The outpost was located in a clearing on the top of a plateau overlooking the valley. Under the cover of night, the Gloom Walkers had moved silently through the jungle until they had it surrounded. Des had broken the unit up into four squads, each approaching from a different side. Each squad carried an interference box with it.
They had set up and activated the i-boxes once they'd closed to within half a kilometer of the base, jamming all transmissions within their perimeter. The squads had continued on to the edges of the clearing then stopped, waiting for Des to give them the signal to move in. With no communication among the squads-the i-boxes jammed their own equipment as well-the most reliable signal was the sound of blasterfire.
As he stared across the clearing at the three repulsorcraft sitting on the landing pad atop the outpost's roof, Des felt a familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach. All soldiers felt the same thing going into battle, whether they admitted it or not: fear. Fear of failure, fear of dying, fear of watching their friends die, fear of being wounded and living out the rest of their days crippled or maimed. The fear was always there, and it would devour you if you let it.
Des knew how to turn that fear to his own advantage. Take what makes you weak and turn it into something that makes you strong. Transform the fear into anger and hate: hatred of the enemy; hatred of the Republic and the Jedi. The hate gave him strength, and the strength brought him victory.
For Des the transformation came easily once the fighting started. Thanks to his abusive father, he'd been turning fear into anger and hate ever since he was a child. Maybe that was why he was such a good soldier. Maybe that was why the others looked to him for leadership.
They were waiting on his signal even now, waiting for him to take the first shot. As soon as he did, they'd charge the outpost. The Gloom Walkers were outnumbered nearly two to one; they'd need the advantage of surprise to even out the odds. But those gunships were a problem Des hadn't anticipated.
The clearing was surrounded by bright lights that illuminated everything within a hundred meters of the outpost itself. And even though the repulsorcraft were grounded, there was a soldier stationed in the open flatbed at the rear of each vehicle, operating the turrets. The armored walls of the flatbed rose to waist height to give the gunner some cover, and the turret itself was heavily shielded to protect it from enemy fire.
From the landing pad on the roof, the gunners had a clear view of the surrounding area. If he fired that first shot, the other units would charge out into the clearing and right into a storm of heavy-repeating blasterfire. They'd be torn apart like zucca tossed into a rancor pit.
"What's the matter, Sarge?" one of the soldiers in his squad asked. It was Lucia, the junior trooper who'd delivered Ulabore's orders to him earlier. "What are we waiting for?"
It was too late to call off the mission. The main army was already on the move; by the time Des got back to camp to warn them, they'd be halfway through the valley.
He glanced down at the young recruit and noticed the scope on her weapon. Lucia was carrying a TC-17 long-range blaster rifle. Her knuckles were white from gripping her weapon too tightly in fear and anticipation. She'd seen only minor combat duty before being assigned to the Gloom Walkers, but Des knew she was one of the best shots in the unit. The TC-17 was only good for a dozen shots before the power cell had to be switched out, but it had a range well over three hundred meters.
Each of the four squads had a sniper assigned to it. When the fighting began, their job was to watch the perimeter of the battle and make sure none of the Republic soldiers escaped to warn their main camp.
"See those soldiers standing in the rear of the gunships? The ones working the flash cannons?" he asked her.
"If we don't get rid of them somehow, they're going to turn our squads into turret fodder about ten seconds after this battle begins."
She nodded again, her eyes wide and scared. Des tried to keep his voice even and professional to calm her down.
"I want you to think about this very carefully now, trooper. How fast do you think you could take them out from here?"
She hesitated. "I ... I don't even know if I could, Sarge. Not all of them. Not from this angle. I could get a line on the first one, but as soon as he goes down, I doubt the others will stand still long enough for me to take aim. They'll probably duck down in the flatbed for cover. And even if I take the gunners out, there's half a dozen more soldiers on that roof who would jump in to take their places. I can't drop nine targets that fast by myself, Sarge. Nobody can."
Des bit his lip and tried to figure out an answer to the problem. There were only three gunships. If he could somehow get a message to the sniper in each squad and have them fire at exactly the same time, they might be able to take out the unsuspecting gunners ... though they'd still have to stop the other six soldiers from replacing them.
He cut off his own line of thought with a silent curse. It would never work. Because of the i-boxes there was no way to get a message to the other squads in time.
Taking the sniper rifle from Lucia's hands, he brought the weapon up and set his eye to the scope to get a better look at the situation. He scanned the roof quickly from side to side, noting the position of every Republic soldier. With the magnification of the scope he could make out their features clear enough to see their lips moving as they spoke.
The situation was practically hopeless. The outpost was the key to taking Phaseera, and the turrets on the roof were the key to taking the outpost. But Des was out of options and almost out of time.
He felt the fear stronger than ever and took a deep breath to focus hismind. Adrenaline began to pump through his veins as he redirected the fear to give him strength and power. He lined the blaster's scope up on one of the gunners, and a red veil fell across his vision. And then he fired.
He acted on instinct, moving too quickly to let his conscious thoughts get in the way. He didn't even see the first soldier drop; the scope was already moving to his next target. The second gunner had just enough time to open his eyes wide in surprise before Des fired and moved on to the third. But she'd seen the first gunner go down and had already dropped down behind the armored walls of the gunship's flatbed for cover.
Des resisted the impulse to fire wildly and moved the scope in a tight circle, looking in vain for a clean shot. The sound of blasterfire exploded in the night, along with shouts and pounding feet as the Gloom Walkers burst from their cover and rushed the outpost. They'd followed their orders to the letter, charging out at the sound of the first shot. Des knew he had only a few seconds before the turrets opened up on them and turned the clearing into a killing field, but he couldn't see the shot to take out the third gunner.
He whipped the rifle around in desperation, looking for a new target on the roof. He set his sights on a soldier crouched down low beside a small canister. The soldier wasn't moving, and he'd covered his face with his hands as if shielding his vision. The blast from Des's weapon hit him square in the chest just as the device at the soldier's feet detonated.
"Flash canister!" Lucia screamed, but her warning came too late. The view through the scope vanished in a brilliant white flare, temporarily blinding Des.
But with his vision gone, he could suddenly see everything clearly. He knew the position of every soldier even as they all scrambled for cover; he could track exactly where they were and where they were going.
The soldier in the third turret was training the cannons on the incoming wave of troopers. In the excitement she'd popped her head up just slightly above the walls of the flatbed, leaving the smallest of targets exposed. Des took her with a single shot, the bolt going in cleanly through one ear hole on her helmet and out the other.
It was as if time had slowed down. Moving with a calm and deadly precision, he trained his rifle on the next target, taking her through the heart; barely a moment later he got the soldier beside her right between his cold blue eyes. Des took one man in the back as he ran for the nearest gunship. Another was halfway up one of the flatbed's ladders when a bolt sliced through his thigh, knocking him off balance. He fell from the ladder, and Des put another shot through his chest before he hit the ground.
It had taken less than three seconds to wipe out eight of the nine soldiers. The last one made a run for the edge, hoping to escape by diving off the roof on the far side of the building. Des let him run. He could feel the terror coming in waves off his doomed prey; he savored it for as long as he could. The soldier leapt from the rooftop and seemed to hang in midair for a second; Des fired his last three shots into his body, draining the weapon's power cell.
He handed the weapon back to Lucia, blinking rapidly at the tears welling up as his eyes tried to soothe their damaged retinas. The effects of the flash canister were only temporary; his vision was already beginning to return. And the miraculous second sight he'd experienced was slipping away.
Rubbing his eyes, he knew now was not the time to think about what had just happened. He'd eliminated the gunners, but his troops were still outnumbered. They needed him down in the hot zone, not here on the edges of the battle.
"Keep an eye on that roof," he ordered Lucia. "If any of those Republic mudcrutches appear on top, take them out before they get to the gunships."
She didn't reply; her mouth was hanging open in amazement at what she'd just witnessed.
Des grabbed her by the shoulder and gave her a rough shake. "Snap out of it, trooper! You've got a job to do!"
She shook her head to gather her senses and nodded, then loaded another energy cell into her weapon. Satisfied, Des pulled out the 21D and charged across the clearing, eager to join in the battle.
Three hours later it was all over. The mission had been a complete success: the outpost was theirs, and the Republic had no idea that thousands of Sith troopers were marching through the valley to attack them at first light. The battle itself had been short but bloody: forty-six Republic soldiers dead, and nine of Des's own. Every time a Gloom Walker went down, part of Des felt he'd failed somehow, but given the nature of their mission, keeping the casualties under double digits was more than he could have reasonably hoped for.
Once their objective was secured he'd left Adanar and a small contingent to hold the outpost. With Des in the lead, the rest of the unit marched back to its base camp.
Along the way he tried to ignore the hushed whispers and furtive looks the rest of the company was giving him. Lucia had spread the word of his amazing shooting, and it was the talk of the unit. None of them was brave enough to say anything to his face, but he could hear snippets of conversation from the ranks behind him.
Honestly, he couldn't blame them. Looking back, even he wasn't sure what had happened. Des was a good marksman, but he was no sniper. Yet somehow he'd managed to pull off a dozen impossible shots with a weapon he'd never fired before ... most of them after being blinded by a flash canister. It was beyond unbelievable. It was as if, when he'd lost his vision, some mysterious power had taken over and guided his actions. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it was terrifying. Where had this power come from? And why couldn't he control it?
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that at first he didn't even notice the strangers waiting at their base camp. It was only after they stepped up and slapped the stun cuffs on his wrists that he realized what was going on.
"Welcome back, Sergeant." Ulabore's voice was filled with bile.
Des glanced around. A dozen enforcers-the military security of the Sith army-were standing with weapons drawn. Ulabore stood behind them, a deep bruise on his face where Des had struck him. In the background Des could see the two junior recruits he'd left in charge of Ulabore. They were staring down at the ground, embarrassed and ashamed.
"Did you really think those raw recruits would keep their commanding officer trussed up like some kind of prisoner?" Ulabore taunted him from behind the protective wall of armed guards. "Did you really believe they would follow you in your madness?"
"That madness saved our lives!" Lucia shouted. Des held up his shackled hands to silence her: this situation could get out of hand far too easily.
When nothing else happened, the lieutenant seemed to gain some courage. He stepped out from behind the protective wall of enforcers and over to Des.
"I warned you about disobeying orders," he sneered. "Now you get to see firsthand how the Brotherhood of Darkness deals with mutinous soldiers!"
A few of the Gloom Walkers began to reach slowly for their weapons, but Des shook his head and they froze. The enforcers already had their blasters drawn and weren't afraid to use them. The troopers wouldn't manage to get off even a single shot.
"What's the matter, Sergeant?" Ulabore pressed, drawing closer to his defeated enemy. Too close. "Nothing to say?"
Des knew he could kill the lieutenant with one quick move. The enforcers would take him out, but at least Ulabore would go with him. Every fiber of his being wanted to lash out and end both their lives in an orgy of blood and blasterfire. But he managed to fight the impulse. There was no point in throwing his life away. A court-martial would likely end in a death sentence, but at least if he went to trial he'd have a chance.
Ulabore stepped up and slapped him once across the face, then spit on his boots and stepped back. "Take him away," he said to the enforcers, turning his back on Des.
As Des was taken away he couldn't help but see the look in the eyes of Lucia and the troopers whose lives he'd saved only hours ago. He had a feeling the next time the unit went into combat, Ulabore would suffer an unfortunate-and fatal-accident.
That realization brought the hint of a smile to his lips.
The enforcers marched him through the jungle for hours, weapons drawn and trained on him the entire time. They only lowered them when they reached the sentries on the perimeter of the main Sith camp.
"Prisoner for a court-martial," one of the enforcers said flatly. "Go tell Lord Kopecz." One of the sentries saluted and ran off.
They marched Des through the camp toward the brig. He saw recognition in the eyes of many of the soldiers. With his height and bald head he was an imposing figure, and many of the troops had heard of his exploits. Seeing a formerly ideal soldier being brought before a court-martial was sure to leave an impression.
They reached the camp's makeshift prison, a small containment field over a three-by-three-by-three-meter pit that served as a holding area for captured spies and POWs. The enforcers had relieved him of his weapons when they first took him into custody; now they did a more thorough search and stripped him of all other personal effects. Then they shut down the containment field and roughly tossed him in, not even bothering to release his cuffs. He landed awkwardly on the hard ground at the bottom of the hole. As he struggled to his feet he heard an unmistakable hum as the field was activated once again, sealing him in.
The pit was empty, other than Des himself. The Sith didn't tend to keep prisoners around for long. He began to wonder if he'd made a serious mistake. He'd hoped his past service might buy him some leniency at his trial, but now he realized his reputation might actually work against him. The Sith Masters weren't known for their tolerance or their mercy. He'd defied a direct order: there was a good chance they'd decide to make a harsh example of him.
He couldn't say how long they'd left him at the bottom of the pit. After a while he fell asleep, exhausted by the battle and the forced march. He slipped in and out of consciousness; at one point it was light outside his prison and he knew day must have come. The next time he came to it was dark again.
They hadn't fed him yet; his stomach was growling in protest as it gnawed away at itself. His throat was parched and dry; his tongue felt as if it had swollen up large enough to choke him. Despite this, there was a slowly increasing pressure on his bladder, but he didn't want to relieve himself. The pit stank enough already.
Maybe they were just going to leave him here to die a slow and lonely death. Given the rumors he'd heard of Sith torture, he almost hoped that was the case. But he hadn't given up. Not yet.
When he heard the sound of approaching footsteps he scrambled to his feet and stood straight and tall, even though his hands were still cuffed in front of him. Through the containment field he could just make out the blurred forms of several guards standing on the edge of the pit, along with another figure wearing a heavy, dark cloak.
"Take him to my ship," the cloaked figure said in a deep, rasping voice. "I will deal with this one on Korriban."