"Very well. Lieutenant, do you have anything further to add?"
Gray breathed a sigh of relief. A training accident had commandeered Colonel Madine's attention, leaving the Brigade Executive Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Yasnov, to review STRC-24's mission closure report. Under normal circumstances, Yasno v's lust for promotion exhibited itself in his exemplary craft of micromanagement. Unfortunately for Gray, when the boss was away, Yasnov tended to direct gluons to their appropriate quarks. Major Snerdlo and Captain Coltran, brigade intel and seco nd operations officer respectively, stirred to wakefulness at Yasnov's query. Snerdlo glared hard at Gray, clearly warning him not to say anything that might conceivably pique Yasnov's interest and result in another interminable conference. Gray re gistered Snerdlo's implied threat only enough to ignore it.
"Only a question, if I may." Gray continued without waiting for someone to deny him the opportunity. "I was wondering about the hostile activity at our primary drop zone..." He let the query hang, raising an eyebrow toward Coltran.
Snerdlo interrupted Coltran before the younger officer could collect his thoughts.
"If you had proceeded to your original DZ, as specified in the plan you yourself submitted, we would now know what transpired there, lieutenant. As it stands now, we have nothing."
"I hardly think that--"
"You're not supposed to think," Snerdlo interrupted Gray. "You're expected to follow orders, the plan for which, I must remind you, was written by you."
Gray returned Snerdlo's stare.
"Colonel Madine may take exception with your stance. Sir."
"The colonel takes exception to many things," Yasnov stopped the confrontation before things could get out of hand. While he was inclined to agree with the Major, Yasnov instinctively realized that the lieutenant standing before him had unwi ttingly gained the attention of some rather important people. Under other circumstances, Gray might find himself at the mercy of Snerdlo's tirade; but messing with Vader's eclectic pet projects was not a hobby Yasnov had any intention of developing. "However, the point is moot, considering STRC-24's indefinite operational attachment to Lord Vader's direct command. You'll receive your new orders within the hour. Don't make us look like idiots, lieutenant."
Gray made it only three meters down the corridor before the helmet he carried in the crook of his left arm buzzed unobtrusively for his attention. He donned the helmet, stabbing at air to choose the flashing comlink query displayed on his vi sor. Lt Norton's visage crackled into view, occipital resonator transmitting his voice to Gray's inner ear.
"Welcome back from the wastelands of debriefing, Andy. What took so long?"
"Madine's on a range," Gray explained economically.
"Aha--you got stuck with Yasnov. Sith, what are you doing out already? I feel for you."
"You don't know the half. If you have anything you want to keep, bolt it down and lock it up--my squad will be moving soon."
"So I've heard. You know, rumor has it that General Noddoc appropriated a nifty new R4 unit...and it doesn't work..."
"I'll bear that in mind." Gray slid onto his speeder bike, absent- mindedly running through the preflight sequence. Few operators realized that there was a specified start profile, but Snyder had cleared that issue up in no uncertain terms o n Gray's first encounter with him. "What's on your mind today? Neutex playthings?"
"Been there, done that. Actually, just calling in to make sure you know about Colonel Bridges' officer's call, considering how you've been gallivanting across the galaxy these last few days. And the post Generals are supposedly attending as well."
Gray frowned to himself as he blasted into the traffic pattern thickening with soldiers and administrators calling themselves soldiers on their way to work. Once again, Gray wished that Noddoc had not decreed single level surface-only traffi c on post-proper.
"And? You know my perspective on Carida officer calls. Especially when Generals are in attendance."
"Which is exactly why I called to make sure someone told you. Look, he actually has a member of the Senate coming to brief us on the latest Outer Rim trouble. You know, it really bugs me when you drive and talk on that damn visor of yours. Looks like you're not paying attention to the road."
"I'm not. You have yet to give me a real reason to attend."
"Do you have any idea how fortunate you are having the political clout to choose not to go."
"You mean the complete absence of clout?" Gray corrected. "You're still not making a terribly convincing argument."
"Touchˇ. Let me try another circuit: did your brigade HQ give you any feedback on that party the Darlacianonianns threw for your mission?"
"I'm surprised you even ask. Of course not--they're torqued that I didn't open the gifts."
"Well, it just so happens that I overheard a certain person yelling about the incident...and she'll will be at the briefing."
"How foolish of me to think that you would give up so easily."
"Hey, all I'm saying is that if you want any chance of finding out what happened on Darlac, you know who you need to talk with. And who knows from there...."
"And I don't suppose you could just find out for me."
Norton feigned horror. "Of course not! I'm not cleared with a need to know."
"Of course not."
"So you'll be there?"
"Scott, I need to move my squad sometime in the next 24 hours, and find some time to catch up on inspecting eyelid opacity."
"Great, so I'll see you there, although I suggest that it's Samantha's eyelid opacity you should be inspecting."
"The only constant in the universe since the discovery of hyperspace. Nineteen hundred sharp at the club, be there or be square."
"LT! What in the seven stars of Snoylen are you still doing here?"
Nichols' shocked non-sequiter greeting at Gray's silent arrival to the squad's ready room put Gray off balance. He sardonically noted that it also served to warn everyone else in the room of his presence.
"And where am I supposed to be?" he replied, ignoring the brief flurry of activity as all and sundry attempted to unobtrusively hide what they had been working on. He had planned on a decent meal and an hour or two of quiet entertainment be fore turning in early for the night, but he suspected his enterprising squad had other plans.
"Ah, uhm, Snyder said you had an officer's call or something and wouldn't--"
"Snyder? Well now, that's certainly interesting," Gray mused, stroking his chin. He supposed that explained why he had found his boots polished and a set of his dress greens hanging freshly pressed in his quarters upon his return from HQ. "SNYDER!" he hollered loudly enough to make Nichols wince, then continuing amiably, "so what are you working on? I figured you gentlemen would visit post tonight."
Before Nichols could conjure an appropriate reason for not raising three different kinds of hell on post as was his wont after an exercise, Snyder sailed through the door on slippered feet, smartly sliding to a halt between the two and whippi ng out a casual yet snappy salute. A toothbrush hung from the corner of his mouth like a plastene cigar.
"LT!......You called?" Snyder greeted around the toothbrush. He squeezed the handle to start it up again and vigorously applied it to his molars.
"Indeed. Since you seem to have taken charge of my scheduling, perhaps you could explain where exactly I'm scheduled to be at this moment."
"Sgt Neuman said you have an officer's call tonight -- ouch! Damn, shouldn't've replaced the batteries on this thing. He called to suggest we help you get ready."
"Indeed. And did he happen to mention anything about 'droids?"
Snyder pulled the dental implement from his mouth and frowned in deep thought for a moment. "Nope, nothing at all about R2 units."
"Neuman has R2 units?" Schlamp piped up from behind a tri-D screen he'd switched on when Gray entered. "Tell him to save one for us."
"Uhm-hm...has anyone seen Sergeant Cross?"
"He was called to run the safety inquiry on Range 17," Terrance answered, waltzing in from the hangar. "Apparently some lamebrain maintenance unit believes themselves infantry and tried to use Plexors out there. Idiots. LT, I thought you were going to be out tonight." He glanced meaningfully at Snyder.
"You are going, aren't you, sir?" Snyder asked somewhat too casually for Gray's instincts.
"Now that we are recognized by the brass, it is rather important for you to impress them so they are more hesitant to send us on suicide missions with only boltcasters," Terrance added helpfully.
"Uppitily put, but he does have a point," Nichols agreed, carefully gauging his lieutenant's attitude.
"Perhaps I should, unless you all have something planned for tonight?" Gray chose to respond.
Five voices stumbled over each other in their haste to assure him that nobody had anything planned for the night.
"...and should such drastic circumstances come to pass, the Emperor may be forced to grant martial law to the regional governors. Imperial forces must be mentally prepared for this exigency, so that we provide seamless support to maintain th e integrity of the Empire. Are there any further questions?"
Stunned silence filled the room at the revelation. Even fighting, training troops for, or otherwise directly support the effort against the Rebellion, few in the room realized that circumstances were this bad. The stories of Rebel atrocitie s were...graphic and disturbing, even to men accustomed to serving death.
Colonel Bridges stood and called the room to attention. "General, do you have anything for us?"
"Only this: we are all on the front line of defense against these rebel scum. My staff has been working this issue for quite some time, and you will be brought into the loop in an ongoing basis. I trust all of you to prepare your soldiers a nd new recruits for tough times ahead. Colonel Bridges?"
"Roger, sir. Brigade commanders, we'll be reviewing the new scenarios two days from now at the regular training briefing. Dismissed."
"Well now, aren't you glad you came?" Lt Norton prompted Gray jauntily, handing him a crystal glass of indeterminate liquid. "Rebels armed to the teeth and hiding beneath every repulsorlift. Makes even me want to climb back into the armor and jump in an assault shuttle. Sam! What a coincidence to see you here."
"Yeah, right, Soctt. It's not as if every officer on post weren't required to be here," she scoffed lightly, running a short-nailed hand through her short brown hair. "Andrew, welcome back. Are you okay?"
"Uhm, yes--sorry, just thinking," Gray apologized absent-mindedly, swirling the ice in his glass. Chagrined, he held out his hand. "A pleasure to meet you again, Samantha."
She took his hand and bowed in a slight, mocking fashion. "And you. Just what are we competing with for your attention tonight?" She turned to Norton. "Some things never change--he was like this when we first met."
"Point conceded." Gray looked thoughtful and somewhat uncomfortable. "I suppose I've always been bothered by the concept of martial law; too much like the old days with Jedi running around passing judgment."
"That's some analogy, Andrew," Norton returned, suddenly serious himself. "What are you trying to say?"
"So you're concerned about the lapse of civil liberties?" Brown prompted, ignoring Norton's comment.
"That's it, precisely," Gray agreed immediately. "Removing a citizen's assumption of innocence until proper establishment of guilt endangers the fabric of society, even if only for a short time."
"Fine and dandy when you're not dealing with terrorists," Norton asserted without question. "Are you saying that we should just let rebels have their way with the Empire?"
"Of course not, it's just that...never mind." Gray stopped himself, thinking he remembered having this conversation with Norton once before during underwater demolitions training.
"No, you're right, Andrew," Brown encouraged him. "Anytime you fail to remove any reasonable doubt of guilt, you increase the statistical probability of punishing an innocent being."
"And you have to determine how many unjust incarcerations and executions are acceptable to balance out the need to protect society from those truly psychotic individuals not worthy of sentience." Gray posited.
"Come on, you two!" Norton scoffed. "If you go easy on passing judgment, you risk unleashing these monsters on everyone else. You're willing to let some of the bad guys loose into your system just because somebody MIGHT be innocent?"
"Wouldn't you, if you were the unjustly accused?" Brown shot back.
"It's a tough judgment call," Gray mediated. "I'm not questioning the need for martial law in and of itself; I suppose it's just that the tonight's depiction of the rebellion surprises me."
"In what way?" Norton queried.
"I've hunted rebels off and on for the last three years and, well, to be honest, I've never viewed them as a coherent fighting force. They...lack the savvy of smugglers and other malcontents."
"Hm...I think I've seen what you're getting at," Brown murmured, eyes furtively scanning nearby faces. "Not exactly your crack military organization, are they? And pretty weak-stomached terrorists."
"Exactly. I guess I have trouble envisioning them capable of such....wanton destruction."
"This from a stormtrooper," Norton mocked with only a slight touch of sarcasm. "This is highly irregular thinking, Andy, even for someone with your social naivetˇ."
"Oh, and you've seen something we haven't?" Brown scoffed. "Rebels don't destroy civilizations. They may be deluded lunatics, but they display an incredible martyr complex. You have to give them that. Heck, they think they're freedom figh ters."
"Don't they all?" Gray countered, momentarily ignoring his own side of the discussion.
"Of course not. Typical criminals and would-be emperors belie completely different motives and attitude. Take their target selection, for instance."
"I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you," Norton replied. "I suppose in retrospect perhaps I can see similar trends--" he raised a finger and a grim frown to silence them both "--however, I strongly suggest that holding such views, you s hould watch both your mouth and your back."
Before either could reply, a nearly subaudible beeping sounded from their little cluster. Without conscious thought, all three officers checked their wrists to see who was being comm'd.
"Mine," Norton asserted, swearing quietly to himself. "Neuman. Something must be going down--I'll catch up with you two later. Andy, I'll be disappointed if the squad sees you before lift off."
Brown raised an eyebrow speculatively and sipped at her drink. Gray felt compelled to explain.
"Scott has a skewed sense of responsibility. My squad departs on extended deployment in two days."
"So I've heard. Lord Vader can be a harsh commander. I'm sure you've heard the stories."
"Stories spread by men who envy his position," Gray dismissed the paranoid stories with a wave of his hand. "Look, I'd love to stay and chat, but I have this nagging feeling that I need to check up on something."
"Then check away, by all means."
Gray turned to leave, paused, and turned back to find her still there, watching him go.
"Actually this could be rather interesting, and I might need some help. Would you like to take a walk?"
Gray didn't realize how quickly the room had filled with smoke until they were out beneath the cool starlight. He paused for a moment at the edge of light spilling from the club, debating whether or not to involve Brown in his expedition. H e finally gave up trying to decide whether he really needed her help, or simply her company again after so many years.
"My soldiers are...intensely curious and intelligent. They--how could I put this?"
"They bore easily," Brown answered, smiling at Gray's mild surprise. "Your training missions have scorched egos in the entire Corps, and I've heard some of my soldiers talk. Your squad is legendary on post, perhaps more from imagined exploi ts than anything else."
"They actually do not leave much to the imagination," Gray responded, starting them off toward the parking area on the other side of the building.
"So are they the reason you're so distracted tonight?"
"Mainly. They were entirely too eager to see me off--"
"What soldiers don't want to ditch the lieutenant?"
"--and I think I know what they're up to."
"And what would that be?"
"I'd rather not say, just in case they are entirely innocent."
"Um-hmm. I'll just bet they're busy collecting food for the needy."
They reached Gray's speeder bike.
"Something like that. I intend to check up on them, make sure they do not get in over their heads. If you'd like to come..."
He gestured at his speeder.
"Thanks, but no," she replied, flashing him that ever-mischievous smile. "I'll drive myself, thank you." She hopped onto the speeder next to his and initiated the pre-start sequence.
"A Mobquet Trailmaker II? I should have known."
"Well, it may not be as fast as your 74-Z, but you have to admit it's eminently practical for the unattached lieutenant on Carida." She tossed her short brown hair and settled a light helmet firmly over the curls. "Besides, I own mine."
"Practical indeed," Gray admitted, shaking his head in wonderment and starting his own military-issue craft. The Samantha he had known would never have ridden a speeder bike, much less owned one.
"Where're we going?"
"North parade field. We'll take a back way to avoid--"
Before he could finish, she kicked off with her left foot and raced away into the night with a blatant yet skillful disregard for established roadways. Gray paused a moment to notice that she had (sensibly? insanely?) left her running lights off before shooting after her.
The woman was obviously deranged. Gray considered himself no geriatric flier, but even he had to admit that the buildings were flashing by just a little faster than maximum safe speed. He hoped for the sake of any obstacles ahead that she was experienced with the altitude control of her speeder. In a tight corner he swung to the inside and swooped over a short fence to pull up beside her.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"What, too fast for you, trooper?"
"Too fast for the Military Police, perhaps."
"Don't worry about them. They know my speeder--"
She said something else, but he lost it in the roar of a Sentinel- class shuttle lifting off. At that moment they raced past a patrol stopped at the edge of the airfield. Gray caught a glimpse of the MP's waving as they zoomed past. Their d estination approached quickly; before Gray could warn her, she braked hard to swing into the woods bordering the parade field. Unable to match the maneuver without running her over, he idled back and swung into a wide circle to bleed off speed befor e halting at her side.
"What took you so long?"
"Had to pay off the two MP's you breezed past."
"Um-hmm. Whatever you say, trooper. Is this a good place to park?"
"Close enough for government work. We'll set up an OP about 50 meters that way."
"Damned strangest pickup line I've ever heard, Andrew."
"Say again?" Gray looked up from rummaging in one of the sponsoons.
"Never mind. Fifty northwest, that would put us overlooking the General's place, wouldn't it?"
"Something like that." He finally shut the sponsoon and handed her a set of goggles. "I only have one set of macros, but you can use the night vision if you want."
"Those macros are pretty micro," she replied dubiously, accepting the goggles and strapping them over her head in place of her helmet as they headed off.
"True. They're laser radar--not infrared."
"Interesting choice. I must admit I'm impressed."
"You should be."
She slapped his arm and fell silent as they hit the rise overlooking the parade field. At the top, they settled to the ground beneath a grove of low trees. With their vision aids, the general's residence was easily visible off in the distan ce, despite the lack of any lighting except for the entryway.
"What are we looking for?"
"My squad, of course."
"Why here? There must be plenty of approaches more concealed and easier to breach than these."
"I know my squad. We will not see them arrive, but we should catch them departing. They tend to be careless on exfiltration if Cross isn't there to glare at them."
"What are we watching for?"
"There will be a distraction of some sort, probably out front where it is most likely to be noticed. During the distraction they will infiltrate, probably from the east."
"But what about perimeter security? There's certain to be motion detectors and what-not."
"That will be Terrance and Nichols' job. I'm guessing Ratcliffe and Hawkins will handle the distraction and that Schlamp and Snyder will handle the infiltration. They will avoid the more obvious approach corridors."
They waited in companionable silence for awhile, scanning the area for signs of the squad and tallying the security systems as they found them. Surprisingly enough, the sky was clear and both moons shone brightly, causing Gray further appreh ension. He stared into the sky for a few moments, gauging the luminosity and how it would affect operations.
"Incredible, isn't it?" Brown murmured quietly, noting his concentration. "The cloud cover makes Carida such a dreary place; I don't see the stars very often."
Gray raised an eyebrow at her completely different appreciation for the brightness of the night, and considered for a moment that the place actually did feel comfortable for a change.
"Darlac was like this..." He looked at her expectantly.
"I thought you would come to that eventually," she sighed. "Wait! There's one--SPX 9 security droid, just moving around the maintenance shed. What happened to you there?"
Gray gave her the brief version of their trip. He surprised himself in telling her more than he had included in the official report, including Hawkin's choice of musical accompaniment and his annoyance with Lane's obtuseness.
"What did your HQ have to say about the welcoming committee?"
"They were upset that I failed to keep the appointment."
"Figures. The idiots! No wonder we always look bad. I hate to say it, Andrew, but we found out our agent had been compromised hours before you pulled off your reentry stunt."
"What? And nobody thought to warn us off?" Gray demanded vehemently, momentarily abandoning his search.
She placed a restraining hand on his arm.
"Cool it there, Andrew. We notified your HQ, they said they would pass it on. Maybe they didn't want to compromise your position by breaking communications silence?"
Gray shook his head bitterly. "No, they required that I comm my release time when we blew the freighter. They returned an acknowledgment and final mission confirmation; they could have easily appended an intel update. We were nearly comprom ised at the original landing zone, just like that." He snapped his fingers.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what to tell you."
Gray relaxed at her obvious concern for his squad, and felt somewhat stupid for blasting away at a confidant who had no obligation to tell him in the first place. For all he knew, she was violating her own group's security classifications by passing information this way. And while he didn't hesitate to do so with Lt Norton, this was different. "There was nothing more you could have done."
They remained silent for awhile longer before Brown leaned closer.
"Let me take a look with those macros. Just what are they after that's worth all this fuss?"
"Mostly entertainment, but they heard a rumor that the general has a new model astromech that doesn't work. I believe they assume that if they can lay hands upon it, a) nobody will notice it missing and b) they can make it work."
"Modest individuals, aren't they?"
"Salt of the universe...and speak of the little devils, I simply do not believe their audacity."
Staff Sergeant Toll Rode was beginning to wonder if the techs were ever going to show up when he heard the distinctive whine of heavy-duty repulsors piercing the night. It was just like those scanner jockeys to show up late, especially after having made him wait two weeks in the first place. As he stood and reached for his uniform jacket, his comlink squawked with Private Geoff Slokam's deep bass voice.
"Sergeant, techs are here. What do you want me to do with them?"
"Pass them to the inner gate."
Slokam, Rode's newest guard, was a good kid. Not too bright, but hugely menacing and the best man for presenting an imposing presence at the main gate. Rode waited impatiently for the mobile maintenance speeder to amble down the path toward him. Waiting for them to turn the vehicle about did nothing to improve his mood. Like most good troopers, Rode despised techs; they were undisciplined smart-adders who sat around waiting for things to break, then took their sweet time stretching o ut the job as long as they could, insisting upon innumerable tests before actually fixing anything, the entire time throwing around multiple- syllable compound phrases and acronyms he could not hope to comprehend.
But when the General's playthings failed to operate, he had no alternative. About the time he was ready to launch into a verbal abuse of the slow techs, two of them casually jumped from the speeder and moseyed their way up to him.
"Evening, Sarge. Heard the General has a busted R2," greeted the gangly enthusiastic driver. Rode supposed the tech looked forward to seeing what the General's computer knew; if so, he'd certainly be disappointed. "I'm Specialist Schlessin ger and this is--"
"That's 'Sergeant' to you, Specialist, and it's an R4 unit, not an R2," Rode loudly berated them, frowning at their evasive glances to each other. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"Not at all--we just received R4 diagnostic stock back at the MCP," the short fat one responded. "I just hope there's nothing major wrong with it, or we might have to evac it to home station."
"Whatever. Follow me."
"Sergeant, excuse me," the gangly one interrupted, not moving a muscle below his neck, "but do you have the appropriate forms?"
Both techs nodded.
"Can't do nothin' 'till we have the appropriate authorizations."
"You do have the forms, don't you?"
"It's the General's 'droid. You don't need any forms."
The short ugly one tsked at him like a mother cnaslr. "You have to use the forms. Regulations."
"Fortunately for you, we brought them." The gangly one handed him a computer data pad. "Please sign here, here, and here."
Rode swiped the stylus from the tech and scrawled his signature across the screen without reading.
"And thumbprint here, please."
"Damn it, do you want a retina scan as well?"
"That won't be necessary--an R4 isn't a cryptographic 2406- reportable weapons pacing item."
"Whatever. This way."
Rode spun on his heel and headed for the general's office. The two techs followed from a distance, lugging racks of diagnostic equipment behind them. The R4 unit he pointed them to was considerably smaller than the typical R2 series, and it show no recognition of their entry. None of its status lights shone.
"What exactly's the problem?"
"If I knew, it wouldn't be a problem," Rode growled. "It just doesn't work. When we received it, it started acting strange, as if it had lost chunks of memory or something. Then near the end of the day, it just completely locked up, wouldn 't do anything."
"Hmm, well, that could be any number of things."
The techs began a cursory inspection, shining lights and gauges all over the droid.
"Where's the restraining bolt?"
"Couldn't get one to stick--they kept falling off whenever we tried to use the caller."
"Hmm, could be the reverse inline fluff discriminator..."
"Naw, couldn't be. But it might me misaligned headspace and timing of the unit's operational controller."
"Could be. Let's hook up the multiattitudinal quark intergluonometer and check it out."
"Exactly how long is this going to take?" Rode asked suspiciously.
"Hard tellin', Sarge--sergeant," skinny replied, pulling important- looking components from the 'droid.
Rode took a seat with a twisted smile. If they thought he was going to leave them alone in the General's office, they were greatly mistaken.
Fifteen minutes later, the R4 was nowhere nearer repaired; and Rode's patience was wearing thin.
"What, exactly is the holdup? You've had him apart and back together three times now. Is it fixed yet?"
The fat ugly one stood and stretched while the other started packing away R4 components and test equipment. "Well, it's like this Sarge--Sergeant. We tested everything from the motivator to the system core. But this little prijg'r was tric ky. Turns out the only other thing it could be was the HDPN."
"The hypertransducting dynamiculated psuedonueral network. It was discombobulated."
"Is it working or not? Just yes or no will do, Specialist."
"Uh, I guess that'd be a yes then."
"What do you mean you guess?"
"You have to recharge it in complete darkness for a week before it'll reconnect all the synapses."
The short one glanced over his shoulder at the other tech and sniggered. "He thinks you can heal a 'droid brain in the light."
"Sergeant, the 'droid'll go insane if it's exposed to any light while rebuilding the HDPN. You have a shed or garage with a power source? Preferably one that doesn't get used much?"
Grumbling all the way, Rode led them carrying the 'droid outside to a storage shed and watched them rig the R4 unit in place and apply a restraining bolt.
"There you go, Sergeant. Give it a week, two weeks would have a higher probability of success if you can stand the wait."
"Is that all?" Rose demanded. "Then get the hell out of my compound."
Gray watched the two maintenance techs zoom away empty-handed in utter perplexion, Brown wore a bemused expression.
"I still don't see anything, Andrew. Are you sure that was the distraction?"
"It had to be. I am certain that was Nichols and Snyder, despite Nichols' mustache and Snyder's padded suit."
"Well I certainly didn't see any parachutes or creeping commandos."
"Hmm. Nor I. Perhaps we should give them a few moments."
"Fine with me. I didn't have any plans for the night." Brown stretched leisurely and paused in her scanning of the compound. "What did you mean earlier tonight about Scott's 'skewed sense of responsibility'?"
"You just used his actual name," Gray observed off-handily.
"I only call him 'Soctt' or 'Scooter' to his face." Brown grinned insolently, lifting the goggles from her head and pushing a few strands of hair back out of her face.
"And there's logic to your madness?"
"Certainly. There's no point in tormenting him when he's not here to enjoy it. Besides, we work with intensely boring people," Brown explained as if it all made obvious sense. "So Scott thinks he's responsible for you, or what?"
"Well, let's just say that...hello? What have we here?" Gray interrupted himself, handing her the macros. "Check out that shed."
She leaned over for them and focused on the shed. For a moment she didn't see anything, but as her eyes adjusted to the scenery, she detected the little R4 unit meandering away from the complex. She passed the macros back to Gray. "What in Tinian's Moons is going on here?"
Gray glanced at her with a smile belying embarrassment yet intense pride as well. "I would guess that they replaced the master logic module with a remotely-controlled receiver. In fact, I would wager that Schlamp's drone is flying somewhere out of sight and sound right now relaying commands to...oh no."
"What? Gimme those." Brown reached for the macros.
"I've spotted our guys waiting for pickup, and an MP patrol is right between the R4 and the pickup team--must be Cross and Terrance." He twisted away from her to maintain control of the macros.
Undeterred, Brown leaned across his back and swiped the macros for herself. "Lay still--you keep shifting my view. Sith! They're not going to make it!"
Gray rose into a crouch, spilling Brown rather unceremoniously to the ground. He winced and pulled her up. "Sorry."
"We've got to do something, and quickly," Brown stated the obvious, following Gray in his sprint back to their parked speeders.
"Right. I'll distract the MP's."
"What's the plan?"
"I scoot by at excessive speed while you retire for the evening and establish an alibi." He grinned roguishly at her. "If questioned, I spent the night at your quarters?"
"No, they know your speeder--and you might get implicated in this whole incident. I'm just another idiot officer on a 74-Z."
Brown thought to argue with him, but couldn't think of a way to dissuade him before he flipped through the prestart sequence without apparent caution.
"Wonderful. You'd better hurry."
"Right. Good evening, Samantha." With a short nod, he blasted out of the park, settling his helmet as he went.
Brown brushed the dirt and leaves from her formal uniform and grabbed her own helmet.
"Well then, Andrew, are all your nights out with women like this, or am I just special?"
Despite the need to evade pursuing MP's, Gray arrived back on station while his soldiers were unloading something from the back of a speeder.
"LT! You're back early. Short briefing?" Cross intercepted Gray much too casually.
Gray glanced casually around at all of them. "Snyder made a presumptive error on my calendar. What's this?"
"NCO business, LT. Nothing you'd want to bother yourself with."
"That bundle looks suspiciously like it could be an R4 unit. You know, I heard just tonight that General Noddoc owns an R4. I wonder if they both look alike?"
"Uh, what am I supposed to say, LT?" Cross answered honestly.
Gray paused momentarily to reevaluate the situation, and made a quick decision based on the squad's recent performance and exceptional judgment, despite the rather precarious strain it placed on his integrity. They really did need the droid, and had been bumped down the priority list every time a new unit arrived. After Samantha's revelation of Noddoc's staff's apparent lack of concern for his squad, he had great difficulty feeling guilty about their loss of a droid if they were stupid enough to give it away.
"Sergeant, we both know what they're unloading. Can you look me in the eye and at least assure me, in all honesty, that you've at least properly covered all the bases?"
Cross looked eminently relieved. "Yes, sir, you would've been proud. Okay, maybe not, but we've established complete plausibility."
"Very well then. See to it that this development does not interfere with departure preparations."
"Of course, LT. That was you on the speeder, wasn't it?" Crossed speculated, already knowing the answer.
Gray nodded. "I don't know how you did it, but..."
"Nothing to worry about, sir. Completely legit transaction. Besides, the 'droid is completely nonfunctional. Nobody else has been able to make it work."
Gray eyed him hard. "And that's why the R4 unit ran away?"
"I see your point, LT," Cross amended his statement. "Nichols and Terrance covered all bases. Let me rephrase that: nobody is going to ask us to return that 'droid. The worst that can happen is that they make us give it back in a few month s."
"Should anyone do so, I'll personally assign us all to a tour at Kessel," Gray replied in promise rather than threat, tiredly wondering just how long it would take him to pay off an R4 unit. As Cross excused himself, Gray decided that he sho uld comm Samantha to let her know that nobody needed rescuing from the MP's. For some strange reason he suddenly found himself wondering what she was wearing.