Phaseera's yellow sun was directly overhead, beaming down across the lush valley and over the jungle camp where Des and his fellow Sith troopers waited. Beneath the shelter of a cydera tree, Des ran a quick system check on his TC-22 blaster rifle to pass the time. The power pack was fully charged, good for fifty shots. His backup power pack checked out, too. The aim was off just slightly, a common problem with all TC models. They had good range and power, but over time their scopes could lose precise calibration. A quick adjustment brought it back into line.
His hands moved with a quick confidence born of a thousand repetitions. Over the past twelve months he'd gone through the routine so many times he barely even had to think about it anymore. A pre-battle weapons check wasn't standard practice in the Sith militia, but it was a habit he'd gotten into-one that had saved his life on several occasions. The Sith army was growing so fast that supply couldn't keep up with demand. The best equipment was reserved for veterans and officers, while new recruits were forced to make do with whatever was available.
Now that he was a sergeant he could have requested a better model, but the TC-22 was the first weapon he'd learned to fire and he'd become pretty good with it. Des figured a little routine maintenance was a better option than learning to master the subtle nuances of another weapon.
His blaster pistol, however, was top of the line. Not all Sith troopers were given pistols: for most soldiers a medium-range, semi-repeating rifle was weapon enough. They'd probably be dead long before they ever got close enough to their enemy to use a pistol. But in the past year Des had proven a dozen times over that he was more than just turret fodder. Soldiers good enough to survive the initial rush and get in tight to the enemy ranks needed a weapon more suited to close-quarters fighting.
For Des that weapon was the GSI-21D: the finest disruptor pistol manufactured by Galactic Solutions Industries. Optimum range was only twenty meters, but within that distance it was capable of disintegrating armor, flesh, and droid plating with equal efficiency. The 21D was illegal in most Republic-controlled sectors of the galaxy, a testament to its awesome destructive potential. The disruptor's power pack carried only enough charge for a dozen shots, but when he was eye-to-eye with an opponent it rarely took more than one.
He slid the pistol into the holster clipped to his belt; checked the vibroblade in his boot, and turned his attention to his troops. All around him the men and women of his unit were following his lead, making similar inspections of their own equipment as they waited for the orders. He couldn't help but smile; he'd trained them well.
He'd joined the Sith armies as a way to escape both prison and Apatros itself. But it hadn't taken him long to actually grow fond of the soldier's life. There was a camaraderie among the men and women who fought at his side, a bond that quickly extended to include Des himself. He'd never felt any connection to the miners on Apatros and indeed had always considered himself something of a loner. But in the military he'd found his true place. He belonged here with the troops. His troops.
Senior Trooper Adanar noticed his gaze and responded by thumping a closed fist lightly against his chest twice, just over his heart. It was a gesture known only to members of the unit: a private sign for loyalty and fidelity, a symbol of the bond they all shared.
Des returned the gesture. He and Adanar had been in the same unit since day one of their military careers. The recruiter had signed them up together and assigned them both to the Gloom Walkers, Lieutenant Ulabore's unit.
Adanar picked up his rifle and sauntered over to where his friend was sitting. "You figure we're going to need that disruptor pistol of yours anytime soon, Sarge?"
"No harm in being prepared," Des replied, whipping out the disruptor and giving it a spinning flourish before returning it to its holster.
"I wish they'd give us the go-ahead already," Adanar grumbled. "We've been in position for two days now. How long are they going to wait?"
Des shrugged. "We can't go until they're ready to move in with the main force. We go too early and the plan falls apart."
The Gloom Walkers had earned quite a reputation over the past year. They'd been in scores of battles on half a dozen worlds, and they'd tasted far more than their share of victories. They'd gone from being one of a thousand expendable front-line units to elite troops reserved for critical missions. Right now they were the key to capturing the manufacturing world of Phaseera-if someone would just give them the order to go. Until then they were stuck in this jungle camp an hour's march away from their objective. They'd been here only a couple of days, but it was already beginning to take its toll.
Adanar began to pace. Des sat calmly in the shade, watching him march back and forth.
"Don't wear yourself out," he said after a minute. "We're not going anywhere until nightfall at the earliest. You might as well get comfortable."
Adanar stopped pacing, but he didn't sit down. "Lieutenant says this is going to be easy as a spicerun," he said, trying to keep his voice casual. "You figure he's right?"
Lieutenant Ulabore had received many accolades for the success of his troops, but everyone in the unit knew who was really in charge when the blaster bolts started flying.
That fact had become painfully clear nearly a year before back on Kashyyyk, where Des and Adanar had seen their first action. The Brotherhood of Darkness had tried to secure a foothold in the Mid Rim by invading the system, sending in wave after wave of troops to capture the resource-rich homeworld of the Wookiees. But the planet was a Republic stronghold and they weren't about to retreat, no matter how badly outnumbered.
When the Sith fleet first landed, their enemies simply vanished into the forest. The invasion turned into a war of attrition, a long, drawn-out campaign fought among the branches of the wroshyr trees high above the planet's surface. The Sith troopers weren't used to fighting in the treetops, and the thick foliage and kshyy vines of the forest canopy provided perfect cover for the Republic soldiers and their Wookiee guides to launch ambushes and guerrilla raids. Thousands upon thousands of the invaders were wiped out, most dying without even seeing the opponent who had fired the fatal shot ... but the Sith Masters just kept sending more troops in.
The Gloom Walkers were part of the second wave of reinforcements. During their first battle they were separated from the main lines, cut off from the rest of the army. Alone and surrounded by enemies, Lieutenant Ulabore panicked. Without direct orders, he had no idea what to do to keep his unit alive. Fortunately, Des was there to step in and save their hides.
For starters, he could sense the enemy even when he couldn't see them. Somehow he just knew where they were. He couldn't explain it, but he'd stopped trying to explain his unique talents long ago. Now he just tried to use them to his best advantage. With Des as their guide, the Gloom Walkers were able to avoid the traps and ambushes as they slowly worked their way back to rejoin the main force. It took three days and nights, countless brief but deadly battles, and a seemingly endless march through enemy territory, but they made it. Through all the fighting, the unit lost only a handful of soldiers, and the troops who made it back knew they owed their lives to Des.
The story of the Gloom Walkers became a rallying point for the rest of the Sith army, raising morale that had become dangerously low. If a single unit could survive for three days on its own, they reasoned, then surely a thousand units could win the war. In the end it took almost two thousand units, but Kashyyyk finally fell.
As leader of the heroic Gloom Walkers, Lieutenant Ulabore was given a special commendation. He never bothered to mention that Des was really the one responsible. Still, he'd been smart enough to promote Des to sergeant. And he knew enough to stay out of the way when things got hot.
"So?" Adanar repeated. "What's the word, Des? When they finally give us the go, is this mission going to be a spicerun?"
"The lieutenant's just saying what he thinks we all want to hear."
"I know that, Des. That's why I'm talking to you. I want to know what we're really in for."
Des thought about it for a few moments. They were holed up in the jungle on the edge of a narrow valley-the only route into Phaseera's capital city, where the Republic army had set up its base camp. On a nearby hill overlooking the valley was a Republic outpost. If the Sith tried to move troops through the valley, even at night, the outpost was sure to spot them. They'd signal ahead to the base camp so their defenses would be up and fully operational long before the enemy ever reached them.
The Gloom Walkers' mission was simple: eliminate the outpost so the rest of the army could launch a surprise attack on the Republic base camp. They had interference boxes-short-range jamming equipment they could use to keep the outpost from transmitting a signal to warn the main camp-but they'd have to hit them fast. The outpost reported each day at dawn, and if the Gloom Walkers struck too soon, the Republic would realize something was wrong when the daily report didn't come in.
The timing was critical. They'd have to take them out just before the main force entered the area. That would leave a few hours to cross the valley and catch the base camp unprepared. It was doable, but only if everything was coordinated perfectly. The Gloom Walkers were in place, but the main force wasn't ready to make its move yet ... and so they waited.
"I'm worried," Des finally conceded. "Taking that outpost won't be easy. Once we get the go-ahead there's no margin for error. We have to be perfect. If they've got any surprises waiting for us, we could be in trouble."
Adanar spit on the ground. "I knew it! You've got a bad feeling, don't you? This is Hsskhor all over again!"
Hsskhor had been a disaster. After Kashyyyk fell, the surviving Republic soldiers fled to the neighboring world of Trandosha. Twenty units of Sith troopers, including the Gloom Walkers, were sent in pursuit. They caught up to the Republic survivors on the desert plains outside the city of Hsskhor.
A day of savage fighting left many dead on both sides, but no definitive victor. Des had been uneasy throughout the battle, though at the time he hadn't been able to say why. His unease had grown as night fell and both sides retreated to opposite ends of the battlefield to regroup. The Trandoshans had struck a few hours later.
The pitch-black night wasn't a problem for the reptilian Trandoshans: they could see into the infrared spectrum. They seemed to come out of nowhere, materializing from the darkness like a nightmare given substance.
Unlike the Wookiees, the Trandoshans weren't allied with either side in the galactic civil war. The bounty hunters and mercenaries of Hsskhor cut a swath of destruction through the ranks of Republic and Sith alike, not caring whom they fought just as long as they came away with trophies from their kills.
Details of the massacre were never officially released. Des had been at the very center of the carnage, and even he could barely piece together what had happened. The attack caught the Gloom Walkers, like every other unit, completely off guard. By the time the sun rose nearly half the Sith troops had been cut down. Des lost a lot of friends in the slaughter ... friends he might have saved if he had paid more attention to the dark premonition he'd felt when he first set foot on that forsaken desert world. And he vowed he'd never let the Gloom Walkers get caught in a slaughter like that again.
In the end Hsskhor paid a heavy price for the ambush. Reinforcements were sent in from Kashyyyk to overwhelm both the Republic forces and the Trandoshans. It took less than a week for the Sith to claim victory, and the once proud city was sacked and razed to the ground. Many of the Trandoshans simply gave up the fight to defend their homes and offered their services to their conquerors. They were bounty hunters and mercenaries by trade, and hunters by nature. They didn't care whom they were working for, as long as there was a chance to do some more killing. Needless to say, the Sith had welcomed them with open arms.
"This isn't going to be a repeat of Hsskhor," Des assured his nervous companion. It was true he had an uneasy feeling once again. But this time it was different. Something big was going to happen, but Des couldn't say for sure whether it would be good or bad.
"Come on, Des," Adanar pressed. "Go talk to Ulabore. He listens to you sometimes."
"And tell him what?"
Adanar threw his hands up in exasperation. "I don't know! Tell him about your bad feeling. Make him get on the comm to HQ and tell them to pull us back. Or convince them to send us in! Just don't leave us sitting out here like a bunch of dead womp rats rotting in the sun!"
Before Des could answer, one of the junior troopers, a young woman named Lucia, ran up and snapped off a crisp salute. "Sergeant! Lieutenant Ulabore wants you to assemble the troops by his tent. He'll address them in thirty minutes," she said, her voice earnest and excited.
Des flashed a smile at his friend. "I think we've finally got our orders."
The soldiers stood at attention as the lieutenant and Des reviewed the troops. As it always did, the inspection consisted of Ulabore moving up and down the ranks, nodding and giving half-muttered approvals. It was mostly for show, a chance for Ulabore to feel as if he had something to do with the success of a mission.
Once they were done, the lieutenant marched to the front of the column and turned to face the troops. Des stood alone in front of the unit, his back to them so he could be face-to-face with his superior officer.
"Everyone here is familiar with our mission objective," Ulabore began, his voice unusually high-pitched and loud. Des guessed he was trying to sound authoritative, but it came across as shrill.
"I'll leave the specifics of the mission to the sergeant here," he continued. "Our task is not an easy one, but the days of the Gloom Walkers getting easy jobs are long gone.
"I don't have much else to say; I know you're all as eager as I am to end this pointless waiting. That's why I'm happy to inform you that we've been given the order to move out. We hit the Republic outpost in one hour!"
Horrified gasps and loud whispers of disbelief rose up from the ranks. Ulabore stepped back as if he'd been slapped. He'd obviously been expecting cheers and exultation, and was rattled by the sudden anger and lack of discipline.
"Gloom Walkers, hold!" Des barked. He stepped up to the lieutenant and lowered his voice. "Sir, are you certain those were the orders? Move in one hour? Are you certain they didn't mean one hour after nightfall?"
"Are you questioning me, Sergeant?" Ulabore snapped, making no attempt to keep his own voice down.
"No, sir. It's just that if we leave in one hour it'll still be light out. They'll see us coming."
"By the time they see us we'll already be close enough to jam their transmitters," the lieutenant countered. "They won't be able to signal back to the base camp."
"It's not that, sir. It's the gunships. They've got three repulsorcraft equipped with heavy-repeating flash cannons. If we try to take the outpost during the day, those things will mow us down from the sky."
"It's a suicide mission!" someone shouted out from the ranks.
Ulabore's eyes became narrow slits, and his face turned red. "The main army is moving out at dusk, Sergeant," he said through tightly clenched teeth. "They want to cross the valley in darkness and hit the Republic base camp at first light."
"Then there's no reason for us to move so soon," Des replied, struggling to remain calm. "If they start at dusk, it's going to take at least three hours before they reach the valley from their current position. That gives us plenty of time to take the outpost down before they get here, even if we wait until after dark:'
"It's obvious you don't understand what's really going on, Sergeant." Ulabore spoke as if arguing with a stubborn child. "The main force isn't going to start moving until after we report our mission is complete. That's why we have to move now."
It made sense: the generals wouldn't want to risk the main force until they knew for certain the valley was secure. But sending them in during the light of day guaranteed that the Gloom Walkers' casualty rate would increase fivefold.
"You have to comm back to HQ and explain the situation to them," Des said. "We can't take on those gunships in the air. We have to wait till they ground them for the night. You have to make them understand what we're up against."
The lieutenant acted as if he hadn't even heard him. "The generals give the orders to me, and I give them to you," he snapped. "Not the other way around! The army is moving out at dusk, and that's not going to change to fit your schedule, Sergeant!"
"They won't have to change their plans," Des insisted. "If we leave as soon as it gets dark, we'll still have that outpost down by the time they reach the valley. But sending us in now is just-"
"Enough!" the lieutenant snapped. "Quit braying like a bantha cut off from its herd! You have your orders, now follow them! Or do you want to see what happens to soldiers who defy their superior officers?"
Suddenly it was clear to Des what was really going on. Ulabore knew the order was a mistake, but he was too scared to do anything about it. The order must have come directly from one of the Dark Lords. Ulabore would rather lead his troops into a slaughter than face the wrath of a Sith Master. But Des wasn't about to let him drive the Gloom Walkers to their doom. This wasn't going to become a repeat of Hsskhor. He hesitated for only a second before slamming his fist into his lieutenant's chin, knocking him cold.
There was stunned silence from the rest of the troops as Ulabore slumped to the ground. Des quickly took away the fallen officer's weapons, then turned and pointed at a pair of the newest recruits.
"You two, keep an eye on the lieutenant. Make sure he's comfortable if he wakes up, but don't let him anywhere near the comm."
To the communications officer he said, "Just before dusk send a message back to HQ telling them our mission is complete so they can start moving the main force into the valley. That will give us two hours to achieve our objective before they get here."
Turning to address the rest of the troops, he paused to let the gravity of his next words sink in. "What I've done here is mutiny," he said slowly. "There's a chance anyone who follows me from here on in will face a court-martial when this is over. If any of you feel you can't follow my orders after what I've done here today, speak up now and I'll surrender command to Senior Trooper Adanar for the rest of the mission."
He gazed out across the soldiers. For a second nobody spoke; then as one they all raised their fists and gave two light raps on their chest, just above the heart.
Overwhelmed with pride, Des had to swallow hard before he could give his final order to the troops . . . his troops. "Gloom Walkers, dismissed!"
The ranks dispersed in groups of twos and threes, the soldiers whispering quietly to one another. Adanar broke away from the rest and came up to Des.
"Ulabore's not going to forget this," he said quietly. "What are you going to do about him?"
"After we take that outpost they'll want to pin a medal on our commanding officer," Des replied. "I'm betting he'd rather shut up and accept it than let anyone know what really happened."
Adanar grunted. "Guess you got it all worked out."
"Not quite," Des admitted. "I'm still not sure how we're going to take down that outpost."