I hope you're enjoying your memorial day weekend. After spending so much time on Bespin, Eriadu, and Vassek, we'll be switching gears soon to streamline the story a bit. While there are many tales to tell from this conflict, writing them all out would take far too long.
That said, enjoy.
"He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command." - Machiavelli
Venator-Class,"Triumphant II" Low Atmosphere over Cloud City,
00:15 Local time, 01:13 Senate time
Plo Koon was on the bridge, observing the battle below, when he heard his communications officer call out for him.
"Sir, we are being hailed by the UNSC captains."
The Kel Dor nodded, straightening his robes before making his way over to the ship's viewscreen."Patch them through, trooper."
After a moment, Captains Jackson and Ito appeared. Jackson's expression was stern and unwavering, while Ito appeared more somber. Koon nodded politely to both of them,"Captain Jackson, Captain Ito. What can I do for you?"
There was a moment of silence before Ito cleared her throat,"Master Koon, good to hear from you. My Spartans tell me you got a bit beat up down there. How are you feeling?"
He gingerly pressed his hand against his wound, wincing a bit as a jolt of pain went through his body."I'm am coming along alright, Captain. Our Bacta has done wonders already." He shifted his weight,"Thank you for your concern. Although, I sense this call isn't just to check up on me."
Ito shook her head,"No sir, it isn't. Our analysts have taken a good look at the situation on the city. At this point, the situation is unsalvageable."
Koon looked at her expectantly. A moment of silence passed before he chimed in,"It is important not to give up hope, when the situation seems hopeless. We will find a way."
"Actually, Master Koon," Jackson said,"Taking the city would take an immense sacrifice, and we only have so many men. It is time we pull out and cut our losses."
Plo stared at the Captain for a long minute. Was he being serious? He couldn't detect any hint of sarcasm in the man's voice."We cannot do that, Captain. There are still thousands of civilians to evacuate."
He nodded grimly,"The city is slowly falling, and there are other theaters in your galaxy that need to be protected," his voice lowered solemnly,"They're doomed anyway."
They were serious. Koon took a deep breath. He reminded himself he wasn't dealing with jedi or subordinates,"Abandoning the innocents down there would go against the core principles of the jedi order. We have to stay and save as many-"
"While I sympathize with your desire to save bystanders," Jackson cut in,"Our men are down there right now dying in a parasitic hole of filth, fighting a losing battle, so we can save civilians. We need to scuttle the city while we can."
"No." Koon didn't like the man's attitude at all."If we scuttle the city, tens of thousands will die. Men, women, children. People we could've saved."
"With all due respect, jedi, I'm responsible for my men." Jackson growled loudly,"Not only will I not ask them to die unless they have, to, but we need to consider the tactical situation as well."
Plo could feel himself getting frustrated. He pushed that aside and focused on the situation at hand."Captains, we must keep the faith. We cannot abandon the innocents. We need to stay and find a way to emerge victorious."
"And wait until we're surrounded by flood infested planets?" Jackson shouted,"What will we do then? We need to leave this place and pick a different field to defend! This situation is hopeless."
"NO. Our forces are committed to protecting the citizens of the Republic. We stay, and we win."
Jackson's face began to flush red."At what cost, jedi? How many clone lives is it worth, hmm? Or do you see them as disposable?"
Plo scowled under his mask and tensed his shoulders,"Do NOT suggest, I don't care about my men." He was struggling to keep resentment out of his voice,"My men are not cannon fodder. I do not make these decisions lightly."
"If they stay, they die in a dustbin."
Ito huffed impatiently,"Gentlemen!"
Koon turned toward her. The human captain took a moment to breathe before continuing."Your commitment to saving lives is admirable, Master Koon. But what my colleague is trying to say is that it isn't tactically sound to stay here. We've already lost a jedi master and two clone commanders, as well as thousands of men between us, and the flood is advancing on other fronts. If we stay here, we'll be surrounded, and other worlds will fall."
She gestured off screen toward the city,"Besides, you can't scuttle a planet... but you can scuttle a city."
Plo closed his eyes. Her words, ironically, stung more then Jackson's. Because they made far too much sense. He found the emotional barriers he'd erected within the Force slipping, which he quickly brought up again. The amount of pain in the galaxy right now was almost overwhelming.
But he couldn't just abandon the civilians.
Ito interrupted his thoughts softly,"General, your men and mine are down there dying. And a lot of those civilians will die anyways. I've already ordered a staggered withdrawal from the city, so the parasite doesn't catch on. We pull back here, we can drop off the civilians flooding your ships and go find another, more critical area to defend."
Koon nodded slowly. He didn't like this at all. It went against everything the order stood for.
But at the same time... It kind of didn't.
He let out a deep breath. When he spoke his voice was just above a whisper,"While I cannot abandon civilians, it seems the decision has already been made the the UNSC." He felt relief coming from the two captains,"I will order my troops to withdrawal."
Ito nodded, now much more relaxed,"Thank you, general. But don't pull all your men back at once. Pull them back in groups, and don't tell them why. If the flood infected a single trooper who knew we plan to blow the city, they'll all know, and they'll come at us with nothing to lose." She paused briefly,"General Grievous has grudgingly agreed to deploy extra droids to the surface to cover our escape. And, hopefully, buy us time."
He nodded in acknowledgement,"Understood, Captain Ito."
The two leaders disappeared from the screen, leaving Koon alone with the bridge crew and the hum of their equipment. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his mask in disappointment.
This was going to be tough. But there would be time to reflect and grieve later.
Cloud City, Eastern District Hangar #4,
04:00 Local time, 04:58 Senate time
UNMC sergeant Luke Collins jogged through the hangar entrance, lungs burning mildly from the long jog. He wearily grabbed the catwalk railing and put his weight on it, dropping his head as he fought to catch his breath.
This place's atmosphere was a bit thin, for his tastes.
He heard footsteps and heavy panting behind him. He glanced at his squadmates, cursing quietly before turning his attention to the hangar.
The place was packed with hordes of civilians, all huddled in large groups so as to create a pathway for military personnel coming and going. There was the familiar murmur of a large crowd of people all talking at once.
They were so tightly packed together. To close, for his liking, with a horde of infectious monsters running around.
The refugees seemed calm enough, if, perhaps, a bit frightened. The large military presence and the regular transports taking them to safety by the dozens undoubtedly helped a lot.
Out of the corner of his eye, corporal Charity Todd appeared, also trying to catch her breath. The much shorter soldiers leaned against the railing, examining the crowd in front of them. She silently scanned the crowd, the site a bit to familiar for her liking,"Its like the refugee crises during the Covenant war."
Collins grunted,"Logistics is a disaster out here. Why in the world they had us run several kilometers to get back to base is beyond me."
Corporal Todd nodded, still panting lightly to catch her breath,"Yeah." She scanned the room briefly,"Its odd that they didn't have a transport waiting to pick us up..." She was silent for a long moment, scanning the crowds as if searching for something,"For that matter, I hardly see any clones or marines in the area. Just a bunch of droids."
He scanned the room carefully himself. She was right, there was an odd lack of UNSC or Republic personnel in the area. The handful still here were packing themselves onto one of several Pelican or LAAT gunships, respectively.
He glanced back at his squad. Out of 8 men, 3 were killed in a skirmish with a group of flood freaks clinging to the wall of a large gym, including the other fireteam leader. That left him responsible for the 4 still standing.
Luke was thankful some of them survived. This new field of battle was a terrible place to go.
He let out a sigh of relief, before he heard his name through his comms. He switched channels to communicate with the Lieutenant,"This is Collins. Go ahead sir."
"Good to hear from you sergeant. We were just getting ready to leave." There was short pause on the other end,"We've got orders to pull out of the city and rendezvous in fleet. Apparently the brass decided to let the droids handle this one."
He exchanged a glance with Todd. She seemed as surprised as he was. Starting down the steps, he motioned for his squad to follow him,"Understood sir. We're on our way."
The crowds parted ways as they passed through. Collins could hear people calling out to them on each side. Asking questions, thanking them, trying to share some observation they had. He paid them no heed. If they stopped to talk, they could get bogged down forever.
That, and it was tough talking to a bunch of people who'd lost everything and keeping his mind clear. Although he'd never admit that.
He heard a small voice below him. He froze, glanced down and saw a little boy staring up at him with wonder and a bit of fear."Mr. Soldier, do you know where my mommy went? We can't find her!"
He stared at the child helplessly. This is exactly the thing I wanted to avoid. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it when the right words failed to materialize.
"Coro!" A man dressed in casual business attire appeared from the crowd. He snatched the child's hand and started leading him away."Sorry about that sir."
The boy whimpered. Collins breathed a sigh of relief and started booking it for the Pelican.
As they approached the transport, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. The Pelican was PACKED. Probably more then it should've been. The last UNSC personnel were cramming aboard with refugees, leaving only enough room to stand for the flight.
The craft's engines whizzed to life, blowing up gusts of air around the ship. Collins approached one of the crew members standing on the edge of the transport,"You guys got any room left?!"
"No!" The man shouted over the noise,"We're packed! Kick some refugees off and climb aboard!"
Collins nodded. Turning, he opened his mouth to order a row of civilians off when he saw the expressions on their faces. They looked discouraged at best, terrified at worst.
He gritted his teeth. Its like the war all over again.
He turned toward Corporal Todd. She gestured toward the Republic transports, which were still loading."The Republic gunships are mostly empty right now. We could ride with them and let the refugees stay!"
"We gotta go sergeant!" The trooper on board shouted,"What's it gonna be?"
He glanced again at the refugees on board. He made eye contact with a young mother, clutching her infant tightly. The fear on her face was evident.
He couldn't do it.
"Go ahead, trooper!" He shouted at the crew member,"We'll ride with the bleach boys!"
The marine shrugged,"Suit yourself!" He pressed a button on the wall, and the transport door slid shut. The Pelican lifted off, albeit a bit wobbly, and floated out of the hangar.
He glanced at his men and dipped his head toward the Republic transports,"Let go boys."
Marching over to the GAR transports, he scanned the crowd of troopers for the man in charge. He kicked himself mentally for not thinking this through. They all looked alike.
They were clones, after all.
Eventually, he spotted a trooper with more markings and such, making him stand out from the others. Collins weaved his way through the group of clones toward the man."Hey, you got any room for us?"
The clone tilted his head at him curiously."Um, would you prefer to ride with your own men, sir?"
Collins gestured broadly toward the hangar. Other then the crowds, and an intimidating looking droid gunship, the 2 LAATs were the only transports present.
The clone shrugged,"You're welcome aboard, sirs. But You're on your own getting back to your own fleet. I can't make any promises that I'll be able to ferry you over."
He nodded at the clone."Thank you, trooper." He turned to climb aboard the gunship.
"One more thing sir." He froze."The fleet's going to be pretty packed with civilians. General's orders. I hope that's okay with you."
Luke sighed in frustration. It didn't sound pleasant, but it was the best they had."We'll make due trooper. Thanks."
The transport was already relatively full with near-identical clones. Collins avoid eye contact, as they all seemed to be staring at them. He weaved his way through the group, muttering apologies and thank yous as the men made way.
He found a corner of the ship and slumped down wearily. A quick glance and a thumbs up from Corporal Todd confirmed they were all on board.
The clone in charge of loading the ship was last to board. He turned toward the crowd,"All right, we can take some passengers!"
Almost as one, several dozen refugees advanced on the transport. The clone held his hands out,"Woah woah woah! One at a time people, we got more transports coming."
The civilians complied, slowing down so only a few were getting aboard at a time. After 10 or so boarded, the clone held his hands up again."Sorry citizens, we're packed! No more room!"
Collins glanced down at his rifle when the crowd seemed to deflate simultaneously. At this point, he was just ready to leave and get home.
He heard Todd's voice again. Glancing up, he saw she was speaking to a young twi'lek couple, arms outstretched."I can take your child if you like. I'll watch over her until you come aboard."
The family huddled together cautiously, eyeing her odd and foreign military equipment. She smiled reassuringly, taking her helmet off and letting her almost-shoulder-length blonde hair fall down."Its okay. I'll take good care of her, I promise."
As the couple handed their child over, Collins groaned audibly and let his head fall back against the wall. Way to go Charity, now we get to babysit a child on board an alien warship. She took off her friggin helmet too, out in the field.
He shook his head as the transport lifted off. He'd scold her when they were back aboard the Barbarossa.
Corporal Todd held the frightened child tightly,"Its okay buddy. Mommy and daddy will be here soon." The child let go and she smiled warmly,"My name's Charity, what's yours?"
Ugh. He pinged his troops over their comms."Once we get aboard, we need to find a lift over to UNSC vessels ASAP, so don't get too comfy. And tell Corporal Todd to put her helmet back on so she can hear."
As the gunship hummed through the air, he leaned back and tried to ignore the obnoxious vibrating. He listened to Todd talking with the child, who asked why her parents couldn't ride with them. She told her the ship was full, but her parents would be joining her on the next one. She promised.
Collins shook his head. She was far better then children then he'd ever be. He instinctively started checking his weapon while they waited. Full magazine, with a few more to spare. He switched the safety on and glanced at his right shoulder guard. A close blaster shot burned the crap out of it, leaving a charred burn still letting off the scent of ozone.
He lowered his head and said a quick prayer, thankful that the flood, generally, couldn't shoot straight.
"Well would you look at that."
He glanced over at a clone, who was peering out the viewport."What do you see?"
The clone glanced at him briefly, as if surprised by the unfamiliar voice, then turned back to the view slat,"The Seppie ships are high tailing it to the upper atmosphere."
His eyebrows knitted together in confusion,"Will the droids still be in operational range?"
The clone nodded,"Yep. Just seems strange to me."
Before he could dwell on the thought, the gunship changed course and slowed down. They were about to land. He pinged his squad again."Remember, best behavior boys and girls. Stick together and don't get lost."
As the gunship descended, he pulled out his M6-G and did a quick weapons check. All was good, so he slid it back in as the gunship doors slid open. Since he was in the back, he waited patiently to get off, keeping an eye on his men at the same time.
Once his chance came, he hopped off the gunship onto the hangar floor. His squadmates were packed together, waiting for him. Not that it would be hard to find them in a crowd. A quick glance around indicated they were the only UNSC personnel on board, as their uniforms were nothing like what the clones or civilians wore.
He made his way over to Todd, who was still holding the child."Charity, you're gonna have to find someone to take care of the kid. We need to head back to our own ships."
She sighed, making eye contact with him hopefully."Sergeant, I can't leave her alone on a warship. Can we wait just a bit?"
Luke glanced at the orange twi'lek in her arms. The child stared back, obviously a bit frightened and curious at the same time. If they aged the same as humans, he would put her age at about 5. F-ck.
"Alright, but find her a babysitter. If we're still stuck with her when we get back to the Barbarossa, you'll be pushing metal until you pass out. Are we clear?"
She nodded gratefully,"Understood sergeant."
Before he could respond, he heard the voice of one of his squadmates over the comms,"What in the? Guys come look at this!"
Turning around, he could see Cloud City growing smaller in the distance. Confused, he made his way over with Todd in tow.
The city continued to shrink, and clouds began to obscure their vision. Then, the shield separating them from the outside polarized. Not so bad that they couldn't see outside, but enough that it was like wearing a big pair of sunglasses.
Collins stared curiously out the shield, before his eyes widened with realization. He turned and quickly covered the child's eyes."Don't let her look Corporal."
The child grunted, trying to pull his hand away."No! I want to see! Let me see!"
"Hey what are-" Todd grew quiet, then her jaw dropped as she glanced back out the shield.
The area where Cloud City once was, had been replaced with a massive mushroom cloud.
Todd spun around with the child and marched off toward the side, where the explosion would be out of view. The child squirmed and protested,"Let me down! I wanna see!"
"Its, its nothing." She said, her voice a bit shaky,"We're gonna go play for a bit."
The child whined again,"Mmm okay. When is mommy and daddy coming?"
Todd froze in her tracks. She took a deep breath to calm herself,"Its going to be a bit."
Vassek, 4.1 Kilometers West of Krassos, Landing Site Alpha,
03:04 Hours Senate time, 22:45 local time
Anakin Skywalker typed lazily on the light blue command screen, issuing an order to a group of AT-APs coming in. He directed them to the far corner of the field, which was still clear enough to take heavy armor. They'd brought down so much firepower and personnel in the past hour or so that he had to check periodically that they were keeping at least a little bit in reserve up in orbit.
He sent an order for a maintenance crew to check on the vehicles, and was met with a cue. Their mechanics were incredibly busy at the moment making sure everything was in good working order.
Anakin sighed in boredom. He wouldn't mind having Obi-Wan here to do it, or Appo for that matter. Commander Appo, however, was at very least chipping in, but he himself had to position these units and give them orders.
Ughhh. I can't wait for Rex to get better.
He brushed a hair out of his face as he thought about the Captain. He was still recovering on Coruscant from his injuries on Shola. He smiled slightly, still relieved that he was making a full recovery. If he'd died because of the Sangheili's incompetence...
He shook his head, brushing that thought aside. There were plenty of reasons not to stew in resentment toward their new allies.
He sent yet another order, this time positioning a platoon of clone troopers at a critical intersection of the city. He felt the urge to check on Ahsoka again, so he switched screens.
A tactical display popped up. Apparently, she was making slow but steady progress through the upper levels of the mall, clones and Mandalorians in tow. The officers' report indicated that the flood had been contained, but the Mandalorians were overzealous and causing a lot of collateral.
Anakin scowled, frustration festering within him. As always, the Death Watch were likely killing innocents caught in the crossfire. One day, when this temporary alliance was over, they were going to bring these people to justice.
But for now, he wasn't going to bother arguing with Maul and his troops. He could always chew them out later.
Beep beep, beep beep.
He glanced wearily at the communicator. Switching it on, Commander Appo appeared. The grim expression on his face told him it wouldn't be good news.
Appo cleared his throat,"Sir, we've detected hundreds of aerial contacts making a beeline for the city. Coalition fighters are en route to intercept, but they are unlikely to get them all."
Anakin bolted for his speeder, switching to his personal communicator."How long until they arrive?"
"About 60 seconds sir," the clone replied,"The first wave, anyways. There's a lot of them on the way."
"Commander, you're now in command of large scale tactical duties, I'm headed for the city." The speeder shrieked as he pushed its thrusters,"I'd advise putting your officers in charge of logistics."
Appo's eyebrows dropped,"Where are you going to go sir?"
"The capital grounds. Its well defended and the locals set up their headquarters there. I need a couple platoons at the capital in 3 minutes!"
Anakin stared at the growing city skyline. The lights and fires dotting the city's structures gave him an ominous feeling. It was going to be quite the fight to protect the city.
He switched to Ahsoka's channel, which began to page her. Impatient, he drummed his gloved fingers against the handlebars,"Come on, come on..."
Ahsoka appeared, panting slightly and face set in a scowl,"Anakin, what's going on?"
"We've got a situation Ahsoka." He slowed down slightly as he began to enter the city,"We've got hundreds of aerial contacts inbound. You need to dig in with your men now."
She nodded,"Alright, we'll have the mall cleared out in just a few minutes."
"We don't have a few minutes," he said ominously,"They'll be here any second. I'm headed to the capital, if you need backup let me know."
The Togrutan smiled slightly,"Understood. Let's give these things a warm welcome."
Switching off her communicator, Ahsoka was silent for a moment before turning toward her entourage,"I need a squad to come down to the street with me. The rest of you, finish clearing the building."
She glanced at the Mandalorians, who were forming up in a triangle."We've already received orders from our commander, jedi." They made their way through the troopers to a large window overlooking the city. They leapt through the glass, activating their jetpacks and soaring off.
Ahsoka shook her head. She found herself wishing she had one of those things when she fell from a skyscraper. Most of the time, she was left to fend for herself.
As the rest of the troopers streamed past her to ascend the building, she motioned for her squad to follow and made her way to the stairs.
They were only on the third story, so it wouldn't take long to get down. Once down there she could take a look at the bigger picture and formulate a plan of action.
She inhaled sharply as she picked up a familiar sound. Starfighters, laser fire, and the echo of explosions, all growing closer.
They needed to get down, and fast.
She glanced back at the clones a few steps behind her,"Double time men!" She called upon the Force, and leapt to the bottom floor, landing nimbly with her legs crouched and a hand out for support.
The Force blared a warning. Ahsoka quickly dived toward the main wall of the building.
Ahsoka threw a hand out to steady herself as the building trembled violently. Lights on the wall flickered and rocked, but stayed on in the end.
Another explosion, much more violent then the last. The troopers cried out as they were thrown down the last flight of stairs, and pieces of ceiling and dust fell from above. She fell to all fours as the floor shifted beneath her.
She felt a familiar vibrating on her hip. She activated her comlink,"Ahsoka."
It was Anakin again."Ahsoka, the Elites think the flood are targeting the building your in. Get out NOW!"
"What?" Her eyes widened in surprise,"How would they know that?"
"I'm not sure," he said hurriedly,"They said something about a,'collective conscience.'"
A collective conscience? The term sounded familiar, perhaps from her studies, but she couldn't put her finger on what it meant.
She hooked her communicator back on her belt and hopped to her feet. She charged past the troopers who were doing the same,"Lets go men!"
Now back on the main level, she sprinted through the relatively empty pathways toward the main exit. The clones around her seemed a bit confused, but they were working on evacuating the building. She made sure to go slow enough that her men could keep up.
Another tremor in the Force."Down!"
She dived, hitting the deck right before another impact above. The building shook more violently then before, shaking parts of the roof free as it partially caved in around them.
Leaping to her feet, she spotted several troopers desperately trying to evacuate the triage. There was no way she was going to leave them be.
She ran over, dodging bits of rubble still falling from the roof. Passing by a pair of troopers with a stretcher, she found a trooper who'd taken a nasty shot to the solar plexus. Kneeling down, she slipped her arms around him and lifted with her legs.
The man was, of course, about twice her size. She felt her legs trembling beneath the weight but, with a grunt, she hoisted him up and on her shoulders. She glanced around and, seeing her men picking up wounded, called upon the Force and made a break for the door.
Stepping outside was like stepping into another world. As she approached the exit, the sound of battle grew louder until she was on the front steps of the mall. She glanced up to see hundreds of aircraft filling the sky, a combination of fighters, civilian craft, and hideous looking, bloated brown masses floating through the sky.
The air speeders were flying erratically, crashing with the flood forms into whatever structure they could reach. ARC-170s, Seraphs, and Mandalorian fighters pursued them relentlessly, hitting their targets with precision and wiping them out in a ball of flame. They were badly outnumbered, however, and many of the invaders were making their way through.
Out on the street, the flaming wreck of a civilian land speeder lay tattered on the pavement, a dozen or so flood forms scattered about on the street. Thankfully, the clones had made pretty quick work of the parasite.
Glancing around, she spotted a large Republic medical tent, with a pair of generators and dozens of wounded laid out on the ground. She hurried down the steps, struggling under the weight of an armored clone, and laid him down at the edge of the tent. The clone groaned quietly in pain and glanced up at her,"Thank you sir."
She placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled, still panting moderately,"Anytime trooper. The medics will get you fixed up and ready to go in-"
The ground shook again, throwing Ahsoka to her hands and knees as explosions erupted above. Glancing back, she saw flames and smoke billowing from the top of the mall. A large portion of the front wall came loose, tumbling down to the street like the roar of a waterfall. The debris fell on several screaming clones, who disappeared beneath the screen of smoke and metal.
She stared at the roof in surprise,"Are they using artillery?"
"No sir!" A clone responded,"They're crashing air speeders into the roof!"
Her eyes widened. Somehow, without any apparent long distance communication, the flood knew she had been in the building and were doing their level best to kill her before the battle even started.
A chill went down her spine. The Elites were right. What exactly were they fighting?
Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard a clone voice calling her. Looking up, she saw 6 of her men were still standing and ready to go.
She rose to her feet, legs a bit shaky, and activated her comlink."Commander Appo, I need a sitrep and directions to the nearest Republic base."
Appo's huffed in frustration,"The flood are trying to overwhelm us. I'd give you the front lines, but they're hard to pinpoint when the parasite is dropping in in front, behind, and on all sides." He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration,"The bulk of their force is still on its way. I'd advise you and general Skywalker clear out the vanguard before they arrive. Or at very least, secure critical areas. We can't afford to be unorganized when the horde arrives."
Ahsoka cocked an eyebrow,"Horde?"
The clone nodded,"Innumerous flood forms are bearing down on the city. Millions, at least."
Ahsoka put a hand to her mouth. Millions? That's insane! This was going to be much harder then she thought.
She swallowed nervously,"Thanks for the update commander. Where's the nearest FOB?"
Appo nodded, sending her coordinates,"Of course, sorry sir. We've set up shop in a reinforced structure close to you. If I were you, that's where I'd go." With that, he ended the call.
She stared at the comlink for a moment, her mind still on Appo's words. She was getting the feeling they might be in over their head a bit.
Shaking her head, she turned to her squad,"Alright men, we need to get to FOB Delta." She spotted a clone officer nearby and called out to him,"Lieutenant! Get your men together and form a column!"
The officer acknowledged, giving out the order. As the men scurried about, he hurried over to her,"We'll bring the gunships down and be ready to go in 60 seconds sir."
She shook her head,"No, I need you to form an armored column. We'll drive over there and clear out any parasites we come across."
The officer nodded,"I can do that sir, but I don't have enough repulsorlifts for my men."
"That's fine. Load the extra on the LAATs."
The officer hurried off toward the street. Ahsoka glanced up at the night sky again. From the ground, it was a bit like a light show. Hopefully the pilots were staying safe up there.
Glancing around, she spotted a small group of Mandalorians loading up a transport. She jogged over toward them.
She saw the Mandalorians tense up slightly as she approached, but otherwise continued their task. A Mandalorian with horns on his helmet and a special marked pauldron made his way toward her."What can I do for you jedi?"
She stopped a few feet from him,"We're getting ready to head to the FOB. I'm forming my men up now. Would your men like to come along?"
The man was silent for a moment. Then, he crossed his arms and leaned back confidently,"We've been ordered to go on roving patrol. But I see no problem helping an ally out. We'll see that you get there safely."
Ahsoka raised her eyebrows,"Really?" She cursed herself as she felt the soldier was a bit offended."I mean, thank you. We'll be ready to go in a minute."
The Mando nodded,"As a commander, you're a critical asset. But don't expect my warriors to wait hand and foot on you."
She nodded, thanking him again for agreeing and jogging back to the clones.
It was... Different working with them. Most of the time, their allies were in the form of local government forces, who were generally happy to trust the jedi with leading the way. The Mandalorians, on the other hand, seemed determined to do their own thing.
It was a strange time she lived in.
Ahsoka's gaze wandered down the street and along the exteriors of the buildings lining the street. It was tough seeing through many of the windows, since most of the lights were off at this point, making hiding from a convoy of Republic armor a relatively easy task.
She leaned back in the passenger seat of the RX-200 Falchion tank as it hummed down the road. Well, she wasn't so much in the passenger seat as squished between the copilot's leg and a dashboard of glowing controls separating the driver and the co-pilot. It was a tight fit, but it wasn't intended to be long term. If they ran into trouble she'd simply pop the hatch and get to work.
Truth be told, she'd prefer to ride on top of the tank, and she would've a year or two ago. But the idea of being completely exposed to small arms fire and whatever nasty surprise the flood will produce next was unappealing to her.
They were the second Falchion in the column, directly behind another RX and a Mandalorian Canderous assault tank sharing point. They were followed by a TX-130, protecting the two vulnerable repulsorlift troop transports in the center of the column. The flank was led by a pair of the Mandalorian IFVs, who's armor and laser turrets put it somewhere between the transports and the TX-130 in power.
Ahsoka stole another glance at the Mandalorian tank leading her. The hulking metal form and red streaks of paint along the hull projected a imposing appearance on the battlefield. She was thankful it was on their side for a change.
It was probably about time to check in again. Activating her communicator, she raised Appo again,"Commander, status report."
The clone nodded,"Well sir, the bulk of the flood force has engaged our front lines a few miles out from the city. General Skywalker has locked down the capital grounds and the heart of the city, and the Tolpa highway is secure, giving us a connection between the city and the landing point."
"Good work commander," Ahsoka replied,"Any signs of flood activity in the city?"
"Yes, unfortunately. We were able to clean up most of their little surprise landings, but a few forms managed to get into various refugee centers across the city. The Sangheili and Mandalorians are flattening these areas with orbital bombardment, or preparing to do so as we speak."
She nearly rolled her eyes, but caught herself and shook her head instead."I suppose that's to be expected of them. Thanks commander, we'll be in contact when we reach FOB Delta."
Shutting her communicator off, she lowered her head and sighed."How do we convince an ally like the Death Watch to show restraint on the battlefield? And the Sangheili, are they both evil?"
The troopers stayed silent, obviously trying to decide whether or not to answer. After a moment, the copilot decided the engine wouldn't be the only answer she got."Uhh, well, I know they're from different cultures, sir. Perhaps they're just focused on the objective?"
She glanced up again, running a hand over the top of her montrals,"Yes, but that doesn't mean the ends always justify the means."
Their conversation was interrupted by the crack of the Canderous' main cannons. Down the street was a small gaggle of flood forms, who were caught off guard by the blast. They began to return fire with small arms, as more trickled out from a large office building.
Ahsoka grabbed her lightsabers, the cool metal hilts felt almost comforting. Judging by the rate the lead tanks were cutting down the parasites, she wouldn't need them, but it paid to be ready.
As they began to fall back, she felt a hint of trepidation in the Force. The feeling slowly grew as they rolled on.
Ahsoka opened a channel with the rest of the column,"Keep your eyes peeled men. I sense something..."
The column rolled on, the only sounds being the hum of the repulsorlift engines and the laserfire from the lead tanks. Flood forms continued to pop out down the road sporadically and fire in their direction, but they'd yet to bring anything strong enough to penetrate the armor on the RX-200, let alone the Canderous.
The feeling continued to grow. Glancing up, she saw nothing but the muted night sky and the multi-story businesses and office buildings lining the streets. She narrowed her eyes as she began to think about the situation. Parasites popping up down the road. The street was narrow and lined with cover. Hmm...
Before she could draw her conclusions, the flood sprang their surprise.
Almost as one, dozens of windows from the buildings above their heads shattered. Combat forms leapt out, plummeting toward the column like a pack of vultures.
She activated her channel,"Contacts above! Evade!"
As ordered, the vehicles began to swerve and fire upwards, but they'd hardly gotten a volley off before the flood began to land.
Flood forms and glass crashed all around them, slamming into the ground and on the hulls of the repulsorlifts. They fell all around Ahsoka's tank. A loud thud echoed from behind and the vehicle rocked as a combat form landed on the ball turret.
They seemed completely oblivious to the pain and damaged caused by the fall. Although a bit sluggish, the combat forms rose to their feet (or the equivalent of) and attacked with full ferocity.
Ahsoka jumped as a combat form fell right across their windshield and slid off to the side. The thing gripped tightly on a hold in the armor and dragged itself forward. The head, that of a Duros, was pushed back nearly 90 degrees, its expression frozen in silent agony.
Quickly, she seized a merchant's kiosk on the sidewalk and launched it at the parasite. The vehicle rocked under the impact, but the combat form disappeared with a thud and a scream. All that remained was a trail of yellow-green body fluids splattered across the hull.
Glancing around, she noticed several combat forms hitchhiking on the Canderous. To her surprise, one was working on the hatch with a fusion cutter. Given enough time, he'd access the crew.
Immediately, she threw open the cockpit (much to the chagrin of the clones) and leapt onto the back repulsor cover of the tank.
Her lightsabers ignited with a hiss. She swung on a surprised buglike form, dicing him in several pieces before advancing up the hull.
The flood seemed to take notice quickly. Finding herself the target of their attention, she gritted her teeth and batted away the hail of blaster bolts hailing down on her. Thankfully, a lot of them were either losing their blasters or losing their ability to shoot when they fell, so protecting herself was a lot easier then it could've been.
She heard what she could only call a piercing sound, like an arrow whistling through the air. She glanced down and saw a spike of bone and biomass imbedded in a gap on the tank's hull. She glanced around and spotted a pure form gripping tightly onto the wall of an apartment building.
The creature fired again, and she side-flipped further down the tank to avoid the shot. Spinning, she dissected a pair of combat forms, including the one working on the hatch.
Her eyes widened as the combat form continued working, unfazed by the fact his lower torso was gone. She impaled him with both blades right through the chest, and he fell limp.
Suddenly, she felt a burning pain as a bolt skimmed her left shoulder. Grunting, she fell into a stance and deflected another volley of bolts.
The hatch on the tank popped and a Mandalorian appeared, blasters at the ready. He glanced at Ahsoka for a moment, before shaking his head and disappearing below.
Her defensive barrier was shattered when the pure form's shot found the mark. She brought her lightsaber up to deflect it, but the shot just melted and splattered like a cup of boiling liquid.
Ahsoka cried out, slipping and falling to one knee. She'd been splattered on the shoulder, chest and arm, burning her in several places.
A blaster bolt made it past her and zinged right by her face. The pain had disoriented her. She rolled right, moving to the other side of the tanks' hull and putting the steel between her and most of the fire.
Panting, she pulled her communicator off her belt and raised the column,"Everyone, get ready to accelerate! I need the crew of the Canderous to let me in first!"
She heard muffled swearing from inside the tank. A moment later, the hatch popped open and a pilot popped out again. She grabbed his wrist, and he pulled her into the bowels of the vehicle, before shutting the hatch behind them. Then, the vehicle lurched forward as it picked up speed.
Ahsoka gingerly touched the burn on her arm. It stung a lot, and it might leave a scar, but she'd be okay. Thank the Force that thing didn't hit me.
She glanced around at the interior of the tank. It was cramped and dark, with only a dim red interior lighting and the glow of different control panels and screen putting off light. The hull rattled as the main cannons let loose, pummeling some unseen target.
She crawled over to the pilot and found the viewscreen. The tank had hit a large trading office, which was collapsing behind the convoy and burying the parasites. It was waaaay too close to the convoy, however."You better not have buried our men, Mand-"
"Of course not, dikut!" The pilot hissed a few choice words in his native tongue,"Those our our men at the back of the convoy. We're separating ourselves from the bulk of the flood."
She opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. As much as she'd like to call him grumpy, she was also second in command of a battalion, and she needed to act like it.
Instead, she activated her comlink again."We're clear boys. Let's punch it!"
About 10 minutes later, the battered convoy slowed to a stop at a large structure with clones milling about. Ahsoka popped the hatch to the Canderous and crawled out on the hull of the vehicle.
She scowled slightly at the building they'd selected. It appeared to be an alloy processing plant of sorts. The main structure was a towering metal box, with several chimneys emerging from the roof to give smog a place to escape. At least, that's what she imagined. The whole compound was surrounded by a 8 foot tall wall, with smaller structures and mobile buildings spread out parallel to the main factory.
It reminded her a bit of some of the different droid foundries she'd found herself in throughout the war, which was a mark against it in her book.
She reached for her communicator to contact the Mandalorian leader, before remembering she didn't have his direct channel. She huffed impatiently at the logistical oversight, something she imagined they'd need to get used to, now that they were fighting as three armies rather then one.
Glancing around, she spotted the Mandalorian sergeant she spoke with earlier and jogged toward him.
The Mandos were already forming up again, although many of their warriors had climbed out of their IFVs and spread out a bit. The sergeant himself was beside the Canderous, bent over slightly with a hand to his helmet in apparent conversation. When he saw her approach, he said something in his native tongue over his comms and turned to face her."What is it, jedi?"
"I wanted to thank you for the support," she replied,"If you and your men want to stay at our FOB, you're welcome. You could get a meal and resupply before moving out again."
The red-armored man shook his head,"We'll have to pass. The bulk of the flood force has made contact with the frontlines. We've been ordered to give some support."
Ahsoka nodded, the distant rumblings and cracks of battle suddenly more noticeable,"Very well. May the Force be with you." With that, she turned and jogged back to the FOB.
The factory itself was made out of very sturdy material. Once inside, she recognized the interior as that of some sort of ironworks. Similar to the factories on Geonosis, with conveyor belts, massive pots suspended in the air, and a host of machinery of which she was unfamiliar with. All of it undoubtedly had a purpose, but that purpose didn't concern her at the moment.
She followed the flow of troopers down a set of stairs, where the dim lighting of the factory was replaced with the blue glow of lights that had been strung along the roof. She made her way through a level comprised of mostly clones, who were spread out in squads cleaning their weapons and conversing. The troopers gave her a wide berth and offered occasional salutes, but for the most part they focused on their individual tasks.
She went down another set of stairs that lead to the basement. The lowest level was a bit less developed then the level she was just on, with simple concrete walls and large iron pillars spread at even intervals throughout the room. The space itself was filled with Republic military equipment. Stacks of crates lined the walls, with several pulled down and opened to reveal their contents. As always, numerous consoles had been set up, their wiring running across the floor, with a large holo table in the center.
While most of the consoles were already up and running, a few were still being worked on or troubleshot by a group of technicians. She had to admire their professionalism; She had no idea when the FOB had been set up, but it was pretty recent.
As she approached the table, a middle-aged naval officer turned and gave her a nod,"Commander Tano. we're glad to have a jedi here."
"You picked a good place to set up shop, captain," she replied,"Its like this place was built to withstand bombardment."
The captain chuckled,"This was an alloy factory used to purify minerals into metals needed to build battle droids. It was built to withstand moderate amounts of bombardment."
Ahsoka frowned at that. The irony of setting up shop in a separatist factory was not lost on her.
Sighing, she approached the display table and crossed her arms. When she began to process what she was seeing, her eyes widened in shock.
Appo hadn't been kidding about the parasites' numbers. An absolute horde of hostile contacts were bearing down on their frontlines. Thankfully, the mountain range to the southwest had bought them time on that end, but the east and north lines were getting pounded, judging by the display. Several of the 501sts acclamators alongside the smaller Sangheili cruiser, were bombarding the flood wall with their weapons, but they just kept coming.
She turned to the naval officer,"Does General Skywalker know about this?"
The man shrugged slightly,"If he's kept on top of things, then yes."
Chances were, he was out and about, setting up defensive lines and working with the troops. She decided contacting him would be best.
After a few moments, his hologram appeared,"Everything alright Ahsoka?"
"Are you aware of just how many hostiles we have bearing down on us?"
Anakin nodded, his expression grim,"I am. Its going to be bad." He glanced offscreen as someone called his name, then turned back,"You're welcome to join me at the capital grounds."
Ahsoka exchanged a glance with the officer, then turned back to him,"Are you sure I'm not needed elsewhere?"
The Jedi Knight let out a long, resigned sigh,"The lines are very long. I could use your help, but I suppose if we split up, we could each take a front." He paused for a moment before adding,"If we split up, make sure you stay on your toes. This isn't going to be like fighting the clankers."
Ahsoka nodded knowingly."Guess we'll see what the flood's made of today."
Eriadu City, Bassimilisk Park, General's Quarters,
17:15 local time, 04:18 Senate time,
Bzzz! Bzzz! Bzzz! Bzzz!
Aayla groaned internally at the incessant buzzing of her alarm. Surely, it hasn't been an hour already? After another moment of buzzing, she cracked one eye open in the direction of clock and discovered it had, indeed, been a full hour.
She sighed and closed her eyes again, imagining a world where naps weren't cut unreasonably short. Now that'd she'd actually tasted sleep, the past few days of intense activity had caught up with her and she felt worse then she had before. Of course, she'd likely feel a bit better once she got up and moving, but that required waking up.
She took another long, drawn out sigh of resignation. As much as she'd like another hour, she knew her troops likely needed her. Plus, Quinlan hadn't had a chance to rest yet. Not that he'd likely agree to sleep at a time like this, but she'd at least try.
I'm coming for you, Quin.
Suppressing the urge to groan, she sat up and hit a button on her communicator, shutting the alarm off. The device really was useful, it had so many little hidden functions, like a watch, a communicator, and a data recorder all rolled into one.
She glanced down to confirm she was decent and, seeing that she was, hailed Vos' signal.
The Kiffar's image appeared a moment later. Although she could tell he was tired, it was masked somewhat by the large bird drumstick he was currently biting into. He put the drumstick down and swallowed quickly,"Up already, Aayla?"
The Twi'lek nodded,"Ya. What's the status of the troops?"
Vos shrugged,"All is quiet. The clones have the area pretty well locked down. Did you sleep okay?"
"I did," she lied,"I'm going to do my rounds and check in with the officers."
Vos waived his hand dismissively,"Don't worry about them Aayla, they'll be fine. Why don't you join me for a meal? I'll likely catch some rest myself when I'm finished, and we've got some catching up to do."
He paused, and she felt a strange probing in the Force,"Besides, I can tell you're hungry."
Aayla opened her mouth to lie again, then the emptiness in her stomach hit her, too. She was pretty famished.
"Alright, I'll be out there in a few," she replied, Lekku bouncing as she nodded,"I just need to get dressed."
Shutting her communicator off, she found herself worrying about the 327th more then hanging out with her former master at this point. Of course, the men were likely okay, but she didn't want them to be lacking in any way if she could do something about it.
Then again, it had been awhile since she'd had time to sit down with Quinlan and catch up. The war had taken them separate directions, like a number of other jedi, and most of the time their paths crossed only seldomly. She felt a slight pang of guilt. Maybe I should give him some more time. I know he misses me.
Of course, having a prolonged conversation with him meant listening to his rather disdainful view of the troops. That and other little quirks in the Kiffar's personality tried her patience periodically when they were around each other. But no one was perfect, right?
Plus, they might have intel they could share with each other. Speaking together would have some overreaching, tactical purpose.
She stepped out of bed and grimaced when her feet hit the floor. It was cold. And, while she'd never complain (which was unbefitting of a jedi), she really wasn't fond of cold in the slightest. The fact she was freezing when she woke up most of the time, including right now, didn't help either.
She quickly slipped her socks on, providing some protection against the unforgiving metal floor. She then made her way over to the little dresser, and traded out her exercise shorts for one of her signature pairs of leggings. She'd never been particularly fond of standard jedi dress. The robes that the likes of, well, just about every other jedi wore were hot and felt rather restricting when she moved around. She preferred the comfortable mobility provided by lighter clothing. It wasn't like a robe would block a blaster shot, after all.
On top of that, her outfit was traditional Twi'lek dress. While many jedi frowned upon it, she liked to honor her heritage in this way.
Once her boots were on, she stepped outside into the setting Eriadan sun.
She gave a gentle smile and nodded at the two troopers guarding the door,"Thank you for keeping an eye on things, men."
The clones nodded back,"Our pleasure, general." She started to walk away, when she heard one of the men add,"Its not like you snore loudly or anything."
She glanced back over her shoulder inquisitively,"Do I?"
"Do you what?"
"Do I snore?"
"Oh," The trooper shook his head,"Of course not sir. I definitely wouldn't lie to you."
"You definitely don't snore at all." The other trooper added.
Aayla stared at them for a long moment, the bit of embarrassment she felt shifting as a smirk grew on her face,"You two are a handful."
The clone shook his head vehemently,"No general, that is incorrect."
"Yeah," the other one added,"We're never any trouble."
"We're good soldiers, sir. Always."
Aayla chuckled,"Yes, of course. Never any trouble. Just keep it that way gentlemen."
The route to their temporary dining facilities had numerous civilians of differing species flowing in different directions, mostly toward the area that had been set aside for refugees. The fact that there were so many still streaming in concerned her slightly. While the 327ths fleet was very large, they would only be able to hold so many civilians before they reached capacity.
Perhaps they could contact the Republic and arrange transport for them. It was better then leaving them behind.
She found herself behind a pack of young Weequay males, dressed in what appeared to be Eriadan street garb. She could feel them notice her, and the alien men began discussing something in hushed whispers.
Aayla frowned. She wasn't in the mood to get hit on right now. So, she shifted the hilt of her lightsaber noticeably on her hip.
The Weequay seemed to get the message, and scurried off.
As she started down the hill toward what the clones had dubbed the,'mess field' she was met with the scent of different types of foods cooking. It was a pleasant odor. Clone and civilian chefs had set up what was essentially an outdoor kitchen, comprising of Republic military cooking equipment and civilian appliances. They hussled about, going between stoves, cooking fires, cutting tables and several pieces she didn't recognize in their quest to prepare food for thousands of people.
She smiled slightly at the smell. It probably wasn't much, especially with so many people to cook for, but whatever they were cooking up with the locals would likely be preferable to standard military rations for the refugees.
The,'kitchen' divided the mess field between the civilian side and the military side, where the troops could go and get an expedited meal. Aayla went left toward the military line, where something resembling a buffet line had been set up. Sangheili troops, alongside some local law enforcement, were served up some sort of combination between the Republic and Sangheili rations, mixed in with some of the food a few local businessmen had seen fit to donate. Dozens upon dozens of pallets of standard Republic rations were also lined up, allowing troops to quickly grab a sealed bag and go.
It only took a minute to spot Quinlan. The jedi master was sitting at a metal picnic table at the top of the hill, overlooking a large field where most of the troopers ate. She waved at him, then got in line for a ration bag. As much as she'd like to try what the cooks were preparing, the majority of her troops were getting standard rations, so that's what she'd get as well.
The clones from both units noticed her in line and parted ways so she could go to the front. Aayla thanked them, grabbed one of the larger ration containers, and made her way toward Vos.
When she made it to the table, the Kiffar smiled slightly and motioned her over,"Aayla, I saved you a seat."
She smirked,"Thank you, Quin. I'm sure it was difficult."
As she slid onto her part of the bench, she noticed him eyeing her wearily,"Did you get enough rest, my old padawan?"
She nodded, covering her mouth as she yawned widely,"I'll be fine. I'll catch up later."
Vos nodded,"I understand. So long as you take time to rest in the next day or two."
Aayla chuckled again,"I appreciate your concern, master, but I'm a master as well and a bit more responsible then I was as a teenager. I'll be fine."
She studied his features intently. The dark circles under his eyes betrayed his fatigue as well,"Looks like if anyone needs rest, its you."
"I'll be fine, Aayla." He took a large bite out of some sort of fish, which she imagined was an Eriadan meal,"I'll take care of it when I'm finished."
The pair ate in silence for a moment, as she tore open her ration sack and arranged her food options before her. A large ration bar, relatively standard issue. A little bag of what looked like candies that were really just energy boosters. A little pouch full of some sort of fruit spread, and, finally, a large, stale cracker sealed in a wrapper.
It was nice eating a meal with him again. For a moment, everything seemed normal, and she almost forgot about the galaxy-devouring parasite only a kilometer or two away.
As fun as that would be, she knew he'd finish soon and head to bed, so she needed to get down to business. She took a bite out of the ration bar and glanced up at him,"How did things go in the field?"
Vos' expression darkened slightly,"Honestly, we got pounded for 2 days straight. We really had to perform at the top of our game to make it here. The little rascals just multiply so fast." He took another bite out of his fish,"It was only a few days ago that they weren't even on the planet. Now, they occupy half the capital."
She glanced out at the clones. The tables they had were set aside for the officers and the hulking Sangheili who decided to dine with their new allies, so the clones had broken up into groups across the grass and sat down to eat. Both units mingled together, forming small circles and conversing while they worked on their meals.
She turned back to him,"How are your troops holding up?"
"Well, this is what they're bred for," he shrugged dismissively,"They're holding up fine. Honestly, I'm not sure its such a good idea to let any of them leave their posts. Rations taste the same on the perimeter."
Aayla shook her head,"It'll be fine, Quin. We've got plenty of men on guard duty. They worked hard and could use some relaxation time."
He put down his eating utensil and glanced up at her,"You fought on Felucia, right? You know just how important it is to maintain discipline. Especially in harsh environments." He grabbed his fork again and took another bike,"I'm more concerned about the refugees they're supposed to be protecting. That's what they were grown to do."
She huffed quietly,"The Sangheili and the clones are working hard to make sure they're taken care of. They're safe, fed, and they have a way off planet. I'm not sure what else we could do for them." She paused for a moment, debating whether or not to continue. Which she did,"Are you concerned about the troops at all?"
She noticed Vos' grip tighten on his eating utensil. He was getting frustrated."I'm not particularly fond of this line of questioning, Aayla. But to answer your question, they were grown in vats to serve the Republic. They do have needs, which will be met, but they're assets. Tools to protect and serve the innocents out in the crowd. Which appeared under very peculiar circumstances, for that matter."
Aayla raised her brows,"Do you not trust them?"
He pursed his lips, then shrugged again,"What can I say? They're little more then flesh droids, copied from a bounty hunter who tried to kill a senator, who we didn't even know were in development. A bit convenient they showed up when they did, eh?"
"What are you saying, Quin?"
"I'm saying that's its just a bit fishy. But I can't deny their effectiveness."
Aayla took a moment to breathe and process what he was saying. He was right, they did appear in a rather odd way. If they hadn't, she would've likely died in that Geonosian arena.
But that didn't change who they are."Maybe you should get to know your men a bit more, Quin. I've fought alongside mine for years, and I'd trust them with my life. They'd never do anything to hurt me."
Vos groaned, rolling his eyes back for the dramatic affect,"Suit yourself, Aayla. You've always had a knack for befriending and taking care of any living creature that comes across your path."
He was right. She thought back to being a youngling, or a young padawan, and caring for injured animals before releasing them again. She always felt that he was, perhaps, a bit annoyed by it, but never said anything so long as she wasn't forming attachments.
Vos took a drink from his canteen, before putting the cap back on."So, I imagine you're wondering how evacuations are going?"
Aayla raised a brow inquisitively,"Well, I've been working on it for a full cycle now. Did you change something?"
"Not me, Aayla." Vos chuckled,"The Republic signed a shipping contract with a major freight company. Their transports will be arriving sooner rather then later, then we'll start transferring civilians from the fleet to their new accommodations."
She smiled,"I was going to ask you about that. Sounds like someone beat me to it." She paused as a thought came to mind."Em, what do the Sangheili think about this?"
"Ugh," Vos rolled his eyes again,"They're a paranoid bunch. They aren't fond of the process at all, particularly Fieldmaster Zahran. They're concerned the parasite will pose as a passenger or something and make it to another world." He took the final bite of his fish, placing his utensil down in front of him,"When I told them we'd be screening all passengers, that seemed to help a bit, but they insisted they send specialists up there to help with the process. A bit overboard in my opinion, but it is what it is."
Now it was her turn to shrug,"Well, I don't think being extra cautious will harm anything. I've already ordered my men to be particularly careful before allowing anyone onboard our cruisers."
A comfortable silence returned, giving her time to finish her ration bar. As she started on her cracker, she couldn't help but relax a bit for the first time in awhile. Here she was, surrounded by her old master, her clones, and a bunch of massive alien warriors she'd just met. It certainly wasn't normal, but her instincts told her not to expect the old normal to come back.
She glanced around at the city, admiring the architecture on the buildings that hadn't been damaged."I imagine this place would be pleasant to visit under different circumstances."
Vos took a look around, then shrugged,"Eh, I prefer the woods."
She chuckled,"Still as antisocial as ever, I see."
"I wouldn't say that." He took another quick drink,"I think the pollution is affecting your ability to think. Which explains a lot..."
She scowled, pretending to be offended,"If we weren't in front of our men, I'd punch you right now." She reached out with the Force and stole one of his fruits,"Guess I'll just have to settle for this."
"Hey!" Quinlan reached out with the Force, grabbing it back before she could take a bite,"If you don't like anything on your plate, go get your own!"
She grasped it as well, suspending the tasty fruit in midair over the table,"Nope, you've lost your fruit privileges."
"I trained you, not the other way around," he replied jokingly."Now give it here."
"Not a chance."
Someone cleared their throat.
Jumping, Aayla dropped the fruit and turned to see who it was. Sergeant Lennox was there, standing at attention."Apologies for interrupting sirs. But our scouts are reporting a huge uptick in flood activity."
She traded a glance with Vos,"Something's about to happen." She stood up, brushing the embarrassment aside,"Lennox, tell your men to get ready. Master Vos, I'll take the south side of the park."
The Kiffar nodded, a stern expression growing on his face,"And I'll take the north. Best of luck, Aayla."
Aayla started off behind Lennox. She noticed that the sounds of battle had grown quiet. There was still plenty of noise from the overhead air patrols and crowds around her, but the distant rumble of explosions had faded away. Picking up the pace, she raised Bly on her comlink,"Bly, what's the situation?"
The commander gave her a salute,"Nothing yet, general. I'm organizing the men, just in case." He paused, before adding,"a crowd of several hundred civilians are making their way from the south as we speak. I sent a small detachment of troopers to escort them, but they could probably use some extra manpower, just in case."
"Organize our armor in a line on the south end of the park. I'll head down with a lighter detachment and meet up with them."
She felt a strange sense of dread stirring inside her. She shoved it down, knowing she needed to focus, and bade her friend farewell.
Next, she contacted Fieldmaster Zahran. The hulking Elite seemed to be expecting her."Fieldmaster, are you aware of the situation?"
The Elite gave a tiny nod in acknowledgement,"My men are ready. Are your warriors prepared?"
"They are." She hit a crowd of clones and weaved her way through the group. A tricky process while holding a holo conversation. She switched to just voice."My scouts located a group of refugees a kilometer or so from the park. I'm leading a detachment down to escort them. Want to come along?"
"What?" The Sangheili sounded like he swallowed his saliva,"Secura, as your legion's commander, you are a critical asset. I urge you to stay so there's no risk of the flood capturing you."
She was silent for a long moment."I appreciate the concern, Fieldmaster, but I'm a jedi. Its my duty to protect innocents."
There was another silence, before the Fieldmaster muttered something under his breath."Fine. I'm sending warriors to accompany you, including Blademaster Zahran. He will keep you safe."
"You're giving me bodyguards?"
Zahran grunted,"It is imperative your knowledge does not fall into the hands of the parasite."
She was silent for another moment."Oh. Well you're welcome to send backup, I suppose. With any luck, I'll be back in a few minutes with more refugees."
A few hundred meters away, Fieldmaster Zahran pounded his fist against the holotable in his command tent."These jedi will be the deaths of themselves, one of these days."
She found herself huddled in a repulsorlift troop transport with a few dozen clone troopers. Right after she hung up on Zahran, the Blademaster Vul Soran contacted her and, upon seeing her battle attire, insisted she ride within a closed space. Although she insisted she could protect her self, Vul wouldn't budge, insisting the couldn't lose her to an enemy sharpshooter since she,'insisted on dressing for a night out, rather then battle.'
After a little back and forth, she relented, but on the condition she ride with her own men. Soran had wanted her to ride with him, but reluctantly agreed so long as she rode in her transport.
She let out a breath of frustration. She would do her best to satisfy Vul's concerns, but he was walking a fine line between guarding her and babysitting her.
Regardless, when they got there, she was going to be out with her men. Soran would simply have to deal with it.
She glanced briefly at the troopers around her, some of which gave an awkward nod in acknowledgement. She could tell they felt a bit weird having her riding with them, but no one said anything.
When she'd explained her predicament to Lennox, the sergeant had been kind of enough to invite her to ride with his squad. While she knew all the men in the transport at least a little bit, she was far more relaxed with Lennox, who'd been a companion like Bly for the past 2 years.
She turned to the clone, who was busy doing a weapons check on his DC-17."Lennox, when we get out there, I'm relying on you to keep an eye on things."
The trooper made an adjustment on his weapon, glancing up at her,"Sir?"
"I'll need your help keeping a secure perimeter, and keeping the refugees moving." She paused, before adding,"And please keep an eye on the Sangheili."
The trooper stopped playing with his weapon, cocking his head in confusion,"What do you mean, sir?"
She sighed,"The Sangheili are plenty competent. Just make sure they aren't too rough."
Lennox nodded,"Understood sir. I'll keep an eye on things."
A moment later, the transport slowed to a stop. The doors slid open, and Aayla hopped out first, lightsaber hilt in hand. Sangheili Spectres breezed past her, joining with the Republic TX-130s and AT-RTs in creating a perimeter around the large crowd. Cheers went up from amongst the crowd, obviously pleased at the extra protection they were receiving.
She took her place at the front of the crowd, sending Lennox to the back to secure their flank. A few moments later, Blademaster Soran arrived, coming to her side.
Aayla's eyes widened slightly as she examined the warrior. Like all Sangheili, he was far larger then her (not that that was saying much), a hulking mass of muscle and armor. His golden armor was dented, scratched, and faded, a testament to his years of service. It seemed a bit odd to her, since the other Elites she met generally wore newer armor, especially the higher ranking ones. Perhaps it held some sort of sentimental value to him.
She gave him a curt nod in greeting,"Blademaster, a pleasure to meet you. What's your take on the situation?"
The warrior huffed,"We are exposed with a large mass of susceptible, defenseless beings behind us. It is critical we watch for an ambush."
She glanced around at the buildings surrounding them, eyeing them wearily."Of course. We'll be back to safety in a few minutes."
"A lot can happen in a few minutes, jedi." Vul replied.
She took a deep breath. Honestly, he was right. And while she may not be fond of their harsh views on the whole situation, the Sangheili generally seemed to be pretty rational.
She scanned the darkened buildings around them with heightened attention, lightsaber hilt in hand. She felt the familiar tickle of warning in the Force. A warning she took seriously. She told the officer beside her to make sure the men were on their toes.
A few moments later, the RTTs sailed past them toward the park. Vul didn't seem amused,"Why are you sending your transports back?"
"They're carrying refugees struggling to make the journey," she replied,"Elderly, children, pregnant women and the like."
Soran was silent for a moment, as if contemplating what she said. When he spoke, his voice was only a bit below a whisper,"You need to take the parasite seriously, jedi. You just sent our ability to fall back away if we're ambushed."
Aayla blew a breath out her nose in frustration."I'm aware. They'll be back in a few minutes, I'm not sending them away forever."
Beep beep! Beep beep!
She pulled her comlink off her belt,"Secura here."
It was Lennox."Sir, one of the men says he saw birds."
"Yes," he replied,"He said he saw a flock fly from one office building to another."
She felt her stomach clench."Tell your men to stay on alert." She shut off the communicator and glanced knowingly at Soran.
The Sangheili growled, pulling an energy sword hilt and plasma rifle from his belt.
Now it was his battlenet going of."Blademaster, we're picking up movement on our motion trackers!"
"Curses!" He fell into a combat stance, lowering himself into a half crouch,"Tell your men to get ready!"
As she gave the order, a flood scream echoed in the distance. A shrill, bone chilling scream. It was barely audible, far off in the distance.
Then another chorus of shrieks joined in, this one closer.
Then another. Then another. Then another.
The wail of the infected grew in strength, until it sounded as if it was all around them. The crowd began to freak out, crying and screaming in fear. Several tried to run ahead to the park, but the clones and Sangheili held them in, shouting at them to stay where they can be protected.
Aayla and Vul ignited their blades, falling into combat stances. The Sangheili raised his blade high,"The hour is upon us brothers! Fight with honor, and courage!"
Glass shattered in unison.
From the windows, hundreds of flood swarm and bomber forms poured from every building. Aayla's eyes widened as, within moments, they nearly blotted out the sky. They were the same hideous little monsters she thought earlier in the city, except this time they brought their bloated cousins.
Clones and Sangheili alike opened fire as the flood did the same. The air filled quickly with projectiles, shades of blue and green mingled with the little shards and globs of liquid biomass the monsters dropped.
Hundreds of swarm forms nosedived, shrieking like a hellish choir as they descended upon the survivors. Aayla called upon the Force, throwing an invisible wall of energy at them and catapulting many back toward the sky, wings flailing.
She raised a blade and tried to deflect one of the shards, but, just like last time, it melted and passed through her blade like boiling oil. She cried out in pain, cursing herself silently for forgetting. A lightsaber did her little good against these things.
Soran yanked her behind him, shielding her with his own energy shields and saving her from a hail of barbs meant for her. As he opened up with his plasma rifle, Aayla gritted her teeth, making a mental note of her inadequate equipment and instead focused on the Force to defend herself.
Swarm forms fell from the sky like dead ducks, pummeling the uninfected alongside the sharp little barbs of bone and flesh they spat at them. dozens of people, mostly civilians, were hit by the shards, piercing their skin and imbedding itself in their bodies.
Soran sprayed the sky with plasma, downing several swarms with well placed shots,"There are too many! We need to fall back!"
Aayla gritted her teeth, about to respond when she glanced at the crowd.
Many of the citizens were already hit. Most of them were lying on the ground, convulsing as if having a seizure. They coughed and hacked, as if they were choking, as they writhed around on the pavement. The flood bombers dropped their own fleshy projectiles, which exploded on impact. Clouds of green mist appeared, choking the survivors unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.
She shouted at a nearby clone lieutenant to get his attention,"Tell the men to take cover!" She sliced a pair of attacking swarm forms, who seemed to think they could descend like vultures and take her down. She nudged Soran, and the pair sprinted toward a nearby building for cover.
Clones and Sangheili alike did the same, rushing for the nearest building they could find. The remaining civilians who hadn't been hit did the same, scattering in a mad dash for safety. The swarms continued to pelt the ground with shots and their corpses whenever they were hit, like a deadly, infectious rainstorm.
The citizens and clones who'd been hit began to turn, their bodies shaking violently as growths sprouted from their bodies. Aayla felt nausceous when she heard their bodies pop and tear, transforming the doomed individuals into combat forms.
She cried out again as another splatter of searing hot biomass hit her leg. She fought back tears, instead biting her tongue and continuing toward the nearest cover. She leapt over a trio of fleeing Unggoy, shattering the window to a shop and crashing to a stop on the tiled floor.
The glass stabbed like a hundred tiny needles entering her body at once. Yelping in pain, she fought though the agony to focus and rolled to a crouch. As the Sangheili caught up and dived in, she gathered all the shards of glass with the Force and threw it back at the parasites.
Dozens of swarm forms shrieked as they were shredded by the glass, their much smaller bodies unable to take as much punishment. Many went limp, plummeting to the street below.
She slid beside Soran, who's energy shields flickered in an attempt to come back on. The Sangheili shouted something in his native tongue, before addressing her,"Call for reinforcements jedi! We'll have to fight our way out!" He popped out around the doorway, firing a burst from his plasma rifle before pulling behind cover.
She yanked off her communicator, raising Bly. The clone commander appeared, crouched behind a large rock."Bly! We're under attack! Send reinforcements stat!"
"I'll try sir, but that will be difficult!" He moved closer to the rock, giving himself more cover,"All positions are being swarmed as we speak! The flood's trying to overwhelm us!"
Aayla nodded, a scowl forming on her face,"Send what you can, when you can. May the Force be with you!"
She switched the device off again, feeling a ripple of fear inside as flood shrieks echoed outside. Pressing it down, she peeked outside and saw hundreds of clones and civilians had converted to combat forms. They charged in every direction, including hers.
She realized this was the flood's plan all along. It was a trap.
You probably noticed a bit more character development in this chapter then in the past. Assuming you all don't hate it, it'll probably become more normal from now on.
Its good to be back.