Authors: Alexander Freed
The dying man’s armor dripped with sweat in the fog, beads of moisture—not water, never water on this planet—forming on the white plastoid chestplate and dripping onto the ground. The dying man himself was propped against a rock, and Sergeant Immel crouched above him as she fumbled to resecure his helmet. “He’s out, Colonel,” she said. “Autodoc pegs him at critical.”
Jace Malcom watched the horizon. Through his helmet’s display filters, the fog seemed to dissolve before the yellow sky and rocky cliffs, then snapped back into place as the filter tech gave up with an electronic shrug. No further enemy presence. At least, nothing obvious.
“Your call,” Jace said. “His tracer functional?”
“It works. What about vultures?”
“If the Empire has time to send vultures, it means we failed the mission.”
Not true, of course. The black-suited troopers could flock to the battlefield at any time—death’s own heralds, following med tracers to find their victims. But Immel knew the odds, so Jace could afford the lie.
“Why me?” Immel asked.
“Special Forces is here to advise, and I’m glad to be an extra gun. But in the field, the game’s yours.”
“You’re lowlife scum, Colonel Malcom.”
“SpecForce is nothing but.”
Jace watched Immel. Her armored shoulders rose and fell as she took a long breath, then, silent, leaned over her dying comrade and thumbed a device on his belt. Her voice crackled through Jace’s helmet comlink a moment later.
“All teams, we’re pressing on.”
Immel plucked her rifle out of the dust and started checking its readouts. Jace knelt beside the dying man and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Corporal Amden vor Keioidian. You did the Republic proud. You did all of us proud. And we’ll be back for you.”
Jace stood, nodded to Immel, and they slunk off together into the fog, rifles cradled close. Immel didn’t look back, and Jace smiled bitterly, feeling the expression blunted by the scars on his face. She’d made the right call. She might end up a decent leader after all.
, he thought,
The troops were going to need someone to look up to, and he didn’t have much time left.
The battlefield narrowed to a series of canyons, channeling the fog like a riverbed. Kalandis Seven’s gravity—low enough to make stone-tossing a sport at base, high enough to ensure that a fall was still painful—made the march easier, but no less tedious.
Breaking the long silence came static-distorted cheering over Jace’s comlink. Children shrieked and fireworks popped, each accompanied by a blast of white noise. In one motion, not breaking stride as they traversed the barren landscape, Jace and Immel lowered the volume level on their helmet comms.
The propaganda broadcast overrode all channels every hour, blared by Republic Strategic Information Service agents in orbit. This time, it was another news report on the Empire’s withdrawal from Corellia and the Core Worlds. A genuine, unadulterated victory for the Republic, but one very far away from the Kalandis system, and not the first apparent victory Jace had seen in his career.
It was forty years now, he thought—kept thinking, every day at different times, when some private showed off her first scar in the mess hall or while reviewing specs for the hundredth variation of some starfighter—forty years since the Sith Empire had come to conquer the galaxy, and he’d been fighting ever since.
He supposed he wouldn’t be fighting much longer.
Immel’s voice cut through commentary on the Supreme Chancellor’s latest speech. “Target in sight.”
They had emerged from the narrow mouth of a canyon onto a cracked plain, where the silhouettes of dark spires stretched skyward behind the fog. “We’ve reached the spaceport,” Immel continued, adjusting her comlink. “All teams, report in.”
Jace listened to the crackling voices speak up, one
by one, as he unslung a satchel and checked the contents. He knew the soldiers’ names (Zenhai, Kayle, Min-Reva), had met most of them (Eron collected antique music recordings; Camur had a caf allergy), had even hand-selected a few for this mission (Yennir of the Green saw through fog like glass). They were young and stupid and brave, and he could think of worse men and women to serve with.
“Ready to go?” Immel asked.
Jace nodded and tossed Immel the satchel. “Beacons charged and ready. Plant them on the targets and the fog won’t matter—our fighter wing will know exactly where to drop the payload.”
“Assuming the pilots aren’t making out with their droids back at base. You done this before?”
“Bomb a spaceport? More times than I can count.”
“What’re the odds they won’t rebuild tomorrow?”
Jace shrugged. “I can think of worse ways for the Imps to blow resources.”
Taking out a spaceport would be a major step in securing Kalandis, even if it did get rebuilt. Even if there were a dozen other Imp bases on the planet. Jace had put together the plan himself.
But Immel wasn’t wrong to wonder what good it would do. Keep lying to her, Jace thought. You have an example to set. The spaceport was a mixture of flat metal landing pads, squat command bunkers, and slender control towers. Jace and Immel made their approach together, silent, observing the enemy patrols—pairs of Imperial troopers clad in black and red. The fog made avoiding the enemy easy enough, until the heat of a landing starship blasted the fog away, whipping a scorching, misty wall across Jace and a nearby patrol.
The Imperials hadn’t turned, hadn’t noticed anything before Jace’s blaster bolts burned twin holes in the backs of their suits. The roar of the starship’s engines continued as Jace and Immel rushed to drag the bodies under a half-repaired Imperial fighter.
One of the bodies groaned as the engine roar began to fade. Immel pressed the barrel of her rifle to the back of the man’s helmet and pulled the trigger before rolling the corpse into the fighter’s shadow. “Mercy shot,” she muttered.
, Jace thought.
Immel withdrew a beacon and clipped it to a nearby power terminal as the fog rushed back in. Jace squinted and adjusted his helmet’s filters, looking in the direction of the vessel that had just landed.
“Southern tower is fifty meters that way,” Immel said. “Prime target—you plan to help?”
Jace didn’t turn, continuing to stare toward the looming shadow of the starship through the fog.
It was too large to be a bomber. Sleeker hull shape than most transports. “How are we doing for time?” he asked.
“Fighters are in the air by now. We’ve got at least two hours before they show.”
Jace swore, then jutted a thumb in the direction of the starship. “All right—we’re adjusting the plan. That thing that just landed? Pretty sure it’s a planetary command ship on a refueling run.”
Immel moved to Jace’s side and knelt, gesturing for him to follow suit. “Another patrol,” she said. “Keep talking.”
“Ship’ll be gone by the time our fighters arrive, but if we could capture that thing? Its navicomputer could point us to every Imp target on the planet.”
Immel glanced at the power terminal where the metal disc of the targeting beacon hummed quietly. “Whole blasted world would be a blue milk run,” she agreed. “But we’re not equipped for a boarding action.”
“We’re not,” Jace said, “and we don’t have a lot of spare firepower, but we’re not losing this chance.”
“Sir,” she said. “I’m in command of these men, and I’m not sending them—”
Good woman, Jace thought, even as he interrupted her. “You’re not sending them anywhere. You finish the mission, and I go in alone. Won’t draw attention that way.”
And it’s not a bad way to go out, either, he added silently.
The sentry looked almost innocent without his helmet—young, sun-haired, a splash of a birthmark on his neck. He walked down the command ship corridor, sidearm holstered, eating a ration bar.
Three steps, and Jace was out of his hiding place, gloved hands bringing the butt of his rifle onto the sentry’s head. The man crumpled to the floor with barely a sound. Jace gasped in pain.
“Are you all right?” Immel asked, the comlink barely carrying her voice.
“Fine,” Jace said. “Took a bolt on the lower deck. Fused some skin to the armor, but I’m fine.” It was true, and the kolto injections dulled the pain. What bothered him was that he noticed the pain at all. The gifts of old age.
“Beacons are all set, fighters are almost on-site. I’d join you, but you might have noticed that ship just took off.”
“I noticed. I’ll be okay.” Jace followed the sentry’s path toward a heavy blast door—the entrance to the bridge. “What do you think of Private Kayle?” he asked.
“Bad shot, can’t read a label, probably poison himself one day. Knows his faults and takes orders.”
“Could be your new forward on the null-racket team. Plays a mean game. Think about it.”
Immel’s reply was a long time coming. “You going somewhere?”
“Might be,” Jace said. “Just keep him in mind. It’s good to spend time with your squad.”
Jace muted his comm and hit the control panel. The blast door irised open and the bridge came into view—black metal and blinking consoles, and a transparisteel dome looking out onto fog and sky. Only a handful of officers manned their stations; forty years of instinct and threat assessments told Jace they wouldn’t be a problem.