Later, inside the Protian Enterprise lab, Ruk scouted ahead of the others. He moved fast, trying not to waste even a single step. Thirty meters after entering the building, Ruk reached a junction between two hallways that bisected that half of the building.
Amber emergency lighting filled the hallway, casting a dull tint across the blue trim of his ARC armor. The walls were littered with spider web-like cracks, jagged rents that ran haphazardly along the wall. Each a monument to a stress fracture in the building itself. The entire complex was slowly surrendering to the planet’s gravity.
The situation brought back memories of raids on Separatist forces during the Clone Wars. Rushing into a shattered droid factory to gain either ground or valuable intelligence on Separatist activities. Other times it was to rescue innocents caught in the middle of a brutal war. Ruk blinked, pushing aside the visions.
He squatted down and glanced back at the others. Pala, now wearing her white ARC armor with red trim and the stylized image of a Monastery sabercat’s fanged head painted prominently across her helmet, hurried up to join him. Ruk’s helmet chimed as she opened a private communication channel with him.
“I cannot believe you let him come along. You could’ve managed the grav-mine,” she said.
Ruk shook his head.
“No. I know how they work and I can turn them on. Also, I can field repair one. But make one out of spare parts? Halron’s skills are better suited to that. Besides, this is his way of forging a new process that others have to follow. He’ll make sure that thing stays on, even if it kills him.”
“Crafty,” she said.
“Diplomatic,” he replied with a chuckle.
“From a certain point of view,” Pala countered.
Ruk swapped over to the team channel.
“According to Pala’s calculations, this is as far as we go. Halron, how’s our grav-mine? Eman? How’s our timer?”
“Mine coming online now,” Halron reported.
“One hour and fifty minutes left,” the Bothan replied. “Past that, Ms Oannes might start suffering cell degradation.”
“Degradation?” Mira echoed over the team's communications from back at base camp.
“It’s… a theory,” the doctor replied, hurrying down the corridor toward Pala and Ruk. “There have been a few rare cases of living beings exposed to cronau radiation without protection. This type of radiation doesn’t burn you. It attempts to force you across from realspace to hyperspace at the cellular level. Think of it as being forced into changing from a solid to energy a little at a time, but there’s no drive system to manage the shift. Medical people called it being ‘glitched’. It doesn’t always happen though, which is promising. Unfortunately, no one has figured out why it doesn’t always happen.”
There was a long silence over the team comlink channel.
Ruk had read those medical reports as part of his work when he studied for his doctorial. What Eman had said was true. However, the doctor had sugar-coated the effect in his explanation. The details about 'glitching’ weren’t for the faint of heart. He cleared his throat.
“Good to know the details, doctor.”
Pala’teska tapped Ruk on the shoulder plate of his armor.
“Cronau flow shift in thirty seconds. Halron, how’s the grav-mine?”
There was a slight struggle of static before Halron answered, as if he was fidgeting with his suit’s comlink. They had left Halron back where the team had entered the broken laboratory. Based on Pala’teska’s calculations of the cronau flow, that was the ideal location to activate the gravity field to alter the radiation’s path.
“Operating well within safety parameters. Ready to activate.”
Ruk glanced at the chronometer on his gauntlet, then back to the eerie bands of feathery white clouds of fog floating in the air in the corridor ahead of them, cutting off their route forward.
“Activating,” Halron replied.
At first nothing happened. Then the thin energy clouds moved, shifting into swirls as gravitational waves met cronau radiation.
“Goddess keep us safe,” Pala muttered. The rest of what she said was a short, Twi’lek prayer for safe passage.
The entire flow of energy in the hallway glittered with a cobalt blue inner light. It emanated from inside the cronau field, bathing the corridors until the sparse emergency lighting was all but drowned out. Then, the radiation fog abruptly dissolved until all that remained was thin, thread-like ghostly strands that wandered the ceiling.
“It’s gone.” Eman’s voice was soft, as if in awe of what he just witnessed. “I thought the grav-mine would bend the floor or make a tunnel. Not dissolve the radiation fog.”
Ruk studied the sensor readings coming in across his helmet. He shook his head.
“Not gone. Moved. It’ll all be temporarily diverted. Turn the mine off, it’ll come right back.”
“Like dumping rocks in a river,” Pala said, staring at the mist ribbons wriggling along the ceiling. “So long as the rocks are there, the river changes course.”
Ruk slowly waved the palm of his right hand at the intersection of the two corridors. The scan results streamed across his helmet’s holoscreen.
“Structural damage from the explosion and exposure to the radiation flow. But it’s holding for now,” he explained. “Let’s move.”
Eman checked the building blueprints on his datapad, they pointed off to the team’s right.
“Computer core is that way. Twenty meters.”
Ruk nodded before he darted around the corner. On his helmet’s sensors, he saw the rest of the team right behind him.
Dim blue lighting glimmered overhead from rod-shaped lights set in the corner where the ceiling met the wall. They were interspersed along the corridor with a three meter gap between them. In those spots, shadows draped the walls.
As Ruk led his small team down the hallway, fleeting ghosts of energy danced near the ceiling. He gave them the occasional glance, but kept the majority of his focus on the hallway and the task ahead. It was hard to not feel like the radiation was stalking them.
Ruk reached the end of the corridor where it came to a dead end with three doors. Pala and Eman huddled around a keypad to the door on the right. They pried open the keypad facing, then went to work splicing into the door mechanism with a portable battery pack to activate the emergency open sequence. Ruk checked his chronometer.
They had been in the building ten standard minutes. A dark shape twitched in his peripheral vision to his left, back the way they came. Ruk spun, hand dropping to his waist until he remembered there were no sidearms allowed on this search and rescue mission. He squinted at the gloom.
But there wasn’t anything there. The hallway was empty save for scattered boxes, crates and the blue glowrods at the ceiling. Also, the ever present white trails of cronau radiation slithered along the ceiling. The effect made him feel he was underwater, looking up at the surface. He grimaced, then let out a soft, irritated snort.
“What?” Eman asked. “I’ve got nothing on my sensors but the radiation flow and the survivor’s signal.”
Ruk started at the sound of his voice. The Bothan was now standing next to him, looking back in the direction they came from. The clone shook his head.
“The shadows are making me jumpy.” he waved a hand at the hallway. “The whole place is just… wrong. For a moment, I even thought I heard battle droids.”
“Protian had their people turn on a hyperdrive while still planet-side. That’s about as wrong as it gets. If it helps any, I’m hearing things too. Whispers. Voices. My best guess? Side effect of the radiation. The longer we’re in here, the worse it might get.” The doctor shrugged. “We just need to get to Rhia Oannes and get out fast. Time check?”
Ruk checked the chronometer.
“It’s been twelve since we entered. Only one hour, thirty-eight minutes standard time left.”
Eman patted Ruk on an armored shoulder. Past the lightly tinted visor of the doctor’s helmet, a grin spread across Eman’s furred snout.
“We’ll get her and us out. All we need to do is get past this door.”
“Almost through,” Pala said from over by the door. “Working the last cypher now.”
The lock clicked, and the door slid open a few centimeters before it stopped. Eman and Ruk rushed to the door as Pala stepped back to re-pack her lock slicer kit. Grabbing the edge, the two men hauled at the metal safety door. The door slid a stubborn few slow centimeters further. Ruk strained, feeling the muscles in his back start to complain.
Suddenly, metal groaned, and the door snapped part way open. Tendrils of smoky-white cronau radiation immediately snaked into the room. It was as if the energy was eager to get at whatever was inside.
Ruk saw Eman nod.
“Go!” the doctor exclaimed.
The clone let go of the door immediately. Stepping around Eman, he bolted through the doorway, trying to outrun the radiation flow. Sensors showed that Pala was a step right behind him.
Ruk darted through a small technician's office and workspace, long since ruined by the disaster because of a collapsed wall. He turned left and raced into the computer core room itself.
Helmet sensors warned him of the first stun bolt. Ruk dodged to the left as the bolt splashed against the wall behind him. Instinct took over and his hand dropped to his waist for a sidearm that wasn’t there. Realization of that dawned on Ruk as the second stun bolt hammered into his chest.
He never felt himself hit the floor.