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Face of the Rebellion
By Emperor's Fury

DISCLAIMER: Some of the Characters, Ships and Places mentioned in this story belong to George Lucas and Timothy Zahn. In using them for this narrative purpose, no plagiarism or malevolent violation of copyright laws is intended.

INTRODUCTION: Planet Syrilla

"I MUST ADMIT it is very impressive, General!"

Thorgram Bjarnesson had to shout at the top of his lungs to make himself understood over the tremendous background noise. A mouthful of dust instantly made him regret that he had even tried.

Standing in the prow of the circling skiff next to General Botyne, the whine of the turbines adding to the background noise of dozens of jet engines and the overall clamour of battle, it was a major effort for him just to make himself heard.

Below him, on the arid, calcified desert floor, two Imperial Army regiments were on the attack.

Packs of AT-STs kicked up huge plumes of sand as they strutted forward in spearhead formation behind a screen of dispersed infantry squads, their armoured hooves producing distinctive thumping sounds with every powerful footfall. Roaring volleys from their chin-guns, directed at distant targets invisible through the dust and haze, almost drowned out the countless, overlaying repeats of the infantrymen's heavy blaster rifles as they drove for their individual objectives. Light Chariot class hover tanks brought up the flanks, darting hither and yon, blazing away with their turret guns in support of the infantry push. Behind this first wave of troops, a second one was way into executing a textbook assault drop, shuttles and transport barges touching down in rapid succession to deliver their cargo of yet more men and machines to reinforce those troop strengths already deployed and fighting.

The noise level was almost physically painful even at this distance, and the hot, arid desert air was thick with the fine, white local dust and the distinctive stench of jet fuel. Sweating profusely in his greenish-grey Navy uniform under the relentless midday sun, Thor felt immensely uncomfortable. Even though he had covered his eyes with protective dust goggles and wore a locally obtained scarf around his neck and lower face to keep the all-pervading filth from gradually seeping into his uniform collar, he was completely caked in the grime from cap peak to boot heels. He tried hard not to let it show, but his current discomfort kept him from fully savouring the scene below him, spectacular though it undoubtedly was. By his side, Nia Paragrin was faring even worse. The exposed parts of her face completely smeared, her naturally pale skin flushed with insetting sunburn, her long, coppery hair was matted with dirt and whipping around her head with the turbulent engine backwash. She was holding her goggles in place with one hand, pressing her own scarf to her mouth and nose with the other. When she briefly turned her head to him, the look he caught from behind her goggles told him she was very much sharing his sentiment.

Their host, Imperial Army General Corleus Botyne, on the other hand seemed to be greatly enjoying himself. Leaning casually against the skiff's railing, he had pushed back his goggles up to the brim of his helmet and wore his scarf loosely around his neck, leaving its trailing ends to freely flap in the gale. A wide grin split his face, immaculate white teeth contrasting starkly with his deeply tanned, almost leathery skin. He didn't seem to mind the accumulated dirt on his cheeks, and there was hardly a bead of sweat on his brow. He gave the impression of a man perfectly at ease with himself and his surroundings.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" he replied pensively, not looking back at Thor, a man totally wrapped up in the scene. Suddenly, frowning, he reached for his personal pair of macro-binoculars, briefly pointing them at something below before holding them out to Thor. "See that? The tank squad over there, on the far left flank? They're out of position, aren't they?"

Thor looked in the indicated direction. Even with the highly magnifying binoculars, he could barely make out individual vehicles through the all-obscuring dust clouds, let alone tell whether they were wherever they were supposed to be. A career Navy officer for the greatest part of his adult life, he wasn't exactly versed in the finer nuances of the complex art of ground warfare. It had apparently been a rhetorical question anyway, as Botyne didn't bother to wait for a reply.

"That's Devlan's guys! What does that lazy son of a nerf think he's doing down there, lagging behind like that? I could drive a Bantha herd down his flank, the gaps he's leaving! Give me that radio!"

He gestured impatiently towards the radio operator, the only other passenger sharing the ride in the skiff, who obediently handed him a pair of headphones connected to his powerful backpack comms set.

Thor couldn't exactly hear what the General was saying, but from his facial expression, it was clear the junior officer in question was on the receiving end of a major dressing-down. But apparently, as soon as Botyne's anger had arisen, it seemed to subside again as he now watched several Chariots soar forward and regroup.

"Now, that's better. Good boy!" Nodding judiciously as he witnessed his orders being executed, he seemed to be satisfied with the results.

Thor exchanged knowing glances with Nia. Their former CO, Navy Captain Dren Markas, had been very much like that, quick to anger when his demands were not met, yet just as quick to mirth.

It took another five minutes of general hurly-burly until the clamour below them grew somewhat less and Botyne finally pronounced the objective taken and secured, exuding an almost palpable air of satisfaction at the performance of his troops as he did so.

At a gestured command and a few shouted directional instructions to the helmsman, the skiff turned its blunt bow away from the scene and quickly gathered speed, the resulting breeze not exactly cool, but nonetheless a welcome relief for its sweat-soaked passengers. Botyne even doffed his helmet and wiped a few brilliant beads of sweat from his forehead and his iron-grey, brush-cut hair after having dispensed bottled water to his guests from a stowage locker. Grinning, he produced a silver hip flask from one of the bulging pockets of his battle dress uniform, unscrewed the cap and offered a toast.

"To the mighty Imperial Army and associated branches of Imperial Forces!"

Thor returned the gesture with his water bottle, conceding no pride as they both took deep swigs, knowing his opportunity to return the favour would not be long in the coming. It was a given and a long-standing tradition that each of the different groups that made up the Empire's military might Army, Navy and Stormtrooper Corps - considered itself the most important one and carefully hatched and nursed certain rivalries and prejudices towards the other two. And no member of any branch was ever hesitant to defend the pride of his uniform by taking these rivalries to the physical level. Thor himself had fought through quite a few cantina brawls in his cadet days, gleefully demonstrating the Imperial Navy's prowess and fighting spirit to some unfortunate Army or STC loudmouth. Granted, it had helped that, even back at that age, he had been about seven feet tall, impressively muscled and an adept martial artist.

But neither he nor even the usually so hot-headed and prideful Nia held any animosity towards General Botyne, who had treated them with nothing but friendliness and warm courtesy ever since the first day of their acquaintance, displaying none of the contempt or widespread arrogance that was, sadly, so omnipresent among the aristocratic elite of the Imperial military apparatus. Even his insisting on taking them along on this ordeal of a troop inspection had been borne out of nothing but his wish to create the basis for a solid and lasting professional relationship among fellow soldiers. Plus, if truth was to be told, he held a limitless, good-humoured, fatherly pride in what he usually referred to as "my boys".

And, gruff as the general's usual habit was, out here, right in the thick of things, he seemed as much in a talking mood as he seemed to feel at home.

"You know," he began, "we've been working our sorry behinds off for nigh-on two months now, training and re-training for urban warfare at squad, platoon and company level, so this particular game today was pretty much just for the sake of regimental integration, and so our new boys could get a decent taste at large-scale soldiering before we're off for our new assignment. We hardly get to do any large-scale operations these days any more, pretty much not since Hoth. Bloody Rebs just won't stay and fight like men!"

He gave a short, barking laugh. "You see, I needed a place where I could throw twenty-four individual companies into the grinder and come out with a division. Did you know there's not a single live-firing training area this size anywhere else in this entire sector? So you understand I'm damn glad I could schedule this range for our final exercise. Now all my new boys need is a night of camping under the stars, a warm fire and some beers and they'll perfectly mix in with the old sweats." His tone and facial expression left no doubt as to the fact that, come nightfall, all the aforementioned conditions would have also been dutifully arranged for.

"Same here, General." Thor nodded judiciously. "Nothing like taking the new boys out for some live range practice to boost crew morale!"

"Damn, no! You know, at the end of training, we usually give them some captured Alliance vehicles and equipment, a pile of thermo charges, and then let 'em blow it all to kingdom come, just for the fun of it!"

They both laughed at the very idea, then turned their faces forward again to enjoy the head wind.

The battered, olive-drab army-issue skiff they rode in was one of the commonplace local all-purpose transport vehicles, commandeered by the General as his personal conveyance for the time being. Ugly as a Ghamorrean male, yet sturdy and reliable, it was easily able to accommodate its four passengers in addition to its single helmsman and still cruise at considerable speed. As it now sped across the desert ground that made up the greatest part of the vast Imperial Army Ground Operations Training Centre here on Syrilla, it passed other Imperial units in various stages of exercises or encampment.

Soldiers and war gear were omnipresent all around them. At one occasion, a loose group of scout biker outriders pulled up and close alongside their transport, revving their high-performance speeder bikes as they waved their salutes to the General before suddenly, in perfect unison, breaking formation and coasting away flank-speed at a nearly ninety degrees angle.

Thor noticed that Nia's eyes were alight as she waved the nimble bikes an enthusiastic goodbye, watching them jink and dash to regroup.

Catching his sidelong glance, she gave him an impish grin. "I want one!"

Checking no one was looking on, he silently mouthed "I want you!" back at her, which earned him another one of those grins and a none-too-gentle kick to the shin.

"Pull yourself together, sir!" she whispered under her breath. "Until later."

In the distance, a ten-strong herd of towering, elephantine AT-AT walkers could be seen as they lumbered forward with deceptively slow, serene strides of their long legs, spread out in a crescent formation at least one and a half miles across, dragging long, whirling tails of dust. The subsonic rumble of their passage was an awe-inspiring background noise that matched the humbling presence of these mighty war machines.

As they approached a cluster of wind-worn, one- and two-story plascrete buildings arrayed to simulate an average outer-rim mining or farming colony, complete with corrugated sheet-metal sheds, machine shops and wind-powered generator masts, the skiff suddenly altered its course and slowed down. Thor's questioning look at Botyne was answered a second later by the booming passage of two low-flying Sentinel class troop shuttles that crossed their original flight path nearly overhead. The backwash of their howling engines rocked the skiff.

Smiling appreciatively, Botyne ordered the helmsman to circle in a respectful distance as both Nia and Thor watched the unexpected display with awe and surprise. Top-notch shuttle piloting was something they both recognized when they saw it.

In a well-orchestrated maneuver, one of the Sentinels broke away and turned to orbit the settlement, side hatches open to reveal armed and ready troopers in full combat gear. The other shuttle flashed its braking jets hard, coming to a hovering standstill in mid-air, precisely above one of the buildings. At least half a dozen high-performance rappelling cables dropped from its sides.

No sooner had the cable ends touched the roof of the target building than trooper after trooper started fast-roping down each one, hitting the ground running and firing bright blaster volleys into surrounding windows and hatch mouths within a matter of bare seconds. Breach charges flashed as assault groups took entryways and stair wells by force.

"Storm-clearing!" Botyne explained to his visibly impressed guests. "Special Forces tactics, routinely employed in counter-insurgency raids against suspected Rebel strongholds. Takes a heck of a lot of training, but the results are usually worth it. We can even pull off this trick right out of orbit if we have to. If the bloody Rebs don't get advance warning, we can usually get on top of them with minimum casualties."

He gave them a crooked smile. "On our side, that is. The second shuttle's task is usually to line-back and make sure nobody escapes. Not that it is often needed."

"I thought Stormtroopers specialized in that kind of tactics." Nia skipped in, which somewhat soured the General's smile.

"True, in a sense. The bucketheads can do those same stunts, and their tactics are generally more focused on aggressive direct-assault and fast attack operations. But since they usually take the field in large-scale operations such as planetary assaults these days, they get to do these small raid actions much less often than our best counter-insurgency units do. Make no mistake, there's no pride lost admitting that the Corp's crack assault units are second to nothing in the galaxy, but even Stormtrooper frontline divisions sometimes tend to get somewhat spoiled by all the head-on charges they do. Which is a shame and a waste of fine infantry, if you ask me." He looked away, wiping his hand across his mouth.

"From my personal experience, I tend to believe that in small-scale skirmish operations, counter-insurgency and low-intensity theatres, our Army Special Forces boys have the edge for greater experience."

"Same thing with our Navy troopers," Thor replied, nodding judiciously. He shared the General's sentiments on this particular strategic issue. "The media heap most of the glory on the STC, but I'd pit my armsmen against any pirate or Rebel band in the galaxy when it comes to a boarding action."

Over at the fake village, the exercise seemed to have come to a conclusion of sorts as both shuttles folded their wings upwards and settled down to pick up the troopers for another round. General Botyne gestured for the skiff helmsman to resume their ride.

After twenty more minutes of flight, the tall, pristine, white buildings of the Desert Peak base camp rose into view. Large as a city in its own right, carved entirely from the creamy marble of a steep cliff face, some of the base's tallest mesas, ziggurats and antenna spires out-rose even the towering mountain peak itself, stretching several hundred meters into the cloudless desert sky, brilliantly reflecting the sunlight as they had been polished to do, and its deepest bunkers, magazines and caverns had been delved to the same depth again down into the living planetary bedrock. The base's outlying girdle of perimeter walls and defence positions reached out nearly two miles in diameter, not counting the annexed landing field, and its turrets and bulbous dome-emplacements bristled with all kinds of weapons, among them even powerful turbolasers, ion cannons and long-barreled railguns that could wipe a starship from low orbit. Shuttles, barges and various other kinds of flyers were jetting about, thick as insects around a busy hive, aiming for docking ports set directly into the walls of the tallest buildings or touching down on the flat roofs of several mesas. Streams of ground traffic passed through each of the five main gates set into the curtain walls in regular intervals, and as their own skiff approached the installation, automated guidance mechanisms took over, confirmed its proper identification codes and enmeshed it smoothly into one of the lanes reserved for military vehicles. Speed decreased perceptibly, and so Thor and Nia were offered a brilliant view at the surrounding scenery as their transport glided along, craning their heads to look up at the sheer, slanted ramparts rising high above them. They had both spent two days inside the base already, courtesy of the good General, but neither of them had yet seen it from the outside, at ground level, up close and by daylight, and they seized this prime opportunity at sightseeing gratefully.

On the wall-top battlements above, individual troopers could be seen patrolling or manning gun posts, looking small and distant as they occasionally leaned over the lip to peek down into the traffic. Botyne waved at them, enthusiastically joined by a cheerily grinning Nia, and they were both rewarded with half a dozen answering waves and salutes.

They passed a checkpoint outside one of the gatehouses built into the wall itself. A local civilian hover truck had apparently just been waved over and now sat idling by the side of the lane while a squad of technicians gave it a thorough once-over with heavy scanning equipment. An Army Sergeant was questioning the driver and his companion a lanky, blue-skinned alien dressed in a loose-fitting overall slit open at waist height to accommodate an additional pair of arms, Thor noted while a Corporal went over their ID cards with a hand-held device, five more troopers covering the scene with blaster rifles at the ready. Additionally, a sandbagged gun nest at ground level held a tripod-mounted heavy blaster cannon and its crew of three. Despite the stifling heat that rose above the sun-seared marble floor slabs, all troopers had a coolly competent and observant air about themselves as they went about their business thoroughly and unhurriedly. Even as Thor looked on, another hover vehicle was flagged over and queued up behind the first one.

It struck Thor as odd that such tight security was being maintained even here, Desert Peak base being the very heart and headquarters of defence on a perfectly loyal planet that was, by itself, the most powerful strongpoint of Imperial military presence in the entire sector. More so for the fact that the Imperial Navy had thrown its own ring of steel around the world, every arriving or leaving ship undergoing the same rigid customs and security checking procedures, pre-flight and post-flight, both in space and in its docking bay at one of the local space ports. Rebel infiltration units hardly stood a chance of setting foot onto the surface in any given strength, let alone carry out their cowardly raids.

He mentioned as much to Botyne.

"Well, long story." He gestured at the guardhouse and the trucks. "First of all, checkpoints like this are the stock of our trade on any given world we garrison; I daresay even the stock of our trade, period, 'cause the Army does a lot more peacekeeping and police work than actual fighting nowadays. In any major planetary city in any given star system outside the Core minus the Outer Rim, mark you you can't probably enter a spaceport, a major public facility or a military installation without first passing a similar checkpoint and having your papers looked over by some sorry, footslogging Army Private. And so, even while we are encamped for training and recreation, we don't grow slack on the routine.

"Second point is, they're a damn necessity even here. There's no frontline to this conflict, neither in space nor on the ground, as you doubtlessly know damn well for yourself."

Thor nodded. Stressing that particular point was moot indeed. In addition to his first-hand experience, he knew the circulated bulletins on Alliance strategy and tactics, kept himself informed through the regular monthly Imperial military publication discs, and there was a well-used copy of Adar Tallon's priceless On War on his private bookshelf. But the Imperial military was notoriously clandestine regarding the spread of information beyond the circle of those that actually needed it, let alone allow the sharing of information between different branches of forces, and so he gladly seized this opportunity to share a first-hand peek into a field of profession that not only bordered, but effectively overlapped his own.

The Alliance had fought a guerrilla campaign against the New Order right from the start, and even though they employed a formal military, so better to legitimize their claim at being a genuine political entity, the majority of their actions against the Empire's political, social and military bodies were of criminal or terrorist nature, subversive, deceitful and gutless. It seemed to be getting worse every year. And you never knew where they would strike next.

"Home-grown terrorism," Botyne continued, looking away "remains the scourge of our decade and our number-one threat on the ground. Five or six years ago, it was just a bunch of Rebel infiltrators dropping in on occasion to stage one raid here, one there, stop it or stomach it. But we quickly learned to defend against that, and the Rebels kept losing lots of people for some time until they adapted in turn. Nowadays, the damn Alliance no longer sends raider teams, it sends political agitators. Plus, it spreads its detestable propaganda over the Holonet with the help of those sneaky, little Bothan rodents. So all they have to do is wait and watch until a bunch of our own kids or some alien freaks with a grudge buy into all the radical stuff. Then, on cue, they send in two or three instructors to train them, arm them and form them into a terrorist cell. And there you go." He banged his palm against the skiff's railing.

"Prime targets like this place make prime opportunities for attack. Imagine the propagandistic value if the damn Rebs were to strike us here, at the very heart of the sector. Not to mention the long-term damage to our logistic capabilities if they manage to slip us a liquid-gas truck rigged with explosives. And, barring that, you never know when they try next to slip us one of their damnable espionage droids."

And with that, they had passed the gate. The automated guidance released the skiff, and the helmsman took over control again, steering them down the base's main street.

The space inside the ramparts was studded with hundreds of neatly arrayed buildings, from vehicle hangars and machine shops to troop barracks, supply stores, armouries and gyms. Parade and training grounds were filled with exercising troops sweating in full combat gear in the stifling heat, columns of more troops running past, singing at the top of their lungs, the neatly stencilled Imperial icon standing out sharply on the shirt fronts of their light-grey sports fatigues.

The air was thick with machine noises, human voices and the sound of countless boots on tarmac.

They passed a training field ringed off with a tall, circular wire-mesh fence behind which an exercise in riot control was being held. Holo projectors maintained the image of a massive civilian crowd shouting anti-imperial slogans and bearing all kinds of blasphemous signs. Opposing them were well-ordered lines of battle-armored troopers with batons and riot-shields. Droids that looked like a virtual forest of multi-jointed arms were continuously testing the strength and cohesion of the shield wall by submitting it to a ceaseless clubbing barrage while another droid hurled plastic balls against the shields at considerable force and varying trajectories. No blows were being pulled; any trooper caught off his guard would find himself in possession of a veritable collection of bruises at the end of the day, which served nicely to drive home the lesson.

Loudspeaker broadcasts were being directed at the crowd demanding order, only to be met with jeers, cat-calls and more slogans in return. Then, suddenly, a whistle blew, shrill and piercing, and the disciplined Imperial line exploded in a flurry of activity as hit squads surged forward to club the clubber droids into submission. A simultaneous volley of stun blasts silenced the ball-thrower. Apparently satisfied with the course of the action, unseen umpires switched off the holographic crowd, and the Imperial line regrouped and marched off for some rest and debriefing, to be replaced by a fresh formation for another round.

In the distance, the tall pyramid shape and fluttering banners of Imperial Sector Headquarters could be seen rising above the flat rooftops, eclipsed only by the great auditorium of the local military academy, the venerated Tarkin Hall. High above it all towered the mighty, steep mountainside, its carved-out structures alive with vehicles and uniformed figures that strode busily along open walkways and pillared galleries. The Main Street, laser-straight and fifty metres wide, ran directly towards Tarkin Hall, intersecting with numerous side streets. Locally known also as the Alley of Heroes, it was lined with imposing, larger-than-life statues of renowned Imperial soldiers, some of the monuments even dating back to the Clone Wars. In the dead centre of the base, the road circled widely around the sunlit Square of the Emperor Martyred that derived its name from the two tall statues forming the centrepiece of a large fountain that cast curtains of water three dozen feet into the air. The fountain, along with most of the statues surrounding it, had been erected after the crippling losses the fleet had sustained in the battle of Endor, losses that included both the flagship Executor and the half-completed second Death Star with all hands aboard. That single day alone had effectively seen the Empire's political and military leadership decapitated in one swoop.

And so, his cloak finely carved from slate-grey granite with inlaid white marble for hands and face, Emperor Palpatine seemed to calmly, commandingly, overlook this part of his domain. By his master's side stood ever-faithful Lord Vader, fashioned in gleaming, black obsidian. So lifelike was the appearance of Vader's carved skull-mask or so statue-like had been the Sith Lord's outward appearance even in life that the monument appeared astonishingly notoriously alive to an unsuspecting onlooker. As he had stood before it for the first time two days ago, Thor had experienced a strange sensation of unease, like he could almost hear Vader's rough, laborious breathing or feel the gaze of the imposing figure upon himself. That feeling briefly returned now as they rode past under the shadow of the sculptures. Amidst the roadside statues arranged in a circle around the fountain, still new and brightly white, was one commemorating the late Grand Moff Jerjerrod, and another dedicated to the famous Admiral Firmus Piett, the Navy's most highly honoured contemporary hero, whose meteoric career had met an equally meteoric end at Endor. Depicted in a proudly defiant pose, gloved hands neatly clasped behind his back, head held high, Piett stood tall, as he had surely stood on the bridge of the Executor, where he had met a soldier's death with his wounds to the fore.

Touchingly, numerous black ribbons of mourning had been tied around the Admiral's statue's ankles, fluttering in the breeze, and candles, wreaths and trinkets formed a pile at the foot of its plinth, speaking of individual grief at the loss of so fine a soldier and effectively turning the monument into a shrine.

Thor threw the statue a brief salute in respect of the fallen man as they rode past it. Botyne noticed the gesture.

"I met him once, during one of the Emperor's annual hunts back on Coruscant, while I was in the entourage of General Drexler. A good man, Piett, sound and unpretentious. Had a beautiful wife, a whole bunch of good kids. Had ideas, too. Very much the coming man of the next decade, as palace rumour had it. It's a damn shame we had to loose him like that."

Thor regarded the General with a new kind of respect. Being part of the hand-picked retinue of one of the elite few to attend one of the Emperor's annual hunting events in the Manarai Mountains on Coruscant was a rare honour indeed. It was the admission ticket to the high and mighty social echelons of Imperial power.

"They say Piett championed a radical change in Navy strategy," he replied, citing popular fleet gossip, "and had gotten the senior Admiralty to back him on that. It remains unknown whether he had gotten Vader to back him against the Emperor, too, since Endor cut short all reform plans, but if he had had his way, there would have been a white uniform in it for him, no doubt. He might even have eclipsed Thrawn as the Navy's new strategic mastermind."

Botyne nodded pensively. "Those were the days. Well, I guess the Manarai lodge's under new management nowadays."

"It's not. Not at all any more." Nia chipped in. "The Rebels publicly torched the place from orbit after declaring it a `symbol of the Empire's decadence and monarchist wastefulness. One of the first points of their political agenda after they took the planet, apparently."

"What?" Botyne looked seriously hacked off at that news. "You serious? Damn shame that, bloody waste of some beautiful real estate! Bloody vandals. I'll give 'em a wasteful amount of boot 'n blaster, next time I meet 'em, and that's gonna be my own political agenda!"

On that Thor could only wholeheartedly agree. He had considered it an act of barbarism and a war crime ever since he had first heard of the deed, but he understood the political value of such a symbolic gesture all too well. It matched his overall opinion of the diabolic stew of plots and schemes that made up the Alliance agenda.

At that point, the skiff turned off the main road and into one of the side lanes. They passed between rows of low, whitewashed barrack huts whose flat roofs sported huge sun-collector arrays. Buzzing air conditioners emitted pillars of vapour into the cloudless desert sky. Parked hover cars dotted the sidewalks. Uniformed men and women were everywhere, running errands or just standing in the shadows near open hut doors, smoking and chatting. Several troopers, stripped to their combat trousers and carrying towels around their bare, muscular shoulders, were lined up in a queue outside the showers. Droids of all sorts hustled about.

Flags and signposts denoted General Botyne's divisional headquarters as the skiff came to a stop in front of it. A half-dozen dust-caked military-issue hover bikes and bike combinations were parked outside the building, several dispatch riders in equally filthy helmets and greatcoats sharing cigarettes and canteens beside their mounts. Two sentries guarded the entrance.

When Botyne jumped unceremoniously off the hovering vehicle, the commanding voice of a sergeant immediately brought everyone present to a stiff attention. The guards slammed their polished boots together in unison, presenting arms with fluid, well-drilled grace.

The General flashed a smile at the performance of his men, winking at Thor. "Match that if you can, Navy man!"

"I'll take you up on that one, groundpounder!" They bade each other goodbye with a comradely handshake. When Nia held her hand out, Botyne seized the opportunity to apply a courteous hand kiss.

"Hey," she protested, pulling back her hand with a surprised laugh, "who do you think you're flirting with?!"

"Forgive an old soldier his ill manners towards a beautiful young maiden." Botynes impish smile belied his devote words. "Well, I see you two right after embarkation next week! Got a whole lot to do until then, getting packed up and all that, so I guess there won't be much time for chit-chat in the meantime. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself today. Have the helmsman drive you home, but return the skiff! I signed for that!"

Smiling, he grabbed his kit bag and waved them goodbye over his shoulder as he walked towards the entrance, hollering at the soldiers to stand at ease before disappearing inside.

Thor and Nia looked at each other when he was gone and the ride resumed.

"What do you make of him?" she asked.

"I'm not yet decided. He's a fine officer, no doubt. I've met my share of those, and they all had their eccentric streak to boot. But there's times he appears utterly nuts. What do you think?"

"Dunno. Maybe both."

+++ Are the preparations complete? +++

+++ Not yet. But they will be in time. +++

+++ Very well. Everything is proceeding according to plan. +++

PART ONE: Shore leave

Thor looked out of the speeding staff car and into the abyss. Three thousand feet below him, down over the side of the pillared drive way and down the sheer cliff face, the human figures moving between the buildings looked tinier than ants.

They were underway to one of the topmost landing decks of the base, located way up in the mountainside. From his quarters at the foot of it until now, they had been driving along serpentine roads and through tunnels for roughly half an hour. The higher they had gotten, the more spectacular the panoramic view had grown, but Thor had mostly failed to appreciate it. Being used to the confined spaces of starships, the strange sensation of being so high above the ground and under the open skies gave him the creeps. Frankly spoken, the sweat that currently soaked the back of his shirt didn't come from the heat alone. The fact that his driver steered the open-topped hover car at virtually breakneck speed close to the edge of a road that bordered the crest of the ridgeline didn't help much to make it any better.

Finally, the car took an exit lane and slewed to a halt on the rim of a wide, semi-circular platform, open to the sky all around except for the cliff face in its back. To his immense surprise, Thor discovered that it was actually the massive concrete roof of a building whose multi-windowed front protruded from the mountain itself. A single Lambda class shuttle, wings folded awkwardly upwards, sat on the far side. Beyond the horizon, the setting sun bathed the scenery in a warm, orange glow as the driver settled the staff car down, reflecting in coppery waves off the long, wind-troubled hair of the lone, waiting figure that stood before the parked shuttle on the far end of the deck. Dismissing the driver with a few words of thanks, Thor grabbed his travel bag from the rear seat and hurried across the open, windswept space.

Leggy and athletic, red-haired and green-eyed, Flight Commander Nia Paragrin was as strikingly beautiful as ever even in the well-worn, unmarked grey flight suit she wore. She flashed him a welcoming smile that made his heart skip a beat and made him want to hug her, but he restrained himself. In a place like this, there were bound to be cameras.

"You're late!" she scorned.

"I'm not. You just don't like waiting. Nice scarf." She had retained the scarf from the earlier desert outing, cleaned and fresh now, wearing it tied loosely, decoratively, around her neck.

"Don't tell me you didn't keep yours for a souvenir, too. Now get aboard!" She gave him a prod in the back as he made past her up the ramp.

Hot-headed and passionate, sharply intelligent and fiercely proud, Nia was both a man's wet dream and his worst nightmare, as Thor could attest from personal experience. Theirs had been an uneasy relationship right from the start, ever since the day she had first set foot on Gun Crate's deck as the ship's new attack craft squadron leader, only to immediately contest his authority. They had fought bitterly, literally, for each other's respect, and even their respective senior ranks had not restrained them from taking their rivalry to the physical level. And yet, in a complete reversal of things, their initial hostility had eventually turned into a romantic bond. After taking that issue to the physical level equally quickly and enthusiastically, they had been a serious couple for more than six months now. Of course, restrictive Navy regulations meant they had to keep it quite secret for the time being, but that didn't keep them from spending as much time around each other as possible.

"So how did you manage to rustle up this bird, by the way?" he asked as he strapped himself into the co-pilot's seat beside her after dumping his bag in the passenger compartment. Sturdy and reliable, the ubiquitous Lambdas were the workhorse of Imperial armed forces far and wide, but they were usually reserved for heavy-duty hauling and passenger transports, and he had expected to have one of the smaller, less comfortable Eta class planetary hoppers assigned to them for their two-persons trip.

"I tried out the effect of mentioning Botyne's name around people." She threw several sets of switches on the instrument board, prompting batteries of green lights to wake up in front of her and overhead. "Worked better than I expected. The guy in the despatch office nearly jumped to give me the best mount in his stable. Whoever our new friend is, his name certainly carries some weight. Desert Peak Control, Shuttle Nine-Twenty-Eight requesting permission for takeoff from platform thirty-five! Flight plan number is five-five-eight alpha."

The last words had been spoken into her intercom headset. Crackling, the voice of an invisible air-traffic controller came back through the cockpit speakers.

"Nine-Twenty-Eight, you're cleared for departure. Five-five-eight alpha is confirmed. Have a good flight!"

"Roger, have a nice day. Nine-Twenty-Eight taking off."

The engine howl rose in pitch and volume. The shuttle's frame trembled with the unleashed energies, and there was a brief, sickening sensation of vertical motion as the shuttle's repulsor lifts heaved it off the ground to allow its stubby wings to unfold downwards. Then the platform, even the peak itself, receded quickly below and behind them as the craft gained speed and altitude. They flew over a line of low, rocky hills, outcrops of the massive mountain range that housed the base and marked the edge of the desert land. In the distance, an oasis rose into view, a cluster of whitewashed, dome-roofed buildings and trees surrounding a brightly blue circle of water. Occasional patches of vegetation mottled the ground. Further yet, the meandering line of a river reflected the sunlight as they crossed it. Flying in a planetary atmosphere, Nia expertly kept the wings angled to provide additional aerodynamic lift.

Thor nodded approvingly. "You never told me you could pilot a Lambda class."

"You never asked. Fighter School Basics uses modified Lambdas as training birds because there's no double-seat fighter trainers. You'd be surprised what you can do with one of these crates, given a little experience. Actually, they don't handle much differently from the real thing, except for being much slower."

To that, he could vividly testify, remembering all to well a daredevil shuttle chase through a debris cloud, enjoying the questionable company of several Rebel fighters.

"Talking about it, do you think you could take us trans-orbital for some quick sightseeing?"

She moaned. "Again?! You've been there three times already in the last two weeks!"

"Yes, but she's almost finished by now. They'll be undocking her the day after tomorrow. Come on, honey, just five minutes"

"Oh dear, boys and their toys But okay, why not. Actually, a little trans-orbital hop will save us some flying time, for which I'll be grateful. But that'll cost you at least a massage tonight."

She keyed her intercom.

"Syrilla air traffic control, this is military shuttle Nine-Twenty-Eight, flight plan five-five-eight alpha. Request permission to divert from original flight plan and go trans-orbital on manual control."

"Nine-Twenty-Eight, state your cargo and intention."

"Navy personnel on a sightseeing frenzy. Security clearance is Alpha Five Zero Epsilon Triaxis."

There was a pause, doubtlessly from the traffic controller checking their clearance. When his voice returned, it seemed to hold a hint of humour.

"Shuttle Nine-Twenty-Eight, you're cleared to go trans-orbital. I'll chop you to Syrilla orbital traffic. Have a nice trip."

Nia pushed forward on the throttle and pulled back on the control yoke. The shuttle shuddered in mid-flight, lowered its wings completely and began a fast climb towards the cloudless sky. Soon the outline of the planetary curve became visible as the instruments rapidly clicked away the altitude, and the brilliant blue gradually faded to dark blue, then to black sprinkled with glittering stars.

The view was nothing less than stunning.

If Desert Peak base had resembled a hive surrounded by busy insect, then the planet Syrilla was exponentially so. Its day side was sprinkled with occasional, translucently white clouds; its night side dotted all over with the frayed golden light-specks that were cities. Two of its four moons were fully visible, a third just rising over the horizon. From this angle, its near orbit was dominated by the massive bulks of two planetary defence stations, a half-dozen hulking refineries, a geostationary fighter base, a commercial cargo transfer station and several dockyards. Beside countless satellites on their geosynchronous orbits, space beyond the upper planetary atmosphere also bustled with all kinds of shuttlecrafts, civilian and military alike, arrayed along fixed flight paths like pearls on a necklace. Fighter squadrons and patrol crafts criss-crossed the darkness, lighting it up with their running lights at the same time. In the distance, a gargantuan Star Destroyer, majestic and serene in its own right, flashed its massive drives as it slowly glided along, backlit by the distant sun.

It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Thor bent out of his seat and gave Nia a quick peck on the cheek. "You're a darling."

Her head turned, and she caught his lips with hers for a brief but hungry kiss. "I know. Nice of you to take notice, though." She returned her attention to the controls, but the way her mouth twitched with a barely suppressed smile told him enough. Seconds later they both burst out laughing, then returned to their individual sightseeing.

Career spacers both, they felt perfectly at home in this environment.

An ore transport crossed their flight path, a long, snaking combination of a tug unit and its tail of silvery containers, like some sort of metallic serpent. The system's asteroid belt was being intensively mined, Thor remembered, and transports like this, with their precious cargo of raw minerals, were constantly shuttling back and forth between the massive mining ships and the planetary orbit to feed the smelter furnaces of the ever-hungry refineries.

Nia's course correction brought them closer to one of the space docks, and after some friendly wing-waggling towards an inspecting pair of TIE fighters, they both marveled at the sight while their shuttle glided past alongside the gigantic structure with reduced speed. This particular dock was occupied by the arrowhead shape of an Acclamator class medium frigate, now half-hidden under a virtual forest of girder-frames, supply pipes and cables, whole segments of its hull armour removed to show the internal structure underneath. Hundreds of droids and space-suited repair technicians, tiny in comparison, moved all over it as they went about their individual businesses.

The next dock they passed held what Thor had been looking for: the familiar lines of a Strike Cruiser.

Gun Crate. His home away from home. His ship. His ship, indeed.

He had only recently inherited command of the badly damaged cruiser, following the promotion of her previous captain Dren Markas, who had been Thor's superior all these last years. After the hard-won victory at Sholoth's Landfall, the oddly named Strike Cruiser had spent nearly half a year in dock to make good the crippling battle damage inflicted by the Alliance Navy. Now, towards the end of its repair period, it was still encased in girders and pipes, but much less so than the Acclamator, and there were no more unsealed hull breaches. Even so, patches of fresh paint indicated where sizeable holes in its armoured hide had been plugged, marking the tried and proven ship like faint battle scars. From the outside, Gun Crate looked very much like a new ship again by now, ready to once again proudly take her place in the Imperial battle line.

Unfortunately, it would not be so. The stress-induced damage done to the ship's vital internal systems and structural frame had proven so severe upon closer investigation that the engineers had pronounced it unfit for further frontline service.

Yet, even so, the Navy had eventually found a useful role for the damaged vessel to fulfil. Unwilling to scrap an otherwise perfectly serviceable capital ship, the engineers had used the versatile Strike class cruiser's modular component construction to their advantage. Originally designed to play a variety of tactical roles as need was, Strike Cruisers could be outfitted with interchangeable customized system components. This the shipwrights of the Syrillan docks had done, effectively turning weakness into virtue. They had removed the massive weapon batteries and their powerful accumulator banks along with most of the ship's secondary armament and shield generators, thus creating enough hull space to install additional crew compartments, docking hangars for shuttles and landing crafts and storage facilities for supplies and provisions.

In short, they had taken a thoroughbred ship-of-the-line and returned an under-gunned and under-shielded troop transport vessel for Thor to command. It was in this function that he had come into contact with Botyne, his first assignment after putting his ship out of dock being simply to take aboard the General's division and ferry it to its next posting.

Thor felt a sting at the thought that, right now when he had won the right of his first capital ship command, he and his worthy vessel should be condemned to second-line service. Not for him and Gun Crate the thrill of battle any more, nor the proud deed and valiant word of the Warrior's Way, the gathering of glory to his name and ancestral bloodline. Just when the heart's desire of all his adult years was finally fulfilled and captaincy of a warship was his, it seemed he had been robbed of his chance at a warrior's life at the same time.

It simply hurt. He felt cheated.

And Nia? He glanced sideways at her, studying her beautiful face as she remained carefully focused on her instruments. Even though she didn't outwardly show it right now, he could tell she suffered from a similar frustration at a similar fate. Having come out of their last engagement with sixty percent casualties, her squadron had been disassembled, individual pilots and crafts having been integrated into other units to make up combat losses. Losing her long-standing band of friends, with whom she had shared a tightly-knit camaraderie, had probably hurt her most, and Thor had comforted her during long hours of sorrow.

In the end, she had fought bitterly, desperately, to be able to remain under his command, on the same ship as the man she loved, to avoid being posted on the other side of the Empire by some uncaring bureaucrat. Thor had supported her every step of the long, hard way, and finally, they had come out triumphing over the system for once.

He had concealed how deeply moved he was by her willingness to share his unpromising career prospect, but inwardly, he had sworn to himself that, come what may, he would do everything he could to make it worth her while.

At least we still have each other, he thought, and damn the galaxy. I've gone through fiery hell for that woman, and I'll be damned before I let that bond between us go to waste.

He knew there was only one word to describe what he felt towards her, though they had never openly spoken of love. For the time being, they just enjoyed each other's presence as it was and while it lasted.

Either way, the Rebel Alliance wasn't going to keel over and die out any time soon. This war was still going to offer him plenty of opportunities to get heroically reunited with his ancestors if he was so inclined. Yet, somehow, that possibility didn't feel quite as attractive any more to him as it had years ago, after the death of his wife and daughter.

Suddenly, the shuttle pitched and curved away from the dock, back towards the planet. The sudden movement brought him back from his reverie. He looked at her again, alarmed.

"What's up?"

"That's it, sailor, enough gaping for today!" she replied sternly. "You're all mine for once, at least as long as this shore leave lasts, and this is as long as I'm going to share you with that old tub!"

"But"

"No talking back there, honey! We have an appointment with a hot Jacuzzi, you and I, and I don't intend to be late."

* * *

Thor ran, because he liked it.

Even though the thin, icy cold high-altitude air bit his lungs with every breath he drew, he kept up a brisk pace, glad to have the opportunity of running through a real landscape for once, all by himself, breathing natural air. Running aboard ships meant doing it along steel-walled corridors, dodging other crew members all the time.

Not so out here. Steam condensed in front of his face. Cold wind and snowflakes hit him, cutting into the exposed skin of his face with a myriad of tiny needles. Snow had settled and melted in his hair and on the chest and shoulders of his gym suit, soaking the fabric and mixing with his own sweat. His feet stomped the snow-covered road in a steady rhythm. All around him, the snow-covered wilderness of one of Syrilla's polar mountain ranges stretched as far as the eye could see.

He liked this countryside. It strongly reminded him of his native world of Thyreya, in winter. Everything around him, from the smell of snow in the air, to the reflections of sunlight on distant peaks, to the strong, resinous aroma of pine-wood, reminded him of his distant birthplace. Ever since his youth, he had set out, along with his father and uncles, into woods very much like these during the bitter, unforgiving winter season to hunt Narash for their antlers, thick furs and tasty meat.

Remembrance made his heart ache with longing. He had not returned to the planet of his birth since over a decade ago, and until now, he had barely realized how much he missed it. He didn't even have an idea what season it was back home right now.

How very much would he have liked to take Nia home now, for the festival season, when Thyreya's brief but hot summer turned into its long, drawn-out fall, which lasted about half of the planetary year before winter finally set in. It was during fall that people in the rural regions harvested their crops planted at the onset of summer, traded goods, prepared their houses for the winter and generally came together amiably during the long, sun-warm evenings. Traditionally, neighbouring families in the multitude of small farming communities joined each other for feasts of thanksgiving and other cultural ceremonies during festival season, hundreds of fires lit up the night sky all over the land, and young folk celebrated, danced and made merry all around before each settlement retreated into wintry isolation. It was also during this season that many a romantic bond between two young people was forged, and enamored couples were a common sight in the woods and fields around that time of the year.

He was sure Nia would enjoy herself very much if he took her home with him. He could vividly picture her in the traditional garb of a young, unmarried woman of his people, wearing the colors of his own clan, her free-flowing hair adorned with a wreath of hay, flowers and sweet-smelling herbs.

Well, no. Forget about the wreath. And she'd probably find a leather jacket or uniform shirt to go along with the linen blouse and skirt. She might even start a fashion trend with girls back home with that.

Suddenly, he realized where this line of thinking was leading him. Bringing a maiden home to introduce her to one's family traditionally was the next step after proposing to her.

He had not yet talked to her about his feelings on this particular matter, still unsure about the way she might react. He knew she highly valued her personal freedom. If he rushed the issue, or if she misinterpreted his move, it might even drive her away from him.

And yet, there was no denying his own feelings. He had thought it over during long hours at night, listening to her soft, regular breathing in the darkness next to himself. And he had finally come to a decision. He was sure that, in Nia, he had found the right woman with which to share his future life.

He thought of the small box he kept well hidden at the bottom of his locker crate, the box he had obtained from a local jeweler during a lonely shopping trip to Syrilla's main spaceport mall along with the item it contained. Now, all he needed was a proper time and opportunity

He looked up as his keen nostrils registered smoke on the wind. Rounding a bend in the road, suddenly the hut lay before him.

It was the hideaway they had rented for the few days of their shore leave, remote enough to guarantee the privacy they both craved, yet comfortable and easily accessible by shuttle. From the outside, the building looked for all the world like a simple, one-storey wooden hut leaning against a mountain flank, surrounded by a patch of tall evergreen trees, but it actually was plascrete and durosteel underneath, strong enough to withstand a local avalanche or rockslide. And most of the actual living space was carved from the mountain itself; local architecture apparently favoured this construction style. In a distance behind the trees, the dorsal fin of their shuttle rose into the cloudy sky.

Without breaking stride, he threw the door open and burst into the heated living-room, along with a gust of wind and a cloud of snow. Walking about dressed only in a tight-fitting black tank-top and string, Nia shrieked as the ice-cold breeze caught her by surprise in mid-step.

He stormed towards her, arms outstretched. "Honey, I'm home! Come on, give me a nice, warm hug!"

She backed away laughing, raising her arms to hold him off.

"Are you nuts? You're covered in slush, and there's ice in your hair! Stay away from me!"

He feigned disappointment. "You're so heartless! I'm frozen to the bones, I need warming up!"

"Close the damn door, it's freezing cold outside! Get those wet clothes off and take a hot shower while I put a fresh log on the fire. I might lend a hand in drying you off afterwards."

He grinned as he looked her up and down, already pulling his jacket off. "Why don't you lend a hand in washing my back?"

Later, as they lay naked on the thick, furry hide of some unlucky local animal before the blazing fireplace, wrapped in silken sheets, he made gentle, exquisite love to her.

She moaned softly as she enjoyed the sensation of his skilfully probing tongue at her neck and ear, tilting back her head, eyes closed, while her hands stroked his back and strong shoulders. She shuddered in his embrace, which he took for an invitation to let his lips and tongue stray downwards to her firm breasts. She arced her back, and her breathing started to come harder. She moaned again, louder this time.

"Mmmmm, that's gooood have you ever thought about having children?"

He looked up from what he was doing, startled. "Why? Are you?"

She opened her eyes and raised her head. "Of course not, stupid! Don't stop doing that!"

He frowned, letting go of her. "But why did you ask, then?"

"Just so, for no real reason. It came to my mind just then."

"Then you are not?"

She propped up herself up on her elbows. "Of course I'm not! I do take care of that. They don't build children's seats into TIEs yet, you see?"

"I was just thinking, I mean"

"Don't."

"Would you want children?"

She shook a strand of hair out of her face. "Well no. Not now. Later, maybe. How about you?"

He shrugged. "The same, I think. Later. But, yes, some day. Starship command bridges make terrible places to raise children in, you know?" He grinned.

She leaned back, stroking the sheen skin of his cheek. "You're cute. Now that we got that question settled, I have another one."

"Which would be?"

She giggled. "What does a girl have to do to get laid in this place?"

He embraced her again, and they both returned to kissing, which quickly grew more intense and passionate. Before long, they both didn't think about having children any more.

+++ The preparations are nearly complete. The Imperial spies are no longer a problem. +++

+++ Excellent. My dispositions are made as well. Remember to stand by for my word. +++

+++ As we agreed. Our move will come as a complete surprise to these fools. +++



PART TWO: Transit

"Attention on Deck!"

The voice of the young crewman the boy looked barely old enough to need regular shaving, Thor observed vibrated with excitement as he announced the presence of his superior to the control room of Crate's main engineering deck. Within earshot of him, everyone not seated came to attention which amounted to fully two persons.

At least, the call carried far enough over the constant background drone of heavy machinery and dozens of voices to alert the ship's Chief Engineer, Commander Welton Keelan, who looked up and deliberately took an additional moment of issuing instructions to a technician before confidently striding down the main gallery to meet Thor.

They exchanged salutes.

"Commander Keelan, if you can spare me a few minutes right now, I wanted to hear your judgment of our mission readiness, first-hand and no-nonsense."

Of course, he had read Keelan's filed status report well in advance and had not found it wanting. His presence in the engineering at this particular point of time was merely theatrical, an issue of seeing and being seen, for the benefit of the crew, as had been the case on the flight deck and in the supplies division before. With a natural ease born of long experience, he and Keelan were simply acting out their parts in a time-honored pre-mission ritual.

"Well, Sir, we have successfully completed dock-out as per schedule, all supply lines and power feeds uncoupled, ship is free-floating and fully self-sustained, all systems at optimum performance. We've been running system checks for the past three hours, and I have search teams checkin' her prow to stern for atmospheric integrity. The dockyard fellows left us a pretty mess down here to sort out, the work-over they gave us, if I may say so, but we fixed that damn sharp, unless I miss my guess."

"I trust your men to be as reliable as ever, work-over or not."

They had started pacing down the walkway, Thor having to stoop on occasion to avoid instrument boards or pipes snaking along the ceiling. By now, practically all human activity in the control room had come to a temporary standstill, all heads following the two officers, trying to catch strands of their conversation over the din. Low, urgent whispers were to be heard, barely within earshot.

"You can count on engineering any time, it's a'runnin' smooth as clockwork down here, an' no mistake, Sir!"

"Very well, Commander. Apprise me of the new power grid layout, if you please."

That was one part where show met real life: of course, Thor knew the new schematics, in theory, but Keelan had been up and down almost every single yard of newly installed wire himself. In fact, knowing the man, Thor strongly suspected he had foregone his shore leave in favor of constantly shadowing the work crews instead, even as they installed those very wires into the bowels of the ship.

Keelan indicated a lit-up display showing a dazzling, multi-colored maze of thin lines within the silhouette of the ship.

"Well, Sir, as you can see, things 'ave gotten a little more complicated than what we were used to, what with all the new life-support subsystems for the troop berths. We got nearly five dozen different power strands now, 'stead of the one dozen for the main batteries we used to worry about." He poked a finger at two parallel lines running down the entire length axis of the ship. "Only real stinkers are our two new coaxial railguns."

"Why would that be?" That was an item which had been dealt with only vaguely in Keelan's report, too vaguely, in fact, to be satisfying by Thor's standards. He had intended to bring up the question himself, but apparently, his Chief Engineer had intentionally reserved this particular item for personal discussion.

"Well, Sir, them things 'ave been installed only last-minute, and in something of a hurry, I guess, so it's apparently some shoddy piece of workmanship. I've done some lookin' at the energy readouts, an' I'd wager, whenever we fire them, it's gonna be a brief but massive power surge at the expense of most other major systems, and the EM interference sure 's gonna play merry hell with neighbouring circuits. I'd 'ave liked a round at the firing range and another week for recalibration afterwards, before we put out of dock for good, but I guess we wasn't gonna get that anyway. Would be good maybe gettin' to chunk some rocks underway an' see what that does, though."

"Is it going to hamper our overall combat effectiveness?" Ship-borne railguns were a brand-new weapon system, comparatively speaking, and they were only slowly beginning to see service with the Navy. The main reason was that the engineers were, for the most part, still searching for ways to fit the guns, along with their complex firing systems, into existing Imperial hulls. Again, Strike Cruisers were at a certain advantage here, but installing two forward-firing pieces into Crate still remained something of an experiment. That and an awkward compromise to boot, an armament concept developed with space combat as well in mind as offshore bombardment in support of ground operations, and it matched the awkwardness of the new dual role his ship was going to have to fulfill. Personally, he would have liked an old-fashioned but reliable battery of heavy turbolasers a lot better, but they'd gotten what they had. Under-gunned as Crate was anyway, the thought of having to go into space combat with his new and unproven primary weapon system being technically unreliable nagged at Thor to no small extent. Space combat essentially boiled down to which ship could withstand the guns, hit right back and sail faster, as the saying went. He pointed that out, which prompted a barking laugh from Keelan.

"Aye, Sir, that we can do! Them railguns is some moody pair o' bitches, but we can deal all right, an' no mistake! Crate 's a tough old lass, an' she's been through worse."

Thor was going to say something more, but right then, his personal intercom started buzzing insistently in his ear. He keyed it, cupping one hand over the little earpiece to shut out the noise. "Yes?"

"Sir, please be advised your presence is required on the bridge immediately." The comm-tech's voice held an urgent note

"I'll be there presently." Thor nodded, though the man couldn't see him, then returned his attention to Keelan. "Commander, I'm needed elsewhere right now. I'll try and find a suitably large asteroid for you to do some test-firing soon as the opportunity presents. Is there anything else that cannot wait?"

"Nay, Sir, other 'n that, we're fine. Engineering ain't gonna let you down!"

"That's the spirit. Put out an extra round of liquid refreshments for the first shift to come up with a working solution, and give me regular updates."

"Will do, Sir!" They exchanged salutes before Thor made for the elevator.

* * *

"Who did that?"

Nia's voice was low dangerously low to the ears of those who knew her, which was the minority of those facing her right now.

She took another step, then one more, waited another second for good measure. In the distance, by the far end of the flight deck, ground crewmen used the respite to shuffle off a little further in expectance of the outbreak to come, at the same time trying not to look over too obviously.

"I said: Who in the name of the seven stinking hells of Nal Hutta did that?!" The outbreak, when it came, made at least two of the assembled men wince, she registered with considerable satisfaction. It had been some time since last she had had to repeat this particular performance, but she could still do it convincingly enough, as those at the receiving end of it were just finding out, much to their own discomfort.

She smiled silently to herself as she gauged the effect of her words. Her voice still held its customary power, and she could still apply it in the right way at the right time. She was good at it. And, Emperor help her, she loved it.

The cause for the anger she was currently venting at the pilots and flight officers lined up before her didn't need her pointing finger to be obvious. Ten feet above, next to her Defender's circular cockpit canopy, below the writing denoting her name, rank and enemy kills, somebody had neatly stencilled the word Stunner, which was obviously intended as some stupid kind of nickname. Every single one of the other crafts making up her new makeshift squadron another sophisticated Defender fighter bomber and two TIE Scouts bore similar nicknames below its cockpit, which had appeared virtually overnight.

And, of course, there had not been enough time to do something about it before Thor had dropped in for his pre-arranged surprise inspection. Well, this inspection had proved a surprise for him, and no mistake.

She didn't suspect any of the ground crew to be responsible, certainly not without first consulting any of the pilots. That left the pilots themselves, and there were enough new fish in the ranks to make that suspicion a near certainty. In fact, the ranks consisted almost entirely of new fish, and young ones to boot.

The only exception was her old squadron mate Mirk Asbek, himself a seasoned Defender pilot, and the twitching edges of his mouth told her he was fighting hard not to show how greatly he was enjoying her performance. Her list of suspects excluded him; she had known him ever since Fighter School, they had been through hell and back together, and even though he, too, liked to bend the rules from time to time, such fancy stunts as this were nothing like his style.

In fact, this was nothing like style at all.

Which was why she had decided it was time for the new fish to learn their first lesson about life under her command.

She didn't even seriously expect somebody to step forward and take the blame. She wouldn't even care much if somebody did. She was going to make them all suffer equally.

"Somebody among you considered this a funny piece of artwork!" she continued, for the general benefit of her audience. "This is nothing like funny! This is ridiculous, childish! Fancy code names are something for Rebel hotshots flying with their balls instead of their brains, and I've nailed so many of those I've lost count! You!"

She picked one of the new fish at random, a Scout pilot named Myle who sported a blond brush haircut and acne scars, bringing her face within an inch of his, staring right into his brown eyes.

"Are you a hotshot, Myle?"

He gulped. "No"

"No what?!"

"Uh No, ma'am!"

"And a good thing that is. Nobody likes hotshots, and nobody likes flying with hotshots. Do you know why that is so, Myle?"

"Uh No, ma'am!"

"Because hotshots get killed!" She poked an index finger into his chest to emphasize the point. "People who fly wingman for hotshots get killed. Are you particularly keen on getting killed, Myle?"

"No, ma'am!" That sounded a lot more determined.

"Good!" She withdrew from him. "This is an Imperial Navy attack craft squadron, not an Alliance Flying Circus, and all of you would do well to remember that."

She singled out another one, a handsome, dark-complexioned man named Lestri. With his tanned looks, black curls and dark eyes, he could have been brother to the female pilot next to him, whose face felt vaguely familiar to Nia, even though she couldn't immediately place it. Her last name was Lessa if memory served. Even their names bore a certain similarity, she noticed. Maybe they had been recruited from the same planetary region or something.

"Are there any hotshots in an Imperial Navy attack craft squadron, Lestri?"

"That would be Lieutenant Lestri, ma'am!" he replied, voice level, gazing straight ahead of himself.

She closed on him like a bird on its prey. "Say that again!"

"I said: That would be Lieutenant Lestri, ma'am!" he stated spitefully, seemingly unimpressed, his face a carefully neutral mask.

"You got balls, Lestri, that much is obvious," she retorted, just as outwardly unimpressed. Two could play this game, and if that boy thought he could play in the big leagues with her, he'd better be up to it.

She observed him half-opening his mouth to say something something biting and sexually related at her expense, most certainly but apparently thought the better of it and caught himself. He clamped it again.

"Do you have brains, too?" She preyed on the opening.

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Then you better learn to stop opening your big mouth to your superior officer and answer the damn question instead! Are there any hotshots in an Imperial Navy attack craft squadron?"

"No, ma'am, there are not."

" Is the right answer! And why not?"

"Because hotshots get killed, ma'am!"

"Good boy!" And what does that particular detail mean for those fancy nicknames on our crafts, Flight Officer Calclun?"

The man addressed was in his mid-thirties, somewhat thickset and strongly built, with a beak-like nose and close-cropped brown hair going prematurely grey at the temples. Of the new fish, he was the only one who had the air of a flight veteran about himself, and the only one whose jacket sported campaign ribbons below his rank squares. She made a mental note to ask him about those, come the proper time. Meanwhile, his seniority warranted the more respectful address, which, at this time, also served to smart Lestri.

"They need removing, ma'am," he answered smoothly. Where Lestri had appeared almost arrogant in his blustering self-certainty, Calclun was simply calm. Apparently, he had seen similar performances before, maybe even done a few himself, and he wasn't as easily spooked as the rookies. He was also the only one of the new fish not included in her personal suspect list.

"Damn right they do! Which is why you're all on cleaning duty today. Go find Deck Chief Pesrenni, ask him for scrubs and paint thinner. All leisure time postponed until all my birds are clean as new, and I have agreed on them being so! Dismissed!"

They stomped off. She waited for the cussing to start, took an extra second for good measure, then called after them.

"Lieutenants Asbek and Calclun, report to my ready room immediately!"

Both men turned on their heels and made back towards her. As he passed her, Mirk winked; he had expected this. Calclun kept his face carefully neutral as if unsure of what to expect.

The squadron leader's ready room was merely a poorly-furnished cubicle right off the main hangar deck, sporting only a writing desk, a small, round table, a set of chairs and a multi-purpose wall display. Nia entered last, closing the door behind her. The noise level diminished.

"Take seats, gentlemen." A TIE Interceptor's well-used, battered exhaust filter casing, resting idly on a shelf, proved less of an idle decoration when she reached into it to pull out a half-empty brandy bottle. As if on cue, Mirk produced three shot glasses from a locker crate. She filled each with a generous measure of the almond-coloured liquid, then raised hers to a toast.

Calclun seemed reluctant to touch his glass, eying the other two officers with what seemed a mix of wariness and amusement.

"Drinking on duty is against regulations, of course," he stated carefully.

"I don't give a damn about a pilot who doesn't know when to bend regulations and when not." Nia replied bluntly.

Calclun nodded at that. "And I don't give a damn about any flight leader who doesn't know where to draw the line." He raised his glass. "Cheers."

They drank, and Nia poured a second round before putting the bottle back into its hiding place. "This is Mirk, I'm Nia. Welcome to the Rapiers."

Their original squadron of TIE Defenders had been named that, and as the last two pilots to remain aboard Crate after their unit had been broken up because of severe combat losses, Mirk and Nia continued the tradition along with the name. Badges, honour scrolls and holo portraits on the wall behind her desk testified to that.

"Effrey Calclun, formerly of the three-hundred and sixty-first bomber wing." He sipped his brandy, then nodded judiciously. "Nice stuff. Why me?"

"I know an informal leader when I see one. The kids look up to you. It would make my job a lot easier if I could count on your backup. Not to mention everybody else's life."

"Fair point. But why so hard on them for such a minor infraction?"

"Are you seriously asking me that?" She looked at him, disbelief mixing with sudden anger. "I thought you'd know better! This is nothing about that fancy paintwork at all. I consider that something of a freshmen's exploit, no more. This is entirely about real life. It's because I'm sick of sending home coffins empty but for a uniform because some new fish thought he knew better and screwed up under fire, and I'm so sick of it I can't eat as much as I want to throw up!"

She slammed her hand on the tabletop, making the glasses clink softly.

"Most of all I'm sick of writing these letters home, dear Mister and Misses, blah-blah, regret to inform you that your rookie-pilot son managed to get himself cremated because he tried some stupid stunt, and some half-arsed Rebel flyboy lit him up like fireworks, yaddah-yaddah, oh, and by the way, your son's wingman got potted, too, and it's your little darling's fault, full stop!"

She breathed deeply to calm herself down, realizing she had blushed with emotion. Calclun had gone stone-faced at her outburst.

"Bjarnesson's a no-nonsense CO." she went on. "Which means this is a no-nonsense ship. Besides, I'm a no-nonsense squadron leader. I don't know about you, but we've all seen too many friends die around us. I look at those kids out there on the hangar deck, like children playing at soldiers, and I can't help thinking that half of them are going to die before their next birthday."

She shook her head sadly. "Space war is unforgiving, and TIE jockeys have the worst of it. The sooner they learn that, the better, and if my little speech out there somehow helps to keep one or two of them alive who would otherwise have died, it served its purpose. That's why I need your help, Effrey, and why I need it so desperately. Not to maintain some ridiculous disciplinary regime. To keep these kids out there alive. To teach them something of what it means to be at war. They're going to need it damn soon, unless I miss my guess."

"You think? I thought we were on second-line duty for the time being."

"No such thing as a second line to this war, as far as I'm concerned."

Calclun seemed to remain in doubt, looking from her to Mirk.

"Don't expect me to contradict her on that," the other pilot chipped in casually. "As far as I'm concerned, this whole galaxy is a frakking madhouse."

Nia shrugged. "War is too serious a business to leave it to amateurs. Or to politicians, come to think about it. Besides, nobody seriously expects to stick the nickname Stunner on me and walk away to brag about it. Crawl, yes. Get carried away, maybe. But not walk."

There were several seconds of uneasy silence while Calclun was staring into his drink.

"Well, Nia, my first impression of you was that you were a bully bitch with a mean streak who wanted to bribe me with brandy so I'd help her boss around my kids."

"Nice point." She leaned back in her chair. "So what's your second one?"

"On second thought, you're a bully bitch with a mean streak who actually cares, and that's way better than what you get for your average squadron leader nowadays."

He knocked back the dregs of his drink.

"Besides, originally, they wanted to make it Hot Butt." At that, Mirk nearly choked on his drink and started coughing badly. Nia was actually left gaping for a second.

Then they all burst out laughing, and an agreement had been achieved.

* * *

"Captain on the bridge!"

The challenge that brought everyone to attention was as familiar to Thor as the subsequent crash of boot heels on the steel deck; he had heard it thousands of times before during his career. What was new to him was the fact that now he wasn't the one giving it any more.

Now he was the one it was given for.

He looked around as he stepped from the lift, taking in the equally familiar surrounding of Crate's main bridge. He took an extra moment to take in the faces as well, remembering names to match those known to him, memorizing the few new ones.

His crew they were. His fellow soldiers. Men and women who placed their collective trust in his good judgement and strength of character. He felt the responsibility as dozens of pairs of eyes rested on him.

"As you were!"

At his hollered command the bridge returned to its usual busy state. Footfalls ringing out sharply, his newly appointed First Officer made his way towards him to deliver his report, just as it had been Thor's duty to report to his own predecessor in command what seemed a mere couple weeks ago.

Tall, willowy built, with an aura of cool competence about himself, Lieutenant Commander Joakim Ferst's gaunt, pale face beamed above the collar of his immaculate grey uniform as he threw up a sharp salute. "Sir!"

"What's up?"

"Sir, we're cruising on our own power under full helm control, currently heading for our rendezvous point at one-quarter sublight, all systems nominal, and we will arrive a full day ahead of time. The high-anchor pilot is over there if you wish to talk to him."

A nod of his head indicated the general direction of the helmsman's control booth, behind which Thor could see an elderly, bald-headed man in the civilian garb of a senior navigator, apparently giving instructions to the helmsman, occasionally pointing at a sensor screen. Upon leaving Syrilla's planetary high anchor, all capital ships were obliged to rely on skilled, space-wise pilots for the voyage to their respective jump points at the system's outer fringes. In a planetary system like this, thick with traffic and rich in both natural and artificial deep-space bodies on sometimes pretty eccentric orbits, the navigational hazards would otherwise have been too great for individual vessels to handle on their own.

Thor shook his head. "Go on."

"Aye, sir. Free-space boarding procedures for the troop contingent are complete, including the heavy armour; crew status reads one hundred percent. Jump preparations will be complete in" he glanced at his wrist chrono, "twenty-six minutes. Our encrypted mission orders from sector admiralty have arrived; I have had the files transferred to your ready room. Message from Star Destroyer Subjugator, reads `Good hunting! ."

He breathed in deeply.

"Very well, Mister Ferst. Acknowledge the Subjugator, my compliments to her Captain."

"Aye, sir."

"Why am I being required on the bridge in person?"

"We have received a message announcing a last-minute passenger. Apparently some high-ranking political functionary trying to hitchhike a ride. His shuttle will catch up with us en route to the rendezvous position, and we'll dock him in soon as we have dropped the pilot. He has requested a personal meeting with you at your earliest convenience."

"What does that man think we are, some kind of passenger liner?" Thor burst out incredulously. "Last time I checked, our mission profile still read troop carrier, not pleasure ship! Why do such things always happen to us?"

"Sir?"

"Never mind, that was before your time on this ship. Ask me about it another time, and bring drink."

"Sir, as far as I know, travelling aboard Imperial warships has become something of a fashion with certain elements of Core high society, ever since Wynssa Starflare"

"Thank you, Mister Ferst, that will be all!" Thor cut in, maybe a little too sharply. He wasn't in the mood for gossip right now. "How long till the rendezvous point?"

"Uh forty-nine minutes, sir, pretty exactly."

"Very well, I will be in my ready room, you can show our passenger in after he has arrived. You have the bridge until further notice!"

"Aye, sir."

"Dismissed!"

Only after the door of his ready room had closed behind him did Thor allow himself the luxury of swearing in his native tongue, venting his frustration.

The very thought of it rankled him.

Not only did the Navy make me a taxi driver, now even the civilians start treating me as such.

He sank into the padded leather chair behind his writing desk and called up his orders on the holoscreen. Yet somehow, he had difficulties concentrating.

Rather, he felt like smashing something with his bare hands.

* * *

Nia looked up from some supplies request forms she was supposed to sign, but had remarkable difficulties concentrating on, when somebody knocked on the door of her ready room.

"Come in!" She put up an official face and mentally searched for a biting remark, just in case it was Chief Pesrenni again with another load of paperwork.

But it wasn't him. Standing in the door, looking somewhat uneasy, was the dark-haired female rookie pilot. Lessa, her name was. She saluted.

"If you could spare a few minutes, ma'am" She sounded somewhat uncertain, too.

"Lieutenant Lessa, do come in, close the door, take a seat."

"Thank you, ma'am." The younger woman hurriedly closed the door behind herself, then walked over and pulled up a chair for herself in front of Nia's desk. From up close, she smelled of paint thinner and, very faintly, of some exotic sweet perfume.

"Now, Lieutenant, what brings you to me?"

"I I have a request, ma'am. I need information from the ship's personnel files."

Nia tilted her head. "Those files would be confidential, of course, as would be the information they contain. Only senior officers have access to them."

"I know. Any official request I'd make would be turned down. Which is why I'm coming to you."

"Are you aware of what you just said, Lieutenant? These confidentiality restrictions are there for a reason. And you're expecting me to break that confidence just because you ask?"

"I" She looked down, uncertain of what to say. "I didn't mean"

"Come on, Lieutenant." Nia knew that particular look on the other woman's face. She needed some additional encouragement.

And oh but does she look young at that moment, so very young and so helpless. Like a child caught with its hand in the cookie jar. It was touching.

"What is it you need to know so urgently?"

She looked up and straight into Nia's eyes. "Permission to speak to you in confidence, ma'am? As one woman to another one?"

Oh dear, trouble. Nia knew that particular line, too, and it usually heralded some serious bad news. Probably sexual harassment, maybe even worse. Or an unwanted pregnancy.

She had seen such things before, had sometimes even found herself at the unpleasant end of sexual harassment cases, though not for long. The Navy came down mercilessly on sexual offenders. Yet that still never fully prevented such things from occasionally happening. And especially young women sometimes took risks when sleeping with somebody and accidentally got themselves knocked up.

Without a word, she got up, walked across the room, keyed the door mag-lock and sat back down. One punch of a button silenced the intercom.

"All right," Nia nodded, "you have my word that everything you tell me will remain strictly between the two of us. What's wrong?"

"Ma'am, I'm from a Tal-Bakar family."

She looked at Nia as if that fact alone would explain everything. The Tal-Bakar were a human ethnic minority who inhabited a cluster of planets near the Outer Rim, just outside the Empire, but isolated communities of them could be found scattered pretty much all over the galaxy. Officially, the main Tal-Bakar worlds remained neutral, but several fundamentalist factions among them were strongly and overtly Alliance-leaning, which was why ISB kept a wary eye on those communities located within the Empire. Tal-Bakar had a reputation for being strictly tradition-bound and generally kept themselves pretty much to themselves. But that was about all Nia knew of them, and it didn't explain Lessa's wish to look at confidential files.

She said so.

"Well, ma'am, I was born on an exile community on an Imperial World, Peresa Prime, but my parents come from the Tal-Bakar Homeworlds, and they strictly adhere to the ancient customs and traditions of their people."

Nia noticed the deliberate use of the word `their.

"I see. Go on."

"Do you know what life is like for a Tal-Bakar woman?"

"Quite frankly, no, I don't."

"Of course you don't." That sounded halfway like an accusation. "Not your fault, of course. Few people inside the Empire do. In short, Tal-Bakar women don't hold any rights. They cannot sign legally effective treaties and so can't own personal property. In some cases, they don't even have access to basic education. In fact, they are very much the property of their families or their husbands."

"What? That would be highly illegal!" Nia burst out. The Imperial Declaration of Human Rights explicitly stated that all human beings, regardless of sex, enjoyed the same rights.

Back in the days of the Republic, when the ancient document had still been named the Declaration of Rights of Sentient Beings, it had also included aliens. Upon his enthronization, Emperor Palpatine had put an end to the double moral.

"Imperial law is void inside the communities, ma'am. Naturally, that's a fact they don't like to become known in public, which is why the communities inside the Empire are particularly recluse. But it's fact nonetheless."

She ran a hand through her curls, tucking a stray strand behind her ear. "Of course, inside the Empire, things are somewhat better, relatively speaking. Compulsory basic education means women get access to schools. And Imperial Health Service routine checks would detect any genital mutilations, which are commonplace with girls born into families on the Homeworlds."

"That's disgusting!" Nia looked at the other woman with a new sense of sympathy. There was no telling what she had been through in her young life so far.

"The Alliance knows about these things, by the way. They let it go unnoticed under the pretext of tolerating the Tal-Bakar cultural heritage. It's the reason why the Alliance is especially popular with the fundamentalists. They call it proof of their liberality. I call it madness."

She cracked a smile that held no trace of humor. "I ran away from home at the age of fifteen when my parents tried to force marriage unto me. I had friends who helped me get off-planet before my family could capture me again."

"Friends?"

"Lieutenant Lestri in particular. He's Tal-Bakar, too, but he's pro-Imperial and intellectually progressive, so the community elders marked him a political extremist. We both claimed political refugee status in the Empire together."

"Are you two a couple?" That might prove another unwelcome source for future troubles, so better to check straightaway.

Lessa smiled, warmer this time. "No, ma'am, we aren't. Tarm that's his first name considers himself something of an older brother of mine, a protector. He's a good friend to me. I'm sure he'd like to be more, but that's about as close as I'll allow him."

Nia nodded.

"How did you get along in the Empire?"

"That was a very hard time for me at first. I didn't know the culture very well since my family had kept me mostly away from public life. Tarm and his friends were a great help. They were men, they had enjoyed a greater liberty ever since, and so had more experience. And they had contacts who could help. I was lucky enough to win an Academy stipendiate, I worked for my own money soon as I came of age, and I occasionally did some modelling as well to bump up my waitress' salary."

This time, it was Nia's turn to smile, and appreciatively so. She liked the other woman's can-do attitude. And Lessa had a model's looks sure enough.

"Anything special? Just being curious."

"Well, ma'am," she started playing with a strand of hair, looking somewhat embarrassed, "mostly holo shots for fashion magazines. I was the front face of Coruscant Fashion's lingerie campaign three years ago."

"Get outta here, that was you?! I thought I knew your face! Hell, I even bought a couple of sets of that lingerie."

"I've been cover girl for Imperial Quarterly the year before last, and centerfold for Troopers Magazine, too. After that, I got a couple of serious offers for a full-time modeling career."

Nia gave a low whistle. Empire Quarterly was the galaxy's leading holo magazine format, and its journalistic and photographic standards were exacting. The Alliance had yet to come up with something its equal.

"Why didn't you take it, with such references under your belt?"

"At first, I thought about going for it, at least for another couple of years. It was good money. But I knew all the time I had more to offer than my looks, and I wanted more than a modeling contract in the long run. Then one day Tarm came to tell me one of his contacts had found out our respective parents had put bounties on our heads. We were to be returned to the community under charges of disgracing our families, to face judgment by the elders. We both knew there'd be a death sentence in it for us, sure as sure."

Nia snorted contemptuously at such blatant disregard for Imperial law. "What did you do?"

"The Imperial military has a reputation for looking after its own. I had the idea to join up, and Tarm went along. That way, I figured, our families would have a hard time getting at us."

Nia bit her lip in thought. "I'm beginning to see why you would want to look at our crew files"

"You see, ma'am, the arm of the Tal-Bakar reaches far, even as far as into the Navy. If there are any other Tal-Bakar in this crew, they might betray us, and we might have to find another posting somewhere else."

"I see" Nia thought it over for some time, leaving the other woman to wait in impatient silence. Then she looked her straight in the eyes.

"In all honesty, you're not making this up for some reason, are you?"

"Absolutely not, ma'am!" Her dark eyes were suddenly fiercely alight. "Ma'am, I swear to you by all that's holy"

"Full marks for heart, Lieutenant. Tell you what. You're right; we do look after our own. What you just told me is inhuman and unworthy of the Empire, and I won't let it stand."

"Ma'am"

"Don't interrupt me. Here's what we'll do. You will file a formal request for information from the crew files, straight to Captain Bjarnesson, via me. Plus, you will put into writing everything you just told me and tuck it behind the request. Okay, better leave out the nude shots part. I'll make sure it gets top-of-the-file-pile priority with the Captain, copy to ISB Sector Command. That's gonna wake up some people to what's going on under their noses."

"Ma'am, do you really think" The young woman looked aghast.

"You're an Imperial attack craft pilot, Lieutenant." Nia interrupted. "What was the first thing they taught you back in tactics basic?"

Suddenly, Lessa broke into a wide grin. "Strike first, strike hard and don't let them see you coming?"

"Exactly! Now get to writing, you can use my desk holoset. I'll be back shortly." She got up, grabbing the little pile of request form discs.

Lessa beamed at her, impulsively stretching out a hand. "Thank you, ma'am! I'm I'm Vivjen, by the way."

Nia took her slender hand and shook it, looking at the younger woman earnestly. "I'm Nia. You can call me that while we're in private. While we're not, you will continue to address me as `Commander or `Ma'am."

"Yes," Vivjen nodded, just as earnestly," I understand."

"And no need to thank me, Vivjen. This is the second lesson you can learn from me today. Always remember those next to you. If we don't look after each other, nobody will."

* * *

Thor looked up from his reading when the door bell sounded.

"Enter!"

Ferst appeared in the doorframe and saluted. "Captain, our passenger has arrived aboard. He has repeated his request to speak to you in all urgency, and since your orders were to show him"

"Very well, Mister Ferst." Thor flipped his desktop screen shut and pushed back his chair to straighten himself up. "Admit him."

"Yes, sir." He stepped aside to reveal another person standing behind him in the corridor. At his gesture, a middle-aged, bald-headed and slightly hunched man of nondescript appearance entered the room, a slate-grey cloak wrapped around his shoulders, concealing his arms and most of his upper body. His pants were made of fine cloth and the colour of milky tea, his expensive shoes a dark, shiny brown. He exuded the smell of cologne as he bowed his head in greeting.

"Captain." His low voice had a smooth quality to itself, his clear, blue eyes directly meeting Thor's gaze. "I am Senior Administrator Efza Senn, of His Majesty's department of planetary economics. It was very kind of you to receive me so promptly. My personal courier vessel was delayed, and I am in a great hurry. The issue I am bringing before you brooks no delay."

All the time, he had kept his arms under his cloak, so Thor didn't hold out a welcoming hand either. For a second, both men just stared at each other across the desk. Ferst found a spot next to the door, maintaining a carefully neutral face and a stance of parade ground rest while he waited patiently for his Captain's word. It was a gesture meant to subtly underline Thor's position of power.

"I was given to understand we share the destination, Administrator Senn." Thor stated coldly. "But I am at a loss to understand what exactly your function will be once we get there, and why it requires you to immediately meet me personally. Be aware my time is short."

He sat down again without offering a seat to his visitor. Of course, he was being intentionally rude, but then, so had been Senn's attitude right from the start, and it never did any harm to remind an upstart bureaucrat of his place in the food chain.

Besides, it felt like a good opportunity to blow off steam, even if he just got to boss around some frakk-arsed disc-pusher.

Yet Senn completely failed to be impressed.

"I will not speak about this unless you dismiss your officer first," he stated matter-of-factly. "You will do so at once."

He didn't need to look over his shoulder to make clear he was referring to Ferst, who couldn't avoid bristling at this obvious and nothing less than outrageous breach of etiquette.

Thor exhaled deeply to maintain his calm, even though he was hard-pressed to do so.

"Administrator Senn," he began, deliberately slow and accentuated, "I take it you are unaware of the customs and etiquette aboard His Majesty's warships, so I will not take offence. But be advised it is highly unusual for a ship's Captain to be treated with anything less than his due and proper respect. It is also highly unusual for civilian personnel to be granted transportation on a military vessel, let alone a personal interview with its Captain, even under such great urgency as you claim. You may consider this an act of good will on my part, but do not consider my good will to be limitless. Now, what is this issue you wish to discuss with me?"

"I apologize if I fail to meet your standards of courteousness, Captain." Senn's voice was thick with unmistakable sarcasm now. "I am a man whose business seldom allows for such niceties, and business is what I have come to talk. What I have to say, I will say to you and you alone."

"Lieutenant Commander Ferst is my First Officer, and I have complete confidence in him. You can speak freely in his presence."

"I will discuss this with you, Captain, and you alone," Senn repeated stubbornly. "If you need any credentials, let this be sufficient."

With a single quick motion, a hand shot out from underneath the cloak and flicked a small, round and flat object onto the desk right in front of Thor, where it came to rest with a metallic noise, reflecting the overhead light. Thor took but one brief look at it, then put his hand on it.

"Dismissed, Mister Ferst."

"Sir, may I"

"Out with you, man!"

"Aye, sir!" Ferst made his salute, then quickly fled the room.

Thor waited for the door to close behind him before removing his hand to look again at the small metallic disc on his desk. The icon of the Imperial Security Bureau looked back at him.

When his gaze returned to Senn, it fell on an entirely different person.

The man seemed to have grown six inches in size. Gone was the hunched pose. The cloak had fallen from his shoulders to reveal his powerful stature along with the blaster pistol holstered under his armpit. His arms were hanging by his sides, both thumbs tucked into his belt in a seemingly relaxed fashion that belied the expression of grave foreboding suddenly written on his face.

It was a sense of foreboding that transferred to Thor immediately. Just looking at this man made him feel, with a grim certainty, that something about his mission was plain wrong.

"Who are you really?"

Senn raised an eyebrow, his tight lips twitching in the slightest hint of a grim smile.

"I'm a man very much like you, Captain, if you but knew it. A man with a mission and no time to lose."

+++ Is it all prepared now? +++

+++ All key positions are held by men loyal to our cause. We are ready to unleash hell. +++

+++ Good. When the Imperial reinforcements arrive, it will all be over already. +++

Nia palmed the door buzzer outside the Captain's state room, absently fingering the starched collar of her dress uniform jacket to loosen it, to somehow make it stop chafing the sensitive skin of her neck. It didn't do any good. She hated the dress uniform, just as she hated each and every single event that required her to wear it. She hated the ridiculous cap forcing her to wear her hair drawn up in a severe bun, not falling freely down her back as it usually did. She hated the stiff, starchy jacket, the disgustingly unstylish trousers, the No, she corrected herself, the boots she liked. Especially the privately purchased pair she wore now, which had as much a hint of heels as was barely tolerable, emphasizing her legs. Subtle changes, made to her jacket by a skilled tailor, had cost her a small fortune but made sure she didn't look a complete drum in this garment. After all, she prided herself on always taking good care of her outward appearance.

"Enter!"

Thor's voice, carrying more than a hint of stress, came over the intercom, and the door receded into its wall recess.

She entered his cabin to find him standing in front of a tall mirror, fully dressed up as well, fiddling with his collar clasps. She could immediately tell he felt as uncomfortable in his number one uniform as she did in hers, only his somehow looked a good size too small to fit him. When he flexed his shoulders, the sleeves shifted upwards above his wrists. Smiling, she dropped the data-pad she had brought on his writing desk and approached him, closing the magnetic clasps at his collar with gentle hands before pulling on the hems of his jacket to smoothen it. He smiled sheepishly.

"There you are, big boy." She looked him over appreciatively from head to mirror-polished boot caps. "You look adorable."

"Thank you, love. So do you, by the way." He wrapped his arms around her, and they shared a quick, hungry kiss. "Mmm, you taste adorable, too! Let me have another one!"

She withdrew, laughing. "Stop that, or I'll have to smoothe your jacket all over again. Not to mention my own!" She tucked at her uniform. "Look at that! Were you trying to undress me?"

He grinned boyishly. "I might still. It's been quite a while since last I did, mark you."

She thought it over briefly. "How about tonight, after the mission briefing. We could hit the gym together for some workout and sparring, then hit the shower together afterwards."

She liked touching and caressing his athletic body as much as she did feeling his caresses on hers, and it always made for a good foreplay for them both. Besides, truth be told, she pretty much felt like a round between the sheets herself. It had indeed been quite a while since the last time.

"Your shower or mine?"

"Yours is bigger. Hey, what's wrong?" She instantly recognized the look in his eyes. It had appeared the second she had mentioned the mission briefing, as if she had reminded him of something seriously unpleasant.

He shook his head worriedly. "Trouble brewing, love. Can't tell you exactly what right now, but it's got something to do with our new passenger."

"That civil administration jellyfish? What about him?"

"Can't tell yet, love, I'm sorry. Lots of stuff I need to talk over with Botyne. There's going to be detail at the briefing. But my gut-feeling says we're heading into serious trouble." He could tell she was anything but satisfied at his evasive reply, clearly wanting to inquire further. He couldn't blame her, but it wasn't at his discretion to say more right now. He nodded towards his desk instead. "What's that pad you brought?"

She went over and picked it up, holding it out to him. "More trouble, I'm afraid. One of my new pilots, her name's Vivjen Lessa, has told me a harrowing story. She's got some unfinished family business at her heels, so to speak. Would be good if you could look at it first chance you get."

"How about right now, we still got some minutes to spare since you're in no mood to kiss."

He riffled through the file, whistling at several points. "Tal-Bakar, eh? I remember having a guy from an exile community in my class back at the Academy. We all thought he was kind of bonkers. Okay, I'll get Ferst to do the screen-work on our crew files. Let's see what we've got."

As if on clue, the wall intercom chimed. He dropped the pad back onto the desk, then received the call. "Yes?"

"Captain, you were to be notified when General Botyne's shuttle undocks from the Stalwart. That is about to happen. Estimated time to its docking with us is sixteen minutes."

"Thank you, Mister Ferst. Meet me in the main hangar in ten."

"Yes, sir. I will be there presently. Lieutenant Brokdoff will have the bridge in my absence."

"Very well. Bjarnesson, out." He turned to Nia. "Time to go, love."

"Don't forget your cap." She held it out to him. "Why's Ferst sounding so pissed off?"

"I virtually threw him out of my ready room two hours ago." He adjusted his cap, which looked absurdly small on his head, then waited for her approving nod. They both left his cabin together and headed for the nearest turbolift.

"So?" she inquired while they were waiting for a lift cabin to arrive.

"So what?"

"You threw him out of your ready room. Full stop. Reason?"

"Long story. Something to do with our new passenger."

"Oh dear." She grimaced. "Let me guess. You can't tell me right now."

"Exactly."

She exhaled deeply in frustration, then suddenly grinned. "But I'd surely have liked to see Ferst's face!"

The cabin arrived, and they stepped in. A few levels down, it stopped again to admit another passenger, a Major of the Navy Troopers in his mid-thirties, dressed in a midnight-black version of their own dress garment. Upon recognizing the two superior officers, he saluted.

"Captain. Commander."

"Major Wilfen." Thor returned the salute, as did Nia beside him. Wilfen was in charge of the reinforced company of armsmen that made up Gun Crate's permanent onboard troop contingent. Blond and unremarkable, of average height and build, with soft features and friendly eyes, he nowhere gave the impression of a man who made his living out of storming breaches or, in his case, boarding enemy-held spaceships and shooting it out point-blank with blaster-toting pirates and Rebel scum. But neither Thor nor Nia were at any illusions about the man's qualities in battle, and they both held solid respect for Wilfen, even though they had only known him for roughly two months by now.

As the lift continued its way downward, they shook hands.

"On your way to receive our guests, I suppose, Major?" Nia said.

"Just like you, I conclude."

"I take it you received my memo concerning the honor formation for the General?"

"Of course, Captain." He smiled. "I've had them drilling extra hours. Gunny Voss is in charge of the detail, my company Sergeant Major. He knows honor guard duty. And he can out-shout a rabid Rancor, of that I can assure you."

"Very good, Major. Back on Syrilla, General Botyne took me up on a bet of honor, and I fully intend to show him that Navy soldiers can best any groundpounder any day."

"Well, sir, I just hope the good General is packing handkerchiefs, he's going to need them. And, sir, if you could maybe convince our Army passengers to field a team for some ball-playing during transit, I have a casket of vintage Chandrilan saying we're going to make the Army look like the clumsy bunch of tom-fools they are."

"Well spoken, Major. You suggestion certainly has merit. I will propose the idea to General Botyne in due time. But let us first welcome him and his officers aboard in the proper fashion before stripping them of their liquor reserves."

"Of course, sir. Duty first."

The lift cabin chose that moment to announce its arrival at their requested destination, stopping and opening its doors. They stepped out into the corridor that led towards the main hangar deck. The fire-proof blast doors that sealed the hangar bay from the rest of the ship during battle were wide open now, and upon reaching the doorway, Thor used the opportunity to pause and survey the scene.

The new hangar bay was cavernous, brightly lit by powerful sodium illumination that bathed everything in a stark, white glare. It was wide and high-ceilinged enough so as not to be out of place on a Victory class Star Destroyer, designed as it was to accommodate and deploy the largest of landing crafts, and it opened towards the underside of the ship. At the moment, it was about half-empty, housing only the massive, dormant bulks of three Y-85 Titan class drop ships, each capable of carrying into battle a four-strong platoon of AT-ATs, twelve AT-STs or an equal number of tanks. Arrayed along the far wall opposite of the towering Titans, several Lambda shuttles and a half-dozen C-22 Assault Transports assigned to Wilfen's boarding squads looked strangely pocket-sized.

The several small groups of uniformed figures standing together in conversation near the entrance seemed utterly insignificant before the background of the mechanical cavern.

High above Thor's head, the two fighters and two scout ships that made up Crate's attack craft contingent were locked in their retractable fast-launch racks. Getting them back up there after each recovery and maintenance was quite a time-consuming process and could only be achieved with repulsor haulers, tractor beams and crane arrays, but the racks made scrambling them very fast and very easy, and that was well worth the additional effort in his opinion. He could attest from personal experience that there were times when you simply had to get your combat fighter patrol spaceborne right now or the other guy would get the jump on you, period.

Through the barely visible containment field that shielded Crate's heated and ventilated interior from the vacuum of space, two other ships could be made out in the distance, their running lights giving them away before the blackness of space: the nimble, dart-shaped Tartan class escort Vigilant and the bloated, ancient Galleon class bulk troop carrier Stalwart.

The Stalwart had swallowed up the main body of Botyne's division, having spent three full days in orbit around Syrilla in the process, while shuttles and barges had been engaged round-the-clock in the laborious procedure of ferrying men, equipment and light vehicles upwards from the planetary surface. In contrast, all of the division's heavy gear, including all its armor, had been crammed into Gun Crate's more capacious hangar deck. Yet, though the General had taken to space aboard the troop ship for the first part of transit, he had decided to transfer to the larger Strike Cruiser before the small flotilla made the hyperspace jump to their destined star system, apparently intending to use the larger, more modern Crate for his command ship until his division was completely off-loaded and deployed. And he also intended, as Thor had been given to understand, to bring along his command staff, vehicle crews and assorted troop contingents. Now all they were waiting for was for Botyne to make the transfer.

It rankled Thor to no small amount that this ceremony finally and factually confirmed the subordinate role he was going to play in future. He was about to receive the man whose orders he would follow for the duration of this mission, and to acknowledge his authority. It made him fully realize for the first time the full meaning of what it would be like to be put in the place of transport captain for good, confined to facilitating the conveyance of others to their destination at their discretion.

He didn't like it one bit. It meant he had been cheated of what truly belonged to him after he had struggled and labored for years to claim it.

His independence. His authority. His honor. His identity.

He felt the loss bitterly.

He shook off that thought. To distract himself, he walked over to where the twelve-strong honor guard detail, resplendent in midnight-black uniforms, polished black boots and gleaming bowl helmets, was going through a few last practicing moves. The shining gun-metal of their silver-and-black ceremonial blaster rifles flashed and reflected the overhead lights as they were shouldered with flawless precision. Next to them, two similarly clad banner-bearers were unsheathing flags attached to tall, black wooden poles. One was starkly white and bore the Imperial Roundel, the other one was light-blue and sported Gun Crate's individual crest. The men were treating the two flags with utmost care and respect as they carefully unfolded and smoothed them.

The lean, broad-shouldered NCO supervising it all had close-cropped, brush-cut black hair streaked through with grey and hard, watchful eyes that never seemed to miss a single detail.

"Gunnery Sergeant Voss?"

The other man turned. Narrow grey eyes set below bushy brows in a leathery face met Thor's gaze. A beak-like nose and an ancient, livid burn-scar running along his left jaw line gave his face a sinister look. There was a bar of campaign ribbons and decorations pinned below his rank squares up on his left chest.

"Sir." His voice was as crisp and accentuated as his salute, a low, basso growl that matched his grim looks.

Thor returned the salute, then stretched out a hand. "Nice to meet you personally, Gunny."

"Aye, sir." The other man's face didn't give away whatever he was thinking while he completely ignored the proffered hand, deliberately folding his own ones behind his back. There was no friendliness in his tone, or in his eyes. Actually, Thor was nearly certain he could sense a hint of disdain, in spite of the other man's carefully neutral face.

Withdrawing his hand, he tried something else. "Major Wilfen speaks highly of you."

"Aye, sir." A pause. "Will there be anything else, sir?"

Thor sighed inwardly. He knew this kind of behavior. Judging by his looks, the Gunny was one of the slowly dying breed of veteran Imperial soldiery, the ancient iron-eaters who had personally witnessed the horrors of the late Clone Wars and who had been dismissed from the ranks en masse after the war ended and the newly-founded Empire disarmed the defunct Armed Forces of the Republic in favor of the smaller, more sophisticated fighting body it employed to this day. Those veterans who had remained in Imperial service had shaken the galaxy with the sound of their marching boots ever since. Displaced, deeply traumatized and accustomed to violence, those who had not had found themselves marooned in a society no longer in need of the one skill they had truly mastered; ultimately unable to live any other life than one of soldiering, a great many of them had gone roaming the galaxy in search of ever-new conflicts. Some of those so uprooted had even joined the Rebellion for no other reason than to find a new fighting body they could call home.

On a battlefield, there was no one to match them except their own kind. Outside of one, there was no one they respected except their own kind.

Well, either way, it was good to number the Gunny among his crew. Apparently, Wilfen was getting along with him quite well, and that was about as far as Thor needed to concern himself with the matter for the time being. The man didn't wear his rank squares and medals for his social graces, after all.

Ferst approached him and touched his arm to draw Thor's attention. Voss recognized the other officer's presence with barely so much as a nod.

"Sir, the General's shuttle is in the final phase of approach and has requested permission to dock."

Thor nodded to his First Officer. "Very well. Acknowledge the General. And form up the ranks for the ceremony."

Ferst nodded, then walked away speaking into his intercom micro-bead. Thor nodded to Voss. "That will be all, Gunny. Let's begin this, shall we."

"Aye, sir." He saluted, then turned on his heel and returned to yelling at his men, his words being half-drowned by the double noise of klaxons and a booming loudspeaker announcement that warned of the immediate shuttle landing.

Thor turned in time to witness Botyne's shuttle break the containment field in the final phase of approach, the whine of its turbines mixing with the brief but explosive rush of escaping air before field integrity was reinstated. He felt the sudden drop of pressure against his eardrums and the hot wind of the engine exhaust against his face as the Sentinel class troop shuttle hovered in mid-air on its own repulsors, turning and folding its wings before coming to rest on its landing skids.

Then the deafening howl of its engines, echoing in the docking bay, finally died away, and its portside passenger ramp lowered.

Thor stood alone between the double ranks of Crate's assembled officers as Ferst commanded them to attention, tall and straight-backed, his gaze fixed on the open hatchway, arms folded behind his back. He risked sending a look towards Nia. She caught it and sent one back, and somehow, that helped ease the tension a little for him.

Behind him, Voss ordered his honor formation forward, and his sheer voice volume made Thor wince. Wilfen had not exaggerated the sergeant's qualities. In a shouting contest, any Rancor would come up second place with tinnitus.

The formation passed him, and the troopers took up their positions on either side of the ramp, presenting arms with fluid grace. On cue, the Imperial March started playing from loudspeakers all around.

And then it was time for Botyne to make his move, and he made it in style.

Appearing in the hatch mouth, he stopped at the upper end of the ramp to salute the two flags before taking slow, deliberate steps down the ramps and towards Thor, who took several steps forward himself to meet him. The General was dressed in his parade ground best with medals on show, but had omitted his cap in an apparent gesture of eccentricity, his grey hair drawing a silvery shimmer from the ceiling lights. Behind him came first four high-ranking Army officers, all in their dress best as well, then two troopers in Army fatigues, holding aloft banners of their own.

Botyne stopped two steps short of Thor. Both men looked each other in the eye for a moment. Then the General raised his hand in salute.

"In the name of His Majesty's Imperial Army, I request permission to come aboard, Captain."

Thor returned the gesture.

"I grant this request in the name of His Majesty's Imperial Navy. It's an honor to have you and your men aboard, General. I report this ship at full operational readiness and at your service."

"Excellent." As they walked down the assembled ranks together, the General placed a hand on Thor's shoulder good-naturedly. "First of all, I want this sergeant of yours cloned for my own division. You can have a bunch of spares, of course."

That made Thor laugh out. "I'm not sure which idea Major Wilfen, my commander of armsmen, would disagree more strongly with: that of losing a man like him even temporarily or that of suddenly having to put up with a bunch of his like. Actually, General, I believe you would soon have a mutiny at your hands if your troops were subjected to several of his caliber." He stopped, looking straight at Botyne.

"Seriously, General, we need to talk business immediately. Newly acquired intelligence has led me to believe a situation has arisen that might, I'm afraid, ultimately force us to reconsider our strategic approach to this mission. I have prepared a briefing on this matter, staff officers' eyes only, and I would appreciate you and your senior officers attending it immediately. My command crew will do likewise."

Botyne withdrew his hand, tilting his head, his face bearing a strange expression as he apparently judged both Thor's words and his personality.

"Captain, why do I suddenly get the expression something about this mission has gone seriously Death Star-shaped before it has even begun?"

"Damned if I know, Sir. But I damned certainly know somebody who can answer your questions."

Botyne waved one of his officers over and gave a few quick instructions regarding the commencement of troop transfers to Crate before looking back at Thor again.

"Then, Captain, we better go meet this somebody right now, and he better make it a story I like."

* * *

Gun Crate's main briefing room was located next to the cruiser's strategy center, a wide, circular room that housed a round table with a built-in holo projector, a dozen or so seats and several mobile display arrays. The walls were decorated with beautiful holographic murals that showed Imperial warships captured in different scenes of battle or graceful space flight. The largest and most brilliant one, only recently installed and located right opposite the main entrance, depicted the now-legendary Executor as it made its valiant last stand at Endor.

General Botyne had brought only two of his immediate subordinates: his second-in-command, a grizzled Colonel of Infantry named Talvait, and one Major Krolik who doubled as the division's Intel officer. Of Thor's own senior officers, Ferst, Wilfen and Nia were present, all looking equally uneasy, apparently as unsure about what to make of this ominous meeting as Thor felt himself.

Senn entered the room last and through a different entrance than the others, now wearing the red-piped white dress uniform of a Colonel of the Imperial Security Bureau.

There was a sudden wave of murmurs and stifled moans all around the room as he made his entry, and Thor could see Botyne's face immediately going grim and tense upon laying eyes on the man. Obviously, the General didn't hold any sympathy for the ISB at all, nor for any of its members. Or maybe just not for this particular one.

Senn sat down on one of the vacant chairs and took to speaking without any further introduction.

"General Botyne, Captain Bjarnesson, Miss Paragrin, gentlemen, I am Colonel Efza Senn of His Majesty's Imperial Security Bureau. I am acting under direct supervision and with the full authority of Directress Ysard."

"Tell me more I can see for myself, spook." Thor heard Botyne growl from his end of the table. If Senn had overheard the remark, he gave no sign of it.

"First of all, I apologize for the way I came here in disguise, but I absolutely needed to make sure my presence upon this ship remained a secret, so as not to give particular groups hostile to the Empire a clue about my level of insight into their activities. Also, I apologize for any lack of respect some may have felt I have recently displayed. I am a man used to having his ways even under adverse circumstances, and I tend to forget about social graces."

Thor pressed his lips together tightly with barely suppressed anger at these words. Though elegantly phrased, they were nothing like the honest apology overdue from Senn. If anything, they were more proof of his arrogance.

"Political Officer Senn," Botyne interrupted in a casual tone, "you are an arrogant bastard and a useless, self-indulgent son of a Hutt, and you know I don't usually bother with the likes of you any longer than I have to. Don't expect to mollify me with words. That didn't work the last time."

Ferst suppressed a cough at that. Nia raised a beautifully curved eyebrow in amusement and covered her mouth with one hand to conceal a smile. The two Army officers seemed totally unimpressed. Apparently, they were used to as much.

Thor was somewhat taken aback, briefly exchanging looks with Nia. Obviously, Botyne and Senn had met before, and there didn't seem to be any love lost at all between them.

Senn acknowledged the General's straightforwardness with a grin and a nod. He didn't seem to take any offense at all.

"I am glad to see you have remained in good health since the last time we met, General. It's also good to hear you have retained your sharp tongue."

"You speak of groups hostile to the Empire," Botyne continued smoothly. "You know you'll have to do a lot better than that with me. Who are these groups, and how do said activities affect my mission at hand?"

"I'll come to that presently." He pushed a few buttons on the keyboard inlaid into the desk in front of him, and the holo projector awoke to buzzing life, throwing into the air above the tabletop the three-dimensional, translucent and slowly rotating image of a planet.

Thor immediately recognized it from the files he had partially memorized as part of his personal mission preparation. It was the capital world of their destination system, the world Botyne's division was being sent to garrison.

"The planet Innaham," Senn went on to explain. "A medium-sized world on the edge of the Core, population three point six billion, average level of agricultural and industrial output, mostly refinement of local resources. A mining colony on the larger moon, some deep-space mining, two small EnviroForming colonies on otherwisely uninhabited neighboring planets, that's about it. One commercial space port, local security forces and planetary militia, some patrol ships, but nothing hyperjump-worthy. Local politics have remained pretty much stable for the last decade, except for the usual petty squabbles and some mild corruption. Nothing much out of the ordinary, generally spoken."

"I can read pre-mission files very well myself, Colonel Senn!" Botyne interjected impatiently. "No need to read them out to me yet. My eyesight still serves!"

"Very well, General. I was just repeating these things for the general benefit of the audience, and to underline the context."

"Let's get down to the essence of it, then!"

"First, I need to point out that most of the information I will reveal during the following briefing is top-secret and must not leave this room."

"Get on with it, man!" Now Botyne was visibly losing his temper.

"As with virtually every Imperial world, ISB is running an undercover intelligence network on Innaham, which fell into my area of responsibility. Part of my regular duty is to monitor the activities of several of these networks and to gather and analyze the information they provide. So far, the Innaham cell has been pretty much low priority, and I never paid it much attention."

"Your use of the past tense implies that has changed," Thor suggested.

"Very astutely observed, Captain. For the past four months now, the Innaham cell has reported increasing Alliance underground activities on planet. Mostly Rebel propaganda, some attempted illicit purchases of weapons and strategically valuable supplies, some attempts at bribery connected with smuggling. At first, it looked like nothing more than just another Alliance underground network trying to sprout roots among the planet's political and criminal subculture. These two can never be entirely separated, it seems."

He punched a few buttons, and the holo-image changed from the planetary map to the three-dimensional still-frame reproduction of a busy city street, with an imposing construction in the background. Part of an Imperial Roundel mounted on the faade suggested it was some kind of public administration building. The shot focused, then centered on the image of a tall, dark-haired man in an expensive, high-collared business suit who had apparently just left the building. At this rate of magnification, the shot was grainy and slightly blurred, but it was still sharp enough to make out the man's features, even though he was wearing reflective shades that covered his eyes.

"This shot was taken roughly two months ago. The man has been identified as Deg Selba."

That name rang a bell with Thor. He had read it some time ago in one of the circulated bulletins concerning asymmetrical threat assessments.

"I have heard of him," he stated. "Leader of a pirate pack operating outside the Core."

"That's one part of it, Captain." Senn nodded to him. "Selba is a lot more than a mere pirate. He is an enigma. A mercenary. A businessman of war, one could say. He is involved in a lot of illegal activities, from simple piracy to slave trade, arms and narcotics trafficking and brigandry. He has carved out his own small bandit fiefdom, including his own flotilla of warships, and when he's not busy advancing his own business, he sometimes sells his services to the highest bidder. He's a remarkably competent, yet totally ruthless and amoral person. His psychological profile alone is highly interesting."

"Sounds to me like you admire the bastard." Krolik remarked.

"I don't. He's scum. I detest him and everything he represents. But I won't allow my disgust and my ego to mislead me into underestimating him. He is all the more dangerous for being without moral."

He paused to project another still-shot, this time of a spaceship looking very much like a modified Corellian corvette.

"Lately, it seems, he has thrown in his lot with the Alliance, as was to be expected sooner or later, given the lowlife connections some of their political ringleaders have. Anyway, several of Selba's ships have been identified participating in skirmishes and raids alongside Alliance vessels on several occasions in the past. This vessel in particular is notorious. We believe it is named Bid for Power, and we believe it to be Selba's command ship and personal transport."

"I've filed a report about cooperation between the Rebels and several pirate factions a few months ago." Nia interjected at that point. "Don't tell me it has actually been read for a change!"

"It has, of that I can personally assure you, Commander. And I must say I found it very insightful and graphic. No forces of Selba's have been involved in this particular action, though, in contrast to at least five incidents I attribute to him personally, and the pattern I have identified is highly alarming."

A stellar map appeared above the table. Five planets were highlighted an angry red.

"These five planets," Senn continued, "have been subjected to severe raids from ships and troops positively identified as belonging to Selba's faction during the past fifteen months. Extraordinary amounts of resources were looted each and every time. Not raw materials, as one would expect, but high-grade supplies, fully refined and processed, and all of it vital for the war economy. Such things have of course happened before, but rarely, and on those occasions, the pirates simply struck lucky. In contrast, Selba's men apparently knew exactly which stores to raid and which to leave."

"Inside jobs." Botyne stated bluntly. "He had men on the ground who identified the targets for him in advance. I'd have them, in any case. That bastard knows his business."

"Exactly so, General. Plus, there are several more remarkable points that make these five stand out against your average raid-'n-run venture. First of all, all five raiding actions coincided with local uprisings by radical pro-Alliance groups that bordered on planetary level insurgencies. Every time Selba's ships came, the local security forces had their hands pretty much full.

"More inside jobs? Or simple opportunism?" Colonel Talvait looked pretty much like he didn't hold his own hypothesis to be true.

"Possible, Colonel, but unlikely. Once might be coincidence or good timing, five times simply isn't."

The assembled officers looked at each other with silent understanding.

"It must be added, secondly, that in all five cases the planetary governor was assassinated either during or immediately prior to the breakout of the uprisings, and key persons of the planetary political structure were nowhere to be found after order had been restored."

Botyne nodded grimly. Thor couldn't help but to silently agree with him. That had been inside jobs indeed, with highly placed yet utterly corrupted men turning traitor and secretly opening the gates for gutless Rebel conspirators and their treacherous pirate friends.

"Thirdly," Senn continued, "I am sickened to say, on each and every occasion, excessive atrocities were committed against the civilian population during the raids. The civilian casualty figure claimed by each one was drastically higher than was to be expected, by far higher than during comparable raids by other pirate factions. Worse yet, these casualties were not the results of the uprisings, or of some political purge. I have reason to believe the atrocities were committed by Selba's troops, deliberately and indiscriminately. Eyewitness reports suggest that civilian shelters were targeted with explosives, and Imperial relieve forces have holographed mass graves containing almost exclusively women and children. Forensic research indicates several of the female victims have been excessively raped and / or mutilated before being put to death, very much regardless of age."

Murmur arose among the assembled officers, intermixed with muttered oaths. It didn't subside for at least half a minute as each one vividly expressed his disgust. Major Krolik was gesturing insistently towards the General, speaking in urgent tones. Botyne listened, then shook his head just as insistently.

Nia was white-faced with rage as she addressed Senn, her voice toneless.

"Okay, I still don't get it. I can understand they do raid the cities for valuables, and they incite those riots to cover for it. I can even see some sick sense in rape. But why would they stay and bother to kill all those poor, dumb civvies? That doesn't make any sense. They didn't have anything to gain from that."

"Fear." Botyne spat out the word as though it was poisonous. Senn simply nodded in agreement.

"Come again, General?"

"Fear, Commander. They did it for the same reason every terrorist is eager to kill civilians. The Alliance knows exactly how to use fear against us. They set Selba on killing all those civilians to produce fear among the survivors. That's what the name terrorist is derived from, after all. One who causes terror." He shook his head sadly. "It's the old story from the Clone Wars told anew. Fear paralyzes societies, Commander. It destroys them from the inside, like a cancer. Back in the old days, it was the fear of Grieveous' droid army that brought the Republic to the edge of giving in to the Separatists, before the Emperor brought it back from that edge. Today, it's the fear of such cowardly terrorist acts. "

He leaned forward heavily on his elbows. "Right now, Commander, the survivors on these five planets are looking at the mass graves and asking themselves why the Empire, with all its fleets and armies, wasn't able to prevent all that carnage. People everywhere else in the Empire look at the holographs and ask themselves the same thing. They fear such things might happen next on their planet, in their city. And ultimately, they come to the conclusion that the Empire must be weak. That it might be wise to give in to the Rebellion, to make concessions just to stop the killing. And they begin to lose faith. In our days, Commander, fear is a weapon of war, like a walker or a fighter or a starship, and fear is contagious."

Nia was silent. Thor could see her jaw was tightly clenched. Though she tried hard not to show it, knowing her he could tell she was beside herself with white-hot, silent rage.

He could fully understand it. More so, he felt the same. The terrorist tactics Botyne had just sketched out in a few words were so cowardly, so degenerate, so counter to everything he had been brought up to believe, it nearly made him sick.

"Knowing you, Senn, you have more to say, haven't you?" The General's voice was heavy with foreboding.

"Indeed I have, General, and I dearly wish it wasn't so. The last factor all the raided planets have in common is that they all have an average population size, medium-level industrialization, only marginal planetary defense, and they had all been stripped of their Imperial garrison troops to meet the increased demands at the warfronts."

In the uneasy silence that followed his words, you could almost hear the collective coin drop around the table.

"Like Innaham" It was Talvait who finally voiced it.

Senn nodded. "The pattern is repeating itself. And now that Selba has been sighted on the planet personally, I fear the worst."

"He's recruiting the next bunch of traitors." Krolik's voice betrayed his emotional stress.

"That I believe, Major. And exactly eight days ago, my complete intelligence network on Innaham was silenced."

This time there was no barring it as curses and exclamations of disbelief sparked a brief but heated discussion around the table before Botyne called for order.

"Go ahead, Senn. Silenced, like how?"

"I have no idea, General, I regret to say. The last message I received consisted only of an intermittent distress code. I haven't been able to raise any of my contacts through the usual channels ever since. My immediate reaction was to make best speed for the planet. The rest you know."

"What difference do you expect us to be able to make in the face of an attack, even if we should get there in time? I have a light Infantry division, outfitted for peacekeeping and policing duties. That means no heavy armor except for my two C AT-ATs, just a handful of scout walkers and tanks. No air and orbital support except for what Captain Bjarnesson can supply. My orders are to garrison the planet, to maintain public order and to assist the local security forces in counter-insurgency operations if need be. I cannot hope to recapture the planet from the Rebels. I cannot even reasonably hope to hold it against any determined invasion force."

"My sincere hope is that nothing of that will be necessary. Remember, Selba's motives are for plunder, not for conquest. We have to arrive at Innaham and deploy your troops before he can strike. Once there, we also need to link up with the planetary governor to organize the defense and root out any infiltrators inside the political structure. If he finds himself facing dug-in resistance, I am fairly certain Selba will abort his plans. Speed will be of the essence in this issue. And that is where Captain Bjarnesson comes into play."

All eyes were on Thor now. He cleared his throat as his mind raced to do the math.

"We are already one day ahead of our schedule, roughly. According to standard procedures, we would have cruised for Innaham at about sixty percent engine capacity in order to conserve energy and not wear out our reactors. If we do ninety, it would cut about another two and a half days off our traveling time. Anything above that over such a distance, we'd be pushing our safety limits before we're halfway there. I can get navigations to plot a re-entry point much closer to the planet than we originally planned, which would give us another twelve hours or so." He looked over at Ferst, who nodded in agreement. "All in all, four days. That's about as much as I can reasonably promise."

"Let's hope it is enough, Captain. It will have to be. In this race, every single hour counts, and there won't be any medals for second place."

* * *

Thor was last out of the briefing room after the meeting had been disbanded. He found Botyne waiting for him outside in the corridor. The General was carrying a kit bag under his arm and looking seriously worried.

"General?"

"Captain, I need to talk to you. Alone."

Thor sighed inwardly. This was rapidly proving a day when virtually everyone had his own secret thoughts to share. "My stateroom, sir."

They walked along in silence, Thor leading the way. Crew members made sure to give them a wide berth. Somehow, it felt like a gloomy sense of foreboding had befallen the whole ship, even though not a single word could yet possibly have spread.

Once inside his office, the door shut and sealed behind them, they sat, and Thor poured drinks. Then he waited patiently for the General to speak.

Botyne took his time, toying with his shot glass for maybe a minute, swishing the translucent liquid this way and that without taking to drinking.

Finally, he looked at Thor. "What's the matter with you, Captain?"

"Sir?" Thor didn't have a clue as to what the General was talking about.

"What's the matter with you, Captain? A simple question. Maybe there's a simple answer to it."

"Sir, I have no idea"

"Don't you, now? I believe you do. But, all right, I'll play along for good measure. Ever since we met, Captain, you've been making a sour face in my presence, and it has grown worse ever since I set foot on your ship. If it's private, I don't care. If it's about me, I do. And I want to know. So what's the matter?"

This time it was Thor's turn to remain silent for a few moments while his mind made to phrase the proper words.

"It's not about you, General. In a way. Yet in another, it is. You see, sir, I bear no ill will towards you, personally. But where can I start"

And he explained it to the General. He spoke of the years he had served under Captain Dren Markas, the former master of Gun Crate. He spoke of how he had won his Captaincy, of how he had been rewarded with command of the trusty cruiser after he had led it through the fires of battle and come out victoriously. He spoke of his pride at the promotion. And finally, painfully, he spoke of the treachery. Of the shame. Of his shame, to be made a transport captain, subject to the will of others still.

Botyne listened in silence until Thor had finished. Then he slowly nodded, understandingly.

"Your first command?"

"Yes, sir."

"Oh dear, son, how old are you?"

"Sir, I"

"At least twenty years younger than me, aren't you?"

"I guess so, General."

"You've served under some pretty severe captains these last years, wouldn't you say so? Captains who liked to maintain tight personal control at all times?"

"Sir, I" He thought it over. "Yes. I think you could call Captain Markas that. He pretty much maintained a strict regime aboard and kept himself continuously apprised of virtually all proceedings. I found that appropriate. He was the Captain, after all."

"And now that you have finally stepped out of his shadow, you find yourself subjected to just the same restrictions again, don't you? You expect me to replace him."

Thor hesitated for a second, chewing on the confession. "That's pretty much how I feel, sir."

"And that's where you are wrong, son."

"Sir?"

"You heard me right. You're wrong. About quite a lot of things, too, though I don't think it's all your own fault. Rather, I believe it's a matter of conditioning."

"I'm afraid I fail to follow you, sir."

"Word of wisdom to be had here, Captain, so sit back and listen. Let's call it one of the few deep-rooted flaws of the Imperial military mindset, and one I've been working to uproot for decades past. You see, we've always been a pretty authoritative and hierarchical institution, what with the Emperor personally pulling all the major strings and his pet Sith wheezing down the neck of our finest and brightest, wouldn't you agree?"

Thor was momentarily taken aback at the frankness. Back in the old days, with Palpatine and Vader still alive and, well wheezing, such words would have warranted a charge for insubordination. But nonetheless, Thor found himself compelled to agree with their essence. In fact, he firmly believed obedience and superior discipline to be the twin bedrocks that made the Imperial Armed Forces such a formidable fighting machine, that would one day lead them to inevitable triumph over the lesser troops fielded by the Rebellion.

He said so, only to see Botyne shake his head again.

"Very much by the book, Captain. Obedience and discipline certainly do have their place in an armed force." He stared into his glass again for another long moment, perhaps lost in some particular reminiscence.

"But there's also a downside to them, Captain, a catch, and a quite fatal one to boot. Did it never occur to you that a mind conditioned for obedience might unlearn the capability for independent thinking?

"Well no. I must admit I've never looked at it that way."

"Independent thinking, Captain. The Reb commanders got plenty of it, some of the less blinkered at least, that's why they keep kicking our sorry asses time and again. Thrawn's got it, too. That's why he keeps kicking serious Reb ass where most of his human counterparts never did. And me, I got it, too, that's why I kick Reb ass and live to revel in my self-aggrandizement." He chuckled briefly.

"Hierarchy and obedience are good for quite a few things, unless they become ends of their own. That's when they become diseases of their own. That's when they lead to rigidity and narrow-mindedness. With me so far?"

"Well, yes, if you put it that way." Thor prided himself on recognizing an unorthodox strategic concept when he saw one. He also remembered fighting his corner during quite a few discussions on similar topics he had had with Nia, who was nothing if not an independent spirit.

"But, frankly, sir, I still fail to see the connection to my current problem."

"That's because the problem is in your mind, son. Someone planted it there, and now you got to work some to pick up all the loose ends."

Thor silently chewed on his lower lip for some seconds, pondering it.

"So you're saying I'm suffering from a rigidness of mind because I served under authoritative commanders for too long?"

"Very much to the point. You've been drilled to obey for so long you do it reflexively by now, and you don't even notice any more. They put me in front of your nose, with a bunch of fancy rank squares to spare, and what does your conditioning tell you to do?"

"Obey?" Thor was getting the line of Botyne's reasoning, and he had a strange feeling he wasn't going to like where it was leading him.

"Point. And that's exactly where you're wrong. That's exactly the wrong reaction at the most unfortunate point of time."

"Because you're not going to assume command?"

"Because I couldn't even assume command if I wanted to, Captain!" Botyne burst out. "I got my hands full running my own division. Besides, I don't have a damn clue about how to run a starship. I'm just a damn passenger, that's what. My orders are to stand on and fight for and hold on to Location A. Yours are to get me there in time so I can. That's your part of the bargain and your field of expertise. I'll give you hell if you screw it up and get me killed. Other than that, I'll keep my big mouth well shut and let you do your job.

He knocked back his drink.

"Talking's thirsty work. In short, Captain, I have a hunch we're heading full-speed into some serious mess, and I need you alert and on the job day before yesterday. So you better un-learn some things rather quickly, and I don't envy you that workload."

Thor was rather lost for words. Botyne was by far the most unconventional and outspoken Imperial officer he had ever encountered, maybe just maybe excluding Nia. And he was busily turning Thor's world view upside down.

"Sir I'll I'll certainly do some serious reading on that."

"I'd rather have you do some serious book-burning on that. I know you're feeling a complete mess right now, son. I'd be, sure enough."

He nodded sympathetically.

"Consider it a chance you got. You just got your command back, so to speak. You're a mission specialist, and you're here for a purpose, so start acting like it. You're the Captain, and as far as I'm concerned, you're damn welcome to own this galaxy if you want it. Go ahead, take your time, think it over and make up your mind."

Without further comment, he bowed down and started rummaging in the kit bag he had dropped beside his chair to produce a tall bottle. Popping the magnetic cap, he placed it on the table. The smell wafting from it was enticing.

A small, elongated, olive-drab metal box followed. Judging by the markings stenciled on its battered lid, it held `power cells (small arms), 10 EA. Botyne opened it to reveal a good dozen neatly stacked cigars. Only then did the General look at Thor again.

"As far as I'm concerned, Captain, this conversation never happened. Now, as a passenger, I intend to pay the proper shipment fee for my men and myself, from one fellow soldier to another." Smiling, he topped off both glasses.

And for hours afterwards, as soldiers are wont to do if they can find the right time and company, soldiers talked.

* * *

Turning over in his bunk, Thor folded his hands under his head and looked up at the dimly-lit ceiling above as he came to rest comfortably on his back, deeply in thought. All around him, the ship virtually thrummed as the unleashed might of its powerful hyperspace drives propelled it onwards. If you listened closely enough, you could hear the glasses on the nightstand jingle ever so slightly with the nearly imperceptible vibration of the hull.

By his side, Nia propped herself up on an elbow and pulled up the bed sheet to cover her naked form as she huddled close to him. With her other hand she stroked the clean-shaven skin of his muscular chest, toying absent-mindedly with a few leftover stubbles of blond, then started tracing the lines and folds of his washboard stomach with her fingers. In the semi-darkness near his face, she smiled.

"You look more relaxed right now than I've seen you in weeks. I'm tempted to take that as a compliment, but I have a hunch there's more to it."

He raised his head briefly to snatch a kiss from her, smiling back. "You're right, love, in both respects. Remember how I used to worry and bitch about what you call my `typical macho-male pride thing, with your usual display of tact and understanding?"

She nodded. "You kept reminding me."

"Well, I've been talking about that with Botyne today, and I think I have come to a conclusion of sorts. Hence, I'm a lot easier than I used to be."

Suddenly, he sharply drew breath through his teeth. "What's yer hand doin' there?"

Her fingers had strayed further downwards, well below his navel. Now, by way of an answer, she started stroking his testicles.

"Reminding you that you're mine tonight, sailor, and mine alone, and that's enough for you to be worried about." Her voice was a low, urgent whisper in his ear.

He closed his eyes, succumbing to her caress, and his breathing started to come faster as she teased his stirring groin, her touch quickly growing rougher and more demanding. When he was hard and ready, nearly panting with pleasure, she threw back the sheet and shifted over one slender leg, coming to rest astride of him. As her hips came down on him, his came up simultaneously to meet her.

She moaned when he slid deeply into her, stretching her body and tilting back her head, eyes closed to fully appreciate the sensation. With a few quick motions of her belly, he filled her completely. She pressed down her hips onto his, eliciting a sharp, guttural growl from his throat. His hands reached out to caress her thighs and squeeze her buttocks. She threw back her hair.

When they had made love the first time this night, it had been drawn-out and gentle, serving their respective need for human proximity and comfort.

Now, desiring him wildly, she rode him hard and fast, taking him in again and again, with ever-increasing lust, until pleasure nearly became indistinguishable from pain.

Before long, even though she tried to delay the moment, she felt her own orgasm coming on, so strongly, so violently she just couldn't hold it back. When it finally came, it swept over her like a tidal wave. Crying out sharply, she arched her body and threw back her head as she briefly lost control of herself.

Moaning and gasping for breath beneath her, it took but a mere few more swift thrashes of her hips for him to follow suit, nearly cramping his abdomen as he reached his own immense climax. When she fell forward onto him, his arms came up to embrace her and pull her to himself. Satisfied and exhausted, they were both left breathing hard for minutes to follow.

Wordlessly, they both kissed and stroked each other's faces as they savored the moment, clinging to each other, flushed and hot with perspiration.

Her body felt utterly hot against his as he drew the sheet back over them both. Even though they aimed to make love to each other as often as they both liked, Thor mused, still trying to regain some semblance of sense, it had rarely ever been like this before. Granted, it had been always sweet and satisfying, but as far as he remembered, only twice or thrice yet had it ever been as intense, as passionate, as possessive as this time.

Suddenly, he realized what those times had been. Each and every time, it had either been shortly before they had gone to battle or after they had safely returned from it. Apparently, though none of them spoke about it openly, the imminent danger of losing each other made them cling to each other all the more while still they could.

Maybe it was true that, under the shadow of death, people lived more intensely. Right now, it felt true to him. Or maybe that was just his testosterone talking in moments like these.

Whatever, though he had enjoyed more than his fair share of female attention in his time, right now he felt certain that none of these women compared to the vibrant vitality of Nia Paragrin. That figure included, he had to admit, his late wife.

Holding Nia in his arms now, he realized they were almost certainly going to face that danger once again soon. There was some kind of intuitive understanding between them both that didn't need words. Theirs was a relationship born out of war, war fuelled it, and war was most likely going to cut it short. In a galaxy ripe with war, a dark, an unknown future lay ahead of them.

All they could do for the moment was hold on to each other, and hold on to each other they did.

Once more he loved her that night, and it was in no way short of the second time. When she finally got up to leave, returning to her cabin a few hours before ship-dawn, she left him lying awake in his dark bedroom, surrounded by the lurking ghosts of past and future, wondering how he was ever going to carry on if he ever found himself facing a galaxy without her.

+++ We must delay phase one by 24 hours. +++

+++ That's pushing the limits of our schedule. I may be forced to take action on my own. +++

+++ Don't lose it. Stick to the plan. We still have a safety margin. +++


PART THREE: Mission

"Ship has successfully reverted to realspace as per navigational projections, all systems normal. Close-range sensor sweep is now complete, updating tactical grid and navigations data right now. All friendly units present and accounted for by active beacons, no ships detected in the danger-close zone."

Which meant nobody was going to end up an unpleasant burn-smear across Crate's armored prow any time soon.

At Ferst's report, Thor slowly let out a breath he hadn't realized he had held. The flotilla had dropped out of hyperspace just far enough outside the main in-system shipping lanes to reduce the risk of accidental collisions to a minimum. Even so, it had still been a risk, albeit a calculated one: you never knew what stray pleasure yacht or odd civilian trader might cut corners and end up running across your bow. But after conferring with his senior officers and navigation staff, Thor had decided the additional time gain outweighed that risk well enough to make it worth taking. And apparently it had been worth taking the chance.

Beside him, General Botyne, who had seized the opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse at bridge procedures on a capital ship, nodded appreciatively as he took in the disciplined, efficient activities all around him.

Out of respect for the General's rank, Thor had risen from his command chair to stand next to the senior officer, pointing out certain aspects of the controlled frenzy around them time and again. Yet now he bit his lip and winced as he was forced to focus on the tactical display that showed him the immense confusion their sudden appearance had triggered among the nearby civilian traffic.

Standing beside and slightly behind his superiors, one hand cupped over his ear to shut out the background noise of the cruiser's busy bridge, Lieutenant Commander Ferst smiled grimly while he eavesdropped on several local comms channels over his intercom earpiece.

"That's the seventh distress call inside of thirty seconds, sir," he continued, making no effort to disguise his personal pleasure at the obvious panic and disarray quickly spreading to virtually every civilian ship within sensor range. Many Navy officers, Ferst not least among them, held a certain professional contempt for their civilian counterparts, generally attributing to them a lack of discipline and a tendency to lose their heads at the first sight of trouble. And indeed, right now a bunch of contact icons on the screen was busy living up to the prejudice.

"This one is coming from a commercial bulk freighter, and" He grimaced. "Dammit, Sir, I swear somebody just called us a pirate!"

Thor sighed. "That will do, Mister Ferst. Get into contact with Innaham space traffic control. Broadcast our identification codes, and make sure it is understood who we are and that we bear no hostile intentions. Then set course for the planet, flank speed ahead. Signal for Vigilant and Stalwart to follow. And launch Combat Fighter Patrol."

"Aye, sir." He relayed the order, then listened intently to the intercom. "Sir, we're picking up emanations from three Sentinel class patrol frigates closing with us fast from different vectors, shields and batteries powered up."

"Are we broadcasting ID codes already?"

"Yes, sir, we are, in addition to active ship-to-ship transponders. No discernible reaction yet. WaitComms reports the closest frigate is challenging us, they're demanding we heave to and maintain our current position to await inspection."

"What?!" Botyne burst out at that. "Who does that backwater braggart think he's talking to in that tone of his? Let me have a word with him, I'll teach him some manners. Need some he does, dammit!"

Frowning, Thor kneaded his chin for a few seconds. Sentinel class frigates were small but powerful vessels designed for in-system patrol duty. They were small, yet fast and agile like a striking serpent, and what they lacked in hyperjump capability, they made up for in terms of firepower. Obviously, their crews were spoiling for a fight, but they were either inexperienced or over-eager. Not only were they blatantly ignoring the Imperial ships' identification codes, they were also approaching the flotilla from different directions without coordinating their efforts. Well, even if they had, Gun Crate would have hopelessly outmatched them in a stand-up fight; something he was bound to risk if he chose to disregard the bold demand to stop. But it certainly wouldn't make for good public relations to straightaway start a gun battle with the very people he was here to protect. Yet if he did as demanded, he would certainly waste a considerable amount of precious time while he underwent some ridiculous inspection procedure. And that was something he was entirely unwilling to do.

So he opted for a compromise.

"Freeze launch countdown for the Combat Fighter Patrol. Maintain present course, but cut our speed by half for the time being. And get me one of these frigate captains on the line directly, full visual."

It took a short while for one of the patrol ship commanders to answer Gun Crate's priority-coded calls, in which time all three ships closed with the Strike Cruiser and maneuvered into something resembling an intercept formation, achieving target locks on all three Imperial vessels. The message sent through this was one of unveiled threat, and as the stand-off continued, it looked like both formations would yet come to blows. Sure enough, advising caution, Ferst repeatedly requested permission to have their shields raised. Knowing he was taking a gamble, Thor decided to choose goodwill over caution for once, unsure of whether such an act wouldn't trigger the fight he was hoping to prevent. He knew that right now, the local frigate crews had their blood up, and with adrenalin talking, one was prone to take rash action quickly. Besides, he knew to trust in the ability of his sturdy ship to withstand the guns long enough in case of an unprovoked attack, so he could well afford to keep his cool, even to show off a little to his crew.

Finally, though, after five or so minutes, a life-size hologram flickered into existence to face the three officers.

The reprimand the unfortunate fellow received took about the same amount of time. Thor contended himself to leave the stage to Botyne for most of the time and was rewarded with an extraordinary example of a professional chewing-out. A good many of the bridge crew, he noticed, had paused in their duties to listen, and he could see smirking faces here and there as Botyne came up with a quite imaginative selection of expletives concerning the other officer's genetic lineage and upbringing.

Another minute later the flotilla was underway at full speed again, with an escort of frigates clearing the way.

* * *

"Gentlemen, I believe you will agree on the fact that this is all highly unusual."

Flanked by Botyne on one side and Senn on the other, Thor was sitting at head of the large desk in the briefing room, his fingers drumming some half-remembered rhythm on the tabletop while he listened impatiently to the indignant rethorics of the short, pudgy man in front of him.

Or, rather, of his hologram. Two hours after the flotilla's arrival, they had entered communications range, and an impromptu holo conference had been arranged with what key planetary representatives could be summoned.

The upside of it was that they had apparently succeeded in out-racing Selba's henchmen, since the planet had not yet suffered from either pirates or civil unrest. That would hopefully give the Imperial forces the necessary time to dig in and consolidate their defenses.

On the downside, the locals were busy having other ideas.

And so, now, he was in the holographic presence of one Deputy Governor Kildewey, whose entire attitude and demeanor suggested he didn't believe one single thing of what the three Imperial officers were saying. In addition to being short and plump, he was also prematurely balding, and had an unnervingly high-pitched voice.

In Thor's humble opinion, Kildewey was the sort of political toad that had attained a fairly high-ranking position by virtue of being somebody's politically reliable lackey. Never one to take lightly to somebody questioning his word of honor, he felt he was rapidly losing his patience with the little man.

He was edgy. Waiting always did that for him. Waiting was always the worst part of it all.

He had felt like this at times before, he knew, just an occasional light case of nerves before a fight. He had faced mortal danger before, had looked death in the eye and lived to tell. And each and every time the jittery feeling had subsided at the onset of action.

And yet, right now, it wasn't just the usual pre-mission creeps he felt. Somehow, a grim sense of foreboding had seized him that just wouldn't relent. Somehow, he couldn't shake off the feeling that this time, it would be different. Worse. And his wounded pride currently didn't make it any better.

He was about to formulate a biting reply when Botyne did the honors himself.

"Deputy Governor, I believe you will find it even more unusual when a bunch of pirate raiders drops on top of your planet and starts to rape and pillage!"

"With respect, General Botyne," the second functionary chimed in, "you must understand our position in this affair. For several years, the Empire has set its priorities elsewhere, withdrawing all its troops and leaving us to struggle and fend for ourselves. Mark you, General, our people, our culture and our economy have suffered tremendously in your absence! And now that you finally return, you do it in all apparent urgency and with demands of measures drastic and immediate that are, frankly spoken, hardly creditable after everything you let go unnoticed. And especially so for your stubborn refusal to give us any detail about this impending doom you claim is upon us."

She was a slender woman in her mid-forties who had introduced herself as Council Member Morningsun. Clad in a peach-colored gown with a red sash draped across her right shoulder, she wore her wheat-blonde hair falling loosely down her left one. High cheekbones dominated her appealing face, giving her a regal appearance, and her alert eyes suggested a keen intellect.

Thor immediately caught the meaningful look Senn was sending him and Botyne. He, too, had recognized the woman for the more dangerous opponent in this game of intellectual fencing. Though speaking softly, her tone was nothing less than challenging, and she had just dropped a verbal bomb in the middle of the debate. And apparently, though formally holding a rank superior to hers, Deputy Kildewey was here for the sole purpose of being outplayed against her diplomacy. Which meant the meeting was a lot less impromptu that the Imperials were to be made to believe.

Thor didn't like that thought at all. It meant that they were at an even greater disadvantage than they had originally estimated, unsure, as they were, about who in the planetary hierarchy was trustworthy and who was part of Selba's agenda. For all he knew, there might as well be at least one traitor present in this conference.

Well, he couldn't particularly well picture Selba and Morningsun being the archetypical treacherous couple maintaining a secret affair while plotting their rise to power, but you never knew.

"Miss Morningsun," Botyne was speaking slowly, deliberately choosing his words, "may I ask what function you hold in the planetary council?"

She cocked her head thoughtfully. "I am the Minister for Planetary Culture and Commerce," she stated, "and before you go on, General, be advised I am fully aware that this doesn't qualify me to judge on military issues. Mind you, there is more to be considered here than military issues alone. Mind you, too, that the military is subject to political leadership, not the other way round."

"Mind you, Minister, that we are Imperial soldiery, and therefore, we come under the leadership of the Empire, not of a planetary executive council."

"Well, General, I believe that remains to be decided when it comes down to negotiating status-of-deployment treaties."

"I don't believe this point is optional, but you're welcome to take the issue up with Sector Command for discussion. I'm sure they'll appreciate your opinion. Mind you, too, Miss, that the Imperial soldiery you so harshly criticize for leaving you on your own has, in fact, been fighting ceaselessly to protect all of the Empire from the Rebel Alliance and other likewise criminal elements that follow in its wake."

"And very successful they have been, apparently," Kildewey spat in a tone that made him sound almost like a spiteful child,"if this pirate threat you speak of is real!"

Thor witnessed Botyne almost popping a blood vessel at that unfettered insult. For a few long seconds, the General was left struggling to check his outrage, and though he finally managed to remain grimly silent, his clenched fists suggested there would be a reckoning before this was over.

Seeing the way the discussion was taking, Thor tried a different angle.

"Adar Tallon's first theorem on warfare decrees that fighting to annihilate the enemy's mental and physical capabilities to wage war is a much more preferable means towards victory than fighting for control of the ground, for he who chooses to defend the ground must invariably leave the initiative of attack to the enemy."

A few heartbeats of surprised silence from the planetary side answered his quote while Botyne and Senn shot him appreciative glances for his presence of mind.

Finally, after the uneasy silence had lingered for several seconds, the third member of the holographic delegation raised his voice for the first time. He was a squat, stocky man with a brush haircut wearing a drab-green basic-duty uniform without particular markings; only his rank insignia, modeled on the Imperial style, indicated he was a Major General of the planetary militia.

"The Captain's words have merit. All facts considered, our position is highly vulnerable. The General Staff has pointed that out repeatedly in the past. And as everyone present can testify from personal experience, our people have indeed suffered from the predations of pirates several times already. The recent fund cutbacks on our defense forces didn't really help to relieve any of that pressure."

"Those cutbacks were a demand of the parliamentary opposition!" Kildewey squealed, a remark that was pointedly ignored by everyone else.

"General Bosly," Morningsun sounded irritated, as if the argument had caught her on the wrong foot, or, rather, as if she had not expected the man to speak out in support of the Imperial position, "do you actually suggest we go along with the propositions of our new security troops?"

If her choice of words was intended to sow rivalries and discord between the representatives of two potentially rivaling armed forces, the effect was apparently lost on the grumpy militia leader.

"I suggest, ma'am, that we do what common sense demands to safeguard our citizens and our trading interests. We cannot afford to ignore the advance warning we have been given, however unusual the circumstances of its delivery may appear. I, for myself, would like to listen to whatever Intelligence Officer Senn has to say. And since the militia will have to learn to cooperate with General Botyne's forces in the future anyway, I don't see why we shouldn't take this as an opportunity to start early."

All three holograms exchanged sidelong glances for a few seconds, apparently trying to come to a silent agreement. Right then, Thor would have given a sizeable sum to know who else was present and eavesdropping on their discussion on the planetary side, and what nonverbal side exchanges were taking place behind the scenes.

It was Morningsun who spoke first.

"Very well, General Botyne. I understand your request was for an immediate top-level executive conference to discuss our joint strategy."

"I'd rather you understand it is not a request." Botyne couldn't help but drive the point home. "It is a necessity. A delegation of our senior officers will make planetfall as soon as we reach orbit. I expect to meet with your governor and General Staff without delay. Botyne, out."

The holograms faded away as the transmission was cut. In the ensuing silence, the Imperials looked at each other meaningfully. Only now did Thor realize how hot he felt, as if the temperature in the conference room had risen perceivably. When Botyne lit a cigar, its bitter smoke dispelled the lingering, acrid ozone smell of the holo projectors.

"Well," Thor clapped his hands, "that went all right, didn't it?"

"It's going to be a trap, of course." Colonel Talvait melted out of the shadows at the far end of the room, where he had been listening, outside the field of reception of the holocamera. By his side, Ferst nodded in silent agreement.

"I concur." Senn sat back. Throughout the entire discussion, he had remained silent, but observant. For the purpose of this meeting, he had also donned field-gray standard-issue Navy fatigues instead of his usual dress whites, acting the part of an Intelligence Advisor to Thor's command staff. No use letting the locals know ISB was involved in this.

"It's an opportunity to strike at our senior command structure they simply can't afford to miss. Anyway, it's amazing what a little provocation can be good for sometimes. Their reactions to several key issues were quite noteworthy. Their body language alone told me a great deal. I could sense a remarkable amount of distrust and tension."

Thor grinned boyishly. "Damn, General, Morningsun's face just then, when you told her to bugger off and see Sector Command over it. I had to fight really hard not to laugh."

"Their internecine struggles are greater than I feared." Botyne sucked on his renitent cigar, trying to get it to burn properly. "Power plays and saber-rattling, I expected. But not this open hostility. Their political factions must be virtually at each other's throats. No doubt this Selba found it quite easy to recruit some of the worst malcontents to his cause. He has every reason to believe it's going to be a piece-of-cake walk to the plunder and back this time."

"Do you think any of the three was on his pay list, Colonel Senn?"

"I'm not sure, Captain. If so, I don't think it's Bosly. He seems too straightforward to be one for double-crosses, and his body language very much matched his words. Morningsun is a different chapter, though. She's very difficult to read."

"This Deputy Governor Kick-my-balls is a stupid sonofabitch, but I got a hunch he's somebody's political lapdog." Botyne's gruff judgment confirmed Thor's earlier assessment of the man. "He can be manipulated easily."

Senn nodded at the General's words. "I advise caution. Whoever the traitors are inside the planetary hierarchy, I doubt we have seen any of their front faces yet. In my opinion, the real string-pullers remain to be revealed, and they're under extreme pressure now. If we're lucky, that will prompt them to make mistakes and reveal themselves. If they over-react, we might look at random outbursts of violence before they can be subdued. Maybe some amateurish attempted escapes off-planet. Nothing we won't be able to handle."

"Anyway, we need a game plan. Even if none of the three we saw is with the traitors, they'll learn about this meeting in no time. It's a prime chance to make an early, decisive move against us, no doubt about it. I'm not going to walk into the Rancor's den without a failsafe."

"With the General's permission," Talvait spoke up from his corner," Commander Ferst and me, we went over a few likely scenarios, and we've come up with something "

Botyne raised an eyebrow in apparent surprise, looking at Thor. "You know, Captain, when you catch your XO messing around the neighborhood, something's definitely awry."

Talvait scratched the back of his head, chuckling. "Well, sir, actually, we'd prefer to call it a joint operation."

"Oh, in that case, absolutely do go ahead and humor me," the General replied good-naturedly, emphasizing the point with a stab of his cigar, "I have an interest in things that involve joining!"

Talvait and Ferst took turns to explain. The three senior officers listened, and found themselves in agreement.

"I'm off for a drink in the mess. Anybody else?" Botyne finally rose. After a second's consideration, Thor joined him. Several metres down the corridor, he voiced a thought that had been nagging at him for several days.

"General, you have met Colonel Senn before. Do you think he can be trusted on this entire issue?"

Botyne stopped and turned to face him. Looking right and left, he checked nobody else was within earshot before answering, his voice low.

"The first time we came across each other, he was an ISB field operative during the Kelsiph Colony Uprising who had worked undercover to gather inside intelligence on the ringleaders. He was an arrogant one even back then, and it turned out he had allowed his ego to stand in his way. His bad judgment in one particular case led to a major disaster when we dropped the Emperor's hammer on a hardcore guerilla cell holed up in a civilian habitation dome. Trouble was, Senn had completely missed the fact they had a sizeable cache of arms and munitions stocked in there, and when we stormed, they blew it all to kingdom come to avoid capture."

He looked away, apparently struggling with the memory.

"They took the entire dome with them." His voice suddenly had a strange quality to itself, as if on the verge of cracking. "We were left digging bodies out of the rubble for three days and nights straight. Hundreds of them. The worst of it were all the dead children."

Thor was momentarily lost for words, not wanting to press the issue. The memories of the incident were apparently quite painful to the General.

"So" he continued hesitantly, "you think he might be wrong about Selba's plans?"

"No, I'm pretty sure he's up to something real big this time. He was right about the terrorists the first time, you know. About most of it all, at least. I just sincerely hope this time he's got his act together tighter than on Kelsiph Colony."

"What if he doesn't?"

"Well, son, another major screw-up of that magnitude, and this time he won't live to regret the outcome."

"General, are you saying you'll personally kill him?"

"No, son, I'm saying that this time none of us will live to regret the fact we trusted his judgment."

* * *

Sitting behind his desk in his ready room, Thor found it hard to focus on his reading.

The reason for his current state of mind was twofold, if he admitted it.

First, his pre-battle jitters had increased remarkably over the past two hours. Gun Crate was about to enter a geosynchronous orbit roughly above Innaham's capital, in order to facilitate a fast shuttle transfer for the delegation. He was already in his full dress best again, only waiting for the word from Ferst that orbit had been achieved. He would have preferred to spend the waiting time on the bridge overseeing the final approach himself, but his reason for staying in his ready room was also the second cause for his increased nervousness.

He pulled open the top drawer for the umpteenth time to reach for the small wooden box it held. He picked it up and opened it.

The ring lay on a cushion of dark-blue silk, the ceiling lights reflecting brightly off its plain, immaculate, duranium beauty.

He had pondered his decision for several sleepless hours last night and come out with no alternative. He would have preferred a better point of time. In fact, he had waited for an ideal point of time for the past few months, ever since he had made the decision to propose to Nia. And all the while he had been thinking about what such an ideal opportunity might be like. He had considered and dismissed quite a few over the time.

Now, he had finally come to a decision of sorts. It wasn't one he particularly liked, or would have opted for under different circumstances. In fact, he could think of no worse time right now. But on the other hand, he couldn't think of any better right now, under the current circumstances, when his gut feelings told him that later might be too late.

He was going to do it now. Right now, before he departed on that shuttle flight.

That was the reason he was here, all alone, and the second reason for his nervousness. The point of time was a mere moments away.

The door buzzer sounded, startling him. Quickly, he put the open box back into the drawer and slammed it shut.

"Yes!" His voice sounded harsher than he had intended, and he coughed to clear his throat.

Nia virtually burst into the room. She was already in her full flight suit minus her helmet, oxygen tubes and radio cables dangling loosely from their collar-sockets. There was a hurried look on her face and a data pad in her hand.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Her tone matched her hurried looks.

"Ahm Yes, indeed, love. There's something I need to talk to you about."

"Does it have to be right now? I'm a little pressed for time, as you can probably see."

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it has to be now." He pulled open the drawer.

Ferst's voice, booming out of the ship intercom, interrupted him.

"Attention all stations, make ready for flight operations! Second Call, all pilots and flight crews!"

The announcement of Second Call meant immediate readiness for all personnel involved with the launch of attack and shuttle craft. Nia moaned.

"You heard it, I have to go. So do you, by the way, last word I got, we were about to make orbit. Why are you not on the bridge anyway?"

"Because I want to talk to you, dammit!"

"Better make it quick, then." She brushed aside a strand of hair, looking down on him tight-lipped.

He reached for the box and made to rise out of his chair. "Nia, I have been thinking about this for quite some time, and"

The intercom came alive with Ferst's voice once more. "Urgent message for Commander Paragrin. Answer your personal communicator!"

"What?" Nia reached for the small device at her belt and swore when she found it switched off. No sooner had she switched it back on when it started buzzing angrily.

"Paragrin!" She pressed it to her ear. "What? No, read the bloody ordnance manifest, I said full combat load, on both fighters!"

Thor listened impatiently while she gave detailed, last-minute instructions on the pre-flight preparations of her squadron to somebody on the other end. When she had finished, he made another attempt.

"Honey, would you"

"Sorry, darling, whatever it is, it absolutely will have to wait, I'm needed on the flight deck right now. The ground crews are making a right mess out of the simplest exercise in the book."

She leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the lips.

"We'll talk about it later, love. After this ridiculous diplomatic nonsense."

And with a wink and a smile, she stormed out of his office, leaving behind a pretty puzzled Thor slowly slumping in his chair.

The intercom was merciless. "Captain, we have entered orbit. Your shuttle is ready for immediate launch."

Moaning with frustration, Thor brought his forehead down onto the tabletop hard.

After a few seconds spent seriously considering rushing after her and proposing to her right outside in the corridor, and damn the rumor mill, he finally resolved to stay put. He would simply be a man about it and wait for another opportunity, no matter his silly forebodings.

He got up and made to leave. Acting on a hunch, he turned back on the doorstep.

Quickly, he removed the ring from its box and slid it into the inside pocket of his uniform jacket as a lucky charm.

He met Botyne in the main hangar. The General's personal shuttle was already prepped for launch, its wings folded down, engines running, several crewmen removing safety pins from onboard weaponry. Behind its cockpit windows, the helmeted heads of its flight crew were visible. And yet its boarding hatch was still open.

The General was standing in front of the Lambda class reserved for Thor, gazing upwards at where its rear hull and back fin were marked by un-repaired battle damage. Sensing Thor approaching, he nodded at him, then looked back at the battle-scarred ship.

"I'm sure there's a veritable legend behind this. You have to tell me about it some time, I like a good war story time and again."

Thor nodded slowly, somberly. This particular shuttle had carried him on a breakneck search-and-rescue mission through a debris cloud that had, mere minutes before, been the Imperial Dreadnought Dire Wolf. With vengeful Rebel fighters in hot pursuit, he had made a narrow escape and lived to tell, but it had been quite a rough ride, and a close call indeed. The shuttle, unofficially nicknamed The Rough Rider afterwards, had been Thor's personal transport ever since. And though the ground crews kept it painstakingly immaculate in every other detail, the visible traces of battle on its hull had been allowed to remain as marks of honor.

"I shall like to tell you about it later, General. If there is a later for any of us, after this affair."

Botyne looked at him and raised a bushy eyebrow. "Got a bad feeling about this? Like somebody just walked over your grave?"

"More like somebody's holding a troop parade over it."

The ancient General smiled grimly, looking at the blast marks on the shuttle hull once more.

"Me too, son. Me too."

Without another word, he turned and made his way towards his shuttle.

Thor watched him go. Sending a silent prayer to the spirits of his ancestors for protection, he finally turned and boarded his own transport. The ramp hissed shut behind him.

+++ The Imperials are here! They know about our plan! They will send a delegation! +++

+++ Keep it together. Initiate Operation Turncoat immediately. I will expedite my arrival. +++

+++ What about the Imperial delegation? +++

+++ Kill them. +++

PART FOUR: Turncoat

Rough Rider's frame vibrated hard enough with atmospheric turbulence to give its nickname full credit, hard enough to make Thor glad he had strapped his crash restraints extra tight.

Outside, the howl of displaced air around the wings and back fin mixed with the continuous drone of the engines. The clouds they were passing through were thick and heavy with rain, and the sudden, powerful gusts of wind rocking the shuttle suggested they were traveling right through a forming thunderhead. Sure enough, he had observed white-blue static discharge dancing along the wing tips time and again. Finally, the light filtering in through the viewports gradually got brighter, and visibility cleared somewhat, indicating they had finally broken the low cloud cover. A drizzle of rain, spurned on by the occasional gale, intermittently pattered off the hull, smearing the thick transparisteel with a yellowish residue that was probably a result of local air pollution. Craning his neck, he achieved a proper angle to look down at the city of Innaport, the planet's capital and, as the name suggested, the site of its single commercial spaceport.

From up here, the city was unremarkable, no different from thousands of others that could be found on thousands of inhabited planets throughout the Empire, a festering conglomerate of blocky permacrete buildings that stretched for miles into every direction. Its outskirts were mere shanty-towns and showed all signs of a rapid social decay towards slum state. Its centre, in stark contrast, sported a dazzling collection of impressive architecture: tall, mirror-faced skyscrapers and wide, dome-roofed halls, all of them interconnected by a virtual maze of impossibly thin, arcing, suspension-rigged tube tunnels. The city's industrial belt was marked by permanent pillars of multi-colored fumes that rose from a virtual forest of exhaust stacks, drifting, expanding and merging with the permanent cloud cover to form a veritable dome of smog over the entire city. The planetary pollution level seemed serious enough to make Thor suspect that the dome halls he was looking at were, in fact, atmosphere-shielded habitats that sustained their own micro-ecosystems, providing an evergreen and healthy environment for those elite few who could afford such a lifestyle. It was also above and around the city centre that the concentration of air cars, speeders and privately-owned shuttles was thickest.

Seeing the way building size and positioning was apparently connected with social status on this world, Thor expected the central government structure to be very much in the dead centre of Innaport, and one of the most massive constructions.

He looked across the crew compartment for a few seconds, studying the faces of each of the other passengers in turn, finally coming to rest on the grim mien of somebody whose face matched neither his uniform nor his marks of rank and position. The other man caught his eye.

"What's the matter, Commander, having second thoughts about your latest career move?"

By Thor's side, Senn chuckled audibly at the quip.

With the joke obviously on him, the other officer a junior Lieutenant named Alsiev, if Thor's memory served cracked an ironic smile.

"Well, sir, to be frank, I'd sure like that promotion a frakk of a lot better if it were permanent, and if it didn't come with a promotion to frakking ambush bait, pardon my Basic, sir!"

Thor's lips twitched slightly at the young man's outspoken attitude.

It was part of the failsafe that Ferst and Talvait had come up with, and it was almost elegant in its simplicity.

The government of Innaham expected the Imperials to send their Commanders planetside for the strategy conference, as announced. That actually meant all Commanders, along with their senior staff. Which, in turn, ensured that the entire senior command structure of the most powerful military force in the whole system plus the top-level planetary representatives would be gathered at one single point in space and time.

A swift and decisive decapitation strike at the conference could would, inevitably and irrecoverably leave both command structures, planetary and imperial, crippled. Leaderless and milling in confusion, both military forces would be virtually combat-ineffective and helpless. The raiders and insurrectionists would seize their respective objectives practically unopposed.

And the traitors inside the government, whoever they were, were doubtlessly aware of that significance. It was a unique opportunity, one they simply couldn't afford to miss.

So miss it they would not. And that was exactly what the game plan counted on.

It was the one bait simply too sweet to resist, the one that would inevitably make the traitors rush their actions, that would surely lure them into exposing themselves prematurely.

And, once exposed, they would be destroyed, for the Imperials had planned ahead.

Thor, Botyne and Senn would have to be present at the conference in person, for they had shown their faces during the holographic advance meeting, so it could reasonably be assumed the traitors knew who they were, and would be on the look out. If either one failed to show up for the conference, the bait most probably wouldn't be taken.

So they had to be there, in the flesh. But nobody on the planetary side knew what anyone from their senior staff looked like. That included the traitors. They'd just be counting uniforms and doing the math.

So it simply wasn't the senior staff in attendance today. It was a bunch of ruses.

The real senior Staff, headed by Ferst and Talvait as the respective Number Twos to Thor and Botyne, remained aboard Gun Crate, ready to strike and waiting for the word.

Which meant that, at any given point of time, the Imperial forces would be battle-ready, soundly led and well prepared when the raiders came, expecting a walk-over, to proof them wrong brutally, messily, and fatally.

It was a plan that would almost certainly guarantee them victory. Yet unfortunately, that plan didn't include any of the three imperial seniors being alive to see the end of it.

Thor didn't like it one bit, and never had. He was fully aware that the decapitation strike had a decent probability of success, and their game plan didn't have any margin for error on that particular part.

Basically, their only advantage, arguably the pivotal point of the entire plan, lay within the fact that the traitors did not know the Imperials were aware of their presence. Information control on that point had been absolute. Not a single word about the apparent infiltration had been leaked to the planetary side throughout the holo meeting. So the traitors would execute a strike they expected to be unexpected, when in fact it wasn't at all.

It all depended on how fast the Imperials could make contact with the planetary governor, once planetside, and get him into beefing up his security so the strike, when it fell, could be intercepted. They had to act quickly to stay inside the traitors' decision cycle all the time.

If they could do that, they would most probably live. If they couldn't, they would most probably die.

Hence the presence of Alsiev, and his First Officer disguise, which even ran down to the name tag Ferst. Upon learning of the game plan, Major Wilfen had insisted, repeatedly, that Thor take the young Lieutenant along. Alsiev apparently was the Major's top choice in any given pinch, a tried-and-proven assault squad leader, dead-eye marksman and total adrenaline junkie. In addition, Thor's 'ceremonial' flag detail consisted of four hand-picked troopers led by no other than Gunny Voss. And their heavy blaster rifles and body armor were nothing like ceremonial at all.

Thor tried to read the Gunny's facial expression, but there wasn't any. The ancient veteran was immobile like a statue, barely even blinking. His eyes, visible only as glittering needle points in the shadow of his cap rim, were fixed on a distant, invisible something that somehow didn't seem to be even on the same planet as he. He radiated a chill calm, his hands clutched around the barrel of his rifle held upright between his knees. Strangely, he seemed to be utterly at peace. Maybe he even was, Thor had no way of telling what was going on inside the man's head. He just found the old soldier's calm to be strangely disconcerting, contrasted against the fact that he himself wasn't anywhere near calm.

On the other hand, if there was one man aboard this shuttle he fully expected to walk away from a seriously messy scrum, it was the Gunny. So he resolved to stick close to either him or Alsiev when the shooting started and tell this small, nagging, inner voice to stop bitching about it.

If it's my turn today to enter the Great Hall Beyond and listen to the drinking songs of my ancestors, so be it, he decided grimly. I'll damn sure face it like a warrior. It's just a pity I won't get to see Nia again

That prompted him to crank his head some more and look at the other ships around him. He could make out General Botyne's shuttle through the haze, below and somewhat to the rear on the starboard side, and he knew there was a Sentinel-variant gunship riding shotgun on the other side. In the distance, he spotted the unmistakable lines of a TIE Defender, but couldn't tell if it was Nia's bird or not. He noticed that, in spite of its smaller size, the attack craft seemed to have considerably less trouble dealing with turbulence, so maybe it actually was Nia, but of course, he couldn't be sure.

Suddenly, the shuttle banked as it curved wide to come to the bearing for its final approach. He was yanked out of his reverie as the vast expanse of the spaceport shifted into his field of vision. Ringed off with curtain walls tall and thick enough to contain the blast of a catastrophic starship crash, it reminded him a little of Desert Peak Base, even though it was nowhere as awesome as that pristine stronghold. There was little noticeable activity amidst its docking bays and maintenance halls, its passenger terminal was currently supporting only a minor in-system carrier, and the runway was deserted except for a taxiing medium shuttle. Two cargo ships, both of them squat, massive bulk freighters with outlandish markings stenciled on their flanks, sat idly in their docking facilities, apparently awaiting loading or unloading, their belly ramps clamped tight.

He did a double-take, and finally was able to pinpoint the detail that was nagging at his sub-consciousness.

He looked across the passenger compartment at Senn. "It's too quiet down there."

The agent frowned, apparently confused. He was wearing his borrowed Navy uniform again, keeping with the disguise as a Navy Intel man. Apparently, he had just been deeply lost in concentration, from which Thor's words had woken him. "Come again, Captain?"

"You ever been to a commercial space port, Colonel?"

"A number of times, in fact. And your point is?"

"See for yourself. On a commercial port-of-call, you can't move for the sheer number of dock hands and droids clustering around every ship in with a fresh load, because docking time is pure credits. Not so down there, apparently. There's two merchants down on the pad, but nobody is paying them any attention."

Senn pressed his forehead to his viewport to see. Then he looked back at Thor, nodding grimly. "Something's wrong. Okay, we jostled up their cargo traffic schedules pretty much today, so maybe they're on a delay of sorts, but that should have been sorted out hours ago if there's a halfway competent traffic dispatcher in charge down there. Heck, they should have had that sorted out hours ago even with the village dickhead in charge down there."

"Pass. So what's keeping them?"

"Damned if I know, Captain. But I have a bunch of likely answers, and I don't like a single one of 'em."

"Then we are agreed." Thor looked away as the intercom chimed by his head.

"Captain, we're being hailed by a local station that claims to be the air traffic control for the city. They are relaying course vector data for the governor's palace, and they want to zero us in for the landing on their AGS. Apparently, the palace has its own rooftop landing pad."

Thor thought this information over for a few seconds before answering the pilot's unspoken question. There was no way he'd trust the local Automated Guidance System. The traitors could have easily tampered with the system. In fact, Rebel terrorists had sliced similar systems before, too often to fatal results for the misguided crafts. He pictured all three shuttles coming in too low on AGS and fire-balling against a building front.

"That's a Negative, Lieutenant. Apparently the local guidance system is so outdated and below Imperial standard that your tracking sensors can not synch up with it. You will do the approach and landing under full manual control, and have the other shuttles do the same. If traffic control decides to be a bitch about it, make sure they know who's boss. Do you understand?"

"Aye, sir, clear as clear! Dammit, I hate when that happens!" The pilot definitely loved it.

"Talking about showing who's boss" Thor muttered as he keyed the intercom for external broadcast. "Rapier Leader, this is Knight One, respond, over!"

* * *

"Roger your last, Knight One. Rapier Leader, out."

With a quick flick of her thumb, Nia switched her comms back to squadron line. So far, radio silence had been held as good as possible throughout the entire flight, and she had to give her crews their due credit: they had proven remarkably disciplined. There had been nothing of the excited chatter that was so common among inexperienced and eager young pilots, that ate up attention and ruined situational awareness, so that when the enemy would come darting out of the sun, the first warning was usually the final one.

In contrast, even the new fish were clamping it like veterans, except for the occasional three-word report. Also, they were keeping their assigned formation well, in spite of the nasty turbulence that rocked her own bird. Maybe her little speech had indeed left its mark.

"All Rapiers, this is Leader, heads up for new orders! We just received course vector projections for our destination, and Knight One wants to show off some to the locals, so let's give them some serious flying. Regroup and form on me for echelon-left formation, Four-Three-Leader-Two, and prepare to go burner on my mark."

"Two, copy."

"Three."

"Four, acknowledged."

Usually, she disliked show flying, rightly judging it to signify a lack of professionalism, and she tore major strips off anybody who thought he could pull off stunts behind the stick. But she also recognized the need for a show of force to impress upon the locals the image of military superiority. Moral was half the battle, and deterrence lived on making sure the other guy knew beyond doubt he'd only mess with you at his own very sore expense.

And right now, the local mud grubbers were in for one hell of a reminder that the Imperial Navy was the most powerful fighting force in the galaxy.

She waited the few seconds it took for the other three crafts to assume their new relative positions, then gave the word, pushing her own throttle forward hard and through the gate, getting pressed down violently into her cushioned seat with the acceleration as her afterburner kicked in hard. Her powerful mount went supersonic in no time.

The quadruple boom of their passage shook the very air as all four attack crafts boosted forward and sped over the governmental building in a boomerang formation, one ship trailing left. Coming in low and damn fast, they suddenly shot straight up and broke formation in a starburst move while the three shuttles descended for their landing approach behind them. Coincidentally, lightning struck at the horizon simultaneously, lighting up the scene, and thunder rolled as she curved out of a corkscrew roll, allowing herself a hint of professional pride at her squadron's flawless flying. It was an entrance worthy of a holonet drama.

Looking down, Nia could make out a rag-tag collection of tiny figures down by a structure on the edge of the landing pad, and it made her smile with a grim, personal satisfaction as she reveled in the knowledge that virtually everybody down there was, by now, fighting a tinnitus and groping for their caps.

"Well done, Rapiers, that got them woken up sure enough. Now let's find a place to perch and get warm and dry. Manual approach and landing, Two-Three-Four-Leader. Execute!"

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