“Fifteen seconds,” the pilot said as the transport screamed its entry into Balmorra. Marik barely heard him, instead concentrating on keeping down his breakfast. He was an analyst, not a special forces commando like the rest of them and spewing his guts all over the co-pilot’s panel would only make that more apparent.
He was a stranger among this group of brothers and though they treated him well enough since he’d been assigned to this mission, he’d never be one of them. When he’d arrived at the launch pad, huge duffel bag in hand, they had laughed and tossed most of his things. The only things they hadn’t dumped in the trash were his large supply of computer spikes, some clothes, and toiletries. The pilot had sat him up with him, and told him about Go Bags and how to construct one.
“Don’t worry,” he’d said, “You’ll get used to it. I did.”
Balmorra went from gray to black as the cloud cover gave way to torrents of rain. In the distance, Marik saw the twinkle of distant lights. Cadence, he thought, quickly scanning his mental map. As a child, he’d called this place home, but now it was as much a stranger to him as the men he served with. He knew the names but they were simply words on a datapad. The meanings behind those letters had faded to nothing.
“Ten seconds,” the pilot said and reached across to where Marik sat and pulled a lever. Was I supposed to do that? he wondered as the transport slowed and a loud, metallic scream echoed throughout the ship. For a moment he was afraid the ship was tearing apart, but the pilot silenced those fears with a laugh. “Re-entry thrusters on this beast are loud eh?”
“Won’t they hear that?” Marik asked, thinking back to the briefing.
“Just one gnat in the horde,” the pilot said and that quieted any more questions.
Cadence looked almost peaceful by night. Through the rain and speeding vehicles, lights danced and flickered in the darkness. Marik could just make out the shapes of tall buildings and squat apartment complexes. From that distance, he almost thought he could remember it. He tried, closing his eyes and summoning what he could from that period of his life. His father smiled at him in the sunlit room of their study as he pieced together his first data deck computer. The pride his father’s eyes showed him then had cemented his love for the holonet and computer system for life, and it had all begun here.
Marik blinked as a sudden flare lit up the forward viewscreen. The pilot cursed and the transport dove. He felt a lurching in his stomach, bile rising almost to his ears. Curses from the back joined those upfront before the transport leveled out. Marik did not ask what happened, instead seeing Cadence for what it was. The city stretched out before them, hovels and lean-to shacks cuddled up next to decrepit high rises and block-sized squats. Where parks had been lay only burned out hulks of old ships and piles of refuse. The fading memory of his father crashed to pieces and joined the wasteland of his childhood.
The transport gave a lurch and protesting bump as it set down. Marik had seen no landing pad, no central authority to welcome them. The rain obscured everything, even the shattered landscape of Cadence once the ship became still. The pilot turned to him and unbuckled himself. It was then that Marik realized he’d never asked the pilot his name. Emblazoned on his armor was one word; “Enzaro.”
“C’mon,” the pilot told him. “Trip’s over.”
The rain was even worse than it looked. Once Marik had taken his much-reduced bag from one of the big commandos, he was rushed outside ahead of them. The water hit him like a sheet of plastoid, heavy and cold. His spikes remained sealed in the pouches on his vest but he still leaned over to cover them.
The ground was muddy and there was no grass, only rocks as big as fists and boulders the size of transports dotting the small clearing they had landed in. “The hell is this?” one of the troopers said, his square, angular face shooting a look back toward the pilot. Marik knew him only as “Eram.” He wore ragged clothing with a small blaster pistol at his hip, like many of the others. Marik had only a hold-out in his pocket and wasn’t even sure it was loaded.
“Crater,” the pilot said. “Quarter klick to the safehouse. Aria should have dinner ready. Said she’d wait up.” Four more men followed Eram into the storm, all standing just a few feet from where Marik waited, shivering and miserable. They said this was a suicide mission and they were talking about dinner. Marik felt sick enough to retch, his nerves screaming to his mind to run and hide. He had joined Intelligence to avoid this kind of thing.
Eram grumbled and shouldered his bag before stopping in front of Marik. “All right, kid? Marik right? You used to live here?”
Marik managed a nod, not trusting to speak through the shivers.
“We need to get to Forty-second street by the old theater, can you lead us there?” The man looked at Marik with eyes that seemed both dark and extremely bright. The pupils were large from the low light, but he thought the irises might be green or gold. Small horns showed from beneath matted, black hair. Ever that first meeting, the Zabrak had made him feel stripped and skinned, his fears laid bare.
“Yeah,” Marik told him. He knew the way, he realized. The pattern of the lights ahead were familiar, even if the colors were not. He had a superb memory, like a holorecorder when it came to patterns. It had just taken a bit of time. “Yeah I can.”
Eram signaled the others and they were walking before he realized it. Mud and drainage made the quarter kilometer take ages but they cleared the old crater and were soon passing dead trees and treading upon broken sidewalks. Balmorra had not even hailed them on the way in, and he wondered if the whole planet was dead and forgotten.
Every street triggered new recognition and soon they were threading between buildings and old alleyways. They took cover from the rain beneath balconies and shop overhangs. Several toughs eyed them as they passed but thought better of it when they spied Eram and the rest. All but one of them was large and muscular, the type of man that makes a potential thief think twice. Tordan was the only exception, being Marik’s height, and hid his wiry body beneath padded vests and loose trousers. Unlike most of the others though, Tordan did not have a beard. Marik thought that perhaps he couldn’t grow one.
“The theater was there,” Marik pointed once they reached their destination. It had taken them only two circles of the block before Marik realized the theater was gone. In its place stood a club with dark windows and barred doors. Eram and nodded and checked something on a datapad. The big man kept the device tucked close to his chest and glanced around for a moment before heading back the way they’d come. “Follow,” was all he said.
The safe house was on the second floor of a long gone bakery. Flower and dust mingled on the steps as they pushed their way up, dodging mice and rats and discarded bags full of weevils. Marik narrowly avoided a fall when he slipped on the tail of a rat larger than his own head. Tordan caught him and kept him upright long enough to regain his balance. After that, he walked only where the others did.
A door greeted them at the top of the steps, its lock having seen much better days. It was ancient and worked with a latch and key system that Marik’s slicing skills were useless for. Eram knocked once and a blaster greeted him as the door swung wide. The big man gave a smirk and shouldered his way inside.
When Marik entered, he saw that the blaster was held by a young woman with hair cut shorter than any of the boys. She was shorter than he was but athletic, where Marik was rail thin. “This the slicer?” she asked after they’d all joined her inside and shut the door. Eram nodded. “Yeah, arrived at brief yesterday. Name is Marik.”
Marik hated feeling left out of a conversation where he was the subject, so he nodded. “Yeah, Marik.” The woman shrugged. “I’m Aria then.”
Marik felt idiotic. This Aria was not cooking anything. She was likely an analyst here to brief them on the target. He should have known better. Eram told them all to gather around and so Marik found himself kneeling on old carpet and staring at a print out of what had been a bank security building. Aria circled several areas.
“Target is likely in the old vault. I’ve scanned the power conduits and traced the lines. They feed something that could be our terminal in that area. Intel reports from our last action on Balmorra point to only a small garrison supporting it.”
“Any Sith?” one of the commandos asked, who Marik remembered as Jacen. With his dark beard and light colored eyes, Marik tended to confuse him with Eram. Another voice joined in, this from a man with dark blonde hair, and scruff of a beard and dark eyes that reminded Marik of flints of coal. He wore a scarf around his neck with tribal sigils sewn into it. His name was Damian. “Doubtful, the bastards don’t like getting wet.”
“No,” Aria said once they’d both finished. “Any Sith activity is south, near Verdin Palace. You should be facing only some guards and engineers.”
Eram scratched at his chin and then nodded. “Entry points?”
“Here,” Aria said and pointed at the rear of the building. “The guard rotates every five hours and at midnight, one of them always props the door open and has a smoke. That will be our entry.”
“Our?” Marik blurted out and instantly wished he hadn’t said anything. “I mean, I’m going?” Damian chuckled and stood. “Yeah kid, we’re all going. Did you think you were going to sit here? It’s a closed system.”
Marik looked to Eram, who he thought was the leader. The team wore no ranks, at least not since they had been made to strip back at base. That was his first taste of fear, folding his belongings with his dog tags to be placed in a box addressed to his next of kin. Marik thought a trooper should volunteer for such missions, not be ordered to perform them.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re right. Do you know what kind of system?”
Aria shook her head and flipped through a datapad. “It’s got some high power going into it, so it might be as complex as a G-Sixty-Eight or Nine even. That’s why we brought you in, right?” She gave him something of a smile, but in the dim lighting of the room, it looked like a corpse grin.
The rest was a blur for Marik. They talked about tactics and fire rates, defenses that all sounded extremely deadly to him. The others just seemed to take it in stride. Finally Aria had Eram help her drag out a locked container full of armor pieces. None of it matched and all of it seemed roughly used.
Damian shoved a plastoid chestguard at him. “Put this on. We’re not Republic for this mission and if you go around looking like some whimsical intel brat, we’ll be in trouble. Try and look mean while you’re at it.” He did as he was told, though affecting any kind of intimidating posture was beyond him. He’d known they would be disguising themselves as mercenaries, hired by a rival to cause disturbances and sew mayhem. He needed only to keep his head down and slice the system. Easy. In and out again.
Aria checked her chronometer and picked a sniper rifle out from behind some crates. “Time to move. Stay close and don’t step anywhere I don’t.” She seemed to say the last to Marik and as he looked out of the window, lightning and rain making a strobe of the world, he didn’t feel he had any other choice.
They left the safe house the same way they’d come in, this time armed and armored. Even in their bulky plates and padded undersuits, Eram and his men barely made a sound. Damian carried nothing but a blaster rifle made for short ranged bursts and his vibrodagger. Eram and Jacen sported heavy rifles and lots of ammunition clips. Tordan made do with a light carbine and several grenades. Marik merely carried a heavy pistol that he was certain would never hit a thing.
The area surrounding much of Cadence was forest and dense brush. The war a decade gone had still left its mark on the landscape however, with craters and dead trees cutting swathes through the old vegetation. Aria led them through the dense areas quickly, moving slowly only when they were exposed. Damian kept close to Marik, ensuring he would not fall far behind. “Don’t get lost,” he kept growling.
To get to the old banking building they had to cross out of the woods and cut back through a section of buildings. Aria had obviously scouted it beforehand and led them through burned-out buildings and empty, vacant shops. When she finally held up a hand to stop, Marik could no longer tell where they were. The storm had raised a fog and obscured the lights.
“Blast it,” Aria whispered. “I’ll have to move closer, this fog is muddying my target area.” She pointed above to a second story balcony overlooking the target building. “Tordan and Jacen, with me. I’ll signal when its time.”
There was no discussion, only nods from the team around him. Jacen and Tordan left with her, leaving Marik alone with Eram and Damian, an arrangement he distinctly did not like. Damian frightened him, and the tribal tattoos on his sodden scarf only made him feel like the man might sacrifice him to some dark god.
“Here,” Eram said and handed him an ear bud comm. “Should we get separated.”
Marik took it, frowning at the device but shoving it into his ear nonetheless. Almost as soon as he did so, it crackled to life with Aria’s hushed voice. “Two targets at the door. Two minutes until zero hundred. On my mark.”
It all happened so fast that Marik was still in a confused daze when he heard Aria say, “mark.” There was a hushed bark from the area where Aria had run to, then a shout and a second bark. “Clear,” she said. “Good luck.”
Eram was up and moving with Damian pulling Marik to his feet and rushing him along behind. They cleared the street in less than a heartbeat and were on the open door so quickly that Marik barely had time to register the two dead men laying at its opening.