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silvershadows
11.28.2012 , 07:20 AM | #3
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The room was dimly illuminated with a red glow, shrouding the figure seated at the dark, wooden table. Long, pale fingers drummed against the surface, a soft sigh of impatience whispered through the air. At the sound of a quiet chime from the holocommunicator before her, Darth Umbral reached out, jabbing her finger against the blinking red button.

“Speak.”

A gravelly voice responded, issuing forth from the small speaker. “My lord, a D5-Mantis patrol craft has entered the system and is currently heading toward the planet. Preliminary scans identify it as the Flameshrike.”

“Very well, Lieutenant.” Umbral’s precise inflection added a sharpness to each word. “Communicate with the bounty hunters ship and then activate the landing beacons to guide them in. Meet our guests at the hangar, then bring them to me.” She paused a moment, pursing her lips. “Pierce? Have Captain Quinn accompany you to greet the bounty hunter.”

There was no mistaking the slightly insolent note in Pierce’s voice. “As you wish, my lord.” The comm unit crackled quietly as the signal terminated.

One corner of Umbral’s lips quirked upward in amusement. Leaning back against the plush upholstery of her chair, she awaited the arrival of her guests.

*****


Apocalypsa stood at the holoterminal within the Flameshrike, her arms crossed over the gleaming black beskar’gam covering her chest. The semi-transparent image of a large man wearing an Imperial uniform flickered in front of her.

“We’re here for our meeting with Darth Umbral.” She tilted her head to the side slightly. “Interesting planet you’ve got here.” Glancing out the transparisteel viewport to her left, she gestured with her gloved hand at the world spinning beneath the starship.

The atmosphere swirled with black clouds, the toxic emissions erupting forth from great volcanoes which covered nearly the entire surface. As the Flameshrike orbited in the space above the small planet, the navcomputer began chiming softly as it received information from landing beacons down below.

“It serves our purpose.” The man’s deep voice growled forth from his throat. “I’m Lieutenant Pierce, and I’ll be bringing you to the Darth.” He held up the datapad in his hands. “I’m transmitting the signals for our landing beacons to your ship. Follow them closely; it can be a tricky landing.”

Apoc nodded. The image of the soldier winked out, and she turned to make her way to the bridge. As she entered, Mako looked up from her computer terminal.

“Hey boss. Did some quick scans of the planet. Nearly ninety percent covered with volcanoes, very little water to speak of - most of it in vapor. Two landing beacons are set, one in the crater of an inactive volcano, and the other seems to be within the volcano itself.“ She frowned as the scanner display suddenly went dark. “Scanner’s out.”

Apoc grimaced, glancing sidelong at the other woman. “Again?”

Shaking her head, Mako keyed for a restart of the scanner’s system. “Could have replaced this scanner a long time ago if you didn’t need to keep repairing and upgrading that armor of yours.”

The Mandalorian woman narrowed her eyes. “What’re you trying to say?”

“Get shot at less.”

A mischievous grin spread across Apoc’s face. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Seated in the pilot’s chair, Layne attempted, but failed, to choke back a burst of laughter. He turned to Torian, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat next to him. “Apoc’s only happy when she’s dodging lasers.”

“She’s not very good at dodging.” Torians sapphire eyes sparkled. “That’s why we spend more on her beskar in three months than we do on fuel and ammunition in a year.”

Mako pounded a fist on the top of the scanner as Apoc’s eyes began to glint dangerously, narrowed in Torian’s direction. With a reluctant beep, the display winked back on. “Scanner’s up!” she sang out merrily.

“I hate all of you right now.” Apoc pointed at the planet outside the viewport. “Let’s just get down there, so I can throw you all into a volcano.”

“You’d trip and fall in.” Torian ducked as Apoc’s hand glanced off the back of his head.

Shaking his head, Layne began to guide the Flameshrike down toward the surface of the planet. As they punched through the atmosphere, roiling black clouds of poisonous smoke engulfed the green and gold starship. “Visibility is zero.” He grit his teeth slightly. “That Pierce guy wasn’t kidding. This is going to be tricky.”

Apoc’s gloved hands gripped the back of Torians seat tightly. She strained her eyes to see past the billowing blackness. With great care, Layne slowed the Shrike’s descent, lightening his touch on the steering controls to drift down along the path prescribed by the landing beacon.

They descended through the swirling darkness for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, the ship broke through the cloud cover. Below them spread an expanse of lava pools, glowing orange, red, and white, the colors so intense that it made the eyes water to look at it.

Waves of heat billowed through the air as the Flameshrike soared over a lake of molten rock. Apoc nodded in silent agreement with Mako’s quiet gasp as the edge of the lake came into sight, a sheer drop of many hundreds of meters down into an ancient crater.

Lava streamed down the side of the cliff, pooling on small crags of rock and then cascading downward again to slowly harden as it met the cavern floor. “It’s like a glowing orange waterfall.” Mako’s voice was quiet as they all took in the sight.

As the starship descended further into the crater, a large gaping hole became visible in the ancient lava shaft. Layne clenched his jaw as he skillfully guided the Flameshrike into the tunnel. Darkness engulfed them once again, broken only by a series of small red reflective panels that ran along the top and bottom of the tunnel.

The Shrike’s running lights winked on, and Apoc’s hands once again gripped Torian’s chair tightly. The tunnel they flew down was rough, full of crags and stalactites that could easily take out an engine.

“The other beacon is just ahead.” Mako glanced up from her computer display. “There’s a magcon field at the end of the tunnel. The atmosphere here must be pretty toxic, so that’s probably to keep in breathable air.”

Moments later, they broke through the shimmering force field. Layne lowered the Flameshrike to the landing pad beneath them, settling it down next to a gleaming black starship that resembled a large starfighter.

Fury class Interceptor.” Torian whistled appreciatively. “Nice ship. Must belong to the Sith Lord.” He glanced up at the name emblazoned on the other ships wing. “The Nova Eclipse.”

“Dark and sinister. Yep, sounds like something a Sith would fly.” Apoc grinned at him, then glanced around at Mako and Layne. “All right. Layne, Mako, stay with the Shrike and keep us prepped for launch. I don’t anticipate any trouble, but you never know with a Sith.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Mako leaned back in her chair, putting her feet up on the computer console. “I always hate meeting Sith anyway. I can’t help but feel I’m just waiting to be mind-choked.”

Layne frowned. “Can’t I come? You’ve brought me on every other mission we’ve had in the past four months. Why would this one be any different?”

Crossing her arms over her chest, Apoc tapped her foot. “This isn’t the same, kid. We haven’t worked for a Sith in a while. They can be pretty touchy, and by touchy I mean if you say the wrong thing they might try to kill you.”

“I won’t say anything.” He stood up, turning to face the Mandalorian warrior. “You said I needed to learn. And you’re right, I do. Don’t you think that I need to learn to deal with Sith eventually?”

Apoc frowned. There really wasn’t any disputing that logic. Her emerald gaze fixed on Layne’s face. His jaw was set, his eyes determined. Inwardly, she smiled. There would be no dissuading him this time. She glanced at Torian. He remained silent, letting her make the decision.

“Fine.” She held up a hand as Layne’s face broke out into a grin. “No talking unless the Sith asks you a direct question. And don’t volunteer any information you aren’t asked for.”

He nodded, then hurried off toward the ships exit ramp. Torian stood up, stretching his arms over his head. “He’s eager.”

“I know.” Apoc sighed.

“He’s hungry.” Torian shrugged his shoulders, reaching out a gauntleted hand to lay it on Apoc’s shoulder. She could feel the weight through her own beskar’gam, and smiled up at him.

“I know. I have to let him learn. He’s got talent, and I would hate to see it go to waste.” She turned to exit the bridge, talking quietly as Torian followed her toward the cargo hold. “Did I tell you I talked to Mand’alor?”

He shook his head, raising a blond eyebrow at her. “What did he say?”

She smiled at him. “It’s a go. Final preparations are being made, the clans are in agreement. I thought you would be pleased.”

He stopped walking, and she turned to face him. Wordlessly, he reached out and tugged her to him, wrapping his armor-clad arms around her. The feel of his gauntlets scratching against the back of her beskar’gam made her smile.

“I am. It’s great news. Keep this up and pretty soon you’ll be commanding legions instead of being a bounty hun-“ He was cut off as Layne came sprinting up the ramp through the hold. Stepping back from Apoc, Torian frowned. “What?”

“There’s two men waiting outside the ship. One is that Pierce guy, the other is the one who first contacted us. Quinn or something.”

“Let’s go then.” Apoc reached out, clapped a hand on Layne’s back. “Time for you to learn how to handle a Sith lord.”

As the Shrike’s boarding ramp lowered, Apocalypsa let her gaze travel around the cavernous hangar bay. Her eyes were drawn to two enormous turbolaser guns, one on either side of the entrance. The massive cannons were pointed directly at the magnetic containment field that held in the breathable atmosphere. She shivered slightly. Any unwelcome ship entering the field would be slagged within moments.

At the bottom of the ramp stood Malavai Quinn, uniform impeccable and every dark hair in place. Next to him stood the other Imperial, Pierce – a hulking man with a weathered face. Stepping forward, Quinn moved to greet the Mandalorians as they exited their starship.

“Apocalypsa. Darth Umbral is expecting you.” The Imperial’s precise inflection grated on Apoc’s nerves. He projected an unmistakable aura of command, obviously used to issuing orders which were followed immediately and without question. Apoc’s natural anti-authority tendencies threatened to kick in, and she took a deep breath as she stepped in behind the man, following him toward a small door built into the side of the hangar.

Torian and Layne fell into step on either side of her, with the massive Lieutenant Pierce bringing up the rear. They stepped through the door into a long corridor, dimly lit by small red light strips imbedded in the ceiling.

Their footsteps echoed through the empty hall, and Apocalypsa noted that every few meters they passed between a series of shield projectors. Designed to slow intruders down, these projectors would create an energy barrier from one side of the corridor to the other, raising walls which would have to be bypassed to proceed further into the compound.

“Nice defenses you have here.” Apoc’s comment elicited a nod from Quinn, and a soft chuckle from Pierce.

“A few months ago, the Darth tells us we’re moving to our new home.” Pierce’s gravelly voice rumbled from deep within his chest. “When we got here, there was a band of pirates that had set up shop. They had all of this defense technology, but were powering it using external generators in some of the volcanoes.”

They reached the end of the corridor. A small panel built into the wall beeped as Quinn entered a code on the numbered keypad. The door slid open, allowing them access to a large, circular room. A thick black carpet covered the floor, the Imperial insignia in the center a dark red reminiscent of blood.

“So you blew up the generators and then liberated the compound from the pirates?” Apocalypsa raised a slender eyebrow at Pierce, who shot her a crooked smile.

“That’s about the size of it. Blasted about fifteen of them myself, what ones the Darth didn’t get. We drilled down into the old lava shaft here to replace the generators. The volcano isn’t active but we were able to break through to a neighboring one that is – the whole place runs on thermal power.”

“Lieutenant, return to the hangar bay and secure the bounty hunters ship, then go back to your duties.” Quinn stared hard at the other man, his ice-blue eyes narrowing. Pierce’s jaw clenched slightly, then he turned and marched away, disappearing into one of the doors leading out of the room.

“Come, Darth Umbral is waiting.” Quinn gestured for them to follow. Apoc squinted at his back as he led them to another door. Was it her imagination, or had there been a hint of a smile on that expressionless face?

The dark-haired Imperial pushed open the door, motioning for Apocalypsa, Torian, and Layne to precede him into the room. Apoc’s boots thudded softly against the thick carpeting covering the stone floor as she stepped into the chamber.

The dim light did not allow her to examine the contents of the room closely, but did serve to illuminate the wide desk in the middle, made of a gleaming dark wood. A woman sat behind the desk, leaning back in her chair as if it were a throne. Apocalypsa found herself studying her closely, as if she could not help but be drawn to the other woman.

Her pale skin was the color of new-fallen snow. Her hair was as red as flame, and fell down over her shoulders, framing a face with full lips and regal features. Large blue eyes as fathomless as a storm-tossed sea shone with an inner fire that burned from deep within the Sith lord’s soul.

Apoc struggled to keep from frowning. Despite Darth Umbral’s undeniable beauty, there was something unsettling about her, something that made Apoc’s skin crawl and her breath come just a bit harder. She couldn’t put her finger on it, couldn’t tell what it was that made her feel so uncomfortable.

As her emerald eyes locked with Umbral’s, Apoc felt herself being weighed, judged. The Sith lord’s burning gaze delved deep within the Mandalorians soul, like an insidious presence Apoc could feel worming its way through her brain and into the very core of her being. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Suddenly, the feeling was gone as Umbral’s focus shifted, her eyes turning to Torian, and then to Layne, before flickering back to Apocalypsa.

“Apocalypsa Cadera.” The Sith lord’s voice was deep, yet feminine, much like Apoc’s own, yet missing the husky quality and instead bearing a sharp, Imperial accent. “A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. I have heard much of your exploits.”

“I always try to put on a good show.” Apoc glanced around her, trying to make out details of the room in the dim light. From what she could tell, the walls of the room were lined with shelves covered with datacards, the type of which could be found in most libraries.

Quinn moved to stand next to Darth Umbral, one of his hands resting on the back of her chair. “Your reputation is the reason we have called you here.” He placed a small, hand-held holoprojector on the center of the desk. “You have an uncanny ability to complete contracts that have been deemed impossible to fulfill.”

“And you have an impossible contract for me?” Apoc allowed herself a small smile. “I do enjoy a challenge.”

“Good.” Umbral drummed her long, pale fingers on the surface of the desk. “As you have no doubt observed, we have implemented many security measures within our stronghold here. You have seen the guns we have in place to deter enemy ships from landing, and you have seen our ray shield generators in the corridors.”

Shrugging, the Mandalorian mercenary waved a hand dismissively. “I’m sure you have a bunch of other fun surprises just waiting for someone foolish enough to walk in here.” She watched as the Sith lord pressed a button on the side of the holoprojector on the desk.

The image which appeared above it was that of a humanoid alien with a tall, dome-shaped head and two eyes set low on either side, protruding from short eye-stalks. The image spun, hanging in the air, as the Sith lord spoke.

“You likely recognize this creature from your exploits on the prison planet, Belsavis.” Umbral’s hands returned to the desk, her fingers taking up their incessant drumming. “Rakata, they are called, an ancient species which claims to have ruled over the galaxy in some sort of Infinite Empire, before the Sith rose to power.”

Apocalypsa nodded. “I remember. Most of the planet’s prison complex was built by them, as well as a transport system that uses some form of teleportation.”

“Stasis chambers, prisons for the mind.” Torian crossed his arms over his chest. “Droids. War droids.”

Lifting her hand to push her red hair behind her ear, Umbral nodded. “Yes. The Rakata possessed some very interesting technology, technology which we have not yet even begun to understand, nor replicate.”

“Is this where you ask me to go get you a piece of this interesting technology?” Apoc raised an eyebrow. “I’m a bounty hunter, not a treasure hunter.”

The Sith lord’s eyes began to narrow. Clearing his throat softly, Malavai Quinn stepped between the two women, momentarily blocking their view of each other. “Indeed, mercenary. It is not a piece of technology which we wish you to retrieve, but a man.” He gestured toward the hologram as Umbral changed the image.

The hologram changed to that of a starship. Elliptical in shape, it bore the markings of the Galactic Republic. Bristling from the sides like giant spines, massive weapon batteries bore heavy turbolaser turrets and ion cannons. As Apocalypsa watched, the grey exterior of the ship faded away to reveal a floor-by-floor schematic of the vessel.

“This is the Incarcerator.” Umbral’s dark blue gaze flew to Layne as the young man coughed suddenly, his eyes growing wide. The smile she gave him caused his heart to skip a beat and his body to turn cold.

“Your young friend must recognize the name from his service to the Republic.” The Sith lord chuckled softly as Layne cast his eyes to the ground and fidgeted. “Oh yes, Sergeant Layne Malan. I know who you are.” She turned her attention back to the hologram. “As it turns out, your prior connection to the Galactic Republic may aid you in this endeavor.”

“What is the Incarcerator?” Apoc took a step forward, moving closer to the desk to study the ship. “Sounds like a prison ship.”

“That’s exactly what it is.” Quinn’s polished boots moved swiftly across the carpeted floor as he began to pace back and forth in front of the desk. The Sith lord’s dark gaze followed his every movement. “The Incarcerator is a mobile prison ship owned by the Galactic Republic. It houses terrorists, seditionists, defectors, and brilliant minded criminals whom the Republic deems too dangerous to have contact with general prison populations.”

“Since the discovery of their experiments among the prison populations of Belsavis, the Republic has used the Incarcerator to hold around two thousand prisoners.” Quinn’s finger tapped the button on the holoprojector. The image shifted once more to show a tall, muscular human male. His long, dark hair was worn free, and he gazed at Apoc from the hologram with cunning, intelligent eyes.

“This is Roth Luxel, a Coruscanti native who proved to be something of a technological genius from a very young age. Before he was ten years old he had sliced into some of the toughest Imperial encryptions that we had designed, and had helped to build the Republic some of the more advanced war droids which they use today.” The Imperial officer took a breath before continuing.

“When the Republic stumbled onto some Rakata technology on Belsavis, they brought in Luxel, then seventeen, to study it and perhaps reverse-engineer parts of it. Intelligence is spotty after Luxel’s arrival on Belsavis, but it would seem that he somehow came into contact with some of the more unsavory members of the prison population.”

Apocalypsa impatiently fidgeted, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. She felt Torian take a step closer to her, and took a deep breath, focusing her attention on Quinn, who stopped pacing and stood with his hands folded behind his back.

“There is some confusion as to what happened, but Luxel did learn from the technology he had studied. In some sort of pact with a band of prisoners, he had begun work on a powerful type of war droid. There are few details, but reports have described the creation as a ‘virtually unstoppable force of destruction.’ Whatever it was, we know that the Republic officials deemed it dangerous enough to destroy the prototype and all of Luxel’s research.”

“Not to sound disrespectful,” Apocalypsa began, crossing her arms. “But I haven’t heard the word ‘credits’ anywhere in all of this. Are you telling me you want me to get this… Roth Luxel and bring him to you?”

“That is precisely what we are telling you, Mandalorian.” Darth Umbral’s voice was quiet, yet held an edge sharper than a vibroknife.

“Great. Jailbreak. I love a good jailbreak.” Apoc smiled. Torian chuckled softly next to her.

“You’ll have your work cut out for you.” Quinn gestured to the hologram again as it switched back to the Incarcerator’s schematics. “The Incarcerator holds two thousand Republic prisoners, one of which is Roth Luxel. The ship is built to minimize interaction between crew and the prisoner population.”

He pointed to the image, finger tracing the outline of several rings within the ovoid ship, which began to glow with different colored lights as his finger passed over them. “There are four ring-shaped prisoner compartments, each separated by another ring of dioxis gas. The gas is deadly to most carbon-based life forms, and so the prisoners are tended to by droids.”

“Let me guess.” Apocalypsa allowed herself a small smirk. “Luxel is being kept in the innermost ring.”

“Exactly right.” Quinn nodded. “While droids tend the prisoners, there is a small crew of two hundred Republic military personnel, responsible for flying the ship and overseeing prisoner transfers as well as new prisoners coming aboard. Prisoners are kept in stasis fields or in comas induced by neural inhibitors, so the small crew has little fear of a revolt.”

“And the ship’s defenses as well as it being hyperspace-capable are enough to deter most outside attacks.” Apocalypsa’s brow furrowed as she stared at the hologram. “So what you’re saying is that I need to get onto a Republic prison ship, fight my way through two hundred defenders and then rings of deadly gas to retrieve some tech specialist.”

“Yes.” Umbral pushed her chair back as she stood. Her hands moved to rest on her rounded belly, and it was then that Apoc finally noticed the Sith lord was quite visibly pregnant. “Luxel’s knowledge will be quite useful in helping to advance our defenses here. I have chosen you to retrieve him both for your reputation in doing the impossible, but also for your discretion.”

With a pointed look at Umbral’s stomach, Apoc nodded. “I always keep my employer’s secrets. I’m a professional.” She took in a deep breath. “And my fee?”

The Sith lord smiled, a predatory gleam of white teeth between her full lips. “One million credits. If you deliver Luxel in good condition.”

Layne’s pale blue eyes grew round at the number. Apoc simply frowned. “What’s ‘good condition’?” Alive? Mental faculties intact? I can’t be responsible for what years of imprisonment does to a man.”

Umbral’s eyes hardened. “One million credits if you deliver him alive. Two million if you deliver him alive and in possession of his mind.”

Apoc turned to Torian. He raised an eyebrow at her as she shifted into Mando’a. “Gar mirdir'mhi liser ruusaan darjetii?” She pointedly ignored the sneer on Umbral’s face. “You think we can trust the Sith?” She waited for Torian’s response.

Nayc.” He emphasized the negative with a shake of his head. “Not much choice, though.”

She sighed slightly. He was right. They needed the money, not to mention that if they refused, the Shrike would probably be shot down as they tried to fly out. She shook her head. No, they would just disable the beacons and let them crash in the volcanic atmosphere.

Her emerald eyes locked with Umbral’s blue orbs. “Fine. Done. We’ll need that schematic.” She gestured toward the holoprojector. Quinn stepped toward her, several datacards in his hands.

“Captain Quinn will give you the relevant information.” Umbral gestured at the man as he placed the datacards in Apoc’s hands. “I expect results quickly, Mandalorian.” Her voice dropped as she turned, moving toward a door in the back of the room. “I do not have much patience for failure.” Her pale hand reached out, opened the door. She stepped through it and was gone, leaving Apoc, Torian, and Layne staring after her.

“She really knows how to leave a room.” Apoc’s comment brought a smile to Torian and Layne’s faces, and just the slightest twitch to the corner of Quinn’s lip.

“If you’ll follow me, please.” The Imperial officer marched his way back to the opposite door, holding it open as the Mandalorians preceded him through it. In silence he escorted them back through the volcanic fortress, finally returning to the hangar bay and the Flameshrike.

Apoc raised an eyebrow slightly as she noted Lieutenant Pierce standing at the bottom of the Shrike’s boarding ramp, talking to Mako, who hung half in and half out of the cargo bay door. The pixie-faced woman smiled broadly at Apoc as the bounty hunter approached the ship.

“Hey boss, was just telling the Lieutenant here about the time you blew up all those Republic walkers on Corellia.” Mako grinned at Apoc, who chuckled softly.

“Yeah, I did do that.” She shrugged her shoulders slightly. “Breaking into the Green Jedi headquarters was a little bit more fun, though.”

“Ha!” Pierce’s laugh boomed from his chest. “Gotta say, I’ve been a big fan since you took out all those Republic reconstruction bases on Taris.” He shook his head. “I was stationed there when you arrived. By the time you left, the Republic had almost nothing left.”

Apoc glanced at Torian. He had a small smile on his lips, and his sapphire eyes sparkled brightly at her. She nudged him softly with her elbow. “Yeah, I ran into this one there and never could get rid of him.”

Torian narrowed his eyes at her. “That’s the last time I track down a bounty for you, cyare.” He grinned at her pseudo-shocked expression.

The sound of Quinn clearing his throat caused the conversation to halt. Pierce rolled his eyes, then threw an insolent salute at his commanding officer before turning and marching away. Quinn stared lasers at the bigger man’s back. Apocalypsa very carefully kept her face neutral.

“Darth Umbral expects results within two weeks.” Quinn turned back to face the Mandalorian woman. “Time is of the essence, and there can be no failure.”

Apoc frowned. “If you’re going to threaten us, get it over with. This veiled passivity is getting old.”

Malavai Quinn rarely smiled. When he did, those who witnessed it usually wished that they hadn’t. The ice cold orbs of his eyes showed no mirth or amusement, though his lips curled upward and the shine of his white teeth could be seen beneath. It was an expression of pure malice, with nothing warm or friendly about it.

He smiled now, as Apocalypsa’s words hung in the air between them. Layne shivered slightly, watching as Apoc’s defiant gaze remained locked with the Imperials. With the pretense of politeness gone, Quinn’s sharply accented voice cut through the air like a lightsaber.

“You are not a stupid woman, Mandalorian. What do you think will happen should you fail, or should word of Darth Umbral’s involvement or presence here get out?”

“All right then.” Apoc turned and began to make her way up the ramp into the Shrike’s cargo hold. “See you in two weeks.”

Torian followed his wife into the starship. For a moment, Mako and Layne stood at the bottom of the ramp, watching as Quinn left the hangar. Layne’s soft sigh caused Mako to raise an eyebrow.

“What’s wrong, Layne?” Mako smiled at him, and he turned toward her, shaking his head.

“This is way bigger than anything we’ve done since I’ve been with you guys.” He ran his hand through his white-blonde hair. “Way bigger.”

“Don’t worry.” Mako shrugged a slender shoulder. “Did you think all Apoc did was go after random Hutt’s lost slaves and the men unfortunate enough to be sleeping with the Moff’s wife?”

Layne couldn’t help but laugh. “No, you’re right. I studied her, you know. In the Academy. I know she’s done some really big things. I guess I just never thought I’d be doing them.”

“She wouldn’t let you go, if she didn’t think you could handle it.” Mako clapped her hand on his shoulder. “I shouldn’t tell you this, you know. But she says you’ve got talent. She says you could be the next her.”

Layne’s eyes widened as he peered up the ramp where Apocalypsa had disappeared with Torian. “She really said that?” At Mako’s nod, he sighed again, then nodded firmly. “Guess I better suck it up, then.”

He turned, making his way up the ramp. It closed behind Mako, and together they walked to the bridge. Sliding into the pilot’s seat, Layne engaged the Flameshrike’s repulsorlifts, drifting slowly into the air. With a little nudge, he pushed the starship forward and through the shimmering barrier of the magnetic containment field.

As the Shrike’s three sublight engines roared to life, Apoc slid into the co-pilot’s chair next to him. Strapping herself into the seat, she flashed him a quick grin. “Let’s get out of here, kid.”

He nodded, taking a deep breath before he focused on the viewport in front of him, guiding the ship out through the twisting, dark tunnel. Breaking through to the roiling black clouds of the atmosphere, he angled the Flameshrike for space.