The most important and final lid eased shut at the Warlord’s nod, the porter quickly retrieving the proffered manifest and retreating to allow his Major to set the lock. Three major relics and the One Sith’s encrypted research notes lay in the large strongbox. Not the most expansive archaeological haul, but quite impressive given the millennia of looting the Citadel had suffered. It certainly whispered of more within the next bite of the shovel, and perhaps others the enemy had shipped off-world in their many months of occupation. Things that could and would be tracked down as the Brotherhood advanced. Yes, this war could be quite profitable for those who survived it, and Plagueis looked positively poised to claw its way back from the brink again. Depending, of course, on the nature of the prizes they had taken.
The Karanan wasn’t privy to all the details here or on Nfolgai, and was certainly no scholar himself. No, he was just a dumb farm kid with a budding interest in history – the very reason he’d availed himself of the concise tour offered whilst the spoils were brought up to the loading area. The scuttlebutt had been encouraging, however. More telling, Reith had been impressed enough to add to the already respectable precautions by charging one of his strongest with the long-distance shipping. The Council would be pleased indeed then. He uncrossed his arms as the young, battle-scarred company commander came to walk at his shoulder, whispering the six-digit code for the requisitioned container. Ideally someone so junior wouldn’t have been involved to that extent, but Vessicant’s entrance had revolved around subtlety; something difficult to achieve when lugging a big armoured rectangle of your own around. Having made the combination holy he gave his assent to begin loading the large skiff and prepare the fresh scouts for departure.
Once the unburdened repulsorlift trolley emerged from the hold, preceded closely by the last to bear the more usual lucre seized from the enemy himself, Vessicant bid a polite farewell to his host. The major gave a crisp click of heels and strode away with an aura of fresh importance, enthused, as was only natural, by how well his chance to impress had gone. The Warlord grunted lightly to himself as he ambled off toward his waiting bike, glancing at the foreign, blue-bladed lightsaber hanging from the right side of his belt. This was a gift from aspiring young officer to Quaestor, taken from the blaster-riddled corpse of not the garrison’s commander, a kill belonging to a Krath attached to the company at the time, but from the last Force user standing. It was a solid enough attempt to curry favour, especially since the Knight had been hiding out until that morning and done a fair bit of damage before the end. There was, however, a part of him that wanted to tell the man that getting on the radar wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. At any rate, he’d accepted the thing at the end of the tour, and paraded it about since to show the men that their efforts were appreciated. Good for morale and all that.
He fished his own lightsaber from inside one of the belt pouches now, and anchored it in its proper place. Trouble could be expected. There were still foes here, lying low, regrouping and conserving their strength for the inevitable counterattack. Credits to crullers the ruins had eyes on them for this particular occasion, and some poor bastards were earmarked to try their hand at retrieving the spoils. He had rejected the major’s reasonable enough suggestion of sending a false shipment ahead to test the waters, not only on grounds of expediency, but of avoiding unnecessary losses. The survivors of the invasion would be dealt with soon enough without enmeshing his agenda with a lure to draw them out and split their focus. They could very well have only enough local forces to attack one target, and wind up slaughtering the decoy to no one’s advantage. It would be better to make it a direct contest of strength; let them come, and let them fail. It was a long hard march to Ziost, and the Ascendants would need every pair of boots. He would grab whatever slices of the glory came his way in the meantime, and whatever lurked out in the snows or stars would be sorry if it crossed his little blue ass. The beginnings of a smile disappeared beneath the scout helmet sliding into place.
It was a tenuous thing this first nibbling at the periphery. Khar Delba lay at the crossroads of two hyperlanes, affording the enemy three lines of approach. Adding to this inherent need for a strong defense was the fact that the planet lay smack dab in the center of the Brotherhood line. He shuddered to think what would happen to Krayiss, Rhelg, and their lines of supply and retreat if the enemy recaptured this ice ball as a choke point. Unfortunately, they’d had to split their fleet more or less evenly with Nfolgai due to that world’s difficult reinforcement courtesy of an unwelcome peninsula of the Caldera. It would take days for sublight engines to carry their ships to and fro at need, necessitating a level-headed commander on site. That was exactly why the Quaestor had set up shop in the cul de sac. Vessicant expected that BAC Terminus and perhaps one of the Corellian Gunships could be spared from the Delban front, leaving the interdiction-modified destroyer Predominant and its three other Gunships to their own devices. Plagueis’ newfound though uneasy alliance with the Arconans to their south would help somewhat, though it was a forgone conclusion that others would tarry to assist in hopes of grabbing a retaken system for themselves. The Sith closed his eyes, and exhaled heavily once the Lieutenant had saluted and moved off to mount, holding his lungs empty until they burned; then came the deep breath before the plunge.
The bodies of three behemoths whirled past on his left. He gave these a wide berth and more than a glance even though the patrol that had passed a scant five minutes ago had called them clear. These marked the perimeter of Plagueis’ inner control zone, and he wasn’t keen to let himself be ambushed on his first step out the door. The carcasses were also the first waypoint on the circuitous path he had planned and held to himself alone. It would take about fifteen minutes to get to the shuttle in all, and he was glad the planet’s unusual emanations were nil at ground level. It was a hell of a walk. He delivered the next course change, accelerating lightly to maintain formation. The convoy consisted of two skiffs running abreast: the treasure-bearer carrying nine infantry, and the decoy carrying empty containers and ten infantry including the platoon’s sergeant major. The ten speeders were divided evenly between them, six fore and four aft. Vessicant was the inner rider on the forward right, directly ahead of the treasure skiff. From here he could see emergent threats ahead, or drop back between both cargo haulers for small arms cover as he moved to deal with rear or side attacks.
The first ten minutes ticked by without incident, though a small knot of anxiety was building within his mind, perhaps the Force speaking of a shadow and a threat. He ruminated on it as the feature he’d inwardly dubbed The Bicep came into view. Passing this marked the point where he’d planned to contact the shuttle anyway, so a minute early didn’t matter. No problems with the check-in; “echo” was met by “marble”. The worst case scenario, that the shuttle itself had been compromised in his absence, hadn’t come to pass. He looked over his shoulder between the skiffs, seeing nothing but the convoy’s light wake. The feeling of unfriendly eyes persisted. It would take time for the wide net of watchers to consolidate for a strike; he would be ready. Still connected to the shuttle, he ordered the crew to prepare for crash cargo transfer and takeoff. The convoy would be at its most vulnerable just before and during the transfer, exactly why he’d had Reith’s prizes positioned first for removal. Come hell or high water he’d be taking every last cred home, however.
Vessicant switched back to the platoon’s command channel, and enacted his grand counter against being karked at the end. Careful to keep his eyes forward, as from the start, to conceal his leadership role, he ordered his and the Lieutenant’s four wingmen to race ahead. The quartet soon became lost against the backdrop of the mountains, and the Equite held to their course for several minutes. Prying eyes must pursue and see the four scouts enter without leaving, and conclude that they were securing the prime landing zone for a ship secreted there or soon to arrive. The enemy commander would hopefully be racing half or more of his force up to the second entrance to the valley now, hoping to capitalize on the lucky pincer he’d been handed. Little suspecting, of course, that all he’d been handed were his own balls. The Warlord ordered his lonesome neighbour to keep tabs on the quartet’s communications, wanting to know the instant they went silent. They were just about to the mouth of the valley when he ordered the sharp turn to starboard, the deceleration on their sham approach giving the flying bricks behind him just enough time to make it. Then it was a bat-out-of-hell run through the foothills with the jig being quickly up.
The Sith yielded his mount to the trooper hustling off the shuttle ramp behind the cargo loaders, discarding his helm as the instrument of his secretive insertion eagerly rejoined the lance. He couldn’t help but smile now that deception had run its course. Two smaller waves instead of one, and death awaited them both. The rocks leading up the natural bottleneck were pregnant with crouching troopers in short order, snipers remaining on the skiffs parked to shield his ticket home. Vessicant strolled between the large vehicles, sharp side of his tongue coaxing the pair of Subjugates manhandling the all-important strongbox to speed. He passed into the reforming line of bikers, taking in the news of the quartet’s short but valiant stand. From this he gathered that a few minutes divided the full force of the foe as intended. The battle began in earnest, a single word driving the six forth to greet the vanguard. The Warlord stood there alone in the open, plucking the sword from his left hip, and giving it an affectionate spinning toss before ignition. His wait was short.
Three bikes in inverted wedge pressed through the maelstrom, the leaders firing at him exclusively. Vessicant deflected one of the heavy bolts back into the nose of the craft, and followed the flightpath of the second man while sidestepping the careening wreckage. A sniper rifle struck true before the interloper could swing around his skiff to rake the lambda. The third bike passed behind him, and he saw in a trice that it lacked a rider. He ducked the landed Darksider’s bid for decapitation, turned to press away the return cut, and backpedaled under the determined but unrefined barrage that followed. The ghost-white twi’lek boy sneered as the smirking Plagueian took his measure and shifted to a one-handed approach. Within a dozen exchanges he had trapped the crimson blade low, and delivered a stern kick to the sternum. The supine Journeyman stared defiant at the blade leveled at his brow.
“Your Brotherhood shall…”
“I had an apprentice of your kind long ago, red fellow, same failing. Didn’t know when he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Sad really.”
“I may fall…”
“…but my master…”
“Has gained nothing by your sacrifice, and joins you soon. Blah, blah, blah.”
A burst of desperate rage carried the ex-Trainer’s weapon aside just long enough to win the assassin his legs. Vessicant now sensed the reason such a weak opponent had flung itself into the thick of things, and the reason behind the attempt to stall him with poetic endings. He saw his need to accelerate events met by the Force, and reached for the trophy at his hip, drawing the little fool’s attention while giving a punctuated nod to a conveniently unoccupied soldier a few paces beyond. Fear and pain filled eyes that had just betrayed a first shred of worry, but the Sith took no notice. The trooper who had done his dirty work was suddenly dashed hard enough against a boulder to crack his helmet lenses before being ripped through the air and into a waiting gore. The look on the dark skinned, white haired human’s face said she hadn’t been expecting her protégé to be imperiled so swiftly, and that she felt more than a little cheated by being within spitting distance when it happened. Vessicant could commiserate, though he didn’t. He reached for his ear bead while the nice lady ignited her second blade and sloughed off the fresh kill in one revolution of the stave. She was on him in a heartbeat.
One of the slaves happenstance had found aboard on liftoff stood on the ramp, watching for the rush and leap to freedom option still available to the Equite. Vessicant smiled back crookedly as he dodged one of the cobalt blades and checked a backhanded gore from the other. This was why he was here in the first place. The brain-butchered peon seemed to get the message since the next glimpse of the circling craft showed the door closed tight as a tomb.
He shoved Tavisaen’s photo negative back a step, launched a hopping jung ma, and caught her left blade with a block thrown over his spine. The two pulled apart, adapting grips as they scanned each other’s stances. Her eyes fell on the unused saber at his belt, and he couldn’t resist quipping that it was decorative only, not unlike the one she was holding. He learned a new cuss out of that.
The twin blades whirled like a propeller off one of Karana’s last generation warplanes before being unleashed upon him again. The Sith set his jaw as the joy and strain of squaring off against an equal settled over him. Around him men crept closer to reloading and ducked return fire, some checking his situation and finding themselves impotent to assist. Even had the attackers let them, they knew they could only hinder and die. This One Sith bitch had done a fair number on the nineteen, slaying four herself and opening the door for her apprentice’s infiltration. Yet they were not broken. All but one of the bikers had survived up to now, and they helped by pouring potshots into the One Sith infantry when their own conflagration allowed. Vessicant knew none of this, of course, being wrapped up in the same business as his counterpart: cutting the head off to wither the body. The shuttle’s contribution was greater anyway.
The battle raged on for several more minutes, enough time for the forces she’d indeed been suckered into sending north to arrive. They threw themselves boldly into the quagmire, a few shots from the nose cannon on the single skiff forcing the loitering lambda off. The four bikers began shifting the tide against Plagueis’ own, but the infantry had to climb off the carrier in the open for it to maintain maneuverability against the threatening shuttle. They had a hard time of it. By and by the staff-wielder retreated up a ledge to gain a flash account of things, dropping off the side as the emerald blade traced a dying line in the rock at her heels.
The Wroonian landed behind her, clubbing at her centerline with a growl after she mule kicked his breastplate. She shunted him aside and he spun to find her gaining distance on him. A curt slice at the rock face saw a telekinetic missile hurled his way, which he willed to a stop and dropped. She scoffed, extinguishing her blades and coiling up to give him a quick but concentrated push. The Warlord shook his head, rolling out of her vicious leaping downstroke. A prone hook to her ankle brought her down to his level, and he buried her left blade in the permafrost before they both rolled apart. She spat in his general direction and fled like the charming woman she was. He deigned not to pursue. Their cost-benefit equation had reached that magic sum named futility. It was anticlimactic, but it was done.
The shuttle continued blazing away at the dwindling forms, unseating a final victim, but otherwise burning off adrenaline. There were no wounded to take prisoner; his friend had shrewdly ordered their execution before bugging out. It seemed the colonel back on Predominant would have to keep moving pieces around the board to find their base. Vessicant checked the prize saber, surprised that it was still presentable after his tumble. One of the sergeants – the Lieutenant was a goner – ran up as he drew closer. Having lost his commlink he relayed an order to land through the NCO, and the remaining booty was secured soon enough. The surviving scouts made for home as he bid Khar Delba farewell, though apparently they met with some harassment.
He learned that the pirate flotilla shadowing them from the nebular peninsula, now definitively Black Sun, had been sniffed out by a fighter patrol, but broken contact. The effort to relocate them had sucked away his promised escort. He’d been wondering why the cavalry hadn’t arrived when the shuttle was playing the pockmarked gun platform. At any rate, he was informed of a slight change of plans. There was a Carrack capable of overtaking and outfighting his assigned Gunship, as well as several Marauders and unknowns, in the marauders’ possession. Therefore, the powers that be were bumping up tomorrow’s prisoner transfer. Now he had BAC Terminus to carry him, and a Medium Transport to give him company. The Trandoshans aboard Bloodsport, believe it or not, were happy to return to hunting down future Draethos slaves in the Nfolgain jungle and leave the newer, chillier front behind.
The pirates were glimpsed only once in his two days crawling along bereft of hyperspace, but were doubtless watching the rendezvous with Ravager and Curse at the halfway mark. Neither ship carried fighters, but neither were pushovers either. Perhaps they felt that selling naval intelligence to the One Sith was all the risk their business needed. He was fine enough with that. It gave him more time to examine the goods. Not privately, and hence not deeply enough, but he was able to satisfy his baseline curiosity before they were hauled off to some Anteian vault where only the sunless Krath would see them. It was a good enough excuse that the contents be checked every so often. It was possible for a Black Sun operative to attach a transponder and jettison the container into space.
In time he took a knee before the Shi’ido Exarch in as much privacy as personal guards allow, offered the major’s gift as an appetizer, and began entering the access code. It struck him as the sort of combination a none-too-bright person put on luggage. The Quaestor’s raised eyebrow once given the numbers added to that assessment, but then again there wasn’t much hindrance any mechanism would give a lightsaber. The lock was after all just a deterrent to casual thievery; true security required another lightsaber.
Contract 011: Complete
Debriefing: The goods were delivered without fail, a win for the Ascendant House.
Vessicant: This is the first time I've gotten to read any of your writing. I have to say, it's brilliant work. From a writing standpoint, you are articulate, use very vivid imagery, character introspection, and a knack for describing complex scenario's over a wide plane of environment. Your spelling, grammar, and syntax is flawless, and the writing itself flows from sentence to sentence gracefully.
I did find myself lulling at times with the amount of description and introspection though. There also seemed, to me, a lack of understanding at certain interactions. At one point, Ronovi showed up, but I hadn't even realized she was nearby. There were little things like that that seemed to put me off at times. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the writing, it's just that as a reader, I wasn't really waiting for the next thing to happen...I kind of just followed along with the events.
Overall, though, it's simply a great piece of fiction. I enjoyed reading it, and it's refreshing not needing to look for syntax errors and just to be able to grade a piece solely on the writing itself and the imagery it paints.
I am giving this a "Excellent" grade, because of reasons listed prior. If you have any questions, feel free to follow up with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
C-Class = 3 points;
"Excellent" Contract = 3 points;
Total = 6 points.