TK-421, THE STORMTROOPER UNIT COMMANDER, COULD HARDLY REFRAIN FROM SPEAKING HIS OWN ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION.
“IF THIS GOES BAD, WE’LL BE NOTHING BUT GRILLED BANTHA STEAKS.”
The First Order Star Destroyer Finalizer and a sister warship, the Gigant, remained stationary near NaJedha, a large airless world where the desert moon of Jedha orbited. The recently-arrived vessels were using the larger planetoid’s mass to block possible sensor sweeps emanating from smaller Jedha.
Not that General Hux was expecting sensor sweeps or anything else that remotely suggested a Republic base on the moon. His intelligence confirmed Jedha was dead. All of its inhabitants had been killed when the surface was scraped clean after a single laser burst from the Death Star destroyed the Holy City where the Jedi’s followers worshipped the kyber crystal. Hux didn’t need to be convinced otherwise, especially from the likes of Pentastar Agent Zult who stood calmly in his presence.
Zult appeared unfazed about Hux’s opinions, much less the platoon of First Order stormtroopers threatening to take him and his sole remaining Pentastar Alignment stormtrooper commander into custody.
“Where’s my command shuttle?” Hux inquired, hands folded behind his back.
“Does it matter?” Zult shrugged. “It’s merely a piece of equipment.”
“Yes. It’s a piece of equipment, like the Star Destroyers you sacrificed, along with the countless trained personnel at Jaemus. All that matters to you is the means to an end.”
“Precisely. I have provided you with the end of the Republic,” Zult chided the general. “Personally, I was imagining a more grateful response rather than this childish predilection for things.”
“You were expecting gratitude?” Hux pointed at the lifeless world of NaJedha and the even deader moon that lay beyond it. “For bringing me here? That deserted heap of rock is all that remains from the Empire’s first test of the Death Star. There’s nothing there except for sand and dust.”
“The emergency council of the New Republic, those who took the places of the senators you slaughtered on Hosnian Prime, is on Jedha.”
Hux paced, itching to choose between killing Zult with his own sidearm or watching in delight as he was tossed into an airlock and spaced for wasting his time and energy.
“You are gravely mistaken, Zult. My scouts have been there. There is no secret base. The subterranean caverns below the surface collapsed in on themselves. They don’t exist. The Death Star’s laser attack lifted miles of rock into the sky.”
Hux pointed to a tactical display on the bridge’s command cupola aboard the Finalizer, showing a sensor scan of the moon sent back by probe droids hovering near the giant planet’s horizon line. The rubble ejected from the Death Star’s laser blast, some thirty years ago, had been recaptured by Jedha’s gravity and was forming a ring around the moon. The scattered rock and dust made a lasting ornament; the first time an entire planetary object was affected by the power of the Empire.
“There are no caves for anyone to hide in,” Hux snarled. “Jedha remains as dead as your theories.”
“They are there.” Zult gestured toward the display. “I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out by now.”
“What am I supposed to infer from that statement?”
“The Republic took your idea, General. It’s staring at you right in the face.”
Speaking of his face, the color of his cheeks and forehead changed to the approximate color of a red giant.
“Starkiller Base was a moon, was it not? Your construction teams dug deep into that planetoid, using its natural caverns and tunnels to form the sun-stealing super laser’s core. The Republic did the same to Jedha, another moon long overlooked by pirates and scroungers. They built a base deep in the moon’s core. I have seen the plans.” He pointed to his head—and the data retrieved from Setting Sun that resided within. “The entrance is a crater right under where the Holy City used to be located. You can almost hear the Republic’s designers laughing at you while they were building this thing. Even its name is intended as a direct insult. Defiance Base.”
The barest of smiles registered on Zult’s face, suggesting he enjoyed calling him out—especially in front of his officers and crew. This time, however, Hux decided not to directly take on the agent’s insults. If Zult enjoyed his conquests so much, Hux was going to give him what he so desperately desired. Recognition.
If the agent failed, so much the better.
Hux studied the sensor display of the moon. The tone of his voice changed from accusation to one of consolation.
“I stand corrected, Agent Zult. Your hard work has provided the First Order with a powerful opportunity. If the Republic’s council-in-exile is down there, they must be rooted out and found. Not destroyed, at least not immediately, but put to good use. Political use. You did suggest that under the right circumstances, the New Republic would fall apart. What better way than by capturing the council’s members and turning their systems to the First Order? Without their support, the Republic will crumble.”
“I am pleased you see things my way,” the agent agreed, somewhat surprised that the General was acknowledging his recommendations for once.
“Then we are in agreement.” Hux declared. “You will lead the assault on this base and capture the council’s members.”
“Me?” Zult pointed to himself, taken aback.
“You have the knowledge, Agent Zult.” Tightly smiling, Hux aimed his index finger at the man’s head, mocking Zult’s own prior gesture. “Why waste time relating details to a tactical droid? I hereby promote you to Field Commander of all First Order forces here at Jedha. You will breach the base, find the council members and bring them before me. Preferably alive.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Zult huffed, clearly not enjoying the idea of him leading a battle.
“Because I will personally inform Supreme Leader Snoke of your gallant actions and urge him to make you a member of High Command. You will sit at his side, a favored and trusted aide in our retaking of the Galaxy.”
It was a tempting prize to dangle in front of the agent, offering him not only recognition, but respect and acceptance. Zult had lost his standing after the absorption of the Pentastar Alignment into the feeble Imperial Remnant. Now he was being offered a place in the First Order. Hux knew Zult couldn’t resist.
“I am overwhelmed by your confidence in my abilities.” Zult motioned to the Alignment command trooper beside him. The stormtrooper’s armor, outdated as it was, appeared damaged and in a pitiful state. “I request my unit commander assist me in planning and executing the assault.”
“As you wish,” Hux agreed. “Tell your commander to report to the ship’s armory. He is to be issued First Order equipment. The Pentastar Alignment and the Imperial Remnant is finished, Agent Zult. The sooner you realize that, the faster you will ascend to the inner circle of the First Order.”
“Of course, General.”
Hux strode out of the bridge’s command cupola, very much pleased with himself.
Zult suspiciously eyed the general and the First Order officers and troops that followed him. None of them wanted anything to do with Zult, much less take orders from him.
TK-421, the stormtrooper unit commander, could hardly refrain from speaking his own assessment of the situation.
“If this goes bad, we’ll be nothing but grilled bantha steaks.”
“Agreed,” Zult kept his voice low. “The general is clearly hoping we fail. Even if we do succeed and capture the council, I’m sure the forces assigned to us will make their loyalty quite clear. Hux will take the credit and leave us on Jedha, not as bantha steaks, but as smoldering piles of ash.”
“What do we do, sir?”
“We do as the general ordered, of course. Help yourself to the ship’s armory. While you are there, be sure to obtain a frequency modulation scanner. I have something in mind to counter the general’s most generous offer.”
The veteran stormtrooper grimly nodded.