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Me Manifesto

Honor And Armor: Section VI

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Section VI
2 A.B.Y.



The transport ship shook violently as another concussion blast rocked the atmosphere near the vessel. A few pieces of loose equipment crashed to the floor, but the fifteen occupants held firm as their crash webbing did its job. The red light in the middle of the hold was the only light, and every man seated in it anxiously waited for the instant it changed.

Despite their anticipation, there was a strange calm that resided over the soldiers, though it would only seem strange to an outsider studying the group. They had trained vigorously to prepare for such situations, already survived many like it, and craved the thrill of more. Their armor was a testament to their desire for action—most of it was covered with scorch marks and small dents.

The armor had sustained a great deal of punishment, as had its owners, but that was the demand of the unit. It was not the 501st, the legendary death squad that enforced the will of Darth Vader. It was Scimitar, a unit that answered to the Grand Admirals, crushed dissent within the ranks, and eliminated corruption among the Imperial Army and Navy’s officers. They removed crime lords who had outgrown their usefulness or posed threats to assets of the Empire. They hunted members of the Rebel Alliance and various outlaws.

And they were effective.

One of the men was now standing near the middle of the holding area, gripping a rail attached to the ceiling for support, as he waited for the light to switch colors and the deck doors to slide open. His armor, like the rest of those in Scimitar, more loosely resembled the Phase II gear of the soldiers who had served at the end of the Clone Wars and laid the foundation of the Imperial Army.

Unlike the pearl white armor of most stormtroopers, Scimitar’s was light gray in color and used rank identifiers similar to that of the old clone troopers in addition to the unit insignia. The soldier standing wore armor arrayed with a dark shade of yellow—as was the case with the soldiers of old, the man was a commander.

“Thirty seconds to the jump!” he shouted to the men around him. “Lock up your gear!”

The other soldiers did as told. Their secured their blaster rifles to the bandoliers slung across their chests and unhooked their crash webbing. Most grabbed hold of nearby bulkheads for balance as the transport shuddered from another concussion blast.

One of the soldiers whose armor was decorated with blue markings chuckled at the man to his right, whose armor was absent of any additional color, when he nearly fell to the floor from the ship’s vibrations.

“Way to go, kid.”

“Sorry, Lieutenant.”

The soldier with blue armor waved off the apology. “Don’t worry about it. Better now than when the drop doors open up at a couple thousand meters.”

“Damn rookies,” the man to his left muttered.

“Knock it off, Cerone.” The blue-armored soldier stood up and took hold of the ceiling railing. “Besh Squad, lock up!”

“Yes sir!” six other soldiers said in unison. They stood up, two of them wearing armor with dark green markings while the rest wore nondescript plates like that of the younger trooper, and gripped the rail for support. Another soldier with blue armor issued the same command to the other six men seated on the opposite side of the transport, referring to them as “Aurek Squad.”

“Ten seconds!” the commander called out.

The Lieutenant tightened his grip on the railing and felt his body tense as the adrenaline starting pumping through his veins. It wasn’t the fight that concerned him—he had full faith in his abilities and total confidence in the men around him. He could control a fight. Drops were a completely different story.

Occasionally Scimitar’s missions called for an insertion into an active battle zone. This was one of those times. Given the amount of artillery fire they had encountered on the way in despite their heavy air support, their transport would not have enough time to safely touch down and release the platoon. Instead, the ship would descend to a height of approximately three hundred meters, at which point the troopers on board would exit through a rear hatch or, as was the case with the current transport, a ventral hatch.

The soldiers’ armor was equipped with a small jetpack that contained enough fuel to slow their descent to a safe speed, allowing the jumper to come dangerously close to the surface and limit their exposure to small arms fire. It was a matter of very precise timing, and the slightest break in concentration could prove fatal. In most instances, the boosters would fire automatically, but with a drop zone as hostile as the current one, the soldiers preferred to take their chances.

The light in the middle of the hold switched to bright blue and started flashing rapidly.

“Besh Squad, go!

The lieutenant was the first through the hatch. His body immediately inverted and his plunge towards the planet’s surface was underway. Although his armor and helmet were sealed, the intensity of the air rushing past his face was still overwhelming at first. He squinted instinctively but relaxed as the jump progressed.

He laughed at the mix of profanity and jubilation playing through his helmet’s speakers as his fellow soldiers made the jump. The commander had already ordered the second squad to jump, and they were not far beyond Jag’s men. The lieutenant was carefully monitoring his heads-up display as it measured the distance between his body and the ground. His heart was already pounding, but as the numbers dialed down past two hundred meters, he began to wonder if the organ would explode before the jets fired.

The lieutenant flexed his right hand, which was currently pinned to his side to reduce air resistance, and focused on the countdown. The numbers switched to a flashing red as 200m flew by on the display. His hand slapped against a button on his hip and tongues of fire burst out of the jetpack’s exhaust ports on the armor’s back piece.

He watched the display as it continued to dial down the distance to the surface, which slowed considerably as the jets fought the pull of gravity. It read 25m by the time his descent fully slowed. His feet touched down only a few seconds later.

Jag jogged forward for a few steps once both feet were down then tucked into a sideways roll and popped into a crouch. He drew a vibroblade from his left shin guard and sliced the parachute cables, then remained crouched as the rest of his squad hit the ground and followed the same process he had just completed. One of the troopers with red markings ran towards him, offering the Lieutenant a sloppy salute, who returned it in an equally casual fashion.

“Sergeant Bregen,” the Lieutenant said as the red-armored trooper knelt beside him. “Yet another successful drop.”

“They don’t get any easier, do they, Lieutenant?”

“Not that I can tell.”

The Lieutenant quickly counted the number of squad mates scurrying to his location. Once six troopers were crouched around him, he turned east towards their target. To the north, a few kilometers away, sat what once served as a manufacturing plant for the Confederacy of Independent Systems. It was a smaller factory, intended to act as a secondary supply point.

It currently served as the headquarters of an Admiral Saerving in Imperial Sector Krill-4. According to the briefing Scimitar had received, Saerving had spent the last five years building a spice processing operation based across several systems that now effectively dominated the illicit drug trade in the region.

The factory on Trioegh VIII was responsible for the majority of the Admiral’s business. Using compounds unique to Trioegh VIII, they created a new strain of spice that was extraordinarily addictive, making it one of the most desired commodities in the illicit goods market. Naturally, this meant enormous amounts of wealth for whoever was behind the manufacturing and distribution of the substance.

The Lieutenant was hardly concerned with the use or sale of illegal substances unless an assignment required he be concerned. What he did take umbrage with was Imperial officers disgracing the uniform by running side operations for personal profit and using Imperial resources to further their agenda.

If their ambition was to reap fortunes from spice and slave trade, they had no business serving in the military. Then again, with the direction the Empire had taken over the last decade—civilian massacres and violent planetary seizures had become increasingly more common—there was probably a place in the ranks for scum like Saerving.

The Lieutenant’s attention was drawn back to the war zone around him as his comm clicked to life.

“Lieutenant Blaise to Lieutenant Girran, what’s your status?”

“Girran to Blaise, all heads accounted for,” he responded. He reached out towards a nearby private who handed him a pair of macrobinoculars. He sighed after a quick scan of the terrain ahead of them. “This should be fun.”

“Always is,” Blaise said. “By the way, what’s the bet this time?”

The Lieutenant looked back at his squad and shrugged questioningly.

“Crate of ale!” Sergeant Bregen called out.

“No way, we did that last time,” one of the privates said. “I say we get their next six days of leave time.”

A murmur of agreement ran through the squad and the Lieutenant nodded. “I like it,” he said. “Girran to Blaise, the bet’s the next six days of leave.”

There was a pause at the other end before the comm crackled. “Jag, you guys are done.

A few seconds later the seven members of Aurek Squad poured over the lip of the crater they had been hiding in and sprinted forward. They were not headed towards the factory; instead, they were charging towards the power plant that dominated the landscape only half a kilometer from the squad’s location. Most of its exterior defenses had been obliterated by the initial air attack and bombardment, but since that time an ample amount of ground forces had taken up positions around the perimeter of the installation. Unfortunately, the plant itself had remained mostly intact due to localized shield generators.

“You see that?” Jag said, nodding towards Aurek Squad as they tried to run straight at the plant. “Always got to do things the hard way.” He pointed to his right in the direction of a series of craters created by the orbital bombardment that had taken place a few minutes prior to their arrival. “As for us…”

“Two by two?” Bregen asked.

“You got it,” Jag replied. “I’ll take point. Covering fire on my mark.”

The squad took aim over the edge of the crater and selected their targets while Jag prepared to break for the next hole. He moved several steps back from the crater’s wall and took a deep breath.

“Light ‘em up!” he ordered as he broke into a sprint. Blaster fire erupted from the squad’s rifles as Jag bounded out of the crater and took off across the open plain. He weaved as he ran, firing shots randomly in the direction of the entrenched enemies.

“Next two, move!” Bregen’s voice boomed through the comm. The squad’s blaster fire became more sporadic as the rest of the soldiers followed Jag’s lead, spraying occasional shots as the enemy tried to pick off the runners. Jag dove into the next crater a few seconds later and immediately started providing covering fire for the rest of the squad. Bregen and the young private who Jag had kept from falling to the transport’s deck earlier were the last two to reach the crater.

“How we doing?” Bregen asked as he dropped in beside Jag.

“Pretty damn good, actually. Looks like they got pinned down shortly after that idiotic charge of theirs.”

“Figures. Looks like we’ll be saving their tails yet again.”

“At least we’re getting good at it.” Jag raised his head over the edge and examined the situation. There were still numerous enemy soldiers between them and the power plant’s entrance, but most of them seemed to be focused on Blaise’s squad.

“Grenades!” he called out to the squad, then pointed to his left and right. “This half: thermal. Rest of you: frags.”

Each trooper unclipped two explosives from their belt and armed them. On Jag’s command, they threw the grenades across the open expanse toward the enemy soldiers.

Move!

The squad charged out of the crater towards the enemy trenches, their blasters spraying suppressing fire as they ran. They were within ten meters of the trench when the grenades detonated. Several bodies were thrown out of the trench as the grenade blasts decimated the installation’s defenses.

The members of Besh Squad came to a halt at the edge of the trench and trained their weapons on the area below them, preparing to unleash the remaining contents of their blasters’ power packs on anything that moved. However, the carnage that filled the trench suggested no such display of force would be necessary. Jag winced at the mess of bodies in front of him. The explosives had been more than effective—their path to the installation was almost completely clear.

Jag turned his blaster to the left of their position and opened fire, cutting down the remaining ground defenses that were firing at Aurek Squad. Their opposition now dead, Aurek Squad started to scramble out of their own crater and start for the far end of the trench, while Jag jumped in and started picking his way through the mangled piles of corpses.

“Better pick it up, Blaise,” he taunted over the comm as the rest of Besh Squad dropped into the trench behind him. “Commander’s not going to be happy that we had to bail your behinds out—againand snagged your leave time.”

Jag held up a fist as he came to a bend in the trench and slowly peeked around the corner.

“We had ‘em, you know,” Blaise shot back.

“Sure you did.”

As Jag leaned his head out into the open, laser fire erupted from a set of automatic turrets built into the duracrete base of the installation. He removed two thermal detonators from his belt and armed them, then crouched down and tossed both in the direction of the turrets.

The ground shook as they detonated, and Jag reached out into the open and waved his arm, trying to draw the attention of the turrets. When no attack came, he peeked out again then smiled in satisfaction. The detonators had obliterated the wall, the turrets, and a portion of the exterior blast door that guarded the power plant, though most of the door was still intact.

“Cerone, get up here.” The soldier jogged forward to Jag’s position.

“You got enough spare equipment to handle this?”

Cerone, the squad’s demolition specialist, nodded. “I think so. Most of what I’m carrying is for the plant. Vius and Iretta from Aurek have the majority of the stuff for the factory. I should be able to spare a little bit.”

“Good. I’ll get you an extra set of hands in the meantime.”

“Thanks, sir.”

“Halden, up front!” Jag ordered.

“Come on, not this guy,” Cerone complained.

“That’s enough,” Jag snapped as the young private made his way to the door. “I want this door gone in the next sixty seconds.”

“Yes, sir.”

It was obvious the two soldiers did not get along, but Jag had more important matters to worry about. He—or the Commander—would handle the personality clash once they were done getting shot at.

Jag headed back to where the rest of the squad was waiting. Bregen nodded back towards Aurek Squad’s position.

“Sounds like Blaise and the boys are giving up,” he said. “They don’t have enough charges to breach the west entrance. Thermal detonators only took care of the exterior—same situation as us. They’re heading here now.”

Jag grinned. “Six extra days. That’s going to make for a much needed vacation.”

“I wouldn’t bring it up over the comm if I were you,” Bregen cautioned. “Commander had some traffic for Aurek Squad a few minutes ago, he doesn’t sound happy.”

“He never is,” Jag said. “What’s the problem now?”

Bregen shrugged. “We’re taking too long. He wanted the charges set by now. We’re two minutes behind schedule.”

Jag rolled his eyes but restrained himself. It was hardly the time to start voicing complaints about his commanding officer’s impatience, though that impatience seemed to be an increasingly common part of their missions as of late.

“Well,” he said calmly, “I guess we better get back on schedule.”
He was just about to chastise Cerone and Halden for taking too long when the pair came running around the corner.

“Fire in the hole!” Cerone yelled as he dove to the ground. Jag followed suit, leaping away from the corner of the trench. Seconds later the ground shuddered as the explosion ripped apart the blast door. Jag picked himself up and headed around the corner to inspect Cerone’s handiwork.

The wall and blast door, each designed to endure an immense amount of punishment, were now a mangled mess of duracrete and durasteel. The blast door was almost completely destroyed.

“What in the blazes did you use?” Jag asked with no effort to hide his astonishment.

Cerone chuckled. “Daddy’s new toys.”

Jag gave the demolitions expert a sideways glance and shook his head. “You’re not right, you know that?”

“Old news, Lieutenant,” Cerone replied with a shrug.

The rest of the squad assembled behind Jag and stacked up on opposite sides of the hole that had been blown in the wall.

“Girran to Blaise,” Jag called over the comm.

“Go for Blaise.”

“Besh Squad has breached the exterior and is preparing to infiltrate,” Jag said. “We will report to our designated target and execute.”

“Copy that,” Blaise acknowledged. “We’re a minute or so behind you. Watch yourselves in there—Shenn’s picking up a lot of activity inside the installation.”

“Good.” Jag raised his rifle and fell in line with the rest of the squad.

He retrieved a flash-bang from his belt and tossed it underhand through the blast door’s hole. As soon as it detonated, the squad piled through the hole and into power plant. “More for us.”

***

Clearing the installation proved a far simpler task than Scimitar anticipated. Both squads successfully located their targets and placed the considerable amount of explosives they had brought with them. Jag’s squad also discovered an underground tunnel that they believed connected the installation to the factory. It was in that tunnel that the members of Aurek and Besh discovered why they had encountered such little resistance inside the installation.

The two kilometer-long tunnel was infested with enemy combatants. It seemed they had little issue with sacrificing the power plant, and once the charges detonated and destroyed most of it, it became clear that the installation had far less to do with running the factory than they had been led to believe.

When the charges inside the power plant did detonate, it sealed the squads in the tunnel, forcing them forward against heavy resistance. Their struggles were compounded by the fact that contact with the Commander was limited due to their being underground, so requesting reinforcements from the other squads or receiving updated schematics for the complex was out of the question.

They had fought their way within a kilometer of the factory when the comms crackled to life, though only sporadically. Once Jag heard what was coming across, he would have preferred they remained silent.

“…Pinned down! We’re completely surrounded! We need…double-crossed…evac…abort—”

Jag brought his squad to a halt and slipped back to Bregen’s position.

“You copy all that?”

“Wish I hadn’t. Something’s wrong.”

“I’d say so. We need to get topside ASAP and open up the comms.”

Bregen shook his head. “I don’t know, Jag. I don’t want to hang them out anymore than you do, but we’ve got a job to do. Besides, if we try to duck out now, these bastards are going to refortify and probably follow us out.”

Jag gritted his teeth and looked back towards the enemy’s position. Leaving his comrades to die was never something that sat well with him, even when it was necessary to achieve the objective. But he had a responsibility, to the unit and to the Empire, to complete the assignment he was given, no matter the cost.

He looked back at Bregen, who was still watching him intently while the rest of the squad continued to pour blaster fire down the tunnel. There was an alcove several meters ahead that appeared to lead to some sort of access corridor.

Blaise won’t like it…but that’s too bad.

“Besh Squad, form up on me!” he ordered. His six soldiers fell in line behind him while Blaise and the rest of Aurek Squad held their position and maintained their stream of blaster fire.

“What’s the plan, Lieutenant?” Halden asked.

Jag hesitated for a moment, still surveying the tunnel and considering his options. The situation demanded decisiveness, but the excess of variables was certainly weighing on him. If what they heard on their comms was any indication, members of Scimitar were dying. Nothing he did now was going to change that. His only option was to save those still alive and somehow accomplish what they had come to this forsaken wasteland to do.

“Access tunnel, eight meters ahead!” he yelled over the din of the firefight. “Single file, suppressing fire, on my mark!”

He leaned out and ripped off several shots before ducking back. The enemy’s fire had swung in his direction almost immediately when he exposed himself; sending someone through that crossfire was condemning them to death. “Cerone! Up here now!”

Once he had the explosives-loaded trooper next to him, he pointed at the wall of the tunnel just beyond the alcove he had spotted earlier.

“I want smoke there—” he pointed to another spot, “—there—,” and then pointed at the ceiling. “And I want that gone.

He couldn’t see Cerone’s face, but he was fairly certain the soldier had a grin from ear to ear.

“You got it, sir.” He called over to Vius, one of Blaise’s explosives experts. “Bring the good stuff and move it!”

The two of them moved into Jag’s spot as he slid out of the way, giving them room to work. They each extracted two small canisters from their packs, and then several other pieces of equipment Jag was not familiar with. Cerone counted to three on his fingers and nodded, then sent both objects tumbling down the tunnel. His counterpart did the same, but sent them towards the center of the tunnel instead. Once the canisters started spraying thick smoke into the air, completely eliminating the enemy’s line of sight, both soldiers took off for the alcove.

Cerone was the first there. He slid feet first towards the cover cover and popped into a crouch after he was tucked away in the alcove. Once he opened fire, Vius followed suit and slid in behind Cerone, who continued to pop out from his cover and fire quick shots while Vius fiddled with his equipment. A minute later the pair was ready.

Vius had assembled a contraption that looked like a cluster of thermal detonators connected by some sort of webbing. The device was large enough that he had to hold it with two hands. There were several blue lights spread across the webbing, though from Jag’s vantage point, it looked like one big jumbled mess.

Cerone crouched back into the alcove and looked back towards the two squads pressed against the sides of the tunnel. The pandemonium within the tunnel continued to intensify, almost to the point where Cerone’s command a moment later was barely audible.

“Covering fire!”

Every Scimitar rifle unloaded. Vius reared back and launched the device underhand towards the ceiling. Jag continued to fire down the tunnel but his eyes followed the path of Vius’ device. As it traveled through the hair, it spread out into what looked like an electrified spider web with the thermal detonators placed along the edges. It was much larger than Jag had originally thought.

Jag wasn’t sure what the webbing material was made of, but given the way it latched on to the ceiling, it was obviously adhesive. The enemy fire faltered for a moment as they noticed the device on the ceiling only a few meters from their position. The blue lights on the webbing now appeared to be running the length of the webbing in a constant sequence that quickly accelerated. A few seconds later the device detonated.

Chunks of duracrete flew in all directions. Cerone and Vius shrank back into their alcove while the rest of the soldiers dove to the ground and tried to protect their heads. A few pieces of duracrete bounced harmlessly off Jag’s shoulders and back, but otherwise he emerged unscathed.

While the same could be said for the rest of the troopers, their enemies were not so fortunate. As Jag and Blaise led their respective squads forward, the enemy blaster fire became increasingly sporadic and eventually ceased completely.

A large amount of debris now clogged most of the tunnel and various types of fluids were leaking from a series of damaged pipes in the tunnel’s ceiling. Multiple bodies were pinned under the larger chunks of debris while others laid motionless in pools of blood. As the squads passed by, the privates put pairs of shots into the corpses as a precaution, not wanting to be gunned down from behind.

The soldiers piled into the access corridor and broke into a run. They encountered little resistance; it was obvious the enemy had either not anticipated the maneuver or did not have the resources to guard against it. The corridor turned to the left, putting the squads parallel to the previous tunnel. After a few more minutes they had still not come across any enemy patrols.

They passed several rooms along the way whose walls were floor-to-ceiling transparisteel. Jag glanced into the rooms as they passed. Inside were multiple work stations and large monitors clustered around what appeared to be gurneys and other medical beds. That struck Jag as a bit odd, unless the administrators of the facility had decided to take the testing of their product to an extreme level.

Jag had instructed each soldier to watch for ladders or stairs that looked like exits to the surface, but so far they had seen nothing of the sort. The last transmission Jag heard from the other squads continued to play over and over in his mind. At the rate they were going, every single one of the soldiers in those squads would probably be dead by the time they reached them.

The two squads continued to wind their way through the tunnel that they determined was always parallel to the one they had shot their way out of—until the corridor simply ended. Jag stared at the wall, utterly confused, looking back and forth between the wall and the corridor from where they had just come.

“Uh, Lieutenant?” said one of Blaise’s sergeants.

Neither Jag nor Blaise responded. No one did. They had just run a kilometer and a half—likely closer to two kilometers—without encountering any resistance, and now they stood in front of a dead end. The only doors they had passed during their run were those that accessed the rooms Jag thought may be testing rooms.

“Any ideas?” Blaise asked.

“You mean as to what we do next? Or how about how we managed to run nonstop for over ten minutes without getting shot at once?” Jag countered.

“I’m not worried about why we didn’t get shot at. They obviously threw all their weight into holding the primary tunnel.”

“Really? That’s why?” Jag quipped angrily. “We’re staring at a dead end. Odds are they’re aware of it.”

“Uh, guys?” one of the privates near the rear of the formation called out. No one seemed to hear him.

“Just because this is a dead end doesn’t mean there’s no way out. Why would they waste time building this damn tunnel if—”

“Sir?”

“They’d build it for this exact reason,” Jag insisted.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Why put those labs back there then? What possible purpose could they serve if the only way to access them—”

“Guys?”

“—is by taking a three kilometer stroll from the comm installation?”

Sir!

Jag and Blaise both went silent and turned to look at the private who pointed towards the corridor they had just run through. The two lieutenants trotted towards the corner and leaned around it to look down the length of the hall, and instantly wished they hadn’t.
Standing in silent formation were approximately fifty fully equipped soldiers with their weapons drawn and aimed directly at the men of Scimitar. Jag looked at Blaise and jerked his thumb towards the small army assembled in front of them.

That’s why they built the damn tunnel.”

***

No shots were fired at first, but Jag assumed that had to do with their enemy attempting to psychologically torture them before they blasted them into the next galaxy. Unfortunately for the enemy, they were facing members of Scimitar, which was comprised entirely of the some of the most hardened beings in the galaxy. Facing certain death did not faze them.

Jag, Blaise, and their sergeants used the brief amount of time available to hatch something resembling an escape plan. Their options were limited.

“Blow a hole in the wall, hope for the best,” Cerone had suggested. “The privates lay down covering fire. Officers go through first, take it from there.” They had yet to come up with anything better.

Jag would have preferred they try to escape through the ceiling, but given the height of the corridor and the groups lack of schematic knowledge, it was hardly a viable option. For all he knew, the ceiling was stocked with fuel lines, and detonating just a few ounces of whatever Cerone and Vius had stashed away in their packs anywhere near those lines would take care of their situation pretty quickly.

“Cerone, Vius, get to work,” Jag ordered. “Bregen and Shenn, grab Halden and Siri and throw everything you’ve got at them. Blaise—”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll back them up.”

Jag shook his head. “I don’t think so. You’re leading these physics professors through whatever sized hole they put in this wall. The rest of the privates are going with you. Once you’re all clear, we’ll start falling back.”

“No way,” Blaise said stubbornly.

“Dammit Blaise, we don’t have time—” Jag started to say as he tried to clamp down on his irritation, but Blaise cut him off.

“No way are you taking Shenn with you.” Blaise looked at the stockier soldier and shrugged. “With the way he shoots you’ll all be dead in under a minute.”

Jag grinned and slammed a fresh power pack into his rifle. “Don’t let me down, boys. I’ve got grand plans on how I plan to spend Blaise’s vacation.”

Cerone had the charges in place quickly and the two squads took cover as best they could. Jag tensed and grabbed his only remaining thermal detonator as Cerone counted down from five with his fingers. When only one finger remained up, Jag whipped his rifle around the corner, finger on the trigger, and launched the detonator underhand as hard as he could.

The power of the blast from Cerone’s charges almost knocked Jag out into the open, but he managed to hold his ground. He felt a few pieces of debris from the wall pelt his back, but it remained mostly unscathed.

The three troopers next to Jag tossed their own detonators and opened fire. The first line of enemy soldiers dropped immediately and the second wasn’t far behind. Jag was working on cutting down the third when barricades seemed to materialize from thin air. Blaster-proof shields rose from the floor, providing considerable cover for the remaining soldiers.

“Blaise, how we doing?” he shouted into his helmet’s microphone. He received no response. “Blaise, what’s your status?”

A few more seconds passed without a response so he glanced over his shoulder. Blaise and the others had disappeared through the hole in the wall, but the opening was dark, revealing nothing of what lay beyond. Jag decided that charging into whatever lay in wait beyond that threshold was a far more favorable alternative to facing the fifty or so enemy combatants still firing away at his current position.

“Halden and Siri, fall back!” he ordered.

The two privates fired off a few more shots then turned and took off for the hole. Bregen moved closer to Jag but remained standing, firing over top of him. Jag heard his rifle beep several times indicating this power pack was about to go dry. He ducked back into cover and slapped in another charge.

Bregen was still blasting away, refusing to ease off the trigger. Jag slipped behind him, then stood up and tapped Bregen’s shoulder, signaling him to break off and head for the hole. Jag was already firing again as Bregen fell back.

The enemy soldiers had figured out fairly quickly what was happening and had been advancing towards the dead end, leapfrogging from cover to cover. Jag had to respect the way in which his adversaries had funneled Scimitar into the dead end corridor. It was unfortunate—for them, at least—that their plan had resulted in such substantial loss of life, especially since the Scimitar squads were on the verge of escaping.

Jag fired off a few more shots before turning and running for the hole Cerone had made in the wall. As he ran, it occurred to him that all the enemy soldiers had needed to do was toss a few thermal detonators around the corner in order to make short work of Jag’s men.

They had instead opted to shoot it out, a strategically baffling decision that he only now had time to process. The only explanation, he determined as he hurried through the hole in the wall, was that someone had known…

He never completed the thought. All the soldiers who had gone ahead of him were nowhere to be seen.

“Not good.”

He was in a dimly lit corridor that was far smaller than he would have preferred. It appeared to be about twenty meters long and would have forced the squad to progress in single file; it was a perfect choke point. The corridor was silent save for the soft whirring of concealed machinery. Given the route the squad had taken and the amount of time they had spent running, he was likely near the heart of the factory.

Jag glanced over his shoulder and dialed up his audio receptors. He was not being pursued which made his current predicament all the more unsettling. Though there was barely half an arm’s length of space to spare on either side, Jag pressed against the left wall of the corridor and started forward.

After he had gone about ten meters a blast door suddenly dropped into place behind him, sealing him in. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as the coldest of chills raced up his spine. The only thing his audio receptors picked up was his intensified breathing. His eyes darted back and forth while his grip on the rifle tightened.

Jag’s steps quickened and became far less cautious as he tried to reach the end of the corridor. As he approached the end, he dared to hope he would escape unscathed and face whatever awaited him around the corner. That hope vanished as the familiar sound of a hatch opening registered on his audio receptors. He took a quick step back then whirled on that foot and swung his rifle in as wide an arc as the tight quarters would allow.

His balance failed him as his rifle found only empty air and clanged against the wall. He let his weight fall against the wall then pushed back to regain his footing. There was nothing behind him save for the blast door that had closed moments ago.

In that instant he knew he was beaten. He didn’t need to wait for the pain from the blow to the back of his head to realize he had fallen for a simple trick of misdirection. He fell to the floor awkwardly, losing his grip on the rifle upon impact. The audio receptors—the right one only; the left had been damaged by the blow—told him that several other hatches had opened and at least four sets of feet scrambled to surround him.

One of the beings that had rushed to secure him ripped his helmet off and replaced it with a black hood that effectively destroyed any possibility of him getting a sense of where he was in the facility. The being then pinned Jag’s head to the floor with a knee to the neck while Jag’s hands were cuffed behind his back.

“Get him up and out with the others. Boss is about ready.”

Jag could not recognize the voice, which offered only very brief relief from the thought that that kept racing through his mind:
Scimitar had been betrayed and likely sent to their deaths—and he had led the charge.

***

There was no way of telling how far he had traveled since the ambush. The hood his captors had pulled over his face had succeeded in keeping him disoriented, and with them dragging him by the arms, he could not track the distance based on how many steps he had taken. For a brief time, he tried to count the steps of those dragging him but gave up after the first hundred steps.

They made several turns, though he had lost track of the direction they were currently headed. The air temperature had also changed at various points, usually dropping several degrees before returning to normal. Jag had noticed that the drops occurred when passing through sets of doors; he assumed those sections were open to the mines or processing areas.

Eventually he heard another set of doors open but there was no accompanying blast of cool air. Instead, the air was filled with shouts of profanity and anger. The acoustics of the room suggested it was fairly large with an unusually high ceiling. The source of the shouts drew closer as Jag was dragged towards what he figured to be the middle of the room.

“What are you grinning at? Huh? Don’t whisper to your little friend, bring that scrawny rear end over here and say it again. Hey! I’m talking to you!”

Jag allowed himself a small smile. At least he had found Blaise.

“You poke me with that blaster one more time and you’re not going to like where it ends up.”

He found Bregen, too.

Jag’s captors tossed him towards the others. He landed hard on his left shoulder, jarring it a bit. One of the men who had been dragging him ripped the hood from his face, forcing him to squint as the room’s bright lighting assaulted his eyes. That same man also removed the binders and Jag took advantage of the new freedom of movement, swinging his arms in half circles to loosen his shoulders.

His eyes adjusted to the lighting fairly quickly. The first thing he noticed was the pair of guards that had moved into position behind him, each holding rifles aimed in his direction. Next he saw the members of both Aurek and Besh squad pressed together in the middle of the room, their helmets removed. Cerone glanced in his direction and nodded.

“Evening, Lieutenant.”

Jag gave him a mock salute and went back to studying the rest of the room. The ceiling was fairly high as he had previously surmised, and the room was cavernous with two levels of grated walkways running along three sides of it with two running across the room to the far wall where they gave way to sealed blast doors. There were two crane-like mechanisms protruding from the ceiling while large metal plates were built into the floor of the room directly beneath them. The room was likely some sort of loading center.

The suspended walkways were filled with soldiers dressed in the same black armor as those Jag and his men had been fighting only minutes ago. They were positioned at seven meter intervals along the walkways, all of them armed—and all of them aiming at the unarmed Scimitar captives.

Bregen had worked his way over to Jag and leaned in, keeping his voice hushed.

“Doesn’t look good. From what Blaise and I can figure, the stooges on the walks are just the front line. Got guys ready to roll behind concealed doors on the main level, just like they did in that damn corridor we tried to cut through.”

Jag nodded in agreement. “Sounds about right. This factory’s a massive death trap waiting for the right group of idiots to coming storming in.”

“Guess we’re the idiots.”

“Seems so. Except we didn’t exactly volunteer to raid this dump, did we?”

Bregen asked as shot Jag a sideways glance. “What are you getting at?”

Jag turned to face him and started counting on his fingers. “One: there is no way our intel people are this bad. They should have known about the concealed hatches along those corridors.”

“Could have been recent installments that wouldn’t show up in the older blueprints,” Bregen countered.

“True. But that doesn’t change number two. Our first priority was that blasted comm tower. I didn’t think of it until it was too late, but why bother? The cruiser that brought us in could have jammed their transmissions or at least intercepted anything leaving the planet. Think about it. All that was gained out of us taking that installation was finding that Force-forsaken tunnel.”

Bregen didn’t try to argue the point.

“And where did we go from there? When did the resistance really intensify?”

“At the alcove.”

“Exactly. They funneled us in there, and then straight to here. They knew we would take the tunnel out of the installation, knew we would take that secondary corridor, and they knew we’d be trapped and try to blast our way out of that dead end.

“Jorj, we were set up.”

It wasn’t until that point that Jag realized his fellow soldiers had fallen silent and turned their attention to Jag’s narrative. Bregen remained silent, though his expression had darkened considerably; the rest of the men seemed to share that sentiment. Naturally, it was Blaise who broke the silence.

“Well, Professor, who did it?”

Jag shrugged almost nonchalantly. “Who never made the jump?”

Blaise and Bregen looked at each other, then to the rest of the squads, the same look of recognition beginning to play across their faces.

“I was the first one to go from my squad,” Blaise said. “But Vius, you were the last, right?” Vius nodded in affirmation. “Was he still there when you jumped?”

The Aurek Squad demolitions expert hesitated for a moment before setting his shoulders to answer. “Sir, Commander Thorin was still aboard our dropship when I made my jump.”

“Of course I was.”

Every head in the group of Scimitar soldiers turned towards the voice simultaneously. A man had appeared along the higher walkway directly in front of the men, though his uniform and armor looked nothing like that of the black-clad men around him. It did, however, look identical to the soldiers of Scimitar’s armor.

“You didn’t think I would take a chance in that disaster of a dropzone, did you?” the man asked mockingly. “Especially when I hard far more pressing matters to attend to.”

“I’m sure you did, Commander…like making sure we wound up dead.”

There was no murmur of surprise among the privates in the two squads. They all understood what had happened—and was about to happen—to the unit.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Commander Thorin said dismissively as he started across one of the walkways that passed above the group of captives. “There were benefits to you surviving. If I’d really wanted you wiped out, you wouldn’t have any legs left to stand on.”

“Get a little closer and you’re not going to have a throat left!” Blaise barked.

Jag placed his hand on Blaise’s shoulder, knowing it would do little to calm the man but hoped it would at least keep him quiet for a few minutes.

“What about the other squads?”

“They’re…being dealt with,” Thorin said.

All the hours of training and drills designed to help Jag control and smother his emotions during combat were quickly failing him. The man he had followed into battle and whose orders had resulted in the deaths of his comrades on previous missions was now smugly revealing a betrayal Jag never suspected.

The fuel for his anger seemed limitless. He was disgusted that a fellow soldier, one he respected—and above all, trusted—had thrown in his lot with scum like Admiral Saerving all in some effort to build a private fortune right under the nose of the Empire. Jag wondered how many of their missions had been fabricated assignments designed to further Thorin’s dominance of the drug market.

Without a doubt, Jag decided, the worst offense was sending the men of Scimitar to their eventual deaths while at the same time sacrificing the soldiers that had tried to slow Scimitar’s advance. He was letting the two groups wipe each other out in order to cover his tracks. From a tactical standpoint, Jag appreciated the commander’s strategy, but that didn’t change the fact that he wanted to slowly skin Thorin alive.

“So that’s it?” Bregen called out. “You dragged us here to die? All these wasted resources for that? Why not just blast one of our dropships out of the sky?”

“Quite simple, Sergeant Bregen: loose ends. Here—” he made a sweeping gesture, “—the only question is why Intel failed to properly gauge the enemy’s strength and capabilities.” Thorin leaned forward, bracing himself against the rail of the walkway. “It also gave me the opportunity to take care of Saerving’s men.”

The Scimitar soldiers exchanged confused glances, save for Jag, who kept his eyes locked on Thorin.

“What are you talking about, Thorin?” he asked.

“Admiral Saerving was far too great a liability—as were those loyal to him. But thanks to your lethality, that glitch in my plan has been corrected. Allow me to express my gratitude.

“However, you do have a final decision to make, Lieutenant. The elimination of Saerving and his men has left a hole in the ranks. You and your men will live—so long as you join me.”

Thorin raised his arm and held it still, and the muzzle of every blaster rifle in the room took aim at the Scimitar soldiers. Jag’s rage was still welling up. Though he had always expected to eventually die in combat—he had barely escaped the clutches of death far too many times already—dying helplessly at the hands of a traitor was unacceptable.

Equally unacceptable was serving as expendable foot soldiers for a glorified drug lord, which is precisely how Thorin planned to use Jag and his men if they agreed to his proposal. Given his treachery, it would likely be sooner rather than later that Thorin sent them on yet another mission intended to bring about their demise.

Jag’s men were anxious; he could sense that much. Some of the men—none of whom belonged to Besh Squad—appeared to be considering the offer, likely out of desperation, or worse, cowardice. They were entitled to their own decisions, but he intended to die in a manner becoming of his rank: honorably.

The body language of Blaise and Bregen indicated they planned to follow his lead. Surprisingly, most of the privates among the two squads stood their ground as arrogantly as their commanding officers.

Then one of the men from Blaise’s squad stepped forward and declared his intentions to join Thorin.

That particular soldier—a private named Cherdek—was standing foolishly close to Blaise. The lieutenant swiftly kicked in Cherdek’s knee from the side, which dislocated with an audible pop that turned Jag’s stomach. The younger soldier collapsed in a heap while screaming in pain.

Jag was stunned when Thorin issued no signal or command to open fire. Instead, he looked on in what appeared to be twisted amusement.

“Lieutenant Blaise, that was hardly necessary. Private Cherdek didn’t deserve that.”

“The hell he didn’t. But hey, why don’t you come on down? I’ll show you what I think you deserve.”

“You’d be a bit less cavalier if you knew what I know about the future of your unit, Lieutenant,” Thorin retorted. After Blaise hesitated and shot a glance at Jag and Bregen, who could only offer confused shrugs, Thorin continued.

“Do any of you really think the Emperor or Vader would allow a unit as lethal as this to exist under a command other than their own? Scimitar is not long for this galaxy, not with your abilities beginning to rival that of the 501st. Besides,” he said with a sarcastic smile, “many of you are far too noble for their liking.”

Noble?” Jag scoffed. “We’re an assassination squad. Exactly how noble can one be?”

“That’s not a determination I’m inclined or required to make. Regardless, my opinion is irrelevant. Men ranked far higher than I with far more resources have made that determination. You and your men are marked, Lieutenant.”

Bregen cursed under his breath before muttering, “This is a kriffing mess.”

Jag nodded then whispered back. “He’s out of his mind if he thinks I’m obeying another order of his.”

“Right with you, boss,” Bregen said. The rest of the soldiers within earshot voiced their agreement with the sergeant. After a moment Blaise offered a shrug of indifference.

“We had a good run.”

Jag nodded and returned his attention to Thorin, who, even from a distance, was visibly irritated. It was clear he had expected to salvage at least a few of his prized operatives, but he had underestimated their pride.

“So be it,” Thorin growled, his voice quickly darkening. “You had your chance.”

But before Thorin could order his men to open fire, the roof of the room exploded along with the wall on the left side of the lower walkway. The members of Scimitar dove for cover while trying to protect their heads from the duracrete and durasteel that rained down on them. The lower walkway buckled from the explosion and the section left of the newly formed hole gave way, sending the soldiers that had previously occupied it flailing towards the ground.

As Jag tried to sprint—it was more of a labored stagger—to where Thorin’s soldiers had fallen on top of one another, he glanced towards the ceiling in time to see several ropes falling to the ground with the members of Dorn Squad rapidly descending towards the floor, their blasters ripping into the stunned soldiers that still lined the walkways.

Across the room, on the far right side, a previously concealed door shot open and more of Thorin’s men began to pour into the room. Fortunately for Jag’s unarmed comrades, the new enemies were more concerned with the ten or so gray armored soldiers dropping into the room than they were with cutting down anyone from Besh or Aurek Squads.

By the time Jag reached the men who had been thrown from the walkway, those who were not unconscious or dead were beginning to come to reorient themselves. He lunged at the closest one, driving him back into the duracrete floor. The man’s head violently slammed against the ground and his body went limp. Jag followed with a quick punch to the temple for good measure then seized the rifle from the man’s hands.

To his left, another soldier was starting to raise his rifle; Jag fired two quick shots into his chest. He grabbed a blaster pistol from the hip holster of the man he had just knocked into oblivion and put a trio of shots into the body of a man who made the mistake of groaning in pain to his right.

Bregen and Blaise reached Jag’s position a few seconds later. They stripped any weaponry they could from the incapacitated or dead soldiers. The first wave of troopers hit the ground and created a firing line with most seeking cover behind chunks of duracrete that had fallen from the ceiling. Those efforts, however, proved unnecessary a brief moment later when members of Cresh Squad burst through the ruptured wall and started cutting down anyone on their walkway that was still standing.

While the rest of Dorn Squad dropped in to the room, any unarmed men from Aurek and Besh Squads started scavenging for weapons. Jag, who had been firing relentlessly at the seemingly constant stream of soldiers entering the room at ground level, glanced up in time to see Thorin make a break for a door at the far end of the room. Jag started to track the target, but as he prepared to fire, he heard the all too familiar clanging of a concussion grenade bouncing along the ground.

“Incoming!” he bellowed as he dove in the opposite direction, hands pressed to his ears as hard as he could manage. Seconds later the sonic shockwave from the device rendered his body useless while it dropped the other five or so troopers near him to their knees in pain.

He expected a stray blaster bolt to rip through his back at any moment as he writhed in pain, but he remained unscathed. The Scimitar troopers clearing the overhead walkways had turned their aim on the enemy soldiers in an effort to provide suppressing fire, giving Jag and the other downed soldiers the precious moments they needed to recover.

He eventually propped himself up on a knee using his blaster as a crutch and surveyed the scene. Thorin had disappeared from sight, though most of his men were dead. The few who remained appeared determined to fight to their deaths, and Cresh and Dorn Squads seemed more than willing to oblige them. After another barrage of blaster fire from the walkway above Jag, the last of Thorin’s men fell to the ground.

“Clear up!” shouted one of the sergeants along the walkway.

Blaise fired another salvo into the pile of bodies. “Clear down!”

Jag shook his head in mild disgust and headed for one of the ropes Dorn Squad had previously descended.

“What now, Lieutenant?” Bregen asked.

“We find Thorin,” Jag said as he started climbing the rope as quickly as his still-recovering muscles would allow. “And we kill him.”

***

Without their helmets, the squad of soldiers Jag patched together had considerable difficulty tracking Thorin through the complex. Bregen had insisted he come along, as had Halden, Cerone, and a private from Cresh Squad named Baare Krieght. Blaise stayed behind to coordinate their escape efforts with a lieutenant from Cresh Squad and the captain from Dorn Squad.

The facility was essentially a massive labyrinth of service corridors, freight tunnels, and more of the testing labs the squads had seen during their failed attack through the subterranean tunnel leading from the communications installation. As was the case with the other labs, these were empty, something Jag was certainly thankful for. Rescuing anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped inside was simply not an option.

The few stray soldiers they encountered were eliminated with relative ease. The factory seemed to be in a state of evacuation, a scenario that left Jag a bit unsettled. If Thorin was preparing to bring the facility down on top of itself, without any schematics Scimitar would never make it out alive—which was likely exactly what Thorin wanted.

Jag was still stewing over the fact that his men had been taken by complete surprise, though the more he ran the situation through his mind, he realized there was no way he could have detected the trap. Not even Blaise, the tragically cynical one of the bunch, could have predicted Thorin’s brand of treachery.

He was not a bloodthirsty being. He did not take pleasure in killing others, even in the situations where the finality of death was a just sentence. It was something he was required to do—both by his superiors and the nature of the galaxy’s beings—and he was exceptionally good at it. Since he was a young boy on his father’s farm, he had been taught the importance of justice and accountability for one’s actions. He was not without a sense of morality, and while his assignments occasionally seemed to run at odds with that sense, he continued with his actions in the name of justice.

Perhaps that was why an admission he had made prior to the firefight continued to dig at him. Assassination squad. That was precisely what Scimitar had become. In the beginning, their missions had a sense of righteousness about them. Pirates, slavers, smugglers were their only targets. Jag had viewed the men he killed as vile degenerates; it certainly aided his justification process.

However, over the last several months, he had come to privately question his unit’s purpose. They were told they were eliminating corrupt and dangerous officers or warlords. Jag had never bothered to ask for particulars. Given the way his current mission was playing out, he started wishing he had been a bit more inquisitive. Thorin’s betrayal may have been revealed.

But it had not, and as a result he was still trying to work his way through the decades-old arms factory that had transitioned into a narcotics plant. The claxons continued to blare throughout the corridors, reverberating through the grated floorboards.

“Jag, dammit, where are we?” Blaise called back to him.

“The hell should I know? I’m following you!” Jag shot back.

“Well, we’re screwed,” Bregen muttered.

“Zip it, Jorj.” Jag came to a stop for a moment as they passed a pair of doors on their left. The markings on them were in a language he couldn’t begin to decipher, but they were the first doors they had passed in several minutes and he was willing to take a chance on something other than running through seemingly endless corridors.

“Let’s give these a shot,” he shouted to Blaise. Jag started hitting commands at random on the control panel next to the doors. Unfortunately, they too were marked in that same unfamiliar language. He heard servomotors begin to whine a few times, but the doors refused to yield.

“Cerone?” Jag stepped aside and made an inviting gesture towards the door. “Your skills are required.”

The trooper stepped forward and cocked his head as he examined the panel for a few seconds.

“This one’s easy…unfortunately.”

“Unfortunately?” the rest of the squad asked almost in unison.

“Yeah, unfortunately,” Cerone said with a hint of condescension.

“Where’s the fun in slicing a door?”

He removed a small datapad from his belt and went to work. In less than thirty seconds the door slid open and Cerone looked back at the squad with a cocky grin.

Too easy.”

Jag rolled his eyes and stepped past him. The corridor beyond the doorway stood in stark contrast to those the squad had spent the last several minutes running through. The environment was far more sterile with none of the rusted, decaying girders that had lined the majority of the facility. It reminded him of the dead-end tunnel they managed to escape from earlier.

Blaise caught up to him and matched his strides as they continued to run towards an undetermined destination.

“I really hope you’ve got a clue as to where we’re going,” Blaise managed in between breaths.

“Didn’t we just have this conversation?” Jag quipped.

“If we weren’t a classic case of the blind leading the blind, we wouldn’t have to keep having it.”

Jag stopped as he passed a doorway to his left and slammed the stock of his rifle into the door controls. The door shot open and, to his delighted surprise, revealed a cavernous hangar.

“So who’s the blind one?”

Blaise just groaned as he stepped through the doorway. Within the hangar were several shuttles and a half a wing of what appeared to be Clone War-era starfighters, though they were of a design that Jag had yet to encounter. At the far end sat a Lambda-class shuttle with its wings raised in the standard landing position. Its crew scrambled about the flight deck while a few soldiers stood guard near the boarding ramp. Their rifles shot up simultaneously when they spotted the approaching squad.

Jag and the rest of his Scimitar counterparts dove for cover but none of the shuttle’s guards opened fire. Staying in a low crouch, Jag and Bregen started making their way towards the shuttle, staying behind whatever cover they could find along the way.

They were only about ten meters from the first guard’s post when a bank of exterior lights along the shuttle’s underside blasted to life, temporarily blinding Jag. He pressed his back against the stack of crates in front of him and waited for his vision to return.

“Hey Jag!” Blaise called out. “What was that about being blind?”

“Remind me to shoot him,” Jag muttered to Bregen as he rubbed at his eyes as if it would miraculously restore his vision.

“I’ll help,” Bregen said with a chuckle. “But in the meantime…”

“Right.” Jag blinked hard a few times, and when he decided enough of his vision had returned, he peeked around the corner of the stack of crates. When no blaster fire tried to burn through his skull, he motioned for Blaise to relax, who had taken cover several meters to his right and was also poking his head out from behind a barricade.

“Lieutenant Girran!” Thorin shouted, his voice echoing through the hangar. “I should thank you for validating my decisions to promote you so quickly. You are certainly relentless.”

“Thanks for the compliment.”

“Come on, Lieutenant. Lighten up.” Jag heard the ringing of boots on metal make their way towards his position, though they appeared to be the only pair moving. He caught Bregen’s attention and motioned towards a cluster of barrels behind them. Bregen nodded and slipped away in that direction. Again, no blaster fire tracked his movement. Suspicion started to creep into Jag’s mind; Thorin seemed to be a step ahead of him since the operation had begun.

“You’ll have to forgive my inability to find humor in the situation,” Jag said.

“I suppose I could, Lieutenant. Still, the least you could do is hear what I have to say. I’d hate for you to die holding a grudge.”

Jag caught Blaise’s eye and motioned towards the rear of the hangar where they had entered. Unlike Bregen, however, he responded with a firm head shake and maintained his position. Jag gritted his teeth and exhaled furiously through his nose. Thorin was all but announcing an ambush, yet Blaise refused to help prepare a defense. Jag was hardly surprised; Lieutenant Blaise’s style had always been aggressive and unyielding. Jag didn’t expect that to change now.

“Are you still with me, Lieutenant?”

“Hanging on every word.”

“I’m sure. As I was saying,” Thorin continued. “I haven’t had a chance to properly fill you all in. You see, Scimitar has outlived its usefulness. With the Rebellion becoming an increasingly irritating pest, the Emperor, Grand Admirals, and Grand Moffs have little time for spice smugglers, corrupt bureaucrats, or, shall we say, entrepreneurial-minded officers of the Imperial Navy.

“However, the Emperor’s notoriously short temper and disdain for beings who fancy themselves cleverer than they truly are has hardly fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately for Scimitar, the man who commissioned the unit—the ‘distinguished’ Grand Admiral Ulnbret—falls perfectly into that category.

“He has grown considerably uncomfortable with the Emperor’s increased scrutiny. Allowing a decorated admiral and field commander to manage one of the fastest growing spice outfits in the Mid Rim is not exactly a good thing when placed under that kind of scrutiny.”

Jag glanced at Blaise, who was still staring intently at the shuttle, though his expression had changed from one of rage to bridled curiosity.

“Ulnbret went to Saerving first. He figured the admiral would be easily persuaded into disbanding the operation. He was right. The bastard practically caved on the spot. Next thing I know, I’ve got Ulnbret’s personal stormtroopers trying to break down my front door.”

Thorin paused for a long moment. “Obviously, their mission was unsuccessful. From there, it didn’t take too long to piece together what was happening. I arranged this mission—manufactured the intel, handled crew reassignments for the transports, made sure my men were in command positions, everything—and I killed Saerving myself.

“As for you and your men, Lieutenant…well, I don’t think I need to explain the inconvenience of loose ends to a man of your intelligence.”
“Hardly,” Jag said evenly.

“It wasn’t an easy choice. I want you to know that. I mean it. We’ve been through a lot. You, Blaise, me, your sergeants…if there’s a pit of damnation where the demons of the dark side torture us for all eternity, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen glimpses of it. But there comes a point where survival matters more than anything.”

“That doesn’t mean you had to set us all up to die!” Blaise shouted.
At first, Thorin said nothing. “Maybe you’re right, Lieutenant. I just couldn’t take the chance. I’m sorry. I had to put you in a situation of absolutes.”

“Seems you’ve managed to fail at that, Thorin,” Jag said.

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Lieutenant Girran,” Thorin countered as the iciness that had left his voice for a brief time came roaring back.

“My offer still stands: gather your men and leave with me now. This factory is hardly my only facility. With the funds I’ve built up, we could carve out a comfortable slice of the galaxy to call our own.”

“And live as what?” Jag shot back. “Smugglers? Slavers? The scum of the galaxy? I’d rather be dead. Who gives a damn if the Empire has turned its back on us?

“We weren’t just taught to track, interrogate, to kill—we were taught honor. Honor in our unit, in our comrades, and in ourselves. I’m not going to betray that because I’ve got a few blasters aimed at me.

“You want to run from the Grand Admiral? That’s your business. Not mine. And not Scimitar’s. And if the Empire has in fact turned its back on us, so be it. But I will not allow my men—good men—to succumb to cowardice as easily as you did.”

Silence descended upon the hangar. The only sound was the hissing of the shuttle’s engines and exhaust ports. Jag kept his eyes fixed on one of the guards posted near him. Thanks to the shadows near his cover, he was certain the guard had yet to spot him. After a few moments, Thorin spoke.

“Goodbye, Girran.”

Hell broke loose within the hangar.

The guards in front of the shuttle opened fire on whatever cargo cluttered the flight deck in front of them. Bregen and the rest of the men Jag had sent towards their entrance point returned fire, trying to provide some cover for Jag and Blaise as they began to crawl towards their squad mates. The shuttle’s repulsorlifts roared to life as its pilot prepared to lift off. Jag had almost made it to Bregen’s new position when the door they used to enter the hangar shot open.

“From behind!” he screamed.

Bregen dropped to a knee and turned his blaster on the door. His finger stayed on the trigger of his rifle while his left hand went to his hip. He grabbed a thermal detonator, thumbed the activator switch, and lobbed it towards the door. It banked off the frame and caromed into the hall.

“Cover!” Bregen shouted as he dove towards Jag. The floor shook from the explosion in the hall beyond the hangar, and a second later Jag saw Private Krieght rush through the door, refusing to release the trigger of his rifle as he ran. Cerone and Blaise followed closely behind him.

“Move your ass!” Bregen yelled as he dragged Jag to his feet and shoved him towards the door. Seconds later Jag rolled into the hall and dove for the cover of a nearby bulkhead. Bregen tossed Jag his rifle as he ducked into the hall and turned his sights on what remained of the ambush.

Either their enemies had horribly misjudged the timing of the assault or the thermal detonator shattered their formation, but the small squad of Scimitar troopers cut its way through what was left of Thorin’s soldiers relatively quickly.

They made their way back to the room where Cresh and Dorn Squads had burst through the roof and linked up with the two remaining troopers. Blaise’s explosives man, Vius, was one of them.

“Good to see you, sir,” he said with a nod towards Blaise, then pointed towards a recently crafted hole in the wall. “Captain Xavios and the rest of the men headed that way. Cresh Squad still had a couple guys dirtside that managed to secure some transports. We’ve got to move quickly—the cruiser Thorin brought us in on has started an orbital bombardment.”

“Lovely,” Jag groaned to Blaise as he started for the room’s exit.

“This should be fun.”

“Always is.”

“Hey!” Vius shouted after him. “Don’t forget your helmets!”

The other soldier standing with Vius, whose name Jag could not begin to recall at the moment, tossed him his helmet. Jag held it in his hands stared into its expressionless face, which had become pocked with blaster scoring and dents during his tenure with Scimitar. But it wasn’t just a helmet to him. It was part of him. It was his armor, and he wore it with honor—even if those who had given it to him no longer had any.

He secured the helmet and waited for the HUD to reload its programming then checked his rifle’s power levels. He gave Bregen a nod once everything was calibrated and stepped towards the makeshift exit. The room was already beginning to shudder from the turbolaser blasts that were rocking the surface.

“What’s next, Boss?” Bregen asked.

Jag couldn’t help but chuckle as he responded. “Survive.”

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Updated 02-04-2013 at 07:10 PM by bango31

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