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14

There is nothing wrong with fear. You need never be ashamed of it, as long as it doesn’t stop you functioning. Fear is your natural warning system; it keeps you alive so that you can fight. Show me a man who isn’t afraid, and I’ll show you a fool who is a danger to his entire ship. And I do not tolerate fools in my navy.

–Admiral Adar Tallon, addressing the new intake at a Republic academy


Hokan stood on the veranda of Ankkit’s villa and stared out at a bright autumnal morning. There were still too many leaves on the trees for his liking.

They were out there somewhere. Republic forces. A hand­ful.

But they were not an army.

He walked to Uthan’s laboratory complex, a comfortable fifteen-minute stroll. It occurred to him that he was a good target for a sniper, if a sniper had been able to penetrate Mandalorian armor. Even so, he decided to divert via a cop­pice. His path took him along a dry-stone wall to the rear of the installation, and he made a complete circle of the farm building before walking up to the single entrance at the front.

As a lure, this was a good one. The line of droids across the entrance was spectacular. Hokan made a point of inspecting them at a leisurely pace and then engaged them in conversa­tion about their cannons. If anyone was observing—soldier, spy, or talkative farmer—they would get the message.

Inside, though, Dr. Uthan was losing her glamorous cool.

“Is this the last time you’re going to move me?” she said, tapping her nails against the polished metal of her desk. Her files and equipment were still in packing crates. “My staff members are finding this extremely stressful, as am I.”

Hokan took out his datapad and projected a holochart of the installation above the surface of the desk. The place was a cube within a cube: below ground level, the accommoda­tions, storage, and offices lay in a ring around a central core. The core contained a square of eight small laboratories with one more—the secure room—nestled in the center. The rest of the complex had bulkheads that could be brought down and sealed to isolate a biohazard escape. It could be de­fended.

But it wouldn’t come to that. He’d laid a careful trail to Ankkit’s villa and a greeting from fifty droids, along with cannons and powerful explosives.

He wanted to get it over with.

“Yes, Doctor, this is the last time I’ll move you,” he said. “Try to understand why I’ve done this, Doctor. I believe I’m facing a small commando force. Rather than chase them, which could be diversionary, I’ve decided to bring them to me. This means they’ll be facing a conventional infantry and artillery battle that I don’t think they’re equipped to fight. Those are battles of numbers.”

“I’m not sure if I do see your point, actually.”

“We can defend this installation. I have the numbers and the firepower. Sooner or later, they’ll take casualties.”

“You’re certain about this?”

“Not certain, but everything I see suggests they have landed a minimal amount of troops—for example, no evi­dence of large-scale transport. They hijacked explosives from a quarry to destroy the Teklet ground station. If they had the materiel, they wouldn’t have bothered.”

“And then again, maybe that’s a diversionary tactic, too.”

Hokan looked up from the holochart. “Nobody has per­fect knowledge in battle. No plan survives contact with the enemy. Yes, I’m making an educated guess, as every com­mander in history has had to do.”

Uthan considered him with cold black eyes. “You should have evacuated my project from the planet.”

Hokan folded his arms. “When you move, you’re vulnera­ble. You’re vulnerable crossing the countryside between here and the spaceport. You’re even more vulnerable attempting to leave Qiilura with a Republic assault ship on station. And now we have no communications beyond runners, and a bunch of droids relaying messages. No, we sit tight.”

Uthan indicated the warren of rooms behind her with one hand. “If this comes to a pitched battle, what about my proj­ect? What about my staff? Those five scientists represent the best microbiologists and geneticists in the CIS. In many ways, they’re more important than the biomaterial we hold. We can start again, even if the work so far is lost.”

“It’s as dangerous for them to leave as it is for you.”

“I see.”

“You specified a very secure layout when you had this fa­cility built. You must know it’s defensible.”

Uthan seemed suddenly fixed on the holochart in front of her. It showed hydraulic emergency bulkheads and chambers within chambers. It showed ventilation systems with triple filters. It could be sealed as tightly as a bottle.

“It’s not secure enough to stop anything getting in,” she said carefully. “It’s to stop anything getting out.”

“You said the nanovirus was only lethal for clone troops.”

There was a pause, the sort of pause Hokan didn’t like. He waited. He stared at her, and he was disappointed to see for the first time that she was nervous. He waited for her to con­tinue. He would wait all day if necessary.

“It will be,” she said at last.

“You said that it might make other organisms merely—what was the word—unwell?”

“Yes.”

“How unwell, then, if you go to all this trouble to contain it?”

“Very unwell.”

“Dead unwell?”

“Possibly. Depending on whether the exposed subject has certain sets of genes …”

Hokan experienced a rare moment of uncertainty. It wasn’t because he was closer to a dangerous virus than he sup­posed. It was because someone had lied to him, and his in­stinctive way to deal with that was a violent one. The fact that he was dealing with a woman was the only thing that made him hesitate.

But it was only hesitation. He leaned forward, seized her by her elegant designer collar, and heaved her sharply out of her seat across the desk.

“Never lie to me,” he said.

They were eye-to-eye. She was shaking, but she didn’t blink. “Get your hands off me.”

“What else haven’t you told me?”

“Nothing. You didn’t need to know the details of the proj­ect.”

“This is your final chance to tell me if there’s anything else I should know.”

She shook her head. “No, there isn’t. We’re having some problems isolating the parts of the virus that will attack only clones. They’re human. All human races share the majority of genes. Even you.”

He held her for a few more seconds and then let go, and she fell back into her chair. He really should have shot her. He knew it. It would have made her staff more compliant. But she was a significant part of the asset. He hadn’t gone soft because she was a woman, he was certain of that.

“Understand this,” he said, feeling suddenly very uncom­fortable. “This means we’re sitting on a weapon that might destroy us as easily as it will destroy the enemy. It places constraints on how we fight.” He went back to the holochart and indicated various features of the installation with his forefinger. “You’re sure it can’t escape into the environ­ment?”

Uthan was staring at his face, not at the chart. It was as if she didn’t recognize him. He snapped his fingers and pointed at the chart.

“Come on, Doctor. Pay attention.”

“That’s—that’s the biohazard containment area. Impreg­nable, for obvious reasons. I was thinking we might retreat in there for the time being.”

“I would prefer to keep you and the biomaterial separate. In fact, I would prefer also to keep you separate from your staff. I dislike having all my eggs in one box—if the enemy ever breaches this facility, then they won’t be able to destroy the project in one action. If they eliminate one part, we can still salvage the other components, be they personnel or ma­terials.”

“These rooms aren’t as secure in biohazard terms.”

“But they are relatively secure in terms of stopping some­one from getting at them. The hazardous materials can stay in the central biohazard chamber.”

“Yes,” she said. “I concede that.”

“Then get your people moving.”

“You think it’ll come to that? To a battle?”

“No, not here. But if it does, this gives me the best chance of succeeding.”

“You’re prepared to fight while sitting on a bomb, effec­tively.”

“Yes. Your bomb. And if we’re both sitting on it, it’ll moti­vate us to prevent its detonation, won’t it?”

“I think you’re a dangerous and foolhardy man.”

“And I think you’re a woman who’s lucky that she has relative immunity through her value to the Separatist cause.” Hokan straightened up. Maybe she wanted an apology. He saw no reason to give one. A scientist, expecting half the relevant facts to be acceptable in the solution of a problem? It was sloppy, unforgivably sloppy. “I’ll have a droid help you if you like.”

“We’ll do it ourselves. I know how careful they are with fragile objects.”

Hokan closed the holochart and walked out into the corri­dor.

Outside, a droid approached him. “Captain Hurati is bringing a prisoner and a visitor,” he said. “He says he dis­obeyed your orders on both.”

Maybe promoting the man hadn’t been such a good idea. But Hurati was smart. He’d taken them alive when he should have taken them dead, and that was significant. The young officer wasn’t squeamish.

Hokan decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. When the droids at the entrance parted to let him pass, Hurati was waiting, and he had two others with him.

One was a Trandoshan mercenary. He carried his distinc­tive tool of the trade, an APC repeating blaster.

The other was no stranger at all. It was Guta-Nay, his for­mer Weequay lieutenant.

“I got information,” the Weequay said, cowering.

“You better have,” Hokan said.


With one pair of shoulders missing, Niner had some hard choices to make about what equipment they could take with them. He stared down at the various weapons and piles of ordnance laid out on the ground, astonished by what they had managed to carry as well as in consideration of what they couldn’t take into battle.

“We could always cache some stuff near the target,” Fi said.

“Two trips—double the risk.”

Atin picked up one of the LJ-50 concussion rifles. He had been most insistent on saving those. “Well, I’m taking this conk rifle and the APC array blaster if I’m going into that fa­cility.”

“Don’t trust Republic procurement, then?” Fi said.

“No point being a snob about gear,” Atin said.

“Don’t get stuck in any confined spaces.”

It was a fair point: with a backpack, Deece, rifle attach­ments, and sections of cannon, there wasn’t a lot of room left to load much else. Niner didn’t want to say it aloud, but they were trying to do two squads’ work. Something had to give.

“Come on, you know I can carry equipment,” Etain said.

She didn’t look like she could even carry a tune: battered, di­sheveled, and ashen, she seemed about to drop. “Ask Dar­man.”

“That right, Dar?” Niner said on the helmet link.

Darman glanced down from his observation point in the tree. “Like a bantha, Sarge. Load her up.”

They could split the E-Web across five of them. That meant an extra piece and a decent supply of extra power cells and ordnance.

“Okay, plan A,” Niner said. He projected a holochart from his datapad. “The nearest suitable laying-up point is just under one kilometer from the facility in this coppice here. We tab down there now and deploy two surveillance remotes to give us a good view of both the facility and the villa. De­pending on the situation, we can try to come back for the spare gear during the day. It’s two klicks each way. Not a lot, but it’s daylight, and if Guta-Nay did the business, we’ll have a lot of attention.”

“I’m up for it,” Atin said. “We’re going to need it.”

“Go on with plan A,” Etain said.

“As we agreed—get a remote loaded with ribbon charge into the villa and do what damage we can, while Fi lays down fire at the rear of the facility, Darman blows the main doors, and I go in with Atin. If we can’t get the remote into the villa, then we have to tie the droids down with a split attack—plan B.”

Etain chewed her lower lip. “That sounds almost impossi­ble.”

“I never said we had good odds.”

“And I’m not that much use against droids.”

“You would be if you had one of these,” Atin said, and of­fered her the Trandoshan array blaster. “Lightsabers are all very well, but we don’t want to get too intimate with the enemy, do we? It’s got a good close-range spread so you don’t even have to be an expert marksman to use it.” He made a gesture with his hands. “Bang. Serious bang.”

She took the weapon and examined it carefully, then shouldered it like a pro. “Never used one of these. I’ll get the hang of it fast.”

“That’s the spirit, ma’am.”

“You should also know that I can move things, too. Not just carry them.”

“Move?”

“With the Force.”

“Handy,” Fi said.

Niner slapped a clip of plasma bolt rounds in Fi’s hand to shut him up. “We might need you to keep Doctor Uthan co­operative, too. Worse comes to worst, we’ve got sedation for her, but I’d really rather have her walking than as a dead­weight.”

“Is there a plan C?”

“The nice thing about the alphabet, ma’am, is that it gives you plenty of plans to choose from,” Fi said.

“Shut up, Fi,” Niner said.

“He has a point,” Etain said. She spun around to face the undergrowth. “Jinart?”

The Gurlanin slipped out of the bushes and wandered among the selection of weapons, a glossy black predator again, picking her way between the equipment with careful paws. She sniffed at it.

“Show me what I need to carry,” she said.

“Can you manage three remotes?” Atin asked.

“All bombs?”

“No, two holo-cams, one bomb.”

“Very well. You can explain to me what you want done with them when we reach your…”

“Laying-up point,” Niner prompted. “LUP.”

“You enjoy not being understood, don’t you?”

“Part of our mystique and charm,” Fi said, and strapped more webbing onto his armor.

They followed the line of the woods, a route that took them a couple of kilometers out of their way, but offered the shortest distance over open terrain. Etain—Niner still strug­gled with first-name familiarity, even in his muni—kept close to Darman. She seemed to like him. She was polite and sympathetic to the rest of them, but she certainly liked Dar­man. Niner could see it on her face. She exuded concern. He heard snatches of conversation.

“How did you ever carry all the E-Web sections alone?”

“No idea. Just did, I suppose.”

She was a Jedi. Skirata said they were fine people, but they didn’t—and couldn’t—care about anyone. But you got close very quickly under fire. He wasn’t going to ask Darman what he was playing at. Not yet.

They reached the edge of the woodland and came into a hundred-meter stretch of waist-high grass. Fi went forward as point man. Sprinting and dropping was now beyond them, but there appeared to be nothing around to spot their gray armor anyway, so they walked at a crouch. Niner’s back was screaming for a rest. It didn’t matter how fit you were when you pushed yourself this hard: it hurt.

When they reached the coppice, it was painkiller time. Niner stripped off his arm plate and peeled back a section of suit. He didn’t bother finding a vein. He stabbed the needle into muscle.

“Know the feeling,” Darman said. He dropped his pack and sat down, legs outstretched. “Anyone taken any stims so far?”

“Not yet,” Niner said. “I reckon we should all dose up one hour before moving, just to make sure we’re a hundred per­cent.” He glanced at Etain, wondering how she might appear after a week of normal meals, unbroken sleep, and clean clothing. She looked worryingly frail now, even though she was doing a valiant job of keeping up. “You, too. Especially you. Can Jedi take stimulants?”

“What exactly do they do?”

“The equivalent of ten hours’ good, solid sleep and four square meals. Until they wear off.”

“I ought to draw on the Force to sustain my stamina,” she said. “But the Force could do with a bit of help right now. Count me in.”

She sat down and rested her head on her folded arms. Maybe she was meditating. Niner switched to helmet comms.

“Dar, she’s not going to collapse on us, is she? We can’t carry anything else.”

“If she drops, it’ll be because she’s dead,” he said. “Trust me, she’s tougher than she looks. Physically, anyway.”

“She’d better be. Let’s get those remotes deployed.”

Jinart had identified a couple of high points to place the cam remotes. One was on the gutter of a farm building over­looking the entrance to the facility; the other was a tree whose canopy gave a good 270-degree view of the villa. The third remote—the one loaded with ribbon charge—needed more careful placement. She sat up on her hind legs and a pouch formed on her stomach like a cook’s apron.

“Normally I would carry my young around in this,” she said. She placed the three spheres in the pouch, giving the impression that she’d swallowed some particularly lumpy prey. “But if I don’t help you, my chances of raising another litter are remote. So I consider it an appropriate act.”

Niner was as fascinated as ever by the Gurlanin. The more he saw of the creatures, the less he knew about them. He hoped he might have the chance to find out more one day.

In an hour it would be midday. Atin took out his ration pack and mess tin, a flat sheet that snapped into shape. He placed his remaining ration cubes in it and held it out. “How much have we got among us?”

“I’m down to half a day’s worth,” Fi said.

“Me, too,” Niner said.

Darman reached into his pack and pulled out a carefully wrapped brick-sized bag. “A day’s worth of cubes and this dried kuvara and jerky. Let’s pool this and have two meals before we go in. If we pull this off, we’ll be running too fast to have lunch. If we don’t, it’d be a shame to die hungry.”

“Gets my vote,” Atin said.

Niner was going to ask Etain, but she was sitting cross-legged with her eyes shut and her hands in her lap. Darman put a finger to his lips and shook his head.

“Meditating,” he mouthed silently.

Niner hoped she emerged from it transformed. He was still one squad short of an adequate force for this job.

“You have ten seconds to live,” Ghez Hokan said. He took out Fulier’s lightsaber, and the blue shaft of energy buzzed into life. He wondered what made the blade a consistent, fi­nite length each time. “Speak.”

Guta-Nay, looking more bemused than he recalled, ig­nored the lightsaber. “I been captured by soldiers. I get away.”

“Republic troops? Human?”

“Yes. They catch me, they make me carry stuff.”

Hokan sheathed the blade. “They obviously spotted your talents. How did you get away?”

“They were sleeping. They not care. I go.”

“How many soldiers?”

“Four. And girlie.”

“Girlie?”

Guta-Nay pointed at the lightsaber. “She got one like that.”

So the woman with them was a Jedi. “Just four?”

“They got another lot.” He pursed his lips, grappling with a new word. “Squad.”

“Very well, so we have two squads. Eight men. That would fit.” Hokan turned to Hurati. “And our Trandoshan friend?”

“He says he’s highly irritated about his business being in­terrupted, sir, and he offers himself and three colleagues to help you deal with the inconvenience.”

“Thank him and accept his offer.” Hokan turned back to Guta-Nay. “I want you to think very hard. Did they say what they were going to do? Where they were going?”

“The villa.”

How predictable people were. The locals would tell you anything for money, sell you their daughters, inform on their neighbors. Hokan had half expected the ruse to be almost too obvious. “You’re doing well. Tell me what equipment they have.”

“Blasters. Explosives.” The Weequay made an indication of great width with his hands. “Big gun. They got armor with knives in gloves.”

“Describe.”

“Like yours.”

“What do you mean, like mine?”

Guta-Nay indicated his head and made a T-shape with his fingers. “Your helmet.”

It was difficult to take in. Guta-Nay was an inarticulate brute, but there was no ambiguity in his description. “Are you saying they were wearing Mandalorian armor?”

“Yeah. That it.”

“You’re sure about that.”

“Sure.”

“Anything else?” Hokan wondered how he expected this creature to be able to assess intelligence. “Anything else un­usual?”

Guta-Nay concentrated on the question as if his life de­pended on it, which it did not; Hokan would kill him anyway. “They all look the same.”

“They were wearing uniforms?”

“No, the men. Same faces.”

Children could be unerringly accurate in their observation of detail, and so could stupid adults. Guta-Nay was describing something that Dr. Uthan had told him about: soldiers, identical soldiers, mindlessly obedient soldiers—clone sol­diers.

Hokan couldn’t believe that clone troopers could operate like this. And the one weapon that would work against them was denied him, because in its present state it would kill everyone, Uthan and her team included.

But there were probably only eight of them. He had nearly a hundred droids. He had weapons.

“Hurati? Hurati!”

The young captain came running and saluted. “Sir?”

“I think we face a two-pronged attack. There are two squads, and I find it unlikely to imagine that they would not have one squad attack the villa, while the other made an at­tempt on the most obvious target. Divide the droid platoons between the locations.”

“That’s what you would do with two squads, sir? Not con­centrate your forces?”

“Yes, if I weren’t sure my objectives were consolidated in one place. They can’t know who and what is in which building. And they’ll attack at night, because while they’re bold, they’re not stupid.” He shook his head, suddenly interrupted by his own preoccupation. “Who would have thought clones could carry out this sort of operation? Uthan said they were no more than cannon fodder.”

“Commanded by Jedi, sir. Perhaps our tactician is the woman.”

It was an interesting idea. Hokan considered it for a mo­ment, then realized that Guta-Nay was waiting expectantly, oddly upright and apparently unafraid.

“Well?” Hokan said.

“I tell you stuff. You let me live?”

Hokan activated the lightsaber again and held it out to his side, just above the level of his right shoulder.

“Of course not,” he said, and swung the blade. “It would be bad for morale.”


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