The town was rubble.
Joker Squad had hot-dropped into the zone the previous day, linking up with some local militia units before advancing to contact. Now the rugged troopers of the Republic were locked in combat with the Emperor's finest. Complicating things was that the town had been under the control of Imperial-backed rebel elements for months - booby-traps and IEDs were everywhere. The intense mortar and artillery bombardments had wrecked houses, and the slagged piles of debris were simply perfect for an enemy sniper to hide in.
Lusaka was there because her father had thought it would be educational.
“Make a stand here, Luski,” Pretoria said. Her armour was streaked with blood, and none of it was hers. “Guard the wall. The rest of us are going to cross the street and press the left part of their line. Don’t let anything get through here.”
Lusaka murmured agreement, but Pretoria had already turned away. At a sharp gesture, Joker squad peeled across the street and into a shattered shopfront with dance-like precision. Lusaka watched them clear that room and breach the next before dropping out of sight. She turned back to her post.
The house she defended had once been opulent. Its gardens still hinted at a former elegance, even now overgrown with weeds and choked with garbage. The tall wall she guarded faced the river. At some point an errant rocket had slammed into it, and the explosion had blown open a fair-sized gap in its masonry. With Joker moving rapidly north, theoretically this southern route onto the street was a highly inconvenient hazard to their flank. Theoretically. Practically, however, this was a job given to someone special that someone else didn't really want to die.
Lusaka moved cautiously to the wall and took shelter in its lee.
Snipers and rockets had been a constant hazard in the last nine hours. The searing sunshine made metal glint, skin shine, and any exposure a deadly mistake - a mistake Lusaka had seen too much war to make. She kept her head down. The sun beat on.
From the north, a great firefight erupted. The crack of lazer bolts echoed, punctuated by the dull, hollow noises of Republic grenade launchers and the bright snap of sniper fire. Joker had engaged the enemy.
Lusaka wanted to see. So she kneeled amongst the rotting trash, folding her robes neatly under her, and tried to quiet her mind. Meditation was coming easier now. Her father had worked with her on it for the last few months, although his particular method (constructing a Huttball game and then imagining it play by play) was not one she preferred. Instead she grew a tree; every leaf and branch took shape in her mind. The heat, insects, and the thump thump thump
of mortar fire all took a backseat. Slowly she expanded her awareness outwards. The living force was all around her, washing through her and over her. The glow and ebb of life tweaked at her mind, along with their fear and pain. Her sister stood out clearly; Pretoria was unhurt, her mind ablaze with purpose and adrenaline.
Above all this there were the Sith. Dozens of them peppered the devastated town, bending the force unnaturally with their presence. There was something similar about them all that Lusaka couldn’t put into words. A sharpness somehow - a hard angularity.
Lusaka stood smoothly and pulled out her lightsaber. One of those signatures was picking its way towards her, blazing with power. A lot of power. But then, she also blazed.
The Sith - who was very Sith, all covered with spikes and eyes golden - stepped smoothly through the hole and into the courtyard. He glanced around casually, smile cruel. “Oh, little Jedi. Did they leave you here all alone?”
Lusaka thumbed on her lightsaber. “Please leave,” she said quietly. “The wall will not fall to you.”
The Sith leapt forward. There was the sharp hiss and crack of lightsabers colliding before both figures retreated. A pause.
The Sith laughed breathlessly. “Just a padawan. This won’t take long.” He swung forward to engage again.
He was wrong about it being swift. Lusaka was good. Even as the Sith favoured cleaves and great gashes, heavy and biting, Lusaka flicked around him. She avoided some strikes, deflected others. Some she blocked with thick debris ripped from the broken mess on the ground. Her sweeping, circling guard forced the Sith to retreat at times, and employ some truly fancy saberwork at others - but ultimately the Sith was right. She wasn’t a Jedi Knight yet.
One loose rock. One slight stumble. One dip of her saber.
With a great howl, the Sith redoubled his assault on her defence, hammering through to slash upward at her face. She blocked it desperately, but her haste left her arm exposed; the Sith triumphantly slammed the hint of his saber down. Bone snapped with a sickening crack, and Lusaka stumbled back. Her emergency shield snapped up as he brought his blade down, stopping him skewering her, but not enough to prevent him scoring her flank and thigh. It buckled, and she dropped.
The Sith flourished his blade dramatically, enjoying his triumph. “Tell me again,” he gloated, “about how this wall won’t fall.”
Lusaka dragged herself backwards. Her left arm flopped in the dirt, even as her right still clutched weakly at her saber. Filth was all around her. She panted and shook from the pain of the effort, but there was nowhere to go. She hit the wall, trying to pull herself upright on it, but to no effect.
The Sith followed her with his eyes, and laughed. “Goodbye, little Jedi.” His lightsaber flew up in a slashing arc, and then lashed out through the force.
With a grinding scream the whole top section of masonry was sliced off. It hung for an instant above Lusaka’s broken body before it gave way, crashing down.
But when the blocks landed, Lusaka was not underneath. A great, frantic power had seized her and pushed, sending her flying across the courtyard to crash into a broken beach seat. She whimpered. There was the tickling clink of settling masonry, the acrid smell of burning dust. Lusaka’s arm was the least of her problems now; her chest felt like fire, and she breathed in short gasps to minimise the pain. But she was alive. She lifted her head to see how.
A second Sith was limping rapidly into the courtyard through the broken section of the wall. Heavy, metallic parts spidered over a face which had once been purely human, long ago. Her lips were contorted with hate, and fury roiled off and around her like a physical thing. Behind her came a long, sleek, wisp of a young man wearing a ridiculous hat.
Lusaka let her head fall back to the ground with a soft thump. “Auntie Brax…” she breathed in disbelief.
The limping, broken Sith paid her no mind. She deliberately drew two lightsabers from her belt, locking eyes with the incredulous hostile Sith standing in the middle of the courtyard. “Guard Luski, Bamako,” she hissed at the young man behind her. “Kill him if you see an opening.” He seemed to become mist, vanishing into sunlit shadows.
The hostile Sith curled back his lip in disdain. “Lord Braxtia Traveller.” He swung his own lightsaber up, stepping carefully towards a clear piece of ground. “Never pegged you for a traitor.”
Braxtia didn’t bother to reply. In a flash of speed and fury the two clashed together. The smell of ozone and burning hung thickly in the air.
Lusaka paid the contest no mind. Her vision was hazy. The concerned face of her cousin hovered over her, awkwardly packing her flank with Kolto. He carefully pulled her free from the broken bench, but stopped when she whimpered in pain. Lusaka was beyond first aid, she was fairly sure; she needed Auntie Iustinia, or at the very least a full Kolto tank. But until the Sith had finished their duel any evac was impossible.
The hostile Sith was ranting now, his words punctuated by heavy strikes. “I will end you!” he yelled, eyes wild. His formerly pristine armour was now battered and chipped, and he was bleeding from a dozen small cuts. “I will seize your House, kill your family!” Braxtia’s lightsabers flashed and spun in response.
The two Sith spun apart, turning towards the new voice. Bamako, still hovering above Lusaka, jerked upright. Around his protective body Luski could see the heavy treads of Republican boots storming into the courtyard, and hear the high-pitched whine of assault cannons spooling up. Cutting through all the chaos was Pretoria. “Banjo, secure the breach - Momo, get your ass to Lusaka - Rolly, cover me! Do not engage! I repeat, do not engage!”
Two of the republic boots hesitated, but only for a second. Then they pounded off towards the wall. The last set hurried towards Lusaka. Bamako stood and stepped aisde to let the medic through
“Pretoria,” growled Braxtia from the center of the courtyard. Her voice was gravel and iron. “Turn on your armour cam. Turn it on now.”
Pretoria slapped a button at her wrist. Bamako rocked backwards out of the line of sight.
Braxtia dramatically raised her two lightsabers, robes swirling through the dust as she stalked forward, snarling at the other Sith. “Can’t defeat me alone, thief? Led me to a Republic ambush to hide your graft? The Sphere of Logistics will not tolerate your betrayal!”
The hostile Sith looked incredulous. “I will ki…”
“Enough!” roared Braxtia, “Your fraud is discovered, Dakar! You will never escape with the Isotope 5, and your Republic allies cannot save you!” She leapt at him, lightsabers flying. The hostile Sith blocked desperately. Pretoria opened up with her assault cannon, stitching a line of bolts across an empty part of the battlespace.
During the confusion, Bamako reached down and touched Lusaka’s face. His golden eyes caught hers and he smiled. “Be well, cousin.” Then he melted into shadow and was gone. Braxtia was still hamming it up for the camera. “I will see you hunted to the ends of the galaxy!” she grated, sounding thoroughly deranged. “Logistics does not forgive! Logistics does not forget!”
Pretoria coughed another couple of rounds in the general vicinity of the fight, almost in warning. Braxtia slapped aside one last strike and then disengaged, leaping out through the breached wall. The furious, spluttering Sith made to follow.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” yelled Pretoria. She dropped her cannon and slapped her comm unit open. “Hostile fleeing North-west across the river; Joker squad has lost visual. Remaining forces holding at point Farook.” Pretoria turned to the remaining Sith, voice tight. “Where do you think you’re going? We need to debrief you.”
Then she killed the camera.
There was a pregnant, bitter silence.
“This won’t work,” said the Sith tightly. “And I will kill you all for trying. Every last one of you.”
Pretoria shrugged. “All video is automatically uploaded to Republic command,” she swung her cannon up, the barrels already beginning to spin. “And they know Special Forces will make a deal if we feel the need. As for your crowd, the camera transmits over a frequency and with encryption that Imperial Intelligence has already cracked.”
The Sith’s face contorted, dissolving in fear and rage. He turned and fled, ducking into the maze of broken houses and rubble to the north. Joker sent him on his way by opening up an absolute fusillade of fire. Rounds punched holes in the house he’d gone into, but it was unclear if anything connected. Pretoria abandoned the effort. She dropped her cannon on the ground and scrambled over to her sister.
“Luski, Luski!” Pretoria said. She dropped to the ground and ran her hands over Lusaka’s face, gently wiping away blood. The medic moved to the other side of Lusaka’s body and kept working. “It was supposed to be safe!” Pretoria kept saying, over and over. “We were only supposed to leave for a couple of minutes, I would never have posted you here alone, I thought it would be safe!” She looked anguished.
Lusaka groaned. “Evac in ten minutes,” said the medic firmly, and Pretoria nodded her thanks. “Auntie… Iust?” gasped Lusaka. Pretoria kept stroking Lusaka’s face. “No time, kiddo, we need to get you to the Flagship. She’ll be there as soon as she can, you just wait.” Lusaka groaned again.
The town was still rubble. But soon, it wouldn’t be her problem anymore.