Excidium’s Quaestor stepped onto Sidious’ bridge and found her Captain already alerted to his presence. He had left his Aedile Braecen in the hangar to leverage his reputation as a war hero and organize the mismatching troops of Excidium and the flagship’s garrison.
“Executor,” the senior officer greeted him with the rarely invoked title, revealed by the codes that got Excidium’s ships landing clearance, “I regret hosting you under such inopportune conditions. May I ask what brings you here?”
Jorm’s incorporeal senses gave him a glimpse of the Captain’s inner turmoil, bright and violent. Discipline and loyalty fought against despair, disdain, and the mindless urge for action. Some of it was directed against Jorm. None of it showed on the Captain’s face.
“That,” he answered and pointed out the window at the Retribution.
“Please tell me my sensors were borked when they showed me a few shuttles heading over,” Jorm added.
“They were not, Executor.”
“And let me guess, someone important went with them. Nobody’s enjoying the view from here, that kinda gives it away.”
“The Empress was the first to go, along with General Zentru’la and several members of her inner circle. The Director of Intelligence has left just minutes ago, Sir.”
“Groovy. Begins to feel like a proper madhouse here,” Jorm snarked.
The Captain kept his thoughts to himself. The Kiffar Quaestor took another look at the Retribution and shook his head as he guesstimated speeds and distances. Before his eyes, several shuttles were torn apart by fighters and turrets. A nearby display tracked their demise, and attributed the shuttles to a portion of House Imperium’s ground troops.
“Get me a line to the Empress,” he demanded after a moment. The Captain nodded and invited Jorm to follow him with a gesture.
“Moments before your arrival on the bridge, the Retribution started jamming comms,” he filled his guest in while he led him into one of the pits.
“Communications with our escort ships are possible, and only slightly harder with our fighter squadrons, but we can’t reach anyone close to or inside the ISD since. Our specialists are working on it.”
He stopped behind a Zeltron Lieutenant with earmuffs. The junior officer barely acknowledged their presence; his red fingers danced over the console and adjusted, tweaked, rearranged twenty frequencies and diagrams at once.
With the push of a final button, the speakers of his console came alive at a discreet volume.
“…Ambush, Ambush! This is Silvon, we’re falling back! They sprung a trap, and they brought flamethrowers!”
“…where do they come from? Must’ve been dispersed throughout the ship…”
“…AT-STs! AT-STs! They’re bringing walkers to the hangar!”
The wild chatter was filtered and replaced by the sight and sound of the Empress as the specialist established the link.
“Receiving you, Sidious,” she said crouched behind cover.
“Hello, Jorm. Can we expect you to join our excursion anytime soon?”
“Maybe. Not sure. You guys make me feel sane today. Makes me nervous.”
“As much as I enjoy the easy win a duel of wits with you brings, there is no time for this nonsense. Get over here, now,” Elincia spoke icily.
“There is time," Jorm objected.
“We’ve got about two minutes until Retribution can put effective fire on Sidious.”
“Jorm, I will not repeat myself…”
“Release Sidious to me.”
The interruption left Elincia baffled.
“Release Sidious to me,” Jorm repeated patiently.
“She’s dead, and her crew knows. We’re outgunned, outarmored, outmaneuvered, and too close to the planet to get a ship this size into hyperspace,” the Kiffar explained.
“The only choices we have is how she goes out, and what advantage we gain from it. There’s no straight fight to win here, or you wouldn’t have gone off half-cocked, a few hundred scrubs against ten thousand troopers and thirty-five thousand armed crewmen.”
“No straight fight here,” Jorm repeated, “so let me cheat!”
Eli’s eyes returned to the cool, calculating stare that her people knew so well.
“Five or six minutes. Gotta be, Sid’s got ten left from about now.” The Captain besides Jorm solemnly nodded his agreement.
First bolts of green death impacting and dispersing on their shields underlined Jorm’s estimate. The imperial gunners did not let this slight go unanswered and opened up.
“Done,” Elincia finally agreed. “She’s yours. Make her count.”
“For the Empire,” Jorm intoned.
“For the Empire,” Elincia agreed and cut the call.
The Quaestor and the Captain faced each other. Jorm’s face was lit with a cockily smiling challenge, while the Captain’s was wrought with dismay and reluctant acceptance.
“Your plan, Executor?”
“Gimme a sensor display.”
The console switched over to the desired setting and showed both fleets, colored depending on allegiance. The green image of Sidious rested amidst a short line of cruisers, while the crimson Retribution was the spearhead of a wedge.
“The fwec is this,” Jorm inquired and pointed to a green dot dancing off Retribution’s starboard side.
“Director Hejaran’s shuttle,” the Zeltron Lieutenant replied. “The last communication indicates she ordered it to the Star Destroyer’s starboard flight deck.”
“Well, whoever is feeding her info, she’s better off shooting them, burning their files, and starting over. The only hangars are on the centerline belly,” Jorm commented.
“Shall I relay that message, Sir? They have just been picked up by a tractor beam and are drawn to said hangars.”
“Nah. I’ll rub it in myself if she survives.”
The Captain discreetly cleared his throat and got Jorm’s attention back on track.
“Right. Have our cruisers speed past that monster and tangle with their own kind. Fighters are to screen Sidious until we’re done with our part. As for that…”
Jorm looked the Captain dead in the eye.
“Imagine hangars as mouths. Fly over to the Retribution and give her a kiss.”
“That is beyond courageous, Executor,” the officer observed.
“Nothing to lose here. Make it a long one.”
“It will be done, Sir.”
Jorm leaned in and lowered his voice.
“Amongst us preacher’s daughters… where I come from, we give a good man the choice how he wants to face death. If you guys want to go down with the ship, have fun, but the only place where you can do more is over there. Blazes, maybe we’ll even survive.”
Without wasting any more time, the Kiffar turned on his heel and headed back to the hangar.
Elincia Rei checked her chrono again. Five minutes had just passed since Jorm’s call. She had darted from cover to cover to try and stealthily flank the enemy troopers, but now they were pouring in from every direction.
No matter where I turn, once I take action I will have guns pointed at my back.
A quick peek let her catch a glimpse of her father, entrenched behind her shuttle’s wreckage and firing what could well be his last grenades from the launcher she had given back before her flanking attempt. Mune and Calindra were in similar situations, while Shadow and her entourage were retreating to their lines as the Meraxis fire began to overwhelm them. Behind her, the team around Jon Silvon and Aylin stumbled out of a blast door, counting less than before. Flamethrowers lashed their incinerating tongues here and there, with a calculated focus on Scholae’s Force sensitive.
They’re keeping up the pressure, but they don’t come running. We’re supposed to spend ourselves.
She noticed her father discarding his grenade launcher and unslinging his blaster again.
Well, it’s working.
And then there was Aeternus. Ahead of all allies, he had carved a smoldering path through the early defenders, but now he had been stopped by no less than five AT-STs. The towering machines spat bolt after bolt of coherent plasma at him, rocking the barrier of pure, concentrated willpower around him and scorching the deck for meters around. Already he had sunk to a knee, but refused to go down any further.
With a sense of dread Elincia watched another trio of walkers step into the hangar, with troopers using their legs as cover. The telltale flames among them told her just what kind of extra firepower they had brought.
Suddenly, the metal floor started to shake. Metal meters under her feet screamed.
Jorm, what are you doing?
And then a torrent of emotions, pure and strong and different from all others dropped into her awareness.
Bitter, total, deadly cold, too brief to freeze a warm body solid.
Merciless silence, only the beat of an excited heart and the rush of blood in widened arteries.
Emptiness in the lungs, clawing at air that just wasn’t there.
Familiar, welcome dizziness as the world turned around.
Elation, warmth, triumph.
The roar of speederbike engines rose from the bottom of the hangar bay. Dozens of the small vehicles catapulted over the ledge, brown with the golden trim of Sidious’ garrison, and ridden by figures in both white and the more exotic colors of Excidium, two apiece. Elincia barely had time to notice the heavy weapons in the hands of the backseat drivers before they opened up.
Missiles arched out and struck walkers. Grenades were lobbed into entryways. Flurries of baster bolts scythed through troopers. And while the little machines and their hard-bitten riders wreaked havoc, rappel lines shot up from below and started pouring stormtroopers and crewmen on the deck. Floating supply crates appeared between them too. Elincia subconsciously recalculated the odds, with their numbers disparity shrinking by orders of magnitude.
With the situation shifting before her eyes, she opted to leave her vantage point and double back to her allies. Mune and Calindra came to the same decision and sprinted over to Zentru’la, and were joined by a new arrival - Braecen Kaeth. When Elincia reached the group, a speederbike set down right next to her and let Jorm dismount. His gunner shuffled up and returned the vehicle to the battle.
“Glad you could make it,” Elincia shouted over the cacophony of engines and heavy weapons.
“Does your plan reach any further than this?”
“ ‘Course,” Jorm replied, “secure the hangar, take Life Support and vent all rooms that ain’t ours. Snatch Engineering and the fuel bunkers to cut off bridge control and avoid impromptu self destruction.”
“What about the bridge itself,” Mune inquired.
“Just a brain. It has no real power when we control lungs, heart, spine and muscles of this ship,” Braecen answered.
“Just three heavily defended targets then… oh well, this day just got more interesting,” the Shistavanen snarled through bared fangs.
“Nobody thought this would be a cakewalk, right? Right?”
Jorm’s barb struck a nerve in Elincia, and Calindra looked unhappy as well.
The Empress brushed the sting aside and rose. There was work to do.
“Spread the word, then split up and get to it!”