“I hate this plan.”
“So do I,” Ruk hissed.
“Then why are we doing this?” Pala growled.
“Because it’s our only plan!” he whispered back over his comlink. “Look. Just keep climbing to that maintenance pod and get that kriffing khyber crystal out of the Twisted Mentat’s murder machine. I’ll keep Eman busy!”
“Just because Eman’s got a red-bladed lightsaber doesn’t mean he’s some Sith warrior.” Pala snapped.
“I’d rather plan like he is and stay alive than get mowed down like bantha weed.”
Ruk shifted his weight. The mangled supports under the catwalk moved but didn’t make a sound. He let out a soft sigh of relief then glanced up. Pala had scaled halfway up the test chamber wall. Another few meters she would reach the maintenance pod embedded in the ceiling. It was a miracle the thing survived the initial explosion at all.
Catwalk planks rattled somewhere above and behind Ruk. His eyes flicked over to the sensor display in his helmet. A figure carrying an active plasma energy signature came into unpleasant focus.
“Eman’s heading my way.”
“Going silent,” Pala replied. “Force be with you.”
“And you. Watch out for that mentat. I don’t see her on my sensors.”
The Bothan doctor strolled along the catwalk. Metal grates rattled under each footstep. Eman held his lightsaber down low on his right side with one hand. Barely a low guard. Ruk let out a quiet snort.
“Cocky bastard,” he muttered. “Just a little closer. I’m just part of the busted supports under the catwalk. Ignore any hint of dingy armor. Just keep on walking.”
Eman stopped directly above Ruk’s hiding spot underneath the catwalk.
The clone scowled.
“Ruk? I know you’re here,” Eman said casually. “You’re close by, I can feel it. Look, perhaps I came off a bit rash before. The Sith and Mandalorians have worked together in the past. I know, I know, you haven’t taken the Oath so you’re not a True Mandalorian. But I’ve worked with you long enough, I consider you a True Mandalorian. Also, my business partners are rather open-minded. They’d easily agree to this arrangement.”
The man paced back and forth on the catwalk plate. Below, Ruk clenched his jaw until it almost hurt. Slowly, he eased one leg until he had the bottom of his boot braced against one corner of the catwalk. The grate didn’t rattle, but shifted ever so slightly.
Ruk didn’t reply. Everything in him desperately wanted to, but he knew better. Sith could be fantastic warriors. But the most dangerous Sith were the ones who had a way with words. Eman, in Ruk’s own opinion, had every sign of being a Sith. Right down to the sickly, almost glowing, bloodshot yellow eyes. Bothans didn’t have yellow eyes.
Eman waved his free hand while he continued his leisurely stroll to the far side of the catwalk plate.
“Weapons are part of a Mandalorian’s religion, yes? Think of it. A new weapon of this magnitude! A hyperspace rift torpedo! Just the threat of using this will stop wars!”
Anger boiled over as Ruk kicked up against the corner of the grate with both feet. Metal weak from the explosion gave under the assault. Bolts snapped free with a pop and the catwalk grate edge above Ruk sailed upward. The side under Eman dropped out from under him. Ruk scrambled up onto the catwalk to the sound of a Bothan yowl of surprise and anger. The clone spun to face the Sith doctor.
The ruse had almost worked.
Once the grate dropped away, Eman started his plunge toward a pile of jagged metal wreckage five meters down. However, the Sith grabbed the stable portion of the catwalk and pulled himself to safety. Already the loose catwalk grating, now supported by just a single warped metal beam across its middle, rotated back in Ruk’s direction.
The doctor’s lightsaber had gone out in the brief exchange. That meant it had a “dead man’s switch”. Ruk filed that bit away, but that didn’t help to disarm the Sith. The clone looked around for what he could use.
He looked at the rotating, two meter square grate. A desperate plan bloomed. It would have to do.
Once the grating fell even with the rest of the catwalk, Ruk jumped onto the nearest side. The edge rocketed down from the impact and he dropped like a rock from orbit. Two meters away, Eman was already turning around, shaking his head to get his bearings.
When the square grate was mid-chest, Ruk grabbed the edge. It wasn’t much of a handhold, but he held on with all he was worth. The initial impact, along with Ruk’s bodyweight that included armor, propelled the grate at high speed. The last metal brace screamed at the abuse, warning Eman to the danger. The Sith turned, igniting his lightsaber.
The Bothan was a second too late.
Using momentum, acrobatic skill, and a silent prayer to the Force, Ruk swung like an acrobat on a trapeze. He soared upward as Eman spun around in time for Ruk to take two hard boot-heels to the snout. The Sith flew backwards from the impact.
More important to Ruk, the Sith’s lightsaber flew up out of Eman’s grip. Keeping a desperate grip on the makeshift trapeze as it pinwheeled around, Ruk reached out for the weapon.
But the universe had other plans.
The last abused metal support for the grate snapped just as Ruk’s fingers touched the weapon. Ruk and the grate fell in one direction, the lightsaber in the other.
Ruk twisted in mid-air and crashed into the intact catwalk opposite from the one Eman was on. The armor took the brunt of the blow, but Ruk still grunted as the air was almost knocked out of him. He scrambled onto the catwalk and rolled into a kneeling crouch.
Eman, blood oozing from his snout with searing rage in his eyes, came to a crouch at the same time. He stabbed a hand out toward his lightsaber. The weapon immediately reacted, flying toward its master.
It only made it halfway. The whipcord line from Ruk’s gauntlet froze the lightsaber in mid-flight.
Eman scowled and tensed, hand shaking. Ruk felt the intense pull on the weapon through his whipcord. It was like trying to hold a leash on a determined bantha. Ruk flexed his right arm, pulling back. The gauntlet groaned at the abuse. Suspended between the two men, the lightsaber rattled.
“Stop wars?” Ruk growled through clenched teeth. “Didn’t one of you Sith di’kuts say that about the Death Star? Look what happened there!”
“That was Darth Sidious’ mistake. I don’t plan to repeat it.”
Eman let out a low growl. Was blood oozing faster from the Bothan’s snout? Ruk couldn’t tell. Almost all his attention was on this deadly tug of war, that he was losing. The lightsaber was creeping toward the Sith a centimeter at a time. A part of Ruk’s mind wished he had installed a flamecaster in his gauntlet.
“How long?” Ruk snarled. “You had to have known about all this. That all these people that worked here would die. How long have you been planning this?”
“The Consortium set this up well before your ‘Null Force’ organization has existed. All I had to do was play along with the simpletons and this ‘investigation’ into the cause of the ‘tragedy’. Then use the Tleilaxian’s data bursts to ‘reveal’ there was a ‘survivor’ that needed rescue.”
“That data burst I saw!”
The surprise cost him precious centimeters. Eman and his use of the Force dragged the clone across the grate toward the pit. Ruk quickly recovered and slammed a boot heel against a small, twisted edge on his side of the bent catwalk.
“Oh yes, the Consortium and the Sith know all about the little brain child of Vorboccioini, Vorkosigan and Princess Katianna.”
Ruk fought down the panic that Null Force, a covert operations group, might not be so ‘covert’.
“The ‘Consortium’? You can’t be serious about that name?”
“Ruk! Listen. To. Me,” Eman snarled. “All I need is the mentat and the khyber crystal. Between what the crystal has probably recorded by now like a holocron and that Tleilaxian mentat, I can reverse the process to make all the hyperspace rift torpedoes I need. Just walk away, Ruk. Take Pala with you. Just walk away. I’ll even let you have my lightsaber as a memento.”
“Get burnt!” Ruk snarled.
Eman dropped his outstretched hand. The whipcord instantly snapped back in Ruk’s direction, shooting the lightsaber at him like a missile. He dodged to one side right as proximity alarms in his helmet screamed about an incoming energy wave.
Muscles burned from the exertion as Ruk turned sideways. Blue-white lightning slammed into the metal catwalk, then grazed his right leg. Ruk gasped and bit down a scream, dropp to one knee, panting. Eman’s laugh was ugly.
“Felt good? I’ve more where that came from.”
The comlink crackled in Ruk’s ear.
“Ruk? I got it!”
Ruk laughed. Startled, Eman took an involuntary step back which allowed Ruk to get to his feet and withdraw the whipcord. The clone hooked the lightsaber to his utility belt.
“Sorry Eman, you’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
He jerked his thumb over shoulder as the nightmarish rift between realities sputtered then spiraled closed with an unpleasant sucking sound.
“We’ve got your crystal.”
A shriek of metal behind Eman split the air. Ruk looked past Eman as the Bothan whirled around to face the sound.
Dr. Halron Cote emerged from a doorway behind Eman. The thin human looked between Ruk and Eman, frowning with confusion.
“Ruk? Dr. Griqat? Ruk I got parts of your text. What’s wrong?”
Eman sneered at Ruk, stabbing a hand out and unleashing a blue-white bolt of Force lightning at Halron.