Coruscant Command to Republic Assault Ship Majestic,
Cruiser Vengeance will RV with you at 0400. You have clearance to intercept any vessel leaving Qiilura space, prevent landing by non-Republic vessels, and engage any vessel failing to comply. Have biohazard containment standing by.
Niner struggled to his feet and stared back at the ground station.
It wasn’t there anymore. Neither were the few small huts scattered along the approach road. There was billowing smoke and fires burning, including one that looked as if it were a blowtorch. Another explosion made him shield his head, and more debris peppered his armor.
Apart from that, the area was silent. He set off through the trees again, feeling as if he’d been picked up and shaken hard by someone really angry. A small pack of gdans began chasing him, snapping on his leg armor, but they caught on fast that he was going to be impossible to eat and fell back. He opened his long-range comlink for the first time in days.
“Niner here, anyone receiving?”
He could hear his own breath rasping as he ran. He was down to a stumbling jog now and feeling the reality of his exhaustion. He’d take a stim or two later. He had to.
“Sarge? Fi here. Target acquired, then.”
“Wow. P for plenty.”
“You sound busy.”
“On my way to the RV.”
“You bet. Sitrep?”
“Had to dump the droid and cache a lot of stuff. But the Weequay can carry a surprising amount if you ask him nicely. ETA an hour or so.”
“Call Darman, in case Jinart hasn’t caught up with him yet.”
“Copy that. ETA?”
“Depends. Looking for transport right now.”
“You sure about that?”
“You can do fast or you can do covert. Right now fast looks good to me. Out.”
Niner kept close enough to the road to hear vehicles. He needed a speeder. The mangled chassis of a personal transport of some kind was upended at the side of the road, testimony to the force of the blast.
Eventually, someone would show up to take a look at the damage. Then he’d have his chance.
After a few minutes Niner was starting to see intact buildings through the trees. He was nearing the farthest edge of the blast zone. Farther ahead he could see lights coming toward him, and his visor told him they were approaching fast. He dropped down into the cover of the grass. As they got nearer, he could pick out one landspeeder and a speeder bike.
Niner couldn’t face walking back into the blast zone to take one. He’d have to stop them here. And he’d have to stop them with minimum damage, or else he’d still be hiking back to the RV point.
He aimed his rifle on sniper setting and waited until the landspeeder was within three hundred meters. It didn’t surprise him that it wasn’t an emergency vehicle. He could see the driver clearly: a Trandoshan. They didn’t have a record in humanitarian public service. He was probably rushing to see if his slave traffic had been affected by the blast. The speeder was carrying a Trandoshan as well.
Niner squeezed gently, and the bolt shattered the landspeeder’s screen. The vehicle veered right off the road, spraying mud and gravel in the air, and the speeder bike swung left and pulled up dead. For a moment the rider hesitated, instinctively looking around in the dark as if unsure what had happened, but then he appeared to work it out just as Niner’s second bolt caught him full in the chest. The speeder bike hung motionless a meter above the ground.
There was a lot to be said for night-vision visors.
Niner ran from cover and swung onto the speeder, catching his pack on the back of the seat. He savored the moment. Taking the weight off his feet ranked near the top of the list of primeval human needs, along with a long drink of ice-cold water. The relief was wonderful.
A good night’s sleep and a decent hot meal would have rounded it off perfectly. The sooner he got back to his squad and finished the job in hand, the sooner he’d be able to indulge. He steered the speeder into the woods and headed south with newly uplifted spirits.
Pinpricks of light formed a small constellation ahead of Etain. They might have been a kilometer away, or they might have been within arm’s reach: she couldn’t tell by sight alone.
But she could certainly smell their breath. It was a cloying, sickly scent of raw meat. She swiped her lightsaber across the entrance to the shelter, and the gdans scattered. She had tried using the Force to persuade them to bother someone else, but it only succeeded in making them more curious, although they had stopped trying to take bites out of her.
How do you do it, Jinart? How do you keep them at bay? She sat huddled under the covering Darman had constructed and listened to the water working its way down through the leaves. The rain had stopped, but the runoff was still trickling through and plopping on the sheet of plastoid above her head. She could hear again, at least in one ear.
She could also see very clearly. What she saw was the face of the Umbaran she’d almost decapitated with her lightsaber. Panic and fear had pushed the event from her mind, but now that she was quiet and tired, it flooded back and wouldn’t go away.
Etain tried to meditate for the first time in days, shutting out the irritating drip of water on her head. Darman prowled around outside, silent and unnerving. She could feel him ebbing and flowing; anxious, even a little scared, but focused and devoid of violence or inner conflict.
She wanted to ask him how he achieved that balance. They had both been raised in complete isolation from the everyday world, with their own set of values and disciplines, not because they had been chosen to be different but because they had been born that way. Their calling was random, genetic—unfair. He’d obviously succeeded brilliantly; she had failed in equal measure. She let the sensation of his clarity wash over her.
It was almost soothing. Then it was suddenly gone and a wave of pure exhilaration hit her like a body blow. Darman thrust his head through the entrance to the shelter.
“They’re coming,” he said. “My squad’s on its way.” He paused as if he was listening to something, his glove held against the side of his helmet. It was odd to watch someone so obviously delighted without having the slightest idea of his facial expression. “An hour or so. Niner’s taken out the comm station at Teklet. Fi and Atin have acquired a bit more gear that’ll come in handy. Plus a prisoner.” He paused again. His head was moving as if he was talking. He appeared to be able to switch back and forth between being audible and inaudible to her, as if his helmet was a separate environment into which he could retreat at will. “A Weequay, of all things. Oh well, they’ve got their reasons.”
He was utterly still for a few moments before nodding vigorously. He eased off his helmet and his face was one broad grin, aimed at nothing in particular.
“They’re all right, I take it,” Etain said.
“I’m glad. You’re brothers, right?”
“No, not really.”
“All right, you’re clones.”
“They’re not my original squad,” Darman said. His expression was still all delight and good humor. “My brothers were all killed at the battle of Geonosis, and so were theirs. We didn’t even know each other before this mission. But three of us had the same training sergeant, so I suppose we feel like family. Except Atin, of course.”
It was an extraordinary statement. Darman showed not the slightest sign of being wounded by his recent loss. Etain knew little of biological families, but she knew that losing Master Fulier would still hurt badly in three months’ time, and even in three years. Perhaps they’d bred grief out of clones, too.
“You don’t miss your brothers, then.”
Darman’s grin slowly relaxed. “Of course I do,” he said quietly. “Every day.”
“You seem to be taking it… calmly.”
“We know we’re likely to get killed. If we dwell on that, we won’t be any use to anyone. You just get on with it, that’s what our old training sergeant used to say. We’re all going to die sometime, so you might as well die pushing the odds for something that matters.”
Etain wanted to ask him what mattered to him about the Republic’s cause. She was almost afraid to, but she needed to know.
“What do you think you’re fighting for, Darman?”
He looked blank for a moment. “Peace, ma’am.”
“Okay, what do you think you’re fighting against?”
“Anarchy and injustice.” It was a rote response, but he paused as if considering it for the first time. “Even if people aren’t grateful.”
“That sounds like your training sergeant, too.”
“He wasn’t wrong, though, was he?”
Etain thought of the locals who had betrayed them to Hokan’s men. Yes, she’d learned a lot about the reality of conflict in the last few weeks. But it still wasn’t enough.
“It’s getting light,” Darman said. He sat down cross-legged in the hide, armor plates clacking against something. “You look cold. Need any more painkillers?”
Etain had achieved a consistent level of dampness and pain that she could live with. She was too tired to think of doing anything else. She’d even stopped noticing the persistent odor of wet merlie wool. “I’m okay.”
“If we light a fire we’ll be a magnet for half the Separatist army.” He rummaged in his belt and held out a ration cube to her, still that incongruous amalgam of fresh naivete and utterly clinical killer. She shook her head. He pulled out a bag. “Dried kuvara?”
She realized from the way he had put the fruit carefully in his belt and not in his pack that he prized it. He lived on rations with all the taste appeal of rancid mott hide. The sacrifice was rather touching; she’d have plenty of time to gorge herself on the galaxy’s varied foods, provided she got off Qiilura alive, but Darman wouldn’t. She managed a smile and waved it away. “No. Eat up. That’s an order.”
He didn’t need encouraging. He chewed with his eyes closed and she felt desperately sorry for him; yet a little envious of his delight in ordinary things.
“I know a good way to warm up,” he said, and opened his eyes.
Etain bristled. Maybe he wasn’t as naive as he seemed. “You do?”
“If you’re feeling up to it.”
“Up to what ?”
Darman made a wait-and-see gesture with one raised finger and got up to go outside. No, Etain thought, he wouldn’t have meant that at all. She was suddenly embarrassed that she’d even imagined he might. She stared at the backs of her hands, suddenly appalled at their abrasions and broken nails and general ugliness. A roughly trimmed pole was thrust into the shelter. She jumped. She didn’t need any more surprises.
“If that’s supposed to be funny, Darman, I’m not laughing.”
“Come on, commander.” He peered down the length of the pole. “Lightsaber drill. Let’s do it now before you have to for real.”
“I just want to rest.”
“I know.” He squatted down and stared at her. “I don’t know much about swords, either, but I’m trained in hand-to-hand combat.”
He didn’t move. His persistence annoyed her. Actually, it suddenly angered her; she’d had enough. She was exhausted, and she wanted to sit numbly and do absolutely nothing. She jumped to her feet, snatched the pole, and ran at him.
He sidestepped her, but only just.
“Relatively safe way to perfect your lightsaber skills,” Darman said.
“Relatively?” She held the pole two-handed, furious.
“Relatively,” Darman said, and brought his own mock lightsaber around sharply on her shin.
“Come on. Do your worst.” Darman leapt back out of the range of a savage and uncontrolled lunge. “That’s it. Come at me.”
That was the point at which she always stumbled—the fine line between giving maximum effort and being blinded by angry violence. You have to mean it. It’s not a game anymore. She came at him with a two-handed sweep from right to left, cracking hard against his weapon and feeling the impact in her wrists and elbows, forcing Darman onto his back foot. Three more rapid sweeps, right, right, left—and then one immediately downwards, unexpected, hitting him so hard between neck and shoulder that if the pole had been a real lightsaber she would have sliced him in half.
She heard the sickening thwack. It was the first time she’d seen him in pain. It was a split second of a grimace, no more, but she was instantly appalled at herself.
“Sorry—” she said, but he came straight back at her and sent the stake flying from her hand.
“You have to press home your advantage,” Darman said, rubbing his neck. “I’ve never used an energy blade and I don’t have the Force to call on. But I do know when to go all-out.”
“I know,” Etain said, inspecting her shin and catching her breath. “Did I do any damage?”
“Nothing serious. Good move.”
“I don’t want to let you down when you need me most.”
“You’ve done fine so far, Commander.”
“How can you do all this, Darman?”
“Do what? Fight?”
“Kill and remain detached.”
“Training, I suppose. And whatever was in Jango Fett that made him… detached.”
“Were you ever afraid in training?”
“Did you ever get hurt?”
“All the time. Others died. It’s how you learn. Getting hurt teaches you to shoot instinctively. That’s why our instructors began training us with simunition that would hurt us without causing permanent damage. Then we moved on to live rounds.”
“How old were you then?”
“Four. Perhaps five.”
She hadn’t known that. It made her shudder. She couldn’t recall any Jedi dying in training. It was another world. She picked up her pole and made a few slow passes with it, her gaze fixed on its tip. “I find this accelerated growth difficult to comprehend.”
“It’s a Kaminoan industrial secret.”
“I mean that it’s hard for me to reconcile what you appear to be and what you can do, with—well, with someone who’s had less experience of the profane world than even a Padawan.”
“Sergeant Skirata told us we perplexed him.”
“You talk about him a lot.”
“He trained my squad and also Niner’s and Fi’s. That might be why they put us together for this mission when our brothers were killed.”
Etain felt ashamed. There was no self-pity in him whatsoever. “What will they do with you in thirty years, when you’re too old to fight?”
“I’ll be dead long before then.”
“That’s rather fatalistic.”
“I mean that we’ll always age faster than you. We’ve been told decline for clones is mercifully swift. Slow soldiers get killed. I can’t think of a better time to die than when I’m no longer the best.”
Etain really didn’t want to hear anything more about death right then. Death was happening all too easily and frequently, as if it didn’t matter and had no consequences. She could feel the Force being distorted around her; not the regular rhythm of life as it was meant to be, but the chaos of destruction. She felt she could neither accept it nor influence it.
“We’re supposed to be peacekeepers,” she said wearily. “This is ugly.”
“But war always is. Calling it peacekeeping doesn’t change anything.”
“It’s different,” Etain said.
Darman pursed his lips, looking slightly past her as if rehearsing something difficult in his mind. “Sergeant Skirata said that civvies didn’t have a clue, and that it was all right for them to have lofty ideas about peace and freedom as long as they weren’t the ones being shot at. He said nothing focuses your mind better than someone trying to kill you.”
That stung. Etain wondered if the comment were just an unguarded recollection, or a subtle rebuke of her principles. Darman appeared equally capable of either. She still hadn’t come to terms with his duality, killer and innocent, soldier and child, educated intelligence and grim humor. Undistracted by a normal life, he seemed to have spent more time in contemplation than even she had. She wondered how much the intense experience of the outside world would change him.
She’d killed just one fellow living being. It had certainly changed her.
“Come on,” he said. “Sun’s coming up. Might dry out your clothes.”
It was definitely autumn. A mist had blanketed the countryside like a sea. A puddle had formed in the sheeting stretched over the top of the shelter, and Darman went to scoop it out but stopped.
“What are these things?” he asked. “I saw them on the river, too.”
Ruby– and sapphire-colored insects were dancing above the surface of the puddle. “Daywings,” Etain said.
“I’ve never seen colors like it.”
“They hatch and take flight for a day, and they die by the evening,” she said. “A brief and glorious …”
Her voice trailed off. She was appalled at her own insensitivity. She began assembling an apology, but Darman didn’t appear to need one.
“They’re amazing,” he said, completely absorbed by the spectacle.
“They certainly are,” she said, and watched him.
Lik Ankkit’s villa had been splendid. It was still splendid in its unnecessary way, but the polished kuvara floors, with their intricately inlaid flower motif borders, were now scuffed and gouged by the metal feet of droids.
Ankkit hovered in the doorway while these four droids screwed alloy sheets across the window frames, shutting out the sunrise. Ghez Hokan watched the progress of the conversion from mansion to fortress.
“You’ll split the wood,” Ankkit hissed. “Careful! Do you know how long it took to have those panels carved?”
Hokan shrugged. “I’m not a carpenter.”
“They were not made by carpenters. They were made by artists—”
“I don’t care if Supreme Chancellor Palpatine carved them himself with a dinner fork. I need to secure this building.”
“You have a perfectly adequate purpose-built facility not three kilometers from here. You could defend that.”
“And I have.”
“Why? Why ruin my home when Uthan is no longer here?”
“For a devious and treacherous little bean counter, Ankkit, you show a surprising lack of tactical creativity.” Hokan walked over to the Neimoidian and stood close to him. He would not be intimidated by this grocer’s height. He didn’t care if he had to crane his neck to look him in the eye; he was the bigger man. “I know she’s no longer here. The enemy might believe she is. If I observed my enemy making lavish preparations to defend an installation, I might assume it was a bluff and investigate an alternative target. If I found that alternative target discreetly prepared against intruders, I would make an educated guess that it was the real objective, and attack it.”
Ankkit appeared unconvinced. He glared at Hokan with half-lidded red eyes, which was a rare show of courage for him. “And how will they spot this discreet reinforcement?”
“I’ve made sure that supplies have been seen arriving here with an accompanying degree of security procedure. Movement by night, that sort of thing. Given the nobility of the local population, I’m sure someone will trade that information for some bauble or other. It always worked for me.”
“This reinforcement will not save my home from destruction.”
“You’re right, Ankkit. Wooden structures don’t bear up well to cannons. That’s why I’ve moved Doctor Uthan back to the facility. If I have to, I can actually defend metal and stone more successfully.”
“So why did you move her here in the first place?”
“I’m surprised that you even have to ask. To keep everyone guessing, of course.”
It had seemed like a sensible idea at the time: he hadn’t known what he was dealing with. Now he was fairly sure that he was facing no more than ten men. Had an army landed, he’d have known by now. Moving Uthan—not a task he could achieve in complete secrecy anyway—had helped thicken the fog of confusion.
Hokan was leaving nothing to chance. He was laying a trail of clues that would lead the enemy commandos to one conclusion: that Uthan and the nanovirus were barricaded in Lik Ankkit’s villa.
A droid dragged a heavy alloy joist through the salon, plowing a furrow in the golden floorboards. Ankkit let out a muffled squeal of frustration. The droid’s comrades lifted the joist and aligned it with a horizontal beam, knocking over a fine Naboo vase and smashing it. Droids weren’t programmed to say Oops and sweep up the fragments. They simply crunched through them, oblivious.
Ankkit was shaking again. He screamed for a servant. A sullen-looking local boy appeared with a brush and swept the debris into a pan.
“Oh dear,” Hokan said. He didn’t think it was the right time to mention that the labyrinth of wine cellars and secure vaults beneath the villa was now packed with explosives. He didn’t know how to revive a Neimoidian who had fainted, and he had no intention of learning.
Lieutenant Hurati was waiting outside the front door. Even when not under scrutiny, Hurati stood with military composure. Hokan had never caught him sneaking a drink from a flask or scratching himself. Hurati didn’t straighten up when he saw Hokan, because he was already at attention.
“Sir, Doctor Uthan is getting irritated about the disruption,” the lieutenant said.
“I’ll talk to her. How is our droid signal chain working out?”
“It’s adequate, sir, but I would feel more secure if we had comm monitoring online.”
“My boy, there was a time when we had no listening stations, and we had to fight wars by observation and our own wits. It can be done. What have the droids spotted?”
“The incursions appear to be limited to Teklet and the area to the south, sir, and quite specific in nature. At least we know why they attacked the quarry office. I have to say I haven’t encountered an excavator bomb before.” Hurati licked his lips nervously. “Sir, are you sure you don’t want any patrols to search the Teklet road? I’d be happy to do it myself, sir. It’s no trouble.”
Hokan took it for the genuine concern it was rather than a criticism. “No, we could be chasing gdan trails all over the region. Our enemy is obviously good at diversionary tactics, and I’m not going to take any bait. I’ll wait for them to take mine.” He patted Hurati’s back. “If you’re anxious to be busy, keep an eye on Ankkit. I don’t want him interfering. Restrain him by any means you consider necessary.”
Hurati saluted. “Will do, sir. Also—Lieutenant Cuvin … I don’t think he will make captain, as you said.”
Hokan liked Hurati more every day. “Has his removal from the promotion list been noted by your fellow officers?”
“It has, sir.”
“Good. Well done.”
Hurati was proving to be a loyal aide. He was eager to obey. Hokan decided he would have to watch him. He promoted him anyway. There was nothing to be gained by willfully ignoring excellence in another.