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16

What do I think about it? I don’t know, really. Nobody’s ever asked me for my opinion before.

–Clone Trooper RC-5093, retired, at CF VetCenter Coruscant. Chronological age: twenty-three. Biological age: sixty.


An autumnal mist had settled over the countryside. It wasn’t dense enough to provide cover, but it did give Darman a sense of protection. He tabbed behind Atin as Jinart led the way.

He was a walking bomb factory. Why was he even worried about being spotted? The ram and its attachments clunked against his armor and he adjusted them, fearing discovery. Atin walked ahead, Deece held in both hands with his finger inside the trigger guard, a small but significant expression of his anxiety level.

“Matte-black armor,” Darman said. “First thing we ought to slap in for when we get back. I feel like a homing beacon.”

“Does it matter?”

“Does to me.”

“Dar, it’s one thing for the enemy to spot us coming. It’s another thing entirely for them to do anything about it.” Atin was still checking all around him, though. “I was knocked flat by a round and it didn’t penetrate the plates.”

Atin had a point. The armor might have been conspicuous, but it worked. Darman had taken a direct hit, too. Maybe in the future the sight of that armor alone would deter enemies, a touch of what Skirata called assertive public relations. Myth, he said, won almost as many engagements as reality.

Darman was all for a little help from the myth department.

They were four hundred meters southeast of the facility. Jinart stopped in front of a gentle slope and thrust her head through a break in the foliage. Her sniffing was audible.

“We enter here,” she said.

There didn’t even appear to be a hole. “How do you know what’s in there?”

“I can detect solid surfaces, movement, everything. I don’t need to see.” She sniffed again, or at least Darman assumed she was sniffing; it occurred to him that she might have been echolocating. “Do you want to stand here and present a tar­get all night?”

“No ma’am,” Darman said, and got down on all fours.

Jinart might not have needed to see, but he did. He could have relied on the night-vision visor, but he felt the need for real, honest light. He switched on his tactical spot-lamp. He switched it off again, fast.

“Uh…”

“What’s wrong?” Atin asked.

“Nothing,” Darman said. It was natural not to like con­fined spaces, he told himself. With the light projected for­ward, he could see just how suffocatingly small a space he was in. With his night vision in place, he was simply looking down a narrow field of view, safe inside his armor, cocooned from the world in a way he was not only used to, but actually needed.

Get a grip.

He could hear the sound of scurrying farther ahead, but it was moving away from him. His pack caught the roof of the tunnel, occasionally scraping loose soil and stones. The war­ren had been excavated by thousands of small paws, circular in section because gdans obviously didn’t need as much floor space as a tall human male. Darman almost felt that his hands and knees were against the sides of the tunnel because of the curvature of the floor, like negotiating a chimney when rock climbing. At times he felt he was losing his orientation and had to shut his eyes and shake his head hard to regain ac­curate proprioception.

“You okay, Dar?” Atin asked. Darman could hear labored breathing in his helmet and he thought it was his own, but it was Atin’s.

“Bit disoriented.”

“Let your head drop and look at the floor. The pressure on the back of your neck is going to make you feel giddy any­way.”

“You, too, eh?”

“Yeah, this is weird. Whatever we inherited from Jango, it wasn’t a love of caving.”

Darman let his head hang forward and concentrated on putting one hand in front of the other. He switched to voice projection. “Jinart, why do such small animals dig such big tunnels?”

“Have you tried dragging a whole merlie or vhek home for dinner? Gdans work as a team. That’s what enables them to take prey that’s many times their size. A point, I think, that would not be lost on men such as yourselves.”

“On the other hand,” Atin said cautiously, “you could say that sheer numbers overwhelm strength.”

“Thank you for that positive view, Private Atin. I suggest you select the interpretation that inspires you most.”

They didn’t talk much after that. As Darman progressed, sweating with the effort, he was aware of a particular scent. It was getting stronger. It was sickly at first, like rotting meat, and then more bitter and sulfurous. It reminded him of Geonosis. Battlefields smelled awful. The filtration mask was active against chemical and biological weapons, but it did nothing to stop smells. Shattered bodies and bowels had a distinctive and terrifying stench.

He could smell it now. He fought down nausea.

“Fierfek,” Atin said. “That’s turned me off my dinner for a start.”

“We’re near the facility,” Jinart said.

“How near?” Darman said.

“That odor is seepage from the drainage system. The pipe work is local unglazed clay.”

“Is that all we can smell?” said Darman.

“Oh, I imagine it’s also the gdans. Or rather their recent kills—they have chambers where they amass their surplus. Yes, it’s an unpleasant stench if you’re not accustomed to it.” She stopped unexpectedly, and Darman bumped into her backside. She felt surprisingly heavy for her size. “That’s good news, because it means we’re near a much larger cham­ber.”

Darman almost felt relief that it was simply rotting meat, although that was bad enough. It wasn’t his meat. He crawled farther, encouraged by the promise of a bigger space ahead, and then his glove sank into something soft.

He didn’t need to ask what it was. He looked down despite himself. In the way of men exposed to memory triggers, he was immediately back in training, crawling through a ditch filled with nerf entrails, Skirata running alongside and yelling at him to keep going because this was nothing, nothing compared to what you’ll have to do for real, son.

They called it the Sickener. They weren’t wrong.

Fatigue made nausea inevitable. He almost vomited, and that wasn’t something he wanted to do in a sealed suit. He fought it, panting, eyes shut. He bit the inside of his lip as hard as he could, and tasted blood.

“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m okay.”

Atin’s breathing was ragged. He had to be feeling it, too. They were physiologically identical.

“You can straighten up now,” Jinart said.

Darman flicked on his spot-lamp to find himself in a chamber that wasn’t just larger; it was big enough to stand up in. The walls were lined with what looked like tiny terraces spiraling up around the chamber from the floor. There were scores of twenty-centimeter tunnels leading off them.

“This is where the gdans retreat if rain floods the warren,” Jinart said. “They’re not foolish.”

“I’ll thank them one day,” Atin said. “How close are we to the drain? Can you locate it?”

Jinart put a paw against the wall where there were no tiny escape tunnels. “The gdans know there’s a solid structure be­hind this.” She paused. “Yes, there’s water trickling back there. The soil feels a meter thick, perhaps a little more.”

Darman would have removed his helmet, but thought bet­ter of it, and settled for letting his pack drop off his shoulders. He took out his entrenching tool and made an exploratory stab at the chamber wall. It was about the consistency of chalk.

“Okay, I do five minutes, then you do five,” he said to Atin.

“And me,” Jinart said, but Darman held up his hand to stop her.

“No ma’am. You’d better go back to Niner. We’re on our own now, and if this all goes wrong he’ll need your assis­tance even more.”

Jinart hesitated for a moment, then raced back up the tun­nel without a backward glance. Darman wondered if he should have said good-bye, but good-bye was too final. He planned on coming out that front door with Atin and Uthan.

He scraped out a guide circle with the tip of the tool and hacked into the hard-packed soil. It felt like slow going and he was surprised when Atin tapped him on the shoulder and took over. A man-sized hole began to emerge.

“Should we shore this up?” Darman said, wondering what he might have to sacrifice as a pit prop.

“We should only be going through it once. If it collapses after that, it’s too bad.”

“If we have to blast our way in, it might collapse. Alterna­tive exit?”

“You want to be pursued through those tunnels? They’d fry us. One flamethrower volley and we’d be charcoal.”

Atin was slowing. Darman took the other side of the opening and they worked together, removing progressively damper and darker soil, flattening out the sides of the excavation so that they had access to drill through without having to lean through a short tunnel. It was weakening the integrity of the soil wall: Darman willed it to hold together until they were through.

Maybe he should have brought Etain. She could have held the wall with that Jedi power of hers. Suddenly he realized that he missed her. It was amazing how fast you could form a bond with someone when you were under fire.

Atin’s tool hit something that made a distinctive chink noise.

“Drain,” he said. “Drill time.”

A few quick rounds from the Deece would have blown a good-sized hole in the thickest clay pipe. It would also have brought down the chamber roof, Darman suspected, and summoned a lot of droids. It was time for the slow, quiet route. A hand drill was part of their basic rapid entry kit, and they each took half the rough circle, drilling at five-centimeter intervals around the circumference, starting from the top. It wasn’t until they got down to the bottom that the ooze started appearing from the holes.

It had taken them an hour to excavate and drill. Darman couldn’t stand the sweat trickling down his face any longer and took off his helmet. The stench really was worse than ever. He shut his mind to it.

Atin took a swig from his water bottle and held it out to Darman. “Hydration,” he said. “Five percent fluid loss stops you thinking straight.”

“Yeah, I know. And above fifteen percent kills you.” Dar­man drank half the bottle, wiped the sweat away, and scratched his scalp vigorously. “Another thing to tell Rothana’s geeks when we get back—up the temperature conditioning in these suits.”

He lifted the ram and took a side-on stance to the disc of clay pipe visible through the soil. He gripped hard, fingers tight around each handle. He had to swing carefully this time or he might collapse the pipe. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

One, two

“Three,” Darman grunted. The ram hit with a couple of metric tons of force and the perforated section fell inward as a waterfall of stinking dark slime shot out and splashed across Darman’s legs and boots.

“Oh, that’s just great,” he sighed. “Definitely matte black next time, okay?”

Atin took his helmet off and Darman realized he was struggling not to laugh. Now that the drain was open to the air, it was a perfect conduit for sound to the building above. Atin put his hand to his mouth, bent over slightly, and ap­peared to be biting down hard on the knuckle plate. He was actually shaking. When he straightened up, tears were streaming down his face. He wiped them away and gulped, then bent over again.

Darman had never even seen the man smile. Now he was in hysterics because Darman was spattered with the accumu­lated waste of total strangers. It wasn’t funny.

Yes, it was, actually. It was hilarious. Darman felt his stomach begin to shake in a completely involuntary reflex. Then he wasn’t certain that it was funny, but he still couldn’t stop. He shook in painfully silent laughter until his abdomi­nal muscles ached. Eventually, it subsided. He straightened up, inexplicably exhausted.

“Shall I let Niner know we’re through?” he said, and they both managed to stay completely calm for a count of three before the hysteria overtook them again.

Once you knew what laughter really was, and what primi­tive reflex triggered it, it wasn’t funny at all. It was the relief of danger passed. It was a primeval all-clear signal.

And that wasn’t the reality of their situation at all. The real danger was just starting.

Darman, suddenly his usual self again, replaced his hel­met and opened the comlink.

“Sarge, Darman here,” he said quietly. “We’re into the drain. Ready when you are.”


Niner and Fi set up the E-Web repeating blaster half a kilometer from the front of the facility. That was pretty close. If anyone had spotted them, they weren’t reacting.

“Copy that, Dar.” Niner checked the chrono on the fore­arm of his left gauntlet. “Can you see the drainage cover yet?”

The comlink crackled. Niner was yet again faintly pleased with himself that he’d decided to take that trip to Teklet. They’d never have stood a chance of pulling this off in comm silence. There were too many unknowns to do it by op order and chronosynch.

“I just followed the trail of crud and there it was,” Darman said. “Want a look?”

Niner’s HUD flashed up a grainy green image of huge dripping tubes that could have been a klick wide or just a centimeter. Come to that, it could have been an endoscopic view of someone’s guts. It didn’t look like fun, either way.

“What’s above you?”

“Dirty square plate and it’s not a drain. The water’s feeding down here from other pipes.” The image jerked as Dar­man’s head lowered to look at his datapad. It threw up eerie ghost images of the building. “If they stuck to the blueprints, then this is a hazmat filter and the maximum containment chambers are above it.” There was a scraping noise. “Yeah, the serial numbers match the schematic. If they had to hose down after a mishap in there, this is where the screened water or solvent would come out.”

“Are you going to need to blow it?”

“Well, it doesn’t look as if I can unscrew it with a hairpin. It’s permacreted in place. It’s not the sort of thing you want coming loose, I suppose.”

“Good timing for a spot of pyro at the villa, then. Let’s sync that up.”

“Okay. Give me a couple of minutes to set the charges.”

Two minutes was a long time. Niner counted it down in seconds. He was aware of Etain pacing up and down behind him—but you didn’t tell a commander to pack it in and stop fidgeting. He focused on Fi, who was kneeling behind the E-Web tripod, checking the sights, utterly relaxed. Niner en­vied him that ability. His own stomach was churning. It al­ways did on exercise: it was much worse now. His pulse was pounding in his ears and distracting him.

Darman responded eleven seconds late. “All done. I’ll count you down. We’re moving back out of the drain now. If we bring the outer chamber down, then we might take a little time to work our way back in.”

“What’s a little time in your book?”

“Maybe forever. It might kill us.”

“Let’s avoid, that, shall we?”

“Let’s.”

Etain was hovering at Niner’s shoulder. He glanced at her, hoping she’d take the hint.

“You’ve never worked as a complete team before, have you?” she said unhelpfully.

“No,” Niner hissed, and withheld the ma’am.

“You’re going to do fine,” she said. “You’re the best-trained, most competent troops in the galaxy and you’re con­fident of success.”

Niner was close to responding with a few words of pithy Huttese, but he suddenly saw her point. His stomach settled into a peaceful equilibrium again. He could hear Darman clearly. His drumming pulse had faded. He was perfectly content not to think how she had achieved that reassurance.

“In ten,” Darman said. He still had his forward helmet cam patched through to Niner’s HUD. He was scrambling through a tunnel. Niner had a sensation of rushing down a flume and half expected to splash into a deep pool at the other end.

“Five…” It went dark. Darman had his head tucked into his chest. “Three…” Niner felt for the remote detonator. “Two… go go go.”

Niner squeezed the remote.

For a fraction of a second the landscape was picked out in brilliant, gold, silent light. Niner’s antiblast visor kicked in. Then the ground shook, and even at two klicks the roar was deafening. It seemed to go on for several seconds. Then he realized he was hearing two blasts—one at the villa and one below the facility.

As the fire blazed and clouds of amber-lit smoke roiled into the air, the droids on watch outside the facility started reacting.

“Hold, Fi.” Niner swallowed to clear his ears. “Dar, Atin, respond.”

“Was that us or you?”

“Both. You okay, Dar?”

“Teeth are a bit loose, but we’re fine.”

“Nice job with the custom ordnance, you two. I think the villa’s got a new indoor swimming pool.”

“The chamber’s holding down here, just about. Going in.”

Silence had fallen on the countryside. It was as if every­one was waiting for the next move. Fi moved the five-pack of energy cell clips a little closer to him. Niner aimed his Deece to get a better view of the front of the villa, and saw droids milling around and an Umbaran officer with binocs scanning left to right across the fields.

“Ready, Sarge.”

“Wait one.”

A few more droids came out of the farmhouse door. If Niner hadn’t seen the plans, he would never have believed what was concealed inside and beneath the convincingly shabby wooden siding. Etain stood to one side of him.

“Ma’am, you might want to duck and cover.”

“I’m all right,” she said. She looked longingly at the Tran­doshan concussion rifle. “Let me know when I’m needed.”

Darman’s voice cut in on the comlink. “We’re about to enter the drain cover,” he said. “Time for distraction, Sarge.”

“Got it.” He knelt beside Fi and touched him on the shoul­der. “Put a couple down a little short of that barn. Just to say hello. Then fire at will.”

Fi hardly moved. The characteristic whoomp of the energy cell was followed by a ball of fire and a fountain of splintered wood. The barn rained back down, burning as it fell.

“Oops,” Fi said.

It got the droids’ attention, all right. Six formed a line and began marching down the field.

Fi opened up. Niner could feel the roar of noise in his chest as droid shrapnel rained down on them and incoming fire whisked over their heads. A large chunk of metal flew in an arc: Niner heard it fizzing in the air as it cooled while it fell. He didn’t see where it landed, but it was close. His night vision saw the sprays of shrapnel as brilliant white irregular raindrops. A few tinnies were getting through. Niner picked off two with the grenades.

The next rank of droids advanced. Fi was firing in short bursts; Niner picked off whatever was still standing. Hot metal shrapnel continued to rain down on them. At the E-Web’s rate of fire he was going to run out if he simply hosed them, and they were only minutes into the engagement. They’d dropped around twenty droids. That meant twenty more inside the fa­cility, at least. Then the tinnies stopped coming.

The field fell silent, and it rang in Niner’s ears as loudly as the cacophony of battle.

“I hate it when they work out what’s happening,” Fi said. He was panting from the effort.

“They’ll sit tight.”

“If it’s just twenty or so in there, I say we go in now.”

“Let’s make sure we haven’t got guests arriving.” Niner opened the long-range comlink. “Majestic, Omega here, over. Majestic–”

“Receiving you, Omega. That was some fireworks display. Got trade for us?”

“’Majestic, extra target for you. Have you got a visual be­tween targets Greenwood and Boffin?”

“If you’ve got a remote you can patch us into.”

Niner slipped off his pack and took out a remote, releasing it into the air. “Droids, estimated strength no more than fifty. If they’re heading toward us, do me a favor and spoil their day, will you?”

“Copy that, Omega. Sitrep?”

“We’ve breached the facility and we’ve got twenty or thirty droids and an unknown number of wets holed up in there.”

“Say again?”

“Two of our squad are inside. Ingress via the drainage sys­tem.”

“You guys are off your repulsors.”

“The thought did cross our minds.”

“Okay, some fireworks coming your way, Omega. Be ad­vised we still have a Techno Union vessel standing off, and we’re expecting a response when we train the lasers.”

“Watch how you go,” Niner said. “Omega out.”

Apart from the ticking of cooling metal, it was silent. Even the chatter and whistling of Qiilura’s nocturnal species had stopped. Smoke was billowing across the field from the wrecked barn.

“You okay, ma’am?” Fi said.

Niner glanced around and expected to see Etain in some state of distress, but she wasn’t. She was kneeling in the grass, alert, as if listening to something. Then another huge explosion shook the ground to their north.

She closed her eyes.

“Ma’am?”

She gave a little shake of her head as if loosening stiff neck muscles.

“It’s fine,” she said. “It just took more out of me than I imagined.”

“What did?”

“Diverting all this debris. Droids make a terrible mess when they explode.”

Niner hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. It was only when he turned around that he saw the meter-long jagged sheet of metal right behind him. It had almost given him an unwanted haircut. Etain managed a grin.

“Can you open doors as well, ma’am?” Niner asked.


Darman and Atin looked around the plastoid-lined cham­ber and decided not to remove their helmets.

“This is one way to find out if a nanovirus can breach our filtration masks,” Atin said.

Darman checked the cupboards, looking for booby traps and other surprises. “I don’t feel dead yet. Anyway, they don’t leave this stuff lying around. It’ll probably be sealed in something.”

He checked the room. It was exactly like a medic’s station on Kamino, except it was completely constructed from plastoid ceramic. Some of the cupboards had transparent fronts; he could see racks of vials in them. In the middle of the room there was a separate sealed booth, running floor-to-ceiling, with a glove box in it. It was empty. There was also a refrig­erated cabinet full of flasks and small boxes. He had no idea what might be live virus and what might be the lab techni­cian’s lunch, and he wasn’t going to open everything to find out. This was another case of using P for plenty.

“Seeing as they’re not helpful enough to label this stuff with a skull and crossbones, I’m going to set an implosion device in every room, to be on the safe side.” He ran his hands over the walls, testing for signs of metal substructures that might block his signal. The HUD showed zero from his glove sensors. He checked his comlink to be sure that he could get a signal outside. “Darman here. Anyone receiving, over?”

“Fi here.”

“The inner chamber’s clear. I’m setting charges and then we’re going to move out into the rest of the building.”

“We’re approaching the front. It’s gone quiet out here and we think you’ve still got up to thirty tinnies for company.”

“Is that you shaking the ground?”

“Majestic.”

“Good to know the navy’s here.”

“Leaving the helmet comlink channel, by the way. Make sure you leave us your visual feed.”

“We’ll let you know if it spoils our concentration. Darman out.”

He gave Atin a dubious thumbs-up and took the implosion charges out of his pack. He could improvise most devices, but these were special, guaranteed to create such a high-temperature fireball and shock wave that they would destroy not only everything standing in a half-klick radius, but also every microorganism and virus as well. They were disap­pointingly small for such massively destructive power, a lit­tle smaller than the average remote.

Darman still had two. It was overkill, and overkill made him feel safer. He picked up the lidded boxes in the refrigeration unit and tested each for weight—very carefully—before finding a lighter one that suggested it was half empty. He set it on the table, held his breath, and eased the lid off.

It held a few metal tubes with sealed caps, and enough space for one of the devices. He placed the thermal carefully inside and replaced the container.

“Go careful,” Atin said, indicating the boxes.

“I will.” He found another lightweight box and peered in­side. “There. And if they get to searching, they might even stop after they find one device.” He closed the refrigerator door.

“That won’t reduce the blast any, will it?” Atin asked.

“Not so you’d notice, believe me.”

“Time for the tour of the building, then.”

There were status panels to the right of the door, set to warn some monitoring system if the chamber was opened, and a hand-sized button marked emergency close, a smart precaution if you were handling deadly viruses. Opening the door would advertise the fact that they had gained entry to the building. Atin moved in and carefully unclipped the con­trol plate. He took out a disruptive device about the size of a stylus and held it just clear of the exposed circuits. It was much the same technology as a mini EMP, only with a less powerful electromagnetic pulse. Nobody wanted a full-strength EMP going off a few centimeters from their HUD, hardened or not.

“Next big bang,” Atin said. “Then they might think they’ve just taken a hit.”

The ground shook again, and Atin touched the mini EMP against the control panel. Status lights winked out; the door gave a sigh as it lost its safety vacuum seal. A thin vertical gap opened in the smooth ceramic. Sound now filtered in from outside: explosions, shouts from officers, the occa­sional monotone responses of tinnies. He stood back and gestured to Darman.

The gap was big enough to admit a flat endoscope, as well as the claws of the ram. He slid the probe cautiously through and checked the image it was receiving. The corridor lights were flickering. There was no movement.

“I’ll force the doors and you stand by. I’ll be ready to lob in an EMP grenade and a flash-bang.”

“Both?” Atin said.

“Yeah, I don’t want to waste any, either, but we’ve got wets and tinnies out there somewhere.”

Darman wedged the ram’s claws into the gap and locked the bars in place. It was more awkward to configure it as a spreader than as a simple ram, but he didn’t want to blow it open. He pumped the ratchet handle furiously. An eight-metric-ton force slowly pushed the doors apart.

Atin checked outside with the endoscope again, then stepped through the opening with his Deece raised. “Clear.”

Darman dismantled the ram and hurriedly hooked it back into his webbing. “Room by room, then. Killing House time.”

That was something they’d done many, many times before. Each time they entered the Killing House on Kamino for an exercise, the walls and doors had been reconfigured. Some­times they knew what they were going to find, and some­times it was like a real house clearance, a sequence of nasty surprises that they had to take as they came.

But there was a lot more at stake now than their individual lives.

Atin gestured left. The inner corridor was a ring with doors leading off it and a single passage to the front en­trance. At least there were no stairs or turbolifts to cover. They moved almost back-to-back, pausing at the corner to slide the endoscopic probe out far enough to check.

“Oh boy,” Atin said, just as the first droid swung around and blasted. Darman heard the clatter of metal feet from ex­actly the opposite direction, and for a frozen moment he found himself staring down his scope at a very surprised Umbaran officer.

Darman fired. So did Atin. They both kept firing down their respective ends of the corridor.

“Okay, plan D,” Atin said. “Niner, we’re pinned down here, over.”

“We’re concentrating fire on the front.” Niner’s voice cut back in with a background of explosions both near and far­ther away. That was why Darman didn’t like a having a four-way open comlink during an engagement. The noise and chatter were overwhelming. “They’ve pulled back inside. But nobody’s coming out.”

“We haven’t located Uthan yet.”

“Can you hold the position?”

“Can you see where we are? West side corridor, left of the entrance.”

Atin emptied a clip into two droids that came around the corner. Then there was no noise except for their respective panting.

“Dar?”

“Still here, Niner.” Back-to-back with Atin, he waited and stared down the polished hallway twenty meters ahead. There were two doors on the right, unconventional hinged doors. He glanced up at the ceiling to locate the emergency bulk-heads: one was on the other side of Atin, and the next was be-tween them and the inner chamber. If those were activated, they’d be cut off on both sides, boxed in and waiting to be picked off. And then anyone could easily enter the biohaz chamber and defuse the implosion device.

It seemed that someone had the same idea at the same time, because there was an uh-whump noise and then the quiet whine of a small motor.

The bulkheads were descending from their housing.

“Atin, chamber, wow!” Darman yelled, even though he didn’t need to, and they both sprinted back toward the cham­ber. The bulkhead was down to waist level when they reached it and skidded under on their knees.

It sealed with a clunk behind them. It was suddenly so silent that Darman knew another bulkhead had closed some­where along the ring, sealing them in. There was the sound of a door unlocking manually, a real clunk-click noise, and then nothing.

“Start again,” Darman sighed. “Let’s see what’s around there.”

Atin moved forward and edged out the scope. He paused. He sat back on his heels and shook his head.

“Show me,” Darman said, and switched his HUD to the scope view, expecting disaster.

“I think it’s called irony.”

Darman crawled up to him and patched the endoscope into his own helmet.

Yes, irony was a good word for it. He almost laughed. Be­tween the corner and the next bulkhead, he could see two doors, one closed and one partly open. Someone—someone humanoid—was peering around the edge of it.

“Women don’t half look different, don’t they?” Atin said. “That’s the most amazing hair I’ve ever seen.”

Darman agreed. They hadn’t seen a lot of females in then-lives, but this one would have been memorable even if they had seen millions. Her blue-black hair was streaked with brilliant red stripes. They were trapped with Dr. Ovolot Qail Uthan.

And she was clutching a Verpine shatter gun.


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