Captain Rex could see the flash of lightsabers in the distance and hear the screams of dying clones. Jedi General Pong Krell slashed into everyone he could find, killing Republic troopers indiscriminately. The whole kriffing mission had gone south the second General Skywalker has been recalled from the field. If Dogma hadn’t found out that Krell had destroyed the transmitter, he wasn’t sure what would have happened.
The 501st had to get to the capital city and Fives still wanted the go ahead for his plan to attack the supply ship in orbit before the troops were committed to another suicide mission. Instead of doing that, they were watching their Jedi General betray them after forcing the clones to kill their own brothers from the 212th! They needed to get back into the fight or the whole campaign would be lost, but as good as the 501st was they couldn’t take on a Jedi.
Good soldiers follow orders. That was all that kept pounding through Rex’s head with every beat of his heart as his men were slaughtered around him. Good soldiers follow orders, good soldiers follow orders, good soldiers follow orders, goodsoldiersfolloworders, goodsoldiersfollow–goodsoldiers–goodso–
And then it wasn’t brothers screaming, it was Krell. A flash of red illuminated the ever present darkness of Umbara.
“Sith, SITH!” Tup yelled in warning.
Rex peered through the darkness anxiously. He could hear the ominous low hum of a saber, see it blood red against the night. He could barely make out who was wielding it. It looked like a towering black shadow, its edges illuminated by Krell’s sabers as Krell desperately fought back. There was a glint of armor and a hint of cloth that could be a cloak. It wasn’t the witch Ventress and it wasn’t Count Dooku. Rex didn’t recognize him which meant there was a new player on the field. Rex groaned internally; just what they needed when they didn’t have General Skywalker with them! The Sith gave no quarter; he hacked and slashed and Krell lost one saber and then an arm.
“What do we do, Captain?” Fives called out from where he was braced against a nearby tree. “Do we defend Krell? Do we stop the fight? I thought Krell was working with the Separatists!”
Krell was the enemy and the Sith were also the enemy. Good soldiers fought the enemy. Rex brought his guns to the ready.
“No wait, Captain!” an unfamiliar voice called out. The troopers as one whirled around weapons raised and ready to fire. There before them stood a Jedi, green lightsaber in his hand but angled low, not in an attack position. He was human and young, but obviously knighted wearing no braid or beads.
“Sir?” Rex asked cautiously, not lowering his blasters.
The Jedi moved forward putting his weapon away which had all the men relaxing a little. “Pong Krell has fallen to the Dark side and has declared his allegiance to the Sith Master behind the war. He has chosen his fate. We will leave him to it.” He watched the lightsaber fight (torture really at this point) for a moment and then turned his attention squarely back to Rex. “I think you and your men have a plan to take out the supply ship in orbit, Captain. We should help the wounded and move quickly to see it done.”
The clones looked at each other, bewildered. “You-you’re just going to leave General Krell to the Sith?” Hardcase asked.
“Sir, I will need to see some identification and confirm command codes before we move forward,” Captain Rex demanded.
"Of course, Captain,” the Jedi stepped closer and handed over his code cylinders. Rex pulled out his scanner and verified them. The Jedi had full access and even had General Skywalker’s personal confirmation codes authorizing him to take command of the 501st. The only name given for this new Jedi was Luke. No last name was provided. He had heard of General Krell before Umbara but he hadn’t heard of any Jedi general or commander going by the name Luke. Perhaps that was a good thing, Rex thought, given how Krell turned out to be a kriffing murderous skrag.
“General Skywalker sent you, sir?” Rex asked with growing hope.
In the distance, a gurgling scream signaled the violent and bloody end of Fallen Jedi Master Pong Krell.
“Yes, Captain,” Luke said looking past Rex towards the shadow of the Sith standing over the mutilated body. “General Skywalker sent me.”
There were several uneasy moments as their new Jedi General introduced the Sith known as Vader to the 501st. It was beyond unnerving to watch the dark man stand there, breathing audibly. Rex didn’t really understand what was going on. Why wasn’t their new General attacking the Sith? And he very clearly was a Sith, there was no doubt about that!
They all watched as Vader used the Force to lift the mangled body and bits and pieces that were once Pong Krell and throw them towards one of the flesh eating plants to be devoured. Seeing the gruesome sight, Rex couldn’t help but think that perhaps there may be worse things in the galaxy that Krell. Luke then asked Rex to lead them back to the airbase so he could help pilot the Umbaran aircraft up to the supply ship in orbit and they were on the move. Both Vader and Luke helped carry the wounded with them.
It made for an interesting reception when they arrived back on the base, but seeing that neither the Jedi nor the Sith were apparently keen on ordering anyone around, Rex was quick to take command and assure the men that Luke had been sent by General Skywalker and Krell was taken care of and would no longer be a threat.
“I understand that the General sent him, but who's the other guy?” Appo wondered quietly after examining the code cylinders himself just to be sure.
“I don’t know, but he has a red lightsaber and he stopped Krell from killing any more of us,” Rex replied back.
Luke brought the injured to Kix and asked after the other wounded from Krell’s horrible trick of turning brother against brother. Kix gave his report after casting a sideways glance towards Rex. Vader meanwhile was examining the Umbaran aircraft. He even took off his black cape and crawled underneath it to poke at the engine.
A blast in the distance caught everyone’s attention. With the transmitter still not operational and insurgents likely to attack, they needed to act. Luke told Rex to defend the airbase as best he could while he took one of the fighters up to destroy the supply ship in orbit. Hardcase protested, not wanting to lose out on flying the mission when he and Jesse and Fives had the most experience with the craft.
“They have a point, young one,” Vader intoned coming to stand behind Luke, towering over him. “The configuration on the Umbaran craft is entirely unique.”
"You have more ground tactical experience than I have, Father. I can lead the air attack with their help while you handle the insurgents and the missiles.”
“I do not like the idea of separating, son. You are unfamiliar with the particulars of this campaign.”
Rex gaped as the two debated. Son? Father? Young one? He looked from one Force user to another. His brothers stood beside him just as shocked.
“I don’t see the resemblance,” Hardcase whispered loudly. Fives groaned and Jesse elbowed Hardcase to shut him up.
Luke looked over at them and grinned. Surprisingly, it made him look years younger. “We may not look alike but I still think we have something in common, Hardcase, was it?”
“Yes sir,” he responded, coming to attention.
Luke waved away the formality and turned back to Vader. “I am going, father. You deal with the insurgents. I'll deal with the supply ship. We have a timetable to keep, remember?”
Captain Rex didn’t quite know how his life had come to this. His Jedi General turned out to be a treasonous murderer and now he had a Sith … Father commanding the 501st. The greatest irony was that Vader made a better commander and general than Krell, a fact that was evident within moments of him taking command.
He ensured the wounded from the 501st and the 212th had sufficient supplies to be cared for. He rearranged the troop shifts Krell had insisted upon and required that everyone receive enough rack time. Troopers who had been ordered to stack ammunition and perform other largely useless tasks were relieved of their duties with a direction to rest and then report to Captain Rex for more sensible assignments afterwards. Vader then proceeded to personally help repair the sabotaged transmitter.
“Are you sure he's a Sith?” Kix asked Rex skeptically.
“He used a red saber and he took down Krell with extreme prejudice,” Rex responded for the tenth time. “What else could he be?”
“But our new General called him father. I though Jedi didn’t, y’know, have fathers or families.” Kix scowled. “Certainly not fathers who are Sith. And Sith are Separatists, right? If he’s a Sith, then why is he helping the Republic?”
“Krell was a Jedi and he was working for the Separatists. Vader must be a Sith who is working with the Republic,” Tup suggested.
Rex hadn’t thought about that. It made as much sense as anything did lately.
“Are we sure, are we really sure that General Skywalker sent them?” Dogma challenged nervously.
Rex swallowed a sigh and handed over his datapad and let Dogma inspect the records and command codes himself. Dogma still looked worried though. He had been twitchy since he discovered the sabotaged transmitter and that Krell was behind the orders to have brothers kill brothers. He wasn’t the only one, but Dogma had always been wound tight. Now he looked like he was one bad scare away from a total breakdown. Rex almost wanted to join him. He reminded himself to have Kix take a look at Dogma as soon as possible. They were all in the habit of taking stims when even their engineered bodies could not keep up with the pace of the war and that could aggravate anyone’s mental well being after time.
Suddenly from above, the sky lightened through the rolling clouds.
“They did it!” Echo cheered.
“But did they get out in time?” Kix wondered.
“They did,” Vader’s voice assured them from behind, startling them. They turned and saw him standing, his mask tilted towards the sky. “They all did. I can feel it.”
Three of the four ships returned intact, Hardcase riding with Luke. Both of them were suffering from treatable burns. Hardcase had saved the mission from failure when the ray shields had blocked their attack, but Luke would not let him sacrifice himself. He had used the Force to push the Umbaran ordinance to the reactor even has he yanked Hardcase to safety after Hardcase had gotten the missile past the shields.
Vader was not pleased to find his son injured and hovered like a great black bird over its one chick until the medics had time to treat him. Jesse and Fives braced themselves to be blamed for the Jedi’s injuries, but Vader had simply thanked them for looking out for Luke and suggested that they spend more time in a flight simulator because having ground troops able to fly fighters in a pinch was not a bad thing.
With the transmitter repaired, news came in that the capital city had been taken by General Kenobi's forces. Gunships were coming to take them to the capital to continue the offensive. It was a relief to hear they hadn't failed, but still Rex felt exhausted, battered, and bruised. All Rex could think of was the waste of lives, of Krell’s blatant disregard for them as living sentient beings, let alone as soldiers.
If they weren’t of any value as men and not of any value as soldiers, what place was there for them in this galaxy with or without the war? What if Krell wasn’t the only Jedi who felt that way? He knew that most people regarded him and his brothers as property, as expendable. One day the war would end and then where would they be? And before the war ended, was this all he could look forward to? The captain looked to his brothers and saw his own fear and uncertainty mirrored in their eyes. What was the point of it all?
Luke approached and Rex and the others drew to attention. “General, what’s the word?” Rex asked.
“At ease. And it’s not General, it's just Luke,” the Jedi insisted. “I’ve commanded a fighter squadron in my time, but that's all, so no need for titles. We have new orders. The troopers from the 212th that are not injured or don't want to stay with their injured comrades will rejoin their battalion in the capital and deliver our report to General Kenobi. The 501st and those of the 212th that are staying with us are leaving Umbara for Honoghr and we will treat the rest of the injured on our way.”
“Honoghr? I didn’t hear of any Separatist attacks in that sector,” Echo wondered aloud. He looked over at Fives who shook his head sharply. He hadn’t heard anything either.
“We’re going to prevent the attack. We have reason to believe there will be Separatist forces there soon. We plan to catch them before any damage can be done.” Luke looked from one man’s face to another. Even without the Force, he could see each of them as the unique individuals they really were. Imperial propaganda had twisted the truth about these brave men and the Rebel Alliance was equally misguided about the reality of the GAR. They were men with just as many rights as any natural born sentient being. They were owed a say in their own future.
“If you would rather not come, if you would rather be working with a Jedi you know and trust, I understand. If you would rather have someone more experienced in ground combat lead you, I respect that. You have every right to question me after what has happened here. I can assign command of the 501st to General Kenobi until General Skywalker returns if that's what you want.”
Rex wasn’t sure he had heard right. He looked to Fives who stood just as stunned next to him. Yep, he had heard right. If it were possible for the universe to give them a Jedi the opposite of Krell, then that is what they clearly had. Rex could work with someone like that. Luke would treat the men well; he had saved Hardcase at risk to himself and believed in leading from the front like General Skywalker, General Kenobi and Commander Tano. The fact that he had a Sith for a father was unfortunate but no one was perfect and it was something Rex could deal with.
“Uh … Gener- I mean, uh, sir, no one is saying– the 501st is loyal and we never shirk from a mission,” Rex was quick to interject. “No one is refusing to go.” He looked at the troopers surrounding him. “Right, men?”
“Yes sir!” the chorused, snapping to attention.
“I don’t doubt your loyalty or the loyalty of your men, Captain. The hardest thing a good solider must be able to do is to say “no” in the face of an order that is wrong. The best soldiers also know when to correct those above them in the chain of command, to offer solutions that save lives not waste them.” Luke looked to Dogma and then at Fives for a moment, meeting each of their eyes in turn and then glanced back to Captain Rex. “Thank you for giving us a chance to earn your trust. My father and I will do what we can to continue to deserve it.”
As they come out of hyperspace near Honoghr, alarms blare. There is pitch battle between several smaller Republic cruisers and a Separatist battleship. Luke scrambles with the other pilots to offer support to the cruisers. Vader takes the role usually reserved for Admiral Yularan (who was still with rest of the fleet in orbit at Umbara) and has Commander Appo direct their three capital ships-- the Resolute, the Dauntless, and the Pioneer --to focus on protection of the planet. Vader also orders that whatever troopers are trained in slicing be brought to the bridge immediately.
Rex comms several men from different platoons, two on the Resoulte, the rest on the other two ships, five in total. When Vader sees Gin and Uni, he hands them a code cylinder and tells them they are Separatists codes and they as the newly Named Hack Squad are to coordinate with their squad mates on the other ships and start slicing the enemy's systems to take control of their ships.
Rex watches the battle on the holoscreens, but Vader prefers to stand close to the transparisteel viewport, masked helmet unerringly tilted to follow the distant zipping shapes of the fighters and bombers, as if tracking his son’s presence. Things seem to be going well at first, the fighters are covering the damaged cruisers with no losses when suddenly it all goes to hell.
The Separatist ship takes heavy damage and is in a low orbit when one of the Republic cruisers loses its reactor containment explosively and proceeds to collide with the Separatist ship. Vader calls for a calculation of the trajectory. Appo reports that the ships will likely crash on the planet unless the Separatists manage to maintain power and altitude.
Vader turns to the troops busy slicing into the Separatists code. “Can you get us control of that ship?” he asks with deadly quiet tone in his voice.
Gin looks up, looks to Rex, and then steels his spine. “Sir, I can’t guarantee that. They must have one of those advanced tactical droids in command, it’s slowing us down.”
Vader strides over to the comms officer. “Get me Black Leader.”
Luke’s voice responds promptly over the link. “Black Leader, go.”
“The ships will crash on the planet’s surface. The slice is proving problematic.”
“Blast! Is there nothing we can do? If it was one of our ships, we could bolster their orbit physically with the cruisers or even one of the destroyers, but unless the Separatists plan to stop fighting–”
Vader’s hands clench into fists. “The planet will take the brunt of it and the damage will be catastrophic.”
There is a long pause. “Father, what about the Force? We could lift the ship, together.”
Vader is silent for a long moment. “Together,” he says turning back towards the viewport. “Get clear of the battle.”
Rex and Appo exchange a glance. Could the Force do that? They had both seen Jedi lift rocks and droids and all manner of wreckage, but an entire ship?
What is clearly Luke’s fighter swoops out of path of enemy fire and the bridge crew stills. The very atmosphere seems to change. Rex half expects his ears to pop but they don’t; his skin prickles instead. Clones are not capable of being Force sensitive but clearly there is something going on and for once he can feel it.
Vader’s breathing never hitches, never speeds up, it continues on its ponderous pace. He reaches for his son and together they stretch out with the Force, with their feelings (Vader with his frustration and anger and Luke with his determination and desire to protect the innocent below on the planet).
In one voice and with one mind they say MOVE.
Rex watches, eyes shifting between the viewport and the stream of data on the holoscreens around the bridge. At first nothing seems to happen and then, then slowly but with growing speed the Separatist ship begins to move into a higher orbit.
“Z minus 12, Z minus 11.5,” one of the bridge lieutenants murmurs. “Z minus 11, Z minus 10, she’s … she’s rising.”
Appo orders the other cruisers to get clear and tells the fighters to see what escape pods they can tractor with them as they move away from the Separatist ship. When the lieutenant announces they have the ship in orbit and stable, the bridge crew audibly sighs in relief. Their efforts are completed not a moment too soon: the Separatist ship explodes, but it is now high enough above the planet that the debris can be dealt with without harm to the planet below.
Vader sat cross legged on the bed, watching as Luke paced back and forth across the length of the room. Vader thought the day had gone rather well. The Noghri and their world were protected from planetwide environmental catastrophe and could not be enslaved. The Separatist ship was destroyed with only a few casualties suffered from the exploding Republic cruiser. They had taken on the surviving troopers and added the two remaining cruisers to their little fleet.
Luke did not agree with his father’s assessment. Their efforts to use the Separatists codes his father had recalled from his past did not work. Slicing took too long to get the desired effect in battle. If it hadn’t been for the two of them working together to lift the ship . . .
Luke felt a bit giddy remembering of how that felt. It was the same feeling he had gotten the first time he threaded the Needle in his skyhopper, but better. He knew that nothing was impossible with the Force.
Yoda had lifted his entire X-Wing.
Vader had moved AT-ATs with a wave of his hand.
Together he and Vader had been inadvertently flung back in time together and despite changing the past, they still existed, not wiped out by temporal paradoxes.
Today they had lifted the Separatist battleship out of the gravity well of the planet using the Force.
At first it was tricky, running his Force sense in tandem with his father. Vader was shadow and smoke, burnt embers and icy black cold, his powers grasping and treacherous. Luke wasn’t sure how his Force sense appeared to Vader, but initially working together felt like being buried under a dune or being lost in a vicious sand storm. Then somehow, something had clicked into place between them and they were guiding the power together to lift the ship.
Vader didn’t think Luke realized the magnitude of what they had accomplished together. When his son had suggested they use the Force, Vader thought the planet a lost cause, an unfortunate consequence of the Clone Wars they were too late to prevent. Then Luke’s strength had poured into him with a feeling of power as pure and refreshing as water, cool and clear and sparkling with sunlight. Vader had worried at first that his own Darkness would simply seize and feast upon the power shared, but there seemed to be a never ending stream of it from Luke, a determination and strength without bounds.
It was enough, it was more than enough, and the ship had moved.
Luke now spoke honestly about his concerns for their plans. He was not the military genius his father was. He had never commanded troops at this level or any level outside his Rebellion fighter squadron, but he knew that using the codes and slicers was not going to be enough. If they were to defeat Palpatine, they had to stop the war, not win it. The Separatists were commanded by a Sith and Vader could certainly play the part to give them the advantage they needed.
Vader was aghast at the very suggestion. “I am not a Separatist!” he shouted.
“But you could pretend to be one,” Luke entreated. “You said Sith and Dark side users commanded even over the Trade Federation and other corporate heads. You could go in using the codes you have and shut them down,” Luke reasoned quickly. “Look, we agreed that facing the Emperor head on is not going to prevent the atrocities that happened or the collapse of the Republic. We have to find a different way than just fighting.”
(When they had arrived in the past, Luke had been unwilling to take Vader at his word about the state of the Republic and the Jedi Order. However, after a few days of watching the holonet, reading uncensored information on the Jedi Order, and seeing the damage Krell had done to the troopers Luke quickly changed his mind.
Working with the Jedi Order wasn’t going to fix things any more than confronting Palpatine would stop the war.
In return, Vader conceded that he had no real desire to exterminate the Order, (he had done so once believing Palpatine's lies and had no desire to be fooled into doing so again). And while he hadn't yet said it to his son, he wasn't even that interested in Luke Falling to the Dark side anymore. His son made it clear that he wasn't going to leave him. They only had each other here in the past. That was enough for Vader. Since Luke was no longer interested in joining the Order after learning the truth, if the Order would stay away from him and his family, then Vader would let them live.
And Luke was very much not interested in how the Order operated. No attachment? Marriage, friendship, family and children forbidden? To say nothing of the Order’s habit of only taking toddlers as students and the fact that the Republic itself was not the shining beacon that Leia always claimed it was, (Luke already had his doubts, he grew up in Hutt occupied space after all); Luke figured the Order was hardly likely to recognize or embrace him as a fellow Jedi, old and barely trained as he was with a Sith Lord as a father. It would just have to be him and his father putting things right on their own.)
Vader grumbled, but finally agreed with his son's plan.
Luke was careful not to roll his eyes. Of all the things for his father to be sensitive about! Being considered a Separatist could hardly be as bad as being the right hand of the Emperor and a Sith Lord for the last 20 years!
The 501st was used to receiving orders to join battles in progress, systems or supply lines to protect. Now their orders were of an entirely different nature. Luke and Vader seemed to know ahead of time where the Separatists were going to be and what systems were in trouble before the Separatists even arrived. Echo combed through intelligence briefings and dispatches but could not find where they were getting their information from. They certainly had not received any comms, running silent since leaving Umbara.
Luke then met privately with the medical staff. This caused a flurry of activity which led to Kix and Quick arranging a medical appointment for every single clone as soon as possible for some reason.
The newly formed Hack Squad under Gin and the aptly named Slice were kept even busier. Vader had them working on something that could take down battle droids though what use it would be if it had to be input at the source computer, Rex didn’t know, but they were working on it. Luke had them and any other trooper with marginal code and slicing skills hacking the Trade Federation, Techno Union, Banking Clan, and Corporate Guilds. When Rex questioned what they were doing, they showed him. It didn’t make much sense to him; all it appeared they were doing was copying contracts, trade agreements, banking information, and loan documents from dozens of worlds and then placing a flag of some kind on the files copied before backing quickly out of the system.
In between all of this, Vader took off in a shuttle alone and then a day or so later Luke announced which system they were traveling to. They arrived to find Vader in charge of the Separatist fleet, (and wasn’t that a kick in the head when they saw him at the head of the enemy fleet!) After a moment of gut wrenching panic and believing themselves to be betrayed once again, Vader immediately surrendered and send a message to the planetary government so they could work together to take out whatever portion of the Separatist fleet Vader did not have under his control.
What could have been a nasty fire fight turned into a mop up action and the system was liberated with little effort.
The first time Luke and Vader pulled that trick, Rex had to take a moment and find a quiet corner to sit down for a few minutes. The second and third times it was still jarring but it got a little easier. Luke had already proven himself trustworthy and vouched for his father. It was becoming more and more evident that Vader was on their side and given how terrifying he could be, Rex was very thankful for that.
When the truth came out about the chips in their heads, the deliberate genetic defect accelerating their aging and messing with their bodies, and the codes that were supposedly on their inhibitor chips that could switch them into nothing more than battle droids, Rex didn’t know which way was up anymore. Kix had delivered the news in his usual matter of fact manner but it was clear even he was shaken by what he'd found.
Dogma and several other troopers had to be sedated and confined for their own safety when the news broke. Tup’s surgery to remove the chip in his brain nearly killed him. It seemed like the nightmare that had started on Umbara when General Skywalker had left them had never let up.
But Luke and Vader never faltered. They had a fix and they would see each and every clone brother healed. One by one, each trooper was treated. After the last of the men had been cleared, Luke met with Rex, (his father a constant dark shadow behind him) and announced that three of their number were Force sensitive and if they wished, he would be happy to train them.
After several moments of stunned silence, Rex could only manage, “Is-is this some sort of a-a joke, sir?”
“No, Captain. Three troopers are Force sensitive. They can learn the ways of the Force,” Luke assured him happily.
“Who? Who is–?”
“Troopers Fives, Chatterbox, and Hardcase,” Luke said rocking on his heels, visibly pleased with the news. Rex obviously wasn’t responding with the same joy that Luke was feeling and the young Jedi’s face fell and grew sympathetic. “I'm sorry you're not Force sensitive, Captain. I don’t know why some of you are Force sensitive and some of you are not. It’s not a bad thing. They don’t have to learn if they don’t want to,” he was quick say.
“I don’t think the Captain is worried about that, young one,” Vader interrupted.
Luke looked from his father to Rex and nodded. “I’ll give you some time to consider what is best for your men. I'll let you tell them yourself. If you have any questions, just let us know.”
After they left, Rex pressed his hand to his temple and felt along the healed cut that proved the chip was out of his head, that his thoughts were his own. It had barely been a month, but everything had changed. He had thought he was still trapped in the never ending darkness of Umbara, but maybe, just maybe dawn was breaking.
He flicked on the comm and called for Fives, Hardcase and Chatterbox to join him.
Force Sensitive clones.
He laughed hysterically under his breath.
Just when he thought the life of a brother couldn’t get any stranger.