“HE’S HERE. STORMCALLER AND HIS RED MOONS. BUT I’M NOT BEATEN. NOT YET.”
Standing watch while Ivey operated a data terminal nexus one level above the First Order troops, Brixie knew why she had sealed the blast doors around Zult and his force of stormtroopers. Ivey was using the base’s defense systems to keep Zult from reaching the bunker at the lowest level of the base. What Brixie didn’t understand was why Ivey let the Pentastar agent and the troopers take an emergency evacuation stairwell unimpeded.
Watching the visual screens built into the console, she could see the troops descending the stairs. They would soon reach the living quarters level. Below that was the vault, the last remaining stronghold where the Republic Council was hiding.
“You’re letting them reach the vault?” Brixie watched the young woman typing on her portable terminal and listening to Dink’s scouting reports through a comlink set inside the cuff of her ear.
Ivey threw her a hard look. “I don’t tell you how to diagnosis a patient, do I?”
Ivey pointed to the display screen she brought up on the nexus console. “The quickest way to reduce the effectiveness of an opponent is to put him in a confined space. In a wide corridor, Zult and his force are dangerous. But in a narrow stairwell, they’re forced to descend the stairs single file and they had to disassemble their heavy cannons to move them. That makes them vulnerable.”
“So now what?”
Ivey held up a case of grenades to her. She pulled the cap off one, revealing a soft gel on one side.
“We stick it to them.”
With two new stormtroopers taking point ahead, Zult and his double platoon of troopers threaded their way cautiously down the evacuation stairs. The evacuation staircase consisted of metal scaffolding attached to a hollow shaft of permacrete injected vertically down into Jedha’s deepening strata. Light sources were scarce. Every trooper kept their blaster rifle pointed at the ready.
Zult looked up. Behind the main force were the E-web cannon crews. They had taken apart their weapons. Each soldier carried a specific component: tripod, energy plasma ammunition box, and the cannon itself was in two separate pieces. Going down stairs made carrying their heavy loads even more difficult. The cannon crews were followed by two stormtroopers who formed the unit’s rear guard.
“We should have brought security droids,” he muttered. They could have carried the weapons with ease. Using his cybernetic eye, he switched to infrared. There were no heat sources higher up the metal stairs—no signs they were being followed. He motioned to one of the stormtroopers acting as communications relay.
“Any word from Master Ren yet?”
The stormtrooper tried reaching the landing platform and the Star Destroyer Finalizer. He shook his head.
“No, sir. No contact.”
Zult was pleased with his good luck. This alternate route was better than fighting the Republic defenders in the corridors. The enemy was all but defeated, hiding like mice in the bunker. He checked the map inside his brain’s hard storage with his internal viewer. Better still, Master Kylo Ren was nowhere in sight. He may have run into a pocket of resistance that was slowing him down.
They reached the lower base levels designated as living spaces. He tapped the unit commander’s frequency with his built-in comlink.
“We’re at the next level. There could be more Republic soldiers here.”
“Point. Be on alert,” the unit commander warned the two soldiers ahead of Zult and him. “All squads, cover your angles. Watch for targets.”
The two lead stormtroopers approached the access door with caution, watching for trip beams or obvious signs of sabotage. One tried the door. He turned to the unit commander.
“It’s locked, sir. We’re going to bypass.”
The unit commander clicked his helmet’s comlink twice; warning the entire unit to stay where they were and be ready. The stormtrooper removed a kit from his belt and inserted it in the door’s locking mechanism. Lights on the box showed progress as the bypass tried to wrench past the door lock.
Zult glowered. A droid could have done this in no time, too. With his advanced cybernetics he could do it as well, but he would rather be away from the door, where he was safe.
Better them than me.
Several sections of staircase over his head, a door to an electrical access closet slowly opened. Unknown to Zult, the plans to Defiance Base he had taken from Setting Sun’s data stores were incomplete. A maintenance shaft ran parallel to the staircase to provide a trunk for heavy communication cables and electrical junctures.
Alighting off a ladder, Brixie nervously emerged from the door on her knees, uncapped a concussion grenade and gently stuck its glue end to the bottom of the plasma generator box used by one of the E-web cannons. The glue was a polymer bond cultivated from Mon Calamari cuttlefish, practically unbreakable save a torch or acid, and much quieter than any magnetic attachment.
One staircase level below her, Ivey did the same to the second cannon crew. The soldiers holding the heavy plasma charging box felt only a slight jostling, each thinking the other was shifting his weight to hold the heavy container. Ivey slunk back inside the electrical trunk’s shaft and joined Brixie as they hurriedly climbed down the ladder.
Ivey tapped the comlink positioned inside her ear.
“Dink. Head down two levels and wait in the duct above the security door.”
“Roger, roger.” He was mimicking the passphrase of certain battle droids from the Separatist war—ages ago.
“That kid’s been watching too many adventure holos.” Ivey looked up and checked Brixie was following her down the narrow ladder. “We’re heading down to the bunker.”
“Ivey, I can’t see anything!” she whispered. The access trunk had no lighting whatsoever. They only had the small battery lamps pinned to each of their collars. All Brixie could do was step down the rungs and pray she didn’t slip off and take Ivey with her.
They descended the ladder as quickly as they could until Ivey told her to stop.
Brixie called out.
“We’ve cleared the levels past them.” Ivey pulled out her data slicer kit and touched the buttons, knowing their functions by the slightly-raised impressions on each key.
“Wait! What about Dink?” Brixie called down.
“He’s fine. I moved him out of the area. It’s us we have to worry about. Hold on tight, Brix.” She tapped a key-switch on her terminal. “Here we go!”
“We have a problem.”
A pair of stormtroopers, assigned to patrol the transport landing decks, approached another pair from their same squad. Over their heads, the battle for Jedha had grown quiet. Many Republic fighters had either been destroyed or hyperjumped out of the system to avoid destruction. The moon belonged to the First Order.
“Delta group hasn’t checked in yet,” he continued. “They’re not responding to their coms. Have you seen them?”
“Negative.” One stormtrooper motioned to the large Upsilon-class command shuttle which had recently landed, its huge wings folded upward. “They were assigned to Master Kylo Ren’s shuttle.”
“We haven’t seen or heard from Delta or Master Ren. I can’t raise the main communications complex, either.”
The other stormtrooper assigned to guard the shuttles motioned to a sullen-faced man wearing a First Order flight suit. He was working at a nearby transport’s opened service hatch.
“We’ve been stuck here, babysitting some jumpy shuttle pilots.”
The pilot scowled at the soldiers, but said nothing.
“Something’s not right.” The patrol leader adjusted his helmet’s comlink. “Delta group. Come in. Report your status.”
The only response they received was useless static.
“All right. Let’s check it out.” The four of them started towards the Byzanta shuttle. The patrol lead pointed to the shuttle pilot. “You. Put those tools down. Stand watch.”
“Who, me?” The pilot pointed to himself, then either bravely or stupidly snarked back. “Isn’t that your job?”
“Failure means a report to Captain Phasma.” The trooper warned him. “Believe me. You don’t want to get on her bad side.”
The pilot continued to scowl as the four soldiers took up their weapons and started crossing the connecting bridges to reach the Byzanta on its landing pad.
“I’m shaking in my boots.” The pilot bravely threatened back, if only as a whisper and waiting for the soldiers to be out of earshot. “Stupid eggheads.”
Something heavy, perhaps a storage crate or weapons transport box, fell to the deck close by. Startled, the pilot whipped his head around trying to locate the source of the noise.
“Hello?” he called out, drawing his blaster pistol. He almost shouted to the stormtroopers to come back, but they were too far away. The pilot moved from the shuttle’s ramp, cautiously approaching stacks of discarded crates and bins left behind by the assault troops.
A second heavy thud vibrated the entire landing grid, as though a scout walker had planted its metal foot. The pilot snapped towards the sound, pointing the pistol and fumbling for his comlink in his other hand.
“Nobody here except for us mynocks…” a voice growled back.
“What? Mynocks don’t talk!” the pilot warned. “Show yourself!”
“No. You come over here.”
Alarmed, the pilot babbled into his comlink. “Guards, come in! This is pad fourteen. Someone’s here!”
“You’ve got to be more specific,” a second voice among the crates spoke up. “Tell them we’re talking mynocks.”
Static answered the pilot’s comlink.
“Come in, guard troops.” The shuttle pilot tried again. “This is Shuttle AB-Sixteen. There are enemy forces on the platform!”
“Enemy forces? Who, us?” the second voice asked. “We told you. We’re mynocks. Mynocks are silicon-based bat-like parasites that chew on power cables and energy conductors. They’re capable of surviving in the atmospheres of planets and the vacuum of space, though only a few varieties live on planets.”
“I don’t think he needs to hear that,” the first voice scolded.
“I’m only providing a clarification…” the second voice answered.
“I’ll shoot!” the pilot whipped the pistol at the first voice, entering the stacks of boxes. “Come out of there!”
“I don’t think so,” the first voice answered. “You’re a scary shuttle pilot.”
“Very scary,” the second voice joined in. “Please don’t hurt us! We’re only mynocks…”
The pilot stepped around a crate, knowing the voice was coming from there. His arm shaking, he pointed the blaster pistol, his finger ready to squeeze the trigger.
“Guards!” the pilot shouted again into his comlink. “Come in! Enemy forces are on the landing pad. My location is…”
He jumped around the crate at the would-be Republic soldier and found…another comlink sitting on a crate. A sharp feedback whine came from the device. The comlink had been calibrated to transmit on all available frequencies, locking out any other comlinks also trying to send signals. Like his.
“Say hello to the mynock,” a gravelly voice whispered behind the pilot’s ear. The focusing end of a heavy blaster pistol prodded deeply into the skin on the back of his neck.
The pilot, who wasn’t terribly brave and interested only in his survival, raised his pistol and comlink in surrender. They were snatched from his hands.
Leaning on his staff for support and breathing heavily, Stormcaller propped himself against one of the consoles of the base communications center. All around the floor at his feet, sprawled in twisted poses, were several dead stormtroopers.
Class was over.
“This sure isn’t getting any easier,” he huffed, wiping the sweat pouring down his forehead. Gulping down deep breaths, he staggered over to one of the consoles and struck the side of the unit with the dented staff. “Get out from under there.”
A female communication technical specialist, a cadet clad in the standard Navy black jumpsuit, belt and boots, crawled out from under the console. Her hands were raised and brown eyes wide in fear.
Stormcaller pushed her into one of the chairs.
“I want you to lock out all of the First Order’s frequencies. Change the tight-beam transmission to the Republic fleet headquarters on Bescane using my ident code. Tell them to send every boat they’ve got here.”
The specialist gave him a hostile look instead.
Stormcaller lowered one end of the staff, ignited the lightsaber at that end and used its shimmering blade to light up the Shinto cigar still wedged between his lips.
The young specialist’s eyes boggled wide in surprise.
“You were expecting Master Kylo Ren, weren’t you? He isn’t coming.” He blew a cloud of smoke into the com center’s overhead ventilators. “You don’t look like one of those kids stolen from their families and indoctrinated using mental conditioning like the rest of these egg heads.”
“I joined the First Order of my own free will.” Her gaze narrowed, though she still feared the shimmering blade humming so close to her head. “I hate disorder. I hate the Republic. I hate all of you!”
“Passion is something to be admired.” He deactivated the lightsaber and took a smiling puff from the smelly cigar. “I’m not here to argue politics with some propaganda-warped kid.” He gestured to the pile of dead soldiers behind them. “I’m going to leave you with a choice. Help me or join them.”
The consoles lit up around them, their automatic restarts kicking in after the effects of the ion discharge grenade wore off.
The specialist did as she was told, cutting off the Star Destroyers from any further contact with the base and recalibrating the tight beam to connect with the sensor buoys in the debris ring orbiting Jedha. The communication channel opened to the Republic Fleet’s operations center on Bescane.
“Whom shall I say is calling?” she coldly remarked.
“Tell them it’s Andrephan Stormcaller, formerly of the Red Moons.”
The name jolted her. She eyed him in disbelief.
“The great General Stormcaller? I’m from Entralla. There’s a statue of you on the government plaza of the capital city…!”
“Yeah, I know. That stupid statue doesn’t look anything like me.”
He took another puff from the cigar, eyeing the specialist with renewed interest. In his mind, it was never too late to recruit for a good cause. His cause.
“Tell me, young lady. How’s life living under the boot of the First Order working out for you…?”
The grenades blew, taking with them the plasma charge boxes, the E-web cannons, the soldiers holding them and the stairs they were standing on. A dual fireball engulfed the narrow shaft, roaring upward and downward, consuming everything. Bodies in white armor tumbled in directions: some bounced off the thick permacrete shaft walls, others were propelled by the violent concussive shockwaves. There was no escape.
The unit commander seized Zult and pushed him down the stairs while the remains of the staircase, consisting of deadly metal shards, rained down upon them. Stormtroopers who were too slow to react to the explosion were stabbed or ripped to pieces.
They charged down the stairs, some pushing the other in a desperate attempt to stay alive. The two troopers ahead of them rushed to the last door at the bottom of the shaft and found the situation the same as before.
Zult looked up. The expanding fireball was roaring down upon them, obliterating the stairs and any poor soul too slow to keep ahead of it. It was no wonder why there wasn’t anyone following them or waiting down below in the staircase. It was a deliberate trap. His unit of elite stormtroopers was being decimated before his eyes.
Better them than me.
The unit commander reached for his belt and produced a grenade launcher in his hands. He popped a rounded shell down the tube’s breech and aimed it at the door. The troopers backed away.
He fired the launcher. The armor-piercer hit the door and exploded. It blasted a hole inside the hexagonal doorway. The commander lowered his shoulder and threw his entire armored body and momentum at the weakened doorway. It fell down.
“Keep moving. Cover the field commander!”
The two troopers took up positions and burst inside the corridor first, weapons leveled. Zult followed, then the unit commander and a number of surviving stormtroopers. They rushed forward as the expanding blast took out what remained of the staircase door and licked the ceiling, floor and corridor walls. After a few meters, the fireball finally lost pressure, reversed and withdrew.
While the unit commander dispersed the surviving members of the unit to take up defensive positions, Zult calmly assessed the situation.
Panic was useless. The enemy wanted him to panic.
He had blundered into taking the staircase, stringing out his troops so they could be caught in a trap. He remembered the green lights on the data terminal–practically showing him the way to slaughter. The cannon crews had been specifically targeted, specifically the E-web’s plasma charge boxes. His opponent had used concussion grenades, amplifying the destructive capability of the explosions for maximum effect in the narrow space.
Zult tapped his internal comlink, trying to reach the guard force on the landing platform. There was no response. Nor could he communicate with Finalizer. The base’s com center must have been compromised.
He was trapped on the bunker level, the massive blast door between him and the council. So close to victory, but not close enough. It was coming together in his mind. The cogs of a master plan. This wasn’t the work of ordinary soldiers.
“He’s here. Stormcaller and his Red Moons. But I’m not beaten. Not yet.” He turned to his loyal unit commander. “Did you pick up the frequency modulator from the star destroyer’s armory?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“Activate it. Relay the modulator pattern over to me.” Zult waited until a powerful series of sine waves appeared over his cybernetic’s eye overlay. “Let’s find out who else might be listening in, shall we?”
Zult originally intended to use the procured piece of equipment to circumvent the assault force’s combat frequencies and contact a shuttle pilot he had bribed without detection. The shuttle pilot agreed, after a large sum of credits were applied to a gambling tab he had accrued with a local Hutt crimelord, to fly he and the commander off Jedha. The backup plan was necessary in case Hux’s troops tried to execute the both of them the moment the Republic Council fell into the general’s hands.
The modulator could also be used to monitor communications traffic and home in on them. Watching the modulator’s display increase in strength, Zult maneuvered around the space, ignoring the massive bunker’s locked blast doors. The other stormtroopers eyed their field commander with looks of confusion, not truly understanding what he was up to.
He walked past an access grille leading to the ventilation system. It was much too small for a stormtrooper or a Human adult. That had hardly stopped Colonel Stormcaller before.
“This place should have been sprayed for pests.”
Zult pivoted, ripped off the access grille, shoved his cybernetic arm inside and pulled out a screaming, thrashing young boy. The comlink in his hands slipped and fell to the floor.
“Let me go! Let me go!”
He gripped the boy by his throat and squeezed, silencing him.
“It’s full of vermin.”