“Sir,” Wooley says, somehow combining both affirmation and unhappy question. He’s still holding himself awkwardly braced beneath Cody’s arm, and it’s uncomfortable, keeps pulling Cody off-balance and slowing him down, so Cody stops and risks falling over just so he can remove his bucket, resting his forehead against the side of Wooley’s. Wooley softens enough to lean into it, even though the bruising on his face must hurt.
“If it was just the general I’d probably have us run.” He pitches his voice so only Wooley can hear, because he can’t let on to anyone else just how dubious he feels about the orders he’s giving. But he needs Wooley fully on board to make this work, and Wooley needs this lesson in making the best of an *osik* situation. “Aside from refusing to wake up he seems sound enough—we could probably just throw him over somebody’s shoulder without causing damage. Probably. That’s definitely not the case with Bliss, which means either we leave him behind, or leave a trail that any half-competent tracker could follow with his eyes shut. I don’t like either scenario, so I’m going to follow General Kenobi’s frequent example and take the third option instead. Understood?”
Wooley releases a long shuddering breath, the remaining tension easing out of his shoulders. “Understood, sir. Sorry, sir.” He’s only a few months younger than Cody, but sometimes it feels like decades. Or what Cody imagines decades might feel like, at any rate.
“Nothing to apologize for, Sergeant. You’re just doing your duty, same as I am. I have a bit more experience, that’s all.” He can feel the pressure to move, to act, all the more because he has no real estimate for how long they have to prepare—but he allows himself one more moment to simply stand here with his brother, silently providing what scant reassurance is his to offer. Two moments; three. And then back on with his bucket and they finish navigating through the seats and sleeping bodies to join Sixer by the monitors. Wooley helps Cody drop into the empty pilot’s seat—a somewhat precarious maneuver with only one working arm and ankle—and goes to rouse his men, while Cody toggles himself back into the open comms channel. “Do we have an ETA, gentlemen?”
“Ten minutes, fifteen at most.” Waxer sounds out of breath but not panicked, and Cody’s sense of urgency drops several notches. “When we left, the local forces were still in town, unmounted. We’re climbing pretty much straight up, but they’ll need to go the long way around if they want to ride instead of walk. It’s a lot of vertical rocky terrain, so there’s really only one route they can take up without risking their animals.”
“Forty minutes if they really push it, sir,” Boil adds with a careful evenness that suggests he’s suppressing his own need to gasp a bit for air. “But from how shined-up they looked, I’m thinking they’ll be more careful. Fifty minutes, maybe a full hour—assuming they’re right behind us, but they seemed pretty cozy with the townspeople when we left.” It’s the first good news Cody’s had since Wooley told him they had breathable atmo.
“See you in ten, then.” A yawning Flare walks up and knocks on the back of Sixer’s bucket before putting his own on. “I need Sixer, so Flare’s taking comms and sensors. Check in every five minutes if you’re delayed, but otherwise run silent. Speed over stealth now.”
Cody switches his comm off entirely before removing his bucket and gesturing for Sixer to do the same. “Special mission for me, sir?” Sixer asks, half-joking. His eyes are shadowed with fatigue but still alert, and he moves easily enough when he drops into a crouch beside Cody. Fit for duty, despite everything.
“You could call it that,” Cody says and then explains, watching Sixer’s expression gradually shift from vague amusement to intense thought. From off towards the back of the cockpit come the noises of seats being hacked apart and reconfigured into something to suit their needs—Bravo team fulfilling their part of the plan. “I wish I had more men to send with you,” he says at the end of it. “But I need them all in case we have to exfil, and one or two wouldn’t make much difference against a platoon, anyway.”
“Likely not,” Sixer agrees, eyes still distant in thought. “Fewer might be better anyway, if we’re trying to avoid the appearance of a threat.”
They’re still hashing out contingency plans, Wooley having joined them once Bravo team finished demolition and started construction, when Waxer and Boil stumble up the ramp and into the cockpit. Waxer hesitates at the hatch, which is partly blocked by the detritus of Bravo team’s current task, bucket in hand and exhausted confusion on his face, but Boil shoves him forward and then keeps shoving until they can drop to the floor beside Sixer and Wooley. If Waxer weren’t so clearly winded Cody might raise an eyebrow over the lack of discipline, but right now he needs them both recovered as quickly as possible.
Instead, he cuts straight to the point. “Glad you could join us, gentlemen—give Flare your sensor data so that we can get a proper map compiled, and then let’s have a look at your recordings of the local forces.” They’d been thorough in their survey of the surrounding area, with few gaps in the compiled readings, and those explained almost entirely by impassable terrain. There aren’t many options for an evacuation route, which at least means it’s a brief discussion. The recordings of the soldiers waiting for them at the foot of the mountain are rather less satisfactory, but acceptable given the distances and stealth involved. Cody’s able to confirm Waxer’s estimated numbers, and even a mere two minutes of footage contains an enormous amount of information if only you can parse it out properly. “What do you see?” he asks, and sets the handheld holo-projector to run several times on a loop.
“They were expected,” Wooley says halfway through the third cycle. “And the townspeople know at least some of them personally—look, this soldier over here is being greeted in particular by the old man with a tooka, and the commanding officer and the woman who seems to be the spokesperson for the town don’t even bother saying hello to each other. It’s just straight to down to business.”
“The kids like them, too,” Waxer adds, breathing almost returned to normal. “They’re mobbing that one guy at the back of the formation and he’s happily handing stuff out to them. Candy, maybe. As far as they’re concerned, he’s a hero, and none of the adult townspeople look worried about it at all. Whatever the wider regional politics look like, this town trusts this platoon.”
Which is of some comfort, given that Cody’s preparing to entrust the safety of himself and his men—and his general—to the decency of these people. He glances towards the back of the cockpit, where Rivet and Bang-Bang are maneuvering Bliss into some kind of sling arrangement. Looks more than a bit precarious to Cody, but he’s delegated that particular task, so it’s not his worry until something goes wrong. General Kenobi’s still curled up against the bulkhead, exactly as Cody and Wooley had left him. *Any time now,* Cody thinks loudly in his direction, just in case it might make a difference, and turns back to the matter at hand.
“Come back in one piece,” is the extent of his motivational speech to Alpha team. He’s already said everything needed to Sixer, who nods impassively at him before shoving his bucket on. “*Oya.*”
“*Oya*”, they echo, and file out the hatch, exchanging shoulder thumps and clasped arms as they pass Bravo team. Waxer watches them go, clearly unhappy at being left behind, but Cody and the rest of the squad will need him as guide if everything goes wrong. And from the slightly awkward angle he’s holding himself at, he probably has an unconfessed cracked rib, or at the very least heavy bruising. Cody’ll have to give him the lecture about full disclosure of medical status before a mission and why it’s important—after they’ve gotten out of this particular situation. For now, he settles back in the pilot’s seat and switches his comm back on. No idle chatter this time, just the occasional “Watch your foot here,” or “careful, this bush has thorns”, which is exactly as it should be. Boil reports in at a few landmarks, but otherwise Cody finds himself watching the sensor display in near silence.
Wooley comes over after a little while to report that their supplies and casualties are prepped and ready for exfil, then folds himself down onto the floor beside Cody’s foot, back to the console so he can keep an eye on Bravo and the hatch. He carefully presses the bruise beside his eye, biting his lip at the pain, but after a brief hesitation pulls his bucket on anyway. A moment later Cody hears the faint click of him joining the channel.
Cody’s used to waiting—they all are—but there’s something different about this, a kind of forlorn hope that has it feeling more like a vigil than a watch. Makes him glad for the press of Wooley’s shoulder against his knee. They probably shouldn’t be leaning on each other quite so blatantly in front of Wooley’s squad, but when Cody glances behind him to where Bravo’s waiting, they’re intently focused down on Bliss and the general, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder around them, so it doesn’t really matter. Not in this particular case.
Twenty-four minutes later, Boil says, “I have eyes on the local forces,” and Cody can feel himself switch into combat mode, even though there’s nothing for him to do. Wooley glances up at him, must feel the change in tension, so Cody shrugs as apologetically as he can. It would probably be better if he could stay loose, like his sergeant somehow is, but after a year spent either in battle or prepping for the next one, his reflexes are pretty well set to hair-trigger.
“Confirmed.” Sixer sounds impassive. “They’re moving kind of slow, so we’ll hold for a minute before settling into position—I want to get a good look at them.” There’s another stretch of silence, and Cody finds himself counting heartbeats like when he was a cadet struggling to pass the various endurance requirements. “Boil will take left, Flare right. If it comes to a firefight, take down the unarmored lead animals and then find cover and work your way around to the rendezvous point, stealth over speed. I’ll either make it out or won’t, but your priority is exfil. The squad can’t afford to lose all three of us. Understood?”
Boil’s growled *understood* suggests like he’d rather cut off his own legs; Flare merely sounds uncertain. But Cody would guess of the two he’s the one more likely to disobey these orders—Boil’s seen battle often enough to understand that if the situation goes bad, Sixer’s probably already dead and there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s galling to be trapped back here, unable to actually *do* anything; even trying to rally Flare over comms would likely just make it worse—some things have to be done in person or not at all.
There’s another break that feels like forever but is probably about forty seconds. Then: “They appear to be standard human,” almost off-handedly. Though the facade drops when Sixer adds, “Wish me luck, Commander,” slightly too fast and with an audible hitch in his breathing.
“What little I have is yours, trooper,” Cody says, and gets only “He’s taken his bucket off, sir,” in reply from Boil.
“Understood.” Beside Cody, Wooley’s still seemingly at ease, but his hands have slowly balled up into tight fists. “Keep me appraised of the situation.” He presses his heel against Wooley’s hip; Wooley doesn’t look up, but flexes his fingers once and then relaxes them again to rest loosely against his thighs. When Cody glances to the back of the cockpit the rest of the squad are crouched close around the injured, braced as if they’ll need to make a sprint for it.
“They’re too far for me to pick up audio, but at least the locals have stopped advancing. Weapons out, but not aimed at Sixer.” Which is about as good as Cody had hoped—it’s more generous than he’d likely be as a commanding officer encountering a similar situation. “He’s talking pretty fast, looks like, but doesn’t seem to be getting much of a reaction.” Not ideal, but almost infinitely better than one of the alternatives. “No, wait, one of the guys at the back just dismounted and is walking towards Sixer. Doesn’t have a helmet, which is weird—everyone else does.”
Cody’s learned the hard way about jinxing a good thing, so he bites his lip until it starts to bleed again, forces his breathing to remain steady, calm. Listens to Boil’s half-guessed narration of this first meeting with an alien civilization. Sixer continues to avoid getting shot; several other soldiers dismount and cluster around him; Flare wonders out loud if maybe he and Boil could sneak closer so they could heard what’s going on. Boil smacks that down before Cody has to—though he’ll need to speak to Flare after, help him parse out when the laudable desire for information bumps over into reckless curiosity. The army needs to foster at least some degree of initiative from its soldiers, after all.
He’s hesitating over a brief word in that direction while they wait when Sixer finally breaks back into the channel. “Sir,” he says, sounding like he’s just run to Coruscant and back--all the way through exhausted and light-years past the other side, “they’ve agreed to provide us with medical aid and at least temporary shelter while our injured men recover. We’ll have to surrender our weapons for the trip down to the nearest city, but once you’re able to give your parole directly to the emperor, the captain expects we’ll get them back.” No duress codes, no indication that Sixer thinks it’s anything other than a sincere offer.
Cody has to take a moment to close his eyes and simply breathe, exhaustion striking him like a blow, every muscle twanging from the near-instant release of tension. “Tell him yes, Sixer. And thank you.” From behind him comes a subdued but fervent *Oya!*, and then Wooley’s giving him a hand up and out of the seat so Pen has access to power down the functional parts of the ship. “We’ll be coming down to meet you.”