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Me Manifesto

Honor And Armor: Section VII, Part 1

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Section VII

16 A.B.Y.


When Jag finally regained consciousness, he awoke suddenly, finding himself still in stuncuffs, whose power had been reduced considerably. He was laying on a cold, hard floor of a holding cell quite similar to those aboard the Spartus. Much like his ship, the interior of this particular vessel had a sterile, uninviting appearance that he believed only the reclusive could appreciate.

His armor, having been stripped from his body when his ship was boarded, lay in a heap across the room. He tried to stretch his limbs as much as possible without incurring the wrath of the stuncuffs, though they offered little forgiveness. His shoulders ached—he was fairly sure something was torn—and his back was essentially one massive knotted muscle.

He could feel his body screaming out for release as pain burned through every nerve of his body, but he did not make a sound. His captors had seen what he wanted them to see—a weak man, one who could not tolerate the pain they inflicted. But he was not that man. They had no idea what they had brought aboard their ship. And, if they were as predictable as Jag had hoped, the ship he had been brought to was currently hurtling through hyperspace towards a very unwelcoming corner of the galaxy.

After a bit of experimentation, Jag discovered he could stretch his hamstrings and quadriceps without much reaction from the stuncuffs, and that sitting with his back to a wall provided some relief for his shoulders. Eventually a pair of the ship’s crewmen brought him water and a ration pack. The ration pack they simply opened and dropped onto a plate before standing back and hoping for a humiliating display Jag refused to provide.

The water, however, was a different story. He sipped it slowly, letting it wet his lips and soak into his parched mouth. The sips eventually turned into gulps and the container was quickly emptied. He knew better than to ask for more, so he shimmied himself back to the wall of the holding cell and resumed his previous position.

The two crewmen disappeared and Jag drifted off again. He slept as soundly as a man in stuncuffs could until he was jolted awake by the rattling sound of metal against metal. His eyes adjusted to the light quickly and he focused on the man walking along the front of the holding cell, the barrel of his blaster clanging against the vertical bars of the cell. The man was well built and had a commanding presence about him. Jag recognized him immediately, though it had been years since he’d last seen him. The former explosives expert had certainly aged.

“Vius.”

“Hello, Girran.”

The holding cell opened and Vius stepped in. He was larger than Jag remembered—wider, not necessarily taller—and the bounty hunter began to feel a bit overmatched, especially with the cuffs still in place.

“I’d offer an apology for my men’s excessive use of force, but I’m not sure you really deserve one,” he said as he crouched down in front of Jag.

“Good to see you, too.”

Vius smiled. “The others were right; you haven’t changed at all.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Hm. From what I understand, you’ve figured this whole thing out. Or have I been misinformed?”

Jag shrugged. “Yeah. Mostly. I just haven’t figured out why. If this is over what happened on the Renegade, you’ve all got a few circuits loose. Hardly a reasonable response.”

Reasonable?” Vius spat. “After everything I—we—had to suffer through—”

He cut himself off and made a visible effort to compose himself.

“Soon enough, Girran, you’ll understand.”

“Been hearing that lot lately,” Jag muttered. “What I’ll never understand, though, is how you managed to turn into such a coward.”

Vius glared at Jag and rubbed his chin for a moment before standing up. “Sending Halden after you wasn’t my decision, though he hardly complained about the assignment.”

“Yeah. Noticed his opinion of me had changed a bit.”

“Betrayal will do that to a man,” Vius shot back. Jag cocked an eyebrow, but Vius waved his hand dismissively. “As I said, soon enough—”

“I know, I know,” Jag said. He then sighed overdramatically. “In the meantime, do I at least get to know where we are, or where we’re headed?”

“Don’t try to be cute, Girran. You know damn well where we’re going.”

Jag smiled. “Indeed I do. I probably know where we are, too.”

Vius narrowed his eyes but said nothing.

“I’m going to assume you executed a full dump from my ship’s systems. I’m also going to assume that since you and whatever crew you’re running with knows about Surellia—specifically my connection to it—you’re gunning for it.”

“Your powers of deduction amaze me.”

“Thanks,” Jag said flatly. “But just knowing about Surellia doesn’t mean you know the way in.”

“Ah,” Vius offered a sinister smile, “and that, my friend, is where you are wrong.”

This time it was Jag who remained silent.

“You see, we began monitoring your ship’s movements several months ago. It was a tedious task, certainly. You are quite adept at covering your tracks. It became obvious very quickly how you’ve managed to survive this long. Yet we managed to complete our task regardless.”

“Tell me how.”

There was no disguising the anger in his voice. He had been outsmarted and manipulated. He had suspected foul play of some sort, even voiced his concerns to Mech, though he had never anticipated this.

“I suppose there’s no harm in ruining the surprise at this point,” Vius said. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of Captain Blaise and his men.”

“You bastards,” Jag said, shaking his head. “I knew I was being lured out into the open. Let me guess? Tracking device crafted by some technological genius?”

“I’d consider The Mechanic a technological genius, wouldn’t you?”

Jag could practically feel his jaw hit the floor. “You’re lying.”

Vius laughed. “Why would I bother?”

The former explosives expert had a point. There was nothing left to gain by deceiving Jag. All but a few of their cards had been laid on the table; as far as Vius knew, Jag’s final card had been played, and unsuccessfully so.

“We’ve been watching you for a long time, Girran. Long enough to learn your favorite spaceports, favorite cantinas, favorite mechanics.” Vius trailed off for a moment then grinned in such a sinister fashion that Jag was sure his skin actually began to crawl.

“Your favorite woman.”

“You couldn’t kill her the first time around,” Jag said, his jaw tight.

“And I’ll see to it personally that you don’t get a second chance.”

“It’s hard for a man to see to anything when he’s dead.”

“As I’m sure you’ll soon find out,” Jag countered.

“Such arrogance,” Vius chided. “But, as I was saying, your dear Mech provided invaluable assistance—though unwillingly. Having one’s spouse held hostage will make a man do strange things. He probably wouldn’t have helped if he knew how things were going to turn out for the two of them, though I won’t trouble you with the details. He did die quietly, that much I can assure you.”

“I’m going to rip your throat out,” Jag said as he laughed bitterly. “And I’m going to slaughter every last one of you. There is nothing I could have done that deserves this kind of retribution.”

“So you say.”

Jag shook his head in frustration. At this rate, he would be begging to be put out of his misery long before his plan could come to fruition. He needed to keep Vius occupied, even if just for a few more minutes.

“Just so I’m understanding this correctly,” he said, “you used a homing beacon that Mech designed—one that he knew I would be unable to detect—and tracked me to Surellia. That means you have the necessary calculations for the nav computer already in hand. Kind of makes my continued existence unnecessary, except that this kind of revenge is about more than just killing me. You’re punishing my existence.”

Vius nodded. “More or less.”

“This is the end of the line, then, at least as far as you’re concerned, correct? Because if it wasn’t, you’d hardly be so candid.”

Another nod.

Jag smiled. “In that case, Vius, I’m very sorry to say that this is not the end of the line—at least not for me.”

At that moment, as if fate was standing idly by and patiently waiting for its cue, the ship lurched forward as though it had slammed into the surface of a planet. Jag and Vius were thrown against the walls of the holding cell. Alarms began blaring throughout the ship. The room’s lights began a sequence of nearly blinding red, white, and yellow flashes.

“Bridge to Vius!” a voice blared through the room’s comm. “We’ve been pulled out of hyperspace!”

“Brilliant crew you’ve got,” Jag groaned as he maneuvered himself into an upright position.

“Multiple contacts along multiple vectors!” the voice continued. “The ship is surrounded!”

Vius was back on his feet, looking back and forth, his eyes wide with panic. Then his expression shifted to one of rage as he grabbed Jag by the collar.

“What did you do?”

Jag smiled broadly. “I didn’t do anything. You, on the other hand…”

Vius threw him against the back wall of the holding cell and drew his blaster. “Start talking.”

“You did extract whatever you could find in my ship’s systems, right?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m willing to bet that included files pertaining to a certain hyperspace route that cut around the western side of the core. One that would cut the number of jumps to Surellia in half.”

A look of understanding swept across Vius’ face. “Yes.”

Jag continued to smile. “If I were you, I’d begin broadcasting your intent to surrender in every language you know.”

Vius hesitated for a moment before reaching for his comlink. “Vius to Bridge. I’m on my way.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Jag said. “Fighting these people is just not an option.”

“Keep your cowardice to yourself,” Vius said as he left the cell and sealed it behind him. “I doubt ‘these people’ have ever faced the Beskade.”

Still smiling as Vius headed for the door at the far end of the room, Jag rested his head against the back of the wall of the holding cell.

“Hey, Vius,” he called after his captor. When the man stopped and looked over his shoulder, Jag flashed another grin. “I am going to rip your throat out. And much sooner than you think.”

***

A few minutes later Jag found himself getting thrown from one side of the cell to the other as the ship rocked violently from felt like direct hits to the hull. Alarms continued to blare at a deafening level. The stuncuffs were firing waves of electricity through his body at a constant rate as he could do nothing to avoid activating them.

After what seemed like an hour of concussion blasts, the ship finally stayed still. Whatever aches Jag had been nursing earlier had only been exacerbated by the recent events. He was still crumpled on the floor of the cell groaning in pain when the door to the room opened and three men stormed in.

They opened the cell and dragged Jag to his feet, sending another wave of pain through his body. One of the men aimed a blaster at Jag while another removed the stuncuffs and bound Jag’s hands in front of his body with fibercord. Jag exhaled in relief and felt a small bit of euphoria sweep through him as his back and shoulder muscles loosened. Unfortunately his relief was short-lived as the guard with the blaster motioned towards the door and the one who had removed the stuncuffs shoved him along.

“Move it.”

The group made their way down several corridors, some of which had suffered extensive damage, before reaching a turbolift that took them to the bridge. As Jag’s eyes studied the scene of chaos around him, he couldn’t help but smile. Beyond the bridge in the space in front of the ship was what appeared to be a picket force of alien ships which employed designs that most beings in the known galaxy would find incredibly foreign.

There was also an audio message playing on a loop across the bridge’s speakers. The voice seemed to be repeating the same thing, just in different languages. Jag recognized three of them—and only two of those were commonly known throughout the galaxy. The message was a clear warning to discontinue any hostile maneuvers and stand down immediately, as well as a declaration of intent to board the vessel. Given the state of the bridge and the corridors Jag had passed through on his way to the turbolift, Vius had decided not to listen.

“Captain Vius,” said one of the guards. “We retrieved the prisoner per your orders.”

Vius, who was leaning over a terminal arguing with two other bridge officers, turned towards Jag. Since he had left the holding cell, the man’s appearance had changed considerably. Sweat was dripping from his face, his hair was matted, and parts of his clothing were torn, likely from being thrown about the bridge during the aggressor’s earlier barrage.

“Girran, you’ve got about five seconds to tell me what the hell those are,” he barked as he pointed towards the group of ships sitting directly ahead of them.

“Or what?” Jag retorted, his tone and expression neutral.

Vius said nothing but there was no hiding the anger. He pounded the terminal and walked across the bridge to a different one. “Or we all die. That what you want?”

Jag shrugged. “I can live with that.”

One of the guards slammed Jag between the shoulder blades with the butt of a blaster, partially knocking the wind out of him. Once he regained his composure and was able to stand, he turned and looked at the guard who had struck him.

“OW.”

Vius marched across the deck to where he was standing and grabbed Jag by the throat.

“Enough with the nonsense.” His nostrils flared as he tightened his grip. “Start talking.”

“You hearing the same message I am?” Jag wheezed as he gasped for breath after Vius released him.

“Of course I am, but what in the blazes is the ‘Chiss Ascendancy?’”

Jag couldn’t manage to hold back another smile. “My ticket off this ship.”

The message continued to play in the background. It was almost identical to the one he had heard eight years prior.

“Unidentified ship: you have entered the realm of the Chiss Ascendancy. You are ordered to cease hostile operations at once and prepare for a full inspection of your vessel. Failure to comply will result in your destruction.”

It was a warning similar to those issued by practically every planetary defense fleet in the galaxy, but it still sent chills up Jag’s spine. The last time he had heard those words, events transpired that led to a fundamental change in how he lived. He found it appropriate that he hear them again now, as he prepared for what would likely be the defining moment of his life.

“Hate to say ‘I told you so,’” Jag taunted. “I tried to warn you. Hell, you’re lucky we’re still alive.”

Vius ignored Jag as he continued to shout orders to various crewmen. Jag shook his head, knowing that the captain’s efforts were futile. Any show of resistance would lead to a conclusion Jag was not comfortable with, despite his previous claims to the contrary. After hearing Vius order one of his officers to begin targeting the primary vessel, Jag intervened.

“Vius, dammit, shut down the ship!”

The officer who had received the order hesitated at Jag’s protest.

“Ignore him,” Vius said. “Get it done.”

Realizing that the captain was beyond the point of reasoning, Jag turned his attention to the officer. “You do that and we’re dead within thirty seconds.” He pointed to the alien ships. “We’re in their territory, and they do not tolerate intruders—especially ones that shoot back.”

The officer fixed Jag with a hard stare for a moment before glancing at Vius, then back at Jag. He nodded in agreement and took a step away from Jag. Enraged, Vius charged past the man, shoving him to the ground.

“Get him off my bridge!”

None of the other officers on the bridge rushed to obey the order. A few of them looked at Jag as if waiting for his instructions.

Interesting.

“Vius,” he said as calmly as he could. “Power...the ship…down.”

The captain held his ground fuming for a moment, his shoulders rising and falling with each breath. A tense silence descended upon the bridge as the crewmen—and Jag—awaited Vius’ decision.

While he waited, Jag noticed something begin to move along the line of Chiss ships. Vius’ back was to the viewports, and none of the other crewmen seemed to notice—except for one.

“Sir!” the crewman called. “Movement along the enemy’s line!”

“Report!” Vius demanded. Jag exhaled and relaxed for a moment. This development would hopefully distract Vius from firing for a few minutes. Based on Jag’s previous experience that would be more than enough.

The next five minutes transpired without incident. The movement Jag had observed—three shuttles escorted by starfighters—had approached the ship and taken up flanking positions. Vius’ control of the situation continued to deteriorate, but to Jag’s relief, he did not attempt to fire on any of the vessels during their approach.

Then the Chiss voiced their intent. “Unidentified ship: prepare to be boarded. Attempts to resist will be met with lethal force.” As was the case with the original broadcast, this message played in a loop, changing languages each time.

“Lieutenant Nuste, prepare your men,” Vius sad. “I expect they will board at the primary starboard and port airlocks; plan accordingly.”

Stunned, Jag tried to intervene. “They will slaughter your men, Vius. They aren’t—”

“Return the prisoner to his cell,” Vius snapped at the three men guarding Jag. “If he resists, shoot him.”

Jag’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He looked at one of the guards next to him. “Well that’s not part of the plan, is it?”

The guard ignored him and shoved him back towards the doors leading to the turbolift. Once they had nearly made their way back to the detention center, Jag slowed his steps.

“You realize he’s going to get you all killed, right?” he asked the guard to his right.

“Captain knows what he’s doing. He’s gotten us out of tougher spots than this.”

Jag laughed. “I doubt that.” He looked at the guard on his left. “How about you?” The guard remained silent. “And Mr. Personality in the back, you on board with this?”

The guard pressed the muzzle of his blaster into Jag’s back. “One more word.”

Jag bowed his head and went silent. He spared a few glances downwards, trying to catch a glimpse of the guard’s feet. Though he had to fake a couple of stumbles, he was able to synchronize his steps with those of the rear guard. When a pair of sideways glances confirmed that the other two guards’ eyes were not on him, Jag attacked.

His left foot shot backwards and hooked the rear guard’s lead foot. He swept it forward, knocking the guard off his feet. Jag jumped up to avoid entangling his free leg and landed square on the chest of the downed guard. An audible crack indicated at least one broken rib. He balled his fists and swung at the face of the guard to his left. The strike connected and the guard staggered back.

Jag loaded his momentum on his left leg and launched himself back to the right. With his right foot now free, he was able to complete a full roundhouse kick on the third guard, who was starting to draw his blaster. Jag crushed the guard’s face with his boot and the blaster fell from his hand.

The guard to the left that Jag had punched lunged at him, driving him face-first into the corridor’s wall and wrapped his arms around Jag’s torso. Jag slammed the rear of his skull into the guard’s face then leveraged his body against the guard’s, jumped, and pushed off from the wall with his legs. The pair fell to the ground, and the guard’s body went limp as his head smacked against floor.

Jag rolled off his attacker’s body and picked up the third guard’s blaster. He put a shot into all three guards then rummaged through their pockets and retrieved their comlinks. As he neared the detention center, he could hear voices and running footsteps coming towards him. The door was only a few more meters away, but the voices were getting closer and Jag doubted he would reach it in time.

Just before he reached the door, the ship rocked violently and the corridor’s lights surged on and off several times. Jag was thrown into the wall but he managed to stay on his feet. He could hear the approaching group either slam into the walls or fall to the ground. He took advantage of the disruption and ducked into the detention center undetected.

Some of his armor was still in the same spot near his holding cell while other pieces had been scattered around the room by the blasts that shook the ship. He removed a vibroblade he kept concealed in a shin plate and sliced the fibercord binding his wrists.

Finally free to stretch his muscles, Jag tested his body’s limits and was pleased with the results. The walk to the bridge had helped loosen his legs and changing the placement of his hands had given his shoulders some much needed relief. He quickly strapped on his armor and tucked the blaster he had picked up into one of his holsters.

Jag tucked his helmet under his arm, cautiously exited the detention center, and headed aft down the corridor. He eventually passed a door labeled as an observation deck which he had to open, as power in that part of the ship had finally been knocked out completely. Once inside, he made his way up several flights of stairs to the observation room which was comprised of floor-to-ceiling viewports on three sides. From there, he was able to ascertain exactly what was happening—and see just how badly outmatched Vius really was.

The Chiss had responded to the foreign ships’ appearance with an impressive show of force. The vessels that Jag had seen while on the bridge were not the only ones belonging to the Chiss. There were at least five more: two on both the starboard and port side with another circling towards the rear.

Those ships had released at least two wings of starfighters, though these were nothing like the fighters Jag had seen several years ago when he met Commander Hackan. These looked like a TIE prototype of some sort; the familiar cockpit ball was there, but the wings were far different—and far more menacing.

Meanwhile, it appeared Vius had made the potentially fatal decision of opening fire. However, Jag could observe no structural damage on the Chiss ships and only minimal scoring marks on the hull of Vius’ ship. Puzzled, Jag craned his neck to look down the length of first the port side, then the starboard, at which point he understood why the Chiss had been so reluctant to return fire. Attached to the hull at two points were a group of boarding shuttles.

Jag grinned. “Right on time, boys.”

His plan, which Vius was unknowingly doing his best to defeat, was working perfectly. He just hoped that ArDee was having equal success with his side of things.

Jag bounded back down the stairs to the main corridor and began making his way towards the turbolifts to the bridge. Instead of returning to the bridge, however, he bypassed the lifts and continued towards the point where the Chiss shuttles had latched onto the hull.

After a few minutes of unimpeded progress, the familiar sound of blaster fire started echoing through the corridor. He reached for his blaster rifle instinctively, only to end up shaking his head at his own forgetfulness. Instead, he drew the blaster he had taken from one of his escorts minutes earlier and slowed his steps.

The corridor began to gradually turn to the right, and as he continued to approach the blaster fire he pressed his back against the wall with his blaster at the ready, his helmet still in hand. The blaster fire and shouting had intensified, and not all of the shouting was in Basic. He carefully leaned away from the wall in an effort to survey the skirmish, but quickly withdrew when a burst of blaster fire ripped into the wall near his face.

Not wanting to risk hitting any of the Chiss, Jag held his fire and started moving forward in a crouch. Each step forward forced a grimace as Jag tried to endure the shots of pain radiating from his knees.

I’m spending a week in a bacta tank after this.

The scene ahead was one of controlled chaos. Chiss operatives advanced steadily on a lightly fortified position manned by Vius’ men. Their fire was constant but meticulous, the timing of their covering fire perfect. No two Chiss standing together reloaded their weapons simultaneously—not that doing so would matter match, as the swiftness with which fresh power packs were jammed into their weapons was on a level that eclipsed even the most proficient soldiers in New Republic space.

Vius’ men, on the other hand, were giving ground quickly as the Chiss continued to press forward. Their blaster fire grew sporadic, their aim undisciplined. He could see some of them begin to retreat farther down the corridor while others disappeared through side hatches. Jag’s brow creased in confusion; he would expect Vius to fight for every inch of the ship, not surrender to the enemy’s advance.

Unless…

The door on the right just head of Jag flew open and a group of about fifteen soldiers poured through.

Just like Trioegh VIII…

He didn’t know why, but Jag expected the Chiss rear guards to hear the steps of the approaching ambush even over the din of the firefight. His instincts screamed for him to warn the Chiss, to shout anything, but his mind was elsewhere. The memory of fighting his way through the abandoned droid factory came surging back so vividly he nearly forgot it was only a memory. The faint yet persistent scent of rust filled his nostrils, the deafening barrage of blaster fire, both from his men and the enemy…

And then there was Thorin’s revelation. His scheme that led Scimitar to its death, the smugness with which he mocked Jag’s sense of honor, Thorin’s complete lack thereof…

The memory ended abruptly as it had begun as Jag’s mind refocused. The blaster was already aimed and firing, seemingly by its own volition. Three of the men in front of Jag fell immediately. Before the Chiss could react, one of the rear guards was gunned down as a stream of laser bolts ripped into his back.

Despite the ambush, the Chiss’ discipline did not waiver. One of the soldiers, likely the commanding officer, barked an order that was obeyed immediately. The front half of the squad continued its initial assault while collectively dropping to a knee; the rear half pivoted quickly, nearly in unison, and opened fire. Jag dropped back a few meters to avoid the blue beams of energy pouring out of the Chiss’ weapons but continued to fire into the group of ambushers.

Within seconds the attack was over and all of Vius’ men dead. Before Jag could duck out of sight the Chiss spotted him and unleashed a ferocious barrage at his position. Jag kicked himself backwards away from the corner, sliding along the floor of the corridor on his rear. He quickly got to his knees, tossed his blaster back towards the Chiss, and put his hands behind his head. His mind racing, he scrambled to remember the bit of Cheunh Commander Hackan taught him years ago. The sound of footsteps running down the corridor towards his position grew closer…

Tre’tunah!”

The steps came to an abrupt halt. Sweat rolled down Jag’s forehead and into his eyes, but he didn’t dare make any movements with three fully armed Chiss staring at him. Their weapons still trained on him, the commander pushed past the soldier in the middle and marched straight for Jag, a furious expression on his face.

“What did you say?” he demanded in surprisingly crisp Basic.

Jag swallowed hard. “Tre’tunah.”

The Chiss raised an eyebrow, forcing a grin to tug at the edges of Jag’s mouth.

“Identify yourself.”

“Jag Girran, captain of the Spartus.”

The Chiss cocked his head slightly to the right. “Commander Hackan’s Girran?”

Jag hesitated before nodding in affirmation. “Apparently I made quite an impression on your leader. I’m humbled.”

“He is not my leader,” the Chiss said almost too quickly. “Nor is he the leader of any Chiss within the boundaries of the Ascendancy.”

“I—”

“No questions,” the soldier said sharply. “For the moment, more pressing matters require my attention.”

Jag nodded in agreement. “Of course…sir.”

“Lieutenant Shan'act'ocomdan,” the Chiss said, sensing Jag’s search for a proper title. “Though you may refer to me as Lieutenant Nacto.”

“Certainly, Lieutenant.” Jag leaned to look past Nacto at the blaster he had tossed away and nodded towards it. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir?”

Nacto turned to look then motioned to one of the soldiers standing near it, who retrieved it and returned the weapon to Jag. He nodded his thanks and forced it into one of his holsters.

“If you wouldn’t mind, Lieutenant, I was hoping I could offer some assistance.”

“Under typical circumstances I would refuse,” Nacto said. He looked back at his soldiers for a minute before continuing. “However, it stands to reason that your familiarity with this ship’s design greatly exceeds our own. Perhaps you could aid in reaching the command cabin of this vessel.”

“Absolutely, sir.” For the first time since retrieving his armor, Jag pulled his helmet over his face and secured the atmospheric seal. “I assure you, nothing would please me more.”

***

Together, Jag and the Chiss fought their way through the middle of the ship, clearing as many corridors as they could. After slicing a terminal and obtaining the ship’s schematics, Nacto was able to establish communication with the members of the other boarding ship and direct them to his squad’s current location.

“There is a set of turbolifts near where we met that will take us directly to the bridge,” Jag offered.

Nacto shook his head. “Given their choice in tactics, the turbolifts you speak of will no doubt be heavily guarded at our destination, if not sabotaged at a prior point.” He paused for a moment and frowned. “No, we will have to settle for a direct assault against the bridge’s primary means of ingress.”

“We’ll die before we breach the blast doors,” Jag countered. “Those things are built to withstand bombardments, and that says nothing of whatever automated defenses Vius installed along the way.”

Nacto nodded. “I do not disagree. Do any alternate routes exist?”

“You mean other than maintenance hatches that are either sealed or rigged with explosives? No.”

“Perhaps we could create our own?”

Jag frowned. “Explain.”

“Below this,” Nacto stomped his foot against the deck twice, “what is there?”

“I’m assuming piping, wiring, random crawlspaces,” Jag said with a shrug. “I doubt we could fit enough men in there to actually launch an assault, though. They’d gun us down trying to crawl out.”

“Who said anything about crawling out?” Nacto said.

Jag paused then grinned as he realized what Nacto was implying. “You want to cut through from the top.”

“Precisely. The group that will be joining us momentarily is equipped with the materials necessary for such an operation.” He raised the Chiss equivalent of a comlink to his mouth and uttered a few succinct orders into it before receiving a simple acknowledgement, then turned back to Jag.

“We will begin clearing the necessary areas above the bridge. The rest of my people will meet us there, at which point the operation may commence. Given your advanced…protection,” he gestured to Jag’s armor, “you will lead us in. My men and I will follow you through.

“I have been given explicit instructions to capture this vessel intact and its commander alive. Do not interfere with those orders.”

The sternness of the lieutenant’s voice eliminated the need for any elaboration. Jag’s experience with Nacto’s people had taught him all too well that failure to comply with their demands would be met with nothing short of swift and vicious retribution.

“Understood, Lieutenant.”

He must have sensed Jag’s apprehension, because Nacto was quick to add to his warning.

“However, once my task is complete, I will petition my commander to release this vessel’s leader to your custody.”

Jag suppressed a smile. “Your accommodations are most appreciated, Lieutenant.”

“Indeed.” Nacto issued a series of orders to his men then handed Jag one of the Chiss blasters. “I suggest you improve your defenses. It is unlikely that your next opponent will have his back turned.”

Unsure whether Nacto was employing humor or condescension, Jag smiled weakly and accepted the weapon.

“Have you used a charric before?” Nacto asked as Jag examined the alien weapon.

“Can’t say that I have.”

“You will find it superior to the majority of the weapons you are familiar with.”

“Only one way to find out, right?”

Nacto cocked an eyebrow and turned back to his men, and Jag wondered if he had managed to offend him. Pushing the thought away, he fell in line with the Chiss as they started towards the area Nacto had designated as the staging point for their assault on the bridge.

They encountered minimal resistance along the way—a few pockets of two or three men, nothing more. During the trip, Jag couldn’t help but think of all that had transpired prior to this point between him and the remnants of Beskade. The men he had once called brothers and gone to war with he now sought to destroy—and they him. Their reasons, he knew nothing of; his own were merely reactionary.

Friends of his had been killed in cold blood. Their only crime had been to count Jag as an acquaintance. Such acts could not, in a just galaxy, go unpunished. And the distributor of such justice, the New Republic, had no standing in the world that Jag operated within. The actions of those who operated outside of the law were only to those who shared that realm.

While the majority of those beings preferred to live according to whatever concept of justice they felted best suited their needs, Jag had made every effort to adhere to the strict standards of justice and honor he had been taught years ago. The fact that he had learned those lessons during his service to the Empire changed nothing. He had been trained by good men—honorable men—who expected nothing less from the soldiers they commanded.

Perhaps that was why now, as the inevitable reunion with Thorin and those he left behind grew closer, the anger that had been fueling his every move began to give way to profound sadness. Betrayal was one thing. Some of the missions he had carried out with Scimitar were those of betrayal—though always against a corrupt soul. It was more punishment than it was betrayal. But such personal betrayal, a vicious vendetta against his whole existence, perpetrated largely in part by those he had once sworn to protect…

“We’ve arrived, Captain.”

Jag physically jolted at the sound of Nacto’s words, his musings melting away like ice in the sun. Jag removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm. Unbeknownst to Jag, two of the Chiss near him caught sight of the scar running down his face and started to stare.

Asit’i hi’reindah,” Nacto snapped at them, which brought Jag’s attention to their stares. He grinned and chuckled lightly.

“Not a problem, Lieutenant,” he assured the Chiss. “I’ve gotten used to it.”

“Regardless, it is inappropriate.” Nacto turned to the two Chiss he had just reprimanded. “Captain Girran has lived the life of a noble krie’jah. Perhaps one day you will be fortunate enough to bear such marks.”

Upon noticing Jag’s confused expression, he elaborated for the bounty hunter. “‘Warrior,’ Captain.” He smiled reassuringly. “As I said, Commander Hackan once spoke very highly of you.”

Jag nodded his thanks and distantly started wondering how he could have possibly impressed an individual as enigmatic as Commander Hackan. While his own opinion of himself was hardly poor, Jag’s ego was not that inflated.

The other squad soon arrived and immediately went to work. Nacto specified what areas he wanted cut and was quite involved in the entire process. It impressed Jag, though it did not surprise him. It was obvious that the Chiss were proud people and did not take their responsibilities lightly. Their commitment to excellence was admirable.

The Force forbid they ever go to war with the Republic.

Within minutes the Chiss had cut away a large section of the deck and were clearing it away from the area. Again Jag had to marvel at the soldiers; only four of them were needed to lift and carry the piece, a true demonstration of strength. Next, the soldiers with the cutting devices set them aside and gently lowered themselves into the crawlspace below, maneuvering their bodies into whatever crevice they could. They then placed several small spheres along the bottom of the crawlspace. The spheres were decorated with blue lights blinking at a slow rate.

“Are you ready, Captain?” Nacto asked, moving to Jag’s side.

Jag nodded as he secured his helmet. “Yes, sir.”

“I assume you remember the terms of our agreement.”

“I do.”

“Excellent. The instant the ceiling falls through, we will deploy several tactical explosives that should disorient anyone within the immediate area. That is when you must strike.”

“Understood.” Jag slapped his chest plate twice. “This stuff can take a hit, but I won’t last more than a few seconds under concentrated fire from all angles. You’re going to have to be right behind me.”

“And we will, Captain, I assure you.” Nacto then extracted a small dagger from a sheath. It reminded Jag of a beskad, just considerably smaller, about twenty centimeters long. It was a slim blade crafted with a brilliantly blue metal, one edge smooth but sharp, the other serrated.

“This may prove useful,” he said as he offered Jag the weapon. He ran a gloved finger along the smooth edge, which actually sliced the tenacious material of the glove.

“Yeah,” he said. “It might.”

Nacto snapped a few quick orders to a pair of Chiss who rushed a collection of small objects to a group of soldiers standing above the hole that had been cut in the deck. The devices were cylindrical and the length of Jag’s palm.

“Tactical team, prepare for entry,” Nacto ordered. “Activate.”

Jag shifted the blade to his left hand and drew his blaster from the holster. One of the Chiss from the crawlspace pressed a button one of the spheres, which changed the lights to a bright green. They started blinking at an increasingly quicker rate before simultaneously beeping three times.

After the third beep, a red laser beam ignited between the spheres, both along the perimeter of the devices as well as crisscrossing between them. The beam’s glow intensified then ripped through the crawlspace’s floor. An instant later, the Chiss tossed the small cylinders through the opening.

A series of eardrum-piercing cracks ripped the air and the area directly below the hole began filling with a thick gray cloud. Jag was through the hole a second later. He switched his HUD to a thermal imaging display to compensate for the lack of visibility. He hit the deck of the bridge and instantly dropped into a crouch, and after identifying his first set of targets, launched into action.

The majority of the men in the immediate area surrounding Jag’s insertion point were mostly incapacitated. Those who weren’t were trying to track Jag’s form through the smoke. He went for them first. A pair of shots burned through the chests of the first two men he saw standing to his right. A quick glance over his left shoulder showed three more beginning to gather their bearings. He fire single shots into two of them while launching the blade into the neck of the third.

He leaped at the third body, ripped the blade from its victim, and slipped back into the cover of the smoke, whose cloud was continuing to expand. The sound of boots clanging against metal echoed throughout the bridge as Nacto and some of his men dropped into the bridge, remaining within the protective shroud of smoke.

Vius’ men began firing haphazardly into the cloud as they regained their composure. Some of the bolts slipped harmlessly through the cloud while others found their mark, though most did not prove deadly. A few grunts of pain were all the Chiss soldiers allowed, and those not fatally wounded continued to return fire. Blue blasts of energy erupted from the cloud with shocking accuracy, and the number of Vius’ sentries quickly diminished.

Their entry point had placed them between the primary exit and the majority of the bridge’s command stations, and while that certainly offered a strategic advantage, Jag realized that as soon as the smoke cloud dissipated, Nacto’s Chiss would be completely exposed to anyone who had assumed a defensive position on the opposite end of the bridge.

Then two pairs of the small cylinders he’d seen prior to breaching the ceiling flew forward from unseen hands. Jag turned his back on their eventual landing point and covered his audio receptors. The deafening crack he’d heard before struck again, and a brilliant white flash rendered his HUD useless. He frantically ripped his helmet off and dove for cover, huddling up behind an exposed bulkhead.

“Dammit, Nacto!” he shouted over the roar of blaster fire.

The Chiss leader ignored his curses and as Jag’s vision returned, he understood why. He watched as Nacto hurdled a bank of terminals into the command well of the bridge with four of his men pursuing along his flanks. Three more soldiers took positions at the terminal bank and laid down covering fire. Within seconds Vius’ men were overrun. Those who attempted to fire on the Chiss were dispatched without hesitation while the others received blows to the chest, back, and head.

Jag tucked his helmet under his arm and joined the three Chiss at the terminal bank. Four more Chiss had jumped down to the bridge and begun assisting Nacto and the others with detaining the surviving members of Vius’ crew. While Jag waited for them to conclude their efforts, he made sure the blast doors to the bridge were sealed, lest they be caught off-guard by any remaining crew members.

Smoldering holes decorated the walls of the bridge while numerous bodies lay scattered across the room. Remarkably, only a single Chiss had been killed. Several had sustained wounds of varying degrees of severity, but the squad’s medic was already tending to their needs.

Twenty minutes later, Nacto’s men had their prisoners herded on to the boarding craft and were returning to the largest of their cruisers. A few Chiss stayed behind to examine the ship’s databanks. At Nacto’s invitation, Jag accompanied the Chiss back to their cruiser. He made it a point to avoid Vius during the trip.

Instead he took a seat near one of the shuttle’s viewports. What lay beyond sent a chill down his spine. Every ship from Vius’ task force, save for the cruiser Nacto’s men had boarded, had been reduced to fields of flotsam. Mangled bulkheads and bodies drifted about aimlessly while Chiss starfighters darted through the newly formed mechanical graveyard.

In only took them minutes to do this…

Nacto noticed Jag’s gaze and slid into the seat next to him.

“They left us no choice. Aggression against the Chiss Ascendancy will not be tolerated.”

“But the ships were all intact when we left the bridge.”

“Apparently the fleet had a standing order to attack if the command ship was seized,” Nacto explained. “I was not made aware of this until just prior to our departure. It is unfortunate; I would have liked to have studied those vessels.”

Jag said nothing, but continued to privately marvel at how quickly the Chiss had ripped apart the encroaching fleet.

Once they arrived the group of prisoners was separated. The groups were immediately led away from the hangar while Vius and two others were kept behind.

“The Commander is expecting an audience with them,” Nacto explained.

Jag was then led through a series of corridors teeming with Chiss crewmen en route to what Jag assumed was the bridge. When they instead arrived at a large circular room, Jag shot a questioning glance at Nacto. He simply nodded towards the large oval-shaped table in the center of the room, which looked as though it had been carved from the side of a glacier. Jag was stunned when he saw who sat at its head.

“Captain Girran,” the aged Chiss said with a nod of the head. “It has been many years.”

Commander Samol. It is an honor to see you again.”

Jag couldn’t help but notice Vius’ jaw hanging open as he looked back and forth between the Chiss commander and the bounty hunter. He did his best to suppress a smile.

“I certainly appreciate your efforts to warn us of this man’s intent to violate our borders,” Samol said as he gestured towards Vius. “As you are well aware, we do not take such encroachments lightly.”

“Of course, Commander,” Jag said with a thankful nod. “Though I must be honest, the warning would have been wasted had it not been for your prisoner’s predictability.”

Samol studied unblinkingly Vius for a moment. “Elaborate, Captain.”

“As you may recall, Commander Hackan provided me with extensive navigational data for this region. For the most part, that information has remained unused. However, as a precaution, I created several programs designed to serve as a last-ditch effort at self-preservation.

“It’s standard procedure for pirates, bounty hunters, and even military men to dump the systems and nav logs of any ship they capture into their own system. Once I figured out what he—” Jag nodded towards Vius, “—and whoever else he was working with were up to, I created another one of those programs that would serve up some of the navigational data for Chiss space. I knew the prospect of a supposed quicker route to their destination would be too much to pass up.

“In addition, ArDee, who I’m sure you remember, was instructed to execute the second part of the program, which is why my ship so rudely burst into the Ascendancy broadcasting my warning.”

Commander Samol nodded approvingly. “Well done, Captain. Your foresight is commendable, as is your respect for the integrity of our boundaries.”

Jag nodded again. “It’s the least I could do, Commander. You and your people have been very good to me.”

Samol returned the gesture then turned his attention to Vius. “Your vessels attacked Chiss forces without provocation. You refused to cooperate with my men on your ship, an offense which has resulted in the unnecessary destruction of your forces. Consider yourself fortunate to still be alive.”

Vius remained silent, though the fear Jag had noticed before was gone. In its place was the stoic expression of a hardened warrior.

That’s more like it.

“You’ve made quite clear your intention to not cooperate. Neither I nor the Chiss Ascendancy will tolerate such violations of our territory. I will offer you a single opportunity to rescind your previous refusals, but beyond that, I’m afraid you will be dealt with according to our laws.”

Jag shifted his gaze back and forth between Samol and Vius. Neither showed any signs of caving. A muscle twitched in Vius’ cheek; beyond that, both stood rigidly stood their ground.

“You have my answer,” Vius finally said with as much defiance as he could muster before turning to Jag. “You’re only prolonging the inevitable, Girran. Your friends are dead, and you’re not far behind.”

Jag glared at Vius for a moment before looking to Samol.

“Lieutenant Nacto had mentioned transferring custody of the prisoner.”

Samol nodded. “He did.”

“And your decision?”

Samol held Jag’s gaze for a moment then locked eyes with Vius.

“The prisoner is yours, Captain.”

Under different circumstances, Jag may have smiled and relished his victory for a brief moment—but the circumstances were not so. Instead, he was across the room and within arm’s reach of Vius in three commanding strides. His vibroblade slipped from his gauntlet to his palm, and he fixed the hilt with a backhanded grip.

Vius, to his credit, remained silent and stood firm, his eyes betraying nothing, revealing no fear or panic. Jag grabbed the back of Vius’ neck and pulled him close.

“This is for Mech.”

The blade effortlessly dug into Vius’ chest, though there was no cry of pain. Jag then moved his other hand to Vius’ throat.

“And this is for Jorg.”

He tightened his grip then ripped it away with as much power as he could summon. Vius’ corpse collapsed in a heap while Jag stood still, his armor splattered with blood.

How many more?

He tossed the mass of cartilage that he’d torn from Vius’ throat onto the corpse and exhaled deeply.

How many old friends must die?

In his peripherals, he could see the eyes of the Chiss guards staring at him intently, though none of them appeared to have their weapons drawn. He set his shoulders and raised his chin, then stepped back from Vius’ body. He turned to Samol and bowed at the waist.

“My apologies for such…unpleasantness, Commander.”

Samol’s red eyes seemed to glow brighter than usual, so much so that Jag became considerably uncomfortable. A tense silence filled the room, and for nearly a minute, no one moved or spoke.

Samol was the first to speak, but when he did so, there was no trace of anger or contempt, at least none that Jag could detect.

“Remove the body; dispose of it. Disinfect the room and take the remaining prisoners to the detention area.”

As his men rushed to obey his commands, Samol turned his attention to Jag.

“Such a display of brutality would typically offend both my people and me, and the offender would be…punished.” He tilted his head as he examined Vius’ body before cocking an eyebrow. “Though in this situation, I suppose a certain amount of executive prudence is in order.”

He shook his head once and sighed, then pointed a warning finger at Jag. “I will not tolerate anymore of this.”

Jag nodded and bowed slightly. “Again, Commander, my apologies.” He glanced at the bloodied corpse. “I had a promise to keep.”

“Hm.”

Samol made his way out of the room and started down the corridor. Nacto and Jag broke into a trot to keep up.

“A warning would have been nice,” Nacto muttered out the side of his mouth.

“I said I was sorry,” Jag shot back. “We had…a history.”

“Clearly.”

They were in the detention center minutes later. The surviving members of Vius’ crew had been separated into groups of three, each one under the supervision of two well-armed Chiss. Among the captured were several men Jag recognized as bridge officers.

“Commander Samol, a word.”

“Yes, Captain?” the Chiss said as he guided Jag out of earshot of the Chiss guards and their prisoners.

“There are at least three prisoners here who served Vius on the bridge of his ship. With your permission, I’d like to speak with them.”

“Only speak?”

Jag smiled innocently, though Samol’s tone was clear. Another outburst would not be tolerated.

“Yes, Commander. In fact, I would appreciate it if both you and the lieutenant were present during my questioning. It will help us avoid further unpleasantness.”

After identifying the three bridge officers, Samol motioned to the Chiss guarding them and ordered the prisoners be brought forward.

Samol ushered Jag forward with a sweep of the hand. “You may begin, Captain.”

“Your captain was unwilling to cooperate,” Jag said, wasting no time. “For your sake, I hope you consider otherwise. You,” he pointed to the prisoner to his left. “What was your destination?”

The prisoner said nothing, his eyes focused forward. Jag sighed impatiently. “Clearly you didn’t hear me. What was your destination?”

Again, silence. Jag turned to Samol and questioningly raised an eyebrow. Samol nodded to Nacto who stepped forward and delivered a swift backhanded strike to the prisoner’s face, then grabbed him by the jaw.

“You will answer Captain Girran’s questions, or you will suffer the fate of your captain.”

The prisoner in the middle glanced at Nacto. “What did you freaks do to him?”

Nacto slowly turned his head and glared at the man. “We ‘freaks’ did nothing.”

Jag turned his palms outward, his gloves still bloodied. “I, on the other hand…”

The blood drained from the prisoner’s face as his gaze drifted from Jag’s hand to the blood spattered on his armor. He swallowed hard then started whispering something to the man on his right. The whispering quickly escalated into an argument.

“I’ll talk!” the middle prisoner finally shouted.

“Traitor!”

The man on the right lunged at him, but with his hands bound behind him, it was a futile effort. A Chiss guard was on him in an instant as he dragged him to his feet and threw him back to where they’d been sitting captive before.

Nacto tossed the man on the left to the side as well and motioned for one of the guards to remove him from the area. Another pair of Chiss raised the cooperating prisoner to his feet and guided him forward.

“Your name, please.”

“Desin Blaise.”

Jag felt his body jolt in surprise. “What did you say?”

“My name is Desin Blaise.”

“Any relation to—”

“Captain Blaise of the Corellian Navy? Yes. I am his nephew.”

Jag studied the man for a moment. He looked just young enough to actually be a nephew of the Blaise he knew, though that hardly mattered. Captain Blaise could have had an older brother. Jag had never thought to ask.

There was a lot we never talked about…

“Why not serve with him, then? Join a respectable—and legal—cause?” Jag asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer.

“Ah, but I do serve with him,” Desin said. “My uncle never left Beskade, at least not completely.”

Jag finally had one of the last pieces of the puzzle.

“Telnor was a ruse.”

Desin nodded. “Partly. He was certainly a priority target as far as CorSec was concerned.”

“But by putting a bounty on him instead of handling things internally, Blaise drew me out.” Jag shook his head in frustration. Idiot. “That explains the ban on state use of bounty hunters.”

“I’m sorry?” Desin asked, looking genuinely confused.

“Shortly before the bounty was posted on Telnor, the Senate passed a ban on the official hiring of bounty hunters, a move that surprised a lot of people—and made me a lot of money. I had my suspicions before, but this all but guarantees that whoever is leading Beskade now had a hand in passing that legislation.

“That same ban was lifted just months after I personally delivered Telnor to your uncle, at which point he repaid me—off the books, thanks to the ban—which allowed him to get close to me and hide his allegiance to you people.”

Still disgusted with himself, Jag dropped his helmet to the floor started pacing around the detention area, running the situation through his mind. Eventually he returned to Samol’s side and retrieved his helmet.

“I’ve been dancing to your tune for long enough,” he growled as he jammed the helmet into Desin’s chest. “I’m bringing this whole thing down on itself, and I don’t care if I go with it.” He paused for a moment, contemplating whether he should even go forth with the request that he knew had to be made.

“Commander Samol, Lieutenant Nacto—I’m afraid I must ask something more of you.”

“I already know the question you’re preparing to ask,” Samol said. “And I cannot grant your request.”

Jag pursed his lips and nodded. “I understand.”

“I assure you, my decision is not personal. If these men were mine to give, I would lead them to your aid myself. But I serve the Ascendancy, Captain—I am bound by my duty. I fear that the aid I have already provided is beyond that which my superiors would deem appropriate.”

“Sir?” Nacto asked tensely as he stepped closer to his commanding officer. “I may have a solution.”

Samol glanced around the room at the other Chiss, most of whom seemed focused on the prisoners, though a few were clearly trying to eavesdrop.

“Not here,” the commander said. He raised his voice and motioned to the Chiss guards. “Secure the gehkaghas. They are not to be harmed.”

V’brepstanen,” the soldiers said in unison.

Commander Samol led Jag and Nacto away from the detention area and down another corridor before stopping in an empty part of it.

“Comman—”

Samol cut Nacto off with a point and pressed his hand to a section of the wall, which sank in slightly then slid upwards, revealing a control panel unlike anything Jag had ever seen. It was not a keypad or screen. Instead, it was gel-like material that conformed to Samol’s fingertips. He entered a series of commands in a manner that reminded Jag of musician playing a keyboarded instrument. After a few seconds, he raised a panel of the corridor’s wall, much in the same way the control panel’s cover had opened.

“Inside,” Samol ordered. He removed his hand from the panel which closed itself immediately.

Once all three were out of the corridor, Jag removed and activated a glowrod from his utility belt.

“Now, Lieutenant, if you would please continue?”

“Yes, Commander. I understand your reservations about using our people to assist Captain Girran. But perhaps the Chiss could still provide aid—as long as those Chiss are not of the Ascendancy.”

“Not of the Ascendancy?” Jag asked.

“What Lieutenant Nacto is referring to, Captain, is a secret that must not be uttered outside of those present.”

“Fair enough,” Jag agreed.

“I’m not sure I should even divulge this information,” Samol said. “Both my former commander and I have been quite cavalier, dare I say reckless, in providing you with as much information as we have. Though as I’ve said, Commander Hackan saw something unique in you, Captain Girran—as do I. You have given me no reason to distrust you, however unwilling I may have been to grant you that trust so many years ago.”

Samol paused and glanced at Nacto before continuing. “That being said,” he reached into a pocket on the inside of his uniform and removed a small object, “I believe you will find this most helpful. That device will interface with your ship’s administrator—ArDee, I believe you called him?—and provide you with a set of coordinates.”

“Coordinates for what?”

“You remember the tale Commander Hackan told you? The story of Thrawn?” Samol asked.

“I do.”

Since Jag’s last encounter with the Chiss, Grand Admiral Thrawn had nearly brought the galaxy to its knees and restored the Empire to its former standing. And he did it with a fraction of the resources the Emperor had wielded.

“What Commander Hackan failed to elaborate on was a massive base of operations Thrawn established just beyond the borders of the Chiss Ascendancy.”

“I recall Hackan mentioning that, yes,” Jag said.

“He mentioned it, though nothing more. During his ‘pacification’ of many of the systems surrounding the Ascendancy, Thrawn recruited some of the Ascendancy’s best military minds and fighters, much to the dismay of the Ruling Families. Prior to unleashing his genius on your civilization’s New Republic, he dispatched groups of soldiers across our realm and yours, presumably to wait until called upon and serve as garrisons in areas he considered vulnerable.

“His death, however, rendered many of those groups useless, their activation orders known only to himself and his inner circle. Contained on that device are the locations and clearance codes required to gain access to several of those groups.”

“How could you possibly have this information?” Jag asked. “Given your loyalty to the Ascendancy and its laws, I have a difficult time believing you would be in league with Thrawn’s personal empire.”

“I am honor-bound to uphold the Ascendancy’s setzahs, Captain. I would not dare betray them. The information on that device was given to me, in confidence, by Commander Hackan.”

Jag felt his eyes almost pop out of his skull in shock. “Commander Hackan?

“Yes, Captain. Though my former commander once promised to not betray the Ascendancy, the allure of Thrawn’s private military seemed too much to resist. He abandoned his men shortly after your encounter with him.”

“Then why did he come back?”

“When I last spoke to him, it was shortly before his death—perhaps days before. Thrawn was dead, his forces scattered or destroyed. Hackan had no interest in serving anyone besides Thrawn, and he was already dead as far as the Ascendancy was concerned. He considered this information vital enough to protect, and apparently decided I was the only one he could still trust.”

Samol sighed. “A shame, really. He was a brilliant and noble man who served the Ascendancy well, but his name will never be remembered beyond those who fought with him.”

Jag said nothing for a moment, for fear of interrupting whatever reminiscences Samol was entertaining.

“I assume this is not your only copy?” he eventually asked.

“Captain,” Samol chuckled. “Do you think me a fool?”

“That answers that.”

“Commander, with your permission…” Nacto said quietly.

“No, Lieutenant Nacto, you may not join Captain Girran,” Samol said sternly, clearly aware of what his subordinate was about to ask. “Though I must admit I find curious your desire to assist a man you met only a few hours ago.”

A muscle twitched in Nacto’s cheek. “I find his convictions admirable, Commander. Nothing more.”

“I certainly hope not. I’ll not have anyone under my command abandon their post.”

V’brepstanen.”

Jag clapped Nacto on the shoulder. “Your offer is certainly appreciated. As is this data, Commander. Yet again you have placed me in your debt.”

“Perhaps one day, Captain, I may agree with you. Until then, you may again show your gratitude by ensuring the information we have provided you remain in your possession—and yours alone.”

“You have my word.”

“For more, I cannot ask.” Samol stepped towards the entrance to their concealed location, which opened automatically once he was within a meter of it. “In the meantime, there is something you should see.”

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