FIVE LIGHT-YEARS OFF THE CORELLIAN TRADE SPINE HYPERLANE
Day Three of Operation Skyhook
Howl led Hopper into the conference room with Sairgon trailing behind. Hopper sunk into a chair, leaning back with his arms folded and a resigned expression on his face.
"Do you want anything?" Howl asked as he settled down across from him, "Tea, caf, water?"
"Got anything stronger?"
Howl shook his head, "Alcohol is against Alliance regulations."
"You people have regs?" Hopper muttered.
"We're not as disorganized as the Empire would have you think."
Hopper groaned, "I'll take a caf then."
"Alright," Howl said, "Lieutenant?"
Sairgon nodded and walked out of the room. "So," Howl said, "what happened?"
Hopper looked down at the table and took a long breath, "About a week ago, a kid went missing on the way home from his friend's house in the middle of the night. I thought his barve of a father took him, but it turned out that some kind of escaped Imperial… 'specimen' got him instead."
"Specimen?" Howl asked.
"That's what the datapad called it," Hopper said as he removed the datapad in question from a jacket pocket and placed it on the table. He slid it across towards Howl. The captain caught it and turned it on. "Continue, please" he said as he began browsing the contents.
"Never saw the thing myself, but the kids say that it's humanoid, pale and its head opened up like… petals on a flower," Hopper explained, "It was impervious to blasterfire too."
"So you believe this creature was… created by the Empire?"
Hopper snorted, "No, they didn't make it. They found it." He leaned over and folded his hands together, "They opened some kind of portal to another dimension and it crawled out."
"Another dimension?" Howl asked skeptically. Sairgon entered the room and placed a cup of caf by Hopper and tea by Howl. "Thank you, Lieutenant," Howl said, distracted.
Hopper ignored his cup and continued, "It's like a… I don't know, a mirror-image of ours, except it was dark, cold and the atmosphere was toxic. There were organic tendrils and sacs everywhere."
"How do you know this?" Howl asked as he handed the datapad over to a fascinated Sairgon.
"We went in there to get Will."
"But how did you access it?"
"The Imps gave us rad suits and let us walk into the portal."
Hopper shrugged, "They probably wanted us to grab Will for their experiments. We found him half-dead with a slug in his mouth. When we headed back to the portal, the facility was being run with a skeleton crew. I grabbed that datapad as we ran out."
Hopper ignored the question, "All of the MI people and black ops troops were going after the kids."
"Yes…" Hopper said. He glanced at Sairgon with suspicion, then looked back at Howl with a frown, "Micha, what I'm about to tell you can't leave this room, and I prefer that it'd be just between the two of us."
Howl studied him for a moment, then turned towards his Lieutenant, "Sairgon, go make a copy of that data."
"Yes sir," he said. He walked out of the room, keeping his eyes on Hopper as he did so.
Hopper took a long swig of his drink before looking at Howl straight in the eyes. "This can't leave the room," he repeated.
"Jim, I swear I'm not going to tell anyone, and you know I won't," Howl said, "Don't you trust me?"
"I trust you," Hopper said, "I don't trust your kriffing Rebellion."
Howl frowned in confusion, "What?"
"Look, Eleven is…. I don't know, special I guess. She can… move things around without touching them and could read people's thoughts" Hopper explained. "That's how we got your hailing frequency; I showed her that picture of our old squad and asked her to get the frequency from you."
Howl's first thought was that the young, curious girl was a walking security breach. His second was that she could be an extremely useful asset for Alliance Intelligence. "So, how big of a range do you think her… ah, ability has?" he tentatively asked.
"I don't know, and I'm not going to test it," Hopper snapped, "And I'm not going to let you people start forcing her to be your spy either."
"Jim," Howl slowly began, "If she could read people's minds, then it could change the course of this Rebellion…"
"I don't care about your damn revolution!" Hopper angrily shouted, "Just finding you left her completely drained, so what the hell do you think is going to happen if you have her start reading the minds of people across the entire galaxy?!"
"Jim…" Howl said in a placating tone.
"You don't know what the Imperials did to her, Micha. They did horrible things to her to hone that ability, and I'm not going to let that happen again."
"Jim," Howl repeated, maintaining his calm tone, "We're not the Empire. We won't stoop to their level."
"Really?" Hopper asked incredulously, "What about the bombings on Kuat? What about those Partisans' terrorism tactics? What about the POW executions or all those kids you gave blasters to and pointed at the nearest Stormtrooper? "
"Those were unfortunate decisions we were forced to make to hasten the Empire's fall. Believe me, none of them were made easily."
Hopper sprang out of his chair, giving Howl a look of utter disgust, "So you excuse your group's actions by justifying it with some crap about the greater good, is that it?"
"I'm pretty sure that none of those MI agents or Stormtroopers signed on to torture kids or to slaughter an entire town of loyal Imperial subjects. They were fed the same crap you're telling me now, about how it was for the good of the Empire" Hopper bitterly exclaimed. Howl was silent.
"So tell me, Captain Evon," Hopper continued, "What will your Intel agents do when they find out that they have a way to look inside Palpatine's head, but that way isn't strong enough or willing to do it?"
Hopper sat back down and folded his arms again. For a while the two men stared at each other, as if daring the other to speak. Finally, it was Howl who broke the silence; "Look, Jim, I'll contact High Command, and ask them to grant you and the kids asylum in exchange for that datapad and testimony about this Hypergate Project. I swear that I won't mention Eleven."
"Thanks," Hopper mumbled, not quite convinced. He quickly finished his caf and stood up, "I'm going to go check on Will."
"Wait," Howl said as his former comrade turned to leave, "You kept saying 'we' before. Who went in that portal with you?"
Hopper paused keeping his back to the captain. "His mother."
"Where is she now?"
"Dead" Hopper flatly stated.
With that, he stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
"Sorry guys, we haven't restocked in a while, and this is the best I could come up with."
Corporal Pol "Charmer" Andrissus passed out four bowls filled with some kind of doughy bread with green meat mixed in to the four kids seated at the mess hall table. It took a while to convince them that the Rebel Alliance wasn't the anarchistic terrorist organization that the Empire portrayed it as, but Charmer calmed their fears.
"Uh... what is this, exactly?" Dustin asked.
"Polystarch bread and veg-meat; the 'fancy' military rations" Charmer explained as he sat down across from the kids, "The normal stuff is just a nutrition cube suspended in jelly."
"What's that like?" Dustin asked.
Charmer smiled, "Like a dry cube of sand covered in mynock piss."
He chuckled when Dustin made a disgusted face, "Hey, being a freedom fighter isn't as glamorous as the recruitment pamphlets claim."
"I think he's joking, Dustin," Mike said in between bites of the bread.
"Oh…" Dustin said, a bit embarrassed, "So… how do you sign up?"
"Well, Twilight Company runs open recruitment drives on every planet we liberate from the Empire. We get people from all walks of life signing on; farmers, merchants, teachers, ex-convicts, bounty hunters and former Army Cadets like yours truly," Charmer explained.
Mike paused his eating, "You're a Stormtrooper?"
"Army Trooper," Charmer corrected, "Stormtroopers tend not to defect. And it's former Army Trooper."
"Why did you leave?" Mike asked.
"Because of what they taught me in training," Charmer said, "Show no mercy to the enemy, use brutal force and make everyone fear you. Fierfrek, they said that killing a Rebel's family was a valid tactic if the opportunity arose."
Charmer leaned back, "I guess I just opened my eyes one day and saw what the Empire stood for; fear and tyranny."
"So… are you guys like the Separatists?" Dustin asked.
"Kind of. For one, we're called 'the Alliance to Restore the Republic' for a reason; we're not trying to secede from the Empire, we're trying to kick old Palps off his comfy throne for the good of everyone. Also we don't have a droid army." Charmer smirked, "Naw, us meatbags have to go and put our own asses on the line."
"They weren't all droids," Lucas quietly added from his end of the table.
"Right, they were quite a few organic groups in the CIS; in fact most of those guys were the first members of the Alliance military." Charmer pointed at Lucas's bandanna, "I'm going to assume that's from a family member."
"Yeah…" Lucas said, touching the bandanna, "It was my dad's. He was born on Jabiim and fought for the Nationalists."
"I heard that was one of hell of a slog." Charmer said.
"He was a Nimbus Commando," Lucas continued, not hearing the Rebel. "The best of the best…"
"Nimbus…" Charmer echoed, "Aren't those the guys that flew around on repulsorlift skates?"
"Yeah…" Lucas quietly muttered, looking at the helmet next to him. He looked like he was about to start crying.
Charmer frowned, realizing his mistake, "Stang, I'm sorry for bringing that up. I'm a kriffing idiot and I've gotten way too desensitized to loss."
"It's fine…" Lucas mumbled.
"No, it's not." Charmer said, "Look guys, I don't know what exactly you've been through and I'm not going to pry. I know that nothing I'll say can bring them back. All I can tell you is that I'm sorry, and that we'll all fight to the death to prevent those people from hurting you again."
The kids all simply sat, taking in the soldier's words. For the first time since fleeing Moorja, the full impact of what had happened to them came crashing down. They each looked numb, as they thought about everyone they left behind. Dustin was rubbing his eyes when Eleven broke the silence; "Thank you."
"Of course," Charmer said with a gentle smile, "We're the good guys."
"Good guys…" she repeated, frowning in slight confusion.
Charmer turned to face the doorway of the mess, where one of the medics was standing. She looked at the misty-eyed boys and then back to the expectant Corporal, "This might not be the best time…"
"Just say it, Ryla."
"Von Geiz said that the boy is regaining consciousness." She turned to the kids "You can see him now, if you want…"
Mike swallowed. He desperately wanted to see his friend, but he really didn't want to relieve the terrible week that had passed by explaining everything to Will. But he felt that if anyone should be the one to break the awful news to him, it should be his friends. He took a breath and stood up, "I'm going," he announced, "Do you guys want to come?"
"Yeah." Lucas said as he scooped up the helmet. Dustin simply gave a small nod. Eleven copied him.
"Yes," she said.
Mike slipped his backpack on and looked at the medic.
"We're ready," he said with a grimace.