Pala’s alarmed, yet melodic, voice sounded far off, like she was shouting through tempered glass or fabric. Then the memories rushed back. There was Protian Labs. The company’s failed hyperdrive experiment and their trapped employee. Running into the computer core room to outrace the radiation.
Finally, getting shot by a stun bolt.
Ruk snapped fully awake with a gasp, staring at the floor through his helmet. With a growl-like groan, he rolled onto his side then tried to force himself upright.
Aches ran wild, radiating out from where the stun bolt had punched him in the middle of his chest. Curled forward into a ball, he sat on his knees, while his abused joints screamed at him. Ruk slammed a fist against the floor before he shoved himself up to one knee.
It was Pala again. She was somewhere off to his left. From what his rattled mind remembered, that was opposite the door.
“Me’vaar ti gar?”
Mando’a. The words were in Mando’a. Ruk’s brain latched onto her question, asking him how he was doing or for a Kaminoan Clone Trooper, his situation report. He nodded slowly.
“Duse.” He swallowed despite a dry throat. “Garbage,” he repeated in Galactic Basic. “I feel like warm garbage. Who shot me?”
“Shot us. I dropped after you did.”
Ruk looked up in time to see Pala stalking the length of the room like a caged sabercat. She flexed her hands into fists while she searched the room, armor covered lekku swatting the air behind her. However, something was missing.
The comlink crackled to live in Ruk’s helmet. It must have for Pala also, since he saw her stop instantly in her tracks and stand still.
It was Eman. He chuckled, then quickly pushed on.
“Good. Rhia shot you both twice, just to be sure. I’ve heard about the famous ARC armor and the rumored resilience of the Clone Trooper subspecies. We wanted to be sure.”
“What the sithspawn, Eman?” Ruk snarled. Bracing a hand on his thigh, he shoved himself to his feet.
“Just fulfilling a previous contract,” the Bothan explained. “Even if Protian was clueless that they were ‘loaning’ the use of their lab for all this.”
“What?” Ruk spat out. “You caused… this?” The clone trooper slashed a hand around at the reinforced walls, whose fracture cracks were made even more ominous in the blue-toned emergency lighting.
“Not me personally, but my associate, Rhia, had a hand in that experiment.”
“Let us out, Eman,” Pala snarled. “It’s only fair. We should get a shot to wring your kriffing neck!”
The Bothan chuckled again.
“I don’t think so. That would complicate our stealing a shuttle. Our data chip won’t deliver itself.”
Ruk needed a target, specifically one shaped like the Bothan doctor. Lacking that, he glared at the ceiling.
“So what, you just wanted to gloat, you stinking piece of dwang?” the clone snapped.
“Oh, nothing of the kind. I just needed a solid recording of your voices so I could manufacture some terrified cries for help. Alive, you two make fantastic bait.”
The connection clicked off and Ruk slammed a fist against the wall. He raced to the only door out of the computer core and found it sealed shut but with a haphazard weld. The weld marks looked familiar, but the fog that lingered in his head refused to let him track down that memory. Ruk spun around to face the room.
However, the Twi’lek was already on the move. She darted across the room toward the black octagonal column that encased the lab’s computer core. Pala yanked the lock slicer kit from a pouch at her waist, then knelt down at a terminal. Ten seconds later she had the terminal’s cover on the floor and her slicer kit connected to the lab’s computer core.
“The power is unstable in the building, but Protian had thought of installing an underground backup reactor. Only, someone disconnected the backup’s sensors so it wouldn’t register the lab losing main power.”
“What will bringing that back online get us?”
Pala tapped a series of keys in rapid succession. A low hum replied from somewhere deep under the floor. She turned her helmet toward his. Ruk could hear her almost musical chuckle over the commlink.
“Blast doors. Now Eman and his friend Rhia are stuck in this death trap with us.” Her fingers danced over the keypad. “But I’m also not able to get a signal back to base camp. You?”
Ruk keyed the commlink in his helmet for the channel to the base and heard a low squawk of noise. Scowling, he swapped to the private channel with Pala.
“We had signal before getting trapped in here. Eman must have a jammer set up.” Using a keypad on his gauntlet, Ruk accessed the blueprints for the lab. “So, what about that data chip he was bragging about? Think it was real or some sort of distraction? I mean, it was like listening to some holo-drama villain.”
“Already checking,” she replied, bent over the keyboard.
Ruk paced, studying his surroundings and taking in the details while a miniature hologram of the lab’s blueprints render over his gauntlet.
The room was a vault, both literally and figuratively.
He couldn’t be sure, but using his armor’s sensors picked up the dense alloys like durelium in the walls. The alloy was a common component in the construction of starship hulls and blast doors, which meant the room was technically blast proof. That explained a lack of stress cracks running through the material.
However, the walls looked as deformed as anywhere else in the lab. They were bent, twisted by a few degrees but not enough to be considered unstable. Based on the pattern of the gentle curve, the walls had buckled during the initial blast of energy from the testing chamber that was only meters away. Ruk thought about the Protian employees on duty during the explosion. He shuddered, then completed a sweep of the room.
There were three large octagonal columns total in the room, which included the one Pala was working with. While the first was the computer core for the lab, Ruk estimated that the other two were backup systems. Near those, he found a single desk and two empty crates. The desk had little in it, just some datapads and other tools that a tech would use to maintain a computer core. Past the desk and crates, Ruk found two doors concealed behind the computer cores.
The first door was locked tight with a keypad. Ruk left the keypad for Pala to work on later and tried the second door. Behind it was a maintenance closet. Pala rescued him from having to search a wide variety of sonic cleaners.
“Ruk. I’m pretty sure that the data chip is real. But you’ll also want to see this.”
Ruk joined Pala at the terminal where she highlighted a series of files.
“The primary system took a hit from the accident and a lot of the data was corrupted because of that. What Miss Oannes downloaded? What’s probably on that data chip? I wouldn’t trust those files to be readable. Now, Protian Labs has a corporate policy of regular backups. It seems Miss Oannes either didn’t remember or couldn’t get at the backup core because of the power failure. So she missed these.”
Pala opened the files, spreading them out across the holoscreen. Looking over her shoulder, it took Ruk two diagrams and design descriptions before he shook his head.
“Khyber crystals. That’s the secret ingredient of Protian Lab’s new hyperdrive? Oh, sure, let’s take the focusing crystal of a lightsaber… of a kriffing Death Star’s superlaser… and use it to amplify a hyperdrive’s output. All without considering how unstable that can be. This explains a lot.”
Pala pointed at the technical schematics on the third document.
“I can’t believe Protian thought they could get away with this. It seems Rhia Oannes was the one in charge of the research team around the crystals. Like what facets to cut, how to align them, and theorized power output. She wasn’t the only one on the team, but she’s the one who had the vision.”
“Then she might have known this would happen. Now I’m curious as to what she and Eman are up to. I’ve worked with enough Jedi that I’m wondering if this ‘accident’ was intentional. Nothing in those files suggests any last-minute changes to the experiment.”
Producing a data chip from her utility belt, Pala plugged it in and downloaded the details of the project.
“These notes are coming with us and the backup erased. Null Force scientists can figure out how bad this really is so we can find a way to counter it, if it crops up again.”
“Any luck getting a signal out?” Ruk asked.
“No,” Pala replied. “Not at all. We need to warn the others about Eman and our ‘survivor’ we were supposed to rescue. So, how are we getting out of here?”
The clone trooper expanded the hologram of the base blueprints so they hovered in the air over his gauntlet’s projector.
“The door in got welded shut. There’s another door out, but I don’t see where it goes on this diagram.”
Ruk shrugged. “Probably. Could be for emergency reasons or could be for base system maintenance.”
Pala rose and disconnected her slicer tools from the terminal.
“There’s only one way to find out. Besides, we’d better get going. If Eman’s data chip isn’t readable, they’ll be back to shoot their way in to look for replacement diagrams,” she said as she raced over to the locked hatch.
“Don’t remind me,” Ruk grumbled, then squinted at the glowing blueprints. “We’re close to the test chamber. That has to be a maintenance hatch connecting the computer core to the testing chamber. Something added after the lab was set up. It should give us a way out, provided it didn’t collapse in the accident.”
Two short chimes later, the keypad clicked, and the door slid open with a sharp rush of air.
“Ruk. It didn’t collapse.”
The clone shut off the holographic blueprints and hurried over to join her. Ruk slowed to a walk the moment he saw a pulsating blue-white glow from beyond the open doorway. Pala stepped back, turning her helmet to face Ruk. Not saying a word, she just pointed at the glow.
Ruk walked over to the doorway and stopped. She was right. The corridor hadn’t collapsed. Right then, he wished it had.
It wasn’t a maintenance corridor but a catwalk, a platform, that overlooked the long tunnel that was the ‘test range’ for experiments. The tunnel ran the entire length of the extensive building and the platform ran right along its wall. There was a railing, but in his opinion it was mostly for show. Ruk’s helmet sensors placed the room’s dimensions at two hundred meters long, twenty-four meters wide, and thirty meters tall.
The walls were more durelium plate, which had taken the brunt of the blow during the accident. Metal walls and supports were twisted, if not melted in places, from the initial explosion. Braces and support struts to hold prototypes still stood like twisted, misshapen metal claws rising out of the middle of the room. What they surrounded wasn’t a prototype hyperdrive.
Over wreckage that might be half of the hyperdrive, there was a jagged rip in the air, like a vicious maw turned on its side. Blue-white energy pulsated out of it, slowly twisting the chamber into a spiral with the maw as the epicenter. Through the tear, Ruk saw a gray void. Nothingness. His suit sensors confirmed a nasty fear.
It was hyperspace. The experimental device had never shut off.
Sensor data streamed in, filling the holoscreens in Ruk’s helmet with fresh information. He took in as much as he could with a glance and scowled. The rift between realspace and hyperspace was growing.
“Pala, I have a bad feeling about this.”