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The blue swirls of hyperspace seemed to shudder and convulse, then break into a riot of color. Peet Bartan, captain of the light freighter <Smiling Providence>, rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on the melange of color ahead of him. Failing that, he keyed the intership comm-unit.



"Fixer! Better check the hyperdrives. Looks like we had some sort of stutter."



After a minute of silence, a mechanical voice replied from the bridge speaker. "Sir, according to the computer, we are on an approach vector for Darknon Station, as planned. Can you see the Itani Nebula? That should indicate we are in the proper area."



"Ah. Yes, I believe it is filling my viewport."



Bartan started a series of procedures that had long been almost second-nature to him - shields up and equalized, weapons hot, sensors in full-sweep, long-range comm set to receive. Sensors indicated a large metallic mass a short distance ahead of them, identified as a navigational beacon. "Now there's something you just don't see anymore," Bartan muttered. The ship's long-range comm sputtered to life with an incoming signal.



"Ahoy, <Smiling Providence>, this is Darknon Control. Please enter the traffic pattern on vector Isk two-seven-three and hold until we have you cleared to land."



"Roger, Darknon Control, <Smiling Providence> inserting Isk two-seven-three and awaiting clearance to land." Bartan focused the ship's sensor array on the station, now revealed beyond the ancient nav-beacon, looking for ship traffic.



"Sir?"



"Yes, droid."



"Sir, if you are looking for ships, you won't see any. Controller Lovech is ... well, sir, the man isn't right in the head. He sees scores of ships orbiting his station that all only exist in his mind. He fits an incoming real ship into the pattern and processes it just as if there is other traffic. We may be here a while before docking."



"I ... see. Thanks for the warning. Hopefully, this Has'k chap isn't in much of a hurry for his -"



Further comments were cut off as a cannon-bolt impacted the shields. Bartan wrenched the ship into a tight lefthand spiral that left the bulkheads rattling under the stress. He slapped the sensor-board back to broad scan and discovered the cause of their problems - a ship coming up fast on the Providence's stern.



"Darknon Station! Pirates in the system, I'm taking fire. Repeat, the <SP> is taking fire."



Another bolt cut through space where the ship should have been - would have been had Bartan not chopped power to the maneuver drives and hauled the freighter into a wobbly climb out of its plane of travel.



"Fixer, see if you can get a reading on these guys! We're gonna need something on them to turn in to the authorities."



"Aye, sir."



Bartan blessed the little Ghtroc's design that put the cockpit forward and up just a little, giving him a view better than many other craft her size. He spotted their pursuer from the flashes of its laser cannon and dove away.



"Sir, I get no accurate reading on the ship. I believe they may have disabled their transponder system."



"Big surprise," he mumbled through clenched teeth.



"However, it does appear to be a YT-1300 variant. Energy scans show a profile far higher than normal, however."



"Lovely. Thank you for that glorious bit of information. I could have figured that, based on their attacking shipping traffic. Tell me something useful, like shield rating or weapon strength."



"Aye, sir."



Bartan wished his own ship had something more serious than a pair of small cannon installed. With the guns fixed forward just above the cockpit, he'd have to line the ship up on their attackers in order to shoot back. Grimacing, he did. "Okay, so that was pretty useless."



"Sir, their shields are not using much of the available energy."



Great - they'll either outfly us or outshoot us, Bartan thought.



"I believe they have signif- Missile launch!" An alarm on the pilot's threat-board activated just after the droid spoke.



The "outshoot" bet wins, Bartan thought.



"Sir, their energy profile is consistant with that of military-grade weaponry. Enhanced waveforms indicate at least one torpedo launcher and two heavy lasers, one of which may be a turbolaser. That is a rather potent warship chasing us, sir."



"So I noticed. Hang on." He turned them around to meet the threat of the torpedo head-on.



"Sir? That is a proton torpedo. Our shields aren't really capable of handling such a device."



"I know that, droid. I'm going to destroy it first." Bartan lined up his firing reticle on what his threat-board claimed was the inbound torpedo and fired repeatedly, jinking the ship slightly to fill the intervening space with a wall of cannon-fire. The alarm from the threat-board cut off. Dropping the ship on its nose, Bartan ducked away for the safety of the nav-beacon's shadow, scanning his displays as he went.



"Fixer, we've got company. Something big just dropped in-system. Tell me what we've got."



"Bulk freighter, sir. Registry labels it as the <Hipshot> operated by ... by ... I-I-Imperial C-c-customs. Heavy c-c-cannon. They are hailing us, sir."



"Excellent. First time I've been glad to see a Navy ship in a long fraggin' time. <Hipshot>, this is Captain Bartan of the free-trader <SP>. We are under attack and request assistance."



Despite the presence of the Imperial warship, the raider pressed its attack. Bartan wondered if the other ship had even noticed the Imperial arrival.



"Understood, <SP>. Here comes the cavalry."



"Sir? They're l-l-launching f-f-fighters - two TIEs. The other ship appears to be breaking off its attack."



"Hooyah! That's right, you better run, you glitbiters! Those TIEbabies will eat you for lunch."



"Captain Bartan, this is the <Hipshot>. Looks like the party's over. Did you manage to ID that ship?"



"Stand by, <Hipshot>. I'll have my chief engineer transmit what we managed to pull."



A new voice took over the <Hipshot>'s comm-circuit. "Is that Peet Bartan onboard that pitiful excuse of a hopped-up load lifter?"



Bartan sat in stunned silence for several seconds then threw his head back and laughed hard enough to make the walls ring. "Maxin Reyst! I should have known it was you in that overhauled garbage scow."



"That would be Commander Maxin Reyst to you, you refitted civilian vachead."



=====



Bartan and Fixer met the <Hipshot>'s ferry in the docking bay. Fixer wondered briefly at the two bottles the captain carried, but decided against inquiring about them. They watched the blocky cargo ferry settle onto its battered landing pads and waited for the atmosphere indicator to switch from red to green.



After several seconds, Fixer activated the instation comm-panel. "Darknon Control, is there a problem with the atmospherics in Bay Krill? The indicator is still showing vacuum."



"Stand by. The magnetic seals aren't engaged yet."



Fixer closed the circuit and looked at Bartan. "He forgot. Part of the hazards of porting here." Bartan snorted in reply and shook his head.



=====



"Maxin, you sweet son of a spaceslug, don't you ever die!"



"Good to see you, too, Peet. Whoa, for me?"



Bartan handed over the two bottles. "My jets were cooked but good back there. Those are a gift from my crew to you and the TIE pilots."



"I'm impressed. So tell me, what are you doing way out here being chased by bounty hunters?"



"By what?" Fixer and Bartan spoke in unison.



"That ship we ran off was the <Storm Killer>, owned by one Klein Quin, a low-rent bounty hunter and rumored pirate. I knew you'd left the service, but never figured you'd attract such a fan club."



"News to me, Max. I'm just here doing a favor for a couple of people I don't even know. Seems some low-luck freighter captain blew a major portion of his hyperdrive to mynock bait. He limped into Darknon and got another freighter to go after repair parts. That bunch got their ship impounded and Fixer told them we'd finish the run."



"Fixer?"



"Sir. FX-OR8 reporting. Last duty station before mustering out was a secondary medical clinic aboard the Victory-class Star Destroyer Dauntless. After being sold, I was modified to serve as an assistant engineering tech onboard a bulk freighter. I now serve as Captain Bartan's chief engineer."



"I see." The Imperial officer grinned at Bartan. "Never expected to see you run with droids, Peet. What's the galaxy coming to, eh?"



"So what has you out here in a refitted bulk freighter? Cargo runs?"



"That and chasing pirates, believe it or not..."



=====



Fixer watched as Captain Bartan looked around them as they entered the Customs Plaza. Dimly-lit, shabby, and virtually deserted, it was just the same as Fixer's memory-banks recalled. A single Customs booth was lit and manned by a youthful figure. Maneuvering through the decrepit banks of turnstiles and guide-railing, they made for the lone occupant.



"Hey there, Captain! That was some pretty sweet flying out there. You must be former military of some stripe."



"Yeah, Imperial Navy."



"Wow! TIE fighters? That sounds exciting."



"Assault shuttles and blastboats, actually. Wouldn't catch me in a TIE for anything. No shields, thin hull - that's not the ticket to a long life, kid."



"Greetings, Sergeant Nethius. It has been quite a while since I was here last. I don't know that you will remember me."



The customs inspector looked at the droid, partly hidden in the shadows due to its gray body housing. "I remember you. Only FX droid I've ever seen mobile. Give me a minute and I'll remember your designation... Fixer! Last time I saw you, you were shipping with Lieutenant Dane, right?"



"As you say, Sergeant. I'm onboard as Captain Bartan's chief engineer now."



"Well welcome back to Darknon. What's got you here this time?"



"We're doing a favor for a couple of spacers I've never even met. Fixer knew some folks who needed a hand and he signed us up for it. We've got repair parts for a ship that's marooned here."



"You've got parts for Has'k? He'll be thrilled to hear it - I think he's getting tired of Gulek's cooking."



=====



Fixer led Bartan into a shop that looked more like a garbage heap than the "Galaxy Shop" its sign purported it to be. The shop was occupied by a small creature that Bartan couldn't name offhand. He racked his brain for the tidbit from his xenocultures class at the Academy - a Shadrat or something. No, a Chadra-something. Fixer was busily chattering away at the creature in its own language as they meandered through the aisles. Bartan couldn't believe the sheer weight of plain junk that filled the store. Old tools, out-of-date holovids, spare parts kits to several household appliances, chunks of metal that had no identifiable function, furniture - Bartan lost track of the droid and wandered back to the front of the shop.



"Fixer! I'm going to go locate this Has'k chap and get his parts offloaded."



=====



"Any interesting finds, T'Nadar?" Privately, Fixer gave the captain 3 minutes before losing interest in the jumbled shop. The diminuitive Chadra-Fan was a kindred spirit, but Fixer was disappointed to see the shopowner never really did much with the marvelous piles of parts he managed to collect.



"Always good stuff in the Galaxy Shop, yes! Hm, what for you now?" The two of them wandered through the aisles with T'Nadar cheerfully cataloging the items in the shop and extolling the virtues of the ones he thought might interest his metallic customer.



Fixer noted with some interest the fact that Captain Bartan managed to stay inside the shop over six minutes before wandering back out into the concourse. Truthfully, the Galaxy Shop did contain a number of items the droid knew the ship could use, primarily in the way of basic materials such as cable bundles, fluid conduits, extra tools, and the like. If the visit with Olev went half as well, Fixer would call it a very profitable trip. It made a mental shopping list of the items they encountered that it wanted, balancing the list against a tally of the goods in the hold of the <SP> that T'Nadar might be interested in.



Fixer saw it mostly buried under a pile of vellan-fluff pillows shaped like various characters from a kid's holo-show that was years out of fashion. The dark gray of military issue fixtures almost made the framework disappear into the shadows of the dimly-lit shop. Fixer stopped its host and pointed a thin manipulator at the item. "Where did you get the medical exam bed?"



=====



Fixer dug through the crates of stuff they had salvaged at /Downtime/ and a couple of other places, looking for the boxes it had set aside primarily for T'Nadar - chemical glow-sticks, one-shot lights but there were folk who liked them; two boxes of positive-flow couplers, always handy to have; two dozen holoprojector lenses, just the thing if an R-series chipped one; a box of assorted sizes of mechanics coveralls - it left the brightly-colored vellan-fluff pillows behind, silently lamenting the good idea someone else had first. Fixer managed to fill two crates and loaded them on a cargo-sledge. The sledge would be handy for carrying the exam bed...



=====



Maneuvering the sledge up the connecting ramp from the docking bay to the concourse, Fixer almost ran into a male Duros in a tool-harness. Close behind him were Captain Bartan and Has'k, the Devaronian they were bailing out of a mess.



"Oh, s-s-sorry. Hello, O-o-olev. C-c-captain Has'k. Hope we got everything you're going to need. I'll be right b-b-back with the sledge. I'm n-n-negociating a deal with T'Nadar."



=====



Has'k joined Bartan and Fixer in the Stormview Lounge later for supper.



"Such as it is," growled the Devaronian. "Hey, Fixer, I really appreciate the assist on finding the parts for the <Pride>. Captain, did old Corwin pass on the whole five thousand credits or did he try to chisel some for himself?"



Fixer tapped the tabletop with two of its manipulators and swivelled its head. "The good Captain Corwin was in no position to do much chiselling, I'm afraid. Customs on Barnak impounded his freighter on some sort of safety violation. He was too distracted at being grounded to do more than see us and pass along the request."



"Well, here then. I sent that in order to buy the parts. I told him keep whatever was left over and that I'd pay him a runner's fee of another thousand when he got back. I figured he'd do just what you two did and load up on spares for Olev's shop, so the run wouldn't be too dry."



They sat at one of the only two booths in the lounge which still had an unblocked viewport looking out on the Itani Nebula. The proprietor, a Rodian who had identified himself as Gulek, was busy fixing meals for the two organics. The three spent their evening discussing recent trade-runs and cargo potentials in the nearby sectors, finally turning in several hours later.



=====



Droids don't sleep. As long as their systems are charged, they are capable of normal function. Fixer had shown Captain Bartan the Van Serai Hostel, a closed-up hotel that now served as temporary housing for transient spacers and as more long-term quarters for the station's population of derelicts. A couple of portable mag-locks from the shopping trip at T'Nadar's secured the door to the captain's room against any unwelcome intruders and a "traveller's sleep-right white noise generator" from an earlier stop-over blocked out the noises and babblings of the building's other inhabitants.



With Captain Bartan settled in for the night, Fixer went to work on the ship. That fight with the bounty hunters had put some pretty severe stress on the ship's hull, so the droid wanted to go over it as carefully as possible before they lifted again. With no captain onboard, Fixer brought the two engine-room droids out to help. In short order, all three MSE droids - Port, Starboard, and Bumble - were scurrying about the ship, darting in and out of small accessways. Fixer stayed at the main engineering workstation, scomped into the ship's systems, directing the repairs and mapping the ship's circuit-paths.



With no interference from the captain, Fixer was happy to let its little family/crew of droids cut loose in the ship. They had patched a sound-system into the ship's intercom unit so that they could play music throughout the ship. The long-running favorite was a group called "TechnoEnvy" that used no vocals and all electronic instruments spanning a wide sonic range



The work was steady, replacing corroded power couplings while the drives were offline; running new fluid conduits for the ship's life-support systems; replacing burnt-out power cables throughout the ship. These had become routine tasks on the <SP> after almost every trip. Fixer grumbled to itself about needing to pull the engines for a complete overhaul so these tasks would not have to be done so often.



One of the MSE droids called in - Bumble, Fixer noted - and inquired about rerouting a bundle of cables through a pair of floor-support bulkheads. Fixer called up a schematic and noted the cables were actually installed around the pair - a straight-through route would be more efficient. Still, there was undoubtedly a reason the ship designers had routed things like they had. Fixer decided to list it on the "later" list and save it for a time when the ship was underway.



=====



Bartan looked out the window of the lounge and down into the street a few dozen meters below. The protest had certainly drawn a bigger crowd than he had expected. Several hundred beings had gathered outside the walls of the Imperial garrison, mainly aliens but with plenty of humans in the mix. Even through the thick armor of the transparisteel window, he could hear the bass rumble of a loudspeaker as one of the protest organizers worked the crowd.



Privately, Bartan agreed with the protesters but since they were opposing the Imperial governor of the planet, he could do little to agree openly with them. Never more than a back-water mining world barely scraping by in the best of times, the lives of the locals had suffered under Governor Delrin's capricious edicts. Stopping over on Laeriill had to be one of the absolute low points of sector patrol for Bartan and his crew.



"Whoa, there's something you don't see every day."



Bartan turned away from the window to look at his sensor-tech, seated at the lounge's terminal. "What's up, Scopes?"



"Troop deployments. Lots of them, too - using the ITT's. Looks like the good gov'ner is expecting major trouble during this afternoon's demonstration. I see recent routing orders in the system for two companies of shellheads, easily."



Bartan did the math, coming up with two hundred sixteen Stormtroopers and thirty-six vehicle-mounted blaster cannon. On a planet that had seen no ground action of any sort beyond criminal activity, two companies of Stormtroopers was, to his thinking, a little excessive. "Anyone other than me smell something rotten in this?"



"Boss-man, this whole planet reeks and has since we started lay-overs here. What's new?"



"Oh, sweet flaming comets."



Bartan and his weapons-officer both turned their attention back to their sensor-tech. "Talk to me, Scopes."



"I found their deployment plan, skipper. You aren't gonna like it."



Bartan felt his stomach drop into free-fall, just as it did whenever he showed up too late to save a ship's crew from pirates. "If it involves orders from Delrin to those shellheads concerning today's protestors, that's a given."



"It's worse." Reading over his crewman's shoulder, Bartan agreed. In essence, the orders given the troopers were to have their weapons hot as soon as they left the cover of the Imperial garrison, make a wide circle around the protesters, take up blocking positions that would prevent traffic - vehicular or pedestrian - from entering or leaving the area, and await further orders from the governor. The protesters would be trapped between the wall of the garrison and a wall of heavily-armed Stormtroopers. Bartan's skin started to crawl and he unconsciously reached down to touch the blaster tucked into his boot-top.



"Copy it."



"Way ahead of you, sir." The sensor-tech pointed to a datapack plugged into one of the terminal's access ports.



"Can you get the feed from any of the security sensors on the front wall?"



"Can do, sir. Stand by one."



"Route it into a buffer or something. I may want to copy live feed from them as well." Engrossed in his work, the tech merely nodded. "Guns, you feel like a little stroll?"



The weapons-officer looked at his skipper as if the man had suddenly sprouted a second head babbling in Huttese. "Are you saying what I'm afraid I hear you saying?"



"Did you take an oath to defend and protect all citizens of the Empire against any enemy, internal or foreign? I know I did. Those beings down there in the street have jumped through every hoop Governor Delrin set up in order to exercise their privilege to peacefuly assemble. By deploying armed troops, that man is either deliberately instigating or provoking a confrontation. I can't sit here and watch such a slaughter, if that's what happens."



The weapons-officer looked unhappy. "That's what I was afraid you were saying. You know this could be made to fall under 'rebellious activity,' sir?"



"It would take a major warping of the facts to make that case against us, Guns. Are you with me?" Clearly unhappy with his divided loyalties, the man nodded. "Okay, Scopes, we're going to headsets. Let me know if you run across anything interesting."



The tech was busily working the terminal for everything he could get and didn't pause when he spoke. "Will do, sir. Uh, could you do the honors? I need both my hands right now."



Bartan pulled the man's headset from his utility belt, settling it onto his head and plugging it into the comlink at his waist. With all three men's headsets secured and tested, Bartan and his gunner left the lounge, making their way to a side access in the garrison wall.



Bartan had carefully selected their exit point to put them behind the line of troopers and close to a street covered by a single ITT. Outside, the noises of the city drowned out the speaker.



"Talk to me, Scopes."



"So far nothing new, skipper. The transports all have reported as being in position. I'm chasing some intel traffic now. Somebody has been pretty busy snooping for rebels lately."



"Log it all. I don't like the way any of this feels."



"Done and done, boss."



In the distance, Bartan heard the unmistakable pulsating whine of a blaster being fired. "Get the feed, Scopes!" In seconds, the noise was so loud as to render the headset useless. Bartan watched as the twin-barrelled weapon atop the ITT swivelled to point down the street. "Remember, Guns - stun only and then we shoot over the heads of anyone who runs our direction."



The two of them pulled their small pistols and approached the ITT, manned only by the driver and gunner. So intent were the troopers on watching the street ahead of them that they didn't notice Bartan and his crewmate. The pistol shots were just in time, as a small knot of civilians fleeing the garrison rounded a corner a short distance ahead of the transport. Bartan waved to them, pointing to the doorway of a building. Three adults and half a dozen children poured through the door which Bartan closed and locked behind them. The building turned out to be a restaurant of some sort and Bartan motioned the refugees further into the room, pointing to the bar and making a flattening gesture with his free hand. Of the adults, the "Hammerhead" caught on first, ushering the kids behind the bar and onto the floor. Bartan couldn't positively identify the species of all the kids, but was pleased to note they all took cover and kept quiet.



Crouching in the shadows by the front windows, the two crewmates watched as a much larger mass of people fled down the street - spurred on by the crimson streaks of blaster bolts. Bartan fought down a wave of revulsion as far too many of the bolts found targets, leaving burning wounds in the backs of unarmed beings as the Stormtroopers kept firing.



The ITT exploded, shattering windows all along the street including some in the restaurant. Bartan suspected the pursuing troopers figured since the vehicle was not firing in support of the attack that its crew was dead and thus used it as an aiming-point. Bartan had never understood that mentality and seeing it in actual practice sickened him even more - partly because he knew he had left two troopers unconscious inside it.



As the street outside filled with Stormtroopers, the two slowly eased themselves away from the windows and joined the civilians behind the bar. Realizing their mysterious benefactors were in fact Imperial personnel, they shrank away from the men, trying to shield the children with their bodies.



Bartan put one finger to his lips and spoke softly. "We're not part of that outside. I'm Flight Lieutenant Peet Bartan and this is my gunner, Weapons Officer Ferris. We've got to stay put for now until those shellhead patrols clear out of the streets. If we're lucky, they'll pass right by us in the frenzy." As if on cue, a pair of brilliant shafts of light stabbed through the building's unlit interior, sweeping briefly around the room before moving on.



"Scopes. Give me an update."



The link was silent for several seconds before the reply came. "Skipper. It's bad."



"Talk to me, Scopes. How bad is it?"



"They ... they opened fire into the crowd with no warning, sir. They just mowed them down. Patrols are roaming the streets now, mopping up. They're shooting anyone still moving." Bartan and Ferris looked at each other, eyes wide in horror. "The governor gave that order himself. I've got it all on the datapack, sir. Every bit of it. Oh sweet ... they even shot little kids in the back. Little kids, sir."



"I know, Scopes. I saw some of it. We're holed up with some refugees. We need to know when it's safe to hit the streets again so they can ... can go home and we can come in." Bartan was thankful the headsets didn't allow the civilians to hear the report. They were in bad enough shape already. For the next hour, they talked quietly, exchanging names and stories to pass the time. Bartan wondered how many of the kids had become orphans. There were sparks in the eyes of the three adults that grew into steady fires as the time wore on. A quiet avowal of purpose was made and Bartan wondered if they would live through their vengeance. Finally, Scopes sounded the all-clear and the two groups made their separation.



"Sir."



"Yeah, Guns. I know. That's 'rebellious activities' and we are witnesses to it."



Ferris made a sign of blessing in the direction of the retreating civilians. "They're gonna need all the luck they can get."



=====



The screams haunted Bartan, crying out for justice, for vengeance. The faces of those to whom dead had come as a rude shock. The faces of children who knew without being told that there wasn't going to be a home again. What woke him, soaked in sweat and screaming himself hoarse, were the words. Quiet, strong words of conviction and support - spoken by two men standing in a hanger of a Star Destroyer with their hands locked in binders behind their backs.



"Against all enemies, skipper - internal or foreign."



"Better to die for something than live for nothing, sir. You were right from the start and I'm proud to have served with you."



After turning in the data from the Laeriill massacre to the sector Moff's judicial office, Bartan and his crew had tried to forget the incident. Their arrest several weeks later caught them by surprise. Standing before a military court onboard the sector admiral's flagship, the verdicts were reached quickly, using the men's own accounts against them, with their datapack discounted as proof of anything other than their activities.



Sensor Officer Macrae; guilty of unauthorized access of secured Imperial computer systems, six counts; assisting fugitives wanted for crimes against Imperial persons and property, nine counts; conspiring to commit acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; assisting an individual in commiting acts of violence against Imperial persons and property, two counts.



Weapons Officer Ferris; guilty of assisting fugitives wanted for crimes against Imperial persons and property, nine counts; conspiring to commit acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; assisting an individual in commiting acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; commiting acts of violence against Imperial persons and property.



Flight Lieutenant Bartan; guilty of assisting fugitives wanted for crimes against Imperial persons and property, nine counts; conspiring to commit acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; assisting an individual in commiting acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; commiting acts of violence against Imperial persons and property; inciting rebellion against Imperial authority; unauthorized use of military personnel and equipment; failure to properly discharge the duties of an Imperial officer; flight to avoid prosecution.



As punishment, officers Fenris and Macrae were to be executed - and Bartan was to watch. Moff Kidrick gave Bartan the chance to talk to his crewmates before their sentances were carried out. There were no recriminations among them, no harsh words exchanged. Bartan was shackled just as the other two were.



"Against all enemies, skipper - internal or foreign."



"Better to die for something than live for nothing, sir. You were right from the start and I'm proud to have served with you."



"Are we the last, then? The only ones who believe in duty, honor, and Empire? Clear skies, brothers, and may the Force be with you."



When the nightmares came, Bartan's dreamself was braver than he had been in that hanger. Sometimes he joined his comrades, facing the stormtroopers with them - wilting under the searing heat of the blaster bolts. Other times, he managed to get his binders around the throat of the Moff who had stood nearby mocking him.



He had been returned to his "homeport" Star Destroyer for discharge processing, a gesture of leniency on the Moff's part. Bartan didn't call it leniency, he called it torture. He sought refuge in a bottle, trying to drown out the screams. The alcohol helped, usually, leaving him too drugged to dream. Usually.



Bartan used his mustering-out pay to buy an impounded freighter shortly after his exit-processing and ran. He thought he had outrun the shades, but seeing Reyst had brought them back full-force. Or maybe it was the gloom of Darknon station. Possibly even the inhabitants of the Van Serai and their inarticulate wailings and gibberings. Fixer had given him a noise masker, but he'd heard enough on his way into the derelict hotel to infect his sleep. He'd had to take one of his few remaining tranquilizers to shut his mind down enough to get any rest.



=====



By the time Captain Bartan returned to the ship, Fixer had gotten Port and Starboard hidden away in their engine compartments and had set Bumble to scrubbing the floors of the ship. One look at the man brought Fixer's medical sensors on full alert. "Are you well, sir?"



Bartan leaned heavily on one of the entry ramp's lift-cylinders. "No, not really, but it's nothing you can treat. Mental wounds are hard to heal."



"Oh. I am sorry, sir, I wish I could be of more service."



"I'll settle for being told the ship is ready to lift, chief."



"As ever, sir. It is as capable of spacing as I can make it -"



"- without an engine overhaul," they finished together. Bartan laughed and headed for the cockpit. "Let's see if the old man will give us clearance in a timely manner and hope we don't have a return visit by pirates."



With the ship hurtling away into hyperspace, Fixer sent Bumble back under the decking in the cargo-hold, tracing cable and conduit pathways, particularly in the area where the little droid had asked about rerouting the cable run. It didn't take long until the droid had a puzzle in its manipulators. There was no apparent reason behind the detours made by the various bundles of cable and conduit. All totaled, there was a space measuring roughly two meters wide by three meters long by almost one meter deep of absolutely nothing. Fixer sat in the engineering station, scomped into the ship's computer, studying the circuitry map, working its main manipulator idly. It wasn't quite an absolute nothing. Several low-impedance circuits led into the box at various points around the perimeter, tied into the ship's life-support and hyperdrive power circuits.



It took the droid three days, and the help of Port and Starboard in addition to Bumble, to finally trace out and diagnose all the circuits that held the compartment shut and successfully open it. Inside, the small hold was packed full of smaller dark-gray colored shipping crates.



=====



"C-c-captain, I t-t-think you need to come to the hold-d-d, sir."



Bartan frowned into space as the droid's voice came through the ship's comm-system. "Is something wrong?"



"I'm n-n-not sure, s-s-sir. I've f-found something that-t-t I think you should-d take a l-l-look at."



"Fine. I'll be along shortly." Bartan took a moment to strap on the larger blaster pistol he'd started carrying after leaving the Navy. The droid was shaken about something, to be sure, and taking precautions rarely got anyone killed. In the hold, Fixer was standing over a hole in the deck where it had removed a section of flooring.



"Well, well. The old bantha has a few tricks under her hide, does she?" He looked at the shipping crates stacked neatly in their hidden nest. "What have you found, Fixer?"



"I have n-n-no idea, sir."



Bartan reached down and took hold of one crate, hoisting it out onto the cargo deck where he could open it. The external markings were crisp and easy to read. The seals on the shipping crate appeared intact. Bartan dropped the catches and opened the crate. Inside, nestled in padded shipping foam lay an even dozen Imperial Stormtrooper standard-issue blaster carbines.



...crimson bolts slamming into unprotected backs...



Bartan estimated at least two hundred blasters in the first layer of crates alone.



...children screaming as they ran...



He started pulling out crates, not surprised to encounter heavier weaponry near the bottom.



...three adults determined to protect six children even at the cost of their own lives...



Several of the crates had power-cells for the weapons.



...the quiet determination to take on Governor Delrin and stop his madness...



Bartan looked up at Fixer. "I think I know just who can make the best use of these items. We're heading for a little place called Laeriill."



-end-