This morning the troops had done well on the 6 kilometer run, Staff Sergeant Cross had to admit to himself as he cooled down from the platoon's morning run, stretched his dark muscular limbs. Out of his 25-man platoon (not counting the Lieut enant), only 3 had fallen behind from the frantic pace, and then only near the end. Every member of the platoon was in superb condition, easily able to lift twice their own weight and speed march 30 kilometers in 3 hours with a 20 kilo pack. But no t even the youngest of them could outperform their 34-year-old platoon sergeant. At nearly 2.14 meters and without a single gram of fat on his body, Ssg Cross was the epitome of stormtrooper physical fitness.
As Cross finished stretching and began making his way toward the sonic showers (they were at the base, for a change, with all the amenities of civilization), trading casual remarks with his soldiers, his platoon leader came marching from the platoon barracks. The lieutenant was already clean and resplendent in gray uniform and glossy boots. Cross suppressed a shudder of revulsion at the sight of his platoon's "leader". The lieutenant was fresh from one of the Academies (Cross never bot hered wondering which--they were all the same to him), and was so full of his own power and glory it was a wonder the man could fit into his helmet every day. Cross had tried to mold the lieutenant into an effective leader, but like all the others t hat he had served under in the last few years, this one could not learn anything from a "lowly sergeant". The lieutenant adamantly refused advice from William's 13 years of combat experience, and couldn't even keep up with the platoon on a short run . Cross supposed he would receive a reprimand for leaving the lieutenant behind this morning; but what was he supposed to do? The lieutenant had fallen out of the run only half a kilometer from the gate, before they had picked up the pace, and had just walked back to the barracks, never making an effort to rejoin them.
To Cross's surprise, Lieutenant Almonye was wearing the sort of smug, self-satisfied smile normally found on the face of a toddler who has just learned to use the sanitary facilities. This meant that the officer had actually contrived a way to deal with his recalcitrant platoon sergeant and was very satisfied with his own cleverness. Cross was as worried about the young lieutenant's solution as he was about the possibility of the rebellion actually organizing itself into an effective f ighting force. Now there was an idea--ship these new lieutenants off to the rebellion, then watch the fledging force of crackpots and malcontents collapse under the bureaucratic excess....
"Sir, you missed a good run," Cross commented without breaking stride upon Almonye's arrival.
The young lieutenant's supremely confident attitude faltered only momentarily.
"I had to finish the...uhmmm...maintenance report this morning."
"Of course, sir," Cross replied as expected, albeit grudgingly. He did have to grant the officer one thing: he could develop excuses faster than a spice smuggler caught in a tractor beam. "Will you accompany the platoon to the range today? It would build the platoon's confidence in it's leadership if you were there."
"Never question the platoon's confidence in my abilities, Sergeant. They would follow me anywhere," Almonye threatened apoplectically, obviously believing his own declaration irrefutable truth.
Cross decided he would be wasting his time to point out that Stormtroopers were conditioned to follow to the far corners of the galaxy ANYONE who wore officer bars. Just last week an entire squad had jumped off the edge of a cliff because so me Captain told them to "Follow me!" just before tripping over a crew-served blaster power supply cable.
"Besides, neither of us will attend the range," the Lieutenant announced, his previous smugness regained. "The CO wants to see you. Now."
Cross finally stopped walking and faced the lieutenant. The Commanding Officer of the Company his platoon belonged to rarely interfaced with his soldiers, except to administer disciplinary action. In fact, Cross supposed that he should not have been surprised at this development. As the years wore on, he had begun having increasing trouble deserting his common sense to blindly follow procedure. While such thinking had kept himself and his soldiers alive and fighting longer than the n orm for shock troops, it had not enamored him of the brass.
As Cross towered threateningly over his lieutenant, he thought about pounding the weasly officer into the ground. After all, his own career was obviously finished, and it might be interesting to go out with a bang. But with characteristic r estraint, Cross simply replied "Very well, then", turned on his heel, and headed for Company Headquarters. Almonye hurried to match William's lengthy stride. Cross ignored the officer's further remarks.
By the time they reached Company HQ, Almonye was beside himself.
"Now see here!" the lieutenant raged impotently as Cross casually threw a huge open palm against the switch to the CO's office door without first requesting permission to enter. "You simply cannot just barge in without--"
Cross proceeded to barge in.
The CO was in the close-fitting physical training uniform of the stormtroopers, but the jumpsuit appeared incredibly clean for someone who had purportedly just finished intense physical exertion. Cross considered asking the CO why he didn't sweat during PT like other mere mortals. Instead, he sketched out a precise salute and said "Staff Sergeant Cross, reporting as ordered. Sir."
Captain Rykal silenced his lieutenant with a wave of the hand.
"Bring coffee, lieutenant. And shut the door behind you."
A hard look from the CO sent the young lieutenant scurrying. Rykal casually turned to Cross and silently regarded the dark giant for nearly a minute.
"Stand at ease, Sergeant," the CO finally ordered, not offering either of the stiff military-issue chairs precisely placed against a side wall. "I suppose you know why you are here?"
The CO sighed loudly. "Cross, I think you have it in you to be a good stormtrooper. But you refuse to stay with the program. This incident with Lieutenant Almonye this morning is the last time I can overlook your apathy. You simply cannot flaunt authority like you did, humiliating the platoon leader in front of his soldiers--"
Cross supposed it would be bad form to correct the CO's grammar while being lectured.
"Do you comprehend any of the counsel your platoon leader has given you in the last six months? What is your problem, Sergeant?"
Cross silently considered the question fully as long as the CO had regarded him earlier. "Sir, you know that my platoon has the best record for mission accomplishment AND the lowest casualty rate in the Battalion."
"That may very well be, but you have also gone through no less than four lieutenants in the last six months," Rykal replied acidly. "Three dead and one...one in a mental asylum, for Empire's sake! None of my other platoon sergeants have lie utenant problems. How do you explain that?"
"Lieutenant Schneider was unfortunately incompetent." Cross shrugged almost imperceptibly. "The dead ones were merely stupid. As for the current lieutenant--"
Almonye chose that moment to stumble in, tripping on the carpet. Dark, scalding stim arced magnificently into the air like a Tyderium geyser spewing hydrochloric acid into space. Oil and dirt furnished at no extra cost by the rarely-cleaned processor split the breaking morning light into a multihued rainbow of jewels sparkling through the stim's murkiness. Just when all seemed lost, with the twinkling stim now passing through apogee and accelerating toward Cpt Rykal's morning stack of reports, Almonye completed his trip with a magnificent body flop across the CO's desk. The violent maneuver scattered briefing charts in a random flurry and would have stunned any man with half a brain, but had the fortunate effect of placing the l ieutenant in a direct intercept for the incoming stim. Almonye yelped first in surprise and then in pain as the former contents of his CO's mug splashed sloppily across the seat of his impeccably-pressed trousers.
"--well, sir, you can see for yourself," Cross finished without breaking stride.
Lieutenant Almonye hopped about the office maniacally without reference to any sense of decorum, vainly trying to pull his suddenly steaming trousers out of contact with sensitive flesh.
"I see that you are indeed beyond recovery," Rykal announced, apparently having satisfied his sense of duty and curiosity. "Goddamnitalltohell lieutenant, get a hold of yourself! I would enjoy drumming you out of the corps, sergeant. Howev er, Special Operations has made specific requirements known, and I am transferring your assignment to some new research and development unit."
A subdued Almonye stopped fanning his hindquarters and choked on his drink.
"But, sir, you promised--"
Rykal snatched the lieutenant's drink away from him and waved Almonye silent once more, eyeing Cross closely for a reaction. "Ah, I see you know of Special Operations, sergeant. Have no worry, lieutenant; within the week our good sergeant wi ll be field testing leaky spacesuits and wearing 'improved' armor during live-fire testing. You should consider another line of work, just in case you survive the remainder of your enlistment, Sergeant Cross. I trust you realize that your career in the stormtroopers is finished?"
"As you say, sir," Cross replied casually, resigned to his assignment but not to his predicted fate. Strangely, he actually felt relief that he would at least no longer be required to tolerate either of the bumbling officers before him. "Is there anything else, sir?"
Rykal hesitated; obviously thrown off by William's placid acceptance of reassignment. The CO vaguely wondered what cowardly plot the NCO before him thought to implement, but let it go when he considered that the sergeant would likely not liv e to see the end of the month. Let the slacker enjoy his last scheme.
"No, that is all, sergeant. Turn in your gear and report to Special Operations Brigade immediately. You will be out of my unit by noon. Is that clear?"
"Impeccably," Cross replied, saluting sharply before briskly exiting the office.
Rykal momentarily wondered how Cross had made the salute seem an insult before he turned to more important matters. Rykal proceeded to berate his newest lieutenant for the worst-tasting coffee he had ever had the misfortune of drinking.
"Cpt Chalmers, report to the governor's office," chimed the intercom throughout the corridors of the sparkling clean House of Commons, seat of governent for the entire Felshesst system. Everyone within the building cringed at the oily voice of the speaker, wishing beyond hope that T'sh Niisum would some day realize just how annoyingly his voice echoed throughout the entire complex. The Bothan secretary repeated the summons for the benefit of those who had missed it when they covered th eir ears the first time.
Cpt Chalmers leaped from his chair, grabbing a datapad and hollering instructions to his staff on the way out. Chalmers was in such a hurry that he nearly falttened a Bothan maintenance worker changing glow panels in the corridor. The capta in cursed the clumsiness of alien workers in general and momentarily wondered why the Empire put up with them at all. But, he supposed, they needed someone to do the dirty work.
Before he even reached the turbolift leading to the governor's offices, Niisum repeated the summons. Chalmers ground his teeth and wondered if the governor had chosen Niisum for his incredible annoyance quotient. He would have been surprise d and how right he was.
The mid-level beureaucrat anxiously viewed this summons; as the Imperial embassy's Chief of Military Data Processing, it wasn't very often that he was able to get face-time with the governor himself. Either he was about to get a promotion, or he had done something terribly wrong. Since he had done nothing at all but shuffle his paperwork for the last month, he saw no reason he could be in trouble.
Surprisingly enough, Niisum ushered Chalmers immediately into the governor's office and locked the door behind them. Felshesst Governor/Ambassador of the Empire Lord Borus Aul was pacing anxiously before an ornate Fleshesst drink cabinet as if he had just been informed of a particularly violent infection. To Chalmer's surprise, General Carl Giest was also present; much more subdued than the governor, but obviously concerned about something as he swirled the blue clear synthehol in his Diptherian crystal glass. Lieutenant Darkls, the general's aide, was busy inspecting the room with a hand-held sensor. Chalmers recognized it as the same type of device that his section used to occasionally sweep their area for electronic eavesdrop ping devices. Imperial stormtroopers prowled about the spacious room as well, as if certain that someone would suddenly materialize behind a chair.
"Cpt Chalmers reporting as ordered, sirs" Chalmers saluted stiffly, thankful for the formality of tradition as it covered his sudden nervousness. Perhaps one of his soldiers had done something?...
"Sit down, Captain," General Giest began in his strangely smooth voice that always made Chalmers wonder what battle had left him needing larynx reconstruction. "We have a....situation which requires your unique services."
"Me? But, sir, I'm just a manager of a programming section," he replied uneasily, completely baffled.
"I realize that, Captain," Giest replied angrily. He gestured to his aide, who had just finished his sweep of the room and indicated all was well. "Darkls, show Captain Chalmers our records. Captain, specifically note the highlighted porti ons."
Darkls gave Chalmers a thick sheaf of computer flimsies. Despite the fact that he wasn't really a programmer himself, he understood the nature of these prints, which were detailed logs of computer activities over the past six months. In jus t moments, he realized exactly what had the governor pacing in fear within his own office.
The governor ceased his pacing so suddenly that excess flesh wobbled at the change in motion. "Captain, is this situation as dire as the general would have me believe?"
"M'lord," he addressed the governor directly, "I'm not the greatest of programmers, but these indicate that someone has sliced into our service networks. Whoever has done this has gained control over every facet of Imperial and Fleshesst co mmunications and control! Should he decide to use it, he could possibly even launch TIE fighters on valid search-and- destroy missions against the embassy under emergency proceedings protocol."
"And what, exactly, can we do to curtail exactly that sort of intrusion?" General Giest demanded.
"Nothing, short of shutting down the entire defense network," Chalmers replied. His relief that he himself was not in trouble was small compensation for the predicament that the entire Imperial precense on Felshesst was in. "But the mechan ics behind doing that are....staggering."
"Which is precisely why we need your section," the general concurred. "We need some technical expertise here. I want to regain total control over the system, and catch this slicer in the process."
The governor frowned. "But catching the suspect will take time. Why not just repair the system and then concentrate on the...er, slicer?"
"It's not that simple, m'lord," Chalmers explained. "So long as the criminal ring that accomplished this remains free, they will be able to maintain access to the system no matter what we do."
"Right again, Captain," the general concurred. "Perhaps you are not as dense as I once suspected. Who are the brightest programmers in your section?"
Chalmers caught the hint of promotion accompanying a successful capture of the perpetrators and abandoned all restraints toward accomplishing that goal.
"Sir, that would actually be Private First Class Nicholat Terrance...." Chalmers hesitated only momentarily before visions of a higher pay grade spurred him on. "...he's a Stormtrooper."
"A stormtrooper?" the governor demanded loudly, near hysterically. "What's a stormtrooper know about programming? Stormtroopers can barely read!"
The stormtroopers present ignored the raving governor; General Giest looked thoughtful. Chalmers hurried to explain before the stormtroopers decided to take exception with the governor's statement, and to include him as well for provoking it .
"He volunteered for the stormtrooper corps upon completing Digitech Institute training when rebels attacked his home planet and killed his parents--a common enough occurence, I'm told," Chalmers expouned. "I met him when his unit sent him to my section to use our computers. Since then, we have contracted him from his regular unit to spearhead our more demanding tasks."
Since everyone in the room continued to look skeptical (even the stormtroopers managed to convey disbelief from behind white armored helmets), Chalmers played his trump card:
"He broke the code for the Randalli case last year."
Instantly, the attitude in the room changed from disbelief to awe.
Randalli was a major Hutt crime lord in the sector. The Hutt's....shadier activities had not bothered the Imperial Embassy very much; it was best to have an enemy you knew and controlled. Especially when said enemy ran an extremely efficien t black market catering to the needs of Imperial officials far from home. However, the Hutt had taken advantage of his situation by falsifying tax records; the Imperial Treasury had assessed that the crime lord had withheld nearly half a billion cre dits in taxes. Substantiating the charge had proven difficult until the Empire had sliced into the Hutt's computer systems and retrieved the necessary data. While inside, the embassy had seen to it that certain other of the Hutt's records were appr opriately modified to strengthen the Imperial precense. Randalli had been much more cooperative when he found that his computers had previously been "in error" and that the Empire actually had nearly 300 TIE fighters and bombers secreted throughout the system as opposed to the mere 40 that his agents had previously estimated. In the end, Randalli had agreed to cooperate in unannounced Imperial inspections and had remitted nearly 1.5 billion credits in back-taxes.
"Why then, is the man a mere stormtrooper?" the governor demanded.
Chalmers shrugged eloquently. "I suppose he has his reasons."
"If they ask me here again just one more time, I shall demand my own office," Pfc Nicholat Terrance swore beneath his breath as he waited impatiently for the turbolift to finish moving. He had a date tonight with a beautiful woman--well, per haps not beautiful in the conventional sense, but at least she possessed proper manners. In any case, he hand no intention of leaving her alone on the opening night for "Fionoria" at what passed locally as the Imperial Theatre.
Nobody had told him what this was all about. Upon returning from a disappointing training mission which had tasked only his physical skills, the company commander had immediately sent him to the embassy. Terrance supposed that this program must be rather important, since the CO had actually had his own pilot fly him in. The CO never let anyone else use his land speeder. But then the embassy never sent for him on easy problems. Ah well, he concluded as the doors sighed open, that was the price one paid for being the best computer tech in the system. Terrance was crushed by the inrush of staffers and junior officers who disregarded the trivial stormtrooper private on their way home for the day. That is, they disregarded him unt il he unholstered his blaster and clipped "Clear the lift, official business," at which point everyone remembered that they had just one or two more things to finish up before leaving for the weekend.
Unencumbered by flunkies, Terrance made his way down the corridor to Cpt Chalmers' wing. On the way he heard the most annoying Bothan in the universe interrupt the background music to page someone on the overhead speakers. Terrance was tem pted to fire upon the speakers when the Bothan repeated himself. Could anyone have missed the first time? He reached the door leading to Chalmer's section and holstered his blaster before removing his helmet and entering.
"Private Terrance, welcome back to MDP," Captain Chalmers himself greeted Terrance, practically oozing gratuity. Chalmers led the stormtrooper down another corridor and gestured to an office crammed with computer gear. "We've set aside your own area for this project."
So he was to have his own office after all. Terrance recognized two of the three other programmers already present and busily at work. They paused to assess the newcomer. He nodded curtly to them; he knew Tran and Lolaa to be the second an d third best programmers on Felshesst.
"As you must know, we have a....slight situation requiring your special skills," Chalmers began, ingratiating enough to embarass even Terrance's ego. "Apparently some terrorist group has infiltrated our computer systems and gained completely access to whatever controls and monitors they desire."
"You needn't look so startled, Terrance," Tran said quickly to dispel the look of shock on the stormtrooper's face. "Whoever it is has yet do do anything that we can determine; but they have the capability to do so whenever they want. We've tried locking the intruders out, and we think we've been successful. But..."
"We have the distinct impression that we're missing something," Lolaa finished. "Up for the challenge?"
"Of course, m'lady," Terrance finally answered, then turned to Chalmers. "What these terrorists have accomplished is incredible, sir. I'm not certain even I could do such a thing without all of MDP helping. I'll do my best."
"Very well; keep me posted on your progress; the governor is anxiously awaiting a resolution," Chalmers replied, making eye contact with everyone in the room. "Eliminate this threat speedily, and the embassy will be indebted to us all. Let me know if you need anything, anything at all. You know where to find me."
Chalmers left the room, sealing the door shut behind him. Terrance turned to the other programmers, all thoughts of theatre vanishing from his mind. The senator's daughter would have to find her own entertainment for the night; he had to sa lvage his pet project. Terrance grabbed a seat and donned a VR headset.
"All right then, let's get busy."
Nearly seven hours later, Terrance decided that this had gone on long enough. He called out in victory after activating a program on a remote station.
"That's it. We have you now, rebels," Terrance declared jubilantly, slapping hands with the other programmers. "Stylyagi, call the Captain and let him know we're in the home stretch."
By the time Captain Chalmers came scurrying into the room, they had nearly determined the physical location of the terminal from which the rebel group was operating. Noticing Chalmers' formal uniform, Terrance suppressed a momentary twinge o f regret at what we was missing right that moment. Ah well, she wasn't THAT pretty anyway....
"Status report," Chalmers demanded, leaning over Stylyagi to view a terminal displaying what Terrance was currently viewing on the headset.
To Chalmers, the screen was cluttered mess; he wondered how anyone could program with so much information demanding attention. But to Terrance, it was a window to the world, with files, links to other sites, raw programming code, and system parameter matrices surrounding him in his own personal organizing method. Waving his hands in the air, giving voice commands, and occasionally resorting to keyboard controls, Terrance quickly gave Chalmers an overview of how they had reconfigured ev ery system on the network to respond only to Terrance's SuperUser encryptions and passwords.
"Great Empire, what would happen if a rebel task force chose to attack now?" Chalmers murmured in awe.
"Well, sir, I'd have to release control back to the owning units ASAP. Right now I'm essentially holding every defense system offline in this folder here," Terrance replied, narrowing his search even further. "Almost there....Okay, Tran, es tablish that dummy shell for those rebels and hold them off for about five minutes." Terrance activated another waiting program and spoke into an audio pickup. "Stormtrooper squad 967, your intercept site is RA50624081. Set for stun, take prisoner s. Over."
"Roger, MDP control, I copy RA50624081. You can monitor the assualt on Tac4 protocol. Out."
Terrance configured three of the TriD computer screens to display helmet video from several of the stormtroopers of squad 967.
"That's it, sir," Terrance reported, leaning back in his chair and removing the headset, a supremely self-satisfied look on his face. "Those rebels are finished."
"So they were indeed rebels then?" Chalmers solicitated, stroking his chin in deep thought. He was wondering how he would look with a beard like Bail Organa's, whom his wife had been praising the entire night. Bail this, Bail that. I'll be t Bail doesn't have to put up with the ridiculous governor we have; I think I will grow a beard to match the promotion, make me look older, Chalmers thought to himself while the four programmers explained how they had determined the group's loyalties .
"Yessir, definitely rebels," Lolaa reasserted, loudly enough to finally reach Chalmers. They all watched as Tran kept the rebels convinced that they really were still on the network and not in virtual space. "They actually appear to be memb ers of Randalli's crime ring."
"Which may explain their motive for gaining access but their lack of having done anything," Terrance added in afterthought. "Odd that they would have such dual allegiance."
"Very odd indeed," Chalmers agreed.
By now the stormtroopers had reached the site and were in the process of destroying the entire building in their sweep. Certainly enough, they encountered part of the Hutt crime ring in a sub-basement and engaged the rebels in battle. The s licers were obviously unprepared for the assault and were rounded up quickly. Unfortunately, the computer equipment they were using had somehow been destroyed during the assault. The stormtrooper squad leader suggested that perhaps the rebels had p urposely used a demolition charge to destroy the evidence.
"Excellent work, everyone. I am simply amazed at the speed with which you acted," Cpt Chalmers beamed. "I think we can arrange something to compensate you for your extrodinary efforts this evening. Now then, Private Terrance, if you would accompany me to the governor's office? He's extremely anxious to meet you."
Terrance made his goodbyes to the other three and left with a fussing Cpt Chalmers. The building was virtually deserted at this hour, and they had no difficulty reaching the governor's offices. When they arrived, they found both Governor Au l and General Giest both in formal wear as well; apparently everyone but Terrance had made it to opening night.
The governor made a great fuss over Terrance, spending an entire five minutes pretending to understand the slicer's brief description of reinitializing the system and tracking down the terrorists through mulitple login sites. After the gover nor promoted him on the spot to Sergeant, General Giest pulled him aside.
"Sergeant, that was a commendable accomplishment," the General noted in his silky voice.
"Well, sir, I did have help," Terrance admitted. After all, it would have taken much longer without Tran and Lolaa. Besides, now that he was a sergeant, he felt strangely magnanimous.
"No, Sergeant; I'm afraid you misunderstand me," General Giest fixed him with an icy stare. "I was referring to your work of the last six months."
"Sir?" Terrance replied tightly, a plutonium weight slamming into his stomach. What, exactly, did the General think he knew?
"Come now, Sergeant, I believe modesty must be one of your lesser skills. Imagine with me, if you will, the following scenario:
"A young stormtrooper private, who just happens to excel at the art of 'slicing', becomes bored with life on an Outer Rim posting, no longer challenged as he once was while in training. One day, for whatever reason, he decides that the only mission worthy of his unique talents is that of subjugating an entire system's computer network to his whims."
Giest paused for dramatic effect.
"Stop me if I miss anything.
"Ordinarily, the system would immediately alert administrators to such tampering. But our intrepid slicer is just smart enough to avoid being caught, willing to take as long as need be to ease his way in. So smart, in fact, that he creates a program which can simulate his presence at any given terminal on the network; thus leaving him free to track himself down if he is ever called upon to solve this mystery. Which is altogether likely considering his magnificent track record. A reco rd which includes the cracking of a local crime lord's system, providing expertise in preparing aforementioned lord to bear the brunt of Imperial wrath. Now then, what have I missed?"
Giest waited expectantly, a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"Sir, that makes for a highly intriguing story," Terrance finally replied, maintaining strict control of his composure. "But if the hypothetical slicer were as good as you insist, he would leave no trace whatsoever of his work."
"Ah, yes, unfortunately you are correct," the general sighed. "Oh yes, and one more thing you fail to note. This slicer would also leave himself a way back onto the system after having secured it; this time a more devious, foolproof, undete ctable slicing, having been done from the very heart of the system."
"But, as you say, sir, there would be no way of proving the slicer guilty."
"Yes, of course," Giest replied with resignation. "Which is why I am afraid that you will no longer be serving with us on Felshesst, and why you will not hold on to that sergeant's rank very much longer You must understand, that an individu al such as our 'hypothetical' slicer does far more damage than good to the Empire's stability. Did you learn nothing during your stormtrooper indoctrination?"
Terrance decided that it was better to bite his tongue than to reply that he never really had understood the stormtrooper "hurry up to die" syndrome.
"Fortunately for you, a bright young Colonel in the Special Operations command operating under the auspices of Lord Vader himself has discreetly put out a request for malcontents such as yourself. In all likelihood you will meet your fate qu ickly enough in that unit. If not, I advise you to reconsider your standing in the New Order. There is no room for flamboyent individuality, soldier. That is all, Specialist Terrance. Your escort," Giest gestured to a pair of stormtroopers standi ng guard, "will see to it that you report to personnel reassignments in the morning."
Terrance saluted sharply and departed with all the dignity at his disposal before Giest could change his mind and have him summarily executed. To his mild amusement, he was oddly excited about the prospects of a new unit within the Sith Lord 's command...
It was a dark and stormy night, Private Wilt Echols noted with displeasure as the light mists of Endios erupted into torrential downpour for the sixth time in as many hours.
In a nearly reflexive gesture, the young stormtrooper unfastened the lower strap of his gleaming white armor to release accumulated water that sudden violent gusts of wind blew down the back of his neck. The black all-weather body suit he wo re beneath the plastene armor kept out the worst of the weather, but even nuetex had its limits. For once, he counted himself fortunate not to be one of the poor sods in the regular army wearing standard issue woodland battle uniform--those boys had to be soaked to the marrow by now.
With the renewed weather assault, his visor also began to fog over.
"Sonofasith," Echols swore to himself, careful to insure that his comlink was off. He rubbed vigorously at the large black optical sensors of his helmet to clear them.
A white-armored fist slapped him against the head.
"Echols, you nerf-arse, use your demister," Specialist Snyder, Echols' team leader ordered through the droid-like filter of his helmet's voice amp.
"Right, boss," Echols replied, chagrined. In a brilliant flash of hindsight, he recalled that his team leader had indeed showed him how to activate the demister earlier that morning. He and his teammates were in awe of the walking compendi um of stormtrooper knowledge that was Specialist Snyder, who seemed to know EVERYTHING about any piece of equipment the Empire fielded. Elchol's computer-enhanced vision cleared immediately and he could see the similarly-clad soldier standing next t o him. Despite the nearly complete lack of markings on the other trooper's uniform, holographic computer overlays provided by Echols' visor identified the other trooper as Specialist Snyder.
"Let your equipment work, soldier," Snyder admonished as he turned away to survey Echols' assigned guard post. Snyder swore quitely to himself; while never lacking in devotion, soldiers of the Empire seemed cursed to never learn how to use t heir equipment. The Imperial Army seemed to be a conglomerate of non-wrenching-nerf-herders. He had to show that demisting trick to every soldier that came to Bravo Team, 35th Squad. Despite their highly-vaunted Academy training, even the officers had to be shown basic use and maintenance of their equipment. Their new platoon leader, however, held promise. With the squad for only three weeks, Lieutenant Gray actually seemed to know something about soldiering himself. He at least appeared t o appreciate Snyder's comments, and never had to ask twice about how something worked. Snyder figured that with a little more work, the lieutenant might make a good soldier.
Snyder's introspection was broken in midstream by sudden movement in the distance. With the unaided eye it would have been difficult to spot their quarry, but the motion detectors of his helmet brought his attention to the three men down the hill and across the woodline.
"I see 'em," Snyder replied calmly, activating his comlink. "Lead, eight; trailers on the move, three northbound to the city."
"Roger eight," the depersonalized voice of Lt Gray immediately sounded over the squads' headsets. "Squad hold position. Bravo, prepare to cover with two from station echo."
Upon receiving Lieutenant Gray's report, General Nerial Tapsnor was quite pleased with himself. After nearly three days of pursuit, his task force had finally trapped the Endiosi smugglers.
The Endiosi, a ragtag band of smugglers almost as annoying as the rebel scum the Empire was beginning to deal with on a greater basis, had been testing the limits of Imperial tolerance for quite some time now. Governor McCain had finally dec ided to put an end to their illicit operations. Now their leader, one of those annoying intellectual types, had fallen into Tapsnor's hands, having trapped his entire ring in Bayat City. Tapsnor's task force with elements of the 34th Stormtrooper D ivision now surrounded them on all sides. He now had the luxury of rooting out the smugglers in rather high fashion.
"Viper Lead, proceed into Bayat and apprehend Mr. Karrde immediately," the General ordered leisurely from the operations center of the Star Destroyer Judicator. That would show this pitiful excuse for a sector of the Empire just how highly the Emperor thought of it's best outlaw--he would subdue them with a single stormtrooper squad.
Tapsnor frowned at the slight pause on the other end of the comlink. Lieutenant Gray was a gung-ho trooper, perhaps he was already off without wasting time to reply?...
"Base, Viper Lead, request link with air support."
The General nearly tipped his chair as he straightened himself. Air support? What in the name of the Empire did this lieutenant need air support for? He had his best squad of stormtroopers, the most feared soldiers in the galaxy!
"Viper Lead, air support is not necessary. Proceed with the arrest," Tapsnor commanded in agitation.
Another slight, nearly disobedient pause.
"Roger, Base. Request aerial recon and tenative fire mission on grid coordinates--"
"There will be no recon fire mission!" Traynor interupted angrily. "You have all the firepower you need in your squad, Viper Lead. Proceed with the arrest."
Another pause, almost as if the soldier on the other end of the comlink could not understand his orders. Traynor's face began turning red as he contemplated the Lieutenant's apparent lack of faith in his leadership.
"Roger, Base. Support team will be in position in 10 mikes."
The General threw his chair against the wall in his fury; veins pulsed redly in his forehead.
"Lieutenant, get your squad in that city this instant! You are arresting an ill-equipped petty criminal and I will not allow you to soil the Empire's military reputation by turning this into a major battle! You will march into that city, li ne abreast formation, and arrest Kardde in a show of force and confidence to shame the local populace, and you will do so now without hiding behind TIEs and AT-ATs! Do you understand your orders?"
Apparently the lieutenant's training finally kicked in, for the response was immediate.
"As you wish, Base."
The General retrieved his chair from an unnerved staff soldier and comtemplated how he would deal with this weak stormtrooper officer who seemed to insist upon hiding behind the rest of the Imperial military machine.
"Line abreast on me, move it!" Lt Gray ordered immediately upon terminating contact with his higher headquarters. As soon as his squad was formed up, Gray took the lead into the village that rated itself as a city on the small planet.
Gray thought that moving into an unknown situation without air and armored support was stupid, especially when such assets were nearby and readily available. However, he had voiced as much protest as he thought practical, and now there was n othing to do but follow orders. After all, the General was probably right, and the villagers would turn over the smugglers the very moment they saw stormtroopers marching down the wide street splitting the village. If not, they would start shooting and asking questions.
Still, Gray refused to move in with his back wholly uncovered, and had not ordered Snyder and Echols to rejoin them. He hoped that Snyder would be in place if the arrest went bad.
"Let's move it!" Snyder ordered at the general's final outburst, slapping Echols on the back and breaking into a flat run.
"The general said--"
"Forget what the general said," Snyder replied between breaths, shouldering his way through the dense foliage. "The LT didn't call us back, which means he's counting on us to back him up."
Snyder certainly hoped so--otherwise his career was sinking right along with his lieutenant's.
Bayan was eerily quiet as the squad marched passed the outer buildings of the village. Even with his auditory enhancers clicked up to full, Gray had trouble discerning any movement in the village. No children hid in the alleyways to watch i n awe as the white-armored apparitions marched by, no veterans saluted as they passed. No local constabulary approached to offer assistance.
The squad entered a restrictive area with tall buildings on the left and a massive stone wall on the right. Gray was on the verge of ordering his squad into a defensive wedge as they neared a sharp turn in the road when the building to their left suddenly exploded, taking two of Gray's seven soldiers with it.
The squad immediately pivoted and poured blaster fire into the still-burning rubble, but the next attack came immediately from the right as blaster fire lanced from the second story of a building behind them. Three more soldiers went down. A second detonation knocked the remaining troopers to the ground. Gray felt something slam into his right leg and nearly passed out, but held onto conciousness as the leg went numb. Having no other route of escape, Gray ordered the stormtroopers to break for the bend in the road. He saw only one soldier still alive to obey. Gray tried to stand, found that he could not, and began crawling after his remaining soldier.
Before he could marshal his thoughts and think to ask over the comlink, he noticed blaster fire from station Echo arcing into the village and destroying the building behind him. The battlefield was ominously silent until Private Schlesering darted around the corner in the road, only to trigger another ambush, which reigned fire up and down both legs of the street. With only Snyder and Echols left, assuming they hadn't met a similar fate, Gray thought that things could not get worse.
Until the mountain they had just descended exploded into the sky to reveal the snout of a planetary ion cannon. The cannon began spouting stored-up energy before the dirt settled. It managed to squeeze off eight shots before the Imperials r esponded, more than enough time to incapacitate the bulk of the orbiting task force. Even before the ion cannon was silenced, several ships darted from Bayan into space, virtually unhindered by the misplaced Imperial forces.
The ill-equipped smugglers had gotten away.
Over the stutter of continuing blaster fire, Gray heard a metallic rendition of Snyder's voice ring out over his comlink:
"Viper elements, Viper eight, how can I assist?"
"Eight, this is lead," Lt Grey began, trying to think of anything worthwhile Snyder could do. "Polish your armor."
Gray passed out.
"Rancor spit!" Snyder cursed when he saw the ion cannon appear and knew that they had lost. Virtually the entire squad was wiped out and the bad guys had gotten away--what a great ending to an already wet, miserable chase. "Base, Viper Eight , request immediate medivac, soldiers down!"
"Negative, Viper elements, the site is unsecure," a controller replied from above, static from the after-effects of the ion blasts nearly drowning him out. "Reconsolidate at coordinates BV400-506 for egress in twenty minutes."
"Great," Snyder mumbled to himself, taking off into a run down the mountainside into the city. "C'mon Echols, get your rear in gear!"
"You know where the pickup is?" Echols yelled, forgetting that Snyder could here him perfectly well over the comlink.
"No, but LT's still alive down there somewhere," Snyder responded, leaping over fallen trees and crashing through anything else that got in his way. He hoped that his erratic descent would spoil the aim of the smugglers left behind in the ci ty.
Snyder crashed to a halt behind a building just short of the main avenue; Echols wasn't paying enough attention to stop in time and nearly pushed Snyder out into the withering hail of fire still randomly coursing up and down the street. Snyd er hurriedly stuck his head into the street to look for survivors; the same helmet-mounted system that identified his comrades told him that only Gray was still alive.
Just after Snyder pulled his head back, a surge of blaster fire lit the corner of the building they were hiding behind. The walls shattered and the two stormtroopers dropped to the ground to keep from behind cut in half. Without any prompti ng further than a kick in the helmet, Elchols crawled backwards away from the street.
Snyder glanced across the street, seeking inspiration. Instead he noticed the building he had decimated earlier from the hilltop. What caught his attention was the remains of a GSA-80 automated firing system, complet with ruined sensor suit e. Not only had the smugglers escaped, they had apparently left nobody behind to man the ambush--35th squad had been eliminated by remote control.
Snyder suddenly had an idea.
He grabbed Echols and quickly made his way around the building gutted by the first explosion, working his way as close to Gray as possible without venturing out onto the street. As first order of business, he identified an alleyway across th e street for quick egress. Then he estimated the number of blasters operated by the remaining GSA-80s.
"Echols, grab these and start lobbing them in the air as fast as you can," Snyder ordered, pointing to the charred, rocky remains of the building to their right.
Echols didn't understand, but complied anyway, randomly tossing rocks faster than a droid in the spice mines of Kessel. The GSA sensors automatically tracked the rocks, locked on to them, and blasted away until they each hit the ground. Sny der waited several moments to catch the rythm, almost as if he were enterring an ongoing juggling circuit, then dashed out into the street. He grabbed LT Gray's feet and used his own momentum to carry them both into the alley across the street befor e the GSA's finished off the rocks and acquired him.
Snyder turned to tell Echols to meet them outside the city. But before he could say anything, Echols tossed five rocks impossibly high into the air and dashed across the street himself. The trooper crashed into the alley with blaster bolts licking his heels. Snyder was certain he could see Echol's toothy idiot grin behind the young soldier's helmet.
"You're quite a piece of work, Echols," Snyder declared, hoisting Gray onto his back and trotting deeper into the alley. "Let's get--"
Snyder noticed the trip wire too late and just managed to somersalt over it before snagging it with his shin, tossing the LT in the process. Echols, however, was busy covering their retreat and tripped backwards over the wire. The slight ex plosion was enough to rip Snyder's helmet from his head and instantly kill Echols.
Snyder choked back his fury, grabbed his lieutenant, and stumbled out of Bayan.
Lieutenant Gray next reached full conciousness, or at least a drug- hazed semblance thereof, in the recovery ward of the Judicator's forward sickbay. Upon the the realization that he was alive but before his comprehension of why that surprise d him, he noted that his body insisted he had recently been fired from the nearest airlock. The right side of his face itched fiercely. His right leg felt strange; lighter than his left, but he couldn't seem to move it. Before he could ponder his predicament further, someone called the room to attention. Midway through his aborted reflexive attempt to stand at attention, General Tapsnor swam into view, followed by his trusty aide.
"Sir, the integration is not yet complete; he should be sedated again as soon as possible," a disembodied voice called from somewhere near the door.
"Lieuenant Gray," the General's lieutenant began in lengthy preamble, oblivious to the doctor's concern for his patient, "this is Gener--"
Upon recalling how to manipulate his vocal chords, Gray interupted the aide.
"I know who this sorry excuse for a--"
"At ease, Lieutenant, you tread on weak ground as it is," the General interrupted Gray. "As you may have noticed, those smugglers you failed to apprehend slipped through our grasp. However, I am willing to overlook your squad's failure if y ou and your Specialist over there were to forget this rather distasteful mission and accept reassignment to a...more remote jurisdiction."
Gray's anger burned through the drugged haze enveloping him. He grabbed the General by the collar, hoisted himself into a sitting position, and placed the general in a head lock.
"Reassignment? My squad's failure? You seem to forget, sir, that I was following your orders--YOU killed my squad! Back off Wisheimer, I'll break this guanta's sorry neck before you pull the trigger."
"Don't do it LT," Snyder warned from the corner, held at bay by the aide's suddenly drawn sidearm. "He's not worth it."
"If you had followed my orders immediately, they would not have had time to prepare and this would have never happened!" the general choked out from his new position.
"NO!," Gray retorted, beginning to feel lightheaded from the exertion. "They were prepared for just this scenario for a LONG time."
"Lieutenant, I understand what you have gone through," the general choked out from his new position, "but prosthetics have come far in the last ten years and I'm certain--"
Gray relaxed his hold momentarily, stunned. Prosthetics. That explained the leg. Before Gray realized it, the doctor had slapped a strong sedative to his temple. Already weakened and drugged, the world began to fade away before he could d eliver his threat against the general's life.
Tabsnor stood laboriously and stiffly straightened his rumpled collar and crushed dignity.
"Doctor, this man is a menace to society," the general declared icily. "Terminate him. Immediately."
Tabsnor marched angrily from the room, his lieutenant covering their withdrawal with pistol drawn. The physician locked eyes with Snyder.
"I know what you're thinking," Snyder answered the unspoken challenge. "Will he or won't he? Can I do the deed without the other knowing? Let me tell you, it doesn't matter. If my lieutenant becomes one with the universe, then so do you, p al."
The doctor cleared his throat indignantly.
"Actually I was wondering how to fake his death in front of you. Aren't you a stormtrooper as well?"
"I'm a soldier, not a fanatic."
"Indeed," the doctor made a derisive sound in the back of his throat, still not moving. "And I always thought you were all so well...trained, for lack of a more humanitarian description of your indoctrination."
That line confused Snyder; he supposed it was the drugs in his system. "Whatever. It seems to me, that we're in a, oh, what do they call these things?"
"A 'stalemate'?" the doctor suggested with a slight smile, still not entirely certain he was not conspiring with a lunatic.
"Sounds about right," Snyder agreed.
"Then allow me to make a proposal?..."
"Propose away, oh learned one."
"There exists a certain...research and development unit, shall we say, that often requests terminally ill patients. No, no, it's not what you are thinking, young man. At least I don't think it is in this case. This time the unit has quietl y established certain guidelines for a new program that, quite frankly, requires soldiers who provide...ah...atypical responses to stimuli."
"And that means?"
"I have no idea, but you two soldiers are the most atypical stormtroopers I have ever had the misfortune to encounter."