Chapter 3

9 years later - 3,964 BBY.

Carth Onasi sighed as he heard the scramble alarm go off again. The Republic had been expecting a Mandalorian attack upon the Duro system ever since the Mandalorians had invaded the Republic three months earlier at Onderon. Before then, the two rival powers had been sparring with each other for almost three years, but with only a few full-scale battles being waged. Most of the action had been limited to skirmishes and police actions, with many prominent war leaders and politicians believing that the Mandalorians would never dare to directly attack the Republic. In hindsight, however, it was painfully obvious that Mandalore the Ultimate had merely been testing the resolve and ability of the Republic to defend itself - and had found it lacking.

He glanced into a mirror as he ran outside, taking in his image. Almost two meters tall, with brown hair, a goatee, and brown eyes, he looked the typical Republic career soldier. Having joined the TDF (Telosian Defense Force) ten years previously, he had transitioned to the Republic Navy when the Mandalorian armadas began probing Republic space in the Taris system. His record cited numerous instances where he had shown great courage, leadership, and initiative, leading to a promotion to Squadron Leader in the Mid-Rim Defense Fleet under fellow Telosian Rear Admiral Saul Karath.

As he ran down the corridor to the hanger where his Aurek starfighter lay berthed, his thoughts flashed back to the Battle of Serroco, when he had last seen action against the Mandalorians. Huh, Slaughter of Serroco's more like it, he thought grimly. The Republic fleet there under Saul Karath had not been prepared for the measures the Mandalorians were willing to take to ensure that an enemy was incapacitated. The higher-ups had ordered Admiral Karath to place military complexes next to the Stereb and human cities upon the planet's surface, assuming that the Mandalorians wouldn't dare strike at the bases for fear of killing civilians in the cities. Mandalore the Ultimate proved them wrong; disgusted at what he perceived to be an "honorless and cowardly" defense, he had ordered the destruction of 27 Republic camps with nuclear warheads, annihilating the adjacent cities in the process. What made the defeat even more biting, in Carth's opinion, was that Admiral Karath had received a warning from a rogue Jedi Padawan named Zayne Carrick that the Mandalorians were planning on destroying the cities. Instead, Saul had thrown Carrick in the brig due to the warrant for his arrest for murder - a charge which Carth had known was baseless, but Karath had not listened to him.

Both having come from the same planet - Telos - Carth was close to Karath, who was more like a father figure than a superior officer. Their friendship did not blind Carth to Saul's weaknesses, however - Saul's pride and hardheadedness had caused him to ignore Carth's protests as to Carrick's innocence, and as a result millions of Republic soldiers and Serroco civilians had died. Carth was determined to see that it would not happen again.

He ran into the hanger, following on the heels of his fellow squadron members as they ran to their fighters. Pausing for a moment, he admired the sleek Aurek - a slender fighter that was vaguely shaped like a W. Armed with two heavy laser cannons and two proton torpedo launchers, it possessed a great balance between speed and weaponry. He quickly climbed the ladder on the side, clambering into the cockpit. He slid into seat, and promptly began running preflight checks. As he briefly checked his weapons readouts, his eyes fell over the picture of his family he had placed along the side of the cockpit. His lips twitched upward into a smile, as he thought of his wife Morgana and their son, Dustil. Dustil must be almost ten years old by now, he thought. I haven't seen them in six months; I'll have to make time for that next time I'm near Telos.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of Flight Control's insistent queries. "Blue Leader, what is your status?"

"Blue Leader, all systems green and ready to go, Flight Control," he replied.

"Very well, Blue Leader. Prepare for battle - and may the Force be with you."

"Yes sir," he replied cheerfully, but inside he was seething. May the Force be with you, indeed. His irritation stemmed not from the intent behind the well-wish, but rather in the actions of the inspiration - or rather, the inaction of those who inspired it. Ever since the war had started, the Republic had been begging the Jedi to enter the war with the Republic, but to no avail - the Jedi refused to enter the war. The official reasons was that participation in the war was outside of their mandate, but scuttlebutt had it that the Jedi were being paranoid conspiracy theorists who believed that another force was manipulating the war for the express purpose of eradicating the Jedi. Preposterous, thought Carth. Even if somebody wanted to destroy the Jedi, who could? It's not as if the Sith were back, was it?

Despite the reluctance of the Jedi Council to enter the war with the Republic, there were several Jedi who were insistent that their place was at the front lines. The most prominent of these, an enigmatic Jedi Knight known as the Revanchist, had recently been featured on the news, making some sort of speech as to how the Jedi had a duty to halt the Mandalorians, not hide away in their academies and temples and meditate. Carth was inclined to agree; his father had fought in the Great Sith War against Exar Kun and had told Carth many stories about the Jedi he had seen fight in that war. Names such as Duron Qel-Droma, Nomi Sunrider, and Thon were commonly heard around the Onasi household.

Carth barred such reminiscences from his mind, knowing that a wandering mind was as good as a death sentence in battle. His Aurek starfighter rose from the hanger floor, and quickly shot out through the atmosphere-retaining magnetic shield into the black void that was space - void, that is, save for the orbital cities of Duro, the 150-ship strong Republic fleet that was there to protect them, and the Mandalorian fleet that was coming out of hyperspace to attempt to claim them as their own. Carth frowned as he glanced at his combat display - he could only see about 30 or so Mandalorian capital ships in the system. That's quite a small fleet - nowhere near the size needed to capture this system. What's going on here?

The Republic fleet surged forward to meet the Mandalorians, over 70 Hammerhead-class cruisers and 80 Foray-class blockade runners moving forward to meet the Mandalorian fleet. Most prominent, however, was the Inexpugnable-class command ship Swiftsure that was the flagship of Rear Admiral Saul Karath. Mixed in with the capital ships were the hundreds of Aurek-class starfighters that Captain Onasi was tasked with leading against the Basilisk War Droids that the Mandalorians were so fond of using. As the fighters approached the enemy, Carth opened up communications. "Blue Squadron, on me. We're going to go pile the road in Sector H. Red Squadron, stay with the fleet as a fighter screen. Green squadron, you're on missile duty. Don't let what happened at Serroco happen here."

A chorus of "Ayes" and "Affirmatives" echoed in Carth's ear piece as he mentally evaluated what would happen next. His Blue Squadron would follow him into the teeth of the Mandalorian fleet, hopefully knocking out some cruisers while the Basilisks went to play with Red Squadron. Green Squadron would patrol Duro's air space, keeping an eye out for any nuclear missiles that the Mandies had brought to the party.

Carth flew through the enemy fleet, dodging any shots fired toward him. He approached a Jehavey'ir-type assault ship, weaving through the scatter of lasers that it threw his way. Launching a proton torpedo, he watched it shatter one of the ships' forward turbolasers before turning to look for more targets. Suddenly, his comm opened with a burst of static. "Attention, Blue Squadron! Mandalorian ships spotted coming out of hyperspace! Get out of there now!"

Carth turned his fighter toward the Republic fleet, which was attempting to reposition itself toward the new threat. He felt his jaw drop as his tactical display informed him of what appeared to be half the blasted Mandalorian fleet coming out of hyperspace over Duro's north pole, in a perfect position to trap the Republic fleet between itself and the original Mandalorian fleet, as well as placing it in an excellent position to bombard the orbital Duros cities. As he boosted power to his engines, driving himself through space toward where Green Squadron was being overwhelmed by Basilisk war droids, he thought, Intel really messed up this time - we had no idea they were coming! He glanced at his tactical display again, noticing how many Republic ships were no longer on the board. Red Squadron had been reduced by almost 35%, while many of the Hammerhead-class cruisers were showing severe damage. The Swiftsure was relatively undamaged, its superior armor and shielding protecting it from the worst of what the Mandalorians could throw at them.

Green Leader was in trouble, and he knew it. What had originally been a quiet assignment with little chance of danger or combat had suddenly turned into a fight for survival with the arrival of the new Mandalorian fleet. Fleet Command had been taken completely by surprise, not having considered the possibility of the Mandalorians showing any tactical or strategic sense beyond "shoot the enemy until it stops moving." That arrogant mind set had possibly cost the Republic the battle, and Green Squadron was paying the price. Already, almost half of his 300 fighters had been annihilated, and the remainder was desperately fighting to hold on until their position could be reinforced by the remnants of the Republic fleet.

His proximity alarm blared, jerking Green Leader out of his frustrations. A Basilisk was on his tail, and from what he could determine, the pilot was a good one. Matching every one of his moves, the pilot was gradually boxing him in for the killing shot. The Basilisk, looking for anything like a giant bear - an incredibly agile bear with a fondness for laser cannons and shatter missiles - drove from behind, its laser cannons spitting green death at him. In an attempt to throw off his pursuer, Green Leader killed his thrust, hoping to cause the Basilisk to overshoot him and present a target. This was apparently exactly what the pilot of the Basilisk had been hoping for, similarly reducing speed and coming down RIGHT ON TOP of Green Leader's Aurek fighter, grabbing the wings with its grappling arms. Green Leader looked up, just in time to see the Basilisk's pilot salute at him as the grappling claws began to rip the fighter apart. Oh, Sithsp-

Canderous Ordo's face was stuck in a huge grin as the Aurek fighter he had just captured was torn into fragments by his Bes'uliik, or "Iron Beast." The thrill of battle was burning like a flame in his chest, made all the sweeter by the combat he had just experienced. It felt good to stretch his legs once in a while, directly participating in combat rather than directing a battle from the bridge of a cruiser or from a command center.

In Canderous' experience, Republic fighter pilots were as a rule not very good, at least by Mandalorian standards. The pilotof the fighter he had just destroyed, while not much better, had been enough of an improvement to provide a worthy challenge of his skills. Unfortunately for the pilot, though, his best had not been good enough. Twisting his Basilisk around to rid himself of any remaining Aurek pieces, he began to scan the area, looking for another opponent worthy of his abilities.

Aboard the Swiftsure, the atmosphere was one of controlled chaos, with a forecast of full-blown panic in the near future. The only calm area to be found was upon the bridge, where analysts frantically tried to salvage the battle from the disaster that it had just become, gunnery officers plotted firing solutions, Admiral Karath yelled out orders, and a Jedi meditated. Despite the Jedi Council's official pledge of non-interference, a few Jedi had been attached to the fleet as medics, diplomats, or observers. Female, with long black hair, painfully attractive features, and a body that bespoke of countless hours spent in physical training, she had been attached to Admiral Karath's battle group by the Coruscant Council, as part of an assignment to analyze the Mandalorian threat in the Mid-Rim. She was a Sentinel, a Jedi troubleshooter whose abilities were almost evenly balanced between combat, Force powers, and hands-on skills. Right now, she was probing the battle with the Force, in an attempt to discern any useful information that Karath could use to salvage the fight.

Admiral Karath turned to her, bemusement in his eyes. "Well, Jedi, is the Force giving you as many ideas for saving the day as it did at Serroco?"

The Jedi turned to face him, her green eyes meeting Karath's dark brown. "I was not at Serroco to help you with your war, Admiral Karath. Despite my desire to help, the Council has forbidden the Jedi from taking any active roles in the Republic fleet. Nevertheless, in the interest of saving lives, I can advise you as such: This is a battle that you cannot win, Admiral, not with the forces at your disposal. I am no strategist, but I know that 98 ships-" the tactical board flashed - "97 ships cannot hold off an armada of over 500 Mandalorian cruisers. I would advise that you retreat from this battle, cutting your losses and increasing the chance that your men can fight another day under more even footing."

Admiral Karath nodded. "My sentiments exactly, Master Purcel. Unfortunately, Republic High Command will only see that we have lost Duro, not the fleet that took it."

Jedi Padawan Yeon Purcel blushed. "I am no master, Admiral. I am merely a Padawan Learner, sent here by Master Kavar to observe and protect."

Admiral Karath's brow furrowed. "Another debate, for another time." He turned to his tactical officer. "Lieutenant, send a broadcast to all ships: Full Retreat. We've lost this fight, but we'll come back."

"Yes, Admiral," the lieutenant replied. He sent out the signal, causing the Republic ships to disengage and withdraw. Purcel glanced out the viewport, watching the Mandalorian Basilisks fall like meteors upon the orbital cities of Duro. Her musings were interrupted when the security officer announced the presence of boarders. Apparently, while they had been disengaging, a Mandalorian drop ship had penetrated the hanger, hoping to cause as much devastation aboard the Swiftsure as was possible. Karath turned to Purcel. "Padawan, I know that your order refuses to help the Republic fight against the Mandalorians," this was said with enough sarcasm that Purcel knew that Admiral Karath was bitter about it, "but I fear that my security team will be unable to repel the boarders alone. Would you help them in doing so?"

Padawan Purcel did not hesitate. "I would be honored to assist your men, Admiral."

"Good luck, Padawan."

Carth Onasi was having one hell of a day. First, his squadron was decimated by a fleet that Republic Intelligence claimed was nowhere near the Duro system, then when he landed aboard the Swiftsure, he was greeted by twenty blue-clad Mandalorians who had tried to take his head off with a enormous repeating blaster that they had somehow carried aboard a drop shipand mounted in such a place as to shred any soldier who so much as peeked into the hanger. He took cover behind a cargo crate, inwardly cursing his lack of body armor. On the plus side, he never went into any combat, space-born or on the ground, without his trusty Onasi heirloom blaster pistols, so he was at least armed. Another laser flew by his head, and Carth flinched. Inching toward the side of the crate, he suddenly stood and let loose a flurry of blaster bolts toward the Mandie controlling the heavy repeater. That blasted armor they wore held up to more fire than it had any right to, but the wearer finally went down when a bolt flew into his visor, instantly killing him. Carth ducked behind his crate again, just in time to avoid being turned into an Onasi barbecue by the seemingly solid wave of light energy sent flying his way by the remaining soldiers.

Realizing that they would never end this in the manner they were fighting, several of the Mandalorians holstered their blasters and drew their vibroswords, intent on finishing the Republic soldier the old-fashioned way.As they began to approach the crate, they were interrupted by a peculiar sound: a sort of snap-hiss. The Mandalorians looked at each other in confusion, then turned around to see a Jedi, of all things, standing in the entrance to the hanger, an ignited yellow lightsaber in her hand, and twenty-five soldiers flanking her, all with blasters pointed at the Mandalorians.

The Padawan's voice rang out loud and clear. "In the name of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, I order you to stand down and surrender." Her eyes flashed with conviction as she practically dared the Mandalorians to do otherwise.

The Mandalorians looked at each other. Apparently coming to the same conclusion, they simultaneously tapped their forearms, activating their Mandalorian Power Shields, and charged the entrenched Republic soldiers. The soldiers began firing upon the charging Mandalorians, whose shields held up until they reached the Republic soldiers and Padawan Purcel. At this time, the enormous disparity between the quality of Mandalorian body armor and weapons and the Republic equivalent became painfully and bloodily obvious. Heads rolled, blood spurted, and sparks flew as the Mandalorian soldiers chopped their way through the Republic blockade.

Padawan Purcel blocked a sword-strike with her lightsaber – the cortosis woven into the sword preventing her lightsaber from simply cutting right through the blade -, twisting her wrists in such a way that her blade came around the handle guard and lopped off the Mandalorian's hand at the wrist. Grunting with pain, the Mandalorian brought up his left hand and aimed a forearm-mounted blaster at her, but before he could shoot she brought up her own hand and pushed, sending the soldier flying into the opposite wall. Man, she thought, these guys are tough! Already, her squad had been reduced by twelve men, while only six of the nineteen Mandalorians had been killed or incapacitated. Another Mandalorian struck at her, forcing her to scramble to avoid - was that a woman? - the soldier's furious blows. Finding an opening, she lunged forward and drove her lightsaber through the female warrior's left armpit, piercing her heart and killing her instantly. Purcel rolled away into a warrior's crouch, her black hair flying, - to find all of her squad dead, and ten very, very angry Mandalorians glaring at the only obstacle between them and their way out of the hanger. Purcel swallowed, knowing that she was facing her death, but ready to bring as many of the Mandalorians with her as possible.

The whine of activating repulserlifts drew everybody's attention. What with all the combat, the Mandalorians had apparently forgotten the Republic soldier they had been fighting earlier. During the struggle, Carth had gotten back into his fighter, and now that there was no risk of hurting fellow Republic soldiers (due to them being already dead), he had turned on his ship and pointed its laser cannons at the clustered group of Mandalorians.

"Attention, stupid Mandalorians! Would you please enter the hanger to receive your complimentary beatdown?" shouted Carth through his fighter's communicator. As if to punctuate his statement, the hanger door closed, locking the Mandalorians, Carth, and Purcel in the hanger. Sensing defeat, but unwilling to surrender and bring dishonor to their clans, the Mandalorians charged Carth's fighter, only to be disintegrated by a volley of laser fire that even the durable beskar was unable to stand up to.

Deactivating his repulserlifts, Carth Onasi's Aurek lowered to the deck. He climbed out, wincing at the sight of the Mandalorian remains. He walked over to Purcel, who was making a valiant effort to retain her lunch. Her face pale, she looked up at Carth. "If this is how their recruits fight, what must their leaders be like?"

"I don't know," replied Carth, "but from the looks of things, I think we'll be finding out." He glanced out the window, to be greeted by the spectacle of dozens of destroyed fighters and capital ships. They disappeared, replaced by the swirling blue of hyperspace as the Swiftsure made the jump away from Duro.