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
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
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,
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
And then there were times when a soldier just had to take
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
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 lumi-
nous 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 spotlamp
illuminated the dim interior and picked out four terri-
fied 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
"I'm a soldier of the Republic. I need information,
"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 sociopathic 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
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 ge