Think of yourselves as a hand. Each of you is a finger, and without the others you’re useless. Alone, a finger can’t grasp, or control, or form a fist. You are nothing on your own, and everything together.
–Commando instructor Sergeant Kal Skirata
Darman moved on fast, up a tree-covered slope a kilometer south. He planned on spending the rest of the daylight hours in a carefully constructed hide at the highest vantage point he could find, slightly below the skyline.
He concentrated on making a crude net out of the canopy cords he had salvaged. The activity kept him occupied and alert. He hadn’t slept in nearly forty standard hours; fatigue made you more careless and dangerously unfocused than alcohol. When he had finished tying the cord into squares, he wove grass, leaves, and twigs into the knots. On inspection, he decided it was a pretty good camouflage net.
He also continued observation. Qiilura was astonishing. It was alive and different, a riot of scent and color and texture and sounds. Now that his initial pounding fear had subsided into a general edginess, he began to take it all in.
It was the little living noises that concerned him most. Around him, creatures crawled, flew, and buzzed. Occasionally things squealed and fell silent. Twice now he’d heard something larger prowling in the bushes.
Apart from the brief intensity of Geonosis, Darman’s only environmental experience had been the elegant but enclosed stilt cities of Kamino, and the endless churning seas around them. The cleanly efficient classrooms and barracks where he had spent ten years turning from instant child to perfect soldier were unremarkable, designed to get a job done. His training in desert and mountain and jungle had been entirely artificial, holoprojection, simulation.
The red desert plains of Geonosis had been far more arid and starkly magnificent than his instructors’ imaginations; and now Qiilura’s fields and woods held so much more than three-dimensional charts could offer.
It was still open country, though—a terrain that made it hard for him to move around unnoticed.
Concentrate, he told himself. Gather intel. Make the most of your enforced idleness.
Lunch would have been welcome about now. A decent lunch. He chewed on a concentrated dry ration cube and reminded himself that his constant hunger wasn’t real. He was just tired. He had consumed the correct amount of nutrients for his needs, and if he gave in to eating more, he would run out of supplies. There was exactly enough for a week’s operations in his pack and two days’ worth in his emergency belt. The belt was the only thing he would grab, apart from his rifle, if he ever had to make a last-ditch run for it without his forty-kilo pack.
Beneath him, farm transports passed along a narrow track, all heading in the same direction, carrying square tanks with security seals on the hatches. Barq. Darman had never tasted it, but he could smell it even from here. The nauseatingly musky, almost fungal scent took the edge off his appetite for a while. If he had his holochart aligned correctly, the transports were all heading for the regional depot at Teklet. He twisted the image this way and that in his hands and held it up to map onto the actual landscape.
Yes, he was sure enough now where he was. He was ten klicks east of the small town called Imbraani, about forty klicks northeast of RV point Beta and forty klicks almost due east of RV point Gamma. They’d picked RV points along the flight path because the Separatists would expect dispersal, not a retracing of their steps. Between RVs Alpha and Beta was a stretch of woodland, ideal for moving undetected by day. If the rest of his squad had landed safely and were on schedule, they would be making their way to Beta.
Things could be looking up again. All he had to do was get to RV Gamma and wait for his squad. And if they hadn’t made it, then he’d need to rethink the mission.
The idea produced a feeling of desolation. You are nothing on your own, and everything together. He’d been raised to think, function, even breathe as one of a group of four. He could do nothing else.
But ARCs always operate alone, don’t they?
He pondered that, fighting off drowsiness. Leaves rustled suddenly behind him, and he turned to scan with the infrared filter of his visor. He caught a blur of moving animal. It fled. His database said there were no large predators on Qiilura, so whatever it was could be no more troublesome than the gdans—not as long as he was wearing his armor, anyway.
Darman waited motionless for a few moments, but the animal was gone. He turned back and refocused on the road and the surrounding fields, struggling to stay awake. Lay off the stims. No, he wasn’t going to touch his medpac for a quick boost. Not yet. He’d save his limited supply for later, for when things got really tough, as he knew they would.
Then something changed in his field of vision. The frozen tableau had come to life. He flipped down the binoc filter for a closer look, and what he saw made him snap it back and gaze through the sniperscope of his rifle.
A thin wisp of smoke rose from a group of wooden buildings. It was quickly becoming a pall. It wasn’t the smoke of domestic fires; he could see flames, flaring tongues of yellow and red. The structures—barns, judging by their construction—were on fire. A group of people in drab clothing was scrambling around, trying to drag objects clear of the flames, uncoordinated, panicking. Another group—Ubese, Trandoshan, mainly Weequay—was stopping them, standing in a line around the barn.
One of the farmers broke the line and disappeared into a building. He didn’t come out again, not as long as Darman watched.
Nothing in his training corresponded to what he was witnessing. There was not a memory, a pattern, a maneuver, or a lesson that flashed in his mind and told him how this should be played out. Civilian situations were outside his experience. Nor were these citizens of the Republic: they weren’t anyone’s citizens.
His training taught him not to be distracted by outside issues, however compelling.
But there was still some urge in him that said Do something. What? His mission, his reason for staying alive, was to rejoin his squad and thwart the nanovirus project. Breaking cover to aid civilians cut across all of that.
The Separatists—or whoever controlled this band of assorted thugs—knew he was here.
It didn’t take a genius to work it out. The sprayer had exploded on landing, detonating any demolition ordnance that Darman hadn’t been able to cram into his packs. The Weequay patrol hadn’t called in when their masters had expected. Now the humans—farmers—were being punished and threatened, and it was all to do with him. The Separatists were looking for him.
Escape and evasion procedure.
No, not yet. Darman inhaled and leveled his rifle carefully, picking out an Ubese in the crosswires. Then he lined up the rest of the group, one at a time. Eight hostiles, forty rounds: he knew he could slot every one, first time.
He held his breath, forefinger resting on the trigger.
Just a touch.
How many more targets were there that he couldn’t see? He’d give away his position.
This isn’t your business.
He exhaled and relaxed his grip on the rifle, sliding his forefinger in front of the trigger guard. What would happen to his mission if they caught him?
In the next two minutes, reluctant to move, he targeted each Ubese, Weequay, and Trandoshan several times, but didn’t squeeze the trigger. He wanted to more than he could have imagined. It wasn’t the hard-drilled trained response of a sniper, but a helpless, impotent anger whose origin he couldn’t begin to identify.
Don’t reveal your position. Don’t fire unless you can take out the target. Keep firing until the target is down and stays down.
And then there were times when a soldier just had to take a chance.
They could be Republic citizens, one day.
They could be allies now.
Darman wasn’t tired anymore, or even hungry. His pulse was pounding loud in his ears and he could feel the constriction in his throat muscles, the fundamental human reflex to flee or fight. Fleeing wasn’t an option. He could only fight.
He targeted the first Weequay, a clean head shot, and squeezed the trigger. The creature dropped, and for a moment his comrades stared at the body, unsure of what had happened. Darman had nothing against Weequays. It was only coincidence that this was the third one he’d killed in a few hours.
And, suddenly unfrozen, the band of thugs all turned to stare in the direction of the shot, drawing their weapons.
The first bolt hit the bushes to Darman’s left; the second went three meters over his head. They’d worked out where he was, all right. Darman snapped on the DC-17’s grenade attachment and watched through the scope as the civilians scattered. The grenade sent a shower of soil and shattered wood into the air, along with four of the eight militia.
He’d certainly pinpointed his position now.
When he sprang to his feet and began the run down the slope, the four remaining enemy stood and stared for a couple of seconds. He had no idea why, but they were transfixed long enough for him to gain the advantage. A couple of plasma bolts hit him, but his armor simply took it like a punch in the chest and he ran on, laying down a hail of particle rounds. The bolts came toward him like horizontal luminous rain. One Trandoshan turned and ran; Darman took him down with a bolt in the back that blew him a few meters farther as he fell.
Then the white-hot rain stopped and he was running over bodies. Darman slowed and pulled up, suddenly deafened by the sound of his own panting breath.
Maybe they’d managed to report his presence via their comlinks in time, and maybe they hadn’t. The information wouldn’t have been much use on its own anyway. He ran from barn to barn, checking for more hostiles, walking through the flames unscathed because his armor and bodysuit could easily withstand the heat of a wood fire. Even with the visor, he couldn’t see much through the thick smoke, and he moved quickly outside again. He glanced at his arm; smoke curled off the soot-blackened plates.
Then he almost walked straight into a youth in a farmer’s smock, staring at him. The boy bolted.
Darman couldn’t find any more of Hokan’s troops. He came to the last barn and booted the door open. His spot-lamp illuminated the dim interior and picked out four terrified human faces—two men, a woman, and the boy he’d just seen—huddling in a corner next to a threshing machine. His automatic response was to train the rifle on them until he was sure they weren’t hostiles. Not every soldier wears a uniform. But his instincts said these were just terrified civilians.
He was still trailing smoke from his armor. He realized how frightening he looked.
A thin, wavering wail began. He thought it was the woman, but it seemed to be coming from one of the men, a man just as old as Sergeant Skirata who was staring at him in horror. Darman had never seen civilians that close, and he’d never seen anyone that scared.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “Is this your farm?”
Silence, except for that noise the man was making; he couldn’t understand it. He’d rescued them from their attackers, hadn’t he? What was there to fear?
“How many troops has Hokan got? Can you tell me?”
The woman found her voice, but it was shaky. “What are you?”
“I’m a soldier of the Republic. I need information, ma’am.”
“You’re not him?”
“No. Do you know where he is?”
She pointed south in the direction of Imbraani. “They’re down at the farm the Kirmay clan used to own before Hokan sold them to Trandoshans. About fifty, maybe sixty of them. What are you going to do to us?”
“Nothing, ma’am. Nothing at all.”
It didn’t seem to be the answer they were expecting. The woman didn’t move.
“He brought them here looking for him,” said the man who wasn’t whining, pointing at Darman. “We’ve got nothing to thank him for. Tell him to—”
“Shut up,” the woman said, glaring at the man. She turned back to Darman. “We won’t say a word. We won’t say we saw you. Just go. Get out. We don’t want your help.”
Darman was totally unprepared for the reaction. He’d been taught many things, but none of his accelerated learning had mentioned anything about ungrateful civilians, rescues thereof. He backed away and checked outside the barn door before darting from barn to bush to fence and up the slope to where he’d left his gear. It was time to move on. He was leaving a trail behind him now, a trail of engagements and bodies. He wondered if he’d see civvies, as Skirata called them, in quite the same benign way in the future.
He checked the chrono readout in his visor. It had been only minutes since he had run down the slope, firing. It always felt like hours, hours when he couldn’t see anything but the target in front of him. Don’t worry, Skirata had said. It’s your forebrain shutting down, just a fear reflex. You’re bred from sodopathic stock. You’ll fight just fine. You’ll carry on fighting when normal men have turned into basket cases.
Darman was never sure if that was good or not, but it was what he was, and he was fine with that. He loaded his extra pack on his back and began working his way to the RV point. Maybe he shouldn’t have expended so many rounds. Maybe he should have just left the farmers to their fate. He’d never know.
Then it struck him why both the militia and the civilians had frozen when they first spotted him. The helmet. The armor. He looked like a Mandalorian warrior.
Everyone must be terrified of Ghez Hokan. The similarity would either work to his advantage or get him killed.
“Down!” Atin yelled.
Niner flung himself flat and heard Fi grunt as he did the same, the air knocked from his lungs.
An airspeeder flew overhead with a deceptively gentle hum. Atin, squatting in the cover of a fallen tree, followed it with his rifle scope.
“Two up, camo and custom armament,” he said. “Somehow I don’t think the locals drive those. Not with mounted cannons, anyway.”
The hum of engines faded. Niner struggled to his feet and regained his balance, wishing for the speeder bikes and an absence of armor. The squad was too heavily laden and the armor wasn’t designed for blending into the landscape, although it was the difference between life and death in hostile territory: protection against blasterfire, nerve agents, and even hard vacuum. And when they got to their target it would come into its own. The armor was designed for FIBUA ops, fighting in built-up areas and inside buildings, urban warfare of the kind the galaxy now had plenty to offer. For now, they’d just have to make the best of the scenic part of the mission.
He was tired. They all were. Not even the animal panic brought on by the risk of discovery could shake that off. They needed to sleep.
Niner checked his datapad. They were still ten klicks from RV Beta and it was midday. It was much easier to move by night, so he wanted to press on and make the RV point by midafternoon, then lie up until nightfall. If Darman had made it—and maybe he hadn’t, but Niner’s mind was made up—they would wait for him.
“He’s back,” Atin said. “Everyone down.”
The quiet drone of engines interrupted Niner’s calculations. The airspeeder was heading south toward them again. They froze, mud-smeared, invisible from that altitude—or so they hoped.
It wasn’t entirely training that produced the reaction.
Aerial surveillance was especially threatening. Niner recalled the Kaminoan KE-8 Enforcer craft cruising above the training grounds of Tipoca City, ready to pluckout and discipline any defective clone who didn’t conform. They were equipped with electroshock devices.
He’d seen a KE-8 in action, just once. After that he worked extra hard to conform.
“He’s on a square search,” Atin said. He was turning into an excellent point man; for some reason he was slightly more attuned to his surroundings than Fi or even Niner himself. “He must be working out from the center.”
“Center of what, though?” Fi asked.
Niner forgot his fatigue. You never leave your mates be hind. “If he hasn’t seen us, he’s seen Darman.”
“Or what’s left of him.”
“Shut it, Atin. What’s your problem?”
“I’ve been Darman,” Atin said.
He said nothing more. Niner didn’t think it was a good time to ask for an explanation. The engines were overhead. Then the sound faded a little and dropped in pitch, but soon resumed full volume.
“He’s circling,” Atin said.
“Fierfek,” Niner said, and all three men reached for their anti-armor grenade attachments at the same time. “What’s he seen?”
“Maybe nothing,” Fi said. “Maybe us.”
They fell silent. The airspeeder was indeed circling. It had also dropped lower and was now about level with the tops of the trees. Niner could see its twin cannons. His helmet wasn’t telling him it had locked on, but that didn’t mean it [ hadn’t. You could never count on tech.
Best piece of gear is the eyeball. It was the first piece of advice Skirata had ever given him. Accelerated learning was fine, but anything direct from the mouths of men who had fought real engagements left a bigger impression.
Niner leveled his rifle and peered through the scope, trusting to BlasTech Industries that the sight really wasn’t reflective. He’d find out the hard way if it was.
He could see the sun glinting off the human pilot’s goggles. The gunner was a droid. He wondered if they felt vulnerable without any armored canopy, heads conveniently skylined for a shot. He suspected that anyone looking down from that height with a cannon or two didn’t feel vulnerable at all.
The fuselage banked above him and turned slowly, rising well above the trees as if the pilot was trying to get a visual fix again. It wasn’t coincidence. Niner kept the DC-17 trained on the central propulsion unit.
Then a red flashing symbol went off in his visor.
The thing had a lock on him.
He squeezed the trigger. The white-hot blast kicked his visor into blackness for an instant, and the detonation was so close that the shock wave hit him like a body blow.
He scrambled to his feet and ran. How he ran with more than fifty kilos of deadweight on his back he would never know, but adrenaline could do remarkable things. His instinct was to get clear before debris rained down on him. Armor and bodysuits could withstand a lot, but the human instinct buried deep inside him screamed get clear.
When he stopped he had covered a hundred meters even in the tangled undergrowth of the coppice. He was panting like a mott and the suit was struggling to cool him down.
Behind him, a fire burned, with smaller flames scattered around it like seedlings around a tree. He turned to look for Fi and Atin. His first thought was that he had brought the speeder crashing down on them.
“Did you have to?”
Fi was right next to him. He hadn’t heard him above the noise of his own breathing.
“He got a lock on me,” Niner said, feeling relieved, and then oddly guilty, but not sure why.
“I know. I saw your Deece go up and I thought I’d better get moving or I’d be wearing a speedie.”
“Can’t hear him.”
That didn’t mean anything. The close-range comm setting was only ten meters; Atin could be anywhere. Niner didn’t know him well enough yet to guess his movements, and it had been enough of a close shave for him not to spend much time contemplating the issue. Now he was worried that he—the sergeant, the man they looked to for leadership—had run for it without thinking of them, and that they knew it.
“This is going to make a nice marker,” Fi said, staring up at the climbing smoke. It would be visible for a long, long way.
“What did you expect me to do? Lie there and take a cannon round?”
“No, Sarge. I thought you’d manage a double tap, though.” He laughed. “Better make sure nobody survived.”
It was a remote chance, but speeders could be surprisingly robust. Niner and Fi walked back through the smoke, rifles ready. Droid parts were scattered across the scene of devastation, one scuttle-shaped faceplate staring up at the pall of smoke as if in surprise.
“They don’t bounce much, then,” Fi said, and moved it with his boot. “Atin—Fi here. You there, over?”
Silence. Fi put his left gauntlet against his ear. Niner wondered if he’d now lost two men in as many days.
“Atin here, over.”
Atin stepped out of the smoke, dragging his extra pack and a scorched hunk of metal that trailed a few wires and plugs. It looked like the speeder’s onboard computer. “The pilot didn’t bounce either,” he said. “Here, help me get this strapped on again.”
It took both Fi and Niner to lift the pack and reattach it to his armor. A few days earlier, either one of them could have managed it single-handed. We’re too exhausted to be safe, Niner thought. Time we got out of here and got some rest.
“I might be able to get something from this,” Atin said, indicating the charred metal box in one hand. It was the first time Niner had heard him sound remotely cheerful. Atin seemed to relate to gear better than he did to people. “Worth a try.”
Niner took over the point position and they struggled into denser cover. He glanced back and hoped the flames would burn themselves out; they didn’t have a hope of outrunning a full-scale forest fire. But maybe that was the least of their problems. And if Darman was alive and anywhere near, he’d see their handiwork, and Niner hoped he’d recognize it as such.
The squad had now left a couple of telltale marks of combat on the sleepy rural landscape. Whether it wanted it or not, Qiilura was involved in the war.
“You’re a di’kut,” Hokan said.
He took off his helmet. His face was centimeters from the Ubese’s, and he wanted it to look him in the eye. As a species they weren’t prone to trembling, but this one was doing a fine job of being an exception.
“What are you?” he whispered.
“A di’kut, sir.”
“You’ve made me look like a di’kut, too. I don’t like that.”
Hokan had assembled his entire senior staff in the room. He reminded himself that the room was in fact a disused merlie-shearing shed, and that his lieutenants were the twenty least stupid individuals selected from the criminal detritus that had washed down society’s sewer to Qiilura. It disappointed him that the Neimoidians would spend so much on secure communications and so little on personnel. A few credits more and he could have bought the small army he needed.
The Ubese—Cailshh—was standing absolutely still in the middle of the room as Hokan circled. It might have been a female, because you never could tell with Ubese, but Hokan suspected it was male. He hadn’t wanted to hire Ubese. They could be unpredictable, even sly. But very few mercenaries wanted to work on Qiilura and those who did were simply unemployable anywhere else, almost always because of a criminal record even a Hutt would balk at. And here he was, paying them what he could because Ankkit wouldn’t fork out for proper support.
Hokan despaired. And when he despaired of professional standards, he suspected extreme coaching was necessary to refocus the team.
“So you torched another farm,” he said.
“It was a warning, sir. In case they got ideas. You know. Hiding people they shouldn’t.”
“No, that’s not how it works.” Hokan propped his backside against the edge of the table and stared into the anonymous masked face, arms folded. He didn’t like people whose eyes he couldn’t see. “You warn them first. If they break the rules, then you punish them. If you punish them before they break the rules, they have nothing to lose, and they hate you, and they will seek revenge, and so will their offspring.”
“Do you understand that?” Hokan looked around at the assembled staff, and spread his arms in invitation to join the coaching session. “Does everyone understand that?”
There were some grunts.
“Does everyone understand that?” Hokan snarled. “What do we say when an officer asks you a question?”
“Yes … sir!” It was almost a chorus.
“Good,” Hokan said quietly.
He stood up again. Then he took out Fulier’s lightsaber, activated the beam, and sliced it through the Ubese’s neck, sending the head flying—bloodless, quiet, and clean.
There was sudden and absolute silence. The staff had been quiet before, but they’d been making the marginal noises of people forced to endure a boring lesson. Now there was not the slightest swallow, cough, or sigh. Nobody breathed.
He peered down at the body and then at the legs of his dark gray uniform trousers. Perfectly clean: no blood. He rather liked this lightsaber now. He sat back on the edge of the desk.
“That,” Hokan said, “was punishment for Cailshh. It’s a warning for the rest of you. Now, is the difference clear? It’s very important.”
“Yes sir.” Fewer voices joined in this time, and they wavered.
“Then go and find our visitors. And you, Mukit. Clear up this mess. You’re Ubese. You understand the proper way to dispose of the remains.”
The group began filing out, and Mukit edged over to the neatly sundered body of Cailshh. Hokan caught the arm of his senior Weequay lieutenant as he tried to slip through the door.
“Guta-Nay, where’s your brother and his friend?” he asked. “They haven’t shown up for two meals, and they haven’t signed off shift.”
“Don’t know, sir.”
“Are they making a few credits on the side with that Trandoshan? A bit of freelance slaving?”
“I need to know. To work out if anything… unusual might have happened to them.”
Guta-Nay, no doubt recalling what Hokan had done to him when he chased that farm girl, moved his lips soundlessly. Then his voice managed to surface above his fear. “I never seen, sir, not at all, not since yesterday. I swear.”
“I chose you as my right-hand… man because you could very nearly express yourself in several syllables.”
“That makes you an intellectual among your kind. Don’t make me doubt my judgment.”
“Not seen him, sir, honest. Never.”
“Then get out on the route they were patrolling and see what you can find.” Hokan reached across his desk and took out the electroshocker. It was only an agricultural instrument for herding, but it worked fine on most nonanimal species. Guta-Nay eyed it cautiously. “This is why I disapprove of undisciplined acts like thieving and drinking. When I need to be certain of someone’s whereabouts, I can’t be. When I need resources, they’re already committed. When I need competence, my staff is … distracted.” He pushed the shocker up into the Weequay’s armpit. “There is a Republic presence here. We don’t know the size of the force, but we do have a speeder down and a large black crater at Imbraani. The more data I have, the more I can assess the size of the threat and deal with it. Understood?”
Hokan lowered the shocker and the Weequay shot out the door, his enthusiasm for his career refreshed. Hokan prided himself on motivational skills.
It’s started, he thought. He shut himself in his room and switched on all the comlink screens. They’re coming to take Qiilura.
Hokan had some idea of what kind of deal Ankkit had with the Separatists. There had been a significant amount of construction work carried out to convert a grain store into the kind of building that had triple-sealed doors, and the type of walls that could be sterilized with extreme heat. Then he’d had to try to make credible bodyguards out of the rabble he employed because important Separatist scientists came and went, and the Neimoidians saw conspiracy everywhere they looked. They weren’t always wrong about that.
Then the Jedi came to Imbraani, and it all fell into place, as neatly as the arrival of the Republic forces now on the planet. There was a military target here.
I’m my father’s son, though. I’m a warrior. Hokan wondered if all cultures separated from their heritage were unable to move on, doomed to relive old glories. I’d rather be fighting a worthy opponent than terrorizing farmers who haven’t got the guts to stand up for themselves.
Fighting soldiers also commanded a higher fee, of course.
And the greater the fee, the quicker he would be off this planet and heading … somewhere.
There was no longer a home for him, and few of his kind left. But things could change. Yes, they very well might one day.
Hokan leaned back in the chair and let the chatter of comlinks wash over him.