Into the Void – Prologue

A long time ago, in a galaxy far,
far away…

STAR WARS
Episode I Redux
Into the Void

The golden age of the Republic has passed.  Striking from the fringes of civilized space, the mighty WARRIORS OF MANDALORE have begun a brutal campaign of conquest.  They aim to at last bring down their great ancient foe, the Galactic Republic.

The Galactic Senate remains frozen by corruption and acts slowly to respond.  In an effort to stem the tide, the President of the Republic deploys covert teams of commandos across the galaxy.

Accompanying these braves soldiers are the members of the ancient order of Jedi Knights, the sworn guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy….



Prologue

 

Deep in the bowels of the Republic corvette Sirocco, something rumbled unhappily.  It seemed to rise both in pitch and in volume, as if being pinched off.  As the pitch rose from a mere irritant to an ear-splitting screech, something else started making noise as it was rattled loose.  Those who could hear anything over the squealing would not have noticed it—with so many things damaged and shaken loose in the crash, nothing would have fazed them.

A moment later, even those who knew nothing about engineering knew something had gone wrong.  Both the inaudible rattling of a loose maintenance panel and the shriek of a drive compensator overloading ended suddenly with a rending explosion that jettisoned nearly the entire back half of drive nacelle number two.

The ship bucked sideways and threatened to fall into a spin, pin-wheeling like an out of control amusement ride.  Instead, white flashes of gas broke out all across the ship’s hull.  Automated maneuvering jets fired as quickly as their tiny computer minds would allow them, correcting the ship’s trajectory so as to put it back on course.  The hull across which they were spread was pockmarked and scarred.  Sections of hull plating were missing or vaporized, giving to anyone who glanced at the hull cameras the appearance of nothing less than a volcanic wasteland full of active geysers.

The geysers lessened in frequency, then in intensity, and finally settled on what their central computer determined was the correct course.  Unfortunately the main computer was, for the moment, out of commission, leaving the maneuvering computer’s orders left open to interpretation.  In this the maneuvering computer was not well suited, having only enough intelligence to understand what to do when told to do it, but not what must be done in the absence of those orders.  Thus equipped, the ship continued to fly along its course at an angle, as though her forward starboard side were her bow.

Not that pointing the bow in her intended direction would have mattered.  It had been no small amount of skill and a fair deal of luck—if such a thing even existed—which had allowed the small warship to escape her ambushers.  The quick-thinking captain and her crew were among the best in the Republic Forces, selected for their ability to take initiative and to act.  For the young captain—a Naval Commander by the name of Borenshek—that initiative had translated into the hard decision to abandon their mission and retreat.

In the face of overwhelming odds, it truly was the only reasonable decision.  Even if members of the Admiralty frowned on the idea of the galaxy’s most powerful navy retreating from any foe, he would have bet a pint that they would have done the same.  Hell, he would have bet the whole damn cantina, if they ever saw one again.

The Sirocco was no star cruiser—they weren’t even rated for the line of battle!  A single corvette, even one as powerful and highly modified as their own, was no match for a squadron of xebecs and their, albeit limited, fighter complement.

And the hundreds of Mandalorians aboard them.

In those harrowing minutes, as they first attempted to race around and then, realizing the futility of such an endeavor, through the Mandalorian battle line, Borenshek and her crew managed to evade near-certain annihilation.  Turbolasers crashing against shields and then hull armor, the process exacted a significant toll on the corvette.  Both turbolasers destroyed, almost every single point-defense laser, and a good portion of the aft portion of their ventral side.  Their only success had come in reaching the edge of the system’s gravity well in time to make the jump into hyperspace.

But even this simple, almost routine dash to lightspeed had come at a cost.  Not having enough time to calculate a precise course, the captain randomly selected a direction in space and pointed the ship there.  Determined to keep the ship in hyperspace only long enough to reach a safe point from which to jump along a known trajectory, she had only begun to pull back on the hyperdrive lever, when a Mandalorian starfighter—fanatical or suicidal, or both—leapt directly into the corvette’s trajectory.  The collision that might have followed would have ripped the ship apart, were it not for the captain’s precisely timed evasive maneuver.  In the second before the stars became starlines, Borenshek managed to push down on her controls enough to lower the corvette just below the kamikaze’s incoming vector—or rather, the majority of the ship.  Rather than take the entire ship, the collision took only the dorsal prow—and with it the bridge, the communications suite, and Commander Borenshek.

Decanting from hyperspace short of whatever target she had selected, it had taken the combined efforts of the ship’s remaining crew and passengers to seal the hull fractures and render the ship stable.  The hours spent securing life-support and reactor overloads had flowed naturally into the impossible task of repairing the corvette adrift in the middle of nowhere.

In the initial assessment they had found that the collision had not taken the bridge and comms, but it had also taken both the hyperdrive and the hyperspace communications array.  The list of repairable damage was unending, for which reason they had concentrated their efforts on the ship’s computer and her sublight drives. Both were severely damaged and only partially responsive, and without either, they had absolutely no hope of survival.

But the corvette’s tiny engineering team—consisting of a single commissioned officer, a grizzled warrant officer suffering from burns over forty percent of his body, and two crewmen in varying conditions of injury—were, like the rest of the crew, among the very best the Republic had to offer.  They worked harder than the rest, for they understood the stakes better than any of them.  And better than any of them, they knew that there was almost nothing they could do.  No amount of time would make the Sirocco spaceworthy again.  The most advanced warship in the Republic Navy’s arsenal, and little by little she faded into the void, helpless.

It was, in fact, the corvette’s advanced nature that had proved to her crew to be their greatest challenge.  With so much advanced central automation built into her, the Sirocco had been designed to require little more than a highly-specialized skeleton crew, a total of four officers and twenty-four crewmen.  The rest of the space was reserved for the special operations team they shuttled into and out of conflict zones, along with their pallets of gear and vehicles.  In fact, an entire section of the ship was devoted to the commandos and their operations, a section located in the central part of the ship, the section which had suffered the least amount of damage in the ambush and collision.  But whereas this had benefited the commandos in their flight chairs, the collision had deprived the ship of a good portion of her company.  Nearly one third of the crew had been lost.  Combined with the dead and wounded among the less fortunate commandos, nearly fifty percent of the hands aboard.

The commandos she carried were, of course, trained to work and fight her alongside the crew, but unlike the crew, the commandos lacked the specialized knowledge required to effect any meaningful changes to their present condition.

And so it seemed they were well and truly stranded—that is, had a random piece of information not crossed the mind of the commando’s commanding officer, a middle-aged man in his all-black garrison uniform wearing the insignia of a lieutenant colonel on his chest.  The beard he wore showed some strands of silver, but was otherwise the same dark blond of his hair.  He wore a somewhat serene expression as he watched the technicians working before him.  They were, like the rest of the remaining crew, working under his effective leadership, if only for a tiny, almost insignificant piece of information he had remembered reading as part of a briefing some seven years before.  It was, in fact, the occasion when this particular class of corvette—the Firebolt-class fast assault ship—had first been introduced to the Republic Forces as the primary mission support vessel for Special Operations Command.

It was why, running a hand caked with dried blood through sweat and grim-streaked hair, the Lieutenant Colonel now stood in the ship’s small operations suite watching the young tech work his magic on the command terminal.

Off to the Lieutenant Colonel’s side, cradling a broken wrist, the corvette’s operations officer, Lieutenant Hogart, regarded the senior man with a mixture of suspicion and a genuine curiosity.  Although Hogart had initially rejected the idea the Lieutenant Colonel had made, he was too well trained in matters of military bearing and custom—and too sensible—to even attempt to countermand the orders of a senior officer, though he would have been well within his rights to do so.  The Lieutenant Colonel—experienced though he might be—had no official standing, much less command authority, aboard the Sirocco.  With the loss of Commander Borenshek and the ship’s first lieutenant, Lieutenant Epelett, Hogart was the next in line for command.  That Lieutenant Bel’Dinor, the engineering officer, was two days’ Hogart’s senior made little difference where these sorts of formalities were concerned.  For all intents and purposes, this was now Hogart’s ship, his responsibility—no matter what.

Hogart eyed the hulking form of a commando sergeant working at a panel in a corner.  Another commando worked beside one of the techs, examining a knot of exposed wires.

But then the Lieutenant Colonel and his commandos were rather persuasive in the way these things went, and far, far more experienced than Hogart was.  They were each a veteran of a dozen campaigns, both classified and unclassified.  That they had no technical expertise in shipboard operations was as equally irrelevant as Bel’Dinor’s senior standing.  And considering who—or rather what—the Lieutenant Colonel was…

The tech emerged from beneath the command terminal and eased himself into the chair.  “Leni, try it now,” he called and started punching commands into the computer.

Across the room another crewman acknowledged, and a moment later exclaimed, “Yep, I see it here!  How about on your end?”

The tech beside them frowned as he watch the returns come across his display.  “Not yet, but let’s give it a second.”

“Will we have comms?” the Lieutenant Colonel asked in that disarmingly tranquil tone of his.  “Sublight or local comms, I mean.”

“We might,” the tech said, not particularly committal in his tone.  Without looking up from the station, he called across the room again, “Len?”

“The board is on—right next to you, Chief,” the other crewman responded, indicating.

“All the good it will do us,” Hogart grumbled.

“Let us not lose hope yet, Lieutenant,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, his tone betraying none of the concern he must surely be feeling.  “Please attempt transmitting a distress signal,” he said, his tone steady, as though he were speaking to a spooked animal.  He gestured to the comm board.  “Who knows,” he continued.  “We might just hit a relay.”

Suppressing a grimace of doubt, Hogart saddled past the other officer to the indicated board.  With practiced ease he opened the band to its maximum.  Doing so would allow the message to be distributed more widely, though it came at the expense of some clarity.  Satisfied with its tuning, he clicked the transmit button and leaned toward the voice pick up.  “S3, S3, S3.  This is Republic ship Sirocco.  Mayday, mayday.”

He waited, holding his breath.  The room had gone silent as he spoke, and only belatedly did he realize that they were all staring at him.

“Is the volume control functioning?” somebody suggested when no response came.

“It’s fine,” the tech replied.  “All levels are optimal.”

“Try it again,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, calmly.

Hogart nodded.  “S3, S3, S3,” he said, repeating the Fleet’s general emergency call sign.  “This is Republic ship Sirocco.  Mayday, mayday.”

As he spoke, there was a ping from the command terminal’s intercom.  Before he could turn to check it, the Lieutenant Colonel had reached across the board and pressed the switch.  “Go ahead.”

“Ops, this is engineering,” Bel’Dinor’s gruff voice came over the comm, “we’ve completed our final diagnostic of the sublight engines and are reporting in.  Is the Colonel their?”

“This is he,” the other responded.  “Go ahead with your report.”

“Yes, sir.”  Bel’Dinor hesitated a moment, his tone taking on the air of one who was listening to someone else speaking.  “The—the individual drive nacelles are in pretty poor condition, sir.  Of the five, only four are operational, and each of those at less than seventy-five percent of power.  We are in the process of replacing the oscillator dampening rings, but it’s going to take some time to replace them all.  The conduits running to the main reactor have been back-channeled and we’re working to reroute their primary—”

“Lieutenant,” the Army officer said civilly, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but this may be a little too specialized for my purposes.  Can you give me the basics?  Will she fly?”

There was a pause.  Hogart knew it was because the short-fused Bel’Dinor did not like being interrupted.  But then who cared what some Naval lieutenant preferred.

“Yes, sir,” Bel’Dinor said after a pause, “but just barely.  The four operational nacelles can only handle seventy-five percent power—if that.  If we even manage to power them up, we should keep them below fifty percent.”

“I see,” the Lieutenant Colonel responded.  He reached up to stroke at his beard.  “Very good work, Lieutenant.  Concentrate your efforts on three rather than four of the drives, so as to conserve spare parts—we may need them later.  Try your best to ensure that those drives are at their highest operability.”

“Sir…”  There was another pause, and Hogart could imagine Bel’Dinor’s face as he struggled to find the right words.  Professional ship’s engineer or not, Bel’Dinor was both easily annoyed and not what Hogart would call especially bright.  “With all due respect, do you actually intend on flying her?”

That random tidbit of information, Hogart reflected grimly.

“Yes, Lieutenant, I do,” the Lieutenant Colonel responded, showing no evidence of frustration or annoyance at being questioned.  “Do you have a better idea?”  As he spoke those last words, although he seemingly intended them for the engineer, but he directed his gaze at Hogart, issuing the question to them both.

But Hogart shook his head.  No, he didn’t have a better idea.  Short of spinning through space until they reached a relay or crash-landed on one of the system’s orbiting bodies, they were out of options.

By the silence on the other end of the intercom, he guessed that Bel’Dinor had reached the same conclusion.  When the pause stretched a moment longer than he would have expected, Hogart realized that the other engineering officer was also consulting with his team, diminished in numbers though they might be.  And so when Bel’Dinor said, “No, sir,” he spoke not only on his behalf, but on behalf of the Sirocco’s engineering section.

“It is not ideal,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, seemingly—or perhaps actually—reading their minds, “but it can be done.”

“And do you plan to pilot the ship, sir?” Bel’Dinor continued.

“Unless you have another helmsman or pilot aboard, I don’t see that we have another choice.”

Hogart felt his face flush.  He had been slated to enter the Pilot Officer Course when this mission had come down the line.  Ship’s ops officers, along with the commanding officer, were expected to act as backup pilots.  His early promotion to this billet and the unexpected activation of Special Operations Command had created a dangerous situation…

Once more, as if reading his mind, the Lieutenant Colonel gave him a reassuring smile.  “Only the basics, gentlemen,” he said aloud to both them.  “Nothing fancy.  I will land us on one of the planets in this system, from which we can either effect repairs or contact the Republic to come pick us up.”

Wherever it was that they were, Hogart thought grimly, taking a quick glance at the astrogation charts.  Even without looking at them, he knew they were still well within enemy space, but where precisely…

The system was called Riistoorii, a remote system none of them recognized.  Its entry in the star catalogue was no more helpful.  The entry dated to the Expansionist Era, when surveyors fanned across the stars in a bid to grab as much space as possible.  In many places—maybe in most—ships would decant from hyperspace long enough to catalogue the system, scanning it quickly for sentient life and resources, before moving turning around and moving on.  The idea among these prospectors had been to petition for ownership of the entire star system under the old Rights of Discovery law, but most of the systems catalogued this way had been of little use to anybody save their inhabitants.  Millions made and lost their fortunes that way.  Had the poor sod who found this place, Riistoorii, made a profit or lost it all?  Besides the basics in astronomy regarding the planet and its orbiting satellites, the entry simply stated, “A Wookiee penal colony is located on the fourth planet.”

Looking up at the suite’s main screen, he saw that orange blip was now noticeably growing as they grew ever closer.  How would a Wookiee penal colony take to the arrival of a Republic ship…

“Very well, Colonel,” Bel’Dinor said with a sense of finality.  He didn’t like it anymore than Hogart did, but—like the matter of driving the ship—they had little choice.  “We’ll get to work on the nacelles and report back when we have made some progress.  Engineering, out.”

Still emanating a sense of odd serenity, the Lieutenant Colonel shut off his own end of the intercom, and with a heavy sigh, he turned to face Hogart.  “Lieutenant,” he said and with a single hand gestured back to the comm board, “the emergency signal, if you will.”

“Yes, sir,” the younger man responded and repeated the mayday transmission.

With half an ear, he listened as the Army officer turned to the technician working on the command terminal and said, “Have you been able to successfully reroute the piloting functions?”

The tech nodded, though he seemed no more confident than he had before.  “Most of the automation functions are sill online, so it won’t take all of the sophistication of a bridge command console.  That said, you might have some trouble with finer maneuvers.  Aside from the general piloting program, the damage we’ve taken is going to make the maneuvering jets sluggish to respond.  Their computer is acting up, and unless—”

“That should be fine,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, gently interrupting.  Looking across the room at one of the commandos, he said, “Corporal, can you please contact Sergeant Killian and ask him to come here.”

“Sure thing,” the commando said and got to work on his headset commlink.

Hogart frowned.  These Special Ops types were loose-cannon cowboys—their simple lack of military decorum was evidence enough of that.  Sure, they could be made to say sir when addressing an officer, but it always came out dripping with sarcasm.  He was told that it was a sign of their closeness among their fellows and their officers, a “necessary informality” integral to Special Operations work.

Well, that was fine, he supposed, but it didn’t mean that the basics of military custom had to break down.  He himself, he had mildly pointed out to others in the past, was also assigned to Special Operations Command—and that didn’t mean that decorum suffered aboard the Sirocco.  It was more likely, he thought confidently, a sign of the difference between the Navy and the Army.

Hogart finished his third attempt at the transmission, took a step back, and waited.

To no one’s particular surprise, there was no response.

“How far to the planet?” the Lieutenant Colonel asked, his tone suddenly tight.

Hogart gave the other man a sideways glance.  Was the frustration finally beginning to show?

“We’re most of the way there now, sir,” one of the crewmen responded.  “At our current rate, another hour or so.”

Had it been part of Borenshek’s personal genius that had set them on this route—and dropped them from hyperspace in line with the system’s only terrestrial planet—or had it been pure luck?  Hogart wished he knew.

He took another look at the Lieutenant Colonel.

Or had it been something else?

Hogart leaned back over the comm board and started again.  “S3, S3, S3…”

The door to the suite made an unhappy grinding sound as it slid open.  Framed by the portal, the hulking figure of the commando’s senior sergeant—Killian—loomed darkly.  Like the other commandos, he wore black combat fatigues, portions of which shone with attached armor plating.  He carried a black blaster pistol across his chest and a blaster carbine across his back.  Before he could get more than two steps into the suite, the Lieutenant Colonel was giving him orders.

“Prepare the team to disembark on that planet.  I’ve sent the relevant data to our ready room.”  There was a sudden urgency in the man’s voice, even if his demeanor generally remained calm, collected.  “We may have to fight our way to the settlements, if the local populace proves hostile—or under the enemy’s control.”

Killian squinted at his commander.  There was an unspoken question there—and Hogart could guess what it might be.

“Yes,” the Lieutenant Colonel said in response.  “Corporal, go with him.”

Hogart frowned as he watched the commandos go.  “Sir,” he ventured, “is everything alright?”

The door shut, seemingly releasing the Lieutenant Colonel, who now slowly turned to face him.  “Continue with the transmission,” he said firmly, but not without a certain touch of the genteel.

Hogart nodded.  It would do him no good to pursue the matter.  Tired of hearing the sound of his voice echoing in the void of interplanetary space, he keyed the comm switch again.  “S3, S3, S3.  This is Republic ship Sirocco, requesting assistance and rescue.  Mayday, mayday.”  A pause for response.  There was, of course, no response.  They were in the backend of nowhere, within the enemy space.  With their luck, it wouldn’t be the Republic who would answer, it would be—  “S3, S3, S3,” he said sharply, cutting off his own train of thought.  “This is Republic ship Sirocco, requesting assistance and rescue.  Mayday, may—”

With a flicker of pseudomotion, they came out of hyperspace on the rear scope.  Three xebecs, each with their beaked prows pointed directly at the Sirocco, now far within the system’s gravity well.  And then, with a blast of static from the comm, a deep, grizzled Mandalorian voice said, “Republic ship Sirocco, we are here to assist.”

“Hard about!” the Lieutenant Colonel shouted even before the transmission ended.  “Run the engines to full.”

“Hyperdrive isn’t working!” one of the techs shouted.

I’m aware,” the other ground back, shoving the tech seated at the command terminal out his way.  He jabbed at the console quickly.

“Trying to run, Sirocco?” the voice came again, mocking.  “Let’s see how far—”

The last part of the message was cut off as the sublight engines screamed to life, in turn generating a chorus of alarms and klaxons all around the suite.

Belatedly, nearly thrown to the deck, Hogart hauled himself into the seat beside the Army officer.  The other techs in the room managed fairly enough and all strapped in.

At once the darkness of space lit with the green lances of turbolaser fire.  Banking hard to port, the Sirocco avoided the barrage by seconds.  The corvette slid awkwardly to just below the enemy’s plain of fire before firing her drives again and accelerating away towards the planet.

Over the intercom, Hogart heard a flurry of shouts and curses as crewers and commandos were tossed across the deck.  More concerning still was the particular pitch the alarms had taken—and unhappy combinations of warnings on various screens across the suite.

“Colonel!” Hogart shouted, managing to keep himself in his chair.  “She can’t handle this—Colonel!

“Shut those alarms off!” the Army officer shouted back, ignoring the warnings flashing with increasing urgency across his terminal.  “Put all weapon power to the rear deflectors!”

The crewers frantically got to work on the orders even before Hogart had a chance to relay them.  A pair of close calls bounced hard off the ship’s dwindling shields.  A second later, a second salvo sent the tiny corvette into an awkward fishtail as malfunctioning maneuvering retrorockets continued to correct erroneously.  Only the main drives kept the ship on the correct—or any other trajectory—and that by brute force alone.  For his part, the Lieutenant Colonel seemed to have it entirely under his control.  With a final acceleration, this one slightly more gradual the last, he had the ship steady once more and burning for the orange-brown glow of the planet below them.

Hogart deactivated one series of warning messages after another that continued flashing across his console, but the last one made him pause.  Leaning closer to their pilot, he called out over the screaming of the drives, “Colonel, if we continue at this rate, we’ll never make it to the planet!”

As if to underscore his point, something to their rear started to squeal before being suddenly silenced by the deep-throated roar of an explosion.  They were instantly slammed down into their chairs as the explosion sent the ship spinning end over end.  On the screens the planet flashed past to be replaced by a blur of stars, then the vaguely bronze colors of the approaching enemy ships, and then the stars again.

Clamping his hands against the comm board, Hogart saw the Lieutenant Colonel reach across his own console and start jabbing at the controls.  In response, the ship’s retrorockets all fired in unison, momentarily lifting him against his restraints before the artificial gravity pulled him back into his seat.

Another jab at the command console and the corvette stopped spinning, lying dead in space.  And then, with a screech of straining hardware, the corvette fired its sublight engines and roared towards the planet below.

As they realigned their vector, more warnings flashed across their screens.  In the dash to override this or silence that, Hogart just barely got a glimpse of the rear scopes.  They were still in range of the xebecs’ guns, but they were also pulling away.  Slowly, but surely.

“What was that?” the Lieutenant Colonel demanded, referring to the explosion that had sent them tumbling through space.

“I told you, sir,” Hogart called back, “the engines can’t handle this for much longer!  That was the number three engine.”  He pointed at the engineering readouts.  “Three is completely dead, sir.  The others are running overcapacity.”  He glanced up the main screen and at the planet that was quickly taking over their view, and then back at the navigation screen.  The space between the Sirocco and the planet was quickly diminishing.

“Try the distress call,” the Army officer said as he flung them wildly to avoid another barrage of turbolasers.  More warnings as a few of the shots connected, sending the rear deflector’s status into the yellow.

What?” Hogart shouted.  “Sir, that’s insane!”

“Maybe,” the other shouted back, too busy dodging and weaving to engage.  “Just do it.”

“But the enemy, our code signals—”

“None of that is about to matter, Lieutenant,” the other said stiffly, dipping the corvette through a complicated series of twists and loops that pressed them down hard into their seats.

Halfway through the complicated dance, Hogart recognized the maneuver Hogart.  It was intended to drive down engine while still retaining a large part of the ship’s inertial flight.  Sure enough, Hogart saw out of the corner of his eyes, the engine gauges started coming down from critical.  But even as they straightened their flight once more, more warnings flashed out, this time from the proximity systems.  On the rear scopes they saw that the xebecs seemingly leap towards them as they too fired their main drives.  With that image still in his mind’s eye, Hogart jammed at the comm switch, “S3, S3, S3.  This is the Republic ship Sirocco, requesting immediate assistance.  Mayday, mayday, mayday—we are under attack!  S3, S3—”

He was cut off abruptly as the comm panel raced up to slam him in the face.  He managed to pull away just in time as the corvette dropped into a wide turn, pressing him further and further into his chair.  And as the tiny warship came around he saw there, on the screens, the three xebecs, their beaked prows pointed directly at them.

Colonel!” Hogart screamed, gesturing.

The other ignored his protestations.  Pulling out of its turn, the Sirocco leapt forward and streaked directly towards the nearest of the black-bronze warships.  Caught off guard, the xebec’s gunners overshot the Sirocco, while the other ships faltered in their fire, concerned they might strike their ally as the corvette dashed low along the lead ship’s hull.  Hogart swore he could see the stunned expressions of the enemy gunners.

By some order—or perhaps simply tiring of watching the Sirocco harass their mate—the other two open fired.  Space before them became a crisscrossing web of red turbolasers and blue ion bolts.  Above them the lead xebec’s shields flashed like lightning.

The Sirocco spun through a barrel roll, and as it spun, its pilot through her on her drives, sending her rocketing up along the xebec’s stern.

Still firing on the enemy ship, two solid turbolaser broadsides slammed into the space the Sirocco had just occupied.  With a final white flash of lightning, the lead ship’s rear deflectors at last gave out.  Undefended, the rain of turbolaser fire punched through the xebec’s hull, incinerating gunners at their stations and rupturing dozens of turbolaser capacitors.  The resulting second explosion punched a hull through the ship’s aft section, exploding in a plume of red fire out both starboard and port sides of the xebec.

The Sirocco was already pulling away from the explosions in her wake, clawing for space along the xebec’s dorsal side.  Foolish or fanatical Mandalorian gunners continued to fire at them even as their own ship came apart beneath them.

And then, with a final near-miss from enemy turbolasers, they cleared the ship and blasted into open space.  On the rear scopes, the wounded xebec flared with increasingly larger explosions that worked their way along her horizontal axis towards the beaked prow.  Escape pods fired from her hull like seeds on a wind-flower, and then with a final flurry of escaping crewers, the Mandalorian ship blew up.  Debris spewed in all directions, small pieces of which clattered against the Sirocco’s stern.

“The distress signal,” the Lieutenant Colonel commanded.

Fighting back waves of nausea, Hogart resumed broadcasting.  On the main screen the planet was beginning to show a blue haze around its otherwise orange-brown hue.  A steady bouncing send shudders through the ship’s hull as they started through the planet’s magnetic field.

On the rear displays the two remaining xebecs, after only the slightest hesitation, began to accelerate around and, that proving too time-consuming, through the debris of their late partner.

And all the while, seemingly indifferent the plight of their stranded comrades, they kept up a constant barrage of turbolaser fire.  Intact ship compartments and escape pods were vaporized in the ruthless barrage as the Mandalorians cleared a path.

“Engineering here,” Bel’Dinor’s decidedly unhappy voice came over the room’s intercom.  “Ops, we’re going to lose the engines.”

Hogart glanced at the Lieutenant Colonel.

For his part, the old man merely nodded.  “I understand,” he said calmly.  “We’re going to run them until they die.  I want every ounce of power they have—and then get clear, in case we have a more serious blowout.”

There was a pause on the other end.  They were conferring, Hogart knew.  Where other senior, naval officers might have snapped impatiently, the older man instead seemed to relax.  His face slackened and his lids lowered, half-closing.  He looked serene or meditative, entirely out of place—

“Yes, sir,” the inexplicable response came from Bel’Dinor.  “Engineering, out.”

Hogart stared at the man next to him.  “And after that?” he asked.

The serene expression lifted and the Lieutenant Colonel was once more the quietly intense commando from before.  “We’ll rely on inertial power and our retrorockets,” he said simply.  “I’ve managed to override their automation.”

Hogart blinked in surprise, but before he could respond, the board in front of him chimed.  He looked down.  No, it couldn’t be…  But sure enough, it was.  “Sir, we’re hailed!”

“Put it on,” the other said.

“—read you loud and clear,” a nasally voice said in a distinctly Outer Rim drawl.  “Those Mandalorians giving you some trouble, eh?

Hogart frowned at the comm.

As did the Lieutenant Colonel, who motioned at the comm board—and without further prompting, Hogart clicked the comm switch.  “Yes, we are under attack,” he responded emphatically.  “We need assistance at once!”

Oh, ho, ho,” the voice on the other responded with no small amount of irony.  “Well, that’s just dandy, isn’t it?  All the way out here, far, far from home, and nobody to help you out…

Hogart flashed the Lieutenant Colonel an angry look, but the older man was too busy to respond.  He through the ship through another series of maneuvers meant to avoid the continuing barrage of turbolasers raining down on them from the approaching xebecs.  “Neutrality in its purest form,” he commented when they leveled out once more.

Well,” the voice from the comm continued, “this is your lucky day, Republic ship Sirocco, because the boys and girls of the Aporia are here to help.”  There was a pause and what sounded distinctly like laughter.

“Colonel, we must be picking up some juveniles with a long-range trasmitter or—”

The other man banked, lowering the ship below the xebecs’ ecliptic as he dodged yet another salvo.  They were becoming increasingly concentrated, better coordinated.  And the ship’s controls were growing sluggish, the engines sputtering to respond.

Well, what’ll be, Republic ship Sirocco?” the voice cut in.  “Rescue doesn’t come cheap out here.

The proximity alarm warbled and when he looked, Hogart could see a ship gliding into view off to port.  It was skipping along the planet’s atmosphere, building speed as it came.  A bulk freighter, he saw—that much he could tell at this distance—one with an unusually large dorsal cargo pod which towered over the bow-mounted cockpit.  As it shifted direction, the freighter’s silhouette darkened against the glow coming off the planet.  The freighter—the Aporia—looked like some exotic hunchbacked cetacean gliding through an ocean’s waves.

Aporia,” the Lieutenant Colonel called, his voice liquid and controlled, “we have some script aboard, though perhaps not as much as you might desire.  I can, however, promise you that the Republic will pay generously for your assistance.”

There was a chorus of laughter from the other end.  “You hear that, mates?” a rough voice chimed in.  “Do the work now, get paid later.

Good try, Republic ship Sirocco,” the first voice returned, “but we don’t play by Republic Senate rules.

There was another chorus of laughter from the comm, tinny and annoying in his ears.  He half-expected the Lieutenant Colonel to try a threat or some other form of manipulation.  But if anything the older man seemed to grow even more serene, the expression on his face easing and his eye lids drooping, an expression that was at once sleepy and meditative, the same expression he had taken when speaking with Del’Binor.

Alright, Sirocco,” a decidedly younger voice cut in abruptly.  Unlike the others aborad the freighter, this one sounded serious.  “We’ve no love for the Republic, but we’ve even less love for the barbarian horde.  We’ll help you out, but we’ve got your IFF code.  If you don’t pay up…

A loud whine echoed from deep inside the Sirocco.  Engine one was overheating to critical as another round of turbolaser blasts pulled power from the engines to reinforce the rear deflectors.  The evasive maneuvers were now becoming lethargic as their pilot fought to control the ship.  More turbolaser blasts struck home with disconcerting accuracy.

Forty kilometers off their port bow, the approaching freighter suddenly spun in place, bringing its bow face on with the Republic corvette.  Tiny shocks of light and gas rippled across the cargo module’s exterior.  Hogart stared in stunned horror as the freighter seemed to flounder, shuddering under its own mass.  She had been struck and, like a massive Lomarese skive-flower, she was opening up—

With shockwaves that shook the Sirocco, blue and white proton torpedoes streaked past the corvette, missing them by a bare few meters.  And following directly behind them, six teal-colored snubfighters lanced past, their underbellies and winglets carrying a wicked array of missiles and torpedoes.

The crew in the Sirocco’s operations suite watched in wonder as, with military precision, the torpedoes zeroed in on the forward batteries of the xebec to their port.  A moment later, caught unawares by this new threat, the enemy’s prow was enveloped in a curtain of fiery explosions.  Simultaneously, off to their starboard, the fighters began systematically pounding away at the second xebec’s own point defenses.

Well, you know,” the nasally voice said into the stunned silence, “this would probably be the right moment to run, Sirocco.

They didn’t need to be told twice.  Urging the last bit of power from the corvette’s sublight drive, the Lieutenant Colonel set the ship back on its trajectory with the planet’s hazy blue atmosphere.  They tore past the ugly, ungainly bulk freighter.  As they streaked past, the Lieutenant Colonel leaned towards the comm and said, “You have our thanks, friends.”

If there was any responsive, it was cut off by an explosion on their dorsal side, finishing off what remained of the corvette’s shields.  Pieces of the Sirocco’s hull vaporized in high-pitched squeals ending in a series of concussive implosions.  The Mandalorian commander, realizing capture was no longer option, would settle for destruction.

Maneuvering to regain control, a second salvo struck the Sirocco amidships—and then, as he had known would happen all along, everything went straight to hell.  Once more the corvette plunged end over end, pin-wheeling out of control as the atmosphere grew closer and closer.

Hogart fought to keep consciousness as the spin grew increasingly erratic.  He watched helplessly as one of the technicians was ripped from his chair and slammed into the nearest bulkhead.  A split second later his limp form was flung back across the room, lifeless, leaving behind a large, red smear.

Next to him the Lieutenant Colonel was fighting to regain control.  Fighting and failing.

And in those last moments before the darkness took him, he knew they were doomed.  If not even a Jedi Knight could save them, then nothing in the galaxy could.

 

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