“Remember to stay low and head through the south canyon. That should bring you right into the blind zone of the ion cannons,” the transmitted voice of Commander Kai patched through.
The pilot, CT-5439, responded, “Only caught the back end of that, Commander.”
“You know the drill anyway, right?”
Every clone on the dropship responded, “Aye.”
CT-0178, the oldest ARC trooper in the unit, was on his twentieth curl-up from a bar he had riveted into this dropship. His heels came within millimeters of nicking Red, who manned the cannon. It was a late-war model gun, retrofitted to a mount on the troop bay’s floor; it had been scrapped for extensive, irreparable damage to the right ball turret and its hardpoint. This ship was listed in a junkyard, and every detail of it had been legitimately documented—except for its secret removal after several years.
The ship made a turn in the canyon. Red caught a glimpse of the mountain from the side: one enormous plateau had been cleaved into two chunks. One chunk was barren wilderness. The other housed a droideka manufacturing plant. Red didn’t even have to use his helmet HUD, he could see the ion cannons anyway.
The spectacle vanished in a second, with another turn. The maneuvering had begun. The pilot went fast and low; the landscape underneath was uninhabited wilderness. It took dozens of turns, but when CT-5439 eased off the throttle and into the hover, Red’s feet were about 10 meters off the ground—just enough to account for the thick canopy of Phanxian Trunks rising from the ground. These were present across the whole planet, and their properties had been memorized twice by every trooper present. Red had even learned The Phanx for peaceful access to the corresponding files.
“Go, go, and good luck team!” was Commander Kai’s final message. He just had to sit back and watch the fireworks.
The ropes had already descended to the ground, secured with mechanisms as durable as they were makeshift.
Red was halfway to the floor when CT-4772, colloquially recognized as Sarge, gave his first order, “Maintain spacing, and haul ass.”
“Yes sir!” the troopers eagerly replied.
They dashed through the forest of branchless, leafless organisms, boots barely making a sound on the rough rock of Phanx. This was thanks to the extensive training of the clones, not the clumsy composite. The squad moved deftly, brains governed equally by simulated knowledge and hard-fought experience. Red deactivated the safety on his DC-15—his was the best piece in the squad, a prototype with a faster rate of fire. Red carried spare power packs instead of the droid poppers the rest of the platoon had opted for.
Suddenly, heavy blast bolts whizzed through the trees in front of Red. He instinctively sidestepped to the safety of the nearest trunk; instantly, streaks of oppressive red dominated the space he vacated.
“Rockets!” Came Sarge’s yell. It was followed by a scream, transmitted through a helmet at the final moment. Red peeked out and fired off a couple blasts, ducking back when the fire slowly redirected at his exposed head. Droidekas had a lot of firepower, but their tactics were lacking. Yet they seemed to have sensed us coming, how?
Red’s thoughts were broken up by a duo of high powered rockets launched from the clones’ half of the forest. The missiles flew past charred trunks, some nearly falling from the destruction. The unit of four droidekas didn’t even react as the ground between them erupted in a fireball. Trunks were dislodged, and the droids were utterly demolished. The twin craters were strewn with seared pieces of what had once been the second most formidable type of droid, by the ARC troopers’ collective agreement.
“By the books,” a trooper cheered.
“It’s all sims now, 178!” someone reacted.
Red scoffed—the old clone, almost two years aged, was still cracking jokes.
“By the books, huh?” A raspy voice spoke on the channel.
“Commander, is that you? Our reception is shoddy, sir,” Sarge relayed. “In any case, all I have to say is that we’ve cleared out the first batch of droids. Definitely by the books; we just used the classic rocket strategy.”
The raspy voice cleared its throat, and suddenly became crystal clear. “DIE!” As it roared, the troopers turned to their designated angles. The droideka ambush only killed two, so the confidence of the ARC troopers was unwavering—until they saw him.
Yellow skin, marked by extensive black tattoos. The head was topped by a group of horn-like protrusions, a pair of which were broken off near the base. The two eyes beamed with yellow irises. The piercing glare paled in comparison to the sight of a double-sided red lightsaber. The warrior threw it with a simple motion of his hand. It cut the torso of one trooper in half, nearly decapitated the ducking CT-0178, and left a grisly cut in the arm of Red. The wound cauterized on impact, and Red gritted his teeth: there had been worse.
That’s when he felt a strange force around his head. The pressure increased tenfold, as if someone was tightening a chokehold on him. He saw dark spots in his vision, and heard volley, upon volley, of blaster fire. His vision suddenly cleared up. He choked and gasped for air, throwing off his helmet. His ginger hair, a supremely rare defect, touched the purple grass. He picked up his rifle reflexively, and aimed it at—he searched for targets.
Then he felt something in his gut, and watched a lightsaber beam emerge, a sickening crimson. It slashed upward.