In Stars: Part III
by: Asuka

The shuttle hold of Noquizvor's Reward was polished and in pristine condition; the exact opposite of the scratched and worn out flight deck used to store the x-wings and other starfighters.

Anagha preferred chaos to cleanliness. Granted everything had a place in the shuttle hold, and you always knew where to find something, but the flight deck had been tested several times over. There you knew things worked and didn't just look pretty.

Nothing could stay this perfect for long.

She smiled when she saw the extremes the mechanics had taken her orders to: Three matte black x-wings sat in the middle of the shinning metal deck with matching astromech droids. What parts couldn't be painted had been scratched up to prevent shine, and the flickering lights that gave the droids some semblance of life were now dimmed or turned off if possible.

Goldie leaned against the landing gear of one ship, unsuccessfully trying to make conversation with the owner of the boots dangling out of a small compartment in the nose of one of the x- wings. He had pulled his chin length hair into a tight ponytail at the nape of his neck to keep it out of his face during flight, and dark splotches of grease streaked his cheeks. With the excess of blasters, power packs, and weapons hanging from various straps attached to his black flight suit, he looked like a demented special ops reject from Wraith Squadron.

Anagha sighed and snorted to herself at the overkill, she shoved her small tightly packed satchel into luggage hold set just forward of the x-wing's engines. She trailed a hand along the keel as she walked towards the ship's bow, straining to hear her pilot's conversation.

Before she could reach them though, the pilot wearing the boots dropped expertly from the other x-wing's nose and turned to face her wingmate. "They took out the torps. And the lasers! They cut the power to the lasers on top of it! How do they expect us to defend ourselves if we don't have any proton torpedoes or guns?"

"I imagine we'll just have to use our wits and out run them if the occasion arises." Anagha allowed herself a small smile as she watched the female pilots- Leeni; she always had trouble with the newer recruit's names- turn a bright red. "Extra fuel was considered to be more valuable than defenses during the planning stages of this expedition, and cutting the lasers allows us to up the power to our sensor packets, so we can see any dangers and avoid them before our enemies can sense and exploit our weaknesses."

Which, Anagha continued to herself silently, wasn't much of a safety net considering much of Middle-Earth's defenses were based on magic, which, like the force, was damn near impossible for a machine to sense and register.

Goldie grinned as Leeni skipped protocol and didn't turn to salute her commanding officer. Instead, the girl continued to keep her back to Anagha, her shoulders tense as she continued to glare at the deck in front of her. "Friggin' stupid politicians, cutting costs and risking lives just to save money."

Goldie drew himself up to his full height, "The commander's the one that made the final decision, she wouldn't ask us to do..."

"Lt. Kenner." Anagha shot him a cutting glance and the pilot shut up, coming immediately to an attention. Ignoring him, she returned her eyes to the girl in front of her, slightly stunned by what she had heard Leeni mumble. "What was that I heard you say, Flight Officer Onoy?"

The girl finally turned around to face Anagha, and the firrerreo had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. Leeni's face was practically covered with the same dark grease Goldie had used on his cheeks. She glanced quickly at the man again, and saw that he had tucked his chin to his chest in an attempt to escape her eyes and was barely just managing to contain his own chuckles. Anagha rolled her eyes, why did she have to be surrounded by adolescents?

"I said that the politicians were risking our lives by cutting costs."

"If cutting costs on this mission helps the New Republic rescue one more person from a Yuuzhan Vong invaded world, then I, personally, believe it's worth the risk. Also, like I said before, by getting rid of the torpedoes we're able to carry more fuel- which will allow us to later rendivous with the Noquizvor's Reward, as it'll be jumping a tad bit further out-system after we launch."

Even Goldie's eyes widened at this unexpected bit of news. " But I thought you said the population wasn't technologically far enough...."

"That doesn't mean that they don't stargaze. This isn't the time of year for their meteor showers, and they'll notice if they suddenly gain a new satellite. Now get to your ships, we launch soon." She watched as they both started to trot off to their respective x-wings, "and Goldie?"


"Loose the blasters, this is a scouting expedition, not a combat mission." She closed her eyes for a second. "And if there's a rag handy, have Leeni wipe off her face. We don't, and won't, have time for jokes once we land."

Goldie groaned in response.


A horse wandered in the woods alone, grazing off of the patchy grass that grew in clumps wherever enough sunlight broke through the crowded tree branches above. It's leather saddle had slid to the side, held on only by a few torn and stretched braided cords that had once been a girth: the saddle-bags and rider had disappeared long ago.

The horse had become a slave to its hunger, forgetting the nightmarish scene it had been involved in only hours earlier at dusk. It nibbled at the weak and scrawny grass, missing the sweet meals of mixed feed that had been given to him daily before. It's nose quivered as it caught a familiar scent and it whickered softly to itself as it discovered a small pile of oats near a tall ash tree. It lipped at them, eating them quickly as soon as it decided that there was nothing wrong with them. Another pile was found shortly after the horse devoured the first, and yet another after the second. With each small pile it came closer to the tree, and the horse snorted in disgust when a fifth pile was not found waiting among the ash's roots.

It flicked it's ears at a small sound behind it, just the merest whisper of the wind in the fallen leaves, and turned it's head to find a hand spilling over with oats just beneath it's muzzle. Another hand, long with slender fingers just like it's twin, crept up to the horse's bridle, a soft ethereal voice whispering to it in an ancient tongue to calm it.

The horse only snorted to itself once again, caring nothing for the words or their meaning, wanting only the sweet pile of roasted grain in front of it.

Legolas Greenleaf stroked the beast's neck, his eyes trailing over the familiar cut of the tack. A Gondor message rider, judging by the low almost non-existent pommel and cantle. The leather tube that would normally carry any messages was gone though; broken hemp straps on the cantle the only testimony that a message had ever existed.

The elf sighed to himself, smiling only slightly when the horse pulled at his tunic in an attempt to find more oats. It had to have been a fairly important message for King Elessar, his old friend Aragorn, to have sent out a horse and rider. While horses were not as rare in Gondor as they had been a year ago, they were still too valuable of a resource to be wasted unwisely.

Another Elf, a member of his company, stepped up to his leader's side, "We found traces of an ambush several yards from here, but no trace of the rider: just some broken arrows and a few Orc bodies."

Legolas nodded and combed his fingers through the horse's mane in a half-hearted attempt to unravel the many knots and tangles. What had the message held? Had the King of Gondor sent it to warn Mirkwood of the very same danger Legolas meant to warn Gondor of?

It had been weeks since they had found the warrior in the woods, but it seemed like only days: so vivid was the memory of the deformed and decayed corpse in his mind. There had been tracks of others, at least twenty or thirty, but that wasn't what worried Legolas the most...

Somehow, the warriors had come and gone, passing by and sometimes trespassing on the borders of Mirkwood, and not a single guard had been aware of them.

The horse started suddenly: Legolas's firm grip on it's bridle and reins the only thing keeping it from bolting. It rolled its eyes in fear; it's nostrils wide from catching an unfamiliar scent. The tall elf started whispering to it again in an effort to calm it, wondering what in the world could have frightened it this time. He could hear nothing unusual on the wind, and they were completely alone in this part of the forest. He saw a few of his fellow elfs step out of the shadows in case he needed any help.

Something ahead of them and above them parted the leaves and branches of the forest canopy as easily as a canoe slipping through the current, giving them a brief view of the clear night sky pinpricked with stars before they were lost behind the curtain of endless leaves again. The warm breeze washed over them, thick with an invisible acrid smoke that burnt the mouth and nose with its bitterness.

Legolas saw three sleek black creatures, far larger than Gwaihir, the great eagle, yet smaller than the smallest of the legendary dragons, sweep overhead. Faded lights marked their wings and an eerie glow surrounded their hindquarters... then they were gone as quickly as they had come, disappearing into the night, the acrid scent in the air the only evidence of their passage.

He stared after them, barely noticing that the horse's bridle hung limply from his hand: the horse having torn itself free of it to escape the dark beasts. He dropped it finally and glanced at the members of his company who continued to stare at the sky stunned.

He ran, following the smell that was the only trail, the other elves falling quickly and equally quietly behind him.

Would Middle-Earth never have peace?

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