Secrets in the Snow
2 weeks later
2 months, 2 weeks BBY
Xel turned his helmeted head toward the speaker, arching an eyebrow at the man's thick, brightly-decorated, bandana-like head covering. "You're one to talk."
Eran grinned toothily, staring out into the heavy snowfall, the white sheets barely letting him see twenty feet forward. "At least mine can't really be seen in this environment. You ever think about repainting that body can to suit your environment better?"
"No," Xel answered immediately. "Not only do these colors hold sentimental value, but a good hunter should be able to blend in in any environment, no matter what he looks like." He shrugged, rising from his crouch to march toward the edge of their cliff outlook. "Besides, who can see anything in this weather?"
Before Riilos could answer, Caden leapt off the side into a forty-foot drop, landing in a crouch as the Force cushioned his fall. Eran was right behind him, the screech of his ice-pick against the cliff wall far louder than Xel's powder-muffled entry. The Mandalorian gave him a look, the sergeant able to pick up his emotions through body language due to his time spent around Mandos. Eran just rolled his eyes and kept walking, blaster raised to hip level and sweeping the blank snow.
Caden followed suit with his Blackjack, the last four fingers of his right hand brushing against the hilt of the weapon's newest addition: a small, five-inch throwing knife strapped to the left of the gun's handle. The Blackjack was powered to full, its gas chamber fully stocked and ready to vape anything that wasn't friendly. The pair of them had been sent along with several other partner-based recon missions meant to uncover hidden Imperial installations.
The day after the crew of the Kandosii'tal returned to Ilum, Tobin and his superiors ordered the largest arctic offense in the history of the Rebellion, but given that their soldiers were, by and large, green, and their resources were limited, the larger population of the army was suffering from the effect of Ilum's extreme conditions. Equipment malfunctioned, work animals froze to death, tents became brittle and shattered with the lightest of contacts. In short, there had been no major offensive as of yet, and considering the strategic value of having a supply of Ilum crystals, Rebel Command expected significant Imperial forces.
At present, though, it seemed the bucketheads were content to let the planet deal with them. Xel and Eran kept marching through the snow, each covering what the other's line of fire didn't. The terrain became uneven and wind-swept in a sudden gust of wind, blinding them even further and causing the armored Mando to stretch out with the Force to compensate. No life forms in range. Eran sputtered and spat several times, swiping at the snow stinging his face. Xel snorted. Except him, that is.
Suddenly, his comlink went off, and he tapped the side of his helmet to activate it. "Go."
"Ezra here. How's your recon going?"
Xel glanced over at Eran, who was busy stamping his shivering legs to generate heat. "It's going."
"Chopper's pickin' up some strange energy readings about a half-klick north of your position, can you investigate?"
Xel watched in amusement as Eran rapidly nodded his head, eyes wide. "I think my partner says yes."
So they sprinted the half-kilometer distance, Eran exuding gratitude for the excuse to get his stiff limbs moving. Caden just smirked and shook his head as he stowed the Blackjack and ran with him, close and slightly behind the older man's steps in case he stumbled. He didn't, and they made excellent time to a cliff overlooking a deep valley unobscured by snow drifts. Xel knelt next to Eran, tapping the side of his helmet and accessing his macrobinoculars. His eyes were greeted by a large, iced-over gorge, with no way across except a set of flimsy scaffolding spanning roughly a two-hundred-meter gap.
"What?" asked the sergeant.
"Got a nice little contingent of excavator droids guarded by stormtroopers. Looks like they're putting together a plasma bridge."
"For what? Tanks? Freight? Troops?"
Xel shrugged. "Who knows? Could be all of the above. Bottom line is we can't let the Empire complete it."
Eran put a hand on his shoulder when he went to whip out his Blackjack. "Woah, hold your banthas there. You want to destroy it?"
"You don't? If the Imps get a reliable land route through this rough terrain, they'll be able to outflank us with little more than an hour's time. This could be the whole reason why they've left us alone. Put together this little engineering feat so they can crush us in one swipe."
"That may be, but all we really need to ensure is that the Empire can't use it."
Xel stared at him, cocking his head after a second. "I'm not sure I follow. How are we gonna do that without—oh, you want to—"
"Take it for the Rebellion once it's finished. We'll have to shift the controls to the opposite side of the gorge, and it'll be more than a two-man job, but…it could work."
Xel thought it over for a while before nodding several times. "And that's why we're friends." He slapped the older man's shoulder. "Good call." A few taps on his gauntlet and helmet brought up a link to Commander Tobin, Eran patched in.
"Go ahead, Caden."
"Specter Six told us about some weird power readings in our area, and when we moved to investigate, we found this." He transmitted images of the plasma bridge to the rebel commander.
"They're trying to get military supply lines up and running."
"Affirmative. We need to get it first."
"You're suggesting a takeover of that bridge?"
"Actually, Sergeant Riilos did. He thinks if we can relocate the controls to our side of that gorge, we'll have transportation advantage where ground crews are concerned."
"And he'd be right. Our hovertanks aren't built for Ilum's rough terrain or weather, and if that bridge is as close to Imperial encampments as we think, we can do some serious damage to their operations if we can control it. Excellent work, Sergeant."
"Thank you, sir."
Before they could say anything else, a call came through Xel's private line, and he made a motion to Eran, who took over the conversation with Tobin. "Caden here."
"Hey, it's Linn."
Xel blinked as his body tensed, the action noticed by Eran. "Yeah, what's up?"
"It's…her. She's having issues."
The Mando gulped hard, then cleared his throat. "With what?"
"I don't know. She just…froze up one second in the middle of a routine stretching exercise, and then she ran away and curled up into a ball. She hasn't moved since."
"How long ago was this?"
"Just a few minutes. She won't talk to me—no surprise there, and all I'm getting are vague gestures and the occasional apologetic smile."
Xel let out a long breath, taking another before speaking sharply. "I'm on my way." He looked to Eran for confirmation, and the sergeant nodded to him with a thumbs-up. "Just…keep her company 'til I get there, but keep your distance."
"Okay. You got it."
1 hour later
Rebel encampment, Ilum
"They still in there?"
The two soldiers on standby outside the rebels' makeshift med center nodded to Xel in tandem, their expressions carved with respectful deference to his impeccable reputation. The pair stepped aside when Caden gave them a nod, unlocking the door and permitting him inside the small, stark white building. The portal slid open with a hydraulic hiss, permitting the six-foot armored Mando inside. He quickly removed his helmet, tucking it under his arm and making his way to a pair of signatures, one an empathic beacon reaching out to the other, a self-contained sinkhole of volatile emotional flotsam.
Xel sighed internally but forced a smile on his face as he went through the door of the workout room. Curled up in a corner, playing with a small length of elastic rope, was Maila. The Zeltron was clad in a white medical uniform, used for patients and doctors alike, and had been for the last two weeks. Though it did nothing to accentuate her figure, it also did nothing to hide it, or the fact that a slight, almost imperceptible shake had settled into her frame. When Linn caught sight of him, she gave him a small, comforting smile before standing and walking toward the exit.
A pat on his shoulder was their only communication before he was left alone with his catatonic friend. When his armored body came into her line of vision, though, she came out of her stupor and gave him a tight-lipped smile. Though his heart wrenched at the sight, he couldn't help but smile back. She had that effect on him. He set his helmet down on a nearby bench and sauntered over to her, crouching down a good two feet away and leaning against the wall next to her.
Xel nodded at her occupied hands. "So whatcha doin'?"
The red-skinned girl held up the rope, tied in several loops and knots that all seemed random and indistinguishable. Xel furrowed his eyebrows as he took a closer look, thinking at a first glance that she was just tying it haphazardly. A knowing smirk graced her features a second before she pulled the ends taut, the knots and loops stacking against each other to form an elastic flower pattern. Jet black eyebrows shot up.
"Woah." He reached out to the pattern and touched several of the "petals." "Incredible. Where'd you learn to do that?"
Maila just smirked and shrugged, letting it fall limp and become an indistinguishable cord again. She leaned back against the wall, smiling gently and staring at the ceiling. A gentle touch at her shoulder nearly made her jump before she realized who the hand belonged to. She smiled wider and leaned into the touch, brushing her cheek against the hard, unforgiving glove as if it were his real hand. Xel sighed softly and pulled it off, laying his skin against her face and brushing a few rogue strands of hair behind her ear.
"Still having nightmares?" he asked gently. "Flashbacks?"
Her smile faded a little as she nodded.
He nodded back. "Yeah, me too. I wish I could say it goes away…but it hasn't. Not for me, anyway." Xel fell silent a while, his de-gloved hand running through her hair in slow, calming motions. "I'm not gonna lie. Trauma is something I...don't really know how to deal with."
She arched a disbelieving eyebrow.
Xel pursed his lips. "Can you keep a secret?"
Maila gave him a sarcastic look.
Xel's expression was halfway between a wince and a smile. "This may come as a surprise to you, but I know my way of dealing with grief isn't healthy."
She blinked hard, smirk gone.
"I know I'm supposed to acknowledge the loss, to learn to live with it, but…I don't feel I can. Not yet. See, that pain—" he shuddered slightly, "that…agony is the only thing keeping me going. It's the fuel that drives my rage, and I need my rage, just long enough to do what I came here to do." He laughed self-deprecatingly. "I know if Alen heard me right now, he'd be screaming his head off to convince me to stop…" He carded a hand through his hair. "And he'd be right."
Xel sighed hard, smirking wryly and glancing over at her. "Don't ever tell him this, but…he's better than me. Maybe not as a soldier, but as a person. A little naïve, sure. Sanctimonious and self-righteous? Absolutely." He shook his head. "But he's pure, innocent-minded, just." He smiled. "He's what a Jedi is supposed to be." His jaw clenched. "They were both what Jedi are supposed to be."
A soft hand lay on the back of his neck, the thumb brushing over his skin.
"I can't let it go, Mail. I just…I can't just be me anymore. For my mission to succeed, I need to do more, to be more." He chuckled bitterly. "Or less, depending on how you look at it. To beat someone like Vader, you have to be willing to get down to his level. Moral high ground only gets you so far against a being of such sheer power."
Maila's other hand found his and gripped it tightly, the woman herself sending him an understanding smile.
"Oh, what the hell am I doing? Here I am supposed to be letting you recover, and I'm laying my problems on your shoulders."
She rolled her eyes as he stretched out with the Force. Her feelings were a mixture of annoyance and mild frustration. That, coupled with her finger jabbing repeatedly into his armored chest clearly sent a message that she wished they'd lay more on her. Maila leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms with a snarky expression on her face that said, "I'm bored."
Xel grinned. There she is. "Well then you're in luck." He produced a small datapad from his belt and handed it to her. "Before I got back, Eran and I spotted an Imperial construction site. They were building a plasma bridge to move troops and supplies into our area. Swiped this off the commander overseeing the project, but I haven't been able to break the encryption. With Alen still in the field, I figure you could take a crack at it."
Maila stared at the device in her hands, eyes darting back and forth over its screen with more energy than he'd seen in the last half-month. When those ice-blue orbs turned to him, her face split in an ear-to-ear grin a moment before she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him so hard breathing became an issue. He didn't have to worry long, though, as she released him a second or two later and sat in a cross-legged position. She spared him one more smiling glance and mouthed, "Thank you."
Xel smiled back and patted her shoulder as he got to his feet. "You're welcome. I've got a meeting with Tobin to discuss how we're gonna take that bridge, but Linn should still be here in case you need anything."
Maila gave him a nod, her eyes still glued to the pad as her fingers flew across its interface. The Mando just grinned and shook his head as he walked out, making a mental note to find more puzzles for her to solve…and more rope. He was almost to the briefing tent when his recon partner flagged him down and fell into step with him.
"How was the visit?" Eran asked.
"Good," Xel answered truthfully. "She's doing a lot better than a few days ago, but there's still a long way to go. In other news, if you've got anything you need hacked that Alen's moral squeamishness might not allow for, I've got a specialist who can get the job done." At Eran's confused expression, he just winked and nodded toward the medical facility.
Riilos' eyes widened. "No kidding?"
Xel's head shook.
"Woah. Had no idea."
"I had no idea it would lift her spirits so much. I guess it makes sense, though. She's starved for excitement on this ice ball, and hacking is one of the things she's best at. If Maila wants to feel helpful, no chance I'm getting' in her way."
"Agreed." Eran's expression sobered a bit. "So…um…"
Xel arched an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"I realize it may be a touchy subject, but…"
Caden snorted. "Out with it, man."
Eran looked at him. "Why can't she speak?"
The youth's lips pursed hard as he stared at the command building in the distance, legs walking at a sedated pace to give him more time to think. "You know what happened to her, right?"
"A…rough estimate. Whatever I heard from Linn, which isn't much."
"But you know she was—"
Xel sighed. "Zeltrons are…special. They're natural empaths. See, every member of their species has the ability to read and project their emotions onto others in a form of…limited telepathy. So, they experience powerful emotions and feelings three, four, tenfold strength compared to most sentient species. S'why so many of them are addicted to gambling or racing or anything that gets their adrenaline pumping."
"It's like a constant high for them," Eran concluded.
"Exactly." He grimaced as the memory of finding Maila resurfaced. "But…it's a double-edged sword. Yeah, when they're happy, they're really happy, but…when they experience rejection, or frustration, or…pain…"
"Oh," Riilos breathed, realization starting to settle in.
"Yeah." Xel was silent a while as they kept walking. "Frankly, I was surprised she wasn't in worse shape when we found her, psychologically, if not physically." His voice became painfully quiet. "She always did say she had high tolerance for pain." He blinked hard and looked over at Eran. "She's not okay, and I don't think she will be for a long time."
"But she's safe," said Riilos. "And she's loved. At the moment, that's the best we can ask for."
Xel smiled a little and nodded.
5 minutes later
Rebel command center, Ilum
"Caden, Riilos. Thank you for joining us."
Xel nodded to him from behind his helmet. "Commander."
Tobin powered up the holoprojector in the middle of the room, ambient lights dimming to give those present a better view. "Initial recon by Sergeant Riilos and his partner revealed this—an Imperial plasma bridge still under construction. It is our belief that the Empire believes it a waste of time and resources to use air power in crushing our offensive, so they've resorted to ground tactics. However, since neither of our motorized ground crafts is particularly compatible with Ilum's overly rough terrain, they've been trying to gain a mobility advantage.
"This plasma bridge would give them a direct route into the heart of our territory, with little to stop them but our ill-equipped forces. If we're to have any hope of winning our next engagement, the Empire cannot be allowed to control that pass. Instead, we're to take it ourselves once the construction is finished and use it to bottleneck Imperial forces. Security around the bridge is tight, but with two or three commando squads, we should be able to pull it off without a hitch."
A hand rose from the crowd. Xel rolled his eyes behind his helmet when he saw the source.
Tobin gave a strained smile. "Yes, Garth?"
"Will Caden and his team be one of those squads?"
"Of course," he answered immediately. "He has some of our best saboteurs and infiltrators under his command."
"But don't you think we've become a little reliant on his services? He's not enlisted, after all."
Tobin shot him a stern glare. "Xel Caden has overwhelmingly proven his worth to the Rebellion, and as for his enlistment…I was the one who chose not to make him."
A few startled gasps rose from the crowd.
The commander pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I'm sick of having this discussion time and again, so I'm just gonna lay it all out. I felt his talents would be wasted in the rank and file of our soldiers, so I took him on as a consultant—at a bargain price compared to his level of contribution. His abilities have prevented the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds of innocents, both soldiers and civilians; and he has on numerous occasions accomplished sensitive and perilous missions in less time with less collateral damage than three of our best teams combined.
"The cold, hard truth is that Xel Caden has inscrutable character and undeniable devotion to not only our mission but our people." Tobin looked directly at the man in question. "Add to that the fact that he's one of the best damn soldiers I've ever seen, and it paints a pretty convincing picture." He looked across the crowd, gaze settling coldly on Garth for a few seconds. "Now if there's nothing else."
The man wisely stayed silent.
Xel sent Tobin a near-imperceptible nod of thanks as the older man smiled and returned to his presentation.
Inside, he was a churning mess of doubt and guilt.
1 week later
It was all set.
The bridge had finally been completed, with all the normal bells and whistles entailed in such a massive project. The mobile setup would make things all too easy to shift in the Rebellion's favor when they took it over. It had been decided that four teams would go in. Xel, Iola, and the recovered Treyvan En were on one team; Eran, Ijul, and Alen on another. Linn was on standby for medical support. The other two squads were hand-picked by Tobin from the rebels' small pool of expert commandos. Astonishingly, Garth was squad leader of one.
Xel had to admit he loathed the man, but there was a reason he was so cocky and adversarial. Garth was a militia veteran of the Clone Wars, commissioned under Jedi General Rahm Kota. Until Caden and the Kandosii'tal had come along, he'd been Tobin's right-hand man for sensitive missions. His record was nearly as spotless as Xel's. When he'd done his research on the belligerent commando, Caden had developed a grudging respect for the man, but as a professional, not a person.
"In position," the Mando commed.
"Roger," Garth answered, voice tight and professional. "All teams, sound off."
"Telos Squad here," Eran transmitted.
"Aurek, standing by," the fourth leader responded.
"Krill, standing by," Xel sent, glancing over at Alen's insertion point.
The snowfall had increased in recent cycles, and today was no exception. It came down in thick, white sheets that obscured vision to the point of near-blindness. Without infrared goggles or Force senses, seeing the enemy was nearly impossible. Fortunately, each team had both.
"Begin insertion in three, two, one…go."
Silent as death, Xel and his team proceeded inside the small encampment surrounding the bridge's control center. Two snowtroopers conversed with inter-helmet comlinks, too distracted by the weather and each other to see the flash of a knife or the silver-blue Mandalorian that dashed between them in a flurried spin that slit both their throats. Splashes of red painted the white landscape next to their corpses as Xel moved onto his next targets: winterized scout troopers equipped with IR-scoped sniper rifles.
His left gauntlet rose and spat out lethal tungsten-tipped darts with barely a puff of air. Two, three, four bodies dropped in quick succession as En and Iola entered a tent. Muffled sounds of struggling and blaster fire sounded from inside as Xel kept a lookout, launching another dart into a roving sentry before he could draw his E-11 halfway. En emerged from the tent, traces of blood spattered over his face-cloth as Iola followed in his wake, both of them equipped with long, white trenchcoats that made them blend in with the falling precipitation.
Step by step, block by block, they silently made their way to the base of one of the four defensive towers placed around the base's perimeter.
"Cover me," En whispered into his comlink as he tore open a maintenance control panel, voice gruffer than Xel previously remembered.
Iola took to a few stacked power cells for cover before Caden gave her a look and she relocated with a roll of the eyes. Distracted as he was with shaking his head, Xel almost didn't see the E-11 that went off a second later. His right gauntlet rose to block the shot from hitting his faceplate, but the next two smacked him directly in the chest. Grunting at the impact, Xel rolled to the side and drew his pistols, firing both off at extremely rapid rates. He cut down two snowtroopers within the space of a second, Iola's pistol firing almost as fast as his as she laid down suppressing fire on the rest of their squad.
Alarm klaxons sounded across the base, causing Xel to groan internally and keep shooting. Well, it was just a matter of time. Another red salvo of plasma left Caden's position as he kept the pressure on the attacking force, stretching out with his Force senses to keep track of them. His sphere of influence became more like a cone, funneled in the direction of the main attackers, so much so that he missed the Imperial sneaking up on En. The grunts and yells of effort and struggle reached his ears a second before he turned around to see two white blurs in furious close combat.
The snowtrooper was good, no doubt about it. If it had been a fair fight, he might have won, but it wasn't, and not because of Xel's interference. Treyvan pivoted away from a left hook, ducking under the strike and using his spin to add power to an elbow he thrust into the other man's right hip. The snowtrooper yelled in pain as his helmet was bashed against the wall of the tower, his body swung in a pendulum motion and slammed back-first into the tower. A lightning-fast twist kick by En pinned him to the wall by his chest, and he began to slump unconscious in seconds.
Xel's eyebrows furrowed in confusion at this even as he returned fire on the still-attacking snowtroopers until he gave the pair another glance. His eyes widened. Oh. He was using his right leg. The snowtrooper's chestplate was caved in and cracked where En's boot had impacted, the Epicanthix having already moved back to the panel, shoulders set in concentration. I'd say that new mechanical leg is workin' out just fine.
Several explosions sounded across the base, startling the snowtroopers enough for Iola to leap from her flanking position and lay into them with several dozen nearly rapid-fire shots. The entire squad fell to the snow-covered ground seconds later. Xel sighed hard and strode over to En.
"No time for delicacy," he said simply, his filtered voice coming out almost inhumanly in the freezing gale.
En just gave him a look behind his face-obscuring head-cloth before reaching in and yanking all the wires at once. Immediately, the tower fell offline, its turret barrels falling limp.
"That's one way to do it," Treyvan admitted with a shrug. He brandished his blaster a second later as the trio sprinted toward the bridge's command center, spotting six dead snowtroopers on the way there.
Xel smirked at the angle of the bodies, silently praising his brother's handiwork. The squad made its way to the command center, pleasantly surprised to find the building already moving on repulsorlifts, Garth overseeing the transfer. The bridge was still active as they towed it across, Alen jogging over to his brother when he spotted Xel staring at several Imperial prisoners.
The Mando snapped his attention to the approaching Jedi. "Saw your handiwork a few blocks back." He nodded in the general direction. "Nice work." Despite the extensive snowfall, Xel could see his brother frowning.
"Wasn't looking to impress."
Caden raised his hands calmingly. "Fair enough."
His brows furrowed as he reached out with the Force to feel his brother's grim focus. He turned away a few seconds later, moving for the edge of the bridge. Alen had been…different ever since he'd killed Tenau, more serious, more focused. He'd been far more strict and less forgiving when it came to excessive force, an attitude that hadn't yet sparked an argument between the two. Xel knew it would, though. Eventually.
With many beginning to move to the other side of the bridge, he walked with them, absently noticing the activity bustling around him, a fiery redhead checking Treyvan En's mechanical leg on the other side, the Imperial prisoners being moved across the bridge. Slowly, methodically, Xel took his helmet off, tucking it under his arm as he stopped at the end of the bridge on the rebels' side and looked out on the obscured, yawning expanse below, letting the chilling wind cool his nerves. Something was off. The Force was brushing his mind with an irritating frequency, tugging and pulling at him.
His eyes narrowed as he turned slowly, the dark blue orbs sweeping over the train of prisoners being escorted across. He stared at the snowtrooper at the head of the column, a tan-pauldroned commander, and the man stared back, the black eye-slits of his helmet locking with Xel's gaze. He stretched out with the Force for barely a second when a coiled-spring predator popped into his vision. His eyes snapped wide open as adrenaline crammed into his system, legs pumping at rapid speeds as he tried to reach the commander.
He barely got six steps when he saw the detonator in his cuffed hands. Barely two seconds of time were left before the man's thumb hit the trigger. Xel wasted no time. He whirled to his left, stretching out both hands and snapping them hard. A shocked Garth and five of his troopers were catapulted to the rebels' side of the bridge, their bodies hitting the ground the instant several dozen detpacks went off on both ends. The surface of the plasma bridge fizzled out in milliseconds—the same amount of time necessary for Xel to realize two things.
One: he was still on the bridge, along with the control center and several dozen Imperials and rebels. Two: Linn Riilos was among the rebels.
Xel and over thirty others dropped into the snow-covered abyss below, but the Mando was the only one with a controlled descent. He dove like a bullet toward his red-haired friend, helmet falling from his limp fingers as he smacked into her, arms wrapping around her smaller frame as he triggered his jetpack and started to rise. He went up twenty feet when a large piece of debris from the explosion hit the jetpack with bone-crushing force. As it turned out, it was circuitry-crushing, too.
The device sputtered and died a second later even as Xel launched his grappling hook into the cliff wall. His anchor came loose as soon as their combined weight hit it. Blue eyes went wide. No. Uncontrolled free-fall claimed them both even as he put himself beneath her. Every scrap of will, fear, and rage was channeled into the strongest Force Shield he'd ever created as they plunged over two thousand feet. The moment before they hit, one more emotional fuel was added to the mix, one that mentally staggered him with how much stronger he felt himself become.