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It had been drizzling as the stormtroopers of the Imperial 501st Legion assembled at their various jump points for what all hoped would be the final battle of this latest war. By the time the orders had been given and the individual companies began to make their way to their parts of the assault line, the drizzle had widened into a full-scale storm, complete with driving winds and a sky nearly black enough to turn the twilight of the city and surrounding countryside into full night.
“Looks like something out of a bad legend,” Choral of Unit Aurek-Four murmured from the right-hand line of stormtroopers seated on the rack benches against the wall as the disguised troop carrier rolled cautiously along the quiet city streets.
“What does?” Dropkick of Aurek-Three asked from half a dozen men down the line.
“What do you think?” Choral countered, nodding toward the viewscreens showing the scene out the transport’s nose.
Behind his helmet faceplate, Twister, unit commander of the four-man group designated Aurek-Seven, frowned slightly as he studied the image. Choral had a point, he had to admit. The fortress rising out of the ground at the edge of the city had always had something of a ghostly, unreal air about it. Now, as brief glimpses of the gray-and-red towers came to them between the city’s buildings, the whole scene lashed by winds and surrounded by sporadic flashes of lightning, that sense of otherworldliness seemed even sharper.
On Twister’s left, his unit-mate Watchman gave a soft snort. “Personally, I’ve always liked tackling legends,” he said. “It’s so much fun to let the air out of them.” He gestured toward the viewscreen. “I just hope the son of a lizard is actually in there.”
“Well, if he isn’t, this is going to be a serious waste of effort,” Cloud grumbled from Watchman’s far side. “Especially with the Eickaries finally on the move. If it were up to me, I’d give them another month to chase the Lakra back into these reinforced beetle holes of theirs, then drop all two hundred of ’em into piles of rubble and go home.”
“And how many more Eickaries would die in another month of fighting?” Shadow, Aurek-Seven’s fourth man, asked from Twister’s right. “If we’re going to arm a people and then turn them loose against oppressors, we have a certain obligation to see they don’t just go charging into a meat grinder.”
“I understand that,” Cloud agreed. “But Kariek is their world, after all, not ours. After putting up with the Warlord and his thugs all these years, it seems to me they should have the honor of kicking them out.”
“Kicking them out or executing them,” Watchman said. “I imagine Eickarie common law will demand a particularly gruesome death for the Warlord.”
“I’d buy a ticket,” Cloud said dryly. “That still doesn’t explain why we don’t just blast the whole fortress to rubble. Getting buried by a few tons of rock ought to be a gruesome enough death to satisfy even the Eickaries.”
“I’m sure the generals have their reasons,” Twister said, putting just enough edge to his voice to warn the other three to drop the subject.
“I know,” Cloud muttered, apparently not yet quite ready to let it go. “I just don’t think this guy is worth any more Imperial lives than he’s already cost.”
Twister didn’t answer. The others took the hint, and the conversation finally subsided.
But the question, he could tell, was still weighing on them. It was weighing on everyone in the transport, for that matter.
It wasn’t just the forty men of Aurek Company who were involved in this. Not by a long shot. There were hundreds of Imperial troops setting up for battle, including three more companies of the 501st. Most of them were out in the woods and plains on the other side of the fortress, preparing for a straight-in assault with massive air and ground support. The Empire of the Hand was making a serious effort to capture the tyrant who had oppressed this world and its people for the past fifty standard years.
Cloud had a point. Strong though these ancient Eickarie fortresses were, they hadn’t been designed to withstand the kind of firepower the Empire of the Hand could bring to bear. If Intelligence thought he was in there, a couple of hours of serious bombardment would turn the fortress into a heap of charred rock, dead Lakran mercenaries, and an equally dead Warlord. Once the leader himself was out of the way, the remaining pockets of resistance would be easy enough to deal with, especially with the whole planet finally united against the mercenaries. It would be quick, efficient, and a lot easier on the stormtroopers and other ground soldiers.
Obviously there was some very important reason why the Empire of the Hand wanted or needed the Warlord alive. The question was: what was that reason?
Mentally, Twister shook his head. The typical soldier, he knew, wouldn’t even be having these thoughts, or at the very least would be keeping them to himself. Soldiers were uniformly taught to accept orders without question and to carry them out without hesitation.
To a certain point, of course, that was true of Imperial stormtroopers as well. But only to a point. This wasn’t Palpatine’s Empire, and the stormtroopers lining the transport’s armored sides weren’t simply the unfeeling, unthinking killing machines he had once unleashed on the Republic. The elite troopers of the Empire of the Hand were selected for intelligence as well as combat skill, trained to walk that fine line between obedience and initiative, between honest question and unquestioning trust.
Slowly, Twister sent his gaze across the forty armored men seated silently around him. He’d been with Aurek Company for nearly six years now, two of them as Aurek-Seven’s commander, and in that time he’d learned that there was very little Imperial stormtroopers couldn’t accomplish once they set their minds to it. They had been ordered to go in and capture the Warlord, and he had no doubt they would succeed. None of them, certainly not Twister himself, needed to know the reasons behind the order.
But the questions remained.
“One minute,” the driver called.
There was a soft flurry of activity as the stormtroopers made one final check of their BlasTech E-11 blaster rifles and other equipment. The transport slowed to a crawl, and the rear doors swung open. Silently, in groups of four, the stormtroopers began to drop out into the downpour, slipping away to their assigned positions through the deserted streets.
Aurek-Seven was the last unit out. Twister hit the ground in a jog, taking a couple of steps to brake himself to a halt as he gave the area a quick scan. The buildings rising around them showed only a few lights, and were as silent as the streets themselves. “Looks like the Eickaries have figured out that the Warlord’s vicinity isn’t a healthy place to be,” Cloud commented from beside him.
“Let’s hope so, for their sake,” Twister said, finishing his visual scan and checking his bearings. “Move out.”
Their designated position was two streets away, in a narrow alley between a five-story apartment house and one of the city’s many grimy, low-class cantinas. From that location, according to the surveillance holos, they should have a view of the eastern approach to the building designated Watchtower Two.
The two watchtowers were a peculiarly Eickarie military concept, one that most of the stormtroopers didn’t think very highly of. Disguised as ordinary apartment or office buildings, they were in fact high-tech sentry and spy stations for the fortress two kilometers away at the edge of town, connected to it by armored underground passageways. In the not-too-distant past, when vicious tribal warfare had been a part of Kariek’s everyday life, the watchtowers had allowed whoever was currently occupying the fortress to keep an eye on members of opposing tribes in the city for trade or social calls or possibly a sneak attack. When the Warlord had taken possession of all the fortresses, he and his mercenaries had used the watchtowers in much the same way, except that to them every Eickarie was a potential member of the opposition. Many a dissatisfied citizen, complaining privately with a friend in the street about the Warlord’s cold-handed rule, discovered too late that he had been observed, recorded, convicted, and sentenced, sometimes before the conversation was even over.
The watchtowers themselves were of no particular strategic value, given that the recently formed United Tribes Command already had control of the city itself. Their importance, and the reason most of the stormtroopers considered them a bad strategic concept, lay in the tunnels connecting them to the fortress. If Aurek Company could capture either or both watchtowers, they would have a vector into the Warlord’s refuge that wouldn’t involve running the gauntlet of heavy defenses arrayed against the rest of the Imperial forces gathered outside the city.
Of course, the Warlord wasn’t stupid, either. He would certainly have rigged as strong a set of defenses in those tunnels as he could manage, including mines, booby traps, and as many blasters and Lakran mercenaries as he could squeeze in. But this was the 501st Legion, the legendary “Vader’s Fist.” They’d handled worse in their long history. They would handle this, too.
Aurek-Seven reached their target alley, and Twister gave it a quick look. Spaced out along the base of the apartment building were half a dozen stairways leading down to garden apartments or small shops, all dark, while the cantina was showing only the normal security lights of a closed business. No one was visible anywhere. Holding his blaster rifle high across his chest, Twister slipped into the alley, the others fanning out behind him.
They were nearly to the cantina door when a flicker from his helmet’s sensor display strip caught Twister’s eye. “Watch it—someone’s in there,” he warned the others, shifting his BlasTech to point in that direction as he gave the display another look. Unfortunately, with the pouring rain skewing the infrared data and wiping out any chance of a gas-spectrum analysis, there was no way to distinguish between a harmless Eickarie and a seriously hostile Lakra. “Stay sharp.”
He’d barely finished the warning when the cantina door swung open and a young Eickarie male stepped out into the alley, the rain cascading off the glistening band of black scales that curved over the top and sides of his otherwise mostly green face. He was dressed not in the usual brightly colored layered evening robes but dark, close-fitting slacks, low boots, and a loose serape jacket. “Good evening, Imperials,” he said in passable Basic. “May your tribe find joy.”
“May your tribe find wealth.” Twister gave the traditional reply, frowning as he notched up his helmet’s vision enhancers. It was hard to tell in the gloom, but he couldn’t see any of the color fluctuations in the orange facial highlights that conveyed most of the Eickaries’ emotional information. The young alien was calm and composed—not the usual reaction of a simple citizen suddenly and unexpectedly coming face to face with four Imperial stormtroopers.
Which implied either that the Eickarie was drunker than he had any right to be this early in the evening, or else that the encounter wasn’t as unexpected as it appeared. “May I ask what you’re doing here?” he asked the native.
The orange highlights turned a dark pink, the equivalent of an ironic smile. “Odd,” he said. “I was about to ask you the same question.”
He lifted a hand before Twister could answer. “But this is no place for a conversation,” he went on. “I am certain you would be more comfortable inside.”