The Unseen Peril – Prologue

A long time ago, in a galaxy far,
far away…

STAR WARS
Episode I Redux
The Unseen Peril

Striking from the fringes of civilized space, the mighty WARRIORS OF MANDALORE have begun a brutal campaign of conquest.  Worlds burn beneath the Mandalorian yoke as the Galactic Republic eyes the coming onslaught.

Frozen by the corruption of ideology, the Galactic Senate finds itself incapable of responding to the crisis.  In an effort to stem the tide, the President of the Senate orders teams of commandos dispersed across the border worlds.  They are to train and advise natives in preparation for war.

Numbered among these veteran soldiers are the members of the ancient order of JEDI KNIGHTS.  After a thousand generations as the sworn guardians of peace and justice, they are once more called to serve the galaxy….



Prologue

Deep in the bowels of the Republic corvette Sirocco, something mechanical rumbled unhappily.  It rose in pitch and in volume, as if being slowly being pinched off.  As the pitch rose from a mere irritant to the ear-splitting screech of a gundark, a second sound came to take the lower pitch vacated by the first.  It sounded like a rattling, but eventually resolved itself with the telltale sound of something breaking loose.

Even those who knew nothing about engineering knew something had gone wrong down there, but then everything was going wrong.  Over the din of klaxons and alarms, it was a surprise they could hear anything else beyond.  But then the rattling was reported to have been a loose maintenance panel, which was followed a moment thereafter with the shriek of a drive compensator overloading as it found itself exposed to vacuum.  That particular cacophony concluded with a rending explosion that jettisoned the back half of the number two drive nacelle.

The ship bucked sideways in response and threatened to fall into a spin, pin-wheeling like some maniacal amusement ride.  But instead white flashes of gas broke out all across the ship’s hull as automated maneuvering jets fired as quickly as their tiny electronic hivemind would allow, correcting the ship’s trajectory so as to put it back on course.  Certain jets fired more frequently around the pockmarking of impact craters and vaporized plating where their mechanical brethren once lay.

The geysers lessened in frequency until finally settling on what their central computer determined was the correct course.  This was not a task to which the maneuvering jet’s computer was suited for, having only enough artificial intelligence to understand what to do when ordered so.  With the ship’s main computer was currently out of commission, the ship’s course was left to the maneuvering computer’s interpretation of its final directive before shorting out as they came out of hyperspace.  The maneuvering computer expressed its state of binary anxiety to the fire control and communications interface, but finding them both unresponsive ceased firing, leaving the Sirocco to continue along its course at a sloping angle relative to the plane of their travel, making much of the starboard side now her bow.

Not that pointing the bow in the intended direction would have mattered.  It had been no small amount of skill and a fair amount of luck—if such a thing even existed—which had allowed the small warship to escape her ambushers.  The quick-thinking captain and her crew were among the best in the Republic Forces, selected for their ability to take initiative and to act in the face of life-threatening circumstance.  For the Sirocco‘s captain, Commander Borenshek, that initiative had translated into the difficult decision to abandon their mission and retreat back to lightspeed.

In the face of overwhelming odds, it truly had been the only reasonable decision.  Even if members of the Admiralty frowned on the idea of the galaxy’s most powerful starfleet retreating from any foe, what point would there have been in dying in a frenzy of ineffective strikes?  The Sirocco was no star cruiser—it was not even rated for the line of battle.  Even a corvette as powerful and highly modified as their own was no match alone against a squadron of xebecs and their fighter complement.

And the barbarian horde aboard them.

As they first attempted to race around the enemy formation, and then realizing the futility of such an endeavor, flying directly through the Mandalorian battle line, Borenshek and her crew managed to evade certain annihilation.  Turbolasers crashed against shields and then hull armor as the beaked prows of the Mandalorian warships flashed passed, exacting a significant toll on the corvette.  Both of their own turbolasers were destroyed, along with nearly every point-defense battery–and most of the ship’s aft ventral side.  But success had been achieved in reaching the edge of the system’s gravity well in time to make the jump to hyperspace.

But even this simple, almost routine dash to lightspeed had come at a cost.  Not having enough time to calculate a precise course, the captain at random directed the Sirocco into deep space and reached for the hyperdrive controls.  Such dangerous a maneuver as a random heading was entirely unheard of among starpilots, since the possibility of passing too close to a supernova or directly into a star kept even the most intrepid navigators from attempting such self-destructive behavior.  Borenshek, however, was determined to keep the ship in hyperspace just long enough to escape the ambush, and then jump again, this time along a known trajectory.  But just as she pull back on the hyperdrive lever, a Mandalorian starfighter—fanatical or suicidal, or both—leapt directly between the corvette and its intended trajectory.  The collision that would have resulted should have ripped the ship apart, were it not for the Borenshek’s supreme skill as a pilot and her precisely timed evasive maneuver.  In the split-second before the stars became starlines, Borenshek slammed down on her controls enough to lower the Sirocco below the kamikaze’s vector—or rather, the majority of the Sirocco.  As a result of the evasive maneuver, rather than take the entire ship with it, the collision took only the dorsal prow—and with it the bridge, the communications suite, and Commander Borenshek.

Decanting from hyperspace short of whatever target the captain had selected, it had been the task of the ship’s remaining crew and passengers to seal the fractures in the hull and attempt to render the ship stable once more.  The hours spent securing life-support systems and avoiding reactor overloads flowed naturally into the impossible task of repairing the Sirocco adrift in deep space.

In the engineering team’s initial assessment, they found that in addition to losing the bridge and comms, the Sirocco had also lost its hyperdrive and its hyperspace communications array. The list of repairable damage alone was unending, for which reason they had concentrated their efforts on the ship’s computer and her sublight drives. Like everything else aboard, both were severely damaged and only partially responsive, and without either, they had absolutely no hope of survival.

But the engineering team—a single commissioned officer, a grizzled warrant officer with plasma burns over half of his body, and two crewmen in varying conditions of injury—were, like the rest of the crew, among the very best the Republic had to offer.  They worked harder than the rest, for they understood the stakes better than any of the others aboard–and as a result, they knew better than any of them that there was almost nothing that could be done.  No amount of time would make the Sirocco spaceworthy again, not without a salvageship or shipyard.  The most advanced warship in the Republic Navy’s arsenal was slowly fading into the void.

Ironically, it was the Sirocco’s advanced nature that had proved to be her crew’s greatest challenge.  With so much advanced central automation built in, the Sirocco had been designed to need little more than a skeleton crew of highly-specialized personnel, a total of four officers and twenty-four hands, occupying a relatively small of the corvette’s limited interiors.  This left space for the stowing of a special operations team and their pallets of equipment as a light, armed transport to and from conflict zones.  The team was housed in secure section of the ship located in the central-most part of the ship, and was therefore the least damaged of the various decks.  But whereas this had benefited the commandos in their flight couches, the collision and its aftermath had deprived the Sirocco of nearly one third of the crew.  Combined with the dead and wounded among the less fortunate members of the special operations team, nearly fifty percent of the hands aboard had been killed in action.  And although the commandos she carried on board were cross-trained to work and fight the Sirocco alongside her crew, they lacked the sort of specialized knowledge to be of much meaningful use.

They were well and truly stranded–or rather might have been were it not for a random bit of information which crossed the mind of the team’s commanding officer.

He was middle-aged and dressed in an all-black garrison uniform upon which he bore the insignia of a major.  The beard he wore had streaks of silver beginning to form amidst the sandy brown of youth, behind which its owner bore an expression of seeming serenity as he watched the technicians at work.  As the highest-ranking officer on board, they were all now effectively under his leadership, though the gentleman had not–so far as anyone else could tell–actually served as a deck officer aboard a warship.  Still, the idea he had proposed was a good one, one which dated to when the Firebolt-class was first commissioned, the class to which the Sirocco belonged.  A workaround that might just save them.  It was why rather than remain in their tactical suite, the Major now stood in the ship’s operations suite waiting for the technicians to finish their work.  A blood-caked hand reached up to push his hair back, streaking the dark blond with brown and red.

Off to this man’s side, cradling a broken wrist, Lieutenant Hogart regarded the senior officer with a mixture of suspicion and genuine curiosity.  Although Hogart, the ship’s operations officer, had initially rejected the idea the Major had proposed, he was too well disciplined—and too sensible—to even attempt to countermand the orders of a senior officer, though he would have been well within his rights to do so.  The Major—experienced though he might be—had no official standing, much less command authority, aboard the Sirocco.  With the loss of Commander Borenshek and the ship’s first lieutenant, Hogart should technically have been the next in line for command.  That Lieutenant Bel’Dinor, the engineering officer, was two days’ Hogart’s senior in rank made little difference where these sorts of formalities were concerned.  By right, this should now have been Hogart’s command, his responsibility.

Hogart eyed the hulking form of a commando sergeant working at a panel in a corner.  Another commando worked beside one of the techs, examining a knot of exposed wires.

But then the Major and his commandos were rather persuasive in the way these sorts of calamities went, and far, far more experienced than Hogart was, each a veteran of a dozen campaigns across thousands of worlds.  That they had no technical expertise in shipboard operations was as equally irrelevant as Bel’Dinor’s senior standing.  And considering who—or rather what the Major was…

The tech emerged from beneath the command terminal and eased himself into the chair.  “Leni, try it now,” he called and started punching commands into the computer.

Across the room another crewman acknowledged, and a moment later exclaimed, “Yep, I see it here!  How about on your end?”

The tech beside them frowned as he watched the returns come across his display.  “Not yet, but let’s give it a second.”

“Will we have communications?” the Major asked in that disarmingly tranquil tone.  “Sublight or local comms, I mean.”

“We might,” the tech said flatly, no commitment in his tone.  Without looking up from the displays, he called across the room again, “Len?”

“The board is on—right next to you, Chief,” the other crewman responded, indicating.

“All the good it will do us,” Hogart grumbled.

“Let us not lose hope yet, Lieutenant,” the Major said, his tone betraying none of the concern the rest of them were feeling.  “Please attempt transmitting a distress signal,” he said to the tech beside him, his tone one used with a spooked animal.  He gestured to the comm board.  “Who knows,” he continued.  “We might just hit a relay.”

Suppressing a grimace of doubt, Hogart saddled past the other officer to the indicated board.  With practiced ease he opened the band to its maximum.  Doing so would allow the message to be distributed more widely, though it came at the expense of some clarity.  Satisfied with its tuning, he clicked the transmit button and leaned toward the voice pick up.  “S3, S3, S3.  This is Republic ship Sirocco.  Mayday, mayday.”

He realized the transmit button and waited, holding his breath.  The room had gone silent as he spoke, and only belatedly did he realize that they were all staring at him.

“Is the volume control functioning?” somebody suggested when no response came.

“It’s fine,” the tech next him replied.  “All levels are optimal.”

“Try it again,” the Major said calmly.

Hogart nodded.  “S3, S3, S3,” he said, repeating the Fleet’s general emergency prosign.  “This is Republic ship Sirocco.  Mayday, mayday.”

As he spoke the final words, there was a ping from the command terminal’s intercom.  Before Hogart could turn to check it, the Major reached across the board and pressed the switch himself.  “Go ahead.”

“Ops, this is engineering,” Bel’Dinor’s gruff voice came back, “we’ve completed our final diagnostic of the sublight engines and are reporting in.  Is the Colonel there?”

“This is he,” the other responded.  “Go ahead with your report.”

“Yes, sir.”  Bel’Dinor hesitated a moment, his tone taking on the distracted air of one being spoken to by an unheard participant.  “The—the individual drive nacelles are in pretty poor condition, sir.  Of the five, only four are operational, and each of those at less than seventy-five percent of power.  We are in the process of replacing the oscillator dampening rings, but it’s going to take some time to replace them all.  The conduits running to the main reactor have been back-channeled and we’re working to reroute their primary—”

“Lieutenant,” the senior officer said civilly, “I apologize for cutting your short, but this may be a little too technical for my purposes.  Can you give me the basics?  Will she fly?”

There was a pause.  Hogart knew it was because the short-fused Bel’Dinor did not like being interrupted.  But then who cared what some naval lieutenant preferred.

“Yes, sir,” Bel’Dinor said after a pause, “but just barely.  The four operational nacelles can only handle seventy-five percent power—if that.  If we even manage to power them up, we should keep them below fifty percent.”

“I see,” the Major responded.  He reached up to stroke at his beard.  “Very good work, Lieutenant.  Concentrate your efforts on three rather than four of the drives, so as to conserve spare parts—we may need them later.  Try your best to ensure that those drives are at their highest operability.”

“Sir…”  There was another pause, and Hogart could imagine Bel’Dinor’s face as he struggled to find the right words.  Professional ship’s engineer or not, Bel’Dinor was both easily annoyed and not what Hogart would call especially bright.  “With all due respect, do you actually intend on flying her?”

That random tidbit of information the Major had suggested, Hogart reflected.

“I do indeed, Lieutenant,” the other man responded, showing no evidence of frustration or annoyance at being questioned.  “Do you have a better idea?”  Although seeming intended for the disembodied engineer on the comm,  he directed his gaze at Hogart, in effect issuing to them both the same question.

But Hogart shook his head.  No, he did not have a better idea.  Short of spinning through space until they reached a relay or crash-landed on one of the system’s orbiting bodies, they were out of options.

By the silence on the other end of the intercom, he guessed that Bel’Dinor had reached the same conclusion.  When the pause stretched a moment longer than he would have expected, Hogart realized that the engineering officer was consulting with his team.  And so when Bel’Dinor said, “No, sir,” he spoke not only on his behalf, but on behalf of the Sirocco’s engineering section.

“It is not ideal,” the Major said, seemingly—or actually—reading their minds, “but it can be done.”

“And you plan to pilot the ship, sir?” Bel’Dinor said again.

“Unless you have another helmsman or pilot aboard, I am not sure we have another choice.”

Hogart felt his face flush.  He had been slated to enter the Pilot Officer Course when this mission had come down the line.  The ship’s operations officers, along with the commanding officer, were expected to act as backup pilots for the primaries.  His early promotion to this billet and the emergency activation of Special Operations Command had created a dangerous situation…

Once more, as if reading his mind, the Major gave him a reassuring look.  “Only the basics, gentlemen,” he said aloud, again to both remaining ship’s officers.  “Nothing fancy.  I will land us on one of the planets in this system, from which we can either effect repairs or contact the Republic for extraction.”

Wherever it is that we are, Hogart thought grimly, taking a quick glance at the astrogation charts.  Even without looking at them, he knew they were still well within enemy space, but where precisely…

The system was called Riistoorii, a remote system none of them recognized, and for which the star catalogue was no more help.  Its entry dated to the Expansionist Era, when surveyors fanned across the stars in a bid to grab as much worlds and systems as possible.  In many places—maybe in most—ships would decant from hyperspace long enough to catalogue the system, scanning it quickly for sentient life and resources, before moving on to the next world.  The idea among these prospectors had been to petition for ownership of the entire star system under the ancient Rights of Discovery law, but no true valuables were found among most of the systems catalogued, little use to anybody save their inhabitants.  Millions had made and lost fortunes that way.  Had the damn fool who found this place made a profit or lost it all?  There were no details at all; besides the basics of astronomy regarding the system’s single star and its orbiting satellites, the entry simply stated, “A Wookiee penal colony is located on the fourth planet.”

Looking up at the operations suite’s main screen, he saw that what had started as an orange blip was now noticeably larger as they grew ever closer to the planet.  How would a Wookiee penal colony take to the arrival of a Republic ship…?

“Very well, Colonel,” Bel’Dinor said with a sense of finality.  He didn’t like it anymore than Hogart did, but just like the matter of piltoing the ship, they had little choice.  “We’ll get to work on the nacelles and report back when we have made some progress.  Engineering, out.”

Still emanating unusual serenity, the Major shut off his own end of the intercom, and with a heavy sigh, he turned to face Hogart.  “Lieutenant,” he said and gestured back to the comm board with the blood-soaked hand, “the emergency signal, if you will.”

“Yes, sir,” the other man responded and repeated the mayday transmission.

With half an ear, he listened as the senior officer turned to the technician working on the command terminal and said, “Have you been able to successfully reroute the piloting program?”

The tech nodded, though he seemed no more confident than he had before.  “Most of the automation functions are still online, if you can believe it, so it won’t take all of the sophistication of a bridge command console.  That said, you might have some trouble with finer maneuvers.  Aside from the general piloting program, the damage we’ve taken is going to make the maneuvering jets sluggish to respond.  Their computer is acting up, and unless—”

“That should be fine,” the Major said.  Looking across the room at one of the commandos, he said, “Corporal, can you please contact Sergeant Killian and ask him to come here.”

“Sure thing,” the commando said and got to work on his headset commlink.

Hogart frowned.  These Special Ops types were loose-cannons—their simple lack of military decorum was evidence enough of that.  Sure, they could be made to say sir when addressing an officer, but it always came out dripping with sarcasm.  He was told that it was a sign of closeness among their fellow commandos, a “necessary informality” between superior and subordinate integral to work in special operations.

Well, that was fine, he supposed, but it didn’t mean that the basics of military custom had to break down.  He himself, he liked to point out, was likewise assigned to Special Operations Command—but that did not give license for decorum to suffer aboard the Sirocco.  It was more likely, he thought confidently, a sign of the difference between the starfleet and the ground forces.

Hogart finished another attempt at the transmission, took a step back, and waited.

To no one’s particular surprise, there came no response.

“How far to the planet?” the Major asked, his tone suddenly tight.

Hogart gave the other man a sideways glance.  Was the frustration finally beginning to break him?

“We’re most of the way there now, sir,” one of the crewmen responded.  “At our current rate of travel, perhaps another hour to the upper atmosphere.”

Had it been part of Borenshek’s personal genius that had set them on this route—and dropped them from hyperspace in line with the system’s only terrestrial planet—or had it been pure luck?

He took another look at the Major.

Or had it been something else?

Hogart leaned back over the comm board and started again.  “S3, S3, S3…”

The door to the operations suite made an unhappy grinding sound as it slid open.  Framed by the portal, the hulking figure of the commando’s senior sergeant—Killian—loomed darkly.  Like most of the other commandos, he wore black combat fatigues, portions of which shone with attached armor plating.  Before he could get more than two steps into the room, the Major was giving orders.

“Prepare the team to disembark on that planet.  I’ve sent the relevant data to our ready room.”  There was a sudden urgency in the man’s voice that had not been there before, even if his demeanor remained collected.  “We may have to fight our way to the settlements, if the local populace proves hostile—or under the enemy’s control.”

Killian squinted at his commanding officer.  There was an unspoken question there.

“Yes,” the Major said by way of response.  “Corporal, go with Sergeant Killian.”

The door shut behind the two commandos as they departed, leaving the Major facing the door in silence.  “Continue with the transmission,” he said firmly over his shoulder.

Hogart nodded.  Tired of hearing the sound of his own voice echoing in the void of interplanetary space, he nevertheless keyed the comm switch again.  “S3, S3, S3.  This is Republic ship Sirocco, requesting assistance and rescue.  Mayday, mayday.”  A pause for response.  There was, of course, no response.  They were in the backend of nowhere, behind the enemy’s border…  “S3, S3, S3,” he said sharply, cutting off his own train of thought.  “This is Republic ship Sirocco, requesting assistance and rescue.  Mayday, may—”

With a flicker of pseudomotion from the rear scope, they came out of hyperspace.  Three xebecs, each with their beaked prows pointed directly at the Sirocco.  With a blast of static from the comm, a deep, grizzled Mandalorian voice responded, “Republic ship Sirocco, we are here to assist.”

“Hard about!” the Major shouted even before the transmission ended.  “Run the engines to full.”

“Hyperdrive isn’t working!” one of the techs shouted.

I’m aware,” the other ground back, shoving the tech seated at the command terminal out his way.  He jabbed at the console quickly.

“Trying to run, Sirocco?” the voice came again, mocking.  “Let’s see how far—”

The last part of the message was cut off as the sublight engines screamed to life, in turn generating yet another chorus of alarms and klaxons all around them.

Belatedly, nearly thrown to the deck, Hogart hauled himself into the chair beside the senior officer.  The other techs in the room managed fairly enough themselves, and they all strapped in.

The pitch darkness of space lit with the green lances of turbolaser fire.  Banking hard to port, the Sirocco avoided the barrage by seconds, sliding awkwardly below the enemy’s plain of fire and accelerating towards the planet.

Over the intercom, Hogart heard a flurry of shouts and curses as crew and commandos were tossed across the deck.  More concerning still was the particular pitch the alarms had taken and the unhappy combinations of warnings on various screens across the suite.

“Colonel!” Hogart shouted, managing to keep himself in his chair.  “She can’t handle this—Colonel!

“Shut those alarms off!” the other man shouted back, ignoring the warnings flashing with increasing urgency across his terminal.  “Put all weapon power to the rear deflectors!”

The techs frantically got to work on the orders even before Hogart had a chance to relay them.  A pair of close calls bounced hard off the ship’s dwindling shields.  A moment later, a second salvo sent the tiny corvette into a fishtail as malfunctioning maneuvering jets continued to attempt course corrections.  Only the brute strength of the main drives kept the ship on course.  For his part, the Major seemed to have it entirely under his control.  With a final acceleration, this one slightly more gradual the last, he had the ship steady once more and burning for the orange-brown glow of the planet below them.

Hogart deactivated one series of warning messages after another that continued flashing across his console, but the last one made him pause.  Leaning closer to their pilot, he called out over the screaming of the drives, “Colonel, if we continue at this rate, we’ll never make it to the planet!”

As if to underscore his point, something to their rear started to squeal before being suddenly silenced by the deep-throated roar of an explosion.  They were slammed down into their chairs as the explosion sent the ship spinning end over end.  On the screens the planet flashed past, was then replaced by a blur of stars, then the vaguely bronze colors of the approaching enemy ships, and then the stars again.

Clamping his hands against the comm board, Hogart saw the Major reach across his own console and start jab at the controls.  In response, the ship’s retrorockets all fired in unison, momentarily lifting him against his restraints before the artificial gravity pulled him back to his seat.

Another jab at the command console and the corvette stopped spinning, coming to a dead stop in space.  And then, with a screech of straining hardware, the corvette fired its sublight engines again and roared towards the planet below.

As they realigned their vector, more warnings flashed across their screens.  In the dash to override this or silence that, Hogart just barely got a glimpse of the rear scopes.  Although still within range of the xebecs’ guns, but they were pulling away.  Slowly, but surely.

“What was that?” the Major demanded, referring to the explosion that had sent them tumbling through space.

“I told you, sir,” Hogart called back, “the drives can’t handle this for much longer!  That was the number three engine.”  He pointed at the engineering readouts.  “Three is completely dead, sir.  The others are running overcapacity.”  He glanced up at the main screen and at the planet that was quickly taking over their view once more, and then back again to the navigation screen.  The space between the Sirocco and the planet was quickly diminishing.

“Try the distress call,” the senior officer said as he flung them wildly through evasive maneuvers in an attempt to avoid another turbolaser barrage.  More warnings flashed to life as some of the shots connected, sending the rear deflector’s status into the yellow.

What?” Hogart shouted.  “Sir, that’s insane!”

“Maybe,” the other shouted back, too busy dodging and weaving to engage.  “Just do it.”

“But the enemy, our code signals—”

“None of that is about to matter, Lieutenant,” the other said stiffly, dipping the corvette through a complicated series of twists and loops that pressed them down hard into their seats.

Halfway through the complicated dance, Hogart recognized the maneuver.  It was intended to drive down engine while still retaining a large part of the ship’s inertial flight.  Sure enough, Hogart saw out of the corner of his eyes, the engine gauges start to come down from critical.  But even as they straightened their flightpath once more, even more warnings flashed out, this time from the proximity systems.  On the rear scopes they saw that the xebecs leap forwars and towards them as they too fired their main drives.  With that image still in his mind’s eye, Hogart jammed at the comm switch, “S3, S3, S3.  This is the Republic ship Sirocco, requesting immediate assistance.  Mayday, mayday, mayday—we are under attack!  S3, S3—”

He was cut off abruptly as the comm panel raced up to slam him in the face.  He made contact with the plasteel of the console before being slammed back into his chair as the corvette dropped into a wide turn.  And as the tiny warship came around he saw there, on the main screen, the three xebecs, their beaked prows pointed directly at them.

Colonel!” Hogart screamed, gesturing.

The other man ignored his protestations.  Pulling out of its turn, the Sirocco leapt forward and streaked directly at the nearest of the black-bronze warships.  Caught off guard, the xebec’s gunners overshot the Sirocco, while the other ships faltered in their fire, concerned they might strike their ally as the corvette dashed low along the lead ship’s hull.  Hogart swore he could see the stunned expressions of enemy gunners watching them fly by.

But then whatever part of loyalty or concern motivated their silence, the other two xebecs at once open fired.  Space before them became a crisscrossing web of green turbolasers and blue ion bolts.  Above them the lead xebec’s shields flashed like lightning.

The Sirocco spun through a barrel roll, and as it spun, its pilot put the ship on her drive nacelles, sending her rocketing up along the xebec’s stern.

Still firing on the enemy ship, two solid turbolaser broadsides slammed into the space the Sirocco had just occupied.  With a white flash of lightning, the lead ship’s rear deflectors at last gave out under the onslaught.  Unshielded, the rain of turbolaser fire punched through the xebec’s hull, incinerating gunners at their stations and rupturing dozens of turbolaser capacitors.  The resulting second explosion punched a hole through the ship’s aft section, exploding out both starboard and port sides of the xebec.

The Sirocco was pulling away from the explosions it left in her wake, clawing for space along the xebec’s dorsal side.  Foolish or fanatical Mandalorian gunners continued to fire at them even as their ship burst apart beneath them.

With a final near-miss from enemy turbolasers, they cleared the ship and blasted into open space.  On the rear scopes, the wounded xebec flared with increasingly larger explosions that worked their way along her horizontal axis up towards the beaked prow.  Escape pods fired from her hull like seeds on a wind-flower, and the Mandalorian ship exploded.  Debris spewed in every direction, small pieces of which reached the Sirocco to clatter her stern.

The distress signal,” the Major commanded.

Fighting back waves of nausea, Hogart resumed his broadcast.  On the main screen the planet was beginning to show a blue haze around its otherwise orange-brown hue.  A steady bouncing sent shudders through the ship’s hull as they started through the planet’s magnetic field.

The two remaining xebecs, after only the slightest hesitation, began to accelerate around and, that proving too time-consuming, through the debris of their late partner, all the while seemingly indifferent to the plight of their stranded comrades.  Intact ship compartments and escape pods were vaporized in the ruthless barrage as the Mandalorian ships cleared a path for themselves through the debris.

“Engineering here,” Bel’Dinor’s decidedly unhappy voice came over the room’s intercom.  “Ops, we’re going to lose the engines.”

Hogart glanced at the Major.

For his part, the older man merely nodded.  “I understand,” he said calmly.  “We’re going to run them until they die.  I want every ounce of power they have—and then get clear, in case we have a more serious blowout.”

There was a pause on the other end.  They were conferring, Hogart knew.  Where other senior, naval officers might have snapped impatiently, the Major instead seemed to relax.  His face slackened and his lids lowered, half-closing.  He looked serene or meditative, entirely out of place—

“Yes, sir,” the inexplicable response came from Bel’Dinor.  “Engineering, out.”

Hogart stared at the man next to him.  “And after that?” he asked.

The serene expression lifted and the Major was once more normal.  “We’ll rely on inertial power and our retrorockets,” he said simply.  “I’ve managed to override their automation.”

Hogart blinked in surprise, but before he could respond, the board in front of him chimed.  He looked down.  No, it couldn’t be…  But sure enough, it was.  “Sir, we’re hailed!”

“Put it on,” the other said.

“—read you loud and clear,” a nasally voice said with a distinctly Outer Rim drawl.  “Those Mandalorians giving you some trouble, eh?

Hogart frowned at the comm.

As did the Major, who motioned at the comm board—and without further prompting, Hogart clicked the comm switch.  “Yes, we are under attack,” he responded emphatically.  “We need assistance at once!”

Oh, ho, ho,” the voice on the other end responded with no small amount of irony.  “Well, that’s just dandy, isn’t it?  All the way out here, far, far from home, and nobody to help you out…

Hogart flashed the Major an angry look, but the older man was too busy to respond.  He put the ship through another series of maneuvers meant to avoid the approaching barrage of turbolasers raining down on them from the approaching xebecs.  “Neutrality in its purest form,” he commented when they leveled out once more.

Well,” the voice from the comm continued, “this is your lucky day, Republic ship Sirocco, because the boys and girls of the Aporia are here to help.”  There was a pause and what sounded distinctly like laughter.

“Colonel, we must be picking up some juveniles with a long-range trasmitter or—”

The other man banked, lowering the Sirocco below the xebecs’ ecliptic as he dodged yet another salvo.  They were becoming increasingly concentrated, better coordinated.  And the ship’s controls were growing sluggish, the engines sputtering to respond.

Well, what’ll be, Republic ship Sirocco?” the voice cut in.  “Rescue doesn’t come cheap out here.

The proximity alarm warbled and when he looked, Hogart could see a ship gliding into view off to port.  It was skipping along the planet’s atmosphere, building speed as it came toward them.  A bulk freighter–that much he could tell at this distance—one with an unusually large dorsal cargo pod which towered over the bow-mounted cockpit.  As it shifted direction, the freighter’s silhouette darkened against the glow coming off the planet, giving the Aporia the appearance of an exotic hunchbacked cetacean gliding through an ocean.

Aporia,” the Major called, his voice liquid and controlled, “we have some script aboard, though perhaps not as much as you might desire.  I can, however, promise that the Republic will pay generously for your assistance.”

There was a chorus of laughter from the other end.  “You hear that, mates?” a rough voice chimed in.  “Do the work now, get paid later.

Good try, Republic ship Sirocco,” the first voice returned, “but we don’t play by Republic Senate rules.

There was another chorus of laughter from the comm, tinny and annoying in his ears.  He half-expected the Major to try a threat or some other form of manipulation.  But if anything the older man seemed to grow even more serene, the expression on his face easing and his eye lids drooping once more, an expression that was at once sleepy and meditative, the same expression he had taken when speaking with Del’Binor.

Alright, Sirocco,” a decidedly younger voice cut in abruptly.  Unlike the others from the freighter, this one sounded serious.  “We’ve no love for the Republic, but we’ve even less love for the barbarian horde.  We’ll help you out, but we’ve got your IFF code.  If you don’t pay up…

A loud whine echoed from deep inside the Sirocco.  Engine one was overheating to critical as another round of turbolaser blasts pulled power from the engines to reinforce the rear deflectors.  The evasive maneuvers were  becoming lethargic as their pilot fought to control the ship.  More turbolaser blasts struck home with disconcerting accuracy.

Forty kilometers off their port bow, the approaching freighter suddenly spun in place, bringing its bow face on with the Republic corvette.  Tiny shocks of light and gas rippled across the cargo module’s exterior.  Hogart stared in stunned horror as the freighter seemed to flounder, shuddering under its own mass.  Had it been struck?  If so, Hogart had missed the impact–

With shockwaves he felt through his chair, blue and white proton torpedoes streaked past the Sirocco, missing them by a bare few meters.  And following directly behind them were six teal-colored snubfighters, their underbellies and winglets bristling with a wicked array of missiles and torpedoes.

The crew in the Sirocco’s operations suite watched in wonder as, with military precision, the proton torpedoes zeroed in on the forward batteries of the xebec to their port.  A moment later, caught unawares by this new threat, the enemy’s prow was enveloped in a curtain of fire.  Simultaneously, off to their starboard, the fighters began systematically pounding away at the second xebec’s point defenses.

Well, you know,” the nasally voice said into the stunned silence, “this would probably be the right moment to run, Sirocco.

They did not need to be told twice.  Urging the last bit of power from the corvette’s sublight drive, the Major set the ship back on its trajectory with the planet’s hazy blue atmosphere.  They tore past the ugly, ungainly bulk freighter.  As they streaked past, the Major leaned towards the comm and said, “You have our thanks, friends.”

If there was any response from the Aporia, it was cut off by an explosion against their dorsal side, finishing off what remained of the corvette’s shields.  Pieces of the Sirocco’s hull vaporized in high-pitched squeals and a series of concussive implosions.  The Mandalorian commander must have realized that capture would not be impossible and had seemingly settled on the destruction of his quarry.  A second salvo struck the Sirocco amidships—and then, as he had known would happen all along, everything went straight to hell.  Once more the corvette plunged end over end, pin-wheeling out of control as the atmosphere grew closer and closer.

Hogart fought to keep conscious as the spin grew increasingly erratic.  He watched helplessly as the centrifugal forces ripped one of the technicians from her chair and slammed her into the nearest bulkhead.  A split second later her limp form was flung back across the room, lifeless and leaving behind a large, red smear.

Next to him the Major was fighting to regain control.  Fighting and failing.

And in those last moments before the darkness took him, he knew they were doomed.  If not even a Jedi Knight could save them, then nothing in the galaxy could.

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