Ral'Rai Muvunc rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day, and it was by no means over yet. He took a swig of his stimcaf, and grimaced as he realised it was stone cold. Nothing offended his palate more than cold stimcaf.
Gathering himself, he glanced down at the interview agenda. One last candidate organisation was on the list, the Nova Dragons. Who? He thought. Well, they had been recommended by Rryrkk, the Wookie agent based on Drex IV. He wasn't exactly wild about giving out recommendations, so maybe Project Hammer had a fighting chance after all.
Ral'Rai looked at the other members of the interview panel. Commodore Shammaa was a Mon Calamari, forced upon him by Admiral Ackbar. Ackbar was a great naval tactician, Ral'Rai had no doubts there, but his unwillingness to countenance a privateering operation, which would certainly tie up Imperial military assets as well as hopefully provide the types of supplies that the Rebel Alliance found in short supply, left Ral'Rai confused in the extreme. All the operational projections pointed towards a positive outcome. And Ackbar would always present his opposition:
"We are going to be recruiting pirates. Have you any idea of the harm that could do to our cause? The Empire would have a field day. They already accuse us of being criminals; to put this crazy plan of yours into operation can only blacken our name with the non-aligned worlds. The last thing we need is accusations of massacres of the innocent. Mark my words, that's all this 'privateering' venture of yours will bring."
And that would be that. Ral'Rai had had to use all his influence with Mon Mothma just to get this far, and the candidates to date He found himself on the verge of agreeing with Ackbar! Pirates the lot of them. Admittedly a couple had offered to provide their own ships, but the background information provided by Alliance Intelligence, together with a more than suspect attitude as evidenced by their interview performance had left no choice but to politely refuse their offers.
The other panel member was Ambassador Melina Fordrell, a human female, an Alderaanian female to be exact. She was more sympathetic to Ral'Rai's point of view, but he couldn't help but wonder if the depth of sadness at the destruction of her homeworld still clouded her judgement. On at least two occasions so far today she had voiced support for candidates Ral'Rai wouldn't have trusted with Bantha poo-doo! He could see why, they had voiced calls for "operational freedom", to his mind thinly veiled requests for the sanctioning of piracy. However distasteful, the urge for revenge was difficult to resist. His plan called for a strictly limited area of operation with a carefully drawn up list of acceptable (and unacceptable) targets. It had been one of the few times he'd had support from the Mon Cal.
"Muvunc," bubbled Shammaa, "Have you finished with that report on these Nova Dragons? I wish to review it one last time before we start."
Ral'Rai passed the datapad over to the Mon Cal, before turning to Melina, who sat to his left.
"You have reviewed the submission by the Nova Dragons, Ambassador?" Ral'Rai's question was rhetorical for he had seen Melina with the datapad earlier. "I believe they have sent their leader " he glanced down briefly at his notes, " Kethan Falor, to answer our questions. What do you make of them?"
Melina Fordrell turned to face Ral'Rai, "Well, Minister, everything seems to be in order, though financially they appear to be paupers, and I am concerned that Rryrkk saw fit to note that they have been subject of a bounty. I think that's an area we should explore during the interview. In their favour they do seem to have a good mix of races in the unit. That always plays well on the holonews bulletins."
Ral'Rai rolled his eyes. If Melina wasn't thirsting for revenge in any of its grisly forms, she was planning a media campaign! Whilst Ral'Rai knew well the benefit of propaganda, he also knew that the Empire wouldn't fall to mere words, it would take the sacrifice of many brave men and women, it would take fleets of starships and it would require the supplies an operation like Project Hammer could supply. Why was he the only one that could see the value?
He glanced at his chrono, then at Shammaa. The Mon Cal was still engrossed in the report. Ral'Rai had entertained thoughts of dinner with his wife at the end of these interviews. He chuckled to himself, breakfast might still be an outside possibility!
Ral'Rai tapped to intercom, "Tomar, could you send in Mr Falor, please."
A simple click acknowledged receipt of the request. A few seconds later the door to the interview room opened and Tomar led in the last interviewee.
Ral'Rai stepped in front of the broad desk, to be able to move forward and greet the new applicant. As he watched, Kethan Falor didn't so much walk into the room as unfold into it. He towered above everyone in the room, Ral'Rai estimated his height to be well in excess of two metres, tall even for an Etti. He also noted the relative youth in the man's face and movements. "Beggars can't be choosers for ever," he thought. Ral'Rai extended his hand in greeting.
"Thank you for coming, Mr Falor." Ral'Rai was surprised by the firmness of the grip returned in his handshake. Despite his immense height, Falor was as slender as a Corellian vine. "I apologise for the long wait, I'm sure you understand that we have had a number of applicants."
The tall man shrugged, "No problem," he said, "I only jumped in this morning, I'm still on Cuirass time, so it's not really that late for me."
"Please take a seat, and we'll make a start"
The Etti carefully coiled himself into the indicated chair with the relaxed manner of a man well used to ill-suited furniture.
Ral'Rai resumed his seat behind the desk.
"Before we go any further, let me introduce my colleagues, Commodore Shammaa of Alliance Naval Command," he gestured first to the Mon Cal, "and Ambassador Melina Fordrell, from the Alliance High Command" and then to the human.
The Ambassador indicated that she would like to begin the interview herself, with an imperious wave of her hand.
"Mr Falor, could I ask a personal question to start?" asked the Ambassador.
A slight frown briefly creased Kethan's brow. "By all means ask." he replied, his tone implying that he reserved the right to answer depending on the nature of the question.
The Ambassador flushed slightly, but carried on anyway. Ral'Rai toyed with the idea of cutting across her, but decided against it. Maintaining a united front was important, plus you never quite knew where the Ambassador would go with her questioning. She had proven to be quite capable of ferreting out those tiny details that made all the difference in situations such as this.
"I have met many Etti in my travels, and not a single one has ever appeared in public with short hair "
Ral'Rai was barely able to suppress his incredulity. We bring this guy halfway across the Galaxy, and she has to ask him about his hairstyle!
" yet you arrive today with a crew cut. Could I ask why?"
Kethan sat slowly back in the chair and absently rubbed a finger under his nose, as if searching for the words to form a polite rebuttal. Ral'Rai watched intently, moments like this could prove very revealing. He should have realised that the Ambassador had extensive experience of a wide range of cultures. Cultural mores could be highly indicative of motivation.
"It is indeed true that my people wear their hair long. It is an inherent part of our culture." Kethan began slowly. "When more and more of our land was turned into estates for the Emperor's cronies, when many of my friends were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the latest Moff's Palace, that was when I, along with a group of friends, decided to cut our hair. We were barely out of our teens at the time, it seemed a radical thing to do. We didn't exactly have access to blasters, or, quite frankly, the will to make a violent protest. I've kept it that way these past five or so years, to remind me of the pillaging of my homeworld. It'll stay that way until Etti is free."
Ral'Rai glanced sidelong at the Ambassador. "Nice job", he thought. "An oblique way to test his resolve and his motivation."
Commodore Shammaa was clearly not as taken with the line of questioning. "Mr Falor, I see from our records that you and your unit have been the subject of a bounty. As these are generally reserved for criminals, would you care to comment?"
Ral'Rai cringed. Okay, the subject area needed to be broached, but this early?
It was clear from the shifting in his seat that Kethan was uncomfortable with the sudden change in direction. Ral'Rai, reviewed his hasty judgement of the Mon Cal. Hadn't he, himself, spent long, long hours only to discover the candidate before him was a pirate, or at best charlatan? A candidate the Mon Cal had been suspicious of from the very start.
Kethan's composure returned as quickly as it had departed. Ral'Rai noted a steely resolve appear in the tall man's eyes, one that had seemed absent earlier.
"Yes, Commodore, your information is quite correct. I recall it was posted at 10,000 credits per head. Let me tell you a little story. There was once a struggling mercenary group, they'd done a bit of work, for some shadowy organisation," inwardly Kethan winced at his words, but he had been stung by the Mon Cal's inference that the Nova Dragons were little more than criminals. A still, calm voice echoed through his mind "Anger leads to the Dark Side, Kethan. Remember my lessons." The voice was that of his long dead Jedi mentor, Jerol Manteth.
Kethan felt the calming influence of the Force settle comfortably around him. He continued in a more even tone.
"We were looking for a longer term contract, some regular income. A Twi'lek offered us a shipping run, with the promise of more if that went well. So I agreed. It turned out he was trying to get us to run slaves for him."
Commodore Shammaa interrupted, "So you confess to slave running! I think we've heard enough!"
"Commodore, please!" There was irritation evident in Ral'Rai's voice. "Let the man finish before you condemn him out of hand. I'm sorry Mr Falor, please continue."
Ral'Rai studied the effect of the Mon Cal's outburst. He was more than a little surprised to see that the thin man was still looking calm, serene almost.
"Thank you, Minister. As I said, we discovered early on that he was trying to get us to run slaves. If there is one thing I can't abide, and all the other members of the unit at that point were in total agreement on this, it's slavery. My people may have delivered themselves into slavery to the Empire, but that doesn't make this barbaric practice right. I persuaded them that we would do the job, I had to prevent Chaide, that's Lieutenant Commander Walker, from walking out on me there and then AND starting a firefight with the slavers representatives. Neither action seemed the right way to protect the poor unfortunates who'd been dropped into our laps. As if that wasn't enough, the four slaves who were now on board went ballistic, seeing the opportunity to escape."
He paused and scanned slowly across all three. "Have you ever tried to talk a Wookie down from throttling someone?"
Blank looks attested that they had not.
"It isn't easy, but sometimes you get lucky." Kethan shrugged. "All four of those slaves are still integral parts of the Nova Dragons today. We didn't just not deliver those slaves, we tracked down one of their bases and freed a whole lot more slaves. I won't bore you with the details of how we really upset them. Nor of how we were able to get them removed. Some things in life you do, you do them because they are necessary, not because they make you proud"
Kethan paused, almost as if drained by the recollection of what seemed to Ral'Rai to have been a disturbing series of events.
"I think your mind has been suitably eased, Commodore." Melina Fordrell's words were more a statement than an enquiry. She turned back to Kethan, "Thank you your candour. I think you realise we are looking for people with integrity and honour but also a willingness to do what must be done, even at the personal cost of that self same honour."
Kethan nodded, perhaps this would work out after all.
"Now that's all settled, perhaps we can continue. Mr Falor, can you tell me how many men you command?" Ral'Rai used his easiest, calmest tone. He could see the Mon Cal was still a little ruffled, not just by Kethan's story, but also by the rebuff from the Ambassador.
"At this point the Nova Dragons consists of a dozen men and women under my command. From what little Rryrkk has told me, I'll need to recruit more people assuming that you find my unit acceptable. I think my people will provide a solid backbone for a command structure."
"Agent Rryrkk's reports are lacking in some of the background to your unit's past, could you give us a brief history?" Ral'Rai was a great student of history, he firmly believed that the future was shaped by the past, and that this applied equally to individuals, units or entire civilisations.
Kethan shifted slightly in his seat, "Certainly. From the beginning? I guess I can leave the recruitment of some of the unit out" An enigmatic smile played across the Etti's lips.
The interview panel nodded their assent.
"I suppose we've been together a couple of years, as an active mercenary unit." He paused as he saw Shammaa's face wrinkle in that peculiar look of distaste only a Mon Cal can make. "If only words were all we had to concern ourselves with", he thought.
"But I've known Syl, that's Commander Norn, for about three years. He stowed away on my ship after my then partner and I had made a contracted run for SoroSuub. Didn't take him long to make himself indispensable. Of course at the time, I didn't realise he was being hunted by SoroSuub. By the time I found that out, it didn't matter. We got caught up in a shoot out with a couple of bounty hunters that's when we hooked up with Lieutenant Commander Walker and Lieutenant Traveen. They were kind enough to offer assistance." At this point, a wry grin slipped across Kethan's face. Ral'Rai noted it, but let him continue.
"Anyway, the four of us just hauled cargo for a while, before we started to look for something that paid a little better, that was when we figured we needed some extra hands, which arrived in the form of Lieutenant Brickman. I assume you've seen the report on our first mission, it was a blockade run to one of your outposts."
Kethan paused at that point. He received nods from the panel.
"Then I can also assume that you have read the details. To be honest with you, it's ancient history now." That bland statement covered an uncomfortable memory of a cargo skiff jammed between two trees, one of which was leaking highly corrosive sap! "No need to bring up issues of competence, just impress them with the good stuff", mused Kethan.
"Indeed," said Ral'Rai, "Our records show that you have worked as a freelance for the Alliance on several occasions." Ral'Rai used freelance as a sop to the Mon Cal, who was quickly recovering his composure. He was also careful to continue to use the word 'Alliance' these days. It was so much more legitimate than 'Rebellion', and if they were going to win through against the overwhelming might of the Empire, they had to project an image of a viable alternative administration, not just as a rag-tag bunch of malcontents. That was why he'd invested so much time in these interviews for Project Hammer. The cost of making a bad decision could be astronomical, Ackbar was right about that.
The lean mercenary Captain nodded, "We have had something of a mutually beneficial relationship over these past couple of years."
The Ambassador leaned forward over the desk, "Our reports show very clearly the benefit to our cause, vital supplies delivered, prisoners rescued, all at points when we have been forced to divert resources elsewhere. Would you care to enlighten us as to just how you and your unit have benefited, aside form the obvious monetary reward?"
Kethan's brow wrinkled as he mentally logged his points.
"Well, aside form the monetary aspect you so rightly raise, your contracts offered the Nova Dragons experience in a wide range of tasks. We've run blockades and assaulted ships. We've been able to hone our ability to operate as a team. We've been able to assess our strengths and weaknesses, to maximise the former, and minimise the latter. This experience has enabled us to grow not only in terms of numbers, but also in capability. I think you'll agree that our results to date speak for themselves. They must have said at least enough that you asked me here. Does that answer your question?"
The woman nodded. Ral'Rai and Shammaa considered the man's words, each trying to assess the true worth of this mercenary and his small group. Did they possess the skills and resolve necessary to make Project Hammer a success?
Ral'Rai had heard enough that he thought the Nova Dragons were the most promising of all the candidates that the group had seen to date. Time to test the water with hints of what lay in the future.
"Can I ask what experience your team has of Capital ship operations?"
The Minister received sharp glances from his two companions. If Kethan noticed, he didn't show it.
"One of my pilots has extensive experience at the helm of a variety of large ships, I also have someone who would serve as a Chief Gunner. Beyond that, whilst I know my people are quick to learn, I must admit that our experience in that field is limited."
Kethan wondered if this would lead the interview down a path he didn't want to go. The Nova Dragon's had precious little experience in Capital ships beyond Dallara's piloting and JD's gunnery skills, if these types of skills were key, then perhaps he had been wasting his time.
"I appreciate your honesty, Mr Falor. If you could excuse us for a brief period, I really need to confer with my colleagues."
"Certainly," Kethan rose from the seat and strode towards the door. He was a little confused. He'd expected the interview to last much longer. Were they convening to find a form of words that said "Thanks, but no thanks"?
"One of my aides will arrange for some refreshments," Ral'Rai called after him.
"Thank you, I'd appreciate that", replied Kethan.