Operation Deathmarch, Part I
8 months BBY
Alen frowned and arched an eyebrow at his brother's pessimistic assessment. "I was going to say unexpected."
Xel snorted. "Which part, the fact that we just found an empty plateau or that the trail's cold?"
The Jedi closed his eyes and scrunched up his face in concentration as Iola slowly shook her head in the background, wisely keeping silent. "I wouldn't say that," he vocalized quietly.
"Oh," Xel said simply, falling silent as he let his brother do his work. He took the time to double-check his weapons and their power and gas counters, his lightsaber following a moment later as he checked the charge level of its overclocked power cell.
"How many times can you check your weapons before it gets old?"
Xel arched an eyebrow at Iola behind his faceplate. "Never. I grew up learning to do it, so it's actually soothing for me."
Her eyebrows rose somewhat before she shrugged. "Hm."
She shrugged again. "Nothing."
Xel turned back to Alen, his usually impeccable patience remarkably short on this particular day. "So, anything?"
Alen pursed his lips tightly for a few moments before opening his eyes and standing. "A remarkable amount, actually. The rebels were here recently."
"Okay, yeah, I think that was pretty much a given," Xel said somewhat agitatedly.
The Jedi arched an eyebrow at him. "My point is, they went through here in a hurry. I'm not even sure they meant to send these coordinates exactly, just that they needed to get a relative location."
"You mean they were running from something."
"Okay," Iola said, "but what exactly were they trying to transmit the location of, them or the R&D center?"
Alen shook his head. "Unclear."
"Well do you know which direction they went?"
He nodded and waved them over. "Follow me."
The trio trekked over ridge after ridge as they followed their resident hound across one of Lannik's more mountainous regions. The planet was, on the whole, arid and dry, although there were certain forested areas that provided some much-needed relief. They were, of course, nowhere near any of those, and although Xel was perfectly comfortable in his climate-controlled armor, the fact was that he didn't look forward to spending the next few hours in this monotonous environment. As it turned out, they didn't have to.
A blaster shot rang out from somewhere among the rocks, and Xel shoved his armored left forearm between the bolt and Iola's back, the beskar blocking the shot as he drew his right pistol and returned fire. A high-pitched yelp answered his attack, and he nodded to Alen, who drew his Bryar and approached the source of the fire.
"Come out now," the Jedi ordered sternly, "hands where I can see them."
Slowly and with a groan, a slightly shorter man with light brown hair and green eyes limped out of a rocky crag, dust covering his features and clothes, a blaster hanging loosely in his raised right hand.
"Want to explain why you were shooting at us?"
The young man, maybe nineteen or twenty, gulped before he answered. "I…I thought you were Imperials," he said, voice surprisingly deep for his age.
"And why would you think that?" Xel asked gruffly, his voice coming out even harsher through his helmet's filters.
The man glanced nervously at him. "'Cause you're not the first Mandalorian mercenary I've seen in the last three days."
Xel's eyes narrowed behind his helmet as he felt the truth radiating off his target, blasters lowering as Alen and Iola did the same. "Well, we're not Imperials. I'm Xel Caden, and this is my team. Commander Hile Tobin sent us to find you and your people, Mr…" He thought for a moment, recalling the file of a man matching his description. "Riilos."
Eran Riilos visibly relaxed at his declaration, though he still eyed the Mando suspiciously. "Three days. About time they sent some help." He groaned again as his leg's injury flared in pain. "Though not the kind of help I was hoping for."
"Hey," Xel chided, "you shot first."
Riilos sighed. "When you're working alone in Imperial-infested territory, you learn to shoot first and ask questions later."
Alen leapt down to where he was and slung his arm over his shoulder, acting as a human crutch to get him to higher ground before helping him sit on a nearby rock. "Why are you working alone?" he asked as he pulled a medkit from his belt and began tending to the wound.
Eran frowned. "We were played. The contact who warned us about the Empire's operation here sold us out, sent us right into a trap."
"So they're dead?" Xel asked.
"I—I don't know. Two are for sure, the rest…" He choked. "I just don't know."
The Mando's eyes narrowed at his strong emotions. There's someone on his team…
"What happened exactly?" Iola asked.
Eran seemed to size her up for a moment, face screwing up in confusion before he answered. "We were sent to a crag in a nearby cliff, maybe two miles that way." He motioned vaguely south. "Contact said a bunch of weird shipments of biological and hazardous materials were being sent there."
"And all you found was an ambush?"
"Well…no. We found the facility all right, but when we were perched on a nearby mountain, with a considerable distance between us and them, we were ambushed. Imperial troop transport descended out of the clouds, and a dozen stormtroopers dropped in right on top of us. We managed to kill four before the two I mentioned were gunned down as we fled. There were only four of us left." He looked away and frowned. "They picked us off one by one, separating us so we couldn't consolidate force."
"How did you get away?" Alen asked, putting the finishing touched on his bacta patch.
"I fell, took a nasty tumble down a hill. When I came to, I was alone under a pile of rocks, and it was dark. Imps searched for hours. I could see the floodlights scanning the whole area. When they were gone, I tried to find the rest of my team, see if any of them escaped, but in the last two days, there's been no sign of them."
The Jedi wore a frown of concentration. "Do you think you could take us back to your perch?"
Eran stood with a hiss of pain, testing his leg and finding it relatively solid. "Yeah, but I don't fancy that long a walk with this leg."
"It's really that bad?" Alen asked before shrugging and kneeling without waiting for an answer. "Well in that case." He put his hands on the man's leg and closed his eyes, focusing hard and smiling as Riilos took a quick intake of breath, his pain vanishing in mere seconds.
"W—What did you do?"
Alen rose to his feet and smiled wider. "See for yourself."
Warily, the man pulled up his perforated pant leg, peeling off the bacta patch and staring in open shock as he saw a perfect patch of new skin, stripped of hair and slightly pink from the newness of its cells, but still perfectly solid. "How—How did you—?"
Alen lifted a fold of his robe, revealing the lightsaber hanging from his belt.
If possible, Eran's green eyes widened even further. "Kriffing hell," he breathed out. "I didn't think there were any Jedi left."
"Not many," Alen said sadly, "but we do still exist."
"If they sent a Jedi here…Command must think this is more important than I thought."
Xel sighed and looked away. Of course that's why they sent us here. His gaze drifted to Alen. They trust the Jedi. He sighed again and shook his momentary jealousy off. The result is the same, so I shouldn't complain. His brother turned to face him, obviously sensing something off. Xel gave him a reassuring wave, then turned back to Eran. "Well, if we're gonna find this place, we better move now."
"Right. Follow me."
1 hour later
"When you said this facility was in the crag of a mountainside, I didn't expect it to actually be built into one."
Eran smirked slightly. "Gotta love Imperial ingenuity. The heavy deposits of dense rocks keep any electronic signatures from showing up on scanners. Probably life signs too."
"Smart," Xel spat out, activating his helmet's macrobinoculars as they all laid prone to spy out the facility. "Their guards aren't quite so hidden. I count five snipers at least, plus a squad of stormtroopers guarding the main causeway that leads in. Not gonna be easy getting in there."
"Not easy? If the Jedi weren't here, I'd say it's kriffing impossible."
Xel rolled his eyes heavily, and as if Alen could sense it, he turned to Eran and spoke. "Sergeant Riilos, I…have a confession to make." At his inquisitive expression, he continued. "I'm afraid your unquestioning faith in me may be a little misplaced. At this point, I'm only a Padawan."
The man's eyebrows furrowed. "You mean—"
"I'm still just a student. Good, but not unbeatable." He sighed heavily. "No Jedi is."
Xel scowled slightly.
"If anything, he has a better chance of getting us in than I do." Alen nodded at Xel's back.
"I…I see." Riilos looked less than pleased as he frowned into his macrobinoculars, eyes flickering over to Xel's armored form.
"The way I see it," Xel said, ignoring his stare, "we only get in if there's a distraction." He pulled a small detpack off his belt, then two more, handing them both to Eran.
Green eyes widened as he stared at the explosives. "What do you want me to do with these, suicide bomb them?"
Xel couldn't keep a groan of exasperation from leaving his throat. "Of course not, di'kut. I want you to plant one on the road on our side of the causeway and the other two on a rock formation that overlooks that spot. Detonate the one on the road first to get their attention, and when the stormies come to investigate, detonate the others and drop the mountain on them. While they're busy performing search and rescue, we slip in via zipline and take out those snipers, then make our way inside."
Eran thought about it for a moment. "Huh. It's actually a solid plan."
"Don't sound so surprised," Xel muttered as he faced the facility again. Another half-minute passed before his t-visor faced Riilos again. "Well, you gonna get moving or what?"
The sergeant blinked rapidly before frowning and getting up.
"Iola," Alen said, "back him up and keep a lookout. Make sure you're not detected."
"Roger," she answered, joining Eran in his trek down the mountainside.
Xel could feel eyes on the back of his head as he continued to observe the base's security. "What?" he asked irritably.
"That was harsh."
"What, calling him an idiot?"
"Your whole end of the conversation."
"He doesn't trust me."
"And with that attitude, he never will."
"Do I look like I give a shab?"
"But seriously, he is kind of an idiot."
"I mean, honestly, just because you're a Jedi, he assumed the mission's a success before it even starts? Those kinds of presumptions get you killed in the field because you let your guard down."
He spun around to face him. "What?!"
Alen pointed at one of the base's upper levels, expression grim.
Xel turned to follow his line of sight and activated his macros again, frowning deeply and exhaling audibly as he spotted the source of his brother's discontent. "He did say I wasn't the only Mando mercenary here."
"Any idea who he is?"
"Not a clue. Why would you think I would?"
Alen shrugged. "Mandos do tend to stick together."
"Within our clans and family friends, maybe, but not everyone on Mandalore knows each other. Hell, a lot of us aren't even on Mandalore."
"Right. Dumb thought."
Xel exhaled hard again. "Would be great if I knew him, 'cause then I could either try to talk him down or at the very least know his weaknesses and tactics. Whoever this guy is, he's gonna complicate things quite a bit."
Dark blue eyes perused a green-and-brown armor shell, the man inside observing the scenery from the observation deck on the facility's top floor, arms crossed intimidatingly. He was at least 6'2" with quite a bit of bulk to fill that frame. He could only imagine what it would be like getting hit by one of his fists and hope that wouldn't happen.
"It's done," a voice said from behind them.
"Good work," Xel said genuinely, turning to the causeway and spotting the explosives with his macros. He tapped a few keys on his left gauntlet, activating the frequency for the road-mounted explosive. "And here we…go." His right index pushed the detonation key, causing a bright flash and loud explosion to engulf that location. His eyes drifted to the right across the bridge and saw that his detpack had the desired effect, a half dozen stormtroopers moving to investigate. When they were in range of the man-made avalanche, he detonated the other two, dropping several tons of rock in their general direction.
Reaching for his belt, the Mando pulled out his two-directional liquid cable launcher and fired it, one end latching onto a boulder at their back, the other hitting a support post some twelve feet above the snipers' catwalks. He gave the cable a good yank before hooking in with the blunt edge of his knife, the others using proper clips as they followed his example. He raised his empty hand and gave them a silent countdown from three, launching off when it finished and zipping across the gap. A scout trooper's vision flickered in their direction as Xel rapidly closed the distance, and he sensed the man's alarm in the Force as he put his entire weight forward and reduced friction as much as possible.
Using his forward momentum, he swung himself off the cable and through the air, throwing his knife and watching as the blade pierced the man's armor and sunk into his chest. The white-clad body fell limp as Xel's boots hit the deck, retrieving his knife a moment later as the others dropped in behind him. He gave each of them a nod before moving toward the front of the base, crouching down to reduce visibility and spotting two squads of stormtroopers heading toward the smoke and dust-covered detonation zone. Xel reached for his left gauntlet and angled his left arm toward one of the snipers, his helmet's antenna angling down and HUD giving him a targeting sight.
Silent as death, a high-velocity, tungsten-tipped dart flew into the gap between the trooper's armor plates, puncturing his neck and severing his brain stem, killing him instantly and painlessly. He repeated this process with the other three, then made his way to the snipers' access door after taking a security key off one of their corpses. As the door hissed open, he drew his right blaster, left gauntlet still raised as they cleared the entrance. He held his left fist up to halt them at an intersection, then turned to face them.
"We should split up into teams. We'll cover more ground that way. Look for any terminals that might be linked to their records. We're looking for intelligence on what they're developing here."
"And maybe on where they're keeping my team," Eran said before he could stop himself. He seemed to tense up for a moment as he looked at Xel, and the Mando wondered why for a moment before nodding to him. Riilos relaxed.
"I'll go with him," Alen said to Xel. "You take Iola."
Xel nodded and motioned the girl forward as they split off in separate directions.
5 minutes later
"Can I ask you something?"
Alen glanced over at Eran. "Sure."
"How do a Jedi and a Mandalorian end up working together? I mean, don't you guys kind of hate each other?"
"A Jedi does not know hate."
The sergeant shook his head. "That's not what I mean. Your two factions have been at odds for what, centuries?"
"Millennia, actually, but that's hardly the point. Our only dispute with the Mandalorians is their proclivity toward warfare, especially when they side against us. In most cases, the Mandos' only reason for fighting us is the honor of it."
Eran's face scrunched up in confusion as they rounded another corner, eyes peeled for any research terminals. "So, they fight Jedi not because they particularly dislike them, but 'cause they respect them?"
Alen shrugged. "That's the way Xel explained it to me. Of course, some are more embittered toward the Jedi than others, but that's true of everyone these days, not just Mandalorians."
The pair fell silent as they continued onward, Alen's ice blue eyes finding something interesting and hand motioning Riilos over. He tabbed the computer on, slicing into it almost effortlessly and bringing up the last file accessed. It was a security feed…of a prison cell.
Eran's eyes went wide. "Linn," he breathed out in a near-whisper.
Alen glanced at him. "Your team?"
He gulped and nodded slowly.
The Jedi put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "We'll get them back."
"Is there any way to trace where that feed is coming from?"
As Alen continued to slice deeper into the computer's systems, Eran continued to stare at the camera feed, tears coming to his eyes as relief flooded him. The Jedi wondered at this for a moment before his comlink beeped.
"Have you found anything?"
"Not in the way of intelligence, but we have a live camera feed showing Sergeant Riilos' missing people. They're alive."
"Any ideas where they're being held?"
Eran stared at the comlink disbelievingly at the concern in his tone.
"I'm running a trace right now," Alen answered. "Should be done in a matter of minutes."
"Acknowledged. Keep me posted. Caden out."
Alen nodded even though Xel couldn't see him, then started searching the computer for other intel while his trace program ran in the background. "So why the surprise?"
Eran blinked twice. "What?"
"You're surprised at my brother's concern for your people. Why?"
"I—I don't know. Maybe it's just misconceptions about Mandalorians. I mean, they're supposed to be ruthless killing machines."
"Unfortunately, that's a fairly common opinion."
"Sounds to me like you almost admire them." To his surprise, the Jedi smiled.
"In some ways, I do. And that Mando in particular."
"Which brings me back to my earlier point. How did you two end up working together?"
"It's a long story, and not exactly public knowledge. If you don't mind, Xel and I would like to keep it that way for now."
He shrugged. "I can keep a secret."
Alen shook his head.
"As you wish, Master Jedi."
He winced noticeably at the title before he saw something of considerable note on the terminal's screen. "Interesting." The encryption on the file was quickly broken as the trace reached 90% completion.
The Jedi shook his head. "Cargo manifest. Probably the same shipments your contact listed as missing." He tabbed through the file.
"How does that help us? We already know what was sent here."
"But not where they put it. This manifest has all that information." Alen inserted a drive into the terminal and began a download of both the facility's schematics and corresponding shipment destinations. His trace program finished a moment after the download ended. "Got 'em."
A holomap of the entire planet rose from a projector to the right of the screen, pinpointing the location of the facility they were in and drawing a glowing line to another location halfway across the planet.
"Whoa," Eran said, eyebrows furrowing. "What?"
"Intel said the Empire just had this one facility on the planet."
"So they have a prison complex." He shrugged. "What's the big deal?"
"That's not just a prison," Eran said, a note of alarm leaking into his voice as he accessed other functions on the terminal. Suddenly, the holomap started lighting up with all sorts of dots all across Lannik.
"Oh Force. This isn't just a remote research world. It's a kriffing staging area."
"We have to get this intel back to the Alliance."
Alen nodded swiftly. "Right." He started another download, but before it was even half-finished, a half-dozen stormtroopers flooded the room.
Eran managed to pull off a few shots before the blue rings of an E-11 stun blast engulfed him and he dropped to the ground unconscious. Alen spun toward them, his body keeping the drive from sight as he ignited his lightsaber. The troopers froze for a moment at the sight of the Jedi weapon before angling all their weapons at him. He couldn't defend this many angles at once, not at this close range. His teeth gritted and eyebrows knitted as he slowly lowered the weapon and thumbed it off, reaching out with the Force and pulling the drive from its socket, surreptitiously tucking it into a fold of his robe.
As they moved in to take his saber and slap binders on his hands, Alen activated his comlink with the Force, muting its speakers and only allowing the earpiece to function.
"So how does it feel to capture a Jedi, bucketheads?"
One of the stormtroopers backhanded Alen in the cheek, leaving behind a large red mark as he recovered with a growl.
"Oh shab. Hang on, vod. I'm coming."
"Oh no you don't," Alen spat, giving the shin plate of the stormtrooper holding his hands a weak kick.
The same trooper from before smacked his jaw with the butt of his E-11 just hard enough to avoid breaking it.
"Alen, there is no way I'm not going to get you." Xel was getting angry.
"Cooperate, Jedi, or this gets ugly."
"You won't kill me," Alen answered calmly, jaw aching. "Not yet. I'm more valuable alive."
"Maybe to the common bounty hunter."
"And to your commander? The Mandalorian? I don't think he'll take too kindly to having his one chance of avoiding boredom slain before he's gotten a crack at me." The Jedi could tell this man was scowling behind his helmet and smirked internally, knowing he'd hit the mark.
"Move," the stormtrooper ordered sharply, yanking him toward the door.
Alen complied, hesitating and fighting them just a little as he focused with the Force and Gripped the drive in his robe before reaching out over his Bond.
"I'm here. What the hell is going on?"
"The Imperials must have detected my hack. Eran is down but alive, and they're taking us prisoner at the moment. I have a data drive containing intelligence that must make it into Alliance hands. I'm leaving it where I drop my comlink."
"Got it," Xel thought, "voice" reluctant. "Wait, did you say 'comlink' and 'drop'?"
"Get the drive, Xel. I can handle this."
"The hell you can! I'm coming to get you!"
"No!" Alen ordered, scowling slightly. "Get the drive and give Tobin everything that's on it. If what I found is right, he'll bring half the Alliance down on this planet."
"Please, brother. Do this for me. I promise we'll find each other again." He could feel Xel scowling.
"All right…but if you break that promise, so help me, jetii, I'll find a way to bring you back from the dead just so I can kill you myself."
Alen had to restrain himself from smiling, but sent his feelings over the link. "Understood."
As both rebels were unceremoniously dumped in the cargo hold of an Imperial shuttle, Alen closed his eyes and Focused the Force toward calming his nerves, feeling a sense of inexplicable peace wash over him as he fell into a deep meditation. See you on the other side…vod.
1 hour later
The Kandosii'tal, Lannik
"And you're sure about the validity of this?"
Xel frowned deeply. "My partner staked his life on it."
Tobin pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded, noting the sharp tone to his voice. "Understood. Rebel Command will not be happy about this, but it's good that we know now. I'm sure it won't take much convincing to get them to send reinforcements to Lannik, but it will take time."
Xel nodded stiffly.
"While you're waiting, I want you to recon the facility where our people are being held and see if you can find a way in. You are under no circumstances to enter alone. Once our forces arrive, we'll make breaking them loose our highest priority."
"I doubt Alliance Command will see things the same way, considering the other installations on Lannik."
Commander Tobin frowned and looked away from the camera. "Maybe so, but I won't abandon them. I promise you that. I'll send my own men in if I have to."
Xel gulped slightly and nodded, his respect for the man skyrocketing. "Understood, Commander. I'll do what I can from here. Just…get here soon."
He nodded. "Will do. Tobin out."
The hologram winked out of existence as Xel leaned against the projector heavily, Iola at his back and watching him concernedly.
It was a quiet statement, a whispered phrase, but Iola still picked up on it. "What?"
He barely gave her a glance. "Alen. He was a fool to give himself up like that. I could've stopped them, could've broken them both loose."
"And then we would've had the whole base's worth of sentries to deal with. His choice was twofold: protecting Eran from reprisals should we have intervened and drawing them into a false sense of security so we could find the drive and get out safely."
Xel resolutely refused to meet her gaze, knowing deep down she was right. "Haar'chak."
"Don't know what that means, but it doesn't sound pretty." She put a hand on his shoulder. "You heard Commander Tobin. Right now, we have to focus on that prison complex, focus on finding a way to spring our friends loose when the time comes."
Xel's head cocked as he truly looked at the girl for the first time, gently probing her mind with the Force as his eyes widened slightly. This is more than just a job to her. She cares about him…and me, for some reason. The Mando straightened as his jaw set and head nodded.
Five minutes later, he had retrieved his helmet and was sorting through what to take with him on their recon mission, Iola flying the Kandosii'tal to the prison, as they'd decided to take just one ship to avoid suspicion. His eyes alighted on a metal cylinder sitting in one of the drawers of his workbench as he pulled it open to get a replacement plate for his jetpack's fuel line. His lips parted before closing as he gulped hard, eyes squeezing shut as he blocked out painful memories before opening and staring at the source of the disturbance. His head turned right and right arm rose, the red symbol of Mandalore on his pauldron still blazing as brightly as always.
Xel turned back to the workbench and reached down, grasping the cylinder and clipping it to the left side of his belt, walking out of the armory and rejoining Iola in the cockpit. She glanced over at him and smiled slightly at his entrance, her eyes darting to his belt and widening slightly at the new addition. He seated himself in the captain's chair and laid his helmet on the dashboard as he leaned back, more than content to let her fly. When he felt her gaze on him again, he pulled Telia's lightsaber off his belt and held it in front of him, eyes tracing its surface.
"When there isn't a body, Mandalorians remember fallen loved ones by their armor pieces." He was silent a while, gloved thumb tracing over the weapon's surface. "She had no armor…but this will more than suffice." He looked over at her and saw an expression of pity on her face, wincing at the sight before accepting her silent support and reaching over to tap his right pauldron. "This was my father's."
Her lips parted slightly as she continued to stare at him, then closed as she returned her eyes to the skies in front of her. "I'm sorry. Losing both parents…it has to be hard on you, especially since you knew them both so closely."
Xel frowned at his feet. "Not as well as I'd have liked to." To his surprise, Iola reached across the gap between them and squeezed his right hand. He stared at the appendage absently, fingers slowly closing around hers as he breathed heavily. The contact broke a moment later. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
She turned to him confusedly. "For what?"
"For how I was when we first met, when Alen wanted to take you with him. I misjudged you. Badly."
Iola smiled sweetly. "Don't worry. Happens to the best of us."
"Which I most certainly am not."
From the volume at which he said it, she couldn't be sure whether he said it to her or himself.