A STARTLING MASK, SILVER AND BLACK, FILLED THE TRANSMISSION SCREEN ON THE CONSOLE IN FRONT OF HER. A FAMILIAR VOICE, AN ELECTRONICALLY MODULATED HISS, CRACKLED OVER THE SUBSPACE FREQUENCIES.
“STAND DOWN, FINALIZER. I AM JOINING THE BATTLE.”
Brixie and the other Red Moons helped themselves to the First Order command shuttle left behind by Zult on Contras Gola, using it to speed to the ravaged moon of Jedha. Ivey quickly reprogrammed the ship’s identity transponder and reset its travel logs so it could not be readily traced back to the Finalizer.
This was the second First Order shuttle Brixie had traveled on in the past few days, confirming how much she disliked Imperial design. The interior was dark with minimal lighting. There were black consoles and rigid corners. Conduits, grids and tubing crawled the overhead panels. The passenger compartment of the command shuttle was cold no matter how she adjusted the ambient temperature. Her acceleration seat was uncomfortable, barely some padding on a rigid frame, intended for shock troops who had no need for plush comforts.
The shuttle’s dark and chilly interior reflected her mood. They left Cantras Gola so quickly, there was little time for Brixie to emotionally process her mother and father’s last moments in the holo program. Stricken with lingering flickers of grief, she found herself wanting to sit near Ivey. Her presence was comforting. But Ivey and Sully Tigereye were busy up front at the shuttle’s controls. Brixie couldn’t bring herself to talk about her feelings with others listening in.
Colonel Stormcaller was seated on the other side of the passenger compartment from her, intent on a datapad’s display. He was using the shuttle’s communications array to send warnings about Zult’s intentions to his contacts throughout the New Republic.
As for Hugo, he stayed in the back of the passenger compartment, alone with his thoughts. Zult had injured him in the worst way, stealing years from his life and turning him into a puppet. Sneaking a glance behind her seat, she caught Hugo touching his bald head from time to time, as if questioning the reality around him. Brixie offered to sit by him, but he shook his head. He didn’t want anyone’s company.
“All right, people.” Stormcaller motioned for the others to gather around a small holo display he raised in the center of the shuttle’s passenger deck. “It’s time to put our sabaac cards on the table.”
Ivey and Sully got up from their positions at the controls from the shuttle’s bridge. Hugo remained in the back until Brixie motioned to Hugo to sit beside her.
Seeing so many familiar faces unsettled Brixie. It was as though the years between them had never passed and the Red Moons were sketching out yet another desperate mission. This time though, the stakes were incredibly high.
Ivey had processed the data stolen from Zult’s personal files in the holo program. Stored there was a detailed “hit list” designed to bring about the fall of the New Republic. Zult planned on using the five Rising Moon agents to infiltrate and sow chaos among the highest levels of the Republic’s military—command, defense arm, fleet operations, intelligence and planetary communications.
At the top of Zult’s list was removing the New Republic Council, leaving the government leaderless. That meant finding and attacking the council-in-exile. The records stored in Setting Sun was all he needed to locate them.
With the New Republic Fleet fighting off a series of surprise incursions by First Order ships and its defenses in disarray, the very existence of the New Republic now depended on the five former mercenaries.
So what else is new?, Brixie grimly told herself. At least Ivey had the sense to leave Dink behind. He was much too young to drag off the planet and into the middle of a firefight.
“Ivey,” Stormcaller motioned. “Let’s go over the intel.”
She nodded, tapping keys on the holo table.
“We’ve been trying to send a message to Defiance Base on Jedha since before we left Cantras Gola. No response. There are sensor buoys hidden throughout the moon’s new orbital ring, but they can’t be reached. Com traffic is either being jammed or the buoys have been destroyed.”
“That could mean the base is gone too,” Sully interjected.
“Not necessarily,” Stormcaller shook his head. “Standard Imperial attack doctrine calls for a sensor blackout of an entire system while they ready their forces for an assault. What’s important is that we can’t warn Defiance Base and they can’t call for help.”
Ivey continued. “I intercepted several holo-net communications on the old Imperial frequencies sent from Ackbar’s B-wing fighter. Zult contacted a First Order Star Destroyer called Finalizer, which is where this shuttle came from. It’s the flagship of General Hux, some high muckety-muck of the First Order.”
“Didn’t he command Starkiller Base?” Sully tapped his extended claws on the panel console nearest to him.
“Not until the Resistance blew it back to the origins of time and sent the First Order running back to their black hole. I found a Republic Intelligence analysis dossier on the general. Hux is as vain as they come. No doubt, he’s looking for something big and notable to salvage his reputation.” Ivey nodded to the colonel. “Right after Zult sent his holo net greeting to Hux, I picked up Finalizer contacting another Star Destroyer called Gigant. They were matching coordinates to rendezvous at Jedha. Zult must have told the general about Defiance Base.”
“This is waiting for us at Jedha.” Stormcaller flexed his hand over the rounded holo table. A pair of flickering Star Destroyers appeared in the NeJedha system, hovering close to the moon with an iridescent ring of rubble.
“Two Destroyers? That’s a big landing force,” Hugo muttered.
“Not as big as the ones the Empire dropped on Hoth or the garrison on Endor. Those were all-or-nothing campaigns. Hux can’t afford to bleed soldiers and ships. He knows his boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, is watching. I’m imagining he will launch a strong landing force.” Stormcaller waved his hand and the tactical holo-imagery zoomed in, revealing a small force of ships and fighters. “Half a dozen shuttles with stormtroopers and TIE escorts. No walkers or heavy artillery. The tunnels at the moon’s core are a tight fit. It’s my guess he wants to take the New Republic council-in-exile alive.”
“Why?” Brixie asked.
“Because wiping out the council at Hosnian Prime accomplished nothing. It frightened the Republic and stiffened the resolve of General Organa-Solo and the Resistance. Remember Governor Tarkin and the Death Star? Same difference. The more terror you cause, the greater the will to fight back. The First Order gambled on a superweapon to destroy the Republic and lost. The data Zult was keeping suggests an opposite approach. Take the council hostage. It fits perfectly in his plan to force key worlds of the Republic to capitulate to the First Order. There’s a good chance Zult himself will be down there with the assault force so he can gloat.”
Except for the occasional hoot of navigational marker signals from the bridge readouts, silence filled the small starship. Stormcaller noted their silent but grim reactions as they studied the holo image. They were headed for trouble.
“We’re nothing but a couple of sand flies caught between two rancors in a pit. It’s just the five of us. However, we might be able to use that to our advantage.”
“Six!” a muffled voice came from one of the shuttle’s storage compartments. “There’s six of us!”
Stormcaller exchanged a surprised look with Ivey, tapping his ear with its electronic implant. Tigereye moved to the overhead compartment door and bashed on it with his heavy fist.
“Ow!” the voice complained.
The door slid open and a young scrap of a boy tumbled out of the compartment and into the Trunsk’s arms.
Hugo was so startled he almost jumped behind Brixie out of fright.
“It’s a Mynock!”
“This ain’t no Mynock. It’s the kid.” Tigereye snarled. “What were you doing up in there?”
“I was listening,” Dink struggled to get out of his grasp. “You need my help. Let me go!”
“We don’t want your help, you little wiggle-worm. I’m going to stuff you into the food hydrator and leave you there.”
“Sully,” Brixie called out. “Don’t hurt him.”
“It’s okay, Tigereye. Let the boy go,” Stormcaller told him.
Sully dropped the boy to the floor. Dink neatly landed on his feet, rushed up to the colonel and saluted.
“You need an advanced scout, sir. Someone who can slip through those tunnels inside the base unnoticed. If you didn’t know I was here, then those Imps won’t see me coming or going either. I know how to crawl through the Hive. I can be useful!”
“How do you know about the base tunnels?” Ivey asked.
“I got bored hanging up there. I read over your shoulder for most of the flight.” He smirked at Brixie. “Oh by the way, she’s been staring at you this whole time.”
Brixie wanted to the strangle the little imp.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Sneaky little cretin.” Tigereye pointed at the boy. “You’ll be hanging from a hook on the washroom door after I get through with you.”
Ivey pulled up a schematic of Defiance Base on the holo table.
“Wait a second. This could actually be to our advantage. He can crawl through the base’s ventilation systems without them knowing he’s there.”
“Right. He could infiltrate and report back to us,” Stormcaller noted.
“Absolutely!” Dink saluted him again.
“I can’t believe you’re taking him seriously,” Brixie protested. “He shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s too late,” Ivey reminded her. “We don’t have time to break out of hyperspace and head for the nearest friendly orbital station or planet. The kid has a point. He’s crawled the Hive. You saw how he eluded you. We can give him an encrypted comlink. He’ll be our eyes and ears in the base tunnels.” She turned to the boy. “But no firefights.”
“Aww!” the boy complained. “I want a blaster. A great big one!”
“You get what we give you with,” Tigereye growled back, motioning to Brixie. “Or you can stay in the rear with the medic.”
Dink’s look of disgust mirrored Brixie’s. Neither were interested in keeping the other company. Ivey stifled a laugh.
“Six is better than five.” Stormcaller cupped his chin with his hand, contemplating the newest addition to their group. “Our advance scout is giving me an idea. Ivey, you reprogrammed the transponder code and logs for this command shuttle. Can you do it again?”
“I can change them to almost anything you want.” Ivey put her hand on her hip the way she always did when she was curious. “Who from the First Order do you want us to pretend to be? Only admirals and important plutocrats fly around in a big black tub like this.”
“Oh, I know someone.” A somewhat fiendish grin appeared on the colonel’s face. “He’s not an admiral or a plutocrat. But his reputation should clear us a path straight to the front door of the festivities. Once we get inside the base, we commit to a very specific plan of attack.”
“Which is?” Tigereye asked.
“The one we know best,” Stormcaller gestured to Hugo. “His way.”
Hugo’s eyes grew as large as a giant moon in earnest expectation. If there was one thing that always piqued the interest of a former dropout of the Imperial Engineers Academy, it was the challenge of blowing something into a gazillion pieces.
“My way? You mean…?”
The colonel nodded.
“The bigger, the better.”
Stormcaller’s plan required some deft reprogramming of the shuttle’s transponder codes from Ivey, some metalwork and kit-bashing of an Imperial Navy helmet found in the equipment lockers by Sully, tweaking a vocal replicator taken from a communications board by Hugo, and sewing a bit of black material taken from Brixie’s jacket.
The Upsilon-class command shuttle popped out of hyperspace, extended its wide black wings and carved a course past two Star Destroyers hovering over the shattered moon of Jedha. Past the debris-strewn orbital ring, the moon’s surface was a freefire zone. TIE fighters and Republic E-wings were tangled up in deadly combat while First Order shuttles made their approach over a vast crater in the moon’s surface. The attack against Defiance Base was on.
The two Star Destroyers loomed dangerously in the shuttle’s forward viewports, each capable of launching an annihilating attack of energy weapons guaranteed to pulverize them into atoms.
The colonel motioned to Ivey. With Sully positioning his masterpiece in front of the com’s lens, she tapped the switches to transmit the shuttle’s transponder codes and cued the colonel to get ready with the vocalator.
“Here goes something,” she warned them.
Finalizer’s sensor officers reported the arriving shuttle to the bridge’s command deck. Standing at her station, a female lieutenant commander keyed the identification challenge sequence. Puzzled by the transponder codes that were returned, she contacted the shuttle directly.
“Shuttle Byzanta. You are entering a combat zone and not cleared to approach. Identify your purpose or be fired upon.”
A startling mask, silver and black, filled the transmission screen on the console in front of her. A familiar voice, an electronically modulated hiss, crackled over the subspace frequencies.
“Stand down, Finalizer. I am joining the battle.”
“Master Kylo Ren!” The lieutenant commander gasped. Several other bridge deck personnel looked up from their stations, aghast at the news. The Dark Jedi’s reputation was well known to the crew of the Star Destroyer. He had throttled, if not outright killed, many subordinates who had brought him ill news. “We did not know you were coming here. I will contact General Hux…!”
“It’s not my purpose to tell Hux or anyone else where I’m going,” Ren’s electronically- modulated voice growled back. “Order your fighters to cover my shuttle’s approach. I will be landing in the crater and dealing with the Republic Council personally.”
“Yes! At once Master Ren!” The deck officer relayed those commands through her com panels. “Should I inform Field Commander Zult you are joining him in the battle?”
“By all means. Ren out.”
The image on the screen fizzled away. The lieutenant commander, her fingers still quaking from the encounter with the Dark Jedi (his voice was so creepy!), tapped into the communication frequencies to the assault force below on the moon.
“Priority message to Field Commander Zult. Master Kylo Ren is arriving on his personal shuttle!”