THE ARMED SOLDIERS WALKED OVER, PEERING DOWN THROUGH THE GRID USING THE BLACKENED VISION SLITS ON THEIR WHITE HELMETS.
STILL UPSIDE-DOWN, THE FIELD PACK STARTED TO SLIP OFF HUGO’S SHOULDERS.
Spiraling down to the surface of the gutted moon of Jedha, the command shuttle identified as the Byzanta received an escort of TIE s/n fighters. Since the terrible destruction of the Holy City after the testing of the Death Star’s superweapon, the entire moon continued to undergo severe physical changes. Dust and rock had been launched into the planet’s atmosphere, forming a rocky orbital ring. The dust that didn’t escape was carried around in the atmosphere, forever blotting out the sun that once shone brightly down on Jedi monuments and monasteries. Raging storms, lit by lightning and fueled by the dust and the moon’s changing orbit, crisscrossed the surface.
The point where the superlaser struck the Holy City and blotted out tens of thousands of lives was nothing more than a chasm—a vast crater several kilometers wide and endlessly deep. The shuttle, bucking a turbulent storm, continued its descent down inside the crater, dodging laser fire from defending squadrons of Republic E-wings and advanced X-wing fighters. The TIEs lunged upon them, forcing them back as the shuttle fought its way deeper below the surface, descending nearly a kilometer down the roughly cone-shaped pit.
Rock gave way to metal and duracrete. In the shuttle’s external flood lamps, the Republic’s Defiance Base took shape: rings of scaffolding and corridors. The top featured gantries and landing pads for airspeeders, fighter squadrons and there were defensive turrets with turbolasers. The smoking evidence of the battle was everywhere—destroyed shuttle hulks, wrecked fighters from both sides, and smoldering slagheaps where defensive guns once stood guard.
Following a landing beacon set by the initial wave of the First Order assault force, the Byzanta chose one of the landing platforms, folded up its wings and alighted. Several shuttles were there, some badly damaged, but empty save for their pilots. A rear guard protected the landing area in case of a surprise counterattack.
The command shuttle lowered its landing ramp while jets of compressed coolant jetted from the belly radiator ports. Two First Order stormtroopers from the rear guard, alerted to the arrival of this most-important passenger, strode up at once to give their report of the battle and offer to escort the Dark Jedi Master.
“Be sharp,” one of the stormtroopers warned the other. “I hear this one’s got a temper.”
“It’s an honor to serve Master Kylo Ren.”
“Are you joking?” the soldier shivered inside his armor. “He gives me the chills.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet him.”
“Careful what you wish for,” a voice shouted from up the ramp.
A large black object suddenly flew out from the shuttle’s ramp. The fashioned metal helm, made to resemble the headgear worn by a certain master of the Dark Side of the Force, struck the first stormtrooper and knocked him flat on his back.
“What the…?” the second stormtrooper pivoted in surprise.
A blaster bolt lanced out and caught the second trooper full in the chest. He flopped over the inert body of the first stormtrooper.
Sully Tigereye ambled down the ramp and picked up the dented helmet, eyeing his handiwork and the two soldiers laying in a heap at his feet.
“Sorry, boys. No autographs.” He bowled the helmet behind some storage crates, checked around for any other stormtroopers before raising his fist as a signal. “All clear.”
The rest of the Red Moons, carrying field packs on their backs, moved quickly down the ramp. Sully and Hugo dragged the two stormtroopers behind the crates. After snatching their blaster rifles, Hugo took off the helmet of the unconscious trooper and stuck their manufactured Kylo Ren helmet on his head.
“What are you doing?” Tigereye asked.
“He wanted to meet him. It’s kind of a present.”
“It’s nice to have you back, Hugo.”
Tigereye bound and gagged the trooper with a set of metal binders and bonding tape. They rejoined the others while Stormcaller gave last minute details to the group.
“Each of you has a job to do. There’s no time for fancy speeches. We have to protect the New Republic Council and kick the First Order off this rock.”
He pointed to Ivey, Brixie and Dink. Ivey was wearing a weapons harness, two blaster pistols in speed-draw holsters and her favorite pack of “toys”, her slicer toolkit and data-puter. Brixie wore a gray and black camo jacket, her medical bag and a blaster pistol on her hip. Dink was moaning for a weapon. Ivey handed him an encrypted comlink instead.
“You two get Dink into the ventilation system.” Stormcaller addressed the young lad. “Kid, report on troop movements to Ivey and Brixie. Their job is to find Zult and delay him. Do not engage any hostiles. Understand?”
The boy was about to whine, but after a slap to the back of his head from Ivey, he reluctantly nodded.
“Sully, you’re with Hugo.” The colonel noticed the heavy bag carried on Hugo’s shoulders, in addition to the stolen stormtrooper helmet in his hand. “Son, make me proud.”
“It’ll be a work of art, sir. I promise.”
“I expect nothing less.” He pointed to the others with the double-tipped staff in his hand. “Everyone keep in touch. Stay with your partners. If you run into any trouble, tap the emergency code and get to safety. No heroics.”
“Sir?” Brixie noticed Stormcaller didn’t indicate what he would be doing. He also didn’t have a partner, just his unusual staff. “What about you?”
“Me?” He reached inside his tunic pocket and patted a package of his favorite bad habit. Shinto cigars. “Lady Ergo, what did I tell you about me when we first met on Entralla?”
“You blow things up and shoot bad guys,” she smiled back, remembering the first time he said those words to a naïve medical student. “You know, mercenary stuff.”
“That’s right. I intend to do some mercenary stuff.” He smiled, wishing them luck with a bright gleam in his eyes. “Brothers and sisters, let’s close the bar tonight in style. May The Force Be With You.”
“Ewww,” Dink had to get in the last word. “Did he have to say that old thing?”
That earned him another slap to the back of his head, this time from Brixie.
“Hell yes, he does.”
Wearing black tactical stormtrooper specialist armor, sans helmet, Zult and his unit commander led a double platoon of First Order troops on a driving push down into the deepest levels of Defiance Base. At every corner and intersection, they were met by stiff resistance from Republic troops. Zult imagined these Republic soldiers weren’t the blind fanatics who served as the backbone of the Rebellion’s meager army during their fights with the Empire. They were career fighters, more interested in their own survival. They fell back to other corridors and chokeholds at the earliest convenience.
“Keep driving them back.” Zult used his internal com to direct his commander. Inside the synaptic relays of his hard-coded memory, the plans for Defiance Base were laid out before him to examine. “The next levels down are the living quarters. Below that is the command bunker vault. The council will be there. Commander, bring up the heavy blasters. Clear what’s left of this mess.”
The unit commander, his fresh armor decked with a red shoulder pad to denote his leadership position, motioned to the teams carrying modified E-web blaster cannons on portable gravlifts.
“Move up. Let’s do some real damage.”
The cannon teams set up to either side of the corridor, sending huge bursts of laser fire at the dwindling Republic defenders. They scattered at the onslaught. The unit commander ordered a quick follow-up, leading a squad to charge the hold-outs and slaughter them where they stood.
They took no prisoners. Zult wanted the council and only the council.
“Field Commander. Message from Finalizer,” a stormtrooper from one of the heavy blaster cannon teams relayed.
Zult walked up to one of the remaining wounded Republic officers. The man was propped up with his back against the corridor wall he was supposed to defend.
“What is it?” The agent drew a vibroblade and killed him outright. “I’m busy.”
“Master Kylo Ren has arrived. He states he will take care of the Republic Council.”
“What?” Zult screamed, twisting in place. General Hux had tricked him. There was no reward, no recognition. He struck the dead Republic officer with the blade, again and again, sending blood scattering in all directions. “How dare Hux send his pet down here. This moment belongs to me! I’m to take the council, not him!”
Holding in place, the stormtroopers paused. They didn’t know what to do.
The unit commander scolded them.
“Don’t just stand there, you tin cans. Move to the next level down!” he snarled at them. “We have to reach the vault. The field commander orders it.”
“Sir yes, sir!”
Several troopers started to take the lead, Zult following behind them, when a blast door came hurtling down. The unit commander grabbed Zult by the shoulder and hauled him back as the blast doors slammed closed, crushing the forward troopers. Screams filled everyone’s helmet radios, followed by a ghastly silence.
“Who activated those doors?” Zult demanded, grateful the unit commander had saved his life. “I thought we had control on this level.”
The blast doors opened and slammed shut again, briefly revealing two flattened shapes that once were soldiers. The corridor lights flickered off, replaced with emergency lighting, then returned to normal. Fire extinguishers fired, filling the corridor with obscuring vapor. The stormtroopers had their armor’s respirators to protect them. Zult activated his lung scrubbers to keep the fire retardant from affecting him.
A stormtrooper checked a military dataputer in his hands, shaking it.
“Everything’s gone crazy, sir. We broke the codes to control every level. Now they keep changing.”
Zult seized the dataputer terminal from the soldier and plugged its connector cable to the outlet on his wrist. The command codes that controlled the level’s functions were displayed in his cybernetic eye’s internal viewer. They were green, then abruptly scrambled and changed to red. He tried to change the codes, but he was shut out.
“Someone has taken control of the base’s master routine,” he noted, sensing a familiarity to this trickery. “We have to find another way down to the next level.”
He brought up his map of the base’s plans, locating an emergency evacuation stairwell. Checking the data terminal, the locks to the stairwell and all other functions remained green. The path was clear. He quickly disconnected himself from the portable terminal.
“This way,” he pointed down another corridor.
“They’re moving to the evac stairwell, Ivey.” Dink whispered in his comlink, watching Zult and his men head down another corridor from the vantage point of a ventilation grille in the corridor wall. The young boy smiled as he watched the heavy E-web cannon teams load up their weapons and move them on their grav-lifts. They were in for another rude surprise.
“Okay. We got them playing our little desert mouse hunt. Head back and start down the next vent tube to your right,” Ivey’s voice answered in his ear. “Follow them.”
The boy pocketed the datapad and started scrambling back the way he arrived, locating the juncture Ivey described so he could go after Zult and his troops.
Sully and Hugo were crawling too; they were working their way underneath the landing platforms occupied by the First Order assault force’s shuttles. Pilots and stormtroopers guarding their vessels made their work, navigating heavy trusses and metal supports without being detected, challenging. They were hundreds of feet above the next ring of support structures. One slip and they would find out if there really was a bottom to this giant, endless hole.
“Are you sure about this?” Tigereye glowered at Hugo in a low voice, planting another explosive charge using its metal clamps. “These are seismic survey charges. We need demolition explosives.”
“You clearly have no idea about structural engineering, my fur-covered friend. Like ourselves, the strength of a single support relies upon the strength of others. Weaken many and everything falls apart.” Hugo replied calmly, nimby leaping from one truss to the next. “I went to the Imperial Engineering Acad…”
“You were thrown out of school after you brought down that stupid bell tower.” Tigereye snapped back. “You never graduated.”
“It’s not the degree, dear Sully. It’s the experience.”
Tigereye stared at Hugo with a doubting, amber-colored eye.
“Did Brixie give you something?” he warily asked with a whisper. “Before we left?”
“I don’t know what you mean, friend.”
Tigereye snatched the seismic charge out from Hugo’s hands.
“The way that you’re talking. It’s weird. Weirder than usual.”
“I’m fine. Calm.” Hugo took the charge back and set it to the next truss down the row. “Do you know what I discovered after all those years hiding in that holo program? The universe is moving. Taking form. Stars. Planets. Galaxies. It’s taking shape right in front of our eyes. There is no order to the First Order, just as there was no imperative to the Imperial Empire. The limits are all in our minds.”
“She gave you something, didn’t she?”
“No.” Hugo shook his head. “I’ve spent too long outside the real nature of the universe. I imprisoned myself in that program. This is me, Sully. The real me…”
He let go of the truss he had been holding on to and hung upside-down only by his legs. The bag on his shoulders started to slipped out from his dangling arms.
“Cut that out!” Tigereye warned, motioning that his antics could be seen through the metal grid of the landing platform. The approaching sound of footfalls silenced them.
Both held still as a First Order shuttle pilot walked the length of the platform. He called over to two stormtroopers.
“Hey! Did you see something?”
The armed soldiers walked over, peering down through the grid using the blackened vision slits on their white helmets.
Still upside-down, the field pack started to slip off Hugo’s shoulders. Twisting in place, Hugo stopped the bag and himself from moving.
“See what?” the stormtrooper’s voice crackled over his helmet’s speaker.
“I think somebody’s down there.”
“You’re imagining things. The area’s secure. Who would be down there?”
“Maybe Republic troops sneaking around?”
“You’re a shuttle pilot.” The stormtrooper coldly took his suggestion and tossed it. “Do your job. Got it?”
“I was only saying…” the pilot tried to explain, but the stormtroopers turned their backs to him and walked off. He loudly called out after them. “Fine. I guess I’ll do my job.”
The pilot had a few more choice words for the stormtroopers, most of them obscene, but they didn’t hear him. Sulking and swearing he was right, the shuttle pilot stared down through the grid one last time. He gave up and marched back to his ship, muttering under his breath.
“That’s right. Do my job. That’s what I’ll do.”
After a long moment, Hugo finally righted himself. Sully holstered his heavy blaster pistol, shaking his head at him.
“That was close.” Tigereye pointed an extended claw towards his friend. “Do that stunt again and I’ll wrap you up with binding tape and carry you on my back like a giant infant sandworm. Got it?”
“Of course, my friend.” The man started to put the next charge in place when he stopped and turned back. “Have you ever considered mediation for your anger?”
The layout of Defiance Base was unusual. Buried kilometers deep inside an impact crater created by the Death Star’s superweapon, the hole burrowed from the moon’s surface was distinctive in its geometric perfection. Created by an energy beam, as opposed to an impact from an asteroid or meteoroid, the crater was perfectly round. Slight variations in the geological composition caused slight variances, but the effect was a hole that appeared almost the mirror opposite of the murderous battle station’s superlaser dish that created it.
Burying a base deep inside the hole of this crater had several advantages. It was incredibly difficult to detect, the moon’s deep strata shielded its emissions and generators from detection from space. But that also meant communications between the base and the outside were as difficult to accomplish. The only successful method was to use the round geometry of the crater as its own amplification antennae, allowing for tight-beam transmissions to satellite buoys hidden inside the shattered rock and debris of the ejected surface strata.
The jamming from the Star Destroyers that kept Defiance Base from receiving warning of the oncoming attack also prevented the base from calling out for help. The only way to circumvent this was to use the base’s communications center and boost the signal using the natural crater.
The communications center was carefully hidden underneath the lip of the crater near the moon’s surface. It was occupied by an entire platoon of elite First Order stormtroopers and com-specialists. They were using the base’s equipment to bypass the jamming, relaying signals back and forth from Field Commander Zult to Finalizer, as well as direct TIE fighters weeding out the base’s last shreds of starfighter defenses.
With troopers at the entrance and standing watch, the communication center was busy. Technicians were seated at the consoles, carefully controlling the tight-beam that sent signals to and from First Order vehicles and personnel. They had complete control of any communications reaching and leaving the moon.
Field Commander Zult was in the midst of sending a report to General Hux aboard Finalizer, aided by the communication center’s tight-beam relay. His assault group had reached the lowest levels of the base. From there, he and his stormtroopers would soon be at the “vault”, the bunker where the last of the base’s personnel were no doubt protecting the New Republic Council.
“Every inch of the moon’s surface is covered by TIE forces and gunships. The council is cut off and has no means of escape. They will soon be in your hands,” the Field Commander’s confident voice reported to a shaky holo-image of General Hux. “We’ve been diverted due to technical outages, but we will reach the target.”
“And what of Master Kylo Ren?” Hux appeared impatient. “I’ve been informed he arrived on the moon in his personal command shuttle. Where is he?”
“I have not seen him.” Zult pointedly remarked. “Maybe if you had told me…”
“Kylo Ren is the hand of Supreme Leader Snoke. What he chooses to do is his concern. When the dark master arrives, I warn you to give him the proper respect. Or expect his wrath.”
“Of course.” Zult’s transmission faded in and out. The communication technicians adjusted the frequencies to keep the circuit active.
“Perhaps you should wait for him before assaulting the vault?” General Hux suggested. “His powers are unstoppable.”
“As you wish, General.” Zult’s tone suggested he wouldn’t bother. “I will contact you from the vault. Zult out.”
“You will do what I say…!” Hux’s image stammered, the holo image of him shaking as the man planted his foot on the deck of his ship in anger. “Pitiful cretin! How dare you…”
A series of muffled blaster shots erupted outside the communications center’s heavy door. The stormtroopers standing watch went instantly into action, bringing up their blaster rifles.
“G8-212, report!” the watch commander called into his helmet’s comlink. “Any guards. Report!”
No response came from the stormtroopers who were standing guard outside the door. Instead, a sparkling line began to trace the door’s outline.
Someone was cutting through the door’s heavy frame.
“We’re under attack,” the watch commander warned his men. “Stand ready!”
The technicians spilled to the floor, trying to make themselves as small a target as possible.
“Trooper,” General Hux’s holo demanded. “Report! What is going on down there?”
The door blew open with a thunderclap, the breaching charge rendering the door’s heavy frame to the consistency of limp pudding. The door disintegrated into bits of scrap and a thick curtain of choking smoke, the molecules weakened at the atomic level.
The stormtroopers didn’t hesitate. They randomly opened fire into the smoke, trying to catch or pin down any attacker who tried to pass through the doorway. Their blaster bolts vanished and ricocheted off the adjacent corridor walls, but failed to hit anything.
A small metal sphere rolled inside the room.
“Grenade!” a trooper shouted, motioning for everyone to take cover.
The weapon didn’t explode per se, but unleashed a chain of sparkling blue arcs. The ion-charged weapon, similar to the ion cannons and bombs used to disable starships, had an instantaneous effect. Every blaster weapon and piece of electronic circuitry in the room shorted out and died, instantly nullified. Communication stations went dark. Hux’s holo image vanished.
The watch commander kept triggering his weapon, realizing the blaster rifle had been rendered useless. He tried his sidearm blaster, but that failed too. Even the energy grenades they carried wouldn’t activate; their triggers had been neutralized. They were little more than paperweights.
A lone figure, carrying what resembled a large staff, emerged from the smoke and filled the doorway. Stormcaller reached inside his tunic pocket, pulled a single shinto cigar and placed it between his lips. He stood there like a mountain, daring any of them to approach.
“I need this communications outpost. You’re welcome to leave,” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Peacefully.”
The stormtroopers exchanged surprised glances with one another. There was no one else with this intruder.
“It’s just him,” one of the stormtroopers pointed. “He’s alone.”
Without the electronic boost of their helmet’s built-in speaker, their muffled voices sounded painfully normal and human. The colonel knew that no matter what skills or training these foot soldiers of evil had, they were still flesh and bone.
“That’s right.” Stormcaller slammed the end of the staff down on the deck. “It’s just me and you. No blasters. No energy weapons.”
“He’s just some crazy old man…” the watch commander called out, hefting his useless blaster rifle in his hands, motioning for his troops to rush him. “Get him!”
Stormcaller tilted his neck and limbered his shoulders, cracking the joints.
“Boys and girls…”
He took a ready stance with the staff and offered them a grim smile of encouragement.
“…class starts now.”