Aylin, lying on hands and knees, was wracked with violent coughs as the smoke cleared from around her. As her stinging eyes regained focus, she thought she was somewhere else entirely. The hall, or at least what remained of it, was riddled with shrapnel and debris, plunged in darkness, lit only by red, blinking emergency lights. The room where they’d planted the proton charge all but gone, obliterated, the walls torn out from within. All that remained was a massive gaping hole two stories high. If she winced through the floating cinder and the lingering flames, she could see the bridge above, and, to her amazement, the level below them. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Everything had happened so fast, she’d been driven by the shock of it all from the moment the Zabrak had thrusted the Proton charge into her hands. What else could she have expected? The explosive was built to breach a ship’s hull. And now, it had made short work of Akan’s inner structure. Worse yet, it now dawned on her that the explosion might have damaged the computer core. If that was the case, there was no moving forward. The mission was a bust.
A grunt pulled her attention away from the destruction back to her companions. She realized with shock that a circle around them remained as pristine as Zentru’la’s armor, untouched by the explosion. At their center, Kaela still knelt, arms stretched out and shaking. The Nautolan swallowed hard. The girl had saved them. She had no notion how she had done that, but there they were. She realised one of them hadn’t been so lucky. Bale lay just short of the circle, sprawled face down, arms twisted awkwardly at his sides. He was dead. He had to be.
“Bale? Bale!” Zehsaa all but shoved Aylin out of the way as she scrambled to get to Bale. Aylin’s head was still swimming as she watched the Togruta kneel down next to the Zabrak and stuck her hands underneath him. She shoved at him hard to roll him to his back, her pointed teeth gleaming in the red flashing light. He did roll, and groaned as he did so.
“Oh,” he croaked, “that’ll leave a mark.”
Zentru’la was up on his feet, surmising the scene with cannon in hand, trailing back and forth from one end of the wall to the other. Aylin could see no movement, except for sparks and blinking lights. What Collective armor she could make out in the debris was utterly and completely still. She could still not believe they had survived. Spots had rolled up to her, blooping as he prodded her with his extended tools.
“I’m alright, I’m just… wow,” she told the astromech. It whistled affirmatively.
“Dad?” Kaela asked as she approached him. Her voice was a tremor, as if she was close to crying. Aylin wasn’t much older than the Force user, but she figured she’d witnessed a whole lot more death and destruction than a save guarded bounty hunter’s daughter. Zehsaa nodded and smiled up at the girl, a friendly smile, equal parts reassuring and relieved. Aylin noted the Togruta’s hand lingering on the man’s heaving chest. She felt a pang of jealousy, but quickly shook it off. That was a story for another day.
“I’m alright,” the bounty hunter said, echoing the Nautolan. He was already pulling to his feet, the resilient bastard, but he’d clearly been hurt. If the blood hadn’t been a dead give away, the way he was holding his left arm up against his chest like a wounded person would have betrayed him. “Still alive,” he chuckled.
“Andros, can you walk?” Zentru’la was all business. Someone had to be. The Zabrak nodded. “We need to end this.”
Zentru’la glanced over towards Aylin with a fatherly kind of nod. The kind of nod that said, “I’ve got your back.” This strengthened her own resolve. When you had a man like him behind you, you could do literally anything. They moved together over to the hole, the droid hot on their heels. Kaela and Zehsaa lingered back, fussing over Bale as he struggled to remain upright, asking after his weapons. The Togruta was back to her stoic self again, any hint of worry gone. Now that the giant was safe, the animosity was fair game again.
“I can’t believe you got my guns out.” Aylin heard him laugh weakly.
With a flick of her hand, Aylin produced her datapad—or rather Zehsaa’s as the sniper had had to reminder a few times—and conjured up the cruiser’s blueprints. Her eyes flickered left and right as she followed electrical grids. It took a moment, but she found what she was looking for. Her lips curled up with a grin.
“Finally, we caught a break,” she mused aloud.
“I reckon we caught more than one,” said a gravely, tired voice from behind her. She didn’t have to look back to know it was the Zabrak flapping his gums again. Does the man ever shut up? There was no time to follow that train of thought. The full team was gathered around her, looking to her for directions.
“The explosion did more than erase a pesky room. It breached the bulkhead into the mainframe sitting behind the bridge.”
“In common, please?” Zehsaa reminded her.
“The computer core. I can access it from within the structure. With a bit more luck and a whole lot of cooperation from Spots, I can extract the information and overload the computer from inside. No need to stick my head out on the bridge for someone to shoot at.”
“Uh, that sounds like good luck for you, maybe. We’ll be sitting mynocks out here,” Zehsaa pointed out.
“I’ve got a few punches left in me,” Zentru’la stuck his chin up with a prideful smirk.
“Eh, does he? Won’t be that easy for me either. We need to get Spots up into the mainframe with me, and I need him steady if he’s going to plug in. That means muscles or,” Aylin swallowed as she said the last option, “Space magick.”
Zehsaa shot her a grin, lifted one hand, but Bale spoke up before she could lift the droid, “I’ll lift the droid.”
“You’ve got to be kidding? In your state?” Zehsaa was incredulous, and more than a little annoyed by his interruption. “I can handle it, you blasted fool.”
“Dad, she’s right, there’s no need for this,” Kaela chipped in.
It was Zentru’la who answered for Bale, “The enemy will be coming for us. We need to make a stand if we’re going to buy Aylin the time she needs. We need Zehsaa. Bale, are you up for this?”
“I’ll hoist your fat ‘hind around, Twi’lek,” the Zabrak growled. “‘Sides. Not gonna do much good with a repeater now, I reckon. Zehsaa, you take it.”
“They are coming,” announced Kaela before they could hear any sort of footsteps.
They set the plan into motion. Aylin was already climbing over twisted durasteel into the gap, Bale lumbering after her with spots. He moved slowly, but the Zabrak pulled through, conjuring enough strength to hoist the astromech after him. Before he disappeared completely, Bale caught Zehsaa hoisting his DLT-19 heavy repeater over her shoulder and bit his lip.
“That there’s what dreams are made of, Spots. Dreams.”
Then they were gone from sight.
Zentru’la was the first to move, jogging along the hall until he found a key position to set a trip mine. The defenders then lined up before the breach, a Twi’lek with a cannon, a Togruta frowning down at her oversized repeater, and a young Kiffar with her lightsaber blazing violet.
The trio squeezed themselves into the cramped, hexagonal shaft that comprised the mainframe’s servers, a compartment no more than four times the breadth of Bale’s shoulders with a towering pillar sitting at its center, taking up most of the space. It was no place for astromech droids or bounty hunters for that matter. The Collective likely used technicians and more modern types of maintenance droids with repulsorlifts to maintain the Akan’s systems. As Aylin had suspected, the connector points were sitting some ways above the ground, well beyond the droid’s reach. That’s where the Zabrak came in, if he managed to hold on.
She pulled her slender body up the structure, hand over hand, her eyes probing the imposing amalgamation of electronics and servers until she found a series of access terminals that would do the trick. A vicious grin split her lips. This was her moment. She propped her feet up against the pillar, pressed her back against the cool durasteel of the outer wall, then flicked out a full array of slicing tools. Some, she set onto her lap, others she stuck through her teeth for quick access as she worked her magic. She fished out her computer probe and plugged it into the wall terminal. She found a good spot to set her datapad down, then brought up the software she would require.
Whining whistles and panicked boops and beeps drew her attention downwards. The Zabrak was already hoisting the droid up, grunting and visibly struggling to get Spots onto his shoulders. He was positively glowing with sweat, his greasy hair stuck to his face. She wondered then if maybe they’d be rid of Bale Andros soon. She found both terror and relief at that thought. Despite her reservations, the droid was now perched on the bounty hunter’s shoulders, plugged into the core.
“Alright, Spots. First, we get us some dirty, dirty info on these Collective jerks,” she explained, “The moment I break through security, you start downloading.”
The droid agreed with an eager whirr.
Here. We. Go.