Sgt Lane was at first confused when Snyder stopped just outside the first Imperial security checkpoint, and watched for several moments. Lane had to knock a squawking newsdroid out of the way, but when he did, he noticed a red-haired woman p assing swiftly, easily through the checkpoint. It was the same attractively slim woman he had caught glimpses of during their journey, and this close he was able to note that what he had mistaken for a black business suit was actually the Neutex jum psuit of a stormtrooper! In a sudden, unusual heady burst of insight that made him feel somewhat dizzy, Lane realized that this woman had to be the Jade. Everything came into crystal clear focus for him.
Obviously, Snyder and the Emperor's Hand were quite literally prijg'n around. And the fact that they were being so sneaky meant that they didn't want the lieutenant to know, 'cause Synder being the lieutenant's favorite and getting away with murder all the time, he probably would have let Snyder off to fool around it he'd asked...unless the lieutenant were bedding down the Emperor's Hand as well. This was some sick weird sexual triangle that was so obvious in retrospect, and Lane wonde red just how many of the rest of the squad knew about it. Shoot, they were probably all banging her and laughing that he wasn't in on it. And he had thought they were lavishing so much attention on her just because she worked for the Emperor. He s hould have known better, and sort of wished he had joined them when they said Jade was going to help them work on their one-on-many fighting skills, now that he understood what they had apparently really meant.
He completely lost both of them in a big open courtyard area and began to panic. But then he figured that the stormtroopers who secured this area would probably know all the likely hideouts, and he headed off in search of the nearest guard p ost. It took him nearly fifteen minutes of wandering around, conniving, and rank-pulling to find a guard post inside the huge building and convince them that there was some threat to the Emperor they should help him search for. The soldiers were ad amant that nobody had entered or left the palace in nearly half an hour, and by the time he had convinced them to show him around, they could all hear the sharp, unmistakable bark of stormtrooper blaster fire echo faintly down the spacious halls. Be fore they were even able to overcome their surprise and take off in the direction of the sound, they heard the gut-wrenching thundering screech of a blaster on continuous armorpiercing beam. After charging fifty meters down the wrong hallway and ass aulting the wrong room, they reversed themselves toward two more sustained armor piercing blasts. Either there was a group of assailants, or somebody had a blaster that was getting too hot to hold. They knew they were heading in the right direction this time when a huge set of double doors suddenly burst open under the apparent assault of the antiarmor laser. Actinic white light flashed menacingly into the walkway, throwing the shadows into sharp relief.
Sure enough, when he reached the doors hanging agape on ruined slide tracks and peered into the huge garden room with its towering pillars, Lane could see Snyder and Jade. Jade was lying on the ground near Snyder, who was ramming a knife int o some guy's throat. With a gasp of horror, Lane thought the dead man looked A LOT like Emperor Palpatine, although it was hard to tell at this extreme distance. The Emperor had apparently stumbled across Snyder and Jade's consorting and was now ge tting killed for it. The three stormtroopers stood there stupidly in shock as Jade rose almost magically from the ground, stretched out her hands mysteriously beside her, and was enveloped by a green sphere of energy that snapped outward. The wave front of the green energy left Snyder untouched, but blasted the Emperor into oblivion. When he recovered from choking on the fine gray ash that blew across them, Lane finally brought his weapon to his side and began sweeping the room with blaster f ire.
Frustratingly, Snyder managed to throw Jade over his shoulder and retreat, all the while pumping inaccurate but intimidating blaster fire from his pistol back at them without suffering so much as a near miss himself. Were it not for the seve rity of the circumstances, Lane would have laughed at Snyder's desperate act of throwing a rock at them. But in the last instant, he remembered the unpleasant surprise he'd already had with a microdetonator that day, and he dove from the room just i n time to miss the stun grenade. He yelled to the reinforcements running down the hall to hurry up before charging back into the room after Snyder, just in time to see him slip into a small ivy-covered door on the opposite corner of the room.
Lane charged off in pursuit, both mortified and exhilarated with what he had just witnessed. True, the Emperor was dead now, and while that was a horrible shame, what was more important was the fact that Snyder had done it. His return to a regular unit was now guaranteed, no matter what else happened. If the emperor's assassination couldn't give enough evidence of failure or enough clout for General Patik to shut down the squad, Lane couldn't imagine what would. He tore into the smal l, restrictive hallway and charged blindly ahead despite the fact that he hadn't seen either of them since they disappeared behind the door. But when he ran straight into a solid door and blasted it into pieces, he found himself on a ledge about ten meters over the courtyard.
To his great relief, he spotted Snyder with Jade over a shoulder zigzagging across the open area in a flat-out run for cover that he just wasn't going to find soon enough. Lane rained stuttering automatic fire all around them. To his incred ible consternation and frustration, Snyder continuously managed to get himself out of the line of fire before taking any hits, and Lane wasted an entire magazine without success. By then others had joined him and were blasting away. In the relative quiet as Lane reloaded his weapon and fumbled with the locking lever, watching in futility as Snyder inexorably opened the distance between them, Lane thought he could hear Snyder taunting him one last time, echoing a harangue from an earlier exerci se.
"What the prijg are you doing, Lane? You obviously don't know have the pip turned on, and you'll never hit anything that way. Why don't you just use the goddam scope already?"
The mocking voice only served to anger Lane further. In his total frustration and indignant rage, he irrationally abased his pride to kneel into a steady position on the ledge, calmly brought the blaster's scope up to his eyes, squinted at t he tiny image there displayed, and massaged the trigger. The blaster almost surprised him when it jumped in his hands at his gentle pull on the trigger.
The ungainly carbon-streaked assault shuttle had never looked so beautiful to Snyder than when Scat whipped around a palatial tower and lurched to the open courtyard in a whine of stressed repulsorlifts in all her glory. Looking for all the world as if the shuttle had burst its contents, his fellow troopers magically emerged at the fringe of the dust cloud spreading around the shuttle, providing cover fire for him as he charged across the remaining fifty meters of open area, darting aro und and about wirloch bushes and priceless sculptures to make himself and Jade a more difficult target.
Just a few meters from the security of his squadmates, he must have missed a step because he suddenly found his face slamming into a gravel path while his breath deserted him for lower pressure regions. He instinctively hugged Jade close to him and rolled away from the spot they had fallen as he heard but didn't really comprehend the excited exchanges echoing over the comlink. In the brief instant he was on his back, he saw the crystal noon sky flashing with a suddenly heavy volume of blaster fire from his end of the courtyard converging somewhere back the way he had come.
When he stopped rolling, still fighting for breath, he felt Jade pulled away as someone grabbed him by the harness and dragged him unceremoniously on his stomach until he felt the cool metal of Scat's cargo ramp beneath his bleeding hands. H e tried to get to his knees, but before someone finished shouting "Go, go, go!" he was slammed back to the deck as Scat leaped clawed into the air. The sounds of small arms fire panging against the shields was almost drowned out by the stuttering ba rk of the shuttle's twin Mk48 antipersonnel blasters Snyder had installed less than a month ago.
Up front in the cockpit, Gray, Terrance, and Max had their respective hands and ports rather preoccupied with getting them the hell out of the tightest restricted airspace on all of Coruscant.
"Stang! They're on to us, LT!" Terrance warned unnecessarily from the copilot's seat.
"I see it, I see it," Gray replied evenly, vectoring their thrust as far vertical as possible and kicking hard on the left rudder pedal to spin the shuttle about its axis and fire the ion cannon into the pack of security speeders chasing afte r them. At the speed they were traveling, their course destabilized rapidly and Scat somersaulted end over end before Gray could regain control. "Max, tell me you have the shields cracked."
"I'm working on it, LT!" Max shouted back. "This ain't like dusting crops or plotting hyperspace jumps!"
"You'd better get your little blue ass in gear, because in about ten seconds they're going to lock this planet down tighter than a Hapan harem," Gray declared unequivocally, barely missing an overgrown portico on one of the older towers and h oping that his wake wouldn't knock the lovebirds from their perch. "Terrance, what about those new codes?"
"Give me another...I have them, downloading to the drone. Why in the maker's black universe are we doing running from palace security?"
"Good question," Gray agreed.
Computer chicanery could only get you so far before someone looked away from their terminal and noticed that an assault shuttle had blasted it's way into the Emperor's private airspace. Gray dropped back to the deck, whipping dizzingly aroun d buildings and under catwalks, making a beeline for the Neesliel sector's sprawling port.
"Kick out the drone," Gray called into the comlink with icy calm befitting a kid at the controls of a well-understood hologame.
"Drone away!" Nichols yelled over the slipstream.
"Got it, LT, moving out and waiting for the word," Schlamp advised from his corner of the violently maneuvering shuttle, both trying to fly his own drone and keep from slamming into the walls, not doing a terribly great job at either. The dr one snapped its wings in position and recovered from its tumbling deployment in time to crash into a rather fortunately weak corner office window of a nearby building and punch out through another window on the opposite side.
"Ready when you are, LT," Terrance advised, arm poised expectantly in midair.
"ETA twelve seconds," Gray returned aloud, counting to himself. "Go, now!"
Terrance killed the sliced transponder codes representing Scat as the "Skeletal Marauder" to air traffic controllers and immediately activated the transponder on Schlamp's drone spewing out the codes Scat had been sending only milliseconds be fore. While the drone sped off in the opposite direction under Schlamp's control, Gray hit thrusters to put Scat in a rather boringly sedate ground-to-orbit profile, and Terrance switched Scat's transponder to match the codes of the semi-mythical bu lk freighter "Hokey Religion", artfully convincing the spaceport control computers that the Religion had clearance for a discretionary departure and that obviously there was no reason to warn the human operators of the ship that had just lifted off. Scat's combat sensors detected a swarm of TIE fighters swooping down after the drone.
"Spice mines of Kessel! That was a mite close, even by my standards, LT," Terrance admitted, removing his helmet to wipe away the sweat that covered his brow despite the helmet's solid state cooling circuits. They were high enough now that the curvature of Coruscant's horizon was visible.
"Closer than you think," Gray returned apprehensively. "They just revoked all shield passage clearances. Max--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know!" Max whined. "Geez, have a little faith, guys."
"My faith is diminishing as fast as our distance to that shield, Max."
"LT, drone's down," Schlamp reported tersely. Even Max could hear the sorrow in the trooper's voice, and rendered a quick electronic version of taps for a fellow mechanical.
"She served with distinction," Gray responded in eulogy. "Max, that shield is still up. How long do you suppose you'll remain operational after us organics spread across that shield?"
"Yeah, well you just try convincing--whohoo! I am it! Prostrate yourselves before me, organics!"
Terrance smacked the little droid's photoreceptor.
"Uh, yeah, right," Max remonstrated bashfully. "The shield is down, sir."
Gray hit the sublight thrusters and completely drowned traffic control's incessant insistence that the "Hokey Religion" heave to and return immediately to Neesliel. To the surprise of more that just the Imperial controllers, Scat sailed clea nly through what should have been a solid hyperelectrospatial wall.
"Close the shield," Gray ordered.
"What?" Max whined shrilly. "First you want the shield opened, now you want it closed just like that? This takes--" A volley of barely inaccurate long-range green laserfire racing from behind them rocked the shuttle and interrupted Max's l itany. "I think I'll shut the shield."
With their careful selection of departure vector and the advantage of complete surprise, neither destroyer nor interdictor were able to position themselves before Gray pulled the hyperspace lever. The stars streaked across the windscreen rat her anticlimactically after their short foray on Coruscant. Before the streaking lines could even dissolve into the familiar whorls of sustained hyperspace, they retracted on themselves and Scat fell back into realspace as planned in the hopes that their initial vector from Coruscant would send any trackers in the wrong direction.
"LT, I've a question I've been meaning to ask," Terrance mused soberly. "What did we just do?"
"I have no idea," Gray answered edgily, preparing the calculations for their second jump when they would reenter hyperspace in less than two minutes.
"I thought so," Terrance replied, exiting the cockpit mumbling to himself. "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer."
Pursuit had not caught up at the other end of their first jump, and Scat was able to make the second jump without incidence.
"Max, you have the con. You know where we're going, right? Alert me for our next jump."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"How are we?" Gray queried, leaving his helmet in the cockpit and rejoining the others in the now relatively quiet cargo bay of Scat. Terrance and Nichols were regaling Snyder with tales of his rescue while Schlamp applied his questionable f irst aid skills on Snyder, who appeared none the worse for wear despite the smashed visor and smoking boot. Smoking boot? Cross, Ratcliffe, and Hawkins, however were bent dutifully over a rather comatose Jade. Gray kneeled beside them and frowned, recognizing the purple bruises forming just beneath her skin.
Hawkins shrugged at Gray's approach. "Some weird sort of coma. Never seen anything like it. You, Rat?"
Ratcliffe pocketed his diagnostics scanner with an unmistakable air of disgruntlement. "Nope. Almost more like some weird sort of hibernation. We gave her a general narcissisant for any pain, and treated what look like electrical burns. O ther than that, she'll wake up in her own good time."
"She'll be okay," Hawkins posited. "Assuming, of course, that she actually does wake up."
"Has she said anything--anything at all?"
"Been quiet as a rivet, LT."
"Right. Let me know if her condition changes."
Gray went next to Snyder, who was frowning uncharacteristically and deeply contemplating his medifoamed leg and decommissioned boot.
"The foot. They shot me in the foot, LT," Snyder complained moodily. "How do you shoot someone in the foot?"
Gray thought that Schlamp might have gone a bit heavy on the painkillers.
"That's not all," Terrance announced, holding up Snyder's trashed helmet for observation. "Shot him in the head too."
"Don't count," Snyder admonished. "Hit my helmet. Missed my head by a good two or three centimeters. Gimme some more of that." He swapped a flask from a nearby crate and Gray saw that painkillers weren't the only thing Schlamp had adminis tered to Snyder.
"Snyder, what the hell were you doing down there?"
The trooper looked confused for a moment, until remembrance broke like dawn across his face. "Following the Emperor's Hand, just like you said, LT."
"Indeed. And why, pray tell, was palace security gunning after you?"
"Oh, that. Probably 'cause I killed some staff flunkie."
Nichols and Schlamp grinned openly at each other, Terrance lifted a hand to suppress an indulgent smile. Gray had trouble finding the humor. What in the empire would possess them to drug him so heavily? A local anesthetic would have put hi m out of his pain. He raised an eyebrow at Schlamp.
"Hey, he asked for the dope, LT," Schlamp replied defensively. "Said he had a headache. I figured it couldn't hurt any, now that we know where the rebels are."
"You killed a staff flunkie." Gray made it a challenge, turning back to Snyder.
"Yep. Some old ugly guy. Well, no, actually I guess it was Mara who finished him off, come to think of it. And she never really did say who he was," Snyder amended. "You shoulda seen her. Didya know she's a Jedi, LT?"
"Whatever would prompt you to kill someone in the Imperial Palace?"
Snyder looked confused for a moment. "Why? Uh, yeah, that's right, you wasn't there. I followed her just like you and Vader said, and ended up in...yeah, guess it must've been the palace, now that you mention it. Well this old fossil, who ever he was, just started killing her. Had to do something."
"And that was?"
"What else? I shot him," Snyder explained patiently to his dimwitted audience. "Zap, zap, zap! Three taps, only he wouldn't die. So I set to armorpiercing, and still he won't die, just goes around laughing and shooting off sparks and ligh t storms. Well I ain't met a critter yet that lives up to cold hard metal, so I notched his throat. But still he goes on 'Mara, help me' and all that Sith, like she likes getting killed or somethin." Snyder paused to take another pull on the flask . "But she fooled him. Yep. Told him off and then blew him out with green fire. Then the nerfherders that ended up shooting my foot showed up, and I thought maybe we should, like, get the prijg out of there. Speaking of the prijg, where's Sgt La ne?"
"We had hoped you might be able to tell us," Gray responded. "He disappeared, and we were looking for him when you commed. We'll have to ditch Scat and find another way back to pick him up."
Terrance pulled Gray aside. "LT, I could have sworn that one of the soldiers on that tower was wearing green, if you take my meaning."
"Nope. Ain't seen hide nor hair of him," Snyder was rambling. "Say, how'd you know to find us?"
"I had a hunch," Gray replied dryly, standing and turning away toward Jade again.
"Aw, stang! You don't believe me, do you, LT?" Snyder protested of Gray, then eyeing the everyone else who had joined to listen. "None of you do."
"Snyder, your biggest problem is if I do believe you," Gray answered cryptically, reluctantly pulling back the color of Jade's black stormtrooper Neutex jumpsuit. The dark blemishes marring her smoothly sculpted shoulder, worse than when he had seen them onboard the Devestator, appeared to confirm his worst fear.
The appropriate course of action in response to this disaster was painfully clear. But that didn't make following through with it out any easier. For the first time in a long while, Gray felt completely, irreversibly trapped with every fibe r of his being. Overlooking the questionable acquisition of a 'droid that was justly theirs in the first place was one thing; this...was quite totally different.
"Uh-oh. The Emperor's not going to be too happy about us shooting up his house, is he?" Snyder suddenly realized as the adrenaline buzz wore off, misinterpreting Gray's apprehension that was obvious to Snyder after years of fighting side by side.
Max happily chimed from the cockpit that it was time for their course change.
"That's the least of our worries," Gray replied tiredly before heading forward to the cockpit. "Sleep off those drugs, we'll go through this again later."
"LT, what about an AAR?" Cross interrupted before he disappeared.
"Your discretion, Sergeant Cross," Gray replied, ignoring the perplexed stares of his soldiers; he had never skipped an after action review in their entire history together. "Let me know the instant Jade wakes."
Once in the cockpit, Gray shut the door and went immediately to the comm panel.
"LT, you want me to shove us off?" Max offered helpfully, having determined a 98.3% probability that Gray did not intend to plot or initiate their next jump from the comm panel's keypad.
"No, Max, I have to send a report first. But you can keep an eye out for any other traffic."
"Right on, boss!" Max chirped cheerfully, a crisp military salute evident in his inflection. Then he began singing to himself. "I've been workin' in the spice mines, all the Kessel day...just to keep the vamps away..."
His encrypted text report to Vader consisted of a two words: "Yavin IV. Orders?" After transmitting them, he reviewed Max's jump parameters and activated the hyperdrive. Gray tried to ignore the perfectly pitched murmuring humming along n ext to him, but could not help noticing that Max's second verse departed radically from what his mother had taught him, referring quite graphically to things which no little 'droid ought to be privy.
When they reemerged from hyperspace nearly an hour later for their next pursuit-foiling change of direction, Gray found an equally cryptic reply from Vader, which did little in the way of resolving his dilemma
"Max, belay that next jump and find the Devastator instead. Lord Vader wants us to rendezvous with him at Yavin."
"Yavin? But Yavin's out in the middle of nowhere!"
"The rebels, remember?"
"Oh yeah, sort of forgot about them pesky nerf-herders."
Lane was ecstatic. When it looked as if he were to be denied, he had seen Snyder stumble to the ground from his last shot. Snyder was dead, and all was well with the galaxy.
Well, not entirely, anyway. There was that small matter of the dead emperor whose ashes dusted his STRC combat partial armor. And while he might have been able to go back to the squad and get them into shape without Snyder around, the fact that Scat had blasted in to rescue Snyder meant that the entire squad had to be in on the assassination. As soon as he finished dealing with these jokers from State asking stupid questions about the murder, he would contact General Patik immediately . But there was one other thing he that he had to do even before that; and that was to hit the armory and get himself some decent godammed white armor.
As it turned out, Jade did not awake from her deep sleep until they were aboard the Devestator. When she did, she found herself in her previous quarters with Gray sitting there waiting.
"I should have known," she moaned in greeting. "I can guess why you're here, Andrew."
"How do you feel, Mara?" Gray inquired sociably, though the tension was audible in his voice. He reached beside him for a decanter and poured a steaming dark liquid into a cup, which he passed to her without comment. "After all, it's not ev ery day that one manages to kill an emperor and throw the civilization of an entire galaxy into chaos. Just what the hell have you gotten my squad into?"
Jade stopped sipping her tea and returned his glare.
"If you feel so strongly about your sense of justice in the universe, Andrew, then why am I here, and not planning my redecoration of the brig or the afterlife?" she demanded.
When he failed to answer immediately, she shrugged out from beneath the covers and disappeared into the 'fresher, leaving Gray to contemplate the hiss of the shower. Reappearing with the ubiquitous towel-wrap, she spoke first to cut him off.
"What did Snyder tell you?" She thought about making him leave so she could dress with some modicum of privacy, but then decided that after the random plundering of her soul and Force possession she had suffered under Palpatine, she didn't g ive a damn right now about anyone else's sense of propriety. If it bothered him, he knew where the door was.
Gray winced at the sight of her bruises, wondering just how anyone could administer electroshock like that without leaving any marks that couldn't be concealed with the proper clothing, as he related Snyder's sober version of the palace event s.
"He's not delusional; that's the way it happened, more or less," Jade confirmed nonchalantly. "How many people know about this?"
"You, me, Snyder, the palace guards..."
"What do you think?"
"Of course he knows. Vader's a Dark Jedi. Though not nearly as powerful as Palpatine, he had to have felt his master's death, even from across the galaxy. I nearly died from the loss. But you still haven't answered my original question. Are you just going to ignore that this happened?"
"You know I can't do that."
"Then what do you want from me? Why not just turn me over to the authorities and be done with--oh, so that's it. Vader has ordered you to take me to him, hasn't he? He wants the throne."
Gray shifted uncomfortably at her entirely too accurate assessment. Vader had indeed ordered just that, and Gray was greatly disturbed by the fact that his commander did not seem the least surprised or upset with Palpatine's death. Vader's calm statement of the need to maintain order in the galaxy in the aftermath of this incident rang ominously in Gray's head. He desperately wished he'd never met Jade, as he suddenly realized he had completely lost the offensive in this match.
"I understand now," Jade continued confidently, laying his closely- guarded thoughts as bare as she had been moments before. "You want to know 'why', don't you? Never satisfied with just following orders, are you? That arrogant curiosity wi ll not keep you healthy in this empire, lieutenant."
"I've done well enough," Gray retorted defensively. "Until you came along."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Isn't this enough?" she demanded, pausing in the velcroing of her shirt. "And this is just the physical manifestation, Andrew. You have no idea how he pillaged my mind, how Palpatine owned my soul. And that's just me--one person out of the galaxy. What about the others? Vader and I were more his slaves than any spice miner on Kessel. I can tell you one thing: I'm not going to Vader."
"No, you listen to me. I just got out from under one Dark Jedi, and I'm confused and nervous as hell, but Ill be damned if I'm going anywhere near another anytime soon. The only part of me you'll ever present to Vader is my dead carcass."
Gray remained silent, sick of life with this paradox of what he believed verses what reality seemed to be forcing on him. That the Emperor who had pulled the galaxy together, saving it from the oppression of the Jedi, could be such a powerful, evil psychotic being....Jade pulled her hair back in a simple knot and perched restlessly on the edge of the bed across from his chair, continuing with only a slight pause to retrieve and sip at her tea.
"But that's not why I killed him. Not for me."
Gray looked up, surprised enough that he could have misread her motive to momentarily forget his destructive cycle of reasoning.
"I did it for Alderaan. Remember Alderaan? The peace-loving planet now described by about half a billion distinct orbits? That was no Alderanni weapons accident, Andrew. I'm disappointed that your highly vaunted slicers didn't figure that out themselves."
"Just who are you trying to accuse of what, Mara?"
Jade pushed still-damp hair back from her brow and leaned close, locking eyes with him from mere inches away, permitting no escape, trapping him as physically as he felt emotionally. The light bitter scent of tea on her breath smelled incong ruously to Gray like the charred remnants of some blasted planet. "In his blind paranoid rage, Palpatine declared all Alderaani guilty of high treason and authorized Moff Tarkin to destroy the planet as an example. What was supposed to be a deterrent became a weapon of tyranny, and you can bet it won't stop with Alderaan. Get your head out of your helmet and think about that for a moment, lieutenant."
"I'm sure the Emperor had his reasons, knew something we did not, maybe that Alderaan--"
She leaned back in frustration and slumped on the bed, talking at the ceiling.
"Don't you get it? Where's your sense of justice, of due process? Is that armor finally getting to you? So what if the Alderaani government were guilty of treason--what could they have possibly done to warrant blowing up the whole planet w ithout offering even a single child recourse to a trial? And this coming from someone who was ready to launch a crusade against one person's stupid bruises not two days ago! Get a grip, Andrew."
They were interrupted, as usual, by the chirping of Gray's comlink. This time Gray lunged for the device like a drowning man.
"Six, go ahead."
"Six, one-one. We have a visitor from Carida."
Gray felt even more puzzled than before. Who in their right mind would fly all the way from Carida, unless Colonel Madine wanted to see them? But that made little sense, considering that they were working for Vader now. He thought about as king who it was, but then decided that Sgt Cross would have told him if they thought it advisable. Which meant that whomever was here, they probably weren't supposed to be.
"Roger. Give me ten," he closed instead., glancing back at Mara. "Are you up for this?"
"You should ask yourself that. It's time to face the dragon, and you're going to have to make a decision, Andrew. You can't have it both ways."
Gray was more than a little surprised to find a diminutive sandy- haired lieutenant waiting with Snyder when he and Mara entered the ready room. "Lt Brown, welcome aboard the Devestator. Although I must admit that this is rather unexpected."
"We need to talk, and I just finished explaining to your soldiers that I'm not really here," she replied in greeting, searching Gray's eyes for who knew what, before turning to Jade. "And you must be Mara Jade. I'm--"
"First Lieutenant Samantha Brown, 246th Imperial Military Intelligence. Our dossiers have met."
"But of course," Brown responded equitably, favoring Gray with a private glance that even he interpreted as 'isn't she a little young for you?'
"I've asked the others to leave, because you have a serious security problem, Andrew." She told them about her impromptu investigation, omitting most of the conversation with Norton. "You've been compromised on at least one mission already, and your squad stands in the way of imminent danger from this mole, who's been reporting to General Patik. Why do I get the impression that you don't believe me?"
"Actually, I suspect we were compromised on another mission recently," Gray answered instead.
"You're saying that the computer shooting accident that almost lost us the trail on Toprawa wasn't an accident?" Jade demanded of Gray.
"Well that would sure explain a lot," Snyder snorted contemptuously.
"Which just underscores the seriousness of this threat. Could we bring Sgt Lane in here?" Brown asked.
"We could if we knew where he was. He disappeared back on Coruscant, and we were forced to depart before we could locate him."
"I see. Then I--hold on a sec." Brown was interrupted by a beeping from her datapad, which she pulled out and glanced over quickly. "No offense, Spc Snyder, but you and Sgt Lane were the only ones I didn't have enough audio on for a voicepr int analysis. The computer here finally decided you're clear."
"Good to know I'm not the mole."
"So Sgt Lane was the leak," Jade mused aloud. "Looks as if you came all this way for nothing, Lieutenant."
"Actually, there's more." She hesitated for a few moments; not even the long hyperspace trip and the hours of trying to find somebody who knew where on the Devestator STRC bunked had been enough for her to figure out how to broach the subjec t. "Lane was only the trigger for this trouble. There is apparently a group of flag officers who have dedicated their careers to seeing STRC wiped out of existence. Permanently. Aside from Patik, Andrew, does the name Tapsnor ring any bells?"
Gray and Snyder both manifested visual reactions to the name.
"What if it does?" Gray demanded.
"Two days ago General Tapsnor submitted an interesting general query for research to my group. He wanted to know if Lt Andrew Gray were still dead. An interesting way to phrase a query, don't you think?"
"Oh, Sith," Snyder swore quietly, expressively.
Gray looked confused. "We had our differences, and he killed off my squad, but why the hell would ask if I'm 'still' dead?"
Brown looked hard at Snyder. "I think it's time for the truth, wouldn't you agree, Specialist?"
"What are talking about?" Gray demanded. "The plain truth is that Tapsnor issued a stupid order, I killed my squad by following it and the only reason I'm alive now is because Snyder dragged my sorry ass out of the fire zone. That's all the re is to it."
Silence hung over the group like a dead mynock, until Snyder cleared his throat under Brown's glare.
"Uh, actually that's not quite everything, LT."
"And what part of the worst debacle of my life could I have possibly missed?"
Snyder looked miserable, and Brown stepped in for him, handing Gray her datapad. "That would probably be your death, Andrew."
Gray glanced quickly at the pad, recognizing Imperial Army form IA- 1098, Death Certificate, with his picture and stats. He had to admit that he really did look quite dead.
"I don't find this joke amusing."
"It isn't a joke," Mara assured him, surprising all three of them. "Your slicers showed me too much, and when I checked you out, all the Army records said you died on Bayat."
"Odd, I don't feel terribly dead, and this says I was born on Mynos VII," Gray retorted sarcastically, waving the datapad dismissively. "Obviously some clerical error."
"No, that was how Scott covered up your continued service without changing your name," Brown explained patiently. "He was afraid that the truth would be too much for you."
Gray snorted derisively. "Well, that's Norton for you; always deciding what's best for others. This is an open and closed issue here. What in all the Empire would prompt him to go to all this trouble?"
"After you tried to kill Tapsnor and the doctor knocked you out," Snyder began explaining abruptly, "he ordered the medical staff to terminate you. But we made a deal, and Norton covered our tracks. Part of that deal was putting you in thi s experimental unit, where Tapsnor would never come across us again. We didn't count on anyone gunning after STRC, least of all Tapsnor."
"This is ridiculous. This is not what the Imperial Army is all about."
Jade snorted derisively. "Obviously, you've never seen your vaunted commander Lord Vader interrogate a prisoner. I had nightmares for weeks."
"Ridiculous, but true," Brown assured him. "I found the doctor who issued the death warrant; with the proper persuasion, he remembered the incident quite well. According to official records, the pre-Bayat Gray is quite dead, and you are som eone else entirely. You just have the same name as that unfortunate other, and I doubt that Tapsnor is going to stay confused for much longer. Especially if he's in collusion with General Patik."
"This is all nonsense," Gray declared in frustration, but with less conviction than before. The evidence before him seemed to indicate that his view of the Empire was perhaps distorted and somewhat naive. But how could he have been so misle d all these years? It was unthinkable.
"Tapsnor doesn't matter," Jade suddenly interjected. She gazed penetratingly at Snyder, who was confused at the sudden attention. "Vader didn't order the squad to Yavin just to have you deliver me. Snyder, do you have any idea who you kill ed back on Coruscant?"
He shrugged carelessly. "I have no idea, some staff flunky I'd guess. I was just reacting to one of our own under fire. I hope the Emperor isn't too Sithed off with the damage to his palace."
"I doubt that he is. You killed him."
Snyder opened his mouth and closed it several times before speaking. "That's impossible. It took the guards a full five minutes to reach us after the shooting started."
"Palpatine was a master of the dark side of the force; he prided himself on his complete disdain of all mortal security forces. He could sense everything around him in the force, and no assassination attempt could surprise him."
"Then how the hell am I supposed to have killed him with a prijg'n' knife?"
"You didn't kill him; I did. But you surprised and wounded him enough for him to relax his hold on me."
"If the Emperor was 'all knowing', then how did Snyder surprise him?" Gray demanded.
"I'm not quite sure. With the force, a Jedi can sense all living things. Except, apparently, for you," Mara jabbed Snyder in the chest. "I have no idea why. I always knew there was something odd about the squad, but I could never place it while Palpatine suppressed my force skills. Now that I can sense things through the force as I choose again, I can't see you at all."
"That's just bantha puddu," Snyder insisted.
Jade shook her head insistently. "Watch this." Her face contorted in concentration, and everyone's hair wafted in a nonexistent breeze. Everyone's, that is, except for Snyder's, who felt nothing. "That's why his force attacks did nothing to you. Those assaults would have disintegrated any normal being. Just being close to that kind of raw power directed at you burned me."
Brown was staring in wide-eyed amazement. And she had thought she was crazy!
"So now you see, Andrew, why you can't return to Vader," Jade concluded with finality. "Your stormtrooping days are over, one way or another."
"Now wait just a damned minute!" Gray retorted, waving his arms angrily. "Just where the Sith do you get that? I can't just--"
Brown silenced him with a hand to his nearest arm. "Mara's right, Andrew. If Vader recalled you, it can be for only one reason. If Snyder could kill the Emperor, then he would be a threat to Vader as well."
"Yep. And with Palpatine out of the way, Vader has no match in the galaxy. Snyder's threat outweighs his potential usefulness," Mara explained harshly. "And when he disposes of Snyder, the rest of the squad must follow."
"I can't accept that," Gray refused.
"What, you think you're special just because Vader likes your work?" Jade scoffed. "Hell, long before he blew up Alderaan, I watched Vader space an entire ship full of innocent Imperial citizens because an Interdictor yanked the wrong ship o ut of hyperspace and he was just pissed with them for accidentally springing his trap prematurely. Then he went on to execute the Interdictor's Captain. You made STRC work too well, Gray. Now that the Emperor is removed, the squad is too much of a threat. Besides, his Noghri make much safer commandos for him; they are utterly blindly loyal and will kill anyone, anywhere, anytime, without stopping to reason out annoying issues like due process."
"Alderaan, did you just say something about Alderaan?" Brown demanded.
"Palpatine ordered it destroyed, Vader and Tarkin pulled the switch," Jade explained patiently. "The Empire that we think we know is a lie. The senate is a sham, there is no representation, only an iron dictatorship that confuses the popula ce into thinking everything is fine. That's why I had to stop the Emperor."
With that announcement, the door to the hanger slid open and Nichols surged through, followed by the rest of the squad trying to stop him.
"What the hell are you doing?" Gray demanded, exploding angrily from his seat, though grateful for the distraction. "Damn it, Max, I told you to stop eavesdropping."
"Sorry, LT, I just couldn't take this sitting down anymore," Nichols fumed, blaster leveled only meters from Jade's head. "Say the word, LT, and I'll get rid of this traitor now."
"Holster that weapon right now, trooper.," Gray barked sharply. "We're not carrying out any executions here and now."
"But she admits it!" Nichols protested angrily. "She killed the Emperor! And that lie about Alderaan--"
"Yeah, and she has a concussion and looks like she fell into a planetary shield generator," Hawkins yelled back in retort. "You can't believe anything she says!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Hawk," Jade replied wryly.
"Put away the weapon, Nichols. Don't make me tell you again," Gray interrupted calmly. "She may be right about Alderaan. I know, we discussed this and it would take more firepower than the entire fleet to place a planet in orbit about itse lf. But that is presumably why we built the Death Star. That primary laser is a multiple beam resonator. Max, can you confirm that?"
"Of course, LT," Max chirped cheerily, happy to be of service. "I thought you all knew that. Even Sgt Lane should've been able to figure out that the Death Star was built to blow up planets."
Nichols let his aim drift away from Jade in surprise.
"They managed to merge and control multiple lasers?" Schlamp exclaimed in eager horror. "Sith, that could do it!"
"Utterly preposterous," Terrance insisted. "Unthinkable. The Empire would never resort to--"
"It was supposed to be a deterrent!" Jade shouted in exasperation. "Of course no sane being ever intended to actually use it against a live world. Fear of the station's capabilities alone was going to keep the local systems in line. But P alpatine was crazy!"
"I just cannot accept it," Terrance replied, shaking his head as if to rid himself of the knowledge. "The explanation is entirely too outrageous and convenient. The Empire, whatever flaws it may possess, is the only stabilizing influence in the galaxy."
"Influence through control," Schlamp muttered. "Most of you come from good families, you haven't seen what it's like on the bottom of the pecking order."
"Well so what if the Emperor blew up Alderaan?" Nichols posited, reluctantly trusting Gray to know what he was doing and holstering his weapon. "They probably were all traitors. Better to do away with a single planet than to throw the enti re galaxy into chaos."
"Just like killing off a few malignant cells to save the larger organism," Ratcliffe suggested helpfully. "I don't see the problem either."
The squad broke into a heated argument with voices conflicting and tempers flaring, and Gray was able to silence them only by shouting the universal military order of "At ease!", something he had never resorted to in the past. When he had t heir full attention, he continued.
"Both Jade and Snyder have committed a serious crime. But it remains to be seen whether or not they were defending the Empire in doing so. In my mind, everything hinges on one point," Gray explained slowly, thoughtfully. "And that is wheth er or not the Death Star actually destroyed Alderaan. If the Emperor truly ordered the destruction of Alderaan, we're talking about over 5 billion individual citizens here without even a standing army, then he irreconcilably violated the very founda tions of the Empire. Once we answer that question...we'll have to go from there. And that answer has to come from the Death Star. So let's stop bickering, and find out if we destroyed Alderaan."
"Just answer me this, Jade," Nichols demanded. "If the Emperor blew up supposedly innocent Alderaan, why didn't he destroy any other planets, any of the ones held only by total interdiction?"
"I don't know," she replied honestly, sounding suddenly weary. "With Palpatine, it's hard to tell."
"May I add something, LT?" Max asked recalcitrantly, obviously chip-broken over having been ordered to disobey Gray's order against spying.
"Sure, Max, go ahead," Gray sighed, wondering not for the first time just how sentient these modern droids were.
"Well, it's just that I've been communicating with the Death Star off and on since we met. Not only did it fire on Alderaan, but it's of the opinion that it's on the way to destroy Yavin next." Max's red photoreceptor pivoted to Mara and Ni chols in turn. "And maybe the reason it hasn't been used since Alderaan is because they just got done fixing it. When they fired on Alderaan, the engineers accounted improperly for neutron collapse of the planet's core caused by imploding the plane tary shield, and the Death Star suffered damage from debris flung at velocities an order of magnitude higher than expected. They've just now completed functional repairs to the main laser dish and hyperdrive."
Silence permeated the room for a long while.
"Okay, so the Death Star blew up Alderaan. So what?" Nichols admitted more calmly than before. "They were apparently harboring rebel terrorists or something. What's the difference between that and ambushing a rebel patrol, LT?"
"About 5 billion people," Gray responded harshly. "The Empire maintains the order necessary for a civilized galaxy. But randomly killing innocent individuals is hardly civilized; that makes us no better than the common terrorist."
"So, we should just skip on out and start freelancing, or what?" Schlamp demanded in frustration.
"No, of course not," Gray replied, his own confidence cooling as quickly as the kiss of an enemy. "When one individual starts stomping all over another individual, the stomper must be neutralized."
"Just like I neutralized Palpatine," Snyder observed, drawing an angry glance from Gray.
"So what do we do now, LT?" Cross questioned.
"We report to Vader, just as we've been ordered to do."
His answer was met by a mix of agreement and disbelief. He ignored them and left the room. Jade stormed out after him. Brown and Snyder exchanged glances, then followed as well.
"You guys wait here," Cross ordered sharply to the remainder of the squad. "We have work to do."
Jade rounded angrily in front of Gray and forced him to stop.
"I'm not going to Vader," she swore steadfastly, drawing her blaster and slamming it against his chest. He reacted to wrestle her for the weapon, but she surprisingly gave it up willingly. "You'll just have to kill me now."
She turned her back and marched off just as Brown and Snyder arrived.
"I'd assumed you learned something about stupid orders back on Bayat," Snyder commented to Gray as he rushed past. "Guess I made an ass out of you and me." Snyder disappeared around the corner in close pursuit of Jade.
Gray contemplated the blaster for a moment before turning down another corridor and striding away without a word.
"You can't seriously consider turning them in," Brown persisted gently from his side.
"Well just what do you suggest I do?" Gray shot back and venting his frustration on her. "Just ignore the fact that they freely admit to killing my chief commander, and let it go at that?"
Brown stood her ground, refusing to flinch in the face of his fury. "Andrew, do you have any reason to believe that Vader won't kill them or your entire squad out of hand? And where the hell are we going?"
"I don't know," he answered to both questions. "I have no reason to doubt Vader."
"Well I do. I've heard the horror stories, and on the way here I physically checked on something Norton said. Those imaginary interrogation centers with torture 'droids do more than just frighten people; they actually exist. We can't just pretend any longer that these things don't happen."
Gray finally stopped; Brown recognized Scat's distinctive markings and realized that they were back at the squad's hangar. He palmed the hatch open, and she followed him to the cockpit companel.
"What do you have in mind?"
"I'm going to contact Scott and straighten this all out," Gray replied cryptically. Despite their continuous arguing, Gray considered that Norton was probably the only person in the galaxy he felt he could trust without reservation. If not, then he had spent enough time with Norton in enough situations to know when he was lying. But when he finally made contact, it was Neuman who actually answered the link.
"Lt Gray, I sort of expected you to comm," Neuman interrupted before Gray could even start. "Sir, do you know where Lt Brown--no, never mind, I don't want to know that."
"Hold it Neuman, what's going on; where's Lt Norton?"
"Internal Affairs hauled him off for questioning yesterday and he's been replaced by a real nerf-herder of a micro-managing officer. We haven't seen or heard from him since, and today I found that every reference to his existence has simply disappeared from official records. If this isn't your doing, I think you'd better get the hell under some cover and not come out for a long time."
"Lt Gray, I hate to do this to you, but we've been on-line too long already. If you see IMI's sexiest lieutenant, tell her that Lt Norton sends his best. Good luck, sir."
And with that, the link severed in a short burst of static before Scat relinquished the line. Gray leaned heavily against the bulkhead.
"Bantha puddu," Brown noted reflectively. "And I just got done paying off that speeder."
Gray switched the companel to the squad link. "Two-two, six."
"Two-two, go ahead, six," came the formal reply.
"Secure Jade, your discretion, ASAP. Report on the objective, echo-mike format, NLT 0400 hours. Six out," Gray ordered tersely. He nearly broke the switch deactivating the companel as he straightened and turned to Brown. "I know I'm goin g to regret that."
"What, exactly, was that?"
"I just ordered Snyder to take Jade somewhere safe, do whatever he feels necessary to keep her safe, and to let me know where they are after I report to Vader and figure out what the hell is going on," he answered. "When we reach Yavin, I wa nt you to keep the rest of the squad aboard the Devestator while I report to Vader. Then we'll see what we see."
"I don't think so, Andrew. Cross can look after the squad; I'm going with you." She grabbed his hands and held them tightly in her own. "You did the right thing, sending them off, Andrew."
He sat there and pensively stared at their entwined hands.
Cross adamantly refused to stay behind, as did the rest of the squad. So then it was rather anticlimactic that, upon reemerging from hyperspace and launching Scat into the Yavin system, the squad was singularly disappointed with the size of the Death Star as they crowded into the cockpit for a view.
"What's so special about that?" Cross demanded. "Hell, I've seen battle stations bigger than that before."
"It's not the size that matters," Schlamp replied. "It's that multiplexed laser that defines the station's power."
"Don't be mistaken," Gray cautioned them. "You're all missing the scale entirely. Max, would you overlay Yavin with a scale representation of Carida?"
"Certainly, LT! Here we go. A nice dayside shot."
Schlamp let a low whistle; the image of Carida was positively dwarfed by the gas giant Yavin.
"We're still over 1 Yavin AU away," Brown pointed out from the copilot's station. "The perspective is misleading."
That turned out to be the understatement of the week. What appeared to be a smooth surface grew like a Mandelbrot set, with details of details emerging exponentially as they approached. The station's size defied logic; as the tractor locked on and guided them they watched the battle station blot out even the vastness of Yavin. By the time they could visually identify the docking bay to which they were being guided, the curve of the horizon appeared to have resolved itself into a strai ght line.
"It's just a big collection of metal," Schlamp scoffed, breaking the squad's introspective silence when approach control announced that they were deactivating the magnetic seal. "Looks like a sitting duck, to me."
"Speaking of sitting ducks," Max announced, "I have an over-the- horizon tactical feed from the Death Star. Would you like to see it?"
"Put it on screen three," Gray indicated.
"X-wings?" Schlamp demanded incredulously. "What the hell do they think they're doing? I don't see any capital ships anywhere..."
"Strange," Terrance agreed. "Max, when you ran the simulation on what it would take to destroy this thing, did you include snub fighters as part of the aggressor matrix?"
"Of course not. Why would I?"
"Maybe those rebel pilots know something we don't know..." Brown mused.
"Max, just for kicks, why don't you go ahead and replace the entire aggressor strike package with snub fighters. Lots of them," Terrance suggested.
"If you say so, boss."
"You've got to be kidding," Hawkins responded in disbelief. "Didn't you see the gun towers on this thing?"
"There's gotta be weak points," Schlamp countered as Gray settled Scat gently on its skids in the spacious landing bay. "Everything has weak points. But man, oh man, what I could do with a station like this!.."
"Magnetic shield closed, atmosphere secured," approach control interrupted over the intercom. "Reporting flight plan closure to Imperial Central. Welcome aboard, Scat."
"I'm hungry," Schlamp declared, backing away from the group cram in the cockpit and heading for the hatch. "Let's go eat."
"Hold it, Schlamp!" Brown hollered quickly. "Gray, what do your readouts have to say about atmospheric pressure?"
"Look," Ratcliffe pointed out the forward screen. "You can see that the light's green. We're good to go."
"My readouts are negative too," Gray answered. "Max, why don't you see if we have any air?"
"Oyez, LT! Where the prijg are the environmental controls? Geez, what a mess. Okay, here we go...Hey, guess what? The air pump got stuck in suck mode. You want be to reset it and give you organics something to breath out there?"
"If it wouldn't trouble you too much," Nichols answered sarcastically.
"Hey, check this out! Just converged on the snub fighter solution."
"And?" Gray prompted.
"They're brave little bastards, LT, but not too smart enough," Max declared. "Apparently the designers ruled out the possibility of snub fighter attacks, I mean, who would be crazy enough to--"
"Max, cut to the chase please."
"Uh, yeah, right. Resetting file marker.... Anyway, turns out there're about a hundred thermal exhaust ports leading directly to the reactor. Now, they are ray shielded against long range attack. But IF you could get past the outer defense s, and IF you could avoid hitting these sector segment walls, and IF you had me shooting for you, a snub fighter might just be able to hit the port with a proton torpedo. And IF you're a really lucky rebel today, the ray shielding MIGHT sustain enou gh of the initial blast to shed enough neutrons at sufficient velocity far enough down the shaft to MAYBE destabilize a critical mass of the main reactor and possibly force the techs to slow the reaction for awhile until it stabilized again. I'd gue ss that's when their main fleet would jump out of hyperspace and take on the station, while there's only enough power for life support and little to spare for shields and weapons."
"What's your pk on the rebel's gambit," Terrance asked.
"Well, if I stretch the cpk a little, use the Iiwi-Finch quark method instead of the DAQ interference iteration, and assume that they have three or four Imperial class star destroyers, I can give them a 1 in 562 chance of success. If our fle et stays away, I'll give them 1 in, oh let's say 150, a nice round number."
"Max, forward that analysis on to Ops, let them decide what to do with it," Gray ordered. "Very well, gentlemen. Let's find out once and for all what Lord Vader has in mind for us."
The interior of the Death Star, aside from being large despite the huge empty core, was little different from any other sizable battlestation. They were evenly split on whether the vertical light panels were aesthetic or just plain stupid. Their turbolift hadn't even arrived before a recklessly-driven R4 unit caromed around the corner beeping and whistling for their attention.
"Stop, stop!" Blue Max hollered, the squeak of his voice ear- wrenching with his excitement. "We've got to get the prijg out of here!"
Their lift arrived and a group of off-duty stormtroopers ambled out, too occupied with their stim and pastries to notice the weird uniforms of the new arrivals.
"Could you be a little more specific, Max?" Gray queried, stepping aboard the lift.
"The Death Star is going to blow!"
"Run a diagnostic, Max," Nichols suggested, joining the others in the lift. "Just ten minutes ago you only gave them a odds of 1 in 562 if the impossible happened."
Max shot out an arm to halt the closing door. When the fail-safe switch designed to keep the door from shutting on someone failed and the door easily snapped the arm off, Max angrily blasted the Death Star computer over his link, slamming ev ery turbolift door in the entire station open so hard that they all spit sparks and jumped off their tracks.
"No, it's not the prijg'n rebels!" Max protested to the squad, which had his full attention now. "They don't have a freighter's chance in the Maw. Come on, let's get out of here! I still want to live long enough to retire to a museum and e xpound my exploits to mucus-oozing organics some day!"
"If it's not the rebels, then what?" Brown demanded.
In frustration, Max switched to binary and blurted through his entire dictionary of curses in a three second toot. "I tasked the Death Star computers to help me rerun the Alderaan firing sequence and found out that the station suffered more damage than just from external space debris. The unexpected reaction of Alderaan's core to the planetary shield implosion caused a resonance spike that created microfissures in five of the focusing assemblies and three of the lasers themselves! If they fire that superlaser on full power again, the Maker only knows what would happen. But I can sure guess!" The R4's holoprojector brightened to life and replayed the image of Alderaan blowing up. "And nobody will listen to me--they think I'm a rebel virus trying to stop the countdown!"
"Very well, Cross, take the others back to Scat. Your mission is to escort Lt Brown wherever she determines," Gray responded quickly. "I'll report to Vader and rejoin you when I can."
"They hell you will," Brown rebutted. Before anyone could react, she yanked her blaster from its holster and fired point-blank at Gray, whose face registered surprise in the glare of the dazzling blue stun beam before he slumped gracelessly to the floor. She reached down, grabbed his equipment harness and hauled him up precariously against one shoulder. "Stang, he's heavier than he looks. Max, go fire up Scat. Okay, Andrew and I are getting the hell out of here and looking for a new employer. I'll make this easy. Anyone who cares to join us before this station rains on Yavin, help me get him out of this turbolift. The rest can go report to Vader."
The squad stared at her in blank amazement. And they had thought their lieutenant brash.
"Don't think I can continue in an Army that can kill so easy," Cross finally announced, stepping forward and hoisting Gray's free arm over his shoulder.
"Nor I," Terrance agreed, taking Brown's place supporting Gray.
"Aw, what the hell," Schlamp shrugged, stepping from the lift. "I didn't vote for Palpatine anyway." He grabbed Hawkins, his fellow Rim- worlder and yanked him along behind. "And I know you didn't either, Hawk."
"I'm coming, already--let go."
That left Nichols and Ratcliffe, neither of them moving a micron.
"I'm sorry," Ratcliffe shrugged eloquently. "I just don't see the moral dilemma here. But I won't stand in your way. I'll put in a good word for you with Vader."
"I thought you guys were soldiers. But you're not; you all are a bunch of toothless old banthas worrying over a few billion worthless civilians," Nichols berated. "I'm surprised you had the courage to shoot your first rebel. You, Cross. You're going to throw away eight years over some people you've never met?"
"Yeah, well, maybe they were people I wanted to meet. And next time it might be Corellia that somebody decides isn't loyal enough. You sure you two can stay with Alderaan on your conscience?"
"Just go, run away," Nichols waved them off, heaving uselessly at the jammed turbolift door. "Rat and I'll stay and keep the Empire safe for you philosophical losers."
"Anyone else want to stay?" Brown demanded as an officer in an all- white uniform hurried by. Brown stunned him without pausing. "Change your mind now, before we lift off. Great, let's get moving then." She blasted Nichols and Ratcliffe wi th the blue stun beams before striding off. "Sorry guys," she called back over her shoulder. "If you don't wake up in space, it'll wear off."
Max's voice called out over the squad's comlinks. "Lose it or move it, organics! The station will be cleared to fire in 3.56 minutes, and I'm in no mood to wait for your microorganism-ridden asses! Are you almost here yet? Creepin' electr odes, people! My battery pack could've degenerated into a repulsor and been pushed back here by coriollis effect by now! Oh, there you are! Move, move, move! Schlamp, get your prijg'n' fingers out of the door!"
Amidst the roar of full thrusters and shudder of repulsors, Max dropped the magnetic seal without bothering to evacuate the atmosphere and vectored Scat out of the docking bay with complete disregard to automated defense security systems. Wh at wasn't scorched into the walls by Scat's unharnessed thrusters shot past the assault shuttle in the wake of gases evacuating with less restraint than the shuttle's bulky mass. After depositing Gray across several of the stowable mesh seats lining Scat's hold, what was left of the squad crammed into the cockpit with Max to watch the tactical display. Brown stayed behind long enough to strap him down in case pieces of battle station tried to outrace them.
"Sorry about shooting you in front of your soldiers back there," she whispered with a tender kiss to his forehead. "But sometimes you exhibit all the reason of a nerf."
When Max started counting down the firing sequence. By the time she took the proffered pilot's seat, Max had determined that they had achieved escape velocity and chopped the thrusters, spinning the shuttle about its vertical axis so that th ey were shooting backwards away from the death star, just in time for them to catch a gathering of green light on the superlaser's collector dish.
None of them paid attention to Max's auxiliary tactical feed showing a lone X-wing pursued by three TIE fighters launch two proton torpedoes which, while homing into the exhaust port, exploded against the port magnetic lining. Their incredi ble blast overpowered the ray shielding instantly and vented the bulk of their combined power into the completely unresisting vacuum of space. Enough neutrons struck deep inside the station to the main reactor to merit nothing more than a minor subs pace anomaly report on the reactor's automated log.
Without the stately galactic grandeur of a distant star transforming into a brilliant supernova over the course of a year, the green light flickered out of existence as if they had only imagined it.
"I'll be damned," Max admitted. "Guess--"
A violent scream inundating the entire electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to hyperspace crisped the R4's hyperdat port linking him to the station as the Death Star's superlaser achieved critical resonance and dismantled itself rather viol ently. Milliseconds later the conflagration crumpled the inner hull and bombarded the reactor with enough concentrated neutrinos to implode ten thousand fusion weapons. The subspace shockwave that followed the rip in hyperspace exploded first throu gh the minor axis of the station, creating a nearly two-dimensional wavefront slightly ahead of the main blast, which easily rivaled the comparatively lackluster death of Alderaan. Even the intense gravity of the gas giant Yavin took several seconds to deform the perfect sphere of energy formerly known as the Death Star.
The squad watched in silence as the subspace shock waves rocked Scat gently, as a mother putting her child to sleep. They watched until molten masses of the station condensed from the energy cloud and began their short lives as protostars or biting Yavin. Brown witnessed the final, rather brutal destruction of her faith in the New Order. As one, Aleph team considered the others; their own who had fallen here now, and those who thrown into the abyss of eternity before. Brown was the fi rst to move, leaving the cockpit to tend to Gray.
"Shall I plot a course?" Max inquired after his own circuits stabilized and reinitialized themselves from the electromagnetic pulse.
All eyes tore away from the sacrilege beautiful scene expanding before them, finally coming to rest on Cross, who immediately concluded that he wasn't in charge of this whole expedition and had no clue what was next.
"How 'bout that-a-way?" he responded, point randomly at the stars before departing the cockpit.
"Uh, yeah, right, of course. I should have known that myself," Max responded dubiously, resorting to his video cache to analyze Sgt Cross's hand gesture and eye contact and thereby extrapolate his intended course. "Engaging a jump for...tha t-a-way."
Organics and droids alike followed him into the cargo hold in time to observe Brown administer a hypospray to Gray's neck. Their lieutenant's eyes flashed open and he sat up so suddenly that he banged his head on a bulkhead and would have fa llen to the floor had Brown not caught and held him through the dizziness of the stun blast's aftereffects.
"Stang! I have one prijg of a hangover," Gray groaned mournfully, rubbing gingerly at his temples. "Next time you shoot me, Samantha, would you mind taking it off the 'Wookie' setting?"
"Anything you ask, Andrew."
"I have this sneaking suspicion that I should be angry with you."
"You just forget that for now, or I might have to shoot you again," she threatened mischievously. "You'll have plenty of time to be angry with me in the future."
Sergeant Cross cleared his throat politely for their attention.
"I don't mean to ruin your moment and all; but where do we go now, lieutenant?" Cross asked for them all, hopeful that one of them had an answer better than his own. "I myself have no desire to stay for the wake."
Despite the fact that Cross's voice seemed to be echoing loudly about the shuttle, it didn't take much concentration for Gray to imagine what had transpired during his forced rest.
"Nor I," he responded carefully as he tried to corral the asteroids caroming about in his head. He finally decided to let them run their merry course and just relaxed into Samantha's comfortable embrace. "You're a jaded traveler of the galax y, Max. Any ideas?"
"Well, LT, now that you mention it, the Devestator said the Koornacht Cluster is a most intriguing place and absolutely begging to be commercialized. In fact, I sort of have an idea, if you've got a minute...."
As the Death Star cast the Rebel moon's shadow across the night side of Yavin, a remote service station deep within the core on Byss, heavily guarded by fanatical soldiers who knew only that their souls depended on keeping the area secure, an ancient Spaarti cloning cylinder burst open in a hissing cloud of discharged cryogenics and crackling black energy that sucked all light from the room. The arrogant young man who stumbled out and slowly inhaled the writhing darkness critically stud ied his young new body in the reflection off the highly polished surface of his metallic womb, not yet ravaged by the cancerous effects of the Dark Side.
And he saw that it was good.