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Earth and Sky
23 BBY
Clones: CT-4499 (Kickback), N-11 (Ordo), N-7 (Mereel), N-6 (Kom’rk), N-10 (Jaing), N-5 (Prudii)

 

Kickback breathed in, breathed out. Checked his instruments, then reviewed his preflight checklist, even though he’d already done both more times than he cared to admit. Sublight fuel levels, antigravs, comms, navigation … it was stupid to be nervous. He’d done this a million times in the simulator, had gone over everything they had needed to know on the ground, had even been up with an instructor.

But now it was just him. Just his hands on the controls, and no one else’s. His skin prickled at the narrow-eyed gaze of the trainer, watching his every move, but he ignored it. He couldn’t show how nervous he was, not now, not when it was his turn.

His turn to finally fly.

Ninety-nines became great pilots; all of his ori’vod had said so, back when the longnecks had chosen him for flight-track training. No one knew why; just that it was so.

And Kickback knew they were right. It wasn’t anything he could explain, but he could feel it, an ineffable something that whispered to him. Some instinct that told him where to look, what sounded right, a sixth sense for where he was in the sky. A quiet nudge of look over here, check your altitude, keep her level. A moment of innocent joy, almost as if the ship itself was saying, Look. Look at how bright and blue and beautiful it is above the clouds!

“Any time now, CT-4499,” the trainer barked, jarring him out of his thoughts. This would be only a short hop; there was a long line of pilot-candidates on the flight deck, all waiting to be tested. All waiting to fly.

But this was his moment. “Yessir,” he said, automatically moving through the startup sequence for the sublight engines. They rumbled to life, a subtle thrum reverberating through the throttle and into his bones, ready and waiting. He checked his clearances, got final authorization from flight control. Then kicked in the antigravs, notching maneuvering thrusters up to max, carefully lifting the V-19 off the deck and into the air. The fighter responded eagerly as he took her out over the ocean, until they had enough airspace to kick in the main thrusters.

She’s ready. You’re ready, something whispered. For a moment, it almost sounded like a younger brother’s voice. Let’s see what’s out there, beyond the sky.

Forgetting about the watching trainer, Kickback grinned fiercely. Yes. This is what the ship had been made for; what he had been made for. He pushed the throttle forward, throwing them upwards, into the leaden clouds and beyond, where the vibrant blue of the sky met endless star-studded black.

Ninety-nines were great pilots; and there was a wide, endless galaxy out there waiting for him.

 

****

 

“Well, that was a shitshow,” Jaing said.

Kom’rk, Mereel and Ordo shifted from foot to foot, angry and embarrassed, while Ventress merely stared down their critics--the remaining three Nulls, plus Ben--with impenetrable disdain.

“It’s hardly my fault that they were unable to keep up,” she said, addressing Ben, ignoring both Jaing and the other Nulls at her back as if they didn’t exist. “What did you expect?”

“Actually, I expected this to happen,” Ben said placidly, unruffled by both the Nulls’ ire or Ventress’ defensive bristling.

Mereel scowled. “You deliberately set us up to fail?”

“Not at all,” Ben replied. “But I knew that it was likely.” He transferred his attention to Ventress. “Your failure to anticipate and allow for the Nulls’ tactics, or even to confer with them before the start of the exercise, was not hard to predict.”

“They are males,” Ventress said sourly. “Why should I waste my time? They are weak and powerless, and would only slow me down.”

“If that was truly the case, then why did you still fail to complete the exercise?” Ben gave her a level stare as she sputtered.

Prudii, for his part, was just as unimpressed with his brothers. “And once it became clear that she was going to go off the rails, you should have adjusted the op to deal with that,” he told them. “If she was going to run ahead and attract the attention of every clanker in the area, you could have at least taken advantage of it.”

Ordo growled, and Kom’rk and Mereel were very still, hands curled into fists. Tempting as it was to take a swing at Prudii, they knew better than to mouth off during a debrief. Even if said debrief was being conducted by Ben and their brothers rather than the longnecks or Skirata.

“We’re not always going to be sent out together,” Jaing said, not pulling his punches. “You know that. Sometimes we’ll have to work solo, and sometimes we’ll have to work with the whitejobs. And not just the alpha planks, either. Ben’s right. We can’t just abandon the vode because they’re not at our level. Or the jetiise, for that matter, whenever they decide to show up.” Left unsaid was exactly *why* they needed the jetiise. All of them knew what was at stake, now that they had thrown their lot in with Slick and his co-conspirators.

“Ventress is an example of what you may encounter in the field,” Ben said to all the Nulls, taking up the assessment. “Most Jedi do not see combat on a regular basis. No Jedi has taken to the battlefield with a force as large as this one for millennia. When the time comes, they will make mistakes. They will fail to consult with you, either out of arrogance or ignorance. To take offense at either is to compound those errors, with lethal consequences.”

He turned his attention to Ventress. “I cannot prepare those Jedi for what is to come. But you have asked me to prepare you, and so I will. Males or not, Force users or not, these boys are warriors born, some of the finest this galaxy is likely to ever see.” At that rare bit of praise, Kom’rk and his brothers straightened, heads coming up. “You are of Dathomir, and strong in the Force. But you are also a Huntqueen without a pack. For all your power, you can still be blindsided. Or simply run into the ground.” Ben paused, letting that sink in before continuing. “The Nightsisters abandoned their mothers’ ways eons ago, enslaving their males in exchange for the Dark Side and their magicks, yet they still have to bend knee to the Sith. They do not have the power to hold more than the barest fraction of their planet. Will you make the same mistake? Or will you become a true daughter of Dathomir, and a Huntqueen in your own right, by earning the fealty of your chosen males and adding their strength to your own?”

“I …” Ventress’ habitual arrogance faltered in the face of Ben’s merciless assessment. “I thought …”

“You thought the Nightsisters were the true rulers of Dathomir? They certainly work hard to give that impression, don’t they?” Ben replied dryly. “But no. Now, knowing that, shall we give this exercise another try? Working together this time?” He tilted his head, giving them all a sardonic smile. “Or do you need an old man like me to show you how it is done?”

Bristling at the challenge, Ventress, Mereel, Ordo and Kom’rk exchanged wary glances. After a brief staredown, Kom’rk glanced at the other two, then gave her a brief nod. Ventress inclined her head by the barest fraction in response, eyes narrowed. “No need, old man. We’ll play your game.”

 

****

 

Of course, meeting Ben’s challenge was easier said than done.

“Get up here!” Ventress hissed. She was covered in grime, robes plastered to her body, and Kom’rk found that any admiration he had once had for her lethal grace was long gone, replaced by irritation and a sincere desire to shoot her. Possibly in the face.

Unfortunately they were surrounded on all sides by clankers, all of whom were acting considerably smarter and more unpredictable than usual. Ben had obviously done some tinkering behind the scenes in order to give the Nulls a proper challenge; something Kom’rk might have appreciated, if they hadn’t been forced to work with a di’kutla jetii who thought she was in charge. Worse, they were in one of the longnecks’ outdoor training fields, and it was raining hard enough to turn the rock and plascrete into a slippery mess and kill any semblance of visibility. So he suppressed the urge to ignore Ventress, pulled himself up over the ledge and hunkered down behind the same bit of wall. “What?” he said, flicking a quick handsign at Mereel and Ordo to watch their six.

Ventress eyed him for a moment, visibly biting back her own irritation. “There’s a clear approach to the comm tower, but I don’t trust it,” she said bluntly. “There’s no way it’s that easy.”

Kom’rk toggled the distance viewer on his HUD, scanning the terrain below. Their objective was a fake comm-tower, several stories tall with a wide dish pointed at the sky. Ventress was right; they had been forced to sneak their way past a veritable army of clankers to get to this point, but the grounds around the tower itself were manned only by a few B-1s and a couple of rollies, the main approach clear of any artillery.

“Ambush?” he said, looking for any sign of mines or concealed droids and not finding any. Ventress was right; this was way too easy.

“Possibly,” Ventress said sourly. “But from where?” She squinted down at the tower, half-obscured through shifting sheets of rain. “Whatever it is, knowing the old man, it won’t be from the direction we expect.”

Kom’rk scrutinized the tower and its perimeter for a few minutes more, looking for clues. Finding none, he gave up and shrugged his shoulders. “Any other approach will take us twice the time and run the risk of more clankers. Guess we’ll just have to go straight in.” He checked the charge on his blasters and sent a quick data-burst to his brothers on what they’d found. “I’ll take point, see what kind of welcome wagon they roll out for us.”

He levered himself up, ready to slither down the slope, only to have Ventress yank him back down with inhuman strength. “Males!” she hissed in exasperation.

Kom’rk angrily jerked free of her grip. Mereel and Ordo had stepped closer, weapons at the ready, but he kept his attention on Ventress. Kom’rk once again tamped down on the urge to lash out; Ben’s exercises, unconventional as they were, were still on the record, and he didn’t want to have to explain another failure. Not to his brothers, and especially not to Skirata. “You have a better idea? Sitting here and looking at it isn’t going to help us take that tower. Someone has to spring that trap,” he snarled.

“Obviously. And if you had any brains at all rattling around in that empty head, you would realize that the person best suited to spring an ambush might just the one who can actually use the Force to sense danger,” she shot back. “I will take point.”

Kom’rk eyed her doubtfully. On their last attempt, they hadn’t gotten even this far; mostly because Ventress had left them behind almost as soon as they had hit dirt, charging forward and bringing every clanker in the field down on their heads. It must have been obvious what he was thinking, because she favored him with a scowl, before she admitted, “Little though you might credit it, I can learn from my mistakes. I will need the three of you if we are to do this.”

Kom’rk glanced over at his brothers. Ordo just sighed, rolling his eyes. Most of Mereel’s attention was on watching for clankers, but he gave Ventress a brief glance, then shrugged. Which in Mereel-speak likely meant ‘we’re probably fucked anyway, but at least we’ll get the satisfaction of seeing her get shot first’.

“Fine-you’re on point. I’ll watch your six, Mereel and Ordo will flank.” Kom’rk didn’t want to trust her, but it wasn’t like they had a choice.

Ventress hesitated, then pulled her own blaster--Ben still had not given her back her lightsaber, much to her very vocal annoyance--and turned away, towards the waiting comm tower. “I’m cold, I’m wet, and I’m sick of this fucking mud. If the old man tries to make me do this a third time, I really will kill him,” she announced. “So let’s do this.”

 

****

 

For a moment, they almost thought they would make it.

Their approach had been easy enough--too easy, the ever-suspicious part of Kom’rk’s brain said--but maybe that had been the point. It was the kind of mind-fuckery he had learned to expect from the old jetii; setting up an obvious opening in the defenses, a path so easy that Ben knew they would assume was a trap and twist themselves into knots to avoid it, falling victim to their own paranoia.

But if that was the case, then the old man had miscalculated. Ventress had been as good as her word, avoiding the few mines--wired for stun charges rather than anything lethal, but still unpleasant to wake up from--with ease and taking out B-1 sentries with vindictive precision. More importantly, she didn’t use any of her unnatural speed to outpace them, letting Kom’rk watch her back, and Ordo and Mereel to sweep along each flank and eliminate additional squads of droids before they could raise any alarms.

Barely a hundred meters away from the comm tower, Ventress swung around, hand coming up in an imperative stop-alert! signal. At the same time, Mereel sent a priority flag, pinging over readings from his sensors of …. something. Or more accurately, a lot of somethings. “Contact, three o’clock high!”

“What the--is that …. hail?” Ordo said, confused by what his scans were telling him: a vast cloud of spherical blobs in the sky, still mostly obscured by sheets of rain.

“No,” Ventress snapped. “They’re heading straight for us, and they’re flying, not falling!” She lifted her blaster to take a shot, then obviously realized it would be pointless. The drones were still out of range, though they were closing in fast. “Whatever they are, they’re going to be in range momentarily. We need to find some cover.”

Kom’rk was already moving, charging towards a nearby nest of B-1s that had been stationed behind a low ridge, near the comm tower. “This way!”

The first clanker barely had time to squawk ‘Halt!’ before it got a bolt through its central processor. The rest of the little squad fared no better as his brothers piled in, taking them out with a flurry of precise shots.  The droideka stationed nearby reacted much more quickly, blasters lifting and shields snapping into place. Dodging blaster-fire with Force-enhanced speed, Ventress dived past its shields and embedded a vibroblade into its main power coupling. The droid staggered, trying to pivot and turn its guns on her--then jerked and collapsed as its systems overloaded, cooking itself from the inside out.

Their mad dash for the ridge had attracted the attention of the remaining defenders, but that hardly mattered. They’d whittled down the tower’s defenders to the point that taking out the leftovers would be easy as breathing. What wasn’t so easy to deal with was the large cloud of spherical drones, all jetting straight towards them at dizzying speed. Sensor scans weren’t picking up any weapons mounts, but- “Wanna bet those fuckers are rigged to explode on impact?” he said, even as he took aim.

“Sucker bet,” Ordo grunted, dropping to one knee and unlimbering his rifle. He took a shot, and grunted as one of the metallic drones exploded in midair. “I hate it when I’m right.”

Mereel’s smile was dark and feral. “Well, at least Ben is taking us seriously. I’d started to worry that he’d decided to go easy on us.”

Ventress snorted. “It figures the old man would have something up his sleeve.” The drones had come within range, and she began firing, shot after shot hitting their mark. But for every drone that careened out of the air, ten more seemed to take its place. “Fierfek!”

They were all firing now, laying down a barrage of massed fire. It was, as Skirata liked to say, a target-rich environment, and the first wave of drones were dropping like flies, many exploding in midair. The ones behind them, however, seemed to have engaged whatever limited tactical programming they possessed; they were altering course and spreading out, flickering through sheets of rain to come at them from all sides.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck!” Mereel dropped an exhausted power charge and slapped another one home. “We can’t stay here,” he said grimly as he took out an opportunistic clanker and then refocused his shots back on the drones. One careened out of the air, exploding on the ridge above and showering them with muddy rubble. “We’re going to get overrun!”

“Agreed,” Ventress said grimly. “Our objective is the tower.  We don’t have to capture it, just disable it. So lets make a run for it; with any luck we’ll be able to draw them--” she stopped short, stiffening. A moment later, a low rumble vibrated through the ground. “Watch out!”

Above them, the ridge shifted, then started sliding. The ground beneath their feet, already pounded by the droids and rain, fractured apart even as a wave of boulders and mud rolled towards them with frightening speed.

“Run!” Kom’rk wasn’t sure who had shouted. Maybe he had. Not that it mattered; with no jetpacks and no solid ground beneath their feet, there was nowhere to go. The wave of earth knocked him off his feet and sent him tumbling ass-over-teakettle. Stones ricocheted off his armor, mud everywhere as he flailed, trying to stay on the surface, to keep his airway clear even as he was swept along by the mudslide--

--and over the edge of the cliff.

There was an endless instant of raw terror as he began to fall--then a flailing hand hit something solid. He clamped down, hanging on with desperate strength as he smacked into the cliffside. More mud and rock poured down, and he tucked his head against his arm, hanging on for dear life.

After a few moments, the roar of rock and earth subsided. Kom’rk sucked in a breath of relief. He was still blinded; most of the built-in sensors in his bucket had been knocked offline by the slide, and the visor was spiderwebbed with cracks and obscured by mud. But he could still breathe, and could feel what he was holding on to; a hand, someone else’s fingers holding onto his wrist with bone-crushing strength. Giddy with relief and leftover adrenalized fear, he tilted his head up, trying to squint through his muddied visor. For once, the rain helped, washing away the dirt, and after a few moments he could finally make out the person keeping him from falling to the heaving, deadly ocean below.

It was Ventress. She had her feet planted--on what, Kom’rk wasn’t sure. She must have found the only solid ledge on the entire cliffside. Her expression was drawn, focused and desperate, and her other hand was outstretched away from them, trembling finely. Craning his neck in that direction, the reason for her distraction soon became apparent. Ordo and Mereel were both several meters down, and unlike him, had nothing to hold on to. Instead they were just … hanging in midair. No--Ventress was holding them in midair. Keeping them from falling. With the Force.

Her lips peeled back from white teeth in a rictus grin as she struggled to keep the other two Nulls aloft. Then she flung her hand backward with a convulsive jerk, as if pulling with all her strength against a great weight. Kom’rk sucked in a breath as Ordo and Mereel were sent flying, propelled upwards through the air …

… and tossed unceremoniously over the top of the cliff.

With Ventress’ focus elsewhere, her footing slipped. Mud slid under her boots as she was pulled towards the edge of their little ledge by Kom’rk’s weight. She hissed, clamping her now-free second hand over his arm as she threw herself backwards, panting with effort.

“... are you … just going to hang there all day? Do something, you useless nerf-herder!”

Kom’rk bristled at the insult, but bit back a pithy retort. He couldn’t lift himself up. The soil was too soft for him to get any kind of purchase, and if he tried to climb over Ventress, he’d likely just send them both into the rocks and surf below. Ordo and Mereel would help, if they could, if they weren’t injured … but pride and practicality both argued against waiting.

Under all this loose dirt, however, there was rock. Squinting upward, Kom’rk lifted his free arm, aiming for the largest chunk of solid rock face he could see. He triggered the release, and the bladed piton flew straight and true, line trailing behind as it embedded itself deep into the side of the cliff.

He’d never admit it, but right now he was damn grateful for Skirata and his obsession with making them ‘true’ Mandalorians, right down to their gear. 

The next question was whether the line would hold his weight. The rock had looked solid, but looks could be deceiving. If all he had hit was more dirt, or if the rock had fractured around the impact point, he could be in trouble.

“Hold on tight,” he told Ventress, and gave the line a yank. She hissed, and a fresh bit of dirt showered down on him as her footing slipped again, but the high-tensile cord felt solid. “Right. There’s only one way to find out if it’ll hold my weight. Let go of me … but slowly. Be ready to grab again if it slips.”

Apparently it was a day for miracles, because Ventress didn’t argue. Instead she gave him a tight nod, then began to loosen her grip, one hand at a time. As he did so, Kom’rk kept the tension on the line, letting it gradually support his full weight. It twanged as it pulled taut, carving a shallow gully in the loose earth of the cliffside--but the piton held. Once he was confident the line was solid, he began pulling himself upwards, hand over hand, until Ventress was forced to let go completely.

He paused once he was even with her. “Your turn,” he said. “Grab on. I’ll get us both back up.”

Ventress scowled, her face lined with exhaustion. “No need. Just haul yourself up and send the line back down. I’ll climb up on my own.”

“Look, I know you don’t think much of us ‘males’, but we do have our uses,” Kom’rk replied, exasperated. “I might not be any kind of fancy jetii, but I can still get us to the top.” She hesitated, and he added, “Unless you’d rather get rescued by the old man?”

That tipped the scales in his favor, just as he suspected it would. Navigating the awkward angle, Ventress swung onto his back, hands iron-hard as they gripped his shoulders. “ … very well. Get going.”

“Yessir, right away sir,” Kom’rk said sardonically, and began to climb.