Topic: The Word for Hero

Enjoy the fanfic


I.

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."

"I know."

"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.

II.

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."

"Yes."

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.

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

Second installment

III.

As it so happened, there was a Jedi nearby.

Actually, there were two.

Jedi Master General Arik Thrynn frowned as his shuttle set down in the hangar of the RAS Mythical, eyeing his apprentice to gauge her perceptiveness. She was tall for a human female--almost one point seven meters in height, skinny, clumsy, and alternated between brimming enthusiasm and nervous shyness. At the moment, she was sitting opposite him in the passenger area of the Republic shuttle, in one of her timid moods--the Force around her rippled with anxiety.

The Master, on the other hand, was calm and composed, the pinnacle of all that a Jedi should be. Examining his immaculate robes for dust specks and lint, he rose slowly and strode to the hatch, ignoring the clone pilot in the cockpit. None of the three--pilot or passengers--had spoken a word during the flight from Coruscant to their current location just outside the Reke system, at the dwarf planet Maia, and Thrynn didn't intend to break the silence with unnecessary chattering. So out he went, stepping down the inclined walkway to the hangar floor.

There was no one in sight.

The hangar was deserted, save for [he] and his apprentice, Vi'ara Faladin. Their footsteps echoed in the vast space as Thrynn searched for someone, anyone--was there no welcoming committee for a Jedi of his caliber? Not very cordial. . .

Faladin glanced around, half a step behind him in his peripheral vision. Her Padawan braid bounced against her shoulder in a most undignified way. Thrynn inwardly sighed. She was no model apprentice, that was for sure. Eighteen standard years old and about as unstriking as it was possible to be. . . True, she was talented with a saber and good at most things he set before her, but she had no sense of Jedi pride and wasn't remarkable in any field. Proficient at all, masterful at none. She doesn't have an area in which she excels. Unlike him.

Oh, yes, he was an excellent warrior. Which was why the Council had chosen him for this assignment--the liberation of the planet Driamorrek, a backwater world that, though largely unknown, still had its share of valuable resources. The Separatists clearly wanted the credits that they would generate, and wanted them badly. They had come to an agreement with the planetary governor, and were now stationed on the planet overseeing the mining operations and taking a fair chunk out of the profits.

It was his job, and, if she could be of any use whatsoever, Faladin's, to negotiate Driamorrek's full support in the ongoing conflict before relationships between the government and the Separatists became too close to pull out of. That would be the easy part. The difficult bit would be to fight off the droid army once they got the governor's support. He also had to resolve a miners' rights dispute of some sort, which would have to be dealt with as efficiently as possible to maintain order on the planet.

That was his objective. Those items. . . and the matter of Senator Winspyr's suspicious behavior, back on Coruscant. I'll watch you, politician--you and anyone else who clamors for changes in policy. Because we must stay with the old ways, the traditions, the precedents of the past, or flounder in a sea of chaos and disorder. . .

"Perhaps there's an alert. . .?" Faladin suggested quietly, startling him with the unexpectedness of her comment.

"I have told you time and time again to speak only when spoken to and when you aren't stating the obvious," Thrynn chided her. "No matter; the lack of any sort of welcome implies--"

He never finished his sentence, because the hangar doors hissed open and a slender greenish insectoid Verpine in an admiral's uniform loped in, followed by two clones--the ship's captain and his second-in-command, judging by their armor markings. The Verpine's large black eyes scrutinized the Jedi Master, glittering with intelligence. It radiated cold amusement that was shot through with little pricks of fear.

"General Thrynn; Commander Faladin," the admiral said with a respectful bow. The clones snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Thrynn had to admire their precision. They were about a nanosecond out of sync, at worst.

"Admiral K'zak." He made his voice cold and commanding--the voice of someone who knew he was powerful, the authority, and expected to be obeyed. "The courtesy of Mythical is somewhat. . . lessened, in comparison to that of most assault ships I have encountered," he said pointedly.

Faladin shifted slightly, and Thrynn caught a flash of embarrassment from her. What was there to squirm about? He was merely commenting on the lack of a proper greeting--as a Jedi, he--and Faladin, of course--deserved better. They were the commanders here, not the alien or the "meat cans" behind it.

K'zak was speaking. "You will find that the Mythical is a ship unlike most you've served on," it said calmly, with a barely-perceptible emphasis on served. The admiral had guts, to speak like that to him. Most other beings wouldn't dare make even a slight contradiction to any statement he made; clearly this K'zak wasn't an ordinary being. Not at all. Either that, or it was incredibly foolish.

He inclined his head, ever so slightly, so that he was looking as far down his nose as he could at the Verpine, who was still a few centimeters taller. "Oh?"

"If you were expecting a large parade of the troopers of the Three-Nineteenth Regiment, I apologize for its absence. Should you wish to address them I can certainly arrange it; however, at the moment all but the skeleton crew are being briefed by one of my officers," K'zak said. "In the meantime, I trust that you can find your own quarters, General?"

Oh, K'zak was on thin ice, and from the way it altered the Force around it it knew that, and. . . relished the challenge? He merely returned the faintly amused expression the Verpine had adopted and said, "The interiors of Republic ships are familiar to me. . . unless, perchance, your. . . unusual vessel's internal structure has been modified like your customs?"

"No, General Thrynn; the Mythical is different only in its. . . ideology, philosophy, I suppose one could call it, as you will no doubt find out.

"The journey to Driamorrek will take approximately one standard day; I suggest you rest up. Negotiations have a nasty habit of draining one's energy, Master Jedi." K'zak bowed again, large eyes dark and bottomless, its calm demeanor echoed by its Force signature. The latter, however, was shot through with spikes of amusement. It was testing Thrynn, seeing how far it could push.

And he was having none of it. "We Jedi are perfectly capable of negotiating well without a few hours of sleep, Admiral. Thank you for your time. Faladin, come," he commanded, and his apprentice trotted after him as he swept out the hangar doors into a corridor. She still lacked that indefinable air of Jedi-ness that was his specialty.


IV.

I furiously scrubbed at my face, wishing that the dreams would leave me alone. Not that they would; they never had, not since L'mysh. So I was reduced to spending more time than I'd have liked in the 'freshers, trying to calm down. I couldn't think too much about the events of that campaign--they would only get in the way.

It still hurt.

General Aista Iostre would have said that that was okay, that you couldn't run from grief forever. The Kaminoans would have said that. . . Well, they really wouldn't have said anything; they'd just recondition me however they saw fit. Jango. . . He'd give a short, clipped lecture on getting on with the job.

I didn't know who was right, so I opted for the final option. Keep going, keep fighting, and maybe there'd be time later to--

Or not.

"You've been in there for five minutes, trooper!" someone barked in my voice. Correction: almost my voice--I had picked up Jango Fett's accent from training; this one had the slight drawl characteristic of the Pyrin system.  Which meant that the speaker was a commando, not in the regular forces, because normal troopers acquired no accent due to standardized flash-training. The only Pyrin training sergeant I knew of was Kamryn Hurss, who had a reputation for unpredictability to rival that of Kal Skirata. I remembered that General Jusik had mentioned he'd send either Chi or Zeta Squad on this mission, and Zeta were in Hurss's batch--this guy was probably Jelan, the squad's CO.

All of this passed through my head in less than a second. "Udesii, vod'ika," I called out. I had worked with Zeta Squad before, so it wasn't too over-familiar to use the diminutive suffix 'ika. "Sorry."

I glanced up at the mirror above the sink and exited a moment later. Jelan's eyes--yes, it was him; I recognized the small scar on the left side of his nose--widened as I passed him. Yeah, you called an ARC captain "trooper," I thought, amused. He didn't seem to find it funny. He just looked vaguely wary.

"Uh--"

Flashing him a grin over my shoulder and then donning my helmet, I continued on my way, which was in the direction of the briefing room. General Thrynn wouldn't expect me there for a few minutes yet, but there was no point hanging around the troop quarters and it was better to be early than late. He had summoned me there, by way of Admiral K'zak's 2IC, for reasons I couldn't quite grasp--he wouldn't be in command of the special forces units (myself and Zeta Squad); his apprentice would. His group was the infantry, under Commander Echo. But he was a Jedi, and it wasn't a good idea to question the ones with Thrynn's reputation for nastiness.

Some, though, insisted on being questioned--Take everything I say to do with a grain of salt, Flare. If there's no second, third, fiftieth opinion, there's no chance of correcting a mistake before it happens. You know exactly what you're doing. I don't--

I mentally jumped back from that line of thought and concentrated on the sound of my boots clumping against the hallway floor. Focus. Focus on what's happening now, not what happened months ago.

So focused was I on not thinking about anything but my feet that I almost ran into a pale, freckly woman in brown robes coming out the briefing room door at a slumping power walk--one of the Jedi. Commander Vi'ara Faladin, if I remembered correctly, which I usually did. She sprang back, and I gestured for her to pass first; she laughed nervously and said, "No, you go ahead--"

"Um, thank you, ma'am. . ." I said.

The corner of her mouth twitched slightly, but she said nothing more and waited until I was through before exiting. Casting a strange, furtive look around me, she muttered, "Don't upset him." I had no idea how to answer that, so I didn't.

Turning around, I took in the briefing room--like so many others I had been in, it was fairly simple: amphitheater-like structure that focused on a holoprojector in the center of the chamber, all in clinical white and grey plasteel. Also as usual, the projector was running: the flickering blue image of a skyscraper with labels in several locations hovered above the device. Standing beside it was an elderly human male. He was. . . hard. His face was all scowl lines and cold eyes; the hands that quickly shut down the projector were rough and blunt.

"Ah. Captain Alpha-Thirty-one," he said coolly. "Sit down."

I did so. But I wondered why he had closed down the holo--what was the building for? And why didn't he want me to see it?

He was a bit too late for that. I didn't have eidetic memory like those crazy Null-class ARCs, but it was about as good as it could get otherwise, and I recalled enough to put together a decent mental reconstruction of what I'd seen, labels and all. A bit fuzzy, but good enough--like trying to read blurry, pixellated words on a monitor from a short distance. It was doable. I'd dredge it up later.

"Do you know who I am?"

Wondering at the unexpectedness of that query, I said, "Yes. . . sir."

"Then you may also know that I do not tolerate failure."

"Understood, sir." Two things happened: I thought that maybe he could be a bit more original in his choice of pithy phrases (if he'd said that line enough that an admiral he'd fought with once remembered it, there was definitely a cliche forming there), and I bristled inwardly at the suggestion of incompetence. You couldn't be inept and an ARC captain. You could be inept for a while, but you'd be dead long before you got any sort of rank.

Thrynn chuckled quietly. "I sense that you do not understand my meaning. You clones are remarkably talented fighters; naturally such insinuations sting. But I do not intend to imply that you are incapable of doing whatever my apprentice orders you to--I merely wish to inform you that unprofessional behavior--questioning orders, disobedience, and above all, losing--will be met with the harshest measures I can implement. Yes, I've heard the stories of your mission to Uuriah. A loss like that. . . Terrible. And unacceptable. Is this clear?"

"Yessir," I replied calmly, but the comment hurt. I'd messed up on Uuriah--intel had been too sketchy but I'd gone ahead anyway, and. . . well, I'd done my bit of "asset denial"--all too well. Nobody had known that there was an influential member of Rykimy Sector's government held hostage there until the charges--my charges--had already blown the Sep facility to pieces.

Thrynn considered me for a moment, then continued. "Our principal objectives on Driamorrek are fairly simple. You have been assigned here at the behest of the Council to contribute to our efforts in whichever ways my apprentice, Vi'ara, sees fit. However. . ." Here he paused and raised one silver eyebrow, gaze going straight through my visor like a blaster bolt. "I must also ask that you take orders from me, and only me, if ever there comes a situation in which both Vi'ara and I are present and our orders conflict. Is that clear, Captain?"

Interesting. If nothing else, interesting. His command was a given. He was the Padawan's superior in terms of rank and experience alike, so according to The Rules That Govern My Life I had to give his commands priority over his apprentice's. Why emphasize it, then?

"Yes, sir," I said in a neutral monotone.

"Excellent. Vi'ara will be back in a moment to give you a better idea of what we will be up against; I must speak with the quartermaster." His tone was too dismissive of that job for him to have met Kamryn Hurss in person yet. Force knew that my own opinion of that position had changed after ten minutes with the Pyr.

"Very good, sir."

He swept out, striding almost fast enough to match a normal person's jog, his brown robes billowing behind him. He paused at the blast doors and said, without looking back, "I would appreciate it if you would not touch the holoprojector." And then he was gone.

I'd like to say that I was a good clone trooper and obeyed. That I stayed put and twiddled my thumbs until his Padawan returned. That I put all thoughts of even looking at the mysterious projector out of my head.

But that would be lying.

The way I saw it, you could look at his request as one of several things. A plain old request, which I technically should have abided by. A veiled order--the most likely but the least interesting. Or. . . a sort of unintentional dare, an invitation to snoop.

I chose my option. I waited a few seconds for Thrynn's footsteps to fade into the distance before rising and gingerly prodding the activator; the holo blossomed back to life. No point in relying on my fallible neurons when there was an alternative available that was neither fuzzy nor indistinct.

It was a modest skyscraper, yes, but the address was anything but. It was in the diplomatic sector of Coruscant, very near the swanky 500 Republica that housed the galaxy's highest and mightiest. The rooms that were highlighted in paler blue, though, belonged to a senator--one Zaru Winspyr, of Penumbra. Room 1138.

There was a note under the label. Straik, Adeci, Melahir, Lethor. Organa? Amidala? Mothma? Others.

I only recognized the last three--Senators who were slightly more vocal than the rest of the assembled legislators on the issue of the war. The name Winspyr, though. . . it rang a bell. . .

I heard lighter footsteps and turned the holo off; sitting down again I shook my head. Why do you do this, Captain? Why do you always have to look and pry? I berated myself. It was inexcusable. Unless Thrynn was an enemy, which, although I certainly wasn't falling over myself to please him, was highly unlikely. He was a Jedi. I was a clone of a hired killer. You couldn't get much more polarized on the hierarchy of the Great Scheme of Things than that. He had good reasons, without a doubt, for--

"Sorry for the delay," a woman said breathlessly, sounding as if she'd sprinted a few hundred meters very recently. "Terribly sorry--"

The Jedi girl, Vi'ara Faladin, from earlier stumbled in, tripping on the hem of her cloak. She snorted, took off the offending garment, and draped it over her arm. Behind her were four commandos in the bulky Katarn armor that made them look like industrialized Wookiees, each set painted with stripes and streaks of color. Yes, definitely Zeta Squad. Jelan, decorated with black; Rally, with bright turquoise; Nova, a riot of white splotches; and Tachyon, in yellow-orange. They were the result of four fatalities--two from Tachyon and Nova's old squad, Xi; two from Jelan and Rally's Keystone. I sometimes wondered what it was like for them--and the commandos in general. Raised with the same men since decanting, trained with them, a solid unit--then shattered, mopped up, and glued onto other proportionally broken groups. . .

"I wanted to address you all at once," Faladin said, gesturing for Zeta Squad to be seated. "You know that my Master has command of the infantry--the Three-Nineteenth--and I have you special forces. We don't know exactly how you'll be deployed here, though I'm sure your abilities will be needed before the end. The details still need to be ironed out but there's a good chance that you'll be sent to take out one or both of the Separatist garrisons on Driamorrek, once we establish some kind of diplomacy with the governor."

A silence fell. Faladin bit her lower lip. "I apologize in advance," she said slowly, quietly, "for my lack of experience. You know better than anyone what you can and can't do. I don't want anyone to be killed because I gave a stupid command. Please, tell me if you think that there are--well, if there are things I'm doing wrong."

Her honesty was surprising. And unnerving. I really had to stop expecting Jedi to be flawless leaders--really.

"Any questions?" Faladin asked us.

After a beat, Nova spoke up. "Ma'am, enemy's estimated numbers?" He rarely spoke in complete sentences. Fragments were his specialty--in words or in droid bits scattered over large areas. The latter I could live with. The former became irritating when you were trying to have a conversation.

"Ten to fifteen thousand divided between three main locations--the capital city, Dria; the mountains and j'farra mines; and a little peninsula to the south where we think they found traces of precious minerals."

Fifteen thousand. Not fantastic for us--the 319th only numbered in the two thousands. Kill ratios were getting better; still, fifteen thousand was an awful lot of tinnies to take out.

I ventured a question then. "Are there any hidden twists to this campaign we should know about, ma'am?" I asked, remembering Uuriah. "Hostages, political minefields, that kind of thing?"

Faladin replied evenly, but with a flash of something akin to alarm in her eyes, "Not that I know of. If that's all, I suggest you all rest up. You're going to need it. Dismissed."

And that was that.

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

Third Installment
V.

Driamorrek was beautiful.

The base was already set up when we arrived on the planet's surface, uninhabited save for a few techs who would be sticking around for the duration of our stay; but Master Thrynn and I couldn't admire the scenery because we had to meet with the planetary governor, one Enka Gillith.

It was a pity. In peacetime Driamorrek would have been a jewel in the crown of the great untamed worlds. Now, though, it was a threat and a promise and, above all, a problem. A potentially big, nasty problem. The last thing we wanted was for the Seps to get any more credits than they already had.

"Faladin, please stop daydreaming," my Master said, standing with one foot in the landspeeder bearing the governor's emblem--a spiral with a line through it. He beckoned sharply and I clambered into the speeder. The driver said nothing as we zoomed over the lush terrain; all I could sense from him was boredom with his job and, very faintly, a hint of pride that he was ferrying Jedi to and fro.

The speeder had an open cockpit; the wind blew my hair out of my face, carrying the scent of t'karast tree blooms and damp soil. There was a lot of that. Driamorrek was mostly temperate rainforest--it was encrusted, from pole to pole, with trees, except for an immense expanse of territory in the middle of this continent. That was all pink-sandy desert. There were a few mountainous regions--we were in one now--and where there weren't any trees or mountains, there were oceans. Large, oddly colored oceans. The waters in the northern hemisphere were mostly the normal blue, but, on occasion, there were swaths of violet and red water. In the south, green and grey patches abounded. Apparently the weird colors were caused by microorganisms near the surface.

Dria City, the planet's capital, soared up in front of us. Literally. The city was floating about a hundred feet off the ground on massive repulsorlifts, moving eastward to a new location. Driamorrek's fragile ecosystem was not the best place to put huge cities, so the locals had made their civilization portable. Usually they stayed over water, to minimize their environmental impact, but for today, Dria was in the Mathona Peak region, midway between our base and the Separatists.

The buildings were smooth, organic-looking. The few skyscrapers looked like they had been modeled off the spires of Coruscant, but the hard angles and sharp edges had been molded away, turning what might have been ugly blemishes on the landscape into attractive, almost tree-like structures. At night, Dria would be a glittering beacon on the landscape, pillars of light overlooking the oceans or the forests.

Thrynn made a small noise of disapproval at my gaping expression. I hurriedly snapped it back into polite interest, but my amazement at this feat of architecture and engineering wouldn't evaporate that easily.

We entered the city on a busy airlane and quickly climbed to the top levels of the towers. There was a landing pad near one with silver-mirrored windows--the seat of the Driamorreki government. A small group of people awaited us on the pad, dressed in formal robes and headdresses. Governor Gillith and her entourage.

The speeder settled on the pad with the clicking and whirring of a cooling repulsorlift, and Thrynn and I disembarked. He strode forward like a laser beam, all intensity and no-nonsense determination. I thought that Admiral K'zak's less-than-enthusiastic welcome and. . . well, insubordinate behavior had put him in a bit of a mood.

The woman at the head of the procession of people stepped up and bowed to Master Thrynn. He bowed back, a slight frown creasing his forehead--what did he sense that I didn't? Or was he just annoyed with the lack of a huge reception? The part of me that wanted to be liked and accepted by my Master tried to shove that thought into a dark corner. And then the rebellious part dragged it back out. Look. You know he's sometimes arrogant--okay, most of the time. Denying that he's flawed just to make him like and support you isn't worth it. There. I'd thought the unthinkable. I could move on with life.

"Master Jedi," Governor Gillith said respectfully. She was probably in her late fifties, with a calm, grave face that reminded me of Jocasta Nu, the head of the Jedi Archives.

"Milady."

"It is an honor to have an ambassador of such prestige and nobility come here to our humble planet. Our welcome to you, Master Thrynn."

"And it is an honor to negotiate with one who has kept the peace here for nearly a decade, Governor."

She nodded gravely. "Not an easy task, but we are so few here. . . I cordially invite you to my private offices--a landing platform is no place to enter into negotiations."

Thrynn bowed again. "Then let us depart."

I listened to the exchange without speaking, a superfluous figure in the background, then followed Gillith, her people, and my Master through the door to the capital building proper. The halls were painted in shades of brown, green, and blue. Underfoot, the floor was tiled in patterns of synthstone, polished and shiny; pillared corridors led off to other areas of the building. It was similar to the Jedi Temple in that regard, but on a smaller scale.

For some reason I'd thought that the Driamorrek government would be less. . . less obsequiously flattering, maybe; more direct and blunt. Truer. Something. Evidently not, though, unless Gillith was just putting on her respectful-toady face to get us on her side. . .

It didn't matter. I was here to command special forces troops and watch Thrynn negotiate, not to participate in the talks. . . unless circumstances demanded it. I had yet to go on any solo assignment, and the date of my first was looking farther and farther away as the war raged on, turning peacekeepers into commanders.

Commander. I couldn't get used to the title. It felt foreign, different, not me. There was too much history, too much responsibility behind the word, like a weight on my tongue. I also couldn't get used to the clones' unquestioning loyalty to anyone with that rank who carried a lightsaber. It didn't feel right. I hadn't earned my way up through the ranks due to merit or ability; I'd been locked into it by the war and my midichlorians.

Gillith led us to a pentagonal room that was brightly lit by the late morning sun streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. They treated us to a spectacular view of the city; in the distance I could see the mountains and the faint glimmer of a silvery lake. A desk stood facing away from that window. Gillith sat down behind it and folded her hands on the glossy surface.

"General," she began, but Thrynn cut her off.

"You must understand, milady, that there can be no compromise. The Republic will settle for nothing less than Driamorrek's total allegiance and the expulsion of Count Dooku's forces from the system. Is that clear?"

I shifted uncomfortably, and Gillith was visibly taken aback. Her Force signature seemed to writhe before settling into frustrated resignation. "Yes, of course," she said pleasantly. "But, General. . . may I ask you to tell me what you know of this system's government?"

Thrynn's turn to look confused--it only lasted a split second, and the sole reason I noticed was my familiarity with the nuances in his strictly controlled mood. He smiled back at the governor, saying, "My understanding is that the populace elects regional representatives to a planetary assembly, from whom are chosen the planetary governor and his--or her--aides. You and your advisors then report to the system assembly."

Gillith appeared impressed. She'd dropped her respectful-toady face. "Correct. Now listen. There are three main political parties in this system, all of them with their own agenda and opinions. First, there are the Synthesites; their only desire is to remain with the Republic. Then there are the neutral Progressives, who want to stay out of this war. I am a Prog. Last there are the Independents, which used to be the name for anyone not running for office under the Synth or Prog banners. Now, though, running as an Indy means that you support the Confederacy. The Progs control twenty out of one hundred seats in the planetary assembly; the Synths and Indies control forty each."

"So you are caught between us with nowhere to go."

"Yes. And the next election on Driamorrek is in two months. As the most populous world in the system, if the Indies were to take control our our planetary assembly, they would be able to place their own people in the system assembly and bring the Driamorrek system out of the Republic."

A pause. I spoke up, shyly at first and then with more confidence as nobody told me to shut my mouth. "Governor . . . may I ask what the situation is with the miners?" I was curious to hear the local version of what the problem actually was.

She blinked. "They have long been Driamorrek's economic and social foundation. They drive our economy--the stones they mine are our planet's livelihood. I admit that their conditions are not ideal, but I believe that they are justly compensated for their work."

"They do not seem to agree."

"I am aware," Gillith said slowly, "that you Jedi are here to put a stop to their dissension. I'll do everything in my power to ensure that this happens, because many of them are beginning to lean toward the Separatists. If we satisfy them--and they are quite numerous; one out of every three citizens of Driamorrek is a miner or works in the administration of the mines--we keep Driamorrek in the Republic."

I nodded. "Thank you." I knew a bit more now--and, as always, knowledge was the most potent weapon I could have.

Thrynn said, "Madam, on the subject of the mines. . . You have allowed the Separatists to take over portions of your mining operations. Why, if you wish to remain neutral?"

She laughed harshly. "They landed in our shopping district, marched into this building with a few thousand droids, and told me that if I did not give them at least some of what we had, I and every being in the city would shortly be dead."

"Ah."

Suddenly, as if Gillith had been waiting for a while to say it, she blurted out, "I would like to invite our honored guests to a gala here in the capital building, in two weeks. Will you grace us with your esteemed presence? It will give you a good idea of who you'll have to convince to bring this planet back into the fold."

Master Thrynn nodded gravely, accepting her words without comment. "Of course, madam. It will be an honor. Shall we?"

We left after a few more minutes of pomp and ceremony. I tuned that out. Throughout all the meaningless gestures and complimentary remarks, my mind was elsewhere, thinking about the conversation and another politician--Senator Zaru Winspyr--who Thrynn and I were supposed to watch. Too many missions in too short a time--hold onto Driamorrek, pacify the miners, monitor the Senator from a system lightyears away who had virtually nothing to do with the immediate problem. I wondered what the Council was thinking. Then I wondered if they even were thinking.

But I put that out of my mind and concentrated on the task at hand. Winspyr's anti-war agitation could wait. This planet couldn't.

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

Fourth Installment

VI.

Like a few other Jedi I knew, Thrynn and Faladin dined with everybody else, in the mess hall. Unlike said other Jedi, the General did not appreciate attempts at making conversation, especially attempts made by lowly quartermasters with the halfhearted aid of clones.

Quartermaster Kamryn Hurss and I were at the far end of the mess, about a third of the way from the first row of tables near the door; all the tables were pushed end to end, making long lines of plastoid up and down the room. She made a flitnat-line to--wouldn't you know it?--the table where sat our Jedi leaders. The general was doing a mediocre impression of an angry deity on some ancient fresco; the Padawan was imitating, with much more success, a dead Umbaran. She was very, very, very pale.

Hurss sat down with a cheery "Good morning, General," next to Thrynn. The general was across from Faladin; I hovered for a moment before landing beside her, not knowing what else to do.

I can deal with the awkward silence that comes after a Separatist flunkie is blown to pieces in the middle of a call to his fellow conspirators. Or that tense, almost-panicky quiet just before a battle. Not so well the silence that comes from an irritated Jedi and a very unsure-looking Padawan. And there was something about Faladin's discomfort that put me on edge, and I had no idea why. Then it hit me. Jedi are supposed to be in control. I still hadn't lost that hope that someday I'd be placed under a commander who knew what he, she, it, or otherwise, was doing--and that naivete hadn't been helped by General Iostre's disgustingly competent leadership, whatever she'd said to the contrary. It was always a bit of a letdown to learn all over again that Jedi were mere mortals like anyone else, just with a few more tricks and talents--not perfect, superhuman beings, but superhuman beings with human frailties--or inhuman frailties, or whatever.

The silence oozed on like a Hutt over rough terrain, sluggish and painful. It dragged for quite a while. You could almost feel the tension between Hurss and Thrynn building, as if each had a bunch of bricks and mortar and were constructing a very large wall and shooting politely challenging glares over it. Faladin picked at her food with her sporknife (why waste materials making three utensils per person when you could just give them one--a spork with a serrated edge on the left side of the spoon part?), which made little clinking noises against her plate. And on it dragged. Hurss took a bite of 'shroom, and I stared mutely at the caf in my cup. There were bubbles swirling around in it. And on it dragged. . .

"I take it you've already briefed your special forces, Commander?" Hurss said off-handedly, as if the previous two minutes had never occurred.

Faladin nodded. "Er, yes, Quartermaster. On general things, not specifics. Not enough intel. . ."

"Well," the Mandalorian woman said briskly, "that'll soon be fixed. My Zeta boys are among the best at their game; they won't let you down. Excellent at collecting enviable intelligence. Trained 'em myself--you'll want to talk to them. They'll lay down their lives for you if you get their trust. . ." She trailed off, probably continuing that line of thought but not deigning to enlighten us.

I risked saying quietly, "This is your first time commanding special forces, then?"

Thrynn looked at me as if he'd just noticed I was sitting there. It's difficult not to notice. Maybe he was making an effort.

"Um, yes, it is," Faladin said, shooting Thrynn a half-apologetic glance. "First time commanding unaided, actually. . ."

She looked incredibly uncomfortable, like a trooper caught with an improperly calibrated Deece. I took pity on her-- "Just point us at the targets and we'll do the rest, ma'am."

The Jedi General's eyes narrowed. "Do you regularly speak when not spoken to, Captain?" he asked. His tone was one of patronizing superiority. Irritating, to say the least.

I was trained to tell Jedi the truth, but a bit of judicious lying never hurt. Especially when a bad move could send me into the recycler. . . "My apologies, sir." I had uttered the empty words many times since the outbreak of the war, mostly after doing what I had just done. You learn practically everything there is to know about fighting in a few years, but you still haven't learned how to keep your mouth shut, I thought ruefully.

"Answer the question."

"No, sir."

"You refuse to answer?" Thrynn said, his scowl--impossibly, but somehow he managed it--deepening.

"No, my answer was no, sir, sir." Had I been an observer this would have been funny. . .

"What?"

Apparently it wasn't clear enough. I bit the inside of one cheek to keep from smiling. "Sir, to reiterate your question, I do not regularly speak when not spoken to, sir." Kamryn Hurss raised an eyebrow but otherwise did not react. I sincerely hoped that she wasn't going to go into a detailed reminiscence about my--well, everyone's behavior, under General Iostre. . .

Thrynn sat back--or tried to; the long tables had benches on either side, and the Jedi couldn't very well lean against the back of a chair when the chairs had no backs. The look he was giving me would stop an inebriated Gamorrean thug dead. He wasn't buying it.

Another lull.

The silence was beginning to get bothersome when Faladin reached for her sporknife. This wasn't such a momentous event, but its effects were. . . interesting. She knocked her caf over to spill in her 'shrooms and onto Thrynn's lap, upsetting the plate and getting the chopped-up fungi onto the front of her tunic, uttering a piercing squeak.

Faladin shot to her feet, mouth open slightly, cheeks flushing. "I'm--I'm sorry, Master, I--"

"This is why," Thrynn rumbled, "you must exercise caution around hot liquids." It was almost prim. "Excuse me." He stood and left Hurss, Faladin, and me at the caf-spattered table, no doubt off to change his robes.

The three of us who remained at the table stared after him. I hid my laugh behind a stifled cough that really didn't accomplish much in the way of disguising it; Kamryn Hurss daintily picked up her ever-so-quaintly-named "towelette" and offered it to Faladin. The Padawan took it with a shaking hand, her face now bright red. She looked more like a Lethan Twi'lek than an Umbaran at this point. "I'm sorry," she said indistinctly as she wiped up the 'shrooms on the table. "I mess up like a drunk Gungan trying to pilot a starfighter."

Hurss shook her head. "No. Accidents happen. Our own Annoying Red Captain could tell you that."

I was on the floor wiping up the worst of the spill and hit my head on the underside of the table when she said that. Cursing under my breath in mando'a, I got back in my seat and put the wet napkin on the corner of my tray, where it sat, sullenly leaking the 'shroom sauce onto the plastoid.

Faladin was looking at me curiously. "What happened?"

Glancing at Hurss in question, I muttered, "Uuriah Robotics. There was a Senator held hostage there that we didn't know about. There wasn't enough intel. We--I destroyed the facility with him inside. Media had a field day with that one." Collateral damage--I hated that phrase. Sure, the Uuriah droid factories weren't going to produce any more tinnies for a while, and yes, the Separatist bigwig running the operation would never get another paycheck . . . but still. Politician or not, corrupt or not (probably not, with my luck), the Senator's death was my fault.

The Padawan stared. "Oh. Oh."

I gulped down some caf and grimaced. It was cold. Faladin stared a moment longer and then seemed to snap out of it, grabbing a towelette and attacking the errant liquids.

Hurss nodded gravely. "There you go, Commander. It happens to the best of us. What's a cup of caf and a few fungi in the great scheme of things? Nothing."

"Thank you," she murmured.

"Well!" said the quartermaster. "I'll be leaving you two now. Got to go tackle my flimsiwork or those stupid med droids will never see the light of a Driamorrek day. See if there're enough FX-7s at RMSU Three. . ."

"Ma'am, there are never enough FX-7s in a war zone," I said.

"I try, Cap. I do try. . . bloody bureaucracy," she grunted. "Have fun, you two." She then left for her office cube, site of countless arguments with petty officials who seemed to think it was their Force-given duty to make life difficult for the RMSUs and Republic troops. If they had their way, we'd be living off of dry rats and shooting spitballs at the droids. At least, it seemed that way.

Faladin picked dully at the caf-soaked entree without much enthusiasm. I had no idea how to chat with unfamiliar people, or Jedi--still less this particular Jedi with her sopping tunic and a slice of 'shroom clinging to one sleeve. She glanced over at me. "I can't just call you hey, ARC. . . You have a name?"

My automatic response would have been Alpha-31. Something about the way she asked, though. . . I didn't think she meant unit number. "Flare, ma'am."

"Finally, someone gives me a straight answer."

"Troopers aren't used to Jedi taking an interest in them as living beings, ma'am." I guess it came out more harshly than I meant, but it was was true whether she liked it or not. Except for a few. Because we had generals who cared. . .

A strange expression flickered across her freckly visage. It was eerily similar to the look she had gotten when I asked about any hidden facets to the mission, a sort of bantha-in-the-headlights look. "You're. . . blunt."

"There's a question hidden in there."

"Not many troopers would say anything like that."

"I'm an ARC. I'm not conditioned to be terminally polite to Jedi. Ma'am," I added hastily. There you go again with the caustic remarks. . . When will you learn to keep your di'kutla mouth shut?

Faladin's voice was quiet. "You don't have to be. And you don't have to call me ma'am."

"Padawan Commander Faladin isn't very ideal, either." You try spitting out the name Jedi General Ladaliwadrala Waddawidiladaladaninia while under fire. It really doesn't work.

She laughed. "Then just call me Faladin, or Vi'ara. I don't feel very much like a commander."

"Like Hurss said. . . even the best spill caf, if that's what you're worried about."

She tapped her sporknife on the side of her tray, falling silent and eyeing her food. I had to admit that the caf-marinated 'shrooms didn't look too appetizing. "You've worked with the Three-Nineteenth before, haven't you?"

I nodded. "Yes. . . Battle of L'mysh. Your Master will be pleased to know that they've never lost a campaign."

She sighed, just audibly. "It's the kind of thing he would worry about. Personally, I don't care about past victories or defeats. It's what you do now that matters--wait. L'mysh. . . That was where we lost Master Iostre, right?"

Something in me froze up, a hard, sharp pang of unprofessional emotion--I locked it down, pushed it away, but on it came regardless. It didn't have a name yet, that feeling. I didn't want to name it, because that would mean acknowledging that it existed--that I wasn't the stone-cold soldier I was supposed to be. "Yes, ma'am," I managed to say through gritted teeth.

Faladin flinched as if slapped. Fool, I thought. Jedi can sense people's emotions. . . "Wha--no. It's not my business."

"You're right. It isn't," I said. And then something poked me between the eyes, and it seemed like it was from behind. Not the back of the head, but from inside. A dull ache started up in my head--something seemed to catch, and there was a momentary flash of panic that had nothing to do with what I was thinking of at that point. Like a memory. Something ripped open, a tear through which I saw a field of snow--

"Ma'am," I said abruptly, and with significantly less deference than I should have used with a Jedi officer. "What was that?"

She seemed to shrink. "You felt that?"

"Yes," I hissed. Get out of my head. . . So she'd been probing me, picking my brains by force. No pun intended. Standing up, red-striped helmet under one arm, tray in the other hand, I said quietly, "Excuse me, ma'am," and carried my half-eaten 'shrooms to the disposal bin. They'd be mashed up with the rest of the base's biodegradable garbage and turned into fertilizer for the farmers here. If only the detritus of L'mysh could be dealt with as effectively. . . I headed out of the mess.

An ache that was totally different from the one in my head gripped my throat. It was the kind that came with tears--irrational tears. I jammed my helmet on and blinked them back, wondering why, with their incredible grasp of genetic engineering, the Kaminoans couldn't have bred grief out of us.

I didn't know where I was going. I just wanted to be gone.

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

Fifth Installment

VII.

I stared after the ARC, unable to put together a single sensible thought. I was disgusted with myself. I'd never just dived into someone's mind on a whim before, not without asking if I could help--why should A-31--"Flare"--be different? And--or so asked the annoying little voice that could never stop asking questions--why was he so shaken by what I did?

I had no answers. I looked around the mess hall, aimless; a couple of engineers and techies a few tables over were playing sabbacc, some medics were bouncing jargon back and forth, other assorted beings of various species scattered among row upon row of white armor or red fatigues . . . A mixed bag, even if the majority were troopers. All this I took in without really seeing it, and after a while I just stared at the rapidly disintegrating 'shrooms left on my plate. Apparently some chemical in them was reacting with the caf; I couldn't summon up much interest.

Apologize. It's the right thing to do. I started at the intensity of the thought, but knew it was right. The only question was whether to let him cool off or go now and risk alienating him completely (and that was definitely a possibility with my shaky people skills). I'd heard stories of the mysterious Null-class ARCs--the "Bonkers Squad"--who would probably dismember anyone who crossed them. I didn't know if the Alphas were capable of doing that. I hoped not.

Then I put down my sporknife with a clack of durasteel on plastoid. Flame the consequences, I had messed up again, and I would sure as the nine Corellian hells not mess up once more.

As soon as I had removed the last two fragments of 'shroom from my person, I practically sprinted away, not caring about Jedi dignity. Dignity could go and eat bantha poodoo; being a Jedi was more than appearing calm and collected and composed. It was acting on your word, choosing to do what was right, not agonizing about dignity. And I had been in the wrong. I had acted unthinkingly, and most likely lost a soldier's trust. Sure, he'd follow my orders to the letter, but that wasn't what I wanted, nor what the Republic needed--it needed initiative and creativity far more than mindless obedience.

Aside from all those practical reasons, I would feel like a plague carrier until I did this. I had no right to delve into someone's head without his consent when there was no purpose in doing so.

Come to think of it, did any Jedi really have a right to pry into any sentient being's deepest self? We couldn't "turn off" the Force--we'd always been able to sense general emotions and feelings--but active probes to read minds like holobooks?

I was on the "landing platform," which was really just a grassy clearing that now looked slightly crispy from all the repulsorlift drives that had gone over it in recent days. I cast about with the Force, trying to locate the ARC--there. Maybe I was a bit synaesthetic, senses overlapping, but his presence in the Force felt like a fragile silver bubble filled with a riot of color, leaking out through a very recent break in the surface.

Whatever my impression in the Force, the captain was less than two klicks to the northeast. And something was very wrong at his location.


VIII.

I had enough weaponry--Deece, two blaster pistols, thermal dets, and other assorted ordnance--to feel fairly safe walking around in the woods alone. The worst that might happen: I could run into an army of Separatist droids about to blow our base to shrapnel and die before I can warn them. The most likely: I could scare some local wildlife and see no one at all.

The latter seemed to be occurring. The woods were quiet--occasionally my HUD would detect a largish animal in the area, but none of the Driamorreki predators were dangerous to humans. Much less a human in ARC armor with more deadly objects on his person than most people have fingers.

Fragments of dreams kept replaying, over and over, as if a dam had ruptured somewhere between my ears and was letting the memories that usually kept to bad nights escape. They were best summed up in one word: destruction. The scent of blood, metal, and burning smoke on the air; the sound of screaming and blasterfire falling flat, muffled by the thickly falling snow. . . Nothing special in my life, created solely to fight and destroy and die in the name of the Republic. Except for the fact that the one person who'd ever called me son had died in that snow.

I'd been walking at a pace that most people would have to jog to match down the path. Nobody was in sight; the only things I had seen were the ubiquitous trees, liberal smatterings of dung (which I avoided stepping in), and the occasional spire-bird swooping across the path, screeching. Every so often I heard an uneven, two-tone crash as a furry herbivorous agalaphide lolloped through the trees. And then--

Clink-rasp-clink-rasp-clink-rasp--

Droids. At least six, maybe more. And other footsteps, too, heavy boots judging by the sound. . . I guessed a total of eight, nine enemies. I clicked the safety off on my blaster.

"Come on," I breathed. "Try and get me."

They hadn't seen me. That took great skill--or a lack thereof (lovely phrase, that). Honestly. Red-streaked white was a veritable shoot me sign in this green, lush environment. I got down and aimed, HUD picking out the nearest droid among the trees as I fired. It shattered.

"Whoa!" someone yelled. "Something's back there--"

Really? No kidding.

Red bolts flew at me; I rolled to the left and smirked as they hit the ground several feet short of the spot I'd just vacated. I aimed again and a second droid went down in a shower of sparks and smoking metal. A face--a human face--poked up above the thick underbrush and quickly ducked back down as one of my blasts arrowed towards it--him. But in that instant, I saw that the enemy was young, maybe twenty, and had a slightly bewildered look, as if he'd never been shot at before.

Sorry, mate, I thought. You picked the wrong side.

More blasting ensued. None of the Separatists' lasers hit me, but I managed to eliminate three of the five other droids and one of the wets. The third droid exploded; there was a cry of pain as bits flew in all directions. Clearly these guys weren't wearing body armor.

It felt like several years had passed since they started attacking, but that was preposterous. Couldn't have been more than a few minutes, maybe less. I was too intent on not getting killed to care; if someone came into my line of sight without warning, well. . . too bad for them--

There was a pause and I sprinted forward, dropping into firing position and hitting the young Separatist as he peeked up over the bushes. It wasn't a fatal hit; the blast seared into his shoulder--he yelled in pain and dropped and I couldn't see what happened to him because a droid came up on my right--

Vzzzzzzmmm.

That was, unmistakably, a lightsaber.

Commander Faladin barreled forward, her weapon glowing silvery white--not a color I'd seen before. All gawkiness seemed to have been left several parsecs away--she was suddenly lightning-fast, flawlessly coordinated. She leaped over a shrub, whirled--a nasal hissing sound wafted over to me, the sound of lightsaber chopping droid. I advanced again; another droid toppled. Within moments the last of the tinnies went down, sizzling faintly; Faladin's saber twirled and a man cried out--in shock or in pain, I couldn't tell--movement; I fired and it stilled--

Seconds later, it was over. A small animal squalled in the bushes, completely at odds with the violence that had just been meted out. I cautiously walked over to the Jedi. She was standing over the body of one of the wets, her lightsaber still activated and humming. The corpse was that of a Rodian, minus his head, which was lying a few feet away. I couldn't see her expression, but her shoulders were shaking.

"Ma'am--er, Faladin?" I said, hesitating to use her surname.

She half-turned. "I'm supposed to be better than that," she whispered hoarsely. "I'm supposed to be able to incapacitate without killing. . ."

"Ma'am, they weren't going to give you any chances."

"They had lives, too." Faladin looked away from the dead Rodian, the motion almost a twitch. Her lips thinned. "One's alive. . ."

She glanced at me and then ran toward the Sep kid I'd hit; the guy was lying still, clutching his shoulder and moaning, teeth clenched, eyes screwed shut. He must have heard us approaching, because his eyes opened and he scrambled back in a sort of crab-walk. He bit his lip to keep from crying out. Somehow, that hit me. He was terrified but not giving up.

Faladin crouched down beside him, face full of concern. "It's okay," she said soothingly. "I'm not going to kill you."

"I won't talk!" he babbled. "You can't make me say anything--"

She let out a breath in a whoosh of air. "This isn't an interrogation." She was surprisingly gentle--this was the enemy--the people we'd been fighting mere moments before. . . "You're hurt."

He scooted back further, gaze flicking between the Jedi and me, fear etched onto every feature. Faladin paused, sighed, and stayed put. "I promise. I'm not going to hurt you," she said softly. Then, "What's your name?"

The Separatist just shook his head firmly.

"Ma'am, we have to inform base--" I started, but she held up a finger--wait a moment, please. She stood and offered the Separatist her hand. "Come on," she said. "It's okay."

His lower lip trembled and he reached up. She hauled him to his feet and gave me a quick, sad smile. "Partial payback," she whispered--too quietly to hear, but that never stopped me from reading lips. "Come with me. We'll get that shoulder of yours fixed up."

I was slightly confused. Generally, we didn't take prisoners. Maybe she thought the Sep would spill something important. I went with it anyway, wondering if this would be the norm from now on.


IX.

Now was as good a time as any. The Separatist's ID said he was called Yinder Yalay; he wasn't in much of a position to object to the captain riffling through his pockets, seeing as he was out cold. He'd fainted. As we carried him back towards base I looked at the trooper's visor, trying to see the person behind the red-streaked white mask. Then suddenly I was looking through it, and I felt the ARC meet my gaze.

"Yes?" His voice was cool and toneless, more like a droid's than a living being's.

I took a breath. Do it. "Flare--I'm truly sorry about what I did this morning. Probing you. I had no right to do that."

It was a moment before he spoke, and when he did the words were tight, strained. "It's okay--uh, I mean, thank you."

Suddenly the ice broke, and he started laughing, and I couldn't help but join in. It was a struggle to keep Yalay off the ground. His backside scraped the top off a bit of something that looked like dirt but probably was worse. "You're not what I expected," he said conversationally, out of nowhere.

"Master Thrynn feels the same way. The last thing he wanted was a kid dropping rocks on his head." Sometimes I was as proficient a Force-user as any senior Jedi--in certain areas. Lightsaber combat, for one. I was among the best at that. But the more contemplative stuff, the metaphysical thinking and detachment--that was difficult. I cared too much, about everything. I could be reduced to tears by the simple sentence I am disappointed in you.

"Or 'shrooms in his lap?" He was smiling. I could tell.

"Uh, yeah. . ."

"Is he usually that uptight?"

It took me a moment to formulate an answer that I wouldn't regret later. "Master Thrynn is a very disciplined Jedi," I said lamely.

An agalephide--a creature that looked somewhat like a fuzzy, upside-down Y--honked as it ka-thunked in front of us.

Flare breezily changed the subject. "So what are we going to do with Yalay here? He's not exactly an ally. . ."

That, at least, I was sure about. "He's a POW. We keep him; maybe we can coax some info out of him. You never know. And he could become an ally, but I need Hurss for that. . ."

"What's all this, younglings?"

We were coming up on the base; Kamryn Hurss herself was running towards us, frowning. She halted a few meters away and stared pointedly at the Separatist. "You have got to be kidding me," she muttered. "Flare, you know I don't like it when you bring home strays." As if this had happened before. . .

The ARC dropped Yalay's feet and straightened. "Ma'am, he might have valuable intel." I lowered his top half more slowly.

"He's a grunt. Look at his uniform. The guy won't know anything; the Seps don't trust their converts with anything important aside from how to fire a blaster," Hurss said, exasperated.

I cut in, "Quartermaster, he's injured. He needs medical attention."

She sighed. "Fine--hey, Tiil! Live one for ya, and he ain't a clone!" she said, yelling towards a gaggle of Rimsoo medics. There were a few ragged whoops and cheers, which were apparently due to the fact that they had to operate on the same body, over and over.

Flare said as much--"I guess they need a bit of variety to spice things up, huh?"

"Apparently." I scrutinized him carefully. "You've worked with Zeta Squad before, right?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'd like to have a talk with them--a real talk, not a briefing-talk." Hurss was right. Isolation wasn't going to help anyone. It was one thing to try to know a few thousand men's names and motivations; it was quite another to do the same with a grand total of five. One was a virtual impossibility; the other was doable.

"Follow me, then."

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

Sixth Installment


X.

Thrynn grimaced at the holo of Senator Winspyr's face, wondering what went on in the man's mind as the speeder roared towards Dria City.

You're a powerful politician. Your word decides the fate of an entire sector. You could have been a great force for the Republic. . . and yet you chose to speak against it, destroy your reputation. . . and bring the might of the Jedi down about your pointy ears. Winspyr intrigued him. The Senator had a wife and a son, lived in Edsha City on Penumbra when he wasn't in his residence on Coruscant, and was among those most outspoken against the war and the Chancellor's policies. Why? He was being kept safe by Palpatine's regime--what was there to dislike about it? Civilians didn't have to fight in the war; an army was ready-made to fight for them. The threat was large, but still, why destabilize the Republic with his impassioned speeches in the face of such danger?

Even the Council wasn't safe from Winspyr--in a recent address, he'd said, "The Jedi Council sits in their tower and watches the war unfold, sending the brightest and the best to fight and die. They grow worried about the direction the Republic goes in, and yet do nothing."

Thrynn wasn't on the Council. He desperately wished to be--he could use his influence from those lofty heights to do a galaxy of good--but he wasn't. And he wasn't worried--he was proud to be part of such a glorious order.

A slight fluctuation in the Force alerted him that his apprentice was near, and stressed. He glanced toward the door to his cube, then turned away. She had oft reminded him of her resentment of his "constantly looking over my shoulder, barging in on everything I try to do, saying I can't do it right. . ." Vi'ara occasionally forgot her Jedi training and gave in to her emotions. He would have to ensure she worked harder on that. But in the meantime, he would let her deal with her confusion alone. In any case she wasn't in any danger. Not yet.

He sighed. It was a pity that he had to keep up this ruse. . . this charade of loyalty to her, to the soldiers, to the Order. . . His true allegiance was to the Republic itself, and, by extension, the Chancellor. Not the Jedi Order.

And that was why he was investigating Winspyr. Palpatine had expressed his concerns over the man's increasingly bold dissent, and Thrynn had convinced the Council to allow him and his apprentice to take the mission. Winspyr would be brought down, that seat on the Council would be his, and he could start changing the Jedi for the better--and working to restore the most glorious of the days of the Republic. At any cost.

It would be so.

He would sacrifice anything and everything to have it be so.

The speeder touched down on the landing pad and he stepped out confidently. Thrynn calmly strode into the governor's office, disregarding the slightly awed looks of the staff and bureaucrats running hither and yon throughout the building. He pushed the bell; the blast door asthmatically wheezed open to admit him and he entered the chamber at an unconcerned swagger.

"Master Jedi," the governor said. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

He waved his hand--I don't need these formalities. "We must discuss certain issues. Immediately."

Gillith leaned forward, her fingers laced together on top of her desk, bracing herself on her elbows. "Yes?" she asked, scrutinizing him intently.

"It has come to my attention that the miners are preparing to strike."

She sighed and looked down. "Yes. They refuse to work without an increase in pay."

"But that is not the only reason they will not do their jobs, is it?"

The governor's gaze snapped back up; her voice went sharp and hard. She sat back. "Master Jedi, I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining the status quo here, by any means necessary. If the miners do not cooperate our economy will go up in flames, along with the planet itself. The Separatists will offer them far more than we can afford if this goes on for much longer."

Thrynn admired her practicality. "Then see to it, madam, that you cooperate with us. We are willing to offer you our protection, lowered tariffs on your exports, and. . . Well, the miners will no longer be a problem if they're all replaced by droids, will they?"

She nodded slowly. "I see. But, General Thrynn, we will expect you to honor those terms. Any breach or loophole you build in, any quiet undercuts, and Driamorrek will secede, because the miners will know, and they will not be happy. At all. Clear?"

"Then we are in agreement," Thrynn said smoothly. "Thank you for your time, Governor. I appreciate your diligence in working to secure a bright future for your people. I will see you at the gala, if not before." He left then, confident that all was going according to plan.



XI.

Captain Flare walked into the barracks, trailing the Jedi girl. Nova glanced up from calibrating his DC-17, wondering what she was doing in here. Most Jedi didn't just pop into their troops' barracks out of the black. Except Aista Iostre. Nova still didn't know how he was supposed to react to her death, but he was sure that it wasn't hitting him as hard as it had hit Flare.

"Where's Jelan?" the Captain asked.

Nova jerked his head toward the 'fresher. "Taking his time in there."

Flare snorted. "Hypocrite." What did he mean by that? "You boys met her at the briefing, but still. . . Ma'am, this is--"

He caught on. "RC-six-oh-three-five, ma'am."

"--Nova," the ARC finished. "Demolitions expert--hence the rather explosive name."

Faladin--who seemed to have misplaced her stiffness--laughed. "Was that on purpose?"

"Yes, ma'am," Nova said. "Inside thing--"

The 'fresher door hissed open and a half-armored Jelan--RC-2150--came out and blinked. Half-armored, as in putting on the plates as he walked. "Didn't know we'd be entertaining visitors," he commented.

"Aw, and you ate the last of the cake, you di'kut. . . So inhospitable. I'm RC-one-three-seven-four, ma'am. Rally." His brother, formerly of Keystone Squad, peering around a corner and jumping into the conversation.

Faladin smiled. "Nice to actually meet you," she said. "Giving a little speech in a locked room doesn't quite cover all the formalities. . ."

"Yeah, and the seating is dreadful."

Jelan was struggling with one armored boot, hopping around and trying to get his foot into it. "Little help, ner vod?" he grunted.

Rally pointed at the neatly made lower bunk two feet away from Jelan. "Use that," he said, breaking into a smile. "You look like a Lasteran bouncing clam."

Jelan shot the man a pained look and braced his foot on the bunk. To Faladin, the squad leader said, "And this is what I put up with, all day, every day." He finally succeeded in getting on the boot, then said to Nova, "Come on, vod; laugh for once!"

"Ha-ha. . .?"

"Never mind." Jelan considered the other boot, shook his head, and sighed. "More fun. Great. Uh, Cap?"

"What?" Flare said.

"Did you perchance have an accident in the mess? Someone in here smells like caf."

Nova  had noticed it, too. He just hadn't mentioned it. Not important. But Jelan was never one to let that stop him from digging for trivia.

"Uh, that would be me," Commander Faladin said sheepishly. "Sorry."

Nova stared. Flare was biting his knuckle plate and trying not to laugh. "Um. . . not a problem," Jelan said. "Better to bear the reassuring fragrance of a caffeinated breakfast than tarktark osik like some people I know. . ."

"Hey!" Rally protested. "You pushed me into that mess--"

"Oh, shut up."

Nova grinned. Mando'a, military jargon, and banter--Zeta Squad's formula for keeping things lively.

"Tarktarks. . ." Faladin said musingly. "What are they, exactly?"

Tachyon, the squad's last member--RC-4295--popped in and stated, "They are the most disgusting creatures to ever set foot on this miserable rock. Rodents. Little ones. Small teeth, smaller brains, big appetite for their own crap. . ."

"And yet they're a delicacy to the locals," Nova said. "Especially the politicians."

Faladin raised an eyebrow. "Really? That's. . . uh--interesting. . ."

"Get used to it," Tachyon advised. "If you're going to be hobnobbing with the politicians you'd better at least pretend to develop a taste for the. . . uh. . ." He searched for an appropriate word--"unusual."

Nova snapped the power pack into his Deece, flicked on the safety, and set it down on his bunk. "'Pretend' being the key word," he muttered.

The Jedi shrugged. "Such is life."

"And politics," Nova agreed.

* * *

An hour later, the five commandos and the Jedi apprentice were seated in Faladin’s quarters, perched on the cot, the desk, and several empty crates commandeered for the purpose. The cube was cramped with five heavily armored beings stuffed into the five-meter-square room, but they managed.

“So, what’s the plan?”

Nova watched as Faladin squinted at her datapad, considering. It held the plans of the nearest Separatist base, located on a small peninsula protruding into the purple-tinted ocean, about forty klicks away. The Seps had found a new vein of precious stones there, and had completely automated the process with droids shipped to Driamorrek. The plans had been found on the Sep they’d captured, and were about to be put to good use.

“I’d say that we don’t just pound it from the Mythical,” she mused. “That’ll just aggravate the Seps and annoy the government. There’s a small town practically on top of these new mines. Our gunners are good, but we really don’t want any unforseen casualties. Right?”

A general murmur of assent came from the group. Flare cocked his head to one side, frowning. “Okay, so the big bang approach won’t work. What if we went in and indulged in a bit of sabotage--messing up equipment, breaking things, booby-trapping tunnels so the droids can’t get in?”

“They’ll just blast through and replace whatever we break,” Jelan said flatly. “Within a few weeks, if not days.”

“What is a galactic civil war,” Tachyon asked theatrically, “if not a collection of days of blood and gore?”

From the swivel chair in front of the desk, Nova snickered. “Suddenly he’s a poet. Who knew?”

Faladin shrugged, smiling. “So that idea won’t work in the long run. Any computer experts in here?”

Fingers were pointed, in unison, at Rally. “I’m your slicer, ma’am.”

“Yeah, last month he visited Count Dooku’s bank account just because he was bored,” Jelan said.

Faladin nodded. “Okay. Can you get us into those mines and throw the proverbial hydrospanner into the works, if the rest of us make some noise to distract the guards?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rally said. “No problem.”

“Excellent.” She stood up and tossed him the datapad. “I’m decent with computers, so I found a few access codes that need decrypting. Have at it.”

Rally grinned, fiddling with the device for a few minutes. Then he glanced up and shrugged, turning the datapad so that it displayed four sets of numbers: IL38, 4A29E5, 8729X, 8TK666. “These guys really need to learn how to secure their codes,” he commented. “The first two will get you into the turbolifts down to the tunnels, the third one into where they store their ordnance for blowing through hard rock, and the fourth one gives you access to the control room.”

Faladin’s eyes lit up. “Aha . . .”

“You go in, keep the guards off us, let Rally work his magic, and we scoot?” Nova guessed.

“Yep. And I think that our good captain could sabotage the actual barracks while we’re down there.”

This could work quite well, Nova thought. We halt the new mining operation, delay it for a while, and get rid of a few thousand droids while we’re at it.

“I like this plan,” Flare said, smiling dangerously.

“We’ll clear it with my master, and then recce the area ASAP. All right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Zeta Squad said, and the ARC nodded firmly.

“Let’s do it, then.”

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

7 (edited by Mandal_ShadowWarrior Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:12 pm)

Re: The Word for Hero

Seventh Installment

I was bored.

It was odd, but when I was fighting, I could think of nothing I’d like more than to have a few days without the endless banging and blasting and general noisiness. When I wasn’t fighting, I had nothing at all to do.

I wouldn’t be fighting for at least twelve hours. That was a long time, by ARC standards. Long enough to sleep for at least a while and then stare blankly at the opposite wall of my cube.

With boredom came a bizarre desire to study the planet. Something might come in handy in the near future. So I did.

At first glance, Driamorrek was your standard pretty, oxygen-rich, extra-large flora, foresty world. Its gravity was just over Coruscant standard--as in, 1.001 g.

Not useful.

Then I read up on local plants and What They Can Do For You. There was one bush whose leaves were almost as good as bacta for healing--as long as you didn’t eat them. Once ingested, whoever was stupid enough to chomp ‘em would shortly be writhing on the ground, and they’d die exactly fourteen minutes later.
   
Charming.

Various edible berries and fungi--committed to memory. Multiple species of trees that only grew in certain places--useful if you were looking for water. Ho, hum.

Moving on to the native fauna.

Agalephides--seen ‘em. Gigantic fuzzy things that looked like furry lambdas, they moved in a sort of lolloping motion, their heads curled forward, their front foot lurching ahead and the back foot hopping after it. Evidently, the locals sometimes rode agalephides when they needed to traverse difficult terrain in the mountains. It made no sense to me. Why would anyone ride something half the size of a bantha and twice as top-heavy into dangerous areas where a false step could send you plummeting to your death? I’d have to find out in the near future whether I wanted to or not.

Then there were those tarktark critters--they were basically the vermin of the land, only they were supposedly tasty vermin. Unless they started gnawing on their houses, the people here didn’t make much of an effort to get rid of them. And Tacky--Tachyon--was right. They did eat their own crap.

The rest of my voyage into the ecosystems of Driamorrek took about an hour. That left another hour in which to recalibrate every single piece of equipment I possessed, use the bathroom--yes, even elite commandos sometimes have to go--and agonize for seventeen seconds over the depressing whiteness of my armor, before we had to move. Having done all that, and with my helmet comlink chirping like a demented songbird, I proceeded to Mr. Meadow--the landing pad, now christened thus because some trooper had started calling it the Medium Rare Meadow, and so naturally they had to make the whole affair into a bad play on words. Or abbreviations. Or something.

Zeta Squad was waiting in the middle of the open expanse, their HUDs glowing eerie blue in the twilight. General Thrynn had given us the go-ahead this morning--and that was odd, because Faladin hadn’t been able to reach him over comlink last night. He had simply disappeared. Commander Echo, the 319th Regiment’s CO, had also been left in the dark as to where Thrynn went during those mysterious dark hours, and he had not deigned to tell his apprentice, either. I still hadn’t asked about the holo in the Mythical’s briefing room, but, again, it came to mind. It had become a sort of symbol of things hidden and unseen.

This mission’s catchphrase had to be hidden and unseen. That was why we couldn’t take an LAAT to our targets--the sound of larty drives was too conspicuous, too blatantly Republican, to risk the enemy hearing. Those snazzy 74-Z speeders were loud, too, and none of us felt safe using civilian transport.

Instead, we would be riding agalephides to a position just short of the Sep base, which I’d infiltrate to set charges before briskly exiting the immediate area. We’d time it to coincide with Faladin and Zeta Squad’s arrival in the new mines via the back door, used only when the Trade Federation administrators decided to come down and inspect the source of their wealth. But thanks to Rally, it would also admit four commandos and a Jedi--with luck.

“Where’s the Commander?” Jelan asked, the black markings on his armor making him the least visible of any of us.

“No idea,” I said, adjusting the twin blaster pistols in my kama holsters. “But then, we are a few seconds early--there she is.”

Faladin really wasn’t all that coordinated when her saber was deactivated. She ran up to us and got within four meters before she tripped over something--I thought it was her own ankle--and stumbled to a halt, grinning. Behind her traipsed four agalephides, their wedge-shaped heads bridled and with high-backed saddles on their backs.

“Uh, ma’am?” Nova said slowly. “Six of us, four of them . . .”

“I know,” she said with a grimace. “We got ‘em from some local farmers who use them as beasts of burden, only they had just the four of them and there wasn’t time to look anywhere else because Thrynn kept me all day meditating . . . Who wants to buddy up?”

It only took us a few moments to mount up and figure out how to steer the creatures--it didn’t take much; just a quick twitch of the reins to change directions and a firm slap on the rump to get going. Tacky and Nova were on a dark brown agalephide, Jelan and Rally took a greyish speckled one, and Faladin and I rode solo on lighter browns. The commandos were a bit squished, but the saddles were large enough to accomodate them without too much trouble.

The agalephides’ gait took some getting used to--I almost fell off when my agalephide lumbered forward unexpectedly--but so did their smell, a strange heavy odor that seemed to be a cross between nerf and something floral.

Two minutes after Faladin arrived, we were lolloping towards the mines and the Separatist base, just four more indigenous animals going about their nightly business.

* * *

The Separatist base in question was more heavily guarded than we thought. That seemed to be a requirement, these days. But we’d planned for that, too--or rather, we didn’t have to, because (wonder of wonders) Procurement had decided that all the new armor upgrades would actually work. Meaning I wasn’t detectable by Separatists--at least, until they counter-upgraded, at which point the arms-and-armor race would begin again.

I sincerely hoped that Yinder Yalay was telling the truth about the extent of our targets’ tech.

The Sep kid had been surprisingly cooperative--Kamryn Hurss hadn’t even needed to tickle him. Loyalty to a cause was a shaky thing when you were in a locked room with a sharp-toothed mercenary-turned-flimsi-shuffler across the table, and even shakier when said mercenary was so very persuasive. She could have been a magnificently powerful politician if she hadn’t decided to go mercenary. By the end of Hurss’s chat with the Sep, Yalay was sparking with enthusiasm for the Republic cause.

So we had a new ally. That didn’t mean that his intel was accurate.

The base I was supposed to eliminate was oh-so-conveniently located practically on top of a small town, which meant that if I made a mistake in my charge calculations there’d be quite a few more dead people on hand than we really wanted. I wasn’t going to mess up, though. There was a way around that.   

I parted ways with Faladin and Zeta Squad after about two hours of riding the clumping beasts, taking a side trail and eventually abandoning even that semblance of civilization in favor of the dark, impenetrable forest.

Every single twig-snap under the agalephide’s feet seemed to become as loud as a ship blasting past the speed of sound in the silent woods; every rustle in the leaves was something waiting to jump out--

The agalephide whiffled, snorted, and ground to a halt.

Tense, I patted it on the side of the neck. “What’s up?” I whispered, heart migrating to my throat. “You smell something?”

It couldn’t possibly hear me, but it whuffed again and hesitantly scooted forward, then stopped again, quivering beneath me. Oh, bad. Very bad. My HUD sensors weren’t picking anything up, though. This was . . . unnerving. A scared mount and nothing in sight--

Plop. From my six--I twisted around in the saddle, Deece in hand, prepared for whatever dreadful creature that had snuck up on me and was about to rip my head off--

Plop.

Oh. Well, that explained it.

Another sulky plop.

“You should have gone before we started,” I muttered darkly, slapping the agalephide on what passed for the hindquarters and holstering the blaster. It toddled a few steps before letting loose one last depressing plop, and then it continued on its merry way, minus a few kilograms of--

Shaking my head, I nudged the animal slightly to the left, angling toward the Separatists. I couldn’t help but laugh, a bit hysterically. But never, never did I drop my guard for fear that the next incident like this would end up killing me.


XIII.

Nova gratefully flopped back onto solid ground, dropping off the agalephide in a waterfall of plastoid armor that immediately collapsed on legs of jelly.

He muttered a curse on blundering, bumbling beasts of burden and saddles and his general situation, then got to his feet. Rally, Jelan, and Tachyon were having similar problems. Riding those things made you use muscles you didn't know you had, just to keep from falling off. He grimaced.

"Everyone all right?" Faladin whispered.

"More or less," Nova grunted.

The Jedi girl was depressingly unaffected by their three-hour trek, skipping around with her usual agility (which wasn't saying much). "Okay. Got the codes handy?"

"Here."

"Shall we?"

The five of them walked the last hundred meters to the administrators' entrance to the mines, which was practically on the pebbly beach, at the edge of the impenetrable woods. He could see lights in the distance--the town of Damogran, where Flare was headed. But the entrance was his problem, not the settlement, and so he covered Rally as the blue-streaked commando tapped some keys on the lock.

The entrance itself was a blocky building set in the side of a smallish hill, with a trapezoidal door and a few shrubs around it. Zeta Squad lurked in the shrubbery until the doors finally hissed open and a long, downward-sloping hallway stretched into the depths of the mines.

They went in. It was that easy.

Getting out would be far from it.


XIV.

The Sep base was a big, blocky, ugly, hulking, and otherwise unpleasant-looking addition to the landscape. The town I was supposed to not blow into orbit was pretty enough--lots of nice, high-tech apartments, open plazas, tree-lined streets, and warmly glowing lights in the windows. It was the gigantic durasteel behemoth behind it that was the problem. I wouldn't be sorry to see it go.

Couldn't exactly go up to the front door and waltz in. Couldn't blast my way in, either, because the boxy metal base was literally fifteen feet away from a row of houses. I thought I could see Neimoidians heh-heh-heh-ing nastily in their ridiculous robes, saying in their equally bizarre accents, "We haff got you now, leetle saboteur; come ahnd geet oos."

Oh, I will. I nudged the stupid agalephide forward, circling around the outer band of buildings. The entire town had a big, fancy interior of taller buildings and brighter lights surrounded in concentric rings by progressively smaller homes and businesses. Practically in those houses' backyards, the forest started, and it was through that that I traveled.

Maybe there was some animal I hadn't heard of out that night, maybe not; anyway, something snapped a twig off to the right. Loudly. I couldn't see anything through the trees' thick foliage and the glare of Damogran's lights behind the leaves . . .

I was being watched. Somehow, I knew that.

Osik.

Dismounting, I lead the agalephide on. Cautiously. But I couldn't shake the feeling that someone was out there, someone who my sensors couldn't detect, someone who knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. This wasn't a case of a biological function and an overactive imagination. This was real. Deadly real . . .

The agalephide suddenly reared up on its back leg, trumpeted an earsplitting call, and yanked the reins out of my hand, thumping off into the darkness and loosing warbling cries. I crouched behind a somewhat decayed stump--what now?--drawing a second blaster with my free hand.

If life was a holodrama there'd be menacing music playing in the background.

"Freeze," a thin voice ordered.

I turned to face the person--whoever it was--and a fwizzle of red light exploded, blinding me, and then--nothing.

Just darkness.


XV.

She watched him, green eyes filled with regret, bubbling up in their depths like frost creeping across a window. She was kneeling on snow, in what had presumably started life as a forest. Now, though, it was a wasteland, a frozen, barren sea of broken branches and glittering snowdrifts.

"We did this," she murmured. "This place once held life. It is dead now."

He didn't know how to reply to that. "What--"

"There's nothing we can do. Just remember how it was when we got here, and how it is now."

"I don't understand."

"War destroys, Captain. This used to be the most fertile stretch of land on this planet, a place with more biodiversity than any other area. We killed it. Unintentionally, yes; maybe it was necessary for our survival. But we did this."

He frowned. "Ma'am, I was going to ask . . . do you think we can survive here? We're cut off from the Republic, winter'll last another three months, they're deadlocked up north . . ."

"Oh, you'll live," she said. "Even if things look bad, there's always a way to look at them differently." She indicated the ground in front of her. Upon closer inspection, it wasn't just flat snow. There was something silvery growing there, with a splash of crimson and blue at the top. "See? It's an ithakke, a plant that can grow in the worst conditions imaginable. It survives."

"Metaphors be with you," he muttered, with a hard s so that it sounded like May the Force be with you.

"Metaphors are just another HUD, one that, like hope, keeps you going even when all those fancy lights say you're doomed. Ithakke is a battlefield bloom--it might not be very prolific or successful, but it hangs on just the same. As do we." She smiled, rose, and said, "Enough of this for now. Let's get to the cantina and gain a few degrees. I'm freezing."


Disclaimer: Just in case youve been wondering: I take in no way responsibilty/credit for this story. These posts was for promotional reasons only. I Hope you enjoyed the some what incomplete story.

[i]"Sir, Finishing this Cake."[/i]

Re: The Word for Hero

long story, pretty cool.