Dim red lights pulsed along the halls of the almost-derelict ship, lighting their intermittently. Many of the glowing strips had burned out, leaving several sections of walkway in deep, dangerous shadow.
Even without the optics of his helmet, Darrus could see without difficult. Darkness had never been a problem for him. Even as a child, night was far preferable to day. The day, especially on Coruscant, was painful. Bright agony. He'd was twelve years old when his mentors in the Academy got him his first pair of night lenses. Once he had them, he stopped weeping blood in the daylight.
In a place like this, he was grateful for his light sensitivity. There was little of it left, especially the deeper they all went into the Mandalore vessel. Beside him, Maya was obviously not so comfortable. She was tightly clinging to his hand, relying on him to lead her through the tangle of dark, broken corridors.
He kept his hand behind him, letting her hold on without making it obvious to the hunters in front of him that he was doing so. He was not entirely sure who they thought he was but Darrus doubted that handholding was a common occurrence among this lot.
Wat little he knew about this situation bore him out on that suspicion. These people were Mandaloreans... or at least they were using Mandalore technology and wearing the trappings of that ancient, military culture. Some of their body armor was new, other pieces were old or obviously salvaged. Their weapons were a mix of tech from all over the galaxy and no two men were armed the same.
What they lacked in uniformity they were more than making up for in training and discipline. They had the look of professional soldiers; that much suggested that they were at least familiar with the warrior's way of Mandalore. But something seemed odd, something that suggested that these people were not all their seemed... or perhaps more than they appeared.
In his mind's eye, he pictured Maya and used that connection to speak to her through thought. "I do not think these people are entirely Mandalorean. There's something strange going on."
She answered, her mind-voice softer and less controlled but still strong enough to be heard. "I agree. I feel a lot of unease about them. They aren't deceiving us... but they all seem to be part of some kind of self-deception. I can't explain it."
He nodded, more to reassure her than to express any kind of understanding. None of this made much sense to him and he was quite willing to admit Maya's expertise over his own when it came to people. "Who do you think they believe us to be?" Maya was empathic on a level he would likely never reach. She often had insights he did not. He appreciated her for that ability, even envied it slightly.
"Their reaction to you was genuine and I don't sense that they mean us any harm." She squeezed his hand reassuringly even as he helped her avoid a panel of sharp, ragged metal. "They are scared, not that they'll admit it. I can't really sense anything beyond that."
Fear was something Darrus understood. Fear and what it could make people do. This situation was starting to make a little more sense. As they walked, he reached out with his other hand and tapped the armored soldier in front of him on the thick, reinforced shoulder.
"Yes, sir?" The man's voice was slightly obscured by static, issuing from a small speaker in the front of his helmet.
Darrus asked in as calm a voice as he could, leaving the reverberator effect in his own helm off for the moment. "What happened here? Why is the ship so damaged?" It seemed like a simple enough question, general but to the point.
The soldier gestured to the warped walls as he answered. "The Telos IV exchange station was attacked a few hours ago. We were responding to the open distress call when we were jumped by a surprise attack. The..."
"They ambushed us, Exarch." That voice came from the front of the group ahead, the same man who'd addressed him before and told the others to hold their fire. "We got caught with our greaves down and the Battlelord paid for his failure with his life."
The leader of the Mandaloreans continued to press on as he spoke, answering Darrus succinctly with seemingly no emotion in his voice. "When the attack hit us, we lost our forward cruisers in the first volley. The Battlelord ordered all power to the main guns and returned fire on the attacking destroyer instead of rising deflector screens. We punched a hole clean through the enemy's main vessel..."
Darrus could tell there was more.
"...and then a drone fighter carrying a full rack of primed torpedoes rammed our bridge and killed the entire command staff. The flashback gutted us, taking out primary power, half our guns and detonating most of our charged ammo stores. Only Mandalore luck kept us in the star and not scattered between them, sir."
Darrus nodded, his face obscured by an armored mask similar to their own. "I see. And the ambush? How did you make it out?"
The men bristled, making Jeht think for a moment he'd chosen a poor question to ask.
"We survived because we were stronger than those cowards thought." The man's voice was ice-cold.
"Reassure them, Darrus. Take charge."
He turned on his vocalizer and let the sound module turn his voice into a grave-like rasp. "That's Exarch to you, soldier, and I wasn't questioning your skills. I wanted to know how you managed the jump to this system."
The sudden wrath in his modulated tone startled the men, shaking them all from their moment of hostility. Even the soldier in the lead was visibly cowed. "Forgive me, sir. Exarch. I misunderstood the question, sir."
"I want an answer, not an excuse. Can you provide it or do I need to give your rank to someone who can?" Darrus had been a general in the Clone Wars, commanding the finest soldiers in the galaxy for several years. If these men needed command, that was something he could provide. Behind him, he could feel Maya's surprise. She had never heard him like this before.
The soldier in the lead stopped and turned, stiffening to attention. "No, sir; I can and will answer your question. We were able to keep navigation and the hyderdrive engines online, sir. Once we repelled the ambush, every ship capable of pursuing them do so, sir!"
Darrus nodded, his dark silver armor gleaming like old blood in the flickering red light of the access corridor. "That is better. Carry on."
"Sir!" The man saluted with his fist to his chest and then spun on his heel. The passage through the halls was faster now, as if the men here now had something to prove. Darrus didn't mind the haste at all. Outside the battle might still be raging, especially if whomever had made that strange transmission on a Jedi frequency proved unable to call off the Rebel ships. The sooner they got to where they were going, the better.
"That was well done, Dar. I didn't know you could do that." Maya sounded impressed. Surprised but impressed.
He allowed himself a slight smile, knowing she could feel it but also glad no one else could see his face. He seldom let his emotions reach his expression... but Maya had a way of doing that to him. She was a lot like Trill that way.
Before his mind could go down that dark road, the world shook violently. The ship was taking hits. Lots of them...
"We need to hustle."
"No need, sir. We are already there." The soldiers between Darrus and the leader started to scatter into the room, taking up positions at computer stations and targeting screens. They had emerged into a well-armored command room, a secondary bridge located deep inside the vessel's bulkhead.
"Your orders, sir?" Even as the commander spoke, the other Mandaloreans were bring up tactical displays and charging weapon batteries. A large cylindrical holo-screen in the middle of the chamber showed their situation. All but three of the Mandalore ships were gone, overwhelmed by a large force between their location and the planet below.
Planet below? That didn't make any sense. The Rebel ships had been straight ahead, splitting to flank even as he and Maya were being pulled above. They hadn't been approaching from below. Besides, there were too many hostiles on that display, flying in a tight, oddly familiar formation. More than two dozen. Had the Rebels already gotten reinforcements? Or...
Darrus cussed under this breath, a bad habit he'd picked up from Marr-ek.
"Sir? What was that? Permission to fire?"
Darrus shook his head, the math in his mind coming up with some very ugly... and final... numbers. "Negative. Order the remaining ships to charge deflectors to full and jump on our mark."
The soldiers in their chairs reacted exactly like Darrus had assumed they would; all of them hesitated, turning to their commander in confusion.
"Sir? We may be outnumbered but we can die with honor..."
"We will fight them but not here." Darrus let the reverb in his helmet trail off into a spectral growl before continuing. "I want them to chase us this time, soldier. All the way back to Telos."
Darrus was gambling that one very important aspect of the station at Telos IV hadn't changed in the time he'd been asleep. If it was still the same stardock he remembered, it had one special feature not normally found in a repair/refueling point -a full array of fire linked, capital class turbolasers.
The total change in the commander's posture told him his bet had paid off. "I understand, sir! Send the command and set our course. Get us as close to Tee Four as possible. Now!"
Darrus nodded; the commander understood his strategy perfectly. "Send a tight comm as soon as we get there. I want the enemy to come out of hyperspace to a very warm welcome. Am I clear?"
"Sir, crystal, sir!" The commander ran across the room to the communications console and started seeing to the order himself.
As he did, Maya pulled Darrus aside as subtly as she could, concern in her eyes and an upset waver to her thoughts. "Darrus! We can't just gun down Rebel ships! Those pilots out there are innocent. They were only trying to help!"
Jeht rested his hand on Maya's shoulder, hoping his touch would calm her as it always did. It worked, to an extent. He could still sense her worry. Her panic. She cared so much about people. Sometimes, she cared too much. There would be times, probably sooner rather than later, when they would he to make hard choices and good people might end up hurt.
But this wasn't one of those times. "Maya, you need to trust me. The ships outside are not Rebels and they aren't innocent."
She stared at him a long while, not looking away even when their ship trembled and shook from the effort of lurching into hyperspace. She wanted to trust him but fear was making that hard. Fear of hurting former friends. Fear of good men dying. Fear of being responsible for it.
He stepped around the corner of the room's doorway and pulled her into his arms. "I know I am right. I can feel it, Maya. Please. Please, believe in the Force."
She buried her face in his armored chest, forcing herself to make a very hard decision. In the end, even if they were about to do something terrible, she had chosen her path longer before this moment. Nodding, she clung tight.
"I do. I believe... in you."