The squad's transition to ISD Devestator proceeded flawlessly the following morning, although Captain Needa had been aghast at the amount of equipment a single squad intended to load upon his ship. With a mix of threats and promises, Gray ma naged to wrangle free an entire maintenance bay and adjoining quarters near the forward docking bay for their sole occupation. His orientation briefings by Captain Needa, executive officer Commander Winters, and ship's ground support commander Colon el Bistain all made it clear that while they supported the squad administratively, they would neither assume nor seek operational control over the 10 soldier force under Vader's sole command. Gray formed the distinct impression that the three highes t ranking officers of the ship were waiting to form an opinion of his men, almost as if hedging their bets as to whether association with him were beneficial or detrimental to their respective careers.
Their complete lack of initiative to assign the squad with myriad imbecile tasks bothered him on a subconscious level; but for now, Gray was content that they were willing to support him but keep out of his business. The Imperial Star Destro yer was currently enroute to the blockade of Ralltiir, where Captain Needa explained that Lord Vader would join them that evening. Until then, Gray and his men were completely at liberty to setup operations. Upon validating Cross's' plan for establ ishing their area, finally catching up on a week's worth of missed sleep, and verifying that their equipment was completely accounted for and operational, Gray felt the usual urge for exercise to surface.
To his mild surprise, he found that the physical recreational facilities of the Devestator were quite well equipped, with everything from the latest repulsor-equipped fitness trainers to smashball courts and a length of maintenance corridors skirting the outer bulkheads of the ship for a certainly impressive distance running track. Since Gray arrived during shift change, the rec center was virtually empty and there were no potential smashball opponents available. Leaving his name and c omlink designator with the duty clerk, Gray decided to take on the track.
Starting at a window with a spectacular view of the Devastator's command deck superstructure, the course wound its way forward. Winding through kilometers of ever-changing deck, up and down various service stairs and past outer gunnery and t ractor beam stations, Gray made it to the very prow of the destroyer. The tractor beam operations center there offered a mind-numbing view of the unreality that was hyperspace as the destroyer bent time and space into sworling fantastic contortions . Gray paused to appreciate the view and chat with the crew, taking in their freely offered comments on ship's status, her officers, and her mission. Nobody he talked to had actually met Vader, but they all supplied dark, spooky, colorful stories to regal him with. As one, they assured him that it was best for small people such as themselves to stay as far out of Vader's sight as possible. While discussing the culinary state of the forward mess sections, his comlink sounded off, notifying L ieutenant Gray that another player was available for a round of smashball if he were still so inclined. He thanked the operators for their candor, assuring them that he intended no reprisals for their comments. It bothered him somewhat that they se emed entirely unconvinced of his sincerity.
Consulting a nearby ship's computer for the nearest turbolift, Gray realized that the last time he had actually played a round of smashball had been years ago at the academy on Sagron IV. While the turbolift raced him back toward the rec cen ter, he swung around in an old warm-up routine, loosening his taut muscles and reminding them of the reflexes needed for the intensely four dimensional nature of smashball. Now that he thought of it, the squad's high-altitude freefall jumps were the closest he had been to zero gravity in a long while as well. He hoped his once highly developed skill bouncing around weightless in the smashball vault hadn't deteriorated as badly as his memory of pre-Republic literature.
As for using the nudger, Gray was more confident. Continuous blaster use and training with both remotes and live targets had improved his point-and-shoot reflex to its peek. Despite the fact that very little he had done in the past few year s could be considered practice for the grabber, he considered that using it would come back to him naturally enough, once he got back into the environment.
Upon arriving at the rec center, the clerk told him that his opponent was already in their vault warming up. When asked whether he wanted a low or high strength grabber, Gray's ego won over his caution and he signed for the eminently more ch allenging low strength grabber.
Pausing outside the vault to strap the nudger onto his left forearm and assess the appropriate grip on the grabber in his right arm, Gray watched through the oversized observation as his opponent practiced. To his immediate surprise, he firs t noted that his opponent filled out her jumpsuit quite nicely. The incidence of female crewers on ISD's was quite low; the possibility that he would be paired against one of the few had not crossed his mind. The second item that he noticed was tha t his opponent was quite good, bouncing from wall to ceiling to floor and using the grabber to manage the ball with a finesse and fluidity belying the difficulty and exertion of the task. When she noticed him waiting, she grabbed the ball and deftly bounced from the ceiling back toward the access port to let him in. A few wisps of brilliant red-gold hair had broken loose from their tight coil and drifted out behind her, framing sharp green eyes that bored into him
"About time you showed up," she greeted acerbically, flicking the sparkling emerald eyes over him critically before locking eye contact. She nodded her approval at the low strength grabber and stuck out her hand. "Jade, Mara Jade. What kep t you?"
"Prow tractor control station," he replied, quickly noting her relaxed respiratory rate and slight
distention of jumpsuit at her left calf muscle. Knife, low capacity wafer blaster, or explosive? Unusually enough, he had trouble placing her. The ease with which she moved made him immediately suspect professional dancer or athlet e, out of all possible context, yet the obvious grasp of multidimensional awareness belonged to a fighter pilot, and the concealed weapon screamed special operations. He took his cue from her withholding of rank or title and introduced himself as si mply "Gray, Andrew Gray."
Expecting a fierce grip to match the finely chiseled facial features, he was thrown off again by a delicately feminine clasp that made no pretensions of bulk strength. In close proximity, he began to doubt his original estimate that she was in her mid-twenties.
"Pleasure to meet you then, Gray. You any good at this game?"
"I'll let you be the judge of that," he responded easily, shrugging away the question of her age as unimportant, so long as she presented a challenging game. If not, he would make short work of her and find someone with a little more experie nce. He gestured to the vault at large. "Shall we?"
In answer, Jade turned away and flung the ball leisurely from her grabber to the far end of the court. Gray kicked off from the floor toward his intended intercept point, caught the ambling ball with the grabber and vectored it at a far corn er.
"Corellian rules," Jade began as she leisurely spun herself onto intercept, firing at the ball with her nudger to arc it towards her. Gray was impressed with her accuracy, and started bringing his own nudger into play as they continued getti ng accustomed to each other. "Start at twenty-one; active zones alternate every bounce; three chances to secure the quarry before it strikes an active zone; lose a point for each miss and lose the serve at three misses; serves valid only to active z ones. Questions?"
She halted the quarry's flight and gazed at him inquisitively as she used her upper back to break her flight into the ceiling, then pushed off with her feet toward the floor, spinning to keep an eye on him.
He shook his head negatively, then bowed slightly "At your discretion, mistress Jade."
Before she reached the floor, Jade flipped over and fired the quarry from her grabber toward an active quarter-panel on the far wall, immediately bouncing from the floor into the opposite corner to clear the way from Gray and set herself up t o retrieve the quarry should he miss.
The moment the glowing blue quarry left her grabber, Gray pushed off with his feet to the floor. He went slightly too fast, and fired at the quarry with his nudger to pull it toward him. Fortunately he hit the quarry long enough to bounce i t off his grabber and into the ceiling. Jade made it to intercept with minimal effort, made a complete capture, and tossed it at a far quarter panel, hoping to catch Gray out of position. Gray kicked of straighter this time, but missed with the nud ger and had to intercept on the rebound. This time he made a full capture and fired the quarry straight at the quarter panel which had just activated immediately behind Jade.
The maneuver had intimidated or confused every other opponent he had ever faced, but Jade merely smiled chillingly and fired the nudger to misdirect the quarry into an inactive panel, not costing Gray any points, but it would have gained Jade a point had she lost any previously. Perhaps he was right in the first place, and she just looked young.
"Nice try, mister Gray," Jade granted magnanimously from her perch as she leisurely fired into the corner. "But I'll thank you to be more imaginative than that."
As they continued to parlay, Gray steadily increased his deficit to the surprisingly quick and agile redhead. He did, however, smugly notice that she was certainly at least breathing harder than he now. With only four more points left, and Jade lording ten points over him, he conceded that his only advantage might lie in strength and surprise. If Jade wanted this match, she would have to sweat harder than that.
Gray launched into an aggressively fast routine, using his nudger every chance he could to not only push the ball away from her or toward him, but to speed it up as well. Every serve he launched was as fast as he could send it, concentrating on glancing active quarters to maintain velocity after impact rather than trying to serve it to put her out of position. Initially, Jade maintained her lead, but as the exchanges wore on, she began to miss more often and less successfully use her n udger against him.
Just when Gray began nurturing a hope that he might win this encounter, Jade gave up trying to maintain her lead and concentrated and knocking loose Gray's remaining two points. She finished him off soundly with an entire point left to her c redit. When the quarry impacted the active panel and immediately turned green with all panels lighting to signal the end of the round, they both drifted, jump suits soaked and sides heaving from exertion. When they finally drifted together, Gray re ached out his hand.
"Congratulations, Ms Jade," Gray conceded between long, deep breaths. "That was the most invigorating chase I've had in years."
Jade returned the gesture, but glared at him peevishly as she pushed at her hair and finally just unraveled what was left of the braid so that her hair drifted freely. "Don't gloat so, mister Gray. I normally don't go so easy on people I do n't know."
Gray could not manage to choke down his laugh. "Why, Mara, if I didn't know you better, I might be inclined to think you're a winner of the sore variety."
Jade continued glaring at him, arms crossed in front of her, almost as if trying to decide whether to befriend or choke him with his own intestines. Finally, her gloom lifted and she smiled tentatively, as if the expression were uncommon on her. "Very well, Andrew. If I couldn't soundly thrash you, I suppose I must accept your groveling admission of defeat."
Before Gray could respond to the sudden brightness in her voice, the ship's intercom sounded off with the order to secure for reentry to real space. Gray whipped his arm out in front of him to check his chron. They would be in orbit within minutes, and here he was completely unready to meet his new commander.
"Sith! I had no idea we've been at it this long." He kicked off toward the door, spinning around and snapping off a mock salute. "Until we meet again, Mara Jade."
He cycled the access port and made the slightly disorienting return to gravity before she could reply. He was surprised at the number of crewers who had been watching their game and now enthusiastically congratulated him on his loss as he hu rried from the rec center.
The squad's surprise was complete when their lieutenant received terse orders relayed through the bridge to report to Lord Vader planetside. The concept of a campaign commander not secluding himself upon a capital naval vessel was...astonish ing. It was something crazy, something against all the expert tactics of the Imperial war machine, something that only a madman would consider....something they would do themselves.
Lacking concrete direction one way or another, Gray ordered his troops to secure their gear and mount Scat. Allowing Snyder to pilot the craft, Gray slacked out of his dress uniform and donned his combat gear, generally prepared for anything , specifically prepared for nothing. Without being told that it was necessary, Cross led the squad in gearing up for battle. As soon as Cross finished double checking his gear for him, Gray ambled forward to the cockpit. Snyder had just received l anding coordinates, and Gray could tell that Snyder was enjoying the flight way too much.
"Very well then, Snyder, take us in," Gray relented without contest. "Just refrain from crashing before our new boss, if you would."
True to his ethos, Snyder approached the LZ from high altitude, dropping in at frightening speed to pull out of the dive just in time for a full second of hover before touching down gently on the skids. Schlamp had the loading ramp dropping while they hovered, and before Snyder could shut down the repulsors, Cross led the squad out of the assault shuttle to for a perimeter around it as Gray searched the area for Vader. Instead, he noticed a lone Captain in dress greens standing before a command speeder observing their activity with a decidedly puzzled expression. Gray strode up to him and saluted with his blaster.
"Sir. Lt Gray with STRC-24 reporting for Lord Vader."
"Captain Baker, Lieutenant," the other officer greeted, eyeing Gray's attire speculatively. "What, pray tell, is your squad doing?"
"Securing the perimeter, sir. We heard that the garrison is repulsing partisans."
"Partisans, pah!" Baker spit vehemently for so refined a manner. "These are rebel scum, wrecking havoc and paranoia among the populace and disrupting the restoration of order. But they have been contained. There are no rebels here."
In counterpoint to the Captain's smug assurance, staccato blaster fire erupted from not very far away. Gray noted that the sound was decidedly NOT Imperial standard military issue, and that it was followed momentarily by sustained multiple b ursts of stormtrooper blaster fire long after the first weapon was silenced. He raised a questioning brow to Baker, who was frowning.
"Er, a mopping up action. These scum simply don't know when to quit. If you'll follow me Lieutenant; Lord Vader does not like to be kept waiting."
They both piled aboard the speeder, Gray shifting his equipment about with unconscious practiced ease for a better seat. Within minutes, they reached a lone dark figure standing upon a grassy knoll, back to them, with no visible escort.
Baker motioned Gray toward him. "Do not interrupt him, do not immediately report to him. Stand behind him three paces, no more, no less, and he will recognize you in his own time."
"And if he does not notice me?"
Baker smiled thinly, weakly. "He never misses anything."
Gray was skeptical, but strode off with purpose. He didn't try to mask his approach as he would for a target, but neither did he tromp about as others might. He had heard enough stories of Vader to tighten his stomach a little, but he alway s felt that way meeting a new commander, didn't he? His first glimpse of the lone figure on the hilltop led him to immediately dismiss the rumors of Vader's imposing height; but as he went along he realized it was a trick of perspective. The distan ce between the speeder and the black figure that seemed to absorb all light around him despite the glossy armor was actually much farther than Gray had originally estimated; the lack of other references had misled his sense. As he nearer, he realize d that the figure seemingly towering kilometers above him was very likely every micron of the two meters he was reported to be, if not more. Gray slipped a canteen from its pouch and took a quick pull of clear, cool water to wet his suddenly parched throat. Deciding he was act like a civilian, Gray chided himself and forged onward, resolve melting his paranoia.
He halted three paces behind the blackness, annoyed that he had to make a conscious effort to quell the nervousness that threatened to shake his very core. As time passed without discernible life from the figure above, save for the horrible rasping of a respirator that was in obvious need of repair, Gray began to doubt himself. Was he exactly three paces away? Had he angered Vader by not arriving expeditiously enough? A moment of intense introspection, made him angrily noted that onc e again he was behaving absolutely childishly. With complete disregard to this sudden bout of self-doubt, Gray cast away the feelings of inadequacy and subconsciously projected an unmistakable air of superiority.
At that moment, he could have sworn he heard a hitch in the labored breathing that might have been a laugh as Vader raised his right arm and signaled with a finger.
"Lieutenant Gray, join me."
The deep bass thundered from the specter on the hill, and a lesser soldier may have packed it in and run off then and there. Gray, however incongruously, was overcome with intense curiosity and confidence, almost as if a veil had been lifted from his thoughts, leaving him alone with himself again. He stood next to the imposing figure; still imbued with respect for his commander, but no longer fearful. He could not explain it, but at that moment he instinctively knew that Vader was fun damentally...different...from his previous commanders, and that intensely excited him.
On a more practical level, he supposed that reporting in the official manner was a moot point, considering that Vader already knew who he was and why he was there. However, there were the forms to observe. He moved to salute, but Vader wave d a hand at him and Gray turned the salute into an equipment check.
"None of your soldiers will salute me in the field," the rumbling voice intoned, as if amused with himself, "otherwise, a sniper might single me out for attack."
Gray had to suppress a grin himself at the sarcasm. As if a salute would give away the Emperor's chief military leader. He could tell that he was going to get along with Vader just fine.
"Good. I see that fear does not control you," Vader announced cryptically, turning that awful gargoyles mask momentarily to directly observe his new lieutenant before sweeping a hand broadly at the panorama before him. "Tell me, lieutenant; what do you see before us? And bear in mind that my ground commanders have requested neither air support nor reconnaissance."
Gray had been scanning his surroundings as a matter of habit, but saw nothing out of the ordinary...unless Vader was referring to the shallow valley through which a major thoroughfare wound. The place would make a perfect three-pronged ambu sh, offering excellent fire for the attackers, minimal cover for the defenders, and exceptional avenues of escape for the attackers. Suddenly concerned, Gray dropped the visor of his helmet and activated a magnified display...and then he saw the cam ouflaged positions lining the rim of the depression that formed the valley. The force hadn't chosen the optimum location, and were grouped much too closely to avoid devastation from area effect weapons or to achieve effective interlocking fields of fire taking full advantage of the bends in the road. However, if they could just manage to hold their fire until their entire quarry were within their field of fire...Gray heard the approaching hum of military- scale repulsors and the thump of AT-ST scout walkers.
"Lord Vader, I see an Imperial convoy about to be crushed by a vastly insuperior force. I'll call for--"
"No!" Vader hissed loudly enough to make Gray's ears ring. "Watch, and learn."
Gray watched helplessly as the overconfident Imperial task force wandered into the enemy's trap. Making Gray's worst fears real, the rebel commander made up for his obvious lack of tactical knowledge with great cunning. Waiting until the le ad AT-ST had past and was nearly out of range, three tongues of flame leaped from each end of the ambush. The rebel commander had taken a great risk of losing his men he placed on the opposite hillside, but the gamble paid of in completely incapacit ating both the lead AT-ST and trail armored Chariot repulsor assault vehicle and trapping the remaining Imperial forces in the valley between the two wrecks. Obscure rebel positions pored a withering hail of blaster fire into the valley, all too rem iniscent of Gray's own recent experience. The Imperial forces trapped within the ambush returned sheets of fire, but generally without direction and lacking significant effect. Gray's stomach clenched tightly and rose in his throat as he scanned Im perial frequencies and found that nobody below had thought to call for reinforcements or support.
"My lord, I take your point. May I?"
At the very moment Vader inclined his helmet, granting permission, Gray raised Snyder on the comlink and gave out terse orders. Before Gray finished his instructions to the squad, Scat screamed low over the hill, buffeting Vader and Gray wit h its passage. With Gray lazing the rebel positions to provide targeting information to Snyder, the assault shuttle screamed up and down the valley spitting brilliant laser fire and flashing concussion missiles into rebel positions. Snyder wove the shuttle in and around the terrain, never giving rebel gunners a chance to hit the craft with anything more substantial than ineffective sporadic blaster fire. Within moments, the debacle was over.
Under Gray's order, Snyder alighted upon the hilltop just long enough for Cross's team to pore out of the ramp and advance upon any remaining enemy positions. After slipping into the valley to drop of Lane's team to provide whatever medical aide they could, Snyder roared back to altitude, ready to provide cover for Aleph team and wary of any airborne attack, however unlikely.
"Impressive, Lieutenant. Your squad comports itself well. Advise them to take prisoners," Vader turned now fully to him, hands grasping his utility belt in what Gray interpreted as a nonverbal gesture of complete confidence and control. " And what precisely did you learn here?"
Gray paused to consider his answer with extreme care, beginning to suspect that perhaps he had yet to pass all of Vader's tests.
"First, that the Imperial war machine has much to learn about fighting these insurgents." Gray halted before risking the next, but charged ahead anyway despite the possible ramifications. "And secondly, that you have a low tolerance for inc ompetence, my lord."
"You would do well to remember those observations," Vader exhorted, pointing a finger at Gray in a lecturing manner. "But you failed to mention another aspect. These rebels, no matter how untrained, how ill- equipped, possess soul and a meas ure of sense. They believe in themselves, defying all logic. Never forget that."
As Gray considered this, Vader suddenly shifted to face the sky as what Gray took to be a Corellian Corvette passed high overhead. He thought he heard Vader mutter something about a princess before the dark lord spun on his heal and strode a way. Gray hastened to hurry behind him, but Vader waved his arm in dismissal, continuing to stride away.
"Rejoin your soldiers; I have matters which require my attention. You will dine with myself and Captain Needa this evening."
Darth Vader was furious.
As if dealing with rebels and the machinations of House Alderaan earlier that day, carried on by no less than the Organa Princess herself, were not enough, the Emperor had seen fit to saddle him with an "observer." He supposed that his warri or days would soon come to a close, and he would be forced entirely into the realm of...politics. Not that the Dark Lord felt in any way inadequate to the task; he simply found dealing with such banalities excruciatingly tedious.
And if Palpatine thought that Vader misunderstood the nature of the egotistical so-called "Emperor's Hand" messengers, he gravely underestimated his servant's abilities. Despite the Emperor's largely successful attempts to smother her natura l Force talents, Vader knew of Jade's presence the very moment the youngster entered the system from hyperspace. He also knew that this Hand was not simply a message bearer, but a physical extension of Palpatine's own will. Thus, it was in subtle r ebellion that he stayed planetside until twilight, forcing Jade, and by extension the Emperor himself, to wait on Vader's own convenience. If the Emperor were paranoid enough to attempt concealing Jade's true identity from him, then he was willing t o return the trust in kind. It came as little surprise, then, that Captain Needa nervously informed him that the Emperor commanded that he be contacted immediately.
Vader approached the holochamber and carefully schooled his thoughts. While it might be entertaining to scoff silently at the Emperor's inflated ego, it was hardly beneficial to one's continued existence to spit in his face. By the time the bridge opened the communications channel, Vader was the epitome of servitude.
"What is thy bidding, my master?" Vader rumbled deeply in his ritualistic opening whenever he suspected the Emperor might be disturbed over some annoyance.
"The Death Star is near completion," the Emperor intoned. His visage was aging even more rapidly now; the smooth, strong voice that once wooed many in the Senate with its eloquence now nearly matched Vader's in rasping harshness. Vader wond ered why Palpatine always felt he had to begin with something Vader obviously already had to know; he suspected it were some sort of power projection. "Rebel spies have stolen the technical readouts."
Were it not for the precise metering of his respiratory equipment, Vader would have paused his breath for a heartbeat. The arrogant fools! Despite young General Taage's overly confident boasting of the station's invulnerability, this sort o f thing was exactly what Vader feared most would happen to this project. That such a breach of security had not occurred before now was testament to Grand Moff Tarkin's harshly competent repressiveness. The project was so incredibly huge that prope r security was all but impossible; adding conscripted labor to built such a secret construction only made matters worse. Taage and his sympathizers, of course, would summarily dismiss Vader's concern for the station's security as extreme paranoia. Yet Vader had seen the emerging breed of rebels fight, had interrogated enough of them to see deep into their souls; the foolhardy dedication and resilience he found there was disturbing. If the rebels had managed to recruit scientists who could act ually comprehend those plans....
But of greater immediately realistic concern was the Senate. Engaging an operational Death Star would indeed be foolhardy for the pitifully small, virtually unsupported rabble of freedom fighters. The greater concern was that the Senate wou ld discover the Death Star plans and make its construction known publicly, especially before the military were informed through their chain of command. The New Order was at a critical phase of existence, and indisputable proof of Palpatine's tyranny might jar enough of the military hierarchy and Senators into open rebellion to throw the galaxy into complete disarray. While Vader marveled at Palpatine's increasing abilities to control the military leadership through the Force, he doubted that e ven Palpatine could directly subjugate the trillions of individuals in the galaxy. When the Death Star was indeed fully operational, it might indeed make a formidable tool for keeping regional governments in-line, but until then....
"The plans must be retrieved immediately," Vader replied, knowing fully well who would bear that responsibility. Palpatine could trust no other being in the galaxy to accomplish this.
"Before the subjugation of a single world, Vader," Palpatine admonished, almost harshly. "Why have you ignored my messenger?"
Vader counted the milliseconds before replying. "Messenger?...Surely you do not mean the child pestering the Devastator's captain?"
Palpatine was not amused and eyed Vader hard, suspiciously; but he could detect no tremor of misplaced loyalty. "She is my Hand in this matter, Vader."
Vader could not resist the impulse to bristle at this. "I require neither assistance nor court jesters, master."
"Nevertheless, Mara Jade is my envoy. You will treat her as such."
Vader finally bowed, barely biting back his frustration, acquiescing before he lost control of his temper before the Emperor. "As you wish, master."
With a final nod of dismissal, Palpatine's image flickered back into nothingness. Vader called through the Force to the comm panel, switching to a connection with the bridge.
"Needa, prepare the Devestator for immediate jump to Despayre and send for Lieutenant Gray."
"Yes, m'lord. And the messenger?"
Vader ground his teeth against each other and turned his back to the door.
"Send in the girl-child."
Despite the obvious itch afflicting the forefingers of the two stormtroopers escorting her in, Mara Jade entered with subtle grace worthy of a princess. The sly way her eyes darted about the room, however, would have been wasted on a delicate member of some royal house. With some annoyance Vader noted that her gaze lingered momentarily on each of the automated defense systems before facing him directly and without fear. Vader dismissed the troopers with a nudge against their minds.
"Lord Vader, I bear a message from the Emperor," she announced in formal iciness, the words respectful but the voice behind them obviously not.
"I know of the stolen Death Star plans, messenger," Vader growled at her, studying the starfield before him and apparently granting her only the least attention. "You are dismissed."
Jade made a gruff sound and crossed her arms, shifting into a deliberately "closed" stance. "Not so easily, Darth. As much as I detest working with you, the Emperor--"
Vader warned her with an upraised hand, fingers poised to pinch empty air. "I would not be so certain, were I you, child."
Fighting the impulse to rub at the slight tickle against her throat, Jade glared daggers into Vader's back. She thought that maybe this time, if she concentrated enough, she could employ the slippery force which so often eluded her grasp. But the most she could accomplish was to swat at the imaginary vice gently holding her throat. Gloating in such a small victory yet painfully frustrated at the inability to harness and control the power she often felt resonating through her bones, sh e lashed out in verbal assault.
"You wouldn't dare. I am the Emperor's Hand."
To Jade's further infuriation, the apparition before her merely laughed, a deep barely heard unearthly rumble. He spun his full menace upon her.
"As you say, messenger." She could feel her throat stroked by the ethereal vise once more; lightly this time, almost with a lover's touch, yet filled with menace. "Even the Emperor's tools must know their place."
The vise left her neck, but worse she felt him instantly ravaging her mind, ruthlessly plowing through her most inner thoughts. With a viciousness born of desperate instinct and not entirely sure how it happened, she slammed Palpatine's forc e barriers against Vader's monstrous presence. Obviously surprised, Vader flinched almost imperceptibly to absorb the blow.
"All the Emperor's tools must know their place, Vader," Jade snarled through clenched teeth, thinking she had finally hit him hard enough to sting. Breathing fast from the exertion of the mental encounter, she pushed a strand of hair from her face.
Vader reeled slightly at the raw power of the barrier Palpatine had forced upon the woman before him. In a flash of insight, Vader deduced that while the Emperor's lackeys relied on Palpatine for whatever Force powers they exhibited, Jade's natural talent was not enhanced but actually suppressed. He wondered just how much the girl knew of her potential; obviously Palpatine understood. This one would bear watching, despite her lack of years. He spun on his heel to face the stars again , a dismissive gesture.
"As the Emperor has seen fit to offer your services, I am assigning you as an advisor to--"
Jade step menacingly close to Vader's imposing back, staring daggers at the slight reflection of black mask in the transparsiteel viewport. "I work alone, Vader."
"Regardless, you will search for the stolen plans with a squad of my stormtroopers."
"Stormtroopers? You must be joking!" she accused angrily, stepping around to face him confrontationally. "Rebel sympathizers possess technical schematics of the Death Star, yet you hamper me with stormtroopers?"
"You will find these soldiers...unique."
"Right." She snorted derisively, waving her hands aimlessly. "What, do they specialize in nerf herding, or is this the renowned Sith grundle weaving team?" She paused quickly, predator eyes gleaming. "Unless you're giving me one of your Noghri teams?..."
Before he could fully weigh the consequence of gutting her mind to find where she had learned of his promising new alien...associates, a voice sounded from the comm.
"Lord Vader, Lieutenant Gray has arrived."
"Send him in," Vader growled, now warily regarding Jade. The new assessment he was developing changed her category from annoyance to threat. If Palpatine were to lose control over his plaything....
When the door slid aside before him, Gray's combat senses piqued immediately. But before his hand reached for his blaster, he noted that none of the room's obvious defense mechanisms were active and that no weapons were drawn. He peripheral ly noted that the young woman with Vader was the one he had met earlier at the smashball courts. What was her name?
"M'lord," Gray bowed slightly at the neck before entering, switching his eyes from the armored specter to the diminutive figure beside him. To his mild surprise, she locked disgruntled, suspicious eyes on him yet refused any other acknowledg ment. He took his cue from her reticence and said nothing of their previous encounter. He wondered what connection she might have with Vader. His first guess was mate, but he dismissed that conclusion as frivolous the moment it occurred. Consider ing her previously demonstrated physical skill and apparent comfort with that wrist-holstered blaster just inside her left sleeve, he strengthened his initial extrapolation of special ops operative...but she seemed so young. He supposed the next question was whether she reported to Vader or reported on Vader. Jade--that was it. Mara Jade.
"Lieutenant Gray, Emperor's Hand Mara Jade," Vader announced the title with heavy sarcasm, which Jade chose to ignore, "will assist you on your next mission."
Gray glanced curiously at Jade when she started to protest, but cut her short. "Lord Vader, my squad has never benefited from special agents. Due respect to Ms Jade, but we work alone."
"Well that just pops the airlock," Jade exclaimed derisively, hands once again jabbing air. "This hunt is jumping off to a fantastic start, Vader. You'd better hope the Emperor finds this all as amusing as you do." She spun on Gray as if t o say something, but just shook her head and stalked from the room angrily, still muttering to herself. Despite all the time he spent with a squad fluent in cursing with eighteen different languages and seven forms of Basic, he thought he overheard a few conjugations he'd never heard before.
Following an angry young redhead on a ship composed almost entirely of male soldiers and crewers proved to be a relatively simple task.
Vader had been surprisingly short on the subject of his mission, merely telling him that Rebels had stolen the plans to some new battle station and that Jade would brief his squad more fully and assist them on a mission to recover the plans. After a strict admonishment to report only to him on the subject, Vader abruptly strode off, dismissing Gray.
He finally found the agent hurling darts at the wall and tossing back shots of some rather caustic smelling liquid in the aft officer's mess. Gray procured his usual Mutant Zombie Cooler and on further consideration, snagged a second as well .
The other occupants were providing Jade a wide berth, and another lieutenant tried to warn him off with a well-meant caution when he approached the dart-thrower. When Gray just smiled tolerantly and waved him off, the other officer shrugged and settled back with his companions to watch the fireworks.
Jade paused to down another shot and Gray took the opportunity to retrieve the darts. He noted that she wasn't using the rocket assist and was impressed with how deeply she had imbedded them into the greelwood target panes without using the turbo. He could feel her eyes piercing him from behind, and belatedly hoped she didn't have more darts laying about close by. Listening attentively for the whistle of incoming projectiles, he retrieved the last dart and casually turned to Jade.
"Yours, I believe?"
"Who invited you, lieutenant?" she inquired archly, managing to sneer his title. "Don't you have troopies to baby-sit?"
Gray shrugged. "New ship. They won't try breaking into anything for another day or so."
Still unimpressed, she held out an impatient hand for the darts. "I'll thank you to rejoin them anyway," she offered icily.
He handed her three darts, keeping three for himself. "Such a generous offer, yet I think I would prefer to stay and discuss space stations." He turned slightly and casually whipped a dart at the target.
"You never told me you were a...stormtrooper," she accused icily.
Gray shrugged again marginally, this time setting up more careful aim before flinging the next dart. "And you never told me you were a secret agent." He paused momentarily to hurl his last dart. "A more experienced operative would have figured out the stormtrooper part."
In a blinding flash of movement, Jade pivoted on her left foot and kicked high with her right. Gray gracefully shifted out of the path of the upswing and swiftly moved in on Jade, managing to duck the follow-up punch and knock a sharp blow t o her exposed shoulder. Unbalanced, Jade tipped backwards into the table holding their drinks. He grabbed her arm to keep her from falling, swung the arm and sidestepped to slam her hard up against the wall. Using his body and a two-handed grasp o f her right wrist, he pinned her against the wall, allowing no escape. His own forehead pinning the right side of her face to the wall as well, Gray leaned close and whispered into her exposed ear.
"Really, Ms Jade, we hardly know each other. And we have an audience."
A few wisps of the brilliant golden red hair had sprung from their tight braid and swayed gently between them as they breathed hard with the rush of adrenaline. For several tense seconds Jade regarded him from the corner of her left eye as well as she could with her head pinned to the wall, then finally seemed to reach a decision.
Ready for anything and prepared to break her wrist if he had to, Gray was surprised when her body shifted slightly and then relaxed. He was just quick enough to note that her shifting had been to put away the short dagger she had miraculousl y pulled with her left hand and had been holding against his stomach. Their eyes locked just long enough for her to see that he had not missed her decision not to end the stand off with an attempt at deadly force.
With the flourish of a dance move, Gray stepped back, spinning her away from the wall and restoring her some personal space. "I think, perhaps, we understand each other somewhat better now." He gestured companionably at the table. "Could w e try this again, Mara?"
Ignoring the agape onlookers, Jade pushed the errant red strands from her face and regally sat at the table, gesturing for Gray to join her as if nothing unusual had happened. Gray sat across from her and opened his Zombie Cooler. Jade toss ed another shot and locked eyes with him. "I still don't like stormtroopers, Andrew."
"And I don't trust secret agents," Gray agreed reasonably. "That aside, what can you tell me about these stolen plans?"
"I'm lost on one issue," Gray finally admitted after her brief explanation, which revealed more in what she left out than what she said. "If rebels have these plans, why are we sitting on our hands here in orbit around Ralltiir?"
Mara harumphed indignantly. "We're pausing to determine exactly who stole the plans and where they went before we go gallivanting around the galaxy wasting time."
"And I thought we were just throwing darts."
"Are you always such a smartadder?" Mara demanded, reaching into her tunic. With some amusement, Gray watched the other patrons ducking for cover as she pulled out a datapad. She rapidly tapped away before placing the tablet on the table, rotating it to face him, and sliding it his way. "Death Star techs put together a ferret program to find out which crew stole the plans and how they got it out of the system. I have a hyperlink hookup to them."
Gray played with the datapad for a few moments before holding it out to her. "You know you're not online anymore?"
Jade snatched the outheld datapad and glared at the display.
"Sith! They could be halfway across the galaxy by now," Jade moaned plaintively, biting her lower lip. "This happens all the time. Damn techs can never keep that network alive for long. Here, now we're back. Still no worthwhile answers t hough."
Gray grabbed control of the pad and looked it over again. "Ah, the process scan claims that your ferret shell is still active, but the step status file hasn't been updated in over a thousand iterations. I think your program's busy trying to divide by zero."
Jade banged the table hard enough to bounce their refreshments and startle nearby paranoid patrons as she kicked her chair back and stood. "That does it. I'm outta here."
Gray tossed the last of his zombie and rose with her. "Just where are we going?"
"I'M going back to raise hell on the station. Apparently the entire counterintel section is busy playing with themselves."
"Wait. I have an idea; follow me."
To Gray's surprise, she actually did.
Sergeant Lane was beside himself with rage. They had just been attached to a new ship, and the entire squad was just lounging around as if there were nothing to do. Sergeant Cross himself was messing around with his team on that stupid AT-S T and the shuttle when he really should have gotten ship's maintenance to do that sort of thing. Well, there wasn't much he could do but glare reprovingly at Cross's men, but he could damn well square away his own lazy troops. Hell, not fifteen min utes ago, he had ordered Snyder to uplink their database to the Devastator's systems. But apparently his young soldier thought that his damned 'droid was more important than receiving administrative ship's data, because he was loafing off with Nicho ls and that other slicer, all of them fawning over that 'droid as if it were alive.
"Trooper, didn't I tell you to report our status to systems control?" Lane demanded in his best drill sergeant voice, hands stuck authoritatively on his hips. "And you, Nichols. Aren't you supposed to be unpacking the prefabs?"
Snyder largely ignored Lane's threatening tone with a wave of the hand that looked suspiciously like a vulgar gesture. "We finished all that an hour ago, Sarge. Don't worry, everything's secure. We're just waiting on orders from the LT."
Denied the expected cringing and remorsefulness, Lane was momentarily at a loss. He felt sick at the thought of just how much work lay ahead to turn these...boys back into real troopers. He suspected that they were too far gone already, con sidering that his efforts had been to no effect since the squad's first day together.
"What about our quarters?"
"And the shuttle unloading?"
"It's all done, dammit!" Snyder exclaimed, finally turning away from his 'droid and wildly waving a probe. "We could jump right now if the LT wanted. Heck, Sarge, weren't you there earlier today at that ambush?"
"If you'd been around, you would know that everything's taken care of," Nichols muttered, barely audible.
"I had NCO things to do," Lane responded, inexplicably finding himself on the defensive. "I find it hard to believe that you have time to waste on that worthless droid."
"Actually, the LT considers this project somewhat above worthless," Terrance added helpfully, surrounded by thin wisps of smoke curling from his microlaswelding.
Lane glared daggers at the slicer. "I'll thank you to stay out of this, Specialist." He missed it, but he could have sworn he saw Nichols roll his eyes in disrespect.
"Regardless, we're up and waiting on orders," Snyder interrupted before Lane could launch an invective against them all. "Now unless you have some real work for us, could we get on with this, Sarge? Everything's good to go."
Lane felt the frustration rising in the back of his throat at the insolence before him. It was just too much for one person to deal with.
"Well it'd better be, or you'll be sorry," Lane finally stammered, stalking off in a deep funk.
"What a prijg'n loser."
They all jumped in surprise at the epithet that was almost loud enough to be hear across the hanger.
"Okay, who's the smartadder who rigged the vocodor?" Snyder demanded. Nichols and Terrance both adamantly refused responsibility for the prank. "Okay, so I'm supposed to believe rustbucket here can't powerup itself up yet suddenly has devel oped speech on it's own? I don't think so. Schlamp, get your fat abs over here!"
"Yeah, Schlamp, loose it or move it!" the R4 unit agreed in sudden verbosity.
"Obviously Schlamp's work," Terrance postulated thoughtfully. "Only he would invert his idioms."
"Huh?" Snyder prompted.
"Popular sayings," Nichols explained casually. "Schlamp always gets 'em bass-ackwards. Speaking of the devil, where is he?"
"Raiding the class 1 stores for junk food, more than likely," Snyder griped, tapping his comlink. "Okay, Schlamp, joke's over. Come on out and shut it off."
"According to recent ship internal surveillance," the R4 presumed to inform them, "Specialist Schlamp is attempting to access the forward officer's mess. Hey, I can't see on my own. What's up with that?"
With an abruptness that caused them all to jump back and caught the attention of everyone else in the room, the recalcitrant R4 powered up. Doors banged open and closed, probes cycled in and out, the dome spun round several times and lights blinked all over. A screeching warbling sounded as if the R4 unit did not appreciate what was going on. As suddenly as it went crazy, the R4 got itself back into some semblance of control.
"All right! Now we're talkin'!" The R4 sped off on a high speed tour of the room, occasionally bumping into things. "Whooohoooo! Look out, comin' through! 'Scuse me, pardon me. Ooops. The other left, you idiot!"
Apparently satisfied with its whirlwind inspection, the R4 screeched to a stop in front of the three bewildered soldiers who had been working on it. Apparently not terribly experienced with driving itself about, the astromech's wheels stoppe d moving while its domed head continued on its previous vector. Terrance flashed out a hand to keep the droid upright.
"Thank you, sir!"
Two of the R4's previously locked equipment doors snapped open with a whoosh of pressurized air, startling the three self-proclaimed 'droid specialists.
The high-strung ambitious little voice squawked confidently from a squat glossy black box topped by a shining red optic within the R4's cramped torso. While the troopers shrugged bewilderment at each other, wondering at the elaborateness of Schlamp's joke, the 'droid-in-a-box continued chattering.
"Blue Max's my name, slicin's my game. Heard any good ones lately?"
"Aw, come on, Schlamp--the least you could have done was get the color right," Nichols moaned loudly, speaking to droid and hoping whatever sensors Schlamp was using were picking up his visual response to the joke. "Even Sergeant Lane could tell that this thing isn't blue."
The R4 rocked violently on its stubby legs and whistled with infuriation. "I am not a joke! I'm a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art Infinet compact probe droid....well, at least I was before the R10000 processor came out. And the blue was too hard to keep clean."
"Indeed," Terrance murmured, that annoying thoughtful expression creasing his forehead again.
"What, you don't really think this is for real, do you?" Snyder demanded, rapping on the R4's domed head. "Come on, Schlamp, game's over."
"You guys don't believe me, do you?" the little black droid wailed piteously, its single red optic dimming in frustration.
"You're breaking my heart, Schlamp," Nichols mocked. "Let's shut it off for now. I could use a break."
"No, wait!" Blue Max exclaimed. "I can prove it!"
"Prove what?" Terrance inquired gamely.
"That I'm autonomous! C'mon, gimme something to do."
Nichols grinned malevolently. "Okay, you little nerf herder, I'll give you something. If you're so state of the art, tap into the Devastator's surveillance system and show us what Schlamp's up to."
"Oh, puuuhhhlease!" Max returned indignantly. "Is that all you can come up with? I should've stayed asleep."
Within moments, the R4's holoprojector blazed to life, showing a barely identifiable Schlamp chatting amicably with an ensign at a bar in the forward officer's mess.
"Okay, smartadder, if you're so hot, hit the gravity," Snyder challenged.
After a few seconds, everyone within view of the holocam abruptly wilted to the ground. "Oops, tweaked it a tad too much. That was supposed to be 1/10th g, not 10 g. There, that's better." The previously grounded patrons began bouncing fr om floor to ceiling and back.
"Small time antics," Terrance dismissed them all with a flick of the hand. "Entirely too predictable. Show us something undeniably undoable."
"Terry, did you just make up a word?" Nichols demanded. "Hah! Next you'll be speaking like a hick."
"Shut-up," Snyder slapped Nichols' head. "What about it, little blue?"
"Blue Max," the droid corrected. "How about....this?"
The hologram melted away, replaced with the specter of Darth Vader confronting a diminutive figure sporting red-gold braids. "I'll throw in sound for free."
Vader's voice boomed somewhat too realistically in the ready room.
"Send him in."
To the squad's collective enjoyment, their own lieutenant marched into view of the holocam.
"Now this is more like it!" Cross exclaimed, clapping Terrance on the shoulder before taking a seat nearby to enjoy the show. "Good work, guys. Hawk, kill the lights; Ratcliffe, break out some Corellian for the show."
"He's gonna shoot her," Hawkins commented, catching a glass tossed across the room.
"Naw, with a body like that," Nichols disagreed, "he'll bring her home with him."
"What, nothing? Hell, he isn't even looking at her."
"Lieutenant Gray, Emperor's Hand Mara Jade," Vader this time, oblivious to the squad's comments, "will assist you on your next mission."
"Cool! We got a mission!"
"Mission, my tibia! I'm ready for sleep."
"Assist? Just what the hell is she going to assist us with? Who the prijg does she think she is?"
"Yeah, remember the last assistance we had?"
"Anyone ever heard of an emperor's hand before?"
"Hey, Terry, see what you can dig up on her."
"Ain't that like a ship, or something?"
"Naw, man, I think they're a smashball team."
"Lord Vader, my squad has never benefited from special agents. Due respect to Ms Jade, but we work alone."
"Right on, LT."
"Damned skippy we work alone."
"What do you mean, we work alone? Are you forgetting the techs who built our reentry shields and the--"
"Shut up, Terrance."
"Well that just pops the airlock," Jade exclaimed derisively, hands once again jabbing air. "This hunt is jumping off to a fantastic start, Vader. You'd better hope the Emperor finds this all as amusing as you do."
"Sith! She must be somebody important to talk to Vader like that."
"Yeah, probably the Emperor's personal 'friend'."
"Hell, she's young enough to be his daughter."
"You know any woman in her right mind would sleep with that?"
"I dunno, guys. Did you see that wrist blaster?"
"Yeah; calf blade too. How much you wanna bet she hides a garrote in those braids?"
"Hey, Max, can you tell what color underwear she's wearing?"
"What wrist blaster?"
"Inverse tonal balance contrasting with holodiffusion indicates lack of undergarments, but suggests multiple concealed devices that could be weapons. Would you like to see a surface map?"
"Shut up! I can't hear what they're saying."
The jabbering ceased as Vader appeared to stare directly at the holocam for several seconds, spookily making eye contact with each of them before abruptly striding off.
"Great!" Cross swore explicitly. "Shut it off, shut it off! Bluffing stations, everyone."
The scene disappeared suddenly, leaving the squad in the dark with Max's slowly rotating surface map of Mara Jade's concealed weapons.
"Good work, rustbucket," Snyder chuckled amiably, patting the R4 unit in a conciliatory gesture.
"Should I save the Jade contours for later analysis?" Blue Max offered eagerly, watching them quickly stow their tools into hiding.
"You do just that," Nichols agreed, pausing in his concealment of an only marginally-legal network diagnostic tool. "You know, I think we're going to get along just fine, Max."
"Make sure you use high resolution," Terrance suggested. "Then shut off before anyone shows up."
For the second time that evening, Gray knew something was amiss as he paused in a doorway. The squad's new ready room was....way too quiet. Only faint light from the tri-D and a faint murmur of muted conversation were the sole indications o f life.
Mara jabbed him in back. "What's the hold up here, Lieutenant?"
Gray scowled over his shoulder but said nothing as he stepped out of the corridor to be hailed by a welcoming chorus of "LT!"
Nichols reached into the cooler and tossed Gray a Mutant Zombie as Spc Snyder bounded a beat-up conform lounge to trace out a casual salute.
"LT, you're back early. Uh, is anything wrong?"
As his eyes adjusted to the low light, he noticed that all of his soldiers were drinking Zombies, not even a mild intoxicant in sight.
"Not that I'm aware of. Is there?"
"No sir, nothing wrong here, just us troops hanging out. We completed the list and Sergeant Cross is still conferencing with the Sergeant Major. Sergeant Lane took off somewhere--"
"'Seven Rings of Nymbus'?" Jade demanded archly, elbowing her way into the room despite Gray's not very well concealed attempt to keep her out. "A bit esoteric for stormtroopers, hmm?"
"Quiet!" Spc Ratcliffe yelled from across the room in answer to Jade's loud challenge. "You're going to spoil the nerf herder's soliloquy!"
"Beggin' your pardon here, chickipoo," Snyder offered gruffly to Jade, "but we're stormtroopers, not morons. And who the prijg is this..." Snyder turned to Gray, waving a hand vaguely in her direction, "...this girl?"
"Ratcliffe, kill the vid," Gray ordered, interposing himself between Jade and Snyder, who were virtually spitting at each other, guiding her to the center of the room. "Gentlemen, we have a mission. Lord Vader has coordinated for Agent Mara Jade from the Imperial Office here to assist us." He glared sternly at them each in turn to forestall inevitable grumbling. "Ms Jade, may I present the members of STRC-24."
One by one, the squad introduced themselves, sizing up the newcomer. Surprisingly, Jade remained silent.
When it was apparent that he had obtained some sort of truce for now, Gray finally took a seat. "Ms Jade, why don't you do the honors?"
She stared at him in consternation. "What, you just want to tell them everything?"
"Why not?" Gray shrugged easily. "The mission requires rather special handling, and we possess a modicum of specialty."
"Such modesty is truly unbecoming of you, Lieutenant," Jade scoffed. She gestured around her, taking in the entire squad. "You, Rat- boy. What's the effective range of a Plexor?" she asked smugly, certain that any weapon requiring more than a trigger pull was beyond the ken of any stormtrooper, especially one who introduced himself as a medtech.
Ratcliffe screwed his face in concentration. "Alpha or Bravo, and what atmosphere and gravity?"
"Duh, they don't make Alpha's anymore," Snyder scoffed, slapping Ratcliffe.
"Yeah they do," Hawkins interrupted, gloating in this rare opportunity to correct Snyder on a technical issue. "The Corporate Sector Authority still uses them."
"No, the CSA converted all their Alpha's to Bravo's and called them Zeta's," Terrance corrected. "But they have a bad tendency to crack the motor mounts."
"That's enough," Gray ordered, holding up a hand to stop what might become a heated debate resolved only by pilfering the equipment in question and declaring an impromptu range. "Professor Zorlman was not the only leak on that black project h e was involved with. Apparently Rebel sympathizers may have accessed technical plans to a battle station now in development under the auspicious code name Death Star."
"What incredible Imperial coding," Cross commented wryly. "Nobody'll ever think of Death Star and battle station in the same synapse."
"Indeed. We have no intel on who stole the plans or where they went. Our mission is to track them down and recover the plans. Is that about right, Ms Jade?"
When no other comment appeared forthcoming from the brooding fireball, Gray continued. "Our first priority is intel. Ms Jade had a ferret program running back on the battle station, but it seems to have encountered trouble. Terrance, Nicho ls: what can we do to determine who, what, where, when, how? I think why is rather moot at this stage."
Nichols rubbed his hands together eagerly, Terrance stroked his chin. They pulled computers out from beneath lounges; Gray was almost afraid to ask how they had gotten there.
"First off, we should get on that network and take a look at that ferret program."
"Right--if you check out the ferret I'll get a feel for the network itself."
"Ms Jade, could we have--"
"Okay, you all can just drop the 'Ms Jade' bit!" Mara exploded, detaching herself from the wall. "It's just 'Jade', all right? Sith, I'm wasting my time."
She moved to storm out of the room, but Gray planted an unyielding arm into her chest. Surprisingly enough, she didn't try to break his arm. "Give us a chance, Mara," he murmured quietly to her.
"Yeah, yeah--whatever," Nichols gestured dismissively at them, completely oblivious to the relationship the two were trying to work out on the fly. "We just need your remote GSVP, routing identifiers, logins and passwords to get on the netwo rk and figure out what happened to your program."
"I'm going to regret this, and so are you," Jade snarled to Gray, but without much conviction, before snapping her attention to the waiting slicers. "Here." She reached into her tunic and found four blasters trained on her before she could pull out the datapad. She casually ignored the blasters, tossing the datapad to Terrance. "Let's see what you're made of, hotshot."
"All righty then, let's get busy," Nichols crowed, jacking a cable from his own workstation into the back of the tiny datapad.
Cross chose that moment to quietly return to the ready room with a decidedly annoyed mien. Gray raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
"Prijg'n Sergeant Major," Cross responded cryptically, yet expressing volumes. He snared a Mutant Zombie and downed it in one guzzle.
"Looks like holoscape through hypercom..." Terrance announced from behind his visor, waving his hands in front of him.
"Right, I've got the pang..."
Cross tossed his empty bottle casually across the room into a trash collector and turned to Gray expectantly. "Sir, considering the hour, with your leave...."
"Right. Good work setting up today everyone. Those not slicing, hit the rack; time enough for killing Rebels tomorrow."
"What the hell is this, Jade?" Nichols demanded. "This damned thing won't let me do anything."
Jade swiped the datapad from Nichols and punched a few keys before tossing it back. "It's working fine."
"Well that sure sucks big lemon spacepops. You don't have access to anything good. Does this just run through some regional university, or what?" Nichols accused with a glare. "Lt.'s right; your program's tossed its cookies. But we can't do anything to fix it through this sorry node. Do you have any higher access?"
"How 'bout contacting the network administrator back there to fix it?"
"Forget it," Terrance interrupted. "Where is this station being developed?"
Jade glared at Gray to indicate her displeasure at this predicament but said "It's being constructed over Despayre."
"Right, we'll go with that," Nichols declared, mounting his lightweight helmetless visor. "Coming in, Terry."
"Roger, I'm set."
Jade watched them wave their hands about, occasionally tapping into a keyboard or giving terse voice commands for five minutes before nudging Gray. "What are they doing?" she asked conversationally, all of her previous turmoil conspicuously absent.
"Slicing into the Death Star network," Gray answered, activating the tri-D to repeat the same images Nichols and Terrance were working with and taking a seat.
"They can't do that. Impossible. Security at the Death Star is so tight that Tarkin doesn't even allow the engineers to know what's going on."
"Apparently not the assassins either," Gray replied, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Be patient. Terrance and Nichols have a knack for this."
Jade snorted with contempt, but joined Gray on the lounge, eyes never leaving the tri-D. "Stormtroopers with a knack for slicing--right, and I'm a gundark's ear. Look at that; how can they possibly know what they're doing that fast?" When Gray didn't reply, didn't even open his eyes, she continued, annoyed both at his ignoring her and her unusual volubility. "And that vid? C'mon, that's a restricted Old Republic classic. Hardly stormtrooper fare. Something's Mon Cal."
"What would the Emperor's own Arm know of banned vids--"
"It's 'Hand', not 'Arm' and you'd better watch who you repeat that- -"
"Whatever. But in a way you are correct. One or more of them did something worthy of getting caught, and they're not sure they covered their tracks well enough."
"Well get used to it. Looking over your shoulder comes with the territory when you work with Vader."
Gray noted the resentment she rolled into his name. "You don't like him."
"He's a ruthless cyborg with his own agenda and an overblown ego."
Gray actually opened his eyes and smiled tightly at this. "You sound jealous, Jade."
Her stammered denial was betrayed by a creeping blush. "That machine has nothing I envy. The Emperor doesn't trust him and uses him like--" She stopped abruptly, deciding she had already said too much. She pointed at the tri-D. "Do you u nderstand any of this?"
"They've compiled a list of technical personnel transferred to systems but not showing any activity in that system."
"Those are people who are possibly assigned to the project. I'm guessing that they're fishing for passwords." He raised his voice. "Have you two fallen back to histories already?"
"Roger, LT," Nichols replied. "Don't know about the rest of the network, but someone did a good job designing the gatekeeper."
"How is a personnel list going to help?" Jade demanded.
"Trade secret," Nichols replied.
"There's always some moron who uses his anniversary date, birthday, or citizen id as the password," Terrance explained.
Gray noticed the color drain from Jade's face and nudged her elbow, closing his eyes again. "Don't worry, Mara. I changed your password to 'Arica19' back at the club. I forgot to tell you."
"Nichols would have you believe we use Jedi neural net tricks to slice into a system," Terrance continued, largely ignored.
"Well maybe you're just a commoner, Terry, but I'm a Jedi Master myself," Nichols insisted. " 'You don't need to see my password.' "
"Not working, buddy. Better feel your Force a little harder."
"Yeah, I'm feeling something but it's not...wait a minute. And we have a winner, ladies and gents! Nichols, three; Terry, one."
"Get a life, Nichols; I still have a two point lead over you. What was that, Ms--er, sorry, Jade?"
"He's asleep. Is this normal?"
"Yeah--LT can sleep anywhere, anytime," Nichols agreed. "One time he slept right up to the point we went space surfing. As rumor has it, he sleeps during sex. Ouch! Mind your own business, Terry."
"Indeed! And look who's calling the blaster noisy."
While the two slicers continued their verbal sparring, Mara walked about the room, examining the artifacts. And artifacts they most certainly were. The entire room was filled with gadgetry of all conceivable sorts; everything from a simple dart board (that explained a lot) to what looked suspiciously like an R4 unit hiding beneath a stack of cold weather gear. The impressive tri-D looked as if it had lost its original controls and been possessed by a Star Destroyer bridge console. Cl oser inspection of the device revealed that it actually was a dreadnought tactical situation display. Much to her surprise, she found that one of the walls was in fact a door leading into one of the smaller forward hangar bays. And occupying the ha ngar were not just a squad of speederbikes, but also an AT-ST and a Gamma class assault shuttle, which possessed a dorsal fin shape indicative of the early prototypes. When she returned from her inspection, somewhat baffled, she found the two slicer s unhooked from their computers and eating as they listened to some strangely syncopated music.
"Want some Verraten cosonte?" Nichols offered, offering a cup filled with some sort of quivering jell that smelled slightly of alcohol.
"Wise woman. We have a search running," Terrance explained. "I expect it to take awhile. If you don't want to join us for a snack, you might want to catch some shut-eye, Jade."
"What's your story, anyway?" she demanded, arms crossed and defiant as she stopped pacing.
"Stormtroopers are...forget it. No--just where do you come from?"
"Oh, I get it!" Nichols exclaimed, grinning madly at Terrance. "She wants to know how come we use three-syllable words and know how to type."
"You? I have trouble recalling the last three-syllable word emanating between your teeth. And twenty-five words per minute can hardly be construed as typing."
"Five seconds ago--'syl-la-ble', moron."
"One can hardly count 'syllable' as a conversational word."
"And where the hell do you get the number twenty-five? PrefectWord clocks me at sixty."
"But Prefect doesn't count all the times you backspace to correct your errors."
"Yeah, well space you and the ship you rode in on. Anyway, Terry here got into some real bad bantha puddu hijacking an entire regional system's network and blackmailing a Hutt crime ring--"
"I beg your pardon! Nobody every proved any of that nonsense." Terrance favored Mara with a hurt expression. "I am merely a victim of mistaken identity. However, there is no reasonable doubt whatsoever as to the identity of the trooper wh o built a tactical thermite device with long-storage rations and 'accidentally' blew up his platoon leader's field headquarters."
"And a wonderful device it was indeed. It's just a crying shame that Lieutenant what's-his-face wasn't there to see it from his command chair. I understand he's herding toddlers out on the Rim somewhere now."
"The fact is, Jade, that we are a squad of misfits who do not fit the regular Imperial military mold. Were it not for the this squad, I daresay most of us would be mining spice."
"Speak for yourself, buddy. I'm as fit as a nova. Not a fit missing."
"And your lieutenant?"
Nichols grinned toothily, and Terrance even managed a wry smile.
"Why, he's the craziest of us all, of course. Dontcha just love him?"
All this sneaking around bothered Lane on a visceral level. But he had his orders, and he knew the General had been expecting a report sooner. Hence it was with great trepidation and care that he pulled rank and blaster on a young communica tions Specialist to gain access to a private secure holocom channel. He began breathing more easily when the sharp, professional image of the General crackled into focus before him. Here was a situation he felt comfortable dealing with.
"Sergeant Lane reporting as ordered, sir."
"Stand at ease, sergeant. I thought perhaps you had forgotten us."
Since the general had asked for no excuse, Lane offered none. Speak only when spoken to.
"We haven't heard from you since before that damnable Zorlman incident. Very unpleasant business, that. Tell me about that mission, sergeant. Particularly any oddities."
"Sir, once again the lieutenant had no plan from Brigade, and we had inadequate orders. Left to his own devices, he abandoned all established tactics and refused to listen to experience. We shamefully snuck onto Darlac on crazy reentry shie lds and nearly lost the entire squad. Then for no reason at all, he abandoned the primary drop zone, where we were supposed to meet our contact. Since we had to scurry about on our own, we got to Zorlman too late to capture him and administer a pro per interrogation."
"And to what chief factor do you attribute the failure of this mission?"
Lane shuffled uncomfortably. "Well, sir, uh, the mission really wasn't a total failure. We did keep the fish from the Rebels."
The general frowned disapprovingly. "Sergeant, I fear your contact with these imbeciles is adversely affecting your judgment. Your squad failed to capture Zorlman for punishment and questioning. How can the Empire make an example of him to others if he dies so easily and quietly? And to make such a mockery of the Stormtroopers! How in the name of the Emperor can the Stormtroopers demand respect and instill fear if nobody sees them, if they sneak around like common smugglers and thie ves?"
Of course the General was correct; Lane felt stupid for having not seen things so clearly. He once again reminded himself that despite his incredible ineptitude, Lieutenant Gray was adept at warping reality to his own advantage. He would ha ve to be more careful that he didn't fall prey to Gray's strange perspective.
"I see you understand. Has your training regimen improved any?"
"No sir. We waste nearly all of our time on firing ranges, dreaming crazy new strategies and playing them out, or working on the equipment. The entire squad seems to take great pleasure in making a mockery of the other Stormtrooper units on Carida. I doubt that we could march to the head in proper step, and the lieutenant lets everyone do their own physical training." Everyone still maxed out their physical fitness tests, but that was beside the point. Besides, Lane was concerned th at the General might suspect that he secretly harbored a recently- acquired great passion for smashball. "We never pull guard duty when we're not on a mission. And I'm seriously concerned about our ability to produce the proper documents for an Insp ector General inspection. This would be my first unit to ever fail an inspection."
"I understand you've been transferred to Lord Vader's command. Tell me about that."
"Sir, I must admit that Lord Vader impresses me. Within minutes of arriving in-system, he ordered us to quash a Rebel uprising. We wasted them. I--I'm hoping he steers the lieutenant clear, sir."
The general frowned at this. "Lord Vader is well known for his unorthodox methods. I wouldn't count on much help from his quarter, despite what seems to be a textbook first mission under him. Don't be surprised if he sends you on more spin eless secret missions. Did you know he's a Jedi?"
Lane blanched a gray that was almost white. A Jedi? What had he gotten himself into? The Jedi were gone, the Emperor had eradicated them, hadn't he? How could such a high ranking officer be a member of that cursed order? Lane scolded him self to pay attention back to the General.
"--and he's known to harbor sympathies to aliens and 'droids. Watch your neck around him, Sergeant. Do you have anything else to report?"
"No, sir, just that it's difficult to stand by and let the squad go to hell like this."
"What of the other NCO's? Staff Sergeant Cross, and isn't Specialist Snyder about due for promotion?"
"Sir, Sergeant Cross I think is a good NCO, but he doesn't stand up to the lieutenant. And Snyder...well he just licks the lieutenant's boots. Sir, I'm having trouble maintaining discipline without any support from above. Is there any chan ce my request for transfer will be approved soon, sir?"
Lane held his breath, waiting expectantly for the General to tell him his work was done. He could feel the relief welling up inside him at the prospect of being able to go back to a real unit and not have to do all this thinking. He could e asily imagine how secure it would feel to toss this worthlessly complex and useless armor out a spacelock and don his proud white armor again.
"I appreciate the difficulty of your situation, Sergeant Lane. However useless you may feel, you are serving a crucial function, demonstrating a shining example of the proper stormtrooper to those young soldiers. And keeping me informed of the squad's problems, so that we can plan ways to arrest their ill effects before they permeate the entire corps."
"Sir, with all due respect, I'm no longer confident of my abilities to lead my team effectively," Lane hung his head in shame at this admission. "I have completely failed to instill respect of the tried and true ways in these soldiers."
The General leaned forward to examine him intently before leaning back with studied composure. "Sergeant, you have done an outstanding job. I can't fault you for the situation I've forced you to deal with. But your presence is still crucia l...until the command can bring sufficient cause before the Emperor to force STRC out of existence. Do you take my intent, Sergeant Lane?"
Lane pondered this for only a moment, and even he could not fail to grasp the implications of that statement, a possibility which he had been hoping would present itself. If the concept of a small autonomous stormtrooper unit were to be aban doned, he could return to a regular corps unit where he belonged, and this group of misfits would be put out. And if the squad were to fail abysmally at a mission, the General would certainly have cause enough to do whatever he wanted. This affirma tion of his own hope bolstered his confidence, and he sneered in remembrance of that idiot Sullustan copilot, who had thought himself so subtle in acquiring their landing zone coordinates. If only Gray hadn't turned away at the last moment, the squa d would have been destroyed and he would have been free of this mess by now. His sneer melted into a frown at this realization, that he could be in a real unit, a proud, conventional unit right now if it weren't for that single course correction.
"The consequences for the corps are dire, indeed. If the STRC concept succeeds, the Stormtroopers as we know them are doomed," the General intoned ominously, staring rather obviously in dismissal at his wrist chronometer.
"I understand. I won't disappoint you, sir."
"Very good, Sergeant Lane. Carry on."
Sergeant Lane, though resigned to staying with the squad, left with lifted spirits. The General understood; all would end well.
He would make certain of it.
Gray broke from his light sleep when he registered that the highly annoying strains of Nichols' computer announcing "File's done, file's done, file's done...." were not about to stop on its own. Both Terrance and Nichols were crashed out in front of the tri-D, and Mara was curled into a tight ball in the corner of a conform lounge, which had practically swallowed her whole.
And seeing her reminded him of something. After checking his chron and doing some mental arithmetic, he donned Terrance's discarded visor, killed the alarm, and routed a connection to Lt Brown's office. Despite the fact that office hours we re currently in effect on Carida, one of her squad leaders informed him that nobody else was there. Persistent query revealed that the rest of the platoon had deployed on a field training exercise; adept blackmail and a fair amount of bluffing provi ded a remote GSSP site she could be reached through. When Brown finally appeared in the holocam's view it was not in regular intel field gear, which generally consisted of nothing more pretentious than subdued instead of shiny rank insignia, but in full camouflaged combat gear.
"Andrew! What's up?" she demanded in greeting. "And how the hell did you reach me here?"
"The sky and a long story," he replied in kind, eyeing her full equipment harness and the flak vest beneath it. Were it not for the twinkle in her eyes, he could have mistaken her for any other short regular army trooper on the battlefield. "Interesting pattern on the face paint there, Samantha."
She snorted disgustedly and gestured at the gear dismissively. "Brigade insisted we waste time out here practicing misery with the wannabe stormtroopers. And I decided I should be ready to kill something if I got the opportunity. You still didn't answer my question."
"Trade secret. I could tell you, but then--"
"Yeah, yeah. Then you'd have to kill me; don't go there. It was Sergeant Thompkins, wasn't it? Damn, I knew better than to leave him back there to watch the traffic alone."
"Go easy on him, he's young. Actually, I have a request for intel for you."
"Oh really? Fantastic! Finally something to DO out here. Whaddya need? Imperial Senator access codes, suspected Rebel hideouts, new and improved crime syndicate rosters?"
"Actually just a person. Jade, Mara; young white female human, red hair, green eyes, about 1.5 meters tall. Apparently has connections with the Emperor's office."
"Young white female, huh?" she prompted.
"Not what you think. She may go by the title 'Emperor's Hand'."
"Oh really? A new friend from State?"
"A new pain in the thrusters, more accurately. Are you setup to do a full search out there?"
"Please! What sort of operation do you think I run? It'll take more than mud and sloths to keep us from uncovering the secrets of the galaxy. Is that all you wanted?"
"You did mention suspected Rebel hideouts..."
"Yeah, you wish." She looked around her and waited a moment for a soldier to move on before turning back to the cam, a tentative smile lighting her face. "You, uh, left the toothbrush from your travel kit the other night," she prompted tent atively.
He had? Gray mentally retraced his steps, trying to remember when he might have...oh, wait a minute. He suspected that he was he being propositioned, and wondered if Norton had been working overtime. "I know."
"Really?" she queried innocently, almost surprised, right eyebrow raised expectantly. "Shall I send it on to the Devestator?"
"Not unless you're in a hurry to get rid of it."
The grin that lit her face unclenched the sudden knot in his stomach.
"Maybe I'll just keep it for awhile. Never know when it might come in useful." Someone called her name in the background. "Well just tell them to duck!" she hollered back over her shoulder. "Duty calls, Andrew. I'll get back to you as so on as we turn anything up."
"Thanks, I owe you one."
"I'm sure you'll find a way to make it up." The image shook as an explosion rattled the troop carrier she was in. "Well, so much for the defender wannabes. You know, these exercises sure were easier before your squad came here and started scaring the hell out of the other units."
"Thank you for that ringing endorsement, Samantha."
"Anytime, Andrew. Damn it, shoot at them, don't just stand there! No, not them--the other them! If you see Norton, tell him to get his butt out here."
Returning to the cam long enough to wave goodbye, she terminated the connection. Gray took a deep breath, not realizing he had been holding it. A soft moan nearby broke him from his momentary contemplation of life, the universe, and everyth ing.
Even in sleep, the tightness had not left Jade's face. In fact, her face was grimaced in pain, and tiny beads of sweat covered her forehead despite the coolness of the dim room. Somewhat concerned, he extricated himself from the computer an d turned back to find her suddenly awake and shivering, eyes wide but unseeing, murmuring incoherently.
"Mara, are you all right?"
When she failed to respond, he reached out to shake her shoulder. Jade reacted by violently erupting from the lounge and slamming him to the floor, vibroblade to his stomach yelling "No!" over and over convulsively. The only thing that spar ed his blood from staining the floor was his quick reaction in diverting the blade into the lounge. Gray slapped her face hard, then held her chin steady, trying to force contact with the wide, darting emerald eyes. As if only just now waking, she suddenly noticed him and struggled away, fleeing the room.
"And good morning to you as well, Mara Jade," he mumbled, returning to Nichols' terminal and noting that it was morning only in the most technical sense. "Okay, where has he hid it now..."
Finding the right file, the computer blared out a rather convincing simulation of a small thermal detonation. The two slicers instantly woke, stumbling for cover and reaching for weapons they had left on a nearby table. They both regarded G ray rather sheepishly as they reconsidered the situation.
"Nichols, for the last time, you must get a better alarm," Gray chastised the slicer. "You both act as if you haven't slept in days."
"Prijg, LT, don't know why that might be," Nichols grumbled, rubbing at his eyes and yawning stiffly. "Sith, I feel like death warmed over."
"You look every meter of it," Terrance agreed, slipping into his visor and waving groggily away. "We have access to the illustrious Death Star, LT."
"Who's the victim?"
"Guy by the name of Tarkin. Used his mother's birthday for his password."
"Hey, check this out--he's a Grand Moff."
"Good work as usual. Try not to knock out station life support while you're in there. I'll be right back." With nothing further, Gray was gone.
"Where'd he go?"
"Come now, Nichols, since you know Corellian Binary, you couldn't possibly have been born yesterday," Terrance scoffed haughtily. "Where in the seven moons of Tinian do you think he went?"
"What? You don't think--she's jail bait, man."
"Yes I do think. If you tried it more often, you might grow to like it. And since when have statutory age limits ever curtailed your social life?"
"Boot off, RAM hog."
"Divider by zero."
"Looper of do's."
"Always gotta have the last goto, don't you?"
"If you spout nonsense, then I gosub errorhandler, else we all go mad, ending our existential if."
"Yeah, yeah whatever. I hate it when you start spouting philosophy."
Gray finally found Jade's room nestled among the mid-deck officer's quarters, not far from the huge main dock. Upon receiving no response to his queries over the room's comm, he took a small electronic device from his utility belt, using it to unlock the door. Gray drew his blaster and quietly entered the room, weapon at the ready.
The eerie silence of the room made it clear why he'd received no response to his summons and he momentarily wondered if he'd mistaken her destination. Gray glanced quickly around the sharply utilitarian room, taking in the small sleeping are a visible from an equally small combination sitting room/kitchen. While there was a conspicuous lack of non-standard-Imperial-issue furnishings, lending the compartment a cold sterile quality, the small bar next to the food processor was littered wi th weapons in various stages of assembly. Gray made a quick inventory, impressed with the wide range and quality of the selections, moving on.
The sleeping area was as barren as the entranceway, and the empty bed was drawn so tightly that Gray supposed he could have bounced a credit off of the sheets. Soft light spilled from an open adjoining door. Moving quietly so as to not alert the intruder, he slipped up to the door and readied his blaster. He crouched low and rolled into the room, blaster scannning all corners for a target. To his surprise, the only visible occupant was Jade. Actually, only her head was visible, floating atop a huge mound of bubbles.
In a flash, Gray was five years old again, watching his best friend Tommy Jones being overwhelmed by the swamp bubbles of Geidus Tertiary. Tommy was screaming for help, but Gray just stood there; Tommy had greedily gobbled all their spacepop s, and he deserved to be punished. Tommy didn't scream long. How was Gray supposed to know that Geidus swamp bubbles were carniverous and could render a full-grown nerf to bones within a minute of choking off its air supply?
"No!" Gray yelled convulsively.
Without the least thought to his own risk he tossed his blaster aside, reaching into the deadly bubbles and lifting Jade free of their insiduous grasp. Through the panic his training took dominance and he had the presence of mind to wipe most of the deadly bubbles away before starting CPR. Jade's body was convulsing now, and he was worried that she had probably already suffered enough oxygen deprivation to effect irreversible brain damage. He locked her head at the proper angle and be gan applying measured breaths. After five repetitions he stopped and put his ear to her chest, listening for a heartbeat.
"What the hell are you doing?" Jade demanded indignantly. "And why did you stop?"
Gray was astonished. He had actually done it. She was alive, and now that he had defeated the--what was that sickening sweet smell in the air? And what in the seven rings of Mimbus was "Clineek #5 Bacta Restorative Bubble Bath", as labelled on the bottle he could now see knocked onto the floor next to them?
It finally dawned on Gray that he was not in Geidus anymore.
Gray's ears brightened in what for him was an incredible blush at his embarrassing lapse in situational awareness and judgement. He stepped away, offering her a towel and a hand.
Jade hesitated, accepting the towel only after she rose on her own. "I've killed men for less than this," she announced harshly to his retreating form, but without much conviction, wrapping herself within and tucking the towel in place.
"That doesn't surprise me," he called from the living area.
Jade followed him into the room, rubbing at her damp hair and taking a seat across from Gray, arms crossed defiantly. As she approached, he caught the fragrance of some lightly-scented soap almost masking a rather unpleasant, sharply acrid smell. Experience acquainted that smell with intensive care units, and it drew his attention to the fading bruises splotching the otherwise flawless skin of her shoulders.
"Well? What do you want?"
"I thought perhaps you could explain why you psyched-out on me. Is there something I should know about?"
"That was nothing. Just a bad dream. Besides, you're the one who just psyched-out on me."
Gray winced at the literalness of her accusation. "Yes, but I thought you were under attack. You tried to kill me."
Jade snorted derisively. "Threatened by bubbles?
"It's a long story."
"And normal people don't wake from nightmares to kill those who wake them," he deflected, raising a hand as if to fend off her next statement then rolled his hand to point a finger vaguely in her direction. "I asked you first."
Her eyes darted, refusing to make contact with his. He took this as confirmation that there was more than just a bad dream to the earlier incident.
"I woke in a strange place."
"And the Bacta?"
She snapped her head up, glaring venomously at him.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Gray propped his cybernetic right leg onto the low table between them and rapped on its hard metallic surface. "I just didn't know it was available as a bubble bath. Otherwise I've had some fairly personal experience with Bacta. And so do you, judging by those bruises."
"Go to hell," she spat out, her lips quivering.
"As you wish," he agreed amicably. The insult stung, but he guessed he would anger her yet further before he resolved this issue. He sincerely hoped the neither of them would break any bones in the resolution. "But not until I get some an swers. What, exactly, is an 'Emperor's Hand'?"
She looked as if she wouldn't answer, but pride finally won out over discretion. Let Vader explain to Palpatine why this stormtrooper knew her identity.
"As the Emperor's Hand, I travel the galaxy doing his bidding as his personal envoy. He has direct communication with me at all times, and he trained me to handle anything that comes along."
"So you're basically a physical extension of the Emperor?"
"Yes--no! I'm not just his puppet. I carry out his wishes in whatever manner I deem fit. He trusts me completely."
"I see," Gray replied, although he really didn't. He guessed Jade to be 18 years old, maybe 19, and it disturbed him deeply that such a young woman was dutifully charging about the Empire as an Imperial assassin and special envoy of the Empe ror instead of just now learning how to live on her own away from home. He had little doubt of her competence; she had already amply demonstrated many of the skills and experience needed to survive in such an arena. The experience factor suddenly m ade him consider that she had probably been doing this sort of thing since she was 16 or 17, which would mean she would have had to start training before even dealing with adolescence. He knew that he himself was young to be doing this sort of thing , yet still he had at least eight years over her. What could her past have possibly been like?
"How many others like you are lurking about?" he asked instead.
"Indeed," Gray returned dubiously. "Just how old are you, Mara?"
"Old enough for what? Old enough to vote, or just old enough to run around doing the Emperor's dirty work?"
"What do you care?" she replied bitterly, but the edge was gone from her voice and she just sounded tired.
At the moment, she looked to Gray more like a lost soul than an Imperial assassin, and despite his best resolve to detest the foisting of an external resource on his squad, he felt a pang of commiseration for her. Her experience of life was obviously anything but normal.
"Like it or not, we're forced on this mission together." The words were harsh, but the inflection was considerate. "I don't want some hidden psychosis revealing itself--"
"I can take care of myself."
"Just like you were going to take care of me earlier? I refuse to let you endanger the mission or my soldiers. And I want to know who did that to you, and why you have nightmares about it." Gray gestured at the bruises.
"Nobody did this to me. It happened on a mission."
"Then why are you so intent on hiding it?"
"I'm new at this, and I made a mistake, damn you!" she yelled, then regained some semblance of calm. "And I paid the price, all right?"
"No, it's not all right. That little scar on your chin--why is it still there?"
"Any competent surgeon could have removed the scar."
Gray rolled his eyes in exasperation, but was greatly relieved at her attempt at humor, no matter the incredible sarcasm. Now that he considered it, he noted that the scar was actually rather sexy. But that was somewhere he definitely did n ot want to go.
"Why don't you get a synthetic flesh leg?" she finally continued. "It's a badge of honor, won in combat. I thought you might understand that."
"That's my point."
"You make no sense."
"You took the scar purposefully?"
"No, you idiot. Of course not. I just didn't pop smoke and evade quite fast enough."
"So it was a mistake?"
"No--do you think? I eject from perfectly spaceworthy Z-95s all the time."
Gray admired her penchant for sarcastic understatement, but drove on.
"Then why do you keep the scar, but try to hide the bruises?"
"Damn you," she choked, eyes unduly moist. She wiped at them violently, shamed by their defection from her control. Silence settled over them for a long while before she began so quietly that Gray could barely hear. "Not long ago, there w as a man disloyal to the Emperor. The Emperor had taken him in as a child, raised him, trained him in the Force."
Gray's sense of balance lurched wildly, shocked at this sudden implication. The Emperor, a Force user? How could that possibly be?
But couldn't bring himself to interrupt her.
"For whatever reasons, he confronted the Emperor about....things. And then he attacked Palpatine. He lost, of course, and barely escaped with his life. Palpatine sent his Hand to kill him, slowly and painfully. But when I finally tracked him down, I lacked courage, and just killed him quickly.
"The Emperor was furious with me. I received the traitor's punishment for my foolish insubordination. The wounds will heal, but I have to live with the knowledge that I failed my master.
"All because of my brother."
Gray was speechless. He had been following instincts finely honed from years of counseling soldiers with difficult problems, but this....was certainly echelons above lieutenant, as Norton was so found of putting it. He had no idea what to d o.
"So that's it," Jade said after awhile, locking eyes with him. "Are you satisfied now?"
There was no malice in her voice, no sarcasm. Gray looked away first this time, strangely feeling as if he were the one who had pillaged her childhood.
She stood and walked away brusquely. "Hell, I don't know why I'm telling you this," she griped, grabbing a brush and attacking her hair. "You're losing it, Jade."
Gray joined her at the mirror, producing the small device he had used to unlock her door and setting it on the counter. "It's a microcharge post-process analyzer. Specialists Schlamp and Terrance developed them from weather control sensors. It's yours."
Jade eyed him warily, reached for the device cautiously. Her inspection revealed that it had no apparent sensors; the only blemishes to the surface were a recessed power switch and a tiny graphic readout. To all appearances, the device coul d have been a simple timepiece or one-way comlink transponder. She rose to slip it into her utility pouch hanging from a hook in the kitchenette, then retrieved her clothes from the bed and began dressing.
"How's it work?"
"A micro hyperdrive induction coil reacts to minute electrical forces to such a resolution that it can discriminate the change in quark states from various previous impulses. Or something like that. The real genius is in the algorithm that isolates the keypad circuit from the main power supply, allowing another algorithm to read the quark states, and yet another to reverse compile and determine what code was last punched into the keypad. After it takes the readings, it sometimes promp ts you to punch in a certain number on the device you're analyzing, so that it can resolve base zero."
"So this thing can read numbers punched in before?"
"Each number sends a slightly different electrical signal along the bus. Every time a given number is pressed, it affects the bus's subatomic structure in a predictable manner. Schlamp claims to understand the physics involved, but I'm cert ain he really just inferred the principles from some existing device."
"This is how you got in. Do you have any ideas how many laws this breaks?" she demanded with mock sanctimony as she emerged and returned to her seat, folding in on herself. Gray wondered if she consciously realized that this made her a very small target.
Gray shrugged. "Sue me. Do you have any idea how many criminals we've put away with that?"
"And why are you giving me this?"
"Because I think you might need it more than I," Gray paused, deciding that she did not need to know that the analyzer had an anti-theft tracking device that would allow him to keep close tabs on her location, if the need arose. Instead, he struggled to find a tactful way of broaching her obvious confusion about the Emperor. It was difficult to believe that she was a good enough actor to fabricate this entire story, yet even more difficult to believe that Palpatine was capable of such brutality against his own. "You did what you had to do, and the Emperor was wrong to--"
"Don't talk like that, you can't possible imagine--"
"No, listen to me. Nobody should treat another human this way."
"Look, you don't understand. You have no idea--"
They were both interrupted by an innocuous beep from Gray's comlink. Jade took the moment of distraction to return to her hair which such ferocity that it had to be painful.
Gray turned aside and brought the comlink to his mouth.
"Six, go ahead."
"Six, one-two. We have something you might want to see."
"Give me ten."
"Roger, whenever you're ready. One-two, out."
Jade finished knotting her hair in a simple twist over her back and raised an eyebrow speculatively. "Your boys work fast."
"Time waits for no trooper, and all that. Shall we?"
"LT, this station sucks," Nichols announced unequivocally. "Oh, welcome back, Ms Jade."
Gray thought he saw credits change hands between the two slicers, but decided he was probably better off just ignoring it.
"Clarify 'sucks'. Big lemon spacepops or jet exhaust?"
"This would have to suck something more on the order of pond scum. In a sewage treatment plant."
"Indeed. What have you found?"
"Despite my unesteemed colleague's admittedly accurate depiction of the station's pitiable level of network maintenance, we were able to track which files were copied when by whom. They indicate that Grand Moff Tarkin is the culprit."
"That's absurd," Mara objected. "Tarkin is in charge of the project. He has no reason to steal plans."
"Of course not," Gray agreed equitably. "You missed out earlier when they used Tarkin's password to break into the system. What they mean is that somebody else broke in the same way that they just did. Correct?"
"That's it, LT. Any competent system administrator would have fixed this before it happened."
"Can't you correlate the access time to troop movements, or something to that effect?"
"We could if the log file weren't corrupted in spots or if there were a backup. Poor system maintenance."
"Which is something else bugging me," Nichols exclaimed in exasperation. "The gatekeeper was hell to get through, but now that we're in, nothing works right."
"That might have something to do with Dr. Borscht," Mara spoke up.
"One of the original Death Star designers. Tarkin had him executed shortly after the primary computer core was installed."
"He was caught running games on the system. Tarkin was incensed," Mara explained, as if it should be obvious to the galaxy.
"You mean to tell me a man was executed for playing computer games?"
"Borscht ran it under his own login, which gave him ultimate system priority, and it gobbled so much processor time that it nearly shut down the main reactor controls. Or something like that. And the game posited some anti-New Order sentime nts."
"All hail Grand Moff Tarkin and his infinite dearth of wisdom."
"Shut up, Nichols. A moment of silence please, for a great man who died with his chips mated out....Okay, who has the job now? A Wookie?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," she verified matter-of-factly.
"Well that sure explains a few things."
"Okay, enough moaning and groaning," Gray interjected. "I know you didn't call just for this."
"Nothing gets past you, LT."
"Shut up, Nichols. What we found is that this Bort gentleman or whoever knew his chips. Someone rigged certain critical files to burn a log into the owning and receiving systems' boot sectors whenever copied."
"And that log contains some really neat tidbits of info."
"That's impossible. Software can't physically modify hardware like that," Jade argued. "Even I know that."
"Nevertheless, it works. Somehow."
"So all we have to do is read the log off of this boot sector, right?" Mara asked, intrigued by all this computer talk despite herself.
"Sure, except that we can't access it from here."
"Since it exists outside the network's comprehension, and we have no idea how it does it, the only way we can get to it is to physically jack into the Death Star's memory core. That also avoids the considerable risk of accidentally shutting down the entire station for a month."
"And since the saboteur could be anyone from Tarkin on down, we have to access it without anyone's knowledge."
"Why do we care who knows?" Jade demanded. "It's our station."
"System integrity is horrendous, but some of the original security safeguards are impressive enough that whoever did this is smart."
"Smart enough they could hijack the entire station if they really tried?" Gray queried.
The two slicers shrugged eloquently.
Jade paled. "We can't allow that to happen. Not for even a few milliseconds. Not with the Death Star's primary weapon. What? All that hacking, and you don't know the Death Star's main weapon?"
"No, I thought we were supposed to find the leak ASAP."
Jade pursed her lips. "Well, I'm sure you'll find out soon enough. The point is, we can't let anyone gain control for any length of time. No matter how short."
"Well, it's a little late for that now. With those plans on the loose, that station's a grazing nerf."
"Yeah, right. You've never seen this thing," Jade sneered.
"The size and firepower are inconsequential," Terrance countered. "Every thing in the universe possesses weaknesses, and apparently somebody has the data to possibly pinpoint those weaknesses and exploit them."
"Yep. What if a few rebel saboteurs, who don't care if they live to see their next ale, get on board the station. Maybe a single team could take control of the station and maintain it long enough to plot a hyperspace jump into some nearby s tar. Imagine that, secret agent."
"Impossible. The designers thought of everything when they built this station."
"I'm certain they did. And now they're probably all dead."
"Or locked away somewhere nobody will ever find them."
"I always give my best work to someone who intends to kill me when I'm done. What about you, Nichols?"
"Oh, without fail. Not!" Nichols derided. "What is it with this New Order insistence that you've got to threaten every living thing in the galaxy. Is that something they teach at the Academy?"
"That's enough, Nichols," Gray interposed before Mara might start taking things personally. "How, exactly do you propose to access that computer core without taking the system off-line?"
"No idea, LT."
"We'll have to figure that out when we get there."
The sound of someone dramatically clearing their throat echoed across the room.
"Oh shit," the two slicers said in unison.
Jade went straight to the source of the sound and tossed cold weather parkas about the room, exposing a well-used 'droid.
"Greetings, Ms Jade, I'm Blue Max," the 'droid's juvenile voice greeted enthusiastically. "May I say that you are as stunning in real life as in vid?"
"No, you may not."
"Ah well, it was worth a shot."
The 'droid trundled over to the two slicers and their lieutenant, who was regarding him suspiciously.
"I believe I can be of some assistance, guys."
"What is this?" Gray demanded.
"Uh, it's an R4 unit, sir."
"I can see that for myself.
"Lt Gray, I am--"
"Shut up, Max."
"I suppose you don't know anything about the report of the General Noddoc's 'droid being stolen recently on Carida, do you?"
"Really? When did Carida start issuing R4's? I thought we were on top of the short list to get one a long time ago."
"Who would have the audacity to steal the post commander's 'droid?"
"What, you don't think that we--"
"Of course not, Nichols; LT would never accuse us of--would you?"
"What is it doing here?"
"Now that's a good question, LT, and it's sort of--"
"LT, good morning!" Snyder called blearily from an adjoining room. "Ms Jade, a pleasure as always. I see you've met Blue Max."
"Indeed. Can you explain why I'm not duty bound to assume this belongs to someone else and have it crated back to Carida?"
Snyder looked hurt. "Sir! You wouldn't be suggesting that we might have erroneously acquired the General's personal 'droid, would you?"
"The thought would never cross my mind," Gray replied. "However, since you do bring it up..."
Snyder produced a datapad with a flourish and presented it to Gray. The forms, of course showed that Beck had legitimately signed the R4 over to Snyder, that the Post property book office reflected the exchange, that STRC-24 was now the lega l 'droid administrator, and that a new R4 was being shipped from the factory directly to the General.
"You see, sir, the unit was malfunctioning, and we did our esteemed General a great favor taking it off his hands."
"Indeed." Gray turned to the silent R4. "And you. What part did you play in this exchange, what did you say your designation was?"
"Blue Max, sir. I don't know what part I played. I woke here after quite a long period of dysfunction."
"You don't look terribly blue."
Jade jabbed him with an elbow. "I could have told you that, genius."
Gray favored her with a frown before turning back to the 'droid. "What was your dysfunction with the General?"
"Blue Max, open up."
"Right on, boss." Two doors popped open and out slid the box that was Max. "The general was a boring old man and, as you see, I'm not completely a boring R4."
"Could you tell me what sorts of things do not bore miniature 'droids?" And as an aside to Jade: "He's still not blue."
"Well, breaking into COMPNOR computers to take out Mynos IV was fun. Flew a Corellian Corvette running guns for awhile, that was okay. Running a Battle Dragon was cool until I let a smuggler friend free and got kicked out of the Hapan Cluste r. But other than that, I've led a pretty boring life. Got connived into running a stock commercial shipping system for awhile. prijg'n' worst job I ever had."
"Let me get this straight," Mara interrupted. "You were a unretained 'droid? What ARE you doing here?"
"Didn't I already say I was bored? I figured military service might be more fun. Was I ever mistaken. But breaking into a Death Star sounds exciting."
Gray shook his head and rubbed his temple. Mara scowled to suppress a grin.
"You mentioned you might be of assistance. Explain."
"Awhile back I was navigating safe courses through the Kessel--but if I told you that, I'd have to kill you. Anyway, I ran into, quite literally, a huge battle station prototype that was pretty neat. Did you know that--"
"Get to the point, please."
"Sure, whatever, LT. It was a really paranoid computer, and sort of naive, having never been out of its room, so to speak, but I did talk to it, and feel confident I could talk to any of its progeny."
Everyone looked at Gray expectantly.
"Can you use Max? And more importantly, can you control him?"
"Such unanimous agreement. Very well, you're on, Max," he finally relented. "You will provide direct unequivocal voice override to everyone in this room, and no others unless we are all dead. Do you have that?"
"Yes, sir, of course--standard military chain of command! Great! I've always wanted to be a stormtrooper!" One of the R4's pincer arms whipped out of its compartment in a rough approximation of a salute, but on the wrong side.
"What's my rank, LT? I think my experience makes me about a Sergeant Major or so."
"Your rank is 'droid, first class."
"We all have to start somewhere, Max."
"Well, I suppose so," Blue Max moped, his lights dimming. But only momentarily. "Can I get some armor?"
"Don't push your luck, short stuff," Nichols advised somberly.
Gray's comlink chose that moment to buzz lightly. His three soldiers stared quizzically at the device; they had configured their internal squad comnet to sound a different tone based on which one of them were signaling, and this sound was th e bland default tone that indicated someone outside their net.
"Lieutenant Gray, STRC-24, go ahead, over," he answered cautiously.
"I certainly am relieved to find you awake, lieutenant," the voice of Captain Needa scratched over the comlink. Even with the feedback echo of an improperly tuned bridge comlink, they could all hear the stress cracking Needa's voice. The ma n sounded near the end of his oxygen reserves, and Gray chose to ignore the implication that without responsibility to the regular chain of command he would spend all his time sleeping. For now.
"We have a bit of a problem, you see. I've heard that you have slicers on your team. By chance do any of them knowing Binary Bochi?"
"What?" three voices protested in unison.
Snyder raised his hand.
"You know BB?" Terrance demanded incredulously.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"What's so special about that?" Jade demanded.
"Binary Bochi has the simple distinction of being the most ancient programming language in the known galaxy," Terrance answered. "Nobody uses it these days."
"Well apparently someone does."
"But I thought you two are the computer specialists," Jade said to Terrance and Nichols.
"Well everyone in this damn squad fancies himself a slicer these days," Terrance muttered.
Gray largely ignored the exchange. "Yessir, I have a specialist. I take it you have a dire mission in the wings?"
"Your commander, in fact," Needa responded hastily, relief evident in his voice. "Lord Vader insists on using some ancient database program none of our techs have seen before. He's killed two of them and their ensign already."
Gray rolled his eyes at Needa's obvious exaggeration. "Very well, sir. I'll send Specialist Snyder aft immediately."
"Excellent, Lieutenant. Send him to the bridge, we'll be waiting for him. I hope for all our sakes he knows his programming, else we all should consider a new line of endeavor post-haste."
"Wilco, sir," Gray replied, not receiving any further transmissions. "Snyder, you know what you're doing?"
"Of course, sir. It's me."
"Then move out. Let us know if you need any help."
"Yes, preferably before you dismantle Lord Vader's computer and fail to remember how it goes back together," Terrance advised dryly. "You nearly wiped Blue Max."
"One more thing, Snyder," Gray advised as Snyder threw together a tool pouch. "A quirk of Vader's--do not announce your presence. He will notice you when he's ready."
"Sounds like a neat trick."
"It is. Remember, no heroics."
"Heroics? Me? I think you're confusing me with Schlamp. I'm off to see the Reaper, gents. Have fun."
Snyder was duly impressed with his first visit to the command deck of a Star Destroyer. The atmosphere most reminded him of a surgical ward, or perhaps a powerplant control station. His attention almost immediately locked onto the dark form of Darth Vader standing imperiously before the forward observation ports. The busy form of Captain Needa's approach soon demanded his immediate attention.
"Specialist Snyder reporting, sir," Snyder saluted crisply. "Don't announce myself, he'll notice me when he feels like it, right?"
Needa appeared on the verge of berating him for such familiarity, but a spastic muscle on the left side of his face appeared to have robbed all speech from the man. He gestured Snyder towards Vader.
Unknowingly mimicking his lieutenant's earlier behavior, Snyder approached at something less than a march but more than a stalk to within two meters of Vader. He figured that two meters would be enough to keep him out of the way if the unmov ing black statue were to suddenly topple over backwards.
The starfield beyond the observation port filled his concentration for several minutes, the whorls of hyperspace emphatically more beguiling and impressive from the excellent command view than from any other port on the ship. He became almos t mesmerized, and did not realize how much time past until a heater fan activated above him and began ruffling his hair. A surreptitious glance at his chron (don't want Vader to think he's impatient or anything) indicated that he had been standing t here for nearly forty minutes. By now the vent had stirred up enough dust to present Snyder with the incredible urge to sneeze.
Suddenly horrified at the thought of what notoriety might stem from disturbing the entire bridge crew with a loud sneeze, he tried to stifle it. He was very nearly successful, but still ended up having to stifle a rasp with his glove.
Instantly Vader whirled about, saber held low and ready to defend. Vader paused and seemed to inspect him for a moment. Snyder, lacking anything better to do and cursing Gray for not telling him about this part of the deal, presented his be st salute "Specialist Snyder, STRC-24, reporting as ordered, m'lord."
Vader hesitated a moment longer before putting the saber away and striding aft. "Come with me."
Upon realizing that his head was not yet rolling about the floor, Snyder's first conscious thought was that somebody really needed to adjust Vader's voice modulator. And that wheezing--hell, those filters and aspirators could certainly use a major overhaul. And although he had made fun of it while watching news vids, he had to admit to himself that the black cape was really pretty cool in person. He would have to get himself one of those.
While Snyder examined the computer to determine why it would no longer print to the network, Vader probed Snyder to determine why he had not sensed him on the bridge. With his studious command of the Force, he had not been surprised by any p erson's appearance in...so long that he could not remember. And even now that he could see the man sitting there before him, still Vader could detect no tremor in the Force, not even the resonance between land and 'droid that a true Jedi could easil y sense. Even lowering his barriers as far as he dared, he found nothing. His only previous experience with those who could hide themselves in the Force was long finished. The Fallanassi were all dead, and their disguises had been easily enough pe netrated when they yet lived.
Truly puzzled, Vader whispered into the Force. The day was full of surprises; the hair he had targeted on the back of Snyder's head adamantly refused to move. Certainly he had not lost his Force abilities, else how could he still feel the p resence of everyone else, that continuous pulsating vibrancy that bound all things together, from the quarks in their elements to galaxies orbiting the universe. A quick test proved him out when a pouch on Snyder's utility belt popped open seemingly of its own accord.
For all he could tell, Snyder might be thinking about how to best destroy the Devastator. Not a single stray emotion from the soldier washed through Vader. His Force-delivered mental suggestion that Snyder retrieve his blaster and kill hims elf went unnoticed. A blow forceful enough to wake every Force-sensitive on the ship and strike fear into the lesser mortals in the immediate vicinity affected Snyder imperceptibly. The conclusion was striking: Specialist Snyder simply did not exi st in the Force, and likely knew nothing of it.
"Found the problem, Lord Vader," Snyder said into the disturbing silence, relieved to have remembered anything at all despite his air of confidence back at the ready room. "When the techs upgraded the operating system, they failed to establi sh reverse compatibility. Your computer now has a communication protocol linking Binary Bochi programs to the network."
"Impressive, trooper. Two technicians failed before you. How is it that you succeeded?"
Snyder shrugged uncomfortably. After all the stories he had heard about Vader's harshness, how did one accept praise from him? "My first assignment was on the Rim, and the age of our systems forced me to learn Binary Bochi. Not even the Co rporate Sector bothers with it these days."
Vader seemed to completely shut down, and Snyder was beginning to wonder if he should leave when Vader whirled about. Snyder prepared himself for the worst, and nearly missed suppressing a laugh when Vader merely took a seat.
"What other talents do you hide?"
"I hide nothing, m'lord."
"Not even R4 units?" This simple question created an obvious impact where his Force manipulations had not. Snyder thought Vader actually laughed, if such hacking and rumbling could be reconciled to laughter. He waved dismissively. "Genera l Patik is as clumsy as he is revered. You will, of course, add me to the 'droid's command authority override path, and order it to refrain from recording my movements. Why did you steal it?"
Snyder paused for as long as he dared before answering. "We didn't, from a certain point of view. We needed a 'droid for some of the missions we undertake. But every time we received a unit, some higher headquarters on Carida would claim a more pressing need. While we're out getting shot at trying to retrieve code or break into a locked room, our 'droid is automating some General's laundry, sir."
"You take matters into your own hands, then?"
"When the proper approach fails, I consider the alternatives."
"That statement borders on rebellion, trooper."
"It might, to nearsighted fools."
"But not to those who would fake a death certificate for their leader." Vader obviously meant it as an observation, and did not wait for an answer before posing more direct question. "And what of the Jade girl?"
Snyder considered his response carefully. "Despite her youth, she appears to know her stuff."
"Indeed," Vader responded thoughtfully. Suddenly he rose and strode for the door with a swiftness belying his bulk, not waiting for an answer. "Come with me."
When they reached the bridge, Vader gestured to the chaos of hyperspace.
"All that turmoil is a disguise. Our minds, unable to comprehend the reality of non-reality force a view upon that is deceptive. Useful, perhaps, but entirely lacking any depth of understanding. Never underestimate the powers of corruption and turmoil to affect all levels. Stand ready to consider alternatives."
"So then. Our next course of action is to board the Death Star and access the boot sector?" Gray prompted.
"Yep. That should give us something to work with, 'cause these guys were slick."
"Actually there may be a faster way," Terrance suggested. "If the spies resorted to holonet transmission at any point, we could track them further downstream."
"That's a waste of time," Nichols rebuffed. "Holonet traffic is impossible to track, and there's so much of it that intercepting a given transmission is hopeless. How else do you think the rebels have maintained their nets? Even if we did find a relay that had been used, we would still have to jump there to examine the boot sector."
"Actually, Terrance has a point," Blue Max piped up. "Due to their remoteness and high traffic, holonet sites have sophisticated onboard disk maintenance. We might be able to access the data directly through the maintenance utilities."
"Do you have any idea how long it would take to gain control of holonet maintenance, Max?"
"Approximately 2.8 seconds, give or take a few minutes for connect time. Did I ever mention my brief stint as regional system administrator for Galactic Online? Ah, there we are. Did you have a preference for which region you wanted to sta rt with?"
"How about the--"
"Oh, never mind," Blue Max interrupted, remotely activating and filling the tri-D with a maze of binary code. "Think I found it. Newly registered Minschuster Error containing encrypted but coherent data on Deep Rim Station 4597. Will you p ass me the encoding scheme, please?"
"On the way, short stuff."
Within moments the binary dissolved into clear text. "Is this what you're looking for?"
"Yes, but look, the data's corrupted," Nichols moaned. "That relay must not get much use or maintenance."
"No matter," Terrance replied, pointing to the last line. "LT, the log indicates that this relay received a packet containing the marked files, but never forwarded them. Max, run a systems diagnostics on that satellite, if you will."
"You mean that the plans are just sitting there?" Jade queried, following Gray to the tri-D. "Nobody actually has them yet?"
Gray pointed to the second line which was still garbled. "Is this what I think it is?"
"Sorry to agree, LT."
"What?" Jade demanded.
"The origination and destination designations," Gray replied. "I had hoped we could determine where the files were headed."
"Diagnostics indicate a fluke meteor shower damaged the system beyond onboard repair capacity. A repair crew has been summoned and is presumably enroute," Max announced. "And I already checked--there's no ID or dispatch for a maintenance c rew in any of the surrounding systems."
"The next link in the spy ring," Terrance mused. "Having not received the plans, they're likely inbound to physically recover the data."
"Max, taking into account nominal holonet forwarding routines, where could that transmission have been going?" Gray asked.
"Wait one. These prijg'n' MT's are so slow," Max griped.
"Secure that language, Max," Terrance warned.
"Why? You let Nichols talk however the hell he wants," Max whined.
Nichols grinned. "Damn skippety."
"Nichols is further beyond hope than Project Outbound. You, however, could be forcibly refitted with a thesaurus."
"I see your point. LT, take your pick: Elnoya, Ranslazc, D'noya, Mithnel, or Toprawa systems. That relay is so far out on that arc of the Rim, that there aren't too many other places the packet could have been going." Max tossed up a star chart for reference. "We're close. I estimate fourteen point six hours at our best possible speed."
"Considerably empty space."
"I guess that would explain the relay age and lack of proper maintenance."
"Any thoughts, Jade?" Gray inquired.
"What are we waiting for?"
"Right. Try to lock down an ID and ETA on that maintenance crew. If you can think of anything else, do it. Then get some sleep," Gray ordered, already on the way to the door as he checked his chron. Nearly 0700, ship's time; the rest of th e squad would be waking soon. "Tell the others first call will be 1700 hours for immediate mission prep. Max, you're with us."
"That is the system," Vader rumbled with assurance. A communications console mysteriously flickered to life and was immediately answered by Needa. "Set your course for the Toprawa system, best speed, Captain. Lieutenant Gray will coordinat e with you for his follow-on search-and-destroy mission; see to it that he receives ample support."
Gray thought to point out that absolutely none of their evidence differentiated any one of the systems from the others, but held his comment when he realized that it made as much sense to start with Toprawa as with anywhere else. Besides, wi th Vader's apparent satisfaction with Snyder's work, now was not the time to second-guess the boss.
"Well, that was simple enough," he snorted in amiable sarcasm to Mara once the turbolift doors slid shut before them. "Pick a system, any system. Now why didn't I think of that before going to all this bother?"
"Because you didn't ask me."
Gray hadn't realized a smile was capable of reaching her eyes. He checked the first observation port they passed to make sure that hyperspace had not collapsed about them.
"You handle Vader well," she said into the silence as the turbolift whisked them from the command structure. Gray turned to her and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed the way everyone cringes around him."
"You don't," Gray observed.
"And no matter what anyone says, you always argue with them--"
"--or interrogate the hell out of them."
"I do not."
Jade rolled her eyes. "You're incorrigible."
"And you're unflappable."
"Anyway, Vader can't touch me, on account of the Emperor. Unlike you and your squad."
Gray shrugged. "If he disapproves, he can fire us. Until then, I'll continue to march."
"Vader doesn't fire people. Incompetents have a tendency to die sooner rather than later around him."
"Are you admitting that we might accidentally be competent?"
The doors swished open and Jade stepped out.
"I'm admitting that you aren't dead yet."
"Why, thank you, Mara. I'll be sure to pass that on to the troops."