First Lieutenant Andrew Gray finally had a mission. True, his Storm Commando squad had been deployed three times in the month following their combat readiness test on Carida. But the soldiers of STRC -24 (Storm Commando, unit 24; "strike tw o four") saw those first three forays for what they were: further training missions to test their readiness. Fifteen minutes ago, LT Gray had received an objective critical to the security of the Empire. Furthermore, Imperial Special Forces Colonel Crix Madine, his Brigade Commander, had entrusted him with incredible freedom in planning the mission.
The Colonel's briefing had taken less than five minutes:
"Lieutenant Gray, this morning around 0900 a scientist by the name of Doctor Zeke Zorlman was kidnapped by insurgents at the annual Ralltiir IV physics symposium. Imperial Intelligence has traced them to the third planet of the Darlac system . Grand Moff Tarkin has ordered us to rescue him ASAP. He expects the kidnappers to link with elements of the Rebellion, who will move Zorlman to a more secure location for interrogation. Lord Vader personally volunteered your squad for this missi on. Give me your operations briefing by 2400. Any questions?"
Ten minutes later Gray made his way across base to the 264th IMI (Imperial Military Intelligence) Detachment in search of 1LT Norton. IMI had a bad reputation in the military community as an oxymoron; but Gray had a theory that most intelli gence blunders could be traced to poor dissemination and interpretation rather than collection or analysis. Any information Gray received through normal channels was reviewed, analyzed, and otherwise modified until it bore little resemblance to the truth by the time it reached him.
Gray had met Norton during the desert phase of stormtrooper training. For the past three years they had maintained close contact, more off the record than on. Norton provided whatever uncensored intelligence Gray needed for a mission; Gray reciprocated by passing on field reports to Norton.
The 264th worked out of a five-story building that looked like any other military facility on Carida, steel-gray and utilitarian. The only difference was that virtually everyone in this particular building wore olive uniforms instead of whit e armor. Gray was always amused that the daily business of discovering and keeping secrets should proceed in such drab surroundings. Gray had no trouble entering; Norton had seen to it that he had special "permanent temporary" access to the buildin g. When he reached Norton's group on the third floor, he found the section calmly attending its usual frenzied pace, but his friend was nowhere in sight. Before long, Norton's second in command, Sergeant Neuman, entered from an adjoining office an d noticed Gray wandering about.
"Sir, you looking for LT Norton?"
"Actually, I was looking for the latest Gamma-class assault shuttle schematics. But since none of the maintenance units on post have them, I suppose I must settle for LT Norton."
SGT Neuman grinned. "He's down in the sub-basement with CPT Pierson's group. Wait one minute and I'll escort you down."
While Neuman completed his holonet transmission and logged off, Gray wandered about, glancing at the oddities office workers tended to post on their walls. He was particularly amused by a motivational poster obviously intended for a differen t audience: "If we don't satisfy the customer, somebody else will."
Neuman led Gray out of the room and down the hall to a bank of elevators guarded by stormtroopers and a retinal scanner. After the scanner reflected a low-power invisible laser into their eyes to read confirm their identities, Neuman explain ed that Gray was cleared for the area they were entering as long as he stayed with an escort.
Gray's squad was new enough to Carida that his special lightweight armor drew several appraising glances as they made their way through the sub-basement. He had become so accustomed to the STRC equipment he wore that he occasionally had to r emind himself why people were staring.
After a few inquiries, they found LT Norton engaged in a heated argument with another officer. Gray was certain that neither of the two realized how ridiculous they looked; Norton was a tall man when he slouched, and towered well above the s hort woman who was currently telling him the relative worthlessness of his analysis. He thought she looked familiar, but dismissed that as unlikely.
"LT Norton, we found another intruder," Neuman hastily announced before his lieutenant could respond in kind.
Both of the officers disengaged from their argument and turned to Gray as if their exchange was nothing more than business as usual.
"And I thought we patched all the holes in the fence," Norton replied, turning to Neuman. "You can go ahead, Neuman, I'll see the good lieutenant out of this maze."
Neuman nodded and turned to leave, but stopped and returned. He handed Gray a holocube.
"Almost forgot--you were asking for technical schematics earlier?"
Norton moaned aloud as Neuman walked away.
"Guess I owe him; he bet me you would ask for that before week's end. We just downloaded it two days ago," Norton admitted, shaking his head. "Ah, well, it's only money. You know LT Brown, right?"
"Of course, Scott. Andrew and I go way back," the short lieutenant quickly responded, reaching out to shake Gray's hand.
Gray took another look at her, and was surprised to realize that he did indeed know her, and that realization brought back a flood of memories.
"Samantha? But I thought you joined the Finance Corps..."
LT Brown laughed at his confusion.
"I did, but I hated it. Now I'm a spy." Norton cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow. "All right, all right, I'm actually just a boring analyst like Scotty, not a full-blown spy. Are you happy now, Soctt?"
Gray was suitably impressed with Brown's accomplishment. He had always thought highly of her at the Academy, but the nature of the Imperial war machine made achieving rank and position in anything outside of support roles extremely difficul t for women. Certainly there were female soldiers, spies, and staffers; but they were an extreme minority. For Brown to have accomplished the transition from glorified accountant to intelligence analyst at the Stormtrooper headquarters on Carida sp oke highly of her tenacity and intelligence.
"Well, since you two so obviously know each other, would you care to enlighten me?" Norton wanted to know.
"The Academy on Sagron II; we met in hyperspace physics, if I am not mistaken," Gray answered thoughtfully, arching an eyebrow, challenging Brown to disagree. He recalled their late nights racing to complete projects together, her sharp intu itive mind complementing his own analytical method, the way her face shone when she was excited with a new discovery, the balmy fragrance of her hair...
"Negative, lieutenant," Brown corrected easily, a knowing gleam in her eye. "Thermodynamics with Doctor Ngwa was our first time, and you hated it."
So she hadn't forgotten. He had detested thermodynamics, namely because he found the professor boring. He eventually started working on other projects during class, and found to his mild surprise that his thermo grades actually improved sin ce he was no longer bored to insanity.
"And why would you think that?" he queried.
"Because I hated it too, noticed your solution, and adopted it as my own," Brown replied. "Don't forget, we were on opposing design teams and I had to keep up with the competition."
"Look, I would be enthralled to watch you two reminisce, but I have to get this IntSum sent off about fifteen minutes ago," Norton broke in. "Can I go with this data, Sam? I know it has yet to be confirmed, but it's a good rough guess and be tter than nothing at all."
"Very well, go ahead, I'm just glad I'm not part of that contingency force. Don't give me that look, you know what you're getting into," Brown relented, turning back to Gray. "Andrew, a few of us spies are meeting at the officer's club after duty." She glanced aside at Norton to see if he would contradict her. "Soctt's coming too. Would you care to join us?"
"Thanks, but I just received a mission," Gray replied, suddenly jarred from his short jaunt down memory lane. He suppressed a twinge of guilt for having let his carefully-suppressed memories of Brown distract him. Control, control; without control you are more dangerous than the enemy, he scolded himself.
"Oh, so the brass is sending YOU after Zorlman! I'm impressed; somebody in the crystal palace must really like you," Brown responded with a low whistle. "Well then, I won't delay you any longer. If you reconsider, stop by later. Watch you r back on this mission, Andrew; the politics involved positively reek. Later, Soctt."
"Now about the Zorlman mission..." Gray began as he started back toward the turbolift, leading the way to test his recall of the sub- basement's layout.
"You know, I wish she would stop calling me that," Norton interrupted him, shaking his head. "Andy, your sense of timing is horrendous. You just missed one prijg of an opportunity with a lovely lady."
Gray was horrified that Norton should pick up on that. He pretended confusion yet again, which wasn't terribly difficult since he suspected he was losing his ability to concentrate on anything at all. "How's that?"
"Sam. She wants you, buddy. By the way, we turn left here, not right."
"No, we turn right," Gray disagreed, stopping in the intersection. "Trust me, I am the scout, you are the analyst. And how do you imagine these crazy notions?"
"Please tell me we are not having THAT argument again," Norton replied jauntily. "And I base my 'notions' upon observation. Very well, let's go your way; I can't wait to see the brightest stormtrooper on the block get us lost. Anyway, Sam a nd I were on a project together the first time you called asking for those kleptl shuttle plans for which you have harassed my staff for the past two months. She was much too interested when I mentioned your impending return to Carida."
They rounded a final corner and encountered turbolifts. The two officers exchanged glances; Gray amused, Norton chagrined.
"Any other wise advise, since you obviously still possess no measurable navigational skills?" Gray scoffed as they boarded the lift.
"In your own words, you are the scout, I am the analyst. I have analyzed, and determined that you should scout."
"Very well, I'll contact Samantha when I finish this mission, and we'll have a good laugh at your expense," Gray finally acceded. "Now I've wasted fifteen minutes finding you and listening to your social advice--"
"Of which you are very much in need."
"--now can you tell me about Zorlman and Darlac system?"
"But of course. You should have just ask in the first place."
Even LT Norton was surprised at how little information they had on Darlac and Zorlman. He gave Gray what he had and promised to send more via secure encrypted holonet after performing some research. Gray was concerned about the lack of info rmation on scientist and system, but felt secure that Norton would come through for him. Of the other matter the they had discussed, Gray had completely disregarded. Twenty-five minutes after his arrival at the 264th, Gray was once more on his way.
Gray jumped onto his speeder bike and immediately powered up, upset that he had spent so much time and the 264th. His hands automatically went through the preflight sequences and opened a channel back to his squad's base.
"Vornsker Seven, this is Vornsker Six," Gray spoke into the helmet pickup as he activated the pressure pads that held the helm tightly on his head without relying on a bothersome chin strap. "Assemble the squad for a warning order in three-ze ro mikes, over."
"Six, Seven. Wilco, out."
Gray could hear SGT Cross's surprise through the cryptic reply. Gray added power and zoomed away from the sprawling headquarters toward a pass in the mountains looming east.
As a rule, Stormtroopers were not supposed to think. Imperial soldiers received exacting, specific orders from which they would never deviate. Staff officers planned operations to the last thermal detonator and then issued orders to the tro ops who would actually carry out the mission. Unfortunately, Imperial troops tended to stand around stupidly when the plan fell apart, an event that occurred more often that anyone in the chain of command would like to admit.
Stormtroopers tended to charge into a situation with weapons blazing and little regard to situational tactics or their own safety. While such assaults were awe-inspiring, too often everyone got killed without accomplishing anything. Hence, the Empire consumed Stormtroopers at a prodigious rate and ran continuous recruitment campaigns.
Colonel Madine had convinced Lord Vader to allow him to form the Storm Commandos: a Stormtrooper unit that could "think on its feet when a plan goes to the Mynocks", as Colonel Madine was fond of putting it. Madine expected Storm Commandos t o use discretion in executing a task.
The trust Madine placed in STRC 24 increased Gray's resolve to successfully accomplish the mission. An immediately positive aspect to Colonel Madine's short briefing occurred to Gray as he began negotiating the hairpin turns leading through the pass to an abandoned airfield. Normally Gray had to take copious notes at a briefing, spend time translating them into real-world terms, and then issue his own orders. This time, he had little choice but to simply reissue the orders he had rece ived.
Within twenty minutes, Gray completed the winding course and was bearing down on the airfield at a moderate 140 kilometers per hour.
The location was ideal for training his squad; close enough to the main base for logistical concerns, yet far enough to be unnoticed by normal air traffic. A small valley between towering peaks shielded their electronic emissions from the ca sual eavesdropper. Two long runways originally built for wing-borne aircraft paralleled the prevailing wind directions. The squad used the long permaform strips for a variety of purposes other than what the construction engineers originally intende d. The airfield also sported spacious hangars and barracks to house the squad's equipment and soldiers. A section of the airfield had been set aside for practicing urban ops.
By the time Gray braked to a stop just outside the smallest hangar, the entire squad had assembled itself. To his Storm Commandos, the meaning of "assembled" was open to interpretation. Typically, it simply meant that they were all within shooting distance.
Off on one of the abandoned taxiways, Sergeant Christofer Cross, Aleph Team leader and acting squad leader since the untimely death of Ssg Williams during training, was trying to improve Specialist Reginald Hawkins' understanding of the ST-AT . Cross had started out in the armored cavalry and was the squad's undisputed master of walking mechanical entities. SPC Hawkins was Cross's team medtech and generally had trouble coping with inorganic equipment. Additionally, Hawkins was the youn gest and newest stormtrooper of the squad, having completed regular stormtrooper training less than a year prior to selection for STRC-24. However, Hawkins made up for his lack of mechanical expertise with his enthusiasm to wreck upon an enemy the s ame damage he repaired on his own teammates. Currently he was making a valiant effort to get the ST-AT back on its feet after tripping through the remains of a demolished hangar. Gray could just hear Cross yelling above the noise of straining hydra ulic motors:
"Damnitalltohell," Cross hollered as one complete word, "Hawk, how many times have I told you to make sure your compensators are set to three- quarters before trying to walk across loose terrain?"
"Yeah, but if three-quarters is good, then full oughta be better!" Hawkins protested in his own defense, wildly working the controls in an apparently random order.
Gray had heard Cross's reply often enough that he mouthed the words silently to himself.
"You only use full to smooth things out when you're going fast on solid ground. On loose ground, full just puts the gyros into an infinite loop override. Here, watch this."
Cross activated the override, taking over control and immediately uprighting the ST-AT in a graceful yet bone-jarring maneuver. At that time he noticed Gray, waved, and began maneuvering the walker toward the hangar.
As Gray entered the hangar himself, he noticed Specialist James Terrance, Aleph team slicer, calmly berating someone via comlink. Cross's soldier was asking why the schlemp the squad was barred from Range 17, a premier urban operations cour se with holographic generators to simulate enemy forces.
"Sir, I am telling you that 17 is safe for Plexors... Yessir, I realize that 17 is a squad live fire exercise area; my squad routinely carries Plexors with us...Yes, we have organic medic and medevac support; and EOD too, before you ask...L ook sir, we've fired missiles at this range dozens of times before, and not damaged anything...Not a single scratched computer chip...Well how can I help it if the Quartermaster battalion demonstrates ineptitude determining which end fires the missil e?...Yessir, we have performed demolition and ordnance disarming exercises on 17; the range provides an excellent controlled environment...Indeed?...In all honesty, sir, I could not care less about how our noise affects the General's nerf-hunting...N o sir, we are NOT the ones who assassinated the General Noddoc's genetically-altered pet dinka..."
Gray had to agree with Terrance--that little incident had been a clear case of self defense, certainly not murder.
SPC Richard Nichols, Aleph Team's Slicer and perpetrator-in-chief of the dinka escapade, perched atop a shipping crate with computer components strewn about himself and a datapad by his side. He was alternately giving the datapad some time-c onsuming task and then working on his pet project while waiting for the datapad to finish. Nichols rarely expounded on his projects until he got them to work, at which time it was difficult to shut him up. Gray thought about asking what he was work ing on now; he decided against it. Right now he had time for neither cajoling a description of some new research nor poring over logic diagrams of a nearly-completed project.
Gray could see SPC Lestre Ratcliffe crouched over an electron microscope the squad had built for him in the windowed hangar admin office. Next to the Bezel Team medtech was a stasis tube encasing the remains of some hapless local creature. Carida boasted a wide range of climates with numerous creatures toxic to human life. The conspicuous lack of known antidotes made training especially vigorous. Ratcliffe hoped to make a name for himself developing a serum for something. The fact t hat he had already dissected six critters without figuring how to counter their venom did nothing to damp his current enthusiasm.
The Bezel Team leader, SGT Jefferson Lane, was leaning in the office door watching Ratcliffe with all the enthusiasm of someone watching someone else work. SGT Lane embodied the epitome of old-school stormtrooper mentality, and Gray had trou ble understanding why anyone would assign the old man to STRC-24. At 35 standard years, Lane was easily the oldest trooper in the squad, even beating Cross by a few years. Even so, Lane was still a better soldier than most stormtroopers Gray had me t in his relatively short career. Besides, since General Noddoc had personally assigned Lane to the squad, Gray had no real vote in whether or not Lane stayed; at least until Lane really fouled up the works.
SPC Thokas Snyder and SPC Raeson Schlamp, STRC 24's Weapon Techs, had most of the assault shuttle's maintenance doors sprung open and were visible only from the knees up. Sometime during the checkered testing history of the prototype Gamma-c lass assault shuttle, someone had painted a menacing Vornsker on the nose. It was impossible to tell whether the feline was attacking or simply mad with fright. The group consensus on the symbolism of the nose art swayed depending on how much alcoh ol the squad had recently imbibed. Snyder had taken to calling the ship "Scat", and the name stuck.
As Lieutenant Gray approached Scat, a sudden bout of cursing reverberated from the inspection hatches. Midway through the bellowing a tech manual flew from the ship to land at Gray's feet. As he stooped to retrieve the book, Gray noted that the manual was dog-eared and smudged with at least five different types of lubricant. It had obviously seen a few million light-years.
"That book is kleptl junk!" SPC Snyder hollered as he squirmed to extricate himself from the shuttle's innards. "I don't know who wrote it, but they don't know krist'l about wave dynamics. The pictures aren't even right--they show the stat ic damper on the wrong prijg'n' side of the hull!"
Snyder had been a mechanic in a maintenance unit before getting bored and volunteering to join the Stormtroopers. Consequently, he held little respect for anyone who failed to comprehend the significance of the phrase "righty-tighty, lefty-l oosey."
At Snyder's outburst, Schlamp emerged from the ship as well and lifted a welding shield from his face. "Howdy LT! I hate to knock this prototype you scrounged for us, but the man's right. Takes a rocket scientist to figure out this manual."
Snyder stepped out from behind the computer to extend his manual- bashing. "Someone designed a decent ship and then hired a Grand Moff to write the operator's manual. On paper!"
"That's life, gentlemen," Gray acknowledged. He reached inside a pocket and pulled out the holocube SGT Neuman had given him earlier. He tossed the cube to Snyder. "I found this lying about back at Brigade HQ. Thought you might find it of interest."
Gray turned away before any of them could respond. Snyder gleefully pocketed the updated assault shuttle technical readout as Hawkins brought the ST-AT to a jerky halt just inside the hangar.
Gray's troopers were a strange group, composed almost entirely of soldiers who just didn't quite fit in with the rest of the stormtrooper cadre for one reason or another; apparent failures of the highly-touted stormtrooper mental conditioning . Were it not for the formation of this squad, every one of them would have been kicked out of the military or locked up in prison by now (with the unique exception of Lane, the model brain-dead, blaster-happy stormtrooper). But they were his soldi ers, and they understood each other. They formed the best small unit in the Empire; Gray wouldn't trade them for the Emperor's Guard.
Gray raised his voice to catch everyone's attention.
"Okay, bring it in, everyone."
Soldiers quickly packed away their activities, tossing tools into lockers and alien body parts into stasis tubes. The sun was beginning to set and Cross hollered for someone to switch the lights on. Within moments, the entire squad was gat hered around their lieutenant in a loose semicircle, perched atop ammo racks or whatever else proved convenient.
"This will be quick. Brigade has given us a nonfiction mission."
The Storm Commandos perked up at this. Lt Gray had not dignified any of their previous operations by granting them real-world legitimacy.
"Situation: renowned physicist Zeke Zorlman has been kidnapped. Apparently he disappeared from a symposium on Ralltiir IV. Tarkin smells Rebels and Brigade Intel believes he is being held on Darlac 3, but not for long.
"Our mission: recover him before he mentions any of his research to the rebels. Lord Vader himself volunteered us for this mission."
Gray paused to secure a Mutant Zombie Cooler from the stock they maintained in the hangar. When he popped the top open, the bottle released a burst of gas, instantly cooling the drink into icy slush.
"Say again?" Cross queried uneasily when Gray just stood there looking at them all for a moment. "I believe I missed something. What exactly is Brigade's plan? Surely they would not allow us to plan a real mission ourselves?..."
"Of course they would," Gray responded calmly to his shocked squad. "Brigade has given us complete autonomy. I assume they possess no desire to leave their mark on this one, for reasons you will eventually appreciate.
"Cross, I want you to contact the Navy, coordinate for a Destroyer or Cruiser within the next 24 hours. I have a notion we will not be cruising in on Scat for this one. While you are there, acquire more Plexors. Terrance, I want you to hac k around and find out what you can about Zorlman. Snyder, find out as much as you can about Darlac System. Lane, you will take everyone else for final prep. As soon as I receive an Intel packet from Lt Norton, I want Nichols to review it with me. Any questions?"
Stunned silence echoed throughout the hangar into the red dusk of approaching night. The squad had often complained that they could design a better operation than staff, but this was the first time they had to prove it on a live mission.
"Then move out. Reconsolidate at ops, 1800 hours."
The Storm Commandos parted to plan their first mission.
Lieutenant Gray believed he understood why the Imperial military micromanaged itself to such a great extent. He now found himself apprehensive about trusting his subordinates to perform duties generally handled by Academy-trained staff offic ers. But upon returning to the abandoned airfield from a quick face-to-face conference with Lt Norton, he found that he had made the right decision. What his soldiers lacked in formal education, they compensated for in experience and motivation. H is soldiers were all waiting for him, brimming with information and ideas. Cross had called earlier on the comlink to say that the Navy was delaying him.
"Very well then, time for show and tell," Gray announced, glancing around the former air traffic control center to make sure all were present. "Snyder, go."
"First off, thanks for the new shuttle schematics, LT--it was compiled by engineers and appears to actually resemble Scat. As far as Darlac's concerned," Snyder paused momentarily, calling up a star chart on the nearest holographic display, "the good news is that it's in the Outer Rim, so we shouldn't create too much political flak if we get a little crazy. It's independent from the Empire, apparently because there's nothing there we absolutely can't live without and it's too far away to pose a threat. Bad news is, the databases I searched indicate a heavy Rebel presence in surrounding systems, and possibly on the planet itself."
"But Rebels are good news," Nichols interrupted to disagree. "More things to blow up."
"Your data on the Rebels must be accurate," Cross agreed with Snyder, just returning. "I wasted three hours arguing with the Navy. While they will not admit that they do not control the system, they refuse to do anything more than send a cr uiser to drop us off and leave in a hurry. Whether the cruiser returns for extraction depends entirely on how much attention we attract accomplishing the mission."
The squad groaned collectively at this. Not having a secure egress was a good way to permanently decommission yourself. Snyder manipulated the controls to show Darlac's galactic position and then to zoom in on Darlac 3 itself.
"Navy refuses to budge?" Gray inquired.
"With fifteen days notice and the appropriate approval, they will assemble a task force to subjugate the entire sector," Cross replied. "But I told them that was too late."
"The Rebels will move Zorlman within thirty-six hours if they are at all competent," Gray agreed. "Besides, Col Madine's budget is inadequate to support a full-fledged invasion." Most of the squad appreciated the joke, while the less cereb rally-advanced members were surprised that Col Madine operated on such a strict account. "Snyder, anything else?"
"I always have something else, LT It's a fairly typical class M with 9/10th's standard gravity, lots of water, 10,000 meter mountains. Actually pretty comfy compared to this hole, but boringly typical--one of those places you'd like to stay , but not visit. Sorry, Rat, no indigenous life forms to get excited about.
"Separatists colonized the system during the clone wars," Snyder displayed some old news clips for his squadmates entertainment. "Judging by cultural customs and such, the society seems pretty much introverted, paranoid, and wary of outsiders . They'd call the cops on their own mother. I guess because they're not aligned with the Empire or the Rebellion, they are a pre-repulsor technology society. Maybe that has something to do with their odd religion though, something about repulsors messing up the alignments of celestial bodies or some such nonsense. But although they aren't smart enough to build repulsors or a full planetary shield, they do have some partial shields. They also have a fairly sophisticated airspace tracking sys tem. Anything TIE fighter and bigger will probably get noticed."
"Where'd they find partial shields if they don't have repulsors?" Cross interrupted.
"Not sure," Snyder replied uneasily; he had hoped no one would pursue this line of thought since his information was sketchy. "Apparently, some regional governor made some arms deal several years back to convince them to enter the Imperial f old. That's where they got their shields, detection systems, and what limited modern weaponry they have-- enough firepower to keep them out of the fold, in fact. The Empire no longer maintains a consulate in the region, and I believe the governor ha s been reassigned to Kessel."
Gray frowned to himself. No wonder Brigade had given so little info--the region was an embarrassment to the Empire, and nobody wished to associate themselves with the area. The Navy probably hesitated to go in because they lacked detailed i nformation concerning defensive systems Darlac 3 might have hiding safely behind those partial shields. Not to mention what Rebel forces might be lurking in the region. The mission was looking more interesting by the moment.
"Their orbit-to-surface traffic is very routine stuff," Snyder continued, "if you ignore the fact that none of their intrasystem craft use repulsors. They'll notice anything out of the ordinary, and I doubt we'll have time to hijack a regula r flight."
"Regular flight?" Cross queried. "I thought you just said they do not possess repulsors themselves and do not appreciate outsiders."
"I did say so," Snyder confirmed. "However, it seems that their devoutness in abstaining from modern technology doesn't prevent them from trading a few exotic items with the rest of the galaxy. They log in about twenty repulsor craft a week ...though I'm stumped as to what they want there. The society is introverted and the planet has few critical resources."
"Yeah, well, there's probably some pompous potentate in their government with an attraction to Corellian jump juice," Cross volunteered sarcastically.
"Well what do you expect?" Ratcliffe joined in on the Darlac- bashing. "They follow a religion banning repulsors yet rely on them to preserve their ways." As part of his fascination with xenobiology, Ratcliffe also studied every strange rel igion he could find.
"That's what you call dividing by infinity," Nichols declared jauntily.
"No, you mean dividing by zero," Terrance corrected with an affected condescending air, "dividing by infinity is calculus."
Gray indulged a round of the squad's banter for a few moments before putting them back on track.
"Terrance, tell us about our mad scientist."
The slicer took remote control of the holoprojector through his own computer pad and displayed video and audio of the scientist both in the lab and on the lecture circuit.
"Not much unique on him, LT Born Dek'Nada Zorlman; currently job title is 'Imperial Special Research Technical Engineer'. That means he is a weapons or surveillance scientist. As nearly as I can determine, he has been working on a supersec ret project which is in final production; something to do with star life expectancies.
"He is a sixty-seven year old, 1.65 meter Mon Calamari of dubious allegiance who was conscripted to perform technical research. The administrators of the galaxy appear to feel he has fully integrated into the Imperial hierarchy despite his p revious reservations. Personally, I wonder if he spends too much time thinking back to his life on the original wet world."
Gray nodded agreement. "All together likely. Plan on the contingency that he may not desire to return with any sort of urgency."
"Of course. Judging by the cloak of secrecy over his work for the last twelve years, I believe the Empire would be in a galaxy of hurt if Rebels or pirates learn whatever he knows."
"Let me get this straight," Lane interrupted, "you mean to tell me we're rescuing a fish?"
"Not just any fish, SGT," Terrance corrected, "A fish apparently bearing sensitive Imperial secrets in his cerebrum."
"Besides, Calamari aren't fish," Ratcliffe interjected, ready to launch into an esoteric expose on alien genetics. Hawkins jabbed him in the ribs before he could continue.
Gray turned to Cross.
"What about Aleph's equipment?"
"Sir, we're ready to do whatever you want, wherever you want."
SGT Lane looked around at his soldiers for confirmation. "We're good to go."
Cross looked at him hard. "You sure about that, Sergeant?"
Lane again glanced around before speaking. Seeing no dissension from his troops, he replied "Yessir."
Gray let it go at that.
"Okay, Intel has an agent, or what Brigade termed a 'reliable source' who spotted our friend recently at City Carislo. Our friends at the 264th were kind enough to give me this, which none of you have ever seen now or at any time in the futu re." Gray handed Terrance a holocube. "Show us the city and bring up the defense overlay; filename is 'carislo.def.grid' or something like that."
Terrance complied by showing a city located centrally on one of Darlac 3's four major land masses. A few keystrokes later, planetary defenses started popping up on the map at an alarming rate.
"Anything tries to fly under that shield is going to get waxed!" Nichols exclaimed.
Several of the team frowned in confusion. Hawkins voiced their puzzlement.
"Check it out," Nichols began, warming to his favorite subject: things that go BOOM. "You have the partial shield about 10 or 12 kilometers above the ground. It covers about a 60-kilometer radius around the city. That keeps our space platf orms from laying waste to the city from above."
"So just launch some TIE bombers and let them fly under the shield," SGT Lane mumbled. "Standard Imperial procedure. What's so difficult with that?"
"No problem, except that if I'm not mistaken, all these red circles represent cones of vulnerability for AS-17 anti-air laser and tactical nuclear missile systems," Nichols continued with a tinge of sarcasm. Terrance nodded confirmation. "A ny ship large enough to be detected would get pulverized in there, trapped between the ground, the shield, and multiple weapon sites."
"He's right," Snyder agreed. "We were on a mission together and saw AS-17s in operation once--it was a good day for the opposing team."
"Am I correct in assuming that this sort of system incorporates spotters with portable surface-to-air missiles scattered about?" Cross wanted to know, intently studying the graphic display.
"Actually, no," Gray answered, taking the discussion again. "Intel claims that they rely on their AS-17 and high-altitude surveillance assets to detect airborne intruders. However, do not consider that assessment galactic truth.
"Lt Norton pointed out a fortunate side-effect of the introverted society banning repulsor technology: personal weapons are illegal. Consequently, local law enforcement agencies are likely neither well practiced nor equipped to counter our c apabilities. However, bear in mind that a slow, errant ballistic round can stop one of us as easily as any well-aimed energy weapon.
"Intel's agent will meet us to provide more timely data at this coordinate well outside the city. But as Nichols pointed out, the problem is reaching the city quickly, quietly from a cruiser which is in a hurry to vacate the system. Snyder, you have an idea?"
"Well, I did; but Nichols sort of blew my theory out of the airlock," Snyder admitted. "I wanted to jump ship in emergency reentry skids, slip down under the shield, toss the skids, and parachute glide to the city."
"That's crazy!" Lane protested, staring at Snyder with obvious disdain. "That's not in any of the Stormtrooper procedures."
"Which means no one will plan defenses against it," Cross pointed out. "However, will the AS-17s detect us?"
"Under optimum parameters, yes," Snyder replied, Schlamp and Nichols voicing confirmation.
"Very well," Gray conceded, "but I think Terrance has an idea to counter that threat."
"I do?" Terrance responded, momentarily confused. Then his face lit up. "Of course! There are bound to be gaps caused by intervening terrain and what-not between AS-17 detection cones that a man on a parachute could cruise through. All we have to do is map the detection areas, then plot a course through them."
"Can you do that?" Cross wondered aloud.
"Please!" Nichols protested, his profession insulted. "What do you think we are--protocol droids?"
"Nobody would mistake YOU for a protocol droid," Terrance jabbed quickly before continuing, "but it is rather easy. We simply must factor in the terrain, planetary curvature, known AS-17 sites, known AS-17 capabilities--that sort of thing."
"Right on target, buddy," Nichols heartily agreed. "No sweat, LT"
"Well, there is a great horde of AS-17s there," Terrance broke in, concentrating. "We may need to destroy one or two of them on the way in."
"Just one or two?" Ratcliffe asked. "If they're lethal enough to take out TIE's, how will we make it just knocking out one or two?"
"The strong point of the AS-17 is that one radar can guide its own missiles and missiles from another site at the same time," Snyder explained, gesturing with his hands. "You only need one site to cover a given approach vector. Once it det ects an intruder, distant sites launch their missiles and the site that found you guides them in. Once you're detected, you have missiles converging on you from all directions.
"But if you can knock-out just one site, then none of the others may be able to spot you."
"Fine, but just how in Tinian's Moons do we blow up an AS-17 without attracting some sort of attention?" Hawkins demanded.
Silence reigned while the squad pondered this difficulty. Finally, SGT Cross posited an idea.
"Schlamp, you still have that remotely piloted aircraft you were flying around a couple weeks ago?"
"It's packed up around here somewhere...Wait a minute, you're not suggesting that--"
"YES!" Nichols exclaimed. "We could load it up with explosives for one prijg of a bang!"
"No," Terrance disagreed. "We should use a small amount, just enough to destroy the site without excessive noise, flash, and smoke."
"Terry's right," Snyder agreed. "But better than blowing it up, fire off an EMP grenade above the site. That'd wreck their electronics without making them suspect immediate invasion. They might react as if it were a faulty circuit. Can you do that?"
Schlamp was nodding his head as he thought about it.
"I could carry four EMP grenades. Put them on wing hardpoints for individual release. I'll make certain I detonate far enough away that we don't shut down our equipment as well. The drone is stable enough for me to momentarily switch off g uidance control to avoid overloading the system." Schlamp gazed at the ceiling, imagining how he would reconfigure everything. "That would allow us to take out two, maybe three sites. Four if we're lucky. I don't see anyway to recover it after the mission; but I suppose losing an airplane is better than being shot at."
"Schlamp, how long would it take to modify your aircraft?" Gray inquired.
"Let's see, I'd have to reinstall the video circuit for terminal guidance....build and install release racks....modify a reentry skid to hold it....install a larger fuel cell. It'll take about ten hours. Less if I have help."
"Very well, I'll take that into consideration. Okay, now we're there, supposedly linked with our agent. Who wants to volunteer a method to find our mad scientist?" Gray queried. He already had his own ideas, but wanted the squad to exercis e its brains a bit more.
"That's easy," Cross offered immediately. "If the spy doesn't already know, we loose Nichols on their computer system. If that place is as paranoid as it sounds, there'll be some mention of him in the police computers."
"But do they even have computers?" Nichols queried.
Snyder nodded affirmatively. "Slow and old, but capable for what you guys should need. For technological purposes, consider that they possess a weak pre-clone war technology, but little of anything else afterward. I guess I should have men tioned that earlier."
"If your slicing fails to work, I suggest the old-fashioned way with blasters on low power," Lane offered. "It has always worked well enough in the past."
Gray shook his head irritably. He was beginning to notice that in the rare instances when Lane proposed an idea for a mission, all he managed was to spout standard Imperial doctrine. Doctrine which often created more havoc than success.
"No, terrorizing the local populace will do us more harm than good, even though they are not Imperial citizens," Gray explained. "If anyone should discover us, Zorlman will disappear deeper than he is now; and there always seems to be someon e nearby to witness such interviews and spread the word around. We must conduct this mission stealthily.
"Now, once we determine his exact location, we can plan the rescue accordingly. Egress will be touch-and-go, but less problematic than insertion since we can make some noise once we have Zorlman in custody. Nichols, Terrance, once we are on the surface what is the difficulty level of slicing into their air traffic controls to steal a ship or gain passage on one?"
"Depends on the systems they use," Terrance answered, Nichols nodding agreement. "The two of us could go light on firepower and heavy on computers. We could carry enough to slice into about anything. The biggest problem will be semantics."
"References say they speak a local version of Basic," Snyder offered. "Worse come to worse, once we have Zorlman we could break into one of their military bases and hijack something to shoot our way into orbit for pickup."
Gray considered this. "Very well then. Plot all military bases with lists of spacefaring capabilities onto our mission computers in case we need that option. I would rather leave peacefully, though, so that Navy does not run off with frigh t. Hawk, Rat, that reminds me. Take along something to make Zorlman passive once we find him. At one extreme, he may be so nervous he gives us away; at the other, he may not wish to accompany us.
"Okay, we have a rough idea of how to get there, grab Zorlman, and get out. I would like to spend more time researching a detailed plan, but we are short on time. It would likely fall apart on the ground anyway. Anything we have missed?
"Okay. Snyder, coordinate with maintenance support to modify our reentry shields, then help Schlamp rebuild his craft," Gray decided. "Terrance, plot us a way through the AS-17s, then create a simulation for us to experiment with. Nichols , program our reentry on the skids and parachute deployment with Terrance. Lane, take everyone else and prep Scat. I have a notion to have the Navy hide the shuttle somewhere in the Darlac system so that we have hyperspace capability if our extrac tion cruiser runs off without us. Cross, get back in touch with Navy and arrange a rendezvous for 1800 tomorrow. It should take about two hours to reach Darlac system. I am planning on insertion at fall of darkness not more than two days from now. When I am comfortable with egress options, I will brief Brigade. Any questions?"
Nichols motioned for attention.
"Flaming in from space on our bellies and threading through AS-17s sounds fun, LT but when do we get to blow something up?"