Tuesday, 13 August 2019

1. Strikeforce Shantipole: Part One.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .
These are dark days for the Alliance. Using the new Nebulon-B escort frigate and its mighty armaments, the Empire has virtually ended all raids on cargo convoys. Without the spoils from Imperial convoys, Rebel supplies have become dangerously low. This could spell the end of the Rebellion.
But all is not lost. On a remote base in the Roche Asteroid Field, Commander Ackbar and his team desperately work to complete a new starfighter capable of neutralizing the Nebulon-B. Even now a team of brave Rebels approach the asteroid field, under orders to pick up Ackbar, his team, and the starfighter prototypes and return them safely to Alliance High Command. If they fail, the struggle for freedom may indeed be over. . .
Vora Vasch felt entirely at home at the controls of the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’, the YT-1300 Light Freighter her team had been assigned for this mission. She’d logged many hours of flight time on this type of vessel, and she could fly it with her eyes closed. In the co-pilot seat next to her slumped a young human, his pressure suit seeming at least one size too large for his lanky frame. As she glanced over at him, Vora grinned at the petulant look on his face. ‘Come on, Vora! When’s it going to be my go? You promised me I could fly through the asteroid field!’ Vora smiled at him and pulled on the controls of the ship, sending it into a crazy spiral around a lazily tumbling asteroid. Despite himself, the younger human let out a whoop of glee and Vora laughed out loud, her Twilek tentacles swinging from side to side. Behind them both, a metallic form braced itself against the bulkhead whilst shouts of alarm came from further back in the ship’s crew compartment. ‘Observation: Meatbags Vora Vasch and Glave Gizarm are happy, but the other meatbags are not. Why is this?’ As a reprogrammed Imperial Assassin Droid, H4-3T (or ‘Hate’ as it was called) was well-versed in the anatomy and physiology of most humanoids and how best to render them messily inoperative, but the psychology of living beings remained beyond it. Not that this bothered it overmuch, but it liked to learn new things all the same.
‘Come on, Hate’ yelled the young human, ‘going fast is fun!’. Unlike the rest of the crew, Glave Gizarm hadn’t had any bad experiences of the Empire when growing up. In fact, he’d had a peaceful upbringing. He’d only joined the Rebellion because they were short of pilots and because the discipline was usually pretty relaxed. Glave didn’t like authority or people who stopped him having fun.
As he spoke, two angry faces peered into the cockpit, one of them talking rapidly in his own complex language. The speaker was a member of the diminutive humanoid species known as the Ewok. To many humans, their inquisitive manner and resemblance to a traditional child’s toy meant that they were rarely taken seriously. But this crew had seen Kibu the Ewok in combat. He was a skilled hunter, adept at laying traps and ambushes to bring down much larger foes. And when his foes were brought down to his level, he was merciless. He’d only become part of the team after they’d landed on his homeworld of Endor; his natural (some would say uncontrollable) inquisitiveness led to the stowaway being found by the crew asleep and surrounded by empty ration packs, long after they’d blasted through an Imperial blockade with no plans to return. The story of the final crew member was somewhat similar; Frost-Bow likewise hailed from a low-technology society on a backwater world. Like many such places, the Empire had taken the resources they needed by force, devastating both the ecology and the lives of the tough natives. Frost-Bow had developed a deep hatred for the Empire and now fought it using his trusty bow and sword. Kibu and Frost-Bow had developed a close friendship and often fought side-by-side, yelling war-cries in their native tongues.
The team had quickly become a legend throughout the local Alliance network, their ability to move fast and hit hard proving invaluable in the type of insurgency warfare the Rebels were becoming increasingly reliant on. After their last raid on an Imperial black site engaged in testing bacteriological weapons, the team had been given the callsign ‘Wraith’ for their ability to pass unseen through Imperial lines.
Suddenly, the ‘Kestrel’s proximity alert klaxon began to howl. ‘TIE fighters!’ yelled Vora. ‘Battle-stations, everyone!’. As the crew rushed to their places, three of the dreaded Imperial starfighters emerged from the shadow of a large asteroid. Ignoring the Imperial patrol leader’s orders to heave to, Vora sent their ship twisting and jinking towards the denser asteroid field ahead. Whilst the pilot concentrated on keeping them in one piece, Hate worked the deflector shield controls whilst reminding everyone that it, unlike them, could function perfectly well in vacuum. Meanwhile, Glave and Frost-Bow manned the laser cannons, in Frost-Bow’s case whilst receiving enthusiastic help from an excited Kibu.
A short, sharp battle ensued, with the hapless Imperial pilots being led a merry dance through the tumbling asteroids. Vora pushed the Kestrel into ever-more terrifying twists and turns whilst the others peppered the Imperials with (mostly) accurate laser fire. Finally, the last TIE exploded into motes of burning dust as it impacted the side of an asteroid as had the rest of the patrol. Finally, the crew could carry on to their destination; a secret Rebel base, deep in the densest part of the Roche Asteroid Field.
The co-ordinates led them to an hourglass-shaped asteroid; points of light penetrated the asteroid's outer crust, highlighting air vents and repulsor-beam projectors. As the ‘Kestrel’ circled the spinning chunk of rock, the crew noticed an opening in the asteroid's side. Clearly a hangar bay, several figures could be seen moving about within its lighted interior. As Vora moved the ship in to final approach, the com unit crackled to life. "Freighter, identify yourself immediately and state your business." Whilst Vora gave the appropriate codes, Glave began to hop from foot to foot, a pained expression on his face. With a sigh, Vora eased herself out of the pilot’s seat to allow the human pilot to take the stick. Unfortunately, his excitement got the better of him and he managed to scraped off several layers of paint against the hangar entrance before settling the ship unsteadily in the centre of the hangar. Whilst the rest of the crew pointedly pretended not to notice, a voice came from the control room, clearly choking back a laugh. ‘"Nice flying, freighter pilot. Park her anywhere. Feel free to stretch your legs. An escort will arrive momentarily."
The small hangar bay appeared functional and efficient, a control tower jutting out over the hangar deck. Apparently carved and hollowed out of the natural rock, the bay barely held their ship. While the ceiling rose high overhead, the walls remained uncomfortably close. A mixture of instrument panels, cooling veins, and patches of natural reddish-brown stone covered the bay walls and a wide stone passage led out of the chamber. As the crew emerged from their ship, they were approached by a group of insectoid creatures. Kibu, with his great knowledge of alien species, identified them as Verpine; a peaceful race with a talent for working with technology, particularly starships.
After a brief but frustrating discussion with the lead Verpine, a large adult named Suskafoo, another figure, dressed in a simple brown tunic and matching cape, emerged from the corridor and strode towards them. A member of the aquatic race known as the Quarren, the newcomer addressed the Verpine sharply in their own tongue. Chirping back angrily, the Verpine took their leave. After watching the Verpine disappear down the corridor, the Quarren turned to the crew. "Greetings, I am Lieutenant Salin Glek, aide to Commander Ackbar," he said in halting Basic. "I trust you have a prime reason for jeopardizing the security of this base?" A further bad-tempered exchange took place, during which Glek demanded they turn over any information to him rather than Ackbar. Finally, a battered-looking human entered the hangar, interrupting an enraged Kibu whilst kicking Glek in the shins. Identifying himself as Pollard, another of Ackbar’s aides, he then conducted them to the base’s command center.
Across the room, hunched intently over a display terminal, were Suskafoo, the two young Verpine, and a Mon Calamari. Pollard led the crew toward them, announcing "Commander Ackbar. These are the messengers." Ackbar welcomed them but was disturbed to hear about their run-in with an Imperial patrol. Ignoring Glek’s biting comments about how the team had probably  led the Imperials straight to the base, the crew handed over the holo-disk to Ackbar. Noting the contents were eyes-only, Ackbar dismissed the room’s occupants before viewing it. On it, Mon Mothma herself ordered Ackbar to proceed with his B-Wing prototypes to join up with a Rebel fleet in the Pothor Sector; moreover, the crew were ordered to stay with Ackbar and ensure his safe arrival at the designated rendezvous point.
When the Alliance staff were finally readmitted to the command centre, the crew immediately noticed that Glek was absent. When Pollard mumbled something about seeing him heading in the direction of the hangar bay, the crew turned as one towards the bank of monitor panels showing the interior of the base; to their shock, the hangar bay was empty. There was no sign of Glek, or the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’ for that matter!
Suddenly, warning sirens began to scream throughout the asteroid complex and a voice boomed from the command center com unit. "Hangar bay to Commander Ackbar! Sir, an unidentified craft is approaching this asteroid. It's closing fast, and it doesn't respond to our signals. Wait. . . it's an Imperial assault shuttle! Repeat, an Imperial. . ." Two explosions rocked the base, showering dust and small rocks on the crew. The screens monitoring the asteroid's interior flashed white and flicked off. Turning to Pollard, "There's no way we can hold out against firepower of that magnitude. We just don't have enough soldiers. Give the evacuation signal."
Pollard nodded and turned, shouting into his com unit, "Emergency evacuation! All personnel immediately report to the life-boat bay. This is no drill!" The base shuddered as the assault shuttle continued its bombardment. With each explosion, the lights flickered ominously.
Ackbar regarded the crew, his huge eyes wide. "If I don't retrieve the two-man B-wing configuration files from this computer, then everything we've worked for will be lost. I need time!"
(To be continued…)

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