Chapter 32

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Sergeant Fett fired another RPG down the stairwell. The grenade bounced off the wall and then exploded, obliterating the incoming guards at the exact moment they rounded the stairwell. The X-ray vision of his HUD confirmed six kills.

In this particular sim, Til'trius - or his construct anyway - had managed to patch their HUDs into the security monitors at SKYE compound. The result had provided the strike teams with the ability to see their opponents through walls. Meanwhile, the Bith officer had been hard at work to deny the same ability to the lucky few of the poorly equipped miners with data jacks and cyes.

"Fireteams Alpha, Beta and Delta, provide covering fire." Commander Kenobi ordered. "I have the Skywalkers, and Krul is down. Repeat, Krul is down."

A cheer erupted through the ranks, as the fireteams took positions on the roof to cover Ben's inbound trajectory. Several sonic booms sounded from the tower just to their north, as IG-68 loosed several rounds from his railguns, annihilating enemy positions through walls and clearing a path for Commander Kenobi. Covering fire from the fireteams on the roof of Building E provided Ben with the opening he was looking for.

After a few quick bounds out of cover, Gamma team flew out of Building B. The team's flight was enabled by the same anti-grav packs they repurposed from the laser borer's repulsor lifts - the same packs they had used to fly out of the mine tunnels beneath them. Soaring through the particle beam singed air, they descended triumphantly onto the roof with Jerod and Lucinda Skywalker.

"You all look like you could use a ride right about now," Captain Daniah quipped as she spiraled Halcyon into a hot landing on the roof of Building E.

Commander Kenobi snapped orders quickly as the ship landed. "Captain Daniah, secure the hostages aboard the Halcyon. Specialist Ayalla, administer medical support. Everyone else, cover their escape."

Within minutes the hostages were aboard and secured. Ben ordered the fireteams aboard, and the Halcyon took off, spiraling towards IG-68's tower. IG-68 made a running leap into empty space, landing on top of Halcyon as the ship ascended into the upper atmosphere. They were in Captain Pace's hands now, and this part was hers to master. Ben ended the simulation, returning everyone to the briefing room.

The room quickly punctuated with a raucous "Hoo-Rah!" from Specialist Kharn, as he began smacking high-fives with all around. His infectious attitude even cracked a smile from Specialist Icol, who normally sat these types of celebrations out.

Commander Kenobi let his fireteams celebrate a little. For one, they had earned it. A showing like that on their first sim against the Righteous Flame was impressive, and a credit to their teamwork and professionalism.

More importantly, the Halcyon had just dropped out of hyperspace to get a deep space download from Til'trius. The Commander scanned the high priority updates coming through, and the team would not like what he was about to tell them.

"Attention," Commander Kenobi called. "We've dropped out of hyperspace for a few minutes to download several key updates from Lt. Til'trius. These include updated hostage locations, new hack exploits, and additional information on the opposing force."

"The good news," he continued, "is that the Lieutenant has found a way to disrupt the interceptors. Although the communications systems are firewalled from the flight controls, the instrumentation panels are not. Prior to the attack, Lt. Til'trius will hack the instrumentation panels, making it seem like the engine thermocouplings are overheating. Some of the interceptors may ground immediately, and those that are not grounded, should be distracted enough to be removed from the fight quickly." Many soldiers cheered.

"The bad news," Ben moved on, "is that there are likely nine Mandalorians in Krul's ground forces."

At the mention of the word "Mandalorians," several of the crew shifted in their seats and gazed on all the more intently. Mandalorians hailed from myriad races, but what held them together was their creed, the unwavering pursuit of self-excellence.

Not all Mandalorians were mercenaries, but many were. It wasn't their battle-scarred body armor, visored face, or lethal weaponry that inspired fear. It was their competence. Most people enjoyed a confrontation with a Mandalorian about as much as a particle blast to the head. And more often than not, that's how it ended.

"We are all aware of the rumors surrounding Mandalorians, but one among you once sought to join their ranks." Ben's eyes darted. "Captain Pace, do you have any insights to share with us?"

Ben saw Sergeant Fett look at Daniah with a puzzled look, struggling to compute how a loose cannon like her ever considered joining the Mandalorians.

"Sure. I was more on the path of the artist than the warrior during initiation, but the code is the same. What stuck with me the most is My Challenges are My Wings," Daniah quoted, "the third part of the Mandalorian code. If my progress is to continue, then there is no end to the challenges I will face."

"Too thick headed for my taste, which is why I walked away," Daniah went on. Ben doubted that, remembering the throw back to the Mandalorian code written on the cargo bay door, but now was not the time to call her out on that. "They really believe that stuff. If there really are Mandalorians there, they'll revel in anything we throw their way. Which is why the first thing we throw their way should be a railgun shot to the head from rust bucket over there," pointing at IG-68. "You can't seek out the difficult path without a head."

Ax trilled several notes of disgust in response, making IG-68 break into a digitized laugh. Turning to Daniah, IG-68 replied "Speak for yourself, meat sack," IG-68 taunted. "We can move on just fine without a head. But we take your point."

"Begs the question though, why bring Mandalorians with you at all on what is basically a suicide mission?" Specialist Flanor asked. "Mercs love pay, but no matter how much they get paid they've gotta be alive to enjoy it. It seems sloppy - which doesn't sit right."

"Correct, Specialist Flanor," Ben replied, "because if there is one thing you cannot accuse a Mandalorian of, it is sloppiness. Although we cannot see it, perhaps Krul has an escape route planned?"

"Maybe Krul indoctrinated some of the Mandalorians," Specialist Era interjected, and all eyes turned to her. "I grew up a human on a transitioning world in the Outer Rim. I could see how a lot of greenies might listen to his word like gospel."

"Maybe all of the above," Daniah jumped in. "Mandalorians revel in what others would consider a suicide mission, especially for a cause they believe in. They live for the rush."

Ben pondered Daniah's last comment for a moment, his mind kaleidoscoping memories of the reckless woman he once loved. This is probably why Daniah considered joining the Mandalorians in the first place. Back to the present, Ben.

"One thing is for certain," Ben said with steely determination, "we will prevail. We will beat them, because together, we will be better." Pausing a moment, Ben checked the sim time. "We have enough time for one more sim before we have to surface. I'll reload us to the point just before we breach the compound. Make it count."

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