CO Majestic to Coruscant Command
Standing by to retrieve LAAT/i from Qiilura. Be aware we have detected two Trade Federation warships approaching from the Tingel Arm to reinforce Qiilura. Vengeance is moving to protect our flank.
“We’re almost at the one-klick line,” Darman’s voice said. “Ready when you are.”
Niner clapped his glove to the left side of his helmet. He feared it was becoming a nervous tic. “Good. See you at the EP.”
“Give me a few minutes.”
Fi made a casual thumbs-up gesture and adjusted his shoulder plate. Five minutes felt like forever right then.
“Whoa, what’s happening here?” Niner said. “Dar, hold off. Wait one.”
The light from the front doors had died, and his night-vision visor kicked in.
He thought he saw Darman or Atin, another odd flashback now that the stims were wearing off, but then he realized the T-slit visor coming out the door was Hokan’s. He opened fire. The hesitation had cost him half a second, an eternity, and he didn’t see anyone fall.
Fi laid down a burst of plasma bolt rounds, and they waited. Nothing. Then there was another flurry of movement and someone yelled “Drop!” but the three shapes didn’t, at least not until the plasma rounds hit them.
It was silent again. Niner paused. As he and Fi began edging forward to check, someone got up from the blast-cratered ground and sprinted around the far side of the building.
Niner and Fi sprayed more rounds and paused again. But there was no more movement.
“If there’s more inside that lobby, Sarge, can I put a bit of anti-armor in there? I don’t fancy running with droids behind us.”
Standard grenades wouldn’t trigger the thermal detonator. “Lob in six,” he said. “And then set the E-Web to self-destruct.”
Fi lined up the blaster, easing it a little on its tripod. Niner heard a high-pitched noise like a repulsorlift drive starting up, but then it was drowned out by the whump-whump– whump of the first three grenades launching and exploding.
The doorway of the facility belched black, rolling flames and smoke.
“Now that’s endex,” Niner said, and they ran. They ran over rutted fields and crashed through two hedges and were into the trees before Niner managed to open his comlink and gasp out the take-take-take command to Darman.
The white flash illuminated the track before them a second or two before the shock wave smacked Niner hard in the back. It threw him forward. His mouth smashed against the interior of the visor and he tasted blood. When he turned his head and tried to get up, Fi was also flat on his chest, arms out in front, head turned toward him.
“No, Sarge,” Fi said, still seeming totally pleased with life. “That was endex.”
Ghez Hokan found himself on the ground with his speeder bike upended, its drive still running. The blast was ringing in his ears. He froze, head covered, waiting for incoming cannon fire. But only silence followed.
He struggled to his feet and managed to heave the speeder upright again. A steering vane was slightly bent, but it was serviceable. He dusted himself down and then swung back into the rider’s seat.
He could see his hands gripping the bars. The tan glove on his left hand looked black; it was still wet. Cheva had hung on to him. She’d run, as he’d told her. Her blood had sprayed over him when she was hit. It was the closest he had come to feeling pity in many years.
Enough of this. You’re going soft, man. Concentrate.
“Sir.” It was hard to identify the voice from a single shout. Hokan turned to check, but there was really only one man who would have struggled to stay with him. “Sir!”
Hurati rode up from behind and stopped his speeder level with his. He had no second rider. Hokan didn’t need to ask.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Hurati said. “They froze when the shooting started. They didn’t even drop.”
“Civilians tend to do that,” Hokan said wearily.
“That blast was the facility. Judging by the color, that was a high-temperature implosion. Not laser cannon.”
“Does it matter?”
“Nothing could have survived that, even in a blastproof container. If there were any samples of the nanovirus, they’re gone now.”
So there was now no nanovirus in Separatist hands, and no scientists with any degree of expertise in the program, either. That made it imperative to retrieve Uthan.
Given the blast area of an implosion device, they were using sensitive remote detonators. Hokan was relieved that he had some EMP grenades in his cargo pannier.
“Find them,” Hokan said.
He couldn’t even trace their route from the drainage system now. Where would he start? The enemy would need to leave Qiilura. They would have a vessel somewhere. If intelligence from Geonosis was any guide, they would have gun-ships to extract them and evacuate wounded.
It was a quiet, backward, rural planet. You could hear motors and drives for kilometers, especially at night.
Hokan powered down the speeder and waited, listening.
Etain could feel it long before she saw or heard it. She hadn’t been able to detect droids, or so she thought, but she could feel something big disturbing the Force, and it was getting nearer. She wasn’t sure if it was mechanical or organic. And it didn’t communicate any sense of threat beyond a mild anxiety.
Then she heard the rushing air and steady drone of a vessel’s propulsion drive. She stopped and craned her neck. Atin and Darman stopped, too.
“Oh, I love that sound,” Darman said.
“What is it?”
“The sound of us getting out of this cesspit in one piece. A larty. A gunship.”
The sound was practically right overhead. As Etain scanned the night sky she picked out a silhouette against the stars. The vessel wasn’t showing any navigation lights. It dipped slightly, its drive changing pitch, and Darman reacted as if someone were talking to him. He gestured and nodded. Then he waved. The gunship picked up speed and lifted higher before shooting away.
“They tracked us by our comlink transponder,” Darman said. “Good old Niner. Bless him for knocking out Teklet.”
Atin jerked his shoulders to heave Uthan a little higher on his back. “Your carriage, princess,” he said to her, far more cheerful than Etain had imagined him capable of being. His presence felt almost healed, but not entirely. “Want to sit up front?”
Uthan had recovered from the sedation enough to squirm. Etain realized that the scientist was the only person she had ever seen who could convey such rage just by writhing. She didn’t envy the soldier who had to untie her.
“Your turn, Dar,” Atin said.
“Okay.” He seemed elated as well as edgy. Etain could feel it. It was nearly over: they’d pulled it off. She wanted to ask him what he was going to do when he got back to base, but she could guess that it involved a lot of sleep, a hot shower, and food. His dreams were modest. She thought that was a fine example to set, even for a Padawan.
She just hoped that she could become a competent officer. She wanted Darman’s respect.
“Come on, Dar,” Atin said irritably. “Uthan’s starting to weigh a ton. Your turn.”
“Try this,” Etain said, and lifted with the Force. Atin half turned to check what was relieving the weight on his back. Darman had almost caught up with him.
Crack. Atin pitched forward.
Etain thought he had merely tripped, but Darman was now down on the ground, and she followed suit. He was sprawled across Atin with his rifle raised. Atin wasn’t screaming, but he was making a rhythmic ah-ah-ah noise as if he was trying to gulp air. Uthan was lying in a heap on the grass.
“Man down,” Darman said, unnaturally calm. Etain heard him clearly: he still had the voice unit open. “Sarge, Atin’s hit.”
Whatever Niner’s response was, Etain didn’t hear it. Darman fired rapidly and she saw the brilliant rounds fly over her head.
Why hadn’t she felt anyone behind her? Because she’d been distracted. This was her fault. If Atin died, she would have him on her conscience for the rest of her life.
The firing stopped. It was over inside thirty seconds. The world had somehow gone back to the way it was before, except for Atin.
Darman could obviously see something through his rifle sight that Etain could not. She watched him get up, run forward, and aim at an object on the ground. He switched on his helmet lamp.
“One of Hokan’s officers,” Darman said. “A captain.”
“Is he dead?”
A single shot. “He is now,” Darman said.
This time Etain wasn’t quite as appalled as she had been when Darman had dispatched the wounded Umbaran. She was wrapped up in concern for Atin. Her perspective had shifted radically.
Atin was now worryingly quiet. When Darman turned him carefully onto his side, there was a shattered hole in his armor plate about twenty centimeters below his right armpit that was leaking blood. Darman took a small, gray oblong container with rounded edges from his belt and emptied the contents on the ground. He shoved what looked like a field dressing in the gaping hole and taped it to the armor.
“Get on,” Atin said. His voice was shaking. “Go on. Leave me.”
“Don’t go all heroic on me or I’ll smack you one.”
“I mean it. Get Uthan out of here.”
“Atin, shut up, will you? I’m not leaving anyone anywhere.” Darman was working with all the precision of someone who’d been drilled repeatedly in combat first aid. He nodded at Etain. She grasped Atin’s hand and squeezed it hard. “That’s what a Verpine projectile can do to Katarn armor… easy, brother. I’ve got you.” He removed one of Atin’s thigh plates, peeled back the section of bodysuit, and exposed the skin. He held two short single-use syringes in his hand. “It’s going to hurt a bit, okay? Steady.”
Darman stabbed both needles into Atin’s thigh in quick succession. Then he scrawled something on Atin’s helmet with a marker and replaced the thigh plate.
Etain stared at the letters p and z now written on the forehead of the helmet.
“P for painkiller,” Darman said. He laid Atin flat on his back. “And Z for blood-loss control agent, because B looks too much like P when you’re in a hurry. It’s for the medics, just in case they don’t scan him, so they know what I’ve dosed him with. Now, this is going to look really odd, but trust me …”
Atin was flat on his back, breathing heavily. Darman slid on top of him, back-to-chest, then slipped his arms through Atin’s webbing and rolled both of them over so he was lying underneath. Raising himself on his arms, he drew his legs to a kneeling position and then stood up with Atin secure across his back. He tottered slightly. But he didn’t fall.
“Easiest way to lift and carry a heavy man,” Darman said, his voice sounding a little strained.
“I could have done that for you,” Etain said.
“Yeah, but he’s my brother. Besides, you’re going to carry Doctor Uthan.”
Etain felt momentary guilt for not checking on her. But the scientist was still lying there trussed, quite silent, and no doubt bewildered. Etain leaned over her.
“Come on, Doctor,” she said. She went to lift her, but her hands touched something cold and wet. There was a jagged sliver of pale gray plastoid alloy protruding from just under her ribs. It was shrapnel from Atin’s armor. The doctor was bleeding heavily.
“Oh no. Not this. Look. Darman, look.”
“Fierfek After all this rotten—”
“No, she’s alive.”
“Just get her to the extraction point. They better have a medic on board.”
The disappointment was sudden and crushing. Etain felt it. It almost made her stop in her tracks, too overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all to move, but it didn’t stop Darman, and so she was determined to go on. His absolute discipline was tangible. In a few days she had learned more from him than she had ever been able to learn from Fulier. Being seconds from death so many times drove the lessons home that much harder.
Etain also knew it had forged a bond that would cause her enormous pain in years to come. It was worse than falling in love. It was a totally different level of attachment: it was shared trauma. Master Fulier said you could fall out of love, but Etain knew you could never fall out of this, because history could never change.
She lifted Uthan across her back by her own arm and jerked her forward until she was comfortably across her shoulders.
“Let’s move it, Darman,” she said, and hardly recognized her own voice. For a moment, she didn’t sound like a Jedi at all.
Hokan was still on the loose. Niner knew it. He’d seen him—or at least someone in his armor—come out of the facility. The officer whom Darman had shot had just been a young captain. And Hokan was probably doing what the dead captain seemed to have done, and tracked them by the gunship. Their salvation might also prove to be their undoing.
“About one more klick,” Fi said. “Any word on Atin?”
“Haven’t you got your long-range switched through?”
“No. It’s one more distraction I can’t face right now.”
Niner was beginning to understand how Fi coped: the man just switched off, sometimes literally. He wondered who or what had taught him to do that, because it wasn’t Skirata. Kal Skirata felt, all too visibly sometimes.
“I hope we get an urban deployment after this,” Niner said. Stay positive. Look ahead. “A nice, noisy, confusing city with places to hide and lots of running water. Surveillance. Data extraction. Easy Street.”
“Jungle’s like a city. Lots going on.”
“You’re worried about Atin.”
“Shut up, Sarge. I’m just worried about me, okay?”
“Of course you are.”
“Why didn’t we just pound this whole region from space?”
“No intel. Virus could have been at several locations. We might not have hit them all and we’d never have known until it was too late.”
“Just when we were making a good team.”
“He’s still alive, Fi.” Niner began walking backward, playing the tail role. “He’s still alive. Jedi can heal. Darman’s done all the right first aid—”
Niner never did like being tail on patrol, especially at night. He liked it even less when the point man shouted, “Down!”
He dropped flat in the grass and looked where Fi was aiming his Deece.
“Speeder,” Fi said. “Guess who. Crossing right-to-left ahead. It’s got to be Hokan.”
“Can you take him?”
“Clear shot when he passes the trees.”
“Don’t hang about, then.”
Niner counted the seconds, following the speeder bike with his rifle scope. The speeder’s movement behind the avenue of kuvara created a strobe effect. A flare of energy lit up his night vision and the rider was thrown off the vehicle in a cloud of vapor.
“That’s the way to do it,” Niner said.
They waited the mandatory few seconds to check that Hokan was truly down. There was no movement at all. Niner could see the glint of gdans’ eyes in the grass, a sign that at least someone thought the fighting was over and that it was safe to come out again.
Niner was on his feet and Fi was up on one knee when Hokan rose from the grass like a specter. He staggered a few steps and raised his weapon.
Niner didn’t hear him fire. But he heard a projectile whistle pass him and hit something with a loud crack. Verpine shatter guns were silent, and they were accurate. If Hokan hadn’t been winded by Fi’s round, then Niner would have had the same hole blown in him as Atin. “Sarge, when I kill him, can I have his armor?” Fi asked.
“You get to take it off him personally.”
“I needed that motivation. Thanks.”
“Still see him?”
A blaster round hit the grass a meter in front of Fi and sent sparks swirling. Their enemy wasn’t a mindless tinnie or a stupid Weequay. He was a Mandalorian, a natural-born fighter, dangerous even when wounded.
He was very much like them.
“You think that gunship’s going to wait?” Fi asked.
“Not once they have Uthan.”
“Fierfek.” Fi snapped on the grenade attachment and aimed. “Maybe we shouldn’t have ditched the E-Web.” The night lit up with the explosion. Fi raised his head a little and blasterfire flowed back, a meter farther off target than before. “You go right of him while I keep him busy.”
Niner edged forward on his elbows and knees, Deece crooked in his arms. He’d moved about ten meters when the air above him made a frying noise and a blaster bolt took the seed heads off the grass above him.
If it hadn’t been for that Verpine, things would have been a lot simpler.
Majestic wouldn’t wait much longer. The stims had worn off fully now, and Niner was feeling the impact of days of hard tabbing, little sleep, and too much noise. He made himself a promise there and then. If he and Fi weren’t getting off Qiilura, then neither was Ghez Hokan.
But Mandalorian or not, Hokan was just one man, and he was facing two men who were at least his match. Niner didn’t underestimate him, but the end result was almost certain: sooner or later he would deplete the power cells. Still, time wasn’t on their side right then.
“Not good at all,” Niner said. “Darman, Niner here. What’s your position?”
He sounded out of breath. “Slow going, Sarge. About ten minutes from the EP.”
“Ask them if they’ll keep the meter running, will you? Just saying good-bye to Ghez Hokan.”
“I’ll drop Atin off and—”
“Negative, Dar. We can handle this once we crack his armor. Stand by.”
Fi was edging forward looking for a clear shot. Niner, running out of patience, looked about for some cover he could use to get a position to the side of Hokan. The flash of a weapon discharge caught his eye but he didn’t hear anything except Fi beginning to say something over the comlink and then a very brief searing peak of high-pitched noise.
Then everything went silent and black.
For a moment Niner thought he’d been hit. He couldn’t hear Fi and he couldn’t see the data from his HUD. There was no green image of the field and the trees behind it in his night-vision visor. But he could feel his elbows squarely braced in the soil and he could feel his Deece still in his hands. No pain—but if you were hurt badly enough you sometimes didn’t feel a thing.
It took him several slow seconds to realize his helmet’s systems were totally dead. His face felt hot. He wasn’t getting air.
He pulled off the helmet and squinted through the scope of his DC-17. The night-vision scope picked up his image; Fi had taken his helmet off, too, and had his hand inside it, pressing controls frantically.
EMP grenade, Niner thought. Hokan’s droided us.
You used electromagnetic pulse charges against droids. But they were equally effective against delicate electronics attached to wets. The enhanced Katarn helmets, three times the price of an ordinary trooper’s version, were packed with sophisticated prototype systems, vulnerable systems.
Niner crawled slowly and carefully toward Fi. A couple of blaster bolts went wide. He lay flat, head-to-head with him.
“He’s fried our helmets,” Fi whispered. “Don’t they test these things properly?”
“I bet some civvy thought nobody would use EMPs against wets.”
“Yeah, I might look him up when we get back.”
“They should reset.”
“No idea. Deece still works, though.”
“As long as he puts his head up.”
“I could do with one of Dar’s flash-bangs.”
“Doesn’t fit the Deece anyway.”
“Can you see him at all?”
“No … no, wait. There he is.”
Niner had to track back and forth a couple of times before he spotted Hokan through the scope. “Got any of the IEDs in easy reach?”
“How far can you throw?”
“Wide as you can. Scatter them across him.”
Niner laid down suppressing fire while Fi bounced up and down, lobbing the little makeshift bombs and dropping flat again. Niner took the detonator control.
“When I hit this, you go wide that way and try to get side-on to him.”
Fi rolled slightly to one side, bracing on his right arm for a quick start. Niner hit the det. Fi bobbed up.
Nothing happened. A blaster round seared the grass between them, and Fi threw himself down again.
“We really must talk to procurement about hardening our electronics,” Fi said mildly.
“I fear we might be back to old-fashioned soldiering.”
“I’m fresh out of bayonets.”
“Sergeant Kal would have an idea.”
“You got his number on you?”
“I’m going to scream.”
“Don’t laugh. This man’s a nut. If he thinks I’m down and badly injured, he won’t be able to resist coming over and slitting my throat.”
“And then I give him a surprise party?”
“Anything that resolves this fast.”
“Okay, kid. Off you go.”
Niner suddenly realized he didn’t actually know how to scream. But he’d heard enough terribly wounded men to make a fair stab at it.
He threw back his head and let go.