Date: 47:5:34 (12 years after the Battle of Yavin)
Bridge, Cruiser Ashleigh, Deep Space
The factory sat in the middle of a vast stellar cloud known to the Tau'ri as the California Nebula, enveloped by its red clouds of gas and dust. A huge cylinder spinning lazily on an axis determined by the two smaller cylinders projecting from either end, it looked infinitely peaceful as it sat against the nebula's beautiful backdrop, dutifully churning out advanced model TIE starfighters, cloned from those that had been assigned to the Eighth Imperial Fleet when it fled to the Unknown Regions, and more which had been delivered to it by defectors since. As did the Imperial Star Destroyer, the Dreadnaught, and the three Lancer-class Frigates that sat dormant by its side, and the laser batteries which sat around it, their turrets slowly tracking for targets.
General Nick Fel intended to change that.
"Nirvana reports grav projectors are online."
"All hands to battle stations," Nick ordered. "Deploy starfighters."
All nine of their starfighter squadrons had been brought along on the mission—albeit missing a few ships that hadn't been replaced since the attack on a Goa'uld weapons platform four weeks ago—just to take on the masses advanced design TIEs that could be located here.
"Defences launching," a sensors officer announced from the main bridge below. "TIE Fighters and Interceptors only."
Odd, Nick thought. No TIE Avengers or Defenders could be a good or a bad thing. It might mean there were none ready here to defend them. It could also mean that they'd all been put into service already.
"We have ID on the Star Destroyer. It's Malice."
The Impstar they'd previously associated with the advanced TIE project twisted slowly towards them, forward turbolaser turrets spitting green energy towards them as it spearheaded the base's defence.
Malice and Ashleigh came guns blazing, scissoring across each other in space, turbolaser blasts splashing over deflector shields and raking across hull plating. The Star Destroyer cruised overhead, slowing and executing a leisurely turn to bring weapons to bear on Hunter, a ship that might have been considered identical, were it not for the red New Republic crest emblazoning its hull.
"Roll!" Captain Amaya Karrde ordered. "Give them our undamaged side."
The stars spun outside the command deck's viewports, the only real indication Nick had that they were in fact moving at all. Malice was outgunned now, but if Nick estimated correctly…
"The Dreadnaught is coming into range," weapons announced, as the old heavy cruiser charged towards them.
"Drive signatures identify it as Legacy," tactical told him. "It's opening fire."
"Break off from Malice," Amaya instructed. "Concentrate on pounding the relic."
Nick froze as he watched battle-ready advanced TIEs spill out of the factory, barely hearing as Amaya shouted, "It's a trap!"
A single image flashed across his mind: a young man, rakishly handsome, neat blonde hair and a black flight suit. He was climbing out of a simulator, a triumphant smirk painted across his features. He'd just sprung a trap that caught his commanding officer, the first and only man in the squadron who'd ever managed it…
No, it couldn't be.
He shook his head and focussed, suddenly aware that the lives of over a hundred pilots were in his hands—and that included the squadron he still considered his own.
"Despatch Shadows, Wraiths and Talons to intercept!"
An icy hand grabbed his heart and tugged downwards as he watched the threat markers multiply, spilling outwards from the factory. He glanced out of the viewports in time to see a brief explosion from that direction, before one of the B-wings markers vanished from the display.
Around the Imperial Advanced TIE Factory
"We're farkled," Flight Officer Jos Anders muttered, pulling his B-wing up as fast as it could manage. Behind him, Nova Eleven was a rapidly expanding cloud of flash-frozen gasses and smouldering debris. Eleven had only been with the unit a short while, and it was barely even a month since she went extra-vehicular and spent a week in bacta. He checked his sensors again, hoping for a new reading. Negative. She hadn't gotten out this time.
"Twelve," their flight leader, Captain Dyami, addressed the fallen pilot's wingman, "form up on me and Ten."
Jos glanced at his sensors and saw Twelve joining their formation to starboard, creating a flying V behind Nine. TIE Defenders and Avengers swarmed around them, taking pot-shots whenever they could, but with heavy armour and eighteen cannons between them the trio managed to blast their way through the cloud of TIEs with only minimal damage.
"This is Nova Lead. Cover is incoming," Commander Lana Tridon addressed them. "We've been ordered to pull out. Novas, Pulsars, watch each other's backs and return to the fleet."
"Copy," Dyami responded, as Jos fired off a shot at grey blur as it flashed across his canopy, scoring a lucky hit against a TIE Avenger and sending the agile craft spinning away, quickly disintegrating.
"Nine, I've identified the trip that vaped Eleven," Twelve said. His voice cracked as he spoke, betraying the grief and anger they were all feeling. Jos knew he'd been close to his wingman, and the young pilot—Trev—was barely more than a boy. "Moving to engage."
"That's a negative, Twelve," Dyami replied, his voice tight. "Regroup immediately. That is an order."
"Sorry, Nine. Not letting him get away with it," Trev said before he shut off the comm.
"Stang!" Dyami swore. "Lead?"
"Go help him," Lana ordered. "Make sure he gets back to face the music."
"I have your wing," Jos said, twisting his B-wing around and blazing after their renegade comrade. Trev had already pulled ahead a considerable distance, his quad engines burning bright as he closed in on the Imperial starfighter, all six cannons flashing against the Defender's side.
For a moment, Jos thought Trev might even get him, before the Defender pulled a blindingly fast ninety-degree turn that set it heading straight for the B-wing. Laser and ion cannons bounced between the two ships, eating away at their shields.
Within seconds they had closed on each other, to the point where they needed to pull away or collide. Trev moved first, his barrage stopping as he began to lumber to port—and the Defender had his kill. A pair of missiles streaked away before the Defender twisted downwards, smashing into Trev's hull and ripping the long primary airfoil clean off.
"Twelve is EV," Jos announced with a sigh, as he watched Trev's orange-suited body shoot out of the crippled vessel. "I've got him on sensors."
"He's going to wish he was vaped when I'm through with him," Lana growled. "Keep that TIE off him and regroup."
Bridge, Cruiser Ashleigh
"Heavy rockets incoming!" the ship's tactical officer warned. "Some of the TIE Defenders have been armed for anti-capital duty."
"Have Ace and Falcon Squadrons cover us," Nick ordered, as the first rocket slammed against the ship, sending vibrations through its entire hull.
"Nirvana reports that Lancers One and Two are dead in space."
Nick watched the tactical display as Hunter moved towards the facility itself, blasting through defences and pressing forward like a knife being driven home. That, of course, left Ashleigh to take on a damaged Star Destroyer and a Dreadnaught all by itself.
"Order B-wing squadrons to take Malice as soon as they get here, concentrating on the shield generators and weapons emplacements."
"Roll starboard ninety degrees," Amaya ordered, pacing around the command deck. "We're offering Malice too broad a target. Starboard batteries concentrate on taking out Legacy's engines."
Nick's console bleeped at him, indicating an incoming transmission. Commander David Sinclair's image appeared over the tiny holoprojector. "General, we believe we've neutralised the facility's defences," the Star Destroyer captain told him. "We're beginning an ion barrage of the station itself."
"What about the advanced TIEs?"
"Not as many as we feared," Sinclair said. "It's probably safe to send the B-wings back in. I've got two squadrons clearing out the last of them, and the third patrolling for more."
"Copy that, Commander," Nick nodded. "I'll send them back as soon as we're finished with—"
"Malice's shields are down," tactical interrupted. "It's running!"
"Don't let it go!" Nick shouted, killing the transmission. "Cripple it!"
"Reading explosions all over the hull," sensors warned. "Their reactor's going critical. Going to blow."
"Stang," Nick swore, sinking back down into his seat. "Report on the Dreadnaught?"
"They've slipped away. Lost them in the nebula."
"Shuttles are escaping the facility," tactical announced.
"No chance of getting a tractor lock in the nebula," the tractors officer told them. "Too dense. We might have more luck a little closer."
"Let them go," Nick told him. "We're done here."
Intel Centre, Farpoint
Nick usually enjoyed being in the Intel Centre. It always seemed alive and active, even when Intel wasn't running an operation. It was a similar set-up to the Operations Centre, but located deeper down in the base. Nick was currently on a walkway raised above the main floor, a mass of desks and consoles and datastreams and analysts. Mike's office was up there, in front of the set of stairs that led down onto the main floor. Other doors led of briefing rooms and debriefing rooms, and corridors spidered off towards more of Intel's facilities.
Always busy. Always up to something. That was one of their primary advantages out here in the Unknown. Steele's fleet was just that—a fleet, cut off from the Empire's intelligence resources when it went renegade. Rogue Squadron could call for all the resources they needed.
They probably wouldn't get most of them, but they were there to be had at least.
Today he would have seen a lot of activity, but he had far too much on his mind to enjoy it. Rear Admiral Mike Burn, Director of Intelligence, had left a message with the Orbital Facility comm crew asking Nick to head down here as soon as he got back. In Nick's mind that could only mean one thing—and it wasn't pleasant.
"Nick!" his long-time friend looked up worriedly from where he perched on the edge of his desk. "I just got word from our man on Faiyum."
Nick sighed, his suspicions confirmed. Faiyum was the Goa'uld System Lord Sobek's throneworld, over which a Super Star Destroyer was being constructed.
"Project Executor is almost complete."
The other occupant of the room had stopped pacing. "We project it will be fully operational in three weeks," said Lieutenant Cleo Shurtz, an analyst recruited from Earth.
"He was supposed to warn us sooner than that," Nick said. "The plans we've laid down could all fall apart if your other agent isn't in place."
"We could always issue an Alpha Signal Seven," Mike suggested cautiously.
"A full strike by the New Republic fleet?" Nick grimaced. "What're they going to throw at a Super Star Destroyer? I'll bet the weapons will be online soon if not already." He shook his head. "Force knows where Lusankya is, but I'm sure it'd take more than three weeks to get her combat-ready and out to Faiyum. She only has a class two hyperdrive."
"Cleo, you said Thorn was working on something?"
The red-haired Tau'ri nodded. "It's up on Nemhain, in the containment module. I promise you'll like it."
Star Destroyer Amalgam, Deep Space
"You have failed me, Admiral," Steele said casually, standing in front of his observation deck's huge viewport with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Apologies, My Lord," the young admiral said stiffly, standing motionlessly in the middle of the room. "The attack was unanticipated. We had barely received news of the incursion on Ketbrae when they arrived. We nearly managed to—"
"I am not interested in near victories, Admiral," Steele interrupted. "Only real ones and why it is that we didn't achieve one."
The third being in the room was an army colonel named Malphus, who the young admiral knew had regained stature after his loss on Jannron, and had risen almost to the point of being Steele's right-hand man over the past year. He stood by some kind of ornate container to the High Admiral's left, and carefully removed the lid as his master spoke.
"I have no tolerance for failure, Admiral," Steele continued. "Failure leads me to wonder if your brain is up to the task of running your body. If maybe it needs a little help."
Malphus grimaced as he lowered one gloved hand into the container with a gentle splash, then lifted it back out again, clutching a vicious-looking serpent. The Goa'uld symbiote writhed in his hands, snapping its mean-looking jaw and hissing.
The young admiral gulped, trying his best not to stare at the hideous thing. To have an alien inside him… to be tainted that way…
"Fortunately, I have a new project for you, which I wish to trust only to a human," Steele said, displaying none of the pleasure that he was taking from the flag officer's discomfort. "We have been working on a prototype of a new cloaking device that will be compatible with our vessels, based on Goa'uld technology."
"Y-you wish me to lead this project, My Lord?
Steele laughed humourlessly. "No, Admiral. The prototype is installed on an aging Victory-class Star Destroyer. It needs a captain."
"Thank you, My Lord," the admiral stammered, finding it difficult to force out thanks for a punishment such as this.
"Don't fail me again, Captain Haltcan."
The symbiote splashed back into its tank, as Haltcan quickly retreated.
Containment Module, Frigate Nemhain
"This, gentlemen, is a naquadah-augmented thermonuclear device," Major Ilexa Thorn explained. "Being military men I'm sure you need no further explanation."
"Earth has tested these?" Nick asked.
"More or less."
Nick looked at her expectantly.
"There were complications," she said a little too quickly. "But we'll be fine. It's not being sent through a Stargate, and it won't be on a naquadah-rich world."
They stood in a specially designed lab on the research frigate, one which was completely sealed off from the rest of the ship, and could be jettisoned into space on a moment's notice. Weapons technology, chemical and biological technology, alien artefacts suspected of being dangerous—all were kept here.
"This is the thing that nearly irradiated your entire planet?"
"No," she assured him. "This is only based on the SGC's research. It was designed and constructed by our teams."
"When can you deliver it to Intel?" Mike asked, clearly less worried about how wrong the device could go.
"As soon as you want, it just needs one more test."
"The field test."
"I think we can sort that out," Mike told her grimly. "Have it delivered to Captain Webber on Nirvana."
As they turned to leave, Nick could've sworn he caught a glimpse of a young researcher glaring at him from across the lab. For a moment, he considered asking Thorn about it, but the airlock finished cycling and slowly rolled open, and he followed the others inside, quickly forgetting the young man.
Cockpit, Bulk Freighter Diablo I
Lieutenant Kryte sat silently as the whirls of hyperspace spiralled in front of him, deep in thought as the freighter ploughed across the sector at unimaginable speeds. His duty to the Empire was as the captain and pilot of this freighter, one of three vessels transporting supplies to Imperial troops on the Goa'uld world of Faiyum.
The life was a lonely one. So far from the rest of the Empire, good crewmen were a premium—hence this ship was modified to be operated almost entirely by droids and computers, except for its pilot and co-pilot. Them and the stormtrooper squad in the back, but they weren't much for conversation. He admired their total dedication to duty, but also found it rather dull.
The co-pilot, an Ensign Sel, was an interesting one—quiet and introspective, but nonetheless inquisitive about the vessel, its cargo and its routes. Kryte thought that was good though, it was pleasing that his subordinate wanted to understand his duty in order to carry it out to the fullest of his ability. The lieutenant told him everything he knew.
A counter next to him started to bleep as it hit ten, and he set his hand on the hyperspace lever back, ready to bring the boxy vessel back into realspace.
He never got round to it.
With a lurch, the freighter slammed into realspace as the hyperdrive motivators shorted, throwing him against his restraints.
The forward viewscreen was empty of everything but stars and the glowing red drive nozzles belonging to one of the two corvettes escorting them. As he watched, its laser cannons started spitting light at some unseen target, which promptly returned a barrage of laser fire that collapsed the corvette's shields and hit its reactor, leaving the vessel dead in space.
Frantically hitting controls, Kryte pulled up sensor screens and views from external holocams, trying to see what the thing behind them was, then swore out loud as the image of a Rebel Interdictor appeared on the monitors. "Assault transports too," he breathed hysterically. "We're being boarded!"
He turned to his co-pilot, and found himself face to face with a blaster pistol.
"Sorry about this, skipper."
* * * * *
New Republic Intelligence Lieutenant Sark Danners watched his friend's body drop to the floor, almost feeling sorry for the man. He only hoped he'd be treated well as a prisoner of war.
Excitement tried hard to creep into his voice as he called the alarm to prepare for boarding. He'd been Ensign Sel for over six months, since his fellow operative on Faiyum had discovered the existence of this transport group, and a plan had quickly been formulated to use it against Project Executor.
A plan which had involved him spending copious amounts of time alone with this pompous, if harmless, fool. The poor Academy results and performance reviews that got Ensign Sel this assignment had needed to be forged, he could only imagine where Kryte's had all come from.
He switched on the holocam views for the personnel airlock on the freighter's dorsal surface, curious to see exactly what the next part of the plan was…
Personnel Airlock, Bulk Freighter Diablo I
Lieutenant Troovo followed some of his best troops out of the cramped airlock as the smoke and debris from the hatch's detonation cleared. Eight stormtroopers struggled against the strong adhesive they'd been covered in by the glop grenade his troops had thrown in ahead of them, two of them plastered to a hastily erected E-Web blaster.
"There should be four more!" he called. "Find them!"
Troovo paused, cocking one ear towards the cockpit. "Blaster fire," one of his troops identified.
A young human in an Imperial uniform staggered down the passageway towards them moments later, carrying the unconscious body of another officer. "The troopers were supposed to have been ordered to protect the cargo, not the crew," the well-spoken officer said with a frown. "Insubordinate wretches came and found my stunned captain, didn't they?"
"Maybe they decided to make sure the crew wasn't going to defect on them."
"Please don't say that. The concept of intelligent stormtroopers is a terrifying one."
"Lieutenant Danners?" the Rodian naval troop asked. The man nodded. "How many in the cockpit?"
"Bring them down here," Troovo ordered. "Lee, Braski, Kung, hold the fort here. Everyone else check the cargo bays."
Rifles held ready, the boarding party set off down the passageway, heading away from the bridge to a junction where a pair of tunnels branched left and right into the two cargo bays, while the main corridor continued on to the engineering section.
"Graff, take a team starboard, I'll take another port. The rest of you head aft."
After a series of affirmations, the boarding party split in three directions, advancing cautiously through the huge freighter.
Rodians were hunters at heart, be it in the jungles of their homeworld, as bounty hunters across the galaxy, or like this—soldiers tracking the enemy. The twin sensory organs atop Troovo's head twitched excitedly as he slipped back into instinctive routine.
The bay was huge, stretching all hundred meters of the freighter's length, stacked full of carefully organised containers, networked by walkways for easily reaching various sections of the bay. It offered more hiding places and sniping positions than the lieutenant cared to count. Their prey could be anywhere…
"Man down!" a panicked voice cried over the comm. "Graff took a head shot!"
"Stang! They're in the other bay," Troovo hissed. "Everyone back through—"
A blaster bolt cracked across the bay's stale air, burning a deep gash in a crewman's back as he dropped into a heap on the ground. Troovo and his other troops were behind cover within a split second, more blaster bolts.
"He's up on the walkway!"
Troovo looked up and spotted the trooper's bright white armour amongst the crates of supplies, firing off a quick shot before retreating back behind cover.
"Troovo to engineering party, get back here now! We need assistance in both bays!"
"Already on our way, sir!"
Maybe Danners was a little too quick to dismiss these stormtroopers as nerf herders, Troovo thought, as his blaster spat another stream of energy. Always the hunter's greatest mistake—underestimating the prey.
His team was slowly spreading out, slipping between rows of crates like water seeping between stones, their blasters tracking every movement in the cargo bay. Silence descended on them, and Troovo was suddenly aware of every breath he took, every beat of his heart.
A loud clank followed by a droning whir drew their attention behind them, where a piece of loading equipment had come to life, gliding across the network of rails above them. In that one moment of distraction, Troovo saw another of his men shot dead.
But this time the fugitive stormtrooper had made a mistake. The Rodian lieutenant swung his weapon round and mercilessly criss-crossed the walkway next to the machine's controls, and was rewarded with a short cry as the stormtrooper's body pitched backward off the walkway, smashing down on top of a container.
"We're clear. Starboard party, status?"
"We got him, Lieutenant," the crewman who answered told him. "Not before he took another two of us."
Troovo shook his head, a sigh escaping his snout. More good men lost, and for what? He hoped this was something important.
Personnel Airlock, Bulk Freighter Diablo I
Nick watched the three crewman guarding the airlock stiffen noticeably through his helmet eyepieces as seven stormtroopers marched into the airlock, blaster rifles in their hands. He knew exactly how they felt—many a time he had reflexively clenched his hand round an imaginary flight stick upon seeing Hunter.
"Get back onto the transport," Nick told them, his voice filtered beyond recognition. "We'll cover it from here."
Mike and Captain Dirk Webber, one of his operatives, disappeared towards the cockpit. He expected they were eager to see Danners again and equally as eager to see how the fake sensor data Lieutenant Wong had prepared would look. He'd been promised it was a work of art.
Brigadier Anton Moore and Lieutenant Stok—a volunteer from their army division—set about moving the large box they'd pulled across into the cargo bays. Nick noted they were being extremely careful with it, and could hardly blame them. Thorn had assured them that her naquadah bomb wouldn't detonate if dropped, but nobody felt like trying it out.
That left him with Major Conwy and Colonel Antilles, the unit's chief engineer. As he watched, the two set about preparing the equipment they'd brought onboard with them: putty-like strips, metal objects of various shapes and sizes, electronic gear—all of it was being attached to the hull of the airlock with precision and speed.
A dozen standard minutes later, Conwy announced: "We're done."
Nick nodded. "I'll head to the cockpit, the rest of you head aft and try to look… Imperial."
Mere moments after Nick had sealed the bulkhead between himself and the airlock and confirmed that Conwy had done the same, the carefully placed explosive devices in the airlock detonated, blowing off the docking hatch and venting the entire section's atmosphere into space.
Nick glanced at the atmospheric controls to make sure that was all that had been vented before nodding to the others. "All clear."
Super Star Destroyer Steel, over Faiyum
The transport rings located in the outer bridge of the huge vessel rose up from the deck plating, bathing the bulkheads in a pure white light and sending vibrations through the feet of the officers and stormtroopers assembled near it, their stance confrontational.
That stance changed to one of uncertainty when the rings retreated, leaving them in the presence of a man they feared through reputation alone, and four towering crocodile guards, their eyes glowing a menacing shade of red.
"Lord Sobek," Steele's captain greeted him. "We were not expecting your presence onboard until High Admiral Steele arrived."
The nearest crocodile guard moved with speed and grace that defied the ungainly appearance of its armour, swinging its staff weapon to connect solidly with the back of the captain's knees, dropping him to the floor before Sobek.
After a moment's hesitation, the rest of the officers knelt before the Goa'uld, followed by even more hesitant stormtroopers.
"Are my private chambers ready?" the System Lord asked, his voice a reverberating baritone.
"Yes, My Lord," the captain replied shakily.
"They had better be," Sobek boomed, sweeping his way out of the bridge, leaving the Imperial captain looking somewhat uneasy.
Bridge, Bulk Freighter Diablo I, over Faiyum
Project Executor was like no Star Destroyer Nick had ever seen. The smooth-seeming edge of the hull, normally a dark bluish-grey, was instead coated gold like the Goa'uld motherships that clearly influenced this design.
Each end of the golden 'V' shape had an insignia embedded into it—Imperial on the left, Sobek's styled river-valley on the right. At this distance, they looked to be about a millimetre deep, but Nick realised they must be cut out from dozens of decks. The central portion around the command tower was a more orthodox steel colour, and Nick was vaguely aware that this made the golden area roughly resemble Sobek's insignia itself.
The underside, however, was perhaps the most striking. The dozen huge drive nozzles and surrounding hull were covered in glistening chrome like old Naboo starcruisers, gleaming in the dim sunlight.
Umbilicals connected the near-complete war machine to the strips of docks on either side, huge bridges arching over the top of it to link them.
"Oh, pretty. Can we steal it instead?"
Nick chuckled but gave Mike no reply. His eyes were fixed on the vessel ahead, a mixture of awe and terror bubbling in the pit of his stomach. They sat behind Danners and Webber in the dark cockpit, illuminated only by control panels and soft glow of the planet below.
"Arrow Control to freighter Diablo," a crisp voice said from the comm. "Where is the rest of your convoy?"
"This is Ensign Sel onboard Diablo I. The convoy was ambushed and boarded. We managed to escape by causing an explosion that broke the docking seal and vented the boarders into space."
"Diablo, where is Lieutenant…" the officer paused, most likely looking up the name of the ship's commander, "Kryte?"
"Dead, sir," Danners said solemnly. "He was shot while heroically assisting with depressurising the airlock. His body was lost, along with those of the fallen stormtroopers."
"Diablo, you're telling us the personnel airlock is gone and you can't get to the cargo airlocks?"
"Affirmative, control," Danners said. "Requesting a pressurised bay."
"We don't have anything big enough, Diablo," control told him, before going silent for a moment. "You are cleared to land inside the Super Star Destroyer."
"Copy, Arrow Control," Danners said, shutting off the comm with a smile. "Looks like we're in, gentlebeings."
Docking Bay, Super Star Destroyer Steel
A magcon field shimmered as they passed through it, cruising slowly into the huge bay. No sooner had they come to a halt, zero-g workers and spacetroopers jetted from the sides of the bay to meet them, the former armed with fusion cutters—the latter with miniature proton torpedoes. The Imperials were taking no chances, it seemed.
Both the cutters and the missiles proved unnecessary, as the freighters atmospheric sensors detected the air around them and allowed the sealed emergency bulkheads around the ruptured hull to be opened. Inside, by all appearances, were a single naval officer and half the vessel's assigned stormtrooper squad. A skitter was flown across to carry them away from the damaged ship.
An uptight-looking officer waited for them at the end of their journey, looking impatiently between his datapad and Sel.
"And they blew your airlock right off?" he sniffed. "A little unorthodox, even for Rebels."
"No, sir," Sel corrected. "We blew the airlock, to vent the boarders into space. Lieutenant Kryte was sucked out, as were several stormtroopers and the bodies of the dead."
"Convenient," the officer said, his eyes narrowing slightly. "You will be further debriefed when—"
A shout from across the bay interrupted the officer, who turned and saw a contingent of Ja'ffa and stormtroopers marching towards him, weapons drawn and ready.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"These are impostors!" the lead Ja'ffa said, shooting an accusing glare towards the group of survivors. "They are Rebel insurgents, and Lord Sobek demands they be imprisoned!"
Nick's heart sank to about the level of his small intestine. "Now that was the shortest offensive of all time."
A single glowstrip threw a shaft of light into the cell, casting deep shadows across the stony features of the prisoners within. They sat looking glum, wearing only the black bodysuits of their stolen stormtrooper armour, Danners in a uniform stripped of insignia.
"How long do you think we've been in here?"
"Two hours, thirty-seven minutes," Danners muttered. "And fifteen seconds." The operative looked up when he realised the others were all staring at him, and added: "I've always had an exceptional ability to tell exactly how much time has passed me by."
"How long has it been now?" Conwy asked.
"Quiet!" Stok hushed, before Danners could snap back at the soldier. He'd been stood near the door for the past few minutes, listening intently. "Someone's coming."
"He left it long enough," Mike muttered, with a slight smile on his face.
The door hissed open and bright light from outside blinded them momentarily, before silhouetting an imposing figure—one of Sobek's elite Crocodile Guard, standing alone outside the cell, large even by Ja'ffa standards. His long helmet retracted, revealing a dark skinned face with a thin moustache and goatee. Grinning at them. A pair of stormtroopers lay motionless at his feet.
Mike's smile broadened into a grin. "Nice to see you, Merduck," he said. "Gentlemen—our man on Faiyum."
Lord Sobek's Throne Room
Deep in the heart of his new vessel, Lord Sobek sat atop his golden throne, contemplating what to do with his prisoners. His spy had told him months ago that this would eventually happen, and had warned him just a few days ago that an insertion team was inbound. Yet he had planned to have them destroyed before the reached the ship. Due to inept actions of some of his servants, that had not come about. Heads had rolled. Quite literally.
Now he had prisoners on his hands and no explanation as to how he identified them, without giving away the deceptive game he was playing with his Imperial allies.
An Imperial officer, one of those ubiquitous humans that assumed themselves superior to everything and everyone else, entered his throne room, looking considerably uneasy.
"My Lord, the prisoners have escaped," the underling announced, dropping to one knee before the System Lord. They'd learned their lesson on that one.
"What act of human incompetence led to this escape?" Sobek demanded.
"None," the officer replied shakily. "One of your Ja'ffa released them."
Sobek rose slowly to his terrifying full height, eyes flashing. "Rise, my servant, and look upon your God."
The officer stood, looking even more uneasy—and rightly so. A quick blow to the chin from Sobek's huge hand threw his head back, and a single jab from a meaty finger collapsed his windpipe, sending him falling backwards to the ground, clutching at his throat.
His First Prime stepped forward from the throne room's shadowy depths, bowing respectfully. "My Lord?"
"Find them and find the shol'va who betrays me," he bellowed. "Kill them all!"
"I shall not fail you, My Lord."
"I should hope not," Sobek said with a toothy grin, as the Imperial officer's gurgling finally died. "Your life depends on it."
"Sobek's had this entire prison level reserved for him alone," Merduck explained with a grin. "Refuses to have anything but a token force of Imperial troops in here, and doesn't currently have enough Ja'ffa onboard to keep it fully crewed."
Indeed, they hadn't seen another living being since escaping their cell. "There's nobody watching the security scanners?" Nick asked.
"Not a soul," Merduck said, halting and looking around. "Where to?"
"We need to get to the hangars and get out of here. Quickly."
"Whoah," Merduck said, stopping for a moment. "What's the rush? Aren't we supposed to blow this thing first?"
"There's a hugely destructive bomb in the freighter," Anton told him. "It's armed."
"Now that's my kind of plan," Merduck muttered. "Less of this cloak and dagger flarg, more explosives!"
"If I'm not very much mistaken," Danners interrupted, "the hangar complex is straight down from here. Assuming they haven't changed too much from the standard Super-class design."
"Then let's move," Nick ordered. Conwy and Stok, having commandeered weapons and some armour from the two fallen stormtroopers, covered the ground as they moved through the vessel, and Merduck marched on ahead brandishing a staff weapon as through he'd been training since he was a boy. He'd brought with him a pair of zats that he'd given to Webber and Danners, who flanked him alertly.
"Wrong turn," Merduck declared, as they came face to face with a dozen stormtroopers and Ja'ffa.
With a slight cough, Danners attracted their attention to his position behind them, where he smiled and lifted his zat. "Please don't do anything stupid, General."
Blasterfire broke out regardless.
Merduck swung his staff weapon expertly in the close quarters, pumping off blast after blast that cut into the stormtrooper squad. Off to his left, he noticed Moore and the two soldiers slipping away unnoticed and smiled to himself.
Then a zat blast from Danners dropped Nick to the ground. The huge operative swore violently and threw down his weapon, then raised his hands.
"That's right," Danners announced, aiming the zat at his commanding officer's unconscious form. "Any of you move and I shoot again."
The rest of the team dropped their weapons. "You disappoint me," Danners said coldly. "But I can't say I'm surprised."
Lord Sobek's Throne Room
Nick awoke groggily as he was thrown roughly to his knees by a procession of crocodile guards and stormtroopers, who arrayed themselves menacingly in a gauntlet along the sides of the throne room. The rest of his people were alongside him. He noted Moore, Conwy and Stok weren't amongst them.
"My loyal agent," Sobek boomed merrily as he stood, an ugly grin opening like a gash across his face. "Was I aware you were amongst the captives yourself, I would have brought you before me sooner."
Beside him, Nick saw Mike tense, and could practically feel the anger boiling around him. His Intelligence Operatives were handpicked, the best he could beg, steal or bribe away from other units. Sobek might as well have driven a staff weapon into his gut.
"Tell me, which is the leader? The one named Fel?"
"This one, My Lord," Danners said, moving to stand behind Nick.
"I want to know how to penetrate Farpoint's defences. How do I get through your planetary shield and open your Stargate iris?" Sobek asked, moving along the row of prisoners to Antilles. He opened his hand, holding his ribbon device over the engineer's head. "Tell me now, or this one dies."
"My Lord, may I suggest this one," Danners indicated Mike. "He's a close friend of Fel."
Sobek's face lit up with glee as he swung his weapon over to Mike, who remained emotionless. He glanced quickly to Nick and shook his head slightly.
"Admiral Burn understands the risks involved in his line of work."
"So be it."
Mike's anguished scream as the ribbon device's energy beam tore into his skull was echoed as a battle cry from three of the assembled stormtroopers, who were suddenly at arms, cutting down the Ja'ffa opposite them and setting off a battle between the distrustful Imperial and Goa'uld troops, and then turning their weapons on fellow stormtroopers.
Merduck and Dirk were in action immediately, launching themselves forward from their knees to scoop up fallen weapons, rolling onto their backs and showering the Ja'ffa with blaster bolts with such synchrony that it might have been rehearsed.
Sobek took a half dozen hits to his body armour before he dropped Mike, utilising his ribbon device to bring up his personal force field instead, and twisted round to glower at the firefight going on all around him.
"I have got the worst hangover…" Mike muttered, as Nick and Antilles—lacking weapons—dragged him away from the conflict. He shook his head and growled. "Where is he?"
Nick shook his head. "Danners ran as soon as the shooting started."
Sobek roared as the last of his Ja'ffa fell dead, dropping his force field for a moment to blast Dirk and the three treacherous stormtroopers with a shockwave that threw them against the wall alongside the three unarmed officers.
"You can get through those force fields as long as you're not moving too fast," Antilles said quietly, as Sobek advanced towards them. "Too fast being the speed of a bullet, or blaster bolt…"
"So we charge him," Nick finished grimly. "On three. One. Two. Charge!"
"You will bow before your God," Sobek roared, flattening them with another shockwave, then glowering indignantly as they staggered to their feet and charged again. "You will—"
Merduck attacked from behind, drawing a dagger from somewhere under his armour and driving it into Sobek's hand, ripping through flesh and bone and smashing into the ribbon device.
Sobek howled in pain, until a barrage of blaster bolts slammed into his chest, throwing him backwards and dropping him lifelessly into his throne.
One of the stormtroopers pulled off his helmet, revealing Moore. Behind him, Conwy and Stok likewise doffed their claustrophobic masks. "We need to move. Fast."
They burst into the docking bay armed with as many guns as they could carry, all of them blazing. Stormtroopers were hot on their heels, only a few dozen meters away. It seemed like an entire legion had been placed between them and the bay.
"Get the door locked!" Nick ordered.
Dozens of support craft—various shuttles and transports of Imperial and Goa'uld manufacture—were arrayed below them on the shining black deck, surrounded by engineers and technicians who were rapidly dispersing to safer locations, shouting into comlinks as they went.
Moore pointed across the bay to a flat craft with folded wings. "Sentinel lander."
Nick shook his head, looking around. "Need heavy weapons." He nodded towards a larger craft, shaped more like a crustacean and shouted: "Gamma transport at thirty degrees. Go!"
They clambered down a stairwell to the flight deck, as Imperial troops broke down the door they'd come in through and started to pour through entrances on the other two sides of the bay.
Moore, Conwy and Stok, still in their armour, had fallen back to cover them as the rest piled into the ship, Nick and Mike going straight for the cockpit. "Merduck, make sure they get in!"
"Copy," the Operative said, as he dived back outside. Moments later he was back, three stormtroopers in tow. "They're in. At least I think it's them. All troopers look the same to me."
Moore glowered at him.
"They just got one of our sensor arrays," Mike reported, as blasterfire from the troopers peppered their hull.
"We'll see about that," Nick said, arming a pair of missile and shooting them towards the bay's entrance. They exploded spectacularly, destroying the magcon field generator and its backup, venting anything lighter than a small spaceship into space.
Mike glanced at his status display as Nick powered up the controls. "Repulsors online. Shields up. Engines ready."
"Anyone who thinks they have a vague idea what a tractor beam emplacement looks like, get behind a turbolaser," Nick called. "We need to take out as many of them as we can on our way. Otherwise we're coming straight back."
The ship blasted out of the bay, spewing turbolaser fire in all directions as it went.
Lord Sobek's Throne Room
Five minutes, Danners counted. He'd been mentally counting since the bomb's timer had been set, and he now had five minutes left to get to a vessel and well away from the Star Destroyer.
His path to the hangars had been blocked by Imperial troops, delaying him long enough that he wouldn't be able to reach his destination in time. Fortunately, he was aware of a vessel which he could launch without being detected and, most importantly on a vessel eight kilometres long, which he could get to five minutes. The only problem being it was back in the direction of Sobek's throne room.
Still, he had to laugh at the brilliantly convoluted nature of the plan, one for which he was primarily responsible.
Imperial counter-intelligence had gotten lucky and spotted him within three weeks of his assignment beginning. As it happened, Imperial counter-intelligence was mostly on Sobek's payroll, and consequently reported 'Ensign Sel' to him first. That was when the plan first started to come together. Sobek believed he had gained an asset—but in truth he gained a liability.
Danners' father, a veteran of pre-Palpatine Republic Intelligence, had pressured him into joining New Republic Intelligence, but Danners had to admit he had a natural talent for it. Once he learned of the nature of his new assignment here in the unknown, he set about researching if the New Republic had truly managed to keep the Stargate, the Goa'uld, and this secret war a complete secret.
As he suspected, they had not.
Drunken words from senators who should have known better had tipped off an underground group, one opposed to secrets kept from the public. It was a sentiment Danners shared. Indeed, the main reason he hadn't wanted to follow his father's footsteps was that Intel was primarily responsible for duping the public. Intrigued, he'd approached them. And they'd waited.
Now the time was right.
He had told Sobek who was coming and when, but not about the bomb they brought with them. It would detonate, destroying this ship, Sobek and high ranking New Republic officers. A killing blow to the Goa'uld would discourage further incursions into New Republic space, and the death of Fel, Burn and Moore could likewise cripple Rogue Squadron, leading to a withdrawal and an end to this war.
The outer hall of Sobek's chambers were oddly quiet. He'd expected to have to deal with at least a few of his guards before penetrating this deep into the ornate section of the ship, located deep within its heart. He firmed his grip on his zat a little, weary of a trap.
The hardest part would be getting to Sobek's private escape pod, the hidden entrance to which was hidden behind his throne. Once there he would be rocketed through a pipeline, out of the ship and to safety. He would return to Rogue Squadron, claiming the rest of the group had been killed while escaping, and continue to use his position to assist his associates…
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong.
Ja'ffa and stormtroopers littered the throne room's polished floor. Danners looked up and located Sobek, slumped in his throne, one hand a bloody mess and his chest a mass of blaster wounds. With a grimace, he walked past the body, praying to any gods that might exist that the escape pod hadn't already been taken.
He stopped, certain he had seen the body twitch, breath. Someone with a body in that state surely couldn't be… alive. The good hand shot out and grabbed him by his uniform's collar and dragged him like a rag-doll. His zat clattered to the floor as he trembled.
"I have one more task for you, my agent…" the dying System Lord croaked, drawing Danners closer, his dark eyes flashing gold as their faces almost touched.
Sark Danners didn't struggle when he realised what was going on—he had more dignity than to try escape the inevitable by squirming like a garbage worm. He felt a flash of pain in his throat, and then his senses were no longer his.
Gamma-class Transport, over Faiyum
Nick watched with grim satisfaction as the huge nuclear fireball mushroomed out of the Super Star Destroyer's hangars and spread outwards, breaking the ship clean in two and enveloping the entire thing in flame. The short-lived fireball rescinded, leaving two charred and twisted hulks, rippling with secondary explosions that tore them apart. Shockwaves ripped away its flimsy docks, casting them out into space as flotsam.
Moments later the same shockwave washed over them, buffeting the transport like an ancient solar sailer caught in an ion storm. Impact alarms began to screech, and banks of status indicators changed from green to yellow.
"Think he was still onboard?" Mike asked when the alarms subsided.
"I honestly don't know," Nick said. "But I don't understand him. Why wasn't the bomb disarmed if Sobek knew about it?"
Mike mused on this for a moment. "Maybe he didn't tell Sobek. Maybe he had his own goals here. Traitors usually do."
Nick just nodded silently.
"Whatever his goals were I'm going to find them," Mike said at last, "and make sure they're never accomplished."
"We're out of the gravity well," Nick declared. "Course laid in for Farpoint. Engaging hyperdrive."
Star Destroyer Amalgam, over Faiyum
It was gone.
His dream. The project he'd been working on since he escaped to the Unknown Regions. The plan which he had used to forge an alliance with the System Lord Sobek, promising him a mighty vessel which would make him the most feared Goa'uld in existence.
"Have you collected any debris yet?" he asked calmly, resisting the urge to strike Malphus down simply to release anger. Several items in the room were already laying broken, victims of the rage that had overcome him when they dropped into the Faiyum System to oversee the final stages of the vessel's construction—and found only wreckage around the planet, and a dissipating shockwave on the outer edges of the system.
"Yes, My Lord," the colonel said glumly. "It is undoubtedly the wreckage of Steele and its dock."
The High Admiral said nothing, continuing to stare out of his dark observation deck's viewport, watching the pieces of his ship swim around outside, their orbits decaying till they hit Faiyum's atmosphere and ignited, burning out of existence or smashing into the ground, causing complete devastation.
It was somehow pleasing to know that even after death, his weapon of terror and destruction could still rain fire down on a populated world.
And rain it did. Faiyum was ablaze, its surface scorched by vast fires visible even from their high orbit. Initial reports were beginning to come in from Imperial survivors on the surface, suggesting that Sobek himself had been onboard Steel when it was destroyed and was missing, presumed dead. Down below, his lieutenants were warring to become the new ruler of his domain. Legions of Ja'ffa were being thrown at each other by whichever Goa'uld was now their master. Yet more Ja'ffa insisted that a God could not die, and that any Ja'ffa who fought for a new ruler was a treacherous heretic.
"There was one other thing, My Lord," Malphus spoke up. "One escape pod found in the debris contained a single survivor, an Ensign Sel who insisted he had to see you, babbling on about a Code Sigma Eleven."
"Where is he?" Steele demanded, spinning around instantly. Code Sigma Eleven. That was the code for a vitally important message from Sobek himself, for Steele's ears only.
"He's being held in the infirmary, would you like him brought up?"
"At once. And then make yourself scarce."
"As you wish, My Lord." Malphus bowed slightly and turned smartly away, speaking on his comm as he left.
Ten minutes later the doors slid open once again, light spilling in from the corridor outside to illuminate a short, slim officer, his pale hair ruffled and his uniform creased and dirty.
"Ensign Sel reporting, sir."
"I do not care what you are called," Steele growled, turning to face the officer. "What is the message?"
Sel sauntered towards him, looking strangely at ease, supremely confident. More than a little unsettling, as well. "Lord Sobek is most disappointed. He feels you have failed him, and that the terms of your treaty are void. Most of all, he is irritated by the loss of his host. This new body is so… small."
Steele backed away from the young man, who now stood less than half a metre from the Admiral. "Sobek?"
Sobek grinned, his white teeth gleaming in the darkened room. "Your body would be much more acceptable, Admiral."