.
~Oh. Um, I never thought of that.~
Fixer dashed across the room, grabbing up the pipe as he went. Rex followed with the sealant. Fixer opened an access panel to reveal a variety of pipes leading into the generators. Counting down the pipes, he unplugged the one he needed and thrust the makeshift coolant relay pipe into it. Rex reached forward with the sealant, but Fixer grabbed it off him and quickly sprayed it around the opening.
~Is that it?~, Rex asked. Fixer shook his head, diving past Rex and back to the console. He ran through a series of what to Rex looked like start-up functions. Lots of the red warning lights went out, to be replaced by lots of comforting green and white ones. Fixer sat back, with a sigh.
~We have power back, um, whenever you want it, captain~, he said. ~Oh, and, um, your generator isn't going into, um, meltdown anymore.~ Fixer sounded very pleased with himself.
~Get the ventilator fans working first, then get power to the main hangar.~
Fixer went to work, and very quickly, the remaining coolant gas began to disperse. Rex was looking around the control room thoughtfully when Mot spoke.
~It's safe for you to take the masks off~, the stormtrooper confirmed. He was still watching the hole in the roof.
"Mot, um, be careful of those cables. Some of them might be live", Fixer warned. Rex meanwhile crossed to Rikjaard.
"Captain Rikjaard, is it possible to set this base to blow from here?" Rikjaard gave Rex a strange, contemplative look.
"Still thinking about your mission, Commander?" he asked. Rex nodded, turning to Fixer.
"Can it be done, and would the result be big enough to take out the hill with the main nest in it?" Fixer looked around him at the equipment in the room.
"The, um, the blast would do considerable damage, but, ah, the radiation would do more. It, ah, it could be done." Fixer went to sit down at the main console once more, only to find a stormtrooper barring his way.
"Why should you want to destroy the base, Rex?" Rikjaard asked. Rex turned and looked Rikjaard directly in the eye.
"Frankly, I don't want anyone else running into these things. Especially a better equipped Imperial research team."
~The Emperor would not sanction the use of these things! The Empire has no use for aliens.~
Rex turned and shot Mot a hard look.
"Maybe when his Highness hears how his mighty troops so effectively dealt with these aliens, he might have other ideas," Rex sneered.
Before Mot could react, Rikjaard stepped forward, pushing past Fixer and the trooper, and sitting down at the console. Mot seemed unsure what to do, so much so that Fixer was worried that the stormtrooper might decide to shoot Rikjaard.
~Sir, we can't...~ Rikjaard swivelled around in the seat to stare directly into the polarised glass eyes of the stormtrooper before him.
"I'm setting the base to blow for three reasons. Firstly, to prevent it from falling into the hands of undesirables. Secondly, I'm doing it to save the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to happen upon the creatures that so effectively trounced us. Thirdly," he said, turning back to key in the last commands to set the destruct sequence, "I'm doing this for petty, but ultimately satisfying, revenge."
The captain turned once again to face Mot. Rikjaard's finger paused over the enable key.
"Do you have any problems with that, trooper Terrik?" The stormtrooper snapped to attention.
~No, sir!~, he barked. ~None, sir!~
Rikjaard hit the key and stood up. An alarm began to sound, which Rikjaard silenced from the console.
"I've set it to blow in two hours time. Now," the captain said with a sigh. "We had all better head back," Rikjaard eyed the hole in the roof with apprehension. "The coolant kept the creatures at bay, but now it has gone...."
Mot marched past where Rex had been guarding the door. The trooper went a little way up the corridor and stood, waiting for the others. Rex glanced at the console.
"Will the countdown continue if the console gets damaged?" he asked the captain. Rikjaard nodded.
"Now the codes are set, it could be destroyed and it'd..."
Rex stepped back and pumped two shots into the console, which was reduced to briefly sparking ruin. Rex nodded at it, satisfied. He looked across at Rikjaard.
"Just in case anyone has a change of heart," he said, heading for the door.
Rikjaard watched him go, turning to Fixer once Rex had left the room.
"Tell me, is he always like this?" Rikjaard asked, drawing his blaster. Fixer dumped the useless bits of equipment he had been carrying. He looked off after Rex.
"Oh, um, no," Deans said, shaking his head. "You should see him when he's, um, when he's stressed."
As Fixer and Rikjaard headed for the door, they heard a hissing from inside the room. Fixer first thought it was the coolant again, and he began to turn when he heard the scrape of chitin on metal.
Rikjaard was already spinning, his rifle coming up and a shout on his lips, when Fixer felt something hammer into his back. He flew forwards, bouncing off the doorframe and into the corridor beyond, where he sprawled on the ground, the breath knocked out of him.
In a haze of pain, dark spots swimming before his eyes, he struggled to warn the others, but the breath wouldn't come. He rolled over, hearing Rex shouting a warning, seeing someone rush past him. There was the sound of blaster fire. Fixer began to breath more easily, but his whole back was racked with pain. He struggled to his feet, but his legs felt strange.
Deans felt someone grab him and pull him up. He cried out in pain and fear as he felt the hard shell of stormtrooper armour, briefly mistaking it for something much worse.
~Lean on me,~ Mot demanded.
Fixer felt something pushed into his hands. His vision clearing, Fixer saw that he had a blaster now, the one Mot had been carrying in his holster. Still being more than half supported by the trooper, Fixer and Mot turned back to the corridor. Fixer waved his blaster in the general direction of one branch of the junction. Holding the huge rifle in his left hand, Mot covered the other approach.
Fixer kept glancing behind him. He saw Rikjaard stumble, weaponless from the generator room, a vicious cut on his brow bleeding profusely. The captain picked himself up and staggered clear as Rex backed out of the room, shouting incoherently and firing furiously.
"Rikjaard!" he yelled. "Get the door!"
The officer lurched up and slapped the controls. Nothing happened. Fixer remembered why.
"Rex! Disconnect the generator," Fixer gasped. A pounding from the corridor leading to the officer's quarters and the infirmary drew everyone's attentions to a fresh problem. Fixer pushed himself away from Mot, who ran to the junction.
~They're beginning to break through!~, Mot shouted. He looked back to the generator room. ~We have to go, now!~
Rex kicked the generator away. Immediately, the door slammed shut. Something hit it, hard, from the other side. Rex spun Rikjaard around and propelled him up the corridor towards where Fixer was leaning heavily against the wall. The pounding was now coming from two directions at once as Rikjaard ran past Fixer, past Mot, and towards the relative sanctuary of the hangar. Rex reached Fixer.
Then, suddenly, the assault was from three directions. The ceiling above the door to the generator began to bulge and dent inwards. Rex went to help Fixer, who cried out at the contact. Rex pulled back, and was shocked to find his hand and arm soaked with the tech's blood. Undaunted, he again put his arm around his friend, under the man's left arm, half lifting him.
"Come on, Target," he muttered. "We're not out of this yet." Fixer gave him a wan smile.
A tearing, screeching crash of over-stressed and breaking metal echoed in the corridors.
Mot looked towards Rex, then back towards the hangar. Rikjaard was sprinting towards them, having re-armed himself, but he was too far away. Mot turned to look where Rex and Fixer could hear the triumphant cries of the terrible creatures coming from.
~FOR THE EMPIRE!~ The trooper began firing. Shifting the rifle to his right hand, he continued to blast at the insect horde. Rex saw him fumble a grenade from his belt. Mot Terrik began to walk forward towards his enemy.
Behind him, Rex heard the ceiling give. Grabbing Fixer, he moved as fast as he could, almost carrying the tech. He didn't look to where Mot had gone. The sounds of the rifle fire had stopped.
Rikjaard reached the hangar door, and began to shoot, aiming above and behind Rex. The grenade Mot had been carrying blew, sending flame flashing down the corridor with a deafening roar. Something, it must have been the force of the blast, slammed into Rex and he stumbled and fell with Fixer, just within reach of the door.
Dazed, Rex staggered forward. It registered with him that he was in the hangar. He had heard Fixer cry out, and he turned.
The blast doors had begun to close. Fixer was suspended between them, clutched in the jaws of one of the massive insects. The beast's forearms scrabbled for purchase, seeking to pry open a space large enough for it to reach its prey.
Fixer looked at Rex, seeming puzzled for a moment. Rex stepped forward, unable to take in the scene before him. Fixer's mouth moved, and blood bubbled at his lips. He looked directly at Rex.
"E chu ta, Rex?" he said, so very quietly.
Rex drew out a detonator. Fixer smiled. His eyes glazed over and his head dropped to his chest as Rex rolled the detonator through the door. Simultaneously, he fired past his old friend. There was a hideous alien shriek and the creature drew back, taking the body of Kan Deans with it.
The blast doors slammed shut.
Rex barely heard the explosion in the corridor beyond.
In the end, all of the work on the AT-ST was almost unnecessary. With only four survivors, the two speeder bikes were more than sufficient to get everyone up to where Cornelius was hovering in the Aurora. Chormox, in typically subtle style, had adapted one of Fixer's HDS tubes, turning it into a makeshift torpedo.
Telvan and Rikjaard set the AT-ST to walk forward and fire automatically on command. When the Aurora arrived, Chormox cleared away most of the creatures outside the doors with a combination of the HDS tube and the starship's belly gun. As soon as the huge doors rumbled open, The AT-ST stomped and blasted its way forward. Rikjaard expertly piloted the bike he and Rex were on up into the hold, swiftly followed by Gant and Telvan.
Cornelius brought the Aurora up even higher. Those whom DB-24 had allowed to leave stood near the edge of the cargo ramp, buffeted by a refreshing wind. Light spilled from the open hangar doors. The AT-ST had stumbled, fallen and exploded into flame near the edge of the jungle. In the light provided by the flames and by the base, a great many tiny and not so tiny figures could be seen moving around.
Gant and Telvan shivered in the wind. They looked to their captain, who nodded. Telvan pulled off his biker helmet. He studied it for a moment, and then threw it out, where it was quickly swallowed by the darkness and the jungle. Gant and Rikjaard removed their caps and Imperial insignia. Rikjaard gazed down at his rank pins.
"You know, I never really felt I earned these," he said, consigning them to the void. Gant followed suit.
Chormox, who had been standing to the rear of the cargo bay, stepped forward. Gant and Telvan shrank back at her approach. Chormy laid a paw across Rex's shoulders. The Corellian had barely spoken three words since the loss of Fixer. He looked up at the Wookiee, who inclined her head towards the other three and whuffled questioningly.
Rex looked over at Rikjaard and his men. Telvan and Gant looked scared and tired, but also a little hopeful. Brak Rikjaard simply raised an eyebrow.
"Your call, Rex," he challenged.
"They're with us," Rex said, turning back to the view.
Rex dug into a pouch on his right leg, handing the data pad that he'd kept there to the wookiee. She took it, giving Rex a quizzical look.
"It was Fixer's note book. He made some notes about the HDS in there. I figure you'll know what to do with it."
Chormy grunted her thanks. She looked back out towards the base, then down at the data pad. She walked forward to stand at the very edge of the loading ramp, and threw back her head. Across the darkened jungles of that world, the ululating roar of a wookiee mourning her friend echoed, a challenge to any and all that might dare to forget. Chormy's roar finished with a quieter, private call, almost a whisper. Then, she walked back to stand by Rex.
"Close the doors", he said quietly. "It's over."
Telvan and Gant chose to start new lives in the Outlands, with fresh identities provided by the Alliance.
Rikjaard chose to join up and, as with Crix Madine before him, his was the harder choice. Debriefings, interrogations, and endless questionings were to be his lot for weeks to come. After that, his retraining would be arduous. Still, he was vouched for by Rex, and also by General Madine, though Rikjaard would likely never find that out.
Rex returned quickly to active duty. Some weeks after the DB-24 mission, he received a communication from General Madine; an order to come to the briefing room on Level Four. Home by then had jumped to a different system, but Madine's expression was familiarly grim.
"Come in, Commander," Madine said. He pointed to one of the chairs around the table. "Have a seat. This will only take a moment."
"Yes, sir." Rex sat. There was something about the General's voice that wasn't quite, well, normal. Rex noticed the data pad sitting on the table. Madine picked it up. He didn't look at Rex as he spoke.
"We intercepted this communication yesterday. It came from a Star Destroyer in the DB-00 system." Madine walked over and laid the pad down in front of Rex. Rex stared at the blank screen, at the winking light on the enable switch. He didn't look up as General Crix Madine headed for the door.
"There's nothing much we can do about it right now," the General said, pausing at the door. "I'll try and keep you posted on any developments." The door slid shut behind him.
It took Rex a few moments before he switched on the data pad.
~Imperial Communication - DB-24 / 10043.2~
~Base secured despite opposition. No bodies found. Caves secured.~
Rex purged the memory on the data pad and left it lying on the table.
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