It wasn't hard to find, once you knew what to look for: strange symbols painted across the white walls. To the Kaminoans, the plain walls were a riot of color and pattern, making the mundane paint invisible to their strange eyes. The black symbols were meant for clones only--a technique developed by those for whom disobedience equals death. Defiance wasn't totally bred out of them, it was just made covert. Boil could hear a dozen voices shouting ahead, overlapping and tangling together in a way that was primally familiar. His squad didn't yell like that except on the battlefield, and yet he knew these voices as his own.
Heat, sweat, and noise assaulted him as the tunnels finally resolved into a large open space. It was shimmering white, as the rest of the city, but gouges, blood and paint marked it as a space forgotten by their keepers. The only Kaminoans who had seen this space in years were the lowly defectives sent to maintain the lower levels, kept alive only to serve their superiorly bred masters. They and the clones had an understanding.
The space was filled with clones, most of them shirtless and sweating in the humid warmth of so many close bodies. They were jostling, speaking in a rough mix of Basic and some other language. Boil could only catch a few words, their meaning flash-trained in the deepest recesses of his brain.
Kandosii. Vode. Mhi. Kote.
These were not regular troopers. Smooth skin was marred with scars. Shoulders were bulkier, and bodies far more muscled. They moved and spoke with an ease that Boil had only glimpsed in the commanders. These were the elite of the Grand Army. The best of the best.
A figure in armor less refined than the standard issue stepped to the middle of the room. The bright red coloring of his plates was stark against the scuffed walls, like the first time Boil saw blood splash across the sterile floor. The same strange symbol was painted on his armor, a black sigil of strength. The man raised his arms, turning to look every man in the face. He removed his helmet, and Boil was shocked to find the face belonged to a stranger--someone who was not a clone, but not Kaminoan either. The man's voice raised like a long howl. "Darasuum!"
"Kote!" the crowd chanted in response.
Boil joined in the chanting, raising his fist with his brothers as his blood burned through his chest. Yes, this is what he had come looking for, following the rumors to this hidden room. Something beyond the training normal infantry experienced. Something real.
The crowd backed away from the red armored man, to form a circle. At a gesture of his hands, two shirtless clones came forward, taking up defensive postures. With a shout, the man backed to the edge of the circle, and they began to fight.
It was brutal, as was all their training, but this was no choreographed sparring. This was raw. Punches came randomly, takedowns were countered with unexpected moves, blood flowed freely from wounds opened in crushed flesh. There were no instructors calling out moves, no Kaminoans to stop things when someone was injured. It was simply pure, uncontrolled mastery of the fighting arts, two warriors unleashed.
It was beautiful.
"I see you enjoy the sport, Trooper," a deep voice growled near Boil's ear.
Boil glanced to the side, not wanting to miss a moment of the dance. "What is it?"
"The battle circle. The finest way to hone your fighting skill. A part of our culture that many would want to see wiped out." The man's face was a mystery to Boil. As a non-clone, his features were rough and tumbled together, like an unmatched puzzle. Dark hair the wrong color, eyes the wrong shape, frame much slighter and taller than the average trooper. He was someone Boil had never seen before.
"Mandalorians." Fierce pride made the name into a glorious whisper, as though Boil could feel the strength of millennia of fighting in it. One of the fighters landed a powerful kick, and the crowd roared to the snap of ribs. The injured clone vomited blood as he fell to his knees, but he didn't give up. He caught the next kick with his hands, and snarled through bloodied teeth as he twisted the leg with a crunch. His opponent crashed down, and he followed up with a swift kick to the throat, before both men collapsed unconscious to the floor.
Shouts of 'Kote!' followed the two warriors as they were carried out of the circle, presumably to the infirmary. The clones who carried their unconscious brothers were radiant with pride, cheering on their fallen mates even though they couldn't possibly hear.
No one moved to clean up the blood.
By unspoken assent, two more clones faced off in the circle. Their movements were just as brutal as the last round.
"Would you like to fight?" the man asked.
Boil smiled. "Against a captain?" he gestured to the clones around them, their higher rank obvious in their physique, even though they all wore the same clothes.
The man tilted his head. "There are no ranks here. Only glory, and honor. All men are the same, unless they show themselves worthy of respect, and prove themselves to be real mandos."
"I don't even know the rules."
"Just two. No one leaves the circle until the fight is over, and the only weapons allowed are those chosen by the man with greater honor."
"How do you know who has more honor, if there are no ranks?"
The man laughed. "The only way is to fight. On the battlefield we find glory. It is through combat that we prove our worth. Until honor is gained, we fight without weapons."
The words made Boil feel dizzy, or perhaps it was the blood and sweat in the air. It spoke to a deep hidden place, carefully kept locked away, to keep the Kaminoan minders from labeling it deviant and destroying the imperfect merchandise. It was a place in which Boil knew he was free.
"Who should I fight?"
The man smiled, lopsided and greedy. "Fight me."
Boil nodded, accepting the challenge. He felt his face grow hard, the calm darkness settling over his thoughts as it did in a thousand training sessions. This was something he knew instinctively--was bred for.
The man began to remove his armor, never taking his eyes off Boil while he stacked the plates and laid aside his weapons. He stripped down to a black flightsuit, baggier than the bodygloves clones wear under their armor. He unzipped it to the waist and shrugged the material off his shoulders with a shake of his upper body. He caught the sleeves as they tumbled over his hands and wrapped them around his lower belly to tie them in a secure knot.
Boil allowed his eyes to follow the lines of the man's chest, noting the finely developed muscles defined under the dark sprinkling of hair. His bare chest was pale, but scarred from a dozen old wounds. Yes, he was quite unlike any clone. His belly was flat, long and lean without the sharply defined muscles of a clone. His arms were long and thin, but curved with muscle as he flexed and moved.
Boil raised his glance to find an odd look on the man's face. "No weapons," he said after a moment. He reached out to Boil's waist, catching the honor training tassels that dangled over his belly. "Not even these. Wouldn't want you to strangle me."
The thought of using the simple length of braided fabric as a garrote hadn't even occurred to Boil, giving him a hint of just how different this fight would be. He untied the belt and removed his tunic, so that he was standing as bare as many of the men in the room.
Shouts raised up around them, as one fighter stood triumphantly above his fallen opponent. Three of his brothers gathered around him in celebration, as the fallen soldier was removed from the circle. The victory was glorious.
"Kote," the man whispered in Boil's ear.
The center of the circle was slick already with blood and sweat. Boil's boots squeaked, but the high-traction soles kept him steady. His heart was beating rapidly, his breathing quick but steady. He flexed his fingers as he took a defensive stance against the man. His brothers' voices were deafening, chanting, "Dread!" but Boil felt no fear.
The man stood opposite him; hand on his hip as he looked Boil up and down. He seemed utterly relaxed, his eyes traveling slowly over Boil's bare chest, reading his skin like no other non-clone ever did. Usually, those strange-faced humans would skim past a clone, glazing past all the small differences that set each clone apart to simply see them all as the exact same. This one, though, saw him.
Boil eased himself from foot to foot, finding his balance, and ran through a dozen sparring scenarios in his mind. How would this man attack? How do you learn to read such strange bodies, or movements?
A slow crooked smile stretched the man's mouth. He held out his arms, his muscles lazy as he held himself vulnerable. "Come at me, vod."
Boil tightened his muscles, preparing for a kick even as he brought attention to his fists. He aimed a punch that he never meant to connect, following it up with a boot to the stomach. His opponent didn't even flinch as he ignored Boil's hands and captured his foot, using the momentum of what was supposed to be a disabling hit to the diaphragm to knock Boil off balance.
Boil hopped on one foot as he twisted his spine, regaining his balance quickly so he could bring his other elbow up and use the misdirected force of the blow to connect with the man's cheek. Boil barely felt the impact as another, more intense pain exploded across his side. He stumbled away from his opponent, turning back to look at him. He seemed unfazed; not even a red blush to show he'd extended any effort in the opening blows.
The crowd had fallen away from Boil's awareness, their cries like air rushing past his ears. His opponent smirked, and Boil had a clear vision, like a fantasy, of punching that face all day. Something inside him changed, like a switch thrown in the middle of live-fire exercise. Position, balance, stance--it didn't matter. He wasn't being judged on his form. There were no Kaminoans around taking points and consulting with each other. It wasn't about performance. It wasn't even about winning. It was just about the fight.
Growling low in his chest, Boil charged, aiming with brute strength at taking his opponent down. He connected solidly, shoulder to chest, warm flesh giving way as gravity took over, tipping them both to the floor. Arms wrapped around his back as knees came up to hold his hips. Boil looked up into grey eyes, narrowed in amusement even though the force of the impact was enough to bruise. Breathless laughter reached his ears, inaudible beyond the tight circle of their locked bodies.
The knees locked around his torso squeezed, pain in his freshly bruised ribs sparking, and then Boil was flipped onto his back, grey eyes and laughter floating above him. Knuckles crushed his cheek, his temple, his jaw, again and again, too quick to avoid. His opponent ground down on his hips with every blow, the impact echoing up his spine in a rough staccato burst.
Boil buried his fist into the man's side, raining blows as quick and merciless as they had fallen on his face. He could see only blood through one eye, and increased the power behind each blow until the weight lifted off his chest.
In a flash of dark fabric and pale skin, his opponent was on his feet, grey eyes like crystals. Boil had to steady himself a moment on his knee before he was able to stand and face him.
That crooked smile returned. The man licked his bottom lip. Boil copied the move, tasting a burst of thick metallic pain across this face as he did. Then he exploded into movement, part of his mind shutting down as he gave himself over completely to the fight. No thought, no plan, just all out.
This was how it could be.
The harsh light of the infirmary burned against Boil's eyelid, daring him to open his eye. The other was blissfully shaded in darkness, a bandage sticking wetly across his forehead and cheek. He could feel the skin beneath burning coldly as the bacta worked against the damaged flesh, repairing bruises and gouges. He couldn't move his arms, but his legs were alive with prickles of healing.
"Jango, he's gone too far! This isn't training; this is cruelty. We've lost too many boys to his di'kutla Death Watch ways. That one is lucky to still be breathing."
Boil was used to being talked about as though he wasn't a sentient being, but he didn't recognize the voice. It was angry, passionate in a way that the Kaminoans never could replicate. Carefully, Boil raised his eyelid, and squinted against the light until he could see the speaker.
A non-clone was speaking to a calm clone officer with a scarred and hardened face that seemed far too old. No... Not a clone, not like any he'd ever seen. He wore silver armor over a blue flightsuit, very similar to the man Boil had fought in the battle circle.
"How many?" Gruff voice, familiar but oddly accented.
The non-clone wore sandy-gold armor of a similar design. "One died last night, and we've lost five boys in the past three weeks. Now he's even bringing in regular troopers to feed to his little shriek-hawks. I can't watch any more die. You have to stop Priest's battle circles."
Boil made a small noise as he tried, and failed, to move his neck. The pain lanced up his spine before settling at the base of his skull.
The not-quite-clone appeared to fill Boil's vision when he could open his eyes. Jango, he remembered. He was called Jango. The Prime Clone. Boil could hear the other man moving around, making noises in a cabinet. "Will he live?"
"The trooper? Probably. But Priest won't, if he sends another one like him to me."
"Don't worry," Jango said, his gaze locked onto Boil's face. Was there recognition there? Did he know him? "I'll take care of Priest."
There was a cold press of metal against his neck, and then a sweet burst of numbness passed through Boil's body. His tongue tingled with a slightly metallic taste, then it was simply too much effort to keep his eye open any longer.
It was good to be fit for duty again. Sergeant Gilamar was a good doctor--stern but strangely gentle at times, so unlike the Kaminoans--but Boil itched to be back with his brothers again. He had learned so much, and he wanted to share it with the others. When he was finally released, the doctor gave him a sweet treat wrapped in slick flimsy. It was spicy and delicious, and eased the ever-present gnawing hunger far better than anything he'd ever experienced before.
A Kaminoan doctor gave him a full check up and work out before he was allowed to return to the training ground. Boil was aware of the way the Kaminoan watched him, looking for any signs of weakness or instability. He pushed himself, even as muscles tightened by enforced stasis protested and ached. As all clones instinctively knew, failure was death, one way or another. It was a different battle circle he faced now--one where he held no power or control beyond simply performing to expectations of excellence. No honor. No glory. Just the will to live.
"You may rejoin the others now." The Kaminoan didn't even bother reading off his number. He had performed within established parameters. That was what mattered.
Boil gathered his tunic and walked to the door. Before he could activate it, the portal opened, letting in a limping figure. The man's face was purple and swollen, and Boil was sure he'd never broken the man's nose in the fight. A bloodied bandage encircled the man's waist. He met Boil's eyes as they faced in the doorway. For a moment Boil's heart stopped, his mind flailing for protocol. He could feel the alien eyes of the doctor on him.
Boil snapped to attention, saluting the sergeant and ignoring the twinge of pain in his back.
The man--Sergeant Gilamar called him Priest when he wasn't using more colorful language--returned the salute with that crooked smirk. As he stepped past Boil, he leaned close for a moment to whisper, "Kote, ner vod. Kote."