Ask Star Wars: Broken Balance

Reyn

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General Rami Vaan
615th Strike Battalion
Orbit of Charros IV
19 BBY

It was happening again. He could hear nothing but the sound of his harried breathing, feel his heart thumping painfully in his chest. Through dazzled and blurry vision he watched the hauntingly beautiful carnage of space combat. Millions dying in great fiery explosions like stars just within reach. His hands shook at the controls of his Eta-2 Interceptor and he felt himself breaking out in a cold sweat. Why now?

“General! We’re getting torn apart out here! What are your orders?” He heard the voice of his wingman breaking in over his commlink, pulling him back to reality. The Jedi Knight hastily dragged a hand across his moistened brow and shook his head, trying to collect his senses.

“Tighten formation,” He shouted back in reply, his voice firm and authoritative as though nothing was wrong. “Target the leftmost ship in their line, we’ll make a sweep across their gundecks.”

“Roger that!” The clone pilot replied enthusiastically, followed by a more concerned low mutter. “Glad to have you back with us sir…” Rami ignored him. He was in the present now, and completely focused. His blue and red painted starfighter surged forward at the head of the formation, a dozen ARC-170s following in line behind him. As they approached the line of enemy frigates his Astromech turned its head to face in towards the cockpit and let out a few concerned beeps. Rami just grinned in response.

“Just keep count for me. I’ll handle the rest.” He replied. Not a moment later they flew right into a swarm of Separatist fighters. The Jedi twisted and turned in the vacuum of space gracefully, letting loose with his laser cannons and shredding the enemy attack force. Ahead of them was a line of Munificent class frigates, lined up and firing a salvo of turbo lasers on their own Republic cruisers across the field of battle. The Republic fighters swept across the Separatist frigates, launching a barrage of missiles and torpedoes into the artillery batteries and disabling them, one ship after the other.

They were making good progress, softening up the enemy and leaving them vulnerable to be taken apart by their supporting dreadnoughts. That was until a formation of tri-fighters dropped down on them from above and immediately destroyed three of his squadron. “Look out!” One clone pilot shouted a bit belatedly, and the formation broke to engage in a dogfight. Rami seamlessly fell right back into his dodging and weaving, flying circles around his opponents and destroying three of them with ease. One of them however managed to get on his tail and squeeze off a few shots, damaging one of his engines. As the interceptor rocked violently and his Astromech wailed Rami grit his teeth.

“R3 quit your bellyaching and get that thing up again, unless you want us both scrapped.” As the Astromech dutifully went about trying to repair the engine Rami struggled to stay ahead of the tri-fighter. Not an easy task with the hit he had taken. He was trailing smoke, and the fire was spreading. Each second that passed brought a new red light to his HUD. “Could use a little help here…” He muttered urgently into his commlink. Another glancing blow rocked his starfighter. “Dammit Risha where are you…” He hissed to himself.

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Commander Risha Sjiara
Assault Ship Valiant, Dagger Squadron
Approaching Charros IV, 19 BBY

"Thrusters... Check." Risha murmured. The headset slid a bit to the side, and the Cathar adjusted it after her ear twitched in discomfort. "Deflectors... Check?.." Her clawed hand tuned some dials hesitantly. "Check. Weapon systems..." It was perfectly warm in the cockpit. Even warmer than usual in fact, as the Cathar had been dressed for an upcoming hike through the snowy mountains. Risha definitely wasn't sick; but if so, then why did she feel the chills throughout her body? It had to be the anticipation of the fight that was to come, and the Padawan couldn't help it. She paused the pre-launch check.

"We've got this, Commander Sjiara," the voice of her captain evoked a faint smile of the Cathar's face. Somehow, the clone serving under her always new when the younger and less experienced Jedi needed words of encouragement. "You and the General have never failed us. You'll deal with those fighters, the Dagger Squadron will knock out the clanker frigates, and I'll see you planetside. Piece of cake!" When spoken, it indeed sounded simple. And Risha had been in a space battle more than a few times by then. It always felt like stepping into cold water, but never before had the Cathar Padawan been that reluctant.

"Yeah... Piece of cake," Risha mumbled in reply. That wouldn't do at all! The Cathar was a Padawan, soon-to-be a Knight! She was supposed to be a leader, inspire her troops, and lead them to victory—like Master Vaan did. After a quiet sigh and a twitch of her nose, Risha forced a less faint smile and added loudly: "Thanks, Spike! Orange squadron, you're with me. We'll clear the path for our landing parties." Satisfied with herself, the Padawan added a heartfelt: "May the Force be with you!"

"ATTENTION! We're leaving hyperspace in 3... 2... 1..." It begins. A jolt throughout the ship and a funny feeling in the stomach meant that the Valiant and its squadron of 3 more Acclamators and smaller support vessels were in real space again. "Squadrons Grey through Orange, you have clearance to deploy. Clear the path for our landing parties!"

With a deep breath, Risha snapped the switch, igniting the engines of her Delta-7B Interceptor. An encouraging chitter from her domed astromech in front of her helped the Padawan through the takeoff routine. Risha's smile became more pronounced and genuine: "Let's go save the day, R4!" The queer feeling wasn't gone, but the Padawan repressed it. There is no emotion, there is peace.

...​

In the heat of battle, the first mantra of the Jedi Code becomes the most important. Especially when you can feel the life around you extinguished at a frightening rate. How else can you focus on completing your mission, when friends die around you? At that moment, my mission was to spring the trap and save my Master. I'm glad that nobody but R4 could see me trembling in the cockpit of my yellow Aethersprite. What sort of example would I give to the troops?

With a few V-19 fighters backing me up, I rush towards my Master's aid. He'd be in the middle of it all, no doubt. I hear his request for assistance, and for the first time today, I feel better. I'm happy to oblige him. "Orange wing to the rescue!" I remark rather cheerfully; perhaps too out of place for the situation at hand. "Break formation and engage the clankers!"

In the meantime, I focus on the tri-fighter tailing the only Eta-2 Actis around. A trail of smoke indicates I should hurry, and R4's chitter reminds me about that. Hurriedly, I pull the trigger, but the first few blasts miss their mark. With control stick is literally wet from my sweat, but I manage to send my Delta-7B in a turn, and after the pesky droid. This time, I breathe heavily and close my eyes to let the Force guide me.

A pull on the trigger, an explosion ahead, and a "kill confirmed" beep from R4 indicate that I hit this time. That's looking up to be another notch on my fighter's hull. Too few when compared to my peers, even though many of them have already lost ships or switched to Eta-2s. Still, that's more than I would've expected 3 years ago. I catch up with the damaged ship, flying by its side. My next transmission must sound somewhat more confident: "Sorry for the delay, Master! I'm on your wing now."

So far, the Master's plan seems to be working. The Acclamators have jumped out of hyperspace below the Separatist line of defense. They approach the already-engaged Munificent frigates from their ventral side, bringing all weapons to bear: turbolasers, missiles, torpedoes. At point-blank range, the attack must be devastating. Those frigates can't retaliate without breaking the line and exposing themselves to our main armada.

At that rate, we would reach the planet's surface before long...

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Rami grinned as the reinforcements finally arrived and sprung the trap. The ships he had left under his Padawan's command dropped out of hyperspace at just the right coordinates, unleashing hell on the exposed underbellies of the enemy frigates. The line broke as the droids panicked and couldn't decide between turning to face their new opponents or maintaining their focus on the main fleet. In the space of a minute all organization was lost and the Republic forces began mercilessly tearing into the Munificent frigates with their own batteries.

And to top it all off Risha arrived just in time to blast that bothersome tri-fighter off his tail before flying in beside him. "Nice job kid." The Jedi Knight praised her with a smirk, trying not to sound too relieved. With the enemy line disintegrating it was time to move on to the next stage of the attack. "Commander Dour, take your landing vessels and move through the hole before the Seps can close it again, we'll cover you."

"As you wish." Came the rigid, professional response of their battalion's clone commander. Rami looked across his wing to his Padawan's starfighter.

"Blue Squadron, Orange Squadron, form up on me. We're focusing our attack on their capital ship." R3 finished the repairs right on time, and Rami went into a showy maneuver as he redirected his fighter towards the now undefended Lucrehulk battleship in the distance. The ship was launching fighters to defend itself, but they were only a token force. The droids had made the mistake of overcommiting their forces at the beginning of the battle to face the diversionary fleet. And now they had left themselves wide open. Rami smiled viciously, time to end this battle.

"Race you to the bridge?" He asked his Padawan playfully. He had always skirted the edge of acceptable Jedi behavior, and his competitive nature was proof of that. R3 just twittered miserably.

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Risha's smile grew wider, her canines showing. She always cherished a praise from her master, and her Dagger Squadron performed outstandingly as well. The Acclamators headed towards the planet; LAAT gunships probably being prepped for deployment already. But before the troop transports could approach, there was one final ship to take out.

The Lucrehulk. Even after multiple years of warfare, seeing that circular frame with a ball in the center sent shivers down Risha's spine and made her nose twitch. That thing was about 5 times larger than Risha's Valiant, and housed 10 times more starfighters. Of course, all of them were automated. A single Vulture droid couldn't compare to a trained Clone pilot, let alone a Jedi. Even a novice Jedi pilot like Risha could probably take out a squadron without breaking a sweat. Still, she wouldn't call an overwhelming number of Vultures a token force.

And Master Vaan was offering a race towards the hostile ship's bridge. Through a swarm of hostile fighters, no less. "Master, I don't think..." before the Padawan could reply, Rami had obviously interpreted her silence as agreement. The Master's Eta-2 Actis made a barrel roll and darted towards the blasted battleship. With a grumbling sigh, the Cathar simply accelerated her Aethersprite to catch up. Still, she finished the phrase quietly: "... it's a good idea."

Risha's Delta-7B was inferior to Master Vaan's Eta-2. Since Rami got a head start, the Cathar probably wouldn't catch up. Shortly before her fighter would enter the enemy droid wave, Risha scratched her dark-orange hair. What is even the point of competing now? But then she regained her focus, both hands on the controls.

...​

As you may have figured out by now, I'm not a fan of flying. Having the Force at my side sure helps to be... competent. But I still feel much better on the ground. In space, you have to rely on your ship, and one mistake can cost you your... No, that's the case on the ground as well... It's just that... The ground is more forgiving and gives me more options. Yes, that.

But here I am, desperately trying to catch up with Master Rami Vaan's ship. Not sure it it's even worth it. The clones fly after us, ever loyal and compliant. Then our wing enters the swarm of hostile Vulture droids, and all Malachor breaks loose. I have to go evasive, taking shots at some of the Vultures who fly past me. My dodging is effective, but slows me down, so the Master's ship gets farther and farther away.

Even worse, I hear pleas for help from my wingmen who have Vultures on their tails. Master Vaan is too far to help, and I've already lost the race. There is only one logical choice. "Hold on, Orange-4! I'm coming!" With that, I briefly shut down the engines and hit reverse, as the master taught me. My wingmen overtake me, and so do the pursuing clankers. I hurry to pull the trigger, taking out as many pursuers as I can.

Still, I can't save them all. A couple of V-19 fighters blow up before I destroy the pursuing Vultures. All I can do is shout "No!" in helpless frustration. You can't quite escape the guilt of losing your men... Until your own shields start taking damage from the Vultures behind, and instincts force you to focus on survival.

I realize my mistake: "The clones are here to cover me, so that I would survive." By becoming the last pilot in formation, I've painted a target on my back. And a single Jedi can do much more than a single clone. That's why the clones sacrifice their lives sometimes. That realization often comes in the heat of battle, but doesn't make what I'm about to do any easier.

Putting my best effort into dodging the fire from behind, I push the Aethersprite to maximum speed, quickly catching up with my wing and overtaking clones one by one. "We've got to survive, R-4. We've got to complete the mission," I mumble to my droid, unaware that my Master and my troops can still hear me over comms.

We have almost reached our target...


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Rami didn't hear Risha's protests. He had to focus on what he was doing always. Keeping his mind occupied in his task was the only way he could prevent the shakes from coming back, if he had another little episode he wouldn't be useful to anyone. As they hit the oncoming storm of enemy Vultures he spun expertly to and fro, dodging laser fire and missiles with ease. Blue Squadron was filled with more veteran pilots than Risha's Orange Squadron, but even they were having a hard time keeping up. In the midst of the chaos, spinning and blasting any enemy that got in his path to dust, Rami began to pull further and further ahead of the pack.

Hearing the calls of distress from his wingmen Rami could only scowl as he remained focused on his objective. The capital ship was all that mattered. Once they destroyed it the Vultures would be disabled and the day won. His Padawan didn't seem to share his foresight. "Hold on, Orange-4! I'm coming!" He heard her over the comms in reaction to one of her pilots calling for help. He smiled sadly. He couldn't fault her compassion, but she seemed to lack sight of the bigger picture. It made her a good Jedi but a poor soldier. Rami could only hope that one day soon she could give up the latter and become the former entirely, as it should have been.

Cutting his way through the last of the Vultures in his path Rami burst forth from the swarm of enemy fighters, the remainder of Blue and Orange Squadrons following behind him, as well as his Padawan catching up. He heard Risha speaking over her hot comlink, and spoke up to get everyone's attention before something could be said. "Focus all fire on the shield generator." He ordered. "Once it's down there'll be nothing to protect that thing from our cruisers. We're at the finish line boys! This is no time to stumble!" His words seemed to encourage the battered pilots, several of them letting out enthusiastic cries as they hit the afterburners.

Having made it through the Vulture swarm the worst of the enemy defense was over, but they weren't out of the woods yet. They would need to get very close to the battleship to take out it's shield generator. The Lucrehulk's turbo lasers weren't very precise and could be easily evaded, but there was no room for a mistake. Taking a single hit would blast your fighter to pieces. As they approached the Separatist command ship they were suddenly hit with another storm. A desperate and merciless barrage of laser fire. "Remember your training Risha." He spoke directly to his Padawan. His voice was calm but commanding. "Let the Force guide you. You'll be alright."

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"Yes, Master," the Cathar replied obediently; she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before sending her yellow Aethersprite into a spiral. And then another one. Whatever storm was brewing around her, Risha was supposed to become its eye. She'd have to clear her mind of emotions, even those caused by Rami's prior words of encouragement to the clones. Otherwise, that drive could distract the Padawan, throw her off balance and get her shot down... Like some of the clones already were.

All that she had to retain in her mind were Master Vaan's orders: take out the shield generator. As the Padawan sent her ship into one evasive maneuver after another, she pulled the trigger occasionally, to try and land an extra hit on the target. Not that it would make a difference. Risha's Delta-7B lacked the missiles and torpedoes of an V-19 or ARC-170 respectively. Even her master's Eta-2 Actis had a couple more cannons, and ion ones at that.

Yet the Cathar remained loyal to her older and inferior ship. Mainly because she had put a lot of effort into mastering the Aethersprite back in the day. Risha had gotten used to it, and her Jedi training allowed her to make the best of the old and nimble design. Learning to fly a new ship seemed a too daunting prospect that would take too long.

Yet there she was, making her small contribution, along with Master Vaan and all the clones who had made it through the curtain of fire. Alone, Risha and even Rami wouldn't have done it. But with a swarm of fighters launching their ordnance and depleting all power of the blaster cannons, it was more than doable. The principle was simple: aim the weapons and pull the trigger until your power core runs out. Watch as everyone else does the same, and hope that it would be enough. And make sure to bank away from the shield generator as it explodes from all the plasma directed at it.

"Shield generator destroyed," the young Cathar stated, in a more professional manner; her grip on emotions tighter now. The next ships that come close to the Lucrehulk would probably be the Acclamators from the Dagger Squadron. This isn't their main target, so they'd just limit themselves to a few turbolaser and torpedo salvos before passing towards the planet. Master Vaan's Venators would be the ones to finish the job on a de-shielded Lucrehulk.

It meant that the Jedi were now clear to proceed straight to the planet, or return to their ships and regroup with the clones. The main part of the operation was about to begin...

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Rami threaded the needle through the constant barrage of turbo laser fire, making it into range of the Lucrehulk and unleashing hell on it. The fighters of Blue and Orange Squadron dove at the battleship mercilessly, chipping away at it's defenses in a concentrated spot until finally they were able to crack through and deal a fatal blow to the shield generator. Rami joined the rest of his pilots in a triumphant cry. Now all they had to do was get out of dodge.

As the fighters pulled away from the Lucrehulk the battle cruisers moved in. The landing vessels of Dagger Squadron offered only secondary fire as they made their way into low orbit of the planet. Meanwhile the heavy Venators of Cloak Squadron focused every ounce of their ordnance on the last bastion of the enemy's defense. The Lucrehulk didn't stand a chance. Outnumbered and outgunned, and with no shields to protect it, the battleship was shredded into nothing but fire and jagged metal in a matter of minutes.

"Now that's a beautiful sight!" Rami laughed into his comlink, the morale of the clone pilots soaring. "Blue and Orange Squadrons return to dock, get some well deserved rest."

"Aye sir!" Rami's wingman replied happily, and called out for the two wings to fall in behind him. Meanwhile Rami turned his attention to his apprentice.

"Unfortunately our job's not over yet. I'll see you on the surface kid." He smiled. "You did great by the way. Keep it up and you just might be half the pilot I am one day." He joked good naturedly. Rami liked to show off and was probably more arrogant than any Jedi had a right to be. But he always strived to bring out the best, not only in his Padawan but everyone around him. With that he went into another twirling loop in the air as he directed his starfighter for the planet surface, moving to catch up to the Acclamators of Dagger Squadron.

As they pressed through the atmosphere a clear view of Charros IV would appear through the clouds. A bleak, cold arid world of black lakes and snow capped mountains. Home to the insectiod Xi Charrians and more importantly, Haor Chall Engineering. The religious zealots had supplied their Vulture droids to the Separatist Alliance as works of sacred art. Even their factories were built in the form of giant cathedrals, where construction was an act of worship. The choice to attack such a place was a controversial one, as it straddled the line of military and civilian target. But the Republic was running out of options. With the state of the war everyone was looking for a way to break the stalemate, and this just might be the answer. As they approached the massive plateau where their targets stood Rami spoke again into his comlink.

"Keep at a distance, intelligence says they have anti-air defenses surrounding the plateau, we'll approach on foot." He commanded. With his orders confirmed by Commander Dour the Acclamators would begin forming a perimeter to surround the plateau and then sending their LAAT gunships to drop their soldiers and assault vehicles at the base of the landmass. This assault would be slow and costly, that much was very clear.

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"Great job, people!" Risha commended her clone wingmen as they took a turn towards the carriers on Master Vaan's orders. The Cathar looked on the radar as their fighter wings gained distance. She couldn't but sigh—a lot fewer fighters were returning to base after the attack run. Some of those people had saved her life back in the early days... The voice of Master Vaan brought the Padawan out of her stupor, partly at least. She didn't smile at her master's remark though—there was too much truth in it, and Risha still felt off.

"Yes, Master, I'm coming," the Cathar sent her yellow Aethersprite after her master's red-and-blue Eta-2. Unlike Rami, Risha didn't try any elaborate loops; she chose the shortest trajectory, and directed her ship to the planet with the least amount of maneuvering possible. Still, the General's vessel was faster. The Cathar would have to show her best piloting to not fall too far behind.

Flying her ship through the atmosphere, Risha saw the gigantic plateau that their assault fleet circled around. It looked like a fortress: tall spires of the manufacturing plant surrounded by walls and towering anti-air defenses. Heeding her master's warning, Risha turned away from the plateau and flew above the lowlands where the Republic troops were being deployed.

Assaulting it from the ground would mean scaling the plateau with clones and walkers! A very Master Vaan thing to do. The six-legged AT-TE walkers deployed on the ground only confirmed that guess. However, there seemed to be more to the plan. For reasons unknown, Commander Dour was deploying SPHA artillery. Unlike the walkers that were being deployed around the plato, the artillery was congregated in one place. Of course, it wouldn't be Rami if the plan didn't have a double bottom.

A familiar voice distracted Risha from her contemplation behind the controls of her Aethersprite. "Commander Sjiara? Good to see you in one piece! Your work on that clanker ship was a sight for the sore eyes." Captain Spike's enthusiasm and support couldn't but evoke a smile on the humble Padawan's lips. "We've met up with General Vaan, sending you the rendez-vous coordinates."

There was a brief pause, and the Cathar smiled unwittingly, knowing all too wel what was about to happen. She could almost imagine her trusted Captain look around, to see if anyone else was listening. "Stand by for a briefing from Commander Stoneface." Risha giggled at the inside joke. The Generals' second-in-command was actually nicknamed "Dour", and for a reason. Seemingly cold and emotionless, he was like Master Vaan; but without any sense of humor, and not nearly as supportive as the General or Captain Spike.

Worst of all, he outranked the Padawan; and some of his orders over the years didn't go in line with the Jedi Code. Risha had faith in her Master. When Rami had given her an order that went against her heart, she'd follow, albeit begrudgingly. After all, Master Vaan was a Jedi Knight and knew better. But when Dour had ordered he Cathar to leave a squad behind to face certain death on Taspir III... Let's just say that young Risha wasn't a Jedi for the next few days. That's when Spike had come up with a new nickname for Dour, to cheer the Padawan up a little. For the first time in days, Risha had smiled and replied with a joke: "Doesn't that make you Stoneface as well?"

The holo-image of Clone Marshal Commander Dour distracted the Padawan from her introspection and reminiscing. "Commander. There has been a change of plans. We've discovered the tunnels behind the plateau. General Vaan has ordered a breach with the artillery. You will take a couple of squads to the breach and sabotage enemy encampment... Hold on, I've got priority transmission coming through. You have your orders. CC-2244 out!"

Before Risha could reply, "Stoneface" was gone, and Spike was on the line again. "Make sure to fly below the plateau, so that anti-air defenses wouldn't get you. Congratulations on the assignment! Looks like I'll get the boring job of watching your back and making sure that no clankers follow you from above and into the breach." To that, the Cathar would just smile faintly: "Oh trust me, Spikey, you have a good assignment. Higher chances to live and see another day."

Seeing Rami's red-and-blue Eta-2 actis parked at a snowy clearing, Risha landed her yellow Aethersprite nearby. As the cockpit opened, the wind from outside made the Cathar's body shudder. But she had dressed for the occasion, so it was a momentary weakness. Jumping out of the ship, she'd address her astromech: "Don't worry, R4! This will be the safest..."

Risha's comment was interrupted by a turbolaser that hit the face of the plateau not too far away. Then another beam joined... And another... And another... Vaporizing the snow, melting the ice, gnawing at the rock below to clear a breach into the tunnels. That only lasted a minute, but seeing the weapons of war and the results of their work that close made the fur-coated Cathar stand in awe. Finally, it was over and Risha had to shake her head and ears to clear them from the melted snow and ice shards that had scattered in all directions.

A series of sassy beeps from the astromech brought the Padawan back to reality."Ok, this is now the safest place nearby. Now, to find Master Vaan..."

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Rami made it to the ground ahead of his Padawan, landing in the field by the battalion’s forward operating base. The Jedi Knight would climb out of his fighter once it powered down, pulling up his hood and wrapping his long dark robe closely around himself as a shield from the freezing wind. He told R3 to stay with the ship, an order the droid happily acquiesced to, and went to meet with his officers. Captain Spike and Lieutenant Wily were waiting for him, their armor painted with the teal trim of the 615th Strike Battalion.

“General! Glad you could make it,” The clone captain said cheerfully, clearly well insulated from the cold in his specialized armor. “How you holding up?” Rami stared blankly back at the clone captain as he shivered in the cold, already feeling miserable.

“Simply sublime Captain.” He replied sarcastically before nodding to the console before the two officers. “What have we got?”

“It looks like your hunch was correct sir,” Lieutenant Wily explained as he brought up a holomap of the plateau’s interior. “Scans show that there’s been extensive digging into the landmass. There are tunnels leading all the way up to the facility.” He looked back at the Jedi. “Right inside their defenses.” The Terrelian smiled.

“Excellent, the Force is with us my friends.” He started as his tactician’s mind took over. “I want a concentrated artillery barrage on the cliff face there, accompanied by simultaneous ship bombardments to focus the enemy’s attention on the Acclamators. Lieutenant Wily gather your best men. You, Risha and I will lead an infiltration team into the tunnels and compromise the fortress from the inside.” Wily nodded and offered a “Yes sir” before going off to gather his squad. Spike turned to the general expectantly.

“What about me sir?” He asked, clearly eager to be involved in the plan. Rami shook his head sadly.

“Sorry Spike, you’ll be guarding the exit and securing our extraction point.” The captain scoffed and waved the Jedi off, a testament to their close friendship that he would behave with such casualness before his commanding officer.

“Ah you never let me have any fun.” He lamented but didn’t argue against the order. “Good luck General, we’ll be waiting to move in for the kill on your command.” The clone saluted him, and Rami returned the gesture before leaving the officer’s platform to meet up with Risha and Wily’s squad.

“Hey kid.” He would offer his Padawan a smile and a nod. He could feel his apprentice’s mournful state of mind, even if she was trying her best to play her role. He could only offer her an understanding pat on the shoulder. No words were exchanged, but he knew she would understand what he was trying to convey. They were both tired of losing so many people. He turned his attention to the rest of the infiltration squad. “Pick it up boys. It’s a long hike to the top, and people’s lives are on the line.” A collective shout of “Yes sir!” from the gathered troops told him they were ready to move, and so Rami led the way into the exposed tunnels. Above them the artillery barrage continued unabated, filling the air with a deafening roar and a cloud of battered snow and ice that masked their approach.

As they moved inwards and upwards into the interior of the plateau the light quickly abandoned them, leaving the company in complete darkness. Rami ignited his radiant blue lightsaber and held it aloft to light their path, and the clones switched on their headlamps as well. The caverns were eerily quiet, save for the distant echoes and vibrations from the artillery barrage outside. Something felt dreadfully wrong. The walls seemed to close in on Rami, causing his heart to skip a beat and for him to begin sweating again despite the cold. He clutched his chest and struggled to breathe, his breath wafting out in a visible cloud from the low temperature. Not now… He thought miserably. Now was not the time to have an episode, especially not in front of his men and Padawan. Perhaps Wily noticed something was wrong because he quickly spoke up.

“Well, this is spooky…” He commented casually, drawing a few chuckles from the troopers. Rami couldn’t help but sigh in amusement a little as well, the tightness in his chest giving way a bit.

“What’s the matter Wily?” He asked playfully. “You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”

“Only when you’re leading the way General,” Wily shot back without missing a beat. “Or have you forgotten what happened on Shumavar?” The clone had succeeded in helping the Jedi avoid a sudden breakdown, the Knight instead turning around to stick a stern finger in the lieutenant’s face.

“That was not my fault.” He insisted dryly. Wily let out a quick bark of laughter.

“Yeah sure, whatever you say General.” He replied, drawing some more good-natured chuckles from the rest of the squad. Rami just smiled back and continued on his path. Crisis averted there... Thanks Wily... Unfortunately, they didn’t get very far before that bad feeling returned. It was something about this place that the Jedi just couldn’t shake. Was he getting claustrophobic? Why were the shakes coming on him again so soon? It never happened this frequently. No, this was different. This was much worse. The entire current of the Force seemed to shudder, as if recoiling from a terrible shock. Suddenly Rami was hit with a pounding headache, so painful that he audibly grunted, and a hand went to his temple. The pain, the anguish, it wasn’t his. But he could feel it. Thousands of people… Jedi… As he was experiencing this mental attack Wily touched his own helmet as he received a communication. As a matter of fact, all the clones in the squad seemed to be receiving a transmission at once. Then Rami’s mind became very clear, and he was alerted to one very specific emotion surrounding him. A deadly intent.

He heard the cock of a blaster rifle. In an instant Rami spun around, cutting the barrel of Wily’s weapon in half before he could shoot him in the back. The lieutenant grunted and staggered backwards from the unexpected attack, and Rami followed it up with a Force push, sending him and all the other clones tumbling backwards. As his troops lay sprawled out on the ground Rami instinctively brought his weapon down in front of him, taking a defensive stance. But from the look on his face it was clear he was completely shocked by what had just occurred. Wily knew exactly what he was doing though. The clone shook his head and then pointed at the two Jedi, barking a simple order with no hint of remorse.

“Blast em’!” The clones didn’t even hesitate. They raised their weapons to open fire, but Rami acted first, reaching up and making a fist with his hand, calling upon the Force to collapse the tunnel between the two groups. He could hear the faint shouting of the clones on the other side of the divide. He hadn’t tried to crush any of them after all. He couldn’t bring himself to kill any of his soldiers, even in self-defense. Now he was left alone in the dark with Risha, the faint hum of his lightsaber the only thing breaking the silence as they stood in the dim blue light. Slowly he looked over at Risha. Under most circumstances throughout this bloody war Rami had always remained cool and collected in front of his peers. But now there was no hiding how he really felt. He was confused, hurt, and terrified.

“Did that really just happen?” He asked her dumbly. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t have much time to figure things out. The sound of the collapsing tunnel had alerted the sentry droids to their presence, and already they were making their way towards the Jedi. They would need to get it together and move fast if they wanted to survive.

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Risha had just enough time to dust the snow and water off her facial fur when Master Vaan showed up near the ships again, along with a detachment of clones. The Terellian could only offer a "Hey kid" and a pat on the shoulder; but the young Cathar didn't need much more. Just the realization that she wasn't the only one around who sensed all that death and destruction. And that she was doing her best. And most importantly, Risha remembered that the blasted war was drawing to a close—slowly, but surely. The Padawan forced a smile on her face, and then cast one last glance at her yellow Aethersprite. "Stay with the ship, R4. We'll be back before you know it."

Risha remained quiet as the company traversed the caverns. Even the lack of light didn't have any apparent effect. She could see much better in the dark than her Master and the clones. That's why the saber hilt remained on the belt, just as the Cathar herself remained deep in thought. She only made a note to herself to ask Wily or Master Vaan what had transpired on Shumavar. Risha could ask there and then; but she felt that the timing wasn't appropriate. Despite her feet on solid ground again, she felt even worse than in the cockpit of her Delta-7B above the planet. Something was off...

Then it washed over Risha. A jolt of pain sent the Cathar onto her fours with a loud fuff, claws protracted involuntarily. She had thought she knew what the war felt like. That new feeling was different, all encompassing. Slaughter was too soft a word to describe it. That feeling enveloped Risha, pushed all her other thoughts and Force senses to the outskirts of her conscience; made her oblivious to the world around her, about the there and then. If it hadn't been for Rami, it would've been the end of Padawan Risha Sjiara.

Rami's question made Risha snap out of it. The Cathar was still dumbfounded from the experience. Yet she managed to stand up, with visible effort. "I... I don't..." Then her eyes caught a glimpse of something in the darkness. A ball of metal, small and nimble, hovering through the cavern towards them. Danger! At that distance, it wasn't caught out by the glow of Master Vaan's lightsaber. The hunter's instincts evoked the Cathar's reaction, and her Jedi training determined the means. Hand thrown up, the Padawan altered the droid's course. And invisible force sent the machine into another tunnel and smashed it into a pat of metal against the walls of the cavern. Hopefully, the droid hadn't detected them.

The sudden exercise was like a bucket of cold water that the Cathar Padawan desperately needed. Claws retracted, Risha took the lightsaber hilt off her belt. There was not much to her facial expression; only emerald eyes could be seen glowing in the darkness of the cave. "It's... probably not safe here." Confusion slowly made way for common sense in the Cathar's soft voice. "And won't be safe there too," she pointed her index claw at the tunnel where she had sent off the droid. A hunter's distraction of sorts, to lure the predators away. The predators being the patrol droids in this case.

And worst of all, the way behind them brought down by Rami. Cut off from reinforcements, behind enemy lines. Risha reached for the comlink on her belt and pressed the button, but there was no signal. Perhaps some of the rock formations underneath the plateau prevented it from coming through. "I can't reach Spike," the Cathar turned to Rami, looking for guidance.

Risha was still oblivious to the fact that the clones had betrayed them. All she knew was that Lieutenant Wily ordered his men to kill Master Vaan for some reason. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding? Some sort of Separatist trickery? It had to be. Spike was probably restless already after hearing about the tunnel collapse. All they had to do was reach him, and the Clone Captain would have all the answers. Right?

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Rami was so caught up in trying to process what had just happened he didn't notice the sentry droid incoming. Thankfully his Padawan was able to destroy it before it could raise the alarm. They were still in trouble though, deep trouble. Rami was trying to think of what course of action to take when Risha actually tried to contact the clones, only to be met with static. Which was probably a good thing. As the young girl looked to him and reported that she couldn't reach Captain Spike all Rami could do was offer her a grievous expression. It seemed she was in denial of their situation. That or the sudden shock through the Force had made her ignorant to it. Rami had a feeling on some level she knew though.

"Risha..." He said slowly, voice full of sorrow. He paused and looked away, thinking. What had happened? He wasn't sure himself. Were Wily and his men traitors? Separatist sleeper agents? He had heard of the rare clone betraying the Republic, but that was one in a million, they were bred for loyalty after all. And Rami had thought Wily a good friend. Was the entire clone army initiating some kind of overthrow against the Republic? Rami could understand that. He knew that the clones were essentially a slave army, and felt a great deal of pity for them. He could see why they might initiate a rebellion. But again, it wasn't in their nature to turn on them. So why? Why betray them? He looked back to his Padawan.

"You felt it didn't you? Something... Something terrible has happened." He shook his head regretfully. "We can't trust Spike right now. Or Dour, or anyone. Not until we've figured out exactly what's going on." He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, looking her straight in the eyes. "You understand me? Do not, under any circumstances try to contact Spike or any of the other clones until I've given you permission. All we have is each other and the Force. We must trust in it." He started walking down the path, raising his lightsaber again to guide the way. "Focus on the mission for now. We still have a job to do."

The remainder of their trip through the caverns was surprisingly quiet. It seemed the sentry Risha destroyed was the only one that detected them. But there was still cause for concern. The bombardment was escalating. The walls and ceiling around them were shaking violently. Snow and chunks of jagged ice began to fall, threatening to skewer the Jedi. What was Dour doing? But that was the question wasn't it? What were any of the clones doing right now?

As natural light began to filter into the caves Rami extinguished his lightsaber and crouched down, gesturing for Risha to do the same. He crept forward silently, peaking around the corner. The cave seemed to lead into a storage room where starship fuel was being kept. How convenient. If they still wanted to destroy the base, this was the best place to do it from. What was more the storage room's door was open, with B1 battle droids moving the fuel cannisters into a hangar bay and fueling shuttles. Privately Rami considered these an excellent potential escape route. There were only a few guards on duty as well, nothing the two Jedi couldn't handle.

As he considered these things he heard some static from his comlink, the device coming back within signal range. He picked it up and raised it to his mouth, then paused, thinking a moment. Finally he changed the channel and spoke. "R3, can you hear me?" He asked quietly. He received a concerned beep from the other side and smiled. "Hey, hey, it's okay. We're both fine. Just tell me what's going on back at the base." And then R3 relayed what was going on to the Jedi Knight in agonizing detail. He, Risha, the entire Jedi Order had been labeled traitors to the Republic. The clones were under orders to execute them on sight. Rami just sat there, staring blankly into the comlink. Slowly he looked to his apprentice, who should have heard the conversation.

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For a few moments, all the response that Rami got was a glare of Risha's green eyes in the darkness. On the outside, it looked like a quiet moment. On the inside, the Cathar's world was being reduced to an endless plain of smouldering ash, cooling down and subsiding with every word of her Master. Afrer a few long moments of hesitation, Risha gulped and nodded: "Yes, Master..." There was a lot she wanted to ask the Knight, but even she realized that it wasn't the best time.

The Cathar spent the rest of the walk in silence; deep in thought, and only distracted by particularly violent quakes. Were they even supposed to carry out the mission, without the help of the clones? Why woud Wily and his men turn against the Jedi? And what was that pain that Risha felt moments before the clones attacked? The Padawan didn't have an answer to that.

Betrayed and confused, Risha only had one way—follow her Master's lead. If she didn't know what to do, Rami sure would. Together with the Terellian, she took cover behind a bend of the cave. The static from Rami's comlink made Risha perk up her ears. Although she wasn't well-versed in Binary, she had learned enough to communicate with her droid, R4. That's why the general idea of the message wasn't lost on the Padawan. Her only reaction was a quiet gasp and a look she gave Rami. That look was full of fear, confusion, and disbelief, bordering on denial. She could only get out a quiet brief whisper out of herself: "Master... What are we going to do?"

Together with Rami, Risha did peek out of cover to see the disposition. Starship fuel storage. A few shuttles. Much fewer guards than it would take to overwhelm even a Padawan less experienced than Risha. A part of her just wanted to take the shuttle, try to get R4, and disappear. However, it was obvious that the clones besieging the facility wouldn't allow escapees. Any attempt to return to R4 and the Aethersprite was out of the question as well. That is, if the clones hadn't detained the droids by then.

On the bright side, the Cathar didn't sense anyone behind them. Whatever passage Master Vaan sealed, it ensured that any other clone squad would have a hard time catching up with the Jedi. "We... can't go back," the Cathar mumbled quietly, weighing up her options. "Our forces have the place surrounded. If we complete our mission..." Risha was vocalizing her thoughts at the moment. "Then the clones would breach Separatist defenses and take over." At first, she seemed scared by the prospect, but then her face lightened up: "Can it prove our innocence and loyalty?"

It was a long shot, but the Padawan didn't have any other options. Stealing a ship and trying to get through the blockade set up by Rami himself would be suicide. "Can it prove our innocence and loyalty? Even Dour would see we aren't a threat! We hadn't killed a single clone when they..." The Padawan sighed. A part of her realized that such assumptions were naive, and Master Vaan wouldn't approve. However, the Cathar was clearly out of options, grasping at straws.

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Rami was having trouble processing the situation. The Jedi had been labeled traitors? Just the Jedi? So it wasn't a coup then? But what could the Jedi have possibly done to be labeled as traitors? None of it made any sense. And then the realization struck him. The disturbance in the Force he felt. It was Jedi. All of the Jedi being wiped out at once. This was a premeditated attack on the Order, and judging from the pain he was feeling it had stunning results.

As the gravity of what had happened truly began to sink in Rami's breathing grew labored again. He closed his eyes and lowered his head, pressing a fist against his forehead as he tried to stave off another episode. He couldn't break down now, not with everything happening and not with his Padawan depending on him. But her worried questions and naive hope of redemption certainly wasn't helping. No, the clones would show no mercy no matter what they did. It hurt to think about it but it was true. How could they do this?

Rami bit his lip and made a sound like a sob, though there were no tears. It was too much. He clutched his chest and forced himself to breathe deeply. He had to calm down. He had to calm down. They were dead if he didn't. There was an awkward silence that dragged on entirely too long before Rami looked up again at Risha. He had forced himself to put on a reassuring smile, but his eyes told the story that he was barely keeping it together.

"Just stay here, I think I have a plan." He said with something that sounded like confidence. Standing up he stepped out into the open and held his hands high, lightsaber clipped to his belt. "Hey!" He shouted, turning the heads of every battle droid in the hangar. "How's it going?" There was a moment of silence. One battle droid dropped the canister it was carrying, the barrel being the only thing to break the dead silence as it rolled across the floor.

"Jedi!" One droid finally shouted, and the whole room was in a panic. Several droids fled while others scrambled to grab their blasters and aim them at the intruder.

"Easy!" Rami called out to them through a light chuckle. "Easy! I'm here to surrender." There was another long pause.

"What?" One of the droids asked. Rami smirked.

"My name is General Rami Vaan, I'm the leader of the battalion besieging you, and I'm here to discuss the terms of my surrender with your leader." The droids looked to each other, clearly confused, then looked back to the Jedi.

"Uh, don't you mean our surrender?" The same droid, probably the ranking one asked. Rami lowered his hands to a more relaxed state.

"Oh, well if you'd like to surrender than by all means..." He started before the droid cut him off.

"Wait! Wait, no, you're not tricking us with that reverse psychometry stuff!"

"Psychology."
One of the other droids corrected him.

"Whatever! You're under arrest! We're taking you to our leader so you can surrender!" The droid ordered, and started marching forward. As they approached Rami looked over his shoulder towards Risha and winked before gesturing for her to follow.

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"Master?" the Cathar asked in whisper after a few moments of what seemed like Rami having another seizure; just like the one that they both had experienced before the Clones' betrayal. Except that now it was Rami alone, and Risha didn't feel anything alike. The Terellian's forced smile didn't help to dispel the Padawan's uneasiness. The notion of Rami having a plan was another matter. Despite being a poor soldier, Risha could follow orders; that's why she nodded and remained hidden.

However, the Terellian's unexpected "surrender" made her gasp. Did he really mean that? Before Risha could come to terms with the possibilities, Rami gestured towards her. "What are you pointing at?" the droid commander almost moved his head in the direction of the General's gesture, but didn't go through with that. "Don't try to trick us. Eyes front, Jedi!" With that, the droid prodded Rami's back with the barrel of his E-5 rifle. "Walk!"

"Uhhmmm, sir..." One of the droids apparently did look in the direction Rami pointed at. "Now there are two of them." The young and proud Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic stood in the open, her gaze lowered. Despite holding her hands up, Risha's stance was somewhat crooked; a visible sign of discomfort with the notion of surrender. "I suppose I am under arrest as well..." She walked to catch up with Rami, one of the droids holding a blaster to her back.

As the droids escorted the two Jedi out of the storage room and through another set of caverns; then to a monorail that would take them further from the borders of the plateau. If the Padawan had been more like her Master, she would've said something along the lines of "I sincerely hope you know what you're doing." But Risha was Risha, so she kept those doubts to herself and spared the droids from processing whether or not it was another ruse.

Meanwhile, the monorail was taking the Jedi and their guards throughout a gigantic smelting facility. Even Risha couldn't help but gaze at the maws of giant furnaces; countless vats with red-hot liquid metal carried by conveyor belts and poured in unison. The deep clapping of pressing machines was omnipresent: louder than the bombardment by 615th Strike Battalion and Risha's Dagger Squadron, but at least not shaking the ground and ceiling.

Eventually, the monorail would carry them through a long tunnel, before stopping by a corridor leading towards a single door. The B-1 droid in charge briefly turned its metallic head to his captives, before addressing one of his subordinates. "The Colonel would see the Jedi unarmed. Corporal, relieve them of their laser swords." Risha's heart sank at the prospect. Yet the guard by her side replied with an expected "Roger-roger!" Risha's own saber was clipped to her belt. Decorated with the straps of light-brown cloth—sturdy, scratchy, and convenient to hold on to, even with protracted claws—that was the Cathar's only possession in left the world. She gave the Master a helpless glance and exhaled loudly, looking at the incoming metallic hand again...

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