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Me Manifesto

Honor And Armor: Section VII, Part 2 & Epilogue

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After several minutes of travel through the sterile yet calming corridors of Samol’s ship, Jag and his Chiss escorts reached their destination. Nacto accessed another concealed control panel that was quite similar to the one Samol had manipulated earlier.

“Incredible technology,” Jag marveled aloud.

Samol offered a small smile. “It’s Chiss.”

The door opened, revealing a large hangar.

“How is there enough room for this on this ship?”

“Our vessels are deceptive in both their size and capacity, Captain,” Nacto said.

“I guess so.”

There were at least three squadrons of the starfighters Jag had seen during the battle with Vius’ cruiser, as well as various support craft like the boarding shuttles the Chiss had used earlier. As they walked through the hangar, Jag paused near one of the starfighters.

“The design of these fighters,” he said as he ran a hand along one of the curved wings. “It’s eerily familiar. It’s as though your people cannibalized every TIE fighter the Empire has left.”

“The similarity is hardly a coincidence. Much of the credit for the implementation of this design lies with Commanders Thrawn and Hackan,” Samol explained. “It was Hackan who remained in contact with his sources within the Ascendancy after his departure. Between him and Thrawn, they saw what your Empire—and New Republic—had to offer in terms of starfighters and felt it pertinent to improve our designs, should our respective civilizations ever engage one another.”

Jag nodded absently as he continued to inspect the ship. “Incredible. Improved sightlines, strong weaponry…” He tailed off as he walked around the rear of the ship. “Is this a hyperdrive?

“Our version, yes.”

“Incredible,” Jag said again. “Beautiful ships, Commander. Very impressive.”

The Chiss bowed his head in thanks. “Your compliments are appreciated, Captain. But if we may continue?”

Samol and Nacto led Jag through the rows of fighters and stopped once they past the last row. Jag slowly continued forward. In front of him, surrounded by a few small teams of Chiss technicians, sat the Spartus.

“I thought ArDee would’ve slipped back to hyperspace after alerting you.”

“Well…he tried.”

Jag stopped came to a halt. “‘Tried?’”

“I am afraid we were forced to use something similar to what your people call a ‘tractor beam’ in order to prevent the ship from fleeing,” Samol said. “Until we could verify that the ship was unoccupied, it was far too dangerous to allow the vessel to escape. I am sure you understand, Captain.”

He nodded. “Of course, Commander.” Still, Jag shook his head and sighed. “It’s going to be a real pain fixing the hyperdrive. I’m sure ArDee managed to burn it out trying to escape the tractor beam.”

“Actually,” Nacto chimed in, “we took care of that for you.”

Jag turned back to look at the lieutenant and cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Indeed. We also made some…improvements. Your ship’s computer system seemed very receptive to my technicians’ proposals, and based on its own analysis and projections, determined their work to be quite satisfactory.”

“In that case, I think I’ll be leaving a bit sooner than I’d anticipated.”

“I had hoped that would be the case, Captain,” Samol said. “While your company is hardly a burden, it is bit of a minor inconvenience. My men and I have other matters to attend to.”

“I’m sure they do,” Jag said with a chuckle. “Though if you would suffer that inconvenience for a few more minutes?”

Samol nodded once. “Of course.”

Jag did a quick inspection of the Spartus’ hull. Everything seemed fine at a glance; in fact, the ship actually looked cleaner. Perhaps the Chiss found time to wash down the hull after they had finished with the hyperdrive. Given how quickly he had seen them complete other tasks, it would not have surprised him if that were the case.

“I’ll be several more minutes once I’m on board, but everything appears to be in perfect order,” Jag said.

“As it should,” Samol said proudly. “Those tasked with working on your ship were instructed to exercise extreme caution. As my former commander pointed out so many years ago, you are a mercenary, and while our civilizations may be quite different from one another, at least one commonality is the paranoia and lethality of beings of your ilk.”

Jag smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Commander.”

“I would hope so, Captain,” Samol said as his eyebrow twitched. “Your resourcefulness is admirable.”

Jag turned to Nacto and inclined his head then extended his hand. “Lieutenant Nacto, it was a pleasure.”

Nacto ignored Jag’s hand and gripped his forearm. “Indeed it was, Captain. I hope that our paths cross again, but under different circumstances.” Nacto released Jag’s forearm and inclined his head before backing several steps away.

“Commander Samol, I cannot begin to express my gratitude.”

The Chiss grunted dismissively. “It was a fitting response given your actions, Captain. While your efforts to warn us may have ultimately been self-serving, you warned us nonetheless. And perhaps more importantly, you have stayed true to the promise you made to Commander Hackan—and to the Ascendancy. Our borders remain secure, in part because of your refusal to disseminate the information we provided you.

“Our societies will one day be forced upon each other, and while I can only hope that our interactions are amicable, your actions speak to the potential character your people possess. Should the galaxy beyond the Ascendancy’s borders ever call on us for aid in my lifetime, I will be sure to remind my people of that.”

Jag smiled and bowed at the hip. “Commander, your words are kind—perhaps too much. I hope that what I’m preparing to do will not taint your opinion of me.”

“It most certainly will not,” Samol said somberly. “My people believe in justice. Succeed in your endeavor, and my opinion will remain unsullied.”

As Jag pulled his helmet on, he blinked at the activator for the uplink with ArDee and the Spartus.

“Until next time, Commander.” He exchanged the same embrace as he had with Nacto and started towards his ship’s boarding ramp.

“Commander, before I forget,” he called out over his shoulder. “I’ve heard rumblings about some sort of ‘purge’ in an area called the Koornacht Cluster. Might want to look into it.”

“Thank you, Captain. And should any potential conflict spill into the Ascendancy, I assure you, we will most certainly ‘look into it.’”

Jag smiled as he trotted up the ramp.

That’s something I might just be willing to pay to see.

***

The prelaunch checks and startup protocols proceeded without incident. Within ten minutes of Jag’s boarding, the Spartus had lifted from the hangar deck of the Chiss cruiser and burst into the blackness of space beyond the hangar’s gravitational field. For good measure, Jag ran the ship through a series of maneuvers, some so intense that he felt his stomach begin to turn, even with the inertial compensators cranked to their maximum setting.

Once he was satisfied that the Spartus was performing to his standards, he connected the ship to one of the ventral airlocks of the CR90a corvette that had brought him to the Chiss, doing his best to conceal his ship against the corvette’s hull. He powered down the engines and ran through the usual post-flight diagnostics.

“I’d really like to give her a run at lightspeed.”

“In that case sir, I find your decision to dock the ship a bit peculiar,” ArDee said.

“Yeah,” Jag said. “About that.”

Once the Spartus started its automated and final set of shutdown checks he exited the cockpit and headed for the compartments where he had hid his weapons prior to being boarded by Vius’ men. While he checked the levels of the power packs on the weapons, Jag started explaining his plan to ArDee.

“I’m going to need you to interface with the corvette’s system and find a way to copilot it.”

“Sir, you may not have noticed, but that ship is not a freighter or starfighter. The number of crewmen necessary to pilot a vessel of that size well exceeds that of this—”

“ArDee, can your programming handle it or not?”

There was a pause before the Coruscanti-accented voice answered.

“Yes, sir, I will be able to assist you. I’ve altered my programming in a way that should compensate for the increased output this task will require.”

“Uh, what exactly did you alter, ArDee?” Jag asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“Nothing serious, sir. Just removed some redundant navigational functions.”

“How redundant? And can it be reversed?”

“Quite. And of course, sir,” ArDee said. “At least, I believe so.”

Jag rolled his eyes. “Wonderful.” His weapons check complete, he hit the switch for the exterior hatch and exited the ship. “Hopefully ditching those ‘redundant’ functions doesn’t land us in the middle of a supernova or a black hole.”

“Doubtful, sir. In fact, the probability of either of those scenarios occurring is exactly—”

“Not interested.”

He cautiously made his way to the bridge of the presumably empty ship, fighting the uneasy feeling that continued to creep up his spine along the way. The bodies that he and the Chiss had left behind during their siege still lay where they had fallen. Several hours had passed, yet much of the damage still appeared fresh. Although ArDee’s initial scans revealed no additional life forms on the vessel, Jag’s chosen profession had provided ample examples of what happens to those who don’t exercise excessive caution.

The gaping hole in the ceiling created by the Chiss strike team had produced a bit of a security hazard. While the primary blast doors sealed the bridge against any strike advancing along the predictable routes, anyone with an imagination had a perfect entry point waiting for them.

“You’ll need to run nearly continuous scans,” Jag said into his helmet’s mic. “Or did that task get labeled ‘redundant?’”

“Sir, your condescension is unnecessary,” ArDee quipped.

“It’s not my fault you went ahead and wiped away who-knows-what from your memory banks without mentioning it to me.”

There was a short silence. “Point taken, sir. I will be sure to utilize a more diplomatic approach the next time such a need for deletion arrives.”

Jag grunted. “What was that you said about condescension?”

The next hour was primarily dedicated to acclimating ArDee with the cruiser’s systems and charting the jumps necessary to bring them to the first Chiss cell Jag decided to call upon. It was not a simple task. Several times the system attempted to wipe itself clean. However, ArDee was able to prevent the failsafe from launching each time while simultaneously increasing his own influence over the cruiser’s main computer.

Aside from the occasional update from ArDee, Jag continued to study the list Samol had given him. There were five locations he had selected, all of them more or less along the route to Surellia. While the list was certainly helpful, it did not guarantee cooperation.

To these Chiss, Jag was an alien, an outsider—he was not to be trusted. He understood and accepted that, though it was little consolation given the circumstances. Still, he would have to try. Otherwise, Surellia would burn and anyone left in the galaxy whose relationship with him could be defined as anything other than tumultuous would share the same fate as Mech and Bregen.

When ArDee finally announced it had complete control over the ship, Jag plugged whatever data he could into the cruiser’s databanks and let ArDee take over.

“Sir, you are aware that some of these locations require we pass through staked territory,” ArDee pointed out as he processed the data.

“Well aware,” Jag said. “The first couple should proceed without incident, and if we’re fortunate enough to obtain allies at those stops, any unexpected interference thereafter will be inconsequential, that much I can assure you.”

“Very well, sir.”

The deck plating began to gently vibrate as the corvette’s massive engine bank roared to life. Jag took a seat in the captain’s chair and leaned his head back. His body sagged as it finally had the relief it had been yearning for since his escape from captivity.

Jag tapped a command on the chair which opened the cover of a terminal. He slipped a small datacard into the designated slot then closed the cover.

“ArDee.”

“Sir?”

“Decrypt and implement the directive stored on that datacard.”

Though only a brilliant assembly of circuitry, Jag was certain he could feel ArDee’s hesitation as it processed the information.

“Are you sure, sir?”

Jag exhaled heavily before answering. “Yes. This ship belongs to my family, and my family alone. If I fail, you must not.”

“If a machine were capable of feeling honored, sir…”

Jag smiled. “I know what you mean, ArDee. And it has been honor to work with you.”

As the stars transitioned to starlines and the familiar whine of the hyperdrive engaging echoed off the walls of the bridge, Jag’s eyes slowly closed, hoping for even the briefest moment of rest. He offered no resistance to the onset of slumber, knowing that the task that lay before him would be brutally unforgiving, and that he would need whatever rest he could manage.

***

The former Beskade CR90a corvette dropped out of lightspeed well beyond any long-range sensors Surellia’s defense fleet possessed. Now operating with a full complement of crewmen, the cruiser had taken on a considerably different feel. It was a battle-ready vessel now, not a borderline derelict struggling to stay spaceworthy with a single being scrambling from one operations station to the next. Jag was impressed with how quickly his new crew had taken to the ship’s systems. Then again, he had grown accustomed to the Chiss doing remarkable things over the last several days.

After departing Commander Samol’s task force, Jag pushed the cruiser’s hyperdrive to its maximum capability as he dashed from one system on Samol’s list to the next, trying to recruit as many ships as time allowed. Though some of the “negotiations” proved more difficult than the others, the final product that came out of lightspeed in the Surel system was well beyond anything Jag could have hoped for.

The only concession he had been required to make—which at the moment did not seem like much of one—was assist in relocating one of the cells back to something called the “Empire of the Hand.” Jag did not have the slightest clue as to what that was. The Chiss officers he’d brokered the deal with had been quite reluctant to divulge any details. While he was hardly unaccustomed to the secretive nature of the Chiss, the behavior of those particular officers exceeded anything he had previously encountered.

Jag stood before the front viewport of the cruiser, his eyes scanning the space between the ship’s current position and Surellia. He was able to spot several vessels silhouetted against the light blue oceans of the planet, and he suspected several more were lurking on the planet’s dark side.

“Scanner’s picking anything up?” he asked the Chiss manning the sensor station.

“Affirmative.” The officer spun around his chair and entered several commands into a different terminal. “Though this ship’s instruments are vastly inferior,” he explained. “Reports from the Wismahkeh indicate ten vessels in near orbit, though readings for the far side of the planet are inconclusive.”

“Elaborate,” Lieutenant Benruo, a Chiss standing to the left of Jag, ordered.

“After an analysis of the Wismahkeh’s data, this ship’s systems have identified five patrol craft, three corvettes, a heavy cruiser, and a single capital ship,” the officer responded. “Detailed readings of the individual vessels are forthcoming.”

Once the specifics on the fleet arrived, Jag’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Given the string of hit squads he had fought to survive for the last month, he expected Thorin to offer a stronger presence. That was more than fine by him, though. The force he and the Chiss had patched together contained barely over a dozen ships—hardly an imposing force, but still more than adequate to handle the group of ships sitting between them and Surellia. Perhaps he had underestimated Thorin’s resources after all.

“This may be easier than I anticipated.”

Benruo, with his arms folded and a distant expression on his face, grunted noncommittally.

“That remains to be seen.” He turned to one of his bridge officers. “Increase thrust forty percent and acquire firing solutions. Prepare to fire on my mark.”

Jag’s whipped around towards the weapons station. “Do what?

“My orders were clear, Captain Girran,” Benruo said before cocking an eyebrow menacingly. “Do you have a problem with them?”

“Not at all,” Jag said quickly. “I’m just surprised to hear a Chiss order an attack without provocation.”

“Our military doctrines forbidding preemptive action apply to the Ascendancy and the protection of its borders, Captain,” Benruo responded calmly. “But we are not in the Ascendancy—” he paused as a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, “—are we?”

Jag grinned and turned back towards ships silhouetted against Surellia. “No, Lieutenant, we most certainly are not.”

Slight vibrations rumbled through the deck of the bridge as the corvette began to accelerate towards the planet, where a pair of the smaller enemy ships had begun to adopt an intercept course. After a few moments, a voice boomed across the comm’s speakers.

“Approaching vessel, code in.”

Reading from a screen at a nearby terminal, Benruo provided the sequence the Chiss technicians had extracted from the ship’s computer. The information proved reliable as the two approaching patrol craft continued past the cruiser before circling around and dropping into escort positions.

“Darken the viewports. If they get a look at us, all the codes in the galaxy won’t save us,” Jag said. Two Chiss nodded in acknowledgment and set about the task.

The next several minutes passed slowly with each growing tenser than the last. Jag watched the nav station closely, waiting until he could almost see into the bridges of the enemy corvettes. The patrol craft that had been escorting the ship began to break off towards their original positions when Benruo raised his arm.

“All stations stand by.” As soon as the nose of the corvette passed between the two enemy ships, Benruo dropped his arm and issued his order: “Now!”

Every weapon on the Chiss-controlled corvette opened fire on any target it could find. The enemy corvettes were clearly caught off guard—a fortunate break for Jag and his shipmates, as even after a refitting, the CR90a corvette was hardly capable of surviving an all-out firefight.

But that was not a concern for Jag. Seconds later, the rest of the Chiss flotilla came out of a micro-jump behind his corvette’s position. The Chiss ships unleashed a ferocious salvo immediately, pouring blue beams of devastating energy into the enemy fleet.

One of the Beskade corvettes was disabled within the first minute of the Chiss’ appearance. It was completely destroyed by the conclusion of the second. Jag’s corvette turned its focus on the patrol craft and starfighters the heavy cruiser had turned loose. To their port, a group of five Chiss starfighters—Benruo referred to them as “clawcraft”—launched an attack on one of the enemy fleet’s corvettes. Three Beskade starfighters began to pursue them, but were quickly picked off by a light cruiser the Chiss had sent to support the clawcraft.

Three minutes passed, then five. The bulk of the Chiss fleet continued to pound away at the shields of the larger Beskade ships while Jag’s corvette and two other Chiss vessels—both about one hundred meters long—weaved their way through the field of destruction, spitting continuous streams of turbolaser and maser fire at whatever was left.

Lieutenant Benruo maintained complete control over his forces throughout the battle, issuing orders without having to refer to the battle readouts provided by the tactical officer. Once the remaining Beskade ships were reduced to scrap, Jag sought out the lieutenant, who was diligently watching the battle through the front viewport.

“Looks like we may be able to forgo the surface operation after all.”

The Chiss’s head turned slightly in the direction of Jag’s voice but his gaze flicked back to the battle immediately. Jag also turned his eyes to the battle, watching intently as a pair of the larger Chiss cruisers swept around the perimeter of the floating fields of debris and moved into range of the frigates, then opened fire. Still, the Beskade “capital” ship, a Gladiator-class Star Destroyer, sat on the fringes of the battle, refusing to engage the Chiss ships.

“Peculiar, isn’t it?” Benruo asked. “Their fleet’s most powerful ship continues to sit idly by while we decimate the remainder of its forces.” Jag frowned as he eyes swept over the small Star Destroyer.

It was only about half the size of a Victory-class Destroyer, but still was almost three times the size of Jag’s corvette, and nearly doubled the length of the largest Chiss ship in the attack group. “Based on what you’ve told me of this Thorin, I expected a more impressive display of force,” Benruo remarked. “Their efforts were pitiful—practically disingenuous. Still…” His eyes narrowed and he folded his arms across his chest again. “Group One, move to engage that vessel. Do not fire unless it brings itself in range.”

Jag shot Benruo a questioning look. “Lieutenant?”

“I have a feeling we’ve snagged ourselves in a trap,” the Chiss said. “I’m hoping we can pry it open before the hunter arrives.” He then spoke into the comm. “Group Two, move to rear guard and deploy clawcraft squadrons. Group One, do not overextend the line.”

“Thorin, dammit, where are you?” Jag muttered to himself, still mulling Benruo’s observation. By this point, he knew a second strike was on the way. He was just afraid of how lethal that strike may be.

His eyes were still scanning the surrounding space when a series of flashes flooded the viewport as a fleet of ships that dwarfed the Chiss’ flotilla dropped out of lightspeed. Starfighters were already spilling from the ships’ hangar and beginning to press the attack. Jag counted twenty fighters before losing track.

“All ships open fire!” Benruo shouted into the comm. “Form up along heading—”

The order was cut short as the corvette rocked violently to port and panicked shouts filled the air.

“Damage report!” Benruo demanded. Jag winced as the reports were shouted out.

“Starboard shields at minimum and failing!”

“Minor hull breach along decks fifteen, seventeen, and eighteen!”

“Two turbolasers have failed, a third on its way!”

Jag’s eyes snapped back towards the viewport and the Gladiator-class Star Destroyer, which was now racing towards the Chiss line. Blue, red, and green blasts of energy seemed to fill every inch of space between the Chiss ships and the fleet that had just appeared. Two groups of clawcraft went screaming by the bridge viewport, their laser cannons firing wildly into a pack of Z95 Headhunters.

“Captain Girran!” Benruo called.

Jag darted to the lieutenant’s side. “Change in plans?”

“To say the least. It would seem that our surface operation will be required after all. ” The Chiss’ fingers flew across the screen of the tactical station as though he had spent years working with the ship’s interface. “However, I’m afraid my men will be unable to assist in the capacity we’d discussed.”

Jag winced at the assessment. Things were going to be difficult enough to begin with, as they would essentially be dropping in blind. They had no way of knowing if Thorin had men on the ground, let alone how many, if Surellia’s militia had been compromised—the mission was almost a guaranteed failure. Still, if Benruo were to have any chance of salvaging the quickly deteriorating situation, it had to be done.

“We have to try,” Jag finally said. “We won’t be able to risk communications. If you don’t hear from us in twenty minutes…”

Benruo gave him an understanding nod. “Good luck, Captain.”

Jag exited the bridge and made his way to the Spartus. Two Chiss accompanied him onto the freighter—Benruo had agreed to provide him with gunners. While ArDee could operate the turrets remotely, Jag wanted to avoid overworking the ship’s systems. ArDee had already run the preflight diagnostics and had the engines warm by the time Jag strapped himself in. He took a deep breath and cracked his knuckles.

“Here goes nothing.”

He detached the ship from the underside of the corvette and rolled it over to its standard flying position. Four clawcraft assumed an escort position a moment later with something that resembled a heavy shuttle dropping in behind him, as well as two smaller shuttles identical to the boarding craft that had led the siege against Vius’ ship.

Spartus to Squad Five, stand by for coordinates and flight path.”

Once the Chiss ships confirmed they had received his transmission, he increased the thrust of the Spartus’ sublight engines and raised the forward shields. The enemy fleet was in range of the Chiss flotilla now, and a small group of enemy starfighters broke away towards the Spartus and its escorts.

“Six enemy contacts inbound along vector five two eight point three two. Moving to intercept,” one of the Chiss pilots announced. Before Jag could object, two of the fighters flipped over the top of the formation and veered off to meet the inbound enemy ships.

“ArDee, see if you can lock down a firing solution without having to change course.”

“Negative sir,” his computerized counterpart replied almost immediately. “Opening fire at this time would risk friendly casualties.”

Jag clenched his jaw. “Wonderful.” His task on the surface would be difficult enough as it was, and if he lost either of the Chiss fighters that had broken formation, that task would become borderline impossible.

Spartus to Squad, engage inbound hostiles.”

This time it was Jag who didn’t allow time for an objection. The Spartus banked hard to starboard and brought its turrets to bear on the enemy fighters. The two clawcraft that had broken free were already beginning to engage them, so Jag targeted the enemy fighters to the rear of the incoming formation. Only one of the two remaining clawcraft broke from its original course, with the other continuing its escort of the shuttles.

The Chiss manning the turrets ripped two of the fighters to scrap fairly quickly. The rest of the enemy fighters were all but defenseless against the Clawcraft superior weaponry and maneuverability.

“Excellent work,” Jag beamed.

“Indeed,” one of the Chiss pilots said emotionlessly. “Returning to original heading.”

Jag swung the bow of the Spartus back towards the shuttles and their lone escort but froze when he glanced at the rear scopes. The starfighter screen from the second enemy fleet was considerably larger than he had initially thought. A second group had veered away from the main engagement and was closing fast on Jag’s makeshift squadron.

“We’ve got company!”

“Acknowledged. Moving to intercept.”

Jag shook his head. Based on his experiences with the Chiss, droids were not a technology utilized by their society, but with the way these pilots behaved, he wondered if they were better off. These pilots seemed like they were a microchip away from being automatons.

He flipped the Spartus up and around, and threw whatever power he could spare to the engines. He checked the tactical display and frowned when he saw that the heavy shuttle was slowing down. He was about to object when static burst over his comm.

“Captain Girran, precisely what do you think you are doing?”

Jag actually flinched at the demand. He had no illusions about Benruo’s personality. The lieutenant was uncharacteristically intense for a Chiss. It did not surprise Jag that Benruo had sought military opportunities beyond the borders of the rigid Chiss Ascendancy. Regardless, he was not about to be intimidated or otherwise deterred by Benruo’s rebuke.

“Altering the plan, Lieutenant,” Jag said calmly. “Order your shuttle to maintain course. They’ll need a new escort. Squad Five has new orders.”

“Captain Girran, I will not allow you to foolishly risk my men’s—”

“My apologies, Lieutenant,” Jag said quickly through gritted teeth. Blasted Chiss arrogance. “But I think it would be wise—”

He jerked the control stick to the right, banking the Spartus on its side, and slipped through a group of fighters, giving his gunners perfect kill shots on the enemy craft.

“—if you allowed the shuttles to continue—”

The Spartus rolled over twice to the left as the Chiss gunners eliminated another enemy fighter on the port side.

“—their part of the mission.”

Two clawcraft overshot the Spartus and blasted two more fighters, clearing the way for a run at the nearest enemy frigate. Jag never received an acknowledgment—at least verbally—from Benruo, but a new set of clawcraft appeared along the shuttle’s flanks a few moments later. By that time, two more clawcraft had formed up behind the Spartus as it continued its course towards the enemy frigate.

The instant the lead Chiss fighters were in range, the frigate opened fire. The Spartus’ gunners did their best to target the ship’s weapons, but they were unable to punch through its shields before a stream of laser fire tore through one of the clawcraft’s wings, sending the fighter into a wild spiral that ended with it slamming into the frigate’s shields.

“Hammer that spot!” Jag ordered.

One of the rear clawcraft had moved ahead to fill the void in their formation and was closing fast on the frigate, its four laser cannons unleashing a blinding barrage. The remaining rearguard fighter shot past the Spartus’ cockpit and mimicked the other fighter’s attack, as did the center clawcraft.

The hull of the frigate was looming dangerously close now, but none of the Chiss pilots showed any indication of altering their course. Three more seconds passed—Jag held his breath for all of them—before the clawcraft made three separate extreme breaks: one hard left, one vertical, the third downward.

Laser fire from the Spartus’ turrets began pouring into the shields as soon as the clawcraft were clear. Jag eased off the engines and kept an eye on the tactical feed for the frigate. The instant the sensors reported a significant loss of shielding, he launched two concussion missiles from the forward bays. Already dangerously close to passing the point of avoiding a collision, Jag slammed the yoke forward and felt his insides heave as the inertial compensators failed to keep up.

ArrrrrDeeeeee!” he yelled, trying to keep the contents of his stomach from splashing across the control boards. The missiles ripped through the frigate’s hull, and the resulting shockwave violently rocked the Spartus as Jag tried to escape, which only wreaked further havoc on his stomach.

He groaned as he pulled back on the flight stick and tried to level out the freighter. As soon as he did so, he found himself staring down the nose of an old Consular-class cruiser, its hull dark blue with orange streaks. He let loose a panicked hiss as he put the Spartus on an angle and barely kept the belly turret from scraping against the cruiser’s hull. The Chiss manning that gun never faltered, pouring a constant stream of fire into the cruiser’s shields as Jag ran the length of the cruiser.

He saw two clawcraft following him side by side on the scopes, their own cannons blasting away at the cruiser’s hulls. The hull began to rupture in several spots as the ships made their pass, with tongues of flames and pressurized air bursting into space.

“Get clear!” Jag shouted over the comm.

All three craft started to climb away from the cruiser, avoiding the discharge from the ship’s engines. A Chiss corvette executed a single pass between the Consular-class cruiser and crippled frigate, its port and starboard batteries blazing furiously.

Two groups of three clawcraft swooped in and ran the length of each enemy ship, adding to the barrage. Flames erupted from the ships—first from the cruiser, then the frigate. The Chiss corvette didn’t relent until each ship was consumed by explosions. More than satisfied with the outcome, Jag veered back towards the stolen Beskade corvette and the Chiss line, though there was little of that line left at this point.

The leads ships of the enemy flotillas were fully engaged, and despite being badly outnumbered, Jag’s Chiss allies were holding their own. The outcast Chiss had delivered thirteen battle-ready vessels, most of them corvette classes or bigger. With more time to prepare and coordinate, the Chiss force would have been unstoppable against Thorin’s refitted and presumably undermanned flotilla. That they were managing to inflict as much damage as they were was a testament to Benruo’s battle management.

Spartus to Lieutenant Benruo,” Jag called on the fleet-wide channel. “How’s Phase Two holding up?”

“Quite well, considering,” Benruo said. “Last contact prior to comm silence indicated they broke the atmosphere without incident.”

“And the fleet’s status?”

“Acceptable,” Benruo answered flatly. “Minimal casualties thus far. Primary vessels remain fully functional.”

“Perhaps we can change that,” a new voice said, a sinister edge to its tone.

Jag’s eyes widened as he scrambled to track the transmission’s source and muted his end of the comm again.

“ArDee, a little help?”

“Already tracing the transmission, sir,” ArDee assured him. “However, it appears to be broadcasting along an encrypted channel.”

Jag groaned in frustration. “So decrypt it!” He keyed the comm again. “Lieutenant, sounds like our hands are about to get pretty full.”

“Indeed,” Benruo said calmly, “though this should help matters.”

The commander’s stolen corvette started to push ahead from the rest of the Chiss ships, its engine bank blazing with ion discharges. Jag frowned and scanned the battle. Most of the ships were engaged, save for the largest Chiss cruiser and Benruo’s corvette, which was continuing to dash into the fray.

It was a chaotic sight. Whatever weapons the corvette had were blazing away indiscriminately. Clawcraft in the area scattered, breaking off their engagements, while the larger Chiss ships all changed headings. It wasn’t until Jag spotted the still idle Gladiator-class Star Destroyer sitting near the rear of the enemy fleet’s formation that he understood what was happening.

“Benruo!” he shouted over the comm. “No!”

He received no response. Instead, two smaller ships, both roughly the size of a small corvette, joined up on Benruo’s flanks and provided whatever covering fire they could. The Star Destroyer—its commander finally realizing what was happening—opened its own batteries on the Corellian corvette, which relentlessly raced forward, its shields flashing as they braced against a wall of laser fire.

Seconds later, it became glaringly obvious to every being involved how horribly the Star Destroyer’s efforts had failed. Its hull buckled as the corvette rammed into it at full power. Mountains of flames erupted from the collision site, then from the center of the Destroyer. It wasn’t until the entire corvette exploded that the Star Destroyer was practically incinerated.

The rest of the Chiss ships, despite having seen its commander perish in a magnificent inferno, continued to press their current engagements. Jag noticed the Chiss in the gun wells faltered slightly as they processed what had just happened, but they quickly refocused their fire.

Meanwhile, Jag’s mind was racing with confusion. What had Benruo possibly hoped to accomplish? The Chiss’ large cruiser could have certainly emerged victorious if came down to the two ships slugging it out. And with the Lieutenant gone, he had no idea who would assume command of the Chiss force, or if they would even choose to continue the attack. However, as the battle continued to rage on, Jag had no reason to believe the Chiss would break off.

Moments later a alarms began shrieking in the cockpit and ArDee went supernova with panic.

Sir! New contacts! Emerging from the planet’s dark side! Three Marauder-class corvettes and one…” The computer’s voice trailed off, prompting Jag to slam his fist against the unoccupied copilot’s seat.

“One what?” he bellowed. “Dammit, ArDee! I need some…”

Jag’s voice also trailed off as he caught sight of what had caused a computer to falter. Trailing the formation of corvettes was a ship that Jag had seen only months ago, one that was undoubtedly powerful enough to completely shift the balance of power in the battle, even without its Marauder escort.

“Don’t tell me that’s the Ion.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” ArDee said, its mechanized voice sounding almost as deflated as Jag felt. “Transponder and visual scans are confirmed.”

Jag sighed and rubbed his forehead, then keyed the ship’s internal comm.

“Girran to the crew: I can’t ask you to stay on board,” he said gravely, suddenly feeling immeasurably guilty for dragging the exiled Chiss into his mess. “But I have no intention of retreating. There’s a thruster-equipped escape pod on board—it’s all yours if you want it, and I won’t blame you for taking it.”

“Our orders were clear,” one of the gunners responded immediately, albeit a bit coldly. “Our commanding officer’s death does not nullify his demands.”

Jag deactivated the comm and sighed again. It was hardly an enthusiastic response, but given the circumstances, he wasn’t about to complain.

“Thank you, both of you.” Then, as he refastened his crash webbing, “You might want to strap in. This is going to get a little rough.”

Silently cursing Benruo’s bizarre self-sacrifice, Jag slammed the thrusters and dove into the fray of now retreating Chiss ships and their Beskade pursuers. He ignored the retreat order being broadcast by the Wismahkeh and did his best to give his gunners shots at any of the ships trying to run down the fleeing Chiss.

The Spartus began to jolt violently as concussion shells detonated around it. Both turrets were running at full power with the two Chiss alternating breaks in their firing to prevent the guns from overheating.

Doing his best to stay evasive while maintaining a line of sight for his gunners, Jag weaved through the field of enemy ships towards the rear of the Beskade formation, straight for the Ion. He passed several clawcraft on the way, each one broadcasting the now-commanding officer of the Chiss fleet’s orders to fall back. Jag continued to ignore the order and didn’t waste time explaining himself. Some of the fighters provided bursts of covering fire as they passed by, but the Spartus was on its own, a fact not unnoticed by the enemy.

The Beskade corvettes and freighters began to redirect their fire from the Chiss ships to the Spartus. His knuckles already white and sweat pouring down his face inside his helmet, Jag moved deeper into the enemy’s formation in an attempt to force the ships to accidentally fire on their own vessels. At first his ploy seemed to work—the ships’ batteries went mostly silent, with only a few blasts from laser cannons missing wide. However, his maneuver’s success was short-lived.

Three XG-1 starfighters appeared behind the Spartus just moments after the larger cruisers ceased fire, and the fighters wasted no time in opening fire. Jag countered by diverting power to the aft shields before diving down and to the right towards a Tartan-class cruiser. He flew below it, keeping his ship’s hull as close to the enemy ship as possible, then came up along the opposite side towards the top of the cruiser. It wasn’t until he reached the topside of the cruiser and turned the ship over that he realized only two of the fighters had maintained their pursuit.

The third fighter was patiently waiting for him to complete the maneuver. Jag’s eyes went wide with panic. ArDee automatically diverted power again, this time to the forward shields. Before he could warn one of the gunners to watch against the pursuing fighters, the Chiss on the dorsal turret opened fire on them as soon as they flew into view. The shields of the fighter on the left failed after several direct hits, making it vulnerable to series of laser blasts that set it careening into its counterpart, destroying them both.

With both gunners now able to focus their fire on the lone XG-1 in front of him, Jag didn’t waste any effort evading it. The fighter was destroyed seconds later and the Spartus was back to running the gauntlet of enemy cruisers.

“An impressive display,” a sinister voice crackled across Jag’s comm. “Futile, but impressive.”

Jag couldn’t fight the urge to respond. “Why don’t you crawl out of your Star Destroyer and come join me. Or are you still scared of flying, Thorin?”

He flew wildly at the nearest Marauder-class corvette, spinning the disc-shaped Spartus’ the entire time in an effort to dodge the incoming laser fire, though he noticed the return fire was not nearly as intense as he had anticipated. His eyes widened as he realized his mistake.

“ArDee, SHIELDS!

It was too late. The Ion, which he had thought was too close to its own ships to open fire, let loose with its forward turbolasers. Jag never had a chance. The first several blasts decimated the shields, and two of the following blasts few ripped through the turret wells, vaporizing the Chiss gunners. The Marauder he had been attacking also suffered several direct hits from the Ion’s turbolasers. It had apparently lost navigational ability and had begun to plummet towards Surellia.

Jag tore his crash webbing off and sprinted out of the cockpit. ArDee was clamoring away, providing a damage report that included virtually every system on the ship. The only thing still functioning—which Jag chalked up to a miracle—was the hyperdrive. He eventually made it to the escape pod he had offered the Chiss gunners after bouncing off the walls of the ship’s corridors and threw himself in.

“ArDee, get out of the system as soon as I’m away,” he said. “I don’t care where you go, just get out.”

“As you wish, sir.” Jag thought he detected a trace of sadness in the computer’s voice, though that could have been the ringing in his ears playing tricks. “I do hope to see you again.”

Jag slammed the launch button on the control panel and braced himself against the wall of the pod as the thrusters blasted him out of the Spartus. He watched through the rear viewport of the escape pod as the Spartus’ drives flared a brilliant bright blue discharge that nearly blinded him. An instant later, the ship was gone, leaving him alone and at the mercy of his enemies.

His breathing was still rapid and sweat continued to pour profusely from every inch of his body. His arms ached from forcing the Spartus through one brutal maneuver after another, and a moment later he was fighting against hyperventilation.

But he was alive, and his ship was still in one piece—at least in a general sense. And the man who had been hunting him was waiting for him on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, surrounded by every other man Jag planned to kill. They had made the mistake of letting him live this long, a mistake for which Jag intended to make them pay. He was terribly outnumbered, but he still had the will to fight, and he still had his armor.

***

His time spent in the escape pod was brief, but long enough to watch the Chiss ships escape to hyperspace. He had only a single chance at survival remaining, and given the way things had played out in space, he preferred to not think about how things were progressing on the surface.

The Ion had quickly fixed the escape pod with a tractor beam and begun dragging it into the Ion’s primary hangar. Jag used the time secured his helmet and checked his armor. He would not allow anyone on the ship to remove it, even if that meant dying before he could face Thorin.

After being dragged out of the pod by a group of two humans and a Weequay, it became very clear that Thorin’s men had no intention of allowing Jag to keep his armor. He had fought them off initially, but they now stood in a semicircle in front of him, two holding blasters. Jag flexed his forearms then locked them out. Two straight blades, each approximately fifteen centimeters long, slipped out of his gauntlets and into his hands.

He locked gazes with each of his opponents, his breathing still calm. The Weequay to the right was the first to act, but fired only a single shot. Jag’s armor absorbed the bolt, but he let its kinetic force push him into a roll. He sprang up and launched the blade in his right hand at the human to his left, then dove at the body and ripped the blade from the human’s chest.

The Weequay fired again, then again, and three more times, each bolt sizzling harmlessly behind Jag as they missed. He ran at the next human—the one without a blaster, who had drawn a vibroblade by this time—and again struck with the blade in his right hand, slicing across the neck.

Before he could attack the Weequay, though, a series of blaster bolts pounded into his chest plate, knocking him on his back and sending one of the blades sliding across the deck. As the Weequay prepared to fire another series of shots, Jag threw the blade in his left hand, but it only struck the Weequay in the shoulder. Before the Weequay could recover, Jag was on his feet and charging.

The Weequay’s eyes went wide as Jag closed the distance and tried to level his blaster while pulling the blade out of his shoulder. Jag was too quick. He batted the hand holding the blaster to the side, but the Weequay countered by swinging the blade at Jag’s chest, though it did nothing but scrape the armor. Jag smiled and grabbed the Weequay’s wrist, then with his free hand jammed the arm inwards, snapping the elbow joint.

The Weequay collapsed in pain, though the suffering was short-lived. Jag picked up the blaster he had batted away and put two shots into the Weequay. He also recovered his other blade and the second blaster before making his way towards the hangar exit.

It was virtually guaranteed that Thorin had watched the events in the hangar transpire on security cams, though he couldn’t have expected a much different outcome in the first place. The more Jag sat on that thought, the quicker he ran. Reinforcements were either on the way or already in place. Thorin wasn’t foolish enough to let Jag simply stroll onto the bridge with two blasters in hand.

Knowing better than to trap himself in a turbolift, Jag instead used access ladders whenever he spotted one to continue his ascension through the ship. He did encounter some of the reinforcements he had anticipated, but they were always smaller groups that he had no issue defeating.

The longer his climb towards the bridge continued, the more anxious he became. Thorin had to be tracking his progress with security cams, reports from sentries, and dead soldiers no longer answering their comms. His only defense was to remain diligent and continually swap out drained blasters with fresh ones.

Eventually he found himself only two decks below the bridge in a wide, empty corridor. He slowed as he approached an intersection with an equally large corridor and caught his breath. Assuming there would be a trap waiting around either corner of the intersecting corridor, Jag slowly walked towards the intersection and stopped short of it.

“Might as well get this over with,” he called as he tossed his blasters into the middle of the intersection. “You wanted me, Thorin? Here I am.”

Soldiers seem to materialize out of thin air. They slipped out of hidden doorways along the corridor, both behind and in front of him. Others emerged from the around the corners of the intersection. Jag slowly put his hands up and walked into the center of the intersection.

“Quite the welcoming party,” he said loudly to no one in particular. “Flowers would’ve been enough.”

“I was thinking of something a bit less clichéd,” said a voice from behind him.

Jag turned slowly to face it, making sure to keep his hands up. Flanked by a human and a Falleen, the same two who had greeted Jag when he had delivered Telnor, was Blaise. Jag’s first instinct was to drop his arms and snap the blades back into his hands, even if it meant being gunned down in the blink of an eye. Blaise seemed to read Jag’s mind. He held up his index finger and wagged it disapprovingly.

“Don’t even think about it, Girran. We watched your little show in the hangar—hand them over.”

One at a time, Jag popped open the underside of his gauntlets and removed the blades hiding within, then tossed them at Blaise’s feet. “Don’t cut yourself.”

Blaise didn’t bother responding, just kept his gaze locked with Jag’s visor as the human flanking Blaise recovered the weapons.

“A lot of effort just for this,” Jag said.

“We’re hardly finished,” Blaise said. “And if you think you’re taking another step with that armor on, you’re insane.”

Jag dropped his hands to his side and clenched his fists. “And you’re insane if you think I’m taking another step without it. You’ve got all my weapons. Let your men check me. I don’t care. I’m no threat.”

“Which I plan to ensure by stripping off every piece of that armor,” Blaise shot back. He motioned to some of the soldiers near Jag, who cautiously approached him, their blasters still raised.

Jag blinked a command at his HUD before raising his arms out to the side. He remained perfectly still as two of the soldiers holstered their weapons and prepared to pull his armor off. The three others stayed back with their blasters drawn. The two soldiers each reached for the armor simultaneously, and each was thrown back violently as an electric current shot through their bodies.

“What the—”

“I told you,” Jag said calmly. “My armor’s going nowhere.”

Blaise bounded up to him and started to reach a hand towards Jag’s neck, then glanced at one of the soldiers withering in pain on the ground and thought better of it. He was visibly fuming, which forced a smile from Jag. The two stood there for a long, tense moment as Blaise tried to decide if killing Jag on the spot was worth incurring his commander’s wrath.

“You’ll be dead within a second if you try anything,” Blaise finally said through gritted teeth. “And I’ll be the one who puts the bolt through your brain.”

Jag shrugged. “Like I said, I’m not a threat.”

Blaise let his gaze linger for another moment before storming away. “Bring him to the bridge,” he called back over his shoulder to his escort and the other three soldiers still standing near Jag. “If he so much as breathes the wrong way, kill him.”

Jag deactivated the charge running through this armor and lowered his arms. “Good to see you too, Blaise.”

***

The bridge of the Ion looked exactly as it had four months ago in the Hannas Nebula, save for the orange markings that had adorned the floor and walls. They had been painted over to match the rest of the bridge’s dull gray color. The men manning the various stations were also noticeably different: gone were the crisp CorSec uniforms and the sense of military discipline. In their place was a rugged looking crew without any commonality among their clothing.

At the head of the bridge, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, was a man Jag had not seen in nearly fifteen years. His build was almost identical to what it had been all those years ago. The broad shoulders that had barreled through countless obstructions during their raids still capped off the man’s powerful physique. Jag frowned at the sight; if things reached the point of a barehanded duel, he wasn’t overly confident in his odds of success.

“Been a long time, Mex,” said Jag, his hands behind his head and a group of guards surrounding him. “Would have preferred it’d been longer.”

The man at the head of the bridge slowly turned away from the viewport, keeping his eyes cast downward. He slowly made his way down the raised walkway towards Jag. His facial features were mostly still the same as well, save for some age lines and a certain hardness that Jag even saw in himself. Mex Thorin stopped a few paces short of Jag then raised his eyes to Jag’s visor.

“Such a long time, yet you’re still the same coward I left to die. You can’t even summon the courage to face me without that foolish helmet,” said Thorin.

Jag blinked at his HUD and rearmed the suit. “Why don’t you pull it off, then?”

Thorin smiled and reached his fingers out towards Jag’s helmet, being careful to avoid contact with the suit. Little bursts of electricity began to spark between his fingers and the suit. Thorin pulled his hand back and sneered. “Neat trick.”

“Compliments of one of the men you murdered.”

Thorin grunted and dismissed the guards around Jag with a wave of his hand, but Blaise, who had been standing off to the side, stepped in next to his commander.

“So what is this?” Jag said, his voice flaring with indignation. “Or am I just going to take a blaster bolt to the skull with no explanation?”

“Not a bad idea,” said Blaise, but Thorin cast a quieting glance in his direction.

“Do you remember our mission to Bestine IV?”

Jag felt his body tense involuntarily and he swallowed hard. “Yes.”

Only a few months after Jag had joined Scimitar, the unit was dispatched to the mostly aquatic world of Bestine IV with orders to crush a cell of Rebel saboteurs who had been disrupting a clandestine naval project. The mission was a success in that they essentially crushed the Rebel presence in the system, though Jag had expressed some reservations about the handling of the prisoners they collected.

“Then I’m sure you also remember Kren Tozan,” said Thorin.

Jag’s cheek twitched as the name registered. “Yes.”

Thorin smiled. “Of course you do. You were the reason he wasn’t shot on sight.” He paused and chuckled lightly. “Ironic, though. It’s because of you that he suffered a far more horrific fate.”

Jag felt a chill run up his spine. He had always assumed the leader of the Rebel resistance on Bestine would fall victim to some sort of Imperial interrogation, though he never knew the full extent of what that interrogation entailed—something he was completely fine with.

“What does Tozan have to do with any of this?”

“I just wanted to provide a reference point,” Thorin said before nodding towards Blaise, “because you condemned them to the same thing.”

Jag frowned in confusion. While he had no clue what Thorin as getting at, the implication that Jag was apparently responsible for Blaise and his men being subjected to some of the most gruesome interrogation techniques in the galaxy at least explained why they had been hunting him for all this time.

“After you left them for dead near Corulag, an Imperial patrol arrived in the system, responding to the distress signal from the Sienar docks. The rest of the traitors who fled the ship with you had inflicted enough damage in the right places to keep the Renegade from fleeing.”

When Thorin paused for a moment Jag glanced at Blaise, who seemed barely able to contain the anger swirling inside him.

“Perhaps you’ve forgotten how the Empire dealt with pirates, particularly those who stole from them.”

Another chill ran through Jag. He certainly had not. The viciousness with which the Empire had cracked down on any of the crime syndicates operating close to the Core was well documented at the time, and anyone dumb enough to do what they did at Corulag was fully aware of the consequences.

However, Beskade had never had to deal with the potential ramifications of their actions. Their efficiency had helped them elude both local and Imperial authorities time and again. He had never considered the possibility that when he and Bregen had fled the Renegade that they were leaving a ship that was basically dead in space. After all, it had started to pursue the shuttle they had used to escape.

“How did you manage to let the Imperials capture you?” he asked Blaise. “The ship was mobile. I saw it myself. You tried to pursue us.”

Blaise raised an eyebrow at Thorin who nodded in return. “You bastards shut down the hyperdrive,” he said. “By the time we had it back online, the Imps were already on us. Because of you, we never had a chance.”

Jag set his jaw. “None of that would have ever happened if you hadn’t slaughtered those people on the docks.”

They tried to kill us.”

“Not the ones you murdered!” Jag shot back, his temper beginning to flare. It was the same argument he already had with Blaise almost ten years ago, and it was because of that that Jag was in the position he was in now.

“Shut up,” Thorin snapped. He gave Blaise a hard stare. “Both of you.” Blaise glared at Jag again but obeyed Thorin’s command, who then continued. “I never cared for your overdeveloped sense of morality, Girran. You were an Imperial soldier, not a blasted crusader. I had a feeling that it would get you killed one day. Turns out I was right.”

Jag set his jaw and stared back at Thorin. “So this is it. All of this—” he made a broad sweeping gesture with his hands, “—was because I left them to fend for themselves against the Imps.”

“No,” said Thorin. “All of this was because you turned your backs on those you swore to protect.”

Jag couldn’t stifle a laugh. “You’re one to talk!” He pointed at Blaise. “And you. I can’t believe you. You want me dead, but you’re following him?” Jag looked around the bridge dumbfounded. “Am I the only one who cares about what happened on Trioegh VIII?”

Thorin’s expression relaxed and he took a step back while crossing his arms over his chest. “Captain Blaise?”

“You left us to die,” Blaise said coldly. “Sure, Mex did too. But at least he came back for us.”

“What are you talking about?” said Jag. “We were lucky to get off the planet in one piece thanks to that bombardment he ordered. Thorin never came back for us.”

“Not at Trioegh, no,” Blaise agreed. “But he came back when it mattered.” He paused and looked at Thorin. “When we were at our weakest.”

“As you probably know,” Thorin picked up, “escaping Imperial imprisonment is virtually impossible, even with outside assistance. However, if that assistance happens to know Imperial systems and protocol inside and out…”

Jag nodded slowly. “So you broke them out and they rushed to repay your generosity.”

“Hardly,” Thorin scoffed. “I didn’t do it to earn their favor. I did it because I knew that what I did to Scimitar was wrong. Fortunately, Captain Blaise and his men aren’t the kind to hold grudges.”

Jag raised his brow. “You don’t say.”

“You were worth making an exception,” Blaise said. “Mex burned us once, but he came back. You…you tried to kill me. We were as close as brothers, Girran, and you left me to die.”

“If I had known that that was going to happen to you—”

“It’s too late,” Blaise snapped. “And it doesn’t matter what you knew or didn’t know. You let your pride and self-righteousness get in the way of your responsibility to your brothers.” He took a few steps forward, his gaze still locked with Jag’s. “You always talked about serving with honor, about putting those you served with ahead of yourself.” He looked Jag up and down then sneered. “That talk didn’t amount to much when it counted.”

Jag felt his hands ball into fists but he was able to resist the urge to lash out.

Not yet.

Instead, he drew himself up and set his shoulders. “I also talked about protecting the innocent. You showed no regard for their lives, so I did what was necessary.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the rest of the bridge was completely engrossed with the exchange. Thorin stood back quietly for a moment before stepping to Blaise’s side.

“Unfortunately for you, you’re in no position to protect anyone now.”

Thorin’s word set off a slew of warnings in Jag’s brain. There was a very menacing tone to what he had said, and the hand signals between a few of the bridge members did nothing to quiet those mental alarms.

“Kill me and be done with it. You have everything you came for.”

Thorin exchanged a glance with Blaise before grinning. “Not quite everything.”

A wave of nausea start to wash over Jag as Blaise began issuing the order.

“Prepare for orbital bombardment. Target all major settlements first. We’ll sweep up the rest afterwards.”

The pace of Jag’s breathing increased rapidly despite his efforts to control it. So this was the final vibroblade through the heart. It wasn’t enough that they had killed Bregen and the rest of the men who had fled the Renegade with him. They wanted to wipe out an entire civilization, too.

“You will pay for this,” Jag said.

“Really?” Thorin asked sarcastically. “A planet so secret that we had to track you just to find it? I doubt the New Republic will be after us—they don’t even know this place exists.

“Who else? Your friends from earlier? We watched their leader blow himself to pieces. They’re long gone.” Thorin shook his head. “No, Girran, I don’t think we’ll be paying for anything we’re about to do.”

He called to the crewman at the weapons station, then, with his eyes back on Jag, said, “Fire.”

The deck shuddered slightly as the turbolaser batteries launched brilliant green bursts of devastating energy at Surellia. Jag’s stomach dropped and began to turn. He almost vomited as he watched the first salvo strike the planet’s surface. Tactical screens with magnified displays of Surellia’s surface showed the turbolasers hitting their mark.

Thorin kept his focus on Jag, which infuriated him even more. There was no telling what the death toll was already at, but Thorin couldn’t be bothered. He was more interested in enjoying the toll the bombing was taking on Jag.

Five minutes passed and the bombing continued. The continent that had bore the initial brunt of the bombardment was visibly scarred, its beautiful green expanses now streaked with grotesque stretches of brown. Blaise stood silently, but the smirk on his face revealed just how much he was enjoying it.

Originally, Jag’s plotting with Benruo included a measure that would have solved his current dilemma. Unfortunately, that plan seemed to have failed as well, leaving Jag alone to watch helplessly as Beskade burned Surellia. Jag squeezed his eyes shut and felt a single tear stream down his cheek. More followed. He was thankful his helmet was there to hide his tears from Thorin.

His eyes were torn away from the devastating salvos as Thorin’s hand dropped to his side and rested it on the butt of a holstered blaster. Thorin smirked and nodded to Blaise, who also dropped his hand to his blaster.

“I think you’ve seen enough,” said Thorin. “I suppose a certain amount of mercy is in order.”

“After all,” Blaise added, “we still have to track down that tasty Zeltron of yours. We can’t have you interfering.”

The emptiness that had all but consumed Jag quickly turned to hardness. His eyes narrowed and as he glared at Blaise.

“She’ll kill you before you can even think about laying a finger on her.”

“Given the emptiness of your threats lately, I’ll take my chances,” Blaise shot back.

Jag hoped he was right. Ketlyna was dangerous, there was no questioning that. But against multiple former Imperial commandos…

“Sir! Multiple ships coming out of Sector Five, maximum velocity!” one of the crewmen shouted, ending Jag’s dark train of thought. His thoughts and eyes were now on the gray cloud that was quickly taking shape as it approached the Ion from Surellia’s surface. Jag eyes went wide as hope and excitement exploded inside him. He had been wrong after all: the surface mission had succeeded.

***

No less than ten RX4 patrol ships attacked the Ion, their topside turrets and forward laser cannons blasting away at the Beskade fighters and the Ion’s shields. Supporting the patrol ships were numerous Kiree fighters, blazingly fast and agile ships that darted away from the Ion’s defensive fire with seemingly little effort.

Thorin and Blaise were barking orders to the bridge, their attention no longer on Jag, though the crewmen who had been guarding him before remained vigilant. Jag slowly looked from left to right, studying each man carefully along the way. He suddenly felt optimistic about escaping what had seemed like a death sentence just moments ago.

The space beyond the viewport of the Ion was filled with constant flashes and engine flares. Jag’s heart was racing as he watched a pair of Kiree fighters chase down and obliterate an R-41 Starchaser that had just attempted to strafe one of the RX4s.

“Where did those ships come from?” Thorin barked as a vein in his neck appeared to be on the verge of exploding. “Who in the blazes are they?”

“Planetary defenses…I think,” one of the bridge officers said, his fingers dancing across a monitor in front of him. “I don’t recognize the signatures on any of the ships. I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Blaise moved closer to the forward viewport in an effort to catch a glance of one of the attacking pilots. He leaped back when a Kiree fighter blasted by, its cockpit nearly scraping the bridge’s exterior as it shot across the length of the bridge from starboard to port. Jag was able to make out the basic features of the pilot’s head, which inspired him with even more confidence.

“What was that?” Blaise shouted to no one in particular.

“Trianii,” Jag announced proudly.

“Trianii?” Blaise echoed. “What are they?”

“Aside from furious and lethal?” Jag asked. “They’re the cohabitants of the planet you just tried to burn. And now they’re going to kill you.”

“We’ll see,” Thorin said before commanding four of his other ships to move around the far side of the attacking force in an effort to trap the Trianii.

The laser fire from the approaching Beskade ships was fierce and focused. One of the RX4s was destroyed surprisingly quickly, though it did not surrender to its fate without a fight. It managed to eliminate several more starfighters before the center of the ship exploded and ripped the ship in half.

“That’s more like it,” Thorin said as another RX4 was engulfed in a reactor explosion. He pressed a button at a nearby comm station. “All ships acquire targets and fire at will.” Thorin paused and shot a look at Jag. “Wipe them out.”

Still riding the recent wave of confidence, Jag smiled defiantly behind his visor. “This is only the beginning. They’re going to throw everything they have at you.”

“Let them,” Thorin spat back. “We’ll send each ship that attacks plummeting back to the surface as a smoldering pile of scrap. This is the end, Gir—”

Thorin stopped short when the empty space beyond the Beskade formation suddenly erupted with flashes of ships exiting hyperspace. Thorin’s face paled as he watched more and more ships arrive. Even Jag’s mouth hung open in disbelief. Every single one of the Chiss vessels that had joined in the initial attack against Thorin was there, but they were not alone.

In the middle of the Chiss formation was a massive ship that Jag had never seen before. It somewhat resembled the standard Star Destroyer design, but it was elongated and sleeker, without the bridge tower rising above the rest of the hull. It was one of the most fearsome ships Jag had ever seen. The bridge of the Ion actually fell silent for a moment as more and more crewmembers turned their eyes to the Chiss fleet.

The shipwide comm speakers crackled to life and Jag raised his brow in his surprise. It had taken the Chiss less than a minute to crack the Beskade fleet’s encryption code.

“This is Lieutenant Benruo,” a familiar voice announced. “Commander of the Chiss Star Destroyer Vormyaendor.”

Jag felt his footing falter as disbelief swept over him. How could Benruo be alive? His mind raced as he tried to remember the comm signature on Benruo’s final broadcast prior to the corvette ramming into the Beskade ship. When he realized he never checked it, and simply assumed that the transmission was coming from the corvette, he could only smile.

He’s Chiss. I should’ve known better.

“You will stand down,” Benruo continued. “Your ships will cease fire and deactivate their reactors immediately.”

“Like hell they will,” Thorin said without activating the comm. He looked at Blaise, whose eyes were still glued to the massive Chiss ship that was steadily closing the distance between itself and the Ion. “Captain, get the shuttle ready.” Blaise nodded and turned to exit the bridge. Jag noticed most of crewmen on the bridge hesitate and exchange glances as they realized Thorin’s intent to abandon the ship.

Realizing his own mistake, Thorin rushed to clarify. “You’re clear to retreat once the rest of the fleet has escaped,” he said. “We’ve got to get the smaller ships out now.”

Jag’s eyes flicked to Blaise, who had stopped to watch the exchange between Thorin and the rest of the bridge. His hand had also slid to the grip of his blaster. Next, Jag’s eyes scanned the men guarding him, whose eyes were all on Thorin, who was still trying to reason with his officers. Meanwhile, the Beskade ships at the rear of the formation that had refused to obey Benruo’s command were beginning to engage the Chiss.

“We’re not going to die just so you have a chance to escape!” one of the bridge officers said. “You brought us here, now you can die with us here.” A chorus of agreements rose up among the rest of the bridge, including the men guarding Jag, but quieted when a burst of static ran across the comm speakers.

“Lieutenant Benruo to hostile vessels,” the Chiss said. “You have chosen to ignore my demands.” There was a brief pause, and then he said, “You have chosen death.”

Red turbolaser fire erupted from the Vormyaendor, battering the shields of the nearest Beskade ship. Once the blasts pierced the shields and found the hull, blue beams of energy slammed into the ship, decimating the hull plating. The Beskade ship was completely destroyed within seconds.

Sensing his opportunity to escape had arrived, Jag blinked a command into his HUD. A small hatch on each shin gauntlet slid back, revealing a set of small blasters that emerged from their housings and locked into place. He glanced around to see if any of the guards had noticed; satisfied that they hadn’t, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“Blaise!” Thorin shouted as a wave of clawcraft dashed forward towards the bridge with their laser cannons blazing. “Shuttle! Now!

The deck shook violently as a pair of Chiss frigates opened fire with their turbolasers. Blaise stumbled as he tried to make his way to the bridge’s exit and one of the crewmen guarding Jag fell to the ground. As panic began to seize hold of the bridge crewmen, Jag dropped to a knee and seized the blasters, then opened fire.

His arms shot out to the sides and started pumping weakened laser bolts into the guards. Caught by surprise, only one of them had a chance to return fire but Jag’s armor absorbed the blast. Thorin’s eyes went wide as Jag rose from his crouch and started to bring both arms around to the front.

Thorin grabbed a nearby officer and shoved him into the line of fire. Jag kept the stream of shots steady, hoping to burn through the officer’s body and land a hit on his target, but Thorin ran at Jag, pushing the dead officer in front of him for cover. He launched the corpse at Jag and dove to Jag’s left, in the direction of where Blaise had last been standing.

Jag tried to keep one of his arms trained on Thorin as he fled, but the impact of the body knocked him to the ground. He quickly propped himself up with one hand and aimed the other towards the bridge’s exit, but Thorin had already slipped through the door, leaving Jag and the rest of the bridge’s crew behind.

He stayed on the ground but brought himself up to one knee. Some of the crew was still focused on trying to combat the constant waves of clawcraft that continued to pepper the Ion’s shields, but others had their weapons in hand and were beginning to take aim.

Sparing a glance at the forward viewport he saw the Vormyaendor was plowing through the Beskade fleet like a plow through dirt. The four or five ships flanking it were pouring their own turbolaser fire into any enemy ship it could find. Hoping to buy himself a few seconds, he dropped back to the ground and rolled behind the corpse that Thorin had thrown at him.

The crewmen opened fire on him immediately. The corpse managed to absorb most of the shots, but some were beginning to burn through and strike Jag’s armor. His HUD flashed a warning each time he took one of the hits, but the suit’s structural integrity remained intact.

Still holding onto the corpse, Jag maneuvered himself into a crouch and risked another glance at the viewport. The Vormyaendor was within range of the Ion now, and its forward batteries had turned their attention on the Beskade Star Destroyer. The first few blasts were absorbed by the shields, but the Chiss gunners soon found holes in the Ion’s protection and punched away at the Star Destroyer’s thick hull plating.

Jag was already on the move. He sprang to his feet and made a run for the door Thorin and Blaise had left through, pulling the corpse with him. His arms and shoulders were screaming with fatigue as he ran—the officer had been a fairly well-built man, and the dead weight was taking its toll on Jag.

He finally made it to the exit and heaved the corpse forward as the doors slid open. Blaster bolts pelted the wall next to his head as he broke into a sprint down the corridor. The ship continued to shake as the Chiss batteries refused to show any mercy. He encountered no resistance on his way to the emergency turbolifts. Once he was inside and on his way to the hangars, Jag let his mind process all that had just happened.

The one thing that stuck out was Blaise’s threat to hunt down Ketlyna. It was not a threat Jag took lightly. They had already tried to kill her from within her own organization. He had accepted the fact that he may not see her again when he left Terminus. There was no guarantee he would escape the Ion, and he found himself eerily comfortable with that realization.

But he could not allow Thorin and Blaise to leave alive. Thorin’s fleet may have been laid to ruins, but Jag could not know for sure that all of Beskade had died with it. He slammed a fist against the turbolift wall and cursed as he began to fill with desperate urgency.

A few minutes later, the turbolift eased to a stop and its doors flew open. Jag burst into the corridor beyond and took off for the hangar. He still had the miniblasters from his shin gauntlets, but he wasn’t overly confident in their ability to win him a firefight. If he hoped to stop Thorin and Blaise in time, his armor would have to hold out long enough for him to get within arm’s reach.

Following the map displayed on his HUD, he reached the hangar quickly and without any resistance, but that changed as soon as he stepped into the hangar itself. Multiple blasters opened fire but only a few connected with his chest plate while the rest went wide. He dove against a bulkhead and crouched down as low as he could. He fired off several blind shots with his left blaster, but he doubted the weakened blasts actually found any targets.

Most of the blasts seem to be coming from directly ahead and to his right, and while the bulkhead provided some defense against those to the right, he was still exposed to anyone in front of him. Jag leaned his head out and checked for some sort of a barricade nearby. There was a stack of supply crates approximately ten meters to the right, and while they would certainly offer some protection, he wasn’t sure that he would survive long enough to reach them.

After a pair of bolts ripped into the durasteel just to the left his helmet, Jag cursed and gritted his teeth. He grabbed a hold of the bulkhead, threw himself forward, and broke into a sprint. A loud mechanical whine of thrusters coming online filled the hangar as one of the Lamda-class shuttle docked nearby roared to life. Jag was running out of time.

A few shots managed to hit him in stride, but his armor was once again able to absorb most of the damage. His HUD reported structural strength at just above fifty percent, a number Jag was afraid to go below. The blasters quieted for a moment once he was out of site behind the supply crates, but he could only afford to pause for a few seconds. He could hear footsteps clanging against the flight deck as the attackers ran to new positions, trying to find an open line of sight.

The steps all seemed to be moving to the left, back towards the hangar door. Jag poked his head around the crates to the right and when no shots forced him back into cover, he slipped around the edge and dashed forward towards the shuttle. He slid feet first behind a fueling cart, but one of the sentries managed to catch a glimpse of him. The sentry shouted for the rest of his squad to redirect their approach and he opened fire on the fuel cart.

Jag was on the move again, this time in a full sprint for the shuttle. He managed to reach the still extended boarding ramp while only taking another pair of shots to the back plate of his armor. As he bound up the ramp, a figure stepped in his path and Jag jerked to the left as a blaster bolt singed the air where he had just been running.

He was at the top of the ramp an instant later and dove at the man firing at him. His shoulder plowed through the man’s knee, who screamed as he collapsed. Jag realized the man he had tackled was Blaise, and the joint he had just shredded was the same one he had put a blaster bolt into almost ten years ago.

Tough luck.

He pinned Blaise to the deck with a knee to the chest and delivered three heavy blows to Blaise’s face, the last of which he felt crush an eye socket. He grabbed Blaise’s skull and slammed it against the floor.

“Where’s Thorin?” he growled. No answer. He slammed again and raised his voice. “Where is he?”

Blaise spit a mouthful of blood at Jag’s visor and grinned. Several of his teeth had been knocked loose and the eye with the broken socket was already swollen shut.

“You lose again, Girran.”

Jag frowned then whipped his head around toward the sound of different thrusters firing.

“Kriff!”

He ran back down the ramp just in time to see another Lamda shuttle lift up from the deck. His heart sank as he helplessly watched the shuttle glide out of the hangar, its wings dropping into their standard flight position. Thorin had escaped. The man who had orchestrated all of this, who had hunted Jag down, hunted down anyone close to him, had escaped.

Enraged, Jag stormed back up the ramp and grabbed Blaise by the throat.

“He’s gone,” Blaise wheezed. “You’ll never find him, and he’ll never quit.” He coughed more blood out of his lungs. “He’s going to get you Girran. I promise you that.”

Jag let go of Blaise’s throat and found the controls for the shuttle’s ramp. He closed it and crouched down next to Blaise. He removed his helmet and stared unblinkingly into Blaise’s only working eye.

“Remember when I said I was going to make you pay for what you’ve done?” he asked. Blaise didn’t respond, so Jag continued. “You thought you could hunt me down, kill everyone in your path, and live to tell the tale?”

Blaise spit more blood into Jag’s face, and after he wiped it away with the back of his gloved hand, he continued.

“You’re going to die now, Blaise. You have only yourself to blame. I want you to think about that in the few moments you have left. All of this—” he gestured in the direction of the hangar “—was because of your arrogance and stupidity. Your death will be a dishonorable one.”

Jag wrapped his fingers around Blaise’s throat again and started to squeeze.

“And that’s more than you deserve.”

He refused to break his gaze, even as Blaise’s eye grew more and more bloodshot and his face went flush. As his hands began to crush the windpipe, his mind went back to that moment at the Sienar facility when Blaise had ruthlessly mowed down a room of civilians. Jag would never forget the horrified expressions on the faces of the men and women whose existence was extinguished in the blink of an eye.

Before that moment, he thought he had served with honorable men, beings who believed in ensuring their own survival but not at all costs, not like others who served the Empire. But Blaise had burned the veil of innocence Jag hid behind. Jag had allowed the events of that day to turn him bitter and cold—but there was time to change.

There was an audible crack as the windpipe snapped, and Blaise’s last breath escaped his lips. Jag stared at the brutalized face of his former comrade with both disdain and pity, but not forgiveness. That was for those who deserved it. He pulled his helmet back on and lowered the boarding ramp.

When none of the sentries from before tried to storm the shuttle, he picked up Blaise’s body and walked halfway down the ramp. Then, with as much power as he could muster, heaved the body on to the flight deck.

Jag could hear the groan of bulkheads struggling to hold in place. The Ion did not have long. He jogged back up the ramp into the cockpit and started the preflight sequences. The hangar was beginning to rumble, and as chunks of flaming durasteel began to crash the deck, Jag lifted the shuttle and blasted out of the hangar. Thorin’s shuttle was nowhere to be found, but as he brought the shuttle around towards the bow of the Ion, he wondered if his old commander even escaped the system.

The Chiss had absolutely annihilated the Beskade fleet. Not a single ship remained intact, save for the Ion, and as he flew out from underneath the Star Destroyer and saw its current state, he was amazed he had been able to escape alive. The hull had been breached in numerous areas and several towers of flames were spewing into space. Jag quickly opened a channel across multiple frequencies and started transmitting.

“This is Captain Girran aboard the shuttle—” he glanced at the ship’s transponder “—Rigodan. Do not fire on this vessel. Repeat: do not fire on this vessel.” He set the transmission on a constant loop and started making his way towards the Vormyaendor.

Less than a minute later, the massive Chiss vessel unleashed its full arsenal on the Ion. The blue blasts he had seen earlier demolished the hull of the Star Destroyer. Sections of hull plating seemed to shatter like they were nothing more than rotted pieces of wood. Jag watched in partly in awe, partly in horror. The power of the Chiss weapons was remarkable, and what it was doing to the Ion was even more impressive.

Finally, a massive explosion ripped open the center of the Star Destroyer. A sequence of explosions tore open the face of the bridge tower, and then the support structure collapsed forward onto the rest of the ship. The viewport of the Rigodan blackened to accommodate for the blinding flash of the reactor detonating, and once it reset to its usual state, the Ion was gone.

Vormyaendor to Captain Girran,” a stoic voice said over the shuttle’s comm. “Please respond.”

“Girran here,” he said.

There was a pause, then Lieutenant Benruo’s voice crackled through the speakers. “Captain Girran, you will follow your escort to the Vormyaendor’s primary hangar.”

“Escort?” Jag asked. He checked the shuttle’s scopes then winced sheepishly. During the Ion’s destruction two clawcraft had fallen in along his flanks. “Um…never mind.”

A few minutes later, the shuttle was docked aboard the Vormyaendor and Jag was standing at the foot of the boarding ramp staring a horribly damaged Spartus in disbelief. Somehow she had wound up in the hands of the Chiss yet again. Benruo had greeted him in the hangar and explained that the Vormyaendor had created an interdiction field along the only viable hyperspace route. ArDee had jumped the Spartus right into their laps.

“I’m sorry for the lives you lost,” Jag told the lieutenant. “That a single Chiss had to die because of me…”

“They died serving a just cause,” Benruo said. He nodded towards Surellia, which visible outside of the hangar. “It is painfully clear that the men you faced in battle did not value life. Their destruction was necessary.”

Jag cocked an eyebrow. “Not exactly the standard Chiss philosophical take on things.”

“There is a reason I no longer serve the Ascendancy, Captain,” Benruo replied evenly. “My men and I serve a cause with a more…reasonable philosophy.”

“The Empire of the Hand?”

“Precisely,” Benruo said. “Speaking of which, I believe we had an agreement.”

Jag nodded. “Of course, sir. However, my ship…”

Benruo waved a hand dismissively. “Clearly you misunderstood the terms of our agreement. You will not be making the journey to that realm of space, Captain.”

“Then how am I supposed to help—”

“Your ship contains navigational data that my men and I require,” Benruo explained. “You will provide it.”

“Of course, assuming you can access it.”

“We already have,” Benruo said. “I only needed your assistance in extracting it. Your ship’s computer system seems quite unwilling to part with the information.”

Jag smiled. Even if the Spartus wasn’t, at least ArDee was still in one piece. Benruo summoned a team of technicians who followed Jag on board. He provided the necessary clearance codes for ArDee and the Chiss slicers went to work. While he waited for them to complete their task, he inspected the interior of the ship.

Much of it had been sealed due to hull breaches, and after a cursory glance at the hyperdrive, he wasn’t sure it would last long enough to get him to the Hydian Way. He would have to begin repairs immediately, but given the Trianii’s technological inclinations, he might be able to have the Spartus space-ready within a week.

Unfortunately, that meant giving Thorin quite the head start. Jag had no doubt that Thorin would begin searching for Ketlyna immediately, though he had faith in her ability to disappear. Someone in her line of work could only be found if they wanted to be found. Perhaps she would be smart enough to go to Karrde. They had worked together in the past, and he was hardly the type to turn his back on ally in need.

The technicians completed their work relatively quickly and Jag escorted them off the ship. He thanked all the Chiss present yet again for their help, particularly Benruo, and wished them well with their return to the Empire of the Hand. He knew better than to ask where it was, and he wasn’t convinced he actually wanted to know. His luck with empires was considerably poor.

He brought the Spartus’ few functioning systems online and cringed at the sound the thrusters made as he raised the ship off the hangar deck and guided it into space. He gradually eased the throttle forward and held his breath as the freighter began to pass through the atmosphere.

His thoughts quickly fell back to Thorin, Blaise, and the rest of the men who had once comprised Scimitar. It infuriated him to know that the majority of the men from Beskade had fallen back under Thorin’s leadership. Blaise’s reasons for doing so did not matter to Jag. He saw them only as a weak justification from a man with a lust for revenge.

Over the last few weeks, he had stared into the eyes of old comrades as he snuffed the life out of them. With each death, he felt part of his soul wither away, only to be replaced by something colder and darker. Jag knew that he must find a way to repair that damage and salvage what was left.

While his father may not have had a chance to explain what it meant to wear the armor of a Mandalorian, he had taught Jag that without honor, a man has nothing. For Jag to allow a being as vile as Mex Thorin to corrupt the sense of righteousness that his father had instilled him would only dishonor his father’s memory and the armor he had left behind.

Jag didn’t care how long it would take or how many credits it would cost him: Mex Thorin would be held accountable for the evil he had done. Bregen’s death would not go unpunished, nor would Mech’s. Thorin would answer for what he did to Surellia, for defiling its beauty and slaughtering an untold amount of its innocent inhabitants. He was a man without honor, but he would be brought to justice by one who valued it above all else.

***

Epilogue

Twelve weeks after the Battle of Surellia


There were few beings in the galaxy more bitter than Mex Thorin, or at least that was what he preferred to tell himself. It may not have been that far from the truth, though. The number of beings who had watched their own personal empire, one they had spent years building, crumble before their eyes couldn’t have been that high. Even if a few of those beings did exist, Thorin doubted that the death of their empire had been brought on by the one man they had sworn to destroy.

What had been one of the more cunning pirating outfits along the Hydian Way was reduced to five men in a matter of minutes in a battle the rest of the galaxy didn’t even know took place, in a system the galaxy didn’t know existed. If he still wasn’t so furious, he would be embarrassed. Still, all was not lost. While Beskade would never again exist, Thorin still had his contacts, still had countless credits stashed away, and still had people to kill.

The first of those people he had tracked to Arkanis, an attractive world along the Corellian Run, rich in history and tradition. Those riches were evident in the beautiful architecture that filled its cities, but Thorin had no time to enjoy the offerings of the planet. It had taken him weeks to find the Zeltron harlot for whom Girran had always had a soft spot. Killing Girran at this point wasn’t an option, at least not yet. Ketlyna, on the other hand…

Thorin and the other four remaining members of Beskade had been quietly making their way through the open marketplace of Pahnii, one of Arkanis’ larger cities. The air was filled all sorts of sounds and languages as traders from all over the sector tried to deal their goods. With so many smugglers and merchants running shipments through the system, Arkanis was an ideal location for a mid-level intelligence network to build a new base of operations.

Every contact Thorin had sought out pointed him towards the Arkanis sector. He had already checked in at most of the major space ports in the sector, but none of them offered much or seemed like they would attract someone like Ketlyna. Arkanis, however, was so perfectly suited to her needs that he was disappointed in himself for not thinking of it sooner.

After an hour or so of scouring the marketplace, Thorin rendezvoused with his men. Only two of them had managed to obtain something resembling a lead, and not wanting to waste anymore time, he moved quickly. Their search took them to an old apartment complex that did not appear to have been inhabited for quite some time. The masonry work on its exterior was crumbling in several spots and multiple windows had been sealed.

The group inspected the building anyway, finding only a few vagrants and desperate spice addicts stowed away in some of the rooms. They swept nearby buildings as well, preferring to be thorough despite Thorin’s impatience. Still, he found nothing. It wasn’t until he returned to the marketplace that for the first time in nearly three months he felt a glimmer of hope.

Thirty meters to his right, a soft pink-skinned Zeltron female was moving fluidly through the crowd. He had run into several Zeltrons during his search for Ketlyna, but he had always left the encounter disappointed. This one, however, almost certainly promised a more satisfactory outcome.

He was alone in the marketplace, having told his men to once again spread out and scour the city. Thorin started to raise them on his comlink then thought better of it. If Ketlyna’s outfit was actually operating in the city, they were likely monitoring comm traffic, and telling his men to begin to moving towards his location would only alert his prey of his presence.

Instead, Thorin started following the Zeltron, but only after moving deeper into the main boulevard of the marketplace rather than pursue from directly behind her. He was able to gain considerable ground on his target without drawing any attention to himself, but that likely had more to do with the pair of swoops that were pushing their way through the crowded avenue she was using than anything he did.

After he was able to get within ten meters of her, he felt a sudden rush of adrenaline as he realized his efforts had been rewarded. The Zeltron was wearing her hair pulled back, revealing the skin of her neck. Thorin had drawn close enough that a unique tattoo, one that was mentioned in any file he could find on Ketlyna, was clearly visible.

Finally, after months of futile searches, he had found the one person in the galaxy whose death would draw Jag Girran out from whatever hole he was hiding in. He just needed the very small amount of patience he had left to last him a few more minutes. Killing her in the middle of a crowded marketplace was not an option—at least not if he wanted to do it discreetly. Unfortunately, the only weapons he had tucked away into his jacket and gun belt were not intended for covert use.

Eventually Ketlyna broke away from the main public concourses and started making her way down a series of tighter avenues that connected the larger boulevards, but not before Thorin risked contacting his men to provide them a new rendezvous point. Anyone listening would be none the wiser to his plan. The location he had provided would allow his men to block the avenue’s access to the boulevard on the far side.

A few merchants had storefronts along the avenues, though the distance between them would provide Thorin all the time he needed to make the kill. The pedestrian traffic had also begun to thin considerably, but this was both a blessing and a curse for Thorin. There would be fewer witnesses, but concealing his presence would be much more difficult.

Thorin was within five meters of Ketlyna when he drew his blaster from its holster and quickened his steps. The closer he was for the kill, the better. If Girran managed to locate the body, the size of the blaster burn would hint at how close the shooter was, and knowing Girran, the knowledge that Ketlyna had been practically executed would only provoke him even further and ensure that he came looking for Thorin.

He raised the blaster and started to squeeze the trigger when something rushed past his eyes and landed with a loud thud directly in front of him. A warm liquid splashed all over his face and clothing, and when he looked at what had hit the ground he realized what that liquid was. Sprawled on the avenue in a rapidly growing pool of blood was one of his men with a pair of blaster bolts in his chest.

Thorin was frozen in place, his arm still extended with the blaster, but when he looked up, Ketlyna had vanished. He cursed silently and tried to clamp down on the chills that refused to stop shooting up his spine. A cold pit of fear was beginning to form in his stomach, and while fear was hardly an unfamiliar emotion, he found himself caught in the unique situation of knowing he was going to die.

The fear was quickly joined by anger, both at himself and Girran, for allowing himself to be so easily cornered. His desperation and impatience had been his undoing. After years of exercising remarkable restraint, he had faltered in the most inopportune moment.

He heard boots land on the ground behind him, and suddenly the fear that had gripped him seconds ago vanished. Thorin was numb inside, and the world suddenly seemed to move in slow motion. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before slowly turning around.

Standing two meters away was Jag Girran, adorned in his Mandalorian armor and holding a gleaming blaster that was inscribed with markings unlike Thorin had ever seen. It was aimed at the middle of his forehead. He swallowed hard and opened his mouth to speak.

“No,” Girran said before Thorin could begin. “You don’t deserve last words.”

Thorin’s gaze was locked with the black shaped visor of Girran’s helmet, and while he couldn’t see his executioner’s face, he could at least take solace in the fact that Girran wasn’t smiling. This was not a kill he would enjoy; Thorin was sure of that much. Rather, it would only remind him that those he loved and cared for were dead, and, in a few moments, he would also be reminded that killing the man responsible for those deaths would not bring them back.

It was in that small bit of torture that Thorin would have his final victory. Girran could keep his talk of honor and loyalty. Such nonsense belonged only in eulogies and stories told to children. The galaxy was a cold, unforgiving place that cared nothing for honor. It was a place made for those willing to do what was necessary to survive and flourish. He had pushed Girran to kill those he once loved and fought with—he had pushed him to the brink.

Yes, he had his victory, and he did not care that it would be short lived. That Girran could only stand before him in silence sweetened it. There would be no grand speech about Thorin’s lack of morality because Girran was no longer certain morality existed. Thorin smiled at the thought and closed his eyes, preparing for the eternal rest he was about to be granted. But then Girran spoke again.

“I want you to know,” he said calmly, “that I forgive you.”

Anger exploded inside Thorin. Girran had snatched his final triumph away from him, refusing to grant him any measure of satisfaction in his final moments, and his method was so simple that Thorin found himself admiring its execution as Girran’s finger moved to the blaster’s trigger. The finger began to press against the trigger and he closed his eyes.

“Goodbye, Thorin.”

***

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