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17

CO Majestic to Coruscant Command

Techno Union vessel is now drifting. Damage assessment is incomplete but it is no longer returning fire. Vengeance is standing by to dispatch a boarding party. Will continue to provide turbolaser gunnery support to Omega Squad.


Who activated the emergency systems? Which dikut hit the button? Tell me! Ghez Hokan found himself shouting. He had abandoned dignity. Open this dikutla bulkhead!

Captain Huratis voice was strained. They were both on the wrong side of the first safety bulkhead, in a single unforgiving corridor that led to the entrance, and the main doors were jammed shut. It was a very secure building: and, as Uthan had said, it was designed to stop anything from getting out if things went wrong. It was doing that well.

Weve been infiltrated, sir.

I worked that out for myself, dikut. He was interrupted by a grenade exploding against the front wall. How in the name of

I dont know yet, sir, but the bulkheads activated because the containment chamber doors werent registering on the system as closed, and it triggered the emergency systems.

Stuck open, in other words.

Yes.

Hokan swung around on the nearest droid. Anyone up on the surface see signs of entry?

A pause. Negative.

Oh, how he longed for decent communications again. He could guess from the strength and direction of some of the explosions that the area was coming under laser cannon fire, which meant the Republic assault ship had finally showed its hand. It could even be landing more troops.

But that wasnt his immediate concern. The bad news was that somebody had already managed to get in, and not through the front door. They couldnt have come in through the drains. They shouldnt have been there. But there was firing, and droids were reporting casualties.

There were Republic commandos inside the facility.

Hokan had never thought himself infallible, but he had at least imagined he was exceptionally competent. Hed locked down the facility and theyd still found a way in. His first thought was that Uthan had wanted a live subject so badly that she was prepared to lure them in and trap one, but that was ludicrous: she hadnt the means or the opportunity to bypass security.

The nanovirus was out of Hokans reach behind bulkheads that wouldnt yield. Droids patiently fired blasters into the face of the alloy. But, as in his earlier test, they were making no impression beyond heating the sealed corridor to tropical temperatures.

Do we know if all the bulkheads are down? he asked the droid. Its comlink with its peers made it suddenly a lot more useful than Hurati. All of them? Hokan was trying to work out if he had any way of getting to Uthan or the nanovirus. The control board in the office off the main corridor was showing red throughout, but he didnt know whether to believe it or not.

All of them. Droids trapped in sections four, five, seven, and twelve.

It felt like being in the middle of a brawl and then finding yourself dragged off your opponent. The enemy couldnt get at him, but now he couldnt get at them, either. And if the bio-hazard chamber doors were open, then both the nanovirus and Uthan were on the commandos side of the barrier. If they had managed to get in, they could probably get out the same way.

The front wall shuddered.

Even if any droids had survived the assault on the villa, how would reinforcements help him now?

Hokan turned to Hurati. Can you get into the system and override the safety controls?

Ill do my best, sir. Huratis face said that he doubted it, but hed die trying. He retreated to the office with Hokan, and they rummaged through the cabinets and drawers looking for operating instructions, tools, anything that might be used to release the bulkheads. In one cabinet Hokan found a crowbar. But its edges were too thick to get any purchase in the flimsiplast-thin gap between the two sections of the front door or the lower edge of the bulkhead. He flung it to the floor in frustration, and it clattered across the tiles.

The doors needed a blast of some magnitude. And he didnt have the ordnance.

Hurati removed the cover from the alarm panel and began poking the tip of his knife experimentally into the maze of circuits and switches. Hokan took out the lightsaber and took a swipe at the bulkhead, more out of frustration than any expectation of success.

Vzzzmmm.

The air took on an oddly ozonic smell, almost irritating in its intensity. He stared at the bulkheads previously smooth surface. There was a definite depression.

He made another pass with the blade, more slowly and controlled this time. He pressed his face close to the cooling metal at one edge and squinted across the flat surface, one eye closed. Yes, it was definitely warping the alloy.

But at this rate it would take him hours to cut through. He suspected time was a luxury he couldnt afford.


Something thudded into the wall of the corridor.

Darman didnt even hear the shatter gun fire. The Verpine projectile was never in danger of hitting anyone, but he suspected theyd have known all about it if it had.

Wow, thats some dent, Atin said. I dont think the good doctor is going to come quietly, though.

Niner, are you picking this up? Darman said. Found her. Just like that.

There was a faint sound of movement in his earpiece. Hed switched off the video feed. Niner sounded almost relaxed. Thats the first bit of luck weve had.

Yeah, but shes got a Verpine on her.

Theyre fragile weapons and they dont bounce. Give her a fright.

Ive got a few frighteners ready.

If you need a hand, were going to have trouble getting in. I reckon all the emergency doors have shut tight.

All quiet out there?

Apart from Majestic getting too on-target for comfort, yes. We dont want to take the whole building out with you still inside.

Can you go back for the other ram and try to force the front doors?

Do you need us to?

Well try getting Uthan out via the drains. If we cant, its plan D.

Cheer up, still got E through Z plans, Fis voice said.

One day, Fi, Im going to give you a good slap. Darman said.

Atin held up his hand for silence. Darman heard the faint sibilance of whispered conversation, and then the door slammed and the lock clunked. So it wasnt an automatic safety door. Uthan had company.

She really doesnt know me, does she? Darman said, and peeled off a few centimeters of thermal tape. He checked around the corner with the probe, loath to test his armor against a Verpine. Its going to take more than a lock to keep me out, sweetheart.

He hugged the wall. He was nearly at the door when it opened and he found himself face-to-face with two Trandoshans who seemed pretty surprised to see him. Maybe it was the armor. It seemed to have that effect.

There was nowhere to run.

There were times when you could pull your rifle and times when you couldnt, and Deeces werent much good at point-blank range unless you used them as a club. Darman aimed an instinctive punch before he thought about what he would do with the explosives in his hand. Even with an armored gauntlet, it was like hitting a stone block in the face. The Trandoshan fell back two paces. Then his comrade came at Darman with a blade. There was a frozen second or two of bewilderment as the Trannie looked at his knife, and then at Darmans armor.

Atin, want to give me a hand here? Darman said quietly, taking one step back with vibroblade extended.

What dooh.

Yeah. Oh.

The nice thing about a fixed vibroblade was that nobody could knock it out of your hand, not unless they took your arm off with it. The Trannie seemed to be considering that as an option before taking a huge lunge, the blade of his weapon skidding off Darmans arm plate.

Darman ran at the Trannie headfirst and cannoned into him, throwing him against the wall and pinning him there while he tried to drive the vibroblade into soft tissue. He tried for the throatbig blood vessels, quick effectbut the Trannie had his wrist clamped tight. It was taking Darman all his strength to keep the enemys blade from his own throat. It seemed like deadlock.

The bodysuit was stabproof. Wasnt it? He couldnt see Atin. He had to concentrate on his own predicament, and he wasnt getting anywhere fast with the Trannie. It was time for one of those bar-brawl tactics that Skirata made sure they all learned. Darman scraped his boot along the Trannies shin and brought it down hard on his instep. It gave him the split second of loosened grip he needed, and he plunged the vibroblade in up to its hilt, over and over, not sure what he was hitting, but noting that the Trannie was shrieking and that the shrieks were gradually getting fainter.

Skirata was right. Stabbing someone was a slow way to kill them. He pressed his forearm against the Trannies neck and held him pinned while he slid down the wall. Darman followed him all the way down and finally knelt on his chest to make sure he didnt move while he jammed the blade up under his jaw and across his trachea.

He waited for him to stop moving, then scrambled to his feet to see Atin standing over the other Trandoshan, still cursing. There was a lot of blood, and it didnt look like Atins.

I could have done without that interruption, Darman said.

Ruins your concentration, Atin said. Where were we?

About to use my universal key. Darman retrieved the ribbon charge from the floor, wiped it on his sleeve, and set it with its detonator against the lock. They moved quickly to the hinge side, and Atin drew the Trandoshan array blaster hed been so unwilling to abandon.

Atin, its capture alive, remember?

Shes got company.

You make sure you need to use it, then. If theyd wanted her disintegrated theyd have said. Darman took out the stun grenade and the mini EMP: she might have droids in there, too. He juggled both spheres in one hand. Okay, I blow the lock, and in these go. Theyre down for five seconds. I take Uthan and you shoot anything else still moving.

Got it.

Cover.

Whump. The door exploded, showering kuvara splinters, and Darman leaned forward and threw in the surprises. A blinding three-hundred-thousand-candlepower white light and 160 decibels of raw noise flooded the room for two seconds, and Darman was inside before he realized it, pinning Uthan flat to the floor as Atin pumped the array blaster across the room.

The dust and smoke settled. Darman had cuffed Uthan. He didnt actually recall doing it, but that was adrenaline working. For some reason he had expected a fight, but she was simply making an odd incoherent groan. Hed become used to Etains resilience. Uthan was a regular human, untrained, unfit, andapart from her intellectnothing special.

Darman picked up the Verpine and aimed it at a wall. It made the faintest of whirring noises, then jammed. Niner was right. Verpines didnt bounce, or maybe the mini EMP had temporarily fried its electronics.

Darman here. We have Uthan, repeat, we have Uthan.

Fis whoop hurt his ears. Niner cut in. Are we done here?

Lets check we havent missed anything. Atin? He glanced over his shoulder. Atin was cradling the array blaster, staring down at four bodies on the floor. It was all a bit of a mess, as Fi would say.

Three of the dead were Trandoshans, and the fourth was a young red-haired woman who wasnt pretty any longer, or even recognizable. Darman wondered if the girl was Uthans daughter. Then he had another thought.

How many staff do you have here, maam? He took his helmet off and rolled her over so they were face-to-face. How many?

Uthan seemed to be regaining her composure. You murdered my assistant.

She had a blaster, Atin said, almost to himself.

Darman shook her. Maam, Im going to detonate an awful lot of ordnance under this building very soon, and your staff, if you have any, will be dead anyway.

She was staring up into his face, seeming totally distracted by him. Are you really a clone?

Id like to say the one and only, but you know Im not.

Amazing, she said.

Staff?

Four more. Theyre just scientists. Theyre civilians.

Darman opened his mouth, and Kal Skiratas voice emerged unbidden again. Not all soldiers wear uniforms, maam. High time those scientists took responsibility for their role in the war effort.

Yes, it was personal. War didnt get much more personal than a virus aimed specifically at you and your brothers. Darman here. Sarge, Uthans staff members are somewhere in the building, too. What do you want to do? Retrieve them as well?

Ill check with Majestic. Wait one. Niners link went dead for a few moments and then crackled into life again. No, not required. Get her clear and let us know when youre going to detonate.

They were just following orders, Uthan said.

So am I, Darman said, and trussed, gagged, and hooded her with salvaged parasail cord and a section of sheeting. He replaced his helmet and heaved her over his shoulder. It was going to be a tough job getting her down those tunnels. Atin followed.

They slipped back down the drain. Darman hoped that they could find their way back to the surface without Jinart as their guide.


Hokan could feel the sweat stinging his eyes. He withdrew the lightsaber and examined the substantial dent in the bulkhead.

It wasnt deep enough or fast enough, and he knew it. This was displacement activity. He was little help to Hurati, so he vented his frustration on the alloy and all he seemed to succeed in was making the stale atmosphere even hotter and more suffocating.

Then he heard a hiss of air, and he wondered if it was the seal breaching: but it wasnt.

It was Hurati.

Hokan ran the few steps along the corridor to the office. He feared that the young captain had electrocuted himself, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, he actually cared what happened to him. But Hurati was intact. He was leaning over the desk, both hands braced on the surface, head down, shoulders shaking. Then he looked up, and his face was a big, sweaty grin. A bead of perspiration ran down his nose and hung there for a moment before he batted it away with his finger.

Check the status board, sir.

Hokan swung around and looked for the board. The unchanging pattern of red lights had now become a pattern of red and green.

Bulkheads two, six, and nine, sir, he said. Now I can clear the rest. I had to try every sequence. Thats a lot of permutations. He shook his head and went back to carefully prodding a piece of circuit board with the tip of his knife. Theyll be jammed open, though.

Better than jammed shut.

As Hokan watched, the lights changed from red to green, one by one, and a cool draft hit his face.

The front doors had opened.

Hokan expected a missile or blaster volley to punch through them, but all that entered was the silent, refreshing, fire-scented night air.

Hurati, Hokan said, Right now, I couldnt love you more if you were my own son. Remind me I said that one day. He drew his blaster and raced down the corridor, past droids, stumbling over shattered metal plates and the body of an Umbaran, and into the room where he had left Uthan with her Trandoshan guards.

He had half expected to see her lying dead on the floor with them. In a way he had hoped for it, because it would mean the Republic hadnt stolen her expertise. But she was gone. He picked up the Verpine and tested it for charge: it made a faint whir and then ticked. Either Uthan hadnt managed to get a shot off or theyd used an EMP grenade.

Hokan worked his way down the passage to the biohazard chamber, pausing on the way to check inside prep rooms and storage cupboards, wary of booby traps. As he opened one door, he heard whimpering in the darkness. He switched on the light.

The remaining four members of Uthans research teamthree young men and an older womanwere huddled in the corner. One of the men held a blaster, but its muzzle was pointed at the floor. They blinked at Hokan, frozen.

Stay here, he said. You might be all thats left of the virus program. Dont move. There seemed little chance that they would.

When Hokan reached the central chamber, the only sign that anything untoward had taken place was that the concealed drain in the center of the floor was now a charred, gaping space.

He looked around the walls, shelves, and cupboards. A mistake. Hed made a mistake, a terrible oversight. He hadnt taken the time to check what the virus containers looked like, or how many there had been. He could see gaps on shelves through the transparent doors; he pulled on the handles, but they were still locked.

He ran back up the corridor and grabbed one of the young men from Uthans team. Do you know what the nanovirus looks like?

The boy blinked. It has a structure based on

Idiot. Hokan jabbed fiercely toward his own eye, indicating look. What does the container look like? How many? Come on. Think.

He hauled the scientist to his feet and dragged him down the corridor to the biohazard chamber.

Show me.

The boy pointed to a plain-fronted cabinet. Fourteen alloy vials in there, inside their own vacuum-sealed case.

Open it and check.

I cant. Uthan has all the security codes and keys.

Is it conceivable that the enemy could have opened it and simply shut it again?

Normally Id say that was impossible, but I also remember thinking that it was impossible for anyone to breach this building.

The hole where the drain had been was now a jagged fringe of scorched, broken tiling and twisted metal frame. Hokan looked down into the void and saw debris.

For a moment he wondered if he was actually dealing with human beings and not some bizarre, unknown life-form. He knew where theyd gone. Now he had to hunt them down and stop them from taking Uthan off the planet with whatever was left of the nanovirus project.

If this was what a handful of clone soldiers could achieve, he was almost afraid to think what millions might do.


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