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PostPosted: Tue Jul 23, 2013 5:19 am 
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Jedi Council Chambers.
Jedi Temple.
Ossus, Free Worlds League.
288ABY.

Diana Senn tried to slip into the Council chambers silently. So fluid was her gait that she made it all the way to the golden symbol inlaid into the centre of the of the room without so much as a whisper of her robes. Stopping there, she slipped the hood of her robes from her fair hair to rest upon her shoulders. In the half second it took her to arrange her thoughts, the Grandmaster shattered her strategy.

“The Force be with you, Jedi Senn” Grandmaster Julian Tiepolo said calmly without turning from the window.

Mentally cursing her foolishness for trying to catch a Jedi unawares, let alone the Grandmaster of the Order, Diana swallowed before answering, “And with you, Master Tiepolo”

Slowly, the tall cadaverously thin leader of the Jedi order turned from the window and gazed at her. His aquiline nose and piercing brown eyes had always made Diana think of a hawk, but today she reacted differently to his gaunt boniness and bald head.

“He’s more like a vulture,” She thought, though she kept that observation to herself, not even letting a micron of it slip into her force sense.

Stepping away from the window Tiepolo approached her, “I would have though you’d have been downstairs with the others witnessing the ceremony.

“The signing of this alliance between the Skye Alliance and the Free Worlds League?” Diana blurted, “That is what I wished to speak to you about, Master”

Tiepolo pursed his thin lips; “You have made your views very clear over the last few days Diana” He said evenly, “Almost to the point of stepping beyond the bounds of a students deference to her master. You have only just been elevated to the rank of Knight, you are a long way from becoming a Master”

His words brought a flush to her cheeks, but she soldiered on, “Then my opinion is worthless?”

Her bluntness caused a hesitation in her Master, “No, not at all. But you must accept that there are things that you lack the knowledge and experience to make a judgement on”

“I know this” Diana shook her head and stepped up to the window and indicated the courtyard below, “I know that down there, Katrina Tarn and Jesmin Akdool are signing an agreement between the Skye Alliance and the Free Worlds League that will change the face of the galaxy forever”

“In what way?” Tiepolo said in a tone that reminded her that they’d walked this territory many times before.

“”You know what way” Diana snapped, earning a rebuking looking from Tiepolo, but she carried on regardless, “With a full alliance binding two of the largest nations together, the Jedi Order will lose all hope of maintaining stability in the galaxy. The balance of power will cease to exist”

“The other nations are more than capable of standing against any aggression,” Tiepolo pointed out.

“The New Republic certainly” Diana conceded, “But the Outer Rim Federation and Oberon Confederation spend half their time fighting each other. They would not come to the Republics aid. The Circinus Federation is no threat, I am still surprised that neither the Alliance nor the League have seen fit to crash that pathetic bandit kingdom”

“That same reluctance is what I believe will stop them Tarn and Akdool going to war with the others” Tiepolo nodded.

“A naive view Master” Diana sighed, weary of these same arguments.

“Perhaps, but it is one that is also hopeful” Tiepolo smiled, “In any case. We will continue our efforts to advise Katrina Tarn and Jesmin Akdool against any kind of aggression and we will do the same with the others”

“You actually think that the balance of power can be maintained merely using words?” Diana asked, sensing she was getting nowhere.

“With the force it will be enough” Tiepolo said, turning to face the window once more.

Realising she’d been dismissed, Diana stared at the Grandmasters back for a moment, before turning and heading towards the door, “Perhaps words will be enough” She thought, “But maybe the right words in the right ears will be effective too”

------------------------------------------------------

Balmorra.
Republic March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
January 3rd.

The knock on the door interrupted Major Col Levin’s thoughts and shattered the quiet tranquillity he’d carefully constructed. The slender, dark haired infantry officer took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. As he stood from behind his teakwood desk, he straightened his uniform and tried to compose himself.

“I know I requested a new squad leader for the battalion” He thought, “But why’d they have to send me someone fresh from the academy. And why’d they have to send HER of all people” He sighed, “It’s tough enough riding herd on a battalion of trainees with only a couple of experienced officers to help, but now they want me to baby-sit?”

“Enter,” He said finally, knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer.

On cue, the door hissed open and a young woman stepped into the office. Taking two steps towards his desk, “Lieutenant Alexandria Tarn, reporting Sir” She snapped to attention and he took a few moments to examine her.

Slender, yet short –only just over the minimum height for battlesuit infantry- she possessed an athletic toned form that spoke of a diligence to keeping in shape. Her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail and was raven black apart from several red dyed streaks. Her uniform was clean and pressed neatly, the bars of a Lieutenant riding on the collar.

Waiting another moment, Col allowed her to hold her salute a little longer before he returned it, “At ease”

Gratefully, the young Lieutenant relaxed and clasped her hands behind her back in traditional parade rest.

“I want you to understand a couple of things Lieutenant Tarn” Col said carefully, “And they are matters that I want to go no further than this office. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir” Alexandria nodded solemnly, and the look of worry and sincerity on her face caught Col by surprise.

He took a deep breath, “I did not want you here in this unit Lieutenant and I still don’t. I have a responsibility to the fifty men and women under my command. A responsibility to keep them alive and to ensure they don’t get killed”

By this point, the young officers eyes had widened in surprise.

“I cannot do my duty to my people if I have to be looking after you. I know your academy scores are good, some of best I’ve seen, but how do I know they weren’t doctored by some sycophant trying curry father with your father?”

“I…..” Alex began, her face reddening with anger or was it shame? .

“I haven’t given you leave to speak Lieutenant” He interrupted and her mouth clamped shut, “Perhaps your scores may be accurate, maybe you’re not just some blue blood political appointee that’s going get my people killed, maybe you’ll prove yourself to be an asset to this unit” He looked her square in the eye, “So from this moment on, you’re on a blank slate with me. Prove yourself and I’ll consider you a worthy member of this unit. Let me down……and you’ll wish you stayed at home” He paused for a moment, “As long as you are in this unit, you are under my command and you will not be treated any differently than any other trooper. Is that clear Lieutenant?”

To his surprise, an expression of relief flickered across her face followed by a smile, “Yes sir and thank you. I was worried that you’d just treat me as if I was radioactive and I’d never get the chance to see any combat”

“You haven’t earned that chance yet” Col pointed out, “But there’s time. Let me ask you something Lieutenant. Why Balmorra, why this unit?”

Alex shrugged, “I’d be lying if I didn’t see Balmorra as being a good place to see some action” She answered, “But I kinda hoped that the need for able bodies out here at the far end of the Balmorra Finger would ensure you gave me a chance. As for this unit….it was looking for a squad leader”

Col nodded. He’d suspected as much, “Very well. I’m assigning you command of third squad. Prove you can lead them and we’ll see about making the assignment stick. Now, we have a patrol scheduled tomorrow, so I suggest you get down to the tech bay and get checked your equipment checked out”

Yes sir” Alex nodded gratefully.

“Dismissed” Col smiled and with a salute she left the room leaving Col alone again.

Though not for long, a moment after Tarn’s departure, a head peered around the doorway, the demonic looking horns that graced the Deveronian’s head would normally make some uneasy, but not Col.

“How’d it go” Captain Sini Cha asked, stepping into the room.

“As well as I hoped” Col smiled at his XO, “And better than I’d feared. She’s still an unknown quantity, but her hearts in the right place”

“Good news for the snipers then” Cha grinned, displaying her sharp teeth.

“Don’t even joke about that” Col said aghast, “It’s going to be bad enough having the First Princes’ daughter in the unit, without having to worry about something happening to her”

“Sorry” Cha shrugged and thrust a pile of flimsiplast at him.

“What are these?”

“Forms, filled out in triplicate for our patrol tomorrow. I’ve filled out an environmental impact study for every meter of turf we’ll cover tomorrow and the local pen pushers have granted us a ‘parade permit” She shook her head, “Hate to think what the weapons division guys have to go through when they test out weapons, when this is the pile we deal with for a simple patrol”

Col nodded, “I know what you mean. The idea of turning in a millimetre-by-millimetre description of our patrol route doesn’t thrill me either, but this is Duke Miles Fel-Tarn’s domain and in the Republic March, his word is law”

“I trust him and his bureaucratic nonsense about as far as I can throw a planet” Sini snorted, “Still, he wants this garbage, so he’ll get it. What do you reckon he does with it all?”

“Don’t know” Col shrugged, “Probably builds a small fort out of it all”


--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Construction Arm Gamma-Eleven.
Terah Engineering Company Shipyards.
Tatooine Orbit.
Oberon Confederation.
January 3rd.

Baron Logan Cameron-Terah III stood at the viewing window and watched the procession of ships proceed past. A dozen of the new TEC designed and built Hunter Class Patrol ships, sleek and fast, they were part of the Oberon Confederations drive to increase their numbers of smaller vessels alongside their larger cousins.

As each one passed the viewing gallery, each ship ‘dipped its wings’ slightly as a mark of respect for their observer. With a nod of satisfaction, the Baron turned his head slightly to catch the eye of rooms only other occupant.

“Impressive sight, isn’t it?” He asked.

Galatea Terah shrugged, “I guess so. I’d have liked a little more time for us to work out all the kinks in the design. You know we were still having problems with the environmental systems alone. Not to mention the engine imbalance issues”

“That’s what ship board techs are for” Logan rested his hands on his ample stomach and looked at his daughter, “To work out all those kinks without the ships being tied up in a yard”

“But….” Galatea started to say.

“In any case” The Baron interrupted his daughter, “The Oberon High Command wanted these ships this week and that’s what I mean to give them. Their ships, on time”

“If you say so” Galatea sighed.

“I do say so” Logan nodded, his nose wrinkling ever so slightly at the sight of his daughter standing there in the her oil stained jumpsuit and still wearing her tool belts, “You spend far too much time in those workshops, if you spent more time with me, learning to run this company, you would understand how things work”

“I do understand” Galatea grimaced, “I understand all to well”

Logan frowned at her for a moment, “Do you know how this company began?”

“Yes” Galatea sighed, “It started off as a small repair business outside Mos Eisley, ran by Zan Terah. Mostly just repairing swoops and light shuttles. At some point, the competing Hutt business shut down and Zan’s business took off, allowing him to expand. Within twenty years, he’d opened additional shops in Anchorhead, Mos Espa, Mos Entha, Bestine and Motesta” She paused for a moment, “In 60ABY, his Zan’s granddaughter Tavi Tareh brought the first orbital facility online, paving the way for the first full shipyard facility in 96ABY” She shrugged, “Over the last couple of centuries, Zan Terah’s little workshop went from its humble little roots to the planetary spanning shipyards and facilities that comprise one of the Oberon Confederations premier shipbuilders, second only to the shipyards of Sullust and Sluis Van”

“And soon to overtake Sluis Van I have anything to do with it” Logan grumbled.

“Why the recounting of our history?” Galatea asked, “Well, a brief outline of it anyway” She added with a shrug.

“To illustrate a point” Logan smiled, “Sometimes, you have to put profits and growth over few little tech issues”

“Actually” Galatea frowned, “The point you can take away from the early history is that Zan Terah never put profits and growth before anything”

“He was an idealist” Logan shrugged, “We are in a far different world to him. Things have changed. Remember that” He nodded to his daughter, then with surprising grace for his size, swept from the room.

Galatea remained where she stood, alone with her thoughts, “Maybe he’s right” She muttered, “But I’m damned if I’m going to accept it”

At that moment, her comlink trilled and stirred her from her thoughts, “Chief tech Terah?”

“Boss” Came the voice of her second tech, “Can you pop over to bay forty-Delta? Seems they’re having a few problems with that refit job on that Kobol Cruiser”

“I’m over on Gamma-Seven” She answered, “Anyone closer?”

“Just me” Cam the reply, “But I’m up to my arms in this Tengu job. Can’t get away, I’d send someone else, but that Kobol is a pretty important job”

“No worries” Galatea nodded, “I’ll head on over. But send someone to take care of the job over on Alpha-Twelve”

“Will do”

Clicking of the comlink, Galatea stared in the general direction her father had gone, “You may think your ways best father, but without the hard work of me and my techs, you wouldn’t have anything”

-----------------------------------------------------

Balmorra.
Republic March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
January 4th

Major Col Levin gratefully accepted the datapad from Sini Cha and read over the information on it as they made their way down the corridor to the main bay.

“So everything is set for our little patrol” Col nodded, “The local bureaucrats just signed off on our route. Is everybody ready?”

“More or less” Cha nodded and scratched at the base of one horn, “There was a minor fracas last night. Nothing to important, won’t affect today”

“Col stopped and frowned at the Deveronian, “What happened?”

“Nothing important” His XO shrugged, “Seemed a couple of members of our new Lieutenants squad were a little less receptive to their new officer. Some words were said, some punches got thrown. The chain of command was re-established”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?”

Cha grinned, “Was going to happen sooner or later. Squad three’s still burnt up about you kicking out their last Lieutenant –for good reasons- and were never going to be fully receptive any one new. Especially a blue blood straight from the academy”

“True” Col nodded, “Ravik Nar was well liked, a lot of the trainees looked up to him, but after what happened, he had to go. Just didn’t expect it to be a problem so soon”

“I would expect it to be much of a problem anymore” Cha laughed.

“So what happened?”

“Didn’t witness it myself. But apparently, Craon and Da’ik’an decided a little ‘friendly hazing’ would be the best way of welcoming their new lieutenant and showing her exactly how they felt” She laughed, “Apparently, Tarn dropped Da’ik’an with a solid kick, took a few solid hits from Craon and then went to work on his breadbasket” She shrugged, “Plenty of bruises, a split lip or two, but nothing broken and all three are fit for today”

“Good” Col nodded, “Any need for a report?”

“If Alexandra didn’t see a reason to make one, it probably wasn’t worth it and it’s not like either Craon or Da’ik’en have put in a complaint either”

“True” Col nodded, feeling a little guilty. He probably should have warned her about the hostile environment Squad Three was going to be, but he had wanted to see how she handled things.
“Almost forgot” Cha said, changing the subject, “Our local ISF rep is tagging along with this patrol. I figure he wants to make sure everything goes smooth for the First Princes daughters first outing”

Col frowned. He had nothing against the local ISF rep, for an Internal Security Force officer the guy was likeable and easy to deal with. But he had shown no interest in attending any of the exercises before now.

“You think he heard about what happened last night?” Col asked.

“Who do you think told me about what happened?” Cha laughed, “Told me he made a ton of credits betting on Alex”

“There were wagers?” Col grimaced.

-------------------------------------------------

Col and Sini entered the large bay that served Training Battalion Seventeen and made their way to wear the cadets and handful of experienced officers were waiting.

“Morning” Col called out, “Today we’ll be taking you through a standard evaluation exercise. Standard fifteen mile patrol. Please bear in mind that your weapons are armed and live. As always we want to minimize damage to the surrounding area. Target practice on livestock owned by the natives is strictly discouraged and will be punished by immediate dismissal from the training program” He paused for a moment while they absorbed that warning, “Everyone get mounted up and geared up and ready to move out. Unit leaders attend me for specific instructions”

As the trainees broke apart, the battalion’s five lieutenants including Sini Cha and one sergeant moved over to Col. Sergeant Walter De Mensil and Lieutenant Hugh Payen, the armor officers. Lieutenant Losk, the Zabrak who commanded the scout hovercraft unit. Sini Cha and Lieutenant James St Agier head the infantry contingent and Alex Tarn and Lieutenant Gol Sivran led the battlesuit units.

Clad in her bulky Warg battlesuit, only Alex’s head was visible with the face plate cranked back, and Col noted that she had a nice bruise forming on the left jaw line and similar one surrounded her right eye.

“Okay” Col nodded and handed each other a datapad, “We’re not doing anything to drastic with the trainees today. Quick run round the block, focus on observational skills, terrain handling and response times, followed by a run through the target ranges,” He indicated the datapads, ”The pads have a few specific orders for each of you along with a quick note on areas where each of your units needs work. Let’s keep things tidy today. Mount up” As the group broke up, Col caught Alexandria’s eye, “Lieutenant Tarn, a quick word”

“Sir” The young officer looked nervous.

“You think you can handle your unit?” Col asked evenly.

“I believe so, sir” Alex nodded, “Shouldn’t be a problem”

“Heard there was one last night” Col raised an eyebrow.

“Ah….you heard about that?”

“I did” Col frowned, “First night here and you’re already punching the trainees. Unusual leadership style”

Alexandria blushed, her reddened face making her bruises stand out even more, “It wasn’t much sir, just a few differing opinions. But I think we have an understanding now”

“Good” Col nodded, “I should have warned you about what you were walking into with that squad, but I needed to know how you’d handle the situation”

“I guess” Alex frowned, “Sir, what happened to Ravik Nar?”

Col hesitated, “I’ll fill you in after the exercise. For now let me just say, there’s more behind what happened than any of the trainees are aware of”

“Ok sir” Alex nodded, then she caught sight of someone approaching, “I’d best get to my unit, sir”

“Very well” Col nodded, then as she moved away he turned to face the newcomer, “Commander Tarkin. All set to head out with us?”

“I am” Commander Saul Tarkin nodded with a glance in Alexandria Tarn’s direction.

“You’ll forgive me Commander” Col said bluntly, “If I ask you, why today?”

“Why else?” Tarkin shrugged, “Alexandria Tarn leaves the academy and goes straight for a training battalion right on the border with the Republic and ISF command wants an eye kept on her for her first jaunt”

“Making sure I don’t let anything happen to her” Col snorted.

“More like making sure she doesn’t do anything silly” Tarkin shook his head, “Face it, not only is she fresh from the academy, she’s a royal to boot. She’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders, a lot to live up to, even if its just in her own mind” He smirked and his voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper, “Not to mention that we’re in Duke Miles’ domain”

“Don’t remind me” Col grimaced, “I think the guy just manufactures the rules and regs I have to wade through just to annoy me”

“If it’s any consolation” Tarkin smiled, “It’s not just you, all of Prince Harrison’s Training Battalions get the same treatment here in the Republic March”

“Miles is an academy boy isn’t he?”

“He is” The ISF officer nodded, “Doesn’t think much of Harrison’s ‘experiment’ and thinks only the troops from the academies are worthy of the military”

“What about you?” Col said, “What do you think?”

“I’d have to reserve judgement till I’ve seen them in action” Tarkin said carefully, “But I’ve seen the reports, they’ve got potential”

Col stared at Tarkin for a moment. The guy was decent enough –for an intelligence officer- and he did help with the Ravik Nar situation and helped keep it covered up. But Col was also aware of Tarkin’s resemblance to a reviled ancestor of his and he worked hard to belie that resemblance, was that why he was so accommodating?

Col shook his head, “Let’s get moved out then. And you can see just how much potential my people have”

------------------------------------------------

Seated in the command turret of his Bulldog battletank, Col alternated between his screens showing an overlay view and his own naked eye through the turret hatch.

To his satisfaction, battalion was moving in good order. The standard infantry rode in the APCs and light hovercraft, while the battlesuit infantry clung to the sides of the larger tanks. With his tanks forming a double column and the scout elements leading, they were an impressive sight.
Sure, there were some rough edges and occasionally, the trainees lack of experience occasionally showed through, still as Commander Tarkin had said, they had potential.

Tarkin himself was seated at the secondary communications station of Levin’s tank and was watching the trainees on his own set of screens.

“These kids are good” The ISF officer thought to himself, “I suspect after they get a battle or two under their belts, no one will doubt Prince Harrison’s wisdom in creating these training battalions. Well, no one except the people running the academies and the bureaucrats who don’t want their planet protected by such green troops” Tarkin shook his head, “They’re really going all out to prove themselves”

He turned from his temporary station and looked at Levin, “Well, they can do the easy stuff. But how well can they shot?”

Levin winked down at his, “You’ll see once we hit the ranges” He stopped and frowned at his screens, “Losk, you’re slowing down, is there a problem with one of your units?”

The scout leader replied quickly, “Negative, but we’re picking up some odd magscan readings”

Col reached out and punching some commands on his console, shifted his scanners from infrared to magnetic anomaly detection. A holographic display of the surrounding terrain filled his screen and showed each of his units as a glowing red pyramid or sphere. As the computer identified each unit, it tagged a glowing number beneath each symbol that told Col the unit type, model and designation. Other concentrations of metal anything from an ore deposit close to the surface to a lost bicycle- showed up as a green square unit it could be identified.

“What do you make of those?” Tarkin asked, having evidently pulled up the same views on his screens.

Col didn’t answer immediately, instead frowning as a dozen of so green squares flickered in and out of view. Then at the very far reaches of scanner range, a blue hexagon briefly flickered into view before vanishing again and reappearing a few moments later.

At almost the same moment, the comm. officer shouted up to him, “Sir, I just had an emergency call from command, but they got cut off. Something about an unidentified intruder”

“Jamming!” Col thought, then hit the broadcast channel, “We have hostiles inbound, get ready people. This is not an exercise!”

To their credit, the trainees were already moving to battle stance at his order when the next surprise was unleashed. Camo-netting and sensor baffles fell away as a dozen mixed light tanks and a handful of battlesuit infantry revealed themselves and opened fire.

A pair of Cicada tanks turned their turrets against the closest target, one of the trainees in a Skutter hovercraft and unleashed the hellish fury of their flamethrowers, bathing the lightly armoured vehicle in flame.

Nablus, the pilot of the burning Skutter, hit his boosters in panic, racing away with enough speed to snuff the flames coating the light craft, but in his panic, the front end caught an outcropping and threw the craft into a flat spin. As the Cicadas swung their weaponry to bear again, the other members of the scout unit poured laser fire into the Cicadas, using their higher speeds to get behind and target the weaker armor.

“Only a dozen of them” Col thought, “But they must be veterans. Still we do outnumber them”

“Focus your fire” He called, “Keep moving and hit them hard”

Then the blue hexagon resolved itself into a Shilone light bomber.

-------------------------------------------

Lieutenant Alexandria Tarn winced as large clods of each kicked up in the Shilones bombing run rained down on her. Even through the heavy armour of her battlesuit, she’d felt the concussion of the bombs.

Swinging the railgun mounted to the right arm of her Warg suit, she fired on the departing Shilone, but in haste she’d failed to lead the target or wait for a full lock and the projectile sailed harmlessly past the bombers stern by a good fifty meters.

Cursing, she sought out the rest of her unit, “Craon, Barres. Do what you can for the crew of the Tren” She indicated the light tank that had taken the full brunt of the bombing run. It’s tracks were shredded, and the armour pitted, but it hadn’t been breached as far as she could see, “The rest of you, lay down a field of fire” She indicated a trio of Golem Battlesuits bearing down on them, “Take em down”

A flicker of movement in her peripheral vision caught her eye and she spun around to see the bomber coming back for another run. Even with the warning, she barely had any time to sight in the target before she squeezed the trigger.
This time her shot was good. The hyper accelerated energy projectile struck the bomber in the port wing. The armour held against the hit, but it was enough to throw off the pilots aim. The three bombs dropped from its bay missed the intended targets, one instead blowing apart a nearby outcropping, the other two tearing up the soil between the trainees and the majority of their attackers.

As she tried to sight in on the departing bomber again, a storm of missiles from the unit’s heavier tanks raced up and swallowed the bomber in a series of violent explosions. Its control surfaces shredded, the Shilone nosed into the ground somewhere over the next ridge

Ignoring its fiery death. Alex turned and targeted on of the enemy Golems and fired. The heavier battlesuit staggered with the impact, before regaining its footing and stitching Squad Three’s position with heavy repeater rounds.
Off to her left, another of her squad, Bures, sighted in his own railgun and fired. His aim was well placed. The visor of the Golem exploded inwards as the projectile punched through and into the soft flesh and bone inside.

“One down” Alex muttered.

In vengeance, the two remaining Golems opened up with a furious barrage. Viclan took three shots through the chest, the heavy repeater slugs punching through armour already damaged by successive hits. Bill Chartres, unaware that Viclan was already dead, imposed himself between the Golems and his comrade, the repeater fire skewering him even more savagely than it had Viclan. Utterly shot through, Chartres collapsed in a heap.

---------------------------------------

Sivran’s battlesuit unit –in their heavier Rancor suits- fell upon the two nearest Cicadas, hammering them first with missiles, before swarming the tanks, tearing off armour plates and directing laser fire into the cavities. One Cicada was left a burning wreck within minutes, whilst the second began to beat a retreat with its turret jammed and its weapons destroyed, though the effort cost the unit Maziel –immolated in his armour- and left three more injured.

De Mensil’s tank group –made up of heavy Turok tanks shredded the lighter Cicadas arrayed against them, though all six suffered damage in the process.
Payen’s tanks rolled over the four that chose to rush his unit, though it cost him one of his Baraks –along with two disabled in the earlier bombing run- when the trainees tank suffered a catastrophic hit to its ammunition storage units.

The two infantry units stayed out of the majority of the fight for the most part, the attackers choosing not to attack the lightly armed men and women. The two squads instead focused on rescue efforts and capturing the surviving crew member from the enemy tanks.

Losk’s scout unit enjoyed the greater success, the swift light hovercraft and speeders ran rings around the slower tanks and laced their thinner rear armour with laser and missile fire. In return for claiming four of the Cicadas, he lost three of his units, but all of the crews escaped in one piece.

With their ambush suddenly and devastatingly turned against them, the surviving three Cicadas and two of the surviving Golem battlesuits suddenly turned tale and fled from the battle zone.

“They’re bugging out” Sini Cha’s voice crackled over the comms, “Do we pursue?”

“Negative” Col responded, “They could be leading us into another ambush. And even if they weren’t, we’re in no position to engage in a chase” He glanced at his scopes, “In any case, looks like the local squadron has them” He said as a trio of Balmorran built Crossbow fighters raced overheard in pursuit of the fleeing tanks”

“Who were they?” Hugh Payen asked, “Republic?”

“Cicada is a Republic design” Alex Tarn pointed out, “So’s the Golem”

“Shilone is an Outer Rim Republic design though” De Mensil cut in, “Free purchase. Could be the tanks and battlesuits were too”

“Whoever they were” Col said, “We drove them off. It’ll be up to others to identify them” He glanced down at Tarkin who was already coordinating with other ISF assets to backtrack the intruders, “Report”

“Losk here” Thee Zabrak scout said, “Lost two hovers and a speeder. No casualties”

“Payen” The Agamarian sounded pained, “Lost Sonnac, Bisot and Montvalle when their tank blew. Need a medevac for the crews of tanks three and six. Nothing serious, broken bones and concussions”

“De Mensil here. All crew alive, but got a lot of damage on all units”

“Sivran reporting. Got three injured, and I think I bust some ribs” He hesitated audibly, “Maziel is dead”

Both Cha and St Ageir reported their units intact and relatively unharmed.

“Lieutenant Tarn, report” Col prodded, when the young officer failed to do so.
It took her several moments to speak and when she did, her voice threatened to break with a mix of adrenaline comedown and grief, “Viclan and Chartres are dead. Torrages has a broken leg. Rest of us have some armour damage”

Col felt some sympathy for the girl, first time out with the Trainees and she was already having to deal with casualties.

Dig in and secure your zones and any prisoners” Col ordered, “Help should be here shortly”

------------------------------------------

Sarna. System.
New Republic.
January 8th.

The cluster of ships dropped into the atmosphere of the planet. From small escort ships to larger frigates, the ships were a motley collection of old and badly maintained designs.

Pirates had come to raid Sarna.

Fighters swarmed around the incoming ships. A mixture of battered and old fighters versus the sleeker, newer starfighters from the planetary defence force. Laser fire flashed between the ships, punctuated by a larger explosion of a starfighter taking a critical hit and occasionally, a torpedo or missile slipped through the defensive umbrella to impact against a capital ships shields or in some cases, the hull.

A distance away, the battle was being observed from another ship. This one sleeker and more advanced. It’s sensor profile so carefully designed so as to be all but invisible to other parties.

“Can I just say again” Jedi Knight Lucas Horn said, “That I am still not sold on this idea”

“You just did” The Omwati Knight Zel Xux glanced over at him, “For about the hundredth time”

“Now you’re being ridiculous” Horn scowled.

“Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry” Xux inclined her head, “Hundred and fiftieth time”

Horn shot a dirty look at her and then sighed, “The mission I’m okay with. Sneak on planet, infiltrate the labs of some Rogue scientist and destroy his research and any samples of this bio-weapon he’s working on and get back out. Standard Jade Knight stuff” He grimaced, “It’s the rest that bothers me. Sending a fake transmission to the leader of the Gorug Pirates hinting at some kind of super weapon being developed on Sarna. That encourages him to launch a raid to snatch it and we use the raid as cover. Why? Why do we need the pirates?”

Xux shook her head, “I’ll admit that bothers me too. But those were our instructions. Supposedly this raid will draw off enough of the local forces to let us get to the labs and do what we need to. Plus it’ll also bring the Republic here in force, which thanks to an anonymous tip will go over the planet with a fine toothed comb and shut down those labs permanently”

“I guess” Horn sighed, “Who’s our contact?”

“Don’t know” Xux shrugged, “But they’ll make contact when we hit dirt side. Speaking of which, looks like the attack has drawn all their attention and given us a window”

Horn nodded and settled into the pilot’s seat, “Lets do this”

--------------------------------

Not surprisingly, they were able to land undetected and within an hour had reached the rendezvous point near the lab where they were to meet their contact, a clearing in a forest. Shrouded in darkness with the only light coming from the three moons and the battle raging somewhere to the east, they relied on their force senses to give them any warnings.

They’d been waiting a few minutes, when Horn caught a tingling at the edge of his force sense.

“Someone’s coming” He murmured.

“Yeah” Xux nodded, “Doesn’t feel like a threat though”

“Feels familiar though” Horn added.

They waited until the other being was almost upon them, then revealed themselves in the force. The other person hesitated for a moment, then a voice emerged from the darkness.

“The spotted cuckoo is flying backwards”

Horn’s heart sank as he recognised the voice, “Shut up and come on out, you idiot” He grimaced.

The lean dark haired face of Conner Solo emerged from around a tree, “Not one for the spy stuff then” He grinned.

“it’s bad enough we had to follow your plan and involve those filthy pirates” Horn snapped, “Don’t make things harder to bear”

“Fine, fine” Solo nodded, and produced two packages, “Disguises and identification to get you into the labs and. Mini EMP, should wipe all data and systems for about seven miles. Hope you’ve got shielded blasters and comlinks” He produced a canister about an arms length in size, “Neutralising agent for the bio-weapon”

“How does it work?” Xux asked taking the canister and examining it.

“Just crank the valve and break the seal” Solo explained, “The stuff inside will react with oxygen molecules in the air and it’ll basically create a catalyst effect. As long as the gas lasts –there’s enough for about five or six hours- the reaction will just keep going”

“Is it harmful?” Horn asked dubiously.

“Only if you’re a bio-weapon” Solo shook his head, then added, “It does cause rashes in Wookies and Bothans and gives Geonosians sneezing fits though. Completely harmless to Omwati and humans, in case you were wondering”

“You coming in with us?” asked.

“No, I’ve got another task to do up in the mountains” Solo gestured towards the peaks in the distance, “We’ll meet back here one hour before local sunrise. Good luck” He nodded to them, then headed off back into the darkness.

Horn stared at his back for a moment, then sighed, “Right lets do this”

“Do you know him?” Xux asked.

Horn nodded wearily, “Yeah. We’ve worked together a few times on missions like this. He’s always been the advance party, sneaking on world months in advance and gathering intel”

“You don’t like him though”

“I do actually” Horn said, “It’s just he can be a little annoying at times. Has a tendency to be too flippant”

“Fair enough” Xux glanced at her chrono, “Okay, we’ve got seven hours to get the lab, get in, find what we need and do our work and then get out and get back here”

“Pretty much” Horn nodded.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult as long as these ids are good”

“That won’t be a problem” Horn smiled, “If Solo got them, they are guaranteed to be good. The Watch doesn’t do things half assed, no matter what us Jade Knights think of them”

-------------------------------------

To Horn’s surprise, things went very smoothly. They got into the labs without trouble, the reduced security forces waving them through when their ids checked out and had reached the target lab without any trouble.

“You ready for this?” Horn asked as they p[paused at the door.

“Does everyone get asked that on their first mission” The Omwati asked.

“Probably”

“Ok. Let me ask you this” Xux frowned, “Why does it feel like a void in the force in there?”

“Ysalamiri, I think” Horn replied.

“You think they’re expecting us?”

“I don’t think so” Horn shook his head, “Placements all wrong. It’s like they’re placed to cover something in there” He sighed and gripped the door release, “Let’s find out”

The door hissed open and the two Jedi stepped through, to be confronted by a shocking sight.

A huge formless blob of dominated the chamber. Encased In what appeared to be a plastic shell, the rolling bio-mass hung suspended from the ceiling. Huge pipes fed nutrients into it and others drew out waste matter of some sort.

“What the hell…..” Horn murmured.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” An Arkanian wearing the insignia of chief-scientist stormed over to them.

“We’ll ask the questions here” Horn drew out his blaster stopping the Arkanain in his tracks, “Now back up”

His face a mask of fury, the Arkanian withdrew.

“The rest of you up against that wall” He gestured with his blaster at the rooms other occupants, then glanced at Xux, “Cover them”

“Will do” She nodded and pointed her own blaster at the collected techs and scientists, “Reach for the sky boys and girls, let me see those under stains” Then she looked back at Horn, “I think that things alive”

Horn nodded and looked at the Arkanian, “What ARE you doing here?”

“We’re creating life” The Arkanian said proudly.

“This isn’t life” Horn was horrified, “This is a blasphemy of life. It’s a perversion of science. And it’ll be my pleasure to destroy it”

“No, not my life’s work!” The Arkanian scream leaping at Horn.

Caught by surprise, Horn’s finger twitched involuntarily on the blasters trigger. A single shot rang out and the Arkanian feel back with a smoking hole in his chest. A second later, an alarm began to ring out.

“Ooooh..That’s torn it” Xux muttered.

“Tell me about it” Horn shook himself, “Okay, we just ran out of time. Keep them covered” Pulling out the canister of the neutralising agent, he broke the seal and released the gas.
Next he produced the EMP, set it for a five minute countdown and placed it on the nearest table top, then turned to the shocked scientists.

“Big bomb” He told them, “I suggest you start running”

Panic quickly overtook shock and fear and the dozen scientists and techs fled from the room. Seconds later, the alarm changed to an evacuation siren.

“Let’s get out of here ourselves” He nodded, picking up the EMP and shoving it into a desk draw where it would escape notice a little longer.

“Good plan” Xux said, then she cast a look at the bio-weapon, “Sweet force, it’s working”

Horn looked and saw what she meant. The shell around the thing has began to turn grey where the gas was touching it and the bold like mass itself was writhing within its cocoon as it began to die. Feeling queasy, he turned for the door, “Let’s go”

The slipped from the room and merged with the crowds of scientists, technicians and office workers pushing to flee the building. They managed to slip from the building in the confusion and headed off back to their ship.

A short distance from the compound, a wave of static drew across their body and then every single light in the area went dark. A trio of emergency speeders that were passing along the road suddenly came to a halt, dropping from their repulsor cushion and skidding along the ground.

“There goes the EMP” Horn muttered.

“What do you think it was?” Xux asked once they’d reached the tree line of the forest again.

“Clearly a life form of some sort” Horn grimaced, “For what purpose, I don’t know. But something that size does explain the Ysalamiri. Something that big would be a beacon in the force”

“Or maybe it could use the force and the ‘miri were there to stop it using its powers against the scientists”

“Maybe” Horn nodded, “It’s a good theory. Hopefully, they won’t be able to recover enough to recreate it”

“Especially with the Arkanian dead” Xux pointed out.

“True” Horn nodded, “Plus once the Republic comes down on them, they’ll put a stop to further attempts”

Any reply Xux might have made was lost as huge explosion split the night, the night sky suddenly disappeared as huge flash swallowed the darkness and tremors shook the ground so violently that they were thrown from their feet and then quickly found themselves dodging falling trees.

“What the blazes?” Xux gasped at the sensation of agony and death pouring through the force,. “What was that?”

“I don’t know” Horn replied, disturbed by the glow that now lit the night as well as the sickening sensations in the force, “Wasn’t the lab. That came from that way” He gestured east, “That city we saw on the way down”

“Side effect of the EMP?” Xux asked, then shook her head, “No, it’s too far away. So what was it?”

“I’m not sure I want to know” Horn shook his head.

They reached their ship a few minutes later and were relieved to find it still in one piece. Solo was waiting for them, but to Horn’s surprise the other man said nothing beyond welcoming them back and then disappearing into the hold.

“What’s wrong with him?” Xux asked throwing herself into the co-pilots seat.

“Don’t know. Don’t care right now” Horn muttered seating himself at the controls, “Let’s get off this rock”

Dialling up the drives, he kicked the ship into the air and directed them for space.

“On no, oh dear no” Xux whispered gazing out the viewports.

Horn looked in the same direction and felt her horror.

The city was a burning ruin.

-------------------------------------------

Once they’d made orbit, Horn laid in a course for hyperspace and then leaving the task with Xux, headed to the hold.

“What the hell happened?” He demanded.

To his surprise, when Solo turned to him, he wore an expression of shock, horror and guilt and his force sense felt jumbled.

“I’m…I’m not sure” Solo shook his head, “Maybe the pirates brought something with them. Maybe one of their ships crashed. I don’t know. I won’t know until I’ve got more information”

“If I’d known this was going to happen” Horn scowled, “I wouldn’t have involved the pirates”

“Then you’d have had a harder time getting in and out of the labs” Solo pointed out.

“I’d have preferred to take that risk” Horn said, “Knowing what was being done there” Then he frowned, “And what was so important that you had to do that instead of helping”

Solo hesitated and then gestured to a small wooden box lying on the hold floor, “I had to get that from a monastery”

“A monastery?” Horn looked at him incredulously, “What is it?”

“How much do you know about Jenna Tarn?”

Horn thought for a moment, “Daughter of the founding Queen of the Skye Alliance. Supposedly a brilliant pilot. She was a Jedi and apparently also somewhat psychotic. Her only son fell to the dark side, she went off to confront him and was never seen again. There was never any body found of her or her son. But I’ve seen the reports, watched the documentaries, and heard the speculation about what happened. Why?”

Solo rested a hand on the box, “Lucas Horn, meet Jenna Tarn”

Horn stared at the box, “That’s Jenna Tarn….in the box I mean”

“Most of her it seems” Solo answered, “It appears she and her son were aboard a ship that crashed on Sarna back in 56ABY. He was killed instantly, she apparently survived despite her injuries”

“The stories always said she was tough to kill”

“Yeah” Solo shrugged, “She didn’t live long though. A few days according to the monks I spoke to. Wasn’t a great deal left of her anyway” He indicated the box, “After she died, they preserved her bones and revered her remains”

“Revered her?”

Solo shook his head, “Something about the kooky religion these monks followed. Anyway, when I learned about them, I figured best to grab them”

“Why?” Horn frowned, then realisation flickered on his face, “If the Skye Alliance realised the Republic had these remains, they’d demand them back. Fel’lya would refuse and the situation might have escalated”

“Yeah” Solo grimaced, “It still might considering what happened. Though I think the Republic may focus its intention on the Gorug Pirates instead of the Alliance”

“There’s blood on my hands though” Horn sighed, “I brought the pirates to Sarna, I’m at least partially responsible”

“”You had no way of knowing what happened” Solo pointed out, “And it was me that set this whole thing up. You were just the messenger”

“Some messenger” Horn muttered, “fine. I’m going to get some rest. You should too”

“I will” Solo nodded.

When Horn had left the hold, Solo stared at the box containing a long dead woman’s remains.

“Why didn’t you tell him” A woman’s voice emerged from the shadows of the hold.

“There was nothing to tell him” Solo stared at her.

“Oh. So there’s nothing to tell him about the toxic chemicals and biohazrds stored at that industrial facility” The voice was mocking and disgusted, “Or about who planted all those carefully placed charges to ensure the whole thing went up at just the right time. Or how about telling him about how within a week, three quarters of the planet is going to be covered in a cloud of death that will dose the world with a mix of carcinogens, toxic waste and nuclear chemicals, all brought down by acid rain and gravity”

“Shut up” He snapped.

“Well, hundreds would have died in the explosion alone. But what about the survivors?” She continued, “The old and young will be the first to go, their bodies to weak to fight off the poisons, millions more condemned to a slow death. Crops and livestock will be contaminated and will have to be destroyed. Cities evacuated. As for the refugees? Well, I can imagine the twin killers common to all disasters –cholera and dysentery- will work their way through the refuges populations”

“I told you shut up”

“Aid will of course trickle in. The Republic will do what it can, but it’ll be a difficult task and expensive. It’ll tie up Republic resources for a long time, stop them getting ideas for while. Meanwhile, the Republic’s armed forces will head off and finish off the pirates” The woman sounded disgusted, “Had to believe Julian Tiepolo would order something like this. Cause all this death and destruction, just to maintain some sort of balance of power in this region”

“Shut up” Solo repeated, throwing a datapd at her.

Jenna Tarn looked down at where the datapad had passed harmlessly through her body, “That didn’t do much to me, but do you feel better for it?” He looked at him through the long bangs of her black hair, "Or is that crushing soul destroying guilt still there?"

“Drop dead” Solo snapped.

“Already have done” Jenna smirked.

“Encore!” Solo snarled. But she did have a point, throwing the blaster at her didn’t make him feel better at all.

What had he done?


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Skye Royal Palace.
Nashira.
Skye, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
January 11th.

Harrison Tarn, First Prince of the Skye Alliance, looked up as a helmeted and visored guard swung opened the door and admitted Subhash Indrahar to his private planning chamber.

Harrison, the undisputed ruler of the Skye Alliance frowned as he saw the fierce and determined expression on the face of his spymaster. Despite the weakness of his body - a side effect of his long years of his life- that had left him confined to a motorised wheelchair, Indrahar’s mind was still as sharp as it ever was and his expression told Harrison that something had disturbed the old man immensely.

Moreover, the man’s anxiety and anger was palatable to Harrison through the force.

“What’s wrong?” Harrison asked, “Have I missed something momentous?”

“No” Indrahar shook his head weakly, yet his eyes burned fiercely, “Not yet perhaps”

“Than what is it?” Harrison frowned.

Indrahar held up a holodisk in his one good hand, “This arrived this morning in the company of more lawyers and security men from the Republic March than should ever be allowed on one transport. Miles Fel-Tarn seems to think I am incapable of running both the ISF and the Counter-Intelligence divisions as well as the Ministry of Intelligence”

“What is that scheming idiot up to now?” Harrison thought. He leafed through a pile of documents and pulled out a shipping schedule. He held up the flimsiplast for Indrahar to see, “How did they get here so fast? I wasn’t expecting anything from Ord Mantell for another week. Nothing due in cargo or passenger wise”

Indrahar scowled and pushed the holodisk into the viewer; “Seems your beloved brother-in-law sent them on one of his personal ships. Came straight here from Ord Mantell. This message was recorded about two days after the ambush on your daughters training battalion on Balmorra. Miles had some of his own investigators crawling all over the site and interfering with my own men’s investigations. This is part of that”

Harrison’s eyes narrowed to slits in anger, “Wait, before you play that tripe, let me get Arden in here” The Prince pushed a button on his desk, “Find Arden Sortek and ask him to come to my office, thank you” He looked at Indrahar, “You’ve taken care of Miles’ representatives?”

Indrahar nodded, “Decontamination for the next thirty-six hours. Seems their batch numbers on their Kentares flu shots shows they got a bad dose, so we’re running full blood work and tests on them” Indrahar smiled cruelly, “Plus the full range of shots”

“Always best to be cautious” Harrison laughed, then silently added, “Well done, spymaster, well done”

At that moment, the doors swung open and Arden Sortek strode into the room carrying an armful of folders under his arm. Seeing the expression on Harrison’s face, he scowled, “What has Miles done now?”

Harrison smiled, “As always, my friend, you see straight through to the heart of the problem” He waved Arden to a chair, “We’re not certain yet, but this is a holodisk from Miles. It should be explosive”

As if sparked by Harrison’s final word, Arden held the files out for Indrahar, “Some of your men said they’d found the originals for these files while decontaminating the luggage of Miles’ ‘representatives’. They also included the top file, which is a complete run down on each of the men Miles sent”

Indrahar took the files then laid them on his knee, and then he reached over, dimmed the lights and set the holo-projector playing.

After an initial burst of static, the image of a hand clasping an old style broadsword appeared in front of a deep blue background.

As Miles Fel-Tarn’s personal crest faded from the viewer, Arden remarked dryly, “Is it me, or is that sword looking more and more Republican each time I see it?”

Harrison exaggerated a frown, “You can’t believe that Miles would be talking to Fel’lya, could you?”

“Ha!” Arden laughed.

Miles Fel-Tarn’s face materializing on the screen cut off further discussion. Only seven years Harrison’s senior, Miles wore his black hair in a long braid that curled around and up over his shoulder like a snake. His restless grey eyes, just a little too close together, kept shifting away from the camera, failing utterly to convey sincerity. His voice, though well suited to speech making, carried no conviction.

“Greetings brother. Your sister Marie is well and sends her love. She is anxious about your welfare and hopes you are as fit as ever” Unknowingly referring to the period when Riesk Fel’lya’s double of Harrison ruled the throne, Miles continued, “Your bout of the Bendhai Virus ten years ago still has her worried”

Harrison smiled, “Miles could never lie that well. He’ll never know how close Fel’lya came to winning the Skye Alliance” He sketched a silent salute to Indrahar for killing details of the plot.

Miles Fel-Tarn stepped back from the camera and the view zoomed out in a wide shot of his office. The white patterned walls and tiled floors were patterned after dwellings on Agamar, but the neo-cubist artwork and campaign maps tacked to the walls robbed the room of the peacefulness the architect original envisioned. Miles perched himself on the edge of his desk.

“It is not easy to speak with you of this, Prince Tarn. As it calls into question your motives towards the Republic March. Yes, we fully acknowledge you anger with us with our refusal to commit troops to your war games. But the Republic is on our doorstep. How well could I serve you as March lord if I commit troops to your desire to play General and loss worlds in the process?

Miles’ face darkened with thinly disguised disgust, “And why is it you continue to saddle me with one of the most incompetent officers imaginable. How can you justify not dismissing Col Levin from his post?” Miles scowled in anger, “You knew of, but chose to overlook his dismissal of Ravik Nar. You yourself pinned the Medal Excalibur onto Nar’s chest for his heroic actions on Spica. How Levin’s dismissal of such a hero can escape your notice is beyond me….unless those reports never reached you”

Harrison nodded another salute to Indrahar at his efforts in keeping the truth behind Ravik Nar’s dismissal secret.

Meanwhile, Miles continued his rant, “Levin is merely one aspect of the potential nightmare you’ve saddled me with. These….training units….are a terrible and dangerous experiment. Half trained troops will never be a match for true academy training and I don’t want this child soldiers on my worlds. I want them off”

The camera slowly drifted in for a close up, “We realise that this may seem like a trivial matter to you, but it is of utmost importance here in the Republic March. Our people already believe your attention is too focused on the Circinus front and the threads of an alliance with the Free Worlds League. They feel you do not care about them and that you are willing to strip us of troops, ships and resources to keep the Circinus Federation from your neck”

Miles stared out from the screen, “Unless you bolster our defences and stop saddling us with half trained troops, what are we to think? You know well how difficult it is to maintain an effective empire when civil unrest saps your strength from within. I would hate to think that the same problems that have plagued both the Outer Rim Federation and the Alliance itself in the past might rise and trouble you. My people and I are at your command in pursuing the resolution of this matter”

The screen went black, leaving the three men sat in the darkness. Then as the screen dissolved into static, Indrahar reached over stiffly and dialled the lights back up.

“How dare you threaten me with civil war!” Harrison thought angrily, “I know history. I know the various civil wars in the last few hundred years have always been financed by outside parties. Have you tipped your hand to me, brother mine, or are you just too stupid to see that Reisk Fel’lya will use you as shabbily as he would a boot scraper?”

He looked at the others, “Gentleman, let’s review our options. Miles threatens civil war if we don’t pull out training units out of the Republic March. Are things really that bad out there?”

Indrahar shook his head slowly, “His allusions to civil war are an idle threat. Miles knows that many people in the Republic March see him as little more than your sister’s consort. I sincerely doubt he could get the popular support to pull off a revolt”

Arden nodded, “I agree with Subhash, but Miles ‘could’ influence his people to resist sending troops to other fronts. We’re not as thinly spread along the Republic border as the Republic forces are, but Fel’lya can still cause trouble. Their raid against Spica two years back proves that. Though the recent disaster at Sarna may change that for them. A deep strike like that again could hurt our morale and definitely slow down production of key goods. And that spells unrest”

Harrison looked at the wheelchair bound spymaster, “Subhash, do we have any evidence of Miles collusion with Fel’lya?”

The old man shook his head, “Just suspicions. No unreported absences. Official meetings with ambassadors and the like. No meetings have been recorded, so our cryptologists can’t check for code words”

“No possibilities of him sneaking away during tours of the March to secret meetings?” Harrison frowned.

“Unless Miles has a double that covers him and it’s unlikely, then I’d say no” The spymaster thought for a moment, “Check that. Miles could have jumped into Republic space for a four or five hour meeting during a tour a few months back, but we can’t prove it”

“I don’t need to prove it” Arden said bluntly, “I can feel it in my gut”

“As can I” Harrison nodded, “Right. We’ll continue our close watch on Miles, when he slips I’ll have him” He sighed, “Moving on. How are your people during on the investigation into the ambush on Balmorra?”

“We’re still backtracking them” Indrahar replied, “But between the prisoners caught at the site, the ones we picked up trying to flee the planet and analysis of the wreckage, we’ve determined they definitely came from the Republic” He frowned, “Though I cannot tell you their overall origin”

“How did they get on planet?” Arden asked.

“They appear to have smuggled themselves, their tanks and other equipment in as parts for the weapons factories. They were cleared by a customs agent –who has since disappeared- in orbit and they’re ship allowed to the surface. They broke off their approach to their prescribed landing site and grounded near to where Levin’s unit had their patrol route and lay in wait. The fighter was launched from a jury-rigged catapult on the freighter”

“What were they after?” Harrison said, “My daughter or did they have some other plan?”

“They may have just been attempting to gauge how good these training battalions of yours are” Arden pointed out.

“It’s possible” Indrahar nodded, “Though a direct strike against Alexandria Tarn cannot be discounted. Her assignment wasn’t publicised, but neither was it kept a secret”

“Good points” Harrison nodded, “Send a commendation for the unit and see if we can get the report of that battle distributed to some of the programs detractors. I want them to see that these training units aren’t the incompetent and green troops they say they are” He looked at Indrahar, “Now I need to know. Did we have anything to do with what happened on Sarna?”

“I can give you a firm no” Indrahar answered with only a slight hesitation, “I had agents on planet trying to figure out what they were doing at the labs there. The report I received from a surviving agents states that an unidentified human male and a female Omwati stormed the lab, killed the chief scientist, destroyed the project and set off an EMP device that destroy every shred of data. At the same time, the Gorug Pirates launched a raid that led to them grounding near the city of Breezewater. It was during the battle that an industrial building being used a massive chemical and toxic waste dump exploded and triggered the blast” He shrugged, “What I cannot tell you is if the raid on the labs and the pirate attack were connected. Nor can I come up with a reason why all that dangerous material was stored that close to a city of one million”

“Keep digging” Harrison ordered, “I want to know who was responsible. In the meantime, as callous as it sounds, the disaster on Sarna should tie up the Republic in that region for little while”

“In the meantime, we’ll keep feeding Miles our troop figures, locations and projected movements to show him we haven’t abandoned the Republic March. You, Subhash, will track the Republic movements on the other side. I want to know exactly who I can trust in the Republic March”

-----------------------------------------------------

Dac Government Hall.
Mon Calamari.
Free Worlds League
321ABY.
January 12th.

Jesmin Akdool looked at the document a second time, absorbing the words within, then for good measure read it again. Eventually, she rotated her bulbous eyes to gage at her Intelligence Minister, “You’re thoughts?” She asked handing him the document

Moren Zatoq, current head of the League Intelligence Ministry, took the document and running his fingers along the flimisplast edge, located the capsule hidden in the flimsies construction, crushed it and let the document fall in the metal waste bin.
Almost immediately, the chemical reaction caused by the breaking of the capsule exploded into a blue-green flame that quickly ate into the document. The flames painted a ghoulish tint to his tentacle face and then when he could stand the heat no more, he stepped away and looked to the leader of the Free Worlds League.

“If the signature and personal holograph of Subhash Indrahar had not been woven into the very fabric of the paper itself, I would never have believed it myself” He gazed at the fire still burning in the bin, “That the New Republic actually produced and succeeded in putting a double of Harrison Tarn on the throne for a short time is chilling. Though it goes someway to explaining much of the problems with relations ten years ago, especially during the Galtor campaign”

Akdool thought for a moment, “Could it happen here?”

“It’s possible, though it would be difficult. To make such a substitution would require the duplicity of so many people as to disrupt normal activity” He closed his eyes for a moment and was silent for so long, Akdool thought the Quarren had gone to sleep. Then his eyes opened, “But were you to be hospitalised for a period of time due to illness or injury, a substitution could be made then Your convalescence would allow for a gradual conditioning of the double and allow people to forget what you were truly like” He nodded, “Yes, it could happen here”

“I know you Moren, as soon as you leave this office, you’ll review hospital procedures and staff records” She thought silently, then added aloud, “Then I shall be careful in the future until you can assure me that it won’t happen”

Zatoq nodded in acceptance of the jest, but saw no need to trade quips with her today, “The disturbing part in what Indrahar tells me about the plot is that the double underwent either a mind wipe or suppression of his memories and personality” His tentacles curled up in a Quarren approximation of a frown, “When he was unmasked, his original personality may have attempted to reassert itself causing the mental breakdown Indrahar detailed in that report” He paused for a moment, “Had he not been unmasked, I believe the outcome would have been the same. The living body of any species is far more complicated than anyone can prove, the mind more so. I believe that sooner or later, the double would have suffered a breakdown as their original personality attempted to reassert itself”

“So despite the New Republic’s technique, not something that can be used over a long period?” Akdool nodded her large head, “But in the short term, effective”

“Effective enough to do significant damage, depending on the person involved” Moren nodded.

“How easily could we identify someone that had been replaced with a double?” Akdool asked.

“With DNA testing and comparing against a database sample, fairly easy” Moren shook his head, “But that presumes that the database itself isn’t altered as well. Brain wave examination would also be useful method. A duplicate could be detected by the presence of a secondary pattern beneath the primary. But again, they may have taken that into account too”

“True” Akdool nodded, “After all, the NRI spent years infiltrating the Skye government just to slip in their double. They were planning for the long game”

“Also true” Moren agreed, “But the resources involved in finding, creating and conditioning a double, not to mention the work in getting them in place would have been immense. It’s not something they could do for more than few key people and even then the circumstances would have to be right for getting them into place”

Akdool stood and moving to the large open window gazed up at the sky above, “I don’t like this. Moren” She sighed, “The New Republic has begun resorting to far darker, more sinister tactics ever since Reisk Fel’lya became Chief-of-State and I fear, as our alliance with the Skye Alliance becomes stronger, so too our enemies tactics will change”

“You fear what may come next?”

“I do” The Calamarian nodded, “And so should we all”

--------------------------------------------------------

Balmorra.
Republic March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
January 15th.

Col Levin sighed as he dropped his jacket over the back of his chair. After nearly two weeks of questions, analysis and investigations, the ISF investigators had finally finished their work and had left Col and his unit alone.

Weary from the constant scrutiny he and his unit had been put under, Col had at least maintained some sense of civility with the investigators. Unlike Saul Tarkin, the off world ISF guys had been strictly business, treating everyone with suspicion and taking no answer at face value.

It hadn’t helped having his entire unit under house arrest for the duration of the investigation either. Confined to base and permitted access only to the mess hall and rec rooms during certain periods, the trainees had weathered the scrutiny and suspension of rights well, but Col knew another day or two of it would have caused a mutiny.

Worse still, he and all his senior officers had spent almost every hour of everyday shadowed by an ISF officer. Even Alexandria Tarn had been treated like a potential enemy agent by the no nonsense ISF.

Still they were gone now and things could go on as before.

A knock on his door reminded him of a little business he’d planned to deal with today, “Enter” He called out.

“Sir” Alex Tarn saluted, “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes Alex” Col nodded, “Please take a seat, “And drop the ‘Sir’ stuff. For the duration of this meeting everything I tell you is off the record, so call me Col”

“Yes Si….Col” Alex frowned as she took a seat at Col’s desk.

“I sorry we didn’t have this talk sooner” Col said taking out a bottle and metallic blue liquid and two shot glasses, “But it was a bit difficult with the ISF crawling over us”

“It was” Alex nodded, “At one point I thought my shadow was going to follow me into the shower”

“I know” Col sat down and poured some of the blue liquid into the glasses and shoved one to Alex, “But that’s ISF for you”

Alex held up the glass and looked at it dubiously, “What’s this stuff?”

“Taurian Brandy” Col answered swirling his glass, “Brewed on some world in the Concordat. A FWL Officer gave me a few bottles back on Galtor in exchange for some Amarian Whiskey”

“I see” Alex frowned.

“The trick is to get it down before……”

“Before what?” Alex looked at him curiously.

“Try it and see” Col smiled, then knocked his drink back, screwing his eyes shut against the jolt, “Go ahead” He whispered hoarsely.

“Alex reared her head back and tossed back the drink. She swallowed, then coughed and then wiped the tears that sprang to her eyes. She waved her hand in front of her mouth a few times, then swallowed again, “I see” She coughed, “Not a sipping drink is it?” Then she frowned, “My mouth is numb”

Col laughed, “That’ll pass” He poured another glass each, “Anyway, I asked you here because I promised you the story about what happened to Ravik Nar. Now what I tell you is part of a confidential report that was prepared for your father –the First Prince- to determine if Nar would receive his Medal Excalibur. How much do you know of what happened on Spica?”

Alex thought for a second, “His unit got hit on Spica during the Republic attack, they were near the village he’d grown up in and he and his people got ambushed. His family and most of the village was wiped out, but Nar managed to lead his troops out, destroying a lot of the enemy and buying time for his men to get themselves and their wounded comrades out. He saved them all. After the Republic was driven off Spica, he chose to take a training role to recuperate” She shrugged, “I saw the holo-drama” Then she frowned, “But I’m guessing, that there’s another story there?”

Col nodded, “The basic story is accurate. Nar’s unit was ambushed, but they were ambushed because he’d led them into an area he had no authorisation to be. With the front moving so swiftly, the Republic troops had taken that entire area. Nar’s nearest support was four hours away” Col paused, “Nar’s family may have still died in the fighting, but the two dozen men and women with him wouldn’t have. The ones he saved, should never have been in that situation in the first place”

Alex nodded silently.

“By the time the truth came out. Nar was a hero, a media darling of a holo-drama. When he was awarded, high command also hoped his agree to retire. When he refused to step down, they gave him a training assignment” Col shook his head, “When Intel learned of his plan to hijack a transport and take his trainees off on a revenge strike against the Republic, I refused to allow him to get the trainees killed and dismissed him”

Alex paled slightly, “I appreciate your sharing this information with me” She knocked back her drink, coughing slightly less than last time, “Do the others know?”

“The other Lieutenants and Sergeant De Mensil do” Col answered, tossing his own drink, “A couple of the other trainees too, the ones that were fiercely loyal to him. Craon and Di’ka’an do”

Alex frowned, “Then why would they…the fight? If they knew…..” Realisation came to her expression, “Typical hazing of the new Lieutenant”

“That and the fact that while he was a dangerous loose cannon, Nar was a damn good leader. He was popular with the trainees, got the best out of them without pushing them too far” Col sighed, “He was well liked. Face it, you’ll be measured against his example for a while yet”

“Whooopee!” Alex muttered sarcastically.

“One more thing” Col smiled, “You need well in the fighting for your first time under fire. Kept your people together despite the circumstances. And you didn’t fall apart when you lost Chartres and Viclan”

“I nearly did” Alex scowled, “Let myself get to absorbed with that damn bomber too. I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to see combat quite so soon”

“It was a surprise” Col agreed, “But don’t knock what you and your squad achieved. You didn’t freeze, you barely hesitated. Your orders were clear and easy to follow and you made good use of your assets” He smiled, “Don’t knock yourself for a few first time hiccups”

“Thanks for you confidence” Alex smiled, then stood rather shakily, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to go get some rack time. I want to start working directly on my squads training tomorrow”

“Anything is particular?” Col asked, “From what I know the range is free tomorrow”

Alex winked, “Then we’ll start with weapons practice. We’ll show my uncle just how good these ‘green’ troops are”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Pacifica (Chara II)
Circinus March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
January 17th.

“I don’t like this one bit, Sir” Jub Hoob muttered from where he stood near the window, wincing with each lightning strike as he anticipated the discomfort of the upcoming crack of thunder on his sensitive ears, “This storm is getting worse, and I don’t relish the idea of being here in this great stone lightning rod”

Jacob Tarn looked over at the Sullustan, “If you want to make a run for a lower building, be my guest”

Jub looked out the window again. The rain was coming down hard now, hard enough that just looked like a sheet of falling water after more than a few feet. Already, huge puddles were opening up on the landing field tarmac between the observation tower and the outer buildings, “On second thoughts. Maybe I’ll stay here”

Jacob joined his diminutive officer at the window and placing his booted foot on the sill, rested a hand on his raised knee, “Looks like it’s going to be a bad one” He observed, “Worst one we’ve see yet”

“And they call this place Pacifica” Jub muttered sarcastically, “Still if it weren’t for the storms, I could almost like this place”

Jacob laughed, knowing the Sullustan was joking, “You’d be the only person in the galaxy to develop any sort of affection for this planet”

“I’m never happy anywhere” Jub grunted, “Not since Sullust”

Jacob frowned. He sympathized with the Sullustan. He been one of many who’d disagreed with the current policies the Oberon Confederation and had gone into exile rather than end up being ‘vanished’ in the night by members of the OIS.

Outside, the storm lashed even harder.

Chara III, a large moonless planet in the Skye Alliance, had proved to be one of the most contradictory places in this region. On one hand, the fertile soil readily accepted a wide variety of plants and produced fruit abundantly. The world had enough water to make it a natural paradise and to warrant stationing a full regiment on world to guard from raids by the Circinus Federation. Having arrived on a placid day, the first explorer had be inspired to name the planet Pacifica.
Yet anyone who spent any time here, wondered about the peacefulness implied in the name. As a large body with no moon, Pacifica rotated every fourteen CST hours.
Compared to the Coruscant Standard Time hour (Sixty minutes made an hour, twenty-four hours made a day etc) An hour on Pacifica was only thirty-five minutes long due to the planets fast spin, which also bestowed on it some very unpredictable weather conditions. Sudden unexpected rain or thunderstorms were common. As many of the locals put it, ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it’ll change’

“Any ideas on when we’re getting off this rock?” Jub sighed, moving away from the window.

Jacob shrugged, “Within the next couple of days hopefully. The Fourth Donegal Guards are due to put down tomorrow. With them are coming elements of the First Fleet to relieve the Black Hand, so we’ll be moving onto our next stop”

“Not before time too” Jub grunted, then winced as a crack of thunder rattled the windows and his sensitive eardrums.

“You know you didn’t have to come dirt side, you could have stayed on the Black Hand and just worry about keeping your navigation console clean”

Jub shot him a dirty look –not exactly permitted etiquette when dealing with a ships first officer, but Jacob wasn’t the type to make his subordinates toe the line, “Stay on the ship and miss the chance to breathe some clean, unrecycled air and get some solid dirt beneath my feet?”

“True” Jacob laughed, “Best to make the most of it while we can”

“Does it disturb you that we’ve had seven stations in as many months and not even heard a single report of Circinus aggression, let alone seen any?” Jub frowned.

“A little” Jacob nodded thoughtfully, “It’s been thirty years since their last major strike. Fifteen since they made a raid deeper then the border worlds, and nearly a year since they made any kind of incursion in Alliance space” He sighed, “I’d like to think that they’ve finally learned their lesson, but I know it’s unlikely”

“About as likely as my being crowned tallest sentient in existence” Jub chuckled, “Any ideas where we’re heading next?”

“Elom” A voice cut in before Jacob could answer.

“Patrick!” Jacob spun in the direction of the voice and offered his hand to the new arrival, “I thought they still had you guys stationed down on the southern continent?”

“We were” Patrick Tarn-Varik smiled. The tall blond haired commander of the Genyosha Mercenaries ran a hand through his hair, “But we’ve rotated back up here as we’re shipping out with you guys on the 19th”

“How did you find out before us?” Jub asked suspiciously.

“I only just found out myself” Patrick shrugged, the movement sending rainwater cascading off the soaking wet poncho he wore, “Had to grab a shuttle up here to get the transfer order as the damn comm arrays are down again”

“Yeah, I knew the comms were having problems” Jacob said, “It’s the damned weather. Atmospheric conditions prevent satellite based comms working half the time, so they use ground based relay stations which are a magnet for the lightning, even with the shielding”

“All things considered” Patrick frowned, “I’ll be glad to get off this rock”

Jacob and Jub exchanged knowing looks, “Oddly enough Cousin, we were just taking about the same thing before you arrived”

--------------------------------------------------

Command Bridge.
Trinity Class Super Star Destroyer ‘Black Hand’
Pacifica Orbit.
321ABY.
January 19th.

“Admiral” Jacob said, handing the datapad to the Togruta officer, “The last of the Genyosha equipment has been stowed and secured. We’re good to go on your order”

“Good Commander, good” Admiral Vika Zaan nodded, his striped head tails flopping over his shoulders, “Ahead of schedule too. Good. Have a course laid for Elom, jump to hyperspace once we reach the beacon. Relay the same to the Farlander, Pride of Angmar and Cucalamus”

Jacob relayed the navigational orders to Jub at the helm, then gave the remaining instructions to the communications officer for relaying to the three other ships currently under Zaan’s command.

Jacob glanced at a chrono, “Five minutes to hyperspace jump Admiral”

Zaan nodded thoughtfully, “Tell me Commander Tarn, any thoughts on why we might be heading to Elom? So close to the border with the Circinus Federation”

“Well, I hadn’t heard that Elom had been hit” Jacob shrugged, “Perhaps we’re going in to reassure the Elomin. A show of force”

“Or bait” Patrick said stepping up to them.

“Major” Zaan nodded, his distaste of mercenaries not sufficient to colour his judgement of Patrick, “I do believe you are right. The drop off of activity by the Federation over the last few years either indicates a change in their stance from aggression to defence or they are planning something”

Jacob nodded in understanding, “If they are preparing for an attack, what better than the possibility of taking out one of the Alliance’s most advanced ships”

“And the heir to the throne” Patrick pointed out.

Jacob blanched, “Don’t remind me”

“I do not like the idea of being bait” Zaan scowled, “But we will not be an easy target. The rest of Fleet Group Six will be positioned in several nearby systems ready for me to give the word. Should the Federation chose to attack, they will discover a lot more than they bargained for”

Jacob smiled and was about to reply, when the comms officer called out, “Message for you Commander Tarn. Marked private”

“You can take it in my office if you like Commander” Zaan nodded.

“Thank you, Sir” Jacob nodded, then turned to the comms officer, “Send it through to the Admirals office, I’ll take it there”

With a nod to Zaan and Patrick, Jacob made his way to the office at the rear of the bridge. He just reached the door when the deck trembled as the Black Hand made its jump to hyperspace.

--------------------------------------------------------

Entering the office, Jacob found the communication terminal already lit and waiting for him to enter his codes to unlock the transmission. Seating himself at the terminal, he entered his password and hit the play button.

A burst of static punctuated the silence, then resolved itself into the White horses head over green and blue checked background that was the emblem for the Free Worlds League, which told Jacob whom the message was from.

The insignia dissolved and the face of Jacob’s fiancée, Hanna Leong, smiled out from the viewer at him. Her long blond hair was styled into two braids that framed her face and hung down her front and she wore a simple high-necked dress.

“Jacob, my love” Hanna smiled, “I’m hoping this message reaches you before your birthday as I want to say this” She grinned, “Happy birthday Jacob!”

Jacob nodded, his birthday was tomorrow. The message had arrived just in time.

Hanna smiled, “I wish we could be together to celebrate, but you have your duties and I have mine and they do conspire to keep us apart” She glanced to one side, “I wish we could be more open, but with my father being the head of the Corellian Government in Exile and with you being the son of the First Prince of the Skye Alliance, the news of our relationship could shake up things in the New Republic. They may start worrying about an attempt to retake Corellia. I just hope things can change soon” She sighed, “I wish ewe could just be a couple without having to consider the political side of everything. Captain-General Akdool has told me to be patient and things will fall into place. But I can only wait so long, if I’m forced to wait longer we may just have to elope”

Jacob couldn’t help but smile at her mischievous tone. They’d actually talked about eloping several times, but had always agreed that they would wait and marry properly. Yet she still occasionally dangled the idea in front of him to tell him just how much she wanted to marry him.

“Anyway, I hope your keeping safe. It’s uneventful here at the Corellian Embassy, so I hope at least one of us is having an exciting time. I love you so much and I can’t help but look forward to when we are next together. Until then, my heart yearns for you my love”

The image of Hanna dissolved into static leaving Jacob alone with his thoughts for a girl half a galaxy away.

--------------------------------------------------------------


The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.

The Sprawl was, to put it gently, an eyesore. An almost random mish-mash of freighters, space stations, platforms, transports, liners, cruisers, battleships and even an Executor Class Super Star Destroyer, linked together by a bewildering array of support beams, transport tubes, pipes and conduits.
Almost two thousand vessels of a variety of ages, size and design comprised the immense city like structure that hung in close to the Stenness Hyperspace Node and had begun life as a refugee convoy that had stopped in the Stenness System and never moved on.
A dozen ships had airlocks together and stayed like that. Overtime, more refugee -some fleeing conflicts, others fleeing oppression or just an unfavourable political climate- had found their way to the little colony, bringing supplies, expertise and other ships. Soon though, population numbers had begun to overwhelm the limited space and soon, the Scavengers –or scavs as they were often called- began raiding scrap yards and decommissioning facilities for new ships to turn into homes. They avoided raiding and stealing vessels in service and for the most part their activities were permitted as long as certain lines weren’t crossed.

Initially tolerated by the first the Skye Alliance, then the Mandalorians when they carved out their area of space, The Sprawl quickly became the place to go to when you wanted something less than legitimate.
High grade spice, Ryll, illegal ship parts, restricted weaponry, information, historical artefacts of various origins, pleasures of the flesh or mind and import/export banned items all passed through the sprawl.
Sure, the Hutt’s had better connections, but the Scavs were less likely to have you killed rather than hand over what you’d purchased. As long as you followed the rules, you were welcome.

Another attraction in the Sprawl where the games. Violent, bloody and often fatal blood sports were all available in the various districts of the Sprawl. Live fire war games, gladiatorial matches and even game hunts in a variety of simulated environments were freely available to watch, bet upon or if you were feeling particularly brave or just foolhardy, take part in.

As his shuttle curved around the engines of the Lusankya –her engines long since cannibalised for other purposes- Gar Noton gazed out over the expanse of the sprawl.

“There’s no reason or rhyme in its construction” Noton thought, “Ships were just brought in, put near an airlock and then supports and connections welded in place. Sometimes hulls of two different ships have just been welded together”

A few moments later, his shuttle cleared the bulk of the Lusankya and Noton saw his destination. An old, but well maintained Mon Calamari Cruiser still bearing the legend ‘Pride Of Dac’ on its bow.

Without needing to be instructed, his pilot –a slim and pretty Bothan female- sent the recognition signal that would permit Noton’s shuttle to enter the Pride’s private hanger bay.

Almost delicately, the pilot brought the shuttle to a landing in the bay and shut down the drives.

“An excellent landing as always Misha” Noton smiled at her.

“You don’t pay me for shoddy flying Mister Noton” Misha winked.

“Very true” Noton nodded, “I do only pay for the best. I’ll be gone for a few hours, so shouldn’t need you for a while”

The Bothan nodded and began locking down the shuttle, “I’m going to do some work on the ship, nothing major just general cleaning work. Just give me a call when you’re on your way back and I’ll be ready for you”

“I shall” Noton smiled and turned for the boarding hatch.

As he approached the hatch he caught a reflection of himself in the angled mirror Misha used to keep an eye on the hatch itself. Tall and barrel chested, his uniform styled tunic stretched tight across his muscular physique. His face clean-shaven face betrayed little sign of his fifty years, though as a concession to vanity, he shaved his head to better disguise the bald spot.

Nodding proudly that he still looked every inch the mercenary legend that had had holodrams made about him, Noton stepped from the ship.

Though there were some looks in his direction as he crossed the bay, he paid them no heed. He feared no one here, for it was well known that to attack or cross Gar Noton, was to die.

As he approached the bay doors though, someone did move to intercept him. A slender nervous looking man emerged from what had once been a storeroom and was now a well-appointed office.

“”Welcome back to the Pride, Mr Noton” The man smiled, “”Your usual booth is ready for you in Silesia and your guest arrived only a few minutes ago. However, Mister Shang requested a brief meeting with you first, he is waiting for you in the shield hall, watching the matches”

“Thank you Roger” Noton nodded, “Does Mister Shang know about my other guest”

“If he does, I did not tell him. But he is resourceful as you well know” Roger tapped a finger absently against tabaac stained teeth, “He just came in and expressed an interest in watching the games. I offered him a private viewing lounge in Silesia, but he declined”

“Very well, Roger. Thank you” Noton nodded and set to walking again, heading for the elevators, “Careful, Gar” Noton thought, “If Shang can predict when your return to the sprawl, then you’ve gotten predictable. Fatally so”

Suddenly wary, Noton slipped into the elevator down to the Shield Hall and rode it in silence as it descended. When the doors hissed open, he waited a few heartbeats to be sure, then stepped into the garish ambience of the Shield Hall.

His senses assaulted by tasteless neon displays, load music of the neo-synth-tec variety and the chatter and cheering of the crowd, Noton pushed his way through the crowds. As he passed the bar with it’s overpriced drinks, he spotted Shang in his usual booth on the other side of a massive holo-projection of a pair of fighting creatures –an Aklay and some sort of massive serpent Noton had never seen before.

“Something from the unknown regions perhaps?” Noton thought.

Even as he wound his way around the crowds surrounding the projector, a cheer went up and he turned to see that the serpent had wound itself around the Aklays body. The Aklay though, wasn’t quite finished, it’s razor sharp legs struck at whatever parts of the serpent it could reach and inflicted enough hurt that it’s opponent backed off.

Finally, Noton reached the booth that Shang occupied and slipped into the dim interior.

“Shang” Noton nodded.

“Gar” Shang nodded, “Delightful to see you again. Congratulations on a job well done”

“Congratulations?” Noton frowned, “I don’t know if you noticed, but that mission blew up in our faces. You sent me out to bag a training unit and your little infiltration unit got itself smashed”

“Yet” shang raised an eyebrow, “You are here”

“Only because I stayed out of the fighting” Noton shot back, “You paid me to arrange transport for your little unit through the Free Worlds League into the Republic and then into the Skye Alliance. After that, I just observed. If you wanted me fighting, you should have paid extra”

“Touché” Shang nodded, then went silent as the serving girl appeared.

“What can I get you gents?” The pretty Twi’lek asked.

“Another plum wine for me” Shang nodded, and slid a bowl filled with blue-purple rind and fruit pips towards her, “And another bowl of kincha please”

“Certainly” The serving girl nodded, “And for you sir?”

“Beer, Timbiqui Dark” Noton nodded.

“So, we didn’t have quite the success we hoped” Shang continued after the girl had retreated, “But we did learn a lot about these training units of Harrison’s and kept the Alliance looking at the Republic instead of the Federation”

Noton shook his head, “Trainees they may be. But they have experienced commanders and aren’t the green troops everyone thinks they are”

“True” Shang nodded, then went silent as the server appeared and deposited their drinks before sliding a bowl of blue-purple fruit into the centre of the table.
Shang immediately slid the bowl closer to him and plucking out one of the fruit, began to peel it with a silver blade he produced from somewhere.

Noton took a drink of his beer, “Usual procedure for my payment?”

Shang nodded absently, his attention focused on the kincha, “A bet has been placed on a fight in the Coliseum. Fifth fight” He slid a betting slip over the table.

Noton examined the slip and frowned, “Snoori va’ki versus the Ikan brothers? Snoori won’t throw a fight and the payout if he wins won’t be enough”

Shang shook his head, “Your bet is that Feh Ikan survives the fight”

Noton looked at him surprised, “Tsen Ikan will die?”

Shang nodded, “He has lost his nerve and disgraces ancestors who served the Circinus Federation proud. He will give his life in this fight”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Then he knows both he and his brother will be dead by tomorrow evening” Shang smiled and popped a slice of the kincha in his mouth. His eyes closed in ecstasy as the slice of fruit dissolved on his tongue.

“Ah Shang” Noton thought, “Have your days serving the Circinus Federation as one of its ‘Shadow Agents’ made you forget what it was like to be a warrior? You have become so careless and your addiction to kincha marks you as one of the Federations lost legion. Do you revel in the sensations of the kincha to forget the shame of losing its homeworld to the Skye Alliance or do believe that your position allows you to breech the law of the Federation that has forbidden consumption of Kincha by any of its citizens?”

“I should have more work for you soon” Shang said at last, “In the meantime, keep your ears open regarding the Seventeenth Training Battalion. Seems that we missed a bet. Alexandria Tarn is in that unit”

“Really?” Noton was surprised, “I hadn’t heard”

“Neither had we” Shang shrugged, “Seems she’d only just be assigned the day before. Believe me, heads have already rolled on that one”

“I’ll bet” Noton smiled, the stood to leave.

Shang’s eyes flicked to Noton’s drink, still almost full.

“You’re so bound up in tradition, you’re almost predictable” Noton thought, “I leave my drink unfinished and you’ll take it as a sign that I am prosperous. In return, you’ll leave your prized kincha to prove you own affluence. You will respect me for what I do, while I will find your action laughable”

Shang smiled –a little uneasily-, “Again Gar, I extend to you the thanks of the Circinus Federation. I look forward to other projects with you in the future”

“And I with you Shang” Noton smiled and departed.

--------------------------------------------------------

Noton made his way to another elevator located at the rear of the Shield Hall. This one was almost unnoticeable. Just a door set in the wall and a reflective one-way mirror, behind which Noton knew hide a pair of heavies to turn away undesirables.

Standing before the door, a sensor beam lit up and scanned his body, checking that he matched the criteria for Gar Noton that were contained in the security system files. The door briefly opened and he stepped quickly through.

“Greetings Mr Noton” The Barabel, Tull, growled. The Feeorin, Bral, just nodded.

Noton nodded in return and proceeded down the corridor and into the elevator proper. This time as it dropped, he felt the slight shift of gravity as the car passed from the Price of Dac to the small, ancient and unobtrusive Carrack Cruiser that was the location of the very exclusive Silesia.

This time when he departed the car, there was no garish lights, no eye assaulting music and no crowds. Just a series of small, darkened booths running down the walls of a vast rectangular room. Themed on some ancient warriors hall, the walls were bar brick, the floor was stone flagstones, an imitation bonfire dominated the centre of the room and at the far end, a raised dais where the current games champions held court.

This was Silesia, where the greatest of the games fighters could be found, along with representatives of some of the most powerful people in the galaxy. Nearest the door, were diplomats, lords, countesses, corporation heads and occasional Mandalorian Clan Leaders. Nearest the dais, dwelt the warriors of the games. But it was nearest the door that the true power lay. While it might have been an honour to sit with or near to Snoori va’ki, Douglas Trend or Zeegee-Fourteen, it was far more profitable to visit further back with one of the political forces from one of the great nations.

It was a well-known fact that at least half the games combatants in Silesia were equal to or better than about ninety percent of the military personnel in the larger galaxy. The nature of the arenas led to a honing of the combat edge that made them capable warriors, but unlike the military there was no retirement to a parcel of land. For the combatants of the games, there were only three ways out, death, a position with the Mandalorians if you were good enough or getting out of the games and into a profitable and equally dangerous career like Noton had done when he became and information broker and problem solver.

Noton didn’t care that some of the warriors here saw him as a betrayer of their profession, “Once” He thought, “As a warrior in the games, I tipped others from their alcoves. Now I conspire with royalty and spill leaders from their thrones”

His own alcove was halfway down the room and was perfectly situated to watch both the dais and the entryway. When he arrived at his alcove, he found his guest already waiting for him.

“Greetings Baron Von Gyndine” Noton slid into the booth and nodded to the dark haired corpulent noble from the Free Worlds League.

“Greeting Gar” Enrico Rimmer nodded, his jowls quivering with the movement, “Enjoyed your little adventure in the Alliance?”

“Keep your voice down you idiot” Noton snapped, keeping his own voice low, “You request a private meeting, then you start shouting my business about the place. No wonder your uncle prefers to keep you here on the Sprawl instead of on Gyndine. I’m surprised he didn’t get you posted as a diplomat to Almania” Noton paused, and then added cruelly, “No, I suppose he couldn’t risk you starting a war”

Rimmer affected a look of hurt, “My dear Noton, nobody cares what others do in this place or what they say. And if they did, who would dare cross you” The fat man shrugged, “In any case, you travel all over the galaxy and the Alliance is a big place”

Noton frowned, “Either you’re an incredible fool posted here to stop you causing too much damage” He silently thought, “Or you’re hiding your own schemes behind this foolish façade. I shall take steps to find out which it is”

Reaching for the control pad in the centre of the table, he pressed a button, “Coliseum. Fifth fight. Tonight” He said aloud. A flurry of images began to flicker across the display, before settling on the frozen image of a pair of humans fighting a Trandoshan. Before the footage could begin to play, Noton added a command, “Display only the results”

Rimmer sniffed, “A most uninteresting fight…”

“More the fool I think” Noton glanced at the corpulent man. Text superimposed itself over the image. Noton smiled. Feh Ikan had survived and would be ready to fight again in a month. He had lost his brother, however, and the battle to Snoori va’ki. Beneath the results was a note that this was his twenty-third straight victory and the first time he’d failed to kill a human opponent.

The Baron sniffed again, “He should have killed the other brother too. I lost money because he did not”

Noton looked at the petulant look on Rimmer’s face, “So, what was so urgent that you requested this meeting?”

“There are some people” From Rimmer’s tone, Noton knew he referred to Aldo Rimmer, the Duke of Gyndine, “Believe their may be a way to divert a military vessel from a particular course”

“Definitely the fool” Noton thought, then added aloud, “If you’re talking about capturing a military vessel then stop right there. They are too well defended and I know of no one with the equipment who would be willing to draw that much attention to themselves”

“Well, not a military vessel as such” Rimmer amended, “But a vessel of some importance. Likely a passenger liner with a very, very important passenger aboard”

Noton thought for a moment, “Okay, that would be doable and well within my resources. What ship? Where?”

“I don’t have that information yet” Rimmer shook his head, “I know the ship will be in the vicinity of the Cron Drift, so you’re your contact will need to be near there to strike. We anticipate a lead time of about three months on this”

“Good” Noton nodded. An operation like this would require precision timing, “It will be expensive”

Rimmer nodded and produced a notebook, “There’s an advance of up to sixty thousand credits to cover operational costs….”

“Eighty five thousand”

The Baron hesitated, “I’m only authorised to offer up to sixty thousand”

“Get new authorisation then” Noton shook his head. If they were desperate enough to try to capture a liner, then they were desperate enough to pay for it, “I assume you’ll want the passengers held for a certain length of time. Preparing a place to hold a liners worth of people will be costly. While you’re talking to your uncle, tell him my cut will be fifty thousand and that my people will want a balance of three hundred and fifty thousand upon completion of the operation”

Rimmer’s eyes bulged, “That’s way over budget”

“No, it’s not” Noton smiled, “Your people can supplement the payments by ransoming the passengers. This is going to be a high-risk operation. My people won’t even consider it if the p[ay isn’t good enough”

“I’ll pass the message along” Rimmer nodded.

“Good” Noton answered. The only person passing through the region of space close to the Cron Drift that would be of interest to Aldo Rimmer –Enrico’s uncle- would be a courier from Captain-General Jesmin Akdool to Prince Harrison Tarn. Though the alliance between the Free Worlds League and the Skye Alliance was gaining strength everyday, it stood firmly in the way of the plans of Aldo Rimmer. Noton assured himself that Rimmer would pay well to sabotage that growing alliance.

Noton smiled as the visibly nervous Baron shakily stood, “Contact me when you have some real figures Baron. Until then” He gave a dismissive nod.

Once the Baron had left, Noton settled into the shadows of his booth. This was why he’d got out of the games, this work was far more profitable.



From his own booth across from Noton’s, a single pair of eyes watched Baron Enrico Rimmer slip from the both of Gar Noton and head towards the exit from Silesia.

He regretted that he’d not had chance to bug the booth once he’d followed Rimmer here and learned who he was meeting, but from the attitudes of the two men, this was a regular enough occurrence that he’d have another chance at this.

In the meantime, following Rimmer to where he went next and whom he spoke to next could prove useful.

Slipping from his own booth, Ran Gavin set off after Enrico Rimmer.


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Location: England
The Scrapyards.
Balmorra.
Republic March, Skye Alliance,
321ABY.
February 1st.

Locked snugly inside her Warg battlesuit, Alexandria Tarn’s breath sounded unnaturally loud in her ears. Despite her tuning of the suits audio pick-ups to amplify more external sound, her efforts failed to reduce the volume of her own breath.
She knew a lot of it was psychological, her breath wasn’t actually that loud. It was just amplified by the closeness of the environment and her own nervousness.

For the first time since she’d joined the Seventeenth Training Battalion, Alex had been given her first opportunity to plan and lead an operation. The outline was fairly simple. Lieutenant Losk would lead an armoured column consisting of his scout unit and Sergeant De Mensil’s and Lieutenant Payen’s armoured units. The Column would follow a set route from the training cadres HQ out to the ranges and back, it would be up to the two battlesuit units under Alex’s leadership to ambush and neutralise the column or as much as it was possible.

The two lightly armoured infantry units would remain out of the actual combat zone, but would act as observers, recording kills and tracking the entire exercise.

Weapons themselves were powered down. Lasers would scar armour, but do no damage. Missiles sprayed paint and even Alex’s rail-gun was replaced with low powered slug thrower that wouldn’t even have penetrated her unarmoured skin.

As far as sensors and HUDs were concerned though, the weaponry was full powered and would be doing simulated damage.

Alex was under no illusions about her chances. The operation pitted her dozen armoured infantry against a dozen tanks and a half dozen light hovercraft and speeders. Losk’s force had more armour, was quicker, more numerous and could mass a lot more fire-power than her force could. In return, the battlesuit infantry on the other hand had the advantage of small size, agility and could hide behind the terrain far easier than a tank.

Alex would use whatever advantage she could to win this.

To this end, she’d chosen the vast scrapyards as he ambush point. Secreted around the yards and hidden in the various wrecks and debris piles were the troops under her command. Alex herself had chosen to secrete herself the battered wreckage of an old Escort Carrier, it had been a tight fit, but she’d managed to squeeze through a rent in the hull that she now watched the landscape from.

She didn’t actually have a lot of info to work on. The data package Major Levin had given her had contained details on her mission outline, what units she’d have to use, the forces she’d be facing and the route of the convoy. There was no information on the convoys make-up –Alex knew Losk wouldn’t change the actual vehicles used as that would handicap the trainees- but she wouldn’t put it past him to have swapped weapon load outs to something more suitable for taking on battlesuit infantry.

Likewise, there was no restriction on Alex in regards to weapon loud out, so she’d swapped half her Warg units Rail-guns for heavier anti-armour lasers and several of the Heavy Rancor suits had their missile launchers equipped with cluster mines for their first salvoes. She’d also taken the step of drawing on her right as ambusher to have explosives seeded in key locations.

She’d chosen the scrapyards for several reasons. The first was that the high metal content would help camouflage her troops from magscan as well as absorbing just enough heat from the midday sun to cloud infra-red and thermal.
Second, the sheer amount of debris in the area gave her a lot to work with for laying a trap.
Finally, the narrow fields of fire would give the convoy few opportunities to target her force, whilst her people already in good vantage points would have a good number of free shots.

A double click over the comms signalled the arrival of the convoy and Alex looked out of her hiding hole just in time to see the cloud of dust at the north end of the scrapyard valley.

She knew none of her people would fire until she gave the signal and that would be a few minutes yet. The convoy slowed slightly as the ever wary Losk put them on alert, he was expecting an ambush, but clearly didn’t know when.

Alex waited until the last vehicle in the convoy, one of the Baraks of Payen’s unit, passed the hulk of an old freighter, then she sent the detonation signal to the first set of explosives.
The blast of the carefully placed explosive charge propelled the freighter into a spin centred on its bow, the stern swinging out and around to block the roadway. Another detonation signal and another set of explosions collapsed and immense pile of debris and blocked the convoys way forwards.

“Rancor Team Fire!” Alex ordered, not even giving Losk the chance to realise his force was bottled in and trapped.

The Rancors of Sivran’s team laced the convoy first with a barrage of mines that quickly disabled the few vehicles that managed to move and then followed them up with a full barrage that rained paint over the convoy.

Her HUD painted the scene with simulated explosions to such an extent that Alex lost track of several vehicles. Satisfied that they couldn’t go far, she sighted her rail-gun in on one of the fast moving speeders that deftly wove between explosions, mines and other vehicles.

“Warg team fire!” She called as she squeezed the trigger.

Her shot was true, her simulated accelerated projectile struck the engine block of the speeder and the light crafts own simulation package registered a complete destruction of the power units and shut the speeders engines down.

By now, Losk had managed to organise his trapped assets and were directing them to return fire. She winced as three of the Turoks fired off a brutal barrage off missiles and two of the blue blips disappeared from her HUD, indicating that she’d lost two people.

“Go evasive” She ordered, “”Don’t let them get a fix on your position” Staying true to her own orders, Alex smashed her way clear of her hidey hole and using the jump pack she’d also requisition for her troops for this mission, leapt to the hull of a broken star cruiser.

She’d just landed on the cruisers hull when her warning systems shrieked at her, spinning around she caught a glimpse of missiles arcing into the hull around her, then her vision was obscured by a cloud of red paint. A moment later, a shrill tone sounded in her ears.

She was dead.

------------------------------------------------------

Alex grimaced as she looked over the battle report. After her ‘death’ Gol Sivran had assumed command of the op and had kept the trainees fighting. Initially, the battle had gone well for her side, the ambush giving them an element of surprise that allowed them to destroy several enemy vehicles and disable several others.

Eventually though, Losk as well as De Mensil and Payen’s had rallied their troops and gone on the offensive. De Mensil’s tank simply ramming through one of the debris piles and allowing the vehicles to spread out around the scrapyards.

Sivran countered by spreading the infantry around and engaging in hit and run tactics that claimed another four tanks and almost all the lighter vehicles. In the end though, Losk’s force had won out and reduced the battlesuit squads to just two operational persons forcing a surrender. In return, Losk had lost his eighty percent of his starting force.

A costly victory had been Losk’s, though it still ensured that Alex would be buying at the next officers weekly meal out.

“My condolences to the deceased” A voice caused Alex to look up.

“The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated” Alex grinned up at Saul Tarkin as he slid into the seat opposite her.

At this hour, the mess hall was empty apart from her and the ISF officer, so it made her wonder why Tarkin was here. The ISF didn’t exactly make social calls.

“So you didn’t walk under a missile barrage?” Tarkin raised an eyebrow.

“Ok” Alex laughed, “Maybe I did. My own stupid fault, took too long crossing between positions and got spotted” She grimaced, “Soon as they started responding with the missile salvoes I scattered my people. Should have anticipated that and had everyone scatter earlier”

“That’s why you do these training exercises” Tarkin smiled, “So, you can make your mistakes and learn from them. That’s a privilege you don’t have in a real battle”

“Point” Alex nodded. Taking a sip from the caf mug at her side, she winced, “Cold. So, what brings you here at this time of night?”

Tarkin looked in his own mug, “Not the caf. That’s for sure”

Alex shook her head, “depends when you’re in. Some of the staff can actually brew some good caf. There are a couple who…..well, let’s put it this way, I’d sooner go without” She eyed him curiously, “Nice change of subject by the way. Very subtle”

“Fine” Tarkin held up his hands, “Just here to give you a friendly warning”

“A friendly warning from the ISF?” Alex smirked, “Is there such a thing?”

“Funny” Tarkin sighed, “But I’m serious. You’re in Duke Miles Fel-Tarn’s domain and he’s watching you very closely Alexandria Tarn. You, this training unit and every other like it here in the Republic March. He’s waiting for one of you to make a mistake and then he’ll raise all hell” He looked at her, “And you, for you to make a mistake would be pure gold for him”

“What do you mean?”

“When your father took the throne” Tarkin answered, “He and your uncle fought a pretty vicious little political war when Miles tried to enforce his own claim through your aunt. Miles lost and for that he’s sought anything that would weaken your father and allow Miles a chance to try for the throne again. You failing would give him a powerful tool he could use”

Alex frowned, “But my uncle has always been loyal”

“Loyal to the Skye Alliance, yes” Tarkin nodded, “But only as long as he was at its head. He always felt your father was a poor leader, something that Harrison hasn’t exactly helped with his ‘casual’ dress sense”

“True” Alex conceded, “So, basically, watch my step and make sure my trainees are good as gold too?”

“Yep” Tarkin smiled, “Fact is, these training units your father created are one big experiment and Miles is waiting for them to fail” He looked at her carefully, “So, lets make sure they don’t”

------------------------------------------------------

Coruscant.
New Republic.
321ABY.
February 3rd.

Asyr Fel’lya slipped quietly into her father’s office. As expected, he’d been working late again and was still sat at his desk, though his work was now forgotten as he appeared to be deep in thought and staring out the window.

“Father?” Asyr said quietly.

Reisk Fel’lya glanced over his shoulder, “Asyr? What brings you here at this hour?” He asked with a smile.

“Father” Asyr returned the smile, “It’s late, you should rest instead of dealing with….” She gestured at the stack of papers on the desk, “This garbage”


Reisk shook his head and smoothed the fur on the back of his neck with one hand, “This? It's minor stuff at best. Serving only to distract me from the real issue”

“Sarna?” Asyr frowned.

“Sarna” Reisk nodded, “Already the death toll is approaching one million and it's expected that the final count will be ten times that. Even with the resources we've diverted to the rescue efforts, it'll never be enough”

“At least the pirates will be brought to justice” Asyr pointed out, “A small comfort perhaps, but still a comfort”

“I'm not convinced the pirates are fully to blame” Reisk frowned, “Investigators have turned up information that an outside party was involved. Somebody sliced a transfer order to stockpile all that chemical and toxic waste to that industrial district. Then there was a simultaneous raid on a lab facility by two assailants who destroyed research going on there”

“What research?” Asyr frowned.

“Some perversity of some description” Reisk sounded disgusted, “The two attackers had valid ID passes and triggered an EMP device that destroyed all data pertaining to whatever was going on. They apparently also possessed a stealth ship”

Asyr scowled, “Not something pirates would have access too”

“Agreed” Reisk frowned and turned to look out the window.

Asyr sighed, “Is this where you try to convince me that the Skye Alliance was responsible?”

“Is that so hard to believe?” Reisk growled, “The Tarn's have long hated the Republic, they have long coveted our worlds and what we possess”

Asyr grimaced. She didn't share her father's hatred of the Skye Alliance and it's ruling family. She knew of it's basis though. A corrupt ancestor of the 'Lya line had been brought down by the founder of the Alliance -Trinity Oslo-Tarn- back when the worlds of the Alliance has been a part of the Republic.
Vorsk Kel'lya's fall had brought much of the 'Lya line down with him and it had taken nearly two centuries for the family fortunes to recover enough for them to be a power in the Bothan people again and another fifty years before that power had accumulated enough for Reisk to enter politics and turn that power into the Chief-of-States position.

As a result, Asyr's father, her grandfather and everyone dating back down the line had possessed a vehement hatred of the Alliance and the Tarns.

Asyr didn't share that. She'd studied her history, she knew that Vorsk's actions had been self serving and not for the greater good. At a time of war, his pursuit of power had weakened the Republic significantly and created the very atmosphere that allowed so many worlds to break away back then.

Suddenly, she released that she'd been so deep in thought, she'd missed her fathers next words.

“Sorry” She shook her head, “I didn't catch that last part”

Reisk frowned at his daughter, “I said, I almost had the Alliance in my hands you know? If only for a bit of luck, the Harrison on the throne would have been my puppet”

“What?” Asyr looked at him, “What are you taking about?”

“Never mind” Reisk waved off the question, “It failed. There are always other plans”

Asyr said nothing, but determined she'd look into this a bit more later.

Reisk continued, “I know you don't think the Alliance was involved in what happened at Sarna. But I'm certain and they'll pay for it”

“I think you're wrong father, when I see evidence, then I'll believe you” She said, “But until then I think you're looking in the wrong direction”

Reisk stared at his daughter angrily, but quickly got his emotions under control, though the fair on his neck stood rigid and betrayed his feelings, “Fine. Think what you will. But I know. I know”

----------------------------------------------------------

Elom Orbit.
Circinus March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
February 5th.

“Commander Tarn, You have that report for me?” Admiral Vika Zaan asked.

“Yes sir” Jacob nodded, handing over the datapad, “All ships report ready status. The Genyosha are set up in garrison positions. All starfighters are fuelled, loaded and ready for combat”

“The ready-fives?” Zaan asked referring to the starfighters that were loaded in the Black Hands catapults ready to launch on a moments notice -literally five seconds.

“Twelve Hawk Fighters on ready-five standby. Manned and at yellow status. Standard two hour rotation on pilots” Jacob answered.

“Good” Zaan nodded, “I don't envy those pilots. Trapped in those cockpits for hours at a time with little to do”

Jacob nodded, “Hence the rotation. At very least it lets them stretch their legs” He frowned, “I understand we have a visitor due?”

Zaan nodded, “Field Marshal Jorge Onasi is on a tour of this region gauging potential weaknesses and wants a tour of the Black Hand. Wants to be sure we're doing all we can to protect the Circinus March. Seems this whole 'bait' plan was Duke Tandrea Onasi's and Jorge wants to be sure his Uncle isn't making a mistake putting us here”

“He's worried that the fighting could get out of hand?” Jacob gazed out over the crew pit and watched the bridge crew going about their duties, “Elom is a key world in the Circinus Marches defensive ring”

Zaan sighed, “He's also worried that if the Federation has changed its stance on attacking the Alliance, then this may goad them back into becoming aggressive again”

“Of course, if they were already planning something, goading them into moving early could be an advantage” Jacob pointed out.

“True” Zaan agreed, “The one thing that worries me is that the Federation may yet find some way to surprise us”

“When is the Field Marshal due?” Jacob asked.

“The Fourth of next month” Zaan answered.

“A Field Marshal, the heir to the Skye throne, one of the Alliances best warships and one of the premier merc units in the galaxy” Jacob frowned, “A tempting prize, if the Federation is brave enough”

“The Federation sees things in how much damage they can do” Zaan snorted, “They'll come. Probably around the fourth, as you say, a tempting prize”

----------------------------------------------------------

Jedi Temple.
Ossus, Free Worlds League.
321ABY.
February 7th.

Connor Solo snapped awake in confusion. For a moment, he struggled to remember where he was, then the memories flooded back. He was in his chambers in the Jedi Temple on Osuss. On his bunk.

He took a few deep breaths and tried to recall something of the nightmare that had woke him and left him feeling so disturbed. It had been like that lately. Struggling to sleep, terrifying nightmares when he did sleep, an inability to focus due to an overall lack of sleep. He knew others were worried about him, but so far he'd resisted assistance.

Closing his eyes, he tried to settle into sleep again.

“Bad dreams?”

His eyes snapped open he found himself staring at Jenna Tarn or at least the ghost or figment of his imagination that claimed to be Jenna Tarn. At first the perspective seemed wrong, then he realised that she was laid on the ceiling looking down on him.

Creepy.

“And I thought nightmares only happened when you were asleep” He groaned.

“I'm a lot better looking than your nightmares” Jenna smirked.

“Why do you still torment me?” Conner snapped, sitting up and swinging his feet off the bed onto the floor, “I don't even have your bones any more”

“Who knows” Jenna said. Suddenly sitting on the bed next to him, “Maybe my spirit became bound to yours when you disturbed my.....” She shuddered, “My bones. Or maybe I'm just a manifestation of your guilt, here to bother you until you find redemption for Sarna”

“What do you think?”

“Doesn't matter what I think” Jenna shrugged, “You'd never be a hundred percent sure that my answer was correct. I could tell you I'm the Jenna Tarn of another dimension, but my dimensional vibration is just slightly off, so I can't touch anything”

“That's an insane idea” Conner stood and marched over to the sink.

“Is it any less believable than the other two possibles?” Jenna said, “That I'm a ghost or an aspect of your own mind?”

“I could believe those more than I would that you were from another dimension” Conner splashed water on his face.

“Fair enough” Jenna laughed. An oddly musical, carefree laugh that made him turn.

“You're awfully chipper for a woman who's been dead for nearly three hundred years”

“Not exactly got much left to worry about” Jenna shrugged, “Besides, if I was just a figment of your imagination. I'd be the same”

“I don't think so” Conner smirked, “If you were a figment of my imagination. You'd be more depressed because that's how I would have imagined you'd be from my knowledge of history”

“Ooooo.....good point” Jenna looked surprised, “Of course, your subconscious may not be as predictable as you might think”

Conner's response was cut off as the door opened and a lithe blue skinned Twi'lek girl breezed into the room, “Conner, why didn't you tell me you were back?”Kaiaria Ven said stepping straight through Jenna.

“Well, that was rude” Jenna shot a dirty look at the Twi'lek girl.

Connor shot her a dirty look of his own, but held his tongue. Instead he focused on Kaiaria, “I needed to get some rest, a lot of it” He shrugged, “Besides, you were busy with your studies”

Kaiaria -Kai for short- pouted, “It was just history studies. Boring”

“History is important” Connor frowned, “We can learn a lot from what happened before”

“I know that” Kai scowled, “But we were learning about how the Jedi Order interacted with the Old Republic centuries ago. It's just a load of treaties and policies. No wonder they decided to have the Clone Wars a hundred years later, everyone was probably fed up”

“She has a point” Jenna shrugged, “I'm surprised there wasn't an epidemic of deaths from boredom back then”

Connor frowned, trying to ignore the ghost or hallucination or whatever she was, “Kai, granted, that era wasn't particularly interesting, but you can still learn a lot from it”

“Such as?” Kai shot him a dubious look.

“Yeah” Jenna said leaning in, “Such as?”

“Well” Connor grimaced, “You can learn a lot from how the Order integrated itself with the Republic Government structure and how the Chancellor would call on the order for aid and....” He struggled to think of something else.

“Okay” Kai looked at him with a lack of belief, “I'm sure it;s important anyway. I gotta run. Master Holt's lightsaber class starts in five minutes. Gotta run” And as quickly as she'd entered, she was gone.

Connor just stared after her.

“Cute. Friend of yours?” Jenna's voice cut into his fog.

“What?” Connor looked over in confusion.

“The Twi'lek, Kai. She a good friend of yours?” Jenna smiled.

“Yeah, I think” Connor frowned, “Sort of. I was her force buddy last year and we struck up a friendship”

“Force buddy” Jenna frowned.

“One of Master Garda's ideas” Connor answered, “Every newly elevated Knight takes on a padawan as a force buddy for one day and assists them in their final tasks before the Padawan moves up to the advanced classes. Then next month, I'll guide Kai through her final lessons before she is assigned to a Master to continue her studies one-to-one”

“Interesting idea”

Connor nodded, “Helps the Knight learn a little bit of extra responsibility, the Padawan gets the benefit of the Knights own schooling and it fosters cooperation between the ranks” He shrugged, “It's a new program, so no ones really sure if it'll work”

“More little drones for Julian Tiepolo to send to commit atrocities” Jenna said bitterly.

“That's not....Not the....” Connor shook his head.

“Maybe it's not the idea” Jenna shrugged, “I know you didn't find out about what was being stored in that warehouse until after you'd set the charges, and by then maybe it was too late to deactivate them all. But it doesn't change what happened” She frowned, “Your Grandmaster got the result he wanted in the end. The Republic is busy dealing with the fallout of the disaster and the pirates to worry about attacking the Skye Alliance right now”

“He didn't want this” Connor sighed, “Just enough to cover our escape and give the Republic a reason to strike at the Gorug Pirates”

“Are you so sure?” Jenna raised a questioning eyebrow.

Connor frowned. She was right, he wasn't, “For someone who's been dead three centuries, you're pretty concerned about the here and now”

“Well, we sill haven't worked out f I am the ghost of Jenna Tarn or a manifestation of your conscience” She grinned.

Let's not start that again” Connor frowned, “Wait, if you were a ghost, Kai should have sensed you”

“Maybe she hasn't her sense sufficiently or maybe my spirit is anchored to yo, so only you can see me” She shrugged, “Or Maybe, you really are just going mad”

-------------------------------------------------

Grand Council Chambers.
Ossus, Free Worlds League.
321ABY.
February 8th.

“Thank you for coming in today, Jedi Horn” Diana Senn nodded to the young knight, Whilst we have all read your detailed report, we did have feel there were some details that needed further clarification”

“I'll help where I can” Lucas Horn nodded and glanced around the council chambers. He noted that only six members of the Jedi Council were present of the twelve that made up this group.

The Cerean Master, Maj Garda was at his furthest left. His sloping, almost conical head wrinkled in thought. His homespun robes seemed to fit perfectly with the simple, almost agrarian air he gave off.

Next to him, sat Conrad Skywalker, the head of the Jade Knights, his immediate superior. His face almost hidden by the long, almost scraggy brown hair that hung down to his shoulders. Lucas knew he'd need to be careful to avoid stepping on Skywalker's toes.

Tai, the Nagai Master, almost slouched in her seat. Her pale white skin contrasted heavily with the sheer black of her hair and the black of the leather outfit she wore and contributed the the air of danger that hung around her constantly. Her Tehk'la blade sat across her lap and only reinforced the image she projected.

Directly ahead of Lucas, sat the Grandmaster of the Order, Julian Tieplo. He seemed ill at ease and gripped the arms of his chair with a white knuckled grip. His expression was unreadable, but through the force, Lucas sensed agitation.

The fair haired Diana Senn of Kuat would have been sat in the next seat, though it stood empty as she paced the floor as was her habit when she chaired a meeting. She too seemed agitated.

Finally, the last council member present, the S'kytri Kharys, perched on the edge of her seat -her immense wings preventing her from sitting too far back. Though, she seemed at ease, Lucas knew that she harboured a fierce hatred of Julian Tiepolo and the two had clashed over Order policy on several occasions.
“If I may start?” Master Kharys smiled, “How did the Gorug Pirates come to be involved in the operation at Sarna?”

“It was part of the mission instructions” Lucas answered, “We -that is myself and Jedi Zel Xux- were instructed to provide information to the Goug's that would lead to a strike on Sarna where they would believe a super weapon of some description was being kept under minimal security. This attack would draw off enough of the local forces to allow myself and Xux to infiltrate the lab complex”

“Why was the presence of the pirates necessary?” Khary's frowned, “The civilian casualties from the attack alone were too much and that was before...the disaster”

“We've been over this” Julian Tiepolo rumbled, “What happened was unanticipated. But the pirates were necessary to draw away security forces. Intelligence had pinpointed enough forces initially at the lab, that would have been too much even for a group of Masters, let alone two young Knights”

“Yet look what has happened?” Khary's scowled, her wings folding in anguish, “Thousands dead, millions dying. Millions more fleeing to refugee camps on other worlds” She looked at Lucas, “Would you say it was worth it, Jedi Horn?”

Lucas caught the warning look from Tiepolo, but didn't understand the meaning, “No, it wasn't. Had I known or even suspected what would happen, I would never have lured the pirates there. I'd have chanced the security forces”

“With all due respect Jedi Horn” Tiepolo scowled, “That was not your decision”

“It should have been” Master Senn cut in, her hand slashing the air, “We have always allowed our Jade Knights to plan their missions themselves. Why was this mission different? Master Skywalker?” She looked at the Jedi Knight leader.

Skywalker shot a angry look at Tiepolo, “The decision was taken from my hands”

Tiepolo waved a dismissive hand, “The mission was too critical”

“How so?” Skywalker and Senn shouted at almost the same time. The two exchanged surprised looks, then Skywalker nodded for Senn to speak first.

“How was this mission any different?” Senn asked, “It is not the first time the Jade Knights have had to perform a mission like this one. Twenty years ago, a similar project in Circinus space was also destroyed. They too were attempting to create a grotesque form of life. Why was this time different?”

“The current state of relations between the Skye Alliance and the New Republic meant that the mission needed a scape goat. The pirates” Tiepolo answered, “The pirates attack gave the Republic a foe to focus on instead of striking the Alliance as they had been planning”

Master Tai sat up straight, her skin seemed almost paler, “Was the explosion at Breezewater part of your planning? It certainly gave the Republic a reason to go after the Gorug Pirates in full force”

“No” Tiepolo said with barely any hesitation, “It was not planned”

“He's lying” Lucas thought and a second later, saw the thought echoed in Master Senn's face when she glanced over at him.

“Just as well” Senn said carefully, “The consequences would have been most dire for you had you planned such a thing”

“Are you threatening me?” Tiepolo snapped and rose to his feet.

“Nobody is threatening anyone” Master Garda said his first words of the meeting, “This is a heated topic, but I think for the moment, little is to be gained by pursuing it”

For a moment, Tiepolo and Senn stared coldly at each other, then the elder man turned and stormed from the chamber. After he was gone and the other council members began to filter out, Senn smiled weakly at Lucas.

“I'm sorry you saw that Jedi Horn” She sighed, “But I trust you can keep it to yourself for the time being”

“I can” Lucas nodded slowly.

“Good” Senn sighed, “What you witnessed in becoming commonplace in council meetings. I fear the Order is being led down a dark path by Julian Tiepolo”

“It's not my place to say” Lucas said evenly.

“Good answer” Senn laughed, then wandered over to look at the star chart that covered a wall of the chamber, “But I saw it in your face, you realised it when I did. Tiepolo knows something about what happened on Sarna. Almost like he did plan it”

“Master Senn, do your realise what you're saying?” Lucas blurted, “The Grandmaster of the Order conspired to cause the deaths of millions? It's...it's....”

“Impossible? Unlikely?” Senn glanced over her shoulder, “I have my own sources who were on Sarna and they tell me Tiepolo had assets of his own there”

“Connor Solo” Lucas nodded.

“No” Senn shook her head, “Solo is a pawn in this. An innocent set up to further Tiepolo's plans. Solo was the one who set up the charges that caused the initial explosion, but he wasn't aware of what else was stored in the building until it was to late”

“How do you know this?” Lucas was stunned. Solo had caused the explosion?

“I have my own sources in the Watch” Senn shrugged, “Solo also reports to me personally. What he did was inexcusable, but he didn't have all the information either” She sighed, “No, Tiepolo had non-order assets on Sarna doing his dirty work. I think they are the ones who set Solo up”

“I can't believe this” Lucas shook his head, “Why would Tiepolo do this? What would he gain?”

“That's what I intend to find out” Senn answered, “With your help”

“My help?” Lucas frowned.

“Yes” Senn smiled, “You Lucas Horn shall be my operative”

“Why me?”

“You have a reputation for honesty, incorruptibility and for doing the right thing” Senn smiled, “And right now, you're one of the only people I can trust”

Lucas nodded carefully, “What do you need?”

“Tiepolo is planning to head out to Balmorra in a few days to return the remains of Jenna Tarn to her descendants” Senn said thoughtfully, “I can supply you with his schedule. I want to you to tail him, find out who else he may be planning on meeting. Find out what he's up to and report back to me”

“Okay, I'll do it” Lucas took a deep breath and let it out.

“I knew you would” Senn smiled.

-------------------------------------------------

The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.
321ABY.
February 12th.

Ran Gavin casually slipped into the transport car and took a seat several rows back from Enrico Rimmer. The car was occupied by a handful of other people, enough that Ran wouldn't stand out, but not so many that he'd risk loosing his target.

The last couple of weeks had been very productive. Ran had tailed Rimmer throughout much of that time and had learned that the fat man was attempting hire Gar Noton for an operation to hijack a passenger liner travelling between the Free Worlds League.
Ran didn't know the purpose of the operation, but guessed from the fact that the ship was travelling between the two nations that the target was probably a high ranking official or diplomat travelling to further to alliance between Skye and Mon Calamari.

Ran knew there were factions in both nations that didn't look on the alliance favourably and would do what they could to scupper things. In the Skye Alliance, both Miles Fel-Tarn and Allessendro Tarn would do what they could to weaken the current ruler Harrison Tarn. And on the Free Worlds side, Aldo Rimmer -Enrico's uncle- sought his own pursuit of power.

Also to benefit would be the Circinus Federation and New Republic. Any weakening of the alliance would benefit both nations greatly.

As Ran watched, Enrico pulled out a datapad and began jabbing the buttons nervously. Ran figured Rimmer was preparing his final offer for Noton, one the former gladiator would accept.
Ran had managed to slice Rimmer's files and was able to see just how much Noton was pushing poor Enrico. The sheer amount of credits Noton would make of the op was enough to buy a planet. Aldo Rimmer clearly wanted that ship badly.

As the car lurched through the tube connecting two ancient destroyers, the barrel of a blaster jabbing into his kidney through the gaps of the seat stirred him to more immediate concerns.

“Easy there Gavin” A woman's silky voice said in his ear, “Wouldn't want me to twitch” A hand slipped over his shoulder and down in his jacket. A moment and some fumbling later, the hand withdrew taking the power cell from his blaster with it. A second later, the blaster also withdrew from his kidney, “All done”

Ran turned enough to see the woman whilst also keeping his eye on Rimmer, “Hello Ash, nice to see you here”

Natasha 'Ash' Loran smirked and slid her own blaster into her jacket holster, “You weren't so polite last time we encountered each other. There was a lot of swearing involved as I recall”

Ran frowned, “You had just shot me”

“It was a flesh wound” Ash shrugged, “You blew it out of proportion”

“That's beside the point” Ran shot back, “You shot me”

“It's okay” Ash smiled, “I won't hold a grudge”

Ran grimaced, “Why are you here?”

“Following a lead” Ash indicated Rimmer with a nod of her head, “Seems we're following the same one”

“Small world” Ran murmured, “He's been making some interesting deals lately. What’s your interest in him?”

“Aldo Rimmer's been shifting a lot of creds around” Ash shrugged, “NRI sent me to work out why”

“You're working for RepTel now?” Ran said in surprise.

“Pays the bills” Ash sighed, “Besides, I got into a bad deal on Bestine. Lotta bad fallout on that one. This is kinda my penance to avoid the death penalty”

“Death penalty?” Ran hissed, “What did you do?”

“It was an accident” Ash grimaced, “I swear. Deal went bad, some shooting happened. Airbus full of tourists bought the farm. I was the one the authorities caught up with first” She snorted, “I wasn't even shooting. My partners sold me out. NRI gave me a choice. Help them out and I don't get my breathing permits revoked”

“Harsh” Ran said.

“Yeah” Ask nodded, “What about you? You got a contract or is this freelance?”

“Freelance” Ran nodded, “Figured I find out what I can and then see who wants to pay up”

“Smart” She looked up as the transport car came to a stop, “Hey, he's moving. Wanna work together?”

“You paying?” Ran asked.

Ash winced, “Fine. Two-hundred-fifty creds a day. I'll cover expenses”

Ran failed to cover his surprise and winced when he realised he'd lost the chance to negotiate, “Fine. Why so much on offer?”

“The deal might have gone bad, but I'd already creamed off all the cash from my partners” Ash frowned, “Maybe that’s why the deal went bad”

“Never mind” Ran said, setting off after Rimmer, “Let's move before we lose him”

“He's heading for Silesia” Ash grinned, “It's the only place Noton will meet with him”

“You sure?” Ran glanced dubiously over his shoulder as they exited the transport car. He'd already guessed Rimmer's destination himself, but wasn't about to tell her.

“I'd stake my reputation on it” Ash threw him a wink.

---------------------------------------------------------

As expected, Enrico Rimmer did go to the exclusive Silesia club. Using his own credentials -earned during a successful few months in the arenas- Ran got the two of them past the security booth and took up residence in the booth opposite Noton's.

“Looks like Enrico's a bit early” Ash pointed out as she slid into the corner of the booth.

“Noton always keeps him waiting” Ran answered, “I think it's his way of unnerving Rimmer. Makes him sweat it out a bit”

Ash caught sigh of a large man entering Silesia, his uniform tight across his torso and his head shining in the lights, “Noton's here”

“Wish we knew what they were talking about” Ran muttered as Noton settled into his booth and began speaking to Rimmer, “Rimmer doesn't keep all his info on easily sliced datapads”

“My time to shine” Ash smiled an drew a small datapad unit from her jacket, laying it on the table top she positioned it so that one end faced Noton's booth directly.
A moment later, the sounds of voices -barely a whisper- emerged from the datapad.

“Nice” Ran nodded, “Gift from your NRI friends?”

“Sort of” Ash shrugged, “Now shhhh”

Noton's voice: “.......ready to agree to my terms?”

Rimmer: “Your price is steeper than we budgeted for” A resigned sigh, “But yes, I have authorisation to accept your terms. You’ll need to be ready to move on the target the first week of May”

Noton: “You have details on the target and the ship itself?”

Rimmer: “For the target, not yet. The ship will be a passenger Liner owned by Monopole Cruises. Either the Silver Eagle or the Star Blazer. We can provide route details at this time too”

Noton: “Good. I'll contact my people and tell them to get set in place. They'll contact me when they have the ship and I'll contact you”

Rimmer: “It would be quicker if I had a direct line with them”

Noton: “So you can cut me out of loop? Not likely” Noton sounded amused rather than angry, “”I'll get you your target. You just focus on ensuring I get paid. Put my fee in the usual account”

Across the way, Noton swept from the booth and headed for the exit leaving Enrico Rimmer looking somewhat flustered.

“Now what?” Ash asked, slipping the listening device back into her jacket.

“What do you mean?” Ran looked at her.

“This is the kind of stuff the NRI is wanting me to dig up, but I'm not gonna get paid for it” Ash sighed.

“So, what?” Ran frowned, “You want a cut of whatever I get for it?”

“It was my eavesdropper that got us that bit of info” Ash shrugged, “I also have to know you're not going to sell it to the Republic or one of their allies. It'd look a bit bad for me if an identical recording I made and handed into the NRI, turned up elsewhere”

“Point” Ran conceded, “We can take it to Dorga. He'll pay a good price for just the info, never mind the recording”

“The Hutt?” Ash looked unsure, “Can we trust him?”

“We can trust him to look at the potential profit” Ran smirked, “He'll pay us half of what he thinks he can get for it. Then sell it to the highest bidder anyway. He'll make creds hand over fist”

“We'll drop the recording off at an NRI safe drop first” Ash said, “That clears my obligations. That okay with you?”

“It's fine” Ran nodded, “If we don't have the recording, Dorga can't steal it. I'll set up a meet, I can pull a few favours, get an audience with Dorga tomorrow”

-----------------------------------------------

Embassy of the Corellian Government-in-Exile.
Mon Calamari.
Free Worlds League.
321 ABY.
February 13th.

Hanna Leong sighed as she stood on the balcony and gazed out over the gently rolling ocean. The cool sea breeze caressed her face and teased a few loose strands of hair.
Taking a deep breath, She revelled in the refreshed sensation that washed across her.

“I'm going to miss this you know?” She said aloud.

“What's that?” Her mother, Joana Heong looked up from the datapad she'd been reading. Her mother, Joana Leong looked up from the datapad she'd been reading.

“I'll miss this while I'm away” Hanna waved at the sea view, “The view, the sea air, it calmness of it all”

“Homesick already?” Joana laughed.

“Not at all” Hanna shook her head and moved to sit at the table with her mother, “Just a little nervous about spending so long aboard a ship” She shrugged, “I know I could get there sooner, but by travelling third class aboard a liner I'm less likely to arose suspicion”

Joana nodded, “Aldo Rimmer is already making a fuss over this alliance with Skye. If he knew the daughter of the leader of the Corellian government-in-exile was marrying Harrison Tarn's son, can you imagine the noise he'd make?”

“Probably not as much as if he knew I was sneaking out of the League to see Jacob for a few weeks” Hanna sighed, “I wish it wasn't so. It's difficult to see so little of my future husband. I just want to scream it out loud” She laughed, “I'm marrying Jacob Tarn”

“We'll be able to make an official announcement at the end of the year” Joana pointed out.

Hanna nodded, “Once the elections for the CGE leadership are over. I now the news could affect dad's chances of beating the pro-Republic faction. They claim I was being traded to the Alliance and Corellia would be next” She sighed, “Despite the century old friendship between the League and the Skye Alliance, there's still a lot of distrust”

“It's the way it is” Joana sighed, “Have you chosen your cover identity for travelling yet?”

Hanna nodded, “Yes. I'll be travelling under the name Leona Sarkin”

“Sarkin?” Joana frowned, “That's a name I haven't heard outside of history holos”

Hanna smiled, “The last person to carry the name was Tyria Sarkin. She later became Sarkin-Antilles. Within a few generations the Sarkin was dropped from the name altogether” She pursed her lips, “A wig and a little make-up will take care of the rest of my identity, along with the extensive file the Intelligence Ministry has put together” She smiled, “Sometime in April, Leona Sarkin, a teacher from a human enclave on Mon Calamari will set off on a cruise to Toprawa in the Skye Alliance. Her big adventure!”

Joana returned the smile, “And travelling aboard the same ship will be one Arden Sortek. Friend of Harrison Tarn. The presence of a military celebrity from Skye should deflect a lot of focus away from a simple teacher”

Hanna laughed, “So, Arden is still making the trip here and then back?”

“Yes” Joana nodded, “He's arriving here on the 27th, to give a series of talks at the MCIS. Then he'll attend a reception at government hall next month. He'll gather a lot of attention that will be focused on him for the voyage back”

Hanna shook her head, “It seems so strange to have such security and misinformation just for me to travel aboard a passenger liner”

“It does, doesn't it” Joana smiled, “As long as it keeps you safe”


---------------------------------------------


The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.
321ABY.
February 12th.

The Hutt Dorga had chosen an old, somewhat dilapidated Potemkin Class Cruiser as his headquarters on the Sprawl and it was here that he often held caught. Anchored to the side of a much larger Asamiya Mega Freighter, the 'Valkyrie' was perfectly suited for the Hutt's varied needs.
The large hanger bays served as perfect cargo exchange points and allowed the Hutt to cut of the minimal customs process of the Sprawl. Likewise, the wide corridors meant that the Hutt could move around much of the ship at will.
In addition, according to the rumour mill, Dorga had also sent a considerable fortune having the engines made space worthy and strengthening the hull, so that the ship could be used as en escape vessel in an emergency.

Ran doubted the 'Valkyrie; could ever be used a s such. It was nearly two hundred years old, had been left derelict for much of that time before being added to the Sprawl and had been securely anchored to the larger freighter with a myriad of frames, tubes and pipework. The ship was likely to just tear itself apart just trying to break free.

Not to mention that Dorga was notoriously cheap when it came to hiring technical help. The fact that he'd hired a mix of Rodians and Klatoo to do the work didn't bode well.

Ash dubiously eyed an obviously warped bulkhead, “Is this tub even safe?”

“It's probably safer than it looks” Ran answered, “I'm sure that Dorga leave it looking this bad purely to make visitors uneasy. Chances are, he's had a lot of work down under the surface” He indicated ahead beyond their guide, “That blast door looks newer than the others for a start”

“I guess” Ash still looked uneasy.

Up ahead, the Rodian guide stopped and gestured at the doors, “Master Dorga awaits. Please enter” At his gesture, the door hissed open.

“Here goes” Ran muttered and lead the way through.

Inside, in a chamber decorated like a typical pleasure palace, the Hutt Dorga reclined on a repulsor couch. Tan in colouring and still small and somewhat mobile, he was attended by a dozen scantily clad serving girls of varying species and sucked thoughtfully on a hookah pipe.

“Ah, Ran Gavin” The Hutt rumbled, “How delightful to see you again”

“Lord Dorga” Ran bowed and kept his voice respectful.

“And your companion?” Dorga eyed Ash lustily, “I do not know her”

“This is Natasha Loran” Ran said, “A friend”

Dorga turned thoughtful for a moment, then smiled, “Natasha Loran. Born 297ABY on Telos. Parents Adrian and Misha Loran. Attended the Skye Alliance's Nagelring Academy in 316ABY, expelled in 319ABY for misconduct -you were dealing black market goods and illicit substances-. Was a classmate of Alexandria Tarn. During your time there. Have spent the last two years engaged in a variety of illegal activities and recently was recruited by New Republic Intelligence to try to offset serious charges against you”

Ran sensed Ash stiffening in shock and anger next to him, “You seem to know a lot about me” She said coolly.

“I like to know all about interesting people aboard the Sprawl” Dorga chuckled, “Especially when they have a connection to one of the various Intelligence agencies” The Hutt relaxed, “Now, Ran, you claim to have some interesting information for me?”

Ran quickly outlined the basics of what they knew, providing copies of Enrico Rimmer's files as supporting evidence, but failing to mention of the recording they'd made.

Dorga looked at them thoughtfully, “This is all very interesting. Dissident elements in the Free Worlds League plan on hijacking a passenger ship. I'd be very interested to know why this particular ship. Who is so important Aldo Rimmer would seek to grab a ship to get them?”

“We don't know that yet” Ran shrugged, “But it ought to be easy enough to pull a data-dump of the ships manifests a little closer to the date”

“Don't bother” The Hutt waved a hand, “Gar Noton has already offered me the chance to bid on a list of names for potential ransoms. I can safely assume this is part of that”

“Oh” Ran blinked, “You already knew?”

“Hmmmm” The Hutt laughed, “No. I didn't know about the hijack. I can use this information to undercut Noton. Have my own people hijack the ship and get all the hostages for my own purposes” Dorga's body rippled in a Hutt approximation of a shrug, “Alternatively. Other agencies would pay well for the information”

“Other agencies?” Ash frowned.

Dorga smiled, “The Circinus Federation would pay well for this information as would the New Republic. Even the Free Worlds League would pay well for what would essentially be a warning of the attempt” He waved the datapad in a stubby hand, “I notice that the datapad has locked me out of the information. A timed lock out?”

“Yes” Ran nodded, “Once we agree a price I'll provide the unlock code. Also there's additional info on there you haven't seen yet” He took a deep breath, “Fifty thousand credits”

Dorga chuckled, “I'd be insane to pay that much for simple electronic data. Ten thousand”

Ran shook his head, “It's good info. Forty thousand. You can make twice as much from selling the information. Three times that on the ransoms”

“I have my costs to think about” Dorga retorted, “Twenty thousand”

“Thirty thousand” Ran smiled, “Or you'll never see the info”

“Twenty thousand” The Hutt repeated. “No more”

“Thirty thousand!” Ash cut in, “And I can tell you were to find around twenty thousand credits worth of Frostfire Gems”

Dorga and Ran stared at her, “Where?” The Hutt said with interest and greed evident in his voice.

“One of Feyrr's cargo drop offs” Ash replied referring to the T'surr crime boss who was a constant thorn in Dorga's side, “Once we're paid, I'll give the location. Right down to the cargo berth and crate numbers”

“Deal” The Hutt said almost mechanically, his mind already focused on how to sell the gems and the prospect of getting one over his rival, “Thirty thousand” He waved to his majordomo, “Pay them”

With a smirk on her face, Ash winked at Ran.

----------------------------------------------------

Government Palace.
Mon Calamari, Free Worlds League.
321ABY.
March 3rd.

Hanna Leong smiled as the tall, handsome man bowed over her hand and kissed her knuckle gently, “A pleasure to see you again Miss Leong” Arden Sortek smiled.

“And you too, Colonel Sortek” Hanna nodded as she turned and led his across the waiting room to the doors of the hall, “I found your lecture on mixed units tactics in planetary surface battles quite informative”

“You attended?” Arden raised an eyebrow, “I would have thought, being starfighter trained, that ground operations would be outside your area of interest”

“I like to learn about other areas of warfare too” Hanna shrugged, “You never know when such knowledge may come in useful”

“Very true” Arden nodded, then turned to the approaching Mon Calamarian, “And a pleasure to see you again too, Captain-General” He said, saluting respectfully.

Jsesmin Akdool chuckled, returning the salute, “And I am very glad to see you again. From what I hear, some of your lectures were well received. Though not unanimous I'm afraid”

“Of that I'm aware” Arden frowned, “The Free Worlds League Mustered Soldiery does do a few things differently and I fear some of my theories and thoughts may have been a bit too radical for some of the more conservative officers”

“They'll come around” Hanna smiled, “Even hard-liners have been known to display wisdom occasionally”

Arden and the Captain-General shared in the joke before Akdool indicated the doors, “Now, I'm afraid things have already begun, so you'll be thrown to the social wolves tonight”

“Anybody I should be wary of?” Arden asked.

Akdool hesitated for a moment, “Just Duke Aldo Rimmer”

“The Duke of Gyndine?” Arden frowned, “I know he's been an opponent of the Alliance between our nations. Would he really cause a scene by having a shot at me”

“Verbally perhaps” Akdool said, “Most likely he'll merely find a way to trip you up on your own words. He's shrewd and cunning, be careful”

“Is he that dangerous?” Arden asked.

Hanna nodded, “He has a lot of political power in that area of the League. His family controls some sixty percent of the industrial base out there. In theory, he could pull the support together to pull that region out of the League”

“That would leave him isolated” Arden pointed out.

“True” Akdool replied, “That’s why he's been courting the Corellian Government-in-exile. The CGE has a lot of ships at his disposal all of which resupply at the Gyndine and Commenor shipyards. If he pulls them out of the League, the CGE either goes with him or throws away any hope of reclaiming Corellia”

“So, he won't pull out until he can count on the Corellians?” Arden nodded in understanding.

“And they won't support him in any kind of coup until they have his support for a full scale strike at Corellian Space” Hanna shook her head, “Alone, the CGE can't take Corellia, they need the Leagues forces to support them. Rimmer hates the alliance because it frees up League forces that have since been rotated to that area of space. It removes the only carrot Rimmer has”

“So, he'll try to trip me up, make the Skye Alliance and the treaty look bad” Arden sighed, “Which in turn embarrasses the Captain-General and boosts his own support”

“Exactly” Akdool nodded, “Are you ready to face the wolves?”

“As ready as ever” Arden sighed, “Let's do this”

--------------------------------------

To Arden's surprise, Rimmer didn't approach him for the first few hours of the reception, though he did spot the Duke watching him with interested eyes.
Instead, he found himself drawn from conversation to conversation. From nobles wanting to hear tales of war, to those curious about the worlds of the Skye Alliance to military men wanting to discuss the latest weapons tech or military tactic.

Eventually however, the Duke did approach. Limping over with a slender champagne glass clutch delicately in an artificial hand.

“Colonel Sortek” Rimmer offered his hand, “I am Duke Aldo Rimmer”

Arden accepted the handshake. Taking a moment to examine the Duke. Short and wirey in build, Rimmer wore his brown hair short and as precisely trimmed as his moustache. Though his artificial hand was visible, his long sleeved uniform hid the fact that the prosthesis encompassed his entire arm all the way to the shoulder. Likewise, Arden knew the Duke's left leg was similarly artificial from foot to hip.

“Your grace” Arden nodded, “I don't believe we've met before. Though I'm aware you were present at one or two of my lectures”

“I was” Rimmer smiled humourlessly, “You give quite a good lecture Colonel”

“Thank you” Arden said dryly, “And how did you find my thoughts and theories”

“Solid and well laid out” Rimmer shrugged, “Though I dare say, you'll find a lot of elements within the military are too stuck in their ways to change so rapidly, especially on the recommendations of an outsider”

“Perhaps” Arden smiled, “But these things take time”

“True” Rimmer took a sip of his champagne, “But having suffered the toll of serving a front line unit myself, I at least appreciate the need for new ways and tactics”

Arden smiled courteously, “I know Gydine is close to the border with the Republic and has suffered raids in the past, but I wasn't aware you were a solider, Duke Rimmer”

The Duke spread his hands and chuckled, “Life on Gyndine is itself service in a front line unit. My father died in a raid and I nearly did too. I think my family refused to allow me to be trained for fear I'd be shipped away to die defending someone else’s holdings”

“Yes” Arden cocked his head slightly, “I've read the 'Origins of the Three great Families by Thelos Janson' I do recall that your family has suffered miserably. Indeed, I would suggest that it was almost providential that you, the youngest of your family, outlived older siblings and managed to take power”

Rimmer stiffened with barely controlled rage, “What might you mean by that Colonel Sortek?”

Arden smiled innocently, “Do you ask if I am accusing you of murdering your father during a Republic Raid , just as you got rid of all the others between you and the throne?” He thought silently, then spoke aloud, “Why, I merely meant to complement you on your ability to survive. I have read the texts on your speeches and I must say, that sector sounds very dangerous indeed”

Rimmer calmed visibly, “Ah, I understand your meaning. Is it wrong that I feel my worlds should suffer the hardships of raids? Yes, the FWLMS has a significant force there, but there are arrayed along the border. There are plenty of unguarded systems through which raids slip through the defences. A raid may not result in the loss of a planet, but it generates hardship for its inhabitants. That perspective can be lost when things are viewed from a strategic level”

Arden laughed, relishing in the anger that flashed through the Duke's eyes, “I am amazed by how much like my Prince you sound, Duke Rimmer. This lack of feeling for a worlds natives is exactly why he suggested -and the Captain-General accepted- my visit. I will visit several worlds over the next month were battles have been fought and meet the natives. Through further exchanges and stronger ties between our nations, we will address the very issue you speak of”

Leaving Rimmer squirming in in discomfort over the favourable comparison of his views and those of Harrison Tarn's, Arden excused himself and made his way over to where Hanna was speaking with a tall, dark haired man.

“Duke Sebastian Leong, I am Arden Sortek” Arden offered his hand.

The head of the Corellian Government-in-Exile accepted the handshake, “Colonel Sortek. I understand you've been causing quite a fuss amongst the Mustered Soldiery's command circles”

Arden shrugged, “I merely made a few speeches”

“You challenged many an officer to examine some very glaring weaknesses in the way our troops fight” Leong chuckled, “Quite a few of the younger officers -the ones not yet to deeply set in their ways- have taken note. Alone, your speeches won't affect the changes needed, but they will make it easier for the Captain-General to push through her reforms of the FWLMS”

“I think you give me more credit than I am due” Arden shrugged, “But thank you regardless”

Duke Leong accepted the thanks with a nod, “My daughter has been telling me that you plan a brief tour of some of our worlds on the border with the Circinus Federation?”

“Arden nodded, “Yes, I'll be visiting Raxus, Coventry, New Exford, Rudrig and Lianna. Then I'll return here to observe the April twenty-fourth MCIS war games before returning to the Alliance on the twenty-eighth” He frowned, “The main purpose of the tour is too prepare a report for my Prince on the Federation's movements. They've ceased all activity on our borders with them and her in the FWL they've made only five very minor raids in the last year”

Leong pursed his lips thoughtfully, “Yes, five in a year. Down from three times that number on average. That's why the border was reinforced. There's a lot of free that something is in planning in the Federation”

“As it is in the Alliance” Arden smiled, “As they say, the Cobra never sleeps, it just waits”

“True” Leong nodded, “I do hope when you return to Mon Calamari after your tour of the border, you will accept dinner at my estate” He indicated Hanna, “I know my daughter sees you as a good friend and would be happy to see you again before you left for the Alliance”

Arden smiled, “It would be my pleasure” He answered, aware that Hanna would in fact be heading to the Alliance aboard the same ship, but joining the Duke in maintain the charade.

“Good” Leong nodded, “Shall we say the Twenty-seventh?”

“I look forward to it” Arden grinned.

----------------------------------------------------

Repair Platform Beta-Four.
Terah Engineering Company Shipyards.
Tatooine Orbit.
Oberon Confederation.
March 4th.

Galatea Terah grimaced as she watched the tractor beams settle the Hunter Class Patrol Ship into the massive clamps that close up and locked the ship in place. Immediately, the doors to the cavernous bay began to close, slowly and ponderously.

Galatea's eyes were drawn to the gaping hole where the upper port side engine had been, then she turned away from the observation deck window and looked at her Assistant-Chief-Tech.

“Do we know what went wrong yet?” she asked.

Zanona Marko,clad in his Skakoan pressure suit, took a moment to think before answering, “Too early to say definitively” He said, his voice clicking and buzzing through the distortion filters, “But I suspect the engine imbalance issues we were having with these things”

Galatea sighed, “I knew they'd been released into service too soon. We needed an other month at least to work with them and now we have seven members of the Oberon Navy dead and we need to find out why”

“The why is that they went into service too early” Marko said cautiously, “Your father didn't give us the time we needed. We could have found the source of the imbalance and prevented this”

Maybe” Galatea said non-committally. By now, the bay doors had closed and techs were already swarming over the Hunter and moving gantries into place, “My father said that a delay in releasing them for service would've looked bad on the company” She pounded a fist against the transparisteel window in frustration, the noise causing several techs to look up curiously, “And this makes the company look good, does it?”

Marko glanced at a datapad, “According to the report, the crew detected an imbalance in the intermix systems”

“Just like we were detecting ourselves” Galatea nodded, “Seven-point-five percent deviation from normal?”

“Yes” Marko answered, “Lasted fourteen seconds before returning to normal levels. When they went to make a hyperspace jump, the imbalance kicked in again and blew out the engine”

Galatea frowned, “Theories?”

Marko shrugged, the gesture seemingly awkward in his pressure suit, “Could be anything. Fuel intermix issue. Micro-flaws in the firing chambers. Some sort of design issue” He glanced at his datapad, “All the engine components for that batch of Hunters came from the same plant in the same shipment. Could be issue at the point of manufacture”

Galatea pursed her lips and turned to face the window once more. In the bay itself, the tech teams had already pulled open panels and were plugging a myriad of cables into the vessel. Once the Hunter had been connected to the main computer they'd be able to run diagnostics on every system from the comfort of the repair platforms dedicated computers.

“There's something we haven't considered” Galatea sighed, “Sabotage”

“Sabotage?” Marko repeated.

Galatea nodded, “It's a possibility” She took a deep breath, “But not one we can follow up” She thought for a moment, “There's another group of Hunters due to be released to the military, right?”

“Yes” Marko nodded, “In four days time”

“How many have engines from the same batch as this one?”

Marko checked his datapad, “Seven. Out of twenty three”

“Ok, here's how we'll play this” Galatea nodded, “Have one of those seven transferred to bay Four and one of the others transferred to Bay Five. We're going to go over them with a fine toothed comb and try to replicate the explosion” She pursed her lips for a moment, “Keep the tech crews as small as possible. I don't want our other work to slide too much. If you have to, pull some people off that Tigerhawk job”

“Your father won't like that” Marko pointed out, “The Tigerhawk job is already three weeks behind schedule”

“I'll deal with my father” Galatea grimaced, “This is all his fault anyway”



--------------------------------------------------

Elom Orbit.
Circinus March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
March 4th.

They'd attacked just a few hours after Field Marshall Jorge Onasi's ship had arrived in system. Two dozen starships ranging from small Escort Runners up to a pair of Heavy Cruisers came boiling out from behind the systems primary. With them came three full wings of starfighters, two wings of bombers and a half dozen heavy transports.

The transports made for Elom itself, escorted by a single wing of fighters, the rest came after the Field Marshall's ship. As the Circinus Federation force bore down on Jorge Onasi's Talon Light Cruiser, Admiral Vika Zaan brought his own forces into play, the immense dagger of the Black Hand swinging around from within Elom's shadow and moving to engage the attacking force.
The other ships of Zaan's primary force, the Blitzkrieg Class Cruisers Farlander and Cucalamus and the Xal Class Destroyer Pride of Angmar also moved to engage. Though he could throw seven full wings of starfighters and bombers into the melee, he chose to only match the Circinus forces numbers rather than crowd the battlefield. He did dispatch another two wings after the transports and their escorts.

“Doesn't look like they've sent as much as we expected” Jacob frowned, “On their own, they could easily handle Onasi's Cruiser as well as the other ships of our force. With the Blank Hand present, we have them outgunned and their startfighters potentially outnumbered”

Zaan nodded, “We out gun them considerably” He paused, “At the moment”

“You think they may bring more in?” Jacob asked.

“I do not know” Zaan sighed, “They may have more -and the rest of the fleet is waiting if they do-, or they may not”

Jacob glanced at his screens, “They had to have known the Black Hand was in system”

“It's entirely possible that all they are concerned about is the Field Marshall” Zaan nodded, “Status on his ship?”

“The Warlock is under fire, but holding their own” Jacob reported as data filled his screen, “One minute and they'll be under the cover of our guns. Blue Leader reports two transports destroyed. The others made it into planetary atmosphere, Genyosha and planetary defence air assets rising to engage”

“Targets in range Admiral” The weapons officer call.

Zaan nodded, “Fire at will”

Though smaller at 16 kilometres and packing less fire power than it's Executor Class Ancestor, The Trinity Class Super Star Destroyer was still a force to be reckoned with.
It's array of three-thousand turbolaser and ion cannon emplacements and two hundred missile launchers still amounted to a significant amount of firepower. In addition, it's large hanger bays housed over two-hundred-fifty starfighters and bombers.

Though it still retained the distinctive arrow shape of it's ancestor, the Trinity Class boasted a triple hull design that gave it a distinctive silhouette. It's hanger bays were situated so that the hulls protected the launching fighters until they'd got up to speed.

The deck trembled beneath Jacob's feet as the Black Hand's weaponry filled local space with a firestorm of energy.
Two Nighthawk Heavy Cruisers suffered the brunt of the barrage, the two Circinus ships forced to divert power to their shields and allowing Field Marshall Onasi's Talon cruiser to break clear and race for the protective umbrella of the Bland Hand's force.

“My thanks Admiral” Onasi's voice crackled over the comms.

“My pleasure Field Marshall” Zaan replied, then turned his attention to the holotank. The Toguta frowned, then glanced at Jacob, “That De'vast is out of position for an attack. Have the Farlander prepare a barrage back along that ships vector”

Jacob relayed the instruction, “Captain Gol confirms the barrage is ready. Sir?”

“One moment” Zaan held up a hand, “There!” He nodded as the sensors picked up a power surge from the Circinus Federation ship, “Tell Gol to fire now”

Jacob did so and the Farlander unleashed a barrage of energy along the empty vector of space. A moment later, two more Circinus Federation ships -a pair of Dagon class Frigates dropped out of hyperspace and straight into the weapons fire.

Caught with shields down, one of the frigates seemed to just disintegrate before a salvo of missiles breached its engine bays and unleashed the energies of the reactor in a fireball that consumed the ship.
Protected somewhat by it's unfortunate sister ship, the other Dagon was able to bring it's shields to soak up enough of the barrage that it did survive. However, the damage it took in the meantime convinced the crew to exercise the better part of valour and begin to pull clear of the Farlander's weapon range.

Jacob smiled in understanding, “They'd refitted the De'vast with a gravity well generator”

Zaan nodded, “An old trick often used by pirates. A modified ship uses it gravity well projectors to bring additional ships out of hyperspace in a very specific location”

Looking at the holotank where the Farlander had turned it's attentions to the De'vast Cruiser, Jacob shrugged, “Good for a surprise tactic. But no good for more than one use against the same opponent” He paused and listened to a message over his headset, “The transports have landed and disgorged about a regiments worth of troops. Genyosha and local defence forces are engaging”

Zaan nodded, “Have the outer patrols sighted additional enemy forces?”

Jacob pulled up the data on his terminal, “Negative. This looks like it. Barely sufficient to take on the Black Hand” As they watched the holotank, one of the Federations Ferro Class Heavy Cruisers erupted in flame along it's portside, the result of a full salvo bombing run. The stricken ship began to slide away from Elom, shredding escape pods as it did so.

“They didn't bring enough” Jacob frowned, “Too many smaller ships, not enough big guns. Could be, they really were just gunning for the Field Marshall” He frowned deeper, “Could they really have screwed up their intel so bad that they didn't know we'd be here”

Zaan scowled, “It's possible. We know the Federation's intelligence services are almost non-existent, but I find it hard to believe that they could be so oblivious to our present location”

As the holotank briefly illuminated his face with the simulated flare of another Circinus ship exploding, Jacob returned the scowl, “What the ground forces they landed? Why bring those in if they were after Onasi?”He muttered a few commands in his headset mike, “Patrick, what's your status down there?”

“Good” Patrick Tarn-Varik replied, “My Genyosha pinned them down and the locals hit them from the flank, rolled right over them. We have them in retreat, they aren't putting up much of a fight”

Jacob glanced at Zaan, “Same here” He noted movement in the holotank, “They're moving into retreat positions up here. Looks like they are going to at least recover their ground forces and escape pods before they jump”

Zaan began giving his own commands, “All Skye forces, allow the enemy to retreat. No point pushing them further. Take what prisoners you can, we'll question them and find out what the whole purpose of this attack was”

The Admiral looked at Jacob, “This was too easy, Commander. I don't like it when it's too easy”

“I know that feeling” Jacob murmured.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Embassy of the Corellian Government-in-Exile.
Mon Calamari.
Free Worlds League.
321 ABY.
March 10th.

The Clerk at DonoSlane Star Travel holocomm with a smile frozen on her face, “DonoSlane Star Travel. From A Place to Zwipadze, we'll get you there. And how may I help you today?”

Hanna, her hair hidden by a dark wig returned the smile, “I wish to book passage to Toprawa”

The clerk nodded, “Direct, cruise or local?”

Hanna paused as though considering the options, “Direct would get me there in three weeks? Correct?”

The clerks fingers skittered across her keypad as she pulled the information, “That's right” She nodded again as text displaying the information she'd pulled up rolled across the bottom of the screen for Hanna to view. “Is speed urgent or is this more of a pleasure trip?”

“A vacation I think, but I have to be on Toprawa by June” Hanna shrugged and tried to smile innocently, “I've never really travelled between stars before”

The clerk nodded, “A lot of our customers are travelling for the first time,. Direct will get you there in three weeks. But the cost is prohibitive” She glanced at her own screens as Leona Sarkin's credit history scrolled past, “You pay more for less time in transit. The cost would be one-hundred-thousand credits”

Hanna's eyes widened in surprise, “I can't afford that. Not on my teachers pay”

“Well, a local trip will never get you there by June” The clerk typed some more and then smiled, “I can book you passage on the Monopole Silver Eagle. It's a Monarch Class Liner refitted for extra luxurious travel. It will get you to Toprawa within your time frame as well as giving you the chance to see worlds such as Caluula, Mallory's World, Dellat, Ossus, Phindar and Yavin IV”

“All those stops and we still get there on time?” Hanna frowned.

The clerk smiled, “The Silver Eagle was recently upgraded to a type 3.0 Hyperdrive engine, so she's one of the fastest ships of her class. The Silver Eagle is approximately twice as fast as her nearest rival, so that's why you'll have time to explore all the interesting worlds”

Hanna nodded, “It sounds perfect”

The clerk smiled, “The Silver Eagle will head out from Jesmin Ackbar Memorial Starport on the 28th of April. Will that be a problem”

Hanna shook her head, “Not really. What is the cost?”

“Moderate. Luxury passage is twenty thousand credits, but we can get you a private room for eight thousand”

“Splendid” Hanna clapped her hands.

The clerk nodded as data on Leona Sarkin flickered across the screen once more, “Your tickets will be dispatched to you in two days. The Silver Eagle leaves on the 28th of April, I recommend you arrive with two hours to spare to avoid the last minute rush” The clerk hit the confirm key and locked in Leona Sarkin's voyage among the stars, “Enjoy your trip”

The data, recorded in a dizzying array of 0s and 1s, shot through the relays to the Dac central computer, then flash toward the Monopole corporate computer. There it triggered a program that immediately billed Leona Sarkin's life savings (Leaving her six-thousand credits to spend on the trip) It kick eight hundred credits to the DonoSlane agency, then sped Leona's data to the Flight Engineering Section.

Flight Engineering sifted Leona Sarkin's data to determine her physical needs and possible stresses for the journey. It sent off her medical history to anticipate possible needs for medicine so that the appropriate drugs could be added to the ships pharmacy. Meanwhile, the history of food purchases she'd made from local stores and a catalogue of meals she'd recently eaten in restaurants sailed into the culinary division. Her preferences for food and any possible religious taboos on food were checked against the planned menu. The results of these calculations added to the mass of data that slowly shaped the ships final menus.

Leona Sarkin's height, weight, social status and age landed in the housing database. Her mass determined whether her room would be toward the ships spine or the outer areas to keep the ship properly balanced for atmospheric flight. Because of her relative youth -which the computer believed to be twenty five- she was berthed on one of the more active decks.

Her known interests, club affiliations and education influenced the selection in the ships library. Her dining partners for the first few meals were selected easily. It seemed that Leona Sarkin was bland enough to fit well with anyone. Her tastes even coloured the selection of activities available aboard the ship, and reservations were made in her name for those activities she was most likely to attend.

The computer wove these threads back together into a profile of Leona Sarkin and then pumped the data to the League Intelligence Ministry computer. Though Leona Sarkin had been born within the LIM computer, the programs subjected the data to all the routine and rigorous searches for possible crime detection. Given the physical data, Leona Sarkin's name passed in to a top secret file of possible candidates to act as a double for Hanna Leong. Beyond that, however, the LIM computer took no notice and sent the profile to immigration.

The immigration computer quickly rifled Leona Sarkin's medical history and determined that she'd had all the necessary inoculations for the worlds she'd be visiting. Then while checking her medical history against the disease list for Dellat, something odd happened. A complete duplicate of the Leona Sarkin profile split off and travelled into a RAM trap while the original wandered merrily on its way. Immigration returned the file to the Monopole Computers complete with visas and a note wishing Leona Sarkin a pleasant journey.

Leona Sarkin remained in her RAM cell for three hours. Then an electronic inquiry freed the data and dragged it along to another massive computer, which broke down the profile into all its component parts. Immediately and simultaneously, a massive bank of parallel processors tapped the computers near infinite store of knowledge and began to verify each and every bit of data.
Everything check perfectly. All the records of her education confirmed Leona Sarkin's personality profile. Computers confirmed the length of her current residence, Her credit history and her medical history matched, item for item, the masters that had produced them. Everything checked, everything was in order.

Though everything fell perfectly together, the computer was not satisfied and began digging deeper. The effort proved worth it. An acquaintance listed on Leona's mothers side showed an inconsistency in her record. Using this as a lever, the computer began to tear apart the Leona Sarkin profile.

Eventually it found exactly what it was looking for and quickly determined that the data satisfied the criteria for a perfect pairing. This triggered another piece of programming burrowed deep within the Monopole computer, It coaxed the entire passenger list for the Silver Eagle from the computer and retreated without leaving any evidence that it had ever been there.

The computer bundled all the information, including statements about probabilities and error disclaimers and sent it out. The data package coursed through a series of computers and networks. Once the information had passed along the chain, each computer erased all trace of the data. Twice the information had to be moved physically from one machine to another before it could continue its journey.

Finally, the information scrolled across the viewscreen built into a desktop. It paused at the end of each page so that the reader could catch up. Then, as the reader punched a button, a whole new page of text appeared. The overview, only three pages in length, contained all the pertinent information the reader would need.

Duke Aldo Rimmer sat back in his chair. He smiled coldly and licked his lips, “So,Governor Leong's daughter is bound out of the League. Having her kidnapped from a Skye world ought to put a stop to this alliance nonsense” He smiled to himself.

Hunting and pecking with his flesh and blood hand, Duke Rimmer edited the passenger list and itinerary from the document. Using an encryption program, he scrambled the data. Packaging the data bundle once more, he sent it off on it's journey to Enrico Rimmer on the Sprawl.

Duke Rimmer dumped the file from the computers buffer, “So long, Hanna Leong. Don't forget to write”


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Monarch Class Liner Silver Eagle.
Outbound From Mon Calamari.
Free Worlds League.
321ABY.
April 28th

Colonel Arden Sortek stepped around where his bags had been left by the porter and looked around the suite assigned to him.

“Rather different to the shipboard accommodations I'm used to” He smiled, “Certainly roomier and better furnished than those on a military ship”

Compared to the rooms he'd occupied recently at the Dac Government Hall, his suite was smaller, but almost as finely furnished. Gilded fixtures, mirrors and cut-crystal lamps combined with satin bunting and wood trim made him think of the old wooden ships that had once sailed the oceans of many a world in millennia past.

The living room boasted a pair of leather sofas arranged at right angles, one facing the main hatch and the other facing the hatch to the bedroom. Between them was a low glass-topped table. In the corner, to the left of the main entry hatch were two wing backed chairs bracketing a small wood table and in the opposite corner, a small unobtrusive holo-viewer was sat. A small hatch opposite the bedroom led to the fresher.

Heading into the bedroom, he marvelled at the furnishings. Though small, the room still held a large bed, one that seemed to harken back to older times, with gauzy curtains and fabrics hanging from four tall corner posts.

“Yes” He murmured, “I think I shall enjoy my trip indeed”

-----------------------------------------------------------

Hanna Leong scowled as the porter dropped her bags in the doorway and then stood as if expecting something. He did not withdraw until Hanna pressed a credit chit into his sweaty palm. Frowning as if afraid of catching some disease, the porter turned and withdrew from the cabin. The hatch squeaked as it slid shut.

“Great!” Hanna shook her head and surveyed the wood panelled room. She reached out and tapped a finger against the panelling, “Plastic with a pseudo-cellulose veneer” She stalked across the cabin, which took three short strides, and poked the sofa facing the entrance, “Folds out into a bed, manually”

She folded her arms across her chest and sat down hard upon the sofa. The cabin, which she guessed was twice as wide as it was deep, reminded her of nothing so much as the barracks she'd heard about of some of the more rugged worlds in the Free Worlds League.
The rooms furnishings were serviceable, and certainly more than Leona Sarkin had ever own. It was obvious however , that they had been moved to this lower deck from the luxury decks because of their worn condition, The holo-viewer, next the hatchway to the fresher shared with the cabin next to hers, had a minute screen.

The deck trembled with a slight vibration as the ship began it's run to hyperspace and a great emptiness opened up in Hanna. A lump rose in her throat and her lower lip quivered. Tears washed the room out focus.

“Stop it” Hanna whispered and slammed his balled right fist down on her thigh, “Leona Sarkin would not be crying right now. This is her 'Great Adventure'”

She shook her head, then massaged her thigh, “But I'm not Leona Sarkin. I am the daughter of Duke Sebastian Leong, Governor of Corellia-in-exile. I don't have to live in a rat hole, I deserve better”

From somewhere in her mind, a sinister voice stirred her inner most fears, “Deserve, deserve? Deserving means you've earned something. What have you earned, child of plenty?” Harsh laughter seemed to echo through her soul, “Here, Hanna Leong, you will begin to earn what you so arrogantly believe you deserve. See how the people live. Endure the same indignities to body and spirit and body. Then, and only then, will you begin to deserve”

---------------------------------------------------------

“So, Colonel Sortek, that's the basic layout of the Silver Eagle” Captain Basz Rix pointed to the illuminated chart at the rear of the bridge, “we differ from other Monarch class ships because we ripped out two cargo bays and added more passenger decks. We carry three-hundred-fifty passengers, and have expanded all facilities to handle the increased population”

Arden nodded and tapped the image of the large dining facility in the centre of the wall chart, “I notice you have one dining facility. I thought the Monarch split up dining by passenger class”

The Mon Calamarian laughed, “When Monopole refitted the Silver Eagle, they decided to do away with class distinctions. The dining room bridges four decks and we've found that the ordinary passengers enjoy a chance to catch a glimpse of celebrities such as yourself” The captain tapped a smaller area on the deck where Arden's cabin was located, “We do have a private dining and recreation area, if you wish to escape the steerage passengers”

Arden looked shocked and then laughed, “Captain, if my government were not covering my bills, I'd be down in steerage myself. In fact, as I told the purser earlier, I expect to get tossed in with the general population at meals” He shrugged, “After all, why would I want to be stuck rubbing elbows with folks who'd have nothing to do with me if I were paying my own way?”

Captain Rix smiled warmly and offered Arden his hand, “Once again, Colonel, let me heartily welcome you aboard the Silver Eagle”


-------------------------------------------------------------

The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.
321ABY.
April 30th.

“He's lying, Ran” Ash shook her head.

The Tamarian translator's head jerked around around to stare at her. Natasha had slipped into the cabin via another access hatch. She stood with her hands in her pockets and nodded to the elder Tamarian seated between the translator and Ran, “The old man says he does remember where the weapons shipment was hidden”

Ran reached out and grabbed the translator's tunic, “Going to come back and sell me the information later, Shih?” Ran shoved him back in his chair, which tottered over and smashed the man flat on the floor, “Ash, tell the old man I'll set him up with fifteen-thousand credits, if he'll tell me where the shipment is hidden, and another ten if the information is confirmed by the discovery”

Ash walked over to the old man and knelt at his feet. She smiled warmly at the Tamarian and slowly, lyrically, translated what Ran had offered.

The old man, the last surviving veteran of an ill-fated Oberon offensive against the New Republic half a century before, considered the offer, then nodded. Carefully and precisely, he explained to Natasha the exact location of the weapons shipment. As his recall continued, he added information about the booby traps his people had organized before they were shipped off planet. Whenever the old man paused to remember, Ash translated faithfully for Ran.

Satisfied, Ran stood and gave the old man a handful of credit chits, then turned to stare at the translator, “If you harass this man, if anyone steals his money, I'll come after you”

The translator nodded weakly, “I understand”

Ran jerked his head to the side. The translator quickly scrambled to his feet and fled the apartment. Ran and Ash bowed reverently to the old man, who spoke once more as they slipped through the door. Ash replied to him, then joined Ran in the corridor.

“What did he say, Ash?” Ran flattened himself against the bulkhead as three small children ran screaming and giggling through the corridor.

Ash smiled as she sidestepped the children, “He invited us back again when you felt even more generous”

“And your reply?”

“I told him, large in the purse is not soft in the head” Ash grinned.

Ran laughed and set off down the corridor, “I didn't know you spoke old Tamarian”

“You never asked” Ash shrugged, “I'm also somewhat fluent in Rodese, Huttese, Lepese, Sullustese, Mandalorian and Umbarese”he smirked, “I can also curse in seven different dialects of Gunganese, though that's a limited talent I'll admit”

“I'm not even going to ask how that one came about” Ran frowned.

“Long story” Ash laughed, “But it's a good story. With explosions and pirates and zombies and pirate-zombie-ninjas”

“Are you so sure it happened?” Ran cocked an eyebrow as they climbed into a transport car.

Ash turned thoughtful, “It is kinda vague. I may had a concussion at the time”

Ran snorted and looked out of the view port of the transport car. Through the cars windows and those of the tube, he could see that they'd emerged from the old Loronor Strike Cruiser that served as living space and were now travelling down the slender connection to the immense shape of the Lusankya.

“Amazing isn't it?” He said aloud, “That ship and others like it used to strike fear into the hearts of people and now it's just living space, shopping precincts and workshops”

Ash nodded, “I did once read that the Galactic Empire built them purely as weapons of mass destruction” She shuddered, “And then they went and built the Death Stars, World Harvesters, Sun Crushers and a whole host of nasty planet smashing weapons. Why were they so obsessed with such things?”

Ran shrugged, “Hedging their bets I guess. If you have the monopoly on something like that, it's unlikely any enemy will too”

“Maybe” Ash shrugged in return, “Still, does make you wonder how the Scavs dragged that thing here from where ever it had been dumped. Especially as I heard it's engines had already been stripped out by then”

Ran laughed, “The Scavs are nothing if not resourceful. Rumour is they have a pair of Galactica Tugs hidden away that they keep maintained. Both of those would be big enough to do the job”

Ash whistled, “I've heard about the Galacticas. Little more than a pair of three kilometre long engine units with a cockpit and a quad of heavy grappler arms. They stopped making those about 142ABY”

“Just too big” Ran nodded as the transport car slipped into the Lusankya, “You could use them in the sort of environment you'd need a tug and they had some pretty major issues with manoeuvrability. But for the occasional one of use such as dragging an Executor class around, they were perfect”

Ash started to answer, then she caught sight of something at the terminus, “Uh oh. Looks like a welcoming committee”

Ran looked himself and saw a group of armed thugs waiting along with Gar Noton, “This could be a problem”

“Ran Gavin and Ashley Loran” Noton said coldly once the two had disembarked, “You thought you could steal from me?”

“I don't know what you're talking about” Ran kept his voice even.

“By the way” Ash interjected, “That's Natasha, thank you very much” Noton shut her up with a dangerous look.

“You recorded a private conversation” Noton said, “To me, that is stealing. Thought you could perhaps undercut me? Make your own deals?” At their expressions of surprise, “Oh, I have my own sources. And do you honestly think I didn't have my own people watching Rimmer?” He looked at Ran, “Your slicing skills may be enough to beat Rimmer's security, but you still left your marks all over the data”

Ran shrugged, “Just thought we'd make a little cash to keep us going. What you're planning with Rimmer is none of my business”

“Our business” Ash quickly interjected, “We're not interested in anything at all”

Noton stepped forwards and backhanded Ash across the face, the blow spinning her to the ground, “Do you think I'm stupid?” He roared.

Ash held a hand to her reddening cheek and stared up at him, “Well, when you put it that way” Her remark earned her a brutal kick to the ribs. Several bystanders tried to ignore what was happening and hurried on their way.

“Ash!” Ran stepped towards Noton and found himself staring down the barrel of a dozen blasters, “We can pay you anything you think we owe”

“You can't afford what you owe” Noton shook his head, “Take them to the nearest airlock”

Before anyone could move to obey, a new voice cut through the air, “Gavin! Gavin!” Dorga the Hutt roared, his anger so great that he had forgone his use of his repulsorsled. With him were two dozen of his thugs.

“Stay out of this Dorga” Noton turned, “This is my business”

“I will not” Dorga jabbed a stubby arm at Ran, “I have business of my own with him” He jabbed at Ash, who still sat on the floor, “And her”

“How can I help you Dorga” Ran said evenly, thankful for the distraction from impending death.

“Those Frostfire gems were fake” Dorga snapped, “I spent a lot of credits stealing.....I mean, acquiring them and they are worthless”

Ash was on her feet in an instant, “Now you can't blame us for that. We gave you the information in good faith. It's not out fault if they turned out to be fake”

The Hutt stared at her with big, suspicion filled eyes, “I can't? Then who is to blame?”

“Why, Feyyr of course” Ash said referring to Dorga's rival, “He probably learnt about your plan to steal the gems and swapped them for the fakes”

Dorga stared at her for a moment, “Yes, he might have done. He's sneaky like that. Always trying to make me look the fool”

“And you are a fool if you believe this rubbish” Noton spat, “Now, please leave. I have important business that does not concern you”

Dorga's voice turned cold, “I am no fool and this is important” Around him, his thugs tensed up, mirroring the stances of Noton's men.

“Dorga!” A voice shouted out, “Dorga, you thieving worm!”

Ran became aware that a crowd of nervous, yet curious onlookers was starting to gather as a very dangerous looking T'surr approached them with his own group of armed thugs.

“What now?” Noton demanded, “Seriously, is every gang boss on the Sprawl going to show up to stake a claim on these two?”

Four red eyes stared balefully at Noton, “These two do not concern me” Feyyr rumbled, “My business is with the Hutt”

“Fine, handle your business elsewhere” Noton snapped, “Take the Hutt and go”

“No!” Dorga shouted, “Not until I have my money back from these two” He gestured at Ash and Ran.

“For the gems you stole from me?” Feyyr bared his fangs and tilted his horned head threateningly, “Then that money is mine by rights”

Dorga turned to stare at the T'surr, “It is mine”

Noton threw up his hands in disgust, “This is ridiculous” He drew his blaster and pointed it at Feyyr, “Leave now” He said threateningly.

Feyyr stared incredulously at the blaster, even Dorga was horrified. One did not go around threatening a T'surr unless they were already several star systems away. The tension in the terminus seemed to climb to new heights and Ran could already seeing some of the bystanders fleeing to avoid what they feared was coming next.

He was just looking for a way for the two of them to slip away when Ash suddenly shouted out, “You fools, they're going to fire. Shoot them!” and then promptly tackled him to floor.

The three gangs, already at a height of tension, obligingly opened fire before their brains registered that the voice that had spoken wasn't their boss. Laser fire and screams filled the air as Ash pressed him against the deck.

“We got to get out of here” Ash whispered as one of Noton's guards dropped to the floor next to them with a smoking crater where his face should have been.

“Agreed, this way” Ran instructed as they rose into a crouch and he led her down onto the transport tube rail.

Using the higher platform as cover the worked their way clear of the main fighting and then back up onto the platform to cut across the one of the exits. As they ducked down the corridor, into the fleeing crowds of terrified sentients, Ran cast a look over his shoulder in time to see Feyyr go down under a barrage of laser fire as the Sprawls local security forces turned up.

Mandalorian Enforcers charged and rode rocket packs into the fray. Their weapons fire was deadly and accurate, a single shot or two being more effective than the flurry of fire the thugs were tossing around. Despite his hideous injuries, the T'surr rose shakily and with a roar of rage charged the nearest Mandalorians, knocking two over and trapping the third against a bulkhead. That warrior, calmly twisted her wrist where it had been trapped against Feyyr's stomach and fired her wrist rockets, blowing the T'surr's guts out through his spine and all but tearing the gang boss in two.

Gar Noton quickly found himself surrounded by a half dozen Enforcers, but rather than go peacefully, he drew a vibroblade and from what Ran could tell at this distance, challenged one of the Mandalorians to close combat. The Mandos simply shot him.

Dorga on the other hand, just curled into a big fleshy ball and waited the fight out in terror.

Ash caught sight of more thugs charging in through the crowds. “Seriously, time we were out of here”

She started to head down the corridor, but slammed into something hard and immoveable, rebounding off to sprawl on the floor.

The two of them found themselves looking at the distinctive 'T' shaped visors of a dozen Mandalorian Enforcers, every single one of the pointing their weapons at them.

“Nastasha Loran. Ran Gavin, you will come with use peacefully” The lead Mando said.

With a sigh, Ran held his hands up in surrender and a second later, Ash slowly climbed to her feet and did the same.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Trinity Class Super Star Destroyer Black Hand.
Elom Orbit.
Circinus March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
May 1st

Jacob slipped into the conference room expecting to be the last one there, but was relieved to see that his assumption was wrong.

“Calm, Commander” Admiral Vika Zaan nodded, “The Field Marshall has not yet arrived”

With a sigh of relief, Jacob nodded to Patrick Tarn-Varik and then to Colonel Kelzpol, the Ryn who headed up the Black Hands ISF contingent. Slipping into a seat, he looked to the Admiral, “A small meeting then?”

The Torgruta nodded, “Field Marshall Onasi wanted to keep things like this until we have something concrete”

At the moment, the door hissed open and Field Marshall Jorge Onasi marched into the room and with little fanfare, took a seat, “Tell me we have something”

Kelzpol spoke first, “We've backtracked the Federation ships and compared it with their escape vectors. They definitely came from the Iska region of the Circinus Federation. Possibly from Towne or Dierion” The Ryn scowled, “At least two of the squadrons were previously based as far rim-ward as Bonadon and one of the Ferro Cruisers was last known to have been assigned to Toola”

“Why such pull a strike force together from such spread out assets?” Jacob frowned.

“Perhaps the Federation is suffering a ship and manpower shortage” Onasi shrugged, “We know where all their border garrisons are. Any ships being drawn off for a strike might have caught our attention”

“Or maybe they were expendable” Patrick pointed out, “We've seen it before. Military units with questionable loyalties sent on a high risk mission. If they succeed, the Federation wins. If they get destroyed, the Federation rids itself as a potential threat and wins”

Onasi conceded the point with a nod, “True” He looked to Kelzpol, “Any indications of either scenario?”

“None as yet” The ISF officer shrugged, “But I can request a few data raids”

“Do we have an anything about the purpose of the strike?” Zaan asked, “Regardless of where those units came from, they still struck at us”

“Early indications and interrogation of prisoners and ship logs do indicate that I was their primary target” Onasi frowned, “Even with the Black Hand on station, they apparently hoped to destroy my ship and be clear before the Black Hand could pin them in”

“What about the ground forces?” Zaan asked.

“A distraction” Patrick spoke up, “They landed just close enough to few important industrial sites to force us to move to engage them, but we found most of them were crew less. Jury rigged with crude droid systems to give them a few basic movement and combat capabilities” He shrugged, “Enough to be a nuisance and keep us occupied”

Jacob shook his head, “There's still something about this that bothers me. They had to have known the Black Hand was here” He nodded to Onasi, “The Field Marshall hasn't exactly be hiding during his tour of the border worlds. They could have struck at him at a dozen different places. Why wait until he's in the same system as a ship the Federation would need a good chunk of it's navy to take on?”

“True” Onasi nodded, “There's something about either Elom, or the battle itself that required they make the strike here. But what?”

“That, Field Marshall” Zaan scowled, “Is the question”

-------------------------------------------------------


Skye Royal Palace.
Nashira.
Skye, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
May 3rd.

Harrison Tarn looked up as Subhash Indrahar rolled into the room in his chair. The spy master glanced at the rooms other occupant, hesitated and set a holodisc down on a table.

“Forgive me Highness” Indrahar nodded, “I did not realize you were occupied with a guest”

Knowing full well that such a thing never escaped the spymaster, Harrison smiled, “Not at all. Have you two met? Subhash Indrahar, Count of Kestrel, Head of the ISF and Minister for Intelligence, Information and Operations, this is Baron Robert Gruizot. He's been sent by Duke Miles to ensure closer cooperation of efforts between the Republic March and the rest of the Skye Alliance”

Indrahar had to force a smile as he shook hands with the noble from Ord Mantell. Harrison saw it and understood, for it was truly difficult to look at Gruizot. Swarthiness and corpulence were often a problem of genetics, but this unkempt man's lack of personal hygiene was enough to make the Prince wish for a Skrilling or Balosar in his place.

The Baron, his hands freed of social duties, picked at his teeth, “Pleased to meet you Subhash. I've heard a lot about you. Made sure I had my Kentares Flu shots before I started out from home”

“So I gathered from you file” Indrahar remarked dryly.

“You have a report for me?” Harrison asked.

“Sort of, more news than anything. Two items of interest” Indrahar frowned.

“Should I be leaving?” The Baron asked reluctantly.

Harrison frowned, “Why would you leave? I have no secrets from Miles. You, as his representative, are due the same courtesy. We are, after all, nobles of the Skye Alliance” He pointed Gruizot to a chair where the Baron seated himself like an obedient child, “Please Subhash, continue”

Indrahar nodded, “It seems that after a number of delays on his part, Julian Tiepolo and small honour guard will be coming to Skye on the seventh. There were delays in the sending of the message too it seems, hence the small heads up time”

Harrison frowned, “Unusual for Tiepolo to even be travelling off Ossus these days. Why is the Grandmaster of the Jedi Order making such a trip?”

“A curious question indeed, my Prince” Gruizot nodded.

Indrahar shrugged as much as his weakened body would allow, “Details are somewhat sketchy, but I was eventually able to coax the reason out of Tiepolo's representative” He took a calming breath, “It seems that doing a recent Jedi mission, one of them recovered the remains of Jenna Tarn”

“What?” Harrison stared at the spymaster, “Could it be true? Have they truly found her remains?”

“It seems so” Indrahar nodded, “Apparently, they were able to confirm it with genetic comparisons with descendants of Jasek Tarn. He severed ties with the Alliance when he joined the Order three centuries ago, but his current descendants still bear enough Tarn genes for a conclusive match, they say”

The Baron made a sour face, “What do they hope to gain by returning the remains of a long dead woman?”

“A little goodwill” Harrison said, “The Jedi have been wanting to send scouts into the unknown regions beyond Skye's Borders and out to the Tingal Arm. Maybe they are hoping to grease the wheels a bit as it were”

Gruizot sniffed, “I would hope you'll tell them where to go. They should return those bones and expect nothing in return”

“Actually, I would be inclined consider their requests” Harrison smiled, “Those worlds beyond our borders have little strategic or material use to us at the moment. If the Jedi wish to explore out there, they are welcome to do so” He looked at Indrahar, “I'm sure we could even load them a pocket carrier or a scout ship or two to help support their efforts”

“It could be possible” The old man nodded.

“I don't understand” Gruizot frowned.

Harrison suppressed a smile, “It's simple. The Jedi don't have the kind of ships needed for an extended scouting expedition. Nor the support bases that close to the borders. We can provide both. In return, we get the chance to learn what the Jedi learn and in return, the Jedi owe us a favour”

Gruizot nodded in understanding, “Brilliant planning, my Prince. Simply brilliant”

Harrison all, but ignored the sycophantic words of praise, “What was the other bit of news?”

“The Silver Eagle left Mon Calamari on the twenty-eighth of April” Indrahar replied, “It should Enter Skye Alliance space around the seventeenth of May. I expect it to reach Telos by about early June”

Gruizot, whose ears pricked up at the mention of a ship form the Free Worlds League, frowned, “Why the interest in a commercial liner?”

Indrahar looked at the Baron quizzically, “Didn't you know? Colonel Sortek is returning on that ship. I thought that certainly you would have monitored the travels of the Republic March's favourite son”

Gruizot stammered nervously, “Well, you know, so many duties.....”

Indrahar nodded, “Indeed”

“This welcome news” Harrison said, smiling broadly, “Welcome news indeed”

------------------------------------------------------------------


Balmorra.
Republic March.
Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
May 7th.

Alexandria Tarn laughed as she spread her cards out, “Ha, Fools Array” She looked only half apologetic as she looked at her commanding officer, “Sorry, boss” She grinned.

Newly promoted Colonel Col Levin smirked as he threw down his cards in disgust, the Pure Sabaac hand he'd had almost taunting him, “Careful Captain” He shot back, “Those rank bars aren't so new they can't be taken back”

“Sore loser ain't yer, Colonel” Sergeant Walter De Mensil laughed and took a slug of his beer, before scooping up the cards, and dealing them out, “You'll probably win it back soon enough anyway. Every ones luck runs out sooner or later”

“Maybe” Alex shrugged as she pulled the pile of chips towards her, “Just enjoying it while it lasts”

“Rich one minute, poor the next” Robert Craon, the newest officer of the Seventeenth snorted in mock disgust then stood and walked away from the table to flop bonelessly on the battered sofa that graced the officers lounge, “In case, you didn't know. I'm out”

“Me too” Sini Cha sighed and stood and wandered to lean against the modest kitchen unit.

“Hugh?” Col looked at the other officer to have recently earned Captain rank, “You in or out?”

“In” Hugh De Payens frowned and pushed a pile of chips to the centre of the table, “Fifty creds” He said, glancing at his cards.

“I see your fifty” Alex smiled.

“Raise” Col grinned, “Seventy”

De Mensil scowled at his cards, adjusted his eyepatch and nodded, “I can match that”

The Zabrak scout commander Losk, shook his head, “I'm crazy for doing this, but I'm in”

“Not too confident then” Alex grinned at him.

“He normally likes winning” De Mensil laughed “And he hasn't done so well today”

“I do normally do better than this” Losk conceded.

Levin laughed, “By the way, I hear you won't be joining us when we ship out, Walter” He said the one eyed tank commander.

Walter De Mensil nodded, “Aye. I've been in the service sixty years now. My retirements up and I am to take it”

“We'll be sorry to see you go Sarge” De Payens raised his bottle in salute.

Levin raised his own bottle, “To Walter De Mensil, the best Sergeant the Seventeenth Training Battalion ever had. Without you, this unit would have fallen apart long ago”

De Mensil chuckled, “I remind you, Colonel, that I was the only Sergeant in the Seventeenth” He smiled and mirth gleamed in his single brown eye.

Levin chuckled, “Hell, if the unit had been in real trouble, we'd have gotten a sergeant with two eyes. We'll miss you Walter, sure you won't reconsider?”

De Mensil shook his grey-maned head, his left hand straying up to touch the patch over his right eye, “Sorry, Colonel. I've seen to many years to keep going” He looked around at the other officers present, “I promised my wife that when my time came up I'd take retirement and we'd return home to Bastion” He smiled at the young woman to his right, “Besides, you've got Alex Tarn now. She'll be enough to get you guys into trouble”

Alex laughed, “I think that's what they're afraid of, Sarge”

De Mensil shook his head, “It's just Walter now. So you're being mobilized then?” He asked Levin, “Thought it would be happening, what with the round of promotions”

Levin nodded, “Got the assignment this morning” Seeing the expectant looks on his officers faces, he smiled, “Let me guess, you have pool riding on this?”

Sini Cha nodded enthusiastically , “Well, yes, but don't worry. We all chipped in and bought you a unit just so you'd not be left out”

Levin shook his head, “I'll bet you did. No way I can write you up for it, if I'm in on it” He thought. “So what did you get me?” He asked, “The Taurian Second Sword of Light or Duke Miles Fel-Tarn's personal bodyguard regiment?”

Craon chuckled, “Well, sir, strictly speaking, we didn't consider those units to be fair. We did limit the selection to units on 'our' side”

Losk nodded, “Don't worry sir, we'll let you know if you won. So, what is it?”

Alex shot a look at the Zabrak, “Can't wait to lose you money can you?”

“Or win it” Losk grinned, then looked at Levin, “Care to tell us the verdict”

“Don't” Sini Cha cut in, “If he wins, he'll have to pay for dinner. And he needs those credits for his mothers operation”

“No Captain” Craon laughed, “That's his sabaac winnings. He this money to pay for his sisters brood of half-wit children”

Levin joined in the laughter, “Well, We're being assigned to the Tarn Light Guards” Seeing his subordinates looks of utter disbelief, he smiled, “That's right, we're being posted to one of the premier units in the Skye Alliance. We apparently attracted some attention during the Galahad Wargames a few months back. And then fighting our way out of the ambush, back in January”

“De Payens frowned, “We're a Republic March unit, Sir. Yourself and Captains Tarn and Cha are the only ones with an academy background. Why would we be assigned to one of the Tarn House units?”

Eyes turned to Alex, “Don't look at me” She protested, “This is the first I've heard of this. I'm as clueless as you all are”

Levin nodded, “I've asked myself the same questions a few times already”

“Don't forget” De Mensil pointed out, “This unit has only seen combat once so far, but that's still more than the academy cadres. And the Seventeenth acquitted itself well”

Sini Cha nodded, “Walter's right. The Light Guards specialise in fast strikes with light units. The academies tend to turn out either snub jockeys or pilots who want to ride the big machines”

“I smell politics in this” Alex shrugged, “Duke Miles and my father haven't exactly gotten on well the last few years. Now he earmarks additional defences for the Republic March and moves a March unit into a House unit? I'd say he's trying to smooth a few ruffled feathers”

Craon smiled, “What's wrong with that, Captain? One of the problems with relations between folks in the Republic March and the Skye March systems is that those from Skye think we're savages with a frontier mentality. You've seen some of the rivalries between the Skye Assault Guards and the Fifth Sytris Fusiliers since they both got posted here to Balmorra. The Guards treat the Fusiliers like poor relations”

Levin smiled evenly, “I seem to recall that's how they treated the Seventeenth until we drove off that ambush. No one says the normalization process won't be tough, but I'm confident our people will get through it. We'll earn the respect of the Light Guards”

Losk sighed, “Maybe a posting with the Second Sword of Light might have been easier”

“We'll see” Levin smiled, “So, did you win?” When the Zabrak shook his head, Levin turned to De Payens, “Hugh?”

“Not me” De Payens grinned, as did Alex and Sini Cha.

“Robert? Walter?” Levin frowned in confusion, “Confess please”

Alex smiled sheepishly, “Well, sir. You recall we said we'd covered you...?”

Levin nodded, “So you chose a unit you though we'd never be assigned to just to keep me in the pool, is that right?”

The officers all nodded solemnly. Alex handing him a pile of cred chits.

“How much did I win?” Levin sighed, knowing he'd be buying dinner.

“Five-hundred and fifty credits” Alex answered.

“That much?” Levin frowned, “You guys know the rules on in unit gambling”

Alex affected a look of innocence that was mimicked by the others, “We figured we'd be okay since our CO was taking part” She said with mock seriousness.

“Yeah, be very difficult to report you when I'm involved wouldn't it” He laughed, “Fine, dinner tomorrow is on me. We'll even try to get Gol and James with us. Make it a command staff dinner”

----------------------------------------------------------------

Monarch Class Liner Silver Eagle.
Kittery Orbit.
Skye Alliance/Free Worlds League Border.
321ABY.
May 17th.

Arden Sortek held out Leona Sarkin's chair for her as they joined Commander Erik Mahler. Ret., and his wife Hilda at their table. Mahler stood until Leona had taken her seat, then waved Arden to his chair.

“I have looked forward to this meal since I saw the schedule this morning” Mahler glanced up at the balcony where most of the celebrities took their meals, “I could hardly believe you would be dining with us common folk”

Arden smiled broadly, “Well, Commander, you must know form your own days serving that no soldier could resist the charms of your wife and Leona here”

The grey haired former pilot smiled and laid a hand over that of his blushing wife, “True enough Colonel” Mahler gave Arden the wine list, “You will share some wine with us? And you, Ms Sarkin? We tried the white from Noquivzor last evening, and found it quite satisfactory”

Leona nodded her agreement, while Arden said with a smile, “I agree, but only if we order two bottles and apply the cost to my bill. Consider it a gift of friendship from Prince Harrison Tarn”

Mahler clapped his hands, “Done”

Leona shot Arden a sidelong glance, “Generous with your leader's money, aren't you?”

Arden unfolded his cloth napkin and spread it over his lap, “Indeed, Leona, did you not know that Prince Harrison Tarn is a widower with no one -not even young children- to spend the Tarn fortunes on” He shrugged, “Besides, the Prince shares technology with the Free Worlds League. Could he fault me for sharing wine with the three of you?”

Hilda smiled and toyed with her long braid of white-blond hair, “We appreciate the gesture, Colonel, and we do have some love for your leader. We think, as do most Leaguers” She looked at Leona, who gave an approving nod, “That the accords signed between our governments will mean good things for both our nations”

“Thank you, I share your hope for a prosperous and peaceful future” Arden smiled.

The waiter arrived with their meals and the wine steward poured a small amount of wine into Arden's glass. When he tasted it and pronounced it an excellent vintage, the steward also filled his companions glasses. The dinner conversation wound its way pleasantly, but lightly through the amusing chatter of strangers getting to know each other, but took a turn towards the serious as the waiter cleared the plates to serve brandy.

Mahler frowned as he stared into the golden glow of his brandy, “Tell me Colonel, what is your opinion of the balance of power in our galaxy? Do you think we'll see any big changes or do you believe that things have now settled into a somewhat permanent stability?”

Arden frowned for a moment, “It's difficult to say” He answered, “Certainly, the last major shifting of borders occurred in 300ABY, when the Free Worlds League took the central worlds of the old Cronese Mandate from the Circinus Federation” He shrugged, “And that was just a reclaiming of worlds seized by the Federation in the conflict of 292ABY. Baring any major conflicts, I doubt we'll see any major border shifts and the last true border shifting war was the war of 193ABY”

Leona leaned forwards, “That was the same conflict that laid the groundwork for the alliance between our two nations”

“Indeed” Mahler nodded, “Though the seeds were sown much earlier in 178ABY following the resolution of the Skye Alliance Civil War”

Arden nodded, “Anya Tarn and Oro Rix met and discussed an alliance back then, but little came of it beyond a few territorial agreements and a formal non-aggression pact”

Hilda frowned, “I'm guessing back then, there was just still too much suspicion between our nations”

Arden gave a nod, “Skye had just come out of a devastating civil war and under the Usurper's orders strikes had been made against League worlds. It was the war of 193ABY and Aaron Tarn's decision to send forces to assist in the defence of Mon Calamari that really cemented our friendship”

“There's still a lot of tension even now” Hilda shook her head, “Especially amongst the nobles and the border worlds”

“One group fears a loss of power” Leona shrugged, “The other fears they may be traded away in 'negotiations'”

“There a similar feelings on the Skye side too” Arden pointed out, “Alessendro Tarn is rumoured to still have designs on the throne despite the years since Katrina Tarn deposed him. So far, Harrison has fended him off well, but it doesn't mean Alessendro won't stop trying. Likewise, some of the worlds on the borders are wary of FWL intentions, just as worlds on your side worry about Skye's intentions”

“True” Leona nodded, “We all just need a little time to get to know each other”

“To getting to know each other” Arden raised in glass and waited to the others had done likewise, “To friendship”

----------------------------------------------------

Captain Basz Rix nodded as he walked onto the bridge and noted his crew at their duties, “Anything to report?” He asked his first officer, an earnest young man from Contruum, out on his first tour.

Lieutenant Colo Farr nodded, “Not much, Captain. Just a report from Monopole Control that our relief bridge crew has changed. Apparently Commander Pfister's crew has taken sick, so a new crew has been arranged out of Gala”

The Captain frowned. “Pfister needs to keep an eye on his crews. If they've all come down with something, then he needs to start laying down ground rules on where and what they eat when on shore leave” The Mon Calamarian officer glanced at his FO, “If you want to stay in my good books, watch what you eat. Don't try anything that's meant for other species if you've never had it before”

“Yes sir” Farr replied, “Only other thing to report is that we're cleared with Kittery Control to put down at the West Allen Space port tomorrow”

“Good” Rix nodded in satisfaction, “We'll let our passengers have the chance to stretch their legs and we'll launch again on the...” He glanced at the charts, “On the 20th. Two days ahead of schedule. Good, good” He examined the calender, “Hmmmm, in fact. We may even reach Cork in time for the annual meteor showers”

“We'll make this a cruiser to remember for our passengers”


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Location: England
Monarch Class Star Liner Silver Eagle
Gala.
Skye Alliance
321ABY
May 24th

“A pleasure to meet you, Captain Rix” Philip Capet shook the Mon Calamarian's hand.

“Likewise” Rix nodded his bulbous head, “I'm glad Monopole was able to arrange you and your crew at short notice”

Capet nodded, his elaborate moustache bobbing with the movement, “My people and I were rota'd for another Liner -the Star Saber-, but they had to cancel the cruise due to a hyperdrive failure. Coolant leak apparently, she'll be in dry dock for a few months, which left me and my guys at a loose end” He shrugged, “Monopole called and we answered”

Rix looked unsure, “The Star Saber is only a light yacht. Are your crew rated for a ship this size?”

“Sure” Capet smiled and gestured at the Chagrian next to him, “Myn Amedda here used to fly Emperor Class Liners for Stella Spaceways, back before they went bankrupt”

“Is that right?” Rix looked at the Chagrian.

“It is. I spent a lot of time with Monarchs too. You can be assured that my capabilities are more than sufficient”

“Good” Rix nodded, “Now you all now the procedure? Your crew replaces my current night crew and provides emergency cover if any of my day officers are unable to do their duties”

“Got it” Capet nodded.

“Very well” Rix smiled, “I'll give you a few hours to familiarize yourselves with the ship, then we'll rotate you onto the shift rota tomorrow night” He offered his hand again, “Welcome aboard”

------------------------------------------------------

A short time later, Capet and Amedda were in Capet's cabin. On the table between them, a small device hummed and -hopefully- blocked out listening probes if there were any.

“Is everything in place?” Capet asked his second-in-command.

“It is” Amedda nodded his horned head, “We had no problems getting the weapons aboard and our extra teams were able to board with the passengers. As long as we have no problems, we should be able to take over the ship during our first duty ship and make a jump straight to our Styx base”

“Good” Capet smiled, then noticed the frown on his compatriots face, “What?”

“It's this mission” Amedda scowled, “We've always been careful about the missions we've done, and they've nearly always been targeted at the Circinus Federation. Stealing weapons, sabotaging shipyards, occasionally kidnapping and assassinating a key officer. Our activities outside the Federation have always been limited to supply raids and data thefts. This is the first time Gar Noton has ever asked us to do something like this” He shook his head, “I don't like it, there's too much potential for things to go wrong”

“We've gone over this” Capet sighed, “We need the credits. If we hope to maintain our Styx base AND keep up the fight against our Federation oppressors we have to do this job”

“But stealing a passenger liner and taking it's crew and passengers hostage is going to draw a lot of attention our way” Amedda shot back, “And why are we risking our Styx base?”

“We have nowhere else” Capet scowled, “I know Noton wanted us to sort out a temporary base, but we didn't have the time or credits to get one in time. We'll have to make do and ensure security is maintained”

“I still don't like this” Amedda sighed, “But if we have to do it, let's do it right”

------------------------------------------------------------


The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.
321ABY.
May 25th

Ran groaned and rolled his head to try and work the aches out of his neck. He wanted to reach up and rub his neck but with his hands cuffed and chained to the table, that would prove difficult.
After nearly a month of being held in a tiny little cell with the only diversion being the regular meal delivery, the Mandos had finally had him dragged into an interrogation room.
A pair of the armoured soldiers wearing the insignia of Sprawl Security had dragged him her and chained him down and left him alone to ponder his thoughts once more.

He hadn't seen or heard anything of Ash since they'd been arrested following the Lusankya Terminal shoot-out. He'd tried to ask his guards, but they'd simply ignored him. Not knowing bothered him.

He looked up as the door opened and a Mandalorian, whose red trimmed armour denoted him as an officer- entered. Without a word, the Mandalorian sat at the table and removing his helmet – revealing himself to be an Ikotchi- , set it down and sat staring at Ran for a few minutes.

“So, Ran Gavin” The Ikotchi scowled, “You thought you could start a shoot out on my watch?”

“Me start it?” Ran said stunned, “I didn't even have my blaster drawn”

“No” The Ikotchi nodded, “But you were involved, you and Natasha Loran were the catalyst. I have fifty-three dead, seven of them civilians and four Mandalorians. Several thousand credits worth of work to be done to repair the damage caused and a huge mess to clear up” He absently scratched one of his horns, “That's the reason we left you in your cell so long, I wanted to know exactly what happened”

“You could have asked” Ran shrugged.

“Could I have trusted your words?” The Mandalorian shot back, “You don't exactly have a steller reputation”

Ran winced, “Look, it started when Gar Noton decided we'd been poking our nose into his business and decided to kill us for it”

“Did you?”

“Did I what?” Ran frowned.

“Poke your nose in” The Ikotchi said.

“Maybe” Ran sighed, “Well, we sold what we learned to Dorga and also gave him the location of a bunch of Frostfire Gems” He sighed, “They turned out to be fake, which brought Dorga into the situation and because he'd stolen them from Feyyr, that brought the T'surr in as well. Things got a little tense when Noton pointed his blaster at Feyyr, someone got twitchy and it all went to blazes”

The Ikotchi nodded, “Fits with what we learned. Incidentally, I am Arctan Varr and right now, I'm the person you don't want to tick off”

“Noted” Ran swallowed, “When can I leave?”

Varr snorted, “Whether or not you fired a shot, you still have a lot to answer to” He frowned, “You're facing some serious charges. I know the Sprawl is considered a free zone with us Mandalorians just providing general security and enforcing just the really serious stuff, but we can't look the other way when minor crimes result in a shoot out at a transport car terminus”

“Soooooo.....when can I leave?” Ran asked again, eliciting a scowl from Varr.

“I wouldn't count on it any time soon” Varr smirked, “Considering the charges you're facing -most of which would have been overlooked if they hadn't led to that shoot-out- You're looking at some serious jail time”

“Any alternatives?” Ran asked, already knowing the answer.

“Alternatives?” Varr frowned, “Not much better. Compete in the games, if you survive a melee round you go free. Of course, you'd need a sponsor”

“Who I'll be indebted to for a long time” Ran pointed out.

“True” Varr nodded, “The other choice?” He tapped his own helmet where it sat on the table.

“Join the Mandalorians” Ran sighed, “I'd be better off taking the jail time”

Varr laughed, “It's really not that bad. You get decent pay, you get a good pension. Food, board, living allowances. You get extra training for various disciplines you've probably never considered”

“All I have to do is sign up for life and spend it -however short it is- getting sent around the galaxy getting shot at” Ran laughed humourlessly.

“Worst ways to earn a living” Varr smiled, “Just think about it”

“I'll consider it” Ran said, then frowned at the Ikotchi, “What about my friend? Where's she?”

“Your friend?” Varr frowned, “Oh, yes. Natasha Loran. I'm not sure. I'm not handling her in this investigation. That's someone else’s department”

It was Ran's turn to frown, “I thought you were the lead investigator?”

“I am” Varr nodded, “But only up to interrogations, then she'd another officers focus. Not mine” The Ikothci frowned, “So, about the information you stole from Gar Noton...”


------------------------------------------------------------------

Repair Platform Beta-Four.
Terah Engineering Company Shipyards.
Tatooine Orbit.
Oberon Confederation.
321ABY.
May 26th

Galatea Terah watched with detached interest as the techs swarmed over the ship now berthed in Bay Five. A quick glance at her chrono told her they were ahead of schedule, they'd have the ship set up and ready for testing.

She'd hoped to have this test carried out weeks ago, but another emergency, this time relating to an accident on the Trident job had consumed her attention for that time.

“Two weeks behind because some idiot doesn't know the difference between a full fuel line and water transfer pipe” She muttered, “This place is going to the dogs”

She knew a large part of it was due to the 'credit saving' programs her father had begun two years ago. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers were hired to do jobs that previously only skilled workers were doing. Workers were doing jobs that droids had previously done and the droids they were using were hardly top of the line. In some cases work was rushed to meet a delivery date and sometimes, like the Hunter Patrol Ships, were being delivered long before they were ready.

“And all because my father wants to save a few credits” She sighed.

As if summoned by he words, the door to the observation room hissed open and the impressively expansive belly of Baron Logan Cameron-Terah III eased into the chamber.

“Galatea” Logan grunted, “What's this I hear about you running tests on those Hunters that were supposed to be with the Oberon Navy two days ago?”

Galatea shot him a look, “Did you even read the report I sent regarding the explosion suffered by one of the ones from Batch #58588?”

The pudgy Baron blinked at her, “I see a lot of reports, Daughter”

“I'll take that as a no” Galatea faced the window again, “I believe the explosion was a part of the engine imbalance issue I warned you about. I'm trying to find out if it was just that batch or if this is a design issue”

Her father sniffed, “How much is this costing?”

“Less than it'll cost to reimburse the Oberon Government if we don't sort the problem” Galatea pointed out.

“Well” Logan sneered, “Make it quite, there's other work to be done” Then he turned and swept from the room.

Grimacing, Galatea waited a few minutes then moved towards the other door that led to the bays control room.

Zanona Marko looked up as she entered, “We're about to start” He turned back to the screen he'd been viewing, “Watch the readout” He instructed the tech at that station. “What's the plan?” He asked Galatea.

“Replicate everything that crew did” She answered, “Start in test mode. Run the engines to full power and see what the data tells us”

Outside the view port, in the main area of the bay, the massive eggshell doors opened up exposing the bay to the open vacuum of space. In the event of an explosion or similar, the open bay would allow the debris to be pulled clear of the control rooms and the valuable equipment. The lack of oxygen would also minimize the risk of fire.

A dull thud -felt rather than heard- trembled the deck as the doors locked in place. Without needing to be prompted, the various techs began activating the Hunters relevant systems. At the same time, the clamps that held the held the ship aloft dropped away, leaving it suspended in the web of tractor beams that kept it in one place

“Power core online. Power at one-hundred percent”

“Navigation systems online”

“Bringing sublight engines online and running to one third power”

“Increase to seventy-five percent” Galatea ordered. She glanced at the screens showing the various data readouts, “Looking good so far”

“Yes” Marko nodded, “But I imagine the crew of 58588-C thought so too”

“True” Galatea conceded, “Okay, increase engine power to one-hundred percent”

“Increasing to One-hundred percent” The office controlling the engines via remote nodded.

On the displays, the graphic showing the Hunters engines showed the needle inching towards the red bar that denoted the ships maximum thrust. Outside in the bay, the Hunter shuddered in its tractor web as the engines began to thrust at maximum power.

“How long can we hold this?” Galatea asked, “Five minutes?”

“Probably closer to seven” Marko answered, “But that would be pushing the engines close to meltdown”

Galatea nodded, “We'll stick with five”

“Engine temperature still consistent” The engineer on the engine station called out, “We are showing a slight imbalance in the port engine”

“How much?” Galatea asked, exchanging a glance of apprehension with Marko.

“Point four percent” The tech answered, “Well within safety margins”

“Source” Marko asked, moving over and looking at the techs screens himself.

“Unknown” The tech shrugged, “Could be anywhere between the fuel lines and the thrust chambers”

“Could also be a software problem” Galatea frowned at another display, “Every system shows hundred-percent efficiency on the diagnostic”

“So why are we getting an imbalance?” Marko said, having to adjust his speech unit halfway through the sentence to ensure the question carried correctly.

“That, my friend, is the big question” Galatea sighed.

“Imbalance just jumped to sex percent” The tech interrupted.

“Whoa!” Galatea rushed to the techs terminal, “What the blazes? That was sudden”

“Just jumped from the point-four we had straight to six percent” The tech frowned, “Six point four, six point eight....seven percent” He frowned, “Seven point five. And holding”

Another tech called out, “I've traced the source. It's in the intermix systems” She frowned at her screens, “Can't tell where. Could be the pumps, could be the fuel mix itself. Could be a software issue”

“Wait!” Marko cut in, “Imbalance dropping and returning to normal levels” He glanced at a chrono, “Exactly fourteen seconds”

“As expected” Galatea sighed, “Okay, start powering down the engines” She ordered.

Marko looked at her, his expression hidden by his face mask, “We're not doing the hyperdrive test?”

“Not yet” Galatea shook her head, sending her red braid bouncing over her shoulder, “First, I want us to review every byte of data we've collected so far. Something is causing that imbalance and I want to know what it is” She frowned at one of the status screens, “I thought I said to shut down the engines” She said to the engine tech.

The tech scowled at his screens, “I did” He hammered at several keys, scowled again, then looked stricken, “Systems non-responsive. The engines won't shut down”

“Shut everything down” Galatea shouted to her crew, “Pull everything, every plug, every cable, every data card until that thing shuts down” As pandemonium descended on the control room, she took two strides to the nearest console and began typing in her own override codes in an attempt to get the systems to respond.

Marko meanwhile continued to watch the status displays, “There's that imbalance again” He said a few moments later, “Sithspit! Brace!” He shouted as the status displays showed something truly disturbing.

Galatea barely had time to grab the edge of the console before the engines of the blew apart in a massive explosion that obliterated the engine block of the ship, tore it from it's docking mount and propelled it forwards in a spin that crush it against the bay deck and off into space.
An instant later, the shock wave from the explosion slammed into the control room. Almost thrown from her feet by the violent shaking, Galatea managed to retain her footing and breather a sigh of relief as the reinforced transparisteel of the observation window held against the shock wave, though a spider-web of cracks appeared disturbingly in one corner.

“Get the blast shields down” She ordered, “Before that window goes”

Even as the order left her mouth, the rattle of debris striking the viewport could be heard above the semi-panic of the techs. Galatea looked up just in time to see one particularly large fragment of engine cowling hurtling towards them.

“Get those shields down” She all but screamed, knowing that there wasn't time.

The cowling struck the viewport hard, the already weakened transparisteel shattered sending a hail of razor sharp fragments across the control room. Several techs went down screaming in a spray of blood. Others went down without a sound.

Galatea felt her left side explode into pain, but she ignored it and wrapped her arms around the nearest safety rail, “Hold on” She shouted.

An instant later, the fragments and debris in the control room seemed to change direction as the vacuum outside pulled hungrily at the atmosphere within the control room. Debris, loose objects, corpses of the dead and the unrestrained bodies of the injured went whirling out in space.

Galatea's head ached with the pressure change and her ears popped, but she focused against her discomfort and sought out Marko. She found the Skakoan standing almost effortlessly in the centre of the chamber, using his pressure suits powerful exoskeleton to keep him in place as he helped several techs anchor themselves against the sucking force.

“Marko!” She shouted, fighting to make herself heard, “We need those blast shields down now!”

Marko glanced at her and then without a word, made sure the techs were safe and then in three deceptively effortless strides moved to the nearest console and slammed a fist down on a large red emergency panel.

Nothing happened.

Starting to feel light headed Galatea watched as Marko slammed his fist down again to the same result, then almost in frustration punched down through the control panel to the circuitry beneath.
This time, he finally achieved a result. The blast shields slammed down across the destroyed viewport, cutting off the vacuum and it's attempts to pull them into the depths of space. The control room thundered with the sounds of debris, equipment and bodies crashing to the floor.

Alive, but exhausted, Galatea released her hold on the rail and lumped to the floor. A moment later Marko was at her side.

“Galatea” He said, his concern evident even through the distortion filter, “You're hurt”

She glanced down at her left side, seeing the dozens of slashes to her jumpsuit and the flesh beneath. Blood welled up from the cuts, but the flow didn't seem to bad. The pain was probably worse than the actual injury.

“I'll live” She winced, “But we weren't supposed to”

“What do you mean?” Marko asked.

“The way we lost control over the engines, the blast shields not coming down. Every basic safety systems failing to activate” Galatea answered grimly, “I think we may have proved our sabotage theory. Someone doesn't want us to discover the cause of the imbalance and they were willing to kill us to stop us” Her voice took on a deadly tone, “And all they've done is make me angry”

-------------------------------------------------------------

Monarch Class Star Liner Silver Eagle
Styx.
Circinus Federation.
321ABY
May 27th

The happened so quickly. As the Silver Eagle had been preparing to jump for the last leg of the journey to Telos, Philip Capet''s people had made their move. Bolstered by their heavier weapons and the element of surprise, Capet's teams overpowered the liners meagre security force and took control of the vessel with only a handful of casualties.
With the Silver Eagle under his command, Capet had order a course to be laid in for his peoples base in the Styx asteroid field just over the border with the Circinus Federation.

Now, with the Silver Eagle know docked safely in the bases cavernous hanger bay, Capet had assured the passengers and crew that no harm would befall them as long as they behaved and informed them that they could make use of the ships facilities for the time being.

But now things had gone wrong.

“Are you sure?” Capet frowned at the comm tech.

The Gotal nodded, “I tried every frequency Noton gave us for contacting him. No response. When I tried to get a message to him through our own people on the Sprawl, they replied back that Noton was dead”

Capet massaged his temples with one hand, “What the hell are we supposed to do with all these passengers now? Our employer is dead and we only got half our pay”

“We could still ransom the passengers” Amedda pointed out.

“Except Noton had all the necessary contacts” Capet replied, “We don't have the set up for doing the ransoming ourselves”

“We could let them go” Amedda shrugged.

Capet shook his head, “As much as that idea suddenly appeals to me, we have to recoup our expense somehow for this mess” He sighed, “I don't think things can get any worse for us”

--------------------------------------------------------------

Almania.
Circinus Federation.

Baron Calvilena Tortorelli barely looked up as his intelligence chief, Aisling Connor entered the room, yet he still gestured to the seat next to him.

“Please sit” He instructed.

“As the Baron wishes” Conner replied, her voice cool and respectful, but with just an air of smugness to it.

The undisputed leader of the Circinus Federation looked up at her. Still youthful looking despite her seventy years of age, Aisling Connor was a former child model who had somehow manoeuvred herself into the leadership position of the Circinus Intelligence Ministry and had -despite her background- turned an anaemic department into a useful tool.

Tortorelli didn't completely trust her, but she was capable and loyal to the Federation if not to him. He suspected the only reason she'd never seized the throne was to prevent herself becoming a bigger target.

”I suspect you have news” He remarked dryly.

“I do” Connor nodded and affected a look of childlike giddiness on her face, “We may have the means with which to force massive concessions from the Free Worlds League. I have reason to believe that Hanna Leong -daughter of Sebastian Leong, leader of the Corellian Government-in-Exile- is currently in the Circinus Federation.

Tortorelli's head snapped up, shock evident in his expression, “How do you know this?” He whispered.

“An agent on the Sprawl -that tramp city in Mandalorian Space- were investigating large cash transfers there and discovered the information in the files of a former Sprawl gladiator called Gar Noton” Aisling replied with a smile.

“Where?”

The Intelligence chief leaned back in her seat, “My sources suggest that she is being held in the system known as Styx”

Tortorelli's eyes narrowed, “The system that once belonged to Viscount Robert Monahan?”

Before replying, Connor hesitated slightly to show the Baron that he had not been completely correct, “Monahan owned the Styx Mining Corporation =, but he sold it to Wayland Smith in late 317ABY. As you will recall, Smith managed to obtain a large number of investors for his new Styx Mining Corporation by letting them believe that their spies had cracked the security on his computers. The investors saw what they believed were genuine geological reports showing that the system was not played out, despite the four hundred years of mining done there”

Tortorelli frowned and irritation flashed through his grey eyes, “You still have not caught this Wayland Smith”

Aisling shook her head, “No, though Monahan and his board of directors were executed per your instructions. We believe that Smith is somewhere in the Skye Alliance now. Ever since he absconded with billions of credits, malcontent’s have been using the system as a safe haven”

Tortorelli nodded, “Better they hide themselves in safety than force us to expend energy hunting them down”

Connor smiled, and bowed her head so that she was peering at the Baron through her fringe, “I have learned that the current contingent has made a contract with Duke Aldo Rimmer of Gyndine, negotiate by Gar Noton on the Sprawl. According to its terms, they have hijacked a /monopole Liner, the Silver Eagle. Long range sensor stations have picked up a ship matching the Silver Eagles confirmation in the region close to Styx”

Tortorelli's eyes became mere slivers as he listened to this news, “How do you know Hanna Leong is aboard?”

Connor shrugged, “Our agents ran all the usual programs of Free Worlds League shipping and came up with a few interesting names on the passenger list. Apart from a Skye war hero and a couple of holovid stars, everyone else was normal. Some were too normal in fact” She closed her eyes and adopted a serene expression on her face, “One person -Leona Sarkin- matches Hanna Leong in certain physical characteristics, such as height, weight, and proportional limb measurements. Medical histories also match in crucial items such as medical allergies” Aisling opened her eyes and stared at the Baron, “In addition, I know Leona Sarkin to be Hanna Leong”

Tortorelli gave a tight smile, “I'm sure you already have a plan?”

Connor smiled more openly, “I have an elite Death Commando of jump infantry on Dierion. Many of them participated in the failed effort to capture Smith when we raided Styx. They will get Leona Sarkin and bring her to us”

Tortorelli frowned in though for a few moments, “Send the Seventh Dierion Regulars and the Cruiser Warspite too. Your jump troops may fulfil their mission, but if the Free Worlds League has already been alerted having a Cruiser and a full Battalion there will tip the balance a little”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Trinity Class Super Star Destroyer 'Black Hand'
Elom Orbit.
321ABY
May 28th

Jacob Tarn exited the turbolift and made his way across the command deck of the Black Hand to where Admiral Zaan and Field Marshall Onasi were in conversation with Patrick Varik-Tarn.

“I got your message” Jacob said, trying to keep calm, “Is it accurate? Has the Silver Eagle been hijacked?”

Admiral Vika Zaan looked at Jacob curiously, the young man's tone obviously catching the Togruta officers attention. Onasi seemed to be oblivious to Jacob's worry however, “Yes, Commander” Onasi nodded, “We received a transmission from Monopole that the Silver Eagle never reach Pesht. An investigation discovered that the liner made an unscheduled jump instead to an asteroid belt in Circinus Space”

“They crossed the border?” Jacob gasped.

“They did” Onasi nodded, “We don't yet know whether the hijacking was a private enterprise or a Circinus military operation. Even so, we're sending a rescue mission in”

Zaan cut in, “The Black Hand is too big for this operation, if the hijackers see a Trinity Class, they may panic, not to mention the Federations reaction. So, the Field Marshall is putting an Invader Class Frigate -the Hawkwind- at the disposal of the Genyosha” He nodded to Patrick.

Patrick gave his own nod, “The Invader is small enough that we should be able to slip through the Federations border patrols. We'll get close to the base, launch our transports and secure the area. In the meantime, we'll also be negotiating for the release of the hostages”

“Hopefully, negotiation will get the hostages free” Onasi said, “The Genyosha are primarily there to keep the area secure from Circinus intervention”

“And if the hijackers are Federation military?” Jacob frowned, “Death Commandos for example?”

“Then it becomes a race against time to get as many of the hostages free before the Death Commandos live up to their name” Patrick said grimly.

“Who'll do the negotiating?” Jacob asked, his thoughts of Hanna being amongst those at risk.

“The commander of the Hawkwind, Captain Tor” Onasi answered, “He's got some experience with this kind of thing”

Jacob shook his head, “Tor hasn't done a hostage negotiation for fifty years, I know his record” He pointed at himself, “I should go. They'll be less intimidated by a 'junior officer' than by a ships commander”

“I'm not sure....” Zaan began.

“He has a point” Patrick cut in, “The hijackers will see Jacob as the buffer between them and the Hawkwinds guns. Could give us an edge”

Zaan still looked unconvinced, but Onasi nodded in somewhat reluctant agreement, “Fine, the Hawkwind heads out as soon as the Genoysha's transport are aboard”

“We'll be ready to go in about two hours” Patrick said.

“I'll be there” Jacob nodded uneasily.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

The Sprawl.
Mandalorian Space.
321ABY
May 29th

Ran looked up for the interrogation room table as Arctan Varr once again entered the room. Since that first time, they'd done this question and answers thing a dozen times now. Every time, Ran got the impression that Varr clearly felt that Ran wasn't telling him everything.

Bracing himself for another couple of hours and the same questions, Ran sat up straighter and only then noticed the frown on the Ikotchi's face.

Without a word, Varr put his helmet down on the table and sitting across from Ran, stared at him with an expression that carried both annoyance and curiosity.

After nearly a minute, Varr finally spoke, “Well, Ran Gavin, it seems you have quite the friend in Ms Loran”

Ran frowned, “What do you mean?”

“Well” Var shrugged, “When we brought the two of you in, she was permitted to make a holonet call, just as you were...”

“For the good it did me” Ran snorted, “All your friends are happy to help until you actually need them”

“Ms Loran however it seems, got results. Sent a high priority message out, got a reply this morning” Varr smirked, “You're both being released today. All charges dropped”

“What?” Ran sat back in shock.

“You're free to go” Varr produced a key and unlocked the binders on Ran's wrists.

Ran rubbed his wrists, “Why the long wait if the message went out high priority? That normally takes only a few days tops. It's been a month”

“Varr shrugged, “She sent it somewhere in the Republic. Maybe their share of the commnets is still tied up with coordinating the Sarna efforts”

“But still, what kind of pull does she have that she can get us sprung” Ran said aloud.

“Don't ask me” Varr snorted, standing ad grabbing his helmet, “Orders to release you came from way over my head. Besides, you're not my problem any more. The officer outside will return you things. Don't let me see you in this room again” And he was gone.

Ran stared after him and then with a shrug and a nod to the guard left the room. As Varr had said, his few possessions were returned to him after he signed the obligatory release paperwork.

Outside the detention block -which as he discovered later was aboard an ancient Imperator Class Destroyer- Ran found Ash already waiting for him.

“Got time off for good behaviour did you?” She grinned.

“I know you had something to do with it” Ran scowled at her, “So spill”

Ash shrugged, “I don't share all my secrets”

“Your friends in he NRI then?” Ran ventured, “They have some pull over the local bigwigs?”

“Maybe” Ash shrugged and walked away down the corridor stepping around a pair of hammer-headed Ithorians as she did so, “So, now what?” She asked over her shoulder.

“What do you mean 'now what?'” Ran asked, catching up with her, “We ticked a lot of people off. And with Dorga still alive and looking for someone to blame, the Sprawl isn't safe. I'm getting out of here as soon as possible” He glanced at her, “And so should you”

“Good point” She nodded, “Okay, grab your stuff and meet me at Hanger Seven, aboard the Farlander in three hours”

Ran frowned. The Farlander was on old Tomek Class Carrier and was considered one of the higher class areas of the Sprawl. Just having a bay there cost a small fortune, “I'll be there” He said evenly.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Just under three hours later, Ran made his way into the number seven hanger bay of the Farlander. Unsurprisingly, apart from a handful of expensive looking space yachts, a Flux class freighter making deliveries and a single, sleek look Lung Wan shuttle, the bay was mostly empty.

Seeing Ash standing next to the Lung Wan, he slung his bags over his shoulder and made his way over.

“Thought you weren't going to show” Ash smiled at him.

“I said I would, didn't I” He scowled at the ship, “Not stolen is it?”

Affecting a hurt look, Ash waved him to the boarding ramp, “No, this ones mine. Come aboard and we'll get out of here”

“Good. Sooner the better” Ran sighed, “Word is Dorga already has his people out looking for us. We'll be gone long before they catch up with us”

As they boarded, Ash hit the control to close the hatch then crossed to a comm unit, “We're aboard. Get us out of here” Seeing Ran's expression, she smiled, “Just my droid pilot. I've already git a course laid in?”

“Where to?” Ran asked suspiciously as they entered the lounge.

Ash held up a hand, “First, I have these for you” She pulled a set of envelopes out of her pockets and handed them to him.

“What are...?” Ran opened the envelopes and tipped the contents onto the lounge table. Inside were a host of documents. The first items to catch his eye were a pair of passports bearing his likeness, one is his name and the other in the name of Thomas Van De Berg, rather than Ran Gavin. Accepting a bottle of Timbiqui Dark from Ash, he took a slug and began examining the other items. Identification documents, Republic credits, records of recent medical history and education transcripts in both his and Thomas Van De Berg's name.

Taking another drink of the beer, he examined one document that granted him citizenship. He frowned, “I don't understand....” He shook his head which suddenly felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He blinked his eyes twice and watched everything blur beyond recognition.

He looked up, “What did you do the the beer? Why?”

“I drugged it” Ash said simply.

Though she easily blocked Ran's weak punch, the expression on her face showed that the speed of the man's strike in his drugged state surprised her. She pushed him back onto the lounge couch as if he were weightless.

Ran's world dissolved into nothingness. As the world closed around him, he dimly heard Ash's voice coming to him as if through a long tunnel.

“Fear not, Ran Gavin. I follow the orders of those who believe you are far to valuable to be killed.....”


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 06, 2013 9:51 am 
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Location: England
Styx.
Circinus Federation
321ABY
May 30th.


Captain Basz Rix turned slightly as Leona Sarkin and Arden Sortek enter the command room of the mine complex. Beyond him, through the view-port, the Silver Eagle hung in a massive cavern suspended by tractors beams and docking arms.

“This is Colonel Arden Sortek and Ms Leona Sarkin, as you requested I asked a few representatives of the passengers here to discuss the problem you outlined to me earlier” The Mon Calamarian smiled uneasily as he introduced the last two of the passengers summoned to this meeting.

As the two of them took us position in the room, the hulking man with the elaborate moustache stepped forwards, “I am Philip Capet” He nodded, “I command this little outpost we have usurped from the Circinus Federation” He indicated the Chagrian next to him, “This is my second in command, Myn Amedda”

Sighing, Capet continued speaking, “Myn informed me earlier today that a Federation ship has been sighted at the edge of the system and is slowly working its way inward. It's moving in slowly, but from its acceleration vector, we estimate that it will be here on either the first or the second. I've brought you together to discuss our options”

Erik Mahler stepped forwards, “Do you think it represents more than a routine patrol?”

Amedda answered in a voice softer than his large size would have suggested, “Federation patrols always use Forsaken Class Patrol ships. This is a Firestorm class cruiser that is carrying a Fury Class Transport, based on acceleration specs, I'm guessing the transport has somewhere between thirty and forty jump troopers on board”

Hanna heard those words and frowned. Sinking towards the back of the crowd, she started thinking, “Taking this base would require a significant force. Either battlesuits or over a hundred jump troopers. A Fury holds two hundred infantry or fifty battlesuits. Why are they sending so few?” She thought.

In her guise of Leona Sarkin, Hanna made her way to Arden's side and pulling him to the back, clamped a hand over his mouth, “Arden, the jump troops on that Fury must be Elite Death Commandos”

Arden's eyebrows shot up in surprise, but her hand stifled any outburst. He hesitated, then reached up and pulled her hand away. Cupping his hand over her ear, he whispered, “How do you know?”

Hanna shrugged, “A Fury isn't built for hauling battlesuits, but it can hold fifty easily. Or two hundred infantry comfortably, so why would they send less? The only answer is that they've sent troops that they know can do the job. That means Death Commandos”

“Damn” Arden muttered, “It means something else. Amedda said Federation patrols use Forsakens, which means the Federation knows about this outpost. Curious is it, that they choose to clean it out know, but choose to use such a discreet force to do it?”

Hanna felt her insides coil in dread, “Somehow, by some means, they've learnt I'm here” Overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, she dropped back to the rear of the room and slumped against the wall.

Pushing to the front, Arden coughed into his hand to draw attention to himself, “Excuse me, but doesn't it seem foolish that the Federation would send just fifty troops to assault this base?”

Philip Capet turned to look at Arden, “Perhaps, but I've seen many governments do many foolish things. That's why I fled Almania in the first place. What's your point?”

“My point is this. From what I've seen of this base. It would require a regiment of troops to conquer it” Around him, the few military men nodded in agreement, “I would suggest that those troops are tough enough to do just that”

Capet frowned as he considered Arden's words, but Amedda caught on, “Death Commandos, has to be. It's too much of a coincidence to think they've decided to take us out now. They'd just send in the bombers in that case. No, it must be that they want someone”

“Be that as it may” Arden said, taking the floor again, “We have to plan a defence or people will die”

Back against the rear wall, Hanna hugged her arms around herself tighter and felt fear crawling through her insides. The sinister voice emerged from from its black pit of her self doubts and whispered in its evil way, “The Federation wants you. It's elite troops are coming for you. Perhaps this is what you deserve?”

Hanna looked up as Amedda pulled up a holo-schematic of the base, “This whole asteroid is a death trap” She thought.

Capet turned to face the holo, “As you can see Colonel, it would be difficult at best to defend this maze of tunnels and the company town-complex. I'll concede there are hard points, but they are meant to seal of the complex in case of the outside being breached. This was not built as a military facility and you can be sure the Federation troops will have up-to-date information to work with”

Captain Rix frowned, “We must do something. I refuse to turn even one of my passengers over to the Circinus Federation”

Capet shook his head, “Even if I believed that turning a passenger over to them, I do not believe that the Death Commandos will leave us in peace. They won't bother with negotiation, they will just take whoever they want and eliminate the rest of us as a matter of convenience”

“Hear that?” The voice of Hanna's doubt taunted her, “People are going to die because of you. You'll not pass from this life alone. How many will go with you? How many will die because of you?”

Arden held up a hand, “Wait. Can we secure the Silver Eagle and break out of here and to hyperspace before the Federation gets here?”

Captain Rix shook his head, “The Silver Eagle is built for cruising, not for negotiating an asteroid field in a hurry. They'll have launched fighters and pinned us in position long before we reached our hyperspace jump point”

Capet nodded, “The Silver Eagle has shields, but no offensive weaponry and the defensive turbolasers are used only for debris clearance. We'll be even more vulnerable than we are here”

“We must make a decision” Someone called, “We need to make a choice. Find out who they want and hand them over”

“No” Rix snapped, “The welfare of the Silver Eagles passengers are my responsibility” The Mon Calamarian's head shook wearily, “I will not hand anyone over”

“I remove the responsibility from you Captain” A strong voice rang out from the back and demanded the attention of everyone in the room, The crowd parted and the woman who everyone had known as Leona Sarkin stepped forwards and pulled off her dark wig, revealing the blond locks beneath.
Fighting back the tears, she spoke without tremor, “I am the one they want. I am Hanna Leong, daughter of the Corellian Governor-in-Exile. No one need die because of me”

As a shocked hush descended on the room, Myn Amedda was the only one who dared speak, “Oh, this makes it very interesting indeed” He turned and gazed at the sensor displays of the system, “Now we have a princess and the Federation's second Firestorm has arrived bearing a Behemoth Class transport”

---------------------------------------------------

Myrkr.
Republic March, Skye Alliance.
321ABY.
May 30th.

Colonel Col Levin saluted smartly as the orderly closed the door behind him. The dark hair officer behind the desk returned the salute, then smiled and offered Col his hand, “Good to see you Levin” The officer indicated a steel seat next to Col, “Please be seated” He said politely, but seemed uneasy.

Col smiled, “thank you, General Stone” Col lowered himself in the chair, then notice the frown that furrowed Stone's brow, “Something seems to be troubling the old man” He thought.

Stone forced himself to smile easily. Shuffling some papers on his desk, he looked at Col, “A few simple things to take care of first, Colonel. I see we finally got your Lieutenant Craon into the bachelor officer's quarters here on the base”

Col nodded, “Craon got his stuff moved in yesterday. All my junior officers are now on base”

“Good” Stone nodded and flipped open a green evaluation folder, grinning sourly as he read the contents, “These are amazingly good scores for a company that's only been on planet for two weeks, Levin. You should be proud of your people”

“There was no way they were ever going to give less than their best” Col thought, then said aloud, “Yes Sir, the honour of being selected for a Tarn house unit, well, the tradition seems to bring out the best in my people”

Stone nodded absently and turned over the next page. Glancing over the top of the file, he looked at Col and chuckled, “Your Captain Sini Cha earned the regiments highest rating with small arms. You should now that's irked our jump infantry somewhat”

“Levin smiled, “I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear that, Sir” He hesitated as the General frowned, “About her rating I mean, Sir”

Stone raised one eyebrow, but said nothing as he closed the file and slid it to one side, leaving just a stark white folder emblazoned with a red legend in the centre of the desk. The General stared uneasily at the file, then looked up at Levin.

“Before I get to this last item, Colonel, I thought I'd discuss with you the purpose of attaching your company to the Light Guards First Battalion. While I'm not entirely in favour of it, the Prince wants to try an experiment, and you're it”The General opened his hands and placed them palm down on the polished surface of his desk.
“First of all, we won't split up your group. With fifty-three people, you have nearly double the normal number of personnel than a normal mixed company. That does not disturb us as your people have all trained together. Leaving an odd sized company together has worked well for the other training units”

Col nodded, “So much easier to quarantine us...” He thought.

The General leaned back, ignoring the white file, “The Prince wants to organise your unit into a close assault company. We'll be refitting your tanks and battlesuits with weaponry suitable for close assault combat. Flamers, concussion blasters, scatter cannons and the like, with rail-guns and missile launchers to round things out”

“We'll be keeping our actual vehicle and battlesuit models?” Col asked.

“They are the ones your people have experience with” Stone nodded, “Your job will be to get in and out quickly and do as much damage as possible to your objective”

Col frowned, but nodded regardless, “I'm sure my people will accept this challenge with honour” His eyes flicked to the white folder, “Is there anything else, Sir?”

With the reluctance of a doctor giving bad news, Stone opened the white folder, “Now this is all strictly confidential, Colonel. But I want you to know that having Alexandria Tarn anywhere near my unit makes me uneasy”

“Sir?” Levin frowned, “She's a damned good officer”

“I'm not saying she isn't” Stone held up a hand, “It's just that her mere presence is a political ho potato. Having the First Prince's daughter is going to draw a lot of attention on this regiment. Prince Miles already watches the units from outside the Republic March through a microscope, with Alexandria Tarn here, the scrutiny is going to be worse”

“I know this, Sir” Levin shook his head, “I went through the same thoughts and fears back when she was first assigned. I trusted her then and she hasn't let me down yet”

“Perhaps” Stone nodded carefully, “But your unit still haven't seen actual combat outside of training and that one ambush you suffered. She isn't going to buckle under pressure when the hammer falls is she? That's what I need to be sure of”

“She won't” Levin shook his head, “You can count on that”

------------------------------------------------------------

Styx.
Circinus Federation.
321ABY.
June 2nd.

Arden Sortek threw himself down as laser fire cut through the air above him. Somewhere behind him, he heard a scream of pain as someone failed to get down quick enough. Rising on one knee, Arden sighted in on the black clad figures moving in his direction, their faces hidden behind their featureless red visors.
Squeezing the trigger, he scythed blaster fire back and forth across the advancing Death Commandos. Four of the five, ducked away to avoid the fire, but one failed to move fast enough and took three blaster bolts across the chest with a fourth blowing through the visor and the flesh beneath.

Heedless of their comrades death, the other Commandos kept coming with a fluid, steady grace and confidence that fit with their reputation. One of them stopped briefly next to the fallen man, but only to strip him of ammunition and set the immolation device on the man's suit to destroy the corpse and anything useful.

Arden fired off a few more shots, driving them into cover, but scoring no solid hits. Even the accompanying fire from the three men with him failed to force the Death Commandos back.

“Well” Arden thought, “They were never going to send any, but their best. And the Death Commandos have a reputation that's well earned” He grimaced, “They proved that with their landing”

Anticipating the Death Commandos bypassing the main bay where the Silver Eagle was docked and landing their forces in one of the smaller landing bays Capet, Arden and Hanna had worked out a defensive set up to protect the avenues from those areas.
Instead, the Commandos had blasted in through several of the old mine shaft heads and penetrated the base that way. Only the twisted nature of the tunnels and the fact that Capet had had many of them sealed some time ago had prevented the Circinus troops moving through the base before the defenders could react.

Caught by surprise, Arden had still managed to redeploy the teams he commanded to cover the threatened tunnels, while Capet pulled his own teams in closer to the Command Centre. Meanwhile Hanna was holed up in the Command Centre itself with the remaining defenders, whilst the passengers and other non-combatants were aboard the Silver Eagle away from harm.

By now the Death Commandos had reached the midpoint of the corridor and behind them, Arden could see another squad moving up into position.

“Now!” He shouted.

Next to him, one of Capet's men punched a button on a control pad and sent a signal to the explosives that had been hastily hidden in the tunnel walls. An avalanche of rock and plasteel buried the closest commandos and half blocked the corridor. Through clouds of dust, Arden saw that one of the Commandos had only been half buried and was still trying to rise to his feet despite the rocks crushing his legs. A single shot from Arden's rifle finished him off.

“Pull back to Gamma positions” Arden ordered the people with him. He then activated his comlink, “Control, Fire Team Three is pulling back to Gamma”

------------------------------------------------

Command Centre.

“Acknowledged Fire-Three” Hanna answered, then switched frequencies, “All teams, pull back to Gamma positions at the double. Don't let yourselves get flanked” As the acknowledgements came back, she sighed and looked to the figure beside her, “I hate this” She said, covering the mouthpiece of the comlink, “I'm trained to be a pilot, not an infantry commander”

“You're doing great so far” Amedda nodded. The hulking Chagrian shrugged, “The nature of warfare is such that we often find ourselves out of our comfort zone. It's how we adapt that counts”

“I guess” Something on the screens caught her attention, “Wait, what's that?” She pointed at the display of local space and the new icon that had appeared at the fringe of the asteroid field.

Amedda frowned, “It looks like another ship” He punched in some commands, “It's not a Federation ship. IFF is Skye Alliance” He gave a weak smile, “Looks like the cavalry has arrived”

“Let's hope they get here in time” Hanna said, eyeing the displays showing the progress of the Death Commandos.

------------------------------------------------

Command Bridge.
Invader Class Frigate Hawkwind.

“Not exactly a holiday spot” Captain Renford Tor muttered from next to Jacob, “Yet, apparently quite popular” He glanced away from the view-ports and eyed the displays, “We have two Circinus ships in local space. Two Firestorm Class Cruisers and two transports. A heavy Behemoth heading for the planetoid, and a smaller Fury Class Transport already down on the planetoid”

“Both Firestorms moving to intercept us” The sensor officer called out, “The one designated Alpha is twelve minutes out. The other, Beta, is forty minutes out. The Behemoth will reach the planetoid in seven minutes”

“We need to get the Genyosha down” Jacob frowned, “Their tanks will be useless there. Just Battlesuits and infantry” He gestured to the Cruiser bearing down on them, “But they need to get past that Firestorm”

“With the Genyosha's fighter squadron supplementing our own squadrons, we should be able to distract that cruiser enough to let the Genyoshas transports through” Tor nodded, “The question then is if we can deal with the first one before the second Firestorm reaches us”

--------------------------------------------------

The squadron of delta winged Shirka heavy fighters raced free from the launch bays of the Genyosha and formed up quickly and arrowed in on the Firestorm cruiser. To either side of the Genyosha squadron were the lighter Poignard fighters off the Hawkind.

Seated comfortably in the cockpit of her Shirka, Caitlin Masters smiled confidently as she checked her systems. Engines at optimum efficiency, shields at full power, six heavy lasers and two torpedo launchers armed and ready. Her astromech was locked in and already tweaking the fighters systems, she was ready.


She opened up her comms to her squadron, “Okay, Nova Squadron. We're going straight in at that Firestorm. Wait for my signal before firing, then dump a full salvo. We should get a few runs at this. Red and Gold squadrons will take the flanks”

“What about enemy fighter cover?” Nova three, a rookie Twi'lek pilot -Tavri Shala- asked.

“Firestorms don't have fighter bays” The voice of Nova Eight, a veteran pilot who'd been flying since before Caitin had been born answered, “They were built as assault ships. Lots of anti-capital-ship weaponry, but little anti-starfighter stuff and no star fighters”

“J'arth's right” Caitlin glanced at her sensor screens, “Any fighters with that Firestorm are generally escort flights and they've all gone with that Behemoth. Take them about eight or nine minutes to turn around and get back here”

“By that time, between us and the Hawkwind, that Firestorm should be scrap” J'arth's voice was grim, but determined, the voice of someone who'd done this many times.

“Let's hope” Caitlin felt a smile creep onto her face as turbolaser fire started to lance up from the firestorm.

She quickly ran the numbers through her head. At just over 1,400 meters in length, and about as aerodynamically designed as a Hutt, the Firestorm was built as pure assault ship. With forty turbolaser batteries, twenty proton torpedo launchers and a pair of light Magnetic Accelerator Cannons, the Firestorm could take on a ship twice its size. It's lack of anti-starfighter weaponry or a starfighter complement was a major weakness normally compensated by with an escort squadron or an accompanying Raptor Frigate, none of which was present here.

“Okay, keep your formations loose and shields forwards” Caitlin ordered as she watched the range finders roll down. “Okay, Nova's here we go. On my mark, FIRE!”

Twelve pairs of torpedoes launched from her squadrons fighters along with twenty four concussion missiles from the Poignard squadrons.

Recognising the threat to his ship, the commander of the Firestorm ordered his ship into a turn to point its bow towards the incoming warheads in order to minimise the available target area. It was only partially successful. Explosions rolled across the Firestorm's bow as the shields struggled in hold of the furious assault against the ship. Even as she raced her Shirka past the inferno, Caitlin saw a half dozen projectiles punch through and impact against the hull beneath.

She was moving to fast to see the damage inflicted, but her astromech dutifully pulled up a display on her target screen to inform her that the Firestorm had lost four of its eight forward batteries and one of the MACs.

Her fighter bucked briefly from a near miss, then she was looping around and diving in on the Firestorm again. A quick glance at her screen showed her squadron still at full complement and following her move, though they were now spread out somewhat. Red and Gold squadrons were doing likewise, but from different approaches to force the Firestorms crew to divert their attention in as many directions as possible.

“Second salvo, FIRE!” She ordered.

This time, the shields of the capital ship fell in the first few moments and the Firestorm was soon rocked by multiple explosions. As she raced past the hull again, Caitlin squeezed her trigger and sent a stream of laser fire at the hull as it raced past, saw a turbolaser battery explode, saw view-ports implode under the hits.

Then she was past again, turning for another pass when her comms chirped.

“Thanks for softening her up, we'll take it from here” Captain Tor said gruffly, “You have three enemy squadrons on an intercept vector to deal with, keep them off the transports”

“Will do” Caitlin responded, “All ships form up on me. We've got something more our size to play with”

As she brought her fighter around, she found herself watching just in time to see the Hawkwind open up on the battered Firestorm.

--------------------------------------------------

Though equally matched against a Firestorm Cruiser, Renford Tor wanted to minimize overall combat against the first Firestorm. He didn't want to go up against the second one with any battle damage.

The Hawkwind wasn't designed as an assault cruiser like the Firestorm. But it still mounted a respectable array of thirty heavy turbolaser batteries, ten turbolaser cannons and ten ion cannons, along with ten heavy missile launchers and a centreline mounted MAC.

As soon as the Hawkwind was in range and with the Firestorm still reeling from the starfighters attack, the Invader class frigates weaponry opened up in a furious storm of energy that slammed into the assault cruiser with all the subtlety of a gamorrean hiding behind a twig.

Turbolaser fire superheated and exploded armour plates, missile explosions tore great rents in the hull, ion cannons scrambled the remaining electronics and the MAC slug hit the Firestorm with enough force to impart a lateral spin to the floundering ship.

Despite the hideous damage inflicted, the Firestorm still posed a threat. Thrusters fired to arrest the spin then the bow came back around. The few remaining weapons opened up, including the remaining MAC on the portside.
The Hawkwind weathered the turbolaser fire easily, but the MAC projectile hit almost as hard as its own had hit the Firestorm, kicking the frigates nose up.

The shields held against the impact though and the pilot of the Hawkwind brought the bow back down and the weapons opened up against the Firestorm again. This time, the devastation was absolute. Turbolaser fire and missiles punched through gaps in the hull to consume internal structure and components in a fiery conflagration. The MAC slug was the literal straw that broke the Rontos back, punching deep in the superstructure and shattering the ships spinal array.

Bleeding flaming atmosphere, internal components and escape pods, the firestorm went dark and began to break apart.

------------------------------------------------

Command Bridge.
Invader Class Frigate Hawkwind.


“One down” Renford Tor muttered, “One to go”

“Beta Firestorm is two minutes from weapons range” Jacob said, “Looks like their more interested in us than in the Genyosha's transports” He indicated where two of the mercenary units two transports were racing towards the planetoid. The third transport belonging to Patrick Tarn-Varik's force -the one bearing their tanks which had been deemed unsuitable had undocked from the Hawkwind, but had pulled back from any threats.

“Just what we want” Tor nodded, “Looks like Nova, Red and Gold Squadrons are handling the enemy fighters too”

Jacob frowned, “Behemoths can carry, what? Three squadrons plus two full companies of ground forces?”

“Something along those lines” Tor scratched his beard, “Depends what they have loaded”

Jacob sighed, “I should be down there. I'm wasted here”

------------------------------------------------------------------

Troop Bay.
Triton Class Transport Chieftain.

Patrick Tarn-Vark, leader of the Mercenary unit the Genyosha, winced as the Chieftain shuddered as a missile slipped through the defensive screen to detonate against the shields.
Realistically, he knew that the Circinus fighters couldn't focus their fire in a large enough quantity to threaten the heavy transport, not with Nova, Red and Gold squadrons out there. Knowing that didn't stop that little spark of fear each time though.

He hated space travel.

He preferred to have his feet firmly on the solid ground, where a hull breach wouldn't expose you to vacuum and introduce your insides to your outsides. Even clad in his Tempest battlesuit, he didn't feel safe in space, a feeling made worse by the fact he had his visor pushed back and his gauntlets off so he could interact with the command console in front of him.

The small screen on the terminal displayed a view of local space around the Chieftain. He tapped in a few commands and highlighted the Federation's Behemoth transport ahead of the Genyosha's transports.

He worked the numbers out in his head, the Behemoth -if it was fully loaded and the acceleration profile was consistent with that- would be carrying two full companies. Patrick figured that the federation would have done it's research on Styx and would be sending anything more than infantry, battlesuits and very light armour.

In return, Patrick could field a single company reduced since he'd ordered his third transport with his tanks to hold back after he decided they'd be next to useless on the planetoid. And then there were the other Federation troops already down there.

He needed the odds to be somewhat more even.

He took note of the furball outside the transport, noted how the blue dots now outnumbered the red and tapped out a few commands, “Command One to Nova One. Caitlin, I have a job for you”

--------------------------------------------------

Caitlin listened to Patrick's instructions with half an ear as she rolled her ship and dropped onto the tail of a Circinus built Maul light starfighter. Squeezing the trigger, she sent a stream of laser fire at the sleek fighter, blowing through its shields and tearing into the engines.

The pilot of the Maul threw the fighter into a tight spiral, but the weakened engine structure failed to overcome inertia and follow the rest of the ship and as Caitlin watched, the engine tore it's way clear and corkscrewed off into space, leaving the rest of the fighter to whirl impotently without thrust, but unable to overcome it's own momentum.

Ignoring the the stricken ship, she focused her attention of what Patrick was saying, “So, you want us to hit that Behemoth and what stop it landing?”

“If you can” Patrick answered, “If you can stop them putting down, fine. If not, make their landing as unpleasant as possible”

“Will do, Boss” Caitlin nodded. She switched frequencies, “Okay Novas, break clear and
form up on me. Leave the Fed fighters to Red and Gold. We have bigger fish to fry”

As her squadron formed up, she noted that she was two pilots light, though both their rescue beacons were functioning and reporting that the pilots were cold, but alive. Of her remaining ships, most had battle damage in one form or another, but were in good shape.

“What's the target, Lead?” Nova asked, “The other Firestorm?”

“Negative” Caitlin answered, “We're going after that Behemoth. Orders or to either prevent it's landing or make it as messy as possible”

----------------------------------------------

Styx.

Arden slipped past the soldiers manning the barricades and passed into the control room. The air was heavy with an odorous mix of sweat, fear, blood and overheated electronics and the air-circulation unit did little but move the tainted air around.

“I've pulled my teams in” He announced, “We're all concentrated in around the control centre now. Only four tunnels in and we've got them booby trapped and guarded”

“Good” Philip Capet nodded, “They outnumber us, all we can do is whittle them down and buy time for help to arrive” He indicated a screen that displayed the incoming ships.

Arden frowned, “They destroyed one of the Federation ships?”

“Yeah” Capet frowned, “The other is about to engage that frigate that's arrived and the Federation reinforcements are being chased by fighters broadcasting Skye IFFs. Two more transports launched from the frigate are inbound behind the fighters”

“Any ID's” Arden asked as they made their way towards the central terminals.

“The frigate ID's as the Hawkwind, an Invader class. Transports ID as the Chieftain and the Excalibur” Capet answered.

Arden recognised the names of the transports, “Those are Genyosha ships”

“I've heard of the Genyosha” Capet smiled as they approached the group huddled around the communications terminal, “I feel confident in our survival now”

Hanna looked up as they approached, “We've had a message from the incoming transports. They're telling us to keep our heads down and not to worry about that Behemoth”

Capet scowled, “Not to worry about that Behemoth? It probably carries more troops than both those Genyosha transports. If it gets down, they'll never get past the federation troops to reach us”

Arden shrugged, “I know Patrick Tarn-Varik,I know his reputation. If he tells us we don't have to worry about it, then we don't”

-------------------------------------------------

Caitlin drove her squadron diving in at the Behemoth class transport, sending half her fighters to loop around to strike from the opposite flank as she led the rest at the nearest side.

Weighing in at close to five thousand metric tons and spherical with engines at one hemisphere and a bridge module at the other, the Behemoth was the heaviest transport used by the Circinus Federation. With enough capacity to haul two full companies of troops and armour, Federation Behemoths had been used in planetary invasions for the last sixty years.
There was a trade off for the carrying capacity however, the Behemoth class was slow and ungainly, it's bank of seven massive engines barely capable of moving its immense mass around. In fact, often a Behemoth would put down on a planet, but would sometimes struggle to launch again in some situations.

It was under-gunned as well with only a dozen rapid fire turbolasers, almost all of which had been positioned to protect the ship from air attacks once the Behemoth was grounded. This left a huge null area towards the engines that the weapons were unable to cover.

“Target the engines” Caitlin ordered squeezing the trigger and sending her last pair of torpedoes at the target, “Fire at will”

Torpedoes and laser fire arced in from multiple angles, the first couple impacted harmlessly against the shields, but the rest punched through to strike the engines and lower hull. Armour plates shattered and buckled and two of the massive port engines flared brighter for a brief moment before going dark and the ship began to slew to port as the starboard engines continued to burn at full thrust.

Seconds later, the mirrored starboard engines shut down as the ships commander recognised the problem he now had. But this left the Behemoth with only three active engines, not enough to really keep the heavy transport going and it began to struggle to manoeuvre around the smaller asteroid debris around the planetoid..

“Keep it up” Caitlin called to her pilots, “It's floundering”

True to their training, her squadron arrowed in on the Behemoth once more and another barrage of torpedo fire arced in at the transport. As explosions once more rippled across the beleaguered vessel Caitlin dropped her reticle over the Behemoth and squeezed her trigger to send a stream of laser fire skittering across the hull.

She saw hull plates, view-ports and a tubolaser battery blow apart under the high energy assault and then she was once more clear and looping around again. As she came back around, she sighted the bridge module of the Behemoth.

Another flaw of the Behemoth was the exposed bridge and control unit, sat high atop the sphere of the hull. On the ground, it afforded a commander an imposing view of the surrounding area and allowed a degree of observation of any battle.

In space it was just a big target,

Dropping her reticle over the bridge module, she switched her lasers over to single fire, shifted reserve power to weapons and waited until she could almost make out the individual bridge crew before firing.

Under the laser fire, the view-ports of the bridge module darkened as it withstood the assault, but then gave way and allowed the rest of the her shots into the bridge itself. She pulled away before she saw the damage she'd wrought, but the Behemoth stopped all manoeuvring, a clear sign that the bridge crew was either dead or too busy saving their lives to think of the ship.

Caitlin knew the Behemoth had a secondary control bridge, but would the crew have enough time to bring it online?

A few seconds later, her question was answered as the Behemoth scraped against a large misshapen rock, sheering an equal amount of material from both objects. It was only a light brush as collisions go, but the Behemoths hull tore open down the starboard side.
Equipment, troops, crew and heavy armour spilled out into the vacuum of space. Most of the crew died within seconds of decompression, but Caitlin saw some of the battlesuited infantry flounder, before stabilising and moving with purpose, protected by their armour, but unable to really do much.

Meanwhile, the Behemoth span away from the asteroid it had hit. Still spilling it's contents into the void and it's remaining engines misfiring, it slammed stern first into another much larger rock. The engines disintegrated in the impact, then the hull telescoped in on itself, the superstructure warping and breaking. A Forex Battle Tank blew through the hull as the remaining atmosphere was heavily compressed with explosive force.

Caitlin half expected the reactor to blow at that point, but to her surprise it didn't. Still, it wouldn't be going anywhere now.

“Okay, Nova's form up on the Chieftain and the Excalibur” Caitlin smiled, “We've done our job, it's time for the rest of our people to do theirs”

---------------------------------------------------------

Styx.

Philip Capet spun carelessly away from the barricade. The blaster holes in his chest traced an uneven line from breastbone to his left shoulder. His rifle flew from nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor as the man smashed down hard on to the floor.

Hanna jerked instinctively from the twitching body, but the cable connecting her headset to the console jerked taut. Her head snapped back. Then she too stumbled to the floor. Her headset tore free and she cried in pain as the pistol in the holster on her right hip was caught between her and the floor and dug into her body.

Erik Mahler half rose and turned from his position at the barricade. He triggered a long burst from his rifle, then looked at her, “Are you hit?”

“No!” Hanna screamed and jabbed a finger back over the barricade.

Mahler whirled as a black clad Death Commando leapt onto the barricade brandishing a katana. The retired solider triggered a point blank burst from his blaster that kicked the Commando back and away, but he failed to shift his aim fast enough as another one leapt over the barricade in a flying kick that caught Mahler in the chest.

Grunting with pain as the air was blasted out of him, Mahler stumbled back and fell on the floor. The Death Commando advanced quickly brining his own katana around for a killing blow on the wheezing old man.

Before the blade could descend, Arden Sortek stepped up the Commando's side, grabbed the sword arm and spun his body to bring his back against the Federation soldiers chest and brought the arm down on his shoulder.

There was a sickening crack as the bone snapped, but it was eclipsed by the scream of pain from the man. Driving his own elbow back into the man's face, Arden shattered his visor and drove fragments of it into the screaming commando's face. Screaming even louder, the trooper fell back as Arden whirled and cut another Death Commando almost in two with a sustained burst from his repeater.

A fourth Commando leapt over the barrier and even as Arden spun to face him, Hanna knew he wouldn't be fast enough. Without thinking, her hand dropped to the holster at her hip, her hand resting on the blaster there and her finger squeezing the trigger.

Fire ate through the leather holster with volcanic fury. The first shot slammed into the commando and sent him stumbling back, the next two lanced through his body. He brandished his katana even as his body whirled into death and then he abruptly sat down against barricade, never to move again.

Trembling and tearful, Hanna stared at the man she had killed. The sharp scent of ionized air mixed with the smell of blood and smoke rose from the body in gentle wisps.

“Are you okay?” Arden asked from where he helped a groggy Erik Mahler to his feet.

Hanna barely heard him. She continued to stare at the body of the Commando. “I killed a man” She thought numbly.

“Hanna!” Arden's voice was sharp, “He's dead. We're not. Let's go”

Myn Amedda moved up to help Hanna to her feet. The Chagrian tried not to look at the corpse of his commander, “We can get out through the back tunnels. They weren't part of the original layout, so the Federation won't know about them”

“You hope” Arden smirked.

Amedda sighed, “Yes, we hope. We dug them ourselves on recently. Come”

“One moment” Arden said, retrieving a remote from Capet's body and thumbing the button on it. An explosion shook the room and dust rolled out from the tunnel they had been guarding, “Should slow them down”

Amedda signalled to the few remaining troopers with them, “Pull back” He ordered, draw them away from the Silver Eagle”

“I'm glad they found out I was here in the command centre” Hanna said wearily, “They've left the Silver Eagle alone. The people aboard are safe at least”

“The Federation has still locked down that bay” Arden pointed out, “Those people are still in danger if the Circinus Commander decides to use them to get to you”

“Ja” Mahler nodded, his senses regained, “Having the Death Commando's aboard that ship would be a disaster. I remember when I was in the service, a Death Commando team raided a base on Brigia where I was stationed. We chased them down and destroyed their escape ship, so they fled to the starport and hijacked a passenger ship. When a specialist team tried to move in to free the hostages, the Death Commando's blew the ships reactor and scattered debris and two hundred-thirty crew and passengers across the tarmac”

“They'd do that?” Hanna looked at Mahler, numbly aware that Erik's wife Hilda was aboard the Silver Eagle.

Mahler looked at her sympathetically as Amedda led them to a newer looking doorway set in the rock, “I forget, you've not seen anything like this before”

“I never wanted this” Hanna shook her head, yet the movement barely stirred her hair where sweat had pasted it to her head, “Why are people dying for me?”

“They aren't” Arden said quietly, “Nobody is fighting and giving their lives for who you are. Nobody outside of fairytales and holovids lays his life on the line for blond locks and long legs. That's not why we're fighting”

“Then why?” Hanna asked with tear streaked eyes.

The tall man shrugged, “We're fighting for the future. Everyone has to hope, somehow, that his or her life will change things for the better. Granted, the Death Commandos view that a lot differently than we do, but those guys and the others coming in want to change things to” He nodded to her, “You represent the future. We're not fighting for, over, or about you really. We're fighting so that our vision of the future, of which you are a part, will win out over their vision of the future, If you die here, lots of dreams die with you”

Hanna glanced at the blaster in Arden's hands, “I don't now if I could ever kill someone like that again”

Amedda sealed the door behind them and looked to her, “If you aren't willing to fight, then who will? In any case, we all have a duty to get back to the Free Worlds League. The Federation is after us here, but it was someone inside the League who arranged you kidnapping. We've got to get you out of here to prevent them benefiting from their treachery”

“Aldo Rimmer, I'll bet” Hanna spat, her previous fears replaced with anger.

“Our contact was a Gar Noton on the Sprawl in Mandalorian Space” Amedda answered, “But this does seem to be the kind of thing Rimmer would be behind”

The Chagrian led them through a series of rough cut tunnels and from her limited knowledge of the planetoid, Hanna guessed they were looping back around towards the Silver Eagle.

“We're returning the Silver Eagle?” Hanna asked.

“It's our only option” Amedda answered, “the Federation blasted the bays with our other ships in. The main bay is the only one still open. As long as they haven't taken the Silver Eagle yet and Rix can plot us a course, we might have a chance in the confusion out there”

“Of course” Arden nodded, “Before it was too risky with the two Firestorms out there. But last we saw, one was destroyed and the other one was moving in on that Frigate that brought the Genyosha”

“What about that other Federation transport?” Hanna frowned.

“Would you rather wait until they put down and unload their troops to swarm this base even more than the Death Commandos? Ja?” Mahler grunted.

“Point taken” Hanna said dryly, “What if the Death Commandos have taken the Silver Eagle already?”

“Then we're sunk” Arden sighed.

“I think we already are” Amedda said coldly, stopping in his tracks and looking ahead as a trio of Death Commandos stepped from a cross corridor and blocked their way. Two of them bore wicked looking concussion rifles and the third pointed at Hanna.

“Hanna Leong” The spokesman said with obvious delight, “You will come with us now”

Mahler started to raise his blast, but Arden rested a hand on the barrel, “Forget it. Even if we got a enough shots off, at this range those concussion blasters would turn us to jelly. We'll be better surrendering”

“Arden!” Hanna said shocked.

“A wise decision Colonel Sortek” The lead commando nodded, “You will make a valuable prize too”

The Death Commando took a step forwards, then something seemed to snag his shoulder from the opposite tunnel from which they'd emerged. As he spun around, another blaster bolt slammed in his chest and blew the contents out through his back.
The other two, Commandos spun to point their weapons down the direction the shots came from, but a rapid salvo of bolts picked them apart.

Moments later, A pair of Slyph power armoured figures emerged from the tunnel, “Now that was classic good timing” The lead figure said with a chuckle, and slid back it's visor revealing the features of a Noghri, “Colonel Sortek, I am Sokriar Clan Kilmhan”

“You're with the Genyosha” Hanna said, spying the black tidal wave insignia on the Noghri's shoulder.

“We are” Sokriar nodded, “Commander Patrick Tarn-Varik will be pleased to know you are safe”

“Only for the moment” Arden cut in, “There's still the matter of getting off this rock, not to mention the passengers and crew of the Silver Eagle and the non-combatants from the community here”

“The Commander has a plan” The Noghri said grimly, “He promises that no one will be left behind”

-------------------------------------------------------

One Hour Later.

Patrick sub-vocalised a command to bring a chrono up on the HUD painted on the inside of his visor. Comfortably clad in his Tempest Battlesuit, he felt the familiar feeling of anticipation building within him, along with that familiar weight of responsibility.

“Okay everybody” Patrick activated the comms and calmly began to speak, “The hour the Circinus Commander gave us to hand over Hanna Leong is almost up. But we just need a little more time to get the non-combatants out”

“We still attack?” Arden Sortek -now clad in a Tempest battlesuit like Patrick- asked.

“Affirmative” Patrick dropped his voice to a grim tone, “I'll give you the signal when to attack”

“What signal?” Arden asked, and Patrick could almost hear him frowning.

“You'll now it when you see it” Patrick smiled, “Times almost up and I think the Federation commander is trying to reach me. Make sure everyone's in position while I stall him” He switched frequencies, “General Nero. You were trying to reach me?”

“Yes” General Tang Nero sounded almost apologetic, “You do realise your time is almost up Commander?”

Patrick stepped out of his cover to view the rest of the docking bay and picked out the battlesuited figure standing close to the Silver Eagle. Close enough to threaten it, but so far the Federation commander had not ordered the ship boarded. Patrick also spotted the other dozen battleusited Death Commandos along with four dozen conventionally attired Death Commandos.

“I'm afraid my people have been unable to locate Hanna Leong in the time you gave us” Patrick gave an exaggerated shrug that the Circinus Commander would be able to see, “Hardly a surprise as I'm still sure she's safely on Mon Calamari. But if you wish to give us more time......”

Nero's voice turned sour, “I would have thought Commander, given your units reputation, that you would be above these tiresome word games. I......”

Nero's voice died in a hiss of ion static as Patrick swung his heavy blaster in line with the battlesuited figure next to Nero and fired a burst.

Though the heavy Titan suits deployed by the Death Commandos were to tough to go down from a single laser barrage, Patrick added a pair of rockets from his shoulder mounted launcher.

The Death Commando stumbled to his knee as the laser barrage staggered him, then the rockets found a breach in his armour and blew him apart, the blast wave staggering those around his previous position.

Weapons fire – a mix of blaster bolts, repeater slugs and rockets- arced in on the confused Death Commandos from the Genyosha in their positions around the bay. Even as the Circinus troops scrambled to respond, Patrick saw several lightly armed troops and another Battlesuit go down, Patrick didn't think the unfortunate Battlesuit was Nero, but he'd lost sight of the Federation commander in the first few moments.

“You are right, General Nero” Patrick growled, reopening his link to the Federation officer, “The Genyosha would never let these people die. Hanna Leong is already off planet and racing for the Hawkwind which has destroyed your other Cruiser. We are here to cut off your retreat” He switched to his frequency with his people, “Move it Genyosha, hit them hard”

He sighted in on a cluster of Commandos hiding behind a loader unit and blew it apart with a salvo of rockets, scattering screaming troopers and debris around the area.

Moving forwards, he dropped from his perch to the massive docking platform that occupied a portion of the bay.

“Patrick!” Arden's voice yelled, “Watch out, you got something coming your way “ he heard a curse, “Something wrong targeting computer is screwy”

“What's wrong Arden?” Patrick asked, cutting another Titan down.

“There's something big moving around the bay, I think it's an Orca” Arden answered, “But I can't lock on”

Patrick whirled trying to spot the massive machine and saw it coming around the bulk of the Silver Eagle. The largest battlesuit ever built, and closer to a full fledged walker than an infantry unit, the Orca was immense and boasted more firepower than a half dozen of his Tempests.
Looking almost like one of Chal's native Cetaceans on a pair of stubby legs with an equally stubby pair of arms and a single havy blaster cannon it's shoulder, the Orca was neither graceful nor good looking, but it was deadly.

He swung his weapons in line with the Orca and tried to lock in, but his suits systems refused to lock in or even acknowledge the Orca as a target, “What the hell?” He thought, “Arden!” He called, “I don't even get a read on thermal imaging” His gut ran cold, “It's just like when dad fought his last battle against.......” Realisation came to him with a sickening feeling, “Arden, the pilot, it's Yorinaga Tortorelli”

“Are you sure?” Arden sounded shocked.

Patrick dodged to the side as the Orca fired its heavy weapon and blew a chunk out of the platform, “Look at the way it moves, no one else can make an Orca move as fluidly as that. There's only one man I know who can pilot an Orca that good” He targeted the best he could and fired, his weapons doing little more than scarring armour, “Genyosha, concentrate your fire on the Orca. Bring it down. You can target it..” He dodged again as the massive machines chin mountain array of lasers lit up, “Just aim the best you can”

Weapons fire from a dozen angles came in at the Orca. Few of them doing more than just scarring the heavy armour, but he saw one rocket hit the shoulder mounted cannon and smash the charging coils.
If the pilot was bothered by the loss of the heavy weapon, he didn't show it, the two arms coming up and unleashing a salvo towards Patrick, one arm firing a repeater blaster, the other a missile launcher.

Patrick stumbled and went down as several of the missiles hit close enough for the concussion to knock him off his feet.
Almost contemptuously, the Orca moved to stand over him, barely noticing the fighting around or the last few hits against its armour as Patrick's people lessened their fire to avoid hitting him.

Yet a barrage of missiles from one direction hit the Orca, going off like firecrackers around the giants head and shoulders.

Patrick turned to see the Rodian Nu in her Crossbow battlesuit unleashing the full fury of its shoulder mounted missile launchers.

“Nu, no, get clear!” Patrick shouted.

Unfazed by the barrage that had hit it, the Orca turned and unleashed the full fury of its weapons against the lighter battlesuit. The lasers cored through the Rodian, then the exploding missiles tore apart what was left.

Cursing, Patrick rolled to his feet and opened fire on the Orca. This time he was rewarded with a solid hit against the cockpit that seemed to stagger the pilot.
Almost in anger, the Orca's right arm swung out and battered Patrick aside, the blow wrecking his heavy blaster and knocking him once more the floor.

Before the Orca could move again, a second Tempest dropped from a gantry above and landed squarely on top of it, directing fire into the heavy machine from above.

“Thought you could use the help” Arden sounded cheerful.

“Gladly” Patrick replied, directing fire at the Orca's underside with his missile launcher and the small laser on his left arm.

Suddenly beset on two sides, the Orca began to whirl and thrash and began to back away from Patrick.

Forming a plan” Patrick opened fire at the Orca's feet. Seeing his actions, other Genyosha did likewise and a fusillade of laser energy and missiles began to hammer into the decking around the Orcas feet.

With one last whirl, Arden was thrown from the Orca's back, but before it could reorient and fire, the weakened decking gave way beneath the giants feet. Patrick scrambled to the edge of the new hole to watch the Orca plummet towards the bay floor, but before it could travel half the distance, the magnetic fields holding the Silver Eagle in place grabbed it and smashed it into the bay wall from where it resumed it's descent.

With a sigh, Patrick rolled over in time to see the Silver Eagle clear it's moorings and begin to move out of the bay.

“Genyosha” Patrick smiled, “Fall back to the dropships on the double” Our work here is done”

---------------------------------------------------

Command Bridge.
Invader Class Frigate Hawkwind.

“Silver Eagle is outbound” Patrick's voice was weary, but satisfied, “Chieftain and Excalibur launching five. Package is safe. Recommend we vacate Federation space as soon as we're docked”

Jacob slumped against the bulkhead in relief at hearing Patrick' report. As he'd found himself singularly useless on this mission, he'd had little to do but give himself ulcers worrying about Hanna's safety. To hear that she was okay was a tremendous weight off his shoulders.

Beside him, Captain Tor nodded, “The second Firestorm is moving off. We did enough damage that they don't want to risk a further fight against us if they move against the Silver Eagle. Looks like the Death Commando transport is launching in retreat too. Patrick's plan worked admirably”

Jacob smiled, “Patrick was right when he said the passengers and crew would never make it to the Genyosha dropships. But he also refused to leave them to the mercy of the Death Commandos and he knew they'd never leave unless they knew their quarry had already fled”

“His decision to take the fight to the Death Commandos was brave too” Tor frowned, “And risky”

Jacob sighed, “Patrick would never have left the civilians behind, nor could he trust that the Federation troops would let them go. But striking at them and announcing that the Genyosha was there to cut off their retreat, he forced their hand” He scowled, “When they took down Yorinaga Tortorelli, the on-site commander -this General Nero panicked and ordered the retreat Patrick had bluffed him into thinking had already been cut off. Though they took the time to retrieve Tortorelli from his smashed Orca”

“I'm not sure I want to believe that Yorinaga Tortorelli has returned” Tor grimaced.

“Patrick and Arden seemed so sure” Jacob answered, “I was still in school when Yorinaga was waging his battles, but I know his reputation. He's not somebody you want running around. But the last I'd heard he'd retreated to a monastery on Echo V”

“Much as Patrick's father Morgan retreated to Zaniah” Tor nodded.

“At the same time in fact” Jacob frowned, “I don't like this at all. The Circinus Federation goes quieter than ever before and one of its most notorious Generals returns from retirement. I dread what may come next”

-------------------------------------------------

It seemed to take an eternity for the Chieftain to dock with the Hawkwind and for the clamp armatures to lock the transport down securely. It seemed to take even long for the air lock to equalise the pressures and cycle open.

But eventually and with some relief, Hanna Leong stepped from the Genoysha transport and onto the Hawkwind.

She smiled and broke into a run as she saw Jacob waiting for her, “I missed you so much” She squealed as he scooped her into his arms.

“I missed you to” Jacob's voice was partially muffled in her hair, but his relief was clear, “When I heard the Silver Eagle was missing, I feared the worst”

“Until Patrick and the Genyosha showed up, I thought I'd never see you again” Hanna sighed, “Even though we knew rescue was coming, we didn't think it would arrive in time”

“It was a close call” Patrick said stepping into the antechamber with them.

“Still an excellent job, all things considered” Jacob detached a hand from around Hanna's waist and shook the mercenaries hand, “Thank you Patrick. Some of your people paid the price in blood”

Patrick nodded grimly, “Nu, Bethany Connor, Trent and Valik K'Tar will be remembered. They died doing their duty”

Arden came up next to Patrick, “Considering the events here. The Prince may wish to erect a memorial for those who died here. He'll be certain to make a focus of the part the Genyosha played here, whilst downplaying Miss Leong's presence. Possibly even hiding her involvement completely”

“Well, my peoples blood will be enough to keep our silence on this matter” Patrick nodded.

“As will mine” Myn Amedda said as he joined them, “Only a handful of my group knew Hanna was aboard the Silver Eagle and many of them, including my Commander Philip Capet are now dead. The secret will be safe”

Arden smiled as the deck thrummed with the vibrations of the Hawkind jumping to hyperspace, “I have no doubt that Subhash Indrahar is already concocting a cover story to explain all the attention on the Silver Eagle” He looked at Amedda, “I'll speak on behalf of you and your people regarding your actions. You hijacked a Free Worlds League ship, with is piracy. But you also fought hard to protect the passengers when the Federation showed up. I believe I can argue some leniency”

“Thank you” Amedda nodded, “I am willing to stand trial if it protects my surviving people”

“It may not come to that yet” Jacob said, “In thanks, I'm pretty sure I can talk my father into an alternative”

“Plus I want you at our wedding” Hanna said.

Arden coughed into his hand and smiled, “That, Miss Leong, is still a state secret, last I checked”

“Sorry” Hanna shook her head, “But Myn earned the right to know as did Patrick”

“I'm honoured” Amedda inclined his horned head in a slight bow.

“It'll be a grand affair I'll bet, cousin” Patrick winked at Jacob.

“You'll be there I hope?” Jacob asked.

“Try and stop me” The mercenary laughed.

“Wouldn't dare” Jacob smiled, “Seriously though, I ask that the two of you keep this secret for the time being. If word got out about the wedding before we're ready it could cause problems. My father and Captain-General Akdool need time to ensure that rebellious elements in both nations won't take advantage of this. Much as someone tried to do by arranging the hijack in the first place”

“My lips are sealed” Patrick nodded and a moment later, Amedda gave his own assurances.

“Thank you” Jacob smiled, then grinned, “In the meantime though, I have an unopened bottle of Whyren's Reserve in my cabin if you fancy making a toast with me?”

------------------------------------------------------------------

Imperial Palace.
Coruscant.
New Republic,
321ABY
June 3rd

Ran glared daggers at Ash as she brushed her hand down the sleeve of the uniform she wore. The insignia of a Major of New Republic Intelligence rode on the colour of the jacket and though it more no other markings, Ran knew it meant Ash was more of an agent of the NRI than she'd told him.

He wondered what else she'd lied about.

With a sigh, he faced the mirror and looked at him, clad in a uniform similar to Ash's, but lacking any insignia at all. Seeing him looking at himself, Ash gave an amused smile.

“If you think this is such a humorous matter” Ran growled irritably, “Then I'd be happy to trade places”

Ash shook her head, “Wouldn't be much help, we're bound for the same place you and I” She gestured to the doorway, “Follow me”

Ran snorted, “If you'd just said that on the Sprawl, I would have”

Ash shrugged, “I just do as I'm told, this way”

Ran walked behind her as she led him through a maze of carpeted hallways. Small glow lamps hung in alcoves and cast enough light to illuminated the artworks that shared the alcoves, but shone upon little else. Ran did also note the exquisite woodworking of the panelling that lined the hallway. He felt one of the woods used was teak, but struggled to identify the darker woods used.

What he didn't like was the narcotic fuzz that still clouded his head. His muscles ached as if he'd caught the flu, though he felt that might have also been an effect of the lack of movement while he'd been under.

Ash led him to a pair of intricately carved bronze doors and without a word pushed them open and beckoned him in. Inside, he saw a large, well appointed office lacking furniture beyond a desk and chair and a handful of cabinets along one wall.

What caught his eye were was the massive window that occupied one wall and the view of the cityscape beyond. He'd never been to Coruscant before and the view took his breath away, so much so that it took a moment or two for him to notice the Bothan seated at the desk. Seated there, watching him carefully was Reisk Fel'lya.

Slowly, with the deliberation of a spider, the Chief-of-State of the New Republic rose from his seat. He too wore a plain uniform, though cut to Bothan military stylings and he wore his presidential sash and robes too as was his due. As the Bothan gazed at Ran with steely eyes and a stony expression, Ran felt as if were being mechanically scanned, digitized and analysed.

“Greetings Ran Gavin” Fel'lya smiled, baring a mouthful of sharp predators teeth, “I have anticipated this meeting for some time” He said, offering his hand.

“I wish I could say likewise, but I wasn't exactly expecting this” Ran said cautiously, accepting the handshake, “I am honoured however”

“Good, good” Fel'lya nodded and settled back into his seat. He gestured to Ash, “When Natasha sent her reports about you, I became most interested in meeting you. I want to offer you a job too”

“A job?” Ran frowned.

“With my intelligence division” Fel'lya nodded, “The methods of the NRI are stale and lack initiative. They need fresh blood, young minds that will energise the NRI and make it strong again. I want you to be that blood, you and Natasha”

“Why us?” Ran asked.

“You both served with the Skye Alliance for a time” Fel'lya smiled, “Natasha never graduated, but she knows the methods used to train their military and she was also in the same class as Alexandria Tarn and a variety of front-line troops and officers” He nodded, “You even served in the Prince's bodyguard unit for a time, is that right”

“It is” Ran nodded, “Till I got kicked out for misconduct” His voice took on a bitter edge, “I followed orders until the day I was given one that was stupid and suicidal and they kick me out. Harrison himself stripped me of my rank and exiled me”

“A miscarriage of justice indeed” Fel'lya said with sympathy, “Specifically, because of your knowledge, I want the two of you in my analyst divisions. You will be responsible for pouring over the most critical reports, troop movements, diplomatic dispatches. You will determine Harrison Tarn's true intentions and learn all you can about his plans. And I will use that information to destroy him”

Ran frowned, “How do you know I can be trusted?”

“Ah, Ran” Fel'lya smiled, “I know you would never be willing to do anything that would bring harm upon your family. That I admire and therefore, I will never ask such a thing of you” The Bothan grinned, “But I know, that in your efforts to break Tarn as he once broke you, I know you can be trusted”

Ran bowed his head, “You are correct Sir, I willingly accept your charge”

“Excellent” Fel'lya clapped his hands in satisfaction, and rose in one fluid motion, “Come” He said, leading them towards another doorway, “It is time to dine and to meet another ally in our endeavours”

Ran followed him, but stopped in surprise at the doorway. The dining room beyond only had a single occupant, one already seated at the massive dining table. His light green uniform clashed with the deep red of the embroidered silk sheets which surrounded the table and the petulant look on his face disturbed the sense of peace that the arrangement of cherry blossoms on the dark mahogany table were meant to create.

Fel'lya glanced over his shoulder and noted Ran's look of astonishment, “I though you might know our other guest” The Bothan said with no small measure of amusement,

Ran nodded and started slowly forwards with a stiff-legged gait as he shook of his shock, “We have met” He offered a smile, but his eyes bore no warmth, “Politics do indeed make strange bedfellows” He said, offering his hand to the seated man.

“Indeed” Miles Fel-Tarn said cautiously as he accepted Ran's handshake, “But that is because the ends always justify the means”

Fel'lya lifted a glass of plum wine, “Then let us drink to the one end we can all agree on. The destruction of Harrison Tarn.-his line and his house”

-----------------------------------------------

Deep Space.
321ABY.
June 4th.

“Are you sure about this?”

Conner looked to his right where Jenna Tarn was sat in the co-pilots seat. Or the ghost of Jenna Tarn was sat, or the figment of his own broken mind that was Jenna Tarn.

“I'm sure” Conner nodded slowly, “Julian Tiepolo set me up. I want to find out why”

“Could be a one way trip” Jenna pointed out, “He may not like you poking your nose in. Could have consequences. Fatal consequences”

“I have to do this” Conner sighed, “Those millions who died because of me, their blood is on my hands. Whatever happens, I'm dead already inside. Maybe it's only a matter of time before the rest of me catches up. But I'm taking Julian Tiepolo down with me”

Jenna smiled, “Now there's the Solo spirit I remember” She nodded, “Let's do this then. We'll take him down or die trying”

“You're already dead” Conner scowled, “And what's this we? What can you possibly do?”

“I'm moral support”

Conner winced, “Maybe I should just kill myself now”

“There's the spirit”

“Shut up”

End of Book One


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