Prolific WEG contributor George R. Strayton brings us Counterstrike, an adventure that puts you up against an Imperial faction. In Relic, Strayton invented the intriguing Kashi Mer dynasty and the Kashi Mer Talisman, which were interesting enough to get lots of expansion. For this sequel to Relic, he invents the Kaarenth Dissension, an Imperial splinter faction that would likewise prove compelling enough to get some retcons built around it. The stage is set: we're in the Corva sector of the Outer Rim, months after Thrawn's defeat, is now a hotbed of conflict, thanks to the unnamed Imperial faction from Relic, now revealed as the Kaarenth Dissension, which destroyed the New Republic communications hub in the sector and has now stepped up operations against the hard-pressed New Republic. In a plot point that prefigures some of the things Michael Stackpole would do with New Republic politics, there has also arisen a distrust of the New Republic among aliens of the area, who believe that the New Republic on Coruscant, like the Empire before it, will attempt to oppress them. Some alien populations have even gone to war against the New Republic. You start in a briefing room aboard the carrier cruiser Nova, with Captain Naren Bluuis briefing you. NRI thinks the Dissension is spreading these rumors among the alien population, and wants you to put a stop to it. You'd think they could just parade a bunch of Mon Calamari, Sullustans, Wookiees, and whatnot around, but sure, you might as well root out their operatives too. You'll pose as smugglers on the Daranc Run and stop at Betha II, a stopover point for fringers on the Run where NRI has lost several operatives and the NR has lost a few ships, marking it as a hotbed of Kaarenth covert activity and therefore a good place to start looking. You'll make contact with Cev Malanx, who will buy your cargo to provide you further cover. Your cargo is illerium, a volatile chemical, and there's a leak in one of your canisters, leaving you a booby trap that can take out your rear deflectors whenever the ship gets hit, if you don't check the cargo beforehand and detect the problem. A nice little added detail. You land on Betha II, an ungoverned arid rock with a population of only 800 sentients. It was once colonized, before its thin atmosphere gave out and its water evaporated, and was only recently resettled by smugglers looking to reestablish its abandoned port as a shadowport. Leave the ship to wander the decrepit starport carved out of caves and canyons, and you happen across a robbery in process, a few aliens holding up some humans as they rob their freighter's cargo. You can try to stop them, or let them get away and take off in their own ship. You obviously are supposed to intervene. It turns out one of the humans is Cev Malanx, who's so spooked by this, the latest in a string of robberies, that he clears out, refusing to buy your cargo. You can only persuade him to take half of it if you roll well. He'll give you some information, and then clear out with his partner, Regec Sloom. Regec Sloom's a pretty great name. Sloooooooom. Anyway, you were supposed to maybe be a little suspicious of spaceport control on your way down, but if you try to check it out, nobody lets you in the door to the control room. As you head toward the main drag, you're intercepted by T-11, a former Old Republic tactical droid that was unsuccessfully reprogrammed to run a garbage scow, leading to its programming becoming corrupted and it snapping and taking off. It was eventually recovered by the Dissension, and couldn't be reprogrammed, so it was put to work guarding a Dissension Skipray in one of the bays here, and it's now totally paranoid and pulls a blaster on you. You can try to convince it you're not its enemies, or I guess you could fight it, or whatever. Strayton actually doesn't seem that interested in the outcome. If you can get at the Blastboat inside the bay it's guarding, though, you'll notice it has a Kaarenth Dissension mark on it, and you can attach the tracking device you were provided with to it. You can get out of the spaceport and into the city, which is carved into the walls of a canyon. Out on the middle of one of the canyon bridges, you run into a group of drunk, hostile Ithorians who think you're the Imperials who once stranded them in deep space; find your way out of this one. There are a couple locations in the city you can visit. There's a supply shop run by a Squib, who'll sell you black market goods or information; he knows about the Dissension moving in on the starport and funding refurbishing work. At the ship supply store, you find a bunch of hostile aliens, and the Chadra-Fan owner won't sell to you. The aliens won't talk to you, and say they have to be somewhere at dusk. If you watch, you'll see them head out to a meeting at the cantina. That's the last location, with a similar profusion of hostile aliens. Strayton doesn't seem to have considered the possibility of an all-alien party, which is what would make the most sense for the NR to send. If you have an alien character who separates himself from the humans, a Kubaz named Shuzz will invite him to the dusk meeting. If you're able to look in on the meeting, you'll see a human in an Imperial uniform speaking to the group. No word on why human-hating aliens would buy a human Imperial as their friend in the quest to avoid domination by the supposedly evil humans of the New Republic. Commander Ulcane, the Imperial, claims that the Dissension wants to separate itself from the rest of the Empire and its harmful legacy against aliens, but I don't know why anybody would buy it. He claims to have warships waiting to strike the New Republic, but he wants to recruit these smugglers and their small craft to counter the New Republic's starfighters. Ulcane leaves, and then the aliens in the cantina attack you. They'll chase you all the way to the spaceport if you flee. But the goal here is to have the tracking device planted by the time Ulcane gets in his Skipray and takes off, so you can trace him to the Spawn Nebula. A writeup lets you know that Meres Ulcane got into the Imperial Academy after an uncle in the military convinced a board to overlook his subpar scores on the entrance exam, but his career after graduation quickly stalled when he was shunted to lowly frontline assignments by superiors who realized he was unqualified and just wanted to get rid of him. He got his first field promotion by blowing up a Rebel outpost -- after sealing the rest of his demolition squad inside so he could be sure to get all the credit, and continued to rise via field promotions in similarly suspicious conditions. He had no friends, and tried to get a posting in the Outer Rim, where he'd have less oversight, and made a habit of studying alien cultures. Shortly after Endor, Ulcane had to flee a mutiny by his own men, and ended up recruited by the mysterious figure who had founded the Kaarenth Dissension (who, you may remember, was retconned to be Devian from Crimson Empire III). Devian allowed him to play out a long-simmering plan to try to gain support among the aliens of the Outer Rim and pit them against the New Republic. You may have a hard time following Ulcane, because the Dissension controls spaceport control and won't give you clearance. Four alien-piloted ships chase you, but if you helped Cev Malanx, he'll also show up and help you out. Escape, and then follow the tracking signal to the Spawn Nebula, which pulls you out of hyperspace early despite being a damn nebula and therefore really not that dense. You end up navigating to a pocket of clear space inside the nebula, which is full of Imperial craft arrayed around a huge repair dock. These ships are mostly uncrewed, gathered together in the hopes of building up the Dissension's resources. If you can get into the reactor core powering the dock and place some explosives by the main power coupling, though, you can take out the dock and all the ships with it. You have to con your way onto the station, posing as smugglers hired to ferry cargo, as you see some other freighters doing. As Strayton writes it, it appears fairly easy to talk past the security detail that greets your ship, jack in to a terminal and get some schematics, and just walk right into the station, pretending to deliver supplies, all the way to the reactor. Place some explosives and head out, but accessing the main reactor finally set off an alarm, and now stormtroopers come investigating. Fight back to the ship, blast off, and avoid the doors closing at the end of the tunnel out of the hangar bay. Then fight some TIEs. Then, just as you're getting ready to jump out of the explosion radius, an Interdictor shows up and starts powering up. I don't know why an Interdictor just jumped into Imperial territory and decided to interdict its own forces, because this is sure too damn quick for it to be responding to an alert. Either outrun the Interdictor or try to disable its gravity well generator, and escape just as the facility goes up. Back at the Nova, Captain Bluuis will congratulate you on a job well done, putting the New Republic in a good position to hold off the Kaarenth Dissension and turn the tide against them. I like Strayton's ability to throw in a lot of interesting little details and create some intriguing hooks, and he knows how to flesh out an adventure with detail that makes it feel relatively full rather than underwritten. Incidents like the drunk Ithorians keep things from being barebones. At the same time, though, I thought this adventure promised a little more than it delivered. The hook of conflict against a mysterious faction within this sector is pretty cool, but Strayton never really lets you learn anything about the Dissension, still playing his cards close to his chest with the hope of stringing out more adventures about his mysterious figure and his mysterious faction (which Strayton never ended up doing, leaving it in the hands of Abel and Dan to resolve the Kaarenth Dissension by turning it into the Restored Empire from Crimson Empire III). The initial plot of tracking down the source of these rumors is too easily resolved; basically all you have to do is show up and an Imperial will make a speech saying, "HI I'M THE GUY." There's not much intrigue, no detective work, no twisting trail of clues to follow there. And then it abruptly shifts from an investigation into, "Here's a dock, blow it up ludicrously easily." There are two separate plotlines smushed into one adventure, and it shortchanges both of them. I'd have really preferred to see the investigation stay the center of the adventure, letting you dig your way into the underworld looking for clues and tracing links back to find an Imperial Intelligence mastermind running the plot, and keep shipyard destruction for the next adventure, when you can fully play out an adventure just around that, infiltrating the shipyards, performing your sabotage, maybe coordinating a New Republic military strike, calling in the fleet for a big battle. That would fully service both plot threads; this way, the adventure feels a bit like a bait-and-switch where neither idea gets developed to anybody's satisfaction. Interesting ideas that are never given the room to develop. Tony Russo's back, and back to the Red Moons, with his first short story when we return.