You know what makes you especially effective? It’s not just that you’re genetically superior and intensively trained. And it’s not just because you obey orders without question. It’s because you’re all prepared to shoot to kill, only one percent of civilians are prepared to kill, and less than a quarter of ordinary human soldiers, even under fire.
–Sergeant Kal Skirata, from his opening lecture to commandos on military psychology
The droid fired a volley of bolts at the sealed alloy doors until they glowed red. And still nothing happened.
The droid appeared not to hear.
Dr. Ovolot Qail Uthan ran down the flight of steps, red and black strands of hair streaming out behind her. She was wearing a voluminous dark blue nightgown; it looked as expensive as her day wear. Hokan saluted her politely and went on watching the droid’s progress.
“Have you gone mad?” Uthan whispered fiercely. She didn’t strike Hokan as the sort of woman who would need to raise her voice to make her point. “There’s a biohazard behind that door.”
“I know,” Hokan said. “Just testing. It’s all holding up well indeed. Excellent safety bulkheads.”
Uthan took a discreet but deep breath and glanced briefly at the backs of her hands. “This facility has been built and tested to the highest containment standards, Major. You needn’t worry.”
“But I do, Doctor.” He watched the droid patiently wasting bolt after bolt on the door for a while. It paused to swap power packs. “Stop.”
It stopped. Hokan took out the lightsaber he had taken from Kast Fulier and ran its pure blue light down the seam between the two doors. Smoke curled up from the surface, but no breach appeared. It would take even a Jedi a long time to cut through this plating.
“Forgive my insistence, but could this not wait until the morning?” Uthan asked. “I’m working around the chrono as it is to weaponize this agent. I even sleep here. I would prefer to be doing that right now.”
“My apologies, Doctor, but we might not have the luxury of time.”
“What’s time got to do with it?”
“I think I need to relocate you.”
Uthan had a way of lowering her head slightly, then straightening up as if she were a krayt dragon. It was most impressive. “This is a high-risk biohazard facility. It can’t be relocated like some tent.”
“I appreciate the inconvenience involved. I still believe it would be safer if you were to pack up your materials and staff and move elsewhere.”
“Why? You have the security situation under control.”
“I have it more under control than I did, that’s true, but enemy troops have landed. I don’t know their numbers, and I don’t know what materiel and armaments they have at their disposal. All I know—all I think I know—is that this is what they’ve come for.”
“This is a fortress. You have a hundred droids at your disposal. Let them come. You can repel them.”
“All fortresses can be breached in time. I could give you a list of circumstances under which someone who’s very resourceful could get past these doors, but I want you to trust my judgment and accept what I say. Let’s move you and your work to somewhere less obvious until I have a more accurate assessment of the threat.”
Uthan looked completely impassive, staring slightly past Hokan as if she was calculating something.
“I can remove the biomaterials and my staff,” she said at last. “The equipment can be replaced if needed. I won’t be able to continue working without a safe laboratory environment, of course, but if you believe the project is at risk, then idle time is a better option than wasting three months’ work.”
What a splendidly sensible woman she was, almost Mandalorian in her discipline and dedication. Hokan ushered the droid out. “How long?” he asked.
“Six hours, perhaps.”
“Is this material that dangerous?”
She tilted her head slightly. “Only if you’re a clone. If you’re not, it might simply make you unwell.”
“It must be strange to fight with weapons you can’t see.”
“War is about technology,” she said.
Hokan smiled politely and walked back out into the courtyard to stand in the dim light from the doorway. There was the first hint of chill on the night air; winter was coming, and the landscape would be much easier to patrol when the leaves had fallen. When the snows came, it would be even easier. But he suspected that this conflict was going to be a rapid one. Intelligence reports were starting to come in that the Republic was now fighting on hundreds of different fronts. Hundreds.
Their new army would have to be millions strong to achieve that dispersal. So they were all clones. Sad travesties of the great Jango Fett.
Well, he knew one thing. The Republic wouldn’t be sending clones to deal with this particular problem. They had to know the Separatists already had the one weapon that could stop them in their tracks. And this kind of operation was beyond the capacity of the docile infantry clones Uthan had described. This was not a game of numbers.
Hokan replaced his helmet and started visualizing the research facility as a trap. So they wanted to come and take a look, did they? He’d make them welcome.
“Droids, form up. Two ranks across this entrance.”
The droids moved as one, even in the darkness, and Hokan again admired their precision. Now they were a road sign pointing the way to the target, confirming what the Republic thought it knew. But they’d be wrong. They’d be sending their best men to a decoy.
War is about technology.
“No,” Hokan said aloud. The droids snapped to attention. “War isn’t even about firepower.” He tapped his temple. “It’s about applying your brains.” Then he touched his chest. “And it’s about courage.”
He didn’t expect the droids to understand that. Clones probably didn’t understand it, either.
The straw stank of something awful, but Darman was too exhausted to care. It looked like it might be soft enough to sink into. That was good enough for him.
But first he walked around the walls of the barn and checked for an exit if he needed one in an emergency. There were several loose boards in one wall that would do fine. The rickety building looked as if he could actually punch an escape hole through any fragile plank he chose.
Reassured, he dropped everything he was carrying and tried to sit on the bales, but it turned into more of an uncontrolled slump. He didn’t even take his helmet off. He sat back and let out a breath.
The Padawan commander leaned over him. “Are you all right, Darman?” She held her hand out, palm down over him, as if she was going to touch him but didn’t.
“I’m fit to fight, Commander.” He started to sit up, and she held her hand in a slightly different gesture that clearly meant Stay where you are.
“I didn’t ask that,” she said. “I can feel you’re in some distress. Tell me.”
It was an order. It came from a Jedi. “I injured my leg when I landed. Apart from that I’m just tired and a bit hungry.” Bit hungry? He was ravenous. “Nothing at all, Commander.”
“I free-fell from a vessel.”
“With all that equipment?”
“You astound me.” He couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. “Two things, though. Please don’t call me Padawan or Commander–I don’t want to be recognized as a Jedi. And I’d rather be called Etain than ma’am.” She paused, no doubt thinking of some other failure on his part. “And please take your helmet off. It’s rather disturbing.”
So far Darman had met three Jedi and they all seemed to find him distracting in some way, with or without his helmet. All his life he had been taught that he and his brothers were created for the Jedi, to help them fight their enemies; he’d expected some recognition of that bond, or at least an expression of satisfaction. He removed his helmet and sat feeling confused, torn between the absolute clarity of his military expertise, and the confusion of dealing with the civilian world he had been thrust into for the first time.
The Padawan—no, Etain, she’d made her orders clear—took a small sphere out of her cloak and opened it in both hands. Layer after layer of holographic images spilled out of it, stacking neatly like plates.
“Plans,” she said. Her voice had changed completely. She radiated relief. “Plans of all the Separatist and Neimoidian buildings in this region. Floor plans, utility layouts, wiring diagrams, drainage, ducts, specifics on materials used—every detail of how the contractors built them. This is what you need, isn’t it? What you are looking for?”
Darman wasn’t tired anymore. He reached out and broke the beam of the projection, flipping a plan vertically so he could read it. He looked through them all and heard himself let out an involuntary breath.
Etain was right. It was nearly every bit of intelligence they needed, apart from more fluid details such as personnel numbers and routines. With these plans they knew how to cut power to the buildings, where to insert nerve agents into air ducts or water supplies, and exactly what they would see and where they would have to go when they gained entry. The plans showed the construction of walls, doors, bulkheads, and windows, so they knew precisely what size of charge or type of ram would be needed to breach them. This was a set of clear instructions for achieving their objective.
But Etain didn’t seem to know that objective. “What are you going to do with this?” she asked.
“We’ve come to abduct Ovolot Qail Uthan and destroy her research facility,” Darman said. “She’s developing a nanovirus intended to kill clones.”
Etain leaned closer. “Clones?”
“I’m a clone. The whole Grand Army is composed of clones, millions of us, all commanded by Jedi generals.”
Her face was a study in blank surprise. It was also fascinating in a way he couldn’t define. He had never seen a human female this close, this real. He was astonished by the dappling of small brown dots across the bridge of her nose and her cheeks, and the different strands of colors in her long, unkempt hair—light browns, golds, even reds. And she was as thin as the locals. He could see blue veins in the backs of her hands, and she smelled different from anyone he’d ever shared space with. He wasn’t sure if she was pretty or downright ugly. He just knew she was utterly alien and utterly fascinating, as alien as a gdan or a Gurlanin. It was almost stopping him from concentrating on the job.
“All like you?” she said at last, blinking rapidly. She seemed unsettled by his scrutiny. “What have I said?”
“No ma’am—sorry, Etain. I’m a commando. We’re trained differently. Some people say… that we’re eccentric. I realize you haven’t received much by way of intelligence.”
“All I knew—all my Master would tell me—was that Uthan was here and that the plans were critical to the Republic’s safety. Clones didn’t come into the conversation.” She was staring at him just as Jusik had. “There’s an old woman who told me you were coming, but she didn’t tell me much else. How many of there are you on Qiilura now?”
“Four? You said there were millions of you! What use is four going to be?”
“We’re commandos. Special forces. You understand that term?”
“Obviously not. How are four ten-year-olds going to storm Uthan’s complex?”
It took him a few moments to realize she was being sarcastic. “We fight differently.”
“You’re going to have to be very different indeed, Darman.” She looked absolutely crushed, as if he’d let her down simply by showing up. “Are you really ten years old?”
“Yes. Our growth is accelerated.”
“How can we possibly train competent soldiers in that time?”
“It’s very intensive training.” He was finding it hard not to say ma’am each time. “They created us from the best genetic stock. From Jango Fett.”
Etain raised her eyebrows, but said nothing else. Then she stood up, reached for a basket balanced on a low beam, and handed it to him. It was full of odd round items that smelled edible, but he thought he’d check anyway.
“Is this food?”
“Yes. The local bread and some sort of steamed cake. Nothing exciting, but it’ll fill you up.”
Darman bit into a lump that yielded slightly in his fingers. It was glorious. It was strongly flavored and chewy and among the most satisfying meals he had ever eaten: not quite on the scale of uj cake, but so far from the odorless, tasteless, textureless field rations that it might well have been.
Etain watched him carefully. “You must be starving.”
“That doesn’t say much for army food.”
Darman reached into his belt and pulled out a dry ration cube. “Try this.”
She sniffed it and bit into it. The expression of vague disbelief on her face changed slowly into one of revulsion. “It’s appalling. There’s nothing in it.”
“It’s the perfect nutritional profile for our requirements. It has no smell, so the enemy can’t detect it, and no fiber, so we excrete minimal waste products that would enable us to be tracked, and—”
“I get the idea. Is that how they treat you? Like farm animals?”
“We don’t go hungry.”
“What do you like doing?”
He really didn’t know what answer she was after. “I’m a good shot. I like the DC-seventeen—”
“I meant in your free time. Do you get free time?”
“No family, of course,” she said.
“Yes, I’ve got squad brothers.”
“I meant—” She checked herself. “No, I understand.” She pushed the basket of bread closer to him. “My life hasn’t been that much different from yours, except the food was better. Go on. You can finish the whole lot if you want.”
And he did. He tried not to watch while Etain wrung water from her robe and shook out her boots. She made him feel uncomfortable but he didn’t know why, apart from the fact that she wasn’t quite the Jedi commander he had been so thoroughly trained to expect.
The only females he could recall were Kaminoan medical technicians whose quietly impersonal tones intimidated him more than a yelling drill sergeant. And his platoon had once experienced an unpleasantly memorable lecture in encryption techniques from a female Sullustan.
He feared females. Now he feared his Jedi officer and was also agitated by her in a way that he didn’t even have a word for. It didn’t feel acceptable.
“We need to move on,” he said. “I have to make the RV point. I’ve been out of comm contact with my squad for nearly two days, and I don’t even know if they’re alive.”
“This gets worse by the second,” she said wearily. “First we have four. Now we might be down to one.”
“Two. Unless you have other duties.”
“You’ve seen me fight.”
“You’re a Jedi. A commander.”
“That’s a title, not an assessment of my ability. I’m not exactly the best of the best.”
“You must be. I know what Jedi can do. Nobody can defeat you as long as you have the Force.”
She gave him a very odd smile and picked up the holo-chart sphere. She seemed to be struggling to find her thread again. She swallowed a few times. “Show me where your RV point is—that’s right, isn’t it? RV? Show me where it is on this chart.”
Darman took out his datapad and linked his mission charts with the image projected from the sphere. He pointed to the coordinates.
“It’s here,” he said. “Before we set out on exercises or missions, we agree where we’ll meet up if anything goes wrong. We had to bail out when our transport crashed, so we’re scattered, and the procedure is that we go to an RV point for a set time window.”
He zoomed in on the area northwest of Imbraani. Etain tilted her head to follow.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Primary target. Uthan’s facility.”
“No, it’s not.”
“No, that’s the Separatist base. Their garrison.” Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the chart. She pointed. “This group of buildings is the facility. You can see. Look.” She superimposed the floor plans of the facility with the layout of the farm buildings and shrank the image to fit. They lined up perfectly.
Darman’s stomach knotted. “My squad will be heading for the Separatists, then.”
“We’d better make sure we intercept them,” Etain said. “Or they’ll run smack-bang into a hundred droids.”
Darman was suddenly on his feet in one move, even before he’d realized that he’d heard someone coming.
“I don’t think so,” a woman’s voice said. “Because the droids are all heading for Imbraani.”
Darman’s sidearm was out of his belt and aimed before Etain could even turn her head.