NOTICE TO QIILURAN CITIZENS
Anyone found with Republic personnel on their land will have that property confiscated and will forfeit their freedom. They, their family, and anyone employed by them in any capacity will be delivered to the Trandoshan representative at Teklet for enslavement. Anyone actively aiding or sheltering Republic personnel will face the death penalty. A reward is offered for anyone providing information leading to the capture of Republic personnel or deserters from the former militia or the Separatist armed forces, in particular Lieutenant Guta-Nay or Lieutenant Pir Cuvin.
–By order of Major Ghez Hokan, commanding officer, Teklet Garrison
A thin, cold drizzle started falling almost as soon as the sun came up. It felt like Kamino; it felt like home, and that was at once both reassuring and unpleasant.
The moisture beaded on Darman’s cloak, and he shook it off. Merlie wool was full of natural oils that made it feel unpleasantly clammy next to the skin. He longed to get back into the black bodysuit, and not only because of its ballistic properties.
Etain was pushing the rear of the cart. Darman was pulling it, walking between its twin shafts. There were times on the rutted track when she had the worst of it, but—as she kept telling him—Jedi could summon the Force.
“I could help,” he said.
“I can manage.” Her voice sounded like she was straining it through her teeth. “If this is lightweight gear, I’d rather not see the regular variety.”
“I meant I could help with martial skills. If you want to train with your lightsaber.”
“I’d probably end up slicing off something you’d miss later.”
No, she wasn’t what he was expecting at all. They walked on, trying hard to look downtrodden and rural, which wasn’t so much of a challenge when you were hungry, wet, and tired. The dirt road was deserted: at this time of year there should have been visible activity at first light. Ahead of them was the first safe house, a single-story hut topped by a mixture of straw thatch and rusting metal plates.
“I’ll knock,” Etain said. “They’ll probably run for their lives if they see you first.”
Darman took it as a sensible observation rather than an insult. He pulled his cloak up across his mouth and pushed the cart out of sight behind the hut, looking around slowly and carefully as if he were casually taking in the countryside. There were no windows at the rear, just a simple door and a well-worn path in the grass leading to a pit with an interesting aroma and a plank across it. It wasn’t an ideal location for an ambush, but he wasn’t taking chances. Stopping in the open like this made you vulnerable.
He didn’t like it at all. He wished he could feign invisibility like Sergeant Skirata, a short, wiry, nondescript little man who could pass completely unnoticed, until he decided to stop and fight. And Skirata could fight in a lot of ways that weren’t in the training manual. Darman recalled all of them.
He pressed his elbow into his side to reassure himself that his rifle was within easy reach. Then he slipped his hand under his cloak and felt for one of the probes in his belt.
When he reached the front again, Etain was still rapping on the doorpost. There was no response. She stood back and seemed to be looking at the door as if willing it to open.
“They’re gone,” she said. “I can’t sense anyone.”
Darman straightened up and walked casually toward the rear of the house. “Let me check the regular way.”
He beckoned her to follow. Once around the back, he took a probe and slid the flat sensor strip carefully under the gap beneath the back door. The readout on the section that he was holding said there were no traces of explosive or pathogen. If the place was booby-trapped, it would be very low tech. It was time for a hands-on check. He pressed on the door with his left hand, rifle in his right.
“It’s empty,” Etain whispered.
“Can you sense a tripwire that’ll send a row of metal spikes swinging into you?” he asked.
The door swung slowly open. Nothing. Darman took a remote from his belt and sent it inside, picking up low-light images from the interior. There was no movement. The room appeared clear. He let the door swing back, recalled the remote, and stood with his back to the entrance for one final check around him.
“I go in, look again, then you follow me if you hear me say in, in, in, okay?” he said, almost under his breath. He didn’t meet her eyes. “Lightsaber ready, too.”
As soon as he was inside, he pulled his rifle, stood hard up in the corner, and scanned the room. Clear. So clear, in fact, that last night’s meal was still half eaten on the table. There was a single door that didn’t appear to open to the exterior. A cupboard, a closet—maybe a threat. He trained his rifle on it.
“In, in, in,” Darman said. Etain slipped through and he gestured her to the corner opposite, then pointed: Me, that door, you, back door. Etain nodded and drew her lightsaber. He walked up to the closet and tried to raise the latch, but it didn’t open, so he took two steps back and put his boot to it, hard.
They didn’t build well around here. The door splintered and hung on one rusted hinge. Behind it was a storeroom. It made sense now: in a poor country, you locked away your food supply.
“They left in a hurry,” Darman said.
“Are you wearing your armored boots?” Etain said.
“I wouldn’t be kicking down a door without them.” He’d covered them in tightly wound sacking. “No boots, no soldier. As true as it ever was.” He stepped through the gap into the store and studied the shelves. “You’re just learning the first step in clearing a house.”
“What’s that?” Etain reached past him for a metal container marked gavvy-meal.
“Who’s watching the door? Who’s watching our gear?”
“No problem. I expect it never occurs to you when you have Jedi senses to rely on.” There: he hadn’t even tried to call her ma’am this time. “If we knew why the occupants left in such a hurry, this might have made a decent place to lay up. But we don’t. So let’s grab some supplies and move on.”
He took dried fruit and something that looked like cured leathery meat, making a mental note to test all of it with the toxin strip in his medpac. It was too kind of the locals to leave all this. There was, of course, every chance they had fled in terror from the same violence that he had witnessed looking down from his observation point just after he landed.
Etain was filling a couple of water bottles from a pump outside.
“I’ve got a filter for that,” Darman said.
“Are you sure you weren’t trained by Neimoidians?”
“You’re in enemy territory.”
She smiled sadly. “Not all soldiers wear uniforms.”
She’d catch on. She had to. The thought that a Jedi might be unable to offer the leadership he had been promised was almost unbearable. His emotions didn’t have names. But they were feelings that had memories embedded in them—finishing a fifty-kilometer run thirty-two seconds outside the permitted time, and being made to run it again; seeing a clone trooper fall on a beachhead landing exercise, weighed down by his pack and drowning, while no directing staff paused to help; a commando whose sniping score was only 95 percent, and whose whole batch disappeared from training and were never seen again.
They were all things that made his stomach sink. And each time it did, it never quite regained the same level as before.
“Are you all right?” Etain asked. “Is it your leg?”
“My leg’s fine now, thank you,” he said.
Darman wanted his trust back, and soon.
They resumed their path along the dirt track that was gradually liquefying into mud, the rain at their backs. By the time they got to the next farm the rain seemed to have set in for the day. Darman thought of his squad making their way through sodden countryside, perfectly dry in their sealed suits, and he smiled. At least this made it harder for anyone to track them.
A woman with a pinched expression like a gdan stared at them from the front step of the farmhouse. It was a grander building than the last one: not by much, but the walls were stone and there was a lean-to shelter along one side. Etain walked up to her. Darman waited, looking, aware of an outdoor refresher to the right that might contain a threat, keeping half an eye on a group of youngsters tinkering with a large machine on rollers.
They all looked so different. Everyone was so different.
After some conversation, Etain beckoned him and indicated the lean-to. So far, so good. Darman still didn’t plan on relinquishing his ordnance. He reached into the barq for his helmet and detached the comlink, just in case Niner tried to contact him.
“Are you coming?” Etain asked.
“Just a moment.” Darman took out a string of AP micro-mines and trailed them around the front of the house as far as the cable would stretch. He set them to run off a remote signal and tucked the transmitter section of the detonator in his belt. Etain watched him with an unspoken question, perfectly clear from her expression. “In case anyone gets any ideas,” Darman said.
“You’ve played this game before,” Etain said.
He certainly had. The first thing he checked when he entered the farmhouse, one hand against his rifle, was where the best observation point might be. It was a perforated airbrick that gave him a good view of the road. There was a large window in the far wall with a brown sacking sheet tied across it. Reassured—but only slightly—he sat down at the table that dominated the front room.
The family that took them in consisted of the thin gdan-faced woman, her sister, her even thinner husband, and six youngsters ranging from a small boy clutching a piece of grubby blanket to the nearly full-grown men working outside. They wouldn’t give their names. They didn’t want a visit, they said, as if a visit was much more than it seemed.
Darman was riveted. These people were humans like him; yet they were all different. But still they had features that looked similar—not the same, but similar—to others in the group. They were different sizes and different ages, too.
He had seen diversity in training manuals. He knew what different species looked like. But the images always came to mind with data about weapons carried and where to aim a shot for maximum stopping power. This was the first time in his life that he had been in close contact with diverse humans who were in the majority.
To them, perhaps, he also looked unique.
They sat around the rough wooden table. Darman tried not to speculate on what the stains in the wood might be, because they looked like blood. Etain nudged him. “They cut up the merlie carcasses here,” she whispered, and he wondered if she could read his mind.
He tested the bread and soup placed in front of him for toxins. Satisfied that it was safe, he dug in. After a while he was aware that the woman and the small boy were staring at him. When he looked up, the child fled.
“He doesn’t like soldiers much,” the woman said. “Is the Republic coming to help us?”
“I can’t answer that, ma’am,” Darman said. He meant that he would never discuss operational matters; it was an automatic response under interrogation. Never just say yes, never just say no, and give no information except your ID number. Etain answered for him, which was her prerogative as a commander.
“Do you want the Republic’s help?” she asked.
“You any better than the Neimies?”
“I’d like to think so.”
The table fell silent again. Darman finished the soup. Politics was nothing to do with him; he was more interested in filling up on something that had flavor and texture. If all went according to plan, in a few weeks he’d be far from here and on another mission, and if it didn’t, he’d be dead. The future of Qiilura was genuinely of no relevance to him.
The woman kept refilling his bowl with soup until he slowed up and eventually couldn’t manage any more. It was the first hot food he’d had in days, and he felt good; little perks like that boosted morale. Etain didn’t seem so enthusiastic about it. She was moving each chunk cautiously around with her spoon, as if the liquid contained mines.
“You need to keep your strength up,” he said.
“You can have my bread.”
It was so quiet in the room that Darman could hear the individual rhythm of everyone’s chewing, and the faint scrape of utensils against bowls. He could hear the distant, muffled sound of merlies nearby, an intermittent gargling noise. But he didn’t hear something that Etain suddenly did.
She sat bolt upright and turned her head to one side, eyes unfocused.
“Someone’s coming, and it’s not Jinart,” she hissed.
Darman flung off his cloak and pulled his rifle. The woman and her relatives jumped up from the table so fast that it tipped despite its weight, sending bowls tumbling to the floor. Etain drew her lightsaber, and it shimmered into life. They both watched the entrance; the family scrambled through the back door, the woman pausing to grab a large metal bowl and a bag of meal from a sideboard.
Darman doused the lamps and peered out through a hole in the air-brick. Without his visor, he was completely dependent on his Deece for long-distance vision. He couldn’t see anything. He held his breath and listened hard.
Etain moved toward him, gesturing at the far wall, indicating seven–a whole hand then two fingers.
“Where?” he whispered.
She was marking something on the dirt floor. He watched her finger draw an outline of the four walls and then stab a number of dots outside them, most around the one she’d been pointing to, and one dot near the front door.
She put her lips so close to his ear it made him jump. “Six there, one here.” It was a breath, barely audible.
Darman indicated the far wall and pointed to himself. Etain gestured to the door: Me? He nodded. He gestured one, two, three quickly with his fingers and gave her a thumbs-up: I’ll count to three. She nodded.
Whoever was outside hadn’t knocked. It didn’t bode well.
He clipped the grenade attachment to his rifle and aimed at the far side. Etain stood at the door, lightsaber held above her head for a downward stroke.
Darman hoped her aggression would triumph over her self-doubt.
He gestured with his left hand, rifle balanced in his right. One, two–
Three. He fired one grenade. It smashed through the sack-covered window and blew a hole in the wall just as he was firing the second. The blast kicked him backward, and the front door burst open as Etain brought her lightsaber down in a brilliant blue arc.
Darman switched his rifle to blast setting and swung his sight on the figure, but it was an Umbaran and it was dead, sliced through from clavicle to sternum.
“Two,” Etain said, indicating the window, or at least where it had been seconds earlier. Darman sprang forward across the room, dodging the table and firing as he came to the hole smashed in the wall. When he stumbled through the gap there were two Trandoshans coming toward him with blasters, faces that seemed all scales and lumps, wet mouths gaping. He opened fire; one return shot seared his left shoulder. Then there was nothing but numb silence for a few moments, followed by the gradual awareness that someone was screaming in agony outside.
But it wasn’t him, and it wasn’t Etain. That was all that mattered. He picked his way across the room, conscious of the growing pain in his shoulder. It would have to wait.
“It’s all clear,” Etain said. Her voice was shaking. “Except for that man …”
“Forget him,” Darman said. He couldn’t, of course: the soldier was making too much noise. The screams would attract attention. “Load up. We’re going.”
Despite Etain’s assurance that there were no more waiting outside, Darman edged out the door and kept his back to the wall all the way around the exterior of the farmhouse. The wounded soldier was an Umbaran. Darman didn’t even check how badly hurt he might be before he shot him cleanly in the head. There was nothing else he could do, and the mission came first.
He wondered if Jedi could sense droids as well. He’d have to ask Etain later. He’d been told Jedi could do extraordinary things, but it was one thing to know it, and another entirely to see it in action. It had probably saved their lives.
“What was that?” she asked when he returned to the lean-to. She already had the extra pack slung on her back, and he realized she’d actually moved the micromines even though they were still live. Darman, swallowing anxiety, disabled the detonator and added it to the list of things he needed to teach her.
“Finishing the job,” he said, and pulled on his bodysuit section by section. She looked away.
“You killed him.”
“He was lying wounded?”
“I’m not a medic.”
“Oh, Darman …”
“Ma’am, this is a war. People try to kill you. You try to kill them first. There are no second chances. Everything else you need to know about warfare is an amplification of that.” She was horrified, and he really wished he hadn’t upset her. Had they given her a lethal lightsaber and not taught her what it really meant to draw one? “I’m sorry. He was in a bad way, anyway.”
Death seemed to shock her. “I killed that Umbaran.”
“That’s the idea, ma’am. Nicely done, too.”
She didn’t say anything else. She watched him attach the armor plates, and when he finally replaced his helmet he knew he didn’t care how conspicuous he looked in it, because he wasn’t going to take it off again in a hurry. He needed that edge.
“No more safe houses,” Darman said. “There’s no such thing.”
Etain followed him into the woodland at the back of the house, but she was preoccupied. “I’ve never killed anyone before,” she said.
“You did fine,” Darman told her. His shoulder was throbbing, gnawing into his concentration. “A clean job.”
“It’s still not something I would care to repeat.”
“Jedi are trained to fight, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but we never killed anyone in training.”
Darman shrugged and it hurt. “We did.”
He hoped she got over it fast. No, it wasn’t enjoyable, killing: but it had to be done. And killing with lightsaber or blaster was relatively clean. He wondered how she’d handle having to stick a blade in someone and see what ran out. She was a Jedi, and with any luck she’d never have to.
“Them or us,” he said.
“You’re in pain.”
“Nothing major. I’ll use the bacta when we reach the RV.”
“I suppose they turned us in.”
“The farmers? Yeah, that’s civilians for you.”
Etain made a noncommittal grunt and followed silently behind him. They moved deeper into the woods, and Darman calculated how many rounds he’d expended. If he kept engaging targets at this rate, he’d be down to his sidearm by nightfall.
“It’s amazing how you can sense people,” Darman said. “Can you detect droids, too?”
“Not especially,” she said. “Usually just living beings. Maybe I can—”
A faint whine made Darman turn in time to see a blue bolt of light streaking toward him from behind. It struck a tree a few meters ahead, splitting it like kindling in a puff of vapor.
“Obviously not,” Etain said.
It was going to be another long, hard day.
A warning siren sounded: three long blasts, repeated twice. Then the peaceful fields northwest of Imbraani shook with a massive explosion, and terrified merlies bolted for the cover of the hedgerows.
“Blasting today, then,” Fi said. “Lovely day for it.”
Niner couldn’t see anything but droids—industrial droids—moving around the quarry. He ran his glove across his visor to clear the droplets of rain and tried several binoc magnifications, flicking between settings with eye movements. But if there were organic workers around, he couldn’t see any.
The quarry was a massive and startling gouge in the landscape, an amphitheater with stepped sides that allowed droid excavators to dig out rock for processing. The depression sloped gently at one side; it was a towering cliff on the other. A small site office with alloy-plated walls and no windows sat beside a wide track at the top of the slope. Apart from the steady procession of droids laden with raw rock for the screening plant, the area was deserted. But someone—something—was controlling the detonations. They had to be in the building. And structures with solid alloy walls like that tended to have interesting contents.
The all-clear siren sounded. The droids moved in to scoop up the loose rock, sending spray and mud flying as they rumbled up the slopes.
“Okay, let’s see what we can liberate from the hut,” Niner said. “Atin, with me. Fi, stay here and cover.”
They darted out of the trees and across a hundred meters of open land to the edge of the quarry, dodging between giant droids that took no notice of them. One droid, its wheels as high as Niner was tall, swung its bucket scoop unexpectedly and struck his shoulder plate a glancing blow. He stumbled and Atin caught his arm, steadying him. They paused, waiting for the next droid to return up the slope, then jogged alongside it until level with the site building.
They were now exposed, pressed close to the front wall.
The building was only ten meters wide. Atin knelt at the door and studied the single lock.
“Pretty insubstantial if this is where they store the explosives,” he said.
“Let’s take a look.”
Atin stood up slowly and placed a scope on the door to listen for movement. He shook his head at Niner. Then he slid a flimsi-thin flat endoscope around the jamb, working it back and forth, slowly and carefully. “Now that’s a tight fit,” he said. “Can’t get it in.”
“We could always just walk in there.”
“Remember, we’re probably heading into a store full of explosives. If I could get a probe through it could at least get a sniff of the air and test for chemicals.”
“Okay, let’s walk in carefully, then.”
There was no handle. Niner stood to the hinge side, Deece in one hand, and pressed silently on the single plate that made up the door. It didn’t yield.
Atin nodded. He took out the handheld ram, ten kilos that had seemed like dead, useless weight in their packs until now. He squared it up to the lock.
Niner raised one finger. “Three … two …”
It applied a force of two metric tons.
The door fell open, and they both leapt back as a stream of blasterfire shot out. It stopped suddenly. They squatted on either side of the entrance. Usually this was simple: if someone inside didn’t want to leave, a grenade coaxed them out, one way or another. But with a high chance of explosives being inside, that method was a little too emphatic. Niner shook his head.
Atin moved the endoscope carefully, getting a glimpse of the building’s interior. Then he edged the probe into the doorway, drawing another stream of blasterfire.
“Two moving around,” he said. “Light’s out. But the probe got a sniff of explosives.”
“Spot-lamp and rush them, then?”
Atin shook his head. He took out a grenade and locked it in the safety position. “How nervous would you be if you were sitting on enough stuff to put this quarry into orbit?”
“Drink-spilling nervous, I’d say.”
“Yeah.” Atin hefted the grenade a few times. “That’s what I thought.”
He bowled the disabled grenade into the doorway and jerked back. Three seconds later, two Weequays rushed out. Niner and Atin fired simultaneously; one Weequay dropped instantly, and the other’s momentum carried him on a few meters farther, until he fell in the path at the top of the ramp. The quarry droids trundled on, oblivious. If the shot hadn’t killed him, the advancing droid did.
“Sarge, you need some help down there?”
Niner motioned Atin inside. “No, Fi, we’re set here. Keep an eye out in case we get company.”
The building reeked of cooking and unwashed Weequay. A small droid, lights blinking on standby and caked in dried mud, stood by a console. The rest of the space—three rooms—was taken up by explosives, detonators, and various spare parts and stenciled crates.
“There’s your demolitions man,” Atin said, tapping the droid on its head, and retrieved his grenade. He wiped it with his glove and put it back in his belt pack.
“I’d rather have Darman,” Niner said. He studied the inert droid, which seemed to be waiting for the dislodged rock to be cleared. It jerked suddenly into life, made its way toward a crate of explosives, opened the safety lid, and took out several tubes. Then it turned toward the room where the detonators were kept. Niner reached out and opened its control panel to deactivate it. “Take some time off, friend,” he said. “Blasting’s over for the day.”
It didn’t appear that the Weequay had been employed here. The droid sorted all the charges and oversaw the blasting. On an upturned crate were the remains of a meal, eaten off makeshift plates fashioned from box lids. It looked like the Weequays had been hiding out here, and Niner was pretty sure he knew who they had been avoiding.
Atin checked the various charges and detonators, selecting what appeared to take his fancy and piling it in a clear space on the muddy floor. He was a connoisseur of technology, especially things with complex circuitry. “Lovely,” he said, with genuine satisfaction. “Some dets here that you can set off from fifty klicks. That’s what we need. A bit of a pyrotechnics show.”
“Can we carry as much as we need?”
“Oh, there’s some beauties here. Darman would think they were pretty basic, but they’re going to work fine as a diversion. Absolute beauts.” Atin held up spheres about the size of a scoopball. “Now this baby—”
Something fell to the floor in one of the rooms off the main one. Atin held his rifle on the doorway and Niner drew his sidearm. He was edging toward the door when a sudden voice almost made him squeeze the trigger.
“Ap-xmai keepuna!” The voice was shaking, and judging by the accent it probably belonged to a Weequay. “Don’t kill! I help you!”
“Out. Now.” Projected from his helmet, Atin’s voice was intimidating enough without a rifle to back it up. A Weequay stumbled out from behind a stack of crates and sank to his knees, hands held up. Atin pushed him down flat with his boot, Deece aimed at his head. “Arms behind your back and don’t even breathe. Got it?”
The Weequay appeared to have got it very quickly. He froze and let Niner cuff his wrists with a length of wire. Niner did a sweep of the rooms again, worried that if they’d missed one target they might have missed more. But it was clear. He walked back and squatted down by the Weequay’s head.
“We don’t need a prisoner slowing us down,” he said. “Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”
“Please, I know Hokan.”
“I’ll bet you know him pretty well if you were hiding out here. What’s your name?”
“Guta-Nay. I were right-hand man.”
“Not anymore, though, eh?”
“I know places.”
“Yeah, we know places, too.”
“I got key codes.”
“We’ve got ordnance.”
“I got codes to Teklet ground station.”
“You wouldn’t be messing around, would you, Guta-Nay? I don’t have time for that.”
“Hokan kill me. You take me with you? You Republic guys nice, you gentlemen.”
“Steady, Guta-Nay. All those syllables might burn you out.”
Niner looked at Atin. He shrugged.
“He’ll slow us down, Sarge.”
“Then we either leave him here or kill him.”
The conversation wasn’t designed to scare Guta-Nay, but it had that effect anyway. It was a genuine problem: Niner was reluctant to drag a prisoner around with them, and there was no guarantee the Weequay wouldn’t try to buy back favor from Hokan with intelligence on their strength and movements. He was an unwelcome dilemma. Atin clicked his Deece, and it started to power up.
“I get you Neimie boss, too!”
“We definitely don’t need him.”
“Neimie’s really mad at Hokan. He put droids in his nice shiny villa. Floors messed up.”
Guta-Nay’s breathing rasped in the silence of the room. Niner weighed the extra baggage against the prospect of some edge in gaining access to Uthan.
“Where’s Uthan now?”
“Still in villa. Nowhere else to hide.”
“You know a lot about Hokan, don’t you?”
“Everything.” Guta-Nay was all submission. “Too much.”
“Okay,” Niner said. “You got a reprieve.”
Atin waited a couple of seconds before powering down his rifle. He seemed doubtful. Niner couldn’t see his expression, but he heard the characteristic slight exhalation that was Atin’s silent oh-terrific.
“He’ll leave a trail a worrt could follow.”
“Yeah.” Atin leaned over Guta-Nay, and the Weequay turned his head slightly, eyes wide with terror. He seemed more terrified by the helmet than the gun. “Where do the droids take the raw rock?”
“Big place south of Teklet.”
“How far south?”
“Five klick maybe.”
Atin straightened up and indicated with a pointed finger that he was going outside. “Technical solution. Wait one.”
His predilection for gadgets was becoming a blessing. Niner was tempted to take back the unkind thoughts he’d had about the man’s training sergeant. He followed him outside. Atin jogged alongside one of the excavation droids, matching its pace before jumping up scrambling onto its flatbed. The machine rumbled inexorably up the slope as if nothing was going to divert it from its progress to the screening plant. Then it stopped and swung around, narrowly missing the droid bringing up its rear. It paused a couple of meters from Niner; Atin, kneeling on the flatbed, held up two cables.
“You can’t get it to do tricks,” he said. “But you can start, steer, and stop it now.”
“Brain bypass, eh?”
“I’ve seen a few people with those …”
“So we ride it into town?”
“How else are we going to move all this explosive?”
They couldn’t pass up the chance. Niner had plans for the charges, places to lay them all around the Imbraani countryside. They also had a temptingly neat window of opportunity to take out the ground station at Teklet, and rendering Hokan’s troops deaf to what was happening around them would double their chances of pulling off the mission. It meant they could use their own long-range comlinks at last.
“Tell you what,” Niner said. “I’ll take this one to Teklet. You hotwire another and take Fi and our friend as far back down the road to Imbraani as you can get with as much as you can carry.” He took out his datapad and checked the chart. “Lay up here where Jinart suggested, with the droid if you can, without it if you can’t.”
A bulldozer droid on a steady path to the screening plant would attract no attention. It just had to overshoot by a few kilometers. It would be dusk soon, and darkness was their best asset when it came to moving around.
Niner hauled Guta-Nay out of the building. “Is the ground station defended in any way?”
Guta-Nay had his head lowered, looking up from under his brows as if blows to the head normally accompanied questions. “Just fence to stop merlies and thieving. Only farmers around, and they scared anyway.”
“If you’re lying to me, I’ll see that you get back to Ghez Hokan alive. Okay?”
“Okay. Truth, I swear.”
Niner summoned Fi from his cover position, and they loaded two droids. One carried enough explosives to reduce the ground station to powder several times over, and the other took everything they could lay their hands on, except for some detonators and explosives to keep the blasting droid busy for a few more hours. There was no point letting the quarry’s silence advertise the fact that they had liberated some ordnance. It would spoil the whole surprise.
They loaded Guta-Nay last, bundling him into the huge bucket scoop with his arms still bound. He protested at being stuck on top of spheres of explosive.
“Don’t worry,” Atin said dismissively. “I’ve got all the dets here.” He bounced a few detonators up and down in his palm; Guta-Nay flinched. “You’ll be fine.”
“Jinart’s quite an asset,” Fi said. He took off his helmet to drink from his bottle, and Guta-Nay made an incoherent noise.
“She could be right behind us now and we’d never know. I hope they stay on our side.” Niner removed his helmet, too, and they shared the bottle before handing it to Atin for a last swig. “What’s that Weequay whining about now?”
“Dunno,” Atin said, and took his helmet off as well. He paused, bottle in hand, and they all stood and stared at Guta-Nay, loaded in the scoop of the droid like cargo.
His mouth was slightly open and his eyes were darting from one commando to the next. He was making a slight uh– uh-uh sound, as if he was trying to scream but couldn’t.
“It’s Atin’s face,” Fi said. “Don’t stand there being so ugly, man. You’re scaring him.”
Niner gave the Weequay a quick prod with his glove to shut him up.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Haven’t you ever seen commandos before?”
They were here.
The break that Ghez Hokan had been waiting for had come: a farmer had rushed to notify the authorities that Republic soldiers—one man, one woman, both very young—were at a house on the Imbraani-Teklet road.
Hokan studied the dripping foliage at the side of the farmhouse. The maze of footsteps in the mud and the crushed stalks were no different from those on any farm, and they were disappearing fast in the rain. Behind the ramshackle collection of sheds and stone walls, the land sloped away to the Braan River.
“It’s a mess in there, sir,” Hurati said. “One wall nearly blown out. All dead. And that was just two enemy commandos.”
“One,” Hokan said.
“Only male clones in the front line. The other had to be a Jedi.” He turned over the body of an Umbaran with his boot and shook his head. “That wound was made by a lightsaber. I know what a lightsaber wound looks like. Two people. I wouldn’t even have that information if it hadn’t been for informants. Do I have to rely on dung-caked farmers for intelligence? Do I? Do I?”
He regretted having to shout. But it seemed necessary. “Why can’t anyone manage to call it in when they make an enemy contact? Think! Use your di’kutla heads, or I’ll show you how to recognize a lightsaber wound the hard way.” Two droids began lifting the Umbaran’s body onto a speeder. “Leave that thing where it is. Get after your comrades and find me some enemy.”
Hurati put his hand to the side of his head. “Droids have found something else in a house up the road, sir.” His expression fell blank as he listened to his comlink. “Oh. Oh.” He turned to Hokan. “I think you should see this for yourself, sir.”
Hurati didn’t strike him as an officer that would waste his time. They mounted the speeder and worked their way back up the road to another small, dilapidated hovel set among the trees. Hokan followed Hurati into the farmhouse, where a couple of droids had illuminated the rooms with spot-lamps.
For some reason he would never fathom, the first aspect of the chaos that caught his eye was the soup tureen lying on its side on the filthy floor. It was only when he turned his head that he saw the bodies!.
“Ah,” Hokan said.
Soldiers used blasters. In a pinch, they would use knives or blunt objects. But he had never known anyone in uniform, not even his ragtag militia, who used teeth. The three adults were ripped and torn as if a large carnivore had attacked them. All had crush injuries to what was left of their throats. One woman had so little intact tissue in her neck that the head was bent over at almost ninety degrees. Hokan found himself staring.
“There are others outside in the shed,” Hurati said.
Hokan had never considered himself easily disturbed, but this worried him. It was an act by something he didn’t recognize and couldn’t comprehend, beyond the scope of a sentient creature’s simple revenge. It might have been coincidence, an animal attack on someone who happened to be an informer—but he couldn’t think of any species on Qiilura that could or would bring down humans.
Hurati studied the bodies. “I didn’t think killing civilians was the Republic’s style.”
“It’s not,” Hokan said. “And commandos wouldn’t waste time on work that wouldn’t aid their effort.”
“Well, whoever killed them wasn’t motivated by robbery.”
Hurati picked up a large metal bowl from the floor, dusted it with his glove, and set it on a shelf. “This is probably our informer. I wouldn’t count on much assistance from now on. Word will get around fast.”
“You’re certain there are no blaster wounds?” It might have been simple predation. He knew in his gut that it wasn’t. But what had done this?
“None,” Hurati said.
Hokan didn’t like it at all. He beckoned Hurati to follow him and walked out briskly to summon two droids. “I want a ring around Imbraani. Pull all the droids back. I’d rather lose Teklet than risk Uthan’s project.”
“We could arrange for Doctor Uthan to be evacuated.”
“Moving her and her entourage is going to be slow and conspicuous. We’re better off defending a position than moving. I want half the droids blatantly visible at the facility and the other half around the villa—but discreetly, understand?”
There was a rattle of metal in the distance, and Hokan spun around to see droids swarming toward the riverbank.
“Have they found anything?”
Hurati pressed his hand to his head, listening to the comlink. “Two enemy sighted five klicks west of here, sir. The droids have engaged them.”
“That’s more like it,” Hokan said. “I’d like at least one alive, preferably both if the girl’s a Jedi.”
He swung onto the speeder bike and motioned Hurati to sit up front and drive. The speeder zipped down the track heading west as Hurati confirmed coordinates with the droid patrol.
Hokan hoped the droids could manage an instruction like take them alive. He needed real troops for this, actual soldiers who could get into awkward places and see subtle things. He now had just thirty organic officers remaining and slightly under a hundred droids: ideal for a small set-piece battle, but next to useless for countering a commando force spread over terrain with plenty of cover.
They’d definitely have to come to him. Just this once, though, he’d humor them and join the pursuit.