Friday, October 14, 2016


Bobby Derie

The Jedi was wounded. The trooper checked the charge on his blaster, wiped some of the mud from his visor. Burnt flesh and ozone hung in the air outside the cave mouth where the Force-user had gone to ground. Heaped bodies of his fellow troopers, squadmates, laying where they had fallen. Black lines of burnt ceramic and plastic criss-crossed the clean white lines of their armor; blasters and other weapons smoked and sparked where the lightsaber had cut through power lines and battery packs, the burning plasma flash-igniting anything combustible.

They'd been on the planet seven weeks. The first part of the training had been building the assault course and barracks. It got everyone in shape, reinforced teamwork and basic roles and duties. More than that, the trooper reflected now, thinking of how they had cut through the trees with the plasma torches. The higher-ups wanted his squad to have a respect for what they were about to face.

The senior instructor they'd brought in was a scarred veteran of the Clone Wars; old-style armor, the unnatural strength of prosthetic limbs underneath the armor. He brought with him egg-shaped droids that unfolded with spindly arms wielding lines of fire that cut through everything, reflected blaster fire. Faster than human. Smart, hard to fool. The first exercises had embarrassed the squad - until the trooper had come up behind the droid and blasted its head off from behind.

The nights were one-on-one training. Hunting sessions, through the dry forest. Teaching the squad how to move, how to track. To use the environment to bring the game to ground, to hound them through the forest, into traps or pockets where we would have them. Around the fire, as the meat roasted, the veteran told his stories. Rogue Force-users, calm and efficient killers. The styles they fought with. How they could sense you from afar. Reach inside your mind, see what you're thinking. They were terrible foes - but not immortal.

At the start of week eight, TIE scouts flying to the west spotted the Jedi - a wookiee. The squad was ordered to break camp and execute. The trooper remembered how they'd used the instructor's lessons. Reconnoiter the area, fix the terrain in your mind. Jedi could be prescient, but they weren't omniscient. It became a game of holochess: limit their routes of escape, herd them into situations where you could bring more firepower to bear than they could deal with. Keep them off-balance and guessing, don't give them time to think. The Jedi were trained fighters; when pressed, they'd fall back to their training reflexes - which were predictable.

The scouts reported the scars burned into the trunks of the trees. The found traps - simple dead-falls and pit traps - as well as rubbish-pits and field latrines, concealed campfire sites. The wookiee had been living in the area for a long time, that was plain. Then, the jackpot: a glacial remnant rock outcropping; the way the grey, lichen-covered stones lodged against each other made a shallow cave - with a shelf full of lightsaber components, including three crystals. The Jedi might have abandoned the area, but they wouldn't abandon that.

The instructor took temporary lead as squad leader, outlined the plan: sweeping advance through the forest, drive the Jedi towards the cave. TIE bombers would keep circulating on the edges of the engagement zone, ready to rain hell as soon as the Jedi was spotted, cutting off any escape. The trooper was appointed to point, the tip of the spear as they invaded the wookiee's territory.

First contact had come when the wookiee's bowcaster ripped the veteran's head off. Our blasters had been equipped with underbarrel microgrenade launchers: we laid down a barrage. Jedi can sense the future, instincts like spiders sensing the boot, but explosions create too much chaos, too much shrapnel. The grenades boomed one close after another, the aftermath of the first explosion overwhelmed by the start of the next. Somewhere above that, we heard a ululating roar of pain. The wookiee was hurt - and on the move.

The trooper took point, led the sweep, tracking the prey. The squad had heavy blasters ready; leapfrogging between cover as half covered the ones that were moving. They were practically within sight of the outcropping when there was the telltale click and buzz of a lightsaber coming to life.

The wookiee had erupted from one of the pit traps. The burning blade was of greater than average length, but with a long handle that the giant Jedi could wield in a two-handed grip. Two of the squad fell with the first sweep, which left after-images in the trooper's vision. Blaster fire erupted as the squad reacted, bursting burning chunks out of the trees and sending smoking cinders into the dry ground below. The wookiee's lightsaber flashed and blurred, scattering the shots that came close to hitting its body - then it was gone.

Smoke from the impromptu forest fires started to obscure the squad's vision, and the trooper called in the bombers. There was a dull thump and whoop as they began laying down a barrage, the explosions slowly coming closer. The rest of the squad surged forward toward the outcropping - they knew where the prey was going to go. Moving more cautiously, dropping to the ground for cover, the trooper crept forward on his belly like the veteran had tossed him.

At the last line of trees before the outcropping, the trooper stopped to survey the scene. He had missed the action by seconds. The helmet - complete with head - of the last of his head rolled along the ground, neck stump a solid circle of black. In the open, the wookiee had a noticeable limp; blood matted the fur around its left knee. It was almost naked, except for a forest camouflage bandoleer.

His finger squeezed the trigger of the heavy blaster, squeezing off a quick group of random shots. The wookiee reacted instinctively, raising the lightsaber to ward them off, but the blasts went wild and crashed into the lichen-covered rock behind it - causing splinters of stone to burst off and hit the Jedi in the back. The wookiee roared in pain - it couldn't dodge, and the trooper was too far away - so it ducked into the cave.

The trooper crept forward, senses alert. The cave was shallow, and afforded cover, but there was no other way in or out. All around the entrance lay the corpses of his squad. Inside, he imagined the Jedi was scooping up its treasured lightsaber crystals. The thumping of the bombers came closer. The trooper raised his blaster, aiming at a spot near the cave entrance where one of his squadmate's corpses had come to rest. He only had to wait.

A furry burst of speed catapulted out of the cave, lightsaber a swirling shield before it to ward off the blaster fire it knew would come.

The trooper blast struck his dead squadmate's equipment belt; setting off the grenades and extra blaster power packs they carried. The explosion caught the Jedi off-guard, drove him forward, off balance. There was a puff from the trooper's blaster, and the Jedi instinctively brought the lightsaber up to deflect - catching and igniting the microgrenade that had been lobbed from the underbarrel launcher. That explosion took off the wookiee's hand and most of his face. The smoldering corpse fell into a furry heap.

The trooper emptied the rest of the charge into the Jedi, just to be sure. When he could make out the blackened outline of the thing's skeleton, he called it in.

"Report back to the training camp." The voice hissed over the comm. "Lord Vader wants a full report on this one, trooper."


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