Topic: The Word for Hero
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The RAS Mythical streaked between stars like a knife through the void, bristling with weapons and equipment and filled to the limit with troops and ordnance. It was a vessel of war, a fearsome construct that spelled doom for whatever faction dared to challenge it. Angular and shaped like an arrowhead, deadly and powerful, captained and crewed by the best of the best. . . Yes, the Mythical was among the Republic's finest Assault Ships.
And Admiral Izn't K'zak knew it.
The Admiral was a Verpine, a slender hermaphroditic insectoid being with bulging black eyes and a green exoskeleton. It surveyed the clone troopers around it in the hangar and would have grinned with fierce pride if it had flesh-lips like humans. These men were some of the best fighters K'zak had ever fought alongside, whether they were vat-born or womb-born. It didn't matter to the Verpine. Hatching, decanting--all were irrelevant detail. All it cared about was that the clones on its ship were the victorious conquerors of Striadden, Valazia, L'mysh, Noor--the 319th Regiment, "The Saber."
This particular planet, Driamorrek, would go the way of L'mysh and the others--to the Republic. Of this, K'zak had no doubt. Not with the celebrated Jedi Master Arik Thrynn as the commanding general (whether K'zak liked the man or not); not with the 319th as the Republic's defenders. And certainly not with Mythical in orbit, poised like a drawn-back fist to crush the Separatists should they object to the Republic presence.
The mission was fairly simple for the Verpine: be ready to blow the Seps to scrap if need be. For the clones, it was also routine: blast any droids in their way. It pitied the Jedi and his apprentice, though--they had to negotiate with the Driamorreki government and convince them to stay within the Republic while resolving a dispute over miners' rights that had been festering for years.
From what K'zak had read in the mission precis, Driamorrek was best known for the semiprecious stones in its soil--j'farra--that could be processed to make imitation firestones. This put the rocks in very high demand among smugglers and the black market--the processed j'farra was almost indistinguishable from firestones at first glance--and also the moderately wealthy. It was one thing to shell out millions of credits on a fine firestone; it was a different matter entirely to get the same bragging rights for a fraction of the price. K'zak inwardly snorted at the greed of some people. Pointless flaunting of wealth that was better used elsewhere.
But the Jedi had to keep those who mined the stones, the government that ran the operation, and all the customers and patrons happy, simultaneously, and also keep the Separatists from wooing Driamorrek into their insidious plans.
That last, K'zak could help with.
It addressed the gathered troopers, speaking Basic with a fizzing, clicking accent:
"Soldiers of the Three-nineteenth Regiment! We all know why we're here. Our purpose is to protect the Republic and its citizens, and by the Force, we are going to do so. You also know that your new general will be arriving in oh-two-hundred hours when we rendezvous with him at Maia. I'm aware that your last general was fairly relaxed about sarcasm, gallows humor, and back-talking, but be warned that Thrynn is not known for his lenience. His usual parting phrase is: 'I do not tolerate failure. Or disobedience.' "
One of the troopers, a sergeant, spoke up. "Well, sir, neither do we."
K'zak chittered in amusement. "I noticed. Do what you do best, men, and Driamorrek is ours." It paused a moment and then said, "I, too, do not tolerate defeat. So let us. . . what is the phrase, Quartermaster Hurss?"
A middle-aged woman stepped forward slightly, grinning. Kamryn Hurss was a Pyr, a dark-complected being with gold eyes and formidable teeth, and white streaks in her black hair. She also wore white-trimmed grey Mandalorian body armor, her helmet tucked under one arm. "The phrase, Admiral, is: 'let us kick their di'kutla shebse.' Keep the Jedi happy, you know. Shall we?"
Admiral K'zak nodded and turned its attention back to the troopers. "You heard the Quartermaster. Dismissed."
With nary a mutter or extra comment, the troops departed, armored boots clicking on the deck; K'zak turned to Hurss. The Pyr flicked a nonexistent dust speck off of her helmet and donned it, her slit pupils dilating briefly before being obscured by the black visor.
"So you did know about Thrynn," K'zak said quietly, the fizzes in its speech becoming more pronounced as its volume dropped.
Hurss nodded. "He's not going to make it easy for the boys."
"You've worked with him before." She didn't phrase it as a question.
"Yes. Battle of Rhun."
"And I take it you didn't appreciate his. . . commanding personality?"
Admiral K'zak paused. The quartermaster and the Verpine admiral were rarely formal, having served together on too many campaigns to stay stiff and uptight. That being said, Izn't K'zak was not a very open being, nor did it usually regale its noncombatant officers with opinions of no consequence. It settled on a noncommittal "He is a decisive leader."
Hurss snorted. "Right. A leader who barely gives the lowly common people a chance to do much of anything. He took over the Mythical, for Force's sake. You don't like him, admit it."
With any other being, Admiral K'zak would have fixed them with a stare that would make even a Bothan think twice about prying. Not Hurss. "Very well. I admit that General Thrynn is not a being I admire for any reasons but combat ability."
The Mandalorian woman laughed. "We're getting somewhere," she said lightly. "Now, sir. Have you reviewed the--"
"Yes, Quartermaster Hurss, I have reviewed all the orders and logistics information you gave me and found that you made no errors in calculating the necessary supplies. I would, however, recommend that we acquire surplus medical supplies. We're going to need them."
"Yessir." Hurss bobbed her head and waited. When K'zak gestured its dismissal, she turned smartly to her right and exited the hangar.
The clone trooper scowled up at the underside of the top bunk above him, eyebrows contracted into one line. He wasn't an ordinary trooper, though--he was an ARC, a captain--but he wasn't off on some daredevil mission for the Republic. He was fast asleep.
His eyes flickered around beneath his lids; a muscle in his left cheek twitched as if in panic. If a Jedi had been near enough, they would have sensed waves of fear and fury rolling off the sleeping captain--desperate, helpless. But no Jedi could see what he was seeing: this dream, this nightmare, was visible only to he.
It always started out with snow.
The flakes lazily fell to the ground, indiscriminately covering everything with a white shroud. On both sides the cliff walls stretched high above, sheer and dark; in the distance was the end of the pass and the glow of the lights of the nearby town. It was peaceful and silent--rare enough in the life of an ARC to warrant special attention.
He stood in a forest of splintered stumps--the remnants of a once huge stretch of woodland, now reduced to matchsticks by the vicious fighting of the last few months. But now the harsh landscape was somewhat softened by the falling snow--a bit. He looked around, taking in the irregular craters and holes where things had gone bang.
"I've been looking for you."
He turned; a tall woman with short horns protruding from her scalp and pale blue eyes, dressed in white armor and brown robes, watched him from a few meters away. She was smiling, a tinge of sadness in her eyes.
"No matter what happens," she said softly, "there'll be an end to this."
"So we're going, then."
He nodded. "We'll be ready, ma'am."
The dream melted forward like a holovid scrubbing through frames--disjointed images flashed, one after the other: the base, painted armor, Deece, sunrise, the battle--
It raged around him, a maelstrom of destructive power and desperate fear. Troopers surged forward in a great implacable tide of identical armor and blue fire, interspersed with the last of the local militia--they were ragged and worn, but fought on; he ran with them, shouting orders and blasting at the mass of dark, skeletal droids before him. The woman was slightly ahead, blue lightsaber shining brighter than the pearly grey sky; she whirled through the air like a bird, effortlessly felling all who stood against her like cheap toys.
Moments slid by in a blur of adrenaline and instinct, a confusion of lights and noise and the staccato, screaming, throbbing heartbeat that was the sound of war. . .
They were surrounded. The blasting intensified as the droids closed in on the vastly outnumbered clones and locals. Bodies lay in the churned-up, oil- and blood-laced snow, and piles of droid parts, and the wounded; the droids advanced, mindlessly slogging through the debris.
Then the woman's voice rang out. "Retreat!" she yelled, dancing through the horizontal rain of red lights with her lightsaber humming and hissing. "Everybody--get out of here!"
"Copy," he barked in grim acknowledgment, emptying his second-to-last clip into a super battle droid. At first, he'd resented every order to retreat, disliking the feeling of failure. He was used to retreats by now. There'd been far too many, these past few weeks.
The Republic forces began falling back, stubbornly refusing to go down without one hell of a fight. The locals in particular were in a frenzy of running, turning around, and withering their pursuers with return fire. But something was wrong--his general wasn't retreating; she was advancing--
"Aista, what are you doing?!!" he shouted.
She looked back, just once. Though he couldn't hear her reply, he could read her lips even from this far away: "My children. . . It's been an honor."
Realization tore through him like a blaster bolt, and he screamed in wordless, helpless, hopeless fury as she ran on, almost out of sight. Oh, no--no, no no no. . . Don't do this; don't be such a hero--
He had to keep going. The survivors of this disastrous campaign needed him; he ran, and ran, and ran, as if by the act of running and running he would reach a place where she was ahead of him again, leading her forces into battle, a pillar of strength for them all. But she was behind, still fighting--he could hear the metallic snapping and spitting of lightsaber blade on durasteel plating--
An eardrum-popping, deep roar rumbled through the air and the ground alike, sending the Republic troops sprawling. He struggled to his feet. It was quiet. Not a sound from blaster or injured soldier or lightsaber; the only sound was his own breath. Nothing.
And she was dead. He knew it.
The snow fell, and the Second Battle of L'mysh ended in dead silence.
His eyes snapped wide open, and in the darkness of the troop quarters of the RAS Mythical he cursed the Separatists in every language he knew.