“I’m sorry. We can’t come along on this one, Carlos.”
Carlos raised an eyebrow; Robert had the grace to look a bit shame-faced, though he wondered if the holonet would faithfully transmit his expression.
“You said you would, a week ago,” Carlos said. “What changed?”
“You on scrambler?”
“Remember who you’re talking to. I’m always on scrambler.”
“Right. Skywalker called. Two days ago, Admiral Kre’fey extracted the intelligence team from Garqi – and don’t worry, they’re forwarding the report to Tag, and she’ll forward it on to you and Drax. But the important thing is something they ran across by accident. The Pesktda Xenobotanical Garden on Garqi maintained a grove of Ithorian bafforr trees. During the mission, the intelligence team was chased into that grove by a small Vong force. Then bafforr trees started shedding pollen.”
“Were the Vong allergic,” Carlos interrupted, “or was it their armor?”
“Yeah. Remember how you get whenever there’s a cat around? Imagine something you’re wearing doing that.”
“I said ow, remember? Were they able to conceal what happened?”
“For a while. The strike team burned down the grove-” Robert and Carlos both winced at that “-and Corran hopes that’ll delay the Vong in figuring things out. But it won’t be for long, and when they do…”
“When they do, they’ll hit Ithor,” Carlos said grimly, “and they’ll hit her hard. So. You and Tal both going?”
“Yeah. Skywalker called for as many Jedi reinforcements as possible. If we can hold Ithor, and protect the bafforr trees… well.”
“Then we might be able to end this quickly,” Carlos whispered. “Yeah, that’s worth skipping out on trouncing a four-ship squadron. Go, the both of you, and do so with my blessings.”
At that, Robert raised an eyebrow.
Carlos moved his artificial hand in a somewhat ambiguous gesture.
“It’s just a feeling. I- This is a Force-thing for you, isn’t it? That’s why you’re going, not just because of the strategic implications.”
“Something like that, yeah.” How could he explain to his brother the visions and dreams he’d had, even before Skywalker’s call? He had only the barest of ideas as to what the sandcastles meant. But the direction of the Force was quite clear: the castles had stood before a grove of bafforr trees.
“You need to be careful how you read those things. The Force gives you a vision of a place not to go, and you think it means to go, then bad things happen.”
“That’s why I’m going: so bad things can happen to the other guy.”
Carlos huffed out a breath and shook his head.
“Fine. I’ll stop playing the old biddy, here. You and Tal just stay out of too much trouble, alright?”
“Will do, as best able. Give ’em hell at Aten-Re.”
“That is the plan. May the Force be with you.”
It often surprised Robert just how much meaning could be found in those six words.
“And with you.”
The two brothers each signed off from their respective holonet connections. Robert leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let out a little sigh. Despite how much he knew that he was meant to fight on Ithor, he really wanted to go with the – admittedly small, given the loss of Fifth Fleet – AF starfighter, troop, and Jedi forces Indy had detached. GDF Marines and pilots and were known quantities in battle, unlike whatever Skywalker and Admiral Kre’fey could scrape together for Ithor’s defense. On the other hand, Kre’fey had a good reputation. And if Skywalker wasn’t speaking in some weirdly metaphorical sense when he claimed that Gilad Pellaeon would be there…
“So when do we leave?” came a voice from the door. Robert turned his chair and hopped out to face his oldest son.
“Your mother and I,” he said evenly, “will be leaving for Ithor tomorrow, same as the force headed to Golgan III.”
“Just the two of you?” Cam said. “We’re coming to, Dad.”
“Cam,” Robert started, then he sighed and walked over to his son, and rested his hands on the boy’s shoulders. He was somewhat surprised by how tall was his son; they could nearly look each other in the eyes. “I have to go. I couldn’t stop your mother from coming even if I wanted to. But you don’t. You’re too-”
“Don’t say ‘too young’,” Cam warned. “You know what happened when the Vong came here. You remember what we did. I can help you fight, Dad. All three of us can.”
“Okay, see, that’s one reason why you are staying here. Frankly, I’d be glad to have you back me up. If I can trust anybody, anybody, to watch my back, it’s you and your mother.” He paused a bit when Cam turned his head. He let the boy have some time to digest that, and then he continued. “But I am not dragging Matt and Sarah into this. If you came they’d demand to come along as well, and between the three of you-” He stopped and smiled, though somewhat grimly. “Hell, the three of you and Jaq got into a PDC. I don’t think I could stop them from joining you even if I had ’em tied up and locked behind a forcefield cluster.” He shook his head. “Keeping you three ready to fight if the Vong come here is one thing. Dragging you to Ithor? Or sending you to Aten-Re? Into the teeth of a Vong attack or in the van of a prepared assault? That’s another thing altogether, and I’m not about to put you in that danger just yet.”
Cam looked about to argue, but instead he lowered his head.
“So that’s final, then? You won’t take us to Ithor?”
Robert touched his forehead to his son’s.
“Yeah. That’s final.”
“I thought your dad said it was final,” Jaq hissed as they crouched in the woods just outside the Vendetta’s hanger. Not for the first time did he question how he’d let Cam talk him into pulling this little stunt. Then he thought of the rest of their little party and remembered that Cam hadn’t talked him into it. Sarah had.
Damned hormones. If his mother – or worse, Aunt Indy – found out about this, then his goose was cooked. Chopped up. Fricasseed. Hard broiled. He didn’t know exactly what they’d do, but he was sure it would be creative, evil, and not all worth the beaming smile on Sarah’s face when he’d agreed… oh.
“He said it was final that he wouldn’t take us to Ithor,” Cam said reasonably. “He didn’t say that we couldn’t get there ourselves.”
“Even if he meant that – which is highly unlikely – I don’t think he meant for you to stow away on Ven!”
“Details!” Cam said with airy wave of his hand. Matt and Sarah nodded in agreement. “Let me worry about that. Can you get us in or not?”
Jaq sighed, took a look at Sarah’s expectant expression, sighed again, and then reluctantly pulled out a datapad.
“Then easy part is getting you three into the hangar. That’s a simple hack. The hard part is getting you into the ship. However, Ven is currently hooked into the Shay Memorial data network,” he explained. “I can use that connection to access and modify her external sensors.”
“Make them repeat a certain a view over and over again?” Matt asked.
“I didn’t want to risk that, given all the activity on the landing fields.” The AF was sending a company of assault troops, a heavy fighter squadron, and several Jedi to support the ambush at Aten-Re. “It was too likely that a random supply officer or crew chief could wander into her field of view at the wrong time. So instead I’ve, um, borrowed a HAPPY code which will modify her 178-182 sensor arc to not ‘see’ motion or biologicals. That only gives you four degrees of arc to maneuver undetected, but it should be enough if you move single file. Also, that gives you a clear line from the rear door of hanger to the external hatch on an unused cargo hold – and yes, I’ve made sure that she won’t notice that, either. Once you’re in, I’ll send the command to remove the HAPPY code. The rest is up to you.”
“Internal passive sensors?”
“Can’t do much about those, Cam,” Jaq shrugged. “I’ve done what I could, but if the sensors start to miss your mom and dad…”
“Then they’ll either write it off a glitch or they’ll find us,” Cam said. “So long as they find us after it’s too late to turn around, I can live with that.”
Jaq sighed. He’d hoped that the internal sensors would come up, and that those sensors would dissuade his friends. But they were committed. So he might as well go along with it.
“Question,” Sarah whispered.
“What if someone walks into the hangar after you’ve uploaded the HAPPY code, walks behind Ven, and she notices that he disappears?”
“That’s why I also hacked into the hangar’s surveillance system. You don’t go in until the HAPPY code takes affect, and I don’t load the HAPPY code until I’m sure the hangar is clear.”
She seemed impressed at his foresight. Jaq grinned at her, and tried very had not to notice as Cam rolled his eyes.
“Well?” Matt hissed. “What are waiting for?”
Cam looked at Jaq, and Jaq shrugged.
“Personally, I’m waiting on the three of you.”
“Right then, let’s move out.”
For some reason, Jaq took point. Matt and Sarah followed behind him, while covered the rear. Each DeLong brought with them a pack with a few days worth of rations and field sanitation processors. Jaq made sure that the all of two meters to the rear door were clear, and then perhaps a bit over-dramatically led the teenaged line out of the woods and to the door. They pressed up against the wall, two on each side of the door, and Jaq pulled out his datapad and checked the internal surveillance feed.
No one was there, except for the ship.
“It’s clear,” he whispered to Cam. “Last chance to pull out.”
Cam shook his head.
“We’re going. That’s all there is to it.”
Jaq closed his eyes, then sent the HAPPY code. Since hellfire and damnation did not immediately descend upon him, he opened his eyes and check Ven’s status.
“Okay, the code’s in. Get moving.”
He opened the door. Matt went in first. Sarah started for the door, but then she stopped, went back to Jaq, threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. His eyes went wide, he felt his face heat up and and lot things which he couldn’t quite describe but really enjoyed went rampaging about inside his chest. He realized that he’d gone somewhat slack-jawed at about the time Sarah pulled aside and looked at him, her eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Thanks!” said brightly, and then she let him go and ran into the hanger. Jaq, still in a very pleasantly-shocked haze, finally noticed Cam staring at him. He and his best friend looked at each other across the open door.
“If you hurt her,” Cam said finally, “I swear on all we consider holy that I will kick your ass.”
Jaq grinned, figuring that was as close to an approval as he would get.
“Then I’ll just have to be sure not to.”
They clasped arms across the open door and then embraced.
“May the Force be with you, Cam,” Jaq said.
“And with you, Jaq. Want to come with us?”
“Can’t. Somebody’s got to hold down the fort around here. Just… don’t do anything more stupid than we’ve already done, alright?”
Cam grinned. Jaq grinned back, not a bit weakly, and then Cam turned and made for the cargo hatch. Jaq watched to make sure that all three were safely aboard, then he closed the hangar door and stepped away. Absently, he reached up and touched his cheek.
Then he grinned, switched off the datapad, and happily made his way back home.