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Bal kote, darasuum kote,

Jorso’ran kando a tome.

Sa kyr’am Nau tracyn kad, Vode an.

(And glory, eternal glory,

We shall bear its weight together.

Forged like the saber in the fires of death,

Brothers all.)

–Traditional Mandalorian war chant

It would have been much, much easier to fight in a different environment.

Niner decided that when he got back to base he’d ask to amend the training manual on nonurban warfare, to reflect the fact that SOPs for temperate rural terrain were definitely not interchangeable with jungle tactics.

It was the fields. There was too much open ground between areas of cover. Niner had been sitting in the fork of a tree for so long that one buttock was numb and the other was catching up fast. And still the group of militia was sprawled in the grass at the edge of a recently mown field, passing around bottles of urrqal.

Niner didn’t stir under his camouflage of leaves. It was nearly autumn, so it was a trick they wouldn’t be able to rely on much longer, as almost all the woodland was deciduous. They planned to pull out long before then.

“Anything happening, Sarge?” Fi’s voice was a whisper in his helmet, even though the sound wouldn’t carry. It was a smart habit, just in case. If one precaution was good, two was better. “Still swigging?”

“Yeah. We could always wait until they die of liver failure. Save the ammo.”

“You okay?”

“My bladder’s a bit full, but fine otherwise.”

“Atin’s shredding that speedie’s onboard computer.”

“I hope he’s doing it quietly.”

“He’s moved into the wood a bit. He reckons he’s downloaded some high-res charts, but the rest are probably fried. He’s on the encryption files now.”

“As long as he’s happy.”

Fi made a stifled snort of laughter. “Yeah, he’s happy.”

I’ve been Darman. Niner still had no idea what Atin had meant by that. He’d remember to ask him at a more appropriate moment. All he wanted right then was for Hokan’s men to get up and move on so they could cross over to RV Beta, just four klicks ahead. It would have been easy to pick them off from here, but that would leave a nice pile of calling cards and the squad had left too many already. Niner wanted to avoid all the hard contact that he could.

They have to run out of urrqal soon.

And they can’t be taking Ghez Hokan very seriously.

Niner was watching the group through his rifle scope, wondering why there was a preponderance of Weequays, when they all looked up, but not at him. They were looking to his right.

“Five more targets approaching,” Fi said.

Niner tracked right very gently. “Got’em.”

They didn’t look like militia. There was an Umbaran, very smart in a pale gray uniform that matched his skin, and four battle droids marching behind him. Some of the militia boys got to their feet. One of them, reclining on the ground, held his bottle out in offering, muttering something about curing rust.

The only words of conversation that Niner could pick up from the Umbaran were “… Hokan asks… any contact…”

The breeze took the rest. They’ve got reinforcements, he thought. They look like a different problem altogether.

And they were, but not for him this time. The reinforcement droids raised their integral blasters without warning and simply opened fire into the group of militia. They fired a few bolts in an orderly manner and then waited, looking down at their victims as if checking. The Umbaran—commissioned officer or sergeant?—stepped forward and fired another blast at close range into a Weequay. Apparently satisfied that their job was done, they gathered up the group’s assortment of blasters and sidearms, searched the bodies for something—ID, Niner suspected—and marched calmly away, back down their approach route.

Niner heard Fi exhale at the same time he did.

“Well,” Fi said. “You can empty your bladder now, I suppose.”

Niner slid down from the fork of the tree, and his leg buckled under him. He removed the plates and rubbed his thigh to get the circulation going. “What do you reckon that was all about, then?”

“Hokan doesn’t like them drinking on duty?”

Atin appeared, a jumble of circuitry and wires in one hand. “Looks like the tinnies have shown up to take over. But why shoot them?”

“Tinnies?” Fi said.

“What did your squad call them?”


Niner nudged Fi. “General Zey said Hokan was violent and unpredictable. He executes his own people in cold blood. Let’s remember that.”

They gathered up their gear and this time it was the turn of Atin and Niner to carry the load they’d rigged underslung on a pole. Fi walked ahead on point.

“I haven’t fired a shot yet,” he said.

“On this sort of mission, the fewer the better,” Atin said.

Niner took it as a sign that Atin was joining in. His tone wasn’t as defensive. Regular people said they couldn’t tell the difference between one clone and another, did they? That was what came of spending too much time looking at faces and not enough wondering what shaped people and went on inside their heads.

“Save’em for later,” Niner said. “I think we’re going to need every single round.”

I must be out of my mind.

Etain watched the ramshackle farmhouse buildings through a gap in the barn’s planked walls. The roofs were outlined against the deepening turquoise of the dusk sky: two lamps stood by the porch of the main building to keep the gdans away from the path to the outside refresher. There were so many of the little predators nesting around the farm that one of their warrens had subsided, leaving a gaping hole in the farmyard that was now filling up every time it rained. Birhan wasn’t big on maintenance.

That did make some tasks easier, though. Satisfied that nobody was approaching, she went back to working boards loose from the barn’s frame at the rear of the building. There was no other exit if she were ambushed, so she was making one.

She concentrated on the boards, fixing their shape and position in her mind. Then she visualized them separating and moving aside, creating a gap. Move, she thought. Just part,swing aside... and the boards did indeed move. She rehearsed shifting them with the Force a few times, letting them fall back into place quietly.

Yes, she could use the Force. When she felt confident and controlled, she could master everything Fulier had taught her; but those days could be few and far between. She wrestled with a temper unbefitting a Jedi. She watched those with serene acceptance of the Force and envied their certainty. She wondered why Jedi blood had bothered to manifest itself in someone who was so fallible.

Etain hoped she could manage to use the Force to do something more momentous than moving planks if the situation demanded it. She was certain that the next few days would test her beyond her limits.

Jinart arrived just after it grew completely dark. Despite watching intently through the crack in the wall, lightsaber ready, Etain didn’t see her approach, or even hear her until the door swung open.

But she felt her. And she wondered why she hadn’t felt her before.

“Ready, girl?” Jinart asked. She was wrapped in a filthy shawl that seemed about to walk of its own accord. It was a pretty convincing disguise.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Etain asked.

“Tell you what?” Jinart asked.

“I might be less than the ideal Padawan, but I can always sense another Jedi. I want to know why.”

“You’re wrong. I’m not that at all. But we are serving the same cause.”

Jinart cast around and picked up the remnants of a loaf that Etain hadn’t finished. She shoved it under her shawl.

“That wasn’t an explanation,” Etain said, and followed her out the door. There were no gdans to be seen. If this woman was strong in the Force and not a Jedi, she had to know why. “I need to know what you are.”

“No, you don’t.”

“How do I know you’re not someone who has turned to the dark side?”

Jinart stopped abruptly and spun around, suddenly faster and more upright than an old woman should have been. “I can choose when I am detected and not detected. And given your competence, I’m the one who’s most at risk. Now, silence.”

It wasn’t quite the answer Etain was expecting. She felt the same authority as she had in the presence of Fulier, except that he exhibited peaks and troughs of the Force, while Jinart projected an infinite steadiness.

She was certainty. Etain envied certainty.

Jinart led her into the woodland that skirted Imbraani to the east. She was keeping up a punishing pace, and Etain decided not to ask any more questions for the time being. At various points along the way, Jinart deviated: “Mind the warrens,” she said, and Etain sidestepped holes and depressions that told her colonies of gdans had been busy beneath the ground.

They finally paused half an hour later, having covered an arc that brought them north to the edge of the Braan River. As rivers went, it was more of a large stream. Jinart stood still, apparently looking at the water but not appearing to focus. Then she jerked her head around and stared west, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly.

“Walk upstream,” she said. “Follow the riverbank and keep your wits about you. Your soldier is still there, and he needs those plans.”

“A soldier. One?”

“That’s what I said. Come on. He won’t be there much longer.”

“Not a group, then. Not even a few.”

“Correct. There are others, but they’re a little way from here. Now go.”

“What makes you think I have plans?”

“If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be risking myself to direct you toward your contact,” Jinart said. “I have other work to do now. When you find your soldier, I’ll try to persuade Birhan to take him in for a while. He’ll need somewhere to hide. Get on with it. He won’t hang around.”

Etain watched Jinart start away toward the town, looking back just once. The Padawan slipped out her lightsaber and tried to get a sense of what might lie west along the river-bank, and when she glanced back again Jinart was nowhere to be seen. She was aware of the scrabbling of small clawed feet around her. Whatever influence had kept the gdans at bay while Jinart was with her was gone. She kicked out occasionally and hoped her boots were thick enough.

If she went back to the farm, nothing would have changed and she would be no nearer to delivering the information. She had no choice but to go on.

The bank was overgrown in places and she stepped into the river, knowing it would be shallow. The knowledge didn’t make it any more pleasant to wade in sodden boots. But it was a reliable route, and it kept the gdans from trying their luck with her.

They were wary of Jinart. Etain wondered why the Force didn’t deter them from stalking her as well. It was more confirmation, if she ever needed it, that she really wasn’t much of a Jedi when it came to utilizing the Force. She had to concentrate. She had to find that single-minded sense of both purpose and acceptance that had so long eluded her.

Although Etain had clearly not yet come close to mastering control of the Force, she could see and feel beyond the immediate world. She could feel the nocturnal creatures around her; she even felt the little silver weed-eels parting to avoid her before they brushed her boots on the way downstream.

Then she became aware of something she wasn’t expecting to encounter in the wilds of the Imbraani woods.

A child.

She could feel a child nearby. There was something unusual about the child, but it was definitely a youngster, and there was a feeling of loss about it. She couldn’t imagine any of the townspeople letting a child out at night with gdans about.

Ignore it. This isn’t your problem now.

But it was a child. It wasn’t afraid. It was anxious, but not scared as any sensible child should have been, wandering around alone at night.

Suddenly there was something touching her forehead. She put out her hand instinctively as if shooing away an insect, but there was nothing there. And still she felt something right between her brows.

It dipped briefly to her chest, exactly on her sternum, and back up to her forehead. Then she was suddenly blinded by a light of painful intensity that shot out of the darkness and overwhelmed her.

She had nothing to lose. She drew her lightsaber, prepared to die on her feet if nothing else. She didn’t need to see her opponent.

There was a slight ah sound. The light snapped off. She could still sense a child right in front of her.

“Sorry, ma’am,” a man’s voice said. “I didn’t recognize you.”

And still she detected only a child, so close that it had to be next to the man. For some reason she couldn’t sense him in the Force at all.

Red ghost-images of the light still blinded her. She held her lightsaber steady. When her vision cleared, she knew exactly who she was staring at, and she also knew Jinart had betrayed her.

She’d probably betrayed Fulier, too.

Etain could see the distinctive full-face Mandalorian helmet of Ghez Hokan.

The sinister T-shaped slit told her all she needed to know. She raised the lightsaber. Both his hands were resting on his rifle. Perhaps the child—the unseen child—had been a lure, a distraction projected by Jinart.

“Ma’am? Put the weapon down, ma’am—”

“Hokan, this is for Master Fulier,” she hissed, and swung at him.

Hokan leapt back with astonishing reflexes. She didn’t recognize his voice: it was younger, almost accentless. He didn’t even raise his rifle. The monster was playing with her. She spun on the ball of her foot and very nearly took his arm off. Sudden rage constricted her throat. She slashed again but found only air.

“Ma’am, please don’t make me disarm you.”

“Try it,” she said. She beckoned him forward with one hand, lightsaber steady in the other. “You want this? Try me.”

He launched himself at her, hitting her square in the chest and knocking her backward into the river. The child was stillthere. Where? How? And then Hokan was on top of her, holding her under the water with one hand, and she dropped the lightsaber. She fought and choked and thought she was going to drown and she had no idea why she couldn’t fight off an ordinary man with both her fists. She should have been able to muster more physical strength than this human.

He hauled her up out of the water one-handed and dumped her on the riverbank flat on her back, holding both her arms down.

“Ma’am, steady now—”

But she wasn’t finished yet. With an animal grunt she drove her knee up hard between his thighs, as hard as she could, and when she was frightened and desperate and angry that was very hard indeed. She hadn’t known it until now.

Etain gasped as her knee went crack. It hurt. But it didn’t seem to hurt him.

“Ma’am, with respect, please shut up. You’re going to get us both killed.” The sinister mask loomed over her. “I’m not Hokan. I’m not him. If you just calm down I’ll show you.” He loosened his grip slightly and she almost struggled free. Now his tone was bewildered. “Ma’am, stop this, please. I’m going to let go and you’re going to listen to me explain who I am.”

Her breath was coming in gasps and she coughed water. The ever-present child so disoriented her that she stopped trying to dislodge him and let him struggle to his feet.

Etain could see him—it—clearly now. She could see well in the darkness, better than a normal human. She was staring at a huge droid-like creature clad in pale gray armor plates with no face and no markings. And it had a blaster rifle. It– he—held out a hand as if to pull her to her feet.

Well, it wasn’t Ghez Hokan. That was all she could tell. She took his armored hand and got to her feet.

“What in creation’s name are you?” she managed to ask.

“Ma’am, my apologies. I didn’t recognize you at first. This is entirely my fault for failing to identify myself correctly.” He touched black-gloved fingers briefly to bis temple, and she noticed the knuckle plate on the back of the gauntlets. “Commando of the Grand Army CC-one-one-three-six, ma’am. I await your orders, General.”

“General?” Voices coming from things that appeared to have no lips reminded her too much of droids.

He tilted his head slightly. “My apologies. I didn’t see the braid… Commander.”

“And what’s the Grand Army?”

“The Republic’s army, ma’am. Sorry. I should have realized that you’ve been out of contact with Coruscant for a while now, and …”

“Since when did we acquire a Grand Army?”

“About ten years ago.” He gestured to the bushes along the bank. “Shall we discuss this somewhere less public? You’re presenting something of a target to anyone with a night scope. I think even the local militia can manage one of those between them.”

“I dropped my lightsaber in the river.”

“Let me get it, ma’am,” he said. He stepped into the shallow water, and the light on his helmet flicked on. He bent down and fumbled in the illuminated water, then stood up with the hilt in his hand. “Please don’t use it on me again, will you?”

Etain raked her soaking hair back from her face with chilled fingers. She took the lightsaber carefully. “I don’t think I’d have much luck anyway. Look, why are you calling me Commander?”

“Ma’am, Jedi are all officers now. You are a Jedi, aren’t you?”

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

“No offense, ma’am—”

“I’d ask the same question if I were you.” Commander. Commander? “I’m Padawan Etain Tur-Mukan. Master Kast Fulier is dead. It seems you’re the soldier I have to help.” She looked up at him. “What’s your name?”

“Ma’am, Commando CC—”

“Your name. Your real name.”

He hesitated. “Darman,” he said, sounding as if he were embarrassed by it. “We need to get out of here. They’re looking for me.”

“They won’t have much trouble finding you in that outfit,” she said sarcastically.

“The dirt’s rinsed off.” He stood silent for a moment. “Do you have orders for me, ma’am? I have to make RV point Gamma and find the rest of my squad.”

He was talking army gibberish. “When do you have to do that? Now?”

He paused. “Within twelve standard hours.”

“Then we’ve got time. I have plans to show you. Come back with me and let’s work out what we have to do next.” She took the lightsaber from him and gestured with both arms. “I’ll help you carry what I can.”

“It’s heavy, ma’am.”

“I’m a Jedi. I might not be a very competent Jedi, but I am physically strong. Even if you did take me down.”

“A bit of training will fix that, ma’am,” he said, and he eased off that terrible Mandalorian helmet with a faint pop of its seal. “You’re a commander.”

He was a young man, probably in his early twenties, with close-cropped black hair and dark eyes. And despite the hard planes of his face he had a trusting and innocent expression that was so full of confidence that it surprised her. He wasn’t just confident in himself; he exuded confidence in her. “You’re probably just a bit rusty, ma’am. We’ll get you back on form in no time.”

“Are you on form, Darman?” He had overpowered her. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. “How good are you?”

“I’m a commando, ma’am. Bred to be the best. Bred to serve you.”

He wasn’t joking. “How old are you, Darman?”

He didn’t even blink. She could see the hard muscle in his neck. There wasn’t even a hint of fat on his face. He looked extremely fit indeed, upright, a model soldier.

“I’m ten years old, ma’am,” Darman said.

Droids didn’t drink or chase women, and they had no interest in making money on the side. They weren’t real warriors, soldiers with pride and honor, but at least Ghez Hokan could trust that they wouldn’t be found lying in the gutter with an empty bottle the next morning.

And they did look truly magnificent when they marched.

They were marching now, along the wide gravel path that led up to Lik Ankkit’s villa. Hokan walked beside them, then behind them, moving position because he was so fascinated by the absolute precision of their steps, and the complete unvarying conformity of their height and profile. They looked like bricks in a perfect wall, a wall that could never be breached.

Machines could be made to be identical, and that was good. But it was anathema to do that to men—especially Mandalorian men.

The Umbaran lieutenant raised his arm and brought the droid platoon to a halt ten meters from the veranda steps. Lik Ankkit was already standing on the top stair, gazing down at them in his fancy headdress and that di’kutla robe like the weak, decadent grocer he was.

Hokan walked forward, helmet under his arm, and nodded politely.

“Good morning, Hokan,” Ankkit said. “I see you’ve finally made some friends.”

“I’d like to introduce you to them,” Hokan said. “Because you’re going to be seeing a great deal of each other.” He turned to the lieutenant. “Proceed, Cuvin.”

The Umbaran saluted. “Platoon—advance.”

It was all vulgar theatrics, but Hokan had waited a long time for this. It was also necessary. He had to billet some troops near Uthan’s facility for rapid deployment. They would be little use in the base thirty kilometers away.

Ankkit stepped forward as the droids reached the steps. “This is an outrage,” he said. “The Trade Federation will not tolerate—”

The Neimoidian stood aside just as the first rank of paired droids reached the intricately inlaid kuvara door, with its marquetry image of entwined vines.

Hokan wasn’t expecting a display of heroics, and he didn’t get one. “It’s very good of you to allow me to billet my troops here,” he said. “A noble use of all that wasted space. The Separatists are grateful for the personal sacrifice you’ve made to ensure the security of Doctor Uthan’s project.”

Ankkit walked down the steps as fast as his towering headdress and long robe would allow. Even by Neimoidian standards of anxiety, he looked terribly upset. He shook. He stood almost a head taller than Hokan even without the headdress, which was rustling as if some creature had landed in it and was struggling to escape. “I have a contract with Doctor Uthan and her government.”

“And you failed to honor the clause that guaranteed adequate resourcing for security. Doctor Uthan’s notice of penalty should be on its way to your office.”

“I do not take kindly to betrayal.”

“That’s no way to address a commissioned officer of the Separatist forces.”

“An officer!”

“Field commission.” Hokan smiled because he was genuinely happy. “I have no need of you now, Ankkit. Just be grateful you’re alive. By the way, Doctor Uthan’s government has paid a bonus directly to the Trade Federation to ensure I’m allowed to work unhindered. Enemy troops have landed, and this region is now under martial law.”

Ankkit’s slit of a mouth was clamped tight in anger. At least he wasn’t pleading for his life. Hokan would have had to kill him if he had begged. He couldn’t bear whining.

“And I suppose that means you, Hokan,” Ankkit said.

“Major Hokan, please. If you see any of my former employees wandering around, don’t shelter them, will you? Some of them have failed to show up to collect their severance payment. I’d like to handle their outplacement package personally.”

“You’re the paradigm of efficient management for us all,” Ankkit said.

Hokan enjoyed the moment of revenge, then put it aside as the distracting bauble that it was. Ankkit was no threat now; you couldn’t bribe droids. The Umbaran and Aqualish officers now knew what happened to negligent soldiers because they’d carried out his execution orders. Hokan was careful to ensure that everyone was clear on what happened if they left his employment under a cloud.

“And where do I live?” Ankkit asked.

“Oh, plenty of room here,” Hokan replied. There was a loud crash, followed by the tinkle of fragile glass hitting a hard floor. Droids could be so careless. “I’m sure you won’t get in their way.”

He touched his fingers to his helmet and strode off.

There were still a few of his former troops missing. One was his Weequay lieutenant Guta-Nay. He wanted to locate him very badly, as he needed to demonstrate to the new officers that he would happily do his own disciplinary work. It was an image he wanted planted in their heads should Ankkit ever attempt to bribe them.

He walked down the path to the waiting speeder bike. A farmer had found scraps of circuitry on his land and wanted to know if it was worth a bottle of urrqal to reveal the location.

Hokan set off to visit him personally, to show that the information was worth more than that. It was worth a farmer’s life.

RV point Beta should have been a coppice at the top of a shallow escarpment west of Imbraani. When Niner got within visual range of it, there were no trees to be found.

“Coordinates are right, or else this visor is up the creek,” Atin said, tilting his head one way, then the other. “No, position’s accurate. Confirm no trees, though. Shall I deploy a remote to recce?”

“No,” Niner said. “Let’s save them for ordnance. Too conspicuous out here. We’ll have to lay up as close as we can and rely on eyeballing Darman if he shows. Where’s the nearest cover?”

“About one klick east.”

“That’ll have to do.”

Atin looped back, keeping within the trees and retracing their steps to ensure they weren’t being tracked. His armor was now caked with moss, and Niner was glad he wasn’t downwind of him. Whatever he’d crawled through smelled authentically rural. Fi and Niner tabbed on, carrying the extra gear between them, an assortment of entry equipment including three dynamic hammers, a hydraulic ram, and a ratchet attachment for the really difficult doors. They had transferred all the explosive ordnance to their backpacks. If they made hard contact and had to drop the load and hurry out, Niner didn’t fancy being left with a hydraulic ram and ration packs for self-defense. A pile of grenades was far more useful.

“Logging,” Fi said quietly.


“The missing coppice. It’s coming up on autumn. They’ve been out cutting trees for winter since the recce was done.”

“That’s the problem with intel,” Niner said. “Goes stale really fast.”

“Not like exercises.”

“No. It’s not. This is going to be invaluable for training updates when we get back.”

Fi sounded as if he had sighed. That was the funny thing about helmet comlinks. One got used to listening to every nuance of breath and tone and even the different ways his brothers swallowed. They couldn’t see each other’s facial expressions, and had to listen for them. It was probably like being blind. Niner had never known any blind people, but he had heard of a batch of clones whose eyesight wasn’t 20/20 disappearing after their first exercise. Kaminoans were obsessive about quality control.

He might have been bred for selfless obedience, but he wasn’t stupid. The Kaminoan technicians were the only things that truly terrified him, and what he felt when he obeyed their instructions was different than the feelings he had when a Jedi gave him orders. He wondered if Fi and Atin felt the same way.

“You don’t think we’re going to make it, do you, Fi?”

“I’m not afraid to die. Not in combat, anyway.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“It’s just…”

“Ten-meter range, son. No Kaminoans listening.”

“It’s just so inefficient. You said it yourself. You said it was a waste.”

“That was Geonosis.”

“They spend so much time and trouble making us perfect and then they don’t give us what we need to do the job. You remember what Sergeant Kal used to say?”

“He used to swear a lot, I remember that.”

“No, he used to get upset when he’d had a few drinks and say that he could make us better soldiers if we had time to go out and live. Data-rich, experience-poor. That’s what he used to say.”

“He used to slur the words quite a bit, too. And he didn’t like clones.”

“That was all bluster. And you know it.”

Yes, Kal Skirata said awful things about clones, but it never sounded as if he meant them, not to the clones, anyway. He got uj cake from home, no easy feat on secret, sealed Kamino, and shared it with the commando squads he was responsible for training. He called them his Dead Men, his Wet Droids, all kinds of abusive things. But if you caught him off duty in his cabin, he would sometimes fight back tears and make you eat some delicacy smuggled in for him, or encourage you to read one of his illicit texts that wasn’t on the accelerated training curriculum. They were often stories of soldiers who could have done many other things, but chose to fight. Sergeant Kal was especially eager for his Wet Droids to read stuff about a culture called Mandalorian. He admired Jango Fett. “This is who you really are,” he’d say. “Be proud, however much these ugly gray freaks treat you like cattle.”

No, he didn’t like Kaminoans much, did Kal Skirata.

Once he signed up with the Kaminoans, he said, they never let him go home again. But he’d told Niner that he didn’t want to. He couldn’t leave his boys now, not since he knew. “Brief,” he’d say, gesturing with a glass of colorless alcohol, “is never glorious.”

Niner was determined to work out what Kal Skirata had come to understand, and why it upset him so much.

“Nobody has all the answers,” Niner said. “The trouble with getting used to being powerful is that you can forget the small details that’ll bring you down.”

Fi made thatffff sound as if he was about to start laughing. “I know who you’re quoting.”

Niner didn’t even realize he’d said it. It was Sergeant Kal all right. He’d even started using the word son.

He missed him.

Then the comlink warning light in his HUD interrupted his thoughts. Medium range. What was Atin—

“Contact, five hundred meters, dead on your six.” Atin’s voice cut through. “Droids. Ten, one humanoid—confirm ten tinnies, one wet, looks like an officer.” There was a loud blast behind them. “Correction—hard contact.”

Niner knew this by rote and Fi didn’t even exchange words with him. They dropped the gear and darted back the way they had come, rifles up, safetys off, and when they got within fifty meters of Atin’s location they dropped into the prone position to aim.

Atin was pinned down at the foot of a tree. There was one droid slumped on its side with wisps of smoke rising from it, but the others were formed up, laying down covering fire while two advanced in short sprints, zigzagging. Atin was managing to get off the occasional shot. If they’d wanted him dead, they probably had the blaster power to do it.

They wanted Atin alive.

“I can see the wet,” Fi said. He was to Niner’s left, staring down the sniperscope. “Aqualish captain, in fact.”

“Okay. Take him when you’re ready.”

Niner snapped on his grenade launcher and aimed at the line of droids. They were spread, maybe forty meters end-to-end. It might take two rounds to knock them out if they didn’t scatter. Droids were great on battlefields. But they weren’t made for smart stuff, and if their officer was down...


The air expanded instantly with the release of heat and energy. That was what gave plasma bolts their satisfying sound. The Aqualish fell backward, chest plate shattered, and lumps that looked like clods of wet soil but weren’t flew from him and dropped. The droids stopped for a fraction of a second, men carried on their course as if that was the best idea they had.

Fi scrambled away from his position and rolled.

No, they really weren’t good at close-quarters combat, at least not without direction from a wet. But there were always a lot of them, and they could return fire as well as any organic life-form. Three of the seven remaining droids turned their attention to the direction of Fi’s bolt.

The bushes where Fi had been firing exploded in flame. Niner perceived that it was all happening slowly—at heartbeat pace—but it wasn’t, not at all. He aimed and fired, once, twice. The twin explosions almost merged into one. Soil and grass and metal fragments rained down around him. At close range, droids were almost as dangerous when you hit them as when they hit you: they were their own shrapnel.

The firing stopped. Smoke drifted from at least five impact points. Niner could see nothing moving.

“One tinnie intact but immobile,” Fi said.

“Got it,” Niner said. He fired again, just in case.

“Looks sorted out there,” Fi said. He lowered his rifle. “Atin? You okay?”

“Nothing missing that I can’t bolt back on.”

“You’re a laugh a minute,” Niner said, and started to ease up on one arm. It was amazing how he could forget the weight of his pack for the few moments it took to save his life. “Now, how did they—”

“Down!” Atin yelled.

A bolt flew a meter above Niner’s head and he dropped back on his belly. It sounded like two shots. Then there was silence.

“Now it’s sorted,” Atin said. “Someone help me get up, please?”

When Niner managed to get into a kneeling position he could see a thoroughly shattered pile of droid, a bit closer to him than the line. It had been two shots he’d heard: one had been aimed at him and one had come from Atin, to make sure there wasn’t a second.

“Coming, brother,” Niner said.

Atin’s mud-smeared chest plate was a different color now, matte black with streaks radiating from the center. “I can’t breathe properly,” he said, utterly matter-of-fact, in the way badly injured men often were. He gulped in a breath. “My chest hurts.”

Fi propped him up against the trunk of a tree and took his helmet off. There was no blood coming from his mouth: he was bone white, and his raw scar looked dramatic, but he wasn’t bleeding out. His pupils looked okay: he wasn’t in shock. Fi released the gription on his chest plate and eased the armor off.

The bodysuit was intact.

“Sure it’s just your chest?” Fi asked. He didn’t have a tally scan to check Atin’s status. You didn’t start removing armor or embedded objects until you knew what you were dealing with. Sometimes that was all that was holding a man together. Atin nodded. Fi peeled away the section of suit starting at the collar.

“Phwoar,” Fi said. “That’s going to be a monster of a bruise.” There was a livid patch from his sternum to halfway down his chest. “You collecting distinguishing features or something?”

“Hit me square on,” Atin said, panting. “Not a regular round. Armor works though, eh?”

Fi took his helmet off and listened to Atin’s breathing with his ear pressed to his chest.


“Shut up and breathe.”

Atin took shallow breaths, wincing. Fi straightened up and nodded. “Can’t hear any pneumothorax,” he said. “But let’s keep an eye on him. The air trapped inside can build up. Might be fractured ribs, might just be a bad bruise.” He took out a canister of bacta and sprayed the rapidly developing bruise. Atin lifted his arms slightly as if testing them.

Fi sealed the bodysuit and armor back in place.

“I’ll take your pack,” Niner said, and unclipped it. It was the least he could do. “I think we can skip RV Beta now. Let’s leave some souvenirs around there so Darman can spot them if he shows up. You never know if more tinnies will follow. They’re not original thinkers.”

They probably had a few minutes, even if any of the droids had managed to call in to base. Fi sprinted off through the trees with a few pieces of debris to leave them at the RV point. Niner searched the remains of the Aqualish officer and took everything that looked like a key, a data medium, or proof of ID. Then he dragged Atin’s pack behind him on a webbing strap, heading for the place they’d left the entry equipment.

It was going to be a tough slog to RV Gamma, at least until Atin could carry his pack again.

The whole engagement had lasted five minutes and eight seconds, first shot to last, including running time. He had no idea if it had been one second or half an hour. Funny thing, time perception under fire. Niner’s boots crunched over droid shrapnel and he wondered how long a firefight felt to a droid.

“Is that how they see us?” Niner asked. “Ordinary people, that is. Like droids?”

“No,” Atin said. “We don’t have any scrap value.” He laughed and stopped short with a small gasp. It must have hurt him. “I’m going to slow you down.”

“Don’t go gallant on me. You’re coming the rest of the way because I’m not lugging all that gear around with Fi. I want a break sometime.”


“And thanks. I owe you.”

“No. You don’t.”

“Thanks anyway. Want to explain why you’ve been Darman?”

Atin was holding his rifle carefully, a handspan clear of his chest. “I’ve been the last man left standing in two squads now.”

“Oh.” Silence. Niner prompted: “Want to tell me how?”

“First squad tried to rescue me on a live range exercise. I didn’t need rescuing. Not that badly, anyway.”

“Ah.” Niner felt instantly appalled at himself for thinking Atin didn’t care what happened to Darman. He was just caring too much. “My training sergeant said there was something called survivor’s guilt. He also said that in those cases, having you survive was what your squad wanted.” “They bred a lot of stuff out of us. Why not that as well?” Niner stopped dragging Atin’s pack and slung his rifle over his shoulder. He lifted the pack and was glad to carry it. “If they had, I might not be here now,” he said, and knew Darman would be waiting for them tomorrow.

Ghez Hokan surveyed the scrap heap that had been a functioning droid platoon a few hours earlier. Whatever had hit them had hit fast and hard. And—judging by the precisely placed sniper shot and the blast pattern of only two grenades– they had been taken out by experts.

It might have been one man or it might have been a platoon. You typically couldn’t ambush battle droids like that with a handful of men, but that depended entirely on who the men were. It was a shame the captain hadn’t called back with a sitrep as instructed: if he hadn’t been killed, Hokan would have had him shot for disobeying operational procedure. He studied the droid escort lined up neatly by the speeder bikes and wondered if they felt anything when they saw dismantled comrades.

“There’s no sign of a camp, sir.” Lieutenant Cuvin came jogging back from the woods opposite the clearing. It was curious to see the Umbaran’s deathly pallor tinged pink by the exertion. “Some broken branches at knee height and crushed grass from troops firing prone, but I honestly can’t tell how many men we’re dealing with.”

“You can’t tell much, can you, Lieutenant?” Hokan said.

“Sir, I’ll check again.” He was white-faced now, white even for an Umbaran.

“Sir! Sir!” Second Lieutenant Hurati was enthusiastic, no doubt keen to be elevated to Cuvin’s rank. He sprinted to his commander, an attitude Hokan appreciated. “I’ve found the most extraordinary thing.”

“I’m glad one of you has found something. What is it?”

“A pile of droid parts, sir.”

“And this is extraordinary because … ?”

“No, sir, they’re some way from here and they’re sort of arranged, sir.”

Hokan strode off for the speeder. “Show me.”

The trees had been cut down a few days earlier because there was already klol fungus growing on them in a pale-pink mesh. One broad stump—the flattest one, almost like an altar—supported the remains of a droid.

The torn pieces of its trunk were laid flat. The arms were neatly arranged on one side of the thorax and the legs on the other. Part of the faceplate was propped up as if looking skyward.

“That’s how the droid pilot was left, too, sir.” Hurati was a good man. He’d obviously studied the report the militia had filed, however appallingly inadequate its presentation had been. “I think it’s a sign.”

It was a long way to move a dead droid from a battle. There were no drag marks leading to the stump. It was a heavy load to carry on foot; they might even have a transport, although he could see no signs that a repulsorlift had passed over the ground. Hokan stared at the ritually arranged debris and tried to think who would want to send the Separatists a message—and what it might mean.

“It’s a trophy,” Hokan said. “They’re taunting us. They’re showing how easy this is for them.”

That made him angry. He was Mandalorian. Being an easy enemy wasn’t his way. “A curfew, Hurati. Declare a permanent curfew on all powered vehicles until further notice. Anything moving under power is either ours or the enemy. We can track all friendly transports.” He paused. “You have made sure all our vehicles have their own transponders, haven’t you?”

“Yes sir.”

“Why the delay, then?”

“It’s—it’s harvest, sir. How will the farmers get their produce to Teklet for shipping?”

“I imagine they have handcarts,” Hokan said. He swung his leg over the speeder’s saddle. “Ankkit will have to find an alternative means of conveyance for his crops.”

Hokan pondered on the carefully arranged droid debris all the way back to his new headquarters in Ankkit’s villa. He feared that moving into that vulgar Hurt bordello of a house would make him soft and decadent, too, so he set up his office in an outbuilding. He didn’t care for fancy drapery and useless ornaments. It just happened to be convenient for the research facility, and close to his troops.

So who had the Republic sent to target Uthan’s project? They were clearly bold men; first they made sport of an aerial patrol, now a droid platoon and its captain. They seemed to be choosing their targets casually. The clone army must have been terribly important to the Republic’s strategy for these troops to land like this. Where were the conventional armies? Where were the Jedi generals? When would they come?

This was a new kind of war. He could feel it.

He hated not knowing who was out there, preparing to fight him. If he hadn’t known the man was dead, he would have sworn it was Jango Fett himself

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