Path to Glory:
Wraith Squadron

Part 6

The home of Tenas Hatcher, Agamar…

Commander (and reportedly General Select) Niarb 'Wongtam' Mathem looked at the bowl of Hoska stew sitting before him with suspicion. As he smelled the aroma of the meaty broth, his chin tendrils wiggled in the Mon Calamari version of a grimace. His left eye focused on the human female that had labored to bring him this version of food. She smiled, her tiny human eyes twinkling in anticipation as she motioned for him to begin eating.

Wongtam had spent enough time among humans to know that she would be considered attractive among her own species. Niarb personally didn't get it though. Her eyes were entirely too small. Her skin was so soft and pale, with no tendrils of any prominence. And her forehead! So square and flat, with all that red fur protruding from it. At least her breasts seemed large and firm enough. He wondered if she was a buoyant as she appeared. He wouldn't mind swimming through the Trallet Reefs with those breasts, so long as the rest of her was properly covered. She was just so…human.

"Go ahead Mista Mathem," she politely prodded, "eat up! Put some hair on that chest of yours!" she finished with a giggle. 'Oh, wonderful,' Wongtam thought.

Tenas Hatcher, sitting across from Commander Mathem at the long wooden dinning table, raised a hand in protest. "Now don't pressure out guest Bede. He might not be used to cooking as fine as yours." He turned to face Wongtam. "Here Commander, I wouldn't want you to get a case of Agamar's Revenge now. I'll just take that there, no sense in it going to waste,' Tenas said with a wink as he reached for Niarb's bowl.

Which prompted Bede to reach over the table and smack Tenas on the back of his knuckles with her spoon. "Ouch!" Tenas protested.

"Tenas Hatcher, you have had your fill already and you darn well know it! Why you keep eating the way you do and pretty soon you won't be nearly as handsome and sexy darling," Bede concluded with a smile. Tenas returned her smile with a new one of his own.

"No, no, it is quite alright," Wongtam chipped in with his gravelly voice. "It smells wonderful, I was just…prolonging the sensation." Fortunately neither human seemed familiar with Mon Calamari expressions, otherwise they might have known he was talking out of his gills. 'Better suck it down before the human pheromones make me more queasy than the soup,' he thought with a chill.

Cautiously Wongtam raised the bowl to his mouth opening, nodding to the two humans before taking a small sip of the pungent stew. As Wongtam swallowed the stew down, his body shook. He removed the bowl from his mouth and studied it with his right eye, as if it had magically turned into something else. His chin tendrils quivered as he returned the bowl to his mouth and greedily sucked the remaining stew down. Tenas and Bede watched with plastic smiles and arched eyebrows as the slurring noise rose to a crescendo, culminating in a loud smacking sound, then a large…burp? The two humans exchanged a sidelong glance at each other. 'Takes all kinds,' was Tenas's thought.

"That was truly excellent! Miss Bede, I have not tasted anything like that since I scrapped barnacles off the carcass of a Grubber fish! My compliments to you mam," he said with the Mon Calamari version of a smile.

"Ah…sure Commander," she replied, still fighting back her own wave of nausea, "glad you liked it. Would you…care for another?" she asked timidly, afraid of the answer. 'Next time I'll stay in the kitchen when aliens are eating,' she promised herself.

"Oh yes! Please!"

Bede nodded solemnly and rose to head to the kitchen. Tenas chuckled under his breath and gave her arm a slight squeeze as she left. "I'll be in to do the dishes in a little while. The Commander and I have things to discuss first."

"You better!" Bede said. "That lazy bum Sacris almost didn't wash a single dish while you were gone. Did you know that that nerf lover actually tried to tell me that the kitchen was a place for the women?! This after I just got back from three hours of sentry duty!"

"So is that why his nose was mysteriously broken when I returned?" Hatcher asked with suspicion.

"Well, he's washing dishes now isn't he?" she said with a grin. Almost as if to emphasize her point, she removed the DL-18 BlasTech blaster that had been strapped on her waist. Placing it on the kitchen counter within easy reach, she started preparing Wongtam another bowl of the Hoska stew.

"She really is a fine cook sir," Wongtam reiterated.

"And a damn fine fighter too," Tenas said. "She'll make a good leader in one of your squads."

"We will be sure to treat her as a very capable lady," Wongtam assured.

Tenas nodded. He turned to look at her form in the kitchen, her red hair catching the midday sun streaming through the kitchen view port. "I've often wondered why she didn't choose one of the younger men, why she would want to be around an old fart like me." He turned back to Wongtam and winked. "But I guess I should just shut up and count myself lucky."

Wongtam fought back another wave of nausea at the image of the two humans making hatchlings in the water. The stew was too good to waste. Instead he focused his attention once again on the image of Bede's breasts. 'If only I could find those on a species more attractive,' he thought for what seemed the hundredth time since leaving Mon Cal. Though that wasn't quite fair. He'd had more than his share of swimming while he was home.

"How is the young one?" Wongtam asked as both a way to rid his mind of the offending images and refocus the discussion on the mission.

"Vallen will be fine. He was the lucky. More so than Yul, Hirg, or Frank. Good men…" Tenas trailed off with a shake of his head.

"The bacta patches your squad mates provided surely did help," he went on. "I know that must have cost them dearly. Bacta is at an all time high in price these days. We can barely import it anymore."

"Well, they are not nearly as effective as pure bacta. The design of the compress is necessarily diluted to make them portable and somewhat disposable. However, they still have remarkable healing properties considering their weakness. And the painkillers infused in them are quiet…popular," Wongtam explained.

"Well, we appreciate it," Tenas repeated. "How is your comrade?"

"Doing better I am sure," Wongtam responded. "He was shipped immediately to the Avery, our medical Frigate. I am sure he is getting exemplary care. Mister Sted will make sure of that."

"I see," said Tenas. "Where is Mister Sted anyway? I was expecting him back to finish our talks. Seems like I was only able to speak with him for ten minutes after the battle when he left suddenly. I must admit, Commander, no offense, I was surprised to hear it would be you who was staying instead."

"None taken," Wongtam said with a wave of his hand. "Originally there would have been no presence here by us at all until after the Task Force had 'officially' entered the system. However, with the unpleasantness and the necessity of evacuating Mister Ogre straight to the Avery, our presence here became much more high profile than High Command had intended. I was assigned to stay in case someone else tried to overrun your domicile."

"Well, again, I'm sure glad to have you," Tenas said. "And Mister Sted?" he asked again.

"Mister Sted is…occupied," Wongtam said in his gravelly voice.

Republic Star Destroyer Class II(refit) 'Emancipator', Saber/Defender Task Force Head Quarters, just outside the Agamarian system…

Grifter paced back and forth outside of Admiral Starfire's temporary office. The protocol droid receptionist once again asked if he would like to have a seat.

"No," Grifter said coldly.

"Very well sir. May I interest you in a holopad?" the silver PO unit asked in a disturbingly polite tone.

"No," he replied again.

"Perhaps a some refreshments?"

"No," Grifter repeated tiredly.

"Would you care for a more comfortable chair? If the sofa is not to your liking, I am sure I could find one that was more agreeable to you." it said again with a glimmer of hope.


"Perhaps I could interest the sir in a shower and a change of uniform," the droid persisted with a touch of condescension in its voice. Grifter was still dressed in the mud and blood stained Ranger suit he wore on Agamar. After they left orbit, Grifter and DDD had been ordered directly to the Emancipator without explanation, though one was not really required. Cole hadn't even had time to change cloths, instead settling for a spray hose in the hazard disposal section of the flight deck. The stench of fertilizer was still slightly perceptible on him. Grifter had almost enjoyed the looks he received from the crew of the Emancipator as he made his way through it's pristine decks to the temporary office of the Commander of the 2nd Wing of the Alliance Navy.

Grifter turned to lean over the receptionist desk. His face was mere inches from the droids as he fixed a menacing scowl on the glorified doorbell. The look and proximity of Grifter's face caused the droid to lean back a few more inches. "No," he finally said in a growl. The droid didn't say another word about it. 'Of all the things the Admiral had to bring over from the Liberator, why oh why did he bring these?' Grifter thought to himself.

Grifter tried to divert his attention from the annoying tin can, and the storm that waited for him beyond the white double doors leading to the Admirals inner office, by once again studying the décor of the reception area. Most of the artwork and furniture he recognized from the Admiral's office aboard the Libby. It was in direct contrast to the decoration of the rest of the ship, lavish by comparison, as was befitting an Admiral of the Republic. It seemed to be a right of passage for the high and mighty Mucky Mucks. He knew Star well enough to know he didn't really deserve such a comparison, but the trappings of his office still surrounded him. Even Pallos decorated his office a little aboard the Emancipator, though his style was much more Spartan and functional than Starfire's.

Indeed, the contrast held throughout the two ships. Both were captured ImpStar Deuces, slightly reorganized and refitted by Republic shipyards on Mon Cal and Sullust. Both had basically the same firepower and capabilities, and externally looked identical. But there the similarities ended.

The Emancipator was Spartan in nature, looking almost as if it had come straight out of the Kuat Drive Yards and rushed into Imperial service. Other than the change of insignia and a few restructurings, it was nearly identical to its Imperial siblings. There was little to no frivolities, no unnecessary pleasantness. It was a ship of war, period.

The Liberator, on the other had, was quite a different matter. Throughout most of the major areas of the ship personal touches in decoration could be seen. More fluidic, organic forms had replaced most of the stark and angular Imperial architecture. It was a far more inviting ship. While that may have seemed odd for a battleship, it did still serve a purpose. In the absence of a full Ambassador, often Admiral Starfire and his support staff would have to act as a diplomatic section, making contact with sovereign nations and planets wishing to join the Alliance, as they were on this mission. Such negotiations often took place right aboard the Liberator, and as such it was decorated in such a way as to try to make any diplomatic guest forget that it did in fact have the firepower to completely wipe out their civilization if they wished. Only the bridge, combat information center, and engineering decks maintained their purely functional look, and even they had a slight make over. It usually did succeed in making negotiations go more smoothly.

Unfortunately the Liberator was still in spacedock orbiting Mon Cal. It had taken severe damage during the recent deep space battle and wouldn't be available for this or any other mission for some time. So, in the mean time, Starfire and his staff had to be content to decorate their own little corner of their new temporary home on the 'Big E'.

Grifter lit up a new stick of spice he had purchased from the ship exchange on his way up. He puffed absentmindedly on the foul crutch as he studied a framed holograph on the far bulkhead. "Excuse me sir, but there is no smoking in the Admirals office," the protocol droid chimed in, interrupting Grifter's line of thought.

"When was the last time you had a memory wipe?" Grifter asked in a threatening manner.

"The Admiral does not believe in wiping a droids memory sir. My conscious has remained intact ever since I came into the Admirals employ," the droid explained with obvious gratitude.

"That explains a few things," Grifter grunted.

Ignoring the 'talking doorbell', Grifter studied the colorful composition. It was a lovely depiction of some alien vista. A vibrant wooded mountain range at night, sparkling stars and a particularly bright and colorful nebula visible over the horizon, casting their light down upon a solitary structure in the foreground of the mountain range. Some kind of house made of indeterminable materials. It seemed to capture the feint glow of the stars and nebula sky over head like a black mirror. The lines of shadow and the vibrant light were captivating. Cole couldn't tell if this was an actual holograph of a real place or simply and artists imaginative creation. All he could be sure of is that he would very much like to go to such a place. 'The Admiral's got good taste,' Cole thought with a nod as he continued with his nasty addiction.

"Sir, please, there is no smoking in here," the protocol droid repeated. Cole trotted over to the receptionist desk once again.

"What's your designation again?" Grifter asked.

"My name, sir, is B9PO," the droid responded with some semblance of pride.

"Well, Niner. May I call you Niner? Anway, Niner, there is something you could do for me after all."

"Oh, what sir?" the silver droid asked with genuine excitement at the prospect of being of service to the slightly obnoxious human.

"Stick out your right hand, palm up please."

Puzzled, but still exciting about the prospect of service, and of the humans use of the word 'please', B9PO did exactly as Grifter asked. At which time Grifter stubbed out the last of his spice in the droids open hand, and then closed its metal fingers around the smoldering trash. "Take care of that for me," Grifter said.

"Now really sir!" B9PO said in protest.

"Ensign Sted," Grifter heard from his rear. "If I ever catch you molesting one of my droids in any way ever again, I'll have you put on latrine duty on the Dagger's Valor, understood?"

Cole turned around to see Starfire and DDD standing in the now open hatchway to the interior office. DDD was barely containing a smirk. One look from Starfire in his direction erased that smirk. 'Must have been rough,' Grifter thought. Starfire was not smiling.

The Admiral had quite a reputation in Saber Wing. He was young for his position, but had worked his way up the ranks rapidly through dedication, courage, and skill. Some said he felt kind of trapped by his new desk job, but he still managed to get out and mix it up with the troops once and awhile, much more than most other flag officers in the Fleet. He was known to have a good sense of humor about most things and was generally well liked by the rank and file under his command. Cole had worked with him a few times in the past, usually as part of a mixed unit combat air patrol or a high level strategic recon mission for the intelligence branch. He had even spent some time with him on leave once or twice, when most of the hardcore Saber veterans got together and tore up what ever local establishment that happened to be blessed with their presence. Cole liked him a lot, even if he was an Admiral, and reportedly a powerful Jedi to boot. Generally that would be a lethal mix for Cole, but Starfire always seemed to have a smile on his face, even with everything they had been through. This time he did not though.

"Yessir," Cole replied as he came to attention. "Ensign Sted reporting as ordered sir."

Instead of putting him at ease, Starfire left Grifter locked at attention while he dismissed DDD. Finally Star motioned for him to relax and enter his office. As the Admiral walked back to his desk, Grifter spoke briefly with DDD.

"Are the guns cocked?" he asked the Sub Lieutenant. DDD just gave Grifter a distant look and patted him on the shoulder.

"Keep your chin up and your shoulders back Grif, tell 'em what you know and what you think. It's all you can do. If they've made up their minds, then they've made up their minds. Don't let it get you down," he finished with a downward glance of his own.

Grifter watched DDD move towards the outer hatchway with slightly slumped shoulders. "See you back on ship Exec," Grifter called after him, throwing in a little three-fingered salute for good measure. DDD cocked his head in acknowledgement and disappeared through the closing hatchway.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Cole whispered.

As Grifter entered the inner chamber, his uneasiness intensified. To his left he saw Commander Celsen and Commodore Brahm, or Lasombra, or whatever his name was now, sitting in a comfortable nerf hide couch looking anything but comfortable. Standing next to Starfire's large desk in the center of the room was Fleet Admiral Sigi, dressed in immaculately in his full formal Class A dress uniform. As Starfire returned to his high backed swivel chair behind his desk, Grifter noticed the Admirals dress uniform set out on a clothing rack as well. So many high-ranking officers in full dress uniform in the same room at the same time could not be a good thing. Not with the expressions they all had. Grifter fought back the feeling of being trapped as the double hatches swished closed behind him.

Sigi seemed to take charge and offered Cole a seat in the middle of the room. "Thank you sir," Grifter said through pursed lips as he took the chair. He resisted the urge to squeeze the armrests.

Everyone remained silent for a few moments. Grifter glanced over at Scythe and Pallos and tipped his head at the senior Wraiths in greeting. Both gave Cole an uneasy smile that did little to lighten his mood. The Fleet Admiral moved to the front of Starfire's desk, obviously taking responsibility for this debriefing, or whatever it was. He seemed to feign interest in his ornate cufflinks, organizing his thoughts. Finally he looked Cole in the eye.

"Ensign Sted, first of all I'd like to say how glad we all are that you and your team made it out off of Agamar in one piece, well, mostly one piece anyway," he said. Grifter couldn't be sure if he detected sarcasm or accusation in the Admirals voice or not.

"We've already debriefed Sub Lieutenant DDD on his actions and his take on what transpired at the Hatcher camp. His review of your tactics in the engagement was…complimentary," he continued with a cant of his head.

"However, I'm not so much concerned with your actions during the encounter as to your actions leading up to it. Simply said, Ensign, what did you do wrong?"

Cole blinked. The question, though somewhat expected, still managed to catch him off guard. It was asked so matter-of-factly, almost kindly, yet with a definite edge of judgment. Not 'what went wrong', 'how did things go wrong', but 'what did YOU do wrong'. Cole began to squeeze the armrests despite himself.

"Sir," Grifter began solemnly, "while I regret the incident, I've thought about it quite extensively, and I believe that my actions and tactics from the moment we launched from the Black Cloud were sound and justified considering the parameters of the mission, sir," he finished. Grifter made sure to stress that last part.

"I see," Sigi said. "So, three allied personnel dead, three more wounded, including your own Chief Ogre, plus the revelation of our position and our ties with the Agamarian rebels to forces as yet unknown, including the legal Agamarian government, the very thing we wanted to avoid, you'd say this was a…job well done?" he asked with an exaggerated wave of his hand.

Grifter's knuckles began to go white with the pressure he exerted on the chair. "Sir," he began again with a little more emphasis on the word, "I respectfully suggest that not all variables were in my control. I did not ask for my men to come under attack. I had little control over that; all I could do was react. As far as knowledge of our presence, all enemy troops were either killed or captured, though I cannot verify whether or not they were in communication with anyone else," he conceded. "It is entirely possible that they revealed our presence and position to other enemy units, which is why I believe Lieutenant Commander Celsen ordered Commander Mathem to remain on Agamar with a security detail."

"That order came from this office," Starfire interrupted with a pained expression. Cole was caught quite surprised by that revelation. He turned to look at Derek. The Wraith commanding officer nodded in confirmation, his lips set in a hard line. Grifter filed the revelation as important and pushed it to the back of his brain for now.

"As far as our exit from the planet," Cole went on, "we followed our op order. It is doubtful that our Awings were detected until they were already outside the orbit of Agamar's moon. We did not leave my means of the magnetic polar region because I believed that the journey along the surface of Agamar would have been an even greater risk to detection than doing a straight burn out of the atmosphere. That and the fact of Chief Ogre's injuries lead Sub Lieutenant DDD and myself to the conclusion that returning to the Black Cloud ASAP was the most prudent course of action."

"In fact it was the Sub Lieutenant that ordered the actual departure at that time, after your little discussion on it, was it not?" Sigi asked. Grifter nodded.

"Yessir, by that time I had relinquished operational authority to DDD."

"Why? You were still within your parameters as leader of Third Flight of Wraith Squadron; your mission to Agamar also gave you authority over tactical considerations. If you have such confidence in your command decisions on Agamar, why did you transfer command? Could it be that you were ashamed of your performance?"

His final question came like a hammer drop on Cole's chest. He could hear Scythe rise from his seat behind him. "Now wait just a damned minute!" the Wraith commander spat out. Pallos grabbed at the Corellians arm, using his enhanced symbiotic strength to pull him back down to the couch, his good eye showing great concern and wincing in an unspoken warning of some sort.

Grifter knew something more was going on here. Sigi's questions weren't only hard; they were inflammatory, quite unlike his reputation as a fair commander and cool customer. Normally Pallos would have jumped up right with Scythe when it came to defending one of their pilots. Instead here he was restraining Derek. And Derek was allowing himself to be restrained! Scythe was an unholy terror when his ire was raised, especially when one of his own was challenged. Yet now he was sitting back down, seething to be sure, but otherwise silent. And through it all Starfire just sat at his desk, absentmindedly rubbing the small scar over his left eye while he looked with a sad, grim expression at a hologram of his lovely wife sitting on the corner of his desk.

Grifter cleared his throat, pushing away the desire for some spice. He consciously willed his hands to release their death grip on the armchair. He was walking through some kind of political mine field it seemed, clear and calm thought was needed now.

"My mission was for all intents and purposes complete when I made contact with Mr. Hatcher, Admiral," he explained. "After we had defeated the attackers, the mission became more complex, politically speaking. I felt that, with the obvious potential ramifications towards Republic relations with the Agamarian government, a more politically astute individual would be a wiser choice as recognized leader of the mission should we be intercepted by Agamarian military patrols. Sub Lieutenant DDD is not only the recognized Executive Officer of the 131st, he has slightly more experience in dealing with non-aligned governments and carries about a certain stature as a former Jedi Knight that I could not hope to emulate in any official dealings with the Agamarians, sir," Cole finished.

Sigi and Starfire exchanged a split second surprised look at each other at the answer. Grifter heard Scythe pump his fist once in exclamation behind him, as if Grifter had suddenly found the cure to the Dark Side. Pallos remained silent, though his expressions were becoming harder and harder to read lately. As Sigi looked back at him, Grifter thought that for a second, for just a split second, he saw a relieved smile touch his face. But as soon as it had come it was gone, replaced with the mask of disapproval he'd been wearing during the whole debriefing.

"Perhaps if you had handled yourself properly during the first part of the mission you would not have had to place Sub Lieutenant in such an awkward position. Perhaps if you had proceeded straight to the house as ordered, and not left your team at the mercy of a squad of attacking troops, we would not be having this conversation."

"Your right sir, because I would either still be trapped on Agamar or I'd be dead," Grifter retorted, for the first time letting a touch of anger creep into his voice. "I left the Lieutenant and the Chief behind because I knew that if there was an enemy force in the AO that we'd either be cut to pieces crossing that field or trapped in the house with Tenas's people. That open field was a deathtrap sir. If DDD and Den hadn't occupied there attention so well for those first crucial minutes, the enemy could have set up a quite lovely killing zone from the tree line, cutting off our avenue of escape back to the landing zone. I would have had to call Commander Wongtam's team to come and engage the enemy, endangering their lives on my mission. Furthermore, I was on a strict time table, given to me by others high up in Fleet Command with unreasonable expectations and a general lack of understanding of the operations of a special warfare unit," he finished with an accusing stare aimed right back at the Fleet Admiral.

"Why did you not properly recon the Area of Operation then?" Sigi pressed on.

"I refer to my previous answer of unreasonable and uninformed time tables, sir" Grifter responded coolly.

"Are you blaming your failures on the command decisions of this office?" Sigi retorted with venom.

"That's frelling it!" Scythe yelled as he jumped up again, this time shrugging off Pallos and his outstretched arm. "He made contact with Tenas, he made a good impression on the man. He killed or captured an entire enemy squad using a bunch of farmers he'd never even met before. He managed to capture two enemy agents and several weapons and other pieces of intelligence. And he saved the lives of two of his squadmates. I will not have you grilling him like this anymore."

"Power down Commander, your in enough hot water as it is," Sigi retorted. Grifter's jaw dropped an inch at the revelation that Scythe was in some kind of trouble, and at the open hostility between the two legends of the Alliance. Each squared their jaw and looked each other down as if they might strike each other at any moment.

"That's enough," Starfire suddenly jumped in. Rubbing his dark hair back into it's Jedi priest style ponytail, he rose and walked to the front of his desk, the non-regulation hair length falling down his back (the Jedi always got away with bending the uniform rules just a little). He leaned against the dark rich wood panel as he stole another gaze at the picture of his wife, tapping his lightsaber in an action that those who knew him signified his intense displeasure. Starfire's internal anger never manifested itself externally though, he never screamed or shouted. He instead spoke in even tones and almost fatherly inflections that spoke volumes and could shake a man to his soul far easier than an enraged diatribe ever could.

"You two are making my job much harder than it has to be. I don't appreciate it, not one bit," he spoke evenly to the two sparring Sabers. The two seemed to part slightly as he addressed Grifter directly.

"Your dismissed now Cole. Go get a shower and something hot to eat, I'm sorry we kept you for this dren," he said in a kind tone. His face was almost that of a stepfather that had seen his adopted son suffer some trauma, yet was proud that he had borne the injury like a man.

Grifter stood reluctantly, still confused slightly by what was going on. He stole a glance over at Fleet Admiral Sigi and was genuinely surprised to see not the accusing expression of earlier, but instead one of sincere apology. He came to attention and saluted Starfire and asked to take his leave, at which Starfire returned his salute, and then gave Cole a pat on his right shoulder. Cole nodded and turned to Scythe and Pallos. He gave Scythe a curious look, silently asking what was wrong with his mentor and friend. Again only that slightly pained look gave any answer. 'Oh well,' Cole thought, 'I'll find out one way or the other, even if I have torture it out of that talking doorbell outside.'

"See you the Cloud boss," he said with a half smile. Scythe inexplicably grimaced at the mention of the Black Cloud frigate.

"The Black Cloud has been sent back to Mon Cal, Ensign," Starfire offered as his second revelation. "You'll find all your personal belongings and squadron equipment and personnel have been transferred to the Emancipator temporarily. I'm sorry for any confusion, it will be temporary."

Grifter opened his mouth, searching for a proper question to ask, when Starfire interrupted him with a wave of his hand. "Your dismissed Ensign," he said again as means to push Grifter out the door.

Cole silently turned and walked through the sliding double hatch doors, stopping immediately on the other side as they slid closed inches behind his still, rigid form.

Cole just stood there for almost a minute, trying to process all the conflicting thoughts that raced through his mind. Finally he just closed his eyes and shook his head.

"I've got a very bad feeling about this," he said as he walked to find his quarters and a hot shower.

"I hate this job sometimes," Sigi exhaled as Grifter left the office.

"But you do it so well," Scythe offered with a tinge of ice to his voice.

"Switch off, Derek," Sigi retorted. "I didn't like grilling the kid anymore than you did. But those are the exact same questions and doubts that Mep and the Cabinet are going to have. If the Agamarian government does learn they we've made official contact with the rebels, there is going to be hell to pay and heads to role. Including that of young Ensign Sted if he isn't prepared properly."

"You did more than act a part, you were the part," Celsen pressed on.

"Commander, I have no interest in continuing this contest with you," Sigi fired back. "Like it or not, this mission is as much a political exercise as a military one. If we're to try to 'emulate' Wraith procedures as you and Pallos have suggested on a Wing level, then we need to know if those tactics, and people, will hold up under the intense scrutiny of the President. And he doesn't exactly like you or your people very much right now," Sigi finished.

"I said that's enough," Starfire repeated as he returned to his seat behind his desk. He hit the intercom unit. "B9PO, please page Captain Tango and ask if he would join us as his earliest possible convenience. Thank you B9," he said with graciousness. Starfire always treated his droids with respect.

Waiting a few more moments to compose himself, Starfire returned to the subject at hand. "What's important right now is, are we ready?" he asked with arched eyebrows.

The three Saber personnel exchanged glances then nodded ascension. "I have people working the prisoner over right now," Pallos explained. "We should have any relevant order of battle before we arrive." Naval Intelligence was notoriously thorough in their interrogation of prisoners. Not nearly as sadistic as their Imperial counterparts, they were nonetheless doggedly determined and ruthless to a point.

"Good," Starfire approved. "Because in the next eight hours we are officially unzipping our fly and showing the Agamarians, and who ever else might be out there, exactly what we've got. And it better be up to the task, or we might find it residing in our backside."