Path to Glory:
Wraith Squadron

Part 4

DDD peered into the darkness ahead. His black eyes scanned from side to side, not so much focusing on anything as letting his peripheral vision detect any motion. His breathing became slow and shallow as he willed his heartbeat to slow to a crawl, less the incessant beating drown out the ambient sounds his ears strained to pick up. He could hear Den's own heart beat a meter behind himself. The young Wraith was holding his breath as requested; he made enough noise as it was.

Once again DDD instinctively tried to reach out through the Force, only to find a void so empty and lifeless that it stung his very soul. The former Jedi Knight once again fought back the despair of being forever disconnected from the living Force around him. In a moment of emotional weakness he damned the Imperials and the ysalamari DNA they had infused into his genetic code as part of their twisted experiments. He had known beauty and peace the likes of which few people in the galaxy ever would in this mortal world. And he likely would never touch that benign power again. It was almost enough to make him weep.

Recalling the Jedi training of his mind, he pushed such irrelevancies aside and refocused his mortal attention less he miss something important. He could hear the Mugruebies hopping along the damp Agamarian soil, their powerful back legs propelling them in great leaps through the thick vegetation. Slightly further down their path he could hear the rustle of a Hoska slowly trudging its way toward the stream, probably looking for a cool drink of water on this humid night. DDD could smell it's musky order, figuring it must have been in heat. But no other sounds, smells, or sights warned him of any danger, at least not of the sentient kind.

He lowered his head to the ground and once again felt the soil around him. There were no indications of any humanoid disturbances of the ground, only the tracks of wild animals that were expected in this hemisphere. DDD raised his back up and turned to look at Den. His face was almost turning blue from holding in his breath as much as he was, but he appeared unconcerned. Instead his attention was fixated firmly on the thermo binoculars and the image they revealed of the field to northeast. To the lone figure of Ensign Sted, slowly inching his way across the black dirt towards the farmhouse in the distance.

DDD reached over and tapped Chief Ogre on the chest, letting him know he could breath normally again. Den nodded and slowly let out the breath he had held before sucking in a new one as quietly as possible. Then he handed the binoculars to DDD and pointed between the two Binka trees they had stopped under.

"He's about a half a click downrange from here, just to the left of where I'm pointing," Den said in a whisper.

DDD adjusted his focus to the point Den was referring to. As the binoculars adjusted their focus to the proper range, DDD made out the prominent rows of vegimeal plantings. DDD swept the binoculars from side to side slightly, initially unable to pick out Grifter's prone form against the black dirt even with the thermal imager. Then he caught just a fraction of movement just for a second. It was enough.

"Tally-ho," DDD whispered. To his credit, Cole was difficult to spot. He had made it about a third of the way to the farmhouse. He was completely prone, inching his way along his stomach slower than a slog worm. His outline was broken up slightly by sprouts of vegimeal he had plucked along the way and affixed to his back. But nothing he did could make him disappear, and all it took was a little patience to spot a 1.7 meter tall humanoid crawling across nearly flat open ground, even at night. Which was why DDD and Den had to press on with their sweep.

"Let's go," DDD whispered as he handed the binoculars back to Den.

They had just made it past the stream themselves. After probing a little deeper into the forest, they had come back to the tree line so as to keep Grifter in sight. If he took any fire, it would be their job to backtrack the tracers to their origin and silence the shooters before they silenced Grifter. In another two hundred meters they would be at the far edge of the forest, at which time they could start back towards the stream and wait there. There was still a patch of forest further to the west that could present some concealment to any observers of the Agamar rebels, but the tree line was so thick that they would have to be right at the edge to be able to see anything, thus making themselves easier to spot. DDD and Den would wait just inside the tree line next to the stream and observe the far grove. And if any snakes did happen to raise their heads out of the grass, they wouldn't live long enough to regret it.

They continued their slow silent crawl towards the edge of the tree line, stopping every twenty meters to study what was ahead of them and to get a fix on Grifter's position on the field. Finally they reached the end of their crawl. Even with DDD's recent disability, he still had the mental concentration and dedication of the Jedi and the training of a Ranger. And every one of those senses told him they were alone in their little patch of forest. But human senses were still flawed, and without the Force to confirm those senses, DDD didn't completely trust them.

'Well, there is one way to know for sure,' DDD thought grimly. Turning to Den, he motioned for them to head back to the stream. As he did, he moved a little faster than he had before. And a little noisier. Den, not realizing DDD's plan at first, maintained his silent movement until DDD started to pull away from the slower moving Chief. Finally catching on, he half stood and hurried up to DDD's side.

"Trying to flush any out sir?" Den asked in a whisper. DDD nodded.

Den became a little nervous at that. He understood the concept. He also understood that if it was successful, it would make them targets, and that the enemy would more than likely get the first shot off. He tightened his grip on the repeater rifle he carried at the ready, feeling the comforting pressure of the stock dig into his shoulder. His breathing became sharper, faster. He could feel his heartbeat beating like a drum, thinking the accursed organ would surely paint him like a targeting laser.

DDD could sense the young Wraiths nervousness. It didn't take Jedi senses to know what the kid felt. He shared Den's nervousness. That never went away. No matter how much training his mind had in the Jedi arts, no matter how much combat he'd seen first hand, that fear never completely went away. You just swallowed it down and did your job. It was a simple and as hard as that.

"You know, your not the first Jedi I've met," Den's suddenly blurted out. The comment caught DDD off guard for a second. It was just so random. But he understood. Everyone coped with the pressure differently. Some people prayed. Some people drank. Some people simply froze up. Den talked.

"How many have you met?" DDD asked in return to ease his nerves a bit. It didn't matter as much now anyway. Their feet were making more noise than their hushed voices.

"Lots." Den replied. "Just after I signed my papers on enlistment, I was transferred to Dantoonie for operational specialty selection. Right after that they shipped me to the Rebel Star. Anyway, on Dantoonie there was a temple. Seemed like half the people there were Jedi. There must have been at least twenty of them, all walking around in their priest robes. I even got to see some of them sparring with their lightsabers. Now that was an awesome sight. I never dreamed I'd see so many Jedi," he concluded.

"Well, when things calm down a bit, if you decide to stay with us, Commander Celsen will probably send you to Yavin IV for Ranger training. You want to see Jedi, that's where to do it. Hundreds. Padawans to Masters. You can feel the presence from parsecs away, the mergence of so many bright souls. I remember the first time I went to Yavin. Being very Force sensitive, it almost made me dizzy, feeling such strong focus points, and so many of them. It was awe inspiring alright," DDD said with a touch of sadness to his voice.

Den paused for a few seconds before replying, mulling something over in his mind. Finally, he said, "Vuffi told me what the Empire did you to. I'm sorry." DDD just nodded. He was back in control of his feelings again. There wasn't any point in dwelling on what was and never would be again.

"Can I ask you a personal question sir?" Den queried sheepishly.

"Go ahead."

"What did it feel like? The Force I mean."

"Can't you feel it?"

The question surprised Den. "No sir," he answered, "I'm no Jedi. I have no Force sensitivity."

"Everyone is connected to the Force Den. Everything. And as such, everyone can touch it. Some can even perceive it, though they can never control it, or don't even know what it is they feel, but it's there nonetheless. The Force is not the domain of the Jedi Den. We didn't create it. We just see a little deeper into it than most. Even now, I know that I still exist in the Force, and that it still touches me in some way. I just can't perceive it anymore. But the knowledge that it's still there, and that one day, perhaps when I die, I will see it again, that gives me some peace of mind. As it should you, Chief Ogre."

Den considered DDD's words. "Well, how would I know, if I did feel it?"

DDD sighed as he searched for the words.

"Peace. Contentment. A sort of universal…honesty, stillness. Great power, but kind, beautiful. It's hard to put into words. Like touching heaven I suppose."

That answer surprised Den a little. "You believe in heaven sir?" he asked with incredulity.

"The answer to that question is irrelevant Den. You should ask yourself that question, and find your own answers. Believe it or not, it's not important. That you make up your own mind on it is."

Seeing that Den wasn't satisfied with that answer, DDD continued.

"Some Jedi, the more dogmatic of the order, believe the Force isn't a religion of it's own, but the extension of another higher plane. They liken being connected to the Force as seeing the face of God or Gods; it's countenance shining down upon you. If you believe in God or Gods that is. Most simply believe in the Force. "What was, was and what is, is," they would say. Even Jedi have philosophical debates in theocracy you see."

They traveled a little while longer in silence then, still scanning the area with weapon safeties off. Den's mind tried to wrap itself around what the Corellian Jedi had told him. In reality he hadn't answered his question, but even in the conflicting statements Den felt a certain truth to it. He wasn't a religious man himself, but he had always been curious. And if there was any proof of the possibility of a higher existence, the Force seemed as good an example as any. Well, aside from that whole 'Dark Side' dren.

Still, through it all, Den's mind returned to what the Empire had done to this wise, unassuming man. Some of the other Wraiths had said DDD had been an arrogant son of a bitch in his younger days, head strong and cocky. Den saw confidence, but he saw none of the other things. In their place he saw great sadness instead.

"Frell," Den finally said, "those bastards need to pay. I can't image how awful that must be for you."

DDD snorted. "The Jedi have done far worse to themselves in the past," he said coolly.

"What do you mean?"

DDD sighed. "There was a time when the Jedi had believed themselves more, and less, than what they were. An arrogant age, where Jedi had attempted to explain away the Force through science. As all sentient beings try to kill god, replacing it with the new God, one of 'science and reason'. Thus elevating themselves above the natural universe, as if explaining all things meant they were above that same universe that gave them life."

"Progress," DDD snorted. "Midi-chlorians became the new right of passage. Not honor, courage, or faith. Genetics. Parasites."

Well, the new dogma of 'science', of midi-chlorians, lead to one of the greatest revelations of all time for the Jedi, and the most costly mistake of arrogant presumption. Namely Darth Vader."

DDD paused at the accursed name, as if it tasted bitter on his tongue and he might spit it out, before he went on.

"Some believe the Great Purge did truly bring about balance to the Force after all. Some even believe that it was the price of the Jedi falling from grace, for the loss of their faith, and the rise of their arrogance."

"Either way, it took a new breed of Jedi, one without the dogmatic connection to the old Jedi Council, one not biased by the assertions of the past or present, to rebuild the Jedi and restore the hope of freedom for the future. One who cared, or didn't care, about science and God with equal measure. Luke Skywalker. A man who knew nothing of midi-chlorians, nothing of God, only of faith in the Force. Few ever admit to meeting him. Indeed, some have wondered if he ever actually even existed, or is simply a fable to be told to boost morale in the Alliance and give people hope. It doesn't matter, as long as you believe."

"Ensign Sted doesn't seem to believe to strongly," Den said after a few moments pause. DDD let out a little chuckle at that.

"You've got it all wrong Chief Ogre, Cole absolutely does believe in the Force," DDD explained, "though I'm not sure if he believes in heaven," he finished with a little smile.

"I've noticed him sir, especially when he's around a Jedi, or when someone talks about the Force. He seems almost…uncomfortable."

"I said he believed it, I didn't say he liked it," DDD said. "Cole is a good man, and your very astute to have noticed his reaction," DDD said with a complimentary nod. "He generally hides his feelings very well. The man has a hell of a poker face, one of the reasons he got the name 'Grifter' I bet."

"No, Cole's a good guy," DDD continued. "But at his core, he's a control freak. I've read his file. His life before he joined the Republic was tumultuous to say the least. I think that, because of that, he doesn't trust anything he isn't in total control over. He's also damned cynical. He's of the mind that, and I quote, 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' The sad part is, history has proven him more right than wrong."

DDD chuckled to himself once more as they neared the slight clearing that lead to the stream. "He said something to me once when we were on leave. I remember, it was shortly after I met him for the first time. Scythe, Porthos, Ice, Starfire, Brasidus, JC, Grifter, and myself were having a few drinks on a station outside of Corellia. Well, some of us were drinking anway. And damn was Grifter drinking. Anyway, in the middle of a conversation about some new hologame system that Ice and Starfire were interested in, Grifter bursts out and asks the Jedi at the table 'Where the frell did you all come from anway?' I mean, it was just so damned random it was funny. But he was serious. He said something like 'You people are supposed to be this rare breed, like good imported Kessel spice cigars, and yet here you all are. A whole frelling lot of you. So where did you all come from. Did the universe just decide to poop a few hundred of you out the last generation or two? Why? I know, it's a conspiracy to give me an brain tumor.' Well, I guess you had to be there." DDD finished.

"He is something of a conspiracy buff anyway. He always says it doesn't make sense, that we were one or two life forms away from extinction, and now there's more Jedi and Sith than there ever were during the heyday of the Old Republic."

"He has a point," Den said after some reflection.

DDD nodded. "He usually does, if you look hard enough." It was something that had been brought up by the current Jedi Council. It was odd, the way extremely Force sensitive life forms seemed to be popping up everywhere. It had been suggested that a study be done to try to find the cause, but that idea had been scrapped. Perhaps the arrogance survived extinction too.

"He's almost there," Den chimed in after looking through his binoculars. DDD removed his own and checked. Again it took a few seconds to actually find him, but sure enough, there he was. Grifter was less than one hundred meters from the edge of the field now.

DDD looked around into the forest behind them, and then checked the stream a few meters ahead of them on the other side of the tree line. Finally he scanned the far western tree line again. "Ok," he finally said. "We made enough noise to wake the dead. I think it's safe to say we're alone here. Let's stay here till he makes into the house, keep an eye on those far trees, see if he gets Hatcher to send a patrol to get us. If not, we'll signal him, let him know we're coming down the stream like he said."

"Yessir," was Den's reply as he set himself up. He placed his binoculars on a small Binka tree sapling, wedging them into a branch so he had a good hands free view of the western tree line. He then went prone, pulling his repeater rifle in close to his body as he sighted in the nearest grove. DDD did the same to Den's right, sighting his rifle in on the farther reaches of the tree line.

"Shouldn't be much longer," he said.

"Fine by me sir," Den replied. "I'd like to get back to the Black Cloud ASAP. Take a shower; get some hot food and clean clothes, though not necessarily in that order of course. I also thought about touring the ship; see if I can find this secret stash of strippers that the others were talking about. Me, I think it's a load of dren. Another 'FNG' joke, like the Agamarians having 'hole's in their heads'. No way would Fleet let us keep a brothel onboard a War Frigate."

DDD cracked into a big smile at that. "Den, there are some advantages to working spec…." DDD trailed off. A steely expression came over his face just then.

Den returned his attention to his rifle as he looked through the sights down range. Seeing nothing, he checked the binoculars. Still nothing. "What is it?" he finally asked.

"Did you hear that?" DDD asked.

"No," Den said with some concern. "What did you hear?"

DDD thought about it. "A power cell recirculating maybe, very low frequency, very feint."

Den refocused on the far tree line as he reached behind him and pulled a thermal detonator from his pack. "Where?" he asked with renewed strength in his voice.

DDD paused before answering. Then a more serious look crossed his face.

"Behind us."

Almost a kilometer away, Grifter was just finishing his long, tiring slow crawl across the dark soil of the planting field. 'About damned time,' he thought. 'Frelling ground smells like Wongtam took a dump on the whole thing.' The realization that he had in fact been crawling through five hundred meters of fertilizer was not a pleasant one.

Trying not to gag at the thought, Cole raised his head ever so slightly. He was within stones throwing distance of the Silo now. He could see one of the farmers light up a spice stick and inhale the blue smoke. The sight brought on a severe craving in Grifter, which he pushed aside. He was working after all.

'Well, if they didn't know I was hear before, they're going to find out now,' he thought. Slinging his repeater over his shoulder to appear less threatening, he slowly raised up his body and put his hands at shoulder level. The movement caught the eye of the farmer puffing on his cigarette. Startled, he dropped the burning spice and leveled the Imperial Blaster Carbine he carried at Cole's chest. A second farmer to his left followed his compatriots movement with seemingly little interest or shock, though his blaster carbine had been at the ready the entire time.

"Shoda! Shoda! Coreensata!" the first farmer barked out. Grifter struggled to translate the order in his head. Agamarians spoke Basic for the most part, but in the more rural regions like this one, several other languages and dialects had sprung up as well. Grifter recognized the statement as being the Basic equivalent of "Halt! Who goes there!" but like any language, some of the more colorful meanings were lost in the translation. A more accurate translation of the farmers outburst would be "Move and I'll blow your frelling head off!"

"Domo, istagrrrrl…ahh…coreennoto, domo domo. Frell…ahh…Alliance foldeasta," Cole struggled to explain in broken Agadis.

"Domo," the calm farmer repeated for Cole. Roughly translated it meant 'friend'. With his left arm he eased down the nervous farmers carbine, yet at the same time kept his own carbine trained on Grifter.

Turning back to Grifter, the lead farmer motioned for Cole to come forward. "You, here, come. You hurry, now."

Cole took his meaning and ran the last thirty meters to the side of the Silo. Nodding at the lead farmer, Grifter then cracked a toothy grin at his nervous partner. The headman had obviously noticed Grifter approaching at some point, but his partner had been caught completely off guard. 'Your ass would have been mine numb nuts,' was Cole's unspoken message. The lead farmer obviously caught Grifter's meaning as he shared his smile, looking sideways at his unobservant partner. The little one, not quite completely understanding, gave a nervous half smile of his own.

Pointing to himself, the lead man spoke to Grifter. "Me, you, go number one big boss man." Grifter nodded in reply.

At that, the farmer turned and headed at a brisk run along the shadows of the silo to the main house, Grifter close at his heals. As they approached, the two sentries at the door noticed their comrade approaching with the visitor in tow. Quickly they opened the door. Without breaking stride, the farmer and Grifter ran through the door. The two sentries closed the door as quickly as they opened it.

Once inside, Grifter catalogued what he saw before him. His estimate of the head count was just about right. There were 23 farmers scattered around the large living room and kitchen of the house. Each had stopped whatever activity they were doing to gaze at the newcomer. All were human, mostly male, though Cole picked out five women carrying blasters of some sort among the crowd. All were armed with some kind of weapon. Most carried more of the Imperial carbines that all of sentries had carried. A few had old Longtech projectile rifles lying against the wall next to them where they sat. Many more had simple hand blasters resting in holsters on their hips or under their shoulders. The majority of them were dressed in some kind of worker garb, the mostly earthen tones blending into the light brown painted duracrete walls and Binka wood paneling. A few wore various casual dress, though nothing too colorful or flashy. If not for all the hardware exposed, it might have looked like a simple town meeting of some sort. Grifter could imagine this exact same group, looking just as they did, gathered together for a game of sabacc or to discuss water rights.

A group of the farmers was huddled in the kitchen, most smoking some spice, looking after a pot of Hoska stew that smelled especially good right now. Grifter cautiously walked over to this group and motioned to the nearest one smoking, a young dark haired farmer in a brown work coat not much older than 17. The kid gave Cole a quizzical look. Cole put the fingers of his left hand to his lips in signal. Nodding in understanding, the young man smiled as he handed Grifter his burning cigarette. Cole took a long drag of the spice, blowing out the blue smoke in a long plume.

Cole took the cigarette from his mouth and offered it back to the kid. The young man was about to take it back when his nose crinkled up and he took a long whiff of Grifter and his fertilizer smeared ranger suit. The teenager grimaced and waved it off, motioning for Grifter to keep the cigarette, and to move away.

Cole let out a good laugh at that. "Gres." he said in Agadis, meaning 'thanks'.

"You'll find most of us speak Basic very well, Mister…"

Cole turned to see a man at the back of the living room coming closer. Almost two meters tall, he towered above the rest of the Agamarians. He was thick and muscular, with a slight bulge of the gut from age that did not diminish from the obvious strength of his shoulders. He wore faded black pants and a brown sweater. His thinning hair was almost buzz cut short, emphasizing his piercing steel gray eyes. In his mid fifties or so, he carried a repeater rifle similar to Cole's own. As he approached, he extended his right hand in greeting. Cole had recognized him from the intelligence briefing when he had first entered the room, but knew it would be more proper for Mr. Hatcher to reveal himself.

Cole met Hatcher's outstretched hand with his own and firmly shook the hand of the farmer/freedom fighter who had almost single handedly organized one of the most effective resistance cells against the Empire in history.

"Cole Sted, Wraith Squadron, it's a pleasure to finally meet you Mister Hatcher."

"Please, call me Tenas. I get called Mister Hatcher all day, it would be nice for a change, though I must admit, I would be much happier if one of those ladies over there would call me Tenas," he said with a wink to the nearest woman. She smiled back at him, still carrying the blaster at her hip.

"Ok, Tenas," Cole agreed, "before we get to business, I've got two men out there that sure could use some of that stew. I'd like to take a few of your people and guide them in if you don't mind. I would have had them hook up with one of your patrols.."

"But we aren't sending out any," Tenas finished in understanding. "My apologies Mister Sted, I was away. I had to make a trip to help a friend in Tondatha move out of the city. He was being audited by the tariff agency, supposedly because he was delinquent, but I know it was really because he was helping me. I left my son Reth in charge. He's young and inexperienced."

Cole motioned to Tenas and had him follow over to a corner. "Your group always fall apart when you're away?" he whispered.

If Tenas was offended by the statement, he didn't show it. Instead he nodded solemnly, some pain evident in his eyes. "I'm not being arrogant when I say that I hold these people together. Between my family name and my experience, they all look to me to lead. It's a burden that I'm afraid I have bared alone for some time, and with out much relief. I've tried to teach the others to be more independent, but I've no training in such things Mister Sted. We were lucky that the Empire didn't consider us a threat. That, plus our intimate knowledge of this land let us move about without being noticed. We're not great tacticians Mister Sted. We were just angry farmers that got lucky. And as such, I'm afraid I don't know how to teach others to be that which I am not myself."

Grifter nodded. It would make their mission a little harder perhaps, but they could use Tenas's reputation. The fact that these people had not all been killed and had managed to be as effective as they were meant they were more than just lucky, they had some good instincts, and if his appraisal of Tenas was accurate, good leadership at the top. But no one in between. That would have to change, among other things.

Tenas motioned to a group of ten farmers. "Ekly, take File and the rest out to the tree's, find Mister Sted's comrades."

"They'll be coming in by way of the stream," Cole mentioned to Tenas. He was surprised to see most of the others nod in acknowledgement.

"How many speak Basic exactly?"

"All but six speak some. The majority are fluent. The rest know enough to get by. Everybody at least speaks Basic or Agadis fluently. Three of them speak Twi'lek, Noral over there speaks Rodian as his first language believe it or not."

Grifter nodded and took another drag of the spice. Just as the ten farmers were forming up, Cole's comlink shrieked with noise. Grifter tore the privacy piece from his ear in pain. "SITHSPAWN!"

Instantly Grifter unslung the repeater rifle from his shoulder and brought it to the ready. He locked his gaze at the first of the ten farmers that were grouping together and motioned to him. "You! You speak Basic?!"

"Yes mista," he replied.

"You're my guide! The rest of you with me, now!" he said in a heated voice, stabbing at them with his finger. He spun around towards Tenas.

"Hatcher, get your people up and man any defensive positions you have!" he barked as he spun around again and ran for the door, hurriedly motioning for the ten farmers to join him.

"What's wrong? What did you hear?" one of the farmers asked.

Grifter paused just long enough to turn and fix a deadly stare on him.