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15

So how do we justify what we are doing now? Breeding men without choice, and without freedom, to fight and die for us? When dp the means cease to justify the end? Where is our society heading? Where are our ideals, and what are we without them? If we give in to expedience in this way, where do we draw the line between ourselves and those we find unacceptably evil? I have no answer, Masters. Do you?

Jedi Padawan Bardan Jusik, addressing the Jedi Council


Etain jerked involuntarily, as if falling in a dream. She opened her eyes and stared straight ahead.

Hes dead, she said.

Who is? Darman had been watching her meditate, worrying what might happen to her in the coming battle, afraid both for her and because of her. She could be either a liability or an unimaginable asset. Whats wrong, Etain?

Niner caught his eye with a look that suggested he thought Darman was being too familiar with an officer, whatever she had ordered. Then he went back to checking his datapad.

Guta-Nay. She rubbed her forehead and looked defeated. I felt it in the Force.

Fi looked about to say something, and Atin silenced him with a frown. Darman gave both of them a shut-up look. There was a way of saying unpalatable things to people, and Darman thought it would be better coming from him than from his comrades.

Hokan would have found him sooner or later, he said. If the Weequays managed to mislead him about our true target, hes at least redeemed himself a little.

Dar, she said. It was shockingly familiar, the squad nickname for him. I killed him as surely as if Id cut him down.

You told us yourself that he was a rapist, Fi said, sounding irritated. The world wont miss him.

Shut up, Fi. Darman tried again. Itll save lives in the end.

Yeah, ours, Fi said.

Darman twisted around, angry. I said shut up, didnt I?

Niner stepped in. You can both shut it, he said. Were all tired and were all testy. Save it for the enemy.

Darman swallowed a sudden and unexpected desire to tell Fi to lay off Etain, and in no uncertain terms. Fi knew nothing about her, nothing. Darman was ambushed by a split second of protectiveness and was immediately embarrassed by it.

He turned back to her. Hes right. Its one life for many.

Means justify the end, right? Etain stood up from her cross-legged position in one movement. And what about you? What happens if I send you or Fi or any of you into a situation where youre going to die?

She was genuinely upset. He could see it in her face, and in the way she held one thin, scratched, bony hand clenched tightly into a fist. He stood up as well, walking after her as she headed for the edge of the coppice.

We were all made for this, Darman said. It was true, wasnt it? He wouldnt exist at all if it hadnt been that someone needed soldiers, utterly reliable soldiers. But it didnt feel that way right then. Her reaction told him he was wrong, and suddenly he saw Kal Skirata, in tears, a drink in his hand. You poor boys. What sort of life is this? Etain, we all do what we have to. One day you really will have to give an order thats going to get some of us killed.

Us?

Soldiers, troopers. Whatever.

Perhaps, but the day I can accept that without being diminished by it is the day Im not fit to be a Jedi.

Okay, he said. I understand that.

How do you feel when you kill?

I never had time to think about it. On Geonosis, they killed my brothers and they were trying to kill me. They werent like us.

So what if it was someone you knew?

But you didnt know Guta-Nay, and he isnt like you. Or me, come to that. Darman hadnt a clue what she was going on about. She was new to killing. It was inevitable that shed have a few problems dealing with it. Etain, this squad needs you to be sorted and alert. Think about that.

He turned and walked back to where Niner and the others were sitting. It seemed too obvious to replace their helmets and discuss privately whether the commander was going flaky on them. She wasnt giving orders anyway. But a simple glance could convey a great deal. Darman hoped Fi understood that his fixed stare meant Lay off.

Apparently, he did. Fi made a quick palms-out movement with his hands as if in submission. The subject was dropped.

Niner was right. They were all frayed by the last few days, hovering on short fuses. They busied themselves checking and rechecking weapons.

Weye never fought as a squad before.

They were probably all thinking the same thing. Darman took the hydraulic ram apart and reassembled it, then checked the hand pump for pressure. It came with an assortment of claws, and at least having the original plans and specs of both buildings meant he knew which ones to leave behind. It could exert eight metric tons, so if the charges didnt get them through the door, the ram would. The hand-operated ram was lighter to carry, but packed less than half the punch.

Hed have liked cutting equipment, too, but hed opened steel blast doors on Geonosis with thermal tape charges, and the ribbon version was even more powerful. Explosive moved at eight thousand meters a second, enough to slice through steel: rapid entry didnt get much more rapid than that.

This wasnt a silent job. It was an application of force against an enemy who knew they were coming.

Whoa, receiving, Niner said. He shoved his helmet back on his head in a hurry. Darman could hear the blip of the alarm from where he was sitting. Jinarts got the remote cams in place. He was looking at something only he could see, and judging by his quick head movements, it was interesting. Darman and the others followed suit.

What are they doing? A platoon of tinnies was marching down the track from the villa and into the facility. There appeared to be some urgency in their pace. It looks like theyre going back to the laboratory.

The remote was looking down on the scatter of small structures around the former farmhouse. It didnt have a complete view of all the approaches to the building, but it did look out on both the front path and the land to the rear. It had no view of the rear slope of the roof or the land immediately at the back.

There was a man in armor very similar to their own, standing with a familiar helmet tucked under one arm. He was middle-aged and his hard face and confident attitude said clearly that he was a Mandalorian. It had to be Ghez Hokan.

Darman heard the collective holding of breath in his helmet comlink. Hokan was talking to a Trandoshan mercenary, making short stabbing gestures with a finger pointed at nothing in particular. He was agitated but in control. He was marshaling troops.

Yeah, Dar, I think thats exactly what theyre doing. Looks like hes making some last-minute changes.

Why would they be doing that? Darman said, but he had an unpleasant feeling that he knew.

Because weve been too clever by half, Niner said. Fierfek . Guta-Nay did his job, all right. Too well. What would you do if you thought you were really facing two squads?

Assume two separate attacks were really possible.

Atin made a noise that sounded like a controlled exhalation. Oh well. We were going to meet the whole tinnie family sooner or later. Plan C, anyone?

They waited, standing in an awkward group. Within half an hour they would know if Jinart had managed to get a remote cam close to the Neimoidian villa as well.

Darman felt a hard rap on his back plate and jerked around to see Etain standing with her hands on her hips, looking anxious. Whats got everyone upset? she asked. Come on, I felt it. Whats gone wrong?

Darman took off his helmet. Guta-Nay did a pretty good job of convincing Hokan we were targeting the villa. But we overplayed our hand by hinting that we had another squad.

Why?

It looks as if Hokan thinks one squad will be going after each target. So our chances of getting most of the droids in one location have taken a bit of a tumble.

Etain raked her fingers through her hair and shut her eyes. Time for a rethink, then.

Darman replaced his helmet to watch the feed from the remote. Then the second cam came online. There was a shaky but clear view of the Neimoidian villa and its outbuildings, seen from the branches of a swaying tree. A wide path stretched away out of shot from the front of the house.

At least they could now see the size of the problem facing them. If Hokan tried to move Uthan, they had a high chance of spotting her.

But whichever remote view Darman switched to, there were an awful lot of droids.

Okay, Niner said. Fi, you take the first watch on the remotes. Im going to see if we can get some backup. Majestic should be on station by now.

We were ordered to keep comm silence until we needed extraction, Darman said, looking at Etain.

Commander? Niner said. Weve taken out the comm station. They cant intercept our signal.

Etain didnt even pause. Sergeant, you go right ahead and call up Majestic, she said. Ask for whatever help you think we need.

Fi held up one hand. Hey, we might have a break here. Check out the remote at the villa.

Darman switched channels with a double blink. The display in his HUD showed him a shot of a young boy in a scruffy smock walking around to a side door at the villa, a fruit-laden basket clutched in both arms. He knocked, and the door was opened by a droid. The youngster went in. There was something familiar about him, even though Darman had never seen him before.

He had a very characteristic walk.

Tinnies wouldnt have sent out for fruit, would they? Fi said.

The kids gait reminded Darman of an old woman hed recently slammed up against a barn wall.

Youve got to hand it to Jinart, he said. Shes certainly got guts.

Lets hope she manages to get that fruit into the cellars.

Lets hope she comes back out, Etain said.


Dr. Uthan appeared to have forgotten that Hokan had hauled her across a desk by her collar, at least for the time being. She sat in one of the beige brocade chairs that really didnt match her utilitarian office, listening to him with apparent patience.

This is an unprecedented opportunity, she said at last.

Hokan agreed completely. I realize that you havent managed to create a delivery system for the nanovirus yet, but I think we might be able to help with that. Inhalation will work, yes? Could we introduce it into a sealed room? He had ideas for ambush and entrapment. Can that be done?

Its one of several vectors, she said. And skin contact, too. But that isnt quite what I had in mind.

Which was?

A live subject. I would like you to take one of the clones alive.

That wasnt quite whatI had in mind. I tend to have problems with the alive bit. Not my forte.

You cant simply spray this agent around, Major. I told you we havent ironed out the genome specificity.

I have droid troops. While rust might be a health issue for them, I suspect that viruses arent.

Having a live test subject would almost certainly enable us to achieve weaponization faster.

If you allow me access to the nanovirus, Ill do what I can to save one for you.

Uthan shook her head. Her vivid red-and-black-streaked hair was scraped up in a tight bun on the top of her head, giving her an even more severe appearance. Not a wisp of hair escaped the topknot. I cant do that. While you might be an expert in combat, youre not a microbiologist, nor used to handling hazardous substances. This is far too dangerous a pathogen for you to use at this stage of its development. Im also not prepared to expend what limited samples we have on a risky counterassault.

Hokan knew he could have taken it by force. But it would have been pointless. She was right; if the virus wasnt in a state that could be weaponized, it was a long shot compared to the proven weapons he had at his disposal.

Pity, he said. Ill endeavor to learn more about this technology after weve dealt with the current difficulty.

So what happens now?

Sit tight. Stay in this suite of rooms with your staff until further notice.

What do we do if shooting starts?

The same.

What if they get through your defenses?

They wont, but if it makes you feel safer, Ill provide you with hand weapons for your personal protection.

Uthan gave him a regal nod of the head and reached for a pile of notes. Then she went on reading, pausing occasionally to write something in the margins of the papers. Despite the brief showdown earlier, she didnt seem afraid of him in the least: perhaps working with deadly organisms on a daily basis gave her a different perspective on threats.

Something highly effective, please, she said as he turned to leave.


Commanding Officer Majestic, the voice said. That was fast. Position?

Niner couldnt get a video image on his HUD, but the sound was crystal clear. Thats a negative on the extraction for the time being, Majestic. Requesting gunnery support.

Say again?

Well be needing gunnery support. It might get a bit hectic down here. A hundred droids.

There was a second or two of silence. Omega Squad, be aware that it might get busy up here, too. We have a Techno Union vessel standing off our port bow.

Is that a negative, Majestic?

No. If we cease firing, though, it may be because were repelling an attack ourselves.

Understood. Coordinates uploading now. On receipt of code Greenwood, direct cannon at this location. On receipt of code Boffin, this location. Enemy now has no comm apart from droid networks, repeat comm disabled. Knock yourselves out.

Received. My, youve been busy boys. Standing by, Omega.

Niner shut his eyes and felt the relief flood through his stomach. He wasnt exactly sure how they were going to deploy Majestics massive firepower, but at least they had it to fall back on.

Are you making this up as you go along, Sarge? Fi asked.

You got a better idea?

I meant the code names.

Yes.

Classy.

And I meant it about the better idea.

Fi drummed his fingers on the thigh plate of his armor. I wish Skirata was around. What was it he always said? Turn the problem upside down. See it from the enemy perspective.

Etain glanced up, now a sure sign that Jinart was approaching. They seemed to share a kind of radar. The Gurlanin slunk into the laying-up point and swung her head around. Darman and Fi gave her a mute round of applause and a show of thumbs up.

Nice job, maam, Darman said. Amazing deception.

Thank you, gentlemen, she said. Uthan is definitely not in the villa. And your device is now sitting in Ankkits wine cellars, between a case of vintage Naboo tarul wine and a crate of thermal detonators. When youre ready, you can give Qiilura its own asteroid belt.

Thatll make their eyes water, Fi said.

And ours if were too close, Niner said.

So what now?

Lets do what Skirata taught us. Turn it upside down.

The holochart plans of the facility once again hung in midair as the squad, Etain, and Jinart sat around it, seeking inspiration.

Is this how you plan operations? Etain asked.

Its not meant to be like this, no. You gather intel and then you plan and execute. This is what Skirata called a self adjusting screwup. When the problem actually provides the solution to another problem. Its there. All we have to do is work it out. Niner didnt mind admitting it was more guesswork than anyone should have indulged in. But then hed been on two real missions now, and theyd both been the same. They hadnt known what they were going into until it was too late. Intel. It was all about having reliable intelligence. Theres three things you should never believeweather forecasts, the canteen menu, and intel.

Skirata said soldiers always complained. Niner was not given to complaining, but he was definitely not satisfied with the situation. This wasnt what special forces were best designed to do. They should have been there to gather intel themselves, identify the target, call in air strikes, and maybe recover hostages or data. They might even carry out assassinations. They werent meant to be artillery and infantry as well.

If the Republic hadnt wanted Uthan alive, they neednt have been here at all. Majestic could have targeted the facility from orbit, and everyone would have been home in time for supper. Nobody would have needed to get their backside shot at, or spend days hauling forty-five-kilo packs across farmland.

Im glad youre not just accepting this, Etain said.

Fi shrugged. If you cant take a joke, you shouldnt have joined.

I didnt join, Atin said.

At least they all managed to laugh. It was the first time that anyone had found any humor in the situation, apart from Fi, of course.

What do we normally do? Darman said suddenly. How do we normally take a target? Break it down.

Niner concentrated. We isolate a target, go in, and neutralize it.

Okay, say we dont fight our way in.

Not with you.

Were expected to pull off a rapid entry and fight our way in. What if we fought our way out? Darman prodded his finger into the hologram. Can we get in under the facility to this central room?

This plan only shows drains. The bores too narrow to get a man down there, and this really isnt a job for Jinart.

The Gurlanin twitched visibly. I wasnt offering, but if there was anything I might do

Youve done more than enough already. Darman tilted his head this way and that, studying the plans. The main drain chamber is nearly a hundred centimeters wide here, though. It only tapers to thirty centimeters at the wall. Is there any other way of getting into that main?

Short of walking up to the wall and digging under it like a gdan, in full view of the droids, no.

Jinart sat upright. Gdan warrens.

They tunnel, dont they?

Everywhere. They even cause subsidence.

Are there tunnels around there? Could we locate them? Would they be wide enough?

Yes, there are warrens, because it was once a farm site and gdans like eating merlies. The tunnels can be quite wide. And I can certainly locate them for you. In fact, I will lead you through the warrens. You might have to excavate some of the way, though.

Basic sapper procedure, Darman said. Except we dont have proper equipment, so well be digging with these. He took a folding sharp-edged trowel from his belt. Entrenching tool. Also used forfreshers. Apt.

What is it between you and the gdans? Etain asked. Why do they avoid you and your scent?

Oh, we eat them, Jinart said casually. But only if they try to approach our young.

Thats it, then, Darman said. Get me into that central chamber from below, and Ill work my way out through the facility.

Take Atin with you, Niner said. He didnt want to say in case you get killed, but he wanted another technically minded man in there to lay charges and blow doors. Fi and I can lay down fire out front and deal with any droids we see. When you bring Uthan out, Etain can help us get her clear and then you blow the place. Then we do a runner for the extraction point.

Gets my vote, Atin said. You okay with that, maam?

Etain nodded reluctantly. If thats plan C, it sounds as impossible as plans A and B. She patted Darmans arm, not quite focusing, as if she was lost in thought about something. But I dont have a better suggestion.

Okay, Niner said. Everyone take a stim now. Be ready to move out at nightfall. Weve got four hours to prep for this. Ill notify Majestic.

What if this fails? Etain asked.

Theyll send in another squad.

And lose more men? She shook her head. If its down to me, Ill happily give the order for Majestic to pound this facility to dust, with Uthan inside or not.

Do you think were going to fail?

Etain smiled. There was something mildly unnerving about the way she was smiling. No. I dont. Youre going to pull this off, believe me.

Niner kept a tight grip on his breathing. If he gave the slightest hint of a sigh of doubt, theyd pick it up. It was crazy. But, as Skirata said, they went where others wouldnt, and did what nobody else could.

And fighting your way out from the heart of an alloy-plated, heavily guarded facility designed to be impregnable to any life-form certainly lived up to that boast. For some reason he felt fine about it all.

Youre going to pull this off, believe me.

He wondered if his thoughts were actually his own. If Etain was influencing his mind to improve his confidence, that was okay by him. Officers were supposed to inspire you. Right then he didnt much care how she did it.


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