“There it is. Ramatesh.” General Skywalker angled the civilian ship so they could get a better view.
Rex kept a hand on the overhead grip and looked down at what seemed like no more than an expansive pile of dark green rubble that had dislodged itself from the adjacent mountain. Of course, he didn’t say so—not with General Rancisis sitting right next to him. His thick tail was right next to Rex’s foot.
General Rancisis blew a long sigh through his thick white beard. “It is good to come home, but a place once left is never exactly the same. I wonder how things may have changed since last I was here.”
“Let’s get a closer look,” General Skywalker suggested, and they dove as smoothly as this old fixer-upper of a shuttle could manage. As the city came into focus, Rex got a better impression of its size and organization. It looked much more like the ancient and regal capital it was, full of lichen-covered arches that led into vast tunnels and inclines designed by a legless species. He caught glimpses of metallic colors among the aged stone, modern and mainstream technology glinting up from below in the dim light of Thisspias’ star.
Rex carefully stepped over General Rancisis’s tail. “If there’s nothing else, sir, I’ll tell the men we’re about to land.”
“Good idea.” General Skywalker glanced at the other Jedi, but General Rancisis was focused on their destination. Rex hesitated, then walked down the short hall behind the cockpit and opened the door into the main cabin full of clones in civilian dress, chatting with each other.
“—just saying, it would be better if we were wearing armor for this mission.” Bandana, able to freely display his blue namesake in public for once, was gesturing widely with one hand, encompassing the baggy jumpsuit he’d been given to wear.
One of the long lines tattooed across Trig’s temple distorted when he raised his eyebrows. “Heh. What difference would that make? We’re not supposed to engage in any battles, we’re just here for back up in the worst case scenario. Don’t tell me you’re scared of the Thisspians.”
“Thisspiasians,” Study corrected, scratching his stubbly sideburns as he stared out the window.
“I’m not scared of them,” Bandana huffed, folding his arms. “I’m not scared of anything down there—just I heard the cygnats’ll eat you alive if you’re not completely covered.”
“Oh that’s not even the worst of it,” came a loud mutter from the back of the cabin. Rex caught a glimpse of the star tattoo between Gripe’s eyes. “Let’s just hope our slithery friends don’t invite any of us to dinner. I hear they only like eating live food. Ask Study, he’ll tell you.”
“Shut up, Gripe.” Bandana kicked out a leg and stood up abruptly as he noticed Rex standing, listening to them. “Captain?”
The company quieted and focused in on him. Rex felt odd in civilian clothes, his arm empty without his helmet nestled under it; he wasn’t really surprised that the men were feeling loose out of uniform. In some ways, this didn’t yet feel like a real mission.
“Listen up. We’re about to land,” Rex announced, resting his hands on the pistols at his belt. That brought the men more fully to attention. “Keep your eyes open. Remember, we’re only here to serve as backup for Generals Skywalker and Rancisis in case anything goes wrong. They don’t anticipate anything going wrong. But there’s always a chance. And that’s why we’re here. We need to be ready to act at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes sir,” came a scattered echo around the cabin, and a clone with a single stripe of hair down the center of his head stepped forward.
“Captain, what exactly are we keeping our eyes open for? Separatist spies?”
“Probably not.” Rex said, with a brief half-smile at Headline. “From what I understand, the situation here is tense. There are rumors their leader is considering joining the separatists, but General Rancisis says he believes the people are mostly on our side. We’re to stand by while the generals find out the truth. If something doesn’t seem right, you can tell me, and I’ll pass it on to General Skywalker.”
“But don’t go getting ahead of yourself,” Study piped up from the window. “You’re not gonna get to be a famous war hero if you offend the Thisspiasians.”
Headline shook his head a little bit, hands on hips. “I won’t! Captain, do you think we’ll have much of a chance to interact with the Thisspi…Thisspiasians?”
“We’ll just see how it goes once we’re on the ground,” said Rex. “If you’re concerned about it, you can ask Study to give you a crash course on their species while we’re standing by.”
“Why aren’t we wearing armor?” Bandana asked. “This isn’t exactly an undercover operation. Is it?” He winked at Headline.
Rex shook his head abruptly. “General Rancisis believes the locals will take more kindly to our presence here if we don’t look like soldiers. That’s all we need to know.”
“It seems like there’s more going on here than they’re telling us,” Headline said, stroking his chin in an imitation of General Kenobi.
Bandana smacked him on the arm and laughed. “Like Study said, don’t go getting ahead of yourself, General Headline.”
“Bandana’s right,” Rex said easily. “It’s not up to us to know everything. That’s the Generals’ job. Our job is to be ready to follow orders as they’re given. If there’s anything more we need to know, I’m sure General Skywalker will tell us.”
“Of course, sir.” Headline grinned. “I know that. We’re just curious, that’s all.”
“Speak for yourself, hotshot,” Trig said.
“Yeah,” said Gripe, checking his rifle. “I just wanna get the job done.”
The ship bucked a little as it came in for the final descent, and everyone grabbed onto seat backs or overhead grips or each other. Then they touched down, the ship steadied, and the door opened. Everyone stood at attention as General Rancisis slithered between their ranks and down the ramp that was lowering, bringing in a gust of humid earthy air. General Skywalker followed behind, throwing a half-smile at Rex before he and the other clones fell in behind him.
It was windy down on the surface. Rex was slapped in the face by the prickle of sand and saw Bandana tighten his bandana while Gripe’s eye twitched against the flapping of his long shirt collar. Beneath them was a smooth black landing pad, and in front of them, set against a deep green fortress-like wall, was a group of three Thisspiasians, all with long, thick beards and hair—Rex could barely see their eyes even once they got closer—and rich brown and red robes. One of them had four arms.
A hot needle stabbed Rex at the base of his skull. In less than a second he whirled to face his attacker, a pistol in his left hand and a mash of insect guts in his right. He stared at the bruise-colored mess.
“Cygnats,” Study grunted, swatting one off his head as well.
“Let’s hope we get inside before too long,” Rex sighed with relief. For a moment there he had expected to find a poison dart protruding from his neck—that’s what the bite had felt like. He swatted away another bug that dove at his face.
“They’re nearly the size of my hand!” Gripe hissed, smashing one between his palms in mid-flight.
“Keep it down, men,” Rex ordered. “It’s just a bunch of bugs.” Nasty painful bugs, but they could handle it with dignity.
General Skywalker didn’t seem amused about the cygnats either, but he brushed them aside with constant lazy waves of his hand, probably repelling them easily with the Force.
“Greetings, Generals,” said the first Thisspiasian to reach them, raising a surprisingly feminine voice over the howl of the wind. “Oppo, it is good to see you again.”
“Likewise, Issu.” General Rancisis bowed his head respectfully. “I trust I find you and the royal family in good health.”
“Not all in good health, I’m afraid. You must come and speak privately before bringing the other Jedi with you.”
The Generals exchanged a glance. Skywalker looked over his shoulder at Rex and nodded before turning to the other Thisspiasians. “Of course. Just as long as the rest of us can wait inside.”
“They are not accustomed to the challenging climate of Thisspias,” Rancisis said. Rex barely heard him over the shrieking whine of another cygnat in his ear. Gripe kept grunting out numbers with each new cygnat he managed to defeat. He’d just passed twenty.
“That is acceptable,” said one of the flanking Thisspiasians, whose voice seemed much older than the first speaker’s. “Follow us.”
General Rancisis joined his fellows in slithering ahead of them toward an opening in the slick rock wall. Rex pulled his men up close to General Skywalker, who fell behind the Thisspiasians a few strides. The waving of his arm went wider, and the volume of the cygnats’ whining voices went down as they kept their distance.
“Thanks, General,” Rex said with relief.
“Nasty little things, aren’t they,” Skywalker mused.
“Little? They’re not exactly little,” said Gripe.
General Skywalker grinned mischievously “Are you saying you can handle armies of destroyer droids but not a few overgrown flies? Well, if that’s the case, I’ll let you get back to business!”
Headline broke in hastily. “What he means to say is, we had ‘em under control, sir, but your help is appreciated. Very appreciated.”
Skywalker laughed under his breath. “Don’t mention it.”
“We’ll want to treat those bites as soon as we’re inside,” said Study, brushing bits of cygnat off his shoulders.
“Well… if all goes as planned, killing cygnats will be the only action we get this mission,” Rex said half to himself.
Together they passed under the arch and into its deep shadow. The place smelled funny on the outside, and eventually funnier on the inside. Like dust and… something more like sweat, as if the walls themselves were sweating. But Rex had been to a lot of planets and this wasn’t the weirdest of them yet.
The door shut behind them. At a fork in the passage, lit by hidden strips between the walls and ceiling, the generals conferred together up ahead, then Skywalker came back to motion them down the right-hand corridor.
The passage opened up into a large cavern which appeared to serve as a town square, probably one of many in the massive capital. The sight of hundreds of Thisspiasians slithering about in crowds between multi-level alcoves and pavilions was certainly like nothing Rex had ever seen among intelligent species. They all spoke in the native language, and the sound of it blended together was like the static crackle of a bad transmitter, amplified and copied over itself.
Skywalker paused at the edge of the crowd, searching for whoever was coming to escort them further, but the crowd suddenly swelled toward them; they were enveloped by a group who seemed only briefly interested in their presence, speaking to each other in raised, emphatic voices as they passed. Instinctively, Rex and his men moved closer to the General.
“Master Jedi!” A voice broke from the cacophony. “Master Jedi, if you’ll come this way please. Hurry, before the crowd gets thicker!”
The General shifted through the crowd, and Rex and his men struggled to follow him without stepping on any tails. Rex could only see the back of their new friend’s head—all shaggy long black hair—as they were led out of the main thoroughfare, through an alley of sorts and into a smaller chamber which was oddly empty.
“So sorry I’m late, Master Jedi,” said the Thisspiasian graciously. “We did not expect Master Rancisis to part ways with you immediately. I’ll lead you to a comfortable waiting area, and when it’s time to speak to the monarch, I will lead you there as well.”
“I appreciate that,” said the General, and together they followed their guide through several other deserted hallways until their path ended in a round room encircled by cabinets. In the middle was a table and a few cushioned, backless seats.
“Please, make yourself comfortable,” the Thisspiasian gestured in a subtle bow. “Your men may help themselves to any refreshment they find here.”
“That’s very gracious of you,” the General said, a calculating look in his eye. “My name is Anakin Skywalker and this is Captain Rex. You are?”
“Shigir Sab,” said the Thisspiasian. “It is an honor to meet you, General Skywalker. And you… Captain Rex.” Shigir came very close and coiled in a half circle around where Rex stood, leaning down to stroke his head. “A pleasure to meet you as well.”
Rex stood firm and stared up at the alien’s hairy face, unable to make out an expression, although what he imagined there made his neck prickle for some reason.
“Thank you… sir,” he said, rationalizing that if he used “sir” for Commander Tano, he could use it for this alien of indeterminate gender.
Shigir smirked—that much was unmistakable—and slithered away. “I must go and await orders to bring you to the monarch.”
A few moments later, they were alone. At Rex’s nod, Trig sat down at the table with Study and Bandana to look at their cygnat bites. The one on Rex’s neck was burning worse than it had a few minutes ago.
“What was that all about?” Skywalker asked, grinning at Rex.
“I’m sure I don’t know, General,” Rex shrugged, rubbing at his neck. “Gripe, go ahead and see what they’ve left us in the cabinets.”
“They’re keeping us well out of sight.” Headline leaned against one of the cabinets. “Looks like General Rancisis was right about how they don’t like soldiers, even when we are dressed like this.”
“I dunno, Shigir seems to like soldiers,” the General snickered, so that only Rex could hear him.
“Maybe they’re just trying to make us more comfortable,” Trig suggested, pinning Bandana’s arm while he treated the bites, already done with Study’s. “I’d rather be in here than out in that square. Stop squirming!”
“Oh come on, have a little sympathy,” Bandana laughed, wincing every time the soaked gauze touched the sores. “Those suckers hurt a lot worse than I expected.”
“Personally, I prefer the crowds,” General Skywalker said, shaking his head. “Whatever’s happening out there is bound to be more interesting than sitting in here doing nothing. Seems like an awful lot of people for an average day in Ramatesh.”
Rex knew the General well enough to expect that this comment was a precursor to running off and investigating. He was prepared to insist on following him, since trying to talk him out of it would be no use.
To his surprise, Skywalker’s sidelong glance and smile at him was followed by a wistful sigh at the ceiling. “Too bad we couldn’t be doing this kind of boring mission someplace nice… eh, Rex?”
“Sir?” Rex asked.
“At least somewhere you might get attention from someone more attractive than Shigir Sab.” Skywalker paced overly casually, pretending to examine his gloves.
“Well… I… wouldn’t put it like that, sir,” Rex said uncertainly. “I’m happy to serve wherever I’m placed.”
Skywalker barked a scandalized laugh. “So what you’re saying is… you have broad tastes?”
“Uh,” Rex said haltingly, thrown by what the General’s tone of voice implied. “Sir… I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss this—especially not in front of the men.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Captain?” asked Bandana. “You’re not saying you actually—”
“No,” Rex cut in. “I’m not saying anything.”
“Rex, Rex, come on.” General punched him lightly, affectionately on the chest. Rex took a step back. “Just tell us straight up. Is Shigir Sab not your type?”
“My type of what, General?” Rex sighed and grimaced.
“You know what I’m talking about.” Skywalker’s grin faltered for a moment. “Uh… you do know what I’m talking about, right? That Thisspiasian was obviously attracted to you.”
“I suppose that is the obvious conclusion, sir,” Rex admitted uneasily.
“Yeah,” Skywalker said. “So just out of curiosity, what would you do if someone like that did show that kind of interest in you?”
“That would be impossible, sir,” Rex laughed nervously.
“We are all pretty handsome devils, though, sir,” Headline said, grinning. “It’s not that impossible.”
“Yeah, give us some credit,” Bandana chuckled and then hissed. “Ow! Trig, I swear you’re doing that on purpose!”
Trig smirked. “Only a snake would go for an overly self-important clone who thinks he looks cool with a big furry fin plastered to his head.”
“Guys, we’ve been through this. It’s supposed to be like the fin on my helmet!” Headline explained for the hundredth time, brushing fingers through his hair. “But you’re right,” he conceded. “If a civilian ever went for a clone, it’d definitely be someone like Captain Rex, someone who stands out! Not because of how he looks, but because of who he is.”
General Skywalker looked amused. Rex opened his mouth, flattered and embarrassed, but was too slow.
“You guys are insane,” Gripe scoffed from the cupboards. “No offense, Captain, but I agree with you. We’re bred for battle, not… anything like that. Who wants to try some of these? They look like eggs. Probably with some baby bird inside or something, knowing this place.”
“No, I’m pretty sure those are from another reptilian species,” Study started to explain.
“Captain, Gripe, it’s your turn to get treated.” Trig interrupted. “And put those back, will ya? I don’t think any of us wants to try it.”
“Hey. Maybe I would,” Study said. “Could be interesting.”
Skywalker clapped a hand on Rex’s shoulder, laughing a little. “Sorry, Rex. I didn’t think you’d get so uncomfortable. Well… okay, I guess I did. I was just curious what part of the experience you didn’t like.”
“Very funny, sir,” Rex sighed, smiling reluctantly now that the attention of the men was mostly off him. He knew the General’s teasing was a sign of respect—after all, he teased his Padawan all the time. Rex would be honored to be even half as esteemed by the General as Commander Tano.
“So?” Skywalker prompted confidentially. “Was it just the… slitheryness? The hair?” He motioned toward his own clean-shaven face. “Not really my type either.”
“It was the whole experience,” Rex said, eyebrows askew, and Skywalker laughed quietly. “Maybe I should leave the talking to you, General… at least for the rest of the mission.”
“Alright. But I’m sure it’s nothing a Captain of the Grand Army of the Republic couldn’t handle.” Skywalker winked and Rex just let it be, not sure what more to say. The General did this, sometimes… Rex always got the feeling he was looking for something in particular, feeling his personality out indirectly. He sat down in front of Trig and let the trooper clean and treat the bites on his neck. The antiseptic did sting.
At long last, after General Skywalker had paced a hole in the floor and the troops had finally gotten tired of trading “one time on Coruscant” stories, Shigir came slithering back into the nearly-silent room.
“The monarch and Master Rancisis await you, General Skywalker,” said the Thisspiasian. As Rex and his men stood to follow, Shigir’s furry mouth twitched. “I’m sorry, but your soldiers will have to continue to wait here. The monarch will not allow anyone but you and Master Rancisis to be present in his chambers at this time.”
Skywalker looked thoughtfully between Rex and Shigir, brow furrowed. He held out a hand toward Rex. “It’s alright. We’ve got our wrist communicators… I’ll call you if I need back up.”
“But sir, we don’t know our way around this place. How will we find you?”
“Just ask where the monarch is,” the General shrugged. “It’ll be fine, don’t worry. If nothing else, you can follow my communicator’s tracking signal, or send someone back to the ship and use the scanners to figure out where I am.”
“Will do, sir. Good luck.” Rex saluted.
Skywalker saluted back lazily and walked away.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Headline, frowning. “How are we supposed to do our duty and protect him when he could be on the other side of the city?”
“He’s a Jedi,” Rex said. “He can take care of himself.”
“Yeah, you get used to it serving under that guy. He likes to jump right into the action, and it’s up to us to keep up or stay outta the way,” Gripe said. “He always gets the job done, though.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, there is no action going on here. General Skywalker knows what he’s doing,” Rex insisted, sitting back down at the table. “So unless you’ve noticed anything actually wrong with this situation, I’m not going to bother him about it.”
“The walls,” Study said, chin in one hand, motioning at the tunnel they came from with the other.
“What? What about them?” asked Bandana.
“They’re designed to block radio communication,” said Study. “So we wouldn’t be able to contact General Skywalker even if something happened, to him or to us.”
“How do you know that?” Headline frowned skeptically.
“Heh. How does Study know anything?” Trig scoffed right back. “He read about it before he came!”
“Why didn’t you tell General Skywalker about the walls?” Rex asked Study.
“I… I forgot.” Study’s brow furrowed in guilt and worry. “Until just now, when he mentioned communicators.”
“Oh. You forgot!” Gripe cried, shaking his head in exasperation. “Well, that’s just great. What good does all that studying do if you just forget to pass on the most important information?”
“Leave him alone, Gripe,” Bandana sighed. “It’s no good complaining about it now. We have to figure out what to do. I say we go back to the ship!”
“What good will that do?” asked Gripe earnestly.
Rex tried his communicator. “General Skywalker? General Skywalker, do you copy?”
Everyone fell silent as he tried again. And again. And a fourth time.
Finally, Rex sighed. “Study’s right. It’s not working.”
“So. Back to the ship, right?” said Headline. “And once we get there, we can use the ship’s scanners to locate the General. I volunteer to go find him and tell him about the walls.”
“Just hold on a minute,” Rex said, holding up his hands. “We don’t want to do anything that might alarm the Thisspiasians. If something is going on here, we need to make sure we don’t let on that we know. I’ll go take a look around and see if there’s anyone posted to keep us from leaving. I may even be able to catch up to General Skywalker if we’re lucky, but I’m not counting on it. So once I give the all clear, we’ll make our way back to the ship.”
Rex gripped Study by the shoulder as he got to his feet. “Better late than never. If you weren’t on this mission, we wouldn’t even know about the walls.”
Study’s worried look smoothed a bit. “R…right. Thanks, Captain.”
“Trig, I’m leaving you in charge until I come back.” Rex pointed and Trig got to his feet with a sharp nod.
“See you soon,” Rex shot back. He turned and walked toward the exit into the hallway.
“Good luck, Captain,” someone said to his back, and when Rex looked, Headline had a hand lifted.
Rex lifted one back and headed down the corridor, careful to keep his steps quiet. It was longer than he remembered. When he came to a junction, he crept forward carefully and looked in every direction, both with the naked eye and with his binoculars, but there was no sign of Skywalker or Shigir.
When he returned, the others were almost exactly as he’d left them. “Alright! Looks like nobody’s watching us. That’s a good sign. Let’s get back to the ship.”
Headline and Bandana cheered, and all five of them hurried to follow him down the corridor.
Once they got to the end and out into the alley, the crowds had thinned a bit. Rex led the way he thought they’d come, but when they reached the end of the street and stepped into the square, he stopped dead.
“This isn’t right.”
“No,” Study agreed. “This is a different square.”
“Or the same one from a different angle?” Gripe grimaced.
“We’ll retrace our steps,” Rex said firmly. “There weren’t that many intersections in the alley… we probably only took one wrong turn. Come on.”
They turned and headed back the way they’d come. At the intersection they paused, peering down the even narrower alley that bisected theirs.
“I swear we never went down something like that,” Bandana frowned.
“Yeah,” Rex said. “Let’s keep going.”
It was quite a long, winding ways before they reached a point in the path where they realized they were one branch of a narrow Y.
“This must be it!” Headline insisted. “The path we’re on seems like the natural extension of that one, but that one is probably the one we came down the first time, not even realizing this one existed!”
“I dunno,” Bandana mused. “Doesn’t look all that familiar to me. And it’s going the same direction we already went!”
Headline rolled his eyes. “You’re looking down it from the opposite angle, of course it doesn’t look familiar! Anyway, who knows how these paths twist around?”
“It’s our best chance for now,” Rex decided. “Let’s see where it leads.”
The bickering died instantly and they followed him. The path did wind, bafflingly. And the light that was diffused throughout the cavern was no help in keeping a sense of direction. They came to another intersection, this one splitting into six ways.
“Now this really doesn’t look right,” Gripe muttered.
“We go back then,” Rex sighed. “If we take one of these other paths, we’ll probably get even more lost. We have to stick to what we already know.”
“Lost?” A voice came up behind them and everyone whirled, weapons in hand. The red-haired Thisspiasian reared back in alarm, long fingers raised in front of their face. “I mean you no harm! You seemed lost and I merely wanted to help!”
Rex waved at his men to lower their weapons. “Sorry. We are lost… we’re trying to get back to our ship on landing pad seventeen.” He glanced at Study, who nodded slightly.
“Oh, you are quite lost then,” said the redhead. “Unfortunately, I’m in a hurry, but I can give you directions.”
“We’d appreciate that,” Rex said gratefully.
A few minutes later they were jogging down an alternate route their helpful stranger had promised would get them to their goal more quickly.
“That’s the last right turn,” Study huffed. “But this is more uphill that it should be.”
“How do we know we can trust what that snake said?” Gripe muttered.
“If we get to the end and it’s not our ship, we can ask somebody else,” said Rex. “Only two more turns to go, right, Study?”
“Right. Two turns up ahead.”
Suddenly things were looking right. They came to the same large corridor leading out of the city. Rex found the button to open the doors, and together the six of them ran out into the wind-whipped clouds of dust and cygnats.
The ship wasn’t there. The platform only held a small hover-cart for transporting goods off freight ships. They all trotted to a wary halt.
“Careful,” Headline said, smacking away a cygnat with his rifle and looking around. “Something isn’t right.”
“We followed the instructions exactly,” Study fretted.
They shifted into a loose circle, covering each other’s backs as they looked around and edged toward the corner of the landing pad.
“There it is!” Trig pointed. “There’s the ship. It’s down there.”
And so it was; the ship gleamed dully, at least three levels below them.
“Aw, great! Let’s just jump down—if we feel like breaking our legs,” Gripe sighed.
“It’s alright,” Rex said, although he had the nasty feeling this had been intentional. “We’ll just go back the way—the door’s closing! Run for it!”
He led the charge toward the dropping door, but it was already almost shut by the time he could see the shape of a Thisspiasian on the other side. Rex flung out an arm to bring Headline and Bandana to a screeching halt before they could dive under and get crushed.
“We’ll find a way to open it,” he growled. “And then we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Agh!” Gripe smacked another cygnat off his ear. “I can’t wait to get off this rock.”
“Study?” Rex asked, dodging the whining insects and examining the panel that seemed designed only to frustrate those who wished to enter without clearance. “Any ideas?”
“Wait a minute,” Headline said, glancing at the hover-cart. “Maybe we could just jump down.”
“Are you crazy?” Bandana cried.
“No, no, no, just listen! That cart’s thrusters could break our fall!”
“I don’t like it,” Gripe said hesitantly. “Sounds like you’re just guessing.”
“It could work,” Study admitted. “If we were careful about it. Depends on how strong the cart is.”
“May as well check it out,” Rex ordered. “I’ll keep trying to find a way to open this door. Keep alert. If we were led here deliberately, we might have company soon.”
“Bandana and Headline can cover Study,” said Trig. “While Gripe and I take care of the Captain.”
Rex nodded his approval and set back to work. The keypad wasn’t yielding any answers. He pried it off with a multitool from his belt and set about trying to make sense of the cords inside.
“What’s that noise?” someone asked over by the hovercart.
“I dunno! I haven’t even turned it on yet!” Study gestured at it, baffled.
Something clicked into place like a blaster to the gut. Rex jumped to his feet. “GET AWAY FROM THERE IT’S A—”
His last word was drowned out by an explosion that instantly swallowed the hover-cart in a ball of fire. The blinding flash ate up Study, Bandana and Headline before they had even turned to hear Rex’s shout. Gripe and Trig had half a second to jump toward the door before they were knocked flat on their faces, and Rex couldn’t see them anymore because the fire sliced into him, pinning him to the door. The world whirled and he thought for a moment the door was tumbling down onto the platforms below, but it never made impact. He just kept falling in a dizzying spiral until he realized he wasn’t moving at all. The heat dissipated and the smoke began to clear. All he could see through the bright red haze was the raw remains of friends he’d been speaking to only seconds before. Trig was lying closest, his face still recognizable. Incredibly, Study’s body moved… and made an indecipherable noise before lying still.
A wave of nausea hit Rex and he told himself it was just from the pain that was pulsing through him with each shuddering breath as he took stock of his body, to find out if he should give in to death or not. His vision was erratic and blotchy. He tried to lift a hand to wipe his eyes, but this was impossible without screaming quietly through clenched teeth.
He looked down, although moving his head at all made it feel like it was determined to abandon his body. His right arm was pinned to the door by a heavy piece of shrapnel, and there was a growing pool of blood under his left leg. He needed to stop the bleeding.
Slowly, he struggled to stay focused on devising what he could use to make a rudimentary tourniquet, even while his vision fogged and he felt his consciousness slipping.
“I make no secret of the fact that I think the Republic is corrupt,” the monarch hissed calmly, coiled regally on his throne. “But that does not mean I have any plans to leave it yet. If reform from the inside is possible, it is always the better option.”
“I agree completely, your highness,” Anakin said, almost wishing the monarch had said he was joining the Separatists so that this conversation would be less tedious. “But-”
“The question is, young Skywalker… esteemed friend—” here the monarch nodded to Rancisis “—whether or not the Republic is willing to be reformed… to listen to the criticisms that are being leveled against it from its members. Perhaps if it were, there would not be any need for systems like ours to leave its protection.”
“The Republic is willing to listen,” Anakin protested. “But in war, certain things have to take priority over others. I’m sure your highness understands that.”
“Then it is a question of whether those priorities match mine to a fuller extent than the Separatists’ priorities would,” the monarch frowned.
“And those of the Thisspiasian people,” Rancisis added.
Anakin gave Rancisis a frown before he could stop himself, and then took a deep breath. “From what I know of your people, majesty, and Separatist ideals, it would be better for every—”
The floor vibrated beneath his boots, and a low rumble, just within his hearing, reached his ears. The Force confirmed what he would have already suspected.
“What was that?” Anakin looked at Rancisis. “That was a bomb, wasn’t it?” He whirled on the monarch. “Are you trying to make a statement by blowing up our ship, is that it? Or attacking my men?!”
“Anakin—” Rancisis cautioned.
“I know nothing of a bomb!” the monarch looked just as upset as Anakin. “We must investigate this immediately. I warned you of possible anti-Republic terrorism when you proposed to come to Thisspias, and I won’t have disorder and chaos come to my city! If I find out that you have brought it here then perhaps I was right to distrust the Republic!”
“Please,” Rancisis sighed, “Let us all be calm and—”
“You can stay here and argue all you want. I’m checking on my men!” Anakin turned and ran, lengthening his strides until he was leaping through the corridors of the palace as fast as he could, startling members of the court as he sped past them and out into the street.
He followed his instincts through a door onto an upper ledge. Down below he saw his ship intact, and felt more dread than relief. That meant the ship wasn’t the target. There was a scorch mark and scattered bits of metal glinting on another platform. He leaped, starting his descent, slowing his fall at each level with a little help from the Force.
At last he was across from his goal. He took a running start and leaped the gap between the two platforms, rolling as he landed.
The floor was smeared and scarred a deep red and black from the blast. He inhaled sharply the taste of blood, fuel, and char. Not a man remained standing. There were two shapes closest to the blast’s origin… he turned his eyes away from a corner of blue cloth turned purple and black. Bandana. He walked past the two who were certainly dead, found Study and Trig and Gripe, and with a single touch, knew they were still alive. Trig lifted his head weakly, the only one still conscious, and coughed wetly, words dying at the back of his throat.
Skywalker looked up desperately, searching for Rex, and saw him slumped under a swarm of cygnats by the door.
“GET AWAY FROM HIM!” Anakin yelled, Force-pulling the bugs away from the Captain’s body with all the strength he could muster. He was rewarded with a weak groan. “Rex? Captain, hang in there!” Anakin crouched by the fallen Captain. Rex lifted his head with effort.
Anakin took in Rex’s condition quickly. He saw where Rex had managed to thread a bit of cloth around his heavily bleeding leg, but couldn’t tie it tight enough with one hand, the other trapped by the shrapnel. He took up the cloth and cinched it tight, then pulled the debris away.
“Hang on, Rex, we’ll get you out of here, you’re going to be fine!” Anakin said fiercely.
A heavy rumble came from the door and Rex cried out in pain as it began to lift behind him. Anakin took him by the shoulders and pulled him away from the opening door, glowering at the two Thisspiasians on the other side. One was Issu, but the other one he hadn’t seen before.
“They’re here to help, General Skywalker!” Rancisis’ voice boomed out over the wind, and Anakin turned in time to see the Jedi’s serpentine form sailing through the air onto the platform. Rancisis slithered quickly over to him, dismay clear on his face. “Did any of them survive?”
“At least two, for now… and the Captain,” Anakin said tightly. “And he might not if we don’t do something quickly!”
“I’m a doctor,” said the unfamiliar Thisspiasian. “Let me see.”
“Trust him,” Rancisis urged. “It’s our only chance to save the clones.”
Anakin reluctantly moved aside so that the doctor could lean in and examine Rex, whose ragged breaths were going dangerously quiet. Issue went over to Trig, Study and Gripe.
“Stay with me, Rex,” Anakin growled, barely noticing when a cygnat glanced off his metal arm.
“He’s lost too much blood,” the doctor sighed, after conferring with Issu. “The wounds can be repaired, but not if his body is too weak and depleted to do so. The others are burned badly and have also lost blood… but may survive. We could transfer some of their blood to him, if you are willing to sacrifice their lives for his.”
Anakin hesitated. “No.” He shook his head. “No, Rex wouldn’t want that….”
“Then he is as good as dead,” Rancisis said softly. “They must have been lured here by someone.”
“Who could have done this?” Issu cried. “I swear we will track down whatever terrorist set this trap. We will have justice for these soldiers. Doctor, can you ease his passing?”
“No!” Anakin snarled. “We’re not going to put him down like that! He can still make it! We just have replace the blood he's lost!”
“But you have already refused,” Rancisis pointed out. “There is no one else of his kind to give the blood needed. There is no way to synthesize such blood here on Thisspias.”
“I can do it!” Anakin jabbed a thumb at himself. “Clones are human. I’m human. We have to try!”
“It would be kinder to let him pass,” the doctor said. “He is already nearly gone. Clones can be replaced.”
“Not this one!” Anakin shook Rex and grinned guiltily as the captain grunted in pain. “See, he’s still with us. He’s my responsibility and I say we do the transfusion! Now!”
The doctor looked at Rancisis, who gestured helplessly. “It is his decision. There is no harm in trying, is there?”
Anakin stared grimly until the doctor nodded, checked Rex’s leg and the rest of him for broken bones, and gave Anakin permission to lift him. Rancisis assisted the doctor and Issu in carrying the troopers away.
Once they were back in the city, stretchers were fetched. Rex had gone limp shortly after Anakin had picked him up, but Anakin could tell he was still breathing. A few long, torturous minutes of walking later (Anakin reminding himself that he couldn’t just jump ahead, not without the others along to explain), they were in the nearest hospital. Uniformed Thisspiasian medical professionals surrounded them, whispering in their own language. They took the wounded troopers into another room, laid Rex carefully on an operating table and motioned for Anakin to lie down on the bed that had been wheeled next to him.
Anakin glanced at Rancisis, hesitating. The Jedi Master had been adamantly opposed to his becoming a Jedi Knight. Ever since then it had been hard for him not to feel slighted by the Thisspiasian. But he had to set that aside now.
He whispered, “I’m trusting you to watch my back. After all, we don’t know if we can really trust anyone else here.”
Rancisis’ furry brow raised. “Please, young Skywalker. If the monarch has said he knew nothing of the bomb, then he knew nothing of it. But I agree that we must be cautious. I feel that the doctor’s hesitancy is a good sign. If he wished to cause harm to you, what better way to do it than through a medical operation you requested yourself? He would not hesitate in that case.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s Rex. Keep an eye on him too. I don’t want them giving up on him without my permission.”
“Very well,” Rancisis sighed.
Anakin laid down on the bed, and shook his head when the doctor reached for his droid arm.
“You won’t be getting any blood out of that one.” He pulled up his sleeve to show him, then rolled up the opposite one, taking a deep, calming breath as the needle went in. He wondered, as he often had, whether it was possible through the Force to help someone hold on to life. If, by bending every bit of his will toward wishing a friend to live, the scales of life and death would tip more decisively toward living. It was always worth a shot. There wasn’t much else productive he could do with his mind at the moment. Rex was the only witness they had of the attack, and he wouldn’t be giving them any hints about his attacker for a couple of hours at least.
The doctor hooked Rex up to the transfusion machine and set about treating his wounds.
Anakin closed his eyes and imagined his blood, his strength flowing out of him and into Rex. He knew Rex was a fighter. If he could just give him a head start on cheating death, Rex would do the rest on his own.
It sounded like it was raining. Or the wind was blowing, maybe. But Rex felt sick and the peaceful sounds around him were out of place, a delusion. The rain or wind seemed to be saying words, and his body felt like it was being held in the claws of a monster, stuck and swollen in several places.
“Ugh,” Rex groaned, struggling to open his eyes. They were so heavy. But he had to see what he was up against.
Lit from behind, beady eyes blinked at him out of a mat of hair, and long claws hovered over his face. The wind was the whispering of other monsters all around him.
“Wh—agh—” Rex made to reach for his pistol with the arm that wasn’t quite as much torture to lift, but his muscles weren't obeying, and the monster pushed his hand down slowly, back onto a smooth surface. Effortlessly. He was so weak. He hoped the thing would kill him quickly.
“Rex? Hey, Rex, it’s okay. You’re safe. How are you feeling?”
General Skywalker’s voice.
“General?” He meant to say it quickly, but it took conscious effort to continue past the first syllable. “Where am I? Where…where are… you?”
Rex felt a hand on his shoulder, and Skywalker’s face came into view, grinning for a moment before turning serious.
“We’re still on Thisspias. You’re in a hospital. Do you remember what happened?”
Rex blinked heavily and the bodies flashed against the inside of his eyelids. He groaned a sigh. “Study….”
“Study’s alive,” Skywalker said gently.
“He is?” Rex winced as he turned his head to look at the General better. “And the others?”
“Trig and Gripe made it through the explosion, but… we had to let Trig go, his injuries were too severe. What happened?”
“We were… trying to get in contact with you. But we couldn’t find our way back to the ship. Someone trapped us on that landing pad… the cart was a bomb.”
“Did you see who did it?”
“No... sir.” Rex took a deep breath and flinched. “I didn’t see a face. But there was someone who locked the door on us. And there was the one who led us there. Red hair.”
“Yes.... And the one who locked the door on us.”
“Well, don’t worry,” Skywalker sighed, frustrated. “The monarch is investigating this. It looks like it wasn’t organized by anyone big. Probably just some radical civilian group. I don’t think we’re in any danger now.”
“You don’t think they were targeting you?” Rex asked.
“No,” the General frowned, looking away. “Probably just… clones.”
Rex shut his eyes for a moment, letting the news pass through him in a long breath. “They were good men, sir.” Headline would never be famous for anything now. Gripe was the hardest working of any of them, despite his constant complaining, and now he might be taken out of action permanently. Study’s knowledge had been in vain after all, and Bandana and Trig would never tease anyone again. Even if Study and Gripe survived, who knew if they would be battleworthy? This kind of loss happened every day on the field. But Rex always tried not to forget their names, their individuality.
Another Thisspiasian came into Rex’s sight when he opened his eyes. General Rancisis.
“You should thank General Skywalker, Captain. You would be dead right now if not for his determination to save you. It looks like, despite our worries, you’ve taken well to the blood transfusion and are going to recover.”
“What? Wait a minute… blood transfusion?” Rex coughed painfully when he tried to sit up. His head and vision felt a bit clearer now. It was easier to talk. “Sir, what is he talking about? From where? Who?”
Skywalker shook his head, gave a crooked smile and tapped his own chest. “Don’t mention it, Rex. The worst part was just lying around for hours waiting to see if it would work. Just hurry up and get better. You know how much I hate waiting.”
“Sir… I….” Rex stared at the General's satisfied expression, overwhelmed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Just a quick ‘thank you’ would be fine,” Skywalker said smugly.
“Thank you… General…” Rex said slowly, sincerely. That anyone, much less a Jedi, would bother to give blood to a clone.... Only someone as crazy as General Skywalker could have thought of such a thing. If he’d been told this by General Skywalker directly, he would have doubted it, but Rancisis wasn’t the type to fool around.
“You’re welcome.” Skywalker folded his arms with a stern look. “Now rest. We’ll get you, Study and Gripe into a bacta tank as soon as we can, and then I expect a full recovery.”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Rex closed his eyes and welcomed the fog of sedatives over his uneasiness and troubled memories of the explosion.