"Hey, Fin…" A green-armored Mandalorian said, sitting down across from a Mandalorian in red.
"What now, Jaz?" The red-armored one replied.
"Look, I know the others aren't going to say anything about it, but you do realize this is a bad idea, right?" Jaz said.
"I didn't ask you to come." Fin said, scowling.
"And I didn't ask for my friend to get a dumb idea into her head and hop into the nearest ship to chase it." Jaz said. Fin stood up and got in his face.
"I'm doing this. I have to—and you already know that. I'm not going back with my tail between my legs like a kicked wampa cub," she snarled. Jaz looked up at her for a moment, then shrugged and turned away.
"Fine, fine… don't say I didn't warn you." Jaz said, standing and making his way to the door. Before the door could close he stopped partway through, then looked back over his shoulder at her.
"You've changed, Fin. I'm with you, but…" he trailed off, searching for something to say. "Be careful." He said, then walked through, letting the door shut behind him with a hiss.
Finree Shysa scoffed. Inside, though, she still had to shut down the part of her that still doubted, whispered that she wasn't doing her job, which was ridiculous. Her job was to protect Mandalore and its people, after all, and that was exactly what she was doing. She might not have been following the orders of the Mandalore to the letter, but when did anyone? Shaking her head, she slid her helmet back on and pressed her hand to the earpiece.
"Senka, status update?" Finree said.
"Uh, making good time, should be there in another minute. Why're you calling me on the comms, though, you goof? Coulda just come up here…" Senka replied.
"Thanks for the update." Finree said, cutting off the communication. It was more abrupt than she'd planned, and she noticed her left hand was shaking. That almost made her laugh—she was a veteran of over a dozen firefights, and she was nervous now? Nervous of what? It wasn't like the worst hadn't already happened.
The shame hit her again, punching into her gut—she blocked it out. No time for that now.
She stood from her bench in the cabin and took a moment to stretch, mull over the situation one last time. The Imperial attack had been sudden and brutal—the Mandalore'd had enough warning from the battle in space to evacuate the civilians into the bunker network underneath Keldabe, but not enough to really dig in. The Imperial forces had cut deep into the city, albeit climbing over a mountain of their own dead to do it—and of course, the Mandalore had sent almost everyone else into the fray, notably excepting Finree's squad. The Imperials had encircled the city, and though they'd been forced to advance by foot due to the AA emplacements, they were pushing in from all sides. The Mandalorian defense had stiffened, but the Empire was still making progress.
To Finree it was a remarkably, even suspiciously straightforward invasion. So, of course, when Jaz noticed a mysterious signal coming from what should have been just more debris, debris that actually survived re-entry and crashed on-world, Finree suspected that the Imperials might have more up their sleeve. None of her people would ever suffer from Imperial treachery on her watch. This in mind, she grabbed Senka and had her fly Finree and their other two tagalongs out of the city through a concealed exit tunnel. Senka had been surprisingly willing to help; she'd been working with Jaz to repair the old LAAT ship they were flying in for awhile now and seemed pretty attached to it. Finree had thought it would be harder to convince Senka to use it, but apparently it needed a test-run anyways. Not exactly reassuring—but Finree wasn't about to look down the gift Bantha's throat, so to speak.
She palmed the door panel, letting it whir open again. She walked through, then looked over at her two companions. Jaz—Jaster Skirata—was cleaning his rifle, again. She'd known him long enough to know that that meant he was nervous. Given what he'd just said to her, that wasn't surprising, though it did bring up a twinge of guilt that Finree was forced to squash. They were going to be fine.
The other one, a giant lunk of blue-and-orange armor, was laying with his hands under his head across some ammunition crates. He'd probably silenced it under his helmet, but Finree guessed he was snoring somewhere in there. She'd known Kragis Goot at least as long as she'd known Skirata, and she'd never met anyone to be so able to sleep in the middle of a battle. It might have been a Togorian thing—Krag wasn't human or even near-human, after all—but Finree suspected it was a uniquely Kragis trait. Finree looked at the helmet network at the right corner of her HUD and winked twice, opening up a direct link to Krag's helmet.
"Krag, wake up." She said. She listened for a moment, but nor reply came. She frowned.
"Krag." Finree said, a little more firmly.
"…nnnngh. Wasn't sleepin'. Just a little nap is all." Krag muttered, groaning.
"Sure. Now get up—we're almost there." Finree said, and then she took a moment to do a quick inspection of her equipment. Everything was where it needed to be—most importantly her twin pistols, Lefty and Righty. Gifts from her dad…
She quenched another pang of guilt and looked back up at the other two.
"You're going to need jetpacks—I want Senka free and ready to support us if we find something hard to handle, so we're dropping in from a few meters up." She tapped the side of her helmet again as the other two made noises of acceptance, using the antenna on her helmet to open up another comm line with the cockpit.
"You get all that, Senka?" Finree said.
"Aye aye, captain!" Senka said. It was almost the same cheeriness Finree was used to hearing from her good friend, but something in it sounded more… forced… than usual. That made two out of three friends acting strange. Did they really doubt her that much? Had she lost their respect as well?
Maybe it was to be expected—she'd already lost everyone else's.
She was glad that no one else could see the hurt that was beginning to creep onto her face, despite her best efforts—one of the many benefits of a helmet of the Mando'ade. It didn't matter, though. She was going to win her honor back—today. With that in mind, she went to the sliding door, hands on the hilts of her blasters.
"We there yet, Senka?" She asked.
"Just around the next corner!" Senka replied, still fake-cheerful. "Oh, I've got visual! Doesn't look like much, though—it's more like a garbage heap than a ship now."
Finree tried not to let her shoulders sag noticeably, but the dread in her heart had grown drastically. Unbidden, the possibility that there might truly not be anything special about this particular piece of debris, that it might just be another hunk of starship—no Imperial plot, no chance to save the day, no way to prove herself at all, only a shameful slink back to her post at Keldabe—jumped to the front of her mind. She squashed it.
"Take us in, Senka. Get ready you two—jump when I give the signal," Finree said. She didn't have long to wait; it only took a moment for the ship to cruise into position, and when she felt it stop, she drew both blasters and gestured forward with Lefty as she threw herself out into the open sky.
Letting herself feel the rush of terrifying excitement that was free-fall for a moment, Finree activated her jetpack and eased her way down to the ground. She didn't need to check behind her to know that the other two had done the same—they'd already done this together a hundred times at least. As soon as her boots touched the ground, Finree began to walk up the canyon towards the grey starship hull that had started the whole mess. It was a wreck, to be sure—literal tons of metal, all pounded and crunched together so that it looked more like a crushed beverage can than an starship. It was punched full of holes throughout the hull, and the ones that had seemed smaller from a distance turned out to be big enough for an entire person to fit through. Finree's dread became harder and harder to ignore as, on further inspection, it became clear this was not a crash anyone should have survived.
"I don't like this." Jaz said over the helmet comms.
"What? It's just a wreck. Anybody 'was on this thing, they aren't going to be alive enough to make trouble." Krag replied.
"Cut the chatter for a second. There might still be a droid or something in there—some sort of Imperial spy device. We can't be too cautious," Finree said. She thought she heard Jaz mutter something, but didn't quite catch it.
"I said shut it, Jaz. I'm going to check for heat signatures," Finree said.
"You think you'll find something?" Krag said. Ignoring him, she flipped over to heat vision. Immediately she regretted it—the entire hull of the ship was a blinding white. Apparently crashing hadn't done much to cool it off. Still, there seemed to be something else underneath… she wasn't certain, but she thought she saw movement.
"I think I might see something—I'm going to try calling out before we go in," Finree said.
"What? You'll give us away!" Jaz said, sounding more panicked than usual. That wasn't like him… but Finree pushed that thought to the back of her head. She didn't feel good about this situation either, had felt a strange, deep-seated twinge of unease about everything to do with it since before they set out… but opportunity didn't always come knocking so easily, and she'd badly needed this one. More than that, something in her felt an even deeper need to get to the bottom of this.
"Jaz, if we were worried about the element of surprise, we wouldn't have flown in so close," Finree said. "Now hold on—let's see who answers." Finree activated her external speaker, double-checking to make sure it was set on low. It really wasn't the time for sonic blasts.
"Any of you Imperial dogs still alive in there, you'd best come out before we blow that hulk to pieces." Finree said, watching and listening closely. After a moment, she heard footsteps approach—and suddenly, someone emerged from one of the holes in the hull. Finree didn't know what she'd expected, but whatever it was… it certainly wasn't this.
He looked like a young male human of average height, built slim and appearing physically fit, with short blonde hair and striking brown eyes. He wore a blue uniform of some kind, but it was completely unfamiliar. Finree had never seen anything like it on Imperial or Republic officers. He had a brown bag slung over his shoulder, and had his hands raised over his head in surrender.
"I come in peace," He said, stopping where he was as Finree took aim at his face.
"Yeah, and I was born yesterday. Tell me why they sent you here and I might not put a hole through your face." Finree said. The strange human frowned at her.
"Ah, um… who's the they, here, exactly? Whoever you're talking about, I think you're mistaken." The human said.
"You think we're idiots? You drop out of the sky in the middle of an Imperial invasion and think we'll let you pass it off as some sort of accident?" Finree said. Her mind was working double-time, trying to figure out what could possibly have created this situation. There was no way he wasn't an Imperial of some kind—he clearly wasn't of the Mando'ade—but she was having trouble connecting the dots on whatever plan this was supposed to be. This human shouldn't have been able to survive the impact, and that he did was sheer luck. Perhaps there were others, and they'd all been supposed to pose as refugees of some kind? Still, though she hated to admit it, it would've been much easier to bribe one of the less loyal of the Mando'ade to spy for them—this seemed too obvious, even for the rotting corpse that was Imperial intelligence. Maybe he was part of some sort of elite strike force? An assassin? He could have been some sort of distraction, but they'd barely noticed him at all in the midst of the invasion; the Imperials were stupid, but they at least knew that a distraction was actually supposed to attract attention.
"I don't expect you to believe anything—just give me a chance, please. I'm not a friend to the Empire. If anything, I've got a vested interest in seeing them defeated," The human said.
"Sure." Finree said, filling her voice with a sarcastic confidence she didn't quite feel. There was no way he wasn't connected to the Empire… unless… no. She was never going to take that chance.
"Fin… I think this guy's telling the truth." Krag said over the helmet comm. Finree held back a snarl.
"I'm not trusting another 'Imperial civilian'—not after last time. We'd all be safer if he was dead." Finree replied, careful to mute the external speaker as she did so.
"Think about it though—none of this makes any sense. The Imperials don't gain anything from sending people to infiltrate the countryside, especially not one unarmed man. What if we're looking at this wrong? He could be some sort of imperial prisoner that escaped, or even some guy just passing through when the fleet hit." Jaz said, a second one of her friends taking the side of a random stranger over hers. That hurt, but more urgently, they'd both made good points. For a moment, Finree was unsure. Certainty of the diabolical evil of the empire, the protection in distrust, and the benefit of choosing her own over others pressed against doubt, the ideals she still held dear, and the hope that maybe no one would have to die this time… two very different battlefields flashed before her eyes, the two battlefields that defined her; the new and the old. After a long moment of this, she made her choice.
"…look. Maybe you aren't Imperial, maybe you are. For now, walk over here—slowly," Finree said before gesturing up at the cockpit. Senka knew the signal well, and brought the LAAT down to hover just a few inches above the ground.
When the human drew up to her, he looked straight into her mask.
"I'm Ender, by the way." He said, holding out a hand to her. She brought Lefty up to his face.
"I don't trust you, Ender. Empty out the bag." She said. Ender nodded, opening it up to reveal what looked like some food, water, and a small storage tube. Finree pointed at it and Ender opened it, revealing a set of blueprints. She was mildly disappointed.
"Jaz, you should search through the wreckage, see if you can't find anything." She said, switching back over to the helmet comms.
"Fin, we've got a problem." Senka said—through the helmet comms, so their pilot must have put hers on.
"What is it?" Finree asked.
"Incoming bogies—I'm counting three, a couple TIEs and a dropship. They'll be on us in five." Senka said.
"Kriffing shebs," Finree cursed. Those were not good odds, and fighters tended to be faster than dropships, even modified ones like the LAAT…
"Alright guys, it's time to get moving—Jaz, forget the wreck, we've gotta go." Finree said over the helmet comm. The other two didn't even need affirmation, just sprinting over to the dropship. Finree pushed Ender towards the ship, keeping Lefty focused on the back of his head.
"That's not really necessary…" Ender said.
"Get on the ship. Now." Finree said, almost growling. They were not going to die for this random stranger.
"Senka, we're all on—get us out of here." Finree said. Almost instantly the ship began to rise. The side doors slid shut, and then the ship rocketed forwards—back towards Keldabe.
They'd only made it halfway to the city when the TIE fighters made their first run. Laser blasts slammed into the LAAT, sending its passengers tumbling through the hold.
"Kriff it, Senka—what was that?" Finree asked, scrambling back to her feet.
"They caught up to us! No time to talk—" Whatever Senka was doing in the cockpit, the ship began to swerve and loop in ways that made Finree feel increasingly sick. She only had a moment to tear off her helmet and sprint to the refresher before vomiting up her insides.
Back in the hold, the room was living up its name—each of its unfortunate occupants were holding on to anything that solid for dear life.
"What's happening?" Ender shouted. Outside, another few laser bolts passed by the hull in a deafening roar.
"We're under attack—TIE fighters," The big Blue one shouted back. It was strange—Ender was certain he was either an alien or a human who had been heavily modified. The other two had seemed human enough, though… why would an alien be with them?
More importantly, though, they were under attack. It occurred to Ender that this was actually his first ever time truly under fire.
"How many?" He shouted back.
"Two!" It was the smaller, human-looking green one who replied this time.
"Do we have anything we can shoot back at them with?" Ender asked. The other two looked at each other.
"It's no good. No rear-facing guns on this thing, and you aren't going to get a good firing position from in here—" green began, then stopped for a moment. "Ahm, apparently I'm wrong—there is a rear-facing cannon. I guess I'll go get it," the Green-armored one said, before crawling along the floor and into a back hallway.
"Anything else?" Ender asked.
"We can't shoot something outside without opening the doors, and if we do that we're buying a collect ticket to splattered-on-the-ground-town, so no." The blue one said. As he did, the ship rocked again from an impact. There was a sound like a grenade going off in the back and Ender smelled something burning. The red-armored leader came back from wherever she'd gone, just in time for the green one to slam into her, his armor sooty and smoking. The blue one reached out and caught them both in one arm before they could tumble past, straining to hold on with the other.
"I don't think we have much of a choice," Ender said. Suddenly, the air around them went almost pitch black, leaving only the red emergency lights illuminating the hold, before the light poured back in just as quickly.
"What was that?" Ender asked.
"Tunnel, probably." The blue one grunted. Ender felt the spark of an idea.
"Are there a lot of those around here?" Ender asked.
"What?" The blue one said.
"Tunnels! Are we passing by a lot of tunnels?" Ender asked.
"Ah… yeah. It's a bunch of desert canyon on this side of the city, lot of old quarries, mines, that sort of thing. Weird thing to ask about when you might be about to die." The blue one said, getting the other two back on their feet just in time for their pilot to take a particularly wild turn and send red and green sprawling into the wall with a sound clammer of metal.
"You have explosives, right? Think we could go into a tunnel, lure the fighters in, drop some through the doors and destroy them behind us?" Ender asked, shouting above the noise and feeling his throat strain a little. The blue one stared at him.
"…uh…maybe," He said, before falling silent again. Ender idly wondered if they could communicate through those helmets—and whether his assumption of them being human would be supported by whatever was under those same helmets. On a related note, it was funny the things the brain focused on to distract itself from mortal danger. He did another visual sweep of the hold and noticed a long length of cable that slid in a tangled heap across the floor and a small pile of what looked to Ender like rapid-fire weaponry.
"Senka says it won't work—we don't have enough to blow a whole tunnel in one drop. The TIEs would see it coming and bail, not to mention we'd still get crushed," the Blue one said.
"Forget explosives, then. How easily do those cave walls crumble?" Ender asked. "Also, how good are you with cable?"
The LAAT dropship, moving with more grace than anything that old and designed for troop transport had any right to, dove into a tunnel entrance, and the two TIE fighters dove after. They chased it around a few short twists and turns, taking full advantage the TIE's agility. Finally they came to what looked to be a long, softly curved section of cave where they'd have a straight shot at destroying their prey. Almost immediately, however, they were cruising through a thick cloud of debris, blinding them and their targeting systems enough that the LAAT not-so-far in front of them was just out of their range. They still fired at it, but the curve of the tunnel made hitting it difficult. They could just make out a continuous red flare of blaster fire between the dropship and the walls. The more experienced of the two chuckled at their ingenuity—it was a good try, but it was never going to save them. Blinded as they were, it was only a matter of time…
Then there was a brilliant flash, an instant of unbelievable pain, and the pilot saw no more.
Ender tried desperately to calm his breathing as he lined up the second shot. The sooner he did this, the sooner he wouldn't be a meter below being ground to death by a jagged stone ceiling. The air tasted strange in his borrowed helmet, the world looked mesmerizing through its heat-vision filter and he didn't understand half of the symbols on the heads-up display, but he refused to be distracted from the large heat signature that was the enemy pilot. Lining up the barrel with the strange enemy fighter cockpit was relatively easy—he squeezed off another shot. The bolt blinded him as it left, leaping out towards his enemy. It must have hit something, as the ship careened into the side of the tunnel, exploding in a burst of bright fire that quickly disappeared around the bend.
"Two down," Ender said.
"Aw good, this thing was running out of ammo," the blue one said, his voice slightly grainier than in reality over the helmet's communication system.
"Glad it lasted… tell your pilot not to fly up any further, by the way, you might take my head off."
"Sure, will do—I think we're setting down here soon though," the blue one said. Sure enough, Ender could feel the ship beginning to slow. He couldn't exactly see where they were going—the cable they'd used to lash him to the top of the ship was too tight for him to turn around—but he saw the cave walls begin to open up a bit as they passed behind them. Ender felt the ship thrum underneath him as it landed, and then he felt the cable loosen. He stood, regretting the instant and deep ache from where the cable had bit into him. Better than the alternative. Wincing, he slid down one of the outstretched wings and found his armored compatriots waiting for him. The green one stepped forward first.
"Hey, not that I don't appreciate your volunteering to do this, but I'd like my helmet and rifle back, now." He said. Ender now saw that he was definitely human. He had black hair, black eyes, and facial features that were a distant reminder of his old teacher, Mazer Rackham. Ender pulled off the helmet and handed it back, trying not to seem too eager—it had been more claustrophobic in there than Ender had liked. The green-armored one slipped his helmet back on quickly, black eyes disappearing back behind a black visor, and grabbed his rifle. Immediately, the three began to move back towards the ship. Ender hauled in the cable, which the others seemed to have forgotten, and followed. Based on how they were looking and gesturing at each other, Ender imagined that they were likely engrossed in a conversation he couldn't hear. This in mind, he boarded their ship after the other three, and they took off once again. He noticed a pair of discarded clips on the floor of the ship. Part of him wondered for a moment if he would've survived his armored compatriots' weapons fire hadn't kicked up so much dust. They'd been so shocked when he'd suggested blasting the walls to blind the incoming fighters. It had definitely been too risky—for him at least, being the only willing volunteer for gun duty—but at least it had worked.
"Where are we going?" He asked the red-armored leader. For a moment, he thought she might not have heard, until her helmet abruptly turned to look at him. He wondered for a moment exactly what was behind that visor.
"We're taking you to our leader," She said, "our Mandalore—Fenn Shysa."
As the LAAT dove into the last tunnel of the trip and made its way through a labyrinth of catacombs towards the underground heart of Mandalore's capital, another dropship was just beginning its journey. Taking off from where it hand landed—in a canyon next to a wrecked hulk of metal that had once been a starship—it rose up towards its distant Star Destroyer home... with newfound cargo safely secured in its hold.