Chapter One: "The Squad"
Red lights flooded the passenger bay of the Imperial shuttle, set to cease as soon as the ship exited hyperspace. Five soldiers were situated on the two benches that ran along the interior walls. The area acted as the corridor between the cockpit and the aft cargo area. Not the most spacious of crafts, the gap between the two seats was wide enough only for the appropriately marked entry ramp and little room for maneuvering should it drop.
The five bodies that occupied that space were a motley assortment of sizes and demeanors. Body size and language seemed to be the only way of distinguishing the armor-clad soldiers from one another in their identical battlesuits. The bodyglove and armored plates that covered them resembled the modern armor most Imperial Troopers wore, though with subtle differences.
Trademark black with red highlights were carried over from the norm. The thick armored plates that made up most of the suit were composed of some of the strongest materials credits could buy. Where the plates couldn't provide protection, the state of the art mesh bodysuits were more than capable of defended against stray blaster fire that made it past the integrated shield system. Layered electronics and failsafe mechanics kept everything online after a couple of ion bolts and could even withstand a few seconds of sustained force lightning.
By benefit of being powered armor the suits possessed micro-hydraulics capable of increasing the user's strength, great for heavy lifting and preventing the wearer from collapsing under their own weight. From the neck down, they possessed some the purest mechanical brawn found amongst the Imperial Army. From the neck up, something even more spectacular.
Probably the most integral piece of the armor puzzle, the helmet provided advanced tactical data via heads up display. While possessing the basic flat topped conical shape possessed by most modern Imperial ground forces, its visor more resembled the clean, uniform black facemask of the armor back during Malak's reign. The suit was capable of analyzing the various biological processes that took place within its boundaries and report it to the user, or even the user’s squad mates if need be. The visors could provide instant data regarding the squad’s health, injuries, energy levels, fatigue, and information from four of the user’s five senses. With the ability to connect weapons data to the visor, the soldier could monitor his firearm’s continued efficiency and ammo capacity.
The sword, the shield, and the warrior. Body, mind, soul. All symbiotically connected.
The five armored men exuded equal parts subtlety and domineering intimidation. One would rarely take notice long enough to discover the one final deviation from the norm that was a standardly equipped Imperial Trooper: each soldier’s right pauldron. Instead of the matching Imperial logo of its symmetrical brother, they each featured a simple, bolded, white letter.
Besh sat on the port bench, nearest to the wall separating the room from the cockpit. The soldier, thinner and taller than average by comparison with the rest to the squad, sat calm and collected, his body compacted, arms crossed, and head dipped ever so slightly. Sniper. Tactician. Second in command. Recently upgraded to first.
Cresh sat further down along the same bench. Average build, his only discernable feature was his stance. Hunched over, forearm against thigh, head directed toward the floor where his armored foot nervously tapped the deck. Amorphous, with an inclination for triage. The most recently replaced member. Pistoleer. Medic. Feeling apprehensive.
Esk was furthest down the line. A bit sturdier looking than his predecessors. Stocky, even. He leaned aloof against the aft barrier, legs drifting apart, clenched fist supporting the chin of his helm while the other hand inadvertently supplied Cresh with accompanying melodic taps against the seating. Demolitions expert. Survivalist. Humorist.
Forn sat opposite the sniper. Possessed an average build like Cresh, but possessed a converse mood about him. Back straight, head high, arms not crossed so much as folded neatly in front of him. A cold aura flowed readily from the unyielding soldier before being drawn right back to its source. Dynamic weapons expert. Huntsman. Man of few words.
Grek took the second spot along the lesser occupied bench. Numerically at least. He was massive enough to count as two soldiers himself. His hunched stance carried with it equal serene and primal notions. While standing, the other soldiers could only hope to meet his chest plate at eye level. Obviously not human, his exact nature outside his armor was unknown, even to his squad mates. Heavy weapons. Brawler. All around big guy. Man of no words.
The doors to the cockpit opened to reveal Dorn making his way into the passenger area. His attention was focused on the datapad built into his left bracer. He managed to take a seat between Forn and Grek without peeling his gaze away from the glowing screen jutting from his arm. The smallest in stature compared to his companions, he was still a sizable individual thanks to his armor and additional technical gear he was sporting. Technician. Mechanic. Slicer. Impromptu pilot.
"Is our route set?" Besh calmly asked across the shared team comm.
"Yes," Dorn hastily replied. "Should be dropping into realspace soon." Besh supplied a nod before slowly raising himself from his seat. With his back to the cockpit, he addressed the entirety of his squad on the events to follow.
"Alright guys, our mission is to extract Aurek from his imprisonment on board Freedom's Runner. The target is a Republic Scout Cruiser. By size and dimension, it's your basic light cruiser, about 350 meters bow to stern. In truth, it looks like a bloated Thranta-class Corvette.” The soldier’s tone possessed little of the vigor expected from a man about to lead a squad into the dangerous fray of boarding a ship. Instead, they were the words of a man assigned a dutiful chore.
"Aren't those things designed to take out smaller ships?" Esk interjected in a gruff yet jocular voice.
"The corvette, yes. This cruiser, no," Besh replied. "These particular ships are mostly relegated to solo missions, where they specialize as mobile platforms for various non-combatant roles. Communication systems. Medical bays. Mobile barracks. The luxury of a base without the trouble of having to build structures on a planet you don't need a permanent presence on. That being said, it is equipped with enough firepower to drive off any local pirates."
"And we're better than your average space pirate, right? What with this… state of the art… Imperial… Shuttle," Esk respond with trademark sarcasm. “’Course, this isn’t even one of the official Imperial shuttle’s designated for troop transport.”
“They weren’t going to give seven troopers a double decker shuttle designed for carrying entire platoons now were they?” Besh replied. “Besides, this thing specializes in fast paced non-atmospheric transfers. That, and it happened to have the best cost to effectiveness ratio.”
“Expendable-class? I like it,” Esk humored.
"Well, at any rate, we should be able to adequately defend ourselves against the target's countermeasures," Dorn explained, with alacrity. "We're too small a target for the main batteries. The deflector shields should be able to stand up against the point-defense systems designed to take out fighters. And if anything should seep through, this shuttle has a more than adequate hull rating to get us to the hangar bay. I've programmed a boarding sequence into the shuttle's coordination systems, and I can make minute adjustment to the navigation from my datapad as need be."
"With our approach under automation, we can focus our attention on the combat to follow," Besh confirmed. "Once we're past the magnetic barrier we'll be performing a rather hot landing. We will have to begin exiting the craft whilst still hovering if we want to secure the hanger before they've had enough time to react. Disembark order hasn't changed since debriefing. Grek will be first off and draw any hostile fire while I follow. Next will be Forn and Cresh, followed by Esk and Dorn. After the landing area has been secured, we'll proceed to reestablishing contact with Aurek. Any questions?"
The squad's silence indicated that there were in fact none. The red constant that had permeated the room changed into a periodic flicker.
"That's our signal," Besh stated as he made his way astern. "We'll want to be completely geared up before red lights completely shut off." All but Grek made their way into the aft cargo hold, currently operating as an impromptu armory. The giant instead turned his attention to the discrete black plasteel footlocker that rested beneath his seat.
The others found themselves in the seemingly empty room, no larger than the one that had preceded it. Along the walls and floor however, were a plethora of removable panels that promised a bounty of weapons and equipment. Each trooper selected their own unique load out from the individual compartments, but their primary firearms would be a shared set of uniform blaster carbines, traditional military blaster rifles compacted into a more manageable size for close quarters combat. Little to no sacrifice in accuracy, but reduced stopping power meant each shot needed expert delivery. Possessed a shoulder sling, scope, and efficient energy cells. The weapons had been further modified with the absence of trigger guards, to facilitate the large, gloved hands that would be using them. Additional safety systems were needed to lessen chances of accidental discharge.
"Ugh. Carbines," Esk lamented as he examined the weapon in his hands.
"Once into the inner workings of the ship," Besh clarified, "we'll be in hallways less than four shoulder lengths wide. Plenty of twists and turns. Carbines will be the most effective. The hangar will be open, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem." As he finished his words, Besh retrieved his signature sniper rifle from a wall panel.
"If you're not confident in your marksmanship abilities… you can always let your helmet do the work for you," Forn joked, albeit in a rather stoic fashion. His voice matched Esk’s low pitch, but countered by carrying itself in a much smoother manner. Aside from a small sidearm hooked to his thigh, the hunter also slipped a pair of vibroknives behind his back.
"Yeah, yeah," Esk grumbled as he lined his belt with demolitions materials. The remaining soldiers armed themselves in silence. Cresh accepted his carbine and accompanied them with a pair of pistols attached to his sides. Dorn took his weapon and sidearm along with an assortment of security and computer spikes. Besh took a second carbine and tossed it to Grek from the open doorway. These two took their position near the entrance ramp, readied for their pending hot drop into the hangar bay. The others steadied themselves in the cargo room.
"Alright, everyone sync up with your weapons," Besh ordered across the group comm. "Also, give me a quick procedural check in on the secure channel."
"Dorn. Checking in."
"Forn… Ready and able."
"…" This served as Grek's check in. The subtle clicks of the comm channel opening and closing. It took some time, but the squad became capable of proper communication with the vocally limited trooper.
"Good, everything is in order. Be ready," Besh advised. Silence flooded the shuttle as everyone directed their attention to the flashing lights above them, waiting for the refrain that would signal the beginning of the battle to come.