Down in the bowels of the Illuminator, Slate Bridger leaned his head back against a bulkhead, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of a ship in combat. His rifle rested against his thigh, one gloved hand wrapped around the upper half of its barrel. He took a deep, almost meditative breath and exhaled it slowly.
“How can he be so bloody calm?” Someone hissed in a whisper.
Slate tried not to smile. It wasn’t hard to pretend to be relaxed when you’d been at this for as long as he had. It was almost reflexive. Put the rookies at ease. If the General wasn’t worried, why should they worry? It was always a lie, of course, but one that kept the peace, kept people calm—and that was part of his job.
“Settle down,” he said at length. “Getting yourself worked into a lather doesn’t do you any good.” Slate cracked an eye open and looked at his petrified nephew, Trystan, who checked and then re-checked his gear for at least the tenth time since they’d loaded in. Slate tried not to shake his head. If anyone’s working themselves into a lather, it’s him. He couldn’t blame the boy, though—and a boy he was. Barely eighteen and a newly minted lieutenant and Jedi Healer, the medic didn’t have the same kind of combat training that most of the commandos under Slate’s command had enjoyed. He caught Trystan’s eye and smiled. The boy smiled back, though the smile was a rictus. He was scared stiff.
“That goes double for you, Kel-Solan.”
Trystan Chase nodded quickly. “Yessir.” He gulped a breath and exhaled it slowly.
Finding his center. Good. Maybe Indy did teach him something about being a combat medtech. He wasn’t sure why his sister had decided to send Trystan along. Foresight? He had no way of knowing. But he wasn’t about to complain about having another Jedi at his back. Most of the commandos who’d volunteered weren’t Force-sensitive—a blessing and a curse, Slate had decided. He wouldn’t have to deal with anyone running off because ‘the Force told me to.’
A shudder went through the bulkheads; the ship was changing direction. Slate Bridger nodded slowly, almost to himself, then looked at the two squadrons of commandos he’d brought along from Xenen—some veterans, some not, all volunteers, all thirty of them. “Last checks, people,” he said to them, voice quiet, but resonant. “I don’t want to get killed because someone’s power packs aren’t properly slotted or because the batteries died in someone’s goggles. Triple-check it—that goes for you too, Kel-Solan.”
“Yessir,” the medic snapped again, voice a little edgier this time. Slate smiled.
Maybe he did inherit something from the both of them. His eyes drifted toward the dagger that was barely visible in its sheath on the inside of Trystan’s boot. More than one thing, I hope.
“Sir,” one of his people—Talman, not a rookie, but not exactly a veteran, either—sounded tentative as she started to voice the question, steadying as he looked at her—meeting his eye rather than flinching under his gaze. “What exactly are we supposed to be doing here?”
Slate had to smile. Talman was too young to remember the old days; they had been before her time. She’d come to the Aurora Force when peacekeeping was the norm, not warfare. A trace of wistfulness entered his voice. “Whatever General DeLong asks us to do, Madcap.”
“Just like the old days, eh, General?”
He nodded, smiling wryly at Thomil Gunn, who’d been with him since Conceli IX fell to the Republic. The sandy-haired man should have retired three months ago, but he’d signed on for another two years of service. It was the only life Tommy had ever known. Just like him. “Just like the old days, Tommy.”
“So we just…wait for orders, then?”
“That we do, Madcap.” Slate ran his fingers through his hair—the white would be more prevalent than the red in another few years, he was fairly certain—and stretched again, then started checking his own gear. “Orders will come sooner than you think. Check those packs and make sure your plastics are ready to go in case we need them.” He watched her for a moment as she snapped to her task.
Children. That’s who’s fighting this war. And who’s going to pay the price if we lose it.