"Rival Loyalties" by Nick Fel

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Date: 51:4 (16 years after the Battle of Yavin)

Waves lapped gently at the beach's edge, the gentle sloshing of the vast warm ocean creating a natural, rhythmic lullaby that evoked some primal emotion, a deep-seated longing to be by the sea. The humidity had dropped with the sun, leaving the night air a perfect temperature, and the galaxy overhead was washed out only by the light from two small moons and the broad canopies of the thick-trunked trees that grew along the shoreline. In short, it was the kind of paradise that most sentients spent their days dreaming of and many paid vast sums of money to visit.

Contently, General Theodus Kargeen stood barefoot in the sand, expertly rolling a small cigarra between the thumb and first two fingers of each hand. He'd always intended to retire beside the ocean, although he had to admit that this wasn't exactly what he had in mind.

Behind him, the prefab barracks that formed the colony housing the most senior and most cooperative defectors from the Eighth Imperial Fleet stretched out along the coast, plasteel huts that offered satisfactory accommodation but little else. There were no guards, but without transport and with ocean on one side and rainforest covered mountains on the other, both inhabited by unusually deadly creatures, they were very effectively marooned until such a time as the New Republic felt the information they held about the Unknown Regions no longer posed a threat.

The sedentary lifestyle very much agreed with him, he decided, lighting the cigarra and inhaling thoughtfully. He was quite enjoying catching up on ten years of military politics.

They even supplied tabac, albeit the filtered, tasteless kind that the New Republic seemed to prefer. It was a guilty pleasure, a nasty habit that he'd finally given up about three years after they entered the Unknown Regions, when the supply had started running out. Of course, the senior officers' supply had been maintained for years after the regular troops', but he wouldn't been seen—or smelt, more likely—to be enjoying something his troops were denied.

A distant rumbling interrupted his train of thought, originating out at sea and echoing around the bay. It was the wrong time of year for tropical storms, but that never usually stopped them. But the rumbling continued to grow as the night sky lightened. Suddenly, a starship—a Corellian corvette, if his eyes weren't deceiving him—burst through the thin clouds towards them, spewing black smoke from its engines. It roared overhead, plummeting into the rainforest and vanishing, leaving only the plume of smoke and a scattering flock of distressed birds to mark its passing.

"Dig out the torches," he said, as his fellow officers began to emerge from their dorms. "We'd best go have a look at that."

With a sigh, Kargeen dropped his half-smoked cigarra onto the ground and kicked sand over it. All of a sudden he wasn't in the mood.

* * * * *

The climate controls never quite managed to maintain a comfortable humidity and Captain Adriarn Haltcan was almost certain it was done on purpose. The walls of his cell were a dull grey, alleviated only by the rust-coloured mould that was pervasive in this jungle, despite apparent efforts by their hosts to control it. From his window, he could see very little through the uniform mist that shrouded the highest reaches of the rain forest, but when the mist did occasionally lift, there was very little to see anyway.

Further down the mountain on the coast, his interrogators liked to tell him, defectors lived a life of luxury by the warm ocean, provided with everything they needed to live out a quiet retirement in their tropical paradise. Between them and him, a thousand terrible things lurked in the jungle, ready to poison him, strangle him and ultimately digest him. Guards here were few, because there was simply nowhere for the prisoners to go. Even the trees themselves would consider him a light snack.

This was all Fel's fault. The pathetic egotist had hunted him down and destroyed him, just for shooting him down in a simulator exercise twenty years ago and ruining his unbeaten record.

When captured by his former commander's band of rebels, he had naturally refused to cooperate. As punishment, he'd rotted in this prison camp for three years now, halfway up this fetid mountain, growing more bitter with each monotonous, identical day that passed.

"Captain!" the young man who thrust his bald head into Haltcan's cell looked like he was about to explode with excitement. Orbin was a New Republic traitor rather than an Imperial, and a techie at that, so he'd had a tough time fitting in here until Haltcan had taken him under his wing. The young slicer, he'd thought, would probably prove useful. "A corvette's just crashed in the rainforest, the guards are setting up the holocomm to report it."

"Well, that changes everything then," Haltcan said, upturning his bunk and removing the homemade sensor baffler that hid a small cache of weapons underneath. "Are we ready to move?"

"I think everyone assumed you'd say that," Orbin said with a smile. "We're just waiting for your word."

Word travelled quickly around the prison camp and the long-planned assault was swift and merciless. Months of illicitly collecting carelessly misplaced blasters, heavy implements, homemade incendiary devices and anything sharp enough to cut flesh came to fruition in just a few short chaotic minutes. Just as the Empire had once underestimated the rebels, their guards had underestimated the determination of their seemingly broken captives.

As blaster fire and flame spread across the camp, the night sky lit up for a second time.

* * * * *

"We shouldn't be out here," the middle-aged officer at Kargeen's side said. "If the rebels find out we're done for. They'll have us up the mountain with the loyalists."

Kargeen smiled patiently, although he was sure the torchlight probably made it look a lot more sinister than he intended. Sandoval Grey had been a fine deputy to his de facto leadership of their camp, but he wished the younger man would learn to relax a little bit. Kargeen had lived his entire life by military protocol and he was certainly happier for having let it slip a little during his captivity.

"There may be survivors," he said. "Or it might just burn the jungle to the ground. Either way I think we're justified in taking a look at it, don't you?"

Grey's expression made it clear that he didn't, but the officer didn't have a chance to voice his misgivings. Ahead of them, the forest suddenly dropped away into a deep furrow in the ground, dozens of meters wide and lined with felled trees, still burning in places where they had ignited on contact with the vessel. At the track's end, far in the distance, were the eleven stacked engines of a Corellian Corvette, still hot enough to be visible in the darkness.

"And there she is," Kargeen murmured. He had to admit those Corellians knew how to build a starship—a lesser vessel would have simply broken up on impact. "Let's find a route round."

The length of the crash site and the tangle of debris on either side meant it took them a further half hour to reach the ship, but when they finally stood beneath it, Kargeen was impressed again at the hardiness of the ship. While there was obviously some engine damage, no doubt what had caused it to come down belching smoke in the first place, the hull appeared to be fully intact. Although it was entirely possible for a starship hull to be wrecked without appearing visibly so, it seemed to him that the ship was in remarkably good condition.

"Definitely one of ours," Grey said, gesturing towards the scorched markings on the side of the ship that identified it as part of the former Eight Imperial Fleet.

"Then the question is," Kargeen said, "what the devil is it doing out here?"

* * * * *

There was a brief scream followed by an even briefer gurgle as a dark shape leaped out of the trees and pounced the vanguard member of the band of escaped prisoner. By the time weapons were drawn, the beast was gone, leaving no trace of its victim. That was the third man they'd lost so far to the damn things and Haltcan estimated they were barely half way to the crash site. His interrogators clearly hadn't been lying about how dangerous the jungle was.

"I told you we were all going to die out here," Pholan said, glumly. "We should've stuck to the original plan and waited for a resupply shuttle."

"Seize the day," Haltcan replied. Pholan was a solid officer, a hotshot pilot who'd survived an astonishingly long time in the Unknown Regions, but he just wished he wasn't so damned fatalistic all the time. Most of the recent captives had been the same, telling tales of a terrible alien threat that was sweeping across the region wiping out entire planets. "The locals will cull the weak for us."

On cue, there was another rustle from the trees and the dark shape lunged again, but this time one of the men managed to get off a shot towards the blur of motion. Startled, the animal rolled along the ground and quickly sprang back onto its feet, glancing around wildly. Haltcan froze when he locked eyes on it, a Vornskyr-like creature, all rippling sinew under taut skin, so black that it seemed to be absorbing the light from their glowrods, slipping in and out of the shadows as it stalked around its prey. It considered him hungrily with intelligent eyes, then lunged towards him. In that split second, Haltcan realised that this was where he'd die, stuck in the middle of a dank jungle, all because of—

Three blaster bolts slammed into the creature's side and it landed heavily on top of him, expunging one last hot breath across his face.

Pholan placed a fourth shot in the carcass just to be on the safe said and gave Haltcan a meaningful look. "I told you."

* * * * *

Inside the corvette, the first corpses Kargeen's men came across had obviously once been bipedal aliens and fairly ferocious ones at that. Although much of it had begun to dissolve into a putrid foam, what was left of their skeletons showed a number of superfluous bones that appeared to have been sharpened into blades that couldn't possibly have served as anything but weapons. These would be the Dukhang that recent defectors had spun horrific tales about, Kargeen assumed, but what had left them in such a sorry state, he couldn't begin to guess.

Deeper into the ship they began to find human remains, emaciated and abused slaves wearing the tatters of uniform. Many had been killed violently—presumably by the Dukhang—but others were dead at their stations, clearly killed in the landing.

"Collect ident tags if you can find them," Kargeen said solemnly. "I don't know exactly what we'll do with them, but these men are overdue for a little dignity."

He couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt looking at the bodies of his fellow servicemen. He'd been here enjoying a retirement by the sea while these alien brutes had rampaged across the Imperial Union, killing his troops. He was a fine tactician, modesty aside, and he could have made a difference. Could have at least tried. Kargeen knelt down beside one fallen crewman and turned him over. He was too young to have been an original part of the mission—a local conscript forced into somebody else's war, which made his death somehow all the more tragic.

But there'd be time to honour them later. He kept working his way forward to the ship's cramped cockpit, where Mikel, one of Grey's former shipmates, was poring over the familiar helm controls excitedly, checking system statuses.

"What have we got, Lieutenant?"

The quiet helmsman looked up with a grin. "I think this ship might still be flyable."

* * * * *

"They're already onboard," Pholan said, peering through a pair of electrobinoculars that they'd stolen from the camp supplies. "Got somebody working on the engines."

"They must think it's flyable then." Haltcan took the device and glanced quickly over the ship's hull: one of them was scrambling over the engines, checking fuel lines and speaking to somebody by comlink. "Their camp can't be as plush as we've been told if they want out so badly."

"If they take off, we're farkled," Pholan moaned.

"They can't be armed," Haltcan said. "We take them now. Quietly."

Silently, the dozen escapees crept through the tangle of broken boughs, shattered trunks and smouldering undergrowth towards the furrow where the starship sat, twin moonlight casting an ethereal glow across its hull. There were no perimeter guards that he could see—why would there be?—just the lone engineer working on the hull.

The ship's open hatch beckoned invitingly, warm light from inside spilling out down the metal gangway. It all seemed a little too easy, but as they moved closer, Haltcan spotted a lone figure holding some kind of weapon silhouetted in the hatch. Before he could raise a hand to stop the group, he realised it already was too late—the enemy was looking straight at them, advancing cautiously down the ramp.

"Kriff," he hissed. "Open fire!"

* * * * *

"Why exactly are we trying to fix the ship?" Grey asked from under a console he was repairing. "We're not prisoners of war, we're defectors."

"We defected from a rogue fleet commanded by a madman," Kargeen said. "My loyalty lies with the real Empire and they need to know what's happening out here before somebody tries to invade them again."

In honesty, it wasn't something he'd given a lot of thought. A few hours ago he'd been content to live out the rest of his life on this planet, but the realistic prospect of escaping New Republic custody and returning to the galaxy proper had somehow overridden that desire by default. He'd had no idea how much he missed civilisation until it was dangled in front of him like the proverbial rootplant on a stick.

"Besides, I don't think any of us had anticipated being quarantined indefinitely in the Unknown—" Kargeen stopped suddenly and cocked an ear towards the exit hatch. "What the hell was that?"

"Blasterfire," Grey said, pulling himself out from under the console and craning to see out of the viewport.

"Keep working here," Kargeen said, grabbing one of their salvaged comlinks and setting off at a jog towards the boarding ramp, stopping to scoop up a weapon from the fallen Dukhang. The alien weapon was unwieldy at best, designed for a being larger and stronger than himself, but it certainly looked the part.

When he reached the ramp, four of his men stood just inside the hatch, taking cover behind it from a cascade of blasterfire hailing in, leaving deep, scorched pockmarks in the panelled bulkhead behind them. Even as Kargeen watched, one of them took a shot to the chest and toppled backwards, inert. He glanced at the monitor besides the ramp, but under the cover of trees and darkness there was no way for him to identify just how many attackers were out there, or even who the hell they were.

"Pull back to the ship," he bellowed, unleashing a stream of energy blasts from his weapon—more like a staff weapon than a blaster rifle, he thought. "They can't hurt the outer hull with weapons that small."

"General, we're ready to take off when you are," his comlink squawked.

"Excellent. Is Bruaar still on the hull?" They'd sent the engineer out to check on engine exterior just before their attackers appeared and Kargeen feared he would have been the very first casualty of the assault.

"I can't get through to him," Grey responded.

Kargeen grimaced; this was exactly the sort of decision he thought he'd left behind when he defected. He hated to leave any man for dead, but realistically, Bruaar was already gone—and whoever these thugs were, he didn't think he wanted them getting hold of a starship.

"Take off."

* * * * *

The engineer's limp body collapsed to the deck plates in a lifeless heap, followed shortly by Haltcan and Pholan, who quickly sequestered the corpse in an equipment locker and closed the hatch behind them as the ship's bank of engines roared reluctantly to life.

"Kargeen," Haltcan growled, disabling the engineer's chattering comlink. "I should have known that old fool was leading this bunch of traitors. We need to get to the bridge, take control of the ship and kill that barve."

A hand clamped down on the barrel of his blaster. "Kargeen's a good man," Pholan said. "Why not just join them?"

"Because they're the enemy. Because they jumped ship when it suited them and left the rest of us to fight the war ourselves," Haltcan said. "Because we've already killed one of them. Because we aren't traitors."

He didn't have to remind Pholan that the pilot was a defector himself and only landed in the loyalist camp for losing the plot in a dogfight. His means of surviving the attack that destroyed his ship in the first place were fairly questionable too. In fact, Haltcan wasn't quite sure why he was putting up with this spineless coward at all.

"Unless you want take the blame?" he said, turning the blaster on his colleague. "We'd better make sure you can't tell him the truth though."

"What? No!"

* * * * *

Kargeen stopped dead in his tracks as a single blaster discharge rang through the ship, then hefted the Dukhang blaster in both hands as he stalked the ship's central corridor. The thing weighed enough to warrant a tripod and he could barely close his hand around the grip and trigger, but it was all he had to work with.

The shot had come from the engine compartment, right where their missing engineer should have been, echoing down the length of the ship's central spine towards him. Kargeen knew he should call for backup, that there might be any number of intruders back there, but he felt the urge to deal with this personally. They had attacked his ship and killed his men, so he was going to avenge them himself.

He ducked into one of the side corridors running parallel to the spine, advancing cautiously towards the ship's stern. At every intersection, he ducked back onto the main corridor, checking for any sign of their stowaways, but the ship was deserted and silent except for the sound of its damaged engines straining to defy the planet's gravity.

As he peered cautiously around the final intersection, a blaster bolt ricocheted down the corridor towards him, narrowly missing his head and filling the air with the pungent smell of singed hair and ozone. Up ahead, a blonde-haired figure wearing a battered prisoner's jumpsuit dove across the deck and rolled down into the ship's darkened cargo bay, firing a slew of shots behind him that peppered the white bulkheads with scorch marks.

"Haltcan," he growled, jogging down gridded metal steps into the bay, his arms aching from hefting the oversized blaster around, his breath coming in short gasps that reminded him of the other reason he'd given up tabac. "I know you're in here!"

* * * * *

From his vantage point atop a supply container, Haltcan watched Kargeen blithely follow him into the ship's underbelly. The general was advancing cautiously through the racks of crates and containers, visibly struggling to heft his weapon from side to side like a child playing at being a soldier.

"Time to die, General," he taunted. It was a foolish thing to do, but the echoing cargo hold disguised his position just enough to stop his opponent getting a fix.

"I'm not ready just yet, I'm afraid," Kargeen said. "Not while my men are relying on me."

"Nobody will miss the man who sold us out to the rebels," Haltcan sneered.

"This from the man whose career is defined by a series of catastrophic losses," the other countered. "You did the New Republic more good than harm. Probably best you were captured rather than report another failure."

With a snarl, Haltcan fired off a furious round of blaster bolts towards the general, all of them wide of the mark. Belatedly realising his mistake, the younger officer jumped from the container just as Kargreen fired towards the source of the shots. The alien weapon in his hands spat a stream of energy blasts that tore the container to shreds and left its contents smouldering in the dark, casting flickering shadows against the bulkheads.

Haltcan led a twisting path through the stacks of cargo as he ran, hoping to circumvent Kargeen—and that energy cannon of his—and make for the exit. He was closing on the exit when he took a wrong turn, running straight into a dead end, with a looming figure waiting at the end, his outline just visible in the flicking light.

"Look, General," he started, holding up his hands. "This is just a misunderstanding."

But the figure that stepped out of the shadows was most definitely not the General, it was something altogether more horrific. He turned on his heel and fled, leaving Kargeen to deal with that thing—whatever it was—on his own.

* * * *

"Got you," Kargeen muttered, spotting the flicker as his quarry's body briefly blocked off the dim light spilling down through the entrance. He turned back the way he'd come, running for the exit–and stopped suddenly, eyes wide. "Emperor's black bones."

The beast that stood between him and the exit was clearly the same monstrous species as the remains they had found earlier, but somehow, this one had managed to hang on longer than his shipmate. Regardless, he was a sorry sight: the creature's thick hide was covered in painful, open wounds and hanging loose off its frame, as if the thing had already lost half its body mass, and its bony armour was crumbing away from its body. With every uncertain step it took forward, it left a trail of ichor on the deckplate as it literally disintegrated before Kargeen's eyes.

"Stand aside," he ordered, firmly.

The Dukhang roared and lunged with two wicked-looking forearm blades, slicing them down through the air towards him. Kargeen ducked and both blades hit the bulkhead behind him, shattering into a dozen fragments. The Dukhang howled in pain and rage, spinning around to swat the energy weapon out of his hands.

Its next blow knocked him to the ground and expunged every breath of air from his chest, and Kargeen released that even dying and disarmed, so to speak, the seven foot monster could probably still rip him to shreds. As the thing loomed over him, he punched blindly, his hand sinking into unnaturally soft flesh, and something in the beast's ribcage gave way with a wet crack, releasing another roar of pain.

The general scrambled away on his backside, fighting for breath reaching around aimlessly until his hand connected with the blaster. With sudden strength born of adrenaline, he raised the massive weapon and placed a single shot clear through the creature's torso.

The Dukhang flopped lifelessly to the ground, finally out of its misery.

* * * *

Heart pounding, Haltcan fled blindly away from the creature, not caring if he ran into more of Kargeen's men as long as he didn't have to face that thing in the cargo hold. If that was one of the Dukhang that Pholan and the others had been so afraid of, he suddenly had more sympathy for their cowardice.

Corvettes weren't exactly large, but all the corridors looked the damn same, clad in white modular panelling. He squeezed through the hatch ahead of him and cursed as the corridor ended abruptly in yet another dead end, filled with only a bank of crash couches and a small computer terminal.

"Oh no," he whispered, spinning just in time to see the escape pod hatch slam down behind him.

Outside the thick transparisteel viewport, Kargeen dispassionately tapped the release controls, sending him hurtling back towards the planet below.

* * * * *

The lush world that had briefly been his home hung outside the bridge viewport, and Kargeen knew it would be the last time he would set eyes on the planet. He had no idea where on the planet's many shorelines their colony was located, but it was down there somewhere, along with a very small number of friends. After returning to collect the rest of their fellow defectors and finalise repairs, the ship had ascended into orbit, and only a small number had chosen to stay, fearing that they'd eventually be recaptured and housed somewhere less favourable, while the vast majority had loaded onto the corvette. It was a tight fit and they had only a fraction of the supplies they needed, but it would have to do for now.

"Can we get to Imperial space?" Kargeen asked, leaning over Mikel's shoulder to read the nav console. "The real Empire, I mean. Try for Yaga Minor."

Mikel shook his head. "Routes back to known space were scrubbed from the computers years ago."

"Of course they were," Kargeen reminded himself. "Steele wouldn't have had much of a fleet left if he'd let people back, would he?"

So much for known space, Kargeen thought. Without safe routes, it would be impossible to breach the hyperspace anomalies that separated the Unknown Regions from civilisation. It was a shame, because he would have very much liked to have seen his grandchildren again.

"Alright," he said. "First things first, find us a planet where we can get supplies and repairs."

There was a silence on the bridge as the other officers waited for him to continue with the second part of his plan. Grey was the first to realise it wasn't coming. "Then where, sir?"

Kargeen honestly didn't know. They couldn't return to civilised space, couldn't turn themselves over to the New Republic, certainly couldn't return to that lunatic Malphuus. He'd known from the very moment that this wreck of a ship passed overhead that his sedentary retirement was over, but he had no idea what he was supposed to do next. All he knew was that the soldier in him wouldn't let him watch this opportunity pass him by. Too many years of fighting for liars and aliens had battered the soldier down, but today he was screaming to be heard.

"Wherever the wind may take us, Commander," he said. "Wherever the wind may take us."

* * * * *

The escape pod was eerily silent when Haltcan woke. The roar of atmospheric re-entry that had filled the pod when he passed out was gone, but the silence that replaced it was unsettling. He assumed the pod had landed safely—he was still alive after all—but beyond that he had no idea. Slowly and carefully, in case the pod had come down somewhere unstable, he unbuckled the crash webbing and forced the hatch open, stepping out onto the planet he thought he'd escaped.

Unlike the corvette, his landing had been controlled by the pod's automatic landing systems and betrayed little evidence that it had just hurdled through the atmosphere other than a little scorch damage. Haltcan thought it was probably the only piece of good luck he'd had all day that the pod hadn't crashed straight into the sea or gotten tangled in the trees a hundred meters off the ground.

Not that his current situation was that much better, he thought, settling down on the ground.
Sunlight filtered down through the thick tree canopy above, mottling the earth beneath him with specks of light like a starfield and for the first time, he recognised how pleasant life on this world might have been, under the right circumstances. Perhaps he should've fed the rebels enough information to keep them sweet—he surely didn't owe anything to Steele after he'd been demoted. If he could make his way down to the coast, perhaps he could carve out a living here...

When he heard the rustle in the undergrowth next to him, he only had a split second to reflect on how this was all other peoples' fault—Kargeen, Steele, Fel, Pholan—before the gaping jaws of a lithe jungle creature lunged straight towards his neck.