You never have perfect knowledge in combat, gentlemen. It’s what we call the fog of war. You can either sit around worrying what’s real and what’s not, or you can realize the enemy hasn’t got a clue either and fire off a few rounds of psychology. A truly great army is one that only has to rattle its saber to win a war.
–Sergeant Kal Skirata
“Omega to Majestic. Check check check. Cease firing.”
Niner waited several minutes before moving. There had been trees to the northwest of the facility that weren’t there anymore. You couldn’t stake your life on the accuracy of gunnery support. He edged forward on his stomach and propped himself on his elbows to check the area, first with his binoc visor and then through the scope of the DC-17.
Nothing was moving, although nothing with any sense would present itself in a bright-lit doorway anyway.
The facility was now stripped completely of its wooden farmhouse shell, and its alloy doors were wide open. For a few seconds, Niner almost expected to see Darman and Atin walk out into the yard, and for Kal Skirata to shout Endex, endex, endex–end of exercise. But there were no more exercises, and this night wasn’t over, not by a long shot.
Behind him, Fi switched to his Deece and trained the sniper attachment on the entrance, waiting to pick off anything insane enough to walk out. Niner wasn’t sure if Fi would pause for thought if anyone did come out, even with raised hands.
“Dar, Atin, can you confirm your position?”
“Somewhere pitch black and smelly, and dragging a semiconscious woman behind me,” Atin said.
“Sounds like happy hour at the Outlander,” Niner said, although he had no idea what a nightclub was really like, and probably never would. The comment sprang from his subconscious. “Is Uthan injured?”
“Dar got fed up with her struggling and sedated her.”
“How long before you can detonate?”
Muffled noises filled Niner’s helmet. It sounded as if Atin was conferring with Darman without the comlink. Maybe he’d removed his helmet to sip some water. A woman was making incoherent noises, and Niner heard Darman’s voice clearly: “Shut up, will you?” He didn’t need a medic to check Dar’s stress levels.
Atin was back on the link. “At this rate, half an hour.”
“Fi, how fast could you cover one klick right now?”
“Unladen and suitably motivated?’Bout three minutes.”
Now it was the timing that was giving them grief. They needed to keep whoever was in the facility right where they were until Darman was in position to detonate the implosion device. Niner wondered how long Majestic could wait, and how long it would be before they had more company. He decided to ask.
“Omega here, Majestic. What’s that Techno warship doing?”
“Listing to port and smoking a bit, Omega.”
“You’ve been busy.”
“If we get busier, we’ll let you know. We’re dispatching the gunship now. It’ll be waiting when you reach the extraction point.”
Niner crawled back to Fi’s position and nudged him. “You might as well make a move for the EP now with Etain. I can hold this position.”
“Can I give you an order?”
“I might call you Sarge, but right now I’m ignoring you.”
Etain appeared on the other side of Fi, with Jinart. “What’s happening?”
“The gunship’s on its way. I suggest you and Fi head out and meet it.”
“About fifty meters down the tunnel. It’s heavy going.”
“It’s still the quickest path through the warren,” Jinart said. “Short of digging them out.”
“Digging through five meters of soil without power tools or explosives is going to take a long time.” Niner turned to Etain. “Is there anything you can do, ma’am?”
Etain pushed her tangled hair back from her face. “If Jinart can find the shallowest point of the tunnel, I can try to part the soil. If you explain to me what needs to happen, I can picture it. The more accurately I can picture it, the better my chances of bringing the Force to bear. I have to see what’s happening in my mind.”
“I can find their position,” Jinart said.
“By all means bring your lightsaber, ma’am,” Fi said. “But only use it if you miss with this.” He handed her his blaster.
Etain shoved it in her belt. “You persuaded me.”
Jinart was fast. Etain had trouble keeping up with her when she was running on all fours, her snout to the ground. The Gurlanin’s rhythmic sniffs were in counterpoint to Etain’s gasping breath.
They were moving in a square search pattern across the field to the east of the facility, trying to locate the exact section of tunnel that Darman and Fi had taken. Etain could sense Darman now. They were close.
“Are you following scent?” Etain panted.
“No, I’m listening for echoes.”
“With your nose?”
“Where I keep my ears is my own business.” Jinart stopped dead and pressed her snout into the soil with a few short, strong snorts. “Here. Dig here.”
“I hope they know we’re right above them.”
“We aren’t. They’re about ten meters back up the tunnel. If you excavated where they are you could bury them completely.”
Etain wasn’t sure if Jinart was making a general point about rescue procedure, or commenting on her competence. She didn’t care. Darman was down there and he needed her help. Atin was down there, too, but the thought of Darman focused her because … because he was afriend.
She could almost imagine him advising her that sentimentality was a luxury that a commander could never afford.
“Here we go,” she said, more to herself than to Jinart.
Etain knelt to one side of the line of the tunnel and placed her hands flat on the ground. When she closed her eyes, she visualized the warren, seeing its uneven walls with tree roots emerging from them like knotted rope. She saw small stones and seams of amber clay.
Then her focus became more intense. She saw smaller roots, and then the individual grains of mineral and veins of organic material. She felt her breathing slowing, changing, as if her lungs weren’t moving within her but rather the air outside her body was pressing and relaxing, pressing and relaxing, slowly and rhythmically.
And she finally saw the space around each microscopic grain. It wasn’t empty. It was invisible, but it was not a void. Etain felt it. She had control of it at a fundamental, subatomic level. She could feel the pressure throughout her body.
Now all she had to do was shape it.
At the sides of the tunnel, she pictured the space thinning and reducing, compacting the walls, strengthening them against collapse. Overhead—and she now felt like she was lying flat on her back looking up at the vault above her—she saw the space expand.
The grains moved farther apart. The space flowed in to displace them. The space flowed upward to lift them. And then the space was suddenly all there was.
Etain was aware of something cold and slightly damp across the backs of her hands and opened her eyes. She was kneeling in fine, friable soil. It looked as if a patient gardener had sieved it to prepare for planting seeds.
She was looking down into an open trench. There was a domed line of soil along both sides, as neat and regular as if an excavator had done the job.
“That,” said Jinart’s voice beside her, “was quite extraordinary.” The Gurlanin’s tone was almost reverent. “Quite extraordinary.”
Etain knelt back on her heels. Instead of the exhaustion she normally felt after using the Force to shift objects, she felt refreshed. Jinart slipped down into the trench and disappeared. A few moments later, a familiar blue-lit, T-shaped visor popped up from the darkness below, and it didn’t alarm her at all.
“There’s always a career for you in the construction industry, Commander,” Darman said.
He scrambled out of the trench, and Etain threw her arms around him without thinking. Her blaster clunked against his armor plates. It was odd to hug something that felt like a droid, but she was overwhelmed by relief that he’d made it. She let go and stepped back, suddenly embarrassed.
“Yeah, I’ve been in a sewer,” he said, all guilt. “Sorry.”
Atin’s voice carried from the trench. “Dar, are you going to stand there all night posing for the commander, or are you going to help me lift this?”
“As if I could forget,” Darman said.
After some grunting and cursing, the two commandos managed to lift a thoroughly trussed body onto the edge of the trench. Etain pulled off the hood and stared into the half-closed eyes of Dr. Uthan. She was drifting in and out of consciousness.
“How much did you give her?” Etain asked.
“Enough to shut her up,” Darman said.
Etain hoped the woman didn’t vomit and choke to death.
It was always a risk with heavy sedatives. They hadn’t come this far to lose her. Atin leaned forward, and Darman heaved Uthan onto his back.
“Ten-minute shifts,” Atin said. “And I’ll be counting.”
“I hope she’s worth the effort,” Etain said.
“So do I,” Jinart said. “You must make your own way now. I’ve done all I can. Remember us, Jedi. Remember what we have done for you, and that we expect your help in reclaiming our world. Honor that promise.”
Jinart looked the Padawan up and down as if measuring her, and then the Gurlanin lost her outline and became black fluid again, vanishing into the undergrowth.
“To think I nearly shot her,” Darman said, shaking his head. They moved off toward the extraction point across country remarkably empty of gdans.
Ghez Hokan lined up the young scientists on the other side of the door. He gestured to Hurati.
“On my mark,” he said. “Kill the lights.”
“Sir, if the speeders have been destroyed, what are we going to do?”
Hokan thought it an unusually stupid question for such a fine officer, but perhaps he was thinking about just how far untrained civilians might get on foot before falling to the enemy.
“Run,” he said. “Just run.”
He turned to the four biologists, hoping terror would speed them up, as it often did. “What’s your name?” he asked the woman.
“Cheva,” she said.
“Well, Cheva, when the lights go out, hang on to me and run like crazy, understand?”
“And if the captain or I shout drop, you drop down flat. Got that?”
“I can assure you I have.”
“Hurati, you take the rear. Don’t lose any of them.”
Hokan was expecting more laser bombardment. It was quiet outside, but he felt that it would begin again as soon as they emerged. He couldn’t defend a facility with its doors jammed open. There was at least one squad of enemy commandos still out there. His last chance was to make a run for it with the remnants of Uthan’s team and hide them somewhere. Then he would look for Uthan.
One way or another, he would salvage what he could of the nanovirus program. Beyond that, he hadn’t made plans.
Hokan slid on his Mandalorian helmet, as much for comfort as protection.