Chapter 2

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The trip back to base camp was a blur. Blue-gray desert sand and orange alkali dust-devils flashed by outside the landspeeder. Pala drove, hugging the hills and crater edges with the skill of an expert pod-racer. The landspeeder held up to her piloting.

Her nerve-chewing pace didn’t bother Ruk, he’d ridden with worse. Clone pilots, in his opinion, had a death wish when operating anything from landspeeders to starfighters. Pala at least had a sense of self-preservation. Also, the harsh, desolate view of the desert landscape made it easier for him to think.

A survivor inside a broken down lab that was soaked in cronau radiation? It wasn’t impossible, just highly unlikely. Still, his Advanced Recon Clone armor was hardened against radiation. Pala’s armor was too, since hers was based on his. The rest of the team? Ruk frowned. They needed to find a way past that radiation to reach the survivor.

Hopefully, this wasn’t a ghost signal from a Protian Enterprise employee already long dead.

Ten minutes later, in the base camp’s conference room, he got his answers. Ruk, as did the rest of the team leads like Pala, studied the 3D projection of the Protian lab complex. It was a glowing blue picture hovering over a holotable.

“The signal’s genuine and the survivor is here.” Mira Vorwan tapped a section of a ghostly blueprint over the table’s surface. “It’s mid-building, right at the computer core for the prototype testing chamber. The survivor’s name is Rhia Oannes. Human. She’s one of Protian’s researchers.”

Eman Griqat, a Bothan and the team’s medic, stroked his goatee while studying the location Mira indicated. His long, furry snout seemed even longer as he tilted his head towards his chest. After a few seconds, he withdrew a datapad from the inner pocket of his saffron field vest, tapping out a quick calculation.

“It’s a safe enough spot,” he said, though his tone held a faint note of uncertainty. “Given the radiation dispersal pattern around the building, it’s even possible that the blast tore out and around that room.”

Mira scowled at the blueprint. Occasionally she reached out, slowly turning the hologram to view it from a different angle. Ruk realized she was reading the sensor scans on the materials around the computer core.

“Its got the most shielding. Also, a room like that in a small outpost has the most structural integrity.”

She put her hands on her hips, looking past the hologram at everyone in the room. The short woman’s dark eyes focused onto each person there like a target lock, expecting an answer. While she wore the gray coveralls of a mechanic, her bearing suited a Tapani military commander. Ruk wasn’t surprised.

The lady was a human from House Vorwan, a ‘sept’ or branch of House Vorpelagia. Ruk hadn’t met many from House Vorwan but the few he had all shared the same traits as their ancestor house of Vorpelagia. Quick-witted, with a durasteel-hard willpower, members of House Vorwan were a force to be reckoned with all on their own. Ruk was glad he was on her side.

“Well, then we use the hard suits,” Halron Cote replied with all the warmth of a bored professor explaining a topic to what he considered a dim student.

Mira folded her arms over her chest. Halron suddenly earned her full attention. It took the tall, thin human only a second before he fidgeted, realizing his mistake. He ran a hand through his wispy blonde hair.

“Look, that’s the proper process here. That’s why they’re even along.”

Mira didn’t blink.

“Using those hard suits is a bit complicated at the moment. We’re short a few.”

“What?” Halron exclaimed. “I requisitioned the correct amount based on potential computer models and the recommended procedures for a ground-based investigation into a radiation affected area.”

For Ruk this was like watching a game of Hutt ball. Only he was wondering if Halron was about to be the ball. Mira didn’t roll her eyes, but her posture hadn’t relaxed yet. She cleared her throat.

“Computer models don’t account for mynocks chewing through parts of the hard suits to get at the transport’s power cables. Outside of Ruk and Pala’s armor, we’ve got maybe two functional hard suits.”

Halron Cote’s mouth shot open and his voice rose at least a half-octave.

“What? That’s intolerable!” Cote sputtered a moment, then gathered his thoughts. “All right. Well. The subsequent procedures indicate we use droids to navigate the area. So, in our case, droids or Ruk since he’s a clone.”

Shouts started at once, and it was hard to tell if Mira was holding back Pala from assaulting Halron or the other way around. It took the search and rescue’s shuttle flight crew to separate the team leaders. Ruk had heard Cote’s insulting comment but chose to ignore it. The mission parameters had changed, so for him ‘procedure’ was out the window. There was a life on the line. They needed to get that researcher to safety.

Eman stepped closer to Ruk.

“Halron may be one of the most brilliant minds this side of the Tapani Sector, but he’s still a gigantic bantha’s ass.”

Ruk waved a hand at the medic.

“I know. His comments set me off a little, but I’m learning to ignore him.”

The Bothan’s chuckle rumbled in his chest.

“Very ‘Jedi’ of you.”

Ruk snorted.

“I’ve worked with a couple. After a while, they rub off on you in a good way.”

“If you say so. Now, about this situation here. What are you thinking?” Eman asked.

Ruk pointed at digital representations of energy signatures splayed over the holographic building. Then he folded his arms over his chest. Energy readings and numbers from automated sensors scans of the lab changed on the hologram every few seconds.

“I missed this before. Seeing the up to the minute sensor scans like this helps. Watch the cronau radiation around the building.”

Eman leaned in closer to the hologram.

“Is that… flowing? Like water?”

Ruk nodded.

“It is. I’ve only got a guess but I think it’s reacting with the planet’s gravity, making it flow like a miniature interplanetary hyperspace lane.”

The doctor frowned.

“An IHL? Isn’t that the gravitational paths through a solar system that pilots tend to follow? I’ve heard some talk about it.”

“The very same,” Ruk replied. “But this is in miniature. Science discovery aside, I’m thinking we can work with this.”

Eman watched the representation of cronau radiation ebb and flow around the building. After a few seconds, he nodded.

“You think we can time it to get in, then out, based on when the field’s flow is at its weakest.”

Ruk grinned at the doctor.

“That and maybe alter its course. Back in the Clone Wars, we used a thing called a ‘grav-mine’. They would get tossed out to block hyperspace routes from being used or on planets to wreck installations. A single grav-mine should divert the energy flow long enough for a team to move in to get the survivor. I doubt the effect will last long, so the team heading in will need to work fast. The good thing is, we should have the parts here to cobble together a grav-mine. All we need is one for a lab that size.”

The Bothan’s frown deepened. He tugged on his goatee again.

“That word ‘mine’ usually implies ‘explode’.”

Ruk’s grin didn’t diminish.

“It does. But only if a detonator is wired in. Without that, it's an itty bitty grav generator… temporarily.”

Eman shook his head.

“Mad. So mad, and yet so clever. This is just… I don’t think I’ve got the right words for this.”

“Insanity is a good word,” Halron Cote snapped.

Ruk had been so intent on the hologram and his idea that he had missed the end of the argument behind him. Glancing back, he saw that the others were watching the hologram of the lab. From their expressions, he could tell they had heard his conversation with Eman. Halron also sported a new bruise on his right eye. Pala was massaging the knuckles of her right hand, and Mira looked all too pleased with herself. Ruk decided the less he knew, the better.

“Just insane,” Halron continued. “Grav mines are too risky. They aren’t used because of how unstable they are. It’s in the records on that technology. If a stray sensor scan hits one just right, it might go off anyway.”

Mira shrugged, folding her arms over her chest. “So we add a dampener. I’ve blueprints for grav field generators. A grav-mine would be nearly the same thing, only smaller and more portable.”

Pala’teska studied the hologram, purposefully putting her back to Halron, who flinched when she moved.

“If the cronau radiation is moving like a real IHL in a solar system, then I could plot an astrogation course to ‘predict’ the path that radiation is taking. That should help find the right spot to set up the mine.”

Halron’s eyes bulged.

“All of you,” he sputtered, ”are just insane! This isn’t the correct procedure for…”

The man’s objections cut off abruptly when Pala spun to face him. Halron turned pale, spine stiffened. To his credit, he didn’t back away.

Ruk sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose before turning to face Halron.

“Halron, look. There isn’t a procedure for this. Hyperspace transit on a planet surface? We’re way off the charts on this one. So we need to improvise. If Pala gets a course plotted, then a grav-mine is set up, a small team can get in and back out. But that team will have to be moving as the survivor won’t last long in there. Eman?”

The Bothan glanced over at the cronau radiation flow and studied the numbers.

“Assuming the survivor is still alive, an hour and a half. Not much longer than that.”

Ruk watched the group. The mix of personalities and discipline in the lot was unorthodox, but so was the plan. Somehow, he had a good feeling about it all.

“Then let’s get to work. ARC armor has the best protection built in against radiation exposure, so I’ll lead the team inside.”

“I’ll go with you,” Pala added. “My armor is based on yours.”

Ruk nodded his agreement before he spoke up again.

“That’s two. Anyone else, be at the vehicle bay in ten. I’ll need two more. A team of four should be the right size.” He put his hands on his hips. “So, the chrono’s ticking. Let’s get moving.”

While the meeting broke up, Eman watched Ruk for a long moment.

“So, how’s it feel being commander of the search and rescue effort?”

Ruk snorted.

“Uncomfortable. I was sent to provide help and support, not lead.”

The Bothan shrugged, slipping his hands into his vest pockets.

“We needed direction and motivation, you provided it. Looks like ‘support’ to me.” He paused, then said. “I’d like to volunteer for that team.”

Ruk raised his eyebrows.

“You? Shouldn’t you be out here prepping the medbay for this Rhia Oannes?”

The doctor shook his head.

“I should, but we don’t know how bad off she is in there. For all we know, she’s got broken limbs or plasma burns we don’t know about. That requires me to send my most skilled medic to get her stabilized before trying to move her. Which means me.” He shrugged. “The rest of my med team can have things ready.” Eman hesitated before adding, “Ruk, be honest. Will this work?”

Ruk turned to look at the holographic building floating over the display table.

“It has to.”

Eman patted Ruk on the shoulder, then departed.

Ruk turned away from the hologram when he heard a soft chime. Spinning back around, he thought the sensor scans had changed to show a new electromagnetic signature cut across the area. Returning to the table, Ruk tapped the controls, fine tuning the feed coming in from around the Protian Enterprises’ complex. However, there was nothing.

The clone rubbed his eyes.

“Just a ghost signal, not a data feed from inside the lab. The stress is just getting to me.”

He turned away, leaving the room to collect his ARC armor.


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