Owing to shortages, we regret to inform you that we have been forced to increase the price of the new season’s barq. Shortages are due to local difficulties at source. We will of course be giving preference to our most favored regular customers.
–Trade Federation notice to wholesalers
Darman had taken down quite a few tinnies on Geonosis, and one thing he’d learned was that they were built for conventional infantry combat on nice, flat ground.
They weren’t so clever on treacherous terrain—or without an organic officer calling the shots.
He could see a group of trees a hundred meters away that appeared to be skylined against nothing, and he hoped that meant there might be an escarpment on the other side. “Down there,” he yelled to Etain, pointing. “Come on, and get ready to jump.”
He’d almost forgotten the pain in his shoulder. He clutched his rifle tight to his chest and sprinted for the tree line. It took him ten seconds. The land sloped away below, all thorn bushes and muddy soil right down to the river, broken only by a natural back-sloping terrace that formed a small gully. When he looked back, Etain was right behind him—and he wasn’t expecting her to be.
“Keep going!” she panted. “Don’t keep looking back.”
The blasterfire of the advancing droids was hitting branches far too close for comfort. When they got to the edge he simply shoved her. She tried to right herself for a second before falling and rolling down the slope. He launched himself and rolled after her.
Darman had the protection of Katarn armor, but she didn’t. When they came to a halt at the bottom of the gully, Etain was minus her outer cloak and plus a lot of scrapes. But she still had two sections of the E-Web cannon strapped to her share of the pack. She was clinging to them with grim determination.
“Next time, let me jump, will you?” she hissed. “I’m not completely helpless.”
“Sorry.” He checked his grenades. “I’m going to run short of ammo soon. I’m going to have to sacrifice some demolition ordnance.”
“Tell me what you’re planning.”
“Bringing down the slope. With them on it.” He paid out the line of micromines and scrambled a few meters back to string them horizontally between the trees. “Can you dig out some of the bore-bangs from that pack, please? Four should do it.”
“What are they?”
“The long red sticks. Custom ordnance.”
He heard her gasping her way up the slope behind him. When he turned his head she was gripping a bush with one hand, and holding out tubes of explosive in the other. Her fingers were covered in blood. He felt suddenly guilty, but he’d have to worry about that later.
“Thanks, ma’am,” he said automatically. He balanced precariously, feeling the strain in his calves, and scrambled from bush to bush. He held each bore-bang perpendicular to the slope and twisted the end cap; the cylinder whirred and burrowed deep into the ground. He spaced them at five-meter intervals.
The chinking noise of droids on the move was getting closer, carrying on the still, damp air.
“Run!” Darman hissed.
Adrenaline was a wonderful thing to see in action. Etain grabbed her pack and bolted along the gully. Darman followed. Fifty meters—a hundred—two hundred. He paused to look back and saw one thin metal faceplate peer over the edge.
“Down!” he yelled, and squeezed the detonator in his palm.
A chunk of Qiilura blew apart at approximately eight thousand meters a second. Darman heard it and regretted not seeing it, but his head was shielded by his crossed arms and he was facedown in the dirt. It was pure instinct. He should have told Etain to cover her ears, although it wouldn’t have helped her much. He should have made her run a lot sooner. He should have done a lot of things, like ignoring Jinart, and instead stayed on the mission.
He hadn’t. He’d deal with it.
The noise of the blast overloaded his helmet for a few moments; there was a crackling silence. Then sound rushed back in again and he could feel clods of soil plopping against his back like heavy rain. When he got to his knees and turned around, there was a brand-new landscape to be seen. Trees jutted out from a sharp cliff of packed mud at bizarre angles. Some had intact branches, and others were snapped off and splintered. A single metallic leg protruded from the debris. Dirt was crumbling away from the face of the cliff like wet permacrete, and one tree was sliding slowly downward.
Darman looked around for Etain. She was a few meters ahead, kneeling back on her heels with her hand to one ear. When he drew closer he could see a thin trickle of blood running down the side of her face.
“Okay?” he asked.
Etain stared at his mouth. “I can’t hear you,” she said. She nursed her left ear, face contorted with pain.
“You’ve blown an eardrum. Take it easy.” Stupid: she couldn’t hear, and she couldn’t see his lips with his helmet on. It was reflex reassurance. He was about to look for his bacta spray when she looked past him and pointed frantically. He turned. A droid was peering over the edge of the crater. It didn’t appear to have seen them.
Darman didn’t know how many there might be. He debated whether to deploy a remote, then wondered what he’d do if it showed him a hundred more tinnies coming. He wasn’t sure where else to run. He estimated that he could hold them off for about an hour, and then they’d be out of everything except his vibroblade and Etain’s lightsaber.
Then he heard a shout.
Darman flattened himself into the side of the slope beside Etain. He could hear the voices, even if she couldn’t. She stared up at the cliff and squeezed her eyes shut. For a moment Darman thought it was plain terror, and he wouldn’t have blamed her. He’d blown away half a hillside and still hadn’t stopped the droids. He was starting to feel a gnawing emptiness in his gut as well.
He concentrated on the voices, trying to guess numbers. Two humans, two men.
“… they’ve booby-trapped…”
“… can you see anything?”
“… there’s nothing else down there.”
Darman held his breath.
“No, they’re gone. Must have speeders.”
“Droids, form up and return …”
The metal face pulled back and the clinking gait faded on the air, along with the whir of a speeder engine. Then there was silence, broken only by the occasional creak of a splintered tree being pulled slowly apart on its journey down the shattered slope.
Darman glanced at Etain. Her eyes were still shut, and she was breathing hard.
“I didn’t think I could do that,” she said.
“Do what?” She stared at him. He took off his helmet so she could see his mouth. “Do—what?” Darman mouthed, exaggerating the syllables. Her gaze fixed on his lips.
“Influence them. Both of them.”
“Was that some sort of Jedi thought trick?”
She looked baffled. She obviously wasn’t used to lip-reading. “It’s sort of a Jedi thought trick,” she said.
Darman stifled an urge to laugh. It wasn’t funny at all.
She’d achieved something he found almost magical. At that point in the crisis, it was the best military option, better than letting loose with all the ordnance at his disposal, and something even Kal Skirata couldn’t do.
They were alive. They could move on.
“Nice job, commander,” he said. “Very nicely done.” He touched his glove to his forehead and grinned. “Let’s get ourselves sorted, eh?”
Darman took out his medpac and removed two sharps of painkiller and the bacta spray. He fixed his own shoulder first, jabbing the needle hard into the blue vein in the crook of his left elbow so that the drug dispersed faster. But it still made his eyes water when he sprayed the blaster burn.
Etain watched with grim resignation and swallowed visibly.
“Come on, Etain,” Darman said. “Hold still.”
He aimed the spray like a pistol into her left ear.
Darman had no idea that Jedi could curse fluently in Huttese, but he was learning more about them every minute. A lot more.
The excavation droid rattled down the road, managing to find every pothole and rut between Imbraani and the screening plant. Niner bounced each time, too. Buried in the scoop under a layer of loose rubble, with enough explosives to level everything within half a kilometer, he was … anxious.
The detonators were disabled. He kept checking that.
Now that night had fallen and the rain stopped, he could ease himself into a position where he could see ahead. Blue navigation lights picked out the droid’s front fender, and an amber hazard light whirled on its canopy, illuminating the trees on either side of the track. It was a lumbering thing that wouldn’t get out of anyone’s way. Behind it, a convoy of identical droids followed. They were an intimidating procession.
Even the column of tinnies marching toward Niner moved to one side of the road.
He picked them out in his night-vision visor, although the sound alone identified them. Clink-rasp-clink-rasp. It was the knee joints. Nothing but battle droids marched that regularly, not even clone troopers. There were no voices, not even the occasional command to form single file, or shut it back there. It was all grim mechanical purpose.
Niner closed his fingers around the grips of the DC-17. He really didn’t want to engage them. It was going to be hard enough to direct the excavator to the target and get away in one piece without pausing for skirmishes along the route. Walk on, will you? Just walk on. He didn’t want to test the manufacturer’s assurance that a few blaster bolts wouldn’t set off the charges. He was sprawled on top of them. Proximity made you skeptical.
There were fifty battle droids in the column heading for Imbraani. If he managed to knock out the ground station, that would be the first message he’d send on his long-range comlink.
The chunk-chunk-chunk of their feet drew level with him and he froze.
It began to fade behind him. He breathed again. Once the excavator droid was coaxed past its logical destination of the screening plant, it would be that much more conspicuous. At least the tinnies looked busy. The worst part was having a pretty good idea about what orders they’d been given.
Just ten klicks. He was minutes away from the point where the droid would attempt to deliver its load. At that moment, he’d divert it toward Teklet itself, through the center of the town and into the ground station compound. At least the aerial recce appeared to have been right about that. Teklet was a sprawl of storage silos and shipping facilities for getting produce off the planet, and not much else.
The worst that the Trade Federation had ever anticipated dealing with was a band of angry farmers. It was going to make his job a good deal easier.
Just ahead, the droid’s flashing light bounced off a sign pointing left: all contractor traffic—no entry via main gate. The excavator knew its way and began slowing for the turn. Niner took Atin’s jury-rigged cables and unplugged one strand. Go on. Go on. Go…
The droid was almost at the turn. It was moving at around twenty-five klicks now, threatening to veer off. But it carried on, past the sign, past the slip road, and on toward Teklet. “That’s my boy,” Niner said. The sweat prickled between his shoulder blades, despite his suit’s environment controls. “Couldn’t speed up a bit, could you?” Maybe that was asking for trouble. When he eased his head clear of the layer of rubble and peered around the side of the scoop, he could see a procession of droids strung out behind him along the curve of the road, neatly line astern like battle cruisers, each flashing an orange hazard light with its outline picked out in blue.
It was actually pretty, all things considered. Then the nearest droid slowed and peeled off down the slip road, the light show behind Niner fading, then disappearing altogether. He was on his own. He settled back under the rubble with his head tilted so that he could see ahead through a channel in the debris.
Teklet had little in the way of street lighting, and there were few people about. As architecture went, this wasn’t tasteful, elegant Tipoca. It was a service depot and it looked like one. A couple of Trandoshans were sitting under an awning outside a hut, blasters across their laps; they stared at the droid with vague curiosity but didn’t appear to move. Niner was almost past the ribbon of huts when the thought struck him that a five-hundred-meter blast zone would take out a lot of Teklet, and people with it. Not all of them were Separatists.
Once you make that your concern, they’ll always have a weapon to use against you. Skirata said they had to get used to it. Achieving your objective sometimes had a high price.
A bonded cargo transporter with red security straps sealing its containers crossed in front of him. The droid missed it by two seconds. If the driver was cutting it that close, then they hadn’t taken much notice of the machine. So far, so good… and getting better. As the droid pressed on, Niner was checking his escape route. It was a good two-hundred-meter sprint to the nearest cover from any part of the road. It was going to be tight.
He had to get the droid to halt right alongside the ground station. If it kept going, the blast would be centered elsewhere. He could set the dets now, slide out of the scoop, and run for it, but that meant observing the droid up to the last second, and that meant he’d probably be too close when it blew.
But he was committed now. The ground station had to go. It would put a serious dent in the Separatists’ defenses for a few critical days, maybe even weeks, and that was an edge they needed.
Working some rubble aside with his finger, Niner could see the lights of the compound. He flicked to night vision, and the green image showed him flimsy mesh fencing and a waist-high retaining wall. The excavator would roll right over it on its path to the building itself.
They’d know he was there, all right.
He’d left the dets until last. The charges were linked by cord in series, just waiting for the final connection to the three detonators that—in theory—Niner could trigger remotely. He clamped the cords together and shoved them into the aperture of the det housings, snapping them shut.
The explosives were now live. He wasn’t just sitting on a bomb; he was sitting in one. The charges, dispersed among the rubble, were up to his neck. He began to ease his legs clear, ready to jump.
If he didn’t walk away from this, then that was the way it had to be. For a moment Niner felt a cold spasm in his gut that he recognized from a dozen all-too-real exercises. He was probably going to get killed. He was possibly going to get killed. If anyone thought intensive training wiped out the fear of dying, they were wrong. He was as afraid as he was when live rounds had flown past him for the first time. It never went away. He just learned to live with it, and tried to learn well enough that he could use it to work for him, and get him out of trouble faster.
Niner fumbled with the cabling. He steered the droid in a gentle arc so that it was square-on to the fence. It wasn’t the best course he’d ever steered, but with a five-hundred-meter blast zone, it was going to be good enough. He ducked. The wire mesh loomed in his face at the edge of the scoop, then strained and vibrated, tearing up posts with it as the droid pushed through, oblivious.
It was nearly at the wall. The building was five meters high; flat roof, no windows. They didn’t seem to like windows here. He heard a single shout, something like chuba, and he had to agree. This was going to fierfek someone’s watch with a lot of reports.
Niner yanked the cables apart and cut the droid’s power. Its momentum carried it on a few more meters, and metal twanged and squealed as the chain-link fence was stretched to the breaking point. The wires finally snapped back like a bowstring under the excavator’s wheels.
One, two, three …
The droid was at a dead stop hard against the wall. The blocks were beginning to crack, and gaps were opening between them. He had a sudden vision of finding himself buried in collapsing masonry and unable to move, and a combination of animal panic and a lifetime of training propelled him out of the rubble and over the edge of the scoop. He fell flat from two meters and struggled to right himself. Then there was shouting and, fifty-kilo pack or not, he executed the fastest bugout of his career, Deece in one hand and the remote det control in the other.
There was one way out and that was through the gap he’d smashed in the fence.
It wasn’t covert. A human in an overall was standing open-mouthed in his path, and Niner knocked him flat on his back as he ran full-tilt for the hole in the mesh.
He had about a minute to put distance between himself and the ground station before he blew the charges. At twenty klicks an hour, that meant he’d be about—
Fierfek, just do it.
Niner was past the first line of trees and into long grass when he dropped and pressed the remote det in both hands.
Teklet was a sudden ball of light. Then the roar of air and the shock wave shook him. He crouched as debris rained down on him, hoping—really hoping–that Katarn armor was all that it was cracked up to be.
Ghez Hokan was the first to admit that it was taking a lot less to get him irritated lately. He’d waited long enough. He tapped the comlink console impatiently.
“I asked to be out through to CO CISCom ten minutes ago, di’kut.”
“I realize that, Major. He’ll be with you as soon as he’s free.”
“Enemy forces have infiltrated and I need to speak to your commanding officer. Do you understand what we have on Qiilura? Could you possibly shift your di’kutla shebs long enough to find out why this is so vital to the war?”
“Sir, we have Republic troops infiltrating more places than I care to name right now, so—”
The screen flickered and broke up in noise. Hokan switched to another channel and got the same crackling, shimmering display. It was the same for every channel he tried. His first thought was that someone had disabled his receiver. They were closer than he’d thought, and a lot more daring. He put on his helmet and edged cautiously down the passage to the exterior door, his Verpine shatter gun in one hand and a hunting vibroblade in the other.
The droid sentry stepped aside to let him pass. On the roof, the comm relay was intact. Hokan took out his personal comlink and called Hurati.
All Hokan could hear was the chatter of static. It struck him that the Republic troops might well have done what he would have, faced with the same target.
“Droid, can you make contact with your fellows?”
The droids had their own comlink system. They could communicate instantly on any battlefield. What they didn’t need was the main relay at Teklet in order to do it.
“Can you contact Lieutenant Hurati?”
The droid paused for a few moments. “I have him, sir.”
“Ask him if he has any news of Teklet.”
Pause. A much longer pause.
“Large explosion seen in the direction of Teklet, sir.”
It’s what I’d do if I was preparing an assault, Hokan thought. I’d render my enemies blind and deaf.
There was nothing he could do on the ground to deal with an invasion, if one was coming. There was a Republic assault ship in Qiilura space, and that didn’t bode well.
He had two options for his immediate task. He could defend Uthan’s project—the technical knowledge invested in her and her staff, and the nanovirus itself—or, if he was overrun, he could prevent it falling into enemy hands to be studied and neutralized.
It was a big planet. If he had to run, they’d have to find him. In the meantime, he’d sit tight and wait for them to come.
“Tell Hurati I want every functioning droid back here now,” Hokan said. “We’re digging in.”