Operation Deathmarch, Part IV
1 hour later
The Kandosii'tal, Lannik
7 months BBY
Xel turned in his seat as he let the ship's autopilot carry them toward Alen's shuttle, standing up and striding into the armory to strip off his armor plates. Linn, with some fascination, stood watching him in the doorway, forehead creased with a frown of concentration.
"You know," the Mando said as he laid a gauntlet on his workbench, "if I were anyone else, I'd say all that staring is creepy."
The younger Riilos blinked and blushed a lovely shade of red, especially when Xel gave her a toothy grin. "Well, excuse me for being curious," she answered defensively, crossing her arms to complete the picture.
"I did say if I were anyone else. I get enough stares while in armor to know it fascinates people." He cringed at the sizable ding in his chestplate where Tenau's Verpine had hit before laying it down. "Not many people get to see me out of it."
Linn smirked. "Then I should consider myself lucky." Her smirk faded slowly as her expression became solemn. "In more ways than one." Green met blue. "If you hadn't been there…" The girl shuddered. "I don't even wanna think about it. Don't want to think about what it would have done to Eran."
Xel frowned deeply. "I understand completely." He unstrapped his jetpack and laid in next to his armor plates, removing his shin and thigh plates and stacking everything neatly before pulling cleaning agents and a rag from his toolbox. Damn that merc, he thought bitterly, dragging the rough cloth over the knothole in his chestplate. "So what next?"
Linn's eyebrows shot up. "You're asking me?"
"Right. Eran's your team's leader."
"I don't even think he knows."
A loud beeping came from the cockpit, prompting both of them to rejoin the rest of the exhausted passengers. Xel pressed a button that activated his holoprojector.
Hile Tobin's pale blue figure appeared and wore a tight smile. "Mr. Caden."
"Commander Tobin," he responded respectfully.
"I just heard from my people. Said you evacuated them from the prison before it went up in flames." Tobin gave him a nod. "Exemplary job getting them out of there. Getting all of them out of there. Not a single man or woman was lost."
Xel tipped his head. "Just doing my job."
Tobin shook his head. "Hardly. Your job was to rescue my people, no matter the cost. You put two of them out of danger knowing you'd be increasing your own risk."
Xel's face flashed surprise.
"Tannis and Cole told me what you did. You think they'd forget that?"
He remained silent.
"Regardless, you've done a great thing today. I'm afraid, sadly, that you're not yet done." Tobin clicked something on his end, sending an image of Lannik to their end. "We were poring over those files you sent, and discovered an alarming number of military research centers and factories all over the planet. They're building armor, weaponry, and other kit for an all-out assault on the Rebellion, codenamed Operation Deathmarch."
By now, the entirety of the crew was standing or sitting nearby, listening with rapt attention. Funny, Xel thought in slight amusement, I've known most of these people for less than a week and I'm already thinking of them as my crew.
"What are the specifics of this 'operation'?" Eran questioned.
Tobin smiled at him warmly. "Sergeant Riilos. Good to see you in one piece."
Eran smiled back slightly and nodded for him to continue.
"As of yet, our intel is still vague. The encryption on the file the Consultant sent us is pretty hefty; got two ships' worth of analysts working on it and after a week all we have are the locations of Imperial facilities." Red dots appeared all over the Lannik image. "Specific functions and goals are still unknown."
"That's what you need us for, isn't it?" Xel asked.
Tobin nodded. "In good time. I have another three commando teams headed to Lannik now. Alliance Command is definitely taking this seriously."
"That's a relief," Linn muttered under her breath, crossing her arms.
Xel raised an eyebrow before returning his attention to Tobin. "What do you need us to do in the meantime?"
Another dot, this one green, appeared on the display. "Rendezvous with the squads already there and set up a base camp in the mountains, somewhere tucked out of sight."
"Roger," Eran answered with a crisp salute. "We'll get it done, sir."
Tobin saluted back. "Once it's done, see to your men, Sergeant. Make sure they're at 100 percent when help arrives."
"Will do, sir. Thank you."
The Mando raised a hand. "Just Xel, sir, or Caden, if you insist on being formal."
Rather than being offended by the merc's interruption, Tobin chuckled slightly. "Of course. Make sure they get there safe."
"Actually, if there's nothing you need me and my crew for, I'd like to assist them in establishing that foothold."
Both the squad at his side and the commander raised their eyebrows. The latter chuckled again.
"Took the words right out of my mouth. After the week you've all been through, I can only imagine how much you'd like to rest."
Xel gave him a nod. "Thank you, Commander."
"One more thing." By both the way he said it and the almost grimacing expression on his face, the commander felt like he was treading on eggshells. "Until further notice, Sergeant Riilos and the remainder of his team are under the command of Mr. Caden."
Several jaws dropped in the room. Caden's, amazingly, wasn't one of them, though it desperately wanted to be.
"With all due respect, sir—" Eran started.
Tobin held up his hands to cut him off. "Don't argue with me, Sergeant."
"How can I not? I mean, it's not like I don't trust him to take care of us…" Eran looked at Xel earnestly. "I do. It's just…he's not even officially a part of the Alliance, a mercenary, and you want to put him in charge? How well do you think that's gonna go over with Command?"
"At this point," Tobin said somewhat agitatedly, "Command can suck Gundark eggs for all the help they've been. And I'm giving the orders, not them. If you trust him to get the job done, Riilos, then I don't see the problem, and no offense, but you're already down two men."
Eran looked down, face heating up. "Not my fault," he muttered.
"I know, but the fact is, Xel's proven he can get results, and until reinforcements arrive, I'm not willing to split up my assets on an Imperial-overrun world. The Consultant is in charge. For now."
Sergeant Riilos looked less than pleased, but nodded stiffly.
"Now if there's nothing else?"
No one spoke up.
"Then may the Force be with you."
Tobin's hologram winked out of existence a moment before Xel slumped into the pilot's seat, finally allowing his scowl to show.
Eran crossed his arms. "I'd have thought you'd be happier. I mean, you were already ordering me around before," he quipped.
"That was different," Xel muttered.
"Uh huh. Sure. And telling my sister to get on your ship?"
The Mando looked at him incredulously, mouth slightly open. "That was as a friend, or at the least a comrade, not an order!" Blue eyes could see a grin fighting for control of the older man's face, then rolled in realization as Xel pinched the bridge of his nose. "Oh, I get it," he deadpanned.
The room burst into laughter for the second time since their collective near-death experience.
"Yeah, yeah," Xel griped, "go ahead. Tease your new CO why don't you." He turned back to the controls and moved his hands over them almost absently. "See if I don't give you maintenance duty for the rest of the day," he muttered under his breath. Obviously, he wasn't quiet enough.
"Sure," Treyvan quipped from a bench, "if you want your ship to keel over on its next landing."
Xel glared at him.
He raised his hands placatingly. "Relax, I was just kidding."
Caden's expression softened. "In all seriousness though, why me? Why not Alen?" He motioned to the teen in question. "He is a Jedi after all."
"Perhaps," Alen responded in his annoying mystic tone, "but everyone here knows you're the one in charge of our little trio. And considering your experience in the field utterly dwarfs mine, I'd say that's a good thing."
"I wouldn't," Xel muttered darkly, eyes down.
Both Alen and Iola's expressions changed subtly.
"Look," the Jedi said softly, "I'm the Jedi, but you're the soldier. Right now, we need a soldier, someone who can think both tactically and objectively in the heat of a fight."
"Not sure the latter really applies to me," Xel admitted.
Alen grimaced at the reminder. "Regardless, I still think you're the better choice for the job, and since Tobin agrees, it's out of our hands."
Xel raised an eyebrow, then turned to face the rest of the crew. "Just so you all know, I don't really take orders very well, so…if anyone cares to take my position, feel free to speak up."
No one spoke for a while until Eran's quiet voice was heard, his expression grim. "Well…considering I got almost half my team killed last time I was in command…"
Linn put a hand on his shoulder as Xel gave him a knowing look.
"Trust me," the Mando said darkly, "I know the feeling." The ship began to descend as he took the controls and set them down next to the T-6. "First things first, though. Settling in."
3 hours later
Rebel encampment, Lannik
Xel gave the commando a nod as he released the tent support, allowing the rebels to handle the remaining preparations and ducking into his own shelter, the camouflaged shack much less high-profile than his ship. His father's Blackjack sat against a crate of ammunition and power packs, the assault cannon he recovered from Voss laid across the top. His Mando APs sat in their customary holsters on his belt, as did his lightsaber and Telia's. He pulled the latter off its clip and sat on another crate, exhaling slowly and inspecting the weapon absently, mind blank.
"I noticed it before," a voice said from the entrance, "but I didn't quite believe it."
Xel didn't meet his appraising gaze. "You should have it." He looked up from the saber. "After all…you knew her your whole life." Caden held out the weapon in one hand, hilt-first. "You should have it."
Alen stared at the weapon, mouth slightly open, his expression unreadable. His left hand reached out to Xel's partially open hand…and pushed it back toward him. His right hand closed his brother's fingers around the hilt.
"But…" Xel stuttered, shaking his head slightly and meeting Alen's eyes. "Why?" He noticed red rimming those ice blue eyes, tears stinging at his own as his voice cracked. "Alen, I failed her. Twice. She's dead because I wasn't fast or strong enough." Xel broke eye contact and stared at the weapon, curling his fingers around it hard. "A better son would have saved her." A long, uncomfortable silence passed.
"A better son?"
The question was so soft and broken, Xel almost mistook it for the wind.
"A better son?" Alen repeated, fists clenching at his sides. He turned and leaned back against a wall, staring up at the ceiling as glistening orbs streamed down his face. A sardonic smirk made its way to his lips. "Xel…you were there. Both times, you were there."
Caden just kept staring at him in confusion. "And I failed, yes."
"No," the Jedi breathed out, pacing and pinching the bridge of his nose, liquid falling from his cheeks. "You don't understand, Xel." He met his brother's eyes. "You were there." He paused for a moment. "I wasn't."
Xel's jaw dropped slightly.
Alen slumped back into a seat, fingers spearing through his two-inch hair. "You're right. I knew her my whole life, but when it came down to it, it was you who was there for her, not me." He smirked sardonically. "A better son?" He looked up at Xel. "If you're a bad son, Xel, then I'm atrocious."
"Alen," Xel breathed out, hands running through his own hair as he paced. "Shab."
"The bottom line," Alen choked, "is that it's not your fault. It's not mine either. That—" he pointed square at Telia's saber, "—is all on the Sith."
Xel stayed silent, standing and facing his brother, arms at his sides.
"So keep it," the Jedi added. "Keep it as a reminder. It's not your fault."
Caden stared at the weapon, eyes narrowed slightly before closing. "Thank you." He clipped it to his belt and crossed his arms. It's a reminder all right. Anger filled him once again even as he hid it from Alen.
The brothers faced the door, Alen's face dried and recomposed.
Treyvan En jerked his thumb outside the shelter. "The others are already assembled for a briefing."
"The others," Xel deadpanned. "Meaning?"
The Mando groaned slightly and rolled his eyes, marching toward the door. "All right, Al'ika, let's get this over with."
"Who?" En asked.
"Oh," Alen said, "it's just something he calls me on occasion."
Xel saw an opportunity and took it with a smirk. "It means 'little Alen' in Mando'a." Caden barely held in busting laughter at the crimson that filled his brother's face.
"He didn't need to know that," Alen said through clenched teeth.
The Mando just grinned. "It's a sign of affection," he added before walking off.
2 minutes later
The entire team was indeed assembled, as Xel and Alen found them, the former grinning and mentally arm-pumping at finally having their positions reversed with regard to teasing. The latter was still scowling a little, but suppressed it to put on a good face for the men…not that it fooled anyone for a second. Linn shot a smile in their direction as her brother approached the pair.
"Well, sir," he said, "what are your orders?"
Xel's smile faded instantly, replaced by an expression of grim focus, arms tucked over one another as he crossed them. Never been in charge of my own unit before. His eyes closed for a moment or two as he considered their next logical move before snapping open. "Specialties."
He uncrossed his arms. "I need to know your specialties, skill sets, whatever you want to call them. I need to know what I have at my disposal."
Eran looked at his former team and hesitated for a moment before speaking up. "Well, my 'expertise,' if you could call it that, lies in tactics and reconnaissance. I've also been known to pilot every once in a while."
The Weequay stood up. "Goros Ijul, demolitions and sabotage."
"Treyvan En, infiltration and elimination."
"Linn Riilos," the girl said at last, "supplies and requisition."
Xel noticed the slight red that tinged her cheeks and the way she averted her eyes. "So, you're our quartermaster." He gave her an approving nod. "Good. Wars are impossible to fight if logistics are shot to haran, and considering how outnumbered and outgunned we are, your job is going to be especially important."
Linn's jaw dropped slightly as she turned an even deeper shade of red.
Caden smiled. "Relax. You'll do fine."
The girl fidgeted. "Well, we're not exactly career military, so…"
"Riilos," he gently interrupted, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You'll do fine."
She gulped and nodded, meeting his gaze for barely a second before her eyes flitted away. "Yes sir."
Xel retracted his hand and sighed gently, looking around at his new team for a few moments. "I want you all to know that until further notice, 'speaking freely' is a right. If you have an idea, speak up. I don't care how farfetched or offhanded it seems. We're fighting a twenty-man war against the Empire right now, which means guerilla fighting, hiding in plain sight, and recovering intel for the assault force supposed to back us up." He smirked wryly. "And I can't very well do all the thinking on this team, now can I?"
That brought smiles to the rebels and a few chuckles.
"In all seriousness, though, I need your help, so don't be afraid to come to me with anything that comes up."
"Yes sir," they answered in chorus.
"What are your orders?" Eran asked again.
Xel tucked one arm under another, his right supporting his chin as he paced. "We need to establish recon of those Imperial facilities. I'll be sending you a data packet transmitted to us by Commander Tobin. Isolate anything that looks overly classified or important, because it probably means we need to know more. Eran, once we decide on a target, it'll be your responsibility to come up with a recon team among the commandos that are with us. En, Ijul, you'll be our tactical strikers. Tobin gave us virtual autonomy until backup arrives, so if I deem a target's destruction necessary, you'll be responsible for taking it out with your particular skill sets."
They both nodded.
"Sir," she said sharply, straightening a little.
He arched an eyebrow. "First off, we don't have the time or luxury of standing on ceremony, so…don't feel you have to call me 'sir' or salute me. In fact, it's probably better if you didn't show any signs of deference at all. If an enemy sniper were to spot that, they'd know I'm the man to kill." He smirked almost imperceptibly. Though it's not like they could. "Second, you'll be in charge of requisitions for any tactical insertions as well as cataloguing anything we retrieve from said missions. If we can add to our firepower or equipment with Imperial tech, we will."
She nodded, cheeks still burning a little as she relaxed a bit.
"Alen…" Xel hesitated before shrugging. "You and Iola…can do whatever it is you do best."
The Jedi and his partner made a concerted effort not to laugh, the former regaining his composure after a moment, though his voice still contained traces of laughter. "Will do."
Caden noticed for the first time that a small crowd of rebel commandos had gathered around them and were staring squarely at him. The attention unsettled him, not that he showed it any. "I take it you heard the news?"
A rumble of affirmatives rolled through the group.
He sighed. "I don't particularly like my reassignment any more than you do, but I'm ready to make it work if you are. Tobin effectively put you under my command, and until reinforcements arrive, we're all that's left of the Rebellion here on Lannik. Our mission, until further notice, is to gather intel, establish an underground infrastructure, and generally make the Imperials' lives a living hell." He raised his hands at his sides. "Agreed?"
A universal whoop of assent swept the rebels.
Xel smiled malevolently. "Then let's get to work."
4 weeks later
Resistance is a funny thing, as Xel quickly discovered over the course of his mission. Entire days were spent just staying out of sight, in some cases, while others were filled with relentless recon and sabotage missions. They'd even managed to take out several high-ranking Imperial officers in the interim before reinforcements were to arrive. All in all, 95% of the planet's installations had been observed, at least from the outside. Tobin had also been in frequent contact, giving them more intel from the decrypted files as it came in. The bioweapon factories and T-7 disruptor production facilities were already marked as primary targets, and Caden had commissioned Ijul and En to plant explosives, traps, and otherwise begin sabotaging said facilities.
Of course, that typically meant Ijul made said explosives and traps, and En infiltrated the facilities to plant them. Given that Imperials were prejudiced toward aliens, he rightly assumed that the human-looking Epicanthix would draw less attention. Everything was in place for a full-scale assault when the time came, and any minute now, the clock would finally run to zero. Xel's heart was racing with anticipation. Over the course of the month, he had come to know his immediate teammates better. Ijul was something of a strong, quiet type, much like himself, but the man was surprisingly articulate for a Weequay; his species' reputation certainly did him no credit.
En was a bit of a prankster, though not a particularly good one. His reasons for opposing the Empire were somewhat murky and vague even now, but as long as he stayed loyal, Xel didn't care. His own reasons were less than heroic. Eran and Linn were idealists, plain and simple, so much so that Xel found himself almost gagging on occasion at the thick atmosphere of sanctimony that surrounded them. The girl was a year younger than her brother at age 21, yet her skills were surprisingly developed for someone with her supposed inexperience. That, Eran had said, was due mostly to their lineage.
The Riilos family was from Corellia, and their father, Sparat Riilos, had been a decorated war hero in the Clone Wars. In nearly every war faced by the Old Republic, the Riilos family had participated and distinguished themselves. Because of this, the Empire took quite the antagonistic stance toward them, looking for any opportunity to discredit or even eliminate them. Because of Corellians' fierce desire for independence, they chafed under the Empire's rule and eventually supported Sparat's outspoken stance against the Empire. Despite his non-militant approach, the Imperials rightly saw him as a threat and took steps to silence him. Those steps made his children orphans, and nearly corpses themselves. If their father had not foreseen the attack, they too would have perished. Instead, they passed into the guardianship of Imperial Senator Garm Bel Iblis, who eventually became one of the founding members of the Rebellion, or as it was formally called, the "Alliance to Restore the Republic."
Xel wasn't the only one curious about motivations, though, and both Riilos rebels had pestered him with questions, especially about his Mandalorian heritage. They were pleasantly surprised at the amount of depth in his culture, and Xel just had to smile at the looks of shock on their faces as he described in detail just how important family was, both to him and the Mando'ade in general. Eran looked more than a little guilty, given how he'd doubted the Mando's devotion to his brother, but Xel assured him it was a common misconception among auretiise.
After that particular conversation, Eran had been somewhat aloof from his acting CO, but his sister had no such reservations. Quite to the contrary, one could hardly see Xel without Linn hanging somewhere nearby…not that he particularly noticed. His mind had other, far more pressing concerns. The issue of Jes Tenau was particularly troubling, and after the conversations he'd had with his brother on the subject, Xel was even more convinced he had to be stopped.
"Think I finally figured out why Mandos are famed for killing Jedi," Alen had said.
"Oh?" Xel had asked. "Why's that?"
"Because he nearly killed me in the first thirty seconds of our fight, and if you hadn't stepped in, he would have."
Xel had looked at the ground grimly, lips pursed tightly. "Then we train. I learned to fight like a Jedi. It's time you learned to fight like a Mando."
And he had, to some extent. Four weeks wasn't all that much time, especially as preoccupied as they were, but Alen had the same aptitude for combat abilities that Xel did and the same rapid learning. Both of them voraciously devoured knowledge and techniques, their hunger for both near-insatiable in the limited downtime they had, learning from both the holocrons and each other. As of yet, Caden had yet to reach fully practical application of his knowledge regarding the Dark Side of the Force, most of it taught from a defensive, rather than offensive, standpoint.
Master Orgus was still less than keen on the intensity with which Xel hungered for darker techniques, but the boy's attitude was more far more protective than aggressive, despite his overarching mission. The opportunity to cut loose had not come yet, but it would. He could sense it. Xel's next confrontation with Darth Vader was inevitable, but still some distance off, and he intended to be fully prepared when it happened. For now, all he could do was try his hardest to keep his men and brother alive…and hope his past failures weren't a concrete pattern.
Tobin was calling a meeting over holocom, prompting the rebels planetside to gather around the glowing pedestal, Xel's helmet clutched under his left arm.
"Thank you all for coming," said Tobin. "As of this moment, the Rebel Fleet is within striking distance of Lannik, no more than a standard hour out."
Universal whoops rushed through the assembled crowd.
"That said," the commander shouted over the clamor, hands raised, "there is still more preparatory work to be done. More specifically, you're all being assigned to attack a single target once the operation begins." He keyed something on his end and projected a schematic of a large building in the upper plateaus of the northern hemisphere. "We've discovered a secret factory building far removed from anything else the Imperials have on Lannik. The details are sketchy, considering the file on it was even more heavily encrypted than the rest of the data packet and it's one of the few sites you were unable to recon.
"Since your teams have been exponentially more effective than we anticipated, you've been assigned this task by Alliance Command. Get inside, find out the facility's purpose, and eradicate it."
"We'll get it done, sir," Xel said with certainty.
Tobin smiled at him. "I know you will. Alliance Command was, shall we say…astonished to find that I put several of our commando teams under the command of a consultant, but they can hardly argue with your results. Neither can I. Far as I'm concerned, so long as both you and the men under your command agree, you will stay in command of these squads."
Xel winced. "All due respect, sir, but this was an emergency situation. I'm an operative, not a commander."
Tobin smiled gravely. "As you wish. I would still like you to retain operational command of Sergeant Riilos' team, however, at least until we can get it back up to full strength."
Xel and Eran exchanged a look before the former spoke. "Agreed. Can you give us any additional intel on the target?"
Tobin's expression darkened as he shook his head. "I'm afraid not. You're flying somewhat blind here, Caden, so tread carefully. The operation will commence at 0800 local time. Good luck, and may the Force be with us. Tobin out."
The hologram vanished as the rebels turned away one by one, all directing their attention to Xel, who was staring blankly at the ground.
Eran spoke up first. "What now, sir?"
He met the man's gaze. "Now we recon the facility, find out what we can before the fleet arrives. He said to take everyone, so get to your ships and form up on mine. We fly out in ten."
"Yes sir!" they chorused.
30 minutes later
0727 Lannik time
Xel's face was scrunched into a deep frown at the facility off in the distance, not on a platform like the now-demolished prison, but on a large plateau at the top of a mountain rise. His built-in macrobinoculars were zoomed in fully, giving him a good look at the guards patrolling the walls and the anti-air weaponry placed on certain sections. Some were obviously stormtroopers, regular Imperial soldiers, some officers, and others were in nondescript, almost civilian clothing. If he didn't have the eye of a hunter, he'd have mistaken the rigid bulges and stiff curves around their joints for extra muscle instead of concealed armor. He zoomed out with a shake of his head, crouching back down behind the rocks they were using for cover and facing his team of over a dozen soldiers.
"Mercs and Imperial regulars," he said, "at least two dozen of them on this side alone." A collective groan from the troops prompted him to roll his eyes. "Oh, k'atini, di'kute! It's not that bad."
They fell silent after a few moments, knowing from the last four weeks of experience the intent, if not the meaning, behind his Mando'a.
"Corporal En and I will get close, then plant some of Ijul's explosives on that wall. If it's ray shielded, we may have to take other measures, but for now we stick to the plan. I'll comm. the rest of you when the path is clear…or you'll hear an explosion and come running. Whichever comes first. Bottom line, we need to take that wall and punch a hole inside. When the fleet gets here, they'll have a lot more to worry about than little old us, so we wait to detonate until the operation commences."
They all gave a rumble of assent, En moving to form up behind the Mandalorian. The dim dawn sun cast deep shadows across the rocky terrain, giving the pair some concealment as they moved up. The climb wasn't too steep, but it did slow them down enough for some concern. After all, they were relatively exposed, and if one of those guards spotted them…
"Down!" Xel whispered loudly, shoving En behind a large rock as he hit the deck and hid in a small, dusty trench.
"Thanks," the Epicanthix mouthed to him when he saw the stormtrooper looking over the wall a moment later.
Xel just nodded and made a gesture with his hand, the trooper looking the other way and moving off to investigate a moment later. All in all, their stealthy approach took them over twenty minutes to reach the relative safety of the wall, no surveillance cameras posted on their end. Xel gave En a nod, and the older man pulled a series of shaped charges from a satchel at his hip, silently planting them at three-foot intervals across a small section of the wall. When it was done, Caden inspected his work, then gave a thumbs-up and made to go back to the rest of the team.
That's when they heard the roar of several repulsor engines powering up.
The Mando and his teammate snapped their eyes to the sky, watching with squinting eyes until the former powered up his macrobinoculars and took a closer look at the dark shapes coming from the factory. What he saw didn't make sense, so he blinked a few more times before realizing what he was looking at.
"Those are…droids," he said.
Like any droids, they had been given an objective to complete. What he couldn't know was that their particular mission was something of a test run. They were being sent to a minor civilian center to eliminate suspected rebel sympathizers and anyone who was unauthorized to be in Imperial territory. That, unfortunately for Caden, included his team. The thermal scanners of the automatons picked up trace heat signatures in the rocks below, and when one swooped in for a closer scan, its combat systems started to prime.
"Unauthorized personnel acquired," it transmitted to the five others in its group.
The rest formed up behind it in a V maneuver as they descended toward the rebels hiding in the rocks, touching down just twenty feet away as their right arms deployed energy shields. Their thundering steps brought them toward their targets and their very first engagement.
"What the hell are those things?!" Eran yelled over comms.
"I don't know," Xel answered, "but I'm guessing they're what we're after." He rapidly checked his chrono and clenched his teeth at the time. Ten minutes. Hope Tobin doesn't kick me to the curb if I start the party early. "The moment blaster fire rings out, the guards'll be onto us."
"That's assuming they aren't already."
"A fair point." Xel scowled deeply, placing several detpacks along the length of the wall. "Do not engage until the last second. We're on our way." Caden nodded to En, who, together with him, broke off into a sprint down the rise.
"You there, stop!"
Xel barely gave the trooper a glance before smirking and detonating every explosive attached to that wall. The resulting explosion was…brilliant. Duracrete and metal shattered and ignited in a mushrooming conflagration that blew a gigantic hole in the fence, sending most of its occupants flying in several directions and the rest scrambling for what stable cover they could get. The droids noticed the explosion and turned toward the running pair, two of them focusing on Xel and En as the rest continued to advance toward the other rebels. As they put up a shield wall, Caden got a good look at them for the first time.
Standing just over ten feet tall, their bodies were made of alternatingly dark gray and black metals, their heads staring with blank, black optics. Cables and armor were present in equal amounts, and Xel had to wonder what the inspiration for these monstrosities was. Upon closer inspection of the heads, though, the template hit him with startling clarity. His teeth and fists clenched as he and Treyvan approached. Vader. The massive automatons held firm as Xel and En kept running, drawing blasters as they closed to around thirty feet.
When the blue energy blades deployed from their left arms, En faltered and came to a stop, as did Xel.
"Well…shab." Xel's lightsaber fell into his right hand, unignited but at the ready, jaw clenching as he gave his distant brother a glance before returning his gaze to the massive droids in front of him. "That complicates things."