Path to Glory:
Wraith Squadron

Part 3

Planet Agamar, 24 hours before the arrival of the fleetů

"Hope your enjoying yourself Chief," Grifter said as he looked back through the thermal binoculars towards the open field before them.

"Oh yes sir. This snake eater dren is more exciting than I thought."

"Give away our position again, and it's guaranteed to get a lot more 'exciting' than you ever dreamed, get it?"

Den's grin disappeared. "Yes sir, understood." 'Frell,' he admonished himself. 'Just when I think I was getting on his good side.'

Den had arrived on planet with the rest of 3rd Flight four hours ago. While Fleet Admiral Sigi and Admiral Starfire made official contact with the planets government and coordinated the fleets arrival with the uniformed services, Cole, Den, and DDD had been sent out along with 2nd Flight ahead of the task force to recon the staging areas and make contact with the main resistance cells.

There was rumored to be some friction between Agamar's government/military and the citizen militia that had organized independently of the government during the Imperial occupation. The latest intelligence reports that the Wraiths had been briefed on suggested that the Agamarian government would not be entirely pleased that the Republic was making official contact with the rebels, even if they were fighting for the same cause. The S2 office of Naval Intelligence also had reported that there was a strong possibility of some Imperial agents remaining on the planet, though what strength and organization they had was yet to be determined. It was also very likely that some members of the Agamarian government were still secretly loyal to the Emperor.

The combination of all these factors had dictated that the Wraiths mission be carried out with absolute operational secrecy. They had jumped in system behind a group of small asteroids that the Science Division on the Emancipator had detected. Once back in real space, they had immediately cut all power except minimal life support and simply floated with the asteroids for eight hours until they started entry into the atmosphere. As the asteroids began to burn up around them, the Wraiths had powered back up their thrusters and minimal shielding, following the ballistic trajectory of the meteor shower until roughly10,000 feet above ground level. At that point it had been another hair-raising flight below treetop level through canyons and forests to their insertion point.

Once concealing the RZ-1's with sensor nets and some bushes, Wongtam, Jarron, and Zanzetsuken had departed for 2nd Flight's contact point while 3rd Flight had left for the ten kilometer trek to theirs through the dense forest. Only Vuffi had remained behind to secure the landing site and guard the Awings.

The long crawl through the jungle like forest had seemed tedious to Den at first, especially compared to large 'pucker factor' of their insertion on the planet, but Chief Ogre was determined to be a professional about it. And after awhile, Den found he actually liked the experience. Being constantly on the alert for possible ambushes, making sure that their bodies were never visible underneath the tall grass, moving like slowly stalking spider dragons, listening for every sound that carried through the moist warm air, even sniffing the alien air, one couldn't help but get their adrenaline pumping.

Den admired the way DDD and Cole glided through the terrain, never making a noise, their eyes always scanning the horizon with repeater rifles at the ready. He had initially found it difficult to keep up with them without making too much noise, causing a few glares from the two vets, but he learned quickly. By the end of their four-hour crawl, Chief Ogre really DID feel like a spider dragon. He was alert, conscious of every movement and sound his body made, aware of every nuance of the terrain around him, even of the beating of his own heart.

And here he was, almost at the end of their travel to meet the Agamarian rebels, and through one moment of carelessness had threatened their entire mission. 'Dammit!' he thought to himself again. It is said that making mistakes are the only way one truly learns anything. But in war, that's only true so long as those mistakes don't get you killed in the process.

Grifter studied the field before them again. The artificial glow of the thermal imaging binoculars revealed a rather nasty choice to him. They were at the very edge of this strange jungle forest hybrid, the end of their concealment. Their destination lay just on the other side of a large field of vegimeal sprouts. In another three weeks, the stalks would have been high enough to conceal his team all the way to the backyard of the gray permacrete farm, where they were supposed to meet their contact. But now they were just a dull patch of blue green leaves, the highest of which was no more than six centimeters. If the three of them continued on this path, they would have almost no real cover for another five hundred meters.

Cole looked to his right and left. The forest continued to either side of them for a few kilometers. To his left he could see a small stream leading another third of the way to the main farmhouse, but it wasn't deep enough to swim under, and they didn't have the gear anyway. But it had a slight bank to it. The dirt raised about 15 centimeters on the near side, giving at least a little concealment from the farmhouse itself, but leaving them completely open and visible from the forest on their left flank. While Cole was worried about spooking the farmers he was sent to make contact with, he was more worried about revealing their presence to any Imperial sympathizers that might have been observing the farm from the shadows, just as they were doing now.

'Running against the clock again. Sithspawn, who's frelled up idea was this anyway?' he thought to himself. If time had not been so much of a factor, Cole would have patrolled along the tree line himself to insure it was secure. But higher ups had put them on a strict timeline. They had to make contact, debrief the Agamarians, take stock of their organization, and be off planet within the next eight hours. Not enough time to secure the perimeter properly.

As it was, he had been sure to lead them along a route that would clear their right flank. If there were any enemy positions to their right or even a kilometer to their left, they were damned good at concealing themselves, and few were as good as they were, so he doubted it. But further, past the stream, that was an unknown. A big frelling black hole of an unknown. Cole peered through the binoculars to the left at the dark tree line, then turned back to the farmhouse. Two Agamarians were sitting on the front porch, standard issue Imperial blaster carbines held before them. Cole waited to see if they were about to embark on a patrol of their own. If he had been in charge of the farmers, he would have had constant patrols going out past the tree line, especially if he knew people were on the way to make contact. But so far there was nothing, over the last thirty minutes six Agamarians total had revealed themselves at the main house, three more over at the silo. All had come outside for a few minutes, looked at the horizon, as if the bad guys would all of the sudden stand up and say "Here I am! Shoot me for being stupid!", then walked back inside. 'Ridiculous,' he thought to himself.

Grifter then reminded himself that these farmers had been very effective in mounting an insurgent campaign against the Imps longer than he had. Perhaps with the main force of the Imps removed from their planet they had simply gotten a little complacent. Still, complacency would get you killed in this business as sure as a blaster bolt.

Grifter shook his head and reached for his com unit. "Banshee One to Ghostrider."

"Banshee, Ghostrider, go," was Vuffi's short reply

"Ghostrider, Banshee arrived on target." Cole thought for a second before continuing. "Contact with principles in one zero, will advise."

"Roger Banshee. Be advised, Phantom has haunted and is going to heaven."

Grifter double clicked the microphone in acknowledgement, and then shut off the com. 'Damn,' Cole thought with a smile 'Wongtam made good time, for a fish head.' He was glad to hear that they had made contact and were on their way back to the landing zone though. Their contacts were just as 'high profile' as 3rd Flight's was, so if no bad guys were waiting for them, then it was more likely that none were here as well. Grifter still would have felt better if the damned farmers would just patrol the tree line.

Cole looked one more time at the farmhouse and the danger area to their left, and then made up his mind. He tapped Den on the shoulder and motioned for him follow. The two Wraiths slowly crawled back to where Sub Lieutenant DDD was waiting. "What's the word Grif?" the former Jedi asked.

"Main house is another half a klick away. Very little cover." Cole whispered. "There's a stream running just to the west that cuts it a bit, but it's damned open to the west tree line. Made nine indigs, all armed with stolen Imp weapons. No patrols that I could see. Looks like they're all holed up in the main house, with a small security contingent at the silo. They look damned easy too. Figure probably twenty or twenty-five total."

"Made contact with Vuffi?"

"Yes. I told him we were about ten minutes from making contact with the Agamarians. Two Flight already made contact and are on their way back to the LZ."

"So they can back us up now."

"Doubtful, Wong will still keep field craft. He won't be back at the Awings for at least another three hours. They might be able to give us air support if we get into firefight on the way back, but I doubt that would be very effective anyway with all these Binka trees. Damn things make good cover, even for Imps."

Just then Den let out a stifled yelp. Grifter and DDD turned to him with weapons at the ready and murder in their eyes, looking for the rookie's attacker. Den gave an embarrassed look at the two officers as he wiped the remains of a Bitz bug from his neck with his left hand. "Sorry, the damned things bite hard."

Grifter's face twisted into fury. He seemed about to strike the young man when DDD put a hand on his shoulder. Cole turned to see DDD looking at him with that calm expression that he always found so maddening. 'The man gets captured by the Empire, gets his DNA frelled with, looses all connection to the Force, and still he's as calm as can be no matter what the circumstance,' Cole thought for the millionth time.

Grifter was as cool as the other side of the pillow in a fight, but he couldn't stand incompetence. He just had no patience for it.

To be honest, the kid was doing well. He was keeping up, and he learned fast. But the learning curve in combat was steep. He had a tendency to congratulate himself too much. He'd do something right, and in his self indulgence would proceed to do three things wrong. Grifter shook the thoughts from his mind and laid out his plan.

"Ok, I'm not going down that field without knowing what's in those Binka trees to the west. The Agamarians weren't told how many of us to expect. So I'll go down to the house myself. You take Chief Ogre and slide around to the west, recon that tree line. If it's all light side, follow on up to the house by way of the stream. I'll tell Hatcher and his people to expect you."

"Ok Grifter, keep your head down though. We won't get into a good supporting position for a few minutes at least."

Grifter nodded. Den looked down at the ground for a second, as if not being asked to go with Cole was punishment for his breach of silence. In truth it was, but it was also a compliment to be sent with DDD. Cole was trusting him to watch DDD's back as he scouted the trees, and by extension was trusting him with his own back. It was a leap of faith to be sure.

Grifter thought for a second. "If I can get these farmers off there asses, I'll get them to send a patrol out to the line and guide you two in if you want. They should be doing that anyway," he said with some heat.

"Grif, don't push them. Remember these are prideful people. Tenas Hatcher is a direct descendant of B'ante Hatcher himself. They've been doing this on their own for many years. If they're not putting out patrols, they probably have a reason for it."

"Perhaps," Grifter said without conviction.

DDD picked up the maps and com unit that he'd had open and stuffed them into his ranger pack. Looking around to make sure he was still concealed by the high grass, he hunched down and took off his helmet. With his free hand he scooped up a handful of dark soil and smeared it through his already unrecognizable-as-blond hair. He then replaced his helmet and did the same thing to the rest of his exposed skin. He checked to make sure the mud and twigs were still well applied to his repeater rifle, the hand blaster he carried at his hip, and the lightsaber that still protruded slightly from his half open armor vest. Grifter noticed Den mimicking DDD's actions with caution. 'Good,' he thought.

"How do I smell?" DDD asked.

Grifter took a whiff of the two. "Like rotting leaves," he said.

"Thank you," DDD replied with a smile. "Ok, we're gone. May the Force be with you Cole."

Grifter grimaced at the mention of the 'almighty' force. "You too partner." It was only polite after all.

Grifter watched the two Wraiths slowly crawl their way along the tree line before turning deeper into the woods to circle around to the west. As he did he rechecked everything in his head. He looked over his own camouflage, touching each of his weapons as he went around his body, as if they might disappear if physical contact was made. He checked that his com unit was in position and set to private so no one other than him could hear it. He tightened down his ranger pack until he could barely breath, ensuring that the stowed thermal detonators, three BlasTech blasters, and extendable vibroblade didn't loosen and knock against each other while he was crawling. Such noise would be bad. Very.

Returning to the position he had taken up with the binoculars, he stooped and checked that he had a fully charged magazine in his repeater rifle. He checked the spare magazine on his ammo belt. Cole then removed the binoculars from their compartment and once more surveyed the field, the house, and the ominous trees to the west.

'I'd kill for a cigarette right now.' Cole thought to himself as he left the safety of the grass and moved out across the darkness.